James W. Earl’s Thinking About Beowulf: Ten Years Later
Joy, Eileen A.
The Heroic Age, Issue 8 (June 2005)
In The Possession at Loudon, a cultural history of the demonic possession of the Ursuline nuns of Loudon, France in the 1630s, the French historian Michel de Certeau wrote that the historian “would be fooling himself if he believed he was rid of that strangeness internal to history by placing it somewhere on the outside, far from us, in a past closed with the last ‘aberrations’ of yesteryear” (Certeau 2000, 227). Certeau understood that the past was ultimately “alter” and strange, and that the historical method would always seek to exorcise this strangeness by placing it firmly in the past: history “aims at calming the dead who still haunt the present, and at offering them scriptural tombs” (Certeau 1988, 2). In this scenario, the past becomes a type of knowledge—the discourse of history—while the present believes it can remain untroubled by the ghosts that always haunt the margins marking the divisions between that era and this one. Nevertheless, because historical narratives must, of necessity, always leave something out, while also being unable to grasp those things—both material and psychic—which will always be in excess of the known record or archive, there is something both repressed and nocturnal that always returns, coursing along the interstices of “tradition.” History is never really over, never really fully behind us in time, although the social practice of history is always making divisions, marking time, and digging graves.
In recent years, there has been a growing body of Old English scholarship that seeks to reconcile the idea that we can understand the past on its own ground with an awareness, due in part to a skepticism regarding the supposed ideological disinterestedness of texts, of all the ways in which both the Anglo-Saxons and ourselves have always appropriated, and even invented the past in order to provide authority and the status of inevitability to the present, a process Certeau termed a “labor of death and a labor against death” (Certeau 1988, 5)1. In his book Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, Allen Frantzen urged Old English scholars to let go of the romantic belief that the language of Old English texts somehow provides a straight line to what might be called the ideas and values of an authentic Anglo-Saxon culture.