Eileen A. Joy


Beowulf and the Floating Wreck of History (December 2001)

        In his book Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, a selective history of the discipline of Old English scholarship from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, Allen Frantzen argues that "engagement with political controversy has always been a distinctive and indeed an essential motive for studying language origins and therefore for studying Anglo-Saxon." It is Frantzen's contention that Old English scholarship's insistence on the separation of politics and linguistic studies, its veneration of methodology at the expense of a fuller understanding of the cultures under inspection, and its refusal to confess the presence of scholarly subjectivity in its projects has brought about a state of affairs whereby "Anglo-Saxon subjects have failed to retain a place in the mainstream of modern intellectual and political life." Additionally, Frantzen sees the history of Anglo-Saxon studies as being implicated in what Edward Said has delineated as the ideological project of the European West "to achieve academic mastery of the literary culture of Arabia and India, and thereby to assure the irrelevance, inferior status, and ultimately the powerlessness of Oriental texts." Not wanting to launch an overarching ideological critique of the discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies, Frantzen instead attends to tracing the "intimate" connections between the historical and political issues of English "expansionism, linguistic imperialism, and cultural colonization" and the history of Old English studies, with the intention of raising a "critical self-consciousness" among Old English scholars, such that they might be willing to rethink their practices and subjects within the larger arena of "cultural studies," while still continuing to emphasize the close study of language and history. Frantzen's book and some of his subsequent writings have created controversy and sparked lively debate among contemporary Old English scholars, some of whom have faulted Frantzen for caricaturizing them as too narrow in their interests, while others have bristled at the suggestion that a poststructural critique would be beneficial to their work on Anglo-Saxon culture.

        Regardless of the debates, it is no longer "news" that Anglo-Saxon England is, to a certain extent, a cultural construct that has arisen out of the negotiations and interactions between scholars and their subject; nevertheless, this historical period once existed in vibrant materiality, and efforts thus far to construct disciplinary genealogies often focus on persons, texts, and textual "events" that underline the notions that "Anglo-Saxon England" is mainly a discursive formation and that scholarly disciplines are mainly ideological enterprises and power discourses which, over the course of time, cover over their political origins through various acts of repression and "forgetting." John Niles best summed up this critical view in his essay "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture," when he wrote that

culture is chiefly produced through a complex series of purposeful appropriations either of the past or someone's present property (whether material, linguistic, or intellectual in nature). Whether these appropriations are the work of individuals acting in relative isolation or of groups acting in consort, the results of this activity tend to be expressive of an underlying ideology that is characteristic of a time and place as well as of specific class interests, ethnic allegiances, and so on.

Further, Niles points out that some scholars might think of Anglo-Saxon culture as a palpable "something to which their life or scholarly work is connected by almost tangible lines," but in their efforts to bolster this claim they appeal to "genealogies, genetics, archaeology, the statements of reliable authorities, and any other evidence that comes to hand, unaware that the effect of all such efforts is only to tighten the web of mental inferences in which they and their personal orientations are suspended." But the truth of history is never possible in this schemata, only particular, invested versions of ideas of history. While we may admit the contingent and subjective nature of the scholarly enterprise, it is the chief premise of this dissertation that if we care to have what the historian Michel de Certeau termed "a proper census of the population of the dead," then we must still lean into history, with all of our cognitive weight, in order to take stock of its multiple and often conflicting impressions, in order to arrive at, if not the absolute truth of our past, then at least the most full and faithful representation possible. In this respect, this dissertation is heavily indebted to the work of the historian Dominick LaCapra, who has articulated a conception of history as "tensely involving both an objective (not objectivist) reconstruction of the past and a dialogic exchange with it and other inquirers into it wherein knowledge involves not only the processing of information but also affect, empathy, and questions of value."

        It is one of the arguments of this dissertation that Frantzen’s work on the often hidden ideological underpinnings of the discipline of Old English studies is immeasurably enlightening and also represents an important turning point in the field. But this dissertation also argues that the field of Old English studies was structured as much out of the efforts of those scholars who were working either outside of or against dominant ideologies, and who were often politically or institutionally disenfranchised, as it was structured by scholars working under the spell of royalist, polemicist, nationalist, racist, or colonialist meta-narratives. Furthermore, many of our earliest scholars, prior to the recent tidings of contemporary Old English scholars regarding the compromised and contingent nature of our discipline, were unabashedly invested in the idea that the present should be implicated in the past, and vice-versa, and they eagerly sought a dialogical relationship with history and its texts, not to tie them under the false guise of "objectivity" to ideological interests, but to rescue and restore what they viewed as a native culture in danger of being disregarded, and therefore erased. This is not to say that self-interest or various blindly patriotic interests did not play a part in the earliest formations of our discipline, only that disciplinary histories often concentrate on the emerging ideological forces at work in the history of Old English studies at the expense of those elements, including historical chance, which seem discontinuous in relation to these forces. And therefore, it is fruitful to speak, as Frantzen does, of John Mitchell Kemble's editing of Beowulf in the 1830s within the context of Kemble's devotion to Jakob Grimm's philological science and Kemble's desire to commemorate the lineage of English history in the poem. Kemble's scholarship is thereby viewed as intimately connected to a particularly specious type of romantic nationalism. Kemble's character, his beliefs and opinions, even the development over time of his beliefs and opinions, as well as his motivations as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, are too fluid and complex, ultimately, to be accounted for under the rubric of Anglican nationalism or British imperialism. Yet this is where he is compartmentalized in Frantzen's brief account of his career as an Anglo-Saxon scholar, which career is then slotted within the larger framework of Frantzen's account of the history of Anglo-Saxon studies as essentially political (and in some cases, racialist). But what we must consider, I would argue, is the extent to which Kemble's scholarly writing was essentially performative, revealing to us, not readily identifiable ideological values that Kemble transferred to Anglo-Saxon culture (and therefore to the scholarship of Anglo-Saxon culture), but rather the warping and woofing of those values as they came into contact with a negotiation between a text and an individual consciousness which is always keenly aware of its audience and its place in history (and is even capable of forgetting itself).

        Academic disciplines certainly maintain their institutional existence and authority--they endure--through the discourses of one or more dominant ideologies, hidden or overt, and through historically codified systems of doctrine, yet it is also true that disciplines often emerge out of a series of historical accidents intersecting--sometimes randomly, sometimes more purposefully--with what Foucault called "the more enduring structures of history," in much the same way Beowulf exists for us today, not as the singular fruit of a long and purposeful enterprise of unified nationalist bibliography, but rather, as one of the more beautiful scraps of the floating wreck of history. Furthermore, the scholars of our discipline should not be construed as fully self-knowing subjects embodying transcendental notions of language and history; rather, caught in the pitch and tide of existential time, their lives and careers represent, not the fixity of any one idea, but the flux of ideas. The discourse of history may ultimately be caught in the snare of ideology, but there must also be an account of history that is not held completely in the teeth of that trap. Furthermore, our task as literary scholars is not so much to aim for the absolute truth of a text, or of a particular culture, as it is to animate and supplement, with every methodological and theoretical tool at our disposal, the always incomplete compendium of texts and of lived experience, thereby creating a historical constellation within which we can begin to investigate what our ethical obligations might be to those who have been dispersed in the flow of time's currents. This type of scholarship is both curatorial and analytical, and not only aims to preserve and analyze what has been written, rubbing the materiality of what is against the grain of what if?, but also considers the narratives for which there is no visible account. What is ultimately required, therefore, is technical and intellectual rigor, creativity, and ethics.

        It is not the purpose of this dissertation to quibble with what I view as Frantzen’s important seminal text, or even to offer an alternative disciplinary history. Rather, it builds upon and supplements Frantzen’s work by constructing a narrative of Old English scholarship from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries that draws a picture of both the always historically contingent nature of the scholarly enterprise as well as the necessity of rethinking that enterprise in ways that could connect the study of an Old English text like Beowulf with one of the most pressing and urgent questions in the university community today: why are humanities studies necessary? In his book, The University in Ruins, Bill Readings argued that we need to find a way to recognize the "historical anachronism" at the heart of the "space of the university" (it is no longer the perfect model of a rational community, nor the sole legitimator of what culture means) while also continuing to hold that space open as "one site among others where the question of being-together is raised," which is another way of saying that the university is quite possibly the best site for holding open the temporality of questioning contemporary culture's relationship to history and vice versa, and it is my belief that the study of Beowulf can play an important role in this project. This dissertation ultimately aims to demonstrate that Beowulf has much to tell us, in both its material history as a manuscript, and as a work of art, about the historical contingencies of our present lives and work, and about our ethical obligations to the past.

        Following Nicholas Howe’s caution that a disciplinary history "threatens to become a kind of meta-commentary which finally does not engage the original object of study (the Anglo-Saxons and their culture)," this dissertation focuses upon the Beowulf manuscript as a material object that knits together various episodes in the history of Old English scholarship, and also locates within the text of the poem itself events that resonate with that history, as well as with contemporary culture and life. Chapter One, "Winged Creatures and Honey-Gatherers of the Spirit," introduces the reader to a fuller explication of Allen Frantzen’s disciplinary historiography, and also offers a rumination upon the idea that the canon of Old English literature is formed as much out of the void of lost manuscripts as it is out of the plenitude of existing ones. Connected to this, there is also a discussion of some of the theoretical and practical problems faced by textual scholars who wish to craft "authentic" and "authoritative" editions of Old English manuscripts, such as Beowulf, as well as a rumination upon whether or not Old English studies have become "marginalized" in the contemporary university and what this might mean to the health of humanities studies and liberal education more generally.

        Chapter Two, "Beowulf in the Palm at the End of the Mind" is divided into three sections that comprise an inquiry into the handling over time of the Beowulf manuscript (British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv) as a material object, in order to examine how Beowulf scholarship has been shaped by longstanding misconceptions about the history of the Nowell codex, and also to comment upon the philosophical hermeneutics of the cultural practices of book collecting, bibliography, and library building in the English tradition. Section I, "The Catalogue," analyzes the manuscript’s role in the private Cotton Library (late 1600s/early 1700s) within the context of the emerging "science" of systematic bibliography, and focuses especially on the competitive efforts of Thomas Smith (1638-1710) and Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) to catalogue the antique manuscripts of the Cotton Library. Section II, "The Library," analyzes the Beowulf manuscript as an object of conservation within the 19th-century British Museum Library, and also delineates the philosophical problems inherent in the historical tradition of building "universal" libraries and curating objects of "cultural memory." Kevin Kiernan’s Electronic Beowulf (Univ. of Michigan, 2000), which he collaborated on with curators at the British Library, is discussed as an exemplary and celebratory project of technical restoration that nevertheless is still caught within the web of certain historical contingencies that limit its historical "transparency" as an object of literary interpretation. Section III, "Beowulf in the Palm at the End of the Mind," attends to an examination of Beowulf’s possible place in the digital electronic "universal" library of the future, and also investigates the ethical dimensions of librarianship, bibliography, and textual scholarship within the context of D.F. McKenize’s important and much-neglected book, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (London, 1986).

        Chapter 3, "Kemble in the Temple," considers the extent to which the first English editor of Beowulf, John Mitchell Kemble (1807-57), has been "dis-remembered" in order to assign to him the function of nationalist ideologue and to cast him as a major player upon the stage of British cultural imperialism. Further, this chapter demonstrates that, in order to argue that Kemble’s two editions of Beowulf (1833 & 1837), as well as his historical work in The Saxons of England (1849), participated in the ideological movements of his time (such as German Romanticism, British nationalism, and Western ethnocentrism), and therefore supposedly contributed to what is viewed as the romanticized logocentrism of the contemporary discipline of Old English studies, Kemble has often been "read backwards" into the tableaux of cultural spectacles in which he mattered less and played a much more iconoclastic function than is commonly assumed. Further, it is shown that the ideological motives often assigned to Kemble’s scholarship, such as "nationalism," contained different connotations during Kemble’s lifetime that is admitted in contemporary analyses of his work, primarily because those motives are viewed (often unconsciously) through the lenses of 20th-century historical contexts (and also because these analyses of Kemble’s work have not paid enough attention to work that is being done in the contemporary academy on the "history of nationalism," especially by Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and E.J. Hobsbawm).

        Chapter Four, "The Time of Beowulf Is Infinite in Every Direction," is an investigation of the poem as an artistic space within which it is possible to encounter what Emmanuel Levinas termed le temps l'autre, in which "time is not the achievement of an isolated and lone subject, but . . . the very relationship of the subject with the Other." Further, following important work in contemporary historiography by Pierre Nora and Dominick LaCapra, this chapter is also an exploration of the ways in which the poem creates a stage upon which the anxiety produced by the tension between memory’s and history’s points of incommensurability can be performed and negotiated. This chapter also illustrates points of resonance between the poem and modernity, and suggests some new paradigms within which Beowulf studies could be seen as an important site within the posthistorical university for keeping the question of the significance of culture alive.