12 Winters Blog

Anthology submissions, Joyce quote and other stuff

Posted in September 2013, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on September 22, 2013

Last week Twelve Winters Press began accepting submissions to our anthology [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, and the global response has been enthusiastic.  Submissions are pouring in from everywhere (jut this morning we received a submission from the orbiting International Space Station … just kidding, that’d be cool).  Contributing editor John McCarthy has done a great job of getting the word out via various venues, like NewPages and Duotrope, but nevertheless he was anxious that we’d get enough submissions.  I knew his worries were unfounded.  And, according to John, we’ve already received some really terrific pieces.  We plan to take submissions through the end of November.  We’ll see if the pace slackens at all (or increases!).

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading, off and on, Gordon Bowker’s biography of James Joyce (see NYT review), especially the section regarding the release of Ulysses and Joyce’s starting to ponder what would become Finnegans Wake, and I came across a Joyce quote that’s particularly meaningful to me:

A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality. (to Arthur Power)

I like this quote especially because it reflects my own ideas about creative composition (which I’ve discussed before in this blog more than once, and also in the Preface to the new edition of Men of Winter). Also, it fueled my musings about the creative project I’ve been working at for about eighteen months (minus the ten months I devoted to writing my Beowulf book), which is a collection of related stories that I think of as “the village stories.” I wrote three stories (and some other experimental thing) in 2011, and they were picked up pretty quickly (except for the experimental thing).  Since finishing the Beowulf book I’ve written two more stories (homeless to date), and I’ve just started working on another.  Anyway, I’ve been working under the impression that these stories would coalesce into some sort of loosely held together, but held together, narrative.  So far, though, the only thing that ties them together is that they have the same geographical setting, and several characters, or their relatives, appear and reappear from story to story.

So I’ve started considering moving on to another project, conceived of as a novel from the start, that’s been on my mind, in embryonic form, for a few years now.  I think I’ll finish the story I’ve just begun (about five ms. pages into it); then turn my attention to this new novel, which will require some historical research — but that’s right up my alley.

Speaking of Men of Winter, A Revised & Expanded Edition, Twelve Winters Press (a.k.a., me) released the Kindle edition yesterday — Nook to follow in a few days. Other related issues, like copyright and lost royalties, are being hammered out with Amazon and Barnes & Noble as we go.

Also, I heard from Battered Suitcase Press, and they’re planning a November release for my e-novelette Figures in Blue, which TWP will bring it out a print edition by the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014 (possibly a signed, limited edition).  Meanwhile, I’ve decided to hold the release of An Untimely Frost, my new novel, until after January 1.  I’m just not going to be able to get everything pulled together in the way I want it this fall.

tedmorrissey.com

TWP taking submissions and Beowulf book makes its way in the world

Posted in September 2013 by Ted Morrissey on September 15, 2013

I’m happy to announce that Twelve Winters Press, which I founded last year, began taking submissions today for its first anthology:  [Ex]tinguished and [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, slated for a spring 2014 release.  I’m also happy to acknowledge that I’ve been joined on the Press’s masthead by two of my oldest Benedictine University and Quiddity friends and colleagues, John McCarthy and Pamm Collebrusco.  In fact, John will be serving as editor of the anthology, while Pamm will be a reader and ultimately do what she does as well as anyone I know:  edit and proofread the book before it goes to press.  Pamm has generously edited and proofread my last three books, and is at work on the galleys of my latest novel, An Untimely Frost, probably even as I write this blog post.  (Her work on my monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, with all of its technical terminology drawn from a host of disciplines, copious citations, and its Old English, was nothing short of herculean — more on the Beowulf book in a moment.)

The anthology will consist of poems, prose poems and flash fiction (up to 1,000 words in length), and John is accepting submissions through November 30.  Please check out and share the submission guidelines.

My monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters:  A Trauma-Theory Reading of the Anglo-Saxon Poem, came out in March, but with the advent of the new academic year university libraries have started to add it to their collections (nearly every day a new library or two pops up on WorldCat — and, yes, I’m checking its progress, just like you would a child who’s beginning to make his way in the world).  To date, libraries that have added either the print edition or ebook edition to their collection include Notre Dame, Duke, Purdue, Pepperdine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Loyola Notre Dame, Lewis and Clark, Smith College, and Australian National University.

Beowulf Poet cover

The book actually grew out of my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 2009 (Zeitgeist and the Zone:  The Psychic Correlation between Cultural Trauma and “Postmodern” Literature).  My primary focus was American postmodernism, but I included quite a bit of research on Anglo-Saxon history and culture, and the poem Beowulf in way of support for my thesis.  As almost an appendix to my dissertation I also wrote a trauma-theory reading of Beowulf; however, the Anglo-Saxon scholar on my committee wouldn’t accept my theory about the poem, so I ended up cutting that chapter.  Anglo-Saxonists are notoriously uncomfortable with post-structural criticism (they tend to prefer analysis of a more traditional philological nature), so it wasn’t a big surprise that she didn’t care for my reading.  Nevertheless, I’d put a lot of time and effort into it, and I felt it was valid (even revolutionary — hey, sometimes you have to toot your own horn).

Even as I was cutting the chapter, I had vague plans of bringing my theory out somehow or another (perhaps in an article). After successfully defending my dissertation, my mind switched gears back into creative writing, and I spent the next three years working on the novel that would become An Untimely Frost.  I teach Beowulf every fall, so I continued meditating on the poem and my analysis of it.  Then in late winter 2012 I met with an editor from Edwin Mellen Press who encouraged me to pursue writing a monograph about Beowulf and my trauma-theory reading.  I accepted a contract, and in May of 2012 I began work on the project in earnest.  I transported home from my classroom three copy-paper boxes of books and articles, transforming my bedroom into a Beowulf and postmodern critical theory library (it was a mess, and it was a good thing I was living alone because if I hadn’t been, I soon would’ve been).

I thought I could knock out the project in three to five months; I was wrong.  I pulled quite a lot from my dissertation, but it was now three years old.  An important book or article on Beowulf appears once a week or so, according to the University of Toronto, which is the epicenter of Beowulf scholarship, and to say I’d been keeping up only at my leisure would be putting it rather kindly.  So I had a lot of reading to do.  Also, I’d done a little translating of Old English for my dissertation, but for this monograph I felt that I needed to analyze the original language of the poem, so I set about translating numerous key sections.  Much of the summer of 2012 was spent with my nose in the poem, various Old English dictionaries, and translations that I admired.  I was often at my kitchen table entombed in stacks of books.

The project that I thought I could finish by September (2012) dragged on into the fall … and winter.  In the meantime, two of my three adult sons had moved back home for various reasons, and it became a running joke as nearly every day they’d ask me what I was doing, and I’d say that I was finishing my Beowulf book (or I’d ask them, “Guess what I’m doing today?” to solicit their groans of skepticism), as I was in the process of finishing it for about six months.  There were a thousand details to attend to to get it right.  I was not a known Beowulf scholar, at all, so I was determined to make it as solid a piece of scholarship as I was able to produce.  When I needed to procure supporting reviews before sending it to the press, I sought opinions from the most respected Beowulf scholars in the world, and I was grateful that James W. Earl and Robert E. Bjork, both of whose work I’d admired for years, agreed to review my manuscript.  I waited, a little anxiously, for their reviews — and was considerably relieved when they were returned so favorably.  (See my Beowulf book’s page to read blurbs of their reactions.)

It ended up taking ten months for me to complete the project.  Shortly after its publication, Edwin Mellen’s editor-in-chief awarded it the press’s D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship.  Considering I had to cut from my dissertation the chapter on which the monograph was based, I was especially pleased with Earl’s and Bjork’s good opinions, and then the Prize.  In fairness to the Beowulf scholar on my committee, my chapter paid little attention to the poem’s original language, and my analysis of the Geatland/dragon section of the poem, I knew, was undercooked (in writing the monograph, that was the section that received the most new material and most extensive revision — by the time I wrote the book, I had a clearer idea what I’d been wanting to say all along).  Also, her reaction inspired me to make my scholarship as airtight as possible as it represented what the mainstream of the discipline was likely to say about my rather wild reading of the poem.  I thank her in the book’s acknowledgements, and my thanks is sincere.

The press is just beginning to solicit reviews of my Beowulf book in scholarly journals, and I don’t know of any that have appeared so far. As I said, I’m gratified that universities are adding it to their collections, so hopefully some Anglo-Saxonists will begin to pay attention to it (as well as scholars and doctors in psychoanalysis and neuropsychology, which are also important aspects of my trauma-theory reading).

tedmorrissey.com

The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters Introduction

Posted in March 2013, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 21, 2013

The following is the Introduction to my monograph The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters:  A Trauma-Theory Reading of the Anglo-Saxon Poem (Edwin Mellen Press, 2013).  Please see the book’s page for further information, including reviews, a brief description, the Table of Contents, and a promotional flyer (flyer also available below).

The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters

* * *

“[I]t is a drink dark and bitter:  a solemn funeral-ale with the taste of death.”

Thus wrote J. R. R. Tolkien of Beowulf in his prefatory remarks for the republication of John R. Clark Hall’s 1911 prose translation (ix).  The professor’s dramatic metaphor captures what many readers sense when they engage the text of the poem, either in the original Old English or in one of the myriad languages into which it has been translated since Sharon Turner began the process in 1803, whether it be a student’s first encounter or a scholar’s innumerable one.  To extend Tolkien’s metaphor, the purpose of this monograph is to analyze the recipe of that dark and bitter brew.

The method by which I identify the various ingredients and discuss their influence on the poem’s morbid flavor is trauma theory, a term that Cathy Caruth is given credit for coining in her 1996 book Unclaimed Experience:  Trauma, Narrative, and History—though the idea of literary trauma theory as a discernible critical model can be recognized earlier in the decade in such practitioners as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.  Of course, one can easily make a case for even earlier sightings of trauma theory, with Caruth herself pointing to Sigmund Freud’s marriage of psychoanalysis and literary study via terms like the Oedipus and Elektra complexes.  However, in spite of trauma theory’s presence in the humanities for roughly two decades, a precise and universally acknowledged definition has yet to emerge, which provides me an opening to put forward a definition as I am using it in this work.

In the previous paragraph I quietly inserted literary as a qualifier to differentiate between trauma theory as it exists in the vocabulary of psychiatric professionals versus how scholars in the humanities may regard its meaning—though both groups are concerned with how traumatic experience affects the subject’s mind, and they borrow freely from one another, explicitly or implicitly, to advance and articulate their understanding of trauma.  In psychiatric medicine, the overarching goal of trauma theory, broadly put, is to use that understanding to assist victims of trauma overcome its devastating effects.  In literary scholarship, the goal of trauma theory, broadly put, is to use that understanding to document the effects of traumatic stress on language production.  To state it simply (in fact, overly so), psychiatric professionals examine the speech of patients (perhaps “clients” is a better word), while scholars examine texts (e.g., Beowulf).

My specific purpose is to make the case that Beowulf reflects traumatic stresses which the anonymous poet and his fellow Anglo-Saxons felt in their day-to-day lives, and I concentrate my trauma-theory reading on the three monsters, who represented, in all likelihood unconsciously, particular sources of trauma to the poet:  the terror of extreme violence, the dangers of sexual reproduction, and the deprivations of chronic disease.  My training as a scholar is in English studies, a program that requires coursework in literature, linguistics, rhetoric, and pedagogy—also a program that has prompted me to draw from a wide range of fields, including medicine, history, anthropology, philology, sociology, and psychology, with special emphases on the branches of psychoanalysis and neuropsychology.  In other words, English studies in general and this monograph in particular have allowed me to indulge my “attention surplus disorder,” a phrase I commandeered from Susan Sontag, who uses it to mean that she is basically interested in everything.1

What is more, I consider myself primarily a creative writer—a novelist, short-story writer and sometimes poet—which, I believe, gives me further insight into what I call “the psychic origins of creativity” when I take on the roles of critic and scholar, further, that is, than someone who has never tried to devise characters and plot and setting, and to coax them through a narrative arc via dialogue, metaphor and a plethora of other storytelling techniques.  That is to say, I feel a brothers-in-arms kinship with the Beowulf poet and an affinity for the task he set before himself that many literature scholars, simply, do not.

In bringing to bear on the poem knowledge from so many different fields, my reading represents a departure from what has been the dominant discourse in Beowulf studies for at least the last thirty years, a discourse that has tended to focus on the extant Cottonian manuscript, a discourse that has resisted critical theory “in the name of empiricism, objectivity, or common sense,” according to John D. Niles (“Introduction” 9).  However, as James W. Earl points out in his introductory remarks to Thinking About Beowulf (1994), intense study based on the extant manuscript has failed to yield much that is irrefutable about the poem and even less about its poet.  In fact, Earl draws on the concept of the Strange Attractor from chaos theory, meaning “that underlying presence, or nonpresence, that gives its shape to chaos” (10), to conclude the following about new directions in Beowulf scholarship:  “If we cannot anchor our thinking about Beowulf in history any longer, we may have to entertain at long last the freedoms of modern and postmodern critical thinking—at least within the parameters set by the fractal text, and its Strange Attractor, the poet” (27).

That is, to better understand the poem, we must do all that we can to better understand the poet.

The trauma-theory reading of the poem rests largely in Chapter 4 of this monograph, while Chapters 1, 2 and 3 lay the groundwork necessary to the reading.  The first chapter, for example, discusses the close association between thought and language by examining the work of pioneering psychoanalysts Freud and Jacques Lacan, as well as contemporary trauma theorists and neuropsychologists.  Key concepts in the chapter include the effects of trauma and how these effects can be passed from generation to generation, and from location to location.  Integral to these concepts are discussions regarding the establishment of trauma cultures and the production of trauma texts.  The next chapter focuses on the mimetic parallel between postmodern narrative technique and the narratival characteristics of someone who has been traumatized.  In this chapter and elsewhere, the theories of Michel Foucault are engaged, especially those related to analyzing the minds of past peoples via the texts they left behind.  When I introduce Foucault to my students, I use the model of the double helix with one strand representing thought and language the other.  When a culture has passed, like the Anglo-Saxons’, it is as if its double helix has been stretched and flattened, and we view it from an angle that makes it appear as though only the language strand remains (i.e., its texts), but Foucault tells us that inseparably bonded to that language is the thought that shaped it; therefore, by studying a past culture’s language, we can come to know the culture’s thought as well.  In short, the Beowulf poet’s mind produced the topography of the text, so by carefully studying the text we can discern the topography of the poet’s mind.

Chapter 3 is less theoretical and more practical as it examines aspects of the lives of Anglo-Saxons that likely would have resulted in traumatic stress and in particular the traumatic stress I believe to be represented by Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon.  That is to say, if the poet and his people were in fact traumatized, what events and day-to-day features of their lives could have caused that trauma?  For this chapter, I rely principally on the writings of Bede and Eddius Stephanus, the anonymously composed Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the period’s medical texts:  the Herbarium, Leechbooks, and Lacnunga.   Then, finally, Chapter 4 brings all of this diverse knowledge together in a trauma-theory reading which focuses on the original language of the poem.

It is important to note, too, that while my reading is a departure from much of the traditional scholarship, I incorporate and build upon a great deal of that scholarship, bringing into the conversation (to name a few) Klaeber, Tolkien, Malone, Mitchell, Robinson, Niles, Bjork, Orchard, Kiernan, Earl, O’Brien O’Keeffe, Chance, Howe, Lerer, Lapidge, Liuzza, Acker, and Foley, as well as newer voices like Joy, Ramsey, Kim, Mizuno, and Warren.  All of whom have contributed mightily to what we know about the poem, and thus contribute mightily to what we could possibly come to understand by pursuing critical approaches born of postmodernism, like trauma theory.

Feel free to share the following promotional flyer either electronically or in print.

Beowulf Poet – Morrissey flyer

Note

1. See “Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143,” interviewed by Edward Hirsch for The Paris Review, available online at theparisreview.org.

Works Cited

Earl, James W.  Thinking About Beowulf.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford UP, 1994.  Print.

Niles, John D.  “Introduction:  Beowulf, Truth, and Meaning.”  Ed. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles.  A Beowulf Handbook.  Lincoln:  U of Nebraska P, 1998.  1-12.  Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R.  “Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of Beowulf.” Beowulf and The Finnsburg Fragment.  Trans. by John R. Clark Hall.  3rded.  London:  George Allen and Unwin, 1950.  ix-xliii.  Print.

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Notes from the Illinois Education and Technology Conference 2012

Posted in December 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 2, 2012

(It’s been several months since my last post.  I’ve been writing a monograph on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and it’s soaked up a lot of my time and writing energy.  In particular, Sunday mornings have been my preferred blogging time, but that has also been the best hours to work on my Beowulf project, which is now far enough along that I can start to devote some thinking-writing time to other pursuits, like this blog.  I know:  Hooray!)

I’ve deliberately restricted the subject matter of this blog to my reading and writing life, which means I’ve deliberately avoided writing about other things that are important to me, like education.  But I’ve been a public schoolteacher for 29 years, plus I’ve also been an adjunct instructor at two universities, one public, one Catholic, for 15 years — so I have a lot of opinions about education (informed opinions, I like to believe).  I’ve avoided blogging about education-related issues for a couple of reasons, most likely.  One, so much of my life and my being are devoted to teaching, it’s a pleasant break to blog about other pats of my life that are important to me.  Two — and no. 2 is the more practical matter — to write about education is to, inevitably, critique education, and since my experiences are limited to specific faculties and specific superiors, that means I must at times critique my colleagues, my administrators, and my school board members.

I believe no. 2 is the reason that one hears so little (i.e., reads or sees via interviews, etc.) from actual practicing teachers:  all the power and authority flow in one direction, from the top down.  Quite frankly, a school board or an administration that decides it wants to make a teacher’s life miserable can quite easily do so.  I know that the media makes it sound like “teacher unions” are these all-powerful entities, but the truth is there’s very little associations can do to shield teachers from their superiors’ day-to-day ire.  New tenure/seniority and evaluation laws in Illinois make it fairly easy for administrations to circumvent tenure protection — but even before such laws were adopted, administrations could always rely on the oldest trick in the book:  perhaps they couldn’t very easily out and out fire a teacher they didn’t like, but there was nothing preventing them from making his life so miserable that he opted to resign or retire ahead of schedule.

Consequently, the ones who know education best — the classroom teachers who are in the trenches day in and day out — are left standing silently on the sidelines of debates, allowing their associations to speak for them en masse (associations, a.k.a, unions that have been demonized in the media as all that is wrong with education in the United States).

In my long layoff from blogging, while the presidential campaigns burned with rhetorical fury, often misrepresenting teachers and their collective mission, I decided to lift my own ban on writing about education … and I’ll begin by writing  about the 19th annual Illinois Education & Technology Conference that I attended in Springfield November 29 and 30.  To set the stage, I have been a long-time critic of technology’s powerful role in education.  I’m not a Luddite, not by any means.  I love technology.  I maintain multiple websites, I write two different blogs, I’m on Facebook (too much), I began tweeting before 90% of the world had heard of Twitter, I Skype, I have a smart phone, a netbook, a school-purchased iPad, and this desktop on which I’m writing this post; I love Netflix and Hulu, I have a YouTube channel, I’m on Vimeo, I’ve been into desktop publishing since the mid 80s. . . .

But at the same time, I believe our society and our schools have gone overboard with their worshiping of technology and their advocacy of its use in all circumstances.  Quite simply, when it comes to developing the mind via reading, writing and thinking skills, ancient, time-tested (non-computer-technological) ways are still the best — by far.  (Now that I’ve lifted my moratorium on discussing education-related issues I’m sure I’ll post more on these specific issues in the coming months.)

So I went to the conference as a devout skeptic, but I was truly hoping to find some reason for hope:  some concrete method for employing technology with my students that seemed to be beneficial, or at least some sense that technology would one day be viewed as a tool to be used when circumstances warranted, and not an idol who required daily pacification.

In a word, after two full days of conferencing, I was disappointed.

First of all, there were very few sessions that even pretended to offer practical advice on classroom pedagogy.  Many, if not most, of the sessions were conducted by school IT people, the people who bring technology into their districts then keep it running (and expanding). It’s not universal of course, but many IT people seem to view teachers as impediments to their getting the coolest technology into the hands of students.  One presenter (who I’m sure is a nice guy in the regular part of his life) even complained about teachers who have the audacity to ask “Why?” — that is, teachers who aren’t willing to embrace every piece of hardware and software that appears at their classroom door, but, rather, they respond critically (as in critically thinking) by asking what the potential benefits and drawbacks are.  (One notable exception was Jon Orech, of Downers Grove South High School, who said that asking why is, in fact, the most vital question when it comes to new technology, not what and how as so many seem to think.)

Another IT-person presenter referred to some teachers in his district as being “rock stars,” that is, teachers who use a lot of technology with their students — which of course suggests that more circumspect and more traditional teachers are, sadly, what, Fred Rogers-like? This presenter’s co-presenter expressed what also seems to be a common theme among the pro-tech folks:  That if all teachers would simply embrace all that the newest technologies have to offer, then students could finally reach their full potential.  Sounds great, except I don’t know what it means, in a practical sense, to embrace the newest technologies.  What would that look like in the classroom on a daily basis?  How would teachers have to change their approaches to unleash this revolution?  No one can seem to say.  For that matter, what sorts of potentials in students are we talking about?  It seems to have something to do with making them more creative.  Achievement is a popular concept; students using technology will achieve more or higher … or something.

Although, the gentleman who made the “rock star” comment also stressed to his fellow IT-ers in the audience, do not — repeat, do not — tell your administration that students will do better on achievement tests, because they probably won’t and then what do you do?  He was specifically referring to the concept of one-to-one computing, a trend in education that features giving each student a device of some sort (usually a laptop or a tablet, especially these days an iPad) and having them do just about everything via the device, avoiding traditional textbooks, and paper-based exams and projects, etc.  “Rock-star” man also advised his fellows not to count on saving some money in the budget by reducing the amount of paper being used, because this, in essence, “paperless” approach seems to use just as much paper as always.

One-to-one computing, or at least the idea of it, is big right now, especially in the Chicago suburbs it would seem.  Schools on the east coast started the trend several years ago, and most have already abandoned it — which isn’t stopping us Midwesterners from giving it a spin around the dancefloor.  “Rock star” guy’s co-presenter — both of whom, by the way, seem like very decent and funny human beings — said that their administrator wanted to go to one-to-one because neighboring superintendents were doing it, and he didn’t want to seem out of step.  This is another problem in education:  many school boards and administrators make decisions out of, basically, peer pressure, and not because of solid research results that support the approach, whichever one we’re talking about.

My final observation:  The iPad is extraordinarily popular right now in education — in spite of the fact no one seems to know how to use it in a classroom setting very effectively.  It doesn’t easily integrate with existing equipment, like other non-Mac computers, projectors and printers; plus its on-screen keyboard is awkward to use.  Teachers really, really like it, but they appreciate what it does for their professional and private lives, not for what it can do in the classroom, which doesn’t seem to be much.  I count myself among them.  I like my school-purchased iPad a lot and use it every day … at home.  I’ve found almost nothing that I can do with it in the classroom, in spite of wanting to find useful applications, which was one of the reasons I attended the conference.

Don’t get me wrong:  There were several sessions focused on using the iPad in the classroom, and I of course couldn’t attend all of them — so maybe I just missed the best of the best (my life can be like that) — but based on their descriptions and the sessions I did attend, the suggestions are pretty elementary, and consist of using the iPad in lieu of something else that’s more traditional and more common.  For example, use the iPad to make pictures, well, cave children made pictures on their school-cave walls; or use the iPad to make music, well, … you get it.  In other words, it seems like a lot of the pedagogical suggestions for the iPad are about playing.  And playing, I agree, can be very beneficial and even very educational, but since when did every kid need an iPad to play?

Let me just end by saying that I know tech people are good people, and teachers and administrators who fervently promote technology are good people — it’s just that too many people in education in general are working under the assumption that society has sold them:  that technology is inherently positive, and the more schools use it, the better those schools will be at teaching students.  We used to think smoking was healthy, too, and that asbestos was a wonderful, life-saving product.  Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we’re wrong; and we have to acknowledge it, and re-think and re-shape what we’re doing.  I’d like to believe that time is coming soon in education, but I suspect we’ll be lounging in our asbestos-tiled rooms  taking drags on our unfiltered Camels for decades to come.

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Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and Earl’s “Forbidden Beowulf”

Posted in September 2010 by Ted Morrissey on September 4, 2010

It’s been awhile since I entered the blogosphere, so I thought I’d do a post.  As I’d written about a couple of times, at the end of the summer I was reading a collection of Turgenev’s stories that I enjoyed very much, which encouraged me to pick up a collection of Dostoevsky’s shorter works that I’ve had lying about for, well, years, and have been wanting to crack open.  So I have.  I’ve been reading the collection’s opening tale, “The Double” (1846, trans. George Bird), and have found it a classic indeed.  Thus far it’s been both haunting and funny by turns.  The descriptive paragraphs are most remarkable.  Here’s the opening to one that I read over again and again because it’s just so good:

It was a dreadful night, a real November night, dark, misty, rainy and snowy, a night pregnant with colds, agues, quinsies, gumboils, and fevers of every conceivable shape and size — put in a nutshell, bestowing all the bounties of a St. Petersburg November. (p. 38, Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, ed. Ronald Hingley, Perennial Classic, 1968)

There is much to love here, but I especially admire the image of the pregnant night and the sarcasm of referring to the bounties of such a night. My first encounter with Dostoevsky, I believe, was reading Crime and Punishment in a world lit seminar while working on my doctorate. I’m partly on my Russian writers kick because I’ve always been interested in their works but have managed to miss most of them in my life as a student — but also the great William Gaddis scholar Steven Moore said somewhere (maybe it was on the Gaddis list serve) that there hasn’t been much work done on the Russians’ influence of Gaddis’s fiction, and there ought to be. Moore’s comment, wherever I read it, has stuck with me, and I fancy that eventually I’ll try to connect some of the dots between Gaddis and the Russians.

In addition to Dostoevsky, I’ve spent the last couple of days reading through James W. Earl’s article “The Forbidden Beowulf: Haunted by Incest” in the March 2010 PMLA. I’m a great admirer of Earl’s Beowulf scholarship, and it was very useful to me when working on the Beowulf chapters of my dissertation, though I came to it rather late in the process. A fellow after my own academic heart, Earl brings much to bear on the poem from other (perhaps unexpected) disciplines — psychology, yes (which, of course, is expected), but, as in this article, a little astronomy and quantum physics as well.  He writes,

How can we tell whether an author knows or does not know such backstories [e.g., Homer’s knowing the judgment of Paris] if he or she does not tell them? The situation is a little like detecting dark matter in the universe: the best we can do is try to detect subtle distortions in the matter that we can see. (p. 289)

Something that I really appreciate about Earl’s technique in the article is that, while he does put forward a thesis, his organizational strategy is essentially thinking through the related issues and the various scholars who have weighed in on them, and considering how their views may affect his own leanings. He concludes his third paragraph by saying, “I pose many questions and try to untangle such a mess of evidence that it is bound to get confusing at times” (p. 289). His erudition is impressive, to put it mildly, yet his tone is . . . inviting, one might even say conversational, at times anyway — of course, it’s a conversation with a very learned scholar who wants you to be learned too, someday, if not today exactly. Earl suggests that the mood of foreboding that Beowulf tends to cast upon readers, experienced and inexperienced ones alike, has more to do with what’s not said in the poem than what is on the page:

Beowulf is haunted by these [Scylding] analogues, and much of what is disturbing about the poem is due to this haunting. The poem is disturbing in many ways, among them the feeling one gets after long familiarity with it that something is missing, that something important is not said — or, as Freud might say, that something is repressed. (p. 292)

Given my interests in the psychic origins of creativity — of creating fictive narrative especially — Earl’s observations are most provocative.

On the creative writing front, the editor of Pisgah Review, Jubal Tiner, suggested that my story “The Composure of Death” should keep its title, but that we use the quote from Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” — where I derive the phrase — as an epigraph to the story: a good suggestion indeed. I sent an electronic copy of the story, epigraph included, to Jubal last week. I’m not sure which issue the story will appear in.

With the arrival of September, the floodgates have opened and lit journals across the land are accepting submissions again. As such, I’ve been busily getting “Melvill in the Marquesas” (the opening chapter of my unpublished novella Weeping with an Ancient God) in the mail (e- or otherwise). In the process of looking for journals to send it to, I came across a unique one: Textofiction, which is “an online literary publication dedicated to bringing the best writing in under 140 characters” — clearly inspired by Twitter. When I was working on my masters, Kent Haruf (who ended up being my thesis chair) liked to begin writing workshops by having us write complete stories in under 250 words, and that was a challenge. I’m not sure how one writes a complete story in 140 characters or less. I’ll have to keep an eye on the journal to see what writers come up with.

As far as  I know, my publisher, Punkin House Press, is still planning on releasing Men of Winter in October, but I haven’t seen a page proof or a cover design yet; perhaps soon.

tedmorrissey.com