That is how all studies--medieval or otherwise--should end. I've been reading Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins, and in advocating an always-tentative, always-becoming notion of the past, he states: "the layers of the past cannot readily be reduced to a single plot without loss" (107). (By "plot" he's referring to the causal, linear view of history that dominates Anglo-Saxon studies in particular and medieval studies in general.)
It seems to me that loss is one thing that seems to be animating a lot of really interesting work on the Middle Ages right now. I can remember Jorie Woods, the person most responsible for me being a medievalist, bringing in lesbian love letters and Hrotsvit of Gandersheim and Poetria Nova--and really blowing my mind by making me realize there was more to medieval literature than Arthuriana and Beowulf. Liz Scala wrote a great book on absent narratives. Carolyn Dinshaw wrote a book that almost compels one to think about aspects of the Middle Ages that we've been ignoring for centuries. Of course, Jeffrey Cohen did more to direct real thinking about medieval monsters than Tolkien could have dreamed of. And he's been joined by Eileen Joy, Karl Steel, and Mary Kate Hurley who are pursuing different margins--until-now-lost themes, characters, motifs, and texts--over at the ITM. But it strikes me that this is all about anxiety of loss: a loss of the past, a lost of MSS, a loss of knowledge, a loss of identity that is based not just on what we've inherited but also the sort of thinking and methodology we've inherited. (EDIT: WSJ just published something about missing texts.)
Sometimes the paths have been blazed so well and made so inviting by people like Tolkien and Benson that we don't even realized there might be another way. Maybe the road home is the most convenient and efficient way to get there, but sometimes you just have to be like Cheever's Neddy and decide to swim home via your neighbors' swimming pools. At first it's ridiculous (aren't firsts almost always ridiculous, though?), and then people will resent it, but that's because it's outside the norm.
If we could get away from a plotted, linear view of medieval studies, we might be able to (re)develop or (re)construct some of those other paths that have been abandoned. We all know from experience that early work we do in a field or on a topic is often embarrassingly wrong. So why do we pretend when we're writing it that it's anything more than a giant, researched, well-thought-out conditional statement? Doesn't refusing to acknowledge the contingency in all of our work really push out other ways of seeing Anglo-Saxon England? It's not necessarily slippery-slope relativism to admit what we say could change tomorrow, next month, next decade (let's take a tip from Barthes or, if you like, Thomas Merton, who said "My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center. And I am always seeing that center from somewhere else. Hence I will always be accused of inconsistency. But I will no longer be there to hear the accusation.") Why shouldn't everyone admit it? Why shouldn't every paper, every thesis, every dissertation end with "...at least I think so right now"?
[NB: The picture at the top of this blog entry is Eva Hesse's "Contingent," a series of hanging panels made of cheesecloth-type fabric and plastic. The piece itself, if it is even possible to see it and has not degraded to a catastrophic extent, is always contingent--on time, on environment, on gravity. All of these things will change it from year to year (the cheesecloth will stretch and change the length of the pieces). Hesse said:
Piece is in many parts.
Each in itself is a complete statement,
together am not certain how it will be....
textures coarse, rough, changing.
see through, non see through, consistent, inconsistent.
enclosed tightly by glass like encasement just hanging there.
then more, others, will they hang there in the same way?
try a continuous flowing one.
try some random closely spaced.
try some distant far spaced.
they are tight and formal but very ethereal, sensitive, fragile.
see through mostly
not painting, not sculpture, it's there though.
I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive,
non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing,
everything, but of another kind, vision, sort.
from a total other reference point, is it possible?]