Throughout the semester I have had a somewhat difficult time understanding how an object obtains, possesses, exhibits, or is given agency. It seems to me that when humans do not impose the agency of an object, which typically makes its superficial agency obvious, it is hard to grasp. This is most likely because, not only in English classes do we typically avoid analyzing non-human factors, or non-human interpretations, but also in day-to-day life we are not trained to value or place importance on objects. I think Rachel’s post brings up a good point. If no human actors are around to experience the agency of an object, does it exist? At this point in the semester, my answer is most obviously yes. At the beginning of the semester I probably still would have thought yes, however, I also would not have thought an object could possibly contain any meaningful or effective agency if it isn’t interacting or affecting the human world.
I sometimes still have trouble seeing an objects agency as not simply being imposed by humans. For example, we have had a number of discussions on the cherries in Sir Cleges. It is troublesome to me to think that the cherries gain their agency from a divine source. In the text, unlike maybe a biblical story, we don’t hear or see God create the cherries, and their divinity, to me, is only present because the humans in the story grant it to them. Once the human actors accept this belief, the cherries do obtain a certain power and agency that would make them more potent than other cherries, but this power is only present because the humans impose it upon the cherries, and then accept it. I’m not denying that the role of the divine is an actor, or that the cherries agency is not simply imposed by humans. I’m just having trouble seeing it that way.
In Jeffrey Cohen’s “The Werewolf’s Indifference” blog post he mentioned violence and werewolves and humans. This was interesting to me because a lot of the violence in the werewolf stories we read was actually done by humans, not the monstrous werewolves. (I looked back through some of the werewolf posts on our blog and I didn’t see anyone tackling this subject, so I don’t think I’m stealing anyone else’s idea. Maybe we talked about it in class, and if we did, sorry I’m not giving credit where credit is due)
Jeffrey quotes Marie de France’s opening lines, “A werewolf is a savage beast: / while his fury is on him / he eats men, does much harm, / goes deep in the forest to live” and this would make the reader think that as a werewolf Bisclavret is a monster. He isn’t though; he is just wild and has some of the best times of his life as a werewolf. In Bisclavret, and in Biclarel the humans are the ones who torture the Wife of the werewolf. True, the werewolf gets his revenge by biting off the nose of the wife, but this is done in revenge. To me the worst violence committed is by the king and the other humans when they torture the truth out of the wife.
It’s a bit chilling to read about this and Jeffrey’s comment on it is that “Torture compels the disfigured woman to reveal her crime, and she admits the stealing of his transfigurative clothes.” I wonder if we as readers are supposed to have indifference toward the torture and the human violence? Or should we be a little put off by it? Remember in Sir Cleges, we discussed the oddity of the violence at the end with the whipping of the three people who held Cleges up on his way to the king. The torture and violence done by the humans toward the end of the werewolf stories is again strange. Maybe violence by humans shouldn’t be so strange after all.
An issue recently discussed in class was God’s influence on agency, and whether imbuing something with spiritual agency reduces its original thing-power, because it becomes merely a divine tool. Also, we addressed how viewing actants in an assemblage as subservient to one actant’s agency in that network is troubling, as it implies that things don’t control their actions.
While it’s possible that an almighty power is part of our assemblages, focusing on this reaps no rewards regarding altering our approach to creating a better world, Bennett-style or otherwise. This is especially true when such a belief gives people a reason to disregard efforts to stop global warming, for example, with the reasoning that everything is divinely-ordained. Object-oriented theory is based on the principle that everything has agency, even if this agency is not equally spread out amongst all the actants involved in any given network. It is therefore not important to consider God’s existence, or whether the heavenly origin of the cherries in Sir Cleges takes away from their agency, because their effects are felt regardless. Cherries don’t grow out of nothing, and even without a divine influence, they would’ve needed an ecological miracle to come into being. What matters is not where something came from originally – we do not place any importance on the source of creation for Melion’s ring or Sir Degaré’s broken sword. The cherries are able to save Sir Cleges from his impoverished state, thus rendering how they entered into an assemblage with the protagonist practically pointless. The focus should instead be on what actions things take when interacting with other actants after they are brought into this world.
In terms of God’s presence in life’s assemblages, since we cannot safely judge what divine effects are, we should concentrate on controlling our response to God as best we can. Belief in an almighty power is potentially an extremely powerful actant, but its factual basis is not important. Rather, the crucial point is how we allow this actant to influence other things in its assemblage.
Jeffrey Cohen’s discussion last week was structured around the stone, the most basic of tangible things. Stones don’t really do much, and their simplicity of form and stagnancy in space and time have earned them the scorn of active, human writers. To “have a heart of stone” is to have an unfeeling heart, reflecting the predominant view that stones, as objects, have no feelings or agency. Cohen then went on to disprove this claim, and I believe that
Professor Seaman brought up an idea yesterday that I had never considered, that Clege’s attributing the winter cherries to a supernatural power is no different from how we attribute bizarre events to SCIENCE. For the most part, this has been successful, but there are still countless events that we can’t account for. For instance, gravity is a mystery that we quantify but can’t explain. It’s power is simply attributed to science, and we gladly leave it at that while we wait for an explanation to be revealed.
Cohen’s discussion of simple building blocks coupled with our discussion of scientific explanations led me to contemplate the agency of atoms and elements. I changed Biology advisors this semester, as my advisor for the past two years is overseas at the moment. I expected to show him my plan and get his signature, but he had none of that. As soon as he saw that I had taken organic chemistry, he stunned me with a simple question: where does carbon come from? I had studied the damn thing for a year, and I had no response. I just accepted its existence according to SCIENCE and left it at that. For the next forty minutes, he walked me through the origins of all the elements of matter. In short, just as our sun emits alpha radiation in the form of helium in the process of fusion, larger, denser stars of the past emited radiation in the form of larger elements, from cesium to carbon to our helium. Our bodies and our world are stardust, which sounds like something out of a fairy tale. Although my advisor seemed satisfied when he’d finished explaining, I was far from satisfied. Yes, our matter comes from the stars. But we can only speculate on where stars came from, with the theory of the big bang. We still have to put our faith in science in order to get by in the world. Even if we’re able to explain some of the mysteries of the universe, I fear there will never be an end to humanity’s questions, and that we will always have to rely on faith to explain the world, just like Sir Cleges.
We have a short week this week in Making Matter Matter, so I thought there may be less to post about this week then usual. However, I think after Jeffery Cohen’s talk today in class, we will have much to post about. I wanted to post before class because I have never done that (I usually wait until the last minute) and because it will be interesting to see if Jeffery Cohen addresses what I wanted to talk about and if my view changes at all later.
In preparing for the talk in class today I read the “we fuse like family” blog post authored by Jeffery Cohen. It was a good way to get back into the mindset of our class after our long fall break, and it was good to look back at Sir Cleges. In the blog post Cohen writes about Cleges and his family being pillars of the community and Cleges himself “a spirit of generosity, his house open to all who are hungry.” Cohen right after this makes a special note on the affection Cleges has for the squires and says that these people are the people who society tends to take for granted. His exact words are “those [the squires] upon whom the kingdom depends in order to further its national interests, and those whom it forgets when their utility is at its end.” I liked the way Cohen phrased that because not only is this apparent in Sir Cleges when the rest of the community completely forgets about in their time of need, but also because this really does happen in the real world on a daily basis.
Unfortunately in the real world there aren’t magical cherries that people in need can find and bring to the King. Fortunately for Sir Cleges and his family in the lai, the cherries were discovered. It does still bother me (and I believe we addressed it a little in class) that the community completely abandoned Cleges and co. when they were in need of help. This is a family that plays an important part in the community and I think the lack of generosity by everyone else is telling. Cohen’s blog post goes in a different way, but I am curious to see what Cohen would say. Cohen points to the violence at the end as being disturbing, and I agree, but I also find the lack of generosity by the neighbors to be just as disturbing to me.
Although these two stories may seem very different at first, upon a closer reading, there are many more fundamental similarities than one might originally think: the element of largesse and subsequent poverty, the failure of the gift giving system, an element of the marvelous, and the saving grace of a woman.
While reading Sir Launfal, I was reminded very much of Sir Cleges in that both men were extremely generous, and once the ability to be generous with their material possessions was gone, so were the friends. Launfal was so ashamed when he was not awarded gifts by the queen, he decided to leave and fell into poverty and then abandoned. Cleges was simply taken advantage of. He was eaten out of house and home due to all the parties he threw. Once he was no longer able to throw his parties, he too was abandoned by his friends. The material possessions (or lack thereof) in both stories determined whether the men not only felt like, but were recognized as, knights.
In both stories, there exists a failure of “the system” that led to the men’s impoverishment. In Cleges for example, there was no reciprocity of generosity. Cleges gave and gave and gave, but received nothing in return (nor did he expect to), making it impossible to sustain his way of life. In Launfal, the failure of the system falls on the shoulders of the queen. There was no reason to leave Launfal out of the gift giving; she just simply did not like him. This failure of the queen to distribute gifts fairly makes it impossible for Launfal to stick around, thus beginning his fall into poverty and shame.
Once the knights in both stories have suffered sufficiently, there enters an element of the marvelous. In Cleges, it is the appearance of the out of season cherries, and in Launfal, it is the fairy lover. These elements make it possible for the knights to regain their honor as well as their riches. Cleges is awarded properly after sharing the cherries with the king, and Launfal is awarded riches by his fairy lover and again redeemed by her in the end.
I can’t help but notice that these men would have been ultimately lost without the women in their lives. Cleges did not recognize the cherries as a good sign until his wife convinced him. He thought, in fact, that they were a bad omen. If she had not been around, would he have destroyed them and thus been in poverty forever? Launfal would have also stayed in poverty were it not for the gifts of his lover, and later on been executed did she not decide to show up. If the fairy never showed up in the first place, would Launfal have stayed in poverty, wallowing in pity? These knights in distress were saved by their damsels.
Reflecting on the stories we have read so far, one challenge that I have had is grasping some sort of reference point, or knowing where to look for meaning in the text and exactly what about the text is important to analyze. This is most likely due to the fact that almost all of the literature I have read has come from after Premodern England, and the only medieval literature I have read are segments of The Canterbury Tales and a few others in English 201.
It seems that there are a number of reasons this is challenging, all of which stem from the fact that there are major differences between modern and medieval literature. First and most obviously, Old English is difficult to understand at times, and although this wasn’t the case for Guigemar, Sir Cleges proved to be much more difficult to translate and the Old English exercises we have been doing prove that it can at times be almost impossible to comprehend. More subtly, the framework of both stories is different than anything I’ve ever read. Both have a similar authorial introduction, and quite abrupt endings where everything is tied together quickly. Characters are also developed in more blatant ways than most modern literature, not meaning that they lack depth, but that their qualities are a bit more obvious. My lack of knowledge of medieval culture and values also creates a challenge, and it is hard to know where to look for morals and the author’s intent when you know little about the culture that the stories took place in.
As I noted earlier, it is difficult to analyze a text when you feel like you don’t have a reference point, but it seems that I am currently developing one and as the semester progresses I’m sure that I, as well as everyone else, will become much more comfortable with the literature we are reading.
I was really interested in our chat about the beginning of Marie de France’s Guigemar. We noticed that the first 26 lines or so of the tale were Marie defending her reputation. Marie says in lines 7-11, “But anywhere there is / a man or woman of great worth / people who envy their good fortune / often say evil things about them; / they want to ruin their reputations.” She goes on to call these people vicious dogs, and as a class we thought this reminded us of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath.
I thought it was interesting because it is another example of a strong female voice in medieval times. This voice is actually that of a woman writer, whereas Chaucer, a man, was writing the voice of The Wife. I guess I particularly noticed this because I’ve held the belief that women during this time were silenced and women just couldn’t be considered strong. Yet another logical woman voice could be heard during yesterday’s reading in Sir Cleges. Sir Cleges’ wife is the logical one, and she is the one who realizes that the finding of the cherries is a good thing, not a curse, as Cleges believes. It another woman character of the time that stood out to me.
Getting back to Marie de France, she writes in the French romantic mode as we discussed in class, but it’s almost as if she is the knight fighting for her own reputation and she refuses to give up, “I don’t propose to give up because of that” (line 15). I think I’ll keep these examples in my the next time a strong medieval woman’s voice is presented to me because it really seems like there is an abundance in the literature I’ve read. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised to find strong when in medieval times.
The inability to find true love is the loyal and courageous knight, Guigemar’s great flaw. In class we discussed that for a knight to truly play his role to society correctly he must be both a warrior and a loyal lover to a woman. In the tale of Guigemar, we see his struggle to find the missing piece to his knightly persona. Initially, he is just not interested in love and this makes him an unnatural specimen. The fact that during the time of Marie de France people believed that love was essential to a knight seems unusual. This could support the idea that men were aware that women actually did have something worthwhile to offer to them.
The need for a woman as a sort of partner is also present in the story of the generous Sir Cleges. In this knight’s tale Sir Cleges falls out of society when he is struck by poverty. His wife is pivotal in this story as she plays the role of a level headed and optimistic instructor. It is her idea to use the abnormally winter thriving cherries to gain her husband’s status back. This plan of action would have never been put into play by her husband who immediately wished to destroy the cherries believing that their ability to grow in the winter was a bad omen.
The idea that someone is unnatural if they do not marry or engage in a love affair still seems to hold true in today’s society. It is estimated that 160,000,000 people out of a rough total of 317,042,000 in the United States are in heterosexual marriages and most of these marriages result in an egalitarian family. In this popular egalitarian family structure husbands and wives commit to an equal partnership in which both partners function more positively and successfully with the help of the other. These families work with relatively equal roles between parents. Maybe stories of knights like Guigemar and Sir Cleges were the first examples of very primary egalitarian families or even the precursors to the egalitarian structure. Although Guigemar and Sir Cleges’ wives were not what we would consider equal partners in today’s society because they were more similar to assistants, these husbands still needed their partners to help them function better in society. This emphasizes the idea that each partner needs the other to fit into society and to be more successful.
One point that stood out to me from the past two readings of this week was the difference in the level of virtue exhibited in each story. I noted a couple of aspects of Guigemar that contrasted some classic ideas of virtue. Whereas, I thought Sir Cleges was pretty moral in its entirety.
Although the moral of Guigemar distills the timeless notion that “love conquers all”, it seemed to me that there were some aspects of the story that were a bit unusual in terms of what one expects from a classic moral tale. It all started at the point when we learn about Guigemar’s future lover and her jealous husband. First off, as we noted in class, the description of her chapel exhibited some obvious ironies. The location of the mural of Venus, although consistent with the story’s underlying theme, is not only unusual, but even blasphemous as a decoration in the chapel. The second aspect that I found odd didn’t occur to me as immoral until I gave it a second reading. Although I initially read over the lines “It appears to me that Guigemar/ stayed with her a year and a half./ Their life was full of pleasure” without a second glance, I gave it a little more thought the second time over and came to the conclusion that not only were Guigemar and his lover lying to her husband, but they continued to lie successfully for well over a year. So in these lines alone we’re reminded that they lied, committed adultery, and did so for a prolonged period of time. I think because everything worked out for the best in the tale’s happy ending, it was easy for me to ignore the moral inconsistencies.
Sir Cleges, on the other hand, did not exhibit the same type of moral inconsistencies. The scene where he brutally beats the porter, the usher, and the steward does stand out as a bit harsh in comparison to the rest of the story, yet Sir Cleges’ actions are never frowned upon. The three men at the castle took advantage of Sir Cleges’ kindness and generosity to begin with, so he maintains his moral character because it can be widely agreed upon that these men deserved what they got.