Eve at Skepticamp: The Origins of the Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on TV

June 22, 2011

Last weekend, Eve gave her talk about the origins of a dirty words. Her journey into the seedy side of etymology was prompted by a number of glaring mistakes she encountered on skeptical sites. Her exact words, I think, were, “FUCK!”

Here is the video, which is the size of a house (a 314MB .m4v).

You can also listen to the mp3 podcast version, which is more hamster-sized.

This talk is explicit and NSFW, but it’s totally ok to listen to it in front of children, especially strangers’ children.

And a special thanks to Mark Ditzler at Abrupt Media for putting these together.

RJB


WAR! Huh! Good god, y’all! What is it good for?

May 31, 2011

Growing your teaching portfolio, for one.

This semester, students in my 3 classes put together a website about World War II as experienced in Atlanta. They looked at Atlanta before, during and after the war, and we found that the war really shaped much of what Atlanta has become.

Behind the splash page, you’ll find that all of the groups have been named using the military alphabet of the day, because of my super cleverness. I need to work on that page, but other than that, it’s complete. I am immensely proud of so many students who worked very hard over the semester to produce a fantastic site.

http://wwii.lcc.gatech.edu

RJB


Science Gone Berserk

May 3, 2011

Not long ago, I wrote about how the History Channel dealt with the Norse warriors known as berserks (spoiler alert–they dealt with it badly). More recently, Brian Dunning mentioned berserks in an episode of Skeptoid on feats of superhuman strength:

Such drugs [as PCP] have also been suggested to explain groups such as the Norse berserkers, a subset of Viking shock troops who fought like enraged wild animals, impervious to pain, and contemptuous of injury. Some researchers have suggested that berserkers may have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle, as did Zulu warriors. Another theory states that they may have simply gotten really drunk, but this likely would have resulted in poorer performance in battle. It’s also possible that berserkers simply worked themselves up into a frenzy, and combined with the fight or flight response to the impending battle, did indeed gain heightened physical ability.

Berserks aren’t the focus of the episode, but Dunning covers the all the bases briefly: berserks may have taken magic mushrooms; they may have used another substance, such as alcohol (but probably not); or they may have achieved the frenzy without any mind-altering substances. The idea that berserks may have taken something seems to be pervasive, and the history of the idea is traceable and interesting. To a large extent, it has been scientists who have explored the “magic mushroom” theory. It turns out, when science gets involved in the humanities, science is not always right.

In Dunning’s “References and Further Reading” section, he lists an article called “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry” by Howard D. Fabing. This article was published in both The Scientific Monthly and The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1956. It is based on a paper Fabing presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. According to the author biography included in the article, Fabing was at the time of writing “in private practice of neurology and psychiatry.” Previously,

[he had] taught physiology and neurology at the University of Cincinnati. During World War II he was director of the School of Military Neuropsychiatry in the European Theater of Operations. His research activities have been in the fields of parkinsonism, narcolepsy, epilepsy, wartime blast concussion syndrome, shock therapies, and the neuro-chemistry of mental disorders.

Clearly, Fabing was eminently qualified to discuss neurological and psychiatric disorders. He was perhaps less qualified to discuss medieval Scandinavian history. He doesn’t directly quote a single primary document related to the Viking age, and indeed, it seems clear that he was not immediately familiar with the primary documents (many of which were available in translation in 1956, although often in that “ye olde” variety of English that no one ever spoke). He begins by giving the supposed legendary background of the berserks:

Berserk was a mighty hero in Norse mythology. Legend states that he was the grandson of the mythical eight-handed Starkadder. He was renowned for his consummate bravery and for the fury of his attack in battle. He had twelve sons who were his equals in courage. He never fought in armor but in his ber sark, which means “bearskin” in the Nordic languages. Thus the term berserk became synonymous with reckless courage. (232)

I was not familiar with a hero named Berserk. I have still not found him in any primary text. I have, however, found references to this story in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century re-tellings of Norse legendary material. For instance, the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives the following information under the entry for “berserker:”

[I]n Scandinavian mythology, the name of the twelve sons of the hero Berserk, grandson of the eight-handed Starkadder and Alfhilde. Berserk was famed for the reckless fury with which he fought, always going into battle without armour. By the daughter of of King Swafurlam, whom he had killed, he had twelve sons who were his equal in bravery. In Old Norse berserer thus became synonymous with reckless courage, and was later applied to the bodyguards of several of the Scandinavian heroes.

Starkaðr, usually Anglicized either as Starkad or Starkadder, does appear in various primary texts. There are actually two of Starkads. One or the other or both appear briefly in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and a number of sagas. Starkad the Old plays a larger role in chapters 6-8 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (translation available here) and the extremely strange Gautreks saga. Neither Starkad has a grandson named Berserk in any of these works. I suspect that the origin of this story comes from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, translation available here). In the versions of Hervarar saga that I have seen, there is no character named Berserk. The berserk father of the twelve berserk sons is named Arngrim, and in most versions Starkad does not seem to be his grandfather. There are, however, several variant texts of the saga. In this short, strange version* of Hervarar saga, called Saga Heiðreks konúngs ens vitra (The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise) Starkad does indeed seem to be Arngrim’s grandfather, and Arngrim is called “Arngrímr berserkr” (Arngrim the berserk).

So, without citing a source, Fabing recounts a garbled version of one variant of one saga. As I said, it is clear he is not familiar with the primary texts and accepts conflated and sometimes inaccurate accounts in secondary sources. Later, he gives a description of berserks that is third-hand (“A vivid description of the behavior of the Viking hoodlums is given by Schübeler, who relied on the renowned Norse historian, Munch” 234). While this description contains a lot of the usual information, it includes symptoms that are less common: “This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color” (234). These sound like medical symptoms, and they fit rather well with some of the symptoms he and other doctors have observed in patients who have taken or been given hallucinogens, but they are not common in the sagas.

Fabing goes on to note that

There is a fascinating theory that Berserksgang…may not have been a psychogenically determined habit pattern, but may rather have been the result of eating toxic mushrooms. This idea, fantastic though it may appear at first glance, has won general acceptance among Scandinavian scholars, according to Larsen. (232)

According to the endnote, this information comes from a personal communication from “H. Larsen, provost, University of Illinois.” The next note identifies him as Henning Larsen. Larsen was a professor of English who is listed as a consultant in the front matter of the Middle English Dictionary. He was also the president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. Several articles he wrote are listed in the MLA Bibliography. Still, it would have been nice if Fabing had cited some actual articles or books to show this “general acceptance.” The theory does not seem to be generally accepted among Norse scholars any more.

The reasons it is not widely accepted are clear from Fabing’s article. He notes that the mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has been “used orgiastically” by Siberian tribes. The practice was first described in 1730 (232). Notice that Siberia is not Scandinavia, and the eighteenth-century is not the Viking age. He describes the effects in some detail. Some of these effects fit with the berserker rage: “Prodigious feats of physical strength are reported to have been accomplished under its influence” (232).  Other effects would seem to be detrimental in battle: “Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sings, and dances” (W. Jochelsen qtd. in Fabing 233). Berserks would not have been effective warriors if they raged about fighting imaginary people.

One man who accidentally poisoned himself with hallucinogenic mushrooms suffered

explosive onset of diarrhea, profuse sweating, excessive salivation and vertigo. He fell asleep and wakened…completely disoriented, irrational and violent…. He did not react to deep pain stimulation, but responded to pinprick. He was disoriented in all three spheres…. He thought that he was in hell and identified the interne, nurses, and attending physicians as Christ, Satan, God or angels (Arthur Drew qtd. in Fabing 233)

Violence and imperviousness to pain fit with descriptions of berserks. Diarrhea, vertigo, disorientation and hallucinations would seem to be drawbacks for a warrior.

As Fabing points out, the theory that berserks used some sort of mind-altering substance originated in 1784 with Samuel Lorenzo Ødman, a Swedish theologian, who read the sagas (or at least some of the fornaldarsögur) and concluded:

I am not of the opinion that these ecstasies can be explained as effects of a peculiar temperament or of autosuggestion because…they were not able to keep up their hated arrogance between paroxyms. (qtd. in Fabing 234. Ellipsis in Fabing)

Now his logic here seems flawed: because the frenzy isn’t essentially permanent, it can’t be auto-suggestion. Obviously, this is not true. One could think of berserker rages as big-boy temper tantrums: awful, but fortunately temporary. Ødman goes on to suggest that berserks used some substance from “the vegetable kingdom,” but that they “kept it secret so that their prestige would not be reduced by the general populace’s knowledge of the simplicity of the technique” (qtd. in Fabing 234). Ah, yes, they kept it secret. That’s convenient. Of course, what isn’t quite being said here is that there is NO EVIDENCE that berserks used any substance to achieve the berserker rage: NO REFERENCES to any ritual consumption of mushrooms or anything else. But if you have a cool theory, there’s no reason you should let a lack of evidence hold you back: you just have to come up with an excuse for why it doesn’t exist.

Lacking any reference to berserks consuming mushrooms, Ødman turns to accounts of the tribes of eastern Siberia and finds corroborating information:

What in particular seems to me to argue for flugswamp [the delightful Swedish name for fly agaric] is the fact that to partake of it is a custom from that part of Asia from which the pagan god Odin, with his pantheon, made their migration to our North. … The history of the Berserks in our North begins with Odin’s coming. (qtd. in Fabing 235)

While it was difficult to identify the source for the story of Berserk, son of Starkadder, this bit of misinformation is easy to identify. In both the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson euhemerizes the Norse gods, explaining that they were great men who came to be regarded as gods. He suggests that they originally came from Troy. After Virgil invented a nice history for Rome, many European lands came up with foundation myths centered on Troy. Snorri’s has about as much validity as any of the others (none whatsoever). But Snorri tosses in some completely bogus etymology as well: the gods were called Æsir because they came from Asia. Hector becomes Tror, which becomes Thor. I could go on. These etymologies are false.

So, to summarize Ødman’s argument: it is based on false assumptions; it has to explain away the complete lack of evidence; it relies on “historical” accounts that no one accepts. It doesn’t really look good for the magic mushroom theory.

It didn’t go away though. A century later, it was taken up by a Norwegian physician and botanist, F. C. Schübeler. Schübeler agreed with Ødman about pretty much everything, including the likely secrecy that surrounded the mushroom-eating. He considered other substances, but dismissed them as less likely culprits than fly agaric.

Fabing concludes by discussing his own observations. He had studied bufotenine, the active ingredient in a number of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants (and toads). He injected healthy, mentally stable prisoners with bufotenine and recorded the results. He concludes that the effects are very similar to the berserker rage, which is odd because rage is noticeably absent from his descriptions. The subjects had hallucinations and their faces became purple, but they also became “relaxed and languid” and “lay contentedly in bed, feeling pleasantly relaxed” (236). These prisoners would make disastrously bad berserks. In addition to being supremely relaxed, they suffered from severely impaired spacial perception, and other side-effects that would again be problematic for a warrior.

The whole magic-mushroom theory is based on cherry-picking certain side effects of hallucinogens (the effects of bufotenine can vary drastically) and certain descriptions of berserks and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. More importantly, it depends on a flawed justification (that it couldn’t be auto-suggestion because the state is temporary) and false history. Oh, and also there is no evidence the berserks used any mind-altering substance to achieve the berserker rage!


*I’m not sure where this version comes from. Very little information is provided. There’s no manuscript reference. Googling the title in Icelandic or English just turns up a lot of hits for Christopher Tolkien’s edition/translation of Hervarar saga. Although he uses the name that is given to this version, this is not the text he is editing and translating.

ES

References:

Fabing, Howard D. “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry.” The Scientific Monthly 83 (Nov. 1956): 232-237.

King Gautrek. Seven Viking Romances. Tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. London: Penguin, 1985.

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Tr. and ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Ed. Erling Monsen. Tr. Monsen and A. H. Smith. 1932 New York: Dover, 1990.


Going Berserk

April 19, 2011

Who hasn’t at one time or another gone berserk? And by “gone berserk,” of course I mean become enraged, howled like an animal and then killed indiscriminately. What, just me? Ha ha, just kidding. Really.

But what does it really mean “to go berserk”? Berserks (Old Norse berserkr, pl. berserkir) were fearsome Viking Age warriors. They appear frequently in sagas, but it is difficult to separate legend from reality in the sagas. Sometimes they had supernatural abilities and sometimes they were stock characters–bullies who served as a foil for the protagonist. Where can we find the truth?

Where else but the History Channel. A few years ago History International ran a program called Unconventional Warfare. The first segment deals with the Trojan Horse. According to the narrator, no one really knows whether the story of the Trojan Horse is true or not, so you know off the bat that this is going to be another serious, hard-hitting, scholarly look at history.

The segment on berserks begins well enough, with information provided by real, genuine experts (and General Wesley Clark for some reason). Okay, the fact that the History Channel manages to bollox up their credentials may be a bit of a concern. They properly credit Ruth Mazo Karras as “Historian, Univ. of Minnesota,” but they identify Anatoly Liberman (more here) as a “Scandinavian Historian” at the Univ. of Minnesota as well. In fact, Liberman teaches in the department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, and much of his work focuses on linguistics and philology. Similarly, they identify Paul Acker* as a “Norse Historian” at Saint Louis University, and, to be fair, he does look a bit like a Viking who’s given up raiding for academia. However, he is a professor of English rather than a historian. They don’t bother to give John Lindow (more here) any academic qualifications at all, identifying him as “Author ‘Handbook on Norse Mythology.'”

Regardless, the misidentified academics give a good summary of the berserks: they were fierce fighters who whipped themselves into a frenzy and fought in the front lines. In legendary tales, they are described as wearing bear or wolf skins (berserkr means “bear shirt”). They supposedly fought without armor and could not be harmed by weapons or fire. In reality, of course, they could be harmed and killed, but for the duration of  the berserker rage, they may have seemed impervious.

But what, asks the narrator, caused the berserker rage? Acker says, “Through their training and initiations, they whipped themselves into frenzy: that’s part of their jobs.”  The narrator, of course, knows better: “Some theorize, however, that the berserkers had a little help–from mood-altering substances.” Karras notes that “If you read a lot of modern works that refer to berserks, they talk about how they may have used either alcoholic beverages or perhaps hallucinogenic mushrooms to bring on the rage.”

Now, at this point, you can sense the word “however” hurtling across the room, desperate to make it before the camera cuts away, but, alas, to no avail. Magic mushrooms is what the History Channel wanted, and once someone mentioned them, they stopped. The point of Unconventional Warfare is to compare strategies used in the past to ones used much more recently. The berserks and their magic mushrooms are compared to Somali warriors who use a narcotic weed to become more aggressive.

None of the academics were told that this was the point of the segment. They only knew that the History Channel was doing a segment on berserks. When asked about the magic mushrooms, Acker and presumably Karras (quite possibly the others as well) explained that while some have speculated that the berserks used hallucinogens, there is absolutely NO evidence. There is nothing in the literature to suggest that the berserks used anything but training, natural aggression and the gift of Odin to work themselves into a frenzy. They may well have had a bit of a tipple now and then, but that hardly separates them from anyone else in Viking society.

If this is how they do history, perhaps it’s just as well that they stick with monsters and doomsday.

But enough about historical berserks; let’s talk about the literary and legendary ones–they’re much more fun. First the stock characters. These guys wander around, acting like bullies and intimidating people until they get their comeuppance from the saga protagonist. In Grettis saga, Grettir fights and kills a mound-dweller (an undead guy who attacks Grettir when Grettir is robbing his grave), a draugr (an ueber-nasty undead guy), a she-troll, a giant, a bear and lots of people. LOTS of people, including a number of berserks. Grettir meets a group of twelve berserks, led by a couple of brothers named Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Evil.

They came from Halogaland and were bigger and stronger than anybody else. They would go berserk and spare nothing when they flew into a rage. They used to take away men’s wives and daughters and keep them for a week or two, then return them. Wherever they went, they used to plunder and cause other trouble (Saga of Grettir the Strong, p. 42)

Grettir pretends to befriend them, then gets them drunk and fights them (the alcohol is of no benefit to them, by the way). When they realize what is happening, the berserks, of course, go “berserk and [begin] howling like dogs” (p. 46). While they’re howling, Grettir thrusts a spear through Thorir and Ogmund, who bumps into him. Then he takes out the other berserks.

Later, when Grettir is staying with a man named Einar, a group of berserks arrive, and the leader challenges Einar “either to hand over his daughter or defend her if he was man enough” (p. 95).  Einar consults with Grettir, and the berserk becomes impatient:

The berserk thought that Grettir and the farmer were stalling. He started to howl loudly and bite the edge of his shield. He put his shield in his mouth, spread his lips over the corner of it and acted like a savage. Grettir strode over to him and when he came alongside the berserk’s horse he kicked the bottom of the shield up into his mouth so hard that his face ripped open and his jaws fell down to his chest (p. 95)

Then Grettir cuts off his head, and the other berserks decide to be on their way–rather quickly. Throughout the sagas, the beginning of the berserker rage is signaled by howling and shield-biting. Some of the Isle of Lewis chessman seem to depict shield-biting berserks:

As far as I know, Grettir is the only person who has the sense to kick the shield back into the berserk’s mouth. Not all berserks are slightly comic bullies, however. Some have supernatural powers. Examples may be found in Egils saga. Egil was a great warrior, an exceptional poet and a truly phenomenal drunk (again, though, his drunkenness is unrelated to his frenzies). Jesse L. Byock has argued that Egil may have suffered from Paget’s disease, which has a genetic component. Based on his saga, Egil may also have suffered from a genetic predisposition for berserkerism.

Egil’s grandfather is named Ulf. He is big and strong and a good farmer. As evening rolls around, however, he turns bad-tempered and is known as Kveldulf or Evening Wolf. You might as well wear a name tag that says, “Hi, I’m a werewolf. Ask me how.” He has two sons, Thorolf and Grim, known as Skallagrim (Bald Grim). Thorolf is tall, strong, brave, handsome, honorable (by saga standards) and an all-round swell guy. Grim is big, strong, ugly, troublesome and, like his father, has a tendency to shape-shift. Skallagrim has sons named Thorolf and Egil. Thorolf II is a carbon-copy of Thorolf I. Egil is big, strong, freakishly ugly and has the family tendency to shape-shift. The non-berserk Thorolfs both die young; the berserks all die of old age.

In one of Skallagrim’s rages, he seizes one of Egil’s friends and “[dashes] him to the ground so fiercely that he was crushed by the blow and died on the spot” (Egil’s Saga p. 63). He then seizes twelve-year-old Egil, who is rescued by his foster mother who is “as strong as a man and well versed in the magic arts” (p. 63). Skallagrim is described by an enemy as being “as vicious as a wolf” (p. 42), and Egil is mistaken for a bear on one occasion (p. 104). According to the narrator:

It is said that people who could take on the character of animals, or went berserk, became so strong in this state that no one was a match for them, but also that just after it wore off they were left weaker than usual (p. 46)

Kveldulf, Skallagrim and Egil also tend to befriend people with similar berserker characteristics. For instance, there is Egil’s friend, Onund Sjoni: “Not everyone agreed that he was not a shape-shifter” (p. 130).  Although Egil’s connection to berserker madness is less explicit than Kveldulf’s and Skallagrim’s, he performs one of the best killings in all the Icelandic family sagas. He is fighting a duel against a man named Atli, who is “strong and courageous, an experienced dueller, and skilled in the magic arts” (p. 128). Egil is able to hack Atli’s shield to bits and land blows, but the sword is unable to bite. His own shield is beginning to split, so

He threw down his sword and shield, ran for Atli and grabbed him with his hands. By his greater strength, Egil pushed Atli over backwards, then sprawled over him and bit through his throat. Atli died on the spot. Egil rushed to his feet and ran over to the sacrificial bull, took it by the nostrils with one hand and by the horns with the other, and swung it over on to its back, breaking its neck (p. 128)

Let this be a warning to you, History Channel: don’t mess with berserks.

ES

*Full disclosure: Professor Acker was my dissertation director. When the History Channel came a-filming, they collected several graduate students to sit listening in rapt attention while Prof. Acker delivered a faux lecture. We were cut.

References:

Byock, Jesse L. “Egil’s Bones.” Scientific American. Vol. 272. Jan. 1995, pp. 82-87

Egil’s Saga. Tr. Bernard Scudder. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York: Viking, pp. 8-184.

The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Tr. Bernard Scudder. London: Penguin, 2005.


Fingerprints of the Norse Gods

April 14, 2011

I’ve been reading Graham Hancock’s unnecessarily lengthy tome Fingerprints of the Gods (hey Graham, if I wanted to read a travelogue, I’d’ve bought a travelogue: get to the point). It’s been slow going because every couple of sentences, my eyeballs roll into the back of my skull, and I have to wait for them to return to their normal position before continuing.

As I was reading, I began to get an idea for a blog post: I would write a parody in which I traced suspicious parallels between Mesopotamian, Mesoamerican and Old Norse mythology. Perhaps I’d begin with Hancock’s discussion of the Babylonian god Marduk‘s conquest of the chaos monster Tiamat:

…[A] great plan of world creation began to take shape in his mind. His first move was to split Tiamat’s skull and cut her arteries. Then he broke her into two parts “like a dried fish,” using one half to roof the heavens and the other to surface the earth. From her breasts he made mountains, from her spittle, clouds, and he directed the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to flow from her eyes. (Hancock p. 144. Hancock’s source is the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, pp. 60)

He compares Marduk to Quetzalcoatl, who

in his incarnation as the creator deity, took the role of Marduk while the part of Tiamat was played by Cipactli, the “Great Earth Monster.” Quetzalcoatl seized Cipactli’s limbs “as she swam in the primeval waters and wrenched her body in half, one part forming the sky and the other the earth.” From her hair and skin he created grass, flowers and herbs; “from her eyes, wells and springs; from her shoulders, mountains.” (Hancock p. 144. Hancock’s sources are Adela Fernandez, Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 59 and Inga Glendinnen, Aztecs, p. 177)

Well, one can hardly miss the parallels to Ymir, the primordial giant in Old Norse Mythology. Ymir was formed in the thawing ice of Ginnungagap, the great void that lay between the extreme heat of Muspelheim and the extreme cold of Niflheim.  A male and female were formed from the sweat of Ymir’s left armpit, and one of his legs sired a son on the other. These were the first frost giants (Snorri Sturluson, Poetic Edda, Gylfaginning, ch. 5). Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve killed Ymir:

When he fell, so much blood gushed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of the frost giants except for one who escaped with his household. The giants call that one Bergelmir. He, together with his wife, climbed up on to his wooden box, and there they kept themselves safe. From them come the races of the frost giants….” (Snorri, Gylfaginning, ch. 7)

ZOMG! A flood that destroyed an entire race, except for just enough individuals to replenish the race! Hancock goes on and on about flood stories. It doesn’t really matter how dissimilar they are. If they involve floods (and sometimes even if they don’t), they have to be related in some way.  But wait, there’s more! After killing Ymir, Odin and his brothers created the world using bits of his body:

They took Ymir and they moved him into the middle of Ginnungagap and made from him the world. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes. The earth was fashioned from the flesh, and mountain cliffs from the bones. They made stones and gravel from the teeth, the molars and those bones that were broken.

…With the blood that gushed freely from the wounds, they made the sea, and by fashioning that sea around, they belted and fastened the earth. Most men would think it impossible to cross over this water.

…They also took his skull and from it made the sky. They raised it over the earth and under each of the four corners they placed a dwarf.

…[The gods built a fortress wall to protect the world from the giants.] As material for the wall, they used the eyelashes of the giant Ymir and called this stronghold Midgard…. They took his brain, threw it up into the air, and from it they made the clouds. (Snorri, Gylfaginning, ch. 8 )

In my parody, I was going to ask a lot of rhetorical questions that began “Is it simply a coincidence that…?” and “Or is it perhaps possible that…?” Then I’d note the big fuss Hancock makes over Mesoamerican gods who are described as white and mention all the works of art that he identifies as “clearly” representing bearded Caucasians. Heck, you can’t get much whiter than Scandinavians and still have melanin, and their gods are generally depicted as bearded. Finally, I was going to mention the Mayan god Votan, whom Hancock describes as “pale-skinned, bearded and wearing a long robe” (p. 103). Hey, Wotan/Woden/Odin/Oðinn was pale-skinned and bearded and often wore a cloak. If only this Votan fella was one-eyed. Could this possibly be a coincidence? (yes, yes it could).

I was saddened–for many reasons–to learn that people have seriously made this argument (see here as well as Votan link above). So, I plowed on with my reading, when, lo, I came across the following in a chapter called “The Many Masks of the Apocalypse:”

There is one ancient culture that perhaps preserves more vivid memories in its myths than any other; that of the so-called Teutonic tribes of Germany and Scandinavia, a culture best remembered through the songs of the Norse scalds and sages. The stories those songs retell have their roots in a past which may be much older than scholars imagine and which combine familiar images with strange symbolic devices and allegorical language to recall a cataclysm of awesome magnitude. (Hancock, p. 204)

Yay! Hancock made the Norse connection! I’m not sure why he thinks that the roots of Old Norse mythology may be much older than scholars imagine, except that he thinks ALL old cultures are somehow much older than we imagine. In a lengthy indented quotation, Hancock describes a Norse apocalypse in which he sees similarities to Mesoamerican, and ancient Iranian stories, among many others. All these stories involve cold and dark. In the Norse version he recounts, a giantess gives birth to a brood of wolves sired by the giant wolf Fenrir, son of Loki. One of the wolves devours the sun. The disappearance of the sun brings about a period of intense cold and brutality (known as fimbulvetr, awful or great winter). Fenrir escapes from his bonds. The world tree Yggdrasil is shaken violently; mountains split. “Abandoned by the gods, men were driven from their hearths and the human race was swept from the surface of the earth. The earth itself was beginning to lose its shape. Already the stars were coming adrift from the sky and falling into the gaping void” (Larousse, p. 279 qtd. in Hancock, p. 205). The fire giant Surt sets the earth alight; then the seas and rivers overflow; however, an undisclosed number of people survive, enclosed within Yggdrasil. They are the progenitors of a new race of men.

Now, in reading Hancock, I’ve found some odd things about the way he uses and cites sources. Of course, many of his sources are of an extremely dubious nature (Velikovsky and Sitchin, to name two). But one thing that concerns me is that when he’s recounting mythology, he often does not cite primary sources (or translations of primary sources). In some cases, I suppose, the primary sources may not be accessible, or they may not have been translated into English. But in some cases, for one indented quote, he will name more than one source, at least one of which is not a primary source. This has led me to suspect that he is picking and choosing information that fits his ideas. His presentation of the Norse material confirmed my suspicions. Both the Poetic and Prose Eddas have been translated into English several times and are easily accessible. Hancock does not quote from a translation. He again quotes from the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. And I found the quotation odd in a number of ways. For one thing, there are some bits I don’t remember–for instance the dwarfs trying to find entrances to their underground dwellings–but perhaps I just missed or forgot those bits.

Larousse is available for free online. In consulting it, I noticed that Hancock has altered wordings here and there (or perhaps there is some variation in versions of Larousse: his page numbers don’t match mine, either). These alterations are trivial. A much bigger problem is that Hancock has omitted large chunks of the story without using ellipses. The story Hancock is recounting is that of Ragnarok, the doom of the gods. What Hancock has omitted from the story is…the doom of the gods. He doesn’t mention Odin, Thor, Frey, Tyr or Heimdall. He doesn’t even mention Loki who is the leader of the “bad guys” and the father or ancestor of some of the monsters (Fenrir and the other wolves and Hel, goddess of the underworld).

That’s a hell of an omission. Now, it could be argued that he left out those bits to save space, and it’s the other elements, the ones that relate to the fate of the sun and the earth, etc., that are most pertinent to the discussion. I don’t buy it. I think it allows him to skew the story. He follows the quotation with the comment, “The new world this Teutonic myth announces is our own” (p. 205). This statement is simply untrue. The events described haven’t happened yet. While Larousse recounts the story in the past tense, Snorri Sturluson uses the present tense in the Prose Edda. Vǫluspá (the Prophecy of the Seeress), from the Poetic Edda, tells the story partly in the present tense, but it is clear that it describes events that have not yet occurred, since the seeress is addressing Odin, who is still alive (his death is foretold in the poem). Hancock adds: “Needless to say, like the Fifth Sun of the Aztecs and the Maya, it was created long ago and is new no longer” (p. 205). Again, this is not true. Ragnarok doesn’t parallel the beginning of the Fifth Sun, the beginning of the present age. From Hancock’s point of view, it would fit with December 23, 2012, the catastrophic end of an age (again, according to Hancock’s view).

This is some impressive cherry-picking. The story of Ragnarok is not obscure. It always refers to a future apocalyptic event. Now, granted, since the stories were told or recorded by Christians, one could argue that the Teutonic gods had died, but not in some world-destroying cataclysm that somehow relates to a real event we don’t seem to know about. They were simply supplanted by a new religion. Most of the myths Hancock discusses do concern disasters that happened in the distant past, but not all myths can be forced to tell the same story.

ES

REFERENCES

Hancock, Graham. Fingerprints of the Gods. New York: Crown, 1995.

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Tr. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames. New York: Crescent, 1987. http://www.scribd.com/doc/2176365/New-Larousse-Encyclopedia-of-Mythology.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Tr. Jesse L. Byock. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2005.

Vǫluspá. Poetic Edda. Text with translation by Henry Adams Bellows available here.


The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory

April 12, 2011

The following is a talk that I gave this weekend at the Northeastern Modern Language Association conference in New Brunswick, NJ at a panel on Science and Literary Theory.

Several years ago, I took a 19th-century American literature seminar during my PhD coursework. During that class, each student in turn would guide the discussion of the week’s reading. One week, a student working toward his Masters was leading a fairly typical class, expounding at some length on the finer points of Moby Dick, and though I don’t remember the specifics of my fellow student’s conclusion, I remember that he offered a baroque hypothesis about the politics of race and gender and misrepresentation. Even though he had brought up numerous interesting observations about the text, I’m not sure I really had any idea what my friend was talking about, but I was politely professional and said nothing. When the student had finished and received polite applause, the instructor, an Americanist with whom I agreed on almost nothing, asked the one question that had been haunting me ever since my undergraduate studies of literature and culture had taken a theoretical bent in graduate school.

“Do you really believe all that?” he asked.

I can’t think of a less polite thing to ask a graduate student, or, honestly, a more important question.

I’m a relative latecomer to the subject of the so-called “science wars.” I suspect that a lot of what I have to say has been covered by any number of philosophers, scientists and academic pundits. I tend to agree with the severest criticism directed at many of the major figures in theory, the type of criticism leveled by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their Higher Superstition. I think that the Sokal Hoax offers an important warning that academics in the humanities fail to heed at the expense of disciplinary credibility. The hoax, you’ll remember, was perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal against the postmodernist journal Social Text in 1996. Social Text published Sokal’s article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Saturated with scientific absurdities, the article aped postmodernist jargon, political posturing, and rhetorical habits. The fact that something which, had it appeared on the Internet (presumably in ALL CAPS), would have been blasted as purest pseudoscience, had appeared in a professional academic journal produced a scandal that was about as polarizing as any you are likely to find in the academy. The furor over what were widely taken to be the broader implications of the hoax, that literary and cultural studies is vacuous, deceptive and infantile suggests that Sokal had chomped down hard on an exposed nerve.

As I prepared my thoughts on this topic, I was struck by how similar at first glance the similarity between literary /slash/ cultural theory and the preparadigmatic state of the natural sciences that Thomas Kuhn describes in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The state of literary theory is one in which practitioners are “able to take no common body of belief for granted” and “each writer…[feels] forced to build his field anew from its foundations” (13). Certainly, a major contributing factor to this state of affairs is that the proper object of Capital-T-Theory remains, despite, more than 30 years of practice, undefined. Possible candidates include literature and other communicative acts, social structures like institutions, the nature of power, systems of meaning, and the process of making meaning. Now might this might not be such a large problem when you are comparing different theories—certain texts which raise questions that postcolonial studies are better equipped to answer than, say, fat studies, which is now apparently a thing. But even within the various schools of thought, the proper object of study varies. Take, for instance, the range of possibilities in psychoanalytic theory. I have seen psychoanalytic literary criticism directed at authors, works, characters in the works, even entire cultures. Once, and I swear I’m not making this up, I saw an author claim that Much Ado About Nothing had analyzed him (Krims, introduction xv). I mean, what does that even mean? Professional psychiatry, with the exception of a dwindling cult of hardcore Freudians, has long recognized that Freud’s understanding of the mind was fundamentally flawed.

Now, I write and research about pseudoscience and other forms of pseudoscholarship, and as I was reading and reviewing commentaries on the state of Theory, some patterns emerged, which worryingly (for reasons I will explain later) are informed by my other work. The factions of theory, including identity (including feminist, race and queer), Marxist, psychoanalytic and deconstruction camps share numerous characteristics of the type of diseased, self-perpetuating thinking typical of conspiracy theorists and other demonstrably flawed systems of thought.

The first way in which literary and cultural theory behaves like a conspiracy theory (and other forms of wishful pseudoscholarship) is how very often the absence of evidence, or even direct counterevidence, is taken as evidence for the phenomenon or theory in question. By this logic, the more counterevidence a critic produces, the more the more powerful the theory appears to become. In the lore of UFO cover-ups, the overwhelming lack of evidence in favor of the hypothesis that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin, much less piloted by aliens, is taken by the advocates of “disclosure” as positive evidence of the size of the conspiracy. When you present UFO theorists with evidence that no, aliens did not crash in Roswell, and that balloons with classified instruments designed to detect Soviet nuclear tests did, they reply that the documents and testimony is forged, and they walk away with a sense that you have only confirmed what they have been talking about.

Numerous commentators reflecting on the state of critical theory have found that this applies to various schools of theory. Jonathan Gottschall sums the problem up nicely:

Psychoanalysts have argued that citing evidence against their belief system is quite transparently–in itself–evidence for that system; criticism of Marxist or neo-Marxist notions can be dismissed as craven attempts to bolster the critic’s economic interests; and any criticism of the so-called race-class-gender-sexuality movements can be brushed off as spasms of rightist political reflexes […]. While these prophylactics against negative evidence have been potent, and while they help explain the impressive resilience of the dominant paradigm, they have also been primary obstacles to the generation of reliable knowledge. (39)

Embedded within this commentary is the assumption that theory means to be reliable, or at least in some sense apply to the real world. However, if there is to something to be saved of high theory, I believe that theorists must surrender this presumption of practical utility.

Perhaps the most direct contributor to the Sokal Hoax was the fact that these schools of theory have their own, alternative experts. This seems directly analogous to a group of 9/11 Truthers I have been corresponding with lately. One has told me, “Listen to the experts.” By experts, of course, he means his experts, who are an architect, a retired theologian and a physicist who happened to participate in one of the biggest science scandals of the 20th century, the cold fusion brouhaha of the late 1980s. As in the Truth community, certain groups of theorists have gurus whose credibility is left untouched by deep methodological and evidentiary flaws that would be unacceptable in any legitimate discipline, and whose work is immediately recognized as not just worthless, but misleading, by people who have genuine expertise. Take, for instance, Brian Vickers’ assessment of two of the largest superstars:

Freud’s work is notoriously speculative, a vast theoretical edifice elaborated with a mere pretense of corroboration, citing ‘clinical observations’ which turn out to be false, with contrary evidence suppressed, data manipulated, building up over a forty-year period a self-obscuring, self-protective mythology. The system of Derrida, although disavowing systematicity, is based on several unproven assumptions about the nature of language which are supported by a vast expanding web of idiosyncratic terminology (249).

These pseudo-experts misuse scientific terminology for opportunistic, rhetorical purposes, which I suspect are largely to lend them authority in the eyes of those who do not know better. And, let’s face it, this led to some of the most extravagant and embarrassing proclamations identified by Gross and Leavitt.

Conspiracy theories and critical theories also resemble one another in that the two are accompanied with a sense of righteousness or political commitment, that the theorist in some ways is crusading against an oppressive force. This is especially true in what Gottschall calls the “liberationist paradigm,” in which “Objectivity [is] just a synonym for white male subjectivity” (5). A colleague of mine who works on interregnum Caribbean slavery narratives found that Irish-Catholic males were forcibly impressed into indefinite periods of servitude and brought to tropical plantations in chains under Cromwell. When she named this, rightly I think, as slavery, a tenured colleague of hers who was a committed postcolonialist accused her of usurping the exclusivity of African slavery narratives in Caribbean studies. The correct answer to this, of course, is, “You’re damn right I am, if the African narrative alone doesn’t fit the facts,” but this is not a statement conducive to professional advancement.

Indeed, a lot the schools of theory seem to stem from popular political movements. One of the funny things about UFO contactees is how often the message that they receive from their extraterrestrial contacts are seemingly tailored to the relevant political movements and concerns of the day. During the Cold War, the benevolent Space Brothers warned us about the dangers of nuclear weapons; after the Cold War, they warned us about polluting the environment. It is probably not a coincidence that ecocriticism arrived at about the same time that the little green men started lecturing us about the importance of going green, as it were. Indeed, ecocritic Simon Estok says that “ecocriticism has distinguished itself, debates notwithstanding, first by the ethical stand it takes, its commitment to the natural world as an important thing rather than simply as an object of thematic study, and, secondly, by its commitment to making connections.” The editors of the ecocrit collection, Reading the Earth, argue that:

Implicit (and often explicit) in much of this new criticism is a call for cultural change. Ecocriticism is not just a means of analyzing nature in literature; it implies a move toward a more biocentric worldview, an extension of ethics, a broadening of humans’ conception of global community to include nonhuman life forms and the physical environment. Just as feminist and African American literary criticism call for a change in culture […] so too does ecological literary criticism advocate for cultural change by examining how the narrowness of our culture’s assumptions about the natural world has limited our ability to envision an ecologically sustainable human society. (qtd. in Estok)

In much the same way that conspiracy theories are fueled by political ideals, take, for instance the 9/11 Truthers who are absolutely convinced that they are exposing great evils, no matter how silly, and the anticommunists of the Cold War, who were convinced that they were doing no less than saving freedom itself, so too have critical theorists seen themselves as waging a good war on behalf of oppressed people, and in the case just mentioned, saving human society from itself.

A further point of similarity between literary theory and conspiracy theory is that they seem to come awareness of unknown truths about the ‘real’ nature of things through meticulous—some would say hypermyopic—attention to minutiae. For instance, take the typical JFK assassination buff. He can tell you about every little bit of evidence, the results of every single test, every little strange particle of nuance of evidence relevant and irrelevant to the events in Dealey Plaza. He is doing, essentially, a super-hyper close reading of the narrative of the assassination. The problem, of course, is that he has a bad grasp of the relative importance of various pieces of evidence to the narrative as a whole. On the basis of that extremely close reading, like the deconstructionist, he often stresses those elements that are external to the narrative. At the same time, both conspiracy theorists and literary theorists seem to evince a belief in the inevitability of political change caused by the simple fact that revealing that truth.

One of the characteristics of academic theory that allowed Sokal to convincingly impersonate serious theorists was deploying the specialized language of theory. While this is, as Kuhn recognizes, perhaps an inevitable part of professionalization and establishment of expertise in the empirical sciences, to the point that even specialists in the same academic departments might not even be able to communicate easily, in the case of theory (and especially in deconstruction) one wonders whether or specialists can communicate at all, as the verbal documents that they generate are at times grammatically correct, meaningless sentences rendered impenetrable with jargon. Edward Ervin’s Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, started as a database designed to help him clarify for himself the terminology of Lacan’s seminars, but as he later reported:

As I tried to make sense of Lacan’s bizarre rhetoric, it became clearer to me that the obfuscatory language did not hide a deeper meaning but was in fact a direct manifestation of the confusion inherent in Lacan’s own fault. But whereas most of Lacan’s commentators preferred to ape the master’s style and perpetuate the obscurity, I wanted to dissipate the haze and expose whatever was underneath. […] Ironically, it was this attempt to open Lacanian theory up to criticism that played a major role in leading me to reject Lacanian theory itself. (42)

This use of language seems to me to be more in line with mysticism or possibly cult-speak than with conspiracy theory as such. It turns out that difference may simply be to deconstruction what “engrams” are to Scientologists, insofar as they serve as markers for members of in-group members and out-group members. Obfuscatory language does not shield theory from criticism; it shields it from legitimacy and relevance.

There is some encouraging news, of course, and this is that the practitioners of theory who fall into the category I’ve outlined comparatively few in number—you rarely bump into someone outside of a specialty journal who espouses wholehearted devotion to a single school of thought. Most literary and cultural criticism appropriates only what is relevant to the topic at hand and disregards the rest. Nonetheless, the theorists whose work is taken to be representative of the various schools of criticism tend to be more sensationalistic. A peculiar feature of much theory is a tacit appreciation of its mere “boldness,” as if claims of radical destabilization are laudable in themselves. True, we have found it desirable and enlightening to reexamine our underlying assumptions, and this has led to genuinely enlightened, more informed views on issues such as sexuality and race, but it does not follow that destabilisation in itself is desirable. It is not clear what the impact of intellectuals championing these causes is on society’s perception of sexuality, gender, race or ecology. Nonetheless, when theorists declaim on subject about which they know nothing, they devalue the work of other, more responsible scholars through an unfair guilt by association.

So, what’s to be done; how do we avoid another Sokal Hoax? Wouldn’t it be great and ironic if I yelled enthusiastically, “REVOLUTION!?”

This is an important question, as the humanities are chronically starved for funding. The answer depends on how literary theorists decide to describe their job, whether they see themselves as producers of knowledge who are developing ever more accurate and detailed understandings of the nature and working of literature and culture, or if they see themselves primarily as artists. In the first case, if theorists decide, that they want, to use Gottschall’s phrase: “the ability to systematically and decisively narrow out allotted portion of possibility space–to zoom in toward truth in the immense multidimensional hyperspace of error and vacuity” (9), they have failed.

Gottschall makes an intriguing proposal about how to move forward with the project of reducing error in literary studies, and that is plying statistical sampling and analysis to literary texts. He points out that the quantification of social phenomena has always met with popular resistance, but it has revealed underlying order to any number of social phenomena. Why should literature be any exception? I think that there are two major obstacles, neither of which is insurmountable or easy. The first may be described as inertia, an unwavering devotion to the notion that there are some things like literature can’t be quantified. This, of course, is merely a bald assertion, and without trials to examine whether or not such a project would be profitable, there is simply no basis for making that claim.

The second obstacle to the successful completion of the project is that the infrastructure of literary studies, as it currently exists, is not designed to produce scholars of the type that Gottschall proposes. It is designed to perpetuate theory as it already is. The problem with this is that programs in literary theory—or cultural studies writ large—do not have the expertise in statistics needed to become this sort of scholar at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As a result, I am afraid that it will take a rather substantial overhaul of theory programs to even begin down this road. That or interdisciplinary training through other departments.

One reform, I think, immediately available to all departments, and one that I believe is fundamental to improving the standing of theory, is raising awareness of cognitive biases and their ability to corrupt research. One of the most damaging and pervasive flaws in modern humanistic scholarship is the lack of awareness or concern for confirmation bias, which is a dangerous mental habit that determines what one accepts as relevant evidence. It is the propensity for people to seek out confirmatory instead of disconfirmatory evidence. For example, when you are posed with the question, “Is Ted an extrovert?” you are likely to ask questions like, “Does he have friends? Or does he like going out on weekends?” instead of paying attention to the fact that he plays chess and reads, the types of things introverts are likely to do. In life we unconsciously notice and value elements of the world that confirm our worldview to the exclusion of those that don’t. Numerous swindles depend on this very human propensity, and currently, when we are trained in theory we are being trained to give confirmation bias free range. When confronted with a mass of data, say, a novel or a culture, and you are able to forgive yourself for squinting a little bit, it is very, very easy to find evidence for anything. If your academic kink happens to be imperial conquest, you’ll find imperial conquest. If it’s patriarchy, you’ll find patriarchy. If it’s pandas, you’ll find pandas. And we don’t pay any attention to this tendency. I searched the entire MLA database for the phrase “confirmation bias” and it appears only once.

Another vital element of a program of reform that will lead to literary theory becoming a reliable tool for discerning the real world will be to replace scientific pseudoexperts like Freud and Lacan with actual experts in the relevant empirical sciences, especially in the science of the mind. This will require some additional training, and I’m not sure it’s the type of training that could reasonably be confined to a graduate education, but if you are going to invest the time in writing a dissertation about the products of the human mind, you cannot but improve your work by informing it with an awareness of the state of the empirical science. And when you address scientific matters you need to understand the limitations of that science as well. When you are talking about indeterminacy, you need to be aware that this is a property that is only useful when it is applied to the world of particles. You may employ indeterminacy as an artistic metaphor, of course, but when you do so, you must not mistake your metaphor for the real thing or imagine that because you have used the metaphor that you have somehow altered particle physics. When you critique the content of science, or any field of knowledge, as many theorists have, you need to address the relevant issues at the level of the experts, and this is very, very difficult without specialist training. It reminds me of a situation I believe Carl Sagan described when he looked into the claims of the pseudoscientist and psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsy, that Jupiter ejected the planet Venus and that a series of close passes by Venus to Earth caused a number of the miracles described in the Bible. Religious scholars scoffed at Velikovsky’s interpretation of biblical events but were impressed by his astronomical knowledge. Scientists thought that the biblical stuff was ok, but thought his astronomical proclamations were ridiculous.

The other option is to surrender pretentions to objectivity and describe theorists as artists. Art makes no claims on objective reality, and some very artful and elegant readings of texts can come out of even the most badly flawed pseudoscience. I think that it would be folly to not consider an Oedipal reading of Hamlet, even if there is no evidence of an Oedipus complex in the real world. Exciting art can be made when you filter a work of literature through a novel perspective. In doing so, you are doing what artists have done for ages, drawing on and responding to the zeitgeist. I consider that project to be akin to the various repinterpretations by Dali and Picasso of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, wherein something of the original artwork remains, but the style and aesthetic concerns of the modern artists dominate the interpretation. Take the Freudian example. In psychoanalytic criticism, a theorist may in practice substitute any symbol for any other symbol. This is immensely liberating for the imaginative, creative mind. But one should not imagine that the substitutions that the theorist makes are anything but the products of their own mind. So, if theory and interpretation abandon pretenses of objective analysis and embrace the posture that they are using science as a metaphor, we will do much to clarify the work that literary and cultural critics are accomplishing.

Something needs to change. High theory, as it is currently conceived and practiced, is a celebration of disordered thinking. To prevent further embarrassment to the profession and improve the quality of our work, we need to hold our theorists to high standards; and when it comes to matters of science, we need to hold them to the standards of the field they mean to critique. We need to raise the scientific literacy of our humanities faculties and educate our students about confirmation bias. Finally, when we deploy science as a metaphor, we need to frankly acknowledge it as such, just a metaphor. Thank you.

RJB

Postscript: After I gave this talk, a guy came up to me and said, “My dissertation adviser was one of the editors at Social Text. Oops! Heehee.  (I almost typed Sokal Text–eek!). He did in fact say that the editors schooled themselves in science afterwards, which is encouraging.

References:

Estok, Simon C. “A Report Card on Ecocriticism.” AUMLA : Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association 96 (Nov 2001): 220-238. Online at <http://www.asle.org/site/resources/ecocritical-library/intro/reportcard/&gt;

Evans, Dylan. “From Lacan to Darwin.” The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Eds., Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. 34–55.

Gottschall, Jonathan. Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Gross, Paul R. and Leavitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Krims, Marvin Bennett. The Mind According to Shakespeare: Psychoanalysis in the Bard’s Writing. Westport: Praeger, 2006. Introduction, xv.

Vickers, Brian. “Masters and Demons.” Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Eds. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 247-270.


Dowsing for King Arthur

March 31, 2011

A few weeks ago, Bob suggested I write a post on the “historical” King Arthur. My immediate reaction was “meh.” Arthur is, of course, quite important to medieval literature: the Matter of Britain is the subject of many important works of Middle English, including Laȝamon’s Brut, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Stanzaic Morte Arthure, The Awntyrs off ArthureSir Gawain and the Green Knight and many more. Finally, in the late Middle English period, Sir Thomas Malory produced Le Morte d’Arthur, in which he brought together disparate stories from French and English sources and attempted to tell the whole tale from beginning to end. As you might expect, Malory’s work has some organizational problems. For instance, I distinctly recall that Lancelot killed the same knight three times in thirty pages. Nonetheless, Malory’s compilation has become the story of Arthur that we all know.

I have from time to time read about the “historical Arthur,” but my main reaction is, “I don’t care” because even if (and it’s a big “if”) Arthur existed, he is so far removed from the Arthur we know as to be unrecognizable. A historical Arthur would have nothing in common with Malory’s king; he’d have precious little in common even with Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the historical Arthur. From time to time, I have watched the BBC series Merlin, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything remotely historical. However, the actors who play Merlin and Arthur in the series, Colin Morgan and Bradley James, also appear in a program in which they gallivant across Wales in search of “The Real Merlin and Arthur,” although Merlin gets pretty short shrift. They arrive late everywhere, but–hey–the scenery is pretty and so are the actors.

Their first stop is the Arthurian Collection in Mold, Flintshire, which houses over 2000 books related to Arthur. Unfortunately, they arrive after the library has closed. Regardless, author Scott Lloyd gamely tells the actors about the documentary evidence for Arthur’s existence. Here it is:

Want to see it again? It’s like this: Arthur is supposed to have fought the Germanic invaders of Britain, briefly halting the Anglo-Saxon advance. This would place him in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Arthur is first mentioned in the 9th century.  The Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin mentions a warrior named Gwawrddur who, though mighty, was “no Arthur.” Unfortunately, Y Gododdin survives in a manuscript from the 13th century. Although there is scholarly debate over the date of composition, it may be as late as the 9th century. Even if the poem is much earlier, say 6th or 7th century, it has undergone extensive changes in its oral and written transmission. There is no way to know whether the almost throwaway reference to Arthur is original.

A more substantive account of Arthur appears in the Historia Brittonum, usually (though quite possibly erroneously) attributed to a Welsh monk named Nennius. The Historia Brittonum is a disorganized mish-mash of material written or compiled in the first half of the 9th century. Arthur is mentioned as a dux bellorum (leader of battles) who fought with the kings of Britain against the Germanic invaders. This would suggest that he was not himself a king, even if he existed. Nennius associates Arthur with a number of wonders or marvels and twelve battles. Of course, the wonders are of extremely dubious historicity, but the battles are questionable as well. Although people have tried to make connections, most of the battles cannot be identified. Furthermore, Nennius claims that Arthur personally killed 960 men in one battle, which seems a tad unlikely.

This battle, the battle of Mount Badon, is, however, almost certainly historical. It is mentioned by Gildas, a 6th-century British monk, in De Excidio et Conquestu de Britanniae. Gildas says that he was born in the year of the battle of Mount Badon, so he would have been a younger contemporary of Arthur’s if Arthur had existed. Guess who isn’t mentioned in Gildas. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the same guy who isn’t mentioned in any works by Anglo-Saxons, such as Bede‘s Chronica Maiora (725) and Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731) or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (begun in the 9th century). They mention other characters from the “historical” Arthur’s story, such as the British king Vortigern, who invited the Germanic mercenaries to Britain. Indeed Bede was probably the first to mention Vortigern. Two manuscripts of Gildas name him, but these are from the 12th and 13th centuries. Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mention the twin brothers Hengest (stallion) and Horsa (horse). Both Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg also mention a fella named Hengest, who may or may not be the same guy.

The “historical” Arthur is largely the creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae, but Geoffrey was writing in the 12th century, more than half a millennium after Arthur’s time. In addition, Geoffrey’s work is not considered historically accurate by any credible authority.

So, that is the documentary evidence: bupkis. Some people cite archeological evidence to support Arthur’s likely existence, and indeed settlements and earthworks have been uncovered from the right time period, including the South Cadbury hill fort in Somerset and Tintagel in Cornwall and several others. But, come on, we know the 5th and 6th centuries existed; we know the Britons fought the Germanic invaders. Evidence of hill forts is not evidence of Arthur.  A few objects have been found with direct, but questionable, links to Arthur. In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury discovered the bodies of a man and woman, along with a lead burial cross that identified them as Arthur and Guinivere. The bodies and the cross disappeared during the Reformation. Most believe this was a pious hoax. At the time, the monks were trying to raise funds to rebuild Glastonbury Abbey which had been gutted by fire. Occasionally, the cross allegedly makes a reappearance, but such glimpses are also the result of hoaxes.

Amateur historians Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett have found another grave of Arthur. They identify Arthur with Athrwys ap Meurig. This is the opening paragraph of their official website:

King Arthur I son of Magnus Maximus of the late 4th Century AD and King Arthur II of the late 6th Century AD, can both trace their family lines back to the British Emperor Constantine the Great, and continue on back to the Holy Family itself which entered Britain in AD 37. Both King Arthur’s continue tracing their bloodline all the way back to King Brutus, himself a great grandson of Aeneas of Troy.

Neither the Da Vinci Code-ish content nor the grammar fill me with confidence. Nor does the fact that they’ve also found the Ark of the Covenant. But let’s look at their findings objectively. In 1983, they discovered a burial stone that reads “Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius,” which supposedly means “King Arthur, the son of Mauricius (Meurig).” In 1990, they discovered an electrum cross that reads “Pro Anima Artorius,” “for the soul of Arthur.” The problem is, as the Bad Archaeologist points out, that “Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius” actually means “King Arthur Mauricius, of the son” and “Pro Anima Artorius” means “Arthur for the soul.” Oh dear. This is not terribly complicated Latin grammar, although one could imagine that it might fool people who put apostrophes in plurals.

There is one inscription that definitely seems not to be a hoax or a forgery: the Artognou stone found at Tintagel. Actually, there are parts of two inscriptions on this piece of slate. Only the letters “AXE” survive from the one inscription. The other reads “+ PATERN… COLIAVIFICIT… ARTOGNOV… COL… FICIT…” The Celtic Inscribed Stones Project translates the inscription as “Artognou descendant of Patern[us] made [this]. Colus made [this].” Artognou and its Old Breton and Old Welsh cognates Arthnou and Arthneu do look a bit like Arthur. This similarity was enough to get people excited, even such an august body as the Archeological Institute of America. The name Arthur may come from the Roman gens name Artorius or it may be a Celtic name which derives in part from arto/arth, meaning “bear.” If it is the latter, then it does share an element with Arthneu, but it is not the same name. Now I admit I know virtually nothing about the Celtic languages; however assuming that “Arthur” and “Arthneu” are close enough to be considered the same guy because both names contain the element “arth” seems to be like assuming that Thorbjorn and Arnbjorn are the same guy because both names contain the element “bjorn,” which means “bear.”

In short, the archeological evidence isn’t much stronger than the documentary evidence. Is there any other kind of evidence? Well, back in Wales, the actors may have found “spiritual” evidence.  On the second day of their trek, they arrive in Gwynedd at the supposed site of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur was mortally wounded. There they meet Santa’s disreputable older brother, Laurence Main

http://thepaganfederation-midwestandwales.blogspot.com/

a Druid in a fetching miniskirt, who uses ley lines to dowse for Arthur’s burial site (another one). So, they’re walking around in the dark (they arrived late again), and their rods cross once they run into a tree. It is also possible that Main is unconsciously indicating to them where their rods should cross. At any rate, they hit one of the major ley lines and, Main explains, if it were day time and wintertime with no leaves on the tree, they could see the church where Arthur was buried. What more proof do you need?

The actors seem somewhat disappointed that they didn’t find definitive evidence of a historical Arthur, but at the end, Colin Morgan makes what I think is an excellent point:

Maybe it doesn’t matter because…the legends are always going to be there. They’re always going to be reinvented and reinterpreted, and maybe you don’t need a final answer because that’s what it’s all about: the stories are there to be enjoyed.

And that’s always been true. From very, very early on, the Arthurian legends have looked back nostalgically to a time that never really existed. Every age has reinterpreted the stories to fit the time and culture. A real Arthur probably never existed, and if he did, he had almost nothing to do with the king we know.

ES


Things that Went Bump in the Middle Ages (Part 1)

March 14, 2011

A few years ago, I used to frequent the Ghost Hunters discussion forum on Syfy.com. Many of the regular members were highly skeptical of TAPS and extremely good at analyzing questionable evidence from the program. As one might expect, however, most of the members believed in ghosts or at least believed that it was plausible that ghosts could exist. One of the reasons given for this belief was the ubiquity of ghost stories. Even noted skeptic Alison Smith at one time thought the commonness of ghost stories was the most compelling evidence for ghosts:

To me, the best evidence for the existence of ghosts was the way they permeated every culture. They crept across the globe. If they didn’t exist, then why would so many vastly different cultures believe in them?

Or, as a believer puts it (warning: website is very colorful):

Ghost stories, whether modern or of old, all seem to tell similar stories about ghosts’ tragedies, unfinished business, unrest, visitations, and hopeless roamings among the living.  Ghost stories also sometimes share common ghostly messages of warning to aid those still alive, or tell of spirits with ill intentions, seeking revenge from those who wronged them in life.  Some ghost stories truly enlighten, while other ghost stories paint a picture of hell to frighten!

I understand this point of view to an extent, but I have always found that the history of ghost stories argues against the reality of ghosts because the ghosts tend to fit the culture from which they come. Ghosts and ghost stories change radically over time and from culture to culture.

To begin with, what is a ghost? If you ask the guys from Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab, Ghost Wranglers, Ghost Snatchers, World’s Deadliest Ghost Catches, Martha Stewart’s UnLiving, etc., they would probably say something vague about “energy.” This isn’t entirely surprising, since the culture modern ghost stories come from combines New Age and schmience, which vaguely resembles science, but not that much. Wikipedia offers a more traditional definition: “the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living.” Probably most people would agree that ghosts are insubstantial.

Now, there are already problems with this description. Often ghosts are visible, sometimes as shadows and sometimes as “full-body apparitions.” Sometimes they appear solid; sometimes they are transparent. Ghosts can often be heard speaking, whispering, laughing or breathing with non-existent vocal cords and lungs, although some of them only make themselves heard by imprinting their disembodied voices on recorders. Sometimes ghosts can interact with physical objects: they touch/brush against/push/attack people; they make knocking sounds; they throw things; they play with equipment. They can disappear and walk through walls, but they don’t generally sink through floors or the ground (unless they do so dramatically at a place of burial, for instance). Do they have mass or not? Are they bound by gravity or not? As far as I can tell, ghosts are bound by the laws of physics, sort of, except when they aren’t.

And that’s modern ghosts. What are we to make of medieval ghosts such as this one?

[In Berwick-upon-Tweed] a certain wealthy man who…had been given over to sinful behaviour, died  and was buried. However, with Satan’s help he kept emerging at night from his tomb and wandering here and there to the sound of loudly barking dogs. Every night he was the cause of great terror to townspeople before his return at daybreak to the tomb…. The simpler folk of the town feared that they might accidentally run into the lifeless creature and be physically attacked; the more thoughtful were afraid that, unless something were done quickly, the air circulating around the town would become infected by the corpse and so lead to general sickness and death in the town. It was apparent to all that something had to be done, and so they brought together ten sturdy young men who dug up the offending corpse, dismembered it and burnt the pieces in a fire. Once this had been done, the nightly perturbations ceased… (William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum, Joynes 98-99).

William tells several similar tales. One dead man “entered the bedchamber of his sleeping wife…[and] attempted to lie upon her in the marital bed” (Joynes 97). After his wife employed watchmen, he attempted to attack his brothers and “took to prancing among the animals in the byre” (Joynes 97).  In another case, “the doors of every house were bolted, and nobody dared go out to attend to any business from sunset to sunrise for fear of being attacked by the wandering monster. But even such a precaution…was useless, since, by the circulation of air poisoned and infected by the corpse, the neighbourhood became filled with the sick and the dying who had inhaled the pestilence” (Joynes 101). In three of the four cases, the haunting stops when the body is dismembered/beheaded and/or burned. In the fourth case, such treatment is suggested, but Bishop Hugh of Lincoln instead has a letter of absolution placed on the corpse’s chest.

Now you may be thinking, “That isn’t a ghost–that’s a vampire or something.” But how do we decide on the taxonomy of the undead? How do we decide who’s a ghost, who’s a vampire, who’s a zombie, who’s a revenant? Most of our ideas about these classifications are fairly modern and to some extent derived from literature and film. In earlier time periods, it’s more difficult to say who’s what among the undead. William of Malmesbury and Walter Map also mention walking corpses, and Old Norse sagas are full of them. Though in Norse there are several words for such creatures, the words are generally translated as “ghost.” These “ghosts” spread illness, but they also attack and kill animals and humans directly. Somewhat oddly, on the blurb on the back cover of Denton Fox and Hermann Pálsson’s  translation of Grettir’s Saga, the undead fought by the hero are called “wraiths,” which is an almost perfectly inaccurate description.

A writer known as the “Monk of Byland” lived in the same area as William of Newburgh around 200 years later. He tells a number of tales that resemble William’s. One concerns

James Tankerlay, the one-time Rector of Kereby….His spirit began to wander at night as far as Kereby, and one evening he gouged out the eye of his concubine who still lived there. It is said that the abbot and chapter had his body in its coffin dug out of the grave and that they ordered Roger Wayneman to convey it to Gormyre. When he was about to throw the coffin into the water, the oxen drawing his wagon panicked and were almost drowned with fear (Joynes 123).

Some of the “spirits” shape-shift into animal form, but it is clear that they are corporeal. While they sometimes jump on a living person, they are generally less dangerous than William’s ghosts. Most want to right a wrong and/or to receive absolution. By the time the Monk of Byland was active (end of the fourteenth century), the doctrine of Purgatory was widely known and accepted, and this helps to explain the differences between his tales and those of William, who was writing when the doctrine was still developing.

Indeed, Purgatory was a great boon for the medieval ghost story. According to Jean-Claude Schmitt,

[the Church’s influence] enabled an inculcation of the faithful with a religious morality centered on the notions of sin, penance, and salvation, culminating at the end of the twelfth century in the “birth of Purgatory.”  Henceforth all Christians could hope to be saved, but only under the condition that after death, they would undergo salutary punishments–the duration and the intensity of which depended…[in part] on the suffrages (masses, prayers, and almsgiving) undertaken by relatives and friends….Otherwise the dead person might appear to a relative or close friend to demand the suffrages needed…. Eager to support and organize the unity of the living and the dead, the church gladly repeated tales of ghosts (4).

Jaques Le Goff points out that

Purgatory would become the prison in which ghosts were normally incarcerated, though they might be allowed to escape now and then to briefly haunt those of the living whose zeal in their behalf was insufficient (82).

He further notes that Purgatory was popularized in part by ghost stories (177). The ghosts might warn loved ones to mend their ways or announce an imminent death. They might want their heirs to return stolen property. Increasingly, though, they asked/demanded that relatives pay for masses or prayers to be said for their souls. Coincidentally, many of these ghost stories came out of monasteries that had become, since the introduction of Purgatory, factories that manufactured masses and prayers for the dead. While these ghosts were generally a bit tamer than those described by William and the Byland monk, they sometimes still appeared corporeal, and sometimes they retained pagan aspects, as when they appeared in a Wild Hunt (Schmitt 115).

While modern ghosts may warn loved ones or attempt to right wrongs, they rarely ask for suffrages anymore. Another thing that sets medieval ghosts apart from modern ones is their lack of ambiguity. Whether they were corporeal or incorporeal, whether they wanted to beg forgiveness or kill loved ones, they didn’t seem to have difficulty making themselves known. They were visible; usually they were able to communicate clearly. People saw them, heard them and sometimes felt them. The reporters hardly ever say, “What was that? Did you hear that?” When the only way to record ghostly phenomena was with quill, ink and parchment, the ghosts were bold and clear. Now that plumbers are armed with a dazzling variety of video and audio recorders, as well as other magical ghost hunting devices, the ghosts have gotten much more shy.  Odd that.

ES

References:

Le Goff, Jaques. The Birth of Purgatory. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984.

Joynes, Andrew, comp. and ed. Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2001.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England.” Folklore 114 (2003): 389-402.


Do We Need to Involve Shakespeare in this Argument?

February 20, 2011

Recently, novelist and attorney Scott Turow and other members of the Authors Guild wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times called “Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?” in which the authors bemoan the prevalence of copyright infringement and piracy on the Internet. They warn of a dire future if copyright is not strictly protected:

Certainly there’s a place for free creative work online, but that cannot be the end of it. A rich culture demands contributions from authors and artists who devote thousands of hours to a work and a lifetime to their craft. Since the Enlightenment, Western societies have been lulled into a belief that progress is inevitable. It never has been. It’s the result of abiding by rules that were carefully constructed and practices that were begun by people living in the long shadow of the Dark Ages. We tamper with those rules at our peril.

Oh noes!!!1!!1 teh internets will send us hurtling back to the barbarity of the time before teh movable type printing press! I can’t imagine what relevance the early Middle Ages could have to the question of modern copyright law except to suggest an over-dramatic sense of Badness. Oh, and they also talk about Shakespeare for some reason. I say “for some reason” because, as the authors make clear, the first copyright law was enacted in 1709, almost 100 years after Shakespeare’s death. I don’t know, there’s something about the playhouses’ admission charge being a “paywall.” Plus, hey, Dark Ages=Bad; Shakespeare=Good.

The Turow piece has inspired a response from Kevin L. Smith, the Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University. According to the Scholarly Communications Office, Smith is “both a librarian and an attorney experienced in copyright and technology law.” Smith says,

It seems a little bit unfair to critique these editorials because they are usually manifestly uninformed; several critiques of Turow have already appeared, and I don’t want to seem to be piling on.

Nevertheless…

…he does so. And I’m afraid I have to say, “A plague o’ both your houses!” On the one hand, I admit that my immediate reaction is “Oh, boo hoo, Scott Turow isn’t making enough money.” In addition, using a writer who made a nice living without modern copyright protection as an example of why authors need copyright protection is definitely a bit problematic.  Also, they were rude about my beloved Middle Ages.

On the other hand, Smith actually strikes me as “manifestly uninformed” and perhaps a bit hard of reading. For one thing, he attributes the New York Time piece to Turow alone. In fact, Turow has two co-authors, Paul Aiken and James Shapiro. Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Among Shapiro’s publications are the books Rival Playwrights : Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare; Shakespeare and the Jews; 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? He is currently working on a book called The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Granted, Turow is the best-known of the three authors, but under the circumstances, it seems borderline dishonest to ignore the contribution of so eminent a Shakespeare scholar. Who do you think knows more about Shakespeare, Smith or Shapiro?

Smith summarizes Turow, Aiken and Shapiro’s argument as follows:

The core of the argument is that Shakespeare and his contemporaries flourished because their work was rewarded financially, owing to the innovation of producing plays in an enclosed environment and sharing the income from theater admissions with the playwrights.  Turow then analogizes this physical barrier to theater admission with the “cultural paywall” of copyright in order to argue that the Internet threat to copyright must be addressed with stronger laws.

This is a fair summary, as is Smith’s criticism of the analogy between theater admission and copyright. However, Smith goes on to say,

First, Shakespeare lived before there were any copyright laws in England….so his productivity is evidence that there are ways to support authorship other than with copyright.  In truth, it was not so much his share of theater revenues that paid Shakespeare’s bills as it was patronage.

In the first place, it should be noted that Turow, Aiken and Shapiro themselves note that the first copyright law was not passed until well after Shakespeare’s time. Secondly, the assertion that “patronage” was Shakespeare’s main source of income is simply not true. The acting company to which Shakespeare belonged had a patron. It had to: according to the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent, any acting troupe that lacked an aristocratic patron was regarded as a group of vagabonds. Shakespeare’s livelihood, however, did not depend primarily on the company’s patron; he made a good living from the company’s earnings and business deals.

We don’t really know if Shakespeare himself ever had a patron. He dedicated two poems to the Earl of Southampton (perhaps significantly, he produced these poems when the theaters were closed because of an outbreak of plague), but we don’t know whether or not Southampton actually was Shakespeare’s patron. Regardless, any money he may have received from Southampton for these two poems is trivial compared to the income he earned as actor, shareholder and principal playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men.

Smith further argues that

The second reason Turow’s choice of a hero for his piece is unfortunate is that Shakespeare was, himself, a pirate (in Turow’s sense), basing most of his best known plays on materials that he borrowed from others and reworked.  If Boccaccio, or Spenser, or Holinshed had held a copyright in the modern sense in their works, Shakespeare’s productions could have been stopped by the courts (as unauthorized derivative works).

While it is certainly true that Shakespeare’s plots are not original, Spenser and Boccaccio also borrowed material. Since none of them were affected by modern copyright law, it seems unfair to imagine what would happen if only Shakespeare were constrained by it. In addition, Boccaccio’s work would, I assume, have been out of copyright by the time Shakespeare was writing. Holinshed was writing non-fiction, so I don’t think he could have won a lawsuit against a playwright (think about what happened when the authors of the non-fictional Holy Blood, Holy Grail tried to sue novelist Dan Brown for plagiarism).

What I suppose I find most odd about both the Turow et al. piece and the Smith piece is that neither discusses the publication of Shakespeare’s works. We know there were pirated editions of Shakespeare’s plays printed in his lifetime; we also know that the acting companies, which owned the plays, weren’t too happy about such piracy. Shapiro discusses the publication process in Contested Will, so he knows all about it, and it seems more germane to the issue than the performance of those plays.

Shakespeare, what do you think of these two articles calling on you to defend two opposing positions?

That’s what I thought.

ES

Big shout out to Maria Walters, a.k.a. Masala Skeptic, of skepchick.org for pointing me toward the Smith article.


National Commission on the Humanities Formed

February 18, 2011

The humanities have a hard time getting respect, if by respect you mean funding. Sure, we’re (often) the ones teaching the basic research, thinking and documentation skills that underpin the rest of a valuable education…blah blah whine. I often think that popular apathy toward the humanities, especially literature and cultural criticism, stems from the topics to which we choose to apply those important, cross-disciplinary skills. That is to say, that students often resent, say, that we are looking at the business culture of the Renaissance or the works of Theodore Dreiser or 17th-century Norwegian mysticism or whatever. Yes, these are the topics that float the boat of the instructor, who has devoted his or her life to the study of these topics. I know that I picked my areas of study, war and literature and extraordinary claims because I’m fascinated about them, but I certainly do not expect my students to love those topics with the myopic, passionate intensity that I devote to them. At the same time, however, I expect them to recognize that the research practices, habits of thought and underlying curiosity I bring to the study of, say, conspiracy theory, has value in all areas of education.

The incessant beating that the humanities seem to get as university budgets shrink fundamentally undermine the mission of the university. We’re not trying to crank out people as effete, feckless and dull as we are. We’re trying to arm our students with the ability to become self-directed, fulfilled, lifelong learners, as well as college students worth bragging about.

A number of muckety-mucks from Research-1 institutions are pooling their brainpower to give the humanities a boost, according to the Chronicle. This is swell and all, but I agree with the first comment that other types of schools need to be represented. I have a feeling that the smart students are the ones who are going to be taking their core courses, including the core humanities courses, at less expensive institutions of higher ed before moving on to the R1s. Their instructors will be a part of the field and should be included.

Thus ends my mid-afternoon proclamation. Perhaps I will see folks tonight at Virtual Drinking Skeptically? http://virtualds.org/ I think Eve will be participating as well.

RJB