Why don’t we extend this same privilege to students? We can upend for them that sense that they have that texts are somehow apart and untouchable, grave authorities that possess knowledge and represent ways of knowing, in fact, that the uninitiated may never participate in. We are no longer a monolithic Anglo-Saxon band of folks who recognize in the wood-bound book in the cathedral our selves. The seafarer and the wanderer, the poets of their community who looked out over the “whale-road” with restless questioning spirits I think would be glad to know how graduate students and teachers of their work tear at it like marauders, drawing and quartering language in their quest for it to give up its secrets. To design new ways for undergraduates to feel the same power is a noble task.
The Wanderer and The Seafarer swim up to us through history as though from the bottom of a swampy East Anglian fen. Their original textual home is The Exeter Book, a tenth century work typifying a time before movable type, that contains many different pieces of literature bound into a “sort of single-volume ‘library.’” These community books containing stories of the culture were placed between birch wood covers and kept in cathedrals. I imagine their heft and splintery texture, parchment pages crackling loudly as they are turned, pocked by enlarged illuminated capitals to signal the start of another tale. From The Exeter Book’s poems themselves we can see some of what life was like for Anglo-Saxon people in the years before William the Conqueror brought their culture to a close.
A lot of frost. A lot of time on frigid sea journeys, solitary and subject to waves and to thoughts of death and existence. In the anglo-saxons.net translation of The Wanderer just as the sorrow seems too much to bear, the poet says:
Indeed I cannot think
why my spirit
does not darken
when I ponder on the whole
life of men
throughout the world,
How they suddenly left the floor (hall)
the proud thanes (58a-62a)
One way to read this is to imagine that the poet, far from seeing his work as simply part of a collection of thoughts put down for his contemporaries, visualized a missal into the future. Knowing his mortality, but seeing his words as part of a world book somehow lifts him above “the binding of the waves” (57a.)
It’s hard to conceptualize in our age of infinite access to words that something like The Exeter Book once held such value. One source, one communal collection of cultural products to speak for our values as a group is pretty alien to us now. In Bayard’s terms the Anglo Saxons living near Exeter might have had very similar inner books, having all shared the same master narratives in one way or another by hearing if not by reading. Were they all on the same page, so to speak? What would the poet who wrote The Wanderer think of its continuing life in our fragmented world, of all the translations and reworkings of his language, of his mind? His poem has several different places on the shelves of our collective library. Imagine the fights that must sometimes break out about where and if in those stacks when academics are roaming them. The board-bound book has been broken open and the leaves taken out and plundered.
This theme of the authority of the book and how that authority gets challenged seems to be coming up a lot for me lately—so does that mean it’s a focus for research? Maybe. We’ve heard how this can change. I have for a while been drawn to ideas attached to the process of imitation and its power to challenge hegemony in the composition or literature classroom. Dr. Mentz’ link to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article “Uncreative Writing” talks about the act of constructing literature, a more post-modern approach to creativity that challenges our Romantic notion of the individual genius. As text has multiplied infinitely in our world so has our access to material for our own work. Some of my favorite creative endeavors have always been what results in the awesomeness of the whole that can be magically conjured from disparate parts, from cut and paste collage as a child to making a found poem from bits and pieces of newspaper headlines. Nicholson Baker’s recent book Human Smoke (2008) relied solely on texts from the years surrounding the second world war: news stories, ads, brochures—any text printed—to paint a word picture of the culture at a certain place in time. Behind the pastiche his own thesis is at work, selecting and placing his found texts, to show his beliefs about the forces in society at that moment in history that might have created the context that gave rise to the subsequent inhumanities of WWII, and exactly how he feels about America’s entry into the war. The Chronicle article suggests that we recognize a new paradigm for creative genius: a “programmer…brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.”
This all brings me (by the long route) to my own interest in textual authority. As a teacher of writing I am excited by ideas like this approach to creativity that The Chronicle is spotlighting.
Mary Minock, in an article published in the Journal of Advanced Composition, proposes by way of David Bartholomae, the benefits of a pedagogy of imitation whereby student writers are given explicit freedom to appropriate and imitate the styles and language of published writers. Minock quotes Bartholomae: “A fundamental social and psychological reality about discourse—oral or written—is that human beings continually appropriate each other’s language to establish group membership, to grow, and to define themselves in new ways.” Minock points out that academics have used “pastiche,” “simulacrum,” “intertextuality,” etc. “to interpret our cultural and textual condition” (Minock 2.)
Minock, Mary, “Toward a Post-Modern Pedagogy of Imitation,” JAC, 15.3, Fall, 1995.