Comments About Utopia

And I'm back. I've brought with me the current draft of my conclusion to the paper for discourse analysis; though it's rough, and may cause contention, I post it here to see if there's any reaction at all.

The goal of this project is to examine the use of "utopia" by a few medievalists. As I note in the essay, the articles I have examined here constitute a small selection of the work having been done on the utopian impulse in medieval cultural production. The articles are drawn from a recent (Fall 2006) edition of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (JMEMS), which was entirely devoted to “essays that consider utopian dreams dreamt before or beside More’s work [Utopia]” (Ingham 480). Of the six essays published in that issue, three were on explicitly medieval topics. Karma Lochrie’s “Sheer Wonder: Dreaming Utopia in the Middle Ages” works largely with the important (though late-antique) Commentarium in somnium Scipionis (Commentary on the Dream of Scipio) by Macrobius. William Burgwinkle traces idealized communities through several crusader-era texts in “Utopia and Its Uses: Twelfth-Century Romance and History.” Daniel Birkholtz, in an essay titled “Mapping Medieval Utopia: Exercises in Restraint,” gives a close reading (quite literally!) of the mappamundi (world map) once found in Hereford Cathedral. I include as well Patricia Clare Ingham’s introductory article, “Making All Things New: Past, Progress, and the Promise of Utopia,” which sets the stage for the rest.

Taken as a whole, these essays represent the most recently available scholarly investigations of medieval utopia. I use “represent” deliberately: there have been many contributions to the scholarly conversation, as Ingham points out (480), and the present articles are but a small sample that may speak for a larger project. I have selected these essays for a number of reasons: they are all from the same journal, were written as part of a larger project, and are all in English. These, then, may not be all there is to know on the subject, but the knowledge they produce should be consistent and coherent, and can be compared with a minimal amount of suturing.

Please, if I mention you by name, and in the course of that mention say something you read as unfair, know that I don't intend you personally any harm. I'm just concerned about the state of utopian studies with a medieval bent, and I fear that a good number of people are not as vociferous as they might be.

Begin Conclusion:
We see, then, that “utopia” has a number of uses for these critics, some of which overlap and some do not. We are left with the question of whether there is such a thing as a “discourse of medieval utopia.” Recalling Foucault’s four stages of discursive formation—positivity, epistemoogization, scientificity, and formalization—what signs do these essays exhibit of having produced, become, or been produced under a science? What modes of inquiry do they produce? How do they produce knowledge of a “medieval utopian” kind?

First let us narrow down the possibilites for the state of the “medieval utopian,” using Focualt’s list as best we can. It seems clear enough that the discourse is positivized, for it has gained some independence from mainstream “utopian” thinking, has existed in some degree since at least the late 1970’s (though the part of the conversation in English has been more recent), and has enough recognition to have been made the special topic of a prestigious journal. The discursive formation seems also to be epistemic, since each critic “exercises a dominant function . . . over knowledge” (Foucault 186-7) in order to trace utopia in medieval cultural production. Can we call it a science, then? Perhaps: the discourse already has formal moves common across the articles: at some point, for example, each essay must come to terms with Thomas More’s Utopia and justify the ability to “circumvent” More chronologically. Some, like Lochrie appeal to “positive” and “negative” utopic functions—those that posit schemes for the future, and those that “foster and anticipatory consciousness” (509), respectively. Others, like Birkholz, propose heterotopias instead of utopias, or, like Burgwinkle, suggest that pre-More utopias are historical fantasies. In any case, this grappling with More would fit Foucault’s definition of “laws for the construction of propositions” (187): one must always justify one’s right to speak of the utopian as medieval, the right, as Lochrie phrased it, to “drag utopia back into the past” (494). So, then, it is a science, but it may be just past that threshold, since there is little evidence that the “medieval utopian” is “able, taking itself as a starting point, to deploy the formal edifice it constitutes” (Foucault 187). There would seem to be no “formal edifice” as such: a “science” that stresses its own paradoxical nature, that can be said to be both grounded (Lochrie, and to a lesser extent Birkholz) and rootless (Ingham, Burgwinkle), cannot have agreed on “formal” categories yet, nor may it be capable of “taking itself as a starting point.” We can say, then, with some degree of certainty, that there is an emerging “science” of the medieval utopian, one that still seeks an epistemic foothold, but has begun to generate propositions and eliminate alternatives.

Towards a Politics of Literature (Again)
Given that the science exists, what are we to make of what it says about the “medieval utopian”—that is, what are the propositions it espouses, and what are the ideological implications of those propositions? Common to each article is the notion of the utopian as a process that innovates, that cause us, in Ingham’s phrasing, to “reconfigure the familiar, to make us want it again in a new way” (488). This is a process that “begins in stupor and ends in wonder” (Lochrie 499), in which we “think we are constructing the new” where there is only the reworked past (Burgwinkle 540). These notions resonate with, on the one hand, Jameson’s statement that More’s own text “identifies those still-existing social spaces in which the new ideological values might be incarnated” (25) and, on the other hand, with Althusser’s notion that the ideological apparatus “may not only be the stake, but also the site of class struggle” (147, his italics). The theme of utopian as “innovative” not only allows critics to re-present the medieval as the site of class struggle, but it also opens up those texts to “colonization” by “modern” ideological constructions. Despite Birkholz’s observation that the medieval seems to be kept out of the utopian in order for the utopian to remain modern (591), it is very possible that in opening up the medieval through utopia, we are making it entirely part of the modern world and thus closing it off as a site of oppositional struggle. Yet this is, after all, a science still new, still wet behind the ears, and this is not to say the battle is lost.

Or is it? For another feature these articles share is their movement away from a direct political engagement with utopia. Both Ingham and Burgwinkle establish a reading of utopia as “paradoxical” which they leave unresolved, a move that leaves “utopia” as a free-floating signifier in Ingham (e.g. 485) and a figure of the eternal present in Burgwinkle (e.g. 553). Birkholz proposes in the end not utopia but heterotopia, a discursive formation that, as he admits “has its essence in difference, a taste for the multiple . . . [that] is effectively utopia’s opposite” (613), a bricolage of utopias that, like Birkholz’ definition of utopia, may itself be “unbuildable.” Even Lochrie “does not wish to suggest that medieval utopia can rescue our culture from its degraded sense of utopia” (445), although she does posit that the medieval utopia might foster a greater understanding of the utopian as “anticipatory consciousness” (509).

Thus, although medieval utopia carries with it the potential to establish ideological alternatives, to perhaps challenge ideology dialectically by returning it to a past made new, few medievalists have seemed willing to admit this. Although I cannot be sure, I suspect the reasons are largely ideological: consciously or no, a general trend exists in medieval studies to shy away from overtly political readings so as to preserve the integrity of ideological apparatuses. Recall that, for Althusser, the educational Ideological State Apparatus is the one that modern states most rely on for their ideological deployment and reproduction. For better or worse, that function can lie at the heart of any academic work: as “professional ideologists” (Althusser 155), our job is to reproduce the conditions of ideological production, to “treat consciousness with the respect, i.e. contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence,’ of the Nation, of France’s World Role, etc.” (156). The pessimism inherent in Althusser’s phrasing may not be surprising—he is, after all, a Marxist describing the bourgeois state—and it may well be deserved. The academic who reproduces the sort of knowledge that is needed for bourgeois ideology has done only what is necessary for their job: they need not go further. Presented with Utopia, the academy may embrace it, or it may reject it, or—worse luck—it may commodify it, making it ideologically neutral.

This should not be. Medieval studies has often been the site of ideological struggle: it has, at times, represented the best and worst of Europe’s past: now the hope of English Church, now the scourge of the “Enlightened” mind, now the shiniest beacon of the Romantics. Yet, as Allen Frantzen has noted of Anglo-Saxon studies, medievalism fell into a period of philological omphaloskepsis in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which it was resistant to theory and withdrew from the job of cultural critique and production. Although scholars of the High Middle Ages were the quickest to embrace literary theory and cultural studies, the field is still (even nearly two decades after Frantzen’s book) largely dominated by formalist tactics that do not, in the end, produce readings that matter. As Franzten argues, “it is the connectedness of Anglo-Saxon studies that matters, not their age”(226). One might say the same for medieval studies broadly: the field must be connected both to its multiple pasts and to its potential futures. This, then, should be the use of utopian studies: not just to say such-and-such is utopian, certainly not just to say such-and-such is the source of or analog to More’s book, but to say that these things can incite the utopian function today, here and now. Given the position of “the medieval” as a body of texts and artifacts that lie outside the sphere of the modern world—however much we discover the “origins” of that modern world in those sources—we should use that space as the ideological enclave that it represents.

I wish to stress that I am not accusing the particular authors of these studies of being apolitical; indeed, I know that several of them are politically strong, and that some branches of medieval studies are not only theoretically strong but engaged in the social here-and-now. But it doesn’t often seem that way, and the exciting thing about the science of “medieval utopia” its hope: the utopian function in medieval texts provides an opportunity to critique present structures of power through discourses that preceded—and perhaps even those that gave rise to—the “modern” age. Since “utopia” is a term that carries with it the potential for such a critique and such change, it seems a shame to be tentative about its use.
It is crucial when dealing with a theory that is still barely a science, still largely what Althusser would call descriptive (136), that we do not allow ourselves to fall into the old habits of the ideological state apparatus. The precise point of any utopian study should be not only discovering the status and function of utopian imagination at a given historical moment, but also, where possible, to re-energize the utopian potential. That is, faced with a moment of hope in the past, it is the duty of the critic to see that moment forward into he future. To do otherwise is to freeze hope into the past, to mark it as the “once was” instead of the “not yet.” Hope , it is said, springs eternal, but in order to spring at all it must not be held down.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press: New York, 1971. 127-183.

Birkholz, Daniel. “Mapping Medieval Utopia: Exercises in Restraint.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.3 (Fall 2006): 585-618

Burgwinkle, William. “Utopia and Its Uses: Twelfth-Century Romance and History.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.3 (Fall 2006): 539-560.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Press, 1972.

Frantzen, Allen. Desire For Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1990.

Ingham, Patricia Clare. “Making All Things New: Past, Progress, and the Promise of Utopia.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.3 (Fall 2006): 480-492.

Lochrie, Karma, “Sheer Wonder: Dreaming Utopia in the Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.3 (Fall 2006): 493-516.


Blog Hiatus

Just to make it official, I'm putting this blog on temporary hiatus. Right now, between grading and being on the cusp of research, I'm too busy to blog.

I promise I'll be back in a few weeks, perhaps by or before the end of November, with plenty of strange and fascinating thoughts on discourses, utopias, medieval things, and how much my students annoy me.

See you in a few weeks!


De realitatis falsis
I'm teaching composition this semester, and at the moment I am grading their first papers, which are to varying degrees an analytical explication of the elements of short fiction. Most of them are all right, but I've come across a disturbing pattern of error in not only their prose but also their thinking: several of them have proposed that something is a "false reality" or that "reality [is] that nothing is as it seems."
As I understand it, these terms would seem to be paradoxical: the idea of reality, especially as we mean it in the post-Enlightenment world, is that there is a single state of being from which all our knowledge arises. To adapt and perpetuate a misinterpretation of Gertrude Stein, there is a there there, and it cannot be changed. What changes is our perception of reality, and that perception is what can be said to be "true" or "false." So why, then, have my students conflated their idea of reality with reality itself, to the effect that they feel it possible to say that reality itself can, on occasion, not be real?
In all likelihood, there are a number of factors at work, from the trickle-down Romantic idealism so popular in American bourgeois culture to the daily barrage of poorly constructed syllogisms that is our current political climate. I'm not out to lay the blame anywhere, but I am sincerely disappointed that not one but several of my students appear to think that reality itself can be unreal. Surrealism I can accept; dreams I can accept; but an unreal reality is too paradoxical for an old materialist like me.
It does lead me to ask, though: what do you think? Am I overreacting, or are there in fact reasons why our students can't tell the difference between "false perceptions of reality" and "false realities"?

Edit: Meanwhile, my parents are in town, and we had brunch (how bourgeois!) at La Maison des Tartes (how aristo!), which was very tasty. On the way back, we took the bike trail, and overtook not only several nice people but a very strange pair of animals: a Great Dane and a small pig, both with the same piebald markings. The Dane was friendly, but the pig was confused. Overall, an amusing afternoon.


Gonzo Journalism Science

Aside from everything else in my life being about normal (behind on reading, behind on projects, behind on grading, life, love, and happiness—hey, it is grad school), I now have a new hero. See, I work in the University's Writing Center sometimes, and today I met with a master's candidate to set up times to work over his thesis. The kicker?

This guy blows up chickens for a living.

Well, not really, but he does inject them with a virus that causes their skins to rupture. So, it's either he blows up chickens or he makes George-Romero-zombies out of them. Either way, that's pretty cool.

Gross, but cool.


Project Updates

I've begun stabbing blindly at writing toward the Utopian survey project. In the course of this research, however, I turned up last Autumn's issue of the JMEMS, which was Karma Lochrie's special Utopian issue. There are a few good moments in that issue, and in Lochrie's essay especially but I haven't been impressed by the scholarship at all. Indeed, at the risk of being that wide-eyed idiot who dismisses things he doesn't like as "excessively bourgeois," I suspect that a lot of utopian scholarship either doesn't go into the HX sections of college libraries, or does but wanders out in a daze (I'll admit that the latter happens to me quite often, though the Ernst Bloch dazes are especially rhapsodic). In any case, a lot of what I've read so far has been fluffy scholarship, full of ifs and mights and lacking in a lot of common sense. Medievalists also seem keen to grapple with "utopianism-before-Utopia," as if More's libellum nugarum was some sort of foundational text along the lines of Wealth of Nations or Das Kapital. But it's not: it's the culmination of one tradition and the inception of another, less Also Spracht Zarathustra and more Le Morte Darthur. But I'll go into greater detail on this as we move through the semester.

I've done less work on my alliterative revival paper, though I do think I'll shoot for working with Pearl. Thankfully a recent article by Helen Barr, "Pearl—or 'The Jeweller's Tale,'" has explored a lot of the class issues inherent in Pearl; moving from that to "utopian visions for the emergent bourgeoisie" should be a snap. Whether it's a snap of the fingers or a snap of my neck we'll know soon enough.

Meanwhile, I've been served with jury duty sometime between the first of October and the end of December. I wouldn't mind it if it wasn't for the fact that they will not call me until a day or two before they want me, so I get to spend [n<90] days waiting for a phone call that will cause me to panic and reschedule, probably at the last minute and with some degree of pain toward my students.


Blog Is Not Lost

No, I haven't disappeared: it's just been a busy two weeks, is all. I'm back to teaching composition for the first time in a year, and it's both refreshing and frustrating. I have rather enjoyed teaching literature, being able to come in and just say "What is this about? How does it work? Does it even work at all?" and while one can do that with the composition courses, I also have to spend time explaining how they need to construct arguments and sentences: it's teaching two and a half liberal arts at once (dashes of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic), and it's a bit of a drag. On the upside, the classes are smaller and the prep is easier, leaving more time for the insane class schedule I now find myself taking.

I've signed up for two seminars: one on Discourse Analysis and another on the Alliterative Revival. Both should be good, and both should generate material towards my dissertation. My current plan in the DA course is to build a chapter in which I examine (to borrow a Raymond Carver title) what medievalists talk about when they talk about utopia. So far I've got some Le Goff, a few articles in German, Spanish, and Italian, and (for better or worse) Michael Uebel's Ecstatic Transformation: On the Uses of Alterity in the Middle Ages. I'll plough through these and whatever else turns up, and with any luck produce something worthwhile and possibly part of an opening chapter.

The same holds true for the Alliterative Revival. Right now, the dissertation looks to be shaping up into an examination of dream-visions as sources of utopic energy, specifically how the middle ages imagined the city, the other, and the self. The AR paper will likely focus on Pearl, Langland, or something more obscure. In any case, I've had to put aside any plans for popular romance until another project.

Right now, I'm at that stage in a project where I'm excited to find out what's been said, but I'm afraid I'm not going to have anything to say myself. I'm also beginning to get burnt out on doing coursework, as I feel like having to take classes is sapping my ability to do my work. Is that normal for a second-year PhD, do you think?

In completely one-off news, I am now the proud owner of maps which show the world's landmasses as they will look when the oceans rise by 100m. Frankly, I can't wait to sail the Gulf of Louisiana or live on the island of Wales, just south of the Irish archipelago. Despite the loss of just about every major capital of the world—London, Washington, Rio, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, etc.—I can't help but think that these maps also show some hope: new oceans in the deserts, new kinds of politics, perhaps even entire nations cobbled from the seas (shades of China Miéville). Those maps are here, by the way.


A shiny penny for the first person to title this post

I read my evaluations from the survey course this week. There were high marks overall, with a lot of praise. The lowest marks were in "keeps student attention" or somesuch, but I'm not terribly worried, as even those were no lower than three on a scale of five. They did suggest I try to make my lectures more interesting, which I intend to do over time; they also suggested I somehow make the book less heavy, something I cannot do unless I work for Norton, or can get the University to only buy Volumes A and B of the NAEL rather than Volume 1—especially since I know that Volume C is useless, as we teach the 18th century course with the Longman Anthology. Insert rant about standardized book orders here, I suppose.

I also got a number of very nice comments; indeed, the only quizzical comment was the rather cryptic note that "there was a lot of yawning." Since there wasn't any context for that statement, I'm not sure what this person meant: was there a lot of yawning on my part? Among the students when I wasn't looking? In this person's head?

Ah well. They've asked me to teach it again in the spring, and I'm all for it; right now, I'll be teaching our "Writing About Literature" course, which given the coursework I'm set to do right now, will be a welcome relief. However, expect more posts about the Alliterative Revival and the analysis of discourse over the coming months.

Some regrettable news: fellow TA C---- P---- has decided to take a semester off to pursue mental health and well-being. It's for the best, but he'll be missed. Take care, C---- P----.


Utopian Musings

Utopia is the hope that the scattered fragments of good
that we come across from time to time in our lives can be
put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.
The kind of life that ours should have been.

Nick Bostrom, "Letter from Utopia"

You lot. You spend all your time thinking about dying,
like you're going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming,
or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible.
That maybe you survive.

Ninth Doctor, "The End of the World" (Doctor Who)

Sorry I've been out lately; work's got the best of my time, and what's left goes to, oh, old serials from Doctor Who, or having to call maintenance to vacuum out the water from my A/C on the hottest day of the year to date, or other little things. But I've been working, oh don't you think otherwise! Today was the second of three lecture/discussions on Paradise Lost, one of the many texts I've felt under-qualified to so much as attempt to teach. On Monday I was faced with lecturing on Donne, and discovered to my horror that Elegy 18 is not as innocent as I'd previously hoped (frankly, I always liked it for being clever, but several of my students pointed out that she has no say in what he demands, and is never really there at all other than as a thing to be possessed ["Oh my America! Oh my New Found Land!" etc.]) The week before was the Faerie Queene, which I'd like to think I handled all right. Overall, though, it's been a slog.

But I'm not here for confessional, your grace; I'm here toss out a dissertation idea. I want to deal with the medieval utopian. What is "utopia" in the middle ages, you ask? Well, I don't know yet, but when I do, I'll let you know. The scope of the project, though, is likely to include both elite (yay canon!) and popular (yay, er, this book) understandings, and may focus on dreams and dream-visions. If anyone out there knows of a good dream vision in, say, popular romance or a nice one-off chronicle, I'd be glad to know ye.

Meanwhile, I've been poking at the idea like a boy with a stick and a dead badger, and have begun generating the sort of philosophical musings that will probably—deus voluit and the creek don't rise—work their way into the first chapter.

No, you can't see them. What are you, some dead-badger-fetishist?

Oh, all right. Here, tell me what you think:

Writing on the Utopian in the European Middle Ages is dangerous, because there is a great temptation to conflate the Utopian impulse with Ecclesiastical notions of the millennium and have done with it. While the Millennium is an outgrowth of the Utopian, it is not solely one and the same. Rather than asking how they are alike, we might better consider the ways in which the anticipated Heavenly Jerusalem is not Utopian.
The particular fascination with the urban, built-form concrete Utopia is an early modern obsession, stemming from More's Utopia and (another text the name of which escapes me--JCL). The form "Utopian" thought took before this period—More's use of it in Utopia is no surprise—was metaphysical and theological; when it talked of cities at all, only Heavenly Jerusalem came up. Few would talk of building heavenly Jerusalem—such work was God's, not man's—and as such we expect few examples post-More to apply.
The question remains: what do we mean by the medieval Utopian? On the one hand, we can say, as Ernst Bloch does, that the Utopian represents a universal ideal of human freedom, an imaginary space where alternatives may be contemplated and hope for a new world nurtured. This level of definition seems however almost too encompassing: do we include as Utopian all sides of alterity, all moments of subversion, all instances of hope? The Carnivalesque, the queer, the millenarian, even the fundamental? "Yes" is the answer—yes, but not today. Not all at once.
As Nicola McDonald writes, “Modern narrative is often distinguished by the way in which it frustrates the conventional trajectory of desire, pulls it up short and resists the closure that is otherwise, in narrative terms, inevitable. Our desires, such narratives contend, are not finally satisfiable” (Pulp Fictions of Medieval England 13). It is no surprise that one modern descendant of romance is categorized as “fantasy”: those narratives in which it is even remotely possible for desire to be fulfilled must be separated from the vast, shambling herds of “real” fiction. We cannot hope for better than this life, in which, like Milton’s Satan, we have said “farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear / Farewell remorse” (Paradise Lost IV.108-9). Indeed, the world where all desires are known and met is often dismissed as a trivial place, not even worth experiencing—yet, as Fredric Jameson notes, “the complaint about the boredom of Utopias can much more clearly be seen to be so much propaganda for the excitement of market competition” (Jameson, Archaeologies 339).

There, that's the whole start of things. Nobody steal this or I'll. . . hurt you somehow.


Mass Media Consumption Day

What have I been doing all day? Was it "finish reading the things on which you'll be lecturing on Monday"?


Was it "offering editorial suggestions for the thesis of the Bachelor C---- P---- of Elkins, AR, as you agreed to do yesterday?

NO! (well, mostly—there was a bit of a lag in the morning before I could off, so I did read most of the rest of it. . .)

Was it "running to the post office to pick up your package from Canada, which contained your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which you then, on receiving, drove straight home, opened, and read through from 9:30 AM - 5:30 PM?"


That's right, friends, I'm now up-to-date on the latest bits of Harry Potterdom. I've learned all about his last adventures, and have come to several conclusions:
This book beats Half-Blood Prince, and while it's true that a dead mackerel coated in polystyrine could have done that, it's also true that
J. K. Rowling has become a better writer over the past 17 years.
This was a much better book: she's got a stronger sense of pacing, for one, and for another, the fact that SPOILER most of it takes place outside of Hogworts frees her up to explore much of the rest of the world. Frankly, that castle was becoming a bit of an annoyance, and it's good she's gotten away from it. END SPOILER.

That said, I'm looking forward to seeing what her post-Potter literary career is like.

I'm also looking forward to some Monty Python's Flying Circus, and probably MST3K's riffing on Ring of Terror.

I'll do the school stuff tomorrow.


At Week Four's End

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: this week has been the start of something early modern, by which I mean I've been reading sonnets for most of the week. The week began, as I mentioned before, with Malory, whose inclusion on this side of the test I justified by claiming that he was going through a bit of self-fashioning. The self-fashioning theme continued through the sonnets of Wyatt (Tuesday), Spenser (Wednesday) and Shakespeare (Thursday), and the works of Elizabeth (Friday).

On Thursday I got a little fed up with the lack of participation, and decided that since they'd had two days of sonnets, and since it was Shakespeare for chrissakes, they could do group work. I split them into groups of three, and had each group select three sonnets. Those sonnets had to be connected thematically—i.e., they couldn't just pick three sonnets that used red as an symbol. They were to spend the majority of class determining how their selected sonnets fit together, and how they might not fit together. How, I asked, did they support or disturb the dominant theme of the group? It went pretty well, I think: I heard from a few students I'd not heard from before, and instilled some confidence in them that they could produce viable, valid readings.

Today, though, there was none of that: I gave them a lecture on Elizabeth. It was, perhaps, shorter than I might have liked, but that's okay. I figure, I've done them the best I could, and if that didn't fulfill today's time requirement, who cares?

But the hell with all that: you're here for the statistics, aren't you? Actually, you're not here at all, but that doesn't matter. The numbers are:

A: 38% (6)
B: 50 %(8)
C: 6% (1)
D: 6% (1)
F: 0% (0)

Still, no-one's failing, so that's pretty good. I did have one student come up to me today and ask me whether it was all right if she deliberately sabotaged her own grade so that she'd get a C. My response was that it was her right to make the grade she wants to make, but that she should do her best; what I didn't tell her was that she would have to nigh on fail miserably on the remaining classwork to make anything less than a B.

Next week: Colonialism and the Other!


Didn't I have a curve somewhere?

So, as promised, I've finished grading. I also delivered a lecture this morning in which I partially used Malory to talk about two key theories: Stephen Greenblatt's ideas about self-fashioning, and Benedict Anderson's origins of nationalism. Both theories are, of course, about periods after Malory, but I am one of those people (you know, those people) who see Malory's text as a step toward English nationalism and toward ideas of the self. Whether that's because it actually is used in the Early Modern age as a tool for moral development, or whether it's that I've decided to read Caxton's preface in earnest:
humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies with all other estates, of what estate or degree they been of, that shall see and read in this said book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and to follow the same. . . . For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee.
In any event, I talked too much today, but that's the way it goes. Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes you're ambushed by a giant lecture. Ah well.

Anyway, statistics: as of this morning I have all the exams graded, and including this morning's attendance, we see the following figures.

Exam Grades:
A: 44% (7)
B: 44% (7)
C: 6% (1)
D: 0% (0)
F: 6% (1)

Current Grades
A: 44% (7)
B: 44% (7)
C: 6% (1)
D: 6% (1)
F: 0% (0)
18 enrolled; 2 withdrawals
16 total current students

I had one 100% A, and frankly, with 88% of the class passing at or above expectations, I wouldn't give a curve for all anything. That said, I was pretty proud of this last exam—but the next will be sneakier indeed.


Numbers Game

Normally, I'd post about this week in teaching, but I'd also like to do that after I've graded the exams. To make matters more annoying, I've left my flashdrive at work, and can't get it again until Monday.

Expect, then, a post. . . then.



From the left, a Challenger. . .
Confessio docendis No. 3*

The classroom in which I teach is angled in such a way that I can approach it from the stairwell without being seen. Doing so today, I heard some students discussing the day's reading (the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, in middle English thanks to Norton's brilliance). Initially, they were in agreement that it was hard to read (no surprise—in a summer course, how much of a crash course can I give them?), and then they complained about my pedagogy. So when I finally rounded the corner, I said something flippant and defensive, and then one of them asked why we needed all this history in a literature course. Would it be on the test?

After the few seconds it took to recover from my internal weeping, I responded that I don't teach to the test (it's not No Child Left Behind, after all), and that while I do realize I don't talk about the text enough, I generally believe that they're smart enough to read the text without me having to explain it to them. Granted, with the Canterbury Tales and perhaps later with the Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost, there will be some moments where syntax or sense runs away from the text, and I'll have to slow down and point at stuff. But generally speaking, in a class full of Junior and Senior English majors, I would expect them to be capable of reading a text, especially one whose language has been modernized, understand the content, and form some opinion of its meaning. My job, then, is not to say "There is meaning in the text," but to say, "there is extra meaning around the text that you need to understand the text further."

For instance, yesterday I taught the second half of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. On Wednesday I had left them with the thought that it might all be an allegory for the soul's journey from perdition to perfection—but then we get to day two, which is, as always, kinkier than I remember.** So, I thought, what better time to explain courtly love? Granted, I needed to take them back a bit and explain its origins, especially given that those origins are so contentious,*** but overall it went pretty well. Once I'd explained how it worked, I took them into the text and demonstrated how Gawain embodies those virtues and how the Pearl-poet challenges them. That, ideally, is the sort of thing I do every day.

So, I explained this to the student, who seemed to accept this as an explanation. Most of my fellow TAs who have heard this story have agreed with me: lectures are for context, not content. That said, I'm not against talking about content if the students are having trouble with it; however, what I want is connections made and understanding brought into focus.

I'm glad someone challenged me, though; most of the time I only hear such complaints after the fact in our evaluations. Getting it here allowed me to articulate it for the class as a whole, and probably staved off a few negative reviews while opening a few minds to the real goal of this course: getting them to think about why we produce literature and to what ends we do so.

Grade Statistics: Week Two:
A: 2 (13%)
B: 7 (44%)
C: 3 (19%)
D: 1 (6%)
F: 3 (19%)
16 enrolled students.
2 withdrawals.
Grade is based on 9 days of attendance. That's almost a curve, really, and it's doing what it ought: most students have been there most of the time, and only a few are really screwing off. We'll see how things are next week, after I get and grade their exams.
* No. 1? The larch. Seriously, you expect me to keep track of this, as if it were some series, here to amuse you?
** Bercilak's wife pins Gawain to the bed and says he can't get up until she gets a kiss. If that's not wonderful, I don't know what is.
*** I did a combination of The Allegory of Love and The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History.


Confessio docentis No 28:
Lecture Notes

So, sometimes I'm pretty sure I've said ridiculously stupid things in class. I don't mean the non-sequiturs, I don't mean random innuendo—not the sorts of things that just sort of jump out when you're not really filtering—but genuinly stupid comments that you don't realize until later. Today, for instance, I was doing the symbolism of Gawain's pentangle (reading without a net, as usual) and something in the back of my brain forgot that the six-point star is not called the same thing as the five-point star, i.e. both are not the star of Solomon. It wasn't until much later that it occured to me that I could have said one brought echoes of the other--but the real critic in the back of my head says "why mention the star of David at all?"

I say this because I've been having some thoughts about teaching with notes, specifically the degree to which each lecture should be a well-researched, multi-viewpoint demonstrating presentation. That, I think, is the platonic ideal of lecture: the sort of brilliant talk given about a text that someone like the other medievalist named Lewis or Fleming or Tolkien would have given. Granted, these people had time, and, as my friend Craig is fond of pointing out, they didn't have television. I tried for that at the start of the term, but after I ran out of notes on Beowulf (i.e. after I'd run out of the things I'd cribbed from Andy Orchard and Bill Quinn), I started having to do research on a regular basis, and between that and reading the text and somehow boiling all that down into 120 minute speech every day, I just sort of fell apart.

So I reverted back to the old way, which is "read the text, make some notes, and come up with discussion questions." The latter usually devolve into rhetorical questions that I have to answer, which I don't want to answer, because I'd like to hear from them. In the end, I get nervous and zip around from topic to topic, and cover things I didn't think about until after I'd got into the classroom. It feels fine, but it also looks, on reflection, like a mess. But I'll do it again tomorrow, and probably on Friday and for the rest of the term. Perhaps eventually I'll have those well-researched lectures, but not today.

Besides, as my occasionally uncomfortable students can tell you, I move around too much to lecture. If I stood behind a podium for an hour, I'd probably explode.


I'll never abandon you, sweet blog of mine!

Don't worry, loyal fan(s), I'm not gone forever now that the "book club" is done. In fact, I'm still around, and thanks to a new part-time job, I'll be chained to a desk for about seven hours a week, so there will be plenty of time for me to screw around at the computer. It's a Mac, though, and it's running an ooooold version of Firefox, so I'm not too terribly sure what I'm doing. Fun!

The first few days have been pretty good. Lectures have gone smoothly, with me doing most of the talking—but I expected that, even planned it that way. It's much easier to get things done if I know where I'm going, and the less dead air (the usual response to questions in these parts) I have, the better I feel. So, lectures it is, even if it kills me.

The lectures, though, seem to be boring some people, to which all I can say is, "tough it out." One woman was even trimming her nails (what disrespect), which to me says, I'm not here to learn, I'm here for you to give me answers to things. Tch. Most of them, however, seem alert if not attentive, and one or two even ask clarification questions and respond when I ask them general-knowledge questions.

So far, the stuff hasn't been too bad: we did a few OE lyrics (The Wanderer, Bede's account of Cædmon's hymn, The Dream of the Rood) and now we're onto Beowulf. After that, there will be some more nation-building texts (selections from Anglo-Norman chronicles about the origins of the English), then Sir Gawain, Chaucer, Second Shepherd's Play, then an exam, then some Renaissance stuff I'll probably tell you about later, whoever you are you strange people. The goal for the whole course is twofold: explore the creation of the self (interority, alterity, etc.) alongside the creation of England as an idea (what does it mean to be English? To encounter things that are not English?) Hopefully it will give them some idea of the usefulness of literature. We'll see.


Summer Reading Reviews: Part the Last
The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance

Carol Heffernan. The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. x, 160, two illustrations. $70.00.

The title of Carole Heffernan's work implies a large and perhaps ambitious project, surveying not only Chaucer but all of "Medieval Romance" for traces of "the Orient." Alas, in its scant 160 pages, it does not live up to that promise. Focusing instead on a few of the Canterbury Tales (The Man of Law's Tale and the Squire's Tale), two episodes from the Legend of Good Women (Dido and Cleopatra) and two Middle English romances (Floris and Blauncheflur and Le Bone Florence of Rome), Heffernan seeks to uncover the "remarkable oriental influence" in these selections, and "to call for a reconsideration of the textual exchanges as well as other cultural interactions linking English (and European) romance literature of the Middle Ages and the Orient" (2). Even in this last paring, one can discern problems with this study: a chronological marker—even one that, as Norman Daniel pointed out years ago, is patently Eurocentric—is not equivalent to a spatial marker. For Heffernan, it seems, either the Middle Ages is a place or "the Orient" is timeless.[1]

Heffernan's study is largely balanced in its scholarly approach, though proving that Christians and Muslims exchanged stories where they met seems rather straightforward. Each of the sections discusses a different exchanged story type: the Man of Law's Tale depends on an understanding of the trade networks in the Mediterranean; the LGW selections view the Muslim Female Other[2]; the Squire's Tale is a moment when 1001 Nights-style interlacing comes into European narratives; and the romances deal, in their own way, with the working out of courtly love paradigms. Each argument is on the whole valid; each has its flaws. For example, the discussion of the interlacing of the Squire's Tale is technically right: the interlacing exists and is better done than its analogs and precursors. Yet the context around Heffernan's reading—the "how and why" the technique derives from Oriental sources—isn't well argued: instead, Heffernan spends time talking about the 1001 Nights, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and a number of modern, secondary works without ever driving all the points home.

This is the pattern throughout The Orient: a strong, sometimes faultless reading is combined with a less-than-satisfactory critical apparatus. Indeed, at times the critical work reads more like a literature review than an argumentative synthesis. This, combined with some issues of diction (the repeatedly-used "Mohammedan" is so 19th-century) and a lack of clear linkage between each of the readings leaves this work lacking. Perhaps there is something to be made of the connections between "the Orient," "Chaucer," and middle English romances, but it's not made here.
[1] Of course, as Catherine Brown points out in "In the Middle" (JMEMS 30.3 [Fall 2000]: 547-574), sometimes it is useful to consider the past as a place rather than a time. Heffernan doesn't seem to do that in The Orient, though.
[2] Though both Dido and Cleopatra lived before rise of Islam, this hardly matters to Chaucer; time is static in the Middle Ages, and the past is just a better version of what we have now.


Note about the last review.

Even though the readings course I'm taking technically ends today, I'm probably not going to get done with the last review (of Carol Heffernan's The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance) today, since I've two lectures to write before next week starts. Bear with me, loyal reader(s)!


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 6:
The Arabs and Medieval Europe

Norman Daniel. The Arabs and Medieval Europe. New York: Longman, 1975. Pp. xiv, 378. Four illustrations. $44.00 cloth.

Although now more than twenty years old, much of Norman Daniel's 1975 work, The Arabs and Medieval Europe, still rings true. In this, Daniel argues for a new way of seeing history as fundamentally interconnected—we can no more talk of European history without Muslims than we can talk about Etruscan history without the Greeks or South African history without the Xhosa. Daniel begins his argument by selectively drawing parallels between the entire Arab world and Western Europe, especially England, in the 8th century CE, demonstrating the degree to which both were similar in their philosophical, philological, and scientific endeavors. He then proposes to trace how "the two societies have gradually diverged" (22).

This he does, in a series of well-written and insightful chapters, starting with what might be considered a "fracture point": the sudden, though not unexpected, turn toward martyrdom as a form of protest in Cordoba in the 9th century CE—an impetus that might best be recognized as the ideology behind religious suicide bombings[1] today. From here, Daniel turns to the wider Mediterranean, especially Sicily and Italy, before touching on the rise of the Recoquista in Spain, the impact of the crusades across the Mediterranean on both sides of the religious divide, and the rise of the Norman kingdom in Sicily toward its most tolerant peak in Frederick II. These discussions lead into an extended examination of the philosophical impact of such fields as courtly love, theology, natural philosophy, and medicine, most of which have been superseded by later, more focused studies.

Although hampered, perhaps, by its predating Said's Orientalism, as well as Daniel's forgivable, though unavoidable, biases toward Islam, The Arabs and Medieval Europe is largely quite useful. His investigation, for example, of the origins of troubadour and courtly love lyrics (101-105), ending in the surprisingly tentative conclusion that "there were certainly some parallel developments [between European and Islamic sources], and these were probably related" (105), seems mostly to be the skeleton on which the arguments of someone like Maria Rosa Menocal have been built. From time to time the evidence seems unconvincing—at one point he seems to base the existence of an Arabic-speaking Christian population in Spain purely on the fact that a number of Latin names "hide" Arabic meanings—but for what was groundbreaking research on a sensitive and largely cloaked topic, this is not out of the question. Still, the heavy bias toward Islam, perhaps rhetorically necessary when this book was first published, is largely regrettable today, since it undercuts the idea that world history of the period between 412 and 1483 CE is unbalanced in favor of Europe. One does not re-balance the scales by throwing everything on the lighter pan. Instead, what must be done is to see that period of history for what it was: a time in which Europe, far from the Enlightenment portrait of the "Middle Ages," was an active member of a vibrant, yet violent, pan-Mediterranean culture, sometimes Muslim, sometimes Christian, yet always, always, looking East.

[1] Not necessarily Muslim suicide bombings; one could easily apply the same standards to IRA bombings in the 1980s.


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 5:
Europe and the Mystique of Islam

Maxime Rodinson. Europe and the Mystique of Islam. 1980. Tr. Roger Venius. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987. Pp xv, 163. Paper, $26.95.

Maxime Rodinson's Europe and the Mystique of Islam is a work in two parts. The first is an examination of the origins of Orientalism, especially the medieval fascination with and fear of their Muslim neighbors. The second is a call to change in Oriental studies. Both parts evoke and enter into a dialog with Said's Orientalism, and overall, by taking a longer historical view, Rodinson improves on Said's classic investigation, especially in Orientalism's origins with and applications for the medieval. Rodinson notes that "the image of Islam was not drawn simply from the crusades, as some have maintained, but rather from the Latin Christian world's gradually developing ideological unity" (7). He traces various contacts between the Muslim and Christian worlds, then argues that a gradual change from fear to fascination came about in the West's perception of Islam, derived from "the increase in factual information about Islam and the Muslim world, the steady growth of actual contacts through both political and commercial relations, and even the mutual respect that was the occasional result of these experiences" (24). He also roots some notions of tolerance in the encounter with the Mongols, another, even less Christian people beyond Islam. Thus, in the mid-13th century, "the feeling that Islam shared the same basic concept of religious monotheism with Christianity was reinforced; it was a notion that recurred earlier only fleetingly" (28-9).

Rodinson argues that the eventual shift away from European intolerance toward the Muslim resulted in a gradual rise in the interest for "the Orient" as a thing to be studied. This in turn led to the rise of Orientalism, which in seeking to understand or quantify Muslim behavior, slowly dehumanized its object of study. In a certain sense, then, this relativism is unfortunate, for it led to the idea that the studied may be controlled—and thus to imperialism. So it goes.

One gets the sense, watching Rodinson sift through the differing western interpretations of Islam, that "the Orient," or indeed "Islam," changes depending on who is looking at it; much like Terry Eagleton's discussion of "the aesthetic" as a discreet category, "all that is solid melts into air," and we are left to face the idea that any human creation is constantly being recreated. This is an unexpected moment of Post-structuralist navel-gazing, but not surprising for a book originally written in the late 70's in France. What such a notion—"The Orient" is a flexible category—tells us is that the Orient is never a thing in itself, but a speculum societatis, no more real than yet just as polemical as Tacitius' Germans or Harriot's Virginians.

Unfortunately, the majority of these moments occur in the first half of the book; the second half of the book is interesting largely to professional Orientalists, and may in fact be out-of-date in some areas; after all, the call to action he provides is a quarter-century old, and surely in a field that contains such critics as Maria Rosa Menocal, some work has been done toward change.


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 4:
Arab Historians of the Crusades

Francesco Gabrieli. Arab Historians of the Crusades. Tr. E. J. Costello. New York: Dorset Press, 1989. Pp xxxvi, 362. $7.95.

It's a short review this time around, for time reasons, and also because the book is pretty straightforward. Gabrieli presents us with selections from the major Islamic historians of the Crusades, translated and given explanatory footnotes as needed. Overall it does what it says on the box: Gabrieli constructs a continuous narrative of the Muslim world's reaction to the rather sudden and unprovoked invasion of Syria in the 11th century CE, and its continuing invention of ways to drive the Franks out. It's worth noting that, in contrast to the hyperbole of such works as Chanson de Roland, most of the historians here are rational and level-headed, with outbursts limited to lines like "the Franks—God damn them—invaded Syria" and similar quick condescensions . Some sources do attribute disgusting practices to the Franks—such as ibn Al-Athir's account of Roger of Sicily's rhetorical farting techniques—and some, like 'Imad Ad-Din, are impressive as works of art but disappointingly unwilling to compromise.

The world from which they write is remarkably, though perhaps not surprisingly, strong: it is a world of those who are rational as well as faithful, able to see that the recapturing of Jerusalem is as much a matter of military planning as God's will. Many of the historians see right through the Christians' propaganda—miracle discoveries of lances and cross pieces are shown for the carefully planned tricks they no doubt were. The Franks come off most of the time as quite human: one can praise Raymond of Tripoli, but fully and rightly despise the treachery of Reynald de Chatillon. The overall impression of the work is one of openness, tolerance, and a society in which even barbarians may be given the benefit of the doubt. Whether this arises from the selection, arrangement, and translation of certain pieces, or of the pieces themselves, I cannot say for certain, but the present work is quite useful toward repairing the popular memory of the crusades.


Weird Little Kids
(an AP scoring report)

originally written 15:15 CST, 18 June 2007

Ninety percent of the time, I don't mind flying. Ten percent of the time, however, I genuinely despite it and spend hours dreaming of a coast-to-coast, high-speed rail network, like British Rail on crack. The reason for this is simple: as I write this—by hand, since network time is expensive—I am on hour six of what should have been a two-hour layover and, as of this morning, still was. However right as we got on the bus at six (EST), we discovered that the 10:40 flight to DFW had been inexplicably canceled. Cue frantic attempts to reschedule, a hassle-up at TSA scanning which cost me half a bottle each of shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste as well as a Leatherman I'd had since high school, and a literal run to the terminal to get on at the last second. As I say, I've been in DFW since 10:00 local time, which means, considering I woke up at 3:00 EST this morning, that I've been up for fourteen hours. Currently I ache in strange places, like the bottom of my feet or the inside of my biceps, and I'm starting to feel a bit like a Donestre, and may in fact eat someone and weep over their head if I don't get to sleep on the plane. [1]

However, this comes at the end of an otherwise wonderful week. Amalie and David sold it well: you do a lot of what amounts to grindingly repetitive though mildly amusing work, and then you're on the beach or in the bar by five. The food is institutional yet plentiful—like "gluttony popcorn," it didn't taste good but there was plenty of it. [2] Most of the people are great (hello to Shirl Chumley, Grimsley Graham, Joan Snyder, and the lovely Melissa Vosen), and the few who aren't are easily avoided.

I think I'm allowed to talk about the questions now that the scoring is over, but I'll be circumspect anyway. Before I go on, let me say that it's highly likely that everything between the next sentence and the three # signs is the property of Educational Testing Services; I believe, however, that posting these anonymously and without any personal gain other than a good laugh is fair use, but if it isn't, contact me and I'll be glad to remove any offending material.
That said, I was assigned to question 3, which asked students to take a position on the ethics of offering incentives for charitable donations, such as bonus points in class for donations. Most of the kids were okay, but some were strange. . .
  • Charity is something that is always willing to take the extra change off your hands, is willing to have you come over and fix that hole in the wall free of charge, and would love to sit and talk about how many touchdowns you scored, back in the day.
  • If (hypothetically) there were two objects teetering equally balanced on a mountain, one is a suitcase full of money, the other is an infant, which would you grab?
  • Although in the twenty-first century we may claim to be sophisticated, we are no better than our ancestral thieves.
  • If children are engaging in this sort of sacrifice for an A+, I personally fail to see how this is less degrading or dehumanizing than a young woman exploiting her body for a better grade.
  • On the surface the group opposed to this exchange may be more attractive, more magnetic to your north and south poles. But before you go welcoming in Santa Claus, make sure it's not a wolf in gramma's clothes.
  • At my school, one of the clubs required its members to sell two bags of onions for a charity or they would not be allowed to return next year. (Frankly, anything that gets you out of the Soviet Poland club is probably a good idea. -- ed)
  • More often than not, moms and dads resort to a trail of stickers that leads to a prize. I remember sitting on the toilet for hours to get a tic-tac. Well, two if it was number two.
. . . while others were just confused. . .
  • I was thought [sic] that if you do it out of your own will, with the goodness of your heart, you don't need a reward because the reward was the goodness you inflicted [sic].
  • As I started applying to colleges, I milked the Darfur cow until I was accepted.
  • It is a dark and dreary night. (opening sentence)
  • Not everyone is going to be as kindhearted or generous as Boo Radley or the woman at the county fair.
  • Ethics is a simple but yet [sic] complicated thing. It has so many sides to it's [sic] coin. Ethics is a world wide thing. Some if not most people say ethics just disturbs the natural order of things. I guess I'm just one of those such people. Ethics just bother me.
. . . while still others were filled with useful knowledge. . .
  • Humans are regretfully greedy.
  • Incentives for charity began when people figured out that people are human, and humans are not "selfless" (generally speaking).
  • George Washington risked his life at war, lived among the other soldiers, and defeated the enemy. Benjamin Franklin sat on [sic] a room for hours, in order to develop the Bill of Rights.
  • Charity has changed from its humble beginnings as a beggar on the street.
  • There are many all over the world who are in need. There are also those who are well-endowed and need no help at all.
  • The ethics of this or any debate can rage on for decades.
Also, I'm to pass along this: "I ♥ Mr. McBride. Y'all should give him a raise." Lucky you, Mr. McBride.

I scored 1087 essays or 0.38% of the total number of essays. Of that, 14 students used the word "donator" instead of "donor,"[3] four opened by comparing charity to love (a correct assertion, etymologically speaking) five suggested by name classical or operant conditioning, four suggested the moral position of "tzedakah" (two of them effectively), seven mentioned pride and Prejudice, four mentioned Clueless, another four mentioned the episode of Friends in which Phoebe tries to do a charitable act without getting something in return, seven believed andrew Carnegie "invented charity," and five confessed to being Eagle Scouts (two confessed to having gotten their Girl Guides Gold Awards, though not in the same essay as the Eagle Scouts).

# # #

Anyway, that's my AP scoring report. I'm about halfway through Arab Historians of the Crusades, and will finish it just as soon as I have a brain again. I've also been tapped to teach ENGL 2303, Survey of English Literature to the 17th Century, in Summer II, instead of WLIT 1113. I hope to get the book tomorrow or Thursday and have all that planned out.

More as it develops. Today will be spent doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom, shopping, and watching some Doctor Who.
[1] As it happened, no-one had the seat next to me, and I had a nice and restful flight until we got ready to deplane and discovered the jetway was broken, and we had to be towed to another gate. I nearly cried.
[2] This refers to a story I've now lost track of, originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction sometime in the nineties, concerning a young Jesus who tries out for little league. Anyone who can find that story gets a bribe.
[3] I'm not sure this is a real word, but if it were, it would by etymology mean "someone who has been given as a gift."


I believe the word is "bleurg"

I'm back from scoring AP exams in Florida. I wrote a report, which I'll post tomorrow when I have a brain again and my arms stop hurting from schlepping my luggage around.

For now, I'm thinking shower, as soon as Joni Mitchell's done singing "This Flight Tonight," which has been in my head but not on my mp3 player all week.


Right, well then, I'm off...

I'm leaving for Daytona Beach, city of magic, city of lights—none of which I actually get to see, as I'm going there to score Advanced Placement (AP) exams. For those of you who don't know, AP exams are an array of tests designed to get high school students out of college courses, and in my case I'll be helping (or hindering) students from taking composition. It might be fun, it might be tedious, it might be Dr. Spock's back-up band, but it'll be in Florida, and that's something.

The upshot of this is that I probably won't post something about the next book on my list, Arab Historians of the Crusades until the middle of next week at best. Lots of work. Busy busy busy. Plus I'm also taking a few articles—including Hilario Franco's "La construction d'une utopie: L'Empire de Pretre Jean" and Catherine Brown's "In the Middle"—and, until this morning, I was going to take Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, but will now take Alfred Crosby's The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, because I'm mad like that, and also because I don't want to make friends. Chances any of it will get read except on the plane? 23.2%

See you in eight days!


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 3:
Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival, with Titurel and the Love-Lyrics. Cyril Edwards, tr. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. xxxiii, 329. 1 chart, 7 illustrations. £50.00.

God bless Wolfram von Eschenbach for being so weird. I'll talk about his particular Saracen-weirdness in a minute (and see previous post for my justification of the word "Saracen"), but for now let me say that this is by far one of the most readable and entertaining romances I've ever come across. Like Chretien before him, he's obsessed with details: how people look, what they're dressed in, how their horses look, what their horses are dressed in, the color of the damn grass even—it's all there. To give you one example, Gahmuret, Parzival's father, constantly looks like a million marks, kitted out in ermine and those damn anchors. Nor is clothing Wolfram's only poetic vice, as he is fond of multilingual puns, strange phrasing like "God was in a sweet mood for breeding when he wrought Parzival" (48), and one of my favorite episodes ever, the fight between Gawan and. . . a lion:

er hetem den schilt nâch genomn:
sîn êrster grif was alsô komn,
durch den schilt mit al den klân.
von tiere ist selten ê getân
sîn grif durch solhe herte.
Gâwân sich zuckes werte:
ein bein hin ab er im swanc.
der lewe ûf drîen füezen spranc:
Ime schilde beleip der vierde fuoz. (f. 571-2)

The lion had almost succeeded in taking the shield from him. Its first lunge had gone through the shield, along with all its claws. Seldom before has a beast clawed with such force! Gawan prevented it from snatching his shield. He hewed one leg off it! The lion leapt about on three feet, the fourth foot stuck in the shield.

See what I mean? I can only imagine Gawan yelling "getitoffgetitoffgetitoff!" while flailing wildly at it with the sword. It's not heroic, but I grew up with Monty Python.[1]

You can also see here how readable Cyril Edwards' translation is. It's modern, but it retains Wolfram's diction pretty well. The Boydell and Brewer edition is, as one might expect from that publishing arm, a fine one indeed. The introduction is focused but explanatory, and seems aimed for the general educated reader—exactly the sort of person who might have need of the book in the first place. Edwards includes many footnotes—a convenience often overlooked or, as in the Oxford edition of the same translation, relegated to far-less-accessible footnotes—and while it seems in places a few more might be useful, one sees why they might have been life out. The critical material, including a short explication of the illustrations in the Munich manuscript, is also well done. The only downside I see is that common to many of Boydell and Brewers' editions: a lack of a bibliography, with the result that one has to comb footnotes to find a citation.

Saracen Decorations

Save for Gahmuret's episode in the holy land/Outremer/Over There, the Orient shows up mostly as "Saracenerie," moveable goods from the luxurious East, and the standard furs, gems, and silk. It's everywhere in Parzival, from the one-off ruby to the ever-present Syrian silk to the gold braidwork on the Fisher-king's robes. "Arab," "Moor," "Saracen": these are just color-words for Wolfram—pun slightly intended, for while he primarily uses them as one-off references or flavorful adjectives attached to consumer goods (Moorish horses, Arabian silk, etc), he does of course "color" the Moors/Arabs black. Yet unlike many of his fellow epic-romance writers, Wolfram spends little time attributing to that color any significance other than wonder: the Moors are black, so it seems, because the spectacle of a literally half-black, half-white half brother for Parzival is just too good to pass up. One gets the impression that they do not function as allegorically for Wolfram as they do for, say, "Turold" or the compositor of El Cid, in part because when Wolfram wishes to be allegorically nasty, he is.

Witness the sorceress Cundrie (100 ffl), whose monstrosity is evident from the start. She is marked as other both physically, through the use of animal-derived signifiers such as bristles and tusks, and mentally, though her learning. For, as Wolfram tells us, "she spoke all languages well: Latin, heathen and French. She had a cultivated mind, encompassing dialectic and geometry: known to her, too, were the skills of astronomy" (100). This catalog seems to be as monstrous an indicator as her tusks, yet it is less so because of what she knows than the fact that she knows it at all. However, I know less than nothing about the expectations of women's education in medieval Germany, much less the education of sorceresses, and so can't be sure to what degree such erudition is normal for Wolfram's audience. I suspect it isn't quite normal, because Wolfram takes the time to single it out. The point is: some things in Wolfram might be monstrous, but Saracens aren't, and that alone makes him interesting.

Cundrie is not alone: she and her brother Malcreature [2] were sent to the Fisher-king by Queen Secundille, wife of Feirefiz, Parzival's half-brother and ruler of all of Tribalibot (aka India). This gift is interesting, because it sets up a reciprocal relationship between heathenesse and the Grail: the Fisher-king sends gifts to her in response, and both are pleased. But this makes little sense, for as we are told later, no pagan can see the Grail or, presumably, use it to gain its riches. Of what use is the pagan connection to the holiest of Christian relics?

The Saracens have interesting connections to the entire legend. Wolfram, admitting to his audience that Chretien's narrative is defective, invents a bard named Kyot, who "found in Toledo, lying neglected, in heathen script, this adventure's fundament. The a b c of those characters he must have learned before hand, without the art of necromancy" (145). As Cervantes would do some four centuries later, Wolfram imagines the Orient as a place of secret knowledge as well. In the latter's case, however, the knowledge isn't just a story, but the "Truth" of Christianity, written down in "heathen script," which can presumably be read by "heathens." The knowledge they possess is, like possessing the Grail itself, useless to them. One suspects that beneath his relatively benevolent position, Wolfram is suggesting that the heathens are sinister, keeping truth from not only themselves but all of Christendom as well, just for spite.

Or perhaps it is this: we are told many times that no-one can take the Grail by force, but must be summoned to it (250). Yet the Grail calls to Christian and heathen alike, and does not distinguish. Wolfram's portrait of Christianity is nicely universalizing, even if disturbing in its treatment of the heathen, who is all too willing to let go of "Jupiter and Juno" in the face of Christian "truth." [3] We may praise Wolfram for letting the Saracens off so easily, but we should remember that his is the most distorted view of Islam yet (of the three I've read, that is): unlike the Spanish Saracens in Roland, Parzival's pagans don't even name-drop Mohammed. Again, Wolfram understands the Orient as a source of wealth and the location of earthly paradise, but he displays even less knowledge of the east than John Mandeville.
[1] Which reminds me, while we're on the subject of Python and Germans: I watched the Staatsoper Stuttgarts rendition of Das Rheingeld a few days ago, and couldn't finish it, primarily because the guy who sang Wotan did so out of the side of his mouth like Terry Jones (albeit Terry Jones with eczema, poor guy).
[2] Wolfram has hit the bottom of the name bag now.
[3] In typical knightly fashion, Feirefiz is won over to Christianity by the radiant beauty of the Grail-maiden, and not out of any desire to see the Grail as such.


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 2:
La chanson de Roland

Note to the reader: This review is in three parts: the first is an exercise in writing an academic review (here to keep the punters happy), the second is a reaction to the text itself, and the third is a list of questions I’ve yet to fully ponder that arise from the text. If you’re interested in my reactions, skip to the part so labeled. -- Ed


Brault, Gerard. La Chanson de Roland: Oxford Text and English Translation. Student Edition. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1984. Pp. xxxiii; 245. $15.00.

A student edition of a larger work is often necessary, since we expect our students to be less interested in the sorts of minutiae that we tedious academics get lost in. Yet a student edition must be helpful and useful to the students’ understanding of the text, and that goal is in Gerard Brault’s 1984 edition of the Chanson de Roland, occasionally lacking. On the one hand, the introduction seems largely useful, helping to distinguish all the cultural and genere forms that produced this text. He moves quickly through the kinds of narrative poetry that France produced in the High Middle Ages to the “Historical Event” of Charlemagne’s disastrous campaign into Andalusia in the late eighth century. From there he discusses the development of the legend, then of the chanson itself, before analyzing its usefulness as an historical document. All this is done in a clear and concise prose style that would seem to work quite well for the general undergraduate reader.

There are, however, flaws in this introduction, as well as in the edition itself. These are in some places stylistic issues and in others questionable choices about what and how certain information is presented. He cites, for instance, Schliemann excavating at Troy as a reason to give some credence to the poem’s historical relevance (xix); not only is this an old chestnut, but it is not a very meaty one at that (Schliemann’s methods were not the best, nor was his poly-chronic reconstruction of “Troy” the Homeric city). Too, he occasionally lapses into strange idiom, such as the puzzling notion that “as in contemporary society, individuals in this epic are also bound together by feudal ties involving mutual obligations between lord and vassal” (xx). Unless Brault has been living in an alternative France, one can only assume he means “contemporary to the poem,” or perhaps to AD 778, something that in any case is not clear from the context. While later usage seems to indicate the former meaning, such imprecision in the introduction does not bode well for the translation ahead.

Perhaps most annoying is the lack of an apparatus criticus and footnotes, both crucial features for understanding a poem no matter what one’s academic standing. Taken in conjunction with his abbreviated bibliography of works largely in French, and his quasi-literal translation of the poem, one is not certain for what sort of “students” Brault expects this volume to be useful. French majors are presented with a ready-made trot; literature majors are not presented with a very literary rendition of the text; and the majority of today’s undergraduates, lacking a guide to the meaning of the text, will see the poem as just another incomprehensible relic of the middle ages.

Reactions to the text

The ideological machine that this text contains is centered largely on the dehumanization of the Saracen. I use “Saracen” deliberately here, since it contains the European idealization of the Muslim other. (Note: I’m almost certain I’m not the first person to say this, and if I’ve not given credit for this idea it’s because I can’t remember where I’ve read it). The Saracen in this text is dehumanized in a number of ways, some subtle, some less than that.

An example of the more subtle dehumanization occurs in brief moments such as this: Oliver, Roland’s companion, [1] looks out over the field of battle and says:

Jo ai veüt les Sarrazins d’Espaigne,
Cuverz en sunt li val e les muntaignes
E li lariz e trestutes les plaignes.
Granz sunt les oz de cele gent estrange (laisse 84)

I have seen the Saracens from Spain; the valleys and mountains are covered with them, the hillsides, too, and all the plains. The armies of that foreign people are huge.

The Saracen other becomes a blight on the land, like a plague of locusts.

In another sense, they are a blight since they are comprised of things that are always “almost knights,” people who ben resemblet barun (look a good deal like a true knight, laisse 229). They follow the same martial culture as Charles and his men, but they cannot be true knights, quite likely because they employ monsters:

De Micenes as chefs gros:
Sur les eschines qu’il unt en mi les dos
Cil sunt seiet sensement cume porc (laisse 232)

Of large-headed men from Misnes: on their spines, along their backs, they have bristles like pigs.

This detail, coming at the start of a list of the different nations that make the Saracen army, throws suspicion on all the “normal” people who follow in the list, not only those ki uncles ben ne volt (never wished to do good, laisse 232) but monstrous races as well. This highlights something about monsters that I’d not considered before: the Monstrous Races are always objectified. At no time does anyone expect a man to live, work, worship, or fight alongside monsters, for there is always the chance that you yourself will become one by proximity. Furthermore, no monster ever speaks nor has it own agency; those that speak at all, e.g. the Donestre, do so in the voices of others.

I’m reminded, too, of an essay by Greta Austin, in which she points out that the line between nation and race is paper-thin in the middle ages, and the line between race and monster is equally porous. [2] One could easily collapse the categories depending on polemical need, and thus it seems almost anticlimactic to discover that some of the members of the Saracen army aren’t human; after all, to the medieval European eye, nothing from the Orient was ever really human.

The Saracen is also marked by conspicuous wealth. From the start, they may not have a good army, but they can bribe Charlemagne with:

curs e leons e chens
set cenz camelz e mil hosturs muërs
d’or e d’argent iiiiC muls cargez
cinquant carre qu’en sent carier (laisse 3)

bears, lions, dogs, seven hundred camels laden with gold and silver, and fifty carts for a wagon train.

Ironicallly, Blancandrin, the speaker and “one of the most cunning pagans” (de plus saives paiens, laisse 3) next says that with such a bribe, Charlemagne “will be able to pay his soldiers well” (ben en purrat luër ses soldeiers, laisse 3). One wonders why King Marsile of Saragossa hasn’t bought his own army with such a treasure-hoard, or indeed why he should in effect become paymaster of the Christian army. The obvious answer—because God wills it—is not enough. Rather, I think it has much to do with the idea that Muslims are Orientals and therefore rich and stupid. Something in me also suspects that this is a post-Crusades mentality; while the Andalusian Caliphate was rich, I think, to borrow Professor Tolkien’s famous phrasing, “the tale grew in the telling.” After the mentality arose that one could go East and seek one’s fortune along with penance, I suspect it became much more common to assume that the Oriental would be a source of wealth for the Occidental. However, this is mere assumption, and I haven’t a thing to back it up with yet.

There is, however, this: the Saracens in this poem are an often indirect source of European wealth. Consider Roland’s “oliphant,” the elephant-tusk horn he carries with him. There being precious few oliphants in Europe since the last Ice Age, how else might he have gotten it but from Saracen traders? It is a surprisingly Oriental signifier in the midst of all this anti-Oriental luxuria.

Indeed, the portrait of the Franks is at times as disturbing as that of the Saracens. Their motives are typically rather thin; Ganelon, for instance, displaces the impetus for conquest off of Charlemagne and onto Roland: it is Roland who because “he holds sway over the Emepeor himself / will conquer for [Charlemagne] all the lands from here to the Orient” (l’emperere meïsmes ad tut a sun talent / cunquerrat li les teres d’ice qu’en Orient, laisse 30). No other reason is given for conquest—the famous “pagans are wrong and Christians are right” must wait until the battle begins, some 600 lines from this point—and one is led to assume, as Blancandrin says here, that “Roland is a maniac” (mult est pesmes Rollant, laisse 30).

The Franks also have curious rituals surrounding death: The cultural anthropologist in me is more interested in the death ritual that Roland performs (laisse 174) including the choice of a pine tree, placing his valuable weapons beneath him, turning his face to the enemy, and—most curious of all—pur ses pecchez, we are told, Deu en puroffrid lo guant (he offered his gauntlet to God for his sins), as if he is pledging his service to God in the afterlife. It all seems quaintly Germanic: dying under a tree, showing no fear, soldiering for God when you’re dead. I’m reminded most of all that I need to pick up James Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. To make matters stranger, after the Franks cut out Roland, Turpin, and Oliver’s hearts and set them in a casket while wrapping the bodies in stags’ skins (ritual!), the pagans arrive, and in a rather disturbing scene of re-arming, all the regions of the Carolingian empire are mentioned, as if this were a 12th-century rendition of Triumph of Will: each region is strong, proud, and unafraid of battle (laisses 218-225)

In the end, neither portrait really matters, since the end result of this conquest is rabid anti-Semitic fantasy, as “idols” are smashed in Saragossa:

A mil Franceis funt ben cercer la vile
Les signagoges e les mahumeries
A maliz de ser e a cuignes qu’il tindrent
Fruissent les ymagenes trestutes les ydles
N’i remendrat ne sorz ne falserie (laisse 266)

Orders are given for a thousand Frenchmen to search the city, the synagogues and the mosques; holding iron hammers and axes, they smash the statues and all the idols. No sorcery or false cult will remain there.

The point here being that of course this did not happen: Saragossa was steadfastly Muslim until well into El Cid’s day.

I’m leaving out a lot, I know—battle scenes, the quick and surprising conversion of Bramimonde—but these are some of the weird images I’ll take away from the text, along with a general idea that, although we are supposed to believe the Christians are right, neither side comes out very well in the telling.


[1] I have an idea that “companion” here might have something to do with Alan Bray’s notion of the “friend” (see The Friend), but swive me if I can see anywhere to run with this idea.

[2] Greta Austin "Marvelous Peoples or Marvelous Races? Race and the Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East.” Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger, eds. Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Kalamazoo: U of Michigan Press, 2002. 25–51.

  • How demonized were the “Saracens” in heroic literature before the Crusades?
  • What else—besides the ambiguous wascones in the Carolingian chronicles—did the “universal enemy” of Saracen replace?
  • Is the choice of “Saracen” as enemy a deliberate (or “accidental”) internationalizing of the story from something only locals would know to something all who read it would understand as “other”?
  • Is Roland more of a hero fighting Saracens than if he were fighting “Wascones”?
  • How did later ages in France treat the Carolingians?
  • Is it even worth being surprised anymore that the luxurious and effeminate Saracens also use as soldiers monsters from farthest Ethiopia (laisse 143 ffl)?
  • What’s with the beard fetishism in medieval heroic texts? El Cid grows his out, Charles exposes his beard to show he’s unafraid (so does the pagan king)—what gives? Weird masculinity signifiers?


RIP Mary Douglas

I don't always catch this sort of news, but it's highly important today: Dame Mary Douglas has died.

She taught us how to think about boundaries, bodies and taboo as linked cultural objects, and her structural analysis of Leviticus—however much she repudiated it in her later years—was paramount in reshaping entire fields of study, especially the early medieval. May she rest well, hopefully with a very elaborate yet deliberate funereal ritual.


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 1:
Poem of the Cid

The Poem of the Cid: Dual Language Edition. Tr. Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985. 256 pages.

This summer, I'm doing a readings course that is mostly about the literature of the Muslim-Christian contact in the Middle Ages. I'll read The Poem of the Cid, The Song of Roland,Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, Arab Historians of the Crusades, The Arabs and Medieval Europe, Europe and the Mystique of Islam, and The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance. I'll probably also read The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, if I have time. My plan is to read them, then blog about them here, mostly because I haven't heard otherwise yet.

We start this week with the Penguin edition of the Cantar del mio Cid, which was probably composed in the 12th century, but exists in a single manuscript dated to the 14th century. Like any good scholarly edition for those of us whose linguistic training doesn't extend as far as it ought, it's nicely dual language so you can fake your quotes later (owning copies of the Loeb library classical editions is also paramount). The translation is quite readable, and kept parallel with the text so that by triangulating between the English, my Latin, and the Castilian, I can make out what the Castilian is saying.

That said, this is my first time reading the Cantar (or Poema; no-one's really clear about the preferred term, and it may just be the idiosyncrasy of the manuscript compiler) and let me tell you, it's weird. To be honest, it first put me in the mood for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie, in that el Cid, having been exiled, decides to randomly besiege the neighboring taifa until he has enough money and prestiege to buy his way back into the king's heart. It's insane, and poorly justified, and has a nice bit of the usual medieval antisemitism in the front, in which Ruy Diaz fills two chests full of sand, pretends they're full of gold, and gets the Jews to loan him 400 marks (about £270 sterling, assuming a mark was about 13/6
a nice little sum).

What else? It's a national epic, they say, and that's not surprising; it's pure Castilian, in that—to borrow the refrain from La chanson de Roland—the pagans are wrong and the Christians are right. There are a few of the virtuous heathen, but they're in the minority; most of the Moors are awash in luxury, so much so that only a few years and battles later, Ruy Diaz has his entire fortune back twice over, and has a retinue that could seriously threaten the King of Castile. Good thing he's distracted from all that by the marriage of his daughters to the Infantes of Carrion, who turn out to be jackasses.

I'm sure all the Moors were relieved.


Doctor Why,
or the hazards of being an academic with nothing to analyze

Recently a friend goaded me into watching Doctor Who. Since I was deprived of the british childhood I so clearly deserved, I haven't seen it since it came on PBS in the eighties, and I half-remember it as mildly entertaining. However, rather than start with the First Doctor (William Hartnell) and move forward, I started with the BBC's 2005 renovation of the franchise, with the Ninth Doctor (the incredible Christopher Eccleston).

This was, as that incarnation of The Doctor might say, a "fantastic" idea. The new series is clever and well-written, and has cracking special effects that make a pile of living plastic believable, for starters. I watched them all—the Slytheen episodes, the Chula medship that turns everyone into gas-mask zombies, the Daleks (and then more Daleks!)—and loved them. However, since Netflix has decided to postpone releasing Series 2 (perhaps they think Scotsmen are less engaging than Northerners), I had a brand-new obsession and nothing to fill it with. So, naturally, given a show with a forty-three year history, I ordered more episodes from Netflix, this time starting at the beginning.

Bad move.

First of all, like a good number of things at the BBC, the old series was filmed in video, giving it that "soap opera actors have invaded London in pepperpots" feel. As such, I personally have a hard time accepting this as fiction; I had the same trouble with Red Dwarf a few years ago. [1] Hurrah, then, that the BBC seem largely to have given up that feel with the advent of digital technology.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that these shows are awful. Now, before I get screaming letters,[2] let me say that the ideas aren't generally bad. What's bad, though, is the writing; George Lucas could out-write some of these people on a bad day with a hangover. Remember Science Fiction in the Sixties? Remember why MST3K made a decade's worth of episodes out of Science Fiction from the Sixties? That's the old Doctor Who, right up to Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor) [the sixth and seventh were kind of awful for other reasons, most of them having to do with the Eighties].

In his book Strange TV, M. Keith Booker writes that SF television had a rough patch between the mid 1970's and the late 1980's; he argues that Roddenberry's decision to relaunch Star Trek as a television program was the jumping-off point for nearly 15 years' worth of sold SF television. Since I don't have the book in front of me,[3] I'm paraphrasing, and I don't recall whether he also said this: what separates these modern shows from the old SF—the stuff we now see as "camp"—is the writing. Not the effects, though those have gotten better; not the ideas, since those were always good. It's the writing that makes the difference.

Television is now in its fourth generation, and, despite the challenges this nebulous "digital age" presents, it will likely remain with us for a while yet. As such, it's grown as a storytelling medium. Now, with shows like The Sopranos or The Venture Brothers or Rome, we expect top-notch stories that make us care about the characters; in short, we expect television to give us the same quality of story that we get from film, or novels, or drama. The fact that the new series of Doctor Who delivers on a level that the old series did not is a sign that the medium has begun to mature—and that's a good thing, because if humanity needs anything else, it's another quality medium in which to tell stories.

Of course, all this may change with the next series. Hurry up, Netflix, you bastards! [4]
[1] Other shows filmed in this way:
Are You Being Served?, 'Allo, 'Allo!, Mr Bean, Blackadder. I have problems with the former two because they're inane drivel, but for some reason it works for things with Rowan Atkinson in.
[2] Please post your howlers to . . . (Eee! Book Seven comes out in July! And it'll suck! eee!)
[3] But you should. By the blood that Mahund bled, it's a good book. His prose is
clear—a rare thing in academic books—and he's funny, too. Amazon; Half; WorldCat
[4] Things I am also waiting on from Netflix: the first series of
A Bit of Fry and Laurie, the second series of Rome, the third series of House, and, ironically, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

I suspect the compulsory lists are because I've been reading
High Fidelity again. It's nice to have books that make me think but don't automatically shift me into analytical mode.