Monday, June 07, 2010

I mentioned some time ago that I was working on a Cynewulf paper. I've been reworking my draft of late. Below is the new, way too long introduction, but it says things I want to say and establish. I'd love to have some input and reaction, and I'm certain that others have been here previously. I just don't know who or where or the proper vocabulary. Oh, and this version doesn't include the copious footnotes. So there it is. Enjoy.

Much of Anglo-Saxon poetry is a “mash-up” of genres. A "mash-up" is a current popular culture term that has a number of uses. In the computer field, the term is used to describe a new service, application, or web site that combines data or functionality from multiple sources. Similarly, the terms is used in modern music to describe a song that seamlessly integrates the lyrics and music of another song or songs into itself. A classical quodlibet is an early example of this. A "mash-up" is not another term for intertextuality: the latter studies how one text has absorbed and transformed another.1 Nor is it allusion or inference; lastly a "mash-up" is not simply the study of sources. All of these have their place in the literary critic's toolbox, and admittedly there are times when drawing a sharp contrast between the source critical study and the intertextual study is difficult as they meld into one another. A "mash-up," however, is a farrago, not a transformation of one thing by another, not only the discovery of the original sources on which the creator is drawing, what the creator alludes or references. Rather, a "mash-up", this farrago, is the combination of texts, genres, sources, ideas, tropes, etc into something that is both hybrid and yet new. Much of our study of Anglo-Saxon poetry, especially that in Old English, has focused on the Source Critical with some nod in more recent years to the intertextual. While this is not the only critical approach to Old English poetry, these approaches have towered as among the most common, and perhaps, even the most important.

Typically, the poems that have attracted the most attention from scholarship are those that merge a “native” Germanic genre with some kind of Christian genre or theme. Examples are not difficult to find, nor are illustrations of this point limited to the Anglo-Saxons. One could examine Dream of the Rood, Judith, Exodus just to name three in the Old English corpus. Genesis B, Heliand, and even the Ludwigslied are near contemporary parallels from the continent. Commonly, approaches to these texts have examined the sources where discoverable, examined various editorial and philological concerns, and noted the "Germanization" of Christian or Greco-Roman themes, tropes, motifs, or admired the Germanic heroic poetry on its own terms.

In our discussions of the Germanic and Christian in Old English poetry, however, the approach has typically been to explore or assume a specifically "Christian" element and observe how that element is given a "Germanic" expression. Thomas Hill noted more than 20 years ago that it is a "commonplace to observe that Cynewulf Germanicizes his source...."2 Such ideas are not limited to Cynewulf but are part of the discussion of every poem in the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. Much of these kinds of study assumes a dichotomy between Christian and pagan, Christian and German, or even German and Christo-Roman.

What the reminder of this paper seeks to do is reopen this question. While Cynewulf is certainly drawing on known sources, he is not merely recasting them into a Germanic heroic poem. He is rather taking elements of Near Eastern culture, Greco-Roman culture, Christian commentary and theology, and his own cultural outlook drawing on multiple texts, genres, and images to produce a true "mash-up" poem about the Ascension. The poet is not merely derivative of his sources; he is merely giving a Christian theme a coloring drawn from his native culture. It is more than those things: more than source study, more than intertextual, more than expressing an old idea in new language, however loaded that language may be. Perhaps most of all, the dichotomy that we too often draw between Christian and German, Christian and pagan, etc., distorts the picture of what Anglo-Saxon poets were doing.

The process by which this will be approached will take three phases. The first part examines Cynewulf's use of the catechetical genre as source, inspiration, and perhaps as his goal in producing this poem. Second, the paper examines cultural motifs and ideas about kingship, throne-ascensions, and images of divine and human kings extending from the ancient context of the Hebrew psalms to Cynewulf's own contemporaries and beyond. The third part looks at the result of the Ascension, the giving of gifts and what that catalog of charismata in Cynewulf's poem indicates in the foregoing context. All three of these building blocks, however, will be cast against a backgroud that Cynewulf is not being just intertextual, not just giving a Germanic coloring a Christian scene and so on but is taking part in a process of creating something new.


Steve Muhlberger said...

it may be because I am not a literary scholar that I am not quite sure about your distinction between intertextuality and the mash up. Just a little bit more explanation at the point where you deny that they are the same thing might help others as well as me.

theswain said...

Hi Steve,

Well, I'm not sure what it has to do with being a literary scholar, so much as a certain kind of literary scholar. And I'm not that kind either.

As I understand it, Kristeva offered the term to describe a text that transforms another text within it.

Others have watered down that use so that it really means no more than "allusion", but Kristeva means it to be more than that.

A "mash up" isn't a reinterpretation of one text by another; rather a "mash-up" is the fusion of two or more texts/ideas/etc together to make a new whole.

So Sons of Anarchy is a Kristevan "intertext" with Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Or Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" is mashed with "Da Funk" by Daft Punk where both songs transform each other.

One might argue that the recent "zombie" books that retell Jane Austen novels are mash-ups and contrast the intertextual relationship of Eliot's Ulysses with The Odyssey.

It does get fuzzy; I'm still puzzling it out and trying to discover if it's useful, if someone has been here before with different nomenclature, or it I should just jettison the whole thing and resort to my usual comfort zone.