Sunday, November 27, 2005

A Helpful Tip

[UPDATE: In response to comments below: I am fortunate that I am not relying on this piece--or another one that has been at a journal for five months--for tenure or promotion. I'm tenured and already have enough scholarship for promotion when the time comes. My point is not "woe is me, I have been wronged," but "here's something seriously wrong with the academic system." I hope to do a post in a few days about how poor performance by the keepers of major institutions is doing as much to harm and frustrate junior faculty as the state of the job market.]

Dear Editor of Relatively Respected Journal,

A. It is perfectly acceptable to reject an inappropriate article with a one-line email.

B. It is perfectly acceptable to reject an inapproriate article after a thorough review that takes five solid months. The reader's report rejecting the piece is well worth the wait.

Combining the terse reply of A with the slothful response time of B is not at all acceptable. The article so rejected is a brief note. I could translate it into Gothic, translate it from Gothic into Old Norse, translate it from Old Norse to Latin and then paint it on the side of my house in less than five months. To get only one pro forma line out of that long wait is a fairly grotesque failure of courtesy and, more importantly, intellectual responsibility. I'll bet those slothful, lazy reviewers put their reviewing duties on their vitae.

If you wonder why so many younger scholars are starting to submit articles simultaneously to multiple journals (creating headaches and strife for editors), see above.


Mike Drout

P.S.: Now I'll be sending the article off the journal where I thought it belonged in the first place.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Fanboys and Scholars (and Twenty-sided dice)

Jeff at Quid Nomen Illius? has a really good post on the influence of Dungeons and Dragons on the current conquest of popular culture by fantasy (and props for Jeff on his excellent post titles: "Bree-yark" for this one, and a very obscure Jethro Tull reference on the next).

I was one of those kids influenced by D&D, and if I'd been a bit older or younger, I would probably have had a happy career as a game designer: I was too young to be really caught up in the first wave of paper-and-dice D&D (I was mostly interested in it in 6th-8th grade; I don't think I played at all in high school), but a little too old to really get into on-line gaming and high quality computer RPGs. But I wrote a lot of "modules" for D&D, always with a very Tolkienian aspect, plumbing Unfinished Tales for details, sketching out details of weaponry or costume, and making my own weathered-looking maps (I once got into huge trouble because I'd been using my mother's iron to heat lemon-juice-impregnated paper in order to age it: I didn't clear the iron afterwards, and thus some piece of clothing ended up with a large lemon-juice stain on it).

I think all of that give me at least a little fanboy cred when I use the term (despite a reader on The One Ring's amusement). I don't think fanboys are (any more) stalkers or hopelessly in love with movie characters (and I know not all self-identified fangirls are either), but they (we) are obsessive about aspects of our chosen afficion. I haven't had time to do the research, but I'm relatively certain that fanboy/girl are originally pejorative terms (which would fit Squire's interpretation of the word), but they have now been taken up by those inside a subculture as self-identifying labels (and "fanboy" is equivalent to Japanese "otaku," which seems to mean "person who still lives in his parents' house and is obsessed with gaming/anime/manga").

[I'm getting tired of typing fanboy/girl, so I'll use "otaku" from now on].

I think that being an otaku is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for being a good scholar. Scott Nokes here says much the same thing, arguing that scholarship starts in otaku-ish appreciation (I'd add, 'and obsession over detail') and then progresses, through the addition of theory (and I'd add, 'method') and formal communication, to scholarship. I'm not entirely comfortably with the way Scott treats 'theory' here, but I think he's basically right, and his point could be justified historically: literary studies, particularly medievalism, grew out of the practices of gentleman scholars and antiquaries who were collecting manuscripts and trying to understand them and, essentially, writing fan newsletters about Old English texts instead of computer games.

All kinds of scholarship (not just literary work) require the focus of the otaku, the obsessive ability to spend twenty years studying one genus of dragonfly or, like Darwin, work for hours just about every day for a decade dissecting and classifying barnacles.

From these obsessions we generate new insights into the natural and human worlds and, since we've seen the enormous payoff from 18th-century and Victorian gentleman scientists and their journals, we have, as a culture, tried to copy them in the humanities, with many great results (and probably a lot of wasted time as well).

But the social structures built by those early, gentleman otaku--the departments of English, the journals, the lecture circuits--provide real-life benefits (salaries, tenure, publicity, security) that people who are not otaku also covet. And thus, I think, the evolution of problems in scholarship that are usually put under the umbrella of "professionalization." People no longer publish strictly from love of the subject and a desire to inform (though obviously that's important) but also to get financial rewards, respect, power and influence (and it's not like the original Victorian gentlemen were immune to such temptations, either).

Well, if you are attracted to academia because you want to be free to pursue your obsession, you're going to have a very different focus than if you are attracted to academia because you want summers "off," job security, and some initials after your name. Academia is, for many (obviously for me) a very, very appealing life.

But (and here comes the unproveable assertion) if you didn't go into academia because you were an otaku about your subject, then you begin to resent the obsessive work required to be good at it. And you do things like continually re-publish your dissertation (my pet peeve right now) with minor variants ("The bleeding saint in Andreas," "The bleeding saint in Judith," "The bleeding saint in Elene," "The subtextual figure of the bleeding saint in Beowulf" ... you get the idea). Or you stop writing after you get tenure. Or you become bitter and miserable about your students.

But, thankfully, a fairly high percentage of the scholars I know are, in one way or another, otaku. I know a Hawthorne otaku, a Poe otaku, a Louisa May Alcott otaku, a Victorian ghost story otaku. They have (to switch cultures) enthusiasmos or (to switch again) afficion, and it shows in their teaching and their scholarship and their happiness.

I think attempts to bring too much "method" or "theory" to literature can interfere with enthusiasmos, and likewise literary scholars' ill-starred forays into political interpretations undercuts their own afficion (because once you move into politics, you are accepting the idea that there is something that is more important to you than your subject).

Being a fanboy/girl or otaku isn't quite socially mainstream, and being a literary scholar shouldn't be, either: you are doing something that is very weird, and to do it well, you have to be a little weird yourself. You have to get carried away, you have to have a little too much enthusiasm for your obsession than is completely normal.

"a little too much enthusiasm for your obsession than is completely normal" -- sound familiar?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Horned Moses, The Twilight of the Gods, and the Spoiled Eel
Or, can an error improve a text? And if so, who owns it?

Part of the discussion that's been going on here, on Scott Nokes' Unlocked Wordhoard, and on The One Ring circles around (without, I think, actually mentioning it, the idea of "author intent." Now "author intent" is a phrase very out of favor in contemporary literary criticism. The loci classici for its discussion are essays by Roland Barthes ("The Death of the Author") and Michel Foucaul ("What is an Author?"), which are mainstays of introductory theory classes. (I discuss these two essays in regard to Tolkien in my essay "Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism," which is in this book that is supposed to be out soon, so I won't rehearse the whole argument here).

There are a lot of reasons why many (not all, by any means) scholars are wary of author intent: you can't ever be sure you've found it, and the text may have effects that the author did not intend but which nevertheless manifest themselves in the minds of some non-trivial subset of readers. For instance, Tolkien asserted that the name "Galadriel" had nothing to do with the root "galadh" (meaning "tree"), but it's not unreasonable to discuss what effects might be created in the minds of many readers when they notice the similarity (in, for example, the place-name Caras Galadhon or the name for the people of Lothlorien, the Galadhrim). Similarly (but not exactly the same), Tolkien took great exception to a critic's linking "Moria" with the biblical "Moriah," noting that in his invented languages the root "mor" = "black" was sufficient to explain the various "mor-" compound names.

But figuring out what Tolkien meant can't be the end of criticism. Whether or not he intended Moria to be like Moriah (or for readers to perceive an association between Mordor and Murder), in the minds of some readers there will be an association and hence some kind of effect while reading. These may be "mis-readings" or "misprisions" to use Harold Bloom's terms, but if criticism is going to describe what it's like to read The Lord of the Rings, then it has to take these associations and effects into account, regardless of what the author said he wanted.

Now the two instances I've given above a pretty trivial in that they might create some kind of literary resonance for the reader but they don't really change the interpretation of the text significantly, and they are not really significant "errors" for the reader who adopts them. But what about when something goes really wrong? For example, what if you translate a Hebrew word that means "beams" or "rays" of light as Latin "cornu," horns? And then you start a tradition of depicting Moses with Horns (Michelangelo obviously followed this tradition). As I noted in this post, I am not a fan of the hand-waving school of criticism ("Oooh, this is great!! You know why? Because of its essential greatness!! Ooh, look, more greatness!!") that is a somewhat (only somewhat) unfair exaggeration of "conservative" art and literary criticism (the quote from Roger Kemble in the link above illustrates this phenomenon, and Harold's Bloom's introduction to the second edition of his The Anxiety of Influence is almost entirely handwaving about Shakespeare's greatness without ever offering any analysis), but I think Kemble may be on to something in this quote:
What we see in Moses here--Moses the law-giver, Moses the chap who has just had an awful (in the old sense) encounter with God--is the results of an artist's effort to represent visually something that exceeds the boundaries of the representable: the horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding.

I think he's on to the idea that the Moses with horns is better (that is, creating stronger emotional and intellectual responses in viewers) than the same Moses without horns would be. So in this case a translation error has led to an improvement in the quality of the art.

Likewise look at the phrase "Twilight of the Gods" used most famously, obviously, in Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung. This is a mis-translation of Old Norse "ragna-røkr" (it shows up in Snorri's Edda), which actually means "the doom of the Gods" [philology: røk = destined end; røkr = twilight. The "r" on the compound is a nominative ending in ON, but it caused early German scholars mistranslate the word]. Now there's nothing particularly wrong with "Doom of the Gods," but (here I will hand-wave a little due to lack of time) it's not nearly as poetic, beautiful and unexpected as "Twilight of the Gods. " A scholar's error has ramified through the culture to help produce a work of great beauty in Wagner's opera (and it would be impossible, I think, to tease out how much of the opera and the cycle as a whole--musically as well as in terms of plot--is due to Wagner's thinking of the final piece as a "twilight" rather than as just a "doom.").

Finally, the spoiled ell. This is a famous, famous line (or it was, early in the 20th century) from Melville's Moby Dick: a net drops a load of fish on the deck, and there lies a "spoiled eel." Articles were written about the spoiled eel; great existentialist meanings were ascribed to it: had man "spoiled" the eel by wresting it from the sea? Was it "spoiled" intrinsically, the horror of nature apart from humanity? Didn't it show Melville's great poetic genius.

It was a printer's error for "coiled eel," a phrase that would attract just about zero attention because it is so conventional.*

So, is Moby Dick better if it contains "spoiled eel"? Early critical consensus would seem to so indicate. Yet "spoiled eel" was not the author's intent for the passage. So the printer's error is "better" than the author's intent?

What if Melville had noted the error in reading the proofs but had decided to let it stand because he thought it was better than his original? Who gets credit for the poetry of the line?

I could go on raising various questions, but this entry is getting too long, and I actually want to propose some kind of possible solution.

If my theory is correct in describing how traditions evolve (that they involve the accumulation of small differences over time), then an "error" like the horned Moses, the Twilight of the Gods or the spoiled eel provides a saltation, a jump from one portion of the adaptive landscape into another. The vast majority of these kinds of errors are going to be harmful, in that they'll make the text less "adaptive" (that is, aesthetically appealing to the reader): they will add mis-spellings or confusion. But some very small set of these errors will be "better" than the original, and they then may start their own, new, traditions, opening up new areas of adaptive space.

I think this theory might be right because it comes around from an entirely different directon (meme theory, evolutionary biology) and ends up at a place similar to Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, that "strong misreading" drives literary improvement and evolution.

And that's an awful lot of half-argued points to leave off in two paragraphs, but I have a few lectures to write. I'll look forward to further discussion and debate in the comments or on other blogs.

*I think I got the spoiled eel example from Donald Foster's Author Unknown, a book which would be much more interesting if Foster gave more methodology (and which also points to a serious crime that might have been committed by the White House during the Lewinski hearings but which the special prosecutor was too sex-focused to notice).

Monday, November 14, 2005

King Alfred's Grammar Really Works!

Ok, that's probably a little bit of hyperbole, but I've used the latest iteration of my grammar book in my Anglo-Saxon class this semester, and we just cruised through 65 lines of Maldon today with plenty of time for in-between-line discussion and more than 80% of the students making acceptable out-loud translations.

When I suggested to a possible publisher of the grammar book (still waiting to hear) that one could teach an entire semester with King Alfred's Grammar and Pope's Eight Old English Poems (previously Seven Old English Poems) an anonymous reviewer stated that jumping right into poetry was too hard for introductory students, who really needed a slow introduction through prose.

Well, in your face, anonymous reviewer! Because my students have got the language down! They picked up subjunctives in Beorhtnoth's speech to the Viking herald. One of my best students caught a preterite-present verb without looking it up ("that looks like a strong verb past tense, but the sentence only makes sense if it's in the present tense" -- woot!). Other students caught subject deletion. They were making detailed stylistic comparisons between The Battle of Brunanburh, The Dream of the Rood, and The Battle of Maldon.

My favorite moment came when a student (who had been sick during the Brunanburh translation and so was just turning it in) said "Professor Drout, I don't really know if I have a right to say this, but I don't think the Brunanburh poet was nearly as good as the guy who wrote Rood or even the guy who wrote Maldon." -- She was picking up on style in poetry in a new language!!!

My point is not only to toot the King Alfred's Grammar horn, but also to point out that students respond very well to being pushed quite hard and challenged -- and as hard as the work has been for them, 13 of the 22 are signed up for all of Beowulf next semester.

So don't give in to the temptation--which will sometimes be pushed by your colleagues--to make things easier in order to keep students in a difficult subject. I heard the poet Robert Pinsky speak about his brilliant Dante translation one time, and he said "people are in love with difficulty." I think my students are right now (though their tune may, of course, change when we do a chunk of Beowulf as the semester's conclusion) and I am certainly enjoying having them carry me along for their adventure.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

And I seyde his opinion was good

Over at The One Ring, there's a little thread referring to the discussion between Scott Nokes and Horace Jeffery Hodges and me. N. E. Brigand writes:

Nokes’s observation that “a deep understanding of medieval language or culture is a prerequisite to serious study” of Tolkien reminded me of something that Curious wrote here last fall in response to Lúthien Rising’s report on Tom Shippey’s Marquette presentation, History in Words: Tolkien’s Ruling Passion. Curious’s comments begin:

>>While I enjoy Shippey’s perspective I sometimes get the impression that he wouldn't take anything I said about Tolkien seriously unless I, too, were a philologist. I also get the impression that he overemphasizes the influence of philology on LotR because Shippey is, after all, a philologist. Of course, I could just be revealing my own biases, since I have no aptitude for languages or philology. But then Tolkien did not write LotR for an audience of philologists.<<

I think this raises a very interesting literary-theoretical question (one which I tried to deal with in my essay "Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism," which should be out any day now in a collection called Reading The Lord of the Rings): which reader's interepretation is more likely to be correct? I can come up with a number of types of readers, each of whom will have slightly different information with which to interpret. What is the authority of each reader?
For example, we can differentiate between readings generated by the Philologist, the Fanboy/girl, the Modernist, the High-Culture Reader, the Movie-Obssessed Fan, the Film Critic, etc., etc. Each will bring something different to the table, and each will work within a different interpretive community and follow a different set of interpretive practices.

So let's say, arguendo that the meaning of the word "weapontake" has something important to do with the interpretation of the scene in which the word occurs (I don't think we have actually established this, of course). A philologist can then supply additional information that other kinds of readers might not have (that the word was a "Northern" variant, that it had a specific legal meaning in Old English, that it was likely to be subject to folk etymology). Theoretically, then, the philologist's interpretation would be richer and more likely to be correct than that of the fanboy/girl.

This is an attractive argument for several reasons. First, since Tolkien was a philologist, we might think that a similarly-trained critic would have more insight into Tolkien's mind. Second, and most compelling, more information (like that possessed by the philologist in this case) would seem to lead to a better interpretive result than less information. So we would then empower the philologist within the interpretive community by giving more weight to his or her interpretation than to the interpretation of the fanboy/girl.

Although the above argument empowers me, I think it has some logical gaps. If our only goal is to try to figure out 'what Tolkien meant / wanted the passage to mean,' the above works fairly well. But if we do not accept author intent as the only meaningful type of interpretation (and I think the philosophical critiques here by Barthes and Foucault, as annoying as they are, have not been effectively refuted), then we need to look at other kinds of interpretation. And even if we do accept author intent, we have to take into account the very insightful comment by Curious "Tolkien did not write LotR for an audience of philologists."

So, we might reasonably suppose that the other categories of readers might, though their interpretations, help us figure out how LotR works -- what meanings does it create in the minds of its different readers? What kinds of interesting, powerful "mis-readings" can they generate without philological knowledge? If philolgical knowledge is essential, what about knowledge about Roman Catholicism, or about WWI and WWII, or about what was going on at Oxford in terms of philosophy during Tolkien's life?

It's a natural reflex to say "more is better" and say that a good Tolkien critic needs to have all these things, but there is not world enough and time and, (to fall back on cliches) to a man with a hammer, all problems look like a nail. So the person who has invested in philology sees that as the best tool, but so does the person who knows WWI fiction and Tolkien's place within it; likewise the fanboy/girl who knows the History of Middle-earth and can point out errors (such as that I thought Elrond had the Ring of Water until a month ago, and I am, obviously, a huge fanboy).

I think the only solution is for critics to let readers know where they stand and what their backgrounds and assumptions are. If you are interpreting LotR for the naive reader who knows only the films, say so. If you are writing for the philologist, say so (and I'll assert that knowing the philological background greatly enriches your understanding of Tolkien's world). If you are writing for a hard-core Christian audience, say so. Then the other readers who come along can figure out where your interpretations come from.

In the end, then, I think that it takes all kinds to have a successful and living debate and discussion about the works of a dead author. That there are so many people who want to do this, who love to discuss the books so much that they undertake arduous study for its own sake and the sake of their minds, speaks very well for the possible resurgence of literary studies, if only they could be done in such a way as to invite in the intelligent, insightful and enthusiastic people who would love to discuss literature.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Tolkien's Use of 'Weapontake"

[Update: I'm pasting Scott Kleinman's comment up to the end of this entry because it significantly expands and improves my discussion.]

Some interesting discussion at Unlocked-Wordhoard and Gypsy Scholar. In fact, the discussion is on far more substantive issues than this one word, and I hope to be able to discuss the actual content soon, but for now I'll have to be satisfied with being a philologist pedant.

The context of 'weapontake' in Tolkien is the "Muster of Rohan," when all the men able to bear weapons are assembled in preparation for the ride to Minas Tirith. It seems from the passage (RK, V, ii, 72) that Tolkien is using the word to mean the assembly of all the able-bodied men of Rohan in companies. Although a folk etymology might construe the passage as meaning that the king provided the weapons--i.e., the able-bodied men arrive and are issued weapons from the king's armory-- (as was the case in Peter Jackson's depiction of the Rohirrim in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King), I don't think Tolkien intended that meaning, and I don't think that would be accurate for Anglo-Saxon England (I could be wrong here).

"Wæpen-getæc" is an interesting word, and I wonder if Tolkien might not have worked on the definition of "weapontake" for the OED: he wrote the definitions of a number of words beginning with "w", including "walrus."

The etymon for the word seems to be ON "vápna-tak," though this is used in a different sense. It is, according to Bosworth-Toller, a Northern word; in the south "hundred" was used (which is why I think that folk-etymologizing the word and assuming that it means that men showed up somewhere to "take" their weapons is probably wrong), and its being Northern would explain the ON etymon. Bosworth-Toller gives the primary source as the laws of Edward the Confessor.

The point here is that Tolkien is likening the Rohirrim to the Anglo-Saxons yet again (even though the "Northern" word is a bit of a curve ball here, since the Rohirrim are linguistically Mercian), suggesting that at the king's call, all the men of Rohan were expected to assemble for military service and form themselves into companies that were, apparently, led by the professional soldiers of the king's household. This practice is in contra-distinction to the customs of Gondor, where a large, standing, professional army was in place.

The larger point is that Tolkien is not merely being archaic for the sake of archaism: he is being particularly precise, using exactly the right word (both in terms of definition and cultural connotations) that he needs for this particular situation. Tolkien's sense of the "right" word, which includes sound and etymology, is actually more 'theorized' than the word choices of the great Modernists to who he is often unfavorably compared (do you really think Faulkner, or Hemingway, or Woolf knew anything of the History of English; they were great talents, but they were working by gut instinct. Joyce is a somewhat different case, but he was no historical philologist--although knowing and sampling so many languages made him more sensitive to the interconnections of European languages). .

[Here's the comment from Scott Kleinman.]

Here are some thoughts on weapontake. The Old Norse use of vápnatak seems to have involved the confirmation of a vote at an assembly. In England, the word came to be used for the assembly itself and was, in areas with heavy Danish populations applied to the local judicial body. It was probably also used for the place where the assembly met. As the administrative and judicial boundaries within English counties became more stable, the sense was extended to refer to areas of jurisdiction in addition to the bodies themselves, rather than just the body or the place of the court. We can thus see a sort of evolution in the word from the taking up of weapons to an area of jurisdiction, and it might be possible to locate Tolkien’s usage on this timeline.

It seems to me that, when Tolkien writes that ‘all who could be spared were riding to the weapontake at Edoras’, he could mean a point of assembly, but probably not an official jurisdictional unit for the region of Edoras (the precise meaning of which is also quite interesting, especially given its use in two different senses in Beowulf 1035-1045). In other words, it’s in the middle of the timeline. But, of course, there is no necessity to assume that the weapontake of the Rohirrim accurately reflects the wapentake of Anglo-Saxon England, since the Rohirrim do not exactly match the Anglo-Saxons. Tolkien modernises the spelling (unlike Edoras), which, conceivably takes it in a new—or an alternative—direction consistent with a possible folk etymology: a taking up of weapons as part of a military gathering. The modernisation of the spelling curiously gives the word a more archaic effect by restoring the original connection to weapons. Perhaps this was necessary. Words like Edoras don’t seem particularly archaic to anyone who doesn’t know Old English; they’re simply foreign words like Minas Tirith. But if Tolkien wanted to give the sense of something familiarly English, but archaic, the term weapontake worked pretty well.

As a side note, Higden’s definition is very interesting. Here it is in John of Trevisa’s 1387 translation (with the thorns changed to ‘th’ and yogh to ‘y’): ‘Wepentake and an hondred is al oon, for the contray of an hondred townes were i-woned to yilde vppe wepene in the comynge of the lord.’ I take this to mean: ‘A wapentake is the same as a hundred, for the country of a hundred towns were wont to present weapons at the coming of the lord’. Clearly the word was prone to folk etymology, and it is not impossible that Tolkien had something similar in mind; i.e. Théoden would take the weapons offered by the those who owed fealty to him.