Monday, February 19, 2007

Kalamazoo Teaser:
Vainglory and Sanctacaris, The Order of the World and Naraoia, The Gifts of Men and Anomalocaris

My Kalamazoo paper will answer the pressing question:

What do the poems Vainglory, The Order of the World, The Gifts of Men, The Fortunes of Men, Precepts and Maxims I have in common with the fossilized animals Sanctacaris, Naraoia, Anomalocaris, Wiwaxia and Nectocaris?

All that remains is the writing and more research.

On another note, I will be Chair of the English department starting in July. Please light candles and make offerings at the appropriate shrines to propitiate Cthulhu or Nyarlhotep or whatever deities or demons are responsible for this.

[UPDATE (because I realize that this was an obnoxious tease, and because some people came close in the comments)]. In Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould talks about the 'weird wonders' of the Burgess Shale and how, at that stage of evolution, it seems as if features that were later restricted to one particular lineage could be recruited in various other lineages. He gives the analogy of the grab-bag" of anatomical features from which the "great token-stringer" could pull out different pieces at random and put together and working animal. Later on, there are separate grab-bags labeled "arthropod body plan," "angiosperm body plan," "vertebrate body plan," etc. But at this early stage there's more variability.
I think with the "wisdom poems" and other Exeter Book poems (particularly in codicological booklet II) we see poets' abilities to recruit various features (catenulate passages, envelope patterns with homlies on each side, and other bits that I'll be identifying) across genres because those genres haven't fully hardened in place. I think we can find "Vainglory" and "The Order of the World" to be closer to each other than to other poems, just as "Gifts of Men" and "Fortunes of Men" are closer to each other than to other poems, and closer to "Vainglory" and "The Order of the World" than they are to "The Seafarer," and with "Widsith" having similarities in one way (catenulate structure) but not in others (content). Likewise the "wisdom" passage in Christ is very close to passages in Gifts and Fortunes, but the poem as a whole is not.
The analogy to the Burgess Shale (in Gould's interpretation; not all of which I agree with) is this: at an early stage of development, structural stereotypy is less rigid than it will later become. With such a fragmentary record for Old English short poems, I'm not sure I can do as much as I'd like (and, sadly, its not as if one can go dig up new poems the way one can excavate new fossils from a quarry or a museum drawer), but we'll see.


Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

A chair? My condolances. You deserve better things in life.

By the way, I recommend reading Richard Russo's "Straight Man" to help you get through the experience without committing homocide.

Tom Elrod said...

I don't know what your paper is about, but JJ Cohen over at In the Middle was writing about fossils, too:

No idea whether what he was getting what is what you were getting at, but it seems like an interesting topic.

Sorry to hear about your chairmanship. My condolences.

squire said...

I'm working from memory here, but aren't those the Precambrian animals from the Burgess Shale that were misidentified by the first paleontologist to study them, because he tried to force them into existing classifications rather than see how new and unique they were?

Gould's Wonderful Life tells the story of how, 60-odd years later, a team of British paleontologists re-examined the fossils with open minds, and ended up defining several entirely new arthropod families, etc., to contain these very unique species. Thus the funny names like anomalocaris, i.e., "anomaly".

So are you going to redefine how these medieval works (poems? what are they?) should be classified and grouped, based on a new memetic approach and unbiased by past scholarship?

Richard Reitz said...

Sorry to hear about the appointment. I thought you had a family.

I would presume that the likeness of those two topics is one of evolutionary failure. The pre-Cambrian Eidicaran fauna did not advance through the Cambrian era and died out. Similarly, Anglo-saxon literature did not advance through the Norman invasion, and died out. Damn those Normans.