Friday, May 15, 2009

In Which I Unsubscribe from a List

Sometimes you don't know how hard you're holding onto something till someone tugs at it. I'd have thought I'd abandoned the idea of being an academic completely, that there was no lingering regret or nostalgia there. But I recently had an extremely unpleasant exchange on a scholarly listserve (I know! How quaint! But scholars are like that.) It's for Chaucer scholars. I'd lurked there for years -- possibly decades? But I almost never posted.

But someone had questioned whether students should be made to learn Old English in order to complete an English major. I then questioned whether Beowulf belonged in the syllabus of an English survey class. The responses were withering, and rather cruel: the assumption that we were simply too lazy to learn Old English, and too stupid to appreciate Old English poetry, reeked from every response. That was not the depressing part, although it was irritating: the depressing part was that absolutely no one would actually produce an argument. "I include Beowulf because it's written in English," someone declared. As if that weren't precisely the question that had been raised: is Old English close enough kin to be regarded as the same language as Modern English? And, the related question, is its masterwork Beowulf properly regarded as part of the tradition of English literature?

It has not always been so regarded. In the 19th Century, which is when people other than a few antiquarian cranks began reading it, it was generally considered a different, though of course genetically related, language. It was called "Anglo-Saxon." Renaming it "Old English" was largely a political move by astute academics, not a linguistic one. The West-Saxon dialect in which Beowulf is written is actually more uncle than father to Chaucer's Middle English. There's lots of ways to slice the pie. The old saying that "a 'language' is a dialect with an army" has a lot of truth to it: if Portuguese was spoken in a just a few villages it would be probably be regarded as a difficult dialect of Spanish, not its own language; if Catalonia had ever managed ever to win its independence, Catalonian would certainly be regarded as a language, not a Spanish dialect. There are no dependable objective ways of deciding these borderline cases. The motive for renaming Anglo-Saxon Old English was, at least partly, justifying its inclusion in the study of English literature.

The question's not all that important, and I don't really care how it's decided: Beowulf can look after itself, these days. And I understand that modern scholars who hoped to make a living out of selling their skills in Old English would not look kindly on someone proposing to drop it from the English syllabus. But the point is that I would expect this group of people to at least be able to have a conversation about it, a conversation that appreciated the complexities of classifying languages and dialects, and which bore in mind that everything you keep in a syllabus comes at the expense of dropping something else out. Whether Beowulf is worth reading in the original -- well, to me, and to most people who have ever read it, that's a stupid question. Of course it is. But the intelligent question is, is it more worthwhile than reading, say, Dryden and Pope? Or Swinburne and Sir Walter Scott? Those are the sort of trade-offs we're talking about. (A further depressing thing was the realization that no one was interested in this probably because almost none of them ever had given a damn, or ever would give a damn, about Dryden or Sir Walter Scott.)

Of course, the main thing that distressed me was not being taken seriously. It wounded my amour-propre. If I'd finished my damned dissertation at Yale, if I'd stuck it out through the recession of the 80's and gotten an academic job, people would have responded to me completely differently. But still, there would have been no real conversation. Because scholars, of all people, are the least likely to actually talk about these things. The discussion of such things is the currency of their economy: they can't afford to do it for free. I remembered, in the course of this interchange, the oppressive atmosphere of the years when I was writing, or rather not writing, my dissertation: every stray thought I had, I seized and hoarded. It might be an article someday! It might prove that I'm a serious scholar! There was something horrible, and deforming, about treating my own thoughts as property. I hated it.

But. But. The first couple years at Yale were so wonderful. Because we weren't scholars yet, we grad students, and we did talk about books. We had wonderful conversations. It was the world I wanted to live in. Coming from Springfield, Oregon -- it was amazing, incredible. Like coming out of a dark hole and being in the sunlight for the first time. I was so grateful for the friends there, for the talk. It made me so happy.

And then it all crumbled and went away, as people got their degrees and went off to teach in Georgia or upstate New York or L.A., and for twenty long years, I had nothing of the sort. It's this blog community, all of you, who have given it back to me. I'm terribly grateful to you all. Thank you. All of you. For being willing to talk, and to listen. Most of you haven't read Beowulf in Old English. That's all right. Because you'd want to if you had the time. And even if you didn't want to -- if you did it anyway, you'd want to talk about it. It would engage your heart and your mind and you'd say what you damn well thought about it.

I unsubscribed from the Chaucer list this morning. I subscribed thinking I would find conversations of the sort I love, many years ago. I almost never did. I don't need to look for them there any more, though.

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