25-year-old Kamajor solider, Sierra Leone -- 2000 (Molly Bingham copyright)
There is never a heroic action that Beowulf can take in the world of the poem that is not immediately mediated by an instance of either past or future history in which men act badly and therefore, the fabric of whatever cultural good Beowulf works in the world of the poem (which is also the good Beowulf works as a positive figure of cultural memory in the time of the poem's reception as a literate culture-building performance) is always being pulled apart, seam by seam. And this is a history which everyone in the poem is singing, not only the poet and Hrothgar's bards. James Earl has pointed out that the Finn episode (lines 1066-159), along with the Heathobard digressions (when Beowulf relates to Hygelac Ingeld's future treachery against Hrothgar--lines 2024-69), which are about "kin-feuds no truce can settle," actually "frame" Gendel's mother's vengeful attack on Heorot and Beowulf's murderous reprisal for such and therefore, "Whatever else Grendel's mother represents, she represents the violence Anglo-Saxon kingship was most at pains to control, and which Anglo-Saxon law struggled for centuries to limit, modify, and eliminate" (Thinking About Beowulf [Stanford, 1994], 75). And I would argue that these historical asides in the poem also call into question Beowulf's defeat of Grendel's dam, for while the monster may lie dead, her children are ceaselessly at play on the killing fields of history. According to Earl, "eliminating revenge is perhaps the first task of civilization" (ibid.), and the underlying assumption here is that, whereas the Anglo-Saxon culture of the poem is structured by a "tribal feud" mindset, our culture (and even the later culture of the poet), by contrast, has supposedly evolved along social lines that have left the tribe behind in favor of "the state," a cultural entity, as Earl describes it, "organized by centralized authority and sworn oaths among men, and governed by law" (ibid., 33).
One has only to look to Sierra Leone or Sudan, Israel or Palestine, Ireland or Algiers, the Balkans, or even to the inner cities of America, to see that our world culture is still subject to the violence, and even war, engendered by a certain kind of limiting and isolationist social "group think" (inspired and even exacerbated by ethnic, racial, religious, economic, political, and class factionalisms) that sets itself in direct opposition to "state law," and even, through terrorism, thrives on its lawlessness. In popular culture, the recent film Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, dramatizes the desire on the part of young, angry, white men who feel they have become -- via what Earl would term "civilization" -- the "crap and slaves of history," to form a martial face-to-face tribal culture whose sole price of admission is the willingness of its members to endure a seemingly endless series of brutal fistfights, the primary aim of which is to see how much physical punishment the members of "the club" can both dole out and withstand. They also launch terrorist acts against institutions of consumerism and capital, such as banks. Both film and book offer a stark and quasi-apocalyptic vision of mainstream society's discontent, and the film's popularity, especially among young American men, tells us something about the dark psychological currents that are always running just beneath the surface of any civilized society, and which cannot be simply relegated to some earlier, "primitive" age.
Although everything in Beowulf, in its content as well as in its multiple moments of ecriture and reception, is utterly past, nevertheless, the poem encapsulates differing modes of recollection and prognostication (on the part of the poet as well as the characters in the poem) that weave together past, present, and future in a way that arrests chronological time and replaces it with the gestalt of apocalyptic time. And here, by apocalyptic, I mean to imply time that is revelatory, that reveals the hidden future in the past and the hidden past in the future. As a result, almost everyone in the poem is a bard of history, from the author/narrator to Beowulf himself to Hrothgar and his bards to Wiglaf's herald and finally, even to the nameless Geatish woman who sings sorrowfully over Beowulf's funeral pyre about the "harm and captivity" of "the hard days ahead" (lines 3150-55), and this is a song of history, moreover, that turns on a wheel of continual aggression and violence between men from which there is seemingly no escape, either by recognizing its roots in the past or discerning its shapes on the horizon of the future. And by inference, all of human history it would seem is locked within a terrifying and dangerous present during which everything is remembered and seen (i.e., predicted), yet nothing is properly recognized (i.e., re-thought in a way that would lead to positive social change).
We live in a postmodern world, as the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has described it, of "contingency and nomadism" where "the focus of, simultaneously, contentious social spacing and identity-building, is now the contrived, made-up community masquerading as a Tonnies-style inherited Gemeinschaft . . . brought into being and kept in existence mostly, perhaps solely, by the intensity of their members' dedication" (Postmodern Ethics [Oxford, 1993], 234). This is a community that "lives under the condition of constant anxiety and thus shows a sinister but thinly masked tendency to aggression and intolerance" (ibid., 234-35). We must finally be wary, I think, of the idea that has infused so much of the scholarly writing on Beowulf -- that history has somehow brought human beings out of the darkness of social chaos represented in the poem and into the light of the kind of "civilization" that has its roots in such places as the early Anglo-Saxon courts and monasteries wherein the poem may have first been set down in writing, where authority is more centralized and social barbarity in all its multivalent forms has been made, quite literally, unethical and illegal.
Russian Soldiers Returning from Chechyna -- Dec. 1999 (HRW 2000 copyright)
Bauman has written that "with each shift in the balance of [world] power, the spectre of inhumanity returns from exile," and this calls to mind the various ways in which the specters of inhumanity return in Beowulf, and in many different guises -- as misshapen, malformed men and anthropomorphized monsters (Grendel and his mother) who kill and devour, as beasts of prey (the dragon) whose very breath is a destruction, and also as the kings and their followers (Hygelac, Finn, Hengest, Heremod, Haethcyn, etc.) who live for feud and therefore, make a kind of continual love to death. The poem may be less about Beowulf or a veneration and mourning of the lost cultural hero of evolution, and more about the men who break oaths and steal for pride, kill their own brothers, and taunt each other to murder, for these are the figures who both precede Beowulf's entry into the story and follow on his heels after he leaves, and we might ask ourselves how far removed in misty time these men ultimately are from the masked and grim Russian soldiers returning from battle in Chechnya in December of 1999, or from the young rebel soldier in Sierra Leone who proudly wrote on the butt of his rifle with red nail polish, "war is my food."
from Eileen A. Joy, Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History, book-in-progress