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.

No comments: