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Norse Laziness

I'm finding Norse Mythology, Sagas, and Poetry more beautiful as I read more of them. Like with anything new, adaptation to specific styles takes a bit of time; when I read Njal's Saga [I'm not sure if this link will work without a college network connection] this summer, I wasn't immediately moved the way CS Lewis supposedly was upon discovering the Norse culture and pantheon (as he related in Surprised by Joy). Initially, the detritus of dead bodies and stifling family trees kept me from seeing the subtle wit and remarkable poetic structure and tension of the skaldic verses (obviously) as well as the sagas.

When Norse/Icelandic explorers encountered new peoples and old enemies, they generally treated them the way a tomcat treats a non-familial litter--with mistrust, fear, and a good dose of violence--and I think I treated the Norse corpus similarly, at first. Hmm... I did not chop the covers off the Volsunga saga or Brennu-Njals saga; admittedly this metaphor is heavy-handed. What I did do, however--and this was rather rude readership--was read the sagas as novels, expecting them to be "easy" because their layout is and was always similar to that of the Novel (proper), when really they cannot be read this way, neither so easily nor haphazardly. I think Garrison Keillor understands the Norse method (allow me to throw him into this gumbo of a post) of understatement and psychological warfare: hidden in the guise of a blunt, open-faced narrative of a simple people are the same intricacies of society and critical commentary of that world that we see in Chaucer, Hoccleve, Anyone.

It's not surprising; I don't know why I let it surprise me, but if I've learned one thing from this it's that from time to time it is important to pick up a new genre or unfamiliar style of literature, if only to become aware of the process of turning pleasure reading into active, critical reading, and to remember how this act informs not only our understanding of literature but of how we too, as literature students, can take these skills for granted, particularly once we get used to a particular type of writing.
Today was the first day of Hilary Term, which meant transcription in the morning; we are slowly but surely working our way into Gothic script, but for now we're still dipping our toes into the sort of pointy minuscule that's actually protogothic.

The highlight of the day, though, was listening to Malcolm Parkes' lecture on Keble College's manuscripts and being able to touch about twelve different examples of glosses, missals, breviaries, and New Testaments. Last term I went to a lecture on the Chanson Roland and got to see MS Digby 23 in all its AOI glory, but I didn't get anywhere near the physical text. Today we got to get our noses up in Jesus' face, and look for passages and saints and scan through the de luxe saints' days looking for Cecilias and Martins and strawberry blossoms. Awesome.

I've also been given a good set of Norse texts to read (in translation, of course!), and tomorrow is a fairly free day and the first day of Arcadians practice, and we're working on Monteverdi, Palestrina, and Allegri for this term's concert. Of course this is pretty much the best thing ever.
The collection of essays that is Crux and Controversy (Ed. AJ Minnis and Charlotte Brewer) once again did a good job in highlighting the problems in most every edited version of any manuscript text (variant readings and the problems with recension/stemmas, methods of grouping scribal errors, the importance of the patron in creating variants, and so forth), and how all of these tactics are flawed in one way or another. An edition is written with an audience in mind; if it's lucky, it ends up being adequate for that specific audience. Every edition can be negatively critiqued for grasping the truth of the text in the wrong way, or for implying that there is a "true text" at all, especially if it is read by the "wrong" audience for that edition. Most of the authors in this collection said something along those lines, albeit with distinctive details and with their focii on different texts. I guess the problem with creating what are essentially compilations and reworkings of manuscripts is that, like their originals, they are only "definitive" versions in a tiny space and time.

That being said, the idea of an edition, I'm pretty sure, is historically-bound by the physical weight of the material used to make the book itself. For example, it will always be impossible to bind all the extant variant readings of Piers into one logistically-portable copy of the book. Electronic media, however, doesn't have this problem.

Obviously this isn't news, but just think of what a true compilation of interlinking e-texts could do! Intrusive footnotes, unwieldy evidentiary tags, and manuscript-preference... gone! In its place would be not a definitive version based on one editorially-favored manuscript, but instead a virtual universion encompassing the known boundaries of collected works (I'm picturing a tan interface with manuscript tabs on the left and each line hotlinked to the corresponding passages in other copies; you can tab from manuscript to manuscript if you like! plus, of course, there will be the requisite historical and literary-critical running commentary, although hotlinked rather than intruding into the stunning mise-en-page created by the black-Bookman Old-on-tan. It'll cost a fortune to create, but apparently I'm once again playing in my hypothetical world where everyone's a happy communist medievalist)!

Of course, we'll never have access to all written copies of a work, and a preponderance of information generally leads to confusion more than anything else. And, yes, I admit that Piers can be a burden to get through in one version, let alone multiple recensions or a bajillion manuscripts. Then again, most ME texts (apart from maybe Chaucer's Greatest Hits and Beowulf and a story or two from Mallory and MAYBE Gawain) aren't available for the "casual" reader anyway--who wants to bother with Middle English orthography if they aren't being threatened with nail avulsion or some other form of medieval torture?

Confusion and naillessness notwithstanding, it would be a good tool. We just need funding and forever.


I have an irrational fear.

No, that's not true. I have many irrational fears, and pretty much every day I take rational fears and wind them too tightly around inside my brain like a ball of yarn in tension. When that happens, my normal thought patterns get twisted up, too, and the only way I've found to unknot them is to go for a run. Seeing my breath in the air and feeling the fulcrum-tipping point of a piece of gravel wedged between my shoe-treads... these and the steady rhythm of a good run are the only things that can unwind my gnarled worries.

I cannot go for a run on an airplane. I cannot put on my spandex and take a brisk jog around the aisles, and frankly I'm afraid if I did I might jiggle the plane too much and make it crash. And already when I'm flying I think of how many millions of particulates of seconds there are between one home and another, and how in any one of those almost nonexistent moments something could go wrong in part of the hidden machinery I don't understand, and the entire plane could just explode and I'd fall like Gibreel or Saladin down through the sky. The cold would be nice, up there in the thin air; maybe I would see my breath and calm down a bit, and maybe as I fell little cloud-tossed hailstones would get wedged in my shoes (or my toes, because I suppose my shoes would have been blown off in the explosion).

Once again, this has nothing to do with medieval things, but only to do with my irrational fear of flying and how now I am genuinely ecstatic to be sitting at a desk contemplating going to bed and the prospect of watching an episode of CSI before trying to finish a Saga, and not suspended in midair over the Atlantic.


I've updated a couple of the links on the sidebar (not that they are all that useful at the moment anyway), but other than that I may not get any reading--let alone writing--done today. My flight is at 10:30 and in typical ME fashion I haven't done anything to get ready to go.

Of Migraines, Stipends, and Dirty Tricks

The good thing about ocular prodromes is that the Twix-bar-patterned macular gleam gives me time to medicate before the dull backwards thump of a migraine sets in. There is more! Hildegard von Bingen, on hearing the heavenly melody of God and seeing the radiance of His presence, was blinded with immense physical pain and searing headaches, followed by euphoria (and periods of great creative output). Somehow, the diagnosis of Hildegard's visions as "chronic migraines" makes my own stimulant-powered sleepless nights a little holier, a link with some sibylline past (laugh here, if you'd like). The only bad thing about it is the blindness, which lasts almost an hour, and splatters my field of vision like palms pressed against eyelids or the anaerobic end of a 400-meter sprint.

More seriously,
Christ Church has a £150/annum textbook stipend redeemable on proof of purchase. Everything in England is twice as expensive as in the good ole USofA. Used books on Amazon can be half again the price of unused copies. I wonder, would ChCh take receipts of books purchased through an American company, sent to an American address, and with American dollars? Paying American taxes?

I don't even want the books in my room at ChCh; I just want to have the texts when I come home at the end of the year and move off to (hopefully) a PhD program (boy, will I be foiled if I get rejected across the board... but, NO! I canNOT think like that).

Imagine! With £150 I could buy seven books at Blackwells... but with $300 and a judiciously-used bookstore--even with shipping--I could end up with twenty or more. Obviously we aren't talking about copies of out-of-print Paleography textbooks, but since I doubt ChCh'll let me get away with it, we really aren't talking about anything, are we?

Textual Criticism

Before I left Oxford, the course convenors sent out a reading list for the A-Course, which is the second half of a weekly seminar on the "Best Hits" of medieval English literature; in Michelmas we looked at the texts through a lens of manuscript study and reception-theory, and in the next term we'll be focusing on editing and textual criticism.

Terms at Ox go by quickly--eight weeks for some courses, but six for most graduate seminars--and the Reading List is intense, but I've been happily ensconced in a shell of Jeffrey Eugenides and Norse Sagas for the last two weeks and actively avoiding my Recommended Reading nonetheless. I wanted to recenter myself over the holidays, but almost as importantly, I cannot steal critical texts from the Michigan grad library and haul them back to the island with me--sad!--and this means taking fairly copious notes in a first reading, which is difficult when family and friends keep traipsing through whatever corner of my parents' house I've managed to pretend is my "office."

At any rate, I've decided to get to work, what with a New Year meaning New Beginnings and all that; I feel rested and ready to tackle the Dark and Rainy Term that is Hilary.

So, I began today by reading Principles of Textual Criticism by James Thorpe (1972), which is a fairly transparent introduction, giving copious but not esoteric examples of normalizing (and sometimes bizarre) editing practices, and tracing the history of various approaches--from stemmatics introduced by Lachman and popularized by Maas to the "best text" version popular with French medievalists. There was also a longish chapter on the ridiculousness of the battle between bibliography and textual criticism, which to me seemed a bit pedantic and almost hypocritical, especially since the work itself opened with a chapter on the "aesthetics of textual criticism" which tried to philogenize art, nature, and chance under a rubric of aesthetic experience using metaphors that wear thin if you've studied any actual biology. I mean, his definition of "art" as an "intended aesthetic object" disappears if you are one of those disbelievers in Free Will and decide to regard Man as a time-ordered bulge in the random buzzing of the universe. Then again, if I really wanted to go down that road, you could accuse me of a number of fallacies, so I won't... I will only mention that bits and pieces of the text show their age, especially in the opening metaphors. Nonetheless, Principles was a sturdy introduction to the procedures and processes taken in editing texts. Even though the work focused on Early Modern and Victorian literature, it's important to poke your head out of the medieval period once in a while.

The rest of this term's A-Course reading list (abridged to "Most Important") works is under the cut. Not all are formatted perfectly, and I forwent italics etcet because of a livejournal-cutting formatting problem whose solution is eluding me.

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Ok, I'm off to read. The Wolverines are in the process of being killed in the Rose Bowl by USC, and it's becoming too sad to watch...

Capitulum Primum

The purpose of a first post in a blog is to excuse the blog's existence, in a sense, to write an Apologia before the treatise. Although this practice has become mundane, it also makes sense. Anything I put here, a "guide" not withstanding, is only about life as I've found it--as it's been revealed to me through trial and error, through wandering and rewriting, editing and composition. Yes, I'll put the apology here, at the beginning, knowing that my work will never be complete. There will be no final chapter.

This journal, separate from my personal one at pharmakeus, will highlight the troubles and fears of working in and getting into graduate school: moving from country to country and discovering new works of literature, of reading old authorities on music and new ones on critical theory. There is so much I have to learn, and the depth and breadth of my ignorance about the workings of academia becomes more apparent every day.

Here I will post colloquia and conferences, new publications and journals I've found... in essence, I want to make this a compendium of my nervous-twitch wanderings of the net and the library during my stint as a budding medievalist.

I hope this work motivates me toward discovery and, if anyone else stumbles on this journal, I sincerely hope it helps them in their academic path. So.
Vale, Salve, Bona Fortuna, and all that other good stuff!