The Archival Twin Dilemma

No, we're not rehashing old episodes of Doctor Who—which, thank god, because no one needs the Sixth Doctor inflicted on them. Although, come to think of it, today's discussion does feel a bit like you're being choked by a man in a ridiculous motley jacket. That is, what we're looking at is that moment when you find your scholastic twin in the archives.

I'm talking about something I think we've all faced at one time or another, the discovery that the brilliant reading you had was conceived, polished, and put forth years in advance of you. There's nothing worse than going through a journal, an essay collection, or even (most disturbing) an entire book, and realizing that you're sunk. I was going to say "you've been scooped," but sometimes the work you're reading is ten, twenty and (in one personal case) thirty years old, and that's not so much a scoop as a . . . well, a sinking feeling.

Take, for instance, my experience this summer. After a year off from writing scholarship, I decided to spend this summer being creative again. So I spent most of June writing an essay on Sir Orfeo that was kind of a mess, set it aside, and turned to some older projects that cropped up during my dissertation. You know how it is: as you're writing, you think of some "brilliant" ideas that won't quite fit in your main project. In my case they were an essay on the sword-hilt in Beowulf and another essay on the connection between communities in Le Morte Darthur and the modern concept of "heterotopia."

I discovered in short order that there was already a great book (a whole book!) on Malory and community, namely Kenneth Hodges' Forging Chivalric Communities in Malory's Le Morte Darthur. This was a rough blow since I'd spent the previous week writing a careful discussion of how the word "heterotopia" was for Foucault more about knowledge than actually-extant communities. Armed with that hermeneutic, I'd hoped to make the case that a) Malory's chivalry is plural, and that the deliberate failure to synthesize these competing chivalries undoes Caxton's utopian call for a single community bound by chivalry; and b) the failure of that system reminds us that micro-communities are fragile without something to unify them—that essentially heterotopia is not a useful substitute for utopia. Now, b) is hard to do without a), and 50% of a) is Hodges' argument. Dammit.

Something similar happened when I turned to Beowulf. I've long been fascinated by the scene in which Our Hero returns to Heorot, Grendel-head in one hand and melty sword hilt in the other, and presents the latter to Hrothgar as a souvenir of his fight. Hrothgar's response to the hilt is a long mathelode that amounts to, "um, yeah, thanks, but we're going with Grendel's head" and, because it's Anglo-Saxon poetry, a healthy dollop of "also, we're totally doomed as a culture. DOOMED!" Now, I think the reason Hrothgar does this is because Grendel's head and arm are unambiguously a symbol of the fight with Grendel, while the hilt has its own symbolic structures that threaten to make the story of Grendel a story of something else, namely how the Danes are—all together now—DOOMED.

You know who else said that? Seth Lehrer, in Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon England, back in 1991. Not in so many words (I doubt, for instance, that Lehrer's Hrothgar sounds like a Valley Girl), but the reading itself is close enough.

Now, I am aware that the standard critical response to this sort of thing is to deal with the critics' work and make a slightly different case, but I have a problem with that here. While I think the Beowulf essay (or, really, conference paper) is probably salvagable and worth playing up, it will still be tough to wade through Lehrer's readings and make them substantially different from my own. In the case of Hodges' "chivalric communities" and my "heterotopias of chivlary," there really isn't any difference except that I'd be using Foucault and using the phrase "heterotopia" instead of "chivalric communities." These projects look scuttled, which is a depressing sight to say the least.

But then again, they don't. In describing them to you, my reader(s), I see where the differences lie, and how it is actually convenient, for instance, that Hodges has done a lot of the footwork on communities so that I can make what would have been a book into the essay it needs to be. Hurrah! We're back in the game.

However, I'm facing another problem, which is that it is now the 26th of July. School starts in less than a month and I have quite a lot of class prep to do. It's also the case that I'm kind of tired; writing that Orfeo essay was harder than it seemed, and I think I'm still kind of wasted from the 4/4 load I had last year (and have this year).

The final problem, though, is Catch-22: I need a job that gives me more time to write, but in order to get that job I have to have publications, which I can't produce because this job is too time-consuming. *sigh* What a frustrating profession this is.


A Meditation on Place and Growth

In preparation for the fall, I've been reading State U's One Book One Community choice, Colin Beavan's No Impact Man. One of Beavan's themes is, for lack of a better phrase, "lifestyle sustainability" (my words, not his). That is, he's asking why we in the West/North/United States are obsessed with a consumerist lifestyle that brings happiness to almost no-one and is destroying the planet as well; he is also asking how it might be possible to change some if not all of that worldview and gain a little more long-term happiness.

In that reading, though, I was reminded of this meditation from Edward Abbey's essay "A San Francisco Journal." Responding to a statement by then-mayor Diane Feinstein that "A city not growing is dying," Abbey quips:

Why not consider the possibility that a city, like a man or woman or tree or any other healthy living thing, should grow until it reaches maturity--and then stop? Who wants to live forever under the stress, strain, and awkwardness of adolescence? Life begins at maturity. A human who never stopped growing would be a freak, a mutant, a monster, a sideshow geek eating live chickens for supper and toppling dead of diabetes and kidney failure into an early grave. We passed the optimum point of urban growth and population increase many decades ago. Now we live in the age of accelerating growth and diminishing returns. (One Life At A Time, Please [New York: Holt, 1978], 60).
I've admired this quotation for a while, not in the least because of the question it doesn't ask: what does "growth" really mean? We think of growth as this physical thing, but Abbey suggests that it might be something akin to the way that we as human beings grow mentally and (again, for lack of a better word) spiritually as we age. That's the reason, I think, that many American cities don't feel so much like places but rather simply collections of buildings: we build up and out without thinking of what it means to build in, to build a community instead of a building, a home instead of a house.

And that's what's kind of exciting about Beavan's book: by eliminating a good number of the things that isolate us--television, cars, even electricity (the latter move by his own admission extreme)--Beavan discovers that Manhattan is already a distinct place, filled with parks and communities and awesome people that he in his culturally-normed isolation never really noticed. I look forward to suggesting this to my students, in part because I hope that, young and malleable as they still are, they might be able to more easily shake those consumerist habits.


Reboot, 2011-style: with sassy Texas sauce.

Sorry, where was I? Okay, so in an effort to return to more of an online presence, and to keep these damn spammers out of my blog, I'm restarting the New Donestre Social Club. Here's what I've been doing since . . . 2009? Oh, [expletive deleted].

Okay, first the good news: I did finish my dissertation and pass my defense, and took the long walk across the stage in May of 2010. I then went to Kalamazoo and delivered what was admittedly a poorly thought out paper to a semi-hostile audience. "Poorly thought out" because lit review is a) not theory and b) not interesting to listen to, and I should have realized that before I went. "Semi-hostile" because the actual questions I got were rather supportive, but one of my co-presenters was a bit confrontational. Ah well. It got me there, and I had a good time otherwise, and bought an obscene number of books with some of my graduation money.

Also good news: I am employed. Less good: said employment is at the same institution where I got my degrees. It's a 4/4 non-tenured position, but it does pay well and comes with benefits, and so long as enrollment stays high, it's mine if I want it.

This spring, I actually got to teach an entire Medieval course, which rocked. I did Arthurian Romance, and we covered everything from the early sources to Malory. That course was the trial run for a "Digital Media Project," which I'd come up with last fall in an effort to look interesting to prospective employers (why sugar-coat it?). That did okay, though it wasn't as coherent as I'd have liked, and several students said they would have liked a regular paper instead.

Now the frustrating news: The job search was just as bad the second time around; I had one institution request more of my dossier, but that was it. So . . . here's to September! I'll ride that damn horse 'till it takes me to a new home.

I've also had a hell of a time getting anything published. I have excerpted and heavily re-edited one chapter of my dissertation, and I think it's in pretty good shape. However, editors of several of our discipline's journals have thought otherwise. I keep sending it out, though. It'll find a home somewhere.

So, that brings us up to the present. After taking a year off from writing, I've been working on a few projects--class in Sir Orfeo, heterotopia in Le Morte Darthur, memory in Beowulf--and hope to get them in conference-shape soon. Actually, Malory's been presented a few times, so I'll probably just try to make that a real essay.

This fall, I'll be teaching three sections of Freshman Composition and one section of our newly-revived Introduction to Literature Course. The former are centered around sustainability, a theme suggested by No Impact Man, our university's choice for its One Book One Community program this fall. The latter I'm teaching as a course in close reading and textual analysis, because a) our students have repeatedly requested such a course and b) they damn well need it. I'm having fun putting both courses together.