Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Archive meme

Various of my bloggy friends who do archival work have been sharing representative images of the texts they work on. Here's a snippet of one of mine (click to embiggen):

It's a pretty legible hand, all things considered--but since it's a damn long work and since most of my knowledge of Early Modern paleography has been learned on the fly, it's still presented me with plenty of challenges.

On the other hand, even the gnarliest of student blue-book exams no longer makes me break a sweat.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Doing what you like

Allegedly, there are scholars out there who work on material (authors, texts, movements) that they don't like--and in some cases, actively dislike. I'm pretty sure I'm not one of them.

This isn't to say that the texts I work on are universally or even widely enjoyed, but I love them. (Not uncritically, of course, and for the most part I have no desire to travel back in time and have dinner with the writers I work on--I seem to be drawn to grandstanding, extreme, and sometimes assholish personalities). And this also isn't to say that I don't have to wade through some fairly boring or downright inept works in the course of my research; most early modern polemicists aren't John Milton.

But I don't work on texts or authors that I dislike, or that don't in some way strike a chord with me; had my first college literature class(es) focused on the Romantic poets, I might never have majored in English.

So when I hear people talking about writing on "terrible" texts, or hating the guts of the author they're writing a chapter on, I always wonder how that works. Sure, sometimes the texts are terrible, but the ideas are interesting (or at least help to make a larger point that the scholar finds compelling), and sometimes a given work or author just can't be left out of a study, if it's to be taken seriously. But I've known a few people who seem to seek out material that pisses them off, or regard it as a special intellectual challenge to work up a project on something they dislike. I knew a guy like this in grad school, whose approach I always thought of as the "debate team" method: he didn't seem to care what or who he worked on, or even what argument he made; as long as his case was defensible, he'd go balls-out.

Of course, there are all kinds of different ways of liking the things we work on, and our tastes and ideas change over time. But I'm wondering: do any of you dislike what you work on (or have you in the past)? And if so, how do you keep working on it?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dr. Phil is not licensed to diagnose works of literature

Oh, the platitudinous conservatism of students!

I'm in the midst of a huge pile of Shakespeare essays, and no matter how many good ones I get, the less-than-good ones sap my will to live. I'm particularly bothered by the smug censoriousness that so many weaker essays traffic in--essays that not only treat fictional characters as if they were real people (whose actions it's the student's job to sit in judgment of), but subject them to the tiresome language of pop psychology and self-esteemism:
    Brutus? He's too easily swayed by other people. Boy needs to stand up for himself! Ophelia? Such a pushover! If she wasn't going to tell Hamlet how she really felt, she has no one to blame but herself. Juliet? She's not in love! No one falls in love that fast! It's obviously just about sex, and if she had listened to her parents no one would have died.

I've written about one aspect of this problem before--the seeming refusal to understand works of art as works of art; if the play wants Romeo and Juliet to die, no minor character (nurse, friar, sassy gay friend) could have saved them. But this prim, easy moralizing is frustrating for different reasons.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Biblical illiteracy

I recently purchased the King James Bible on audiobook (60 CDs! complete with attractive and convenient carrying case!), and since then my in-car time has been all about getting cozy with The Word.

It's for work, of course, or mostly for work: I know the Bible decently well, but it's been a long while since I read it in any systematic way, and I've never read the KJV except piecemeal. But naturally, the audiobook isn't intended for scholars, and as a result it's ridiculously cheap: I got the complete set from Amazon for just over $30--or exactly the same price as the audiobook of Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall.

The comments on Amazon make the target market for this product clear, while also revealing some depressing things about twenty-first-century Bible reading and biblical literacy. Quite a lot of the reviewers describe the King James version as the "authentic" text of the Bible or "God's word in the original." (One or two people claim that the KJV is "the best and most accurate" translation of the Bible, which at least identifies the text as a translation--though without doing much to establish the commenters' own credibility.)

Now, I'm delighted that there are so many people out there listening to, and presumably a much larger number reading, the King James Bible. But I'm not so thrilled about the ignorant, ahistorical, unliterary, and arguably un-spiritual way in which they seem to be doing it.

The King James Bible is lovely, and its translations of various stories--and, more generally, its prose rhythms--have had tremendous influence on the literature of the entire English-speaking world. And goodness knows I'm all for exposing more people to the syntax and diction of Early Modern English. But it is not the best or most accurate translation of the Bible, much less God's Word in the Original, and to imagine that its Olde Timey language makes it more spiritually authentic is to confuse aesthetic effects for divine ones--and that is fundamentally un-Protestant.

But then, contemporary Protestantism is pretty un-Protestant, isn't it? And as someone who is deeply intellectually invested in the Reformation, I think that's a scandal. I'll stick with issues of biblical engagement for now, though obviously there are others (Jesus's face on the side of a building, anyone?). Most of my self-identified Christian students do not know the Bible. I don't live in the Bible Belt, so I lack a certain kind of evangelical student, but I do have students who are very active in their churches, who occasionally make arguments based on "what the Bible teaches," and who not only have not read the entire Bible, but who barely know its major stories; I've gotten blank looks when I mention Moses in the bullrushes, or the parable of the prodigal son.

Let me be clear: I'm very happy to live in a secular society, and I don't sit around bemoaning the average student's lack of biblical literacy; the ability to catch a passing biblical reference is nice, but not essential (that's what footnotes are for--and when a work's engagement with the Bible really matters, I give my students the relevant biblical passage; in certain classes, I've made the KJV itself a required text).

But the average Protestant--and I mean the average, church-going Protestant, someone who claims his religion as an important part of his identity--does not appear to be reading the Bible himself. He relies upon other people to tell him what the Good Book "says," and from what I can tell, many if not most nondenominational church services don't even present the text of the Bible in any systematic or thorough way. These days, ironically, a Catholic who attends church every Sunday is likelier to know the Bible than many Protestants who do the same.

That leaves the Bible in a strange limbo: continually touted as the Word of God, but removed from the intellectual and spiritual traditions that made meaning out of it.

And though I'm both a Catholic and a secularist myself, this breaks my heart.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


As little significance as I give to the specifics of my own anxiety dreams (the who, what, when, and where), it's still disconcerting to learn that I show up in my students' anxiety dreams.

Not one, but two students reported this to me this week, and both of their dreams involved my yelling at them. In one case, it was over a very minor spelling error (a mistaken vowel in the middle of an unusual Shakespearean name), which prompted me to shout, "If you can't tell the difference between 'E' and 'A,' you're NEVER GOING TO SUCCEED IN COLLEGE!"

I didn't want to know this, and I hope never to hear such a story again. But I guess I'm not displeased to learn that now and again I play the role of "random hardass authority figure" in their collective subconscious.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Advanced psychoanalysis this ain't

My propensity for anxiety dreams is, I think, well established. However, I continue to be amused by the metaphors in which my subconscious works. During the month or so that I was working on that goddamn essay, I had the following two dreams:

  • Company was coming for dinner. My guests started arriving early, and as they arrived I realized that not only had I not cleaned my cats' litter boxes, but said litter boxes were disgustingly, comically foul: overflowing and reeking. I kept trying to take care of them before anyone noticed (while wondering whether people had noticed, but were just too polite to say anything)--but the doorbell kept ringing as I grew more and more frantic.
  • I was getting dressed for a day on campus, and decided to try something complicated with layers and belts. The look wasn't really coming together, but I kept trying, piling a ridiculous number of clothes on the bed in the attempt.

These dreams came a couple of weeks apart. And when I awoke from the second one, I realized that, hey: if my writing was no longer a stinking pile of feces--but just an outfit that could stand a few adjustments--things were probably going to be okay.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Random bullets of DONE

So I finally finished the essay that has eaten my life and blog of late. Here's what you missed:

  • The weekend before last, I was supposed to attend a conference. I feared having my flight(s) canceled due to weather, but in fact my flight was canceled because, after a passenger had a panic attack and demanded that we return to the gate, the two flight attendants started fighting--and may or may not actually have come to blows. The pilot refused to fly with them, so we were deboarded and our entirely full flight canceled right before the region got hit with a foot of snow.
  • I adore the conference in question and was sorry to miss it--but I'd been so stressed out about my essay and resenting the conference for falling when it did that it was rather nice to have an Act of God (or of petty, venal human nature) grant me an unexpected five-day weekend.
  • That night saw our first serious storm of the season, and it snowed for a good 24 hours. So I sat on my sofa with cats and coffee, working and watching the snow.
  • And slowly, the essay got better.
  • The hardest part were the first seven or eight pages, which will form the core of the new introduction to my book. Synthesizing, theorizing, and abstracting are not chief among my intellectual talents.
  • But it felt enormously productive. And now I have half an introduction written!
  • An hour after I emailed my essay to the symposium organizers, my colleague Jack came over and we and Cosimo headed across the street to the museum/art house theatre that hosts an annual Oscars party.
  • Because Flavia has a closet full of clothes for a life other than the one she actually leads, there were rhinestones, elbow-length gloves, vintage Ferragamo heels, and a deco Whiting & Davis purse, topped off with a big fox-fur stole. (There was a dress, too--black taffeta and vaguely Dior New Look-ish--but that was really just a backdrop for the accessories.)
  • Okay: I looked a little insane.
  • But the party was such fun. The museum is in a restored mansion, and the whole house was decorated for the party, complete with a dance floor and a fantastic band in the conservatory. The attached movie theatre was running a live screening of the Academy Awards, so we wandered in and out, watching for a while, then hitting the dance floor, then getting more food and drink, then wandering back in.
  • Did I mention that my essay is DONE? And spring break just a week away? I couldn't have celebrated in happier fashion.