04 November 2008


I'm sitting here reading Harry Berger and Marshall Leicester's excellent "Social Structure as Doom: The Limits of Heroism in Beowulf" and they quote Marcel Mauss's The Gift. He writes that in very public, communal times (like feasting) there is "exaggerated fear and an equally exaggerated generosity" because "there is no middle path. There is either complete trust or complete mistrust" (79-80).

So, of course, this got me to thinking about binary oppositions and how ridiculous most academics (including yours truly) think they are. At the very least, they're oversimplifications of an issue and the possible approaches to it. At their worst, they are ways of narrowing thought and controlling what can be said and thought about something (think of the amount of work Foucault had to do to recover things--the genealogies of thought on homosexuality and madness, for example--from the years (sometimes centuries) of un-thought. That's a lot of work caused by the institution of the reductive binaries gay/straight and sane/insane.

Perhaps I was primed for this by the presidential campaign that will (thankfully) end today. It was a long campaign for both men, and they have the distinction and honor of representing their two political/ideological parties in this race. But people like Bob Barr, Ron Paul, and Ralph Nader are still around and talking about issues; it's just that no one is listening anymore. We have the two representatives of the two different ways to run the country, and that's enough for us.

But should it be? Should the Log Cabin Republicans always fall in line? Should Lieberman always come to the Democratic National Convention? Should third-party candidates always suffer because of Ross Perot's flaky behavior in 1992?

I taught Mary Louise Pratt's "Arts of the Contact Zone" yesterday, and I was surprised by how zealously my students clung to the two-approaches model. Sure, they were advocating pragmatism and independently deciding between different approaches, but they couldn't fathom there being more than two. It seemed to me that they were missing Pratt's whole point in writing the essay and fighting to do away with the Western Civ. requirement at Stanford. She was attempting to question and undermine their binary mode of thought by questioning what is meant by "culture." If there isn't a coherent, stable "culture" then there is no binarism, either. So when one of my students observed that it would be really hard to see the Holocaust from both sides (ie, that it could be viewed as both good and bad), I wondered out loud what we should then make of Jews who were active in the Nazi party. No one knew what to make of that, so it was mostly ignored after a period of silence (it doesn't, after all, fit into the binary opposition that's been created for this narrative). I walked back to my office feeling like I'd failed to get them to understand her theory of a contact zone.

And yet. Maybe they were smarter than I am. As I looked over the essay again, I found myself drawn to the "safe houses" that are a part of her class. These are when the heat gets to be too much, so students can retreat into a "safe house" to collect their thoughts, calm their jangling nerves, and perhaps digest what's been said. The thing about this is that is sort of creates another binarism: "us" and "not us." Students can return to "us" after they've encountered the "not us." We'll soon be discussing Edward Said's Orientalism, and the binary (Occident and Orient) might be even more important there.

So biblically, three is a sacred number, but in practice, it's just difficult to work with, apparently. People as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher have wondered how, exactly, the Trinity makes any sense at all. I dare say that most Christians couldn't explain it with any sort of clarity since most believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient (so why does He need the Holy Spirit?). I know there are probably well-thought-out explanations to be found, but I haven't heard them, nor can I come up with a palatable one from my own Christian learning and (strange) theology. My response to that has been the same as my students' to Jewish Nazis: DOES NOT COMPUTE!! And then it's promptly dropped from the equations so they'll continue to work.

Binaries are everywhere when you think about them. From Pulp Fiction (every person is a Beatles fan or an Elvis fan, but you can't be both) to politics (Democrats and Republicans--Independents are only independent until November 4th after which they become--maybe for only a little while--Democrats or Republicans because there are only two real options); from sex (straight or gay... the B and T part of the GLBT acronym are often viewed as wishy-washy, and we have no time for people who can't make up their minds) to socialism (either you're an American or a Commie bastard); from abortion (pro-Choice or pro-Life) to Al Qeada (for them or against them).

The reason I've been thinking about the number three and the problems it causes for binary thinking that we try to avoid but are obviously comforted by is because I've been thinking about Beowulf again. (I took a few weeks off from thinking about the poem, but I'm back at it.) Berger and Leicester seem to me to concatenate the potentialities of the characters and their relations to one another and their culture by reducing things to "heroic" and "not heroic" (which doesn't necessarily mean cowardly). It should be noted that I'm talking within the context of Berger and Leicester's essay because that's what I'm reading right now, but I've seen it in many, many analyses and discussions of the poem--either explicitly stated or implied. I find this way of thinking about the poem incredibly reductive. "Not heroic" is a fine category for advancing their thesis, but it is far too general and unwieldy to help in thinking (ab)out the poem.

Instead, I've been looking at things from a tripartite angle. I've gotten here by thinking about monsters for the last six years or so, and I've finally hit the wall. I couldn't answer Jim Earl's question: what is the point of all this talk about monsters? That was, until I went back and started re-reading some of the sources that I hadn't looked at since I completed my thesis. What I realized that people like Ingebretsen and especially Jeffrey Cohen had been doing was looking at monsters as boundary markers and vehicles for re-asserting the mores of the speaking culture. (I know, I am not so quick on the uptake.) The initial tendency, of course, is to place "monster" on one side and "hero" on the other--and for some projects perhaps that's all that needs to be done. Not for mine.

I couldn't put two big boxes in the poem and lump everyone into one or the other because some wouldn't fit. If the Grendelkin are unheroic and Hrothgar is unheroic that's saying two very different things. It's like trying to smoosh Wilco into either the Country genre (do they sound anything like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash?) or the Rock genre (do they sound anything like Aerosmith or The Killers?). You can do it, but not without stretching the boundaries of either genre until they essentially break and are meaningless. No, that won't do. You need new genres--like Alt-Country (Neko Case or Hank III) or Indie Rock (Band of Horses or Fleet Foxes)--in order to accommodate a band like Wilco.

The example there is silly but it is the thought process I followed in thinking about the poem. I let the characters and their actions tell me what the categories should be (as I let Wilco tell me what genre they should be) rather than try to impose some sort of category system on them. And what I got was this:

King (and community) <----------------------------------------------> Monster (and other)

Hero (defends community
but shares traits with
monster adversary)

The tripartite paradigm I created is indeed still reductive. No doubt about it. "Normal" people are non-existent here--and that is because they are not major players in the narrative (I guess I'm reading characters like Brecca and Unferth as narrative devices whose purpose is to test and illustrate the prowess of the hero). So-called "normal" people represent the community, the society whose values are crystallized in the idea of a good king--something about which the poem itself has much to say.

Each group has it's own ethics. Monsters have a sort of rulebook for how they must act. Kings and their people have another--and it's usually diametrically opposed to the monster's ethical precepts. Heroes have still another. It's sometimes difficult to identify and isolate because it is often in-line with what the king's ethics. Both, for instance, have a responsibility to care for the people with which they are identified. That identification works differently for kings (Hrothgar is bound to Denmark by blood and his first responsibility will be to Denmark) than for heroes (Beowulf is bound to Geatland by his upbringing and kinship bonds; he's bound to Denmark by his heroic desire to fight the monster and defend the Danes--and more loosely by the bonds of the warrior code). Heroes are among the people but not necessarily of the people. They defend the people and their mores against the monsters that threaten (and reinforce) them, but heroes also have a touch of the monstrous in them, too. Many, many critics have noted this in Beowulf (Dragland, Huffines, and Kroll, to name just three...of course), but I don't know that anyone's thought about what it means for the poem as a whole and for the ethics (which I am reading as a foundational part of community-building, a la Anderson and Friedman among others) of the characters (or more specifically groups of characters) in the poem.

So it may be that three's a crowd, but we won't find out unless we go down that road. If nothing else, this orals project should be interesting.

No comments: