The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

March 29, 2011

Going Medieval on You?

That's me on the right.

Writers read much differently than literature professors do.

A writer, you see, is like a bad house guest at a crowded party at a wealthy mansion.

First, she stands in the corner, observes critically, “I don’t like the wall paper in this room.  What was she thinking?”

However, when the other guests are all distracted by somebody showing vacation photos or a cute baby whose nap has just ended, the writer inches close to the credenza, backing into it right where the Faberge egg is displayed, and while everyone is making baby talk in the other part of the room, the writer gently tips the treasure egg into her purse.

Later, when she publishes, the egg has made a reappearance, only this time, it’s in a different setting altogether, stolen and repurposed.

Literature professors are the good house guests.  They remark how the addition of the new wall paper clearly indicates a new trend in the style of the hostess, and he or she writes a lovely explanation for the shift.  The Faberge egg is admired at a distance and cataloged in memory.  When the literature professor attends a cocktail gathering at the kleptomaniac writer’s house, rather than shout “thief!” accusingly, he or she remarks how similar the tastes of this hostess are to the tastes of the other hostess, and the robbery is called a form of homage or pastiche, not a burglary.

I’ve always been a writer when I read, not a lit professor, even though I can write well critically and am able to understand pastiches and homages along with the polite house guests.  I just steal the good stuff so I can use it my own way later.

Just like a cat burglar (think Robie the Cat from Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief), I try to get invited to (to read, that is) every swanky affair I can, to pull of as many heists as I can of stylistic accomplishments. This makes my creative written work originally eclectic.

However, I am admonished here at the University of Mississippi to specialize.  I understand of course — I can’t just keep stealing creatively.  I have to become an expert of analysis in one area.  I have to write a dissertation that is grounded in a period of time and to specialize in that period of time for a good decade or so before even considering branching off in other critical areas.

The only problem is that I honestly love works from different eras and have read with a hungry-girl-at-a-good-smorgasbord voraciousness from every time and place.  To narrow my specialization makes me, well, confused.

I have narrowed it down thus far — I will be an expert in English (with some French) literature, not American literature.  That said, I will continue to read interesting writers from everywhere.

Or is that me holding the teacup? What do you think?

Further, I have narrowed it down to a coin flip between periods — either I will focus on the Victorians and all their various repressions, or I will go Medieval.

Medievalists in the English departments are considered the weirdest of the weirdos, the nerdiest of the nerds.  Medievalists are a little bit crazy.  They believe, often enough, that the world is in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, including over who ought to fill the copy machine with toner and paper.  They can’t quite relate to the debate in the faculty meeting because no one has claimed divine right.  There are twice as many job openings for Medievalists and half as many qualified applicants.  Weird is not the only minimum job requirement — see below for the others — but it helps.

I am certainly weird enough, by a voice vote of all who have met me, to be a Medievalist.

However, it is not just a costume change that is involved.  Going Medieval is serious business.  It is important not only to speak English (which of course I do) and another modern language (fluent French and a smattering of Italian, in my case) but to speak what are called Middle dialects of these languages (I can read Middle English and Middle French, provided they are typeset).  I also ought to learn Latin and Old English, which has a different alphabet than our English and sounds like Vikings snorting when spoken aloud.

It’s like this — there are the Trekkies who go to the conventions — they would be the ones who would be akin to the Victorianists, nerdy enough to impress others with their nerdiness, but still kind of loosely nerdy, possibly capable of socializing at a non-nerdy party.  Then, there are the Trekkies who learn Klingon.  In order to be a Medievalist, I really have to learn the equivalent of Klingon.

Once you go Medieval, there’s no going back.  Other nerds are slightly in awe, because (for instance) I am working on a paper that discusses the allegorical trope of New Jerusalem in a Middle French writer’s works, and I had to spend the week figuring out if the Vulgate Latin translation of the psalms, despite Saint Jerome‘s misogyny, feminized the depiction of Heavenly Jerusalem in any way.  It does, and this is central to my argument regarding Christine de Pizan‘s Le Livre de la Cite des Dames.

With the Victorians, for instance, I’m presenting a paper that looks at The Mikado in light of Oscar Wilde’s declarations regarding Japanese nick-nacks and the blue china/japonaiserie craze of the late 1800s.  Is this most people’s idea of a weekend leisure?  No, but it’s fluffy compared to the work of the Medievalist.  One involves the repressed anxieties of a high-collar society that holds itself back from its true intentions at every turn and requires the mechanics of interjections of literary theory of unlimited pretensions where apt.  The other is buck-wild — think liturgical papers about what a parish should do when a werewolf gets loose in the farmlands — but requires a working knowledge of a defunct whole world’s insanity, and it is almost impossible to say anything with absolute conclusiveness because nobody really knows what it was like to walk around in the days of King Arthur, if in fact  he ever really existed.

Wherever I go and whatever I do, I will always read like a writer.  I’ll be stealing and re-appropriating all the good stuff for my own creative work.  However, regarding this critical work, because I just love books, all kinds of books, bottom line — I’m having trouble deciding between the prim but approachable ladies in the photo or the lovely but ultimately unknowable allegorical women in the illuminated manuscript.

So what do you think I should do?  I am seriously taking a poll here and would welcome all opinions accompanied with reasons why.  Which of these two areas should I pick and why?  Should I go Medieval?  Tell me what you think so that I make the right decision, or as Chaucer would say, so that “I coude wel chesen alderbest.”

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8 Comments »

  1. Definitely go medieval. And why go for Arthurian studies, at that? You could be the fringiest of the fringe. The grail’s gotta be around here somewhere; keep a weather eye.

    Seriously, though, when you meet a professor at a party, wouldn’t you much rather they told you a fun fact about Beowulf than about Dickens?

    Comment by eddystonelight — April 17, 2011 @ 10:37 am | Reply

  2. […] Going Medieval on You? (carpetbaggersjournal.com) […]

    Pingback by Shout out to Medieval History Geek and the U of M medievalists | Grateful to the dead — May 17, 2011 @ 3:41 pm | Reply

  3. […] which carpetbagger tries to figure out whether to be a Medievalist or a Victorianist, may be found here. Yup. These are my […]

    Pingback by Medievalists: 11 on the Geek Richter Scale | Grateful to the dead — May 17, 2011 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

  4. […] Going Victorian and Getting Medieval (H/T Chris Armstrong) […]

    Pingback by The Train Called the City of New Or-Links - Links Literature Philosophy Theology - rapture - The Christian Humanist Blog — May 27, 2011 @ 6:35 am | Reply

  5. Medieval! I’m currently doing an MA in Medieval English Literatures and the craziness is just awesome. There’s so many spaces to fill in medieval scholarship, you can always find something new to do!

    Comment by Becky — August 7, 2011 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

  6. Might be this blogs best piece of writing I have seen..

    Comment by Displays — October 22, 2011 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

  7. Esta pagina me ha sido de gran ayuda. Gracias por publicarla por este medio.
    Ojala otros se beneficiaran tambien.

    Comment by Banca Net Empresarial — March 21, 2013 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

    • Gracias a usted tambien!

      Comment by annebabson — March 22, 2013 @ 12:22 am | Reply


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