The Plagiarism Speech – another approach

Last night in my medieval comp lit class, as I described the first paper assignment, I fell into what I described as the “obligatory plagiarism speech.” I felt so embarrassed to have to give it at all. No one becomes a professor because they want to be the police.

So I started, as I usually do, in a mumble of reluctance. And then I found my groove, and the way I’m going to give this talk from here on out. I said:

I’m an expert, and I care about your writing and I care about you. You may think my job is to judge you. It’s not. It’s to help you get better. I’m on your side. This relationship we have here, where you have an expert give your writing close attention, just because they want you to get better, is such a rare and beautiful thing. Take advantage of it! Because it is a relationship. I trust you, and I want you to trust me. Give me writing you’ve worried over, that you’ve agonized over, that you’re worried about: that’s fine! That’s what I expect and what I want. I just want it to be yours, all yours, because I care about you. I can’t wait to read what you give me and help you find how to be the best possible writer and thinker you can be.

Completely sincere. Maybe something like this can help you too.

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Teaching the Canterbury Tales with online manuscripts/incunabula: a quick intro

This semester is my first time teaching the Canterbury Tales to doctoral students. To rise to their level, I decided manuscripts would be a big part of my teaching: after all, as digitization is much advanced since I myself was getting a PhD [mumble] years ago, manuscripts can, and probably should, now be a key focus to medievalist graduate training anywhere, even in the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Apart from the expected Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, and the useful tools at the Norman Blake Editions of several key CT manuscripts and, as well, Manly and Rickert, here’s what’s undoubtedly a partial list of fully digitized Canterbury Tales manuscripts, or, at least, the ones I’ve found easiest to navigate:

British Library, Harley ms 1758.
British Library, Harley ms. 7334.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.15.
Caxton 1476 and 1483 printings
.
Codex Bodmer 48.
Oxford, Bodleian, Christ Church ms. 152.
Oxford, Bodleian Douce 218 (Richard Pynson printing, 1491-92).
Oxford, Corpus Christi College ms 198.
Petworth Manuscript [newly digitized].
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 24 (the ‘Devonshire Chaucer’).
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 32 (the ‘Delamare Chaucer’).

If you’re reading this, I trust you’re already familiar with manuscript variance with the Cook’s Tale or the variously omitted stanzas from the Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale (or the omission of the Envoy altogether). I trust you’ll want less famous examples, maybe to help you through this term, or to get you started on the next.

What varies most, perhaps, is the manuscript apparatus, like section headings and divisions, which give us a sense of how this work might have been read and sorted. For example:

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

This is the Knight’s Tale. How do the pieces fit together? Where the Riverside has “Explicit secunda pars / Sequitur pars tertia,” and where Hengwrt 25v has “Explicit prima pars / Incipit pars secunda,” Christ Church 152, 26v, has “the ordinannce of lystys that thesyiis ordaynyd.” Does the Knight’s Tale comprise abstract parts of equal weight, or is it a sequence of events? If so, whose doings are worthy of “ordaining” the divisions of the plot?

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Or here’s the Reeve’s Prologue in Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v. Our medieval scribe has started the tale at the prologue itself (“Explicit fabula molendmain [the Miller] / here bygynneþ þe Reeues tale” — note the mixture of Latin (Explicit) and English (bygynneþ)); an early modern reader intervenes, and writes “Prologue” in the margins. Are they comparing manuscripts? Or is it a sign of an independent interpretation?

When does the Wife of Bath’s Tale start? In at least one case, her tale – or one of them anyway – begins after the Pardoner interrupts her:

Harley 7334 89r

Harley 7334 89r, with a red “Narrat” in the margin.

Here, then, the Wife’s prologue is split between a prologue, where she does scriptural interpretation, and a tale, where she finally begins to tell us something of her “experience.”

Most interesting to me, however, is what the manuscripts call what the Friar does at the end of the Wife’s Prologue, or first Tale, or whatever else it might be called. Here’s my (crowded) slide:

slide

Is it just “words between” the Friar and Summoner? It is an “interpretation” of the Wife’s tale? An “interruption”? Or is it just a neutral ending of the Wife’s prologue, and the words of the Friar, following neatly? It depends! And a lot depends on it.

As we all know, in their capacity for nuanced forms of emphasis, manuscripts are closer than print is to speech. We on the other side of Gutenberg have generally lost rubrication, marginalia too, or underlining, manicules, and slight enlargements, like so, from the Friar’s Tale:

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Should the carter be taken down to hell? “Nay q[uo]d þe deuel,” he absolutely should not.

Finally, a bit on early modern readers of Chaucer. Griselda’s story is a marriage story, after a fashion, which perhaps helped suit this blank space for an early modern family record:

Harley 1758 126v

Harley 1758 126v

The Fox children crowd in over the course of the sixteenth century, here and on the next page, before the Franklin’s Tale — not the Merchant’s — begins.

And this, a record of what one early modern reader cared most about:

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r gives us an early modern reader who, like many of us, is curious about the rest of the Squire’s Tale. They’ve clearly “sought in diuers places” for the “the reaste” but found nothing except the final two lines about Apollo, just like you have in your Riverside.

More interesting is what doesn’t get changed: in red, “The Prologue to the Merchaunt.” Turn the page, and we have the words of the Franklin to the Squire, but here assigned to the Merchant, and then the Merchant’s Tale (“Whilom there was dwelling in Lombardy / A worthy knight”). No correction. No correction. No indication of difference, despite our reader likely having encountered the Franklin and his tale in these passages as they hunted in diverse places. Here at least is one reader who wasn’t bothered by variance in Tale order. If you’re having your students read Arthur Bahr, this is as good illustration as any of ways to think the Canterbury Tales as other than “fragments.”

Atavism: Teaching notes on Beloved

I like to give me students something to beat up on, so I started class today with this sentence from Cliffs Notes:

In Cincinnati, far from the misshapen Mrs. Garner, the atavistic savagery of the “mossy teeth,” and schoolteacher’s sadism, Sethe sinks into the masochism of a fruitless emotional duel with her dead child’s ghost.

The question: what’s wrong with the word “atavistic”? How is this evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how TIME works in Beloved?

25 minutes later, one saucy student demanded: “where are you going with this ‘atavistic’ stuff?”

“Hold on. Just hold on.”

I’m at that stage in my career where I’m pretty sure I could have kept it going for another 30 minutes.

But if you’re looking for a lesson plan on Beloved from someone who read it for the first time last month — in other words, if you’re kind of a fool or a bit of an ambulance chaser — then by all means read on and click you on.

I discovered, first, that although this is an advanced literature course (“History and Lit”) very few — like maybe one — of my 16 students knew what “atavistic” even meant. So I gave them some evolutionary biology, first, and explained this is “atavistic” in its technical sense, while also reminding them that it’s just plain wrong to think that “atavistic” traits are more primitive. Evolution, I insisted, does not improve things in some abstract sense; it doesn’t make things better (“for what?”): it adapts, and adaptations can sometimes be simplifications (like blind cave fish, classically).

Then I showed them some 19th-century criminology:

Capture

I gave them some modern atavism in a racist context. And I finally asked why “atavistic” was a particularly lousy word to use to denigrate someone — even white people — in a novel written by an African American about the African American experience?

The students rightly observed that the story of Schoolteacher’s nephews assaulting Sethe did NOT take place in some primitive past but in the present of 1855, where cruel white behavior against black slaves was condoned and encouraged: there’s a whole modern system set in place to make these kinds of actions possible. Given that her assailants are literally stealing her milk from her breasts, we witness here, helplessly (like Halle in the hayloft), a violent assertion of the fact that, to the slaveowners, Sethe and other slave mothers were nothing but breeding stock.

I added, what else about “atavistic”? What about the charge that certain people are more primitive than others, more likely to be evolutionary throwbacks? What about the phrase “you black apes” (here, here, here, and here).

We got it. No surprise. I didn’t belabor the point. Atavistic is a pretty lousy, stupid word to use as an insult for describing characters in at least this book.

And what about the way time functions in Beloved anyhow?

Remember, I read it for the first time last month, and am, naturally, teaching it for the first time now. I’m sure this has been covered in the criticism.

Sethe’s relationship to the past is not one of a present day person trying to grow out of something primitive. For her, the past is at once too present and too lost: too present in that she’s pummeled with it whenever she remembers (quite literally when the ghost shows up), and too lost when we see what happens between her and her mother, her connection to Africa, to the antelope dance, and to the freedom stolen from them.

I have my past easily at hand, I told the students: on my mother’s side, I can trace my ancestry  back to the seventeenth century in this country (and farther back still if I extend it to Europe). Over here, in Virginia, we owned slaves; a great great (or so) uncle — James O. B. Racer — died from wounds received at Gettysburg, fighting, I pointed out, for the wrong side. My students — many of them immigrants or second-generation Americans, many of them descended from people fleeing pogroms or the Holocaust, many of them descended from slaves — don’t have this. “Atavism” isn’t their problem: it’s that their past is either too awful and too lost.

This is one of the problems Morrison explores in Beloved, where 1855 and 1873 shift into each other, without a sign or a break, where the past might slide into the present or vice versa, where Sethe and Paul D and so on scramble and dodge to try to re/member a usable past and to try to get past the past that haunts them. The past is not backwards, here, but rather a ghost, a danger, and an absence, and the impossible desired thing.

I stopped only because we had to talk about Lucy Delaney, who, you know, teaches like a dream.

Defaced: teaching notes on Imoinda’s beheading

Whitened Imoida

You probably know Behn’s Oroonoko better than I do. I’m reading/teaching (or that teaching/reading?) it for the first time.

Yesterday, we focused on this:

All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador’d Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love.

This is Oroonoko, the enslaved prince, killing Imoinda, his wife, to keep her from being “ravish’d by every Brute; expos’d first to their nasty Lusts, and then a shameful Death” after he revenges himself against the whites who wronged him. Behn, as I argued yesterday, faces an unsolvable problem: she has to have Oroonoko kill the pregnant Imoinda, and she has to have him do it out of love. She loads up the sentence with tender words — “lovely, young and ador’d,” “smiling,” “delicate,” and of course “tenderest” — and gives us an Oroonoko who is “adjusting” his “intermitting irresolutions” before he kills her. This is the act of a man of grace and honor, with none of the loathing, hatred, and bare desperation of Othello. As I told the class, while I thought Othello the greater work, and its emotions more frightening, I though Behn had done Shakespeare one better, on one key account, by politicizing the uxoricide: this is no private matter. This is political, a blow against the slavers, a call for abolition or, especially, a call by the Tory Behn to respect the rights of royals (for Oroonoko is, first of all, a prince).

And yet: “severing her yet smiling Face.” What is he doing here?

The students were as horrified as I was: was he actually carving Imoinda’s face from her head? Unlikely, I suggested; I think he cut her throat and then, perhaps to bring death fast, beheaded her. Behn can’t bring herself to say “beheaded,” though: maybe she’s remembering England’s regicide (which happened when she was 8 or 9) or maybe it’s just too ugly an act. So she solves the problem by giving us an image that’s, actually, far, far worse.

As I’ll suggest, this inadvertent “defacement” may be the truth of the matter: not just that Behn can’t find the right words to present the impossible: a husband killing his pregnant wife, but tenderly; and not just that she’s simultaneously preserved and destroyed as a person, dying as a tragic heroine but dying because she’s just a slave, just fungible, a body without a face of her own; but also that the murder really is an act compelled by the slavocracy of English Surinam. This act of horror is not his own. Sort of. He’s killing her to preserve his control over her body (his tender love vs. the nasty lusts) but he’s compelled to do this only because he’s bound to. Where is his agency here? Where is hers? Where is the face — the site of the human, of the individual — in all this?

[image from ArtStor: Illustration for Thomas SOUTHERNE’s dramatization of Aphra BEHN’s, Oroonoko , pl. I in Lowndes New English Theatre , vol. VI (London, 1776), p. 83: Mr. Savigny in the Character of Oroonoko]

[UPDATE – clearly this is all new to me. First correction: the spelling of Imoinda. Second: Here, I’ll stress that she does encourage Oronooko to kill her. For what that’s worth. THIRD and perhaps most importantly: an important and convincing strain of criticism reads this passage literally, as Oroonoko literally cutting his dead wife’s face off her body. It’s a memento, a cameo, a rendering of her body unfit for adultery (in the old, semi-legendary ‘punishment’ of the defacement of adulterous wives and mistresses), and preserving her for his in in absolute horror.]

Chaucer, Twice: the Prioress and Criseyde

I’ve just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress’s Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: “As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale is one of them. It’s antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there’s no way around it: it’s awful.”

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like “I think this story is antisemitic,” “it seems unfair to Jews,” “it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil,” “it tells us that antisemitism is really old,” or, the variant, “the antisemitism in the Prioress’s Tale is still around today.”

I warned them, but they’re still shocked. I’m befuddled but I’m also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I’ve tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale’s antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says “this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic,” I, of course, say “the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they’re confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific”; but when a student just condemns the tale’s antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:

  • What’s the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy’s 10 years old; here he’s 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the ‘holy abbot’ in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that ‘simplicity’ and ‘goodness’ tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress’s intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I’ll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I’d argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story…
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews’ hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don’t murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress’s Tale isn’t a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who — as a sign of his pureness — sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They’re both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?

In the next class, I’m also going to talk about this painting:

This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students’ presentations on the Prioress’s Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I’ve recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what’s most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they’d gone to ArtStor, they’d find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down….).

I’m going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I’ll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale’s hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I’ll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother — the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 — as the tale’s actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy’s innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

For more on the painting, see Eileen A. Joy in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:

all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of “disappear” in or move into the background of our “readings” of various texts.


 

Here’s another bit of recent Chaucer grumbling:

I’m thinking of a recent conversation with a very senior colleague, someone who’s been at my institution for a lifetime, mine, specifically. He was on his way out of the class; I was on my way in. As best I remember, here’s how it went:

“What are you teaching?”

“Chaucer.”

“Matthew Arnold said that Chaucer lacked ‘high seriousness.'”

“Certainly not true for Troilus & Criseyde.”

“”Slydynge of corage’. I like that. Always on her way to the next man.”

“What choice did she have?”

He repeats: “‘Slydynge of corage.'”

“What else could she have done?”

A nasty nutshell. It’s a prefeminist, prepolitical way to teach the poem, preserved in amber, and no doubt preserved even in some of our younger teachers.


  1. The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don’t they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn’t want to enter the Symbolic or doesn’t want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It’s basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah? 

Class 14 – SGGK, Weird Reading, and Ecowrap up

board2

What you see above is most of today. We started by talking about Kzoo; everyone’s encouraged to review the #kzoo2014 twitter hashtag, and to get a sense of the volume and connections of tweets from here. Then we talked about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, surely one of the most taught Middle English texts (for example, here’s the first page of my Borroff translation from 2 years ago; even more crowded now). We covered some of the key ways it’s often taught: pagan and Christian and ‘vernacular Christianities’, focusing on the green belt, Solomon’s pentangle, and invocations like “Cros Kryst me spede“; gender and genealogy, with the former concentrating on Morgan’s control of the narrative, and the latter on Morgan’s connections to both Arthur and Gawain and, eventually, Mordred; queer sexhostipitality, and feminist critiques of supposedly gender neutral discussions of hospitality (see McCracken here); and Aeneas’s treachery at Troy, with the ambiguity of “was tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe.”

But then we got ecocritical, with discussions of humeral and astrological theory, the horses and the ‘becoming horse’ of knights, the ‘desert’ that’s actually prolific with more life than can be handled (greener than you think!) and the ‘great outdoors’, and, of course, the butchering of the animals, with the move towards animals that are less and less receptive to ‘getting along with’ humans, concluding with the fox as the great outdoors of animals, vulnerable, useless, and clever.

And then the board happened! Above, our semester.

Day 13 – Plant Thought, Tree women, Surface, and Hospitality

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 2.00.28 PMWe started off looking at the phenomenon of non-human horror (continuing from our discussions of Thacker last week), noting a progression(?) from the plant horror of the 50’s (with summer reading recommendations of Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think, available as a free ebook andaudiobook along with Aldiss’ Hothouse, and John Cristopher’s Death ofGrass). There seems to be a general shift in horror: Plants –> Giant animals –> vampires –> zombies –> robots (?).

We had a great presentation, which explored the question of subjective participation and objective distance, drawing connections between Ulysses’ famous participation-by-passivity in his being tied to the mast of the ship to hear the sirens. Without objective distance, there is death. This moved into Kohn’s How Forests Think, which seeks to expand the “anthropological” outside of the anthropos. Some kind of articulation of thought is generally the divisional line between human and non-human things, but humans are always thinking within their contexts…as do animals…and forests. And this connects into the flower maidens in the Alexander legend: they exist in a network, but most notably, a closed network, where the observer is also a violation. What does it mean that their production is regenerative? And carrying into Dindimus, what gives him the ability to separate himself enough to analyze his own culture and relate it to Alexander? How is this correspondence possible? Or any, for that matter, in the case of these colliding networks of enclosure/meaning?

There is a problem of representation and interrogation in the Alexander stories, in which all beings are rendered as signs which one must know, or, bring into one’s own system of meaning, a further appropriation that underscores that of the material appropriation of plants that Micheal Marder explicates in Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. But there’s a problem here in that we are understanding action as performative, and performativity as linguistic (There was a Barad reference here, that I’m unread on). But essentially, it seems that this problem boils down to interaction as performativity or object-orientation, the space in between which plants seem to lie.

We started talking about challenging Harman’s withdrawal (dark, deep, cavernous, whatever) to a withdrawal that is withdrawal because of its surface-ness. McCracken’s reading of the flower-women, which can be downloaded here, leaves off (or adds, thus leaving off) something important in its translation of the Middle French, which adds that the women have the “form of a [human] body.” But no, actually, they have “des cors la figure,” that is, of the body a figure, or the figure of a body, which is even weirder, a body purely made out of its figuration, out of its surface.

And then the discussion of Alexander and Dindimus, in which Dindimus acts in the mode of standard medieval asceticism, withdrawal from the world, but is here doing so because he is rendering himself as part of the world. Hereis the question of what constitutes the human: Dindimus is more human because he is with and in the world, and Alexander defends his humanity on the basis of his ownership and “cultivation” of it. But Dindimus isn’t actually one with the world–what he wants is total distance from it, to be in the anthropological “outside,” inhabiting objective distance from the world and a distance from obligation. And also the problems of representing a king, as in MS. Bodl. 264 fol. 215r