Zalikhan Yelikhadzhiyeva, 20-year-old Chechen "Black Widow" suicide bomber at Moscow rock concert -- 5 July 2003

Beyond the State in the State: Beowulf, Levinas, and the Ethics of Hospitality

[paper presented at the 39th International Congress of Medieval Studies, 6-9 May 2004, Kalamazoo, MI]

“To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught.”

                                            —Emmanuel Levinas1

Prolegomenon: What I offer here is a rumination that is related to a larger project having to do with the relationship between monstrosity and terrorism, and between violence and justice, in both Beowulf and contemporary life. This is a project very much indebted to the ethical thought of Emmanuel Levinas. I first encountered Levinas indirectly, in Zygmunt Bauman’s book Postmodern Ethics, and ever since, I keep returning to the radiance of his philosophy—a philosophy alternately daunting and forbidding, but also, in the words of Jacques Derrida, “a magisterial teaching in the figure of welcoming,”2 and in Levinas’s own words, a type of desire and “Love [that] aims at the Other.”3 One of the most definitive aspects of Levinas’s philosophy is its emphasis on hospitality and welcoming, and on the space or habitation of welcoming—a space within which the individual can withdraw in order to “recollect” himself, and “familiarity and intimacy are produced as a gentleness that spreads over the face of things.”4 Further, Levinas wrote that the home

is set back from the anonymity of the earth, the air, the light, the forest, the road, the sea, the river. It has a “street front,” but also its secrecy. . . . Circulating between visibility and invisibility, one is always bound for the interior of which one’s home, one’s corner, one’s tent, or one’s cave is the vestibule.5

It is only within the most intimate spaces of the dwelling that the enigmatic face of the Other can be properly welcomed, for “the ‘vision’ of the face as face is a certain mode of sojourning in a home . . . . No face can be approached with empty hands and closed home.”6 My thoughts here today are part of an attempt to wrestle with a question first posed by Derrida, “whether the ethics of hospitality . . . in Levinas’s thought would be able to found a law and politics, beyond the familial dwelling, within a society, nation, State, or Nation-State.”7 The urgency of this question, as well as Levinas’s voice on the matter, is, as Derrida writes, “intensified . . . by the crimes against hospitality endured by the guests [hôtes] and hostages of our time, incarcerated or deported day after day, from concentration camp to detention camp, from border to border, close to us or far away.”8

I            Exteriority is not a negation, but a marvel9

            According to Levinas, the Other is not so much an actual face as it is a “pure expression” that always exceeds any limits we might put on it—“Expression, or the face, overflows images.”10 Even though I know that, in Levinas’s scheme of things, the face is not really a face, per se, but rather, an expression—and even, the overflowing of expression—I find myself thinking, obsessively, about faces, and more specifically, about the face of Zalikhan Yelikhadzhiyeva, the twenty-year-old Chechen woman who approached the admissions booth of an outdoor rock festival in Moscow on July 5, 2003 and detonated the explosives strapped to her belt, killing only herself.11 Browsing the Internet one day searching for pictures of this event, I came across a photograph of Yelikhadzhiyeva lying on her back between police barricades, one first clenched on her chest, an empty beer can on the ground beside her head, her eyes closed, and her mouth half-open—the scene is almost peaceful, and the face, serene, if also vulnerable; after all, she was only twenty years old, the same age as many of my students. I have never considered a twenty-year-old as someone who could be capable of such a fierce will and desire to kill herself and others, out of vengeance, or perhaps, a desperate powerlessness (which could also be a desperate facelessness). While many were transfixed by the gruesome images of the shredded bodies of bombing victims under white sheets, I couldn’t get this face out of my mind, nor can I, even now. Yelikhadzhieyeva’s face haunts me precisely because it is what Levinas would have said is not really a face, but a façade, in which “the thing which keeps its secret is exposed and enclosed in its monumental essence and in its myth, in which it gleams like a splendor but does not deliver itself. It captivates by its grace as by magic, but does not reveal itself.”12

            Between August of 2002 and just this past February when a bomb explosion on a crowded Moscow subway train killed over forty people, Russia and Chechnya have witnessed the emergence of what many consider to be a shocking phenomenon—female suicide bombers. Because many Chechens reject the idea that these women have embraced a radical Islamic fundamentalism, and many Russians, conversely, have assumed that these women embody what they see as the “Palestinianization” of the Chechen rebellion,13 a certain tension, confusion, and even hysteria, attaches to the ways in which ordinary Russians and Chechens, government officials, and the international press have attempted to describe these women. It has been said about the female Chechen suicide bombers, alternatively, that they have been kidnapped by Islamic extremists, given psychotropic drugs, and then raped as part of their coercion into doing what no woman would supposedly do of her own accord;14 that they are emotionless “brick walls,” “pre-programmed,” “brainwashed,” and “de-humanised”;15 that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder;16 that they are blackmailed “zombies”;17 and that they are the harbingers of the fact that “something has come unglued at the heart of Chechen society.”18 But even more central to the issue of what might be called the troubling, yet intimate alterity of these women, is the name given to them, as a collectivity, by the Russian government and happily picked up by the international press: they are the “black widows” of Chechnya–that is to say, they are the actual widows, mothers, sisters, and daughters of men killed in two wars with Russia that have claimed over 100,000 lives, but they are also venomous black widow spiders, who kill with one bite.19 They are therefore both intimately familiar, yet also monstrously Other, and it is precisely because of their intimacy, that they frighten us and drive us to the language of exteriority: we say that they are inhuman, and even, monstrous, and their acts, evil and unspeakable. Terrorists are ultimately the figures of what Freud termed the Uncanny (or, unheimlich, both “not like home” and “like home” simultaneously)—they are the shadow-stalking phantasms of the Unconscious who have been repressed but never stop returning to view in various distorted shapes;20 further, terrorists frighten because they represent the excess, or exorbitance, of our nightmares, and therefore, terrorism is the West’s obscure object of desire par excellence.21 Terrorist violence, as Jean Baudrillard has written, is both the “exorbitant mirror” of the West’s own violence as well as “the model of a symbolic violence forbidden to it, the only violence it cannot exert—that of its own death.”22

            We must never forget that terrorists are real persons with real lives grounded in all the material and psychic particularities of the local—Zalikhan Yelikhadzhiyeva, for instance, lived with her sister in a brick house in a small Chechen village and studied at the medical vocational school there23—and furthermore, that the terrorist’s acts are both real and immoral. But our understanding of the terrorist, if we are willing to embark on such a project, will have to begin with an understanding of our perception of them as monsters. As Jeffrey Cohen reminds us, the monster’s body is always a cultural body:

The monster is born . . . as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence.24

In his “seven theses toward understanding cultures through the monsters they bear,” Cohen argues that the monster is always a “harbinger of a category crisis,” and further, “the geography of the monster is an imperiling expanse.”25 Because the monster also always embodies difference writ large (usually along lines that are sexual, racial, and cultural), “the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur” in the body of the monster which always threatens “to fragment the delicate matrix of relational systems that unite every private body to the public world.”26 The Chechen suicide bombers are especially troubling in this scenario because they bring together in their cultural bodies two “signs” that have traditionally terrified through their Otherness: “woman” and “nonwhite” (what Cohen terms She and Them!).27

            And where is it, exactly, that the monster make its home? According to Cohen, the monster resides “in that marginal geography of the Exterior, beyond the limits of the Thinkable, a place that is doubly dangerous: simultaneously ‘exorbitant’ and ‘quite close’.”28 The female Chechen terrorists are strange to many Russians, yet also lie very close to the heart of what Russia is, as a state, and therefore, it will never be a matter of simply driving them back to the wilderness from which they supposedly came, nor of just destroying them (Russia’s “official policy”), for as Cohen also reminds us, “No monster tastes of death but once.”29 There is always a revenant.

II         The Other is the prime intelligible30

Perhaps the most well-known monsters of Old English literature, Grendel, a “grim ghost” (grimma gæst; l. 102), and his mother, a “mighty mere-wife” and “sea-wolf” (merewif mihtig and brimwylf; l l. 1519 and 1599),31 live in the landscape which is wild and supposedly unlivable, yet is also situated at the very margin, or border, of the so-called “civilized” world—specifically, Daneland, whose chief symbol, King Hrothgar’s hall (Heorot), is upheld by the poet as the “best of all houses” (husa selest; l. 146a).32 But there is something peculiar, too, about this glittering and golden world whose light shines over many lands (l. 311): the only things that really constitute Daneland are the shore that separates it from the rest of the world, the horn-gabled hall, the paved stone road leading to the hall, the blood and flesh-splattered trail that leads to the monsters’ mere, and the outland territories of the monsters.33 And, as James Earl has written, “The poem shows us the world of the hall from the inside and seems totally indifferent to the rest of the world outside.”34

            If Hrothgar and his Danes have an obscure object of desire, it is Grendel, a “fiend from hell” (feond on helle; l. 101) who, in twelve winters of crafting crimes (fyrene fremman; l. 101) and making murderous incursions into Heorot, has become not only Daneland’s chief terror, but also its chief terrorist. Similar to the “ungraspability” of the female Chechen suicide bombers, whose descriptions reveal the hysterical confusion that results when Otherness breaks into the house and starts throwing dynamite, the descriptions of Grendel within the poem reveal both his inherent unknowability as well as his intimate familiarity, which both fascinates and frightens. He is a “powerful spirit” (ellengæst; l. 86), a “giant” (eoten; l. 761), a “dark death-shadow” (deorc deaþscua; l. 160), a “soul killer” (gastbona, l. 177), a “secret hatemonger” (deogol dædhata; l. 275), a “hell-secret” (helrunan; l. 164), and perhaps most importantly, because it is repeated so often, a “terror” (aglæca; ll. 159, 425, 433, 592, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, and 1269).35 Although Grendel is definitively strange and monstrous and evil, the poet also tells us that he and his mother are descended from Cain (ll. 104-14, 1260-68), and therefore they share a human kinship with the other characters in the poem.36 Further, as Ruth Melinkoff has reminded us,

Grendel and his mother not only are plainly fleshly creatures but also clearly are more human than beast. Although the poet was sparing with physical descriptions, he provides some vividly revealing details: arms and shoulders (835a, 972a and 1537a), claw-like hands (746-8a and 983b-90), a light shining from Grendel’s eyes (726b-7) and his head dragged by the hair (1647-8a). . . . Evil monsters, yes, but with human forms, flesh and minds.37

More to the point of Grendel’s intimate exteriority, he is simultaneously the “elsewhere ghost” (ellorgæst; l. 807), “fierce house-guard” (reþe renweardas; l. 770),  and the “hateful hall-thane” (healðegnes hete; l. 142) who Hrothgar calls “my invader” (ingenga min; l. 1776), pointing to his complicit status with those who lie sleeping in the hall at night, and whom he kills and ingests during his visits to the hall. It would appear that somehow, if even on an unconscious level, Hrothgar recognizes that Grendel is somehow his and the Danes’ personal nightmare, and even the poet mentions, at line 152, that Grendel “had fought for a long time against Hrothgar.” Further supporting the notion that Grendel’s feud with Hrothgar’s court is somehow personal, and that its original cause might somehow be rooted in Daneland’s ostentatious display of its wealth and power in its most visible articulation—the golden keep of Heorot itself—are the lines, early in the poem, that Grendel “sorrowfully endured his time in the darkness, [and] suffered distress, when he heard each day the loud rejoicing in the hall, the music of the harp, and the clear song of the poet” (earfoðlice/ þrage geþolode, se þe in þystrum bad,/ þæt he dogora gewham dream gehyrde/ hludne in healle; þær wæs hearpan sweg,/ swutol sand scopes; ll. 86-90). One of the reasons Grendel may be particularly angry about this music is the subject matter of the song itself—God’s creation of the world (ll. 91-98)—for Grendel, as one of the “giants” spawned by Cain, likely has a special grievance with God, and also with any men, like Hrothgar and his Danes, who appear to have been blessed by. Although the poet does not say so directly, we can assume that Grendel assumes that he is not, never was, and never will be welcome in the hall and the field of un-welcoming that the hall radiates might be part of what undergirds his rage against the Danes.

            Due to the language both the poet and the characters often use to describe him, it seems plausible that Grendel comes from that place where ghosts and demons and shadows dwell—either an “Other world” that cannot be seen or traveled to by humans, or Hell itself—and therefore he is a kind of terror from nowhere that always strikes at nightmare-time, when everyone is sleeping with one eye open. In fact, when Beowulf first arrives in Daneland and is explaining to the coast-guard why he is there, he reveals that he and his men have heard of this “unknown malevolence” (uncuðne nið; l. 276) that threatens the country of the Scyldings, and he wishes to offer Hrothgar counsel as to how he might vanquish this “I don’t know what kind of ravager” (sceaðona ic nat hwylc; l. 274). Therefore, it could be argued that it is not fair to say that the Danes have not properly welcomed Grendel, whom they can not recognize, in any way, shape, or form, as belonging to their world. In this scenario, Grendel is worse than any identifiable human enemy—he is worse than the Frisian or Heathobard who has been invited to dinner and is quietly seething over old grudges, and whose killing sword is always close at hand. Although the poem speaks often of the seemingly ceaseless cycles of tribal violence, many of the characters do possess some prescience about this cycle, and they even have social codes to contain it somewhat. Some might argue, then, that Grendel is somehow worse than these familiar enemies because he represents a kind of sublime rage whose origins and cause are unknown;38 furthermore, his preemptive attacks could not initially be anticipated, he does not recognize the jural conventions of feud, and he cannot be fought with conventional weapons.39 But I would argue that this reading of Grendel belies what Hrothgar himself tells Beowulf about who Grendel is and where he comes from.

            Because it is only the poet who tells us that Grendel and his mother are descended from Cain (and this happens in two definitive instances at lines 102-14 and 1260-68), it is important, I think, to look closely at how Grendel’s chief enemy, Hrothgar, describes and perceives him. A key passage for understanding this—perhaps the key passage—is the somewhat lengthy speech Hrothgar makes to Beowulf (lines 1322-82) after Grendel’s mother has burst into Heorot and killed Æschere, Hrothgar’s most beloved warrior, rune-counselor, and shoulder-companion (ll. 1325-26). First and foremost, it is clear that Hrothgar understands that the “hand-slayer” (handbanan; l. 1330) had a comprehensible motivation for her murder: “She revenged that feud when you [Beowulf], last night, killed Grendel” (Heo þa fæðe wræc,/ þe þu gystran niht Grendel cwealdest; ll. 1333-34), and further, she “would avenge her kinsman” (wolde hyre mæg wrecan; l. 1339). At the same time, Hrothgar describes Grendel’s “kin” in somewhat oblique terms as a “wandering slaughter-host” (wælgæst wæfre; l. 1331) who goes “I know not where” (ic ne wat hwæder; l. 1331) with her plundered body. But then, in a striking reversal, Hrothgar shares with Beowulf some very specific details (albeit, borrowed from the hearsay of “land-holders among my people,” but also from counselors; ll. 1345-46) about who, exactly, Grendel and his “kin” are, and where they live. In what could even be called slightly excitable tones, Hrothgar explains that some people have seen “two similarly huge borderers, holding the moors, elsewhere ghosts” (swylce twegen/ micle mearcstapan moras healdan,/ ellorgæstas; ll. 1347-49), one of whom could clearly (gewislicost; l. 1350) be seen “shaped as a woman” (idese onlicnæs; l. 1351), and the other, “harm-shaped, tread the exile-path in the form of a man, although he was much bigger than any man” (oðer earmsceapen/ on weres wæstmum wræc-lastas træd,/ næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer; ll. 1351-53). Most important, I think, is that Hrothgar knows this “ghost” has a name, Grendel (ll. 1354-55), and that he has no father—given that this is a world in which patrilineal succession is so important, one could argue that Grendel’s “fatherlessness” adds one more layer to his dimension of frightening uncanniness. Finally, in this same speech, even though Hrothgar claims that Grendel and his kinswoman “guard a secret land” (Hie dygel lond/ warigeað; ll. 1357-58), he then goes on, in shades on increasing hysteria, to describe in very precise detail this “wolf country”: there are fens, windy cliffs, mountain streams under dark bluffs, a flood under the earth, a lake with overhanging branches and frost-covered trees, and at night, strange fires on the water (ll. 1357-76). In Hrothgar’s emotional speech to Beowulf, we see that the margins of the world in which monsters live are both sublimely “secret” and treacherous, yet also geographically recognizable (and therefore, navigable). Likewise, the monsters themselves, Grendel and his kinswoman, are both dark shadows, but also corporeally material and humanlike, and therefore, as Cohen would phrase it, they “resist capture in the epistemological nets of the erudite,” and from their “position at the limits of knowing, [they] . . . stand as a warning against exploration.”40 It’s obvious, I think, that Hrothgar is afraid of the secret, yet familiar country in which Grendel and his kinswoman live (otherwise, why hasn’t he already launched some kind of counter-offensive there, or traveled there himself to survey the obstacles?), perhaps because he realizes that the “difference” of this landscape is, as Cohen writes, “arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential,”41 just like the bodies of the monsters, or the bodies of the men who sleep within Heorot’s high walls. Grendel’s and his mother’s cannibalism is very apt in this scenario because it both absorbs the warrior’s body “into that big Other seemingly beyond (but actually wholly within, because wholly created by) the symbolic order that it menaces,”42 and also disperses the warrior’s being, like so many pieces of flesh, into the wilderness. In fact, one of the most terrifying sights for Beowulf and his men when they seek out Grendel’s mother in her underwater den, is the spectacle of Æschere’s head sitting on a cliff beside the burning and blood-swelled waters of the mere (ll. 1417-21), and later, when he returns home, Beowulf tells Hygelac how upset the Danes were that they could not properly burn Æschere’s body on a funeral pyre (ll. 2124-26).

            According to Levinas, “The privileged role of the dwelling does not consist in being the end of human activity but in being its condition, and in this sense its commencement.”43 Because of what we can imagine to be Grendel’s belief that Heorot mocks him, and even denies him welcoming access, and because we can also imagine that the Danes would not ask him to share a meal with them, partly because he’s killing off their ranks (and therefore is a legitimate enemy), but also because they claim they don’t know “where the hell-secret glides in his motions” (l. 162-63), Grendel is never allowed the possibility of being able to actualize (or even, redeem) the very human-ness that the Danes themselves have detected in his features and that the poet has written across his large, menacing body. By “leasing” Beowulf, as it were, to destroy Grendel and his ilk, Hrothgar is admirably doing everything he can to stop “terror” from enveloping and decimating his culture, to be sure, but he is also attempting to wipe out the traces of what that culture has purposefully excluded from its interior spaces (but which, nevertheless, founds those interior spaces). Hrothgar and his Danes, and Beowulf and his Geats, see Grendel and his mother as thoroughly Other than themselves, yet, as Carol Braun Pasternack has pointed out, the language in the poem often belies the lines of difference that supposedly separate men from monsters, and thereby also reveals what might be called the poem’s “political unconscious”:

Aglæca characterizes Grendel and the dragon and aglæcwif Grendel’s mother, but aglæca also characterizes Sigemund (893a), both Beowulf and the dragon together (2592) and, in two instances, ambiguously either Beowulf or his monstrous opponent, in the first possibly Grendel (739a) and in the second possibly mere-monsters (1512a). Klaeber struggles in his glossary to keep a clear distinction between hero and opponent, identifying the same term as, on the one hand, ‘wretch, monster, demon, fiend’, and on the other, ‘warrior, hero’. But, as George Jack recognizes in his edition, ‘fierce assailant’ indicates the common ground for all the referents.44

Further, Pasternack explains that “The aglæcan are also wreccan, and this word and etymologically related terms point even more clearly to an oral-heroic paradigm in which hero and opponent fall within a single concept, the fierce outsider.”45 Beowulf’s murder of Grendel then, ultimately represents a double-dispossession, especially when we consider that he first drives Grendel out of the “high hall” that is the home of those who are supposedly blessed46 and by whose architecture Grendel obviously feels mocked and excluded, and then later, to add insult to injury, Beowulf desecrates Grendel’s body by slicing off his head in the “roofed hall” (hrofsele; l. 1515) of his mother.47 And this is a head that, tellingly, will take four men to haul it along the horse-path back to Heorot (ll. 1634-39), where, somewhat disturbingly, after being dagged across the floor to where the nobles are sitting on the benches, it becomes a spectacle for awe, as well as a trophy (ll. 1647-50). Perhaps this is finally fitting, for although Grendel can’t dine anymore on the beautiful, shining bodies of the Danes, cracking their bones and gulping them down in chunks, nor does the light any more shine through his eyes, he can keep watching them. He can keep warning.48 And likewise, Æschere’s head, left along the cliff beside the burning lake where Grendel’s mother discarded it (l. 1421), is also watching and warning. These, finally, are the faces of Beowulf that overflow all images and call into question the nature of the proper relationship of violence to justice—this is a problem that, to paraphrase Levinas, “exceeds the bounds” of this presentation.49

            1Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, Penn.: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 51.

            2Jacques Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1999), 17.

            3Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 256.

            4Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 155.

            5Ibid., 156.

            6Ibid., 172.

            7Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, 20.

            8Ibid., 71.

            9Ibid., 22.

            10Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 297.

            11For more details regarding this story and other terrorist incidents in Russia and Chechnya involving female suicide bombers, dubbed “black widows” by the Russian government and the international press, see Stephen Brown, “Russia’s ‘Black Widows’,” 25 July 2003 (available at: Printable.asp?ID=9088); “Chechnya’s ‘black widow’ bombers,” 11 July 2003 (available at: index.html); Steven Eke, “Chechnya’s female bombers,” BBC News Online 7 July 2003 (available at:; “Inside the mind of a ‘black widow’,” BBC News Online 4 Sep. 2003 (available at: 3081126.stm); Steven Lee Meyers, “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times 7 Aug. 2003; Tom Parfitt, “Suicide Bombers’ Chief Revealed,” The Telegraph, London 21 July 2003; “Suicide bombers hit Moscow concert,” BBC News Online 5 July 2003 (available at:; “Two Moscow concert bombers kill 14,” 5 July 2003 (available at: Russia.blast/index.html); Fred Weir, “Chechen Women Join Terror’s Ranks,” The Christian Science Monitor 12 June 2003; Fareed Zakaria, “Suicide Bombers Can Be Stopped,” Newsweek 25 Aug. 2003.

            12Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 193.

            13Eke, “Chechnya’s female bombers,” BBC News Online.

            14Myers, “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times and Parfitt, “Suicide Bombers’ Chief Revealed,” The Telegraph, London.

            15“Inside the mind of a ‘black widow’,” BBC News Online.

            16Eke, “Chechnya’s female bombers,” BBC News Online.

            17Myers, “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times. The fact that the female suicide bombers have been typified as “zombies” is especially interesting in light of Slavoj Zizek’s statement that the return of the living dead is “the fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture” (Looking Awry: An Introduction to Lacan through Popular Culture [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991], 22).

            18Irina Zvigeskaya, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow; quoted in Weir, “Chechen Women Join Terror’s Ranks,” The Christian Science Monitor. Standing in stark opposition, of course, to the idea that the female bombers are somehow not in their right mind, are the statements of the women themselves. In September of 2003, an anonymous Chechen woman (going by the pseudonym “Kowa”) told a BBC World Service reporter the following: “I have only one dream now, only one mission—to blow myself up somewhere in Russia, ideally in Moscow. . . . To take as many Russian lives as possible—this is the only way to stop the Russians from killing my people. . . . Maybe this way they will get the message once and for all.” Kowa’s husband, only twenty-four-years old, was killed by the Russians, and she indicated that she wanted revenge and was “ready for it.” Further, she said, “In my case—as with most cases with female suicide bombers—the motive is revenge. No one is forcing us and I am not afraid” (quoted in “Inside the mind of a ‘black widow’,” BBC News Online). Further, a surviving hostage of the Chechen rebel takeover of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in October 2002, told an Associated Press reporter that one of her female captors, whose husband and brother has been killed in the war with Russia, said the following: “I have nothing to lose, I have nobody left. So I’ll go all the way with this, even though I don’t think it’s the right thing to do” (quoted in Weir, “Chechen Women Join Terror’s Ranks,” The Christian Science Monitor). Another Chechen woman told a hostage, “You’re having a bad day, but we’re having a bad ten years” (Brown, “Russia’s ‘Black Widows’,”

            19Apparently, the Chechen women first earned the moniker “Black Widow” during the rebel takeover of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow when they were seen on Russian television wearing black hijabs and explosive-laden belts (Brown, “Russia’s ‘Black Widows’,” Furthermore, the supposed (and mysterious) leader of these women is referred to as “Black Fatima,” a nickname that incorporates racial and religious fears (Parfitt, “Suicide Bombers’ Chief Revealed,” Daily Telegraph, London).

            20In his well-known paper of 1919, Das Unheimliche, Freud deconstructed the supposed opposition between the heimlich, the “intimate” or “domestic,” and the unheimlich, the “strange” or “uncanny.” For Freud, “the uncanny (unheimlich) is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar, and furthermore, “the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ is the token of repression,” and thus the uncanny always involves something “that ought to have remained hidden, but has come to light” (Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” Complete Psychological Works, vol. 17, Standard Edition, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1963), 217-56.

            21Concerning the events of September 11th, Jean Baudrillard has written that, “At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. If this is not taken into account, the event loses any symbolic dimension. It becomes a pure accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics, and all that would then remain would be to eliminate them. Now, we know very well that this is not how it is. Which explains all the counterphobic ravings about exorcizing evil: it is because it is there, everywhere, like an obscure object of desire. Without this deep-seated complicity, the event would not have had the resonance it has, and in their symbolic strategy the terrorists doubtless know that they can count on this unavowable complicity” (The Spirit of Terrorism [London: Verso, 2002], 5-6). Similarly, Slavoj Žižek has written that the threat of terrorism, spectacularly made “Real” for Americans on September 11, was “obviously libidinally invested—just remember the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. That is the rationale of the often-mentioned association of the attacks with Hollywood disaster movies: the unthinkable which happened was the object of fantasy, so that, I a way, America got what it fantasized about” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11t and Related Dates [London: Verso, 2002], 15-16). Further, Žižek writes that “it is easy to account for the fact that poor people around the world dream about becoming Americans—so what do well-to-do Americans, immobilized in their well-being, dream about? About a global catastrophe that would shatter their lives—why? This is what psychoanalysis is about: to explain why, in the midst of well-being, we are haunted by nightmarish visions of catasrophes” (ibid., 17).

            22Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, 18. Given the West’s stance toward terrorism (which is, for the most part, to regard it as extra-juridical, illegal, inhumane, amoral, and evil), an area ripe for investigation in relation to this stance would be the relationship in Western society between vengeance, violence, justice, and the rule of law. According to Walter Benjamin, in his 1921 essay “Toward a Critique of Violence,” violence essentially defines the law (and on multiple levels). For a thoughtful rumination upon Benajmin’s essay as well as Jacques Derrida’s later reading of that essay, Force de loi (Paris: Galilée, 1994), see Robert Gibbs, “Philosophy and Law: Questioning Justice,” in Edith Wyschogrod and Gerald P. McKenny, eds., The Ethical (London: Blackwell, 2003), 101-16.

            23Myers, “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times.

            24Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 4.

            25Ibid., 6, 7.

            26Ibid., 10, 12.

            27Further, Cohen writes, “Feminine and cultural others are monstrous enough by themselves in patriarchal society, but when they threaten to mingle, the entire economy of desire comes under attack” (“Monster Culture [Seven Theses],” 15).

            28Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” 20.

            29Ibid., 5. The policy toward Chechen terrorists that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has adopted is precisely one of flat-out extermination (on this point, see Eke, “Chechnya’s female bombers,” BBC News Online). In fact, during the Chechen seizure of about 800 hostages in a theater in Moscow in October 2002, Russian soldiers stormed the theater with experimental knockout gas, and executed, on the spot, all of the Chechen rebels (including about two dozen women) while they were still unconscious from the gas. 129 Russians civilians also inadvertently died from the gas (see Weir, “Chechen Women Join Terror’s Ranks,” Christian Science Monitor). Representing the typical stance of most state governments to terrorists, in April 2004, in a speech delivered in Kansas City, Missouri that referred to terror attacks in Karbala, Najaf, and Baghdad, in addition to other cities around the world, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney stated, “Such an enemy cannot be deterred, cannot be contained, cannot be appeased, or negotiated with. It can only be destroyed. And that is the business at hand” (Ian Fisher and Stuart R. Weisman, “U.S. Issues Blunt Warning to Besieged Falluja Rebels,” The New York Times 24 April 2004).

            30Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 293.

            31All citations of Beowulf are taken from Frederick Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Co., 1950); all translations are mine.

            32It is telling, I think, that in the poem, Daneland’s primary symbol, the hall, is architectural—it is a thing made and built by human design and therefore articulates human identity. It stands in stark contrast to the fen paths, dark headlands, and burning mere that mark the monsters’ territory (ll. 1357-72). Furthermore, one could argue that the hall is not just a metonymy for Daneland (and for its authority), but is, in fact, Daneland itself, for the poet shares no details regarding any village or cultivated fields, or other outlying areas that would surely have attached to such a monumental seat of political and cultural power.

                33I want to thank Bruce Gilchrist for initially pointing out to me the sparseness of the landscape and architectural features with which Daneland is described in the poem. As Gilchrist himself puts it, “Daneland is only the hall and two narrow horse-path strips of land—one to the ocean, one to the mere. There are some descriptions of celebratory horse-riding, but nothing outside the paths. Aristocratic reality ends here and so do viable targets for Grendel's violence” (Bruce Gilchrist to Eileen Joy, 5 April 2004, e-mail communication).


            34James W. Earl, Thinking About Beowulf (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1994), 116.

            35The meaning of the word aglFca has stirred controversy among Old English scholars, although most translations, following Klaeber, have posited “monster” or “demon.” Roy M. Liuzza, in his recent verse translation, has used, alternatively, “ravager,” “evil beast,” “loathsome creature,” “monster,” “horrible creature,” and “awful warrior,” among others, but Liuzza also points out that the OE aglFca literally means “awesome one” or “terror,” and this its translation in his edition is “admittedly tendentious” (R.M. Liuzza, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation [Ontario, Can.: Broadview Press, 2000], 75, n.1). Alexandra Hennessey Olsen has also suggested that an aglFca is one who violates a natural or moral law (“The AglFca and the Law,” American Notes & Queries 20 [1982]: 66-8).

            36It should be noted here that although descendancy from Cain does lend to Grendel and his mother a human genealogy, according to the poet, it also means that they are what has been “awakened” and born as a result of Cain’s exile: “giants and elves and bearers of distress, and likewise the gigantic ones” (yanon untydras ealle onwocon,/ eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas,/ swylce gigantas; ll. 111-13).

            37Ruth Mellinkoff, “Cain’s monstrous progeny in Beowulf: part I, Noachic tradition,” Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979): 151.

            38Much critical energy has been expended on Grendel’s possible meanings on allegorical and symbolic and “deep structural” levels (in other words, on his role as sign and signifier, as opposed to “creature” or “animal”), and more recently, explanations that take a psychoanalytic approach (and even, an ethnopsychoanalytic approach) are prevalent. According to Hill, Grendel’s lawless murders and acts of cannibalism have “savage roots [that] . . . go deeper than early Oedipal hostility toward siblings, working into an earlier psychological stage of anger: oral aggression organized out of the primal rage that follows the first loss (the breast)” (The Cultural World of Beowulf, 124). In his essay, “The Ruins of Identity,” Cohen offers a Lacanian and Kristevan reading in which Grendel is a type of giant who represents a dangerous return to jouissance, and who also haunts the periphery of the warriors’ identity, or “architecture of selfhood,” from which he has been abjected. Further, Grendel’s and his mother’s dwelling, often swollen and swirling with blood, represents an “extimate trauma” that “lurks at the center of subjectivity, ensuing that the process of becoming human is also the process of becoming monstrous” (see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages [Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1999], 1-28). See also, Janet Thormann, “Beowulf and the Enjoyment of Violence,” Literature and Psychology 43 (1997): 65-76.

            39Early on in the poem, the poet notes that Grendel’s feud with the Danes was perpetual, that he would never make peace with any Danish man, he would not consent to settle the feud in any manner or by any payment, and he was not regretful about his murders (ll. 136 and 152-58). As regards the impossibility of fighting Grendel with conventional weapons, when Beowulf requests that Hrothgar allow him to fight Grendel, he mentions that he has heard that Grendel, “in his dark thoughtlessness, does not care for weapons” (for his wonhydum wFpna ne reccex; l. 434), and therefore Beowulf resolves to fight him without sword and shield (ll. 437-40). Further, when Beowulf and Grendel are struggling together in hand-to-hand combat in Heorot, and Beowulf’s men rush to defend Beowulf with their “ancestral swords” (ealde lafe; l. 795), the poet tells us that “they did not know, when they began the fight, [those] hard-minded warriors, thinking to swing [their swords] in every direction, to seek his [Grendel’s] soul, that [not any of] the best of iron blades, of any over the earth, nor any war-sword, could greet that sin-shadow, for he had forsworn battle weapons, all sword-edges” (Hie zFt ne wiston, za hie gewin drugon,/ heardhicgende hildemecgas,/ ond on healfa gehwone heawan zohton,/ sawle secan: zone synscaxan/ Fnig ofer eorxan irenna cyst,/ guxbilla nan gretan nolde;/ ac he sigewFpnum forsworen hFfde,/ ecga gehwylcre; ll. 798-805). Additionally, when Beowulf cuts off the head of Grendel’s already-dead body with the ancient giant sword (eald sweord eotenisc; l. 1558) he finds hanging on the wall of Grendel’s mother’s cave (and with which he has killed Grendel’s mother), the poet tells us that the blade of the sword burned up and melted due to Grendel’s “too hot” blood (ll. 1615-17), indicating, once again, the difficulty of penetrating Grendel’s body with conventional weapons.

            40Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” 12.


            42Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, 8.

            43Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 152.

            44Carol Braun Pasternack, “Post-structuralist theories: the subject and the text,” in Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe, ed., Reading Old English Texts (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 186. Please refer to Footnore 40 for my own preference for how to translate aglFca.


            46It is telling, too, that when Beowulf first meets Hrothgar, that he asks Hrothgar to allow him to cleanse, or purify Heorot (Heorot fFlsian; l. 432). Cohen has also pointed out that Grendel’s mother’s “habitation is at once hrofsele (roofed hall) and nixsele (hatefull hall), both beautiful and frightening” (Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, 27).

            47Andy Orchard has pointed out that Grendel’s mother’s mere is described in “human, almost homey terms” (Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the ‘Beowulf’-Manuscript [Cambridge, Eng.: D.S. Brewer, 1995], 30), and Cohen has written that her underwater cave is “just another version of Heorot” (Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, 27).

            48In Book 11 of his Libri Etymologiarum, Isidore of Seville wrote that “monstrosities, monstra, are named from an admonition, monitus, because they point out something by signalling  . . . what may immediately appear” (cited in John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981], 112).

            49In “The Infinity of Time,” Levinas wrote that “Truth requires both an infinite time and a time it will be able to seal, a completed time. The completion of time is not death, but messianic time, where the perpetual is converted into eternal. Messianic triumph is the pure triumph; it is secured against the revenge of evil whose return the infinite time does not prohibit. Is this eternity a new structure of time, or an extreme vigilance of the messianic consciousness? The problem exceeds the bounds of this book” (Totality and Infinity, 284-85).