Friday, October 26, 2012


Beyond the fact that they make for a rather more attractive package, the many illustrations in the Norton edition of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation rightly turn our attention to the poem's obsession with things, with physical objects.

On every other page, facing the text itself, are bowls, ships, goblets, shields, arrows, helmets, jewelry, chainmail and the like, all lovingly photographed for our visual pleasure. The pictures neatly reflect and resonate with the poem's own concern with objects that are sometimes so distinctive that they even earn a name for themselves--such as Hrunting, the weapon lent to Beowulf before his fateful encounter with the monster Grendel's frightful mother. Hrunting is described as "a rare and ancient sword," an "iron blade" whose "ill-boding patterns had been tempered in blood" (1458, 1459-60). It fits well with the warrior's "mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail" and his "glittering helmet [. . .] of beaten gold, / princely headgear hooped and hasped / by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders" (1444, 1448, and 1150-52).

In the gift-exchange economy of Dark Ages Europe, heroic deeds and political alliances lead to the accumulation of still more stuff. Once Beowulf has slain the monster and his mother, a grateful King Hrothgar promises that "for as long as I rule this far-flung land / treasures will change hands and each side will treat / the other with gifts" (1859-61). And good as his word, he showers the young prince and his men with artifacts of the highest quality so that by the time Beowulf heads for home he is "glorious in his gold regalia" and their ship is "cargoed with treasure, horses and war-gear" (1881, 1897).

Beowulf has already himself presented Hrothgar with a thing of considerable value: not merely the service he rendered in ridding the land of its demons, but also the hilt from a sword that he had grabbed during the melée in the mother's watery refuge. If anything this "relic of old times" is even more impressive and fascinating than Hrunting, with its "rare smithwork" and its "rune-marking correctly incised" and its engravings in gold that tell the story of "how war first came into the world / and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants" (1688, 1679, 1695, 1689-90). This is an object that can be read to reveal something of days long gone by. The weapon's adornment is more than mere decoration or ostentatious display; it recounts the history that makes the weapon necessary in the first place.

Likewise the hoard guarded by the dragon in the later sections of the poem also comes from an epoch long before the time when the action the narrative describes takes place. It is buried by the last survivor of a once-great civilization who realizes that, with the community that gives it meaning gone, "his joy / in the treasure would be brief" (2240-41). Interring "all the goods and golden ware / worth preserving" this last survivor consigns them to the earth, from which the raw material had originally been taken: "It was mined from you first / [. . .] I am left with nobody / to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets, / put a sheen on the cup" (2248, 2252-54).

In pre-capitalist societies, treasure is not fully fungible. It doesn't circulate with ease--only as the result of either heroic action or as pillage of war. When the community founders, the meaning it confers wavers and is soon lost. Indeed, when Beowulf in turn dies, he has nobody to whom he can bequeath his armour. With his funeral, his treasure will be consumed as "his royal pyre / will melt no small amount of gold: / heaped there in a hoard" (3010-12).

All that is left is the rather more precarious medium of speech and song, the lament of the woman mourner who cries out in "a wild litany of nightmare and lament" (3152-53). And of course the poem, Beowulf: passed down orally for a couple of centuries before it is transcribed somewhere around 1000AD, whose one manuscript copy is almost itself consumed by fire in 1731, and which now survives, a precious object in its own right, in the British Museum. As the Museum website explains, "the manuscript remains incredibly fragile, and can be handled only with the utmost care."

Fortunately, mass production and the publishing industry ensure that the text and this beautiful book now circulate freely, if at a fairly hefty price. A New York Times bestseller and sumptuously illustrated edition, this is a coffee-table book of distinction. No doubt more displayed and admired than read, it shows that cultural capital and presumed status still adhere to and are conveyed by objects as stubbornly today as in feudal Britain.

Monday, October 22, 2012


If Oedipus has a tragic flaw, then it’s surely beside the point to talk of “pride” or the like. Or at best it’s incidental.

For what’s striking about Oedipus’s predicament is how hard he has tried to avoid it. It’s not as though he ends up killing his father and sleeping with his mother by accident, out of some negligence or lapse. Rather, he’s spent the better part of his life trying to ensure that he never sees his parents again. All from the very best of intentions.

Oedipus is in every sense of the term (except the one that counts) a “good guy.” He works ardently for both public and private good, and is loved by all for his efforts. He wears his heart on his sleeve and never shirks responsibility: “Here I am myself [. . .] I am Oedipus” (7, 8). Called upon to resolve the trauma Thebes is suffering, to rid the city of the plague, he pledges to do his best in every way, and to put all of his formidable energy to work. He feels his people’s pain: “I have wept through the nights, you must know that, / groping, laboring over many paths of thought” (78-9). He’s no distant tyrant, savoring the delights of power and luxury. He feels personally invested in the search for the old king Laius’s murderer, even though it happened before he arrived in the city, even though it would be easy enough simply to blame the people who were there then for burying the trauma at the time.

In short, Oedipus is the very model of the ideal modern politician. Would that there were more like him. And not only because at the end he (almost literally) falls on his sword for something that was not really his fault, assuming responsibility for a disaster he never intended to bring about and circumstances that he could never have avoided.

Except that the irony is that if it weren’t for his impeccably good intentions, everything would undoubtedly have turned out very differently. It was only because he fled Corinth, seeking to avoid his fate, that he met Laius at the crossroads. And it was only because he solved the Sphinx’s riddle, so freeing Thebes from the monster’s malevolent presence, that he can marry Jocasta and taint her, too, with the blot of incestuous union.

In other words, it’s not just that his good intentions don’t save him. They are what get him into all this trouble in the first place. They are his tragic flaw.

All too often over the past decade or so, politicians have tried to cloak themselves in the defence of good intentions. Some years back David Runciman wrote a marvelous article about Tony Blair, who appealed always to his own high-minded humanitarianism and sense of conscience as exculpation for the disasters that ensued on his watch. Indeed, in part this was precisely his justification (for example) for the war on Iraq: yes, the people in their hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets against military action on such a shaky foundation. But the Prime Minister argued that the fact that he went to war anyway (whether or not he "sexed up" dodgy dossiers and the like en route) showed that he was not some populist swayed by the views of the many. He was a principled man who followed his own sense of right and wrong.

My colleague and friend Max Cameron at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions would no doubt applaud this concern for morality and ethics amid--and against--the tumult of democratic politics.

There's no need to doubt the intentions. We might even be prepared to admit that Blair was and is a "good" man. Precisely the kind of good person that some want to see more of in politics. But if Blair's example alone isn't enough, then Oedipus the King reminds us of the bad that good men do.

Or to put it another way: this is a further argument against meritocracy, our contemporary form of what the Greeks themselves called "aristocracy."

Monday, October 15, 2012


[This is a response to Timothy Brennan's keynote presentation, "The Problem of Unevenness: Peripheral Aesthetics and Imperial Form," presented at the "Negative Cosmopolitanisms: Abjection, Power, and Biopolitics" conference, Edmonton, Alberta, October 2012.]

“Peripheral Modernism. A Response to Tim Brennan”

Tim Brennan provides us with a provocative, forthright, and challenging presentation. Indeed, though one hesitates to call it “ironic,” given the rather critical things that Brennan himself has to say about irony (which he claims “is based on the subject setting itself up as supreme”), it is notable that a paper that opens by excoriating a “combat mode” of theory is itself strikingly combative. Brennan takes shots at entire swathes of the contemporary Humanities: at the “graduate students and young professors” who mistake theory for combat, but also at those who prefer a “radical indecisionism” that is either complementary to or indistinguishable from (or perhaps merely “athwart”) the pseudo-radicalism of their colleagues. He goes on to argue that “a kind of neo-Socratic position [...] is everywhere around us today in the academy,” a stance that is in fact not a stance but is rather designed only to “establish [the speaker’s] superiority over the supposedly rough, impetuous, and naïve adherents to actual positions.”

Everywhere Brennan sees what he terms “louche” theorizing: “an intentionally cloudy, squint-eyed perspective [...] secretive writing, words intended for initiates and hidden from the vulgar public.” No names are provided, but apparently Cornell’s School of Criticism and Theory is a hotbed for this stuff: a mere “simulacrum of revolution”; “a romance with death”; Humanists who are “against humans”; “conservatives of modernist literary cast.” It’s worth unpacking this last very condensed series of epithets: it’s not enough to say that they (we?) are (secretly, unbeknownst even to ourselves) conservatives; we are also unoriginally “cast” from a single mold whose deformity can be traced back to the pernicious influence of both modernism and literature. By contrast, then, Brennan offers us idiosyncrasy and originality (“it has not generally been recognized [...] it has gone completely unremarked”) that is saved from quirkiness or the pernicious conformity of mere novelty by its steadfast refusal of both modernism and the literary “double-entendre.” Brennan calls on distinguished forbears--the Marxist intellectuals of the interwar period, above all--in order to break free from the “irony” that, he alleges, “inhibit[s] our ability to make sense of the imperialist common sense of the present.” He proposes instead an anti-imperialist common sense that has no truck with the “effeteness of literary modernism.” In brief, I don’t think that an “anti-imperialist” common sense is much improvement on an imperialist one; and I’m suspicious of all homilies, and suggest that you should be, too. But back to Brennan’s project: naturally enough, cosmopolitanism is out (being merely the “literary ethos” appropriate to “the imperial aspects of globalization”). Again, however, it is surely ironic that he marshals in support of this anti-cosmopolitan, anti-literary, anti-elitism a “who’s who” of third-world literary intellectuals, practically all of whom are male, middle-class, and ethnically privileged, from Chinua Achebe to César Vallejo, Alejo Carpentier to Mo Yan.

Read more... (pdf file)