Ranting about reading

November 7, 2006 at 9:12 pm (reading notes, theory)

I’m irate about something unrelated to William Morris, on the surface anyway, having recently read Gillian Overing’s 1993 response to criticism of her self-consciously theoretical work in Anglo-Saxon studies. [1] I have read Language, Sign, and Gender, and I didn’t agree with all of it either, but hearken to a reviewer’s fears: Overing and her ilk, part of a “postmodern craze for indeterminacy and fractured consciousness” and a “conspiracy to ‘re-mould [Beowulf] nearer to the Heart’s desire’” (Olsen 1026; Fitzgerald qtd. in Olsen 1026), could “destroy Beowulf for the next generation of readers” (Olsen 1026). [2] What mighty power lies in the selfish and willful mind and pen of Gillian Overing! Whatever privileges she gained, whatever credibility she garnered through years of study of the Anglo-Saxon language and its extant texts, she has surrendered in the eyes of her tribe through her careless allegiance to new-fangled ways that are not familiar to the kindred and not part of the time-honored traditions of the hall. Gillian Overing is outlaw.

My indignation at Olsen and the unpacked assumptions behind her statement about Overing’s capacity to “destroy Beowulf” make me feel immediately guilty about my dislike of Morris. I find myself in the bizarre position of feeling the need to defend William Morris from myself, despite my extreme annoyance with what I perceive to be his artificial diction and his irritating habit of having his characters lapse into a mishmash of hexameter in anapests and iambs. What, I must ask myself, do I want from Morris? Am I accustomed to Tolkien’s level of self-consciousness in fictionalizing a history that never was? Does Morris annoy because his fiction is not fiction enough, lacks some of the Elves and Orcs and imaginary languages that signal to us, from Tolkien’s pages, that there is a responsible and comfortable distance between the history that the author gestures towards and the head of the author himself, between what little we have in the way of recorded history and the figures that the author has created to populate a vision of it? Am I uneasy that his politics and his fiction seem intertwined? Is it the language of the foreword that bothers me, as it urges me to read on for my fill of “more tales of travel in an unspoiled wilderness” (9), or of the Tolkien-neglected “romance between men and women”? [3] Am I permitted to simply find the poetry bad in a rather painful way? I might be as guilty as Morris’ Fox, a “Markman to fight against the Markmen” (37), in wrinkling my nose at Morris’ prose without clearly articulating just what it is I find troublesome about it. And if it’s the aura of romance he conjures around a mythical past that seems like, but can’t possibly be, a historical past, then I’m a terrible hypocrite indeed, since I seem to believe, on a larger scale, that fiction should be allowed to be read as fiction, whether it’s Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry or a Symbolist poet’s musings on the power of a color; that is to say, it can and should be interpreted and discussed by people who are allowed to admit they are people, and who aren’t required to leave their subjectivity at the door when they embark on a study of Old English grammar.

C. S. Lewis praised Morris’ tales because they seemed true (8), and he considered Morris successful in his efforts to try the “old wine” in “new wineskins” (8); he noted a division in the “modern literary world” between “militant Christians” and “the convinced materialists” (8), but was convinced that both sides of the divide could find something of worth in Morris’ romances. A similar chasm exists between scholars like Overing and her “opponents,” who charge her with ruining perfectly good Anglo-Saxon poetry by either failing to try to interpret it or else by approaching its interpretation wrong-headedly, depending on which sentence you read of her attackers. Die-hard positivists might take a page from materialists in their wariness of the filter of human subjectivity and interpretation; those committed to a Christian or metaphysical view of the world might have something in common with schools of criticism that not only recognize but celebrate humanity’s seeming inability to distance itself and the texts it engages from extra-textual frameworks. As in the contemporary debates over creationism versus evolution, one is pressed to take sides and to see those sides as mutually exclusive. Refusal to do so leaves one little room to stand under any clearly identifiable standard or banner on the Hill of Speech. There is – incredibly — a battle being waged over who “owns” Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I realize that I have something in common with Morris and his socialist vision of the imaginary Wolfings, amongst whom land was held in common and even thralls share ownership in poetry (and indeed, burst into it at incredibly awkward times).

[1] Overing, Gillian. “Recent Writing on Old English: A Response.” Aestel 1 (1993). Available online: http://members.aol.com/mcnelis/AEstel1/Overing1.html

[2] Olsen, Alexandra. “Review, Language Sign and Gender in Beowulf.” Speculum 67 (1992): 1024-1026.

[3] Morris, William. More to William Morris. Michael Perry, ed. Seattle: Inkling Books, 2003.


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