Friday, February 17, 2012

Monsters Without Monsters Within

A little strange to start with this image of the Arnolfini (convex!) mirror from my posh hotel room in Florida, but the undefinable, unbounded, and uncertain space of a convex mirror is precisely where I need to be to talk about where it is that we work so hard to put our monsters. Are they in the room or projected only in the image? Are they on the mirror or in our mind's eye? Today was our day with Grendel's Mother (and who wouldn't want to spend an afternoon with that helldam?) but the conversation wound up being largely shaped by a talk presented last night by Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.  How our little college does this is nothing short of miraculous, but there was Leymah Gbowee, splendid and direct, and there we were, packed into the American Gothic gathering hall that somehow this time felt perfect and intimate - but that was all her.  She spoke of Liberia, and a peace process with roots in anger, and energy in these incredible fellowships of women she creates, and the relentlessness of the horrors of the Liberia of Charles Taylor, and the drive to keep doing this.  And at the end, a student asked her the strangest question (you could feel the apprehension ripple through the crowd): "What good do you see in Charles Taylor?" he asked. She took the time to smile and, having pointed out (to the crowd's relieved laughter) that Charles Taylor was a sociopath, she took the time again, this time to say "I absolutely believe that in every soul, there is a little light." And the room was absolutely still, absolutely silent, wondering about this fiery woman's magnanimity, "And also, a little darkness."  And the idea is that you can build on the light, or you can build on the darkness - and there's no perfect state to start from and end to, there's just you and the care of your human nature.

And I should try and figure out why this offer of an interior origin of evil meant so much to me, but all that I can tell you is that it provided a powerful contrast to the increasing wonder I was experiencing at just how much evil can be understood to be exteriorized in Grendel and Grendel's Mother. Grendel is the outcast of outcasts, his mother is a water-demon - they are the evil "out there" that visits "us here." They are the evil (and believe me, the Anglo-Saxon is way better: hail-watcher, death-shadow, hell-brute, troll-dam) to be purged from the landscape. Beowulf is good and heroic and does it.  And so with the Book of Enoch and a great article by R.E. Kaske from a 1971 Speculum issue about "Beowulf and the Book of Enoch," we started working through this problem of the interiority vs. exteriority of evil.  Many things needed to be defined (evil for one, since there are so many: some indeed that emerge from within and take over, others that fall heavily from elsewhere entirely), but really, we were after the "nature," the character of Grendel's monstrosity, of the monstrosity of Grendel's Mother.  The argument goes that knowledge or a version of the Book of Enoch was around when the poem Beowulf was composed (either through oral tradition or written down) sometime in the 8th century (the date of Beowulf is a matter of continuing debate - really intense, continuing debate), and that its monsters influenced the character of Grendel and Grendel's Mother.  The monsters of the Book of Enoch (especially in books 6-16) are the offspring of the Sons of God (fallen angels? descendants of Seth?) and the daughters of men (descendants of Cain) - they should have never been, but they became and they taught men the arts of metal working, the beautifying of the eyelids (!), and astrology and, and, and, until they had revealed "the eternal secrets which were preserved in heaven, which men were striving to learn." They also starting devouring humans and spreading unrighteousness and terror everywhere all over the world (the follow-up is that God wishes for a clean slate and concocts the deluge, enter Noah and you're back in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament proper). It's such a vivid telling of the origins of evil that it's a wonder to me that the Book of Enoch (itself!) became an outcast (apocrypha) from canonical writings (both Jewish and Christian except for the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches), and that it would be Adam and Eve who would carry the day on Original Sin. It was written about 200-300 years before the birth of Christ, and became apocrypha about 200-300 years later (the Dead Sea Scrolls have significant chunks). 

And so we turned it over: is Grendel's Mother the bit of darkness inside us that has grown on the need for cold vengeance and hurtful fury? or is she the evil visited upon us from the outside, a terrible settler of accounts we may not have known we were the debtors of? The interest came in articulating how she was both, rather than deciding which she might be. The variation of scale on which we could ask it of her was staggering: from an individual evil to the mass murders we can scarcely fathom. And we can ask it of her also because she seems less helpless than Grendel in her fury, her violence is more precise, scarier - more like a human might be. And yet, she seems more both spirit (interior) and body (exterior).  We watched the encounter between Beowulf and Grendel's Mother in the 2007 Zemeckis film written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, in which Grendel's Mother feeds and thrives on (perhaps is even nothing more than a full projection of) Beowulf's desire for power and glory. That was individual. But Charles Taylor led an entire nation against itself in still unimaginable slaughter. We talked and talked and could not pin her down.

I have no way of understanding the ravages of the civil war in Liberia.  I only have that incredible hour in the presence of Leymah Gbowee who worked to make it stop. And Grendel and his mother, emerging from within or creeping down from without.

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