Eileen A. Joy
POSTCARD FROM THE VOLCANO: BEOWULF, MEMORY, HISTORY
(precis for a monograph in progress)
Figure 1. Anselm Kiefer, The Red Sea (1984-85)
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;
And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt
At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky
Cries out a literate despair.
—from Wallace Stevens, “A Postcard from the Volcano,” in Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1990)
Sometimes we should approach medieval texts with critical languages that differ from those their authors, even their audiences, might have approved. We cannot confine the work of knowing the Middle Ages to replicating, however hopelessly and/or heroically, medieval cultures' self-understanding. We should also explore how medieval cultures, like all others, may have misunderstood themselves.
— from L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002)
It is the first premise of my project that the field of Old English literary studies could benefit immeasurably from an attention to the debates among historians and cultural theorists regarding the ethical obligations of memory to history and vice versa, especially in relation to artists who represent traumatic history in their work. The Beowulf-poet was one such artist, and the themes of the poem itself are very much connected to the question of memory’s proper relationship to history, and with historical traumas that are distinctly medieval while also being uncannily modern (which is to say, these traumas remain, on some levels, unresolved). How might a new study of Beowulf help us to navigate the questions, posed by Gerhard Richter in an analysis of the monumental historical artworks of the contemporary German painter Anselm Kiefer,
What is history? What will its relation to presentation have been? What are the links between strategies of aesthetic figuration and the politics of memory and counter-memory? What makes it possible, today, to continue to evoke history in a time of stasis, a moment that seems out of joint? Does the presentation of history necessarily imply a search for lost former presences, fugitive moments of temporality that were once simply themselves and transparently comprehensible? Or may historical presentation involve the recognition that these temporal moments were never simply “present“ as an essence in the first place? What does it mean that the historical presents itself not as a former presence but rather in the space of intersecting traces that inscribe its genealogical shifts and movements, and that, by extension, the historical was already — even at the time of its retroactively projected former presence, the fiction of its anteriority — a network of traces and relays? (“History's Flight, Anselm Kiefer's Angels,” Connecticut Review 24 : 113)
This project is also partly a response to Bill Readings’ book The University in Ruins (1996), in which he argued that the American university is essentially a “ruined institution, one that has lost its historical raison d’etre” (p. 19), primarily because, in Readings’ opinion, the Enlightenment ideal that a university should produce good citizens through a steady diet of national culture appears bankrupt. Further, cultural studies, broadly speaking, falls into the same trap as the literary studies it is supposed to “save” or “escape,” primarily because it arises “when culture ceases to be the animating principle of the University” (p. 92). Readings proposes instead a community “of dissensus that presupposes nothing in common,” and that “would seek to make its heteronomy, its differences, more complex” (p. 190). In this scenario, the posthistorical university would be “where thought takes place beside thought, where thinking is a shared process without identity or unity” — this is ultimately “a dissensual process; it belongs to dialogism rather than to dialogue,” and instead of a new interdisciplinary space that would “reunify” the increasingly fragmented disciplines, there would be a “shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how thoughts fit together” (p. 192). The second premise of my project is that those of us who teach and work in the humanities need to take seriously the troubling questions about cultural studies that Readings raises and begin thinking, in productive fashion, about what Readings' “shifting disciplinary structure(s)” might look like in relation to our work with literary and other texts. More specifically, for the purposes of my own project, how might a new study of Beowulf put aside the question of the poem's possible meaning(s) in relation to traditional and discipline-specific historical, philological, and literary-historical questions and place the poem instead into a shifting yet dialogically structured constellation of other works of art that take up the representation and question of traumatic history, yet otherwise would never be considered alongside this Old English poem? In order to show how a new study of Beowulf might help to demonstrate the worth of a humanistic practice in which “thinking is a shared process without identity or unity,” I want to follow the thinking of Walter Benjamin, in his The Origin of German Tragic Drama, that the work of art possesses its own history, one that is not readily reducible to the time period in which it was produced nor to the intentions of its maker, and further, that the goal of criticism might be to apprehend the historicity of the artwork that is not part of historical life, per se. And this would be best accomplished by considering the artwork as an object among other artwork-objects, all arranged in a non-linear constellation that does not privilege the place of one work over another and which produces certain dialectical images that give to historical time a particular shock. The work of interpretation, in this scenario, is the thinking — necessarily creative and non-teleological — that gives rise to the constellation.
The final premise for this project follows my desire to address the lack in Old English studies of an attention to what Terence Hawkes has termed “presentism.” Presentism, as a critical strategy, is partly a response to, or extension of, New Historicism, a critical movement that has been dominant in literary studies since the early 1980s. In the words of Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, whereas “traditional 'close readings' tended to build toward a sense of wondering admiration, linked to the celebration of genius, new historicist readings are more often skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial” (Practicing New Historicism, p. 9). Further, there are more cultural items that count as “text” — indeed, all of culture is text and “canonical works of art are brought into relation not only with works judged as minor, but also with texts that are not by anyone's standards literary,” which can then “suggest hidden links between high cultural texts, apparently detached from any direct engagement with their immediate surroundings, and texts very much in and of their world, such as documents of social control or political subversion” (p. 10). Finally, “[a]gainst the determinism that attempts to insist that certain things in a given period were beyond conception or articulation, new historicism invokes the vastness of the textual archive, and with that vastness an esthetic appreciation of the individual instance” (p. 16). While it is of course important to understand the texts of the past “in and of their world” and to appreciate the historical uniqueness of their “individual instance(s),” to which end much excellent work has been accomplished by New Historicist critics, I believe we must also engage in a scholarship that seeks to make more visible how premodern literary texts might perform in the here and now — how they might connect or speak to present concerns that are always, in some fashion, always already troubled by the past. How, more specifically, might certain events in our own, more modern history shape the way we encounter works of art that take traumatic history as their main subject? This is a question that entails reading history backwards, but with often illuminating results. This would be a type of reading, moreover, that agrees with Edward Said's thinking that the canonical texts of the humanities, “far from being a rigid tablet of fixed rules and monuments bullying us from the past—like Wagner’s Beckmesser marking the youthful Walther’s mistakes in Die Meistersinger — will always remain open to changing combinations of sense and signification; every reading and interpretation of a canonical work reanimates it in the present, furnishes an occasion for rereading, allows the modern and the new to be situated together in a broad historical field whose usefulness is that it shows us history as an agonistic process still being made, rather than finished and settled once and for all” (Humanism and Democratic Criticism, p. 25).
Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History makes an argument for the worth of a presentist Old English studies by placing Beowulf in what can be called counter-intuitive cross-disciplinary contexts within which it has never before been studied, in order to delineate the often vexed (and never finally settled) relations between history, memory, and art. The book is comprised of three divisons — Ruins, Restorations, Resurrections — each of which poses a set of related theoretical questions, and in tandem with those questions, undertakes a comparative analysis of Beowulf alongside other works of art that also represent traumatic history, either in their subject matter or in their materiality, or both. Although the individual chapters draw on a variety of theoretical approaches (primarily, but not limited to, the work of Walter Benjamin, John Caputo, Michel de Certeau, Andreas Huyssens, Dominick LaCapra, Emmanuel Levinas, Pierre Nora, and Edith Wyschogrod: thinkers whose work, for the most part, has never been brought into contact with Old English studies), the primary theoretical framework for the book as a whole is indebted to Jacques Derrida's idea of spectrality, which Carla Freccero calls “a mode of historical attentiveness that the living might have to what is not present but somehow appears as a figure or a voice, a 'non-living present in the living present' that is no longer with us.” Further, spectrality “describes the way in which 'time is out of joint'; that is, the way the past . . . presses upon us with a kind of insistence or demand,” and “thinking historicity through haunting thus combines both the seeming objectivity of events and the subjectivity of their affective afterlife” (Queer/Early/Modern, pp. 69-70, 76). In addition to tracing the unsettled and spectral relations between history, memory, and art, Postcard from the Volcano is also invested in making the argument that the artwork ultimately holds a privileged position in what might be called the presencing of history. It engages, further, in what Gilles Deleuze called the “crystallization of time, where the actual and virtual coincide.”
Working Bibliography [books only]
Barcilon, Pinin Brambilla and Pietro C. Marani. LEONARDO: THE LAST SUPPER. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
BEOWULF, AND THE FIGHT AT FINNSBURG. Ed. Friedrich Klaeber. Heath, 1950.
THE ELECTRONIC BEOWULF. Ed. Kevin Kiernan. The British Library, 2000.
CHILDREN OF MEN. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Perf. Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Clare-Hope Ashitey. Universal Pictures, 2006.
Kiefer, Anselm. ANSELM KIEFER: BRUCH UND EINUNG. Ed. John Hallmark Neff. Marion Goodman Gallery, 1987.
- - - . ANSELM KIEFER: WORKS ON PAPER IN THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. Ed. Nan Rosenthal. The Metropolitan Museum, 1998.
- - - . GRASS WILL GROW OVER YOUR CITIES. Schirmer/Mosel Verlag, 1999.
Leonardo da Vinci. IL CODICE ATLANTICO DELLA BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA DI MILANO. 3 vols. Ed. Augusto Marinoni and Carlo Pedretti. Giunti, 2000.
- - - . LEONARDO DA VINCI’S NOTEBOOKS, ARRANGED AND RENDERED INTO ENGLISH. Ed. Edward McCurdy. Scribner’s Sons, 1908.
Libeskind, Daniel. JEWISH MUSEUM, BERLIN: BETWEEN THE LINES. Prestel Publishing, 1999.
Morrison, Toni. BELOVED. Knopf, 1987.
“The Ruin.” THE EXETER BOOK. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. Vol. 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. Columbia University Press, 1936.
Sebald, W.G. AUSTERLITZ. Trans. Anthea Bell. Modern Library, 2002.
- - - . ON THE NATURAL HISTORY OF DESTRUCTION. Trans. Anthea Bell. Modern Library, 2004.
SHOAH. Dir. Claude Lanzmann. New Yorker Films, 1985.
Spencer, Stanley. A COMPLETE CATALOGUE OF THE PAINTINGS. Ed. Keith Bell. Phaidon, 1992.
- - - . LETTERS AND WRITINGS. Ed. Adrian Glew. Tate Gallery Publishing, 2001.
“World Trade Center Site: Memorial Competition.” Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. http://www.wtcsitememorial.org.
*note: critical works on Beowulf are not included here, but obviously form a large part of the included secondary material
Agamben, Giorgio. HOMO SACER: SOVERIGN POWER AND BARE LIFE. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford University Press, 1998.
Benjamin, Walter. ON THE ORIGIN OF GERMAN TRAGIC DRAMA. Trans. John Osbourne. Verso, 2003.
Berger, James. AFTER THE END: REPRESENTATIONS OF THE POST-APOCALYPSE. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Booth, W. James. COMMUNITIES OF MEMORY: ON WITNESS, IDENTITY, AND JUSTICE. Cornell University Press, 2006.
Burger, Glenn and Steven Kruger, eds. QUEERING THE MIDDLE AGES. University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Caputo, John D. AGAINST ETHICS: CONTRIBUTIONS TO A POETICS OF OBLIGATION WITH CONSTANT REFERENCE TO DECONSTRUCTION. Indiana University Press, 1993.
- - - . MORE RADICAL HERMENEUTICS: ON NOT KNOWING WHO WE ARE. Indiana University Press, 2000.
Caruth, Cathy. UNCLAIMED EXPERIENCE: TRAUMA, NARRATIVE, HISTORY. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Certeau, Michel de. THE WRITING OF HISTORY. Trans. Tom Conley. Columbia University Press, 1992.
Derrida, Jacques. ADIEU TO EMMANUEL LEVINAS. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Mcihael Naas. Stanford University Press, 1999.
- - - . ARCHIVE FEVER: A FREUDIAN IMPRESSION. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
- - - . SPECTERS OF MARX: THE STATE OF THE DEBT, THE WORK OF MOURNING, AND THE NEW INTERNATIONAL. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Routledge, 1994.
Eyerman, Ron. CULTURAL TRAUMA: SLAVERY AND THE FORMATION OF AFRICAN AMERICAN IDENTITY. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. TESTIMONY: CRISES OF WITNESSING IN LITERATURE, PSYCHOANALYSIS, AND HISTORY. Routledge, 1992.
Fradenburg, L.O. Aranye. SACRIFICE YOUR LOVE: PSYCHOANALYSIS, HISTORICISM, CHAUCER. University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917). In THE STANDARD EDITION OF THE COMPLETE PSYCHOLOGICAL WORKS OF SIGMUND FREUD. Ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. 14: 243-58.
Freccero, Carla. QUEER/EARLY/MODERN. Duke University Press, 2006.
Geary, Patrick. PHANTOMS OF REMEMBRANCE: MEMORY AND OBLIVION AT THE END OF THE FIRST MILLENIUM. Princeton University Press, 1996.
Goody, Jack. THE THEFT OF HISTORY. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Halbwachs, Maurice. ON COLLECTIVE MEMORY. Trans. Lewis A. Coser. University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Hawkes, Terence. SHAKESPEARE IN THE PRESENT. Routledge, 2002.
- - - . THAT SHAKESPHEREAN RAG: NOTES ON A CRITICAL PROCESS. Metheun, 1986.
Hutton, Patrick. HISTORY AS AN ART OF MEMORY. University Press of New England, 1993.
Huyssens, Andreas. PRESENT PASTS: URBAN PALIMPSESTS AND THE POLITICS OF MEMORY. Stanford University Press, 2003.
- - - . TWILIGHT MEMORIES: MARKING TIME IN A CULTURE OF AMNESIA. Routledge, 1994.
LaCapra, Dominick. HISTORY AND MEMORY AFTER AUSCHWITZ. Cornell University Press, 1998.
- - - . HISTORY IN TRANSIT: EXPERIENCE, IDENTITY, CRITICAL THEORY. Cornell University Press, 2004.
- - - . REPRESENTING THE HOLOCAUST: HISTORY, THEORY, TRAUMA. Cornell University Press, 1994.
- - - . WRITING HISTORY, WRITING TRAUMA. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
Lauterwein, Andrea. ANSELM KIEFER/PAUL CELAN: MYTH, MOURNING, AND MEMORY. Thames & Hudson, 2007.
Legoff, Jacques. HISTORY AND MEMORY. Trans. Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman. Columbia University Press, 1996.
Levinas, Emmanuel. TIME AND THE OTHER. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Duquesne University Press, 1987.
- - - . TOTALITY AND INFINITY: AN ESSAY ON EXTERIORITY. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Duquesne University Press, 1969.
Margalit, Avishai. THE ETHICS OF MEMORY. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Nora, Pierre et al., eds. REALMS OF MEMORY: THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE FRENCH PAST. 3 vols. Ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Columbia University Press, 1998.
Readings, Bill. THE UNIVERSITY IN RUINS. Harvard University Press, 1996.
Ricoueur, Paul. MEMORY, HISTORY, FORGETTING. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Rousso, Henry. THE VICHY SYNDROME: HISTORY AND MEMORY IN FRANCE SINCE 1944. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Santer, Eric L. STRANDED OBJECTS: MOURNING, MEMORY, AND FILM IN POSTWAR GERMANY. Cornell University Press, 1990.
Signer, Michael A., ed. MEMORY AND HISTORY IN CHRISTIANITY AND JUDAISM. University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.
Strohm, Paul. THEORY AND THE PREMODERN TEXT. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Volf, Miroslav. THE END OF MEMORY: REMEMBERING RIGHTLY IN A VIOLENT WORLD. Eerdmans, 2007.
Wieviorka, Annette. THE ERA OF THE WITNESS. Trans. Jared Stark. Cornell University Press, 2006.
Winter, Jay. SITES OF MEMORY, SITES OF MOURNING: THE GREAT WAR IN EUROPEAN CULTURAL HISTORY. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Wyschogrod, Edith. AN ETHICS OF REMEMBERING: HISTORY, HETEROLOGY, AND THE NAMELESS OTHERS. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Young, James E. AT MEMORY’S EDGE: AFTER-IMAGES OF THE HOLOCAUST IN CONTEMPORARY ART AND ARCHITECTURE. Yale University Press, 2000.Zerubavel, Eviatar. TIME MAPS: COLLECTIVE MEMORY AND THE SOCIAL SHAPE OF THE PAST. University of Chicago Press, 2006.