Monday, January 07, 2008

When an essay rolls off a cliff

Well, back from Christmas "break" with the need now to bring in and interview three candidates before classes start. I did manage to get a few pieces finished and into the mail (including the Philology column that Scott Kleinman and I are writing for The Heroic Age) and really my "break" is just starting, as my daughter only went back to school today.

But I'm already in hell. A while back I agreed to do a SASLC entry on "Maxims, Aphorisms" and it has turned out to have a couple of those little implicit and embedded problems that can either destroy an article or bloat it to the point where the editor prints it out, rolls it up, and beats you with it. The problem here is that no one can differentiate between a Maxim, an Aphorism, a Proverb or a Gnome (unless it's wearing the red pointy hat and collecting underpants). So there is no good bibliographic method for finding articles tracing maxims, et. al. And the very nature of maxims and proverbs is that they are hard to tell if they've been translated or are original developments (homologies and analogies are hopelessly confused). The conventions of the wisdom genre (whatever those are), tend to make it very difficult to tell if we've got an independently arising maxim or one that is translated. Look at the translation of Ephesians 4. 5-6 in "Homiletic Fragment II" and tell me that if you didn't know the Ephesians piece, you would have guessed that "Homiletic Fragment II" had a Latin source rather than simply being an indigenous collection of Christian commonplaces (it reads like "The Fortunes of Men" or "The Gifts of Men").

Just to give one more example, Susan Deskis' really excellent book Beowulf and the Medieval Proverb Tradition shows a ton of interesting similarities between Latin medieval proverb collections and the statements in Beowulf that are taken to be in the "proverb" register. Her book is really convincing, but (and note I'm re-reading the book right now, and it's been five years or so since I last read it, so I still may stumble across something that I've forgotten and don't have in my notes) I can't find a single specific Latin proverb or maxim that can be traced from a specific Anglo-Saxon proverb, maxim, gnome, aphorism or sententious saying.

So I either have to write a really broad entry that argues that Latin Maxims, et. al. would have influenced Anglo-Saxon in an indirect way, or I have to try to track down specific ones that I have thus far been unable to find (though I've got a piles of clues from the Ker catalogue; the Gneuss handlist has been less helpful for this project than it usually is).


(on the other hand, my daughter is now a level 24 hobbit hunter on Lord of the Rings online and is quite a formidable little hobbit: you should see her slaughter giant wargs, spiders and orcs)