Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Crabby Post on Hating teh Internets

Anglo-Saxon Aloud is going to be hiatus for a couple of days as I rehab my voice. Yes, the dread upper respiratory infection that has been patiently marching through my family finally got me--we managed to cover 2.5 weeks with at least one person sick with this stupid germ but never two people sick. Fun. So I've got to get over my laryngitis before I get back to recording the Meters of Boethius.

And because I'm sick, I'm crabby. Also because a stupid internet-based phenomenon is in the process of ruining ANSAX-NET (the Anglo-Saxonists' listerv) for the second time (and it really hasn't recovered from the first time). People who don't participate in ANSAX-NET will have no idea of this, but there is a small and completely logorrheaic group of individuals who have what I can only describe as crackpot theories about the secret messages hidden in Beowulf and other poems through various means involving either scribal practice or numerology. No, I am not making this up, and it caused the decay of ANSAX-NET from an incredible resource in which many of the giants of the field engaged in really interesting discussions of matters Anglo-Saxon to today's relatively simple mechanism for making announcements.

Around the MLA that was held in Chicago when I was a grad student there, so probably around 1995 or 1996, I was at the Anglo-Saxonist open bar talking to several giants of the field. I mentioned ANSAX. "I decided to un-subscribe," whispered one extremely senior professor at a glamorous midwestern university. "Oh, me too," said someone from the southwestern part of the US. It turned out that half of the senior Anglo-Saxonists were no longer subscribed to ANSAX net. I was quite upset, because I had seen ANSAX as an incredibly valuable resource. Now it turned out that a lot of the people who knew most were not contributing. Why?

Letter counting for secret messages in Beowulf. Seriously. One Oxford-based scholar wrote (and I not exaggerating) hundreds and hundreds of messages purporting to demonstrate that if you counted up the words and letters in Beowulf, imposed ratios, did calculations, fixed all the errors that the scribe wrote, etc., you would find the key messages of the poem and the author's hidden name. When many of us tried the calculations and found that they would work just as well for a flight manual, the yellow pages, or a book about cabbage, simply more logorrhea about the letter- and word-counting poured forth.

Other people got into the act. There was the idea that the spacing between letters held clues to deep meaning. Others suggested that by carefully measuring the heights of all the letters, you got a sonogram that told you how to pronounce them. Every time someone pointed out a flaw in the argument, you got back page after page of explanation that never addressed the central questions of:

a) if you fish in the pond of random numbers, you will catch something
b) the argument is circular if you are trying to show these patterns but then emend due to "incompetent scribe" every time something doesn't fit your argument.

I have decided that the "counters" are the Anglo-Saxon studies equivalent of 911 "Truthers," "Thimersol causes autism" cranks, and "Ron Pauls says the Federal Reserve is ruining our lives" people. Similarities: simple questions never get simple answers but instead generate massive core dumps of material. Circular arguments are not rejected for being circular and the circularity is never addressed. Stacks of links to other websites or projects rather than citations of published material are used for support. There is some kind of "establishment" that is keeping the truth from getting out there. Serious scholars who have worked on, say, paleography, have no idea what they've been looking at. No piece of evidence, no argument will actually change these peoples' minds. And worst of all, they never stop talking and soon every sane person who is interested in other topics backs slowly away and unsubscribes.

It drives me crazy that this has happened to Anglo-Saxon once and is now in the process of happening again. Even if any of the counting theories were right (I've actually looked into them; I'm sure they are wrong), they never have anything but the most banal things to say: the central message of a poem is that "God is great" or "Christ redeemed us" or some utterly tedious and predictable Christian commonplace. Let me try to express better how I feel about this:

There are thousands of things to discuss and debate about Beowulf (I just spent a week of classes doing this and having amazing fun with it). The numbers of letters, words, spaces, heights or lines or even numbers of lines are the most boring things possible to talk about! This latest flurry started just as an interesting discussion about orality and literacy was getting going and when Adam Brooke Davis had made a really remarkable post that I thought showed exactly how meme theory could help show that the oral/literate debate can be resolved. Then boom! we're back to how many letters, words, spaces are in various lines. Argh!!!

I am not going to unsubscribe from ANSAX (yet), but I hope that we can talk about, well, interesting things (and there are so many of them) and not this stuff, yet again.

P.S.: A colleague I really respect, who knows more real philology than I'll ever learn, makes some provocative arguments about the overall number of lines in the poem and the certain things that happen at key points. I am still not at all convinced by the numerology. I think instead that what we have is a critic intuitively sensing key moments in the structure (the narratology) of the poem) and then finding a set of numbers that matches that intuition. Yvette Kisor's brilliant article in ASE, where she shows how many, many scholars, working from very different premises, have found the same structural patterns in the poem, shows how some pattern might be there (and almost certainly is), but I think that the numerology used to describe it is not convincing, because if things had been shifted by any number of lines, a smart enough critic (and the person working on this is certainly smart enough) could still get some kind of numerology to work. It's just--to use English lit jargon--an overdetermined system.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems finished at Anglo-Saxon Aloud

It seems like forever ago when I started recording volume VI of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, but that volume is now finished and every single poem, fragment, charm, etc. is now recorded, edited and posted at Anglo-Saxon Aloud. I hope you enjoy them.

The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems is a somewhat misleading name, because although the volume contains much that is "minor" in the regular sense of the word ("A Prayer" or "Latin-English Proverbs," for example), some of the most "major" and well-studied poems in the corpus are in this volume, including The Battle of Maldon, The Battle of Brunanburh and C├Ždmon's Hymn. But I guess that the title Anglo-Saxon Poems that Aren't in one of the Major Poetic Codices wouldn't have fit on the spine of the book.

Now I go back to volume V of the ASPR The Paris Psalter and the Meters of Boethius and start working through that volume. And since I'm violating chronological order anyway, I'm going to do the Boethius first, because that gives me more time to work up to trying to sing the Psalms. I think Boethius will take three weeks and the Psalter will take five (if I only do one psalm per day), so that would have Anglo-Saxon Aloud finishing up right around Kalamazoo time (which was why I was going to give a paper on it, but, oops. I will be chairing a session on something totally unrelated).

What will be next, I'm not sure. On the one hand, I've kind of gotten used to spending time recording and editing. It's good, fun, somewhat mindless work and gave me the excuse to read through the entire ASPR carefully (twice, actually: once when I recorded each poem and then again while editing). I've got more research questions to answer and new ideas about the poetry than I'll ever get to address. But it's also been tiring at times, so I don't know how much I'll continue. The prose sections of the Charms were harder to record than the poetry (less obvious breath points, for one thing), so I would hesitate to jump into a large prose project. But I'll almost certainly do the Sermo Lupi, and perhaps I'll start doing daily readings from the Chronicle.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Reasons for Current Radio Silence

My apologies for having no posts for a very long time. It has been a rather insane month (or year or something). I don't think I have had a block of free time larger than 20 minutes since Christmas. My research days keep getting eaten up with exciting things like our department doing a search, various meetings, scheduling the classes for next year (which killed an entire research day), taking my son to the dentist, my daughter having time off from school, etc. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of clear spots on the horizon: I just depressed myself by looking at the calendar for May because everything was filled up until then.

On the positive side, my classes this semester are excellent. Both the students in Beowulf and the students in the Math/Science Fiction course are the same students that I had in the fall. That's the first time that has ever happened, and it's pretty cool (though a little highschool-ish) to have the same kids all year. They're doing an amazing job in both courses, despite the problems with Beowulf, which we've been doing withing a stinking book for three weeks. Why, you ask? Because a) even though Klaeber IV was not ready yet, publishers stopped printing Klaeber III b) our stupid bookstore didn't order the book on time or didn't inform me that it was out of print and then tried to lie and tell me that I didn't put the order in (thank you, email confirmation). So, publishers of Klaeber III and IV: thanks, morons, for not coordinating yourselves. And to the bookstore: thanks also, morons, for not letting me know in advance. The upshot is that my poor students have been translating Beowulf with photocopies of Klaeber but using the excreble Clark Hall dictionary instead of Klaeber's glossary! And we are only 100 lines behind my schedule. I think my students deserve a freakin medal for doing this.

In other news, Tolkien Studies volume V is just about ready for the printer and there will be some very cool surpises in it. And my trainwreck of an entry on "Maxims, Aphorisms" turns out not to be as bad as I though: basically I am making a pretty good case that there aren't any unequivocal maxims in Old English except for the two poems by that name. So my entry will be bifurcated: half on the two poems and the other half saying that we shouldn't call anything a maxim (everything that's been called a maxim has more commonly been labeled a "proverb").

I also signed contracts for two new courses on CD from Recorded Books: I'll be doing a course on grammar in March and a course on Poetry in June. It's always fun to work with them, and the fact that they think that courses on Grammar and Poetry will be good sellers says good things about both the company and the wider world of listeners and readers.

Speaking of listeners, Anglo-Saxon Aloud continues to roll along. The Minor Poems should be done in two weeks, then Boethius, and then the Paris Psalter (which I'm working on learning to sing). The week of February 18 will feature the metrical charms, which should be at least amusing to Scott Nokes.

I now just have to finish the second chapter of the Science Fiction novel I was commissioned to write, finish my paper on aesthetic selection and then prepare the two lectures I'm giving in Utah in April.

I guess it's better to be overworked than to be bored. I do plan to write about the movement to make colleges spend more of their endowments, Stanley Fish's lame defense of the liberal arts, and more. Eating, sleeping and exercising? I plan on looking into those things. Some day I will read a book for pleasure again, too.