Saturday, 26 May 2007

Paul Strohm (ed), Middle English (Oxford, 2007)

This volume appears as the first in a series called 'Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature'. As its editor explains in the introduction, it is not really designed to be a companion to anything. There are no 'major author' chapters for example. Instead, the chapter titles seeks to 'violate customary categorizations' (p. 2): 'Vision, Image, Text'; 'Symbolic Economies'; Episodes'; 'Feeling'; 'Learning to Live', for example. So it's not Middle English Literature or Middle English Culture or Textualities, or any such. No; we're past that very Twentieth Century approach. The result is a jumble, but very curiously pleasing. And how could a medievalist complain about such miscellaneous varietas? The book is valuable, interesting and full of gems.
There isn't the space to review every essay, though do have a look at the table of contents. The following are random thoughts and impressions. The book is divided into four parts, 'Conditions and Context', 'Vantage Points', 'Textual Kinds and Categories', and 'Writing and the World'.
Part one is very stimulating. The opening chapter, by Carol Symes, looks at the idea of the 'manuscript matrix', the complex interaction of canonical texts and canonical manuscripts. 'Nearly everything that we take for granted about the identification, classification, and evaluation of texts must therefore be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in the twenty-first century, so that we gain a new appreciation of the very different conditions in which all medieval writings came into being, while acknowledging that many of the texts that make up the medieval segment of the modern canon were elevated to that status based on a variety of criteria which does not account for the aesthetic, cultural, or social values of medieval people, nor the media through which these values were conveyed' (p. 21). [I'd have loved a bit more on Dante, especially since she cites Sanguineti's edition of the Commedia, p. 14 n18, unfortunately without comment on how this edition might have relevance to her argument]. Robert M. Stein's article, immediately following, similarly urges for a return to the manuscripts and a consideration of the codicological context of these texts in a multi-lingual environment. This issue is addressed, again, by Christopher Baswell's essay 'Multilingualism on the Page' (pp. 38-50). And later, Alexandra Gillespie in 'Books' urges a dynamic approach, implicating the likes of Foucault, MacKenzie and Adam Pynkhurst: 'If my first point is that there are lots of different ways of thinking about books, my second is that no one way of thinking about a book is secure in itself. A book is something that must be worked on and made sense of. It is discursively formed - and discursive formations, the forms of human knowledge, are partial and unstable' (p. 90). Some welcome essays surely include Bruce Holsinger's contribution entitled 'Liturgy', proceeding along a 'detheologizing' line of analysis [an approach familiar to all who've read Barolini].
And it would be remiss of me to ignore the remarkable essay entitled 'Vernacular Theology' by Vincent Gillespie (pp. 401-420), where he argues succinctly and elegantly [he rarely argues any other way] that 'vernacular theology' might now be better understood working 'with the assumption that each subperiod in medieval England produced multiple, interlocking, and overlapping vernacular theologies, each with complex intertextual and interlingual obligations and affiliations' (p. 406). His pages on Ullerston as a key figure in the Oxford translation debate will leave you hungry for more. It is hoped that this 'twenty-first century approach' will soon get another outing providing Gillespie with more space to explore and elucidate this fascinating figure.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2007)

The Lives of Others is the feature film debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and it is can only be described as a stunning achievement. It tells the story of a playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, a renowned actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), living in East Germany and trying to make art and toe the party line. They eventually come under the scrutiny of the secret police and it is then that Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) begins to observe them. His credentials are impeccable, as the chilling opening scenes testify. But he was not expecting to find himself emotionally involved in the lives of these two subjects, and especially Christa-Maria, and his navigation of these feelings - weaving perilously between the expectations of the State (itself a complex of vested interests and ideals) and his personal involvement. When Dreyman writes an inflammatory article dealing with the subject of suicide, in response to the death of a black-listed director friend, and publishes it anonymously in Der Spiegel, the pressure mounts and the State apparatus closes in.

The film deals beautifully with the personal and the political, the microcosm and macrocosm of our lives and how we reconstruct lived experience. The Stasi relentlessly records every (seemingly absurd) detail building up an enormous archive. Dreyman, years later, returns to the Stasi offices to read his own files and only then makes sense of what happened. It is a remarkable and moving scene, and results in him writing a novel, Sonata for a Good Man (a piece of music given him by the director who committed suicide). The archive had been a menacing and threatening instrument used against the country's residents, but now becomes a heuristic source for rebuilding their lives.

I highly recommend this stimulating, moving and affecting film. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, 14 May 2007


It would appear that the Babel sessions at Kalamazoo went fantastically well, and the wonderful Eileen Joy is the talk of the town. This was so obviously going to happen sooner or later. I was supposed to give a paper on that session and part of me is upset I could not go - hugely upset really. But I'm also relieved that I didn't get to go because I think my paper would have been easily the most boring in the session, from the sounds of things. Anyways, the papers are going to be posted, so keep an eye out. A highlight is Timothy Spence's paper on Books of Hours and iPods.

Posting is down to a minimum on Miglior acque these days as the workload has increased, but I'll get down to a couple of posts soon on the wonderful film The Lives of Others, and Paul Strohm's edited collection Middle English which I am greatly enjoying. Do read, in the meantime, Estelle Stubbs' very interesting article in the latest Review of English Studies on Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 198 (a ms of the Canterbury Tales). Super stuff. And tonight Guglielmo Gorni is coming to talk about Dante, which I'll hopefully blog.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Chaucer Revealed, sort of...

The wonderful collaborative medieval blog In The Middle has recently had the Chaucer blogger contribute. This had been promised and was eagerly anticipated. But what a surprise to find that it was written in the blogger's own voice. It was full of colloquial and informal American speak such as dang and like and stuff, and it all sounded so much less knowing that the Chaucer voice he uses. Some of those who left comments seemed to betray a little of this disappointment, with one even comparing the voice to that of Holden Caulfield. And now Stephanie Trigg has posted on the whole question of voice and identity and anonymity etc, and wonders about the disappointment at the confessional aspect to the Chaucer blogger's post. All very interesting stuff.

PS: apologies for the lungo silenzio. Will post soon with the usual psychotic book rants.


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