Monday 24 April 2006

"I woke up and sighed: the world was Marian"

Uta Ranke-Heinemann is a German theologian who is most famous for being the first woman to gain a chair in theology at the University of Essen, and the first to lose it after denying the virgin birth and was excommunicated in 1987. She is most famous in the English-speaking world for her wonderful book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.
In an interview last year she talked about her admiration for Ratzinger's intelligence and compared it unfavourably with JPII. "The enormous difference between John Paul II and Ratzinger is intelligence. Ratzinger is more, much more, intelligent. Quite frankly, John Paul II was tedious without end. I couldn’t stand it any more. He was obsessed with Mary. “Mary, Mary, Mary,” he repeated over and over and over. I mean, I feel much for Mary myself, because she lost her son. But John Paul II said Mary was glad to see her son on the cross and that she would have put him there herself because it meant our salvation. I tell you, Ratzinger would not say such a stupid, horrible thing! No, he has much more taste than that. Ratzinger has much more of what the French call esprit de finesse. And John Paul II had none! ... At Munich, Ratzinger did his doctorate with professor Söhngen, and I did mine with professor Schmaus. This was in 1954—at the time of Pius XII’s dogma about Mary being received into heaven. Söhngen quoted Jerome who, around 400, said: “I woke up and sighed: the world was Arian.” (Arius was the great heretic who denied the divinity of Jesus.) And similarly, Söhngen said about Pius XII’s dogma, “I woke up and sighed: the world was Marian.” So, none of us, including Ratzinger, Söhngen’s main doctoral student, were excessive Marians." On the future of the Church she says: "I don’t see any future for a church in which all shepherds are men, and all women are sheep. How could that be a universal church? It’s a mutilated construct!...The church will continue as it always has. Ratzinger will not change 2,000 years of male domination. But perhaps he might make one tiny change for the better. He might permit the use of condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa. Those women in Africa who are told by their priests that they will go to hell if they use condoms—well, those women are told they're the martyrs of this millennium!"

Sunday 23 April 2006

Inside Man (2006), dir. Spike Lee

Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, who explains to us in the opening shot that he has planned the perfect bank robbery. The film then proceeds to show the heist in progress, and the efforts of Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) to get the hostages being held in the bank out alive and getting the case wrapped up. When the four robbers seal off the bank and begin the robbery they make everyone take off their clothing and get into dark jumpsuits, white masks, and blindfolds; they are dressed just like the robbers. From here on it is very difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and that is a key theme in the film. Russell isn't an evil criminal mastermind, he's got a point to make, and it isn't about holding hostages or hurting them, or about robbing millions of dollars from the bank. There is a funny scene where a little black kid is playing with a Sony PSP and explains to Dalton the object of the game (kill people, put grenades in their mouths, sell crack to them, rape people, the usual thing an 8-year-old should be playing, in sum). Dalton shakes his head and says he'll have to talk to his father about this game. He's disgusted with the violence. Along comes the super powerdressed Madeline White (Jodie Foster, rather gingerly sporting an Hermès Birkin bag), who has been hired by the bank's owner, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) to make sure something in a safe deposit box never sees the light of day. It becomes clear that what's in the box interests Dalton too, and he's not willing to part with it just yet. In a bank full of money, the most important thing is an envelope documenting the origin of Case's money, Nazi loot. Can they manage to escape? And do we care?

I think that's my main gripe with the film. We don't care enough about the heist because the motivation is never properly developed. It is undoubtedly worthy, but many questions remain unanswered, and the main one is 'Why does Dalton do it?'. Lee is making us work for it in the film, but in a way we do need certain assurances that are not forthcoming. The film left me oddly dissatisfied. The film is well made, assuredly directed, and the acting is all very solid. There are plenty of nice parallel scenes set up in the film: Frazier can't afford a diamond ring for his girlfriend, the only real piece of evidence left at the scene is a Cartier diamond ring. And with a Spike Lee film you expect some angry political angle. It is there but you have to dig a little for it. It is a very post-9/11 film in this sense. One of the bank clerks who is released is being told to kneel (the cops think he's booby trapped) and when he takes his mask off one of the police officers says 'Oh shit he's a fuckin Arab', meaning 'of course he's wired up to explode'. The man is a Sikh. But the friend of the Nazis Arthur Case is paralleled rather nicely with the shady Birkin-toting Madeline, who blackmails Case to go referee on a purchase deal of property on Fifth Avenue by the nephew of Osama Bin Ladin. The implication is clear: Al-Qaeda are the Nazis of today, and the people we describe as war criminals are the same people who today make money in bed with those who wish to destroy Western civilization; they are perfectly respectable, they are pillars of society, who do lots of worthy and laudable things for people in need. But in fifty years, when the atrocities have been raked over, they will be called war criminals too; and others will have stepped in to take their place. Case says, I saw a chance to make money and I took it; Madeline is just the same. There are many who should be uncomfortable with these sentiments.

Saturday 22 April 2006

Walter J Ong, Orality and Literacy (Routledge, 1982)

Ong's Orality and Literacy is a classic of its kind. A kind of response to Marshall McLuhan ('The medium is the message' and all that) and an extended discussion of what Orality and Literacy actually means. The book also refers briefly to Derrida et al., but clearly isn't going to go into it. Ong is mainly interested in what he calls primary orality, meaning communities who have no contact with the written word whatsoever. Such communities must surely be hard to find now, and indeed in much of his discussion anything after oral Plato is not quite in this category of orality. Even the so-called primitive society (the kind of stuff Lévi-Strauss ran around looking for), I wonder if they really fit in. Is there really any such thing as primary orality?

His discussion of the changes in literacy and orality in the move between manuscript and print is interesting, though I do wonder a bit about his presentation of manuscript production, and the whole notion that manuscripts were so difficult to read printing really had to be invented. Well, they might look difficult to read by comparison to print, but when there's nothing else, then they are not difficult to read. They just are. Ok, there are cases where scribes copying abbreviations can make mistakes, but that does not mean they found them difficult, it means they are human and make mistakes. Books are often spotted with typos, which doesn't mean that books are hard to read. The restricted access to books in a manuscript culture is a complex phenomenon, and manuscripts cannot be 'blamed' for the fact that they don't look like printed books.

Tuesday 11 April 2006

A.C. Spearing, Textual Subjectivity (OUP, 2005)

Anyone familiar with Spearing's recent work will, in a way, have seen this book being born. His article on the Man of Law's Tale (NLH 32 [2001], 715-46) in particular will show a fault line of the polemics of the book. Why do we need all these narrators in Chaucer's work? Spearing says that it's a notion that was developed with Kittredge and has stuck fast since; if we have a problem with a tale, we generally attribute it to the narrator. If, on the other hand, we like something in the tale then we attribute it to Chaucer. The proliferation of narrators is unnecessary according to Spearing. In an opening chapter, entitled 'Subjectivity and Textuality' he outlines how he has come to this view, mainly with recourse to Derrida. He uses Derrida's suspicion of Western phonocentrism and priviledging of the spoken word over the written word which has led to our multiplying narrators in the Tales: thus, we trust a narrator more because he is speaking, rather than allowing ourselves to trust the textuality of the poem.
There is an awful lot more I could say about this book. It is a good book, and I recommend it. I do, however, have some problems with it. For all his talk about textuality, his attention in the analysis of the Man of Law's Tale to its curious textual format in both the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts is too scant. The Tale is glossed in Hg and El, drawing material from Innocent III's De miseria condicionis humane, Ptolemy's Almagest, and Bernard Silvestris' Megacosmos. Robert Enzer Lewis has already demonstrated that these glosses are drawn from Chaucer's manuscript of the De miseria (see PMLA 81 [1966], 485-92 & SP 64 [1967], 1-16). OK. Now go somewhere with that. What's all this talk about textuality and then no talk about the manuscripts? He makes the point that Chaucer's texts are hugely self-conscious, and in a very physical way. This is true. He cites Cooper (Oxford Guide to Chaucer [2nd ed; 1996], p. 126) on the abundance of glosses supporting his claim that the Tale was seriously intended. Ok. Now what? On pp. 12-13 he cites Jeffrey Kittay ("Utterance Unmoored: The Changing Interpretation of the Act of Writing in the European Middle Ages", Language in Society, 17 [1988], 209-30) who highlights the changes in the format of manuscript pages, in particular word division, and biblical glossing where reference is made to numbered passages rather than cited passages (indicating readers flicked back and forth to texts); this is all to talk about a developing textual awareness and increasing sense of textuality. "The implications of this fact for the elements of commentary and self-glossing in medieval poetry are obviously important (see Rouse and Rouse 1982)". And that's it. What? The Statim invenire article is very important, but it's one and only one starting point of a huge point that shouldn't be left hanging like that. Reynolds, Stillinger, Minnis' new stuff (Magister amoris for example), everything Ralph Hanna has written [not cited BTW], and a whole shed load more are just screaming out after this full stop for attention. It is like he has made an excellent point but then has done nothing with it, and indeed the flatness of the subsequent reading of the MLT is a good case in point.

Final word: very stimulating book with some huge gaping holes.

Friday 7 April 2006

Death & Resurrection: Aspects and Approaches, Lincoln College Oxford

Roll Up Roll Up! Yes, it's that time of year again. The Second Annual Oxford Graduate Medieval Conference will take place next week, Wednesday and Thursday, April 12th and 13th, 2006 on the theme of Death and Resurrection: Aspects and Approaches. The following papers will be delivered:
Christine Maddern (York): Early Medieval Name-Stones as Manuscript Pages; Richard Burian (Glasgow): Wyrd as Death?; Sarah Baccianti (Lausanne): Dead Man Talking, or When Dead Bodies Talk and Move in Grænlendinga saga and Eriks saga rauða; Beth Tovey (Somerville): Sexuality and Dying Bodies in Anglo-Saxon Literature; Alexander Ibarz (Sheffield): Ausiàs March (1400-1459): From Plague to Civil War; Darragh Greene (TCD): 'Let by your sorwful lyf, | For in your sorwe ther lyth no red': From Disorganization and Despair towards Reorganization in the Book of the Duchess; Anna Welch (Melbourne Coll. of Divinity): 'Sister Death': The Influence of St Francis' Attitude Towards Death and Resurrection on the Crucifixion Scene of the Codex Sancti Paschalis; Will Rossiter (Liverpool): Roma/Amor: Petrarchan Necromancy and Necrophilia; Marco Nievergelt (Lincoln): Allegorical Discernment and the Death of the Body: Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine; Cecilia Hatt (St Hilda's): Goodbye Vienna: Learning to Die and Measure for Measure; Michael Funk Deckard (Leuven): Fear of Death and the Sublime in John Milton and Edmund Burke.
Professors Vincent Gillespie (LMH) and Eric Stanley (Pembroke) will open and close the conference, and chairs include Paul Strohm (Columbia), Mary Carruthers (Balliol/NYU), and Richard Rowley (Linacre).
And all this just before Easter!

Thursday 6 April 2006

R. Howard Bloch, Etymologies and Athropologies (U. Chicago Press, 1983)

R. Howard Bloch's Etymologies and Genealogies is an exploration of medieval French literature on the crest of the wave of mainly French theoretical work in the two decades from the Sixties onwards. Derrida, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, de Certeau, are all names that loom large. Bloch takes a central theme and preoccupation in the French Middle Ages, that of lineage, and extends it to an examination of grammar and literature, to ideas of kinship, romance and lyric. And much more.

The book is very interesting and quite a challenging read, and is a good example of a heavy hitting theorist writing about the Middle Ages. I'm not sure whether he's made me rethink anything, but I did take the book seriously as I read it. So that's something. The prose is a little impenetrable at times and might have done with a little clarifying here and there. Anyway, most books of this kind are rubbish (frankly), but I don't think this one is.


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