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.


Things I Did Today

In no particular order:

1) Discovered Manchild, the BBC's answer to Sex and the City, but with men. Equally self-absorbed, though deadly funny and British. It's like an older version of what the movie version of High Fidelity ought to have been (i.e. set in London, possibly with Nigel Havers doing the voice-overs).

2) Finished a draft of my House-of-Fame-is-utopian paper, then read two paragraphs in and realized that a definition of "utopian" would probably help.

2a) Made one.

3) Collected the last of my students' final exams, and, barring a few stragglers, will have grades up by Tuesday (for the first section) and Wednesday (for the second).

4) Started going through all the Libri legendi notecards I've made over the course of the semester (how did I get up to five this time?). If you don't keep lists of things you'd like to read, you're clearly not an academic. I think I'll be adding 50 or so volumes to the already 38-volume list.

5) Eyed the rest of Alan Bray's The Friend that I was thinking of finishing; watched Manchild instead (see #1).

. . . and that is all. Soon enough I'll be done and can relax properly.