Saturday, February 19, 2005

Week 04 Thomas More and Thomas Wyatt

Notes on Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

Historical Background. Thomas More lived from 1478-1535, the early decades of the Tudor dynasty that stretches from 1485-1603 (Henry VII to Elizabeth I), and served as Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor. When he defended the Church and refused to go along with Henry's desire to divorce Queen Katharine and marry Anne Boleyn, the King had him executed for treason. It was a difficult balancing act to maintain one's loyalty to religious principle and yet serve such a headstrong monarch, and ultimately it proved impossible. It's common today to spin turbulent affairs in political life with the Chinese proverb, "may you live in interesting times"—Thomas More's early Renaissance English milieu certainly qualifies as "interesting times."

The Tudors and their Successors. In political terms, the Tudor period saw increasing centralization of the monarchy at the expense of England's feudal barons. By the time of Henry VIII (who reigned from 1509-47), the country had been bled by the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster from 1455-87 (that is, from the time of the Lancastrian Henry VI through the Yorkists Edward IV and Richard III, and finally the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII). But many other things were happening—on the Continent, the Reformation (Martin Luther's spearheading of a break from the Catholic Church and the foundation of "Protestantism") had a profound effect on religious, political, and social life for many Europeans. In England it was a time of growth in commerce and the rise of what today we would call "the middle class," at least in a pre-industrial sense: England came to have a fairly large and influential number of people who were no longer agricultural laborers but who made their living from commerce and professional practice of one sort or another.

The Tudor line was impressive in many ways, but its efforts really did not settle the country's affairs in matters of religion--, Elizabeth I's supposed settlement in favor of protestantism gave way to James Stuart's (James I's) doctrinaire absolutism and then his son Charles I's high-handed intensification of that doctrine until the Protestant landowning class under the banner of Oliver Cromwell engaged them successfully in a civil war lasting from 1642-51 , which itself gave way to the Stuart Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and finally, in 1688, to the "Glorious Revolution" that brought in William of Orange as William III and his Queen Mary and finally guaranteed England's throne as solidly Protestant. The Bill of Rights limited the king's claims to the exercise of authority and guaranteed that Parliament, not the monarchy, would for the most part be in charge of government.

Renaissance Humanism. More wrote his Utopia in Latin for learned humanists all over Europe. It was the universal language of intellectuals—Michel de Montaigne, for instance, was raised with Latin as his native language, and claimed he later forgot how to speak it. The French word "Renaissance" refers, of course, to the rebirth of classical learning that began in Italy and spread from around the fourteenth century onwards, at least through the sixteenth century. The Church had long known parts of the classics, but such knowledge was not widely disseminated outside the church—at least not in Europe. During the Renaissance, however, scholars not so closely tied to the Church's imperatives began to make much of classical literature, and the intellectual flowering that occurred in these times remains a striking achievement. It's fair to say that the great Renaissance humanists looked "backwards" to antiquity for their models in philosophy and social theory, but they did not do this out of a servile desire to imitate their superiors. Rather, the point was to adapt ancient ideas to contemporary life. Although it would be a mistake to see the Renaissance as anti-Christian, it makes sense to say that Renaissance authors like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola promoted human autonomy and even a degree of individualism—it being understood that a humanist defines the "individual" not as we would but rather in terms of certain classical virtues and capacities. (Consider, for example, the persistence of the ancient Roman idela of strength and honor in the Italian term virtù.) Still, much in Renaissance philosophy and the literary arts would have sounded to medieval ears like prideful straying from the straight and narrow path of salvation. (Even more modern critics have sometimes construed the Renaissance as a period of spiritual decadence—see, for example, John Ruskin's eloquent multivolume work The Stones of Venice.) The Church did not more kindly to Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (See also The Pico Project.) any more than it did to certain nefarious claims the the earth revolved around the sun—not the other way around. On the whole, we can find Neoplatonic otherworldliness, Aristotelian civic engagement, and the new discourses of scientific exploration in the intellectual history of the European Renaissance—no single explanation comes close to encompassing this historical and cultural period.

The Genre of Utopian Fiction. In any era, utopian fiction, like pastoral, provides an alternative vision, a make-believe refuge that offers us some perspective on our own time and institutions. Advocacy of radical change depends on the individual author. If you cannot generate utopias, this genre assumes, you will soon lose the capacity for self-criticism and will be able to do no more than accept the status quo, no matter how untenable it may be. Ideologues are the greatest enemies of any system since no human system is perfect. As Wilde says, “utopia is the one shore upon which humanity is always landing.” What one thinks of utopian fiction will probably stem in part from what one thinks of human nature: either we are hard-wired or we are the very soul of change; either we are primarily irrational and aggressive and will always be that way, or we can deal with those tendencies and make progress towards the good life for everyone; either we need to solve the ancient problem of achieving fair and rational distribution of wealth, or much inequality and even injustice in life are necessary to the pursuit of societal prosperity, innovation, and so forth. Utopian fiction's impact will vary according to our vision of humanity’s purpose on earth. Even modern "dystopian" fiction—more of a warning than a promise of a shining and happy future—evokes many of the abovementioned issues. Think of Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or Woody Allen's Sleeper, for example.

Utopia's Social Philosophy and Economic System. More's Raphael Hythloday advocates utility. His basic accusation is that Europeans live pridefully and irrationally. What good is gold, he asks? Why base the whole of life’s activity on creating artificial scarcities when all you really need is relatively simple to provide? Doesn’t that lead to vulgar materialism, ambition, and godlessness? The Utopians in More's text live simply and according to nature, as if they were following the prescriptions of the ancient stoic philosophers.

Unlike our modern-day consumption-based society, Utopia is a pre-industrial communist paradise that extols "the dignity of labor." In fact, according to Raphael Hythloday, the Utopians have solved the ancient problem of distribution—that is, they have ensured that everyone has enough to live comfortably, rather than some people being obscenely rich and others starving. That would indeed be an impressive accomplishment since the problem still hasn’t been solved today. Utopian economics is based upon abundance, not the hoarding of private property or the endless manufacture of objects that partially satisfy ever more and diverse desires. Since the Utopians aren't trying to produce much more than they need, Adam Smith's C19 theory about "the division of labor" isn't really important—if you don't want to make 10,000 items a day instead of 100, you don't need to worry about dividing up the necessary tasks into the smallest possible unit for efficiency's sake, possibly at the expense of the worker's self-respect and sense of purpose in life. I think that More's Utopia is somewhat less paternalistic than Plato's Republic, since the Utopians have some social and job mobility, but it still seems that everybody has a stable place in society. What Plato sought in his utopian fiction was a commonwealth in which the citizens did what they were best fitted to do—rulers should rule, and workers should work. Plato distrusted democracy because of its supposed appeal to those seeking social mobility on the basis of everything but merit, and believed people should be kept in their place once it had been determined what that "place" was. Thomas More probably would have little more patience than Plato with the messiness of modern democratic governments.

Politics. Raphael has little good to say about European courts and politics generally. He thinks that getting involved in politics would be a big mistake. It would compromise his integrity, and nobody would listen to him anyway. People would just become fearful of losing their place in the existing order. He envisions that old idea that entrenched power soon becomes a law unto itself; if the system works for you and your elite segment of the citizenry, why change things? Systems can be self-perpetuating and self-absorbed, taking no care for anything excluded from the system. Consider, for example, how we talk about "systems" of various sorts today: it is entirely possible to arrive at the conclusion that the health access and care system is in great shape even if many sick or at-risk people are excluded from access to medical care. Does the health care system exist for the benefit of the people, or do the people exist to benefit the system? Isn't it rational to ask the same question of government as a whole? What Raphael argues about politics has a modern ring to it—politics isn't simply about "achieving the good life"; it's about getting and maintaining power for the few.

Raphael—Rebel or Right On? But it's worth remembering that in Greek, hythlos means “drivel,” and daio means “kindle” or “devise.” Raphael Hythloday can also be seen, therefore, not only as a pointer-out of European faults but also as a destructive babbler who needs to be politely silenced. Examine the end of our selection from Utopia, and you'll see "More" the character step in and ask searchingly what will become of "majesty" if Utopian principles were ever to be adopted by Europe's monarchical societies. Will there be no ranking of people? No beautiful displays of wealth and art? No excellence but everything just "adequate"? Isn't inequality the prerequisite for superior achievement? The last-mentioned charge is a common one made against communist societies. An hierarchical society, the idea goes, allows for the development of genuine excellence because a limited number of people are given every chance to achieve superiority. Distribute the resources equally, this criticism says, and you disable the magical effect of the aristocracy-principle that makes excellence possible. In other words, mediocrity is the default button of humanity, so there is no point in depriving the excellent of privileges to benefit the common herd. A variation on this argument is sometimes made against democratic market-based societies as well: if ordinary middle-class people's ideas and tastes are allowed to dominate, say the critics, we will achieve nothing but the lowest common denominator in all areas of life—we will get vapid sitcoms rather than great art, semi-enlightened governance rather than forward-looking statesmanship, and, in a word, the tyranny of the majority. I

Thomas More's View of Utopia. Plato’s aristocratic and otherwordly text The Republic is a large influence on Utopia. Still, it is hard to say exactly where Thomas More himself stands on the viability of his utopia or the value of the criticisms set forth by his character Raphael Hythloday. It’s clear that he intends the text as a criticism of present-day political and social institutions, but also unlikely that he wants to turn the world upside down. It’s hard to suppose that More the Catholic and chancellor to Henry VIII would favor radical and immediate changes in European society, and Marxist critics' claims about his supposed radicalism seem rather dubious.

Notes on Sir Thomas Wyatt

Renaissance humanism tends to treat the individual as a type, a collection of virtues, after the manner of Aristotle. Our own modern sense of the individual as unique and autonomous would be somewhat foreign to them, even though it’s fair to say that the Renaissance has long fascinated people because of the strong personalities we find during that era—it’s an age of wordly popes and even worldlier rulers. Think of Machiavelli’s advice to Princes, the legends of the Borgia popes, Cellini, Leonardo and Michelangelo, and you get the picture.

Wyatt comes off as a modern individual—he is a contemporary political figure trying to deal with his own emotions, states of mind, and confusions about his position in the court of Henry VIII. His lyric speaker is often fragile, confused, threatened. A courtier must behave in an exemplary way, but what are the rules? There are some, but they appear to change based on powerful players’ individual desires. You can read Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier for an idealized version of the court, but Wyatt is in the thick of the real thing. He focuses on personal events—his thoughts and emotions.

“If you would seem honest, be honest” is his advice to his son in a letter. But the court of Henry VIII is all about artifice. Sidney the courtier-poet will later define the literary arts as "feigning notable images" of moral virtue and vice to move readers towards virtuous action. But the Court's artifice is about more immediate political objectives. It’s hard to maintain a position when one lives in a world that places a premium on the competitive manipulation of appearances, right down to the things one says about oneself, one’s sovereign, and others as well as the clothing one wears and the manners one exhibits. In Castiglione/Hoby’s Courtier, the point of being a “courtier” is to embody, and to body forth, the goodness and grace of the sovereign. Outward appearances, as any good Neoplatonist would say, mirror the inward goodness of a person’s soul, and the courtier is the king’s outward appearance, somewhat as Christ is the “Word made Flesh” of God. The Renaissance in both England and on the Continent is a materialistic, competitive age that still convincingly speaks the language of a profoundly Christian ethical and symbolic universe. It would be a mistake to think of someone like Niccolo Machiavelli as an atheist, though one can’t be so sure about his hero Cesare Borgia. The period is rife with conflict between the spiritual and the worldly, but it dismisses neither dimension.

Henry VIII is the Sun around which his officials and courtiers revolve. If you work for Henry, your primary task is to exalt his rule, and secondarily to do his bidding in official and unofficial affairs. It isn’t that people thought Henry was illegitimate, but rather that centralization of power increasingly required exalted claims about how the ruler came by his right to rule—by James I’s time in the early C17, we see the full “divine right” theory of rulership supplement dynastic birth as the justification for sovereignty, and of course divine right theory is partly what will get James’ son Charles I in trouble with the Puritan faction that eventually executed him during the Civil War of the 1640’s.

Many courtiers come from aristocratic backgrounds, but don’t have the liquid wealth to maintain themselves in such lordly status, so as the age of absolutism proceeds, once-independent courtiers gravitate towards getting themselves a place at court. It is with Henry that we might say the movement to centralism in government is nearly complete; his reign goes from 1509-47, and 1534 saw him copy Martin Luther’s Reformation or splitting off from the Catholic Church, except that with Henry the point had more to do with his own marital troubles and his desire to avoid sharing power and revenue with the Church than with spiritual matters.

Wyatt’s biography is quite interesting. In 1520, as a young man of 17, he married Elizabeth Brooke. She turned out unfaithful, and of course Wyatt anguishes much in his poetry over this problem. At 23, he went to Italy and France as a diplomat. He got into trouble with Henry in 1536 over Anne Boleyn and was sent to the Tower of London, but was subsequently pardoned and became ambassador to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s Court on the Continent. He got into trouble again in 1538 on a treason charge, and was later arrested on the charge in 1541, but was let off again so long as he agreed to reinstate his wife (he had a mistress named Elizabeth Darrell from 1536 to his death, and had been estranged from his wife), but he died in 1542, so he didn’t live long enough to enjoy his return to favor.

With a biography like that, a man may be forgiven his constant search for constancy, honesty, and truth as opposed to self-interested manipulation and sham in the name of religion and political authority. Wyatt sought fidelity in love and friendship, but it wasn’t easy to find. He never says it was, either—that’s one of the beauties of his poetry, isn’t it? It rings true to Wyatt’s own struggles, and doesn’t whitewash his complicity in courtly and romantic intrigue. Erotic pursuit was a political act back then, just as Orwell says sex is in 1984.

So what is the value of lyric poetry for Wyatt? Well, it is a way of assuming and exploring an honest role, a way of being honest and not just seeming so. The hope would be that by taking on a lyric voice, the poet can attain clarity about the erotic, spiritual and political matters that trouble him. It’s customary for us as children of the romantics to consider lyric poetry cathartic in its expressiveness: the soul escaping on the wings of language, as it were. In a Wordsworthian ode like “Tintern Abbey,” we expect that our speaker will eventually arrive at what has been called an “affective resolution” to the problems that plague him—the loss of creative power, of a once sustaining connection to nature and other human beings, etc. The best romantic poetry never oversimplifies such problems or claims that imagination conquers all or that language is a transparent medium of expression. Nonetheless, it is generally optimistic about expression’s capacity to deal with the problems of the autonomous self. But in Wyatt’s case, although there may be an initial hope that clarity will come and allow him to solve his troubles in real life, or at least set up a kind of pastoral refuge from the maelstrom of urban court life, the hope is likely to be frustrated, and the poem is likely to register and reflect upon that frustration. Metapoetically, he tends to admit the failure of his lyric utterances to set him free—free, that is, from complicity in the treacherous and hostile world that he describes. Art may be “wish-fulfillment,” as Freud said, but sometimes artists are well aware that fulfillment of their wishes isn’t possible. To get clear on something, to rehearse one’s difficulties, is not to slip out of them.

The meter of Wyatt’s poetry is purposefully rough, not smooth the way his later editors in Tottel’s Miscellany try to make it. He’s trying to capture difficult turns of intellect and emotion. The same is true of John Donne.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Week 03 Chaucer and Marie de France

General Prologue Notes (A mix of lectures by my former professors and my own ideas)

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of short tales of various genres. The tales were extremely popular throughout the medieval age. See also Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was written in light of the plague in Florence, a different and more static motive for the participants’ trip than we see in Chaucer. His pilgrims are on their way to pay their respects at the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury whose refusal to go along with Henry II's plan to limit the Catholic Church's judicial authority cost him his life. Chaucer’s narrative frame allows for a dynamic portrayal of classes and stations. The pilgrims, ostensibly brought together for a common religious purpose, come from all three estates--the knighthood, the clergy, and the commons (working people of all types). We see not only a knights and prioresses but millers, reeves, ploughmen, parsons, friars, summoners, pardoners, cooks, and so on. Diversity is Chaucer’s watchword. The pilgrimage brings them all together.

The literary fiction--namely, that everyone will arrive at the Canterbury shrine--is disrupted by the Host, Harry Bailey, who says that the trip should end at a pub, with dinner promised to the pilgrim who tells the best tale. The businessman Harry’s competitiveness undermines the purely spiritual basis we had thought would animate the pilgrimage. In terms of class relations, the lower orders upset the narrative order of the text; they change the itinerary. We end up with two contrasting frames: life as a pilgrimage and life as a contest. The ancient Pauline Christian idea that fallen humans are aliens upon the earth, passing as pilgrimagers through this “vale of tears” on their way to salvation or damnation, meets up with the multifarious motives of the Canterbury pilgrims, from the worldly to the pious. So much for the misconception that the middle ages were a time of somber reflection and spiritual unity—the era's literature is as vivid and contradictory as Chaucer's pilgrims.

The idea of the “pilgrimage,” of course, had been muddied by the fourteenth century. At bottom, pilgrimages were religious ceremonies; after having acknowledged one’s sins during the sacrament of Confession and having admitted one’s sinfulness and dependence on God, one could go on a pilgrimage for health cures and for relatives’ souls. The greatest pilgrimage of all would be to Jerusalem—i.e. one could participate in one of the Holy Crusades to retake the Holy Land from the Arabs. By Chaucer’s time, pilgrimages had come to be seen as holidays somewhat in the modern sense. This literary trip takes place in spring, a time of rebirth for the spirit and for the natural world. Since the weather was warmer, pilgrims felt wanderlust and curiosity, too. Often, while travelers were on their way to Rome or to the monastery of Saint James of Compostella, they lost sight of the spiritual goal and never made it to the shrine. Chaucer’s pilgrims never make it to Becket’s shrine, either--even though they can see Canterbury.

The Prologue's opening eighteen lines comprise a single sentence in which we can examine all of Chaucer’s methods. We are treated to a precis: it is spring, people want to go on pilgrimages, especially to Canterbury. The center of the unit lies in line twelve. The “when”/“then” structure is ambiguous in its figuration of motive. The “sick”/“seek” rhyming pun binds sickness of all kinds to seeking of all kinds. Strong verbs like “holpen” (help) are prominent. What kind of help for what kind of illness? one wants to know. Notice the description of spring from lines one to eleven--here Chaucer brings out anything but spiritual motivations for the pilgrimage: physical renewal, sexual terms (piercing, bathing in licour), high-style romantic terms like Zephirus, “tender crops,” “young sun,” and so on. Then Chaucer moves to a lower style--birds (“corages” can refer both to spiritual hearts and to physical, or sexual, hearts), for example. Birds are hardly spiritual figures; they are amorous. Folks longen to seek rebirth. Do they seek spiritual rebirth? We know it is more complicated than that. Sometimes, too, pilgrimages were undertaken to strange lands for the purpose of sightseeing. “Palmers” were professional pilgrims. In sum, the spiritual motives for pilgrimages were often at war with the lower, “realizing” ones; both motives might coexist among different pilgrims, and even within the very same pilgrim. Throughout the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer shows the complexity of human beings--their sexuality, competitiveness, passions, and so on all run into one another. It is hard to separate these realms from "spirituality," and the fact that various feelings and motivations run together need not invalidate the spiritual dimension of Chaucer's pilgrimage—since when were fallen human beings pure either in action or in motive?

At line nineteen, we find the narrator’s stance. He seems wide-eyed, eager to tell us of his experience. This ruse of naiveté is the way in which Chaucer will explore the psychology of others. He is non-judgmental, and he also wants readers to be non-judgmental, too. He draws out even his own language. The narrator disclaims responsibility for his plan of relating both high and low, but he also broaches the issue of what constitutes literary truth. What should we say of a narrator who proclaims his need to relate everything he sees and hears like a cub reporter? Chaucer is suggesting that in fiction, imaginative truth is larger than reportorial truth.

In the descriptions of the various pilgrims, we see both an impulse to idealize and the strain placed upon this impulse by human frailties. The Knight, for example, is idealized, and the terms that apply to him are straightforwardly chivalric. His son gets a more mixed treatment, while the Prioresse is described in great detail, not all of it flattering. She is not really irreligious, but neither is religion the center of her life as it should be. It seems that fine manners and courtly behavior are her central concerns. She is a courtly lady who has become a nun—a change in office that was rather common in the middle ages. When Chaucer describes a character in detail as he does the Prioresse, that is generally a sign that the character is more flawed than usual.

This is a key point: strong individuation isn't a mark of approval in Chaucer's Christian context—it just means that you're probably up to some things you shouldn't be, given your station and responsibilities in life. Chaucer, that is, identifies characters by their position in the order of nature and by their roles in the community. He is inclined to individuate a character only when that character fails in his or her office and thereby lacks the wholeness and integrity demanded by the office. As so often in moral literature, the "good guys" are precisely the ones you don't notice because they're just conforming to the just demands of their "office," their station in life. Chaucer's society is strongly divided into three estates and various religious and secular functions amongst them; not to uphold your office is to lose your title to respect and, at worst, even your title to humanity itself. A ruler who mistreats his people, a priest who ignores his flock, a pardoner who offers false promises of salvation for ready money, is scarcely worthy of the term "human." The "self" for a medieval person was defined in terms of communal responsibilities and social relations, not in terms of the individual's desires or goals for worldly advancement. The medieval self is a nexus of social obligations, not (as in our post-romantic notion) the result of a process of self-conscious individuation. In a long narrative such as Chaucer's, which aims to describe the whole panoply of medieval life, this way of defining the individual structures the entire fiction, determining what we see and hear, and when we see and hear it.

But Chaucer's communalism doesn't mean that the individual has nothing vital to do. On the contrary, his characters behave in accordance with the moral choices they have made and are making. Why, Chaucer wants to know, do people go on pilgrimages? There are various motives: tourism, piety, curiosity for the things of this world, and so on. The key choice is rather an Augustinian one: are you headed towards the City of God, or on your way towards the City of Cain? You really can't end up in both, so you have to choose—or more accurately, you are constantly choosing your destination by the actions you take. Christian life should follow the path of legitimate desire, or charitas (charity, an outflowing desire to help one's fellow human beings and to join with them in serving God), but as everyone knows, cupiditas is always the dark shadow on human purpose and behavior. Cupiditas is the selfish, acquisitive, sensuous kind of desire that entangles one in the world's snares. Each earthly pilgrim or Christian soul must choose where to fix attention, and so whether to end up in the City of God or in Hell. The beauty of Chaucer's treatment of the pilgrimage motif, I think, is that it shows the complexity of human efforts to make this seemingly simple choice—we spend our whole lives doing it. We shouldn't expect from Chaucer modern "character development" of the sort to be had from, say, a novel, but neither do we find two-dimensional "stick figures" in his characterizations. Even villains like the Pardoner or deeply flawed characters like the Prioresse and the Wife of Bath do not entirely forfeit our interest or empathy. In thinking of them Chaucer would probably have borne in mind the Vulgate Bible's sentence "qui autem dixerit fatue reus erit gehennae ignis," or as the King James Bible puts Jesus' words in Matthew 5:22, " whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Notes

The Wife of Bath asserts her own experience against verbal patristic authority, opposing an alien male verbal culture. In her prologue, she makes three arguments:

lines 1-192: marriage is permissible, even though married love is generally considered sinful.
lines 193-450: she has had three good husbands.
lines 451-end: she has had three bad husbands.

The Wife of Bath points out that the Bible says Solomon had many wives. But Solomon’s marriages were disastrous; the man was an idolater who wasted his gifts on women. The Wife, like her male opponents, is a partial reader of the Scriptures. Alice refers us also to Saint Paul's epistle 1 Corinthians: 7. She says that Paul stressed mutuality between marriage partners. This claim is plain misrepresentation. Alice always uses authorities rather than the personal experience she keeps bringing up. As for her argument about “nature,” she can't have children anyway because she is sterile. The Wife of Bath does not realize that chastity is a spiritual virtue.

Her arguments early on are that her “good” marriages have allowed her to act out her philosophy. Yet, her bad husbands are the ones she loves most. Her marriages are all non-productive.

According to Alice the generic wife, the following three things constitute a marriage:

(a) Unification of the heart; a corporate community.
(b) Husband and wife peacefully serving God together. Desire will no longer get in the way.
(c) The engendering of children.

The Wife of Bath fails to fulfill any of these three conditions. Her dominance almost amounts to prostitution in her first three marriages. They are not, then, genuine Christian marriages.

As for the Wife’s Tale, the question is, “what do women want?” That is a rather "Freudian" question. Alice’s Tale is a "fairy tale" by genre—it is pure wish-fulfillment. Even in her prologue, the Wife of Bath has been telling the pilgrims a fairy tale about her life. She gives them a history of her life as it ought to have been, not as it really has been.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Week 02 Beowulf

From Michael Alexander, translator of Beowulf (Penguin, 1973): a. Epics involve "inclusiveness of scope, objectivity of treatment, unity of ethos and an ‘action' of significance." b. "The action of an epic, like the action of a myth, should have its own logic and an intrinsic significance."

1. Early Danish history.
2. Hrothgar builds Heorot.
3. Grendel attacks.
4. Beowulf.
5. The coastguard greets Beowulf.
6. Wulfgar greets Beowulf.
7. Hrothgar greets Beowulf.
8. Unferth challenges Beowulf; Beowulf replies.
9. Wealhtheow greets Beowulf.
10. Beowulf and Grendel fight.
11. Celebrations at Heorot; Beowulf rewarded. The story of Sigemund and the Finn episode.
12. More celebrations.
13. Grendel's mother attacks.
14. Beowulf comes to Hrothgar's aid.
15. Beowulf sinks into the mere, fights Grendel's mother, and cuts off Grendel's head.
16. Celebrations--thanks given.
17. Hrothgar prophecies and warns Beowulf.
18. Gifts and parting.
19. Home to Hygelac and Queen Hygd. Contrast--Queen Modthryth.
20. Beowulf recounts his exploits.
21. (Beowulf has changed since he was young.)
22. Gifts, land, etc.
23. Fifty years later, Beowulf is still ruling. The dragon's treasure is stolen.
24. The thief took the dragon's cup out of need.
25. Dragon attacks--Beowulf's hall burns. Elegy: ubi sunt; Beowulf's deeds at battle in which Hygelac died.
26. Beowulf salutes his companions.
27. Beowulf boasts that he will kill the dragon in single combat.
28. His companions run away.
29. Wiglaf helps Beowulf kill the dragon.
30. Wiglaf with Beowulf on his deathbed.
31. Wiglaf berates the traitors.
32. Wiglaf predicts chaos. (Older conflict between Swedes and Geats recounted.)
33. Useless treasure (paragraph 152).
34. Funeral pyre--heaven swallows the smoke.
35. Useless treasure (paragraph 158).

Composition: Set in writing around 700-750 AD in Mercia, the English Midlands, though the C10 manuscript later converts this into the commoner southwestern dialect of Old English.

Our Translation: I didn't talk about the poetics of Beowulf, but Heaney preserves the original's lively alliterative movement. Alliteration is a device whereby words in a poetic line are tied together closely because their initial consonant is the same. Moreover, English (old and modern) is full of strong monosyllables like "thug" and "thump." You can see a continuing fondness for strong meter and alliterative effects even in some later poets. See, for example, the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins' "sprung rhythm" poetics—it's just strong alliterative verse, really, that foregoes regular "unstressed/stressed" meter to render a sense of of authentic spiritual striving. The sonnet "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" is a good example of Hopkins' kind of poetry: notice the alliteration—fishers/fire, dragonflies/draw, etc. and the emphatic quality of the lines. Hopkins isn't after smoothness; he is after precision of thought and strength of feeling.

As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

As for the content of Beowulf, everyone is struck by the mixing of Germanic pagan heroic values with an early medieval Christian world view. Sometimes, at least in my admittedly limited view, the contrast between these views is overemphasized—they are obviously different, but hardly mutually exclusive.

What about the contrast in values? Well, the pre-Christian Germanic beliefs don't make much of an afterlife, and they invoke "fate" quite often, as if it were a random force and things just happen because they happen. A strong character will stand up against fate when it comes, but he can't overcome it—that isn't the point of the encounter at all. For example, we don't consider Beowulf a failure because he dies fighting the Dragon—the text specifically says that the hero senses he is about to meet his doom. And we admire his courage for going forth unselfishly to meet it. But the Christian preserver of the story folds in strong remarks about Providence—the idea that God has an infallible plan for everyone, and nothing really happens "at random." Thanks to Providence, the idea goes, even the greatest individual (or collective) suffering is part of a much larger pattern that ends in Christian triumph and the coming of the end time when "God shall be all in all." Thus life has meaning beyond the getting and giving of treasure earthly and earning glory for a few generations through the epic singer's stimulation of collective memory. In Beowulf, we shouldn't expect the doctrine of Providence to be fleshed out beyond basic statements like "God is always in charge," but that is sufficient to distance the poem from pre-Christian ideas about "fate." On the whole, we can bring "fate" and Providence somewhat closer together, as I think the Beowulf poet does, by explaining that to limited, fallen human understanding, it's always possible to misinterpret the consequences of our own errors and particular sections of God's plan as mere "accident." We are liable to call anything we can't understand "fate," as if it came from nowhere and we had nothing to do with it.

The patterns of Beowulf reinforce the need for humility on the part of even great chieftains like Hrothgar, Hygelac, and Beowulf. It isn't necessarily that these men commit some terrible specific misdeed; rather, their "error" is simply to live without always minding the end that must come to them as it does to all, high or low. Pretentions of self-sufficiency and perpetuity are prideful, says Christian theology. We are responsible for what we do, but that doesn't mean we can stand on our own without God's blessing and assistance. This is true for individuals like Hrothgar and Beowulf, and it's just as true for whole societies. Remember what God does to Nimrod's builders of the Tower of Babel in Genesis? He "confounds their speech" so that they can't even understand one another's language anymore, much less try to rival God's magnificence. Hrothgar explicitly accuses himself of something like this very error—believing his well-established human community centered around Heorot Hall could stand long on its own efforts. Even if his error is no more than forgetfulness of the limitations of fallen human understanding, he must pay the price. In this sense, Grendel is his monster, not a random welling up of pure metaphysical evil. And perhaps Beowulf, though a good ruler, does much the same later on with his Geats—the years roll by, and at last his people fail their test with the Dragon miserably, soon to perish in spite of his heroic efforts. The author isn't blaming Beowulf, he's just making a lesson of him—we must be continually be reminded of our own mortality and of the ultimate futility of trying to turn earth into a permanent home. Christianity—especially in medieval times—often represents this life as a brief passage through a foreign territory, a "vale of tears," a trial by adversity in preparation for the life to come. Don't get comfortable in Heorot or anywhere else! Be mindful that we are always on our way back to God, who is our real home. And for those not even as virtuous as Beowulf, pride, ambition, disloyalty, love of gain and luxury are always threatening to unleash destruction. Their own or others' faults will bring trouble.

We know that the economy and social system of Beowulf's people revolves around getting treasure and distributing it generously. These are a people generous in word and deed, but reciprocity is a key concept with them, too. It may seem odd that Hrothgar should think so quickly of compensating Beowulf financially for the men he has lost in dealing with Grendel, but that's part of the social system—not compensating him would probably amount to an insult. And if there's one thing you had better not do to a Beowulf, it's "diss" him, to borrow the modern phrase. He quietly commands respect, and almost always gets it. Perhaps this seems like a major contrast with a more fully Christian view of human community. And there are some materialistic tendencies in Beowulf—as in, "let me see the dragon's treasure before I die." Still, the heroic economy isn't really about hoarding—it's about spending, dispensing the bounty one has gained by valor in battle. If a king doesn't do that, he loses everybody's allegiance, so what's the use of being a miser? Christianity translates this imperative to share with one's fellows into a more proper understanding of love, charitas or charity—that is, helping others because you really want to and because you know it's what God wants you to do. Charity or love is what binds together the community—not the distribution of material goods. But it would be unfair to say that the scriptor of Beowulf simply contrasts Christian charity with pagan materialism. Both cultures offer a spiritual economy of sorts, not simply a material one.

In both cultures, the isolated and the greedy hoarders of treasure are in the wrong. Grendel is the violent offspring of Cain, and his mother is motivated by vengeance. Notice that Grendel and his mother are both separated from Heorot Hall's joys, and Grendel goes there to lord it over the regular folk. And of course the Dragon is the ultimate gold-watcher, once he happens upon that cursed treasure set in the earth down by a dying tribe. Neither in the heroic Scandinavian and Germanic culture we find in Beowulf nor in Christianity is the human community obsessed with material possessions to the exclusion of more social, even spiritual, considerations.

Grendel is sometimes understood as primordial evil. And he does seem that way at times, doesn't he? But one must be careful with such assumptions—in Christian theology, evil has a very specific origin. It is not a vague metaphysical principle or a power that exists as a kind of rival empire to God's bounty. (Some religions have taken this dualistic view—consider Zoroastrianism, where Ahrimanes and Ahura-Mazda are locked in a perpetual battle between Good and Evil. And Saint Augustine had to let go of his early Manichean views for the same reason—he says they accorded evil too much respect, as if it were an independent force in the universe. Because the evil turn away from God's will, says Augustine, they lack any grounding in the authentic way of being, which has its source in God; thus, they "do not exist.") The Beowulf writer specifically links Grendel to the story of Cain and Abel. That is a precise enough lineage to allow him to promote his theme:

Here is part of Genesis Chapter 4:

004:001 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

004:002 And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

004:003 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.

004:004 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:

004:005 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

004:006 And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?

004:007 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

004:008 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

004:009 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

004:010 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.

004:011 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

004:012 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

004:013 And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

004:014 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

004:015 And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

004:016 And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

This kind of lineage shows us that the monsters are material representations of human frailty's bad consequences. Bad characters are always repeating themselves, or somehow taking part in a grand self-destructive circle of behavior, speech, or interpretive strategy. Even seeming heroes like Beowulf and Hygelac unwittingly behave as if they would substitute a satisfying "recursive loop" that would frustrate the linear program of Providence, and they always fail. Grendels seem to come upon us by chance, but really the cause has to do with our attitudes and deeds. Grendel may not see his motive as anything more than stupid resentment of Heorot's "shiny happy people holding hands," but the Lord moves in mysterious ways, and makes the wicked outcast do his bidding in spite of himself.

And then there's the Dragon, who only comes out to plague Beowulf's kingdom because some poor thief stumbles on the treasure and lifts a goblet. Like Grendel and his Mother, the Dragon is driven by primal needs—here it is the desire to hang onto material objects as if they were all that mattered. And who buried those objects in the first place? Why, the remnants of a race two centuries back, who themselves have long since gone the way of all flesh. The poor thief has caught up his whole group in an ancient cycle of vengeance, violence begetting violence. The cyclical and potentially everlasting "blood-feud" is an ancient threat—something we can find not only in the early Germans but in the Greeks and probably other cultures as well. (Read Aeschylus's trilogy The Oresteia on the power of cyclical revenge—the plays turn on the need to transform primal clan vengeance into civic justice, a society of laws far more than men.)

The point for the Beowulf poet is that we make ourselves subject to what seems like mere chance—monstrous visitations, rampant dragons, and so forth. The original treasure-hiders brought on the dragon, and the thief brought the dragon back into action, and Beowulf the good king had to die to set it right—even partially. But then his own retainers behaved like cowards, and so the Geats will perish when word gets around. They have declared themselves easy pickings for more valorous men. Ultimately, the epic's monsters represent the way in which Evil tries to frustrate God's plan (which is linear and ascending) by cyclical upheavals, themselves set in motion because of human baseness and stupidity, or, in the case of better folk like Hrothgar, forgetfulness and limitations in fallen human understanding.

If this all sounds gloomy, it is. Too much can be made, again, of the contrast or clash in values between pre-Christian and Christian. Pagan gloom melds with Christian gloom of the sort found in Ecclesiastes… The Hall, filled with mirth and honor, is always shadowed by its future emptiness—all things decline with the passage of time, requiring renewal with god's help. Humanity isn't self-sustaining, much less self-sufficient.

Indeed, the repetitive structure of Beowulf makes this point. The three great battles against Grendel, Grendel's Mother, and the Dragon drive home the following idea: "all is vanity under the sun," just as the preacher in Ecclesiastes says:

009:011….the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

009:012 For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

Notice that even the "wergild" system (85) doesn't settle matters for long when a feud has broken out. It seems that only God can settle the feud first instantiated by Cain's slaying of his good brother Abel. We are always liable to start it up again. For me, what makes the poem interesting isn't that we have a Christian poet who transfigures pagan hopelessness and gloom with sunny theological certainties—rather, I find it interesting that there are so many deeply felt affinities between the two world views, the one presumably a holdover from the "oral" original, and the latter a self-conscious addition to the tales that make up Beowulf.