Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Three books on crime fiction, reviewed

Maurizio Ascari, A Counter-History of Crime Fiction: Supernatural, Gothic, Sensational, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
Alastair Rolls and Deborah Walker, London. French and American Noir: Dark Crossings, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Andrew Nestingen and Paula Arvas, eds, Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2011
These three books have emerged as the most interesting from recent reading and re-reading during the process of producing a new book which studies closely what are in my view the twenty-one most popular and influential piece of crime fiction: a key to the mystery door. They reach from William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) to Vikram Ghosh’s Sacred Games (2006). Though my pitch in the book is to examine for the first time crime fiction in the close textual detail that is routine in the whole range of canonical and cultural-capital fiction, I also wanted in it to provide a passing guide to the best criticism, and so have been reading up on what has been said, especially in recent years.
In my introduction I remark that after the long phase of connoisseurship and bibliophilia, which basically ended by about 1980, crime fiction commentary has tended to be survey-based, being histories of the genre, its sub-genres, an author’s work, a new mood across the fiction. In that generalising mode some good material has been produced, like Stephen Soitos' book on the American black crime novel, Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones on the feminist thriller, or several recent essay-collections on the new formation, post-colonial crime fiction – the best seems that edited by Marieke Krajenbrink and Kate Quinn. But my interest in the new book was to anti-generalise, to turn to the texts and show that in many of them there are levels of complexity and suggestion quite as rich as in classical fiction, and so I am suggesting that a better, sharper, history can be written by trusting the texts (as D. H. Lawrence recommended, that thriller-writer manqué). But I also could not help noticing while scanning the materials that there are some new books which, while essentially in survey mode, nevertheless, by being accurately and searchingly historical they cut into the assumptions and the simplicities of the earlier and still dominant quasi-historical understanding of crime fiction. These three books under consideration here are the best examples of this neo-history in action, and they all not only raise and contradict the common views of the meaning and role of crime fiction, but also cast specific light on particularly interesting instances of the single texts on which I was concentrating.
There are quite a lot of assumptions about the history of crime fiction, which are as misleading and misled as most broad historical assertions. One is that old bugbear, the assumption that E. A. Poe started it off. Not only Americans think that. It is quite common in Europe: like all clichés, it is easier than thinking. All the proper historians go back to about William Godwin, though the fancy-footed Europeans (which here includes some English) liked to travel back via Voltaire etc to the bible and the classics, but we should pay no attention to that show-off self-validation. More annoying and more constraining, is the assumption that it is all Anglo-American. In this coalition of the Anglophones, with some mutual contempt, they accept the only two real forms. One is the clue-puzzle `golden age’ of England. But golden for whom ? Why forget that the Yanks had very high clue-puzzle achievers in  S. S. Van Dine, Rex Stout and Ellery Queen:  i.e. it is a choice not a national curse. Then there is the so-called `tough guy’ and even more so-called `hard-boiled’ private-eye thriller which Americans continue to feel is honest realism, as if only the early Hammett wrote them, with never appearing the nervy male chauvinism of Chandler, the brutal everything  chauvinism of Spillane and the varied individualist sensitivity from Ross Macdonald through to James L Burke. And here the Brits overlook their own quasi-Americans, Hadley Chase and Cheyney. But both parties feel that’s it, not liking much either the international elegance or the criminographical veridicality of the psychothriller with Americans like Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith and Brits like Anthony Berkeley and Ruth Rendell.
What the Anglo-Americans all urgently forget is the long and detailed development in French – even Doyle recognised it by giving Holmes a French grandmother. This also obscures the propinquity of the French and American traditions in the nineteenth century. Not just Poe and Paris: Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and Gaboriau’s M. Lecoq novels were much better known and more widely imitated in American than in Britain –  and George Lippard’s Philadelphia-based Quaker City and The Mysteries of New York by E. Z. C. Judson (aka `Ned Buntline’ of Buffalo Bill fame) are major French-inspired implants where London only had the fine but much forgotten Mysteries of London by George Reynolds.
But inside and validated by that Anglo-American simplification is an equally limited, and limiting, set of ideas about what crime fiction was. This is partly the fault of us historians. As we dug back carefully and tried to be faithful to the perceived nature of the genre in the twentieth century, we were loyal to the autarchy of a detective and a solution. We were indeed able to show the detective went way back, to Godwin in fact, and to the early disciplinary figures, doctors and lawyers, but though there were changes to be observed  --  notably that in the nineteenth-century murder was not of much interest (e.g. not in the early Holmes stories) and there were also plain police detectives and even a few women police detectives – the historical model still stuck with forms of the detective story as the real structure
The three books being discussed here challenge in various ways many aspects of that detective-based approach, both imperial and imperious,  to crime fiction. Ascari is the most far-reaching, seeing a whole other world of thematics and motivations both appealed to and realised in elements of crime fiction, including within the detective-focused structure itself. Rolls and Walker see a quite undervalued twentieth century Franco-American relationship in the noir phenomenon, so both broadening the usual national and linguistic compass but also, even more interesting, making quite searching suggestions about the dynamic behind noir French crime fiction and world war 2, which has resonances with Ascari’s thematic otherworld. Nestingen and Arvas and their authors speak specifically about the recent non-Anglophone phenomenon that has gripped the publishing world, Scandinavian crime fiction. Again, they not only speak up for an under-recognised tradition and so question the Anglophone hegemony, present and past, but also offer materials towards an understanding of the national and temporal meanings of crime fiction beyond mere puzzle-story that wind back through time, and through the themes of the other two books, to make us rethink criminography and its contexts, especially those dealing with nationality and war.
Ascari has form on crime fiction. Well-established at Bologna, he has been involved in conference, essay-collections and very substantial Euro-funded research projects for some time. He might be seen in an Italian tradition, with Umberto Eco and Stefano Tani. They have all made some waves in criminographical criticism, but also all produce more than just in-genre self-locational gestures. Like both of those important figures Ascari has a broad subject range – it is the narrow-based crime-fiction-only people who are likely to make the narrowest and most specially pleading of analyses, in my view (speaking as a compulsive digressor). Ascari has as full a knowledge of French, language and literature, as English/American, and he also works substantially in the Renaissance. Breadth of knowledge is good, but having a real alterotemporal grasp of how structures can be different is better. Quite a lot of modern-only critics think the novel, the omniscient author, the individualist narrator and the even more individualist characters are all god-given structures – and so the detective must be everything.
Ascari makes his position clear from the first noun of his title – this is a Counter-history. As he sets out in his introduction, we need to remember that realism is a convention, and that the disciplinary/scientist detective is only one option for the authority of a story – or a world. This, he asserts, is not another detective-focused history, but  rather seeks `to map those hybrid zones where its conventions mingle with those of sensation-fiction and the ghost story, or else are conflated with the discourses of pseudo-sciences’ (xi-xii).
His first chapter is meta-critical, surveying ways in which commentators have emphasised the rational, but then in his second section of it, `Blurring the Boundaries’, he notes that the historians have in fact taken crime fiction back before the dominatingly disciplinary detectives, and have also shown a wide social range of texts, including much in the popular and melodrama modes. This is the terrain he will build on, and while he finds room in the past in this way he finds a stronger authority more recently in his final introductory section `A glance at the present’, where writers like Eco and Pynchon are deployed as they critique powerfully the assumptions of certainty on which the classic detective story is based.
After establishing his position both delicately and sharply, Ascari moves into the two substantial sections of his book. The first, working in some detail in the early period, explores the interface of what becomes crime fiction with narratives privileging both the supernatural and the Gothic. First he establishes the ways, especially providential ones, in which early pre-detective criminals are exposed; then explores the Godwinesque world of the Burkean sublime both in its conservative and its radical applications. The next two chapters deal first with revenging ghosts and revealing dreams, with Collins playing a substantial role, and then with occult aspects, including mesmerism, that reach from Collins into more of Doyle than many would realise.
Having set out the counter-history of the supra-rational in this way, Ascari then  explores the extent to which that counter-rational counter-history also has force in the domains of what are usually regarded as the rational preserves of the disciplinary detectives. The first chapter explores the French tradition, from Poe on, and noting Collins’ own connections there (the story of the Woman in White is originally from French true crime). Then three chapters move effectively through the powerful English sensational literature, and on into two late-century formations – the nightmare features of massified London, and also what Ascari calls `the Rhetoric of Atavism and Degeneration’.
It is a strong set of arguments, both in outlining the supra-rational domain and the hybridising effect that such material has in the rational world. In a lengthy summing-up Ascari points out how important were Christian devotees like Chesterton, Knox and Sayers in the formalisation of crime fiction as a potent genre, somehow appropriating the rational for their world of meta-rational values, and he also makes some telling points about the continuing hybridity of the ghostly inside the merely ghastly. For example he sees the doctor/narrator/murderer of Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as a rational hero turned upside-down, and he might have seen the same in the calm but poisoning familial solicitor of Sayers’ Strong Poison. Perhaps generously, Ascari ends up by linking his incisive approach with that of modern historicism, and in my view over-generously with the forces of Cultural Studies. In my experience CS is very rarely this learned or this focused. But it is however quite true that the broad-based intellectual democratism of the post-sixties academy (which sparked Cultural Studies) is the underlying rationale (and über-rationale) for this exceptionally well-read and profoundly re-orienting book about how we can come to understand both the origins and the functions of crime fiction. In the modern period, where we oscillate between the internal sadomasochisms of forensic serial killer-thrillers and the international external brutalities of the post 9/11 terrorist epic, this assertion that fear and superstition were always central to crime fiction might well be salutary to those who merely think their reading is both golden and tough.
France and America have long had close relations, if only to derail the English juggernaut, from empire, class hostility, soccer hooliganism to the worship of cricket. Crime fiction saw the connection from early days – `Cooperisme’ was a real force in post-Napoleonic France and Dumas’s big-city excitement was entitled Les Mohicans de Paris: Poe’s being taken up by the power of Baudelaire was a major symptom of an existing condition. The idea that America was a location of fascination, excitement and threat long continued in France. In Simenon’s first major novel, The Yellow Dog (1932), the Breton notables have sent a local sailor off with drugs to America, but then betrayed him to the US cops for the reward. He ends in Sing Sing, but an American helps him return and confront them and Maigret  finally consigns him back to fishing and his waitress amie (le Commissaire strokes her cheek). This Gallo-Atlantic frisson strengthens in war, and Rolls and Walker chart in scholarly detail and with bold analysis the political erotics of the way in which the post-world-war I American thriller, through both novel and film noir, found a place in French interests, both translated and imitated, and played a major role in French literature, and especially film.
The American connection is alive in the breakthrough noir novel J’irai cracher  sur vos tombes (1946: `I’m going to spit on your graves’), written by Boris Vian, but claimed by him to be a translation from a black American named Vernon Sullivan. The authors make nothing of the fact that this came in a way true when, with the Gallimard Série Noire up and running, in late 1955 Chester Himes, a real black American in Paris, was commissioned to write his first crime fiction and so began the potent Harlem series starring Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. The commissioner was Marcel Duhamel, who had himself started the series with translations of  para-American tough-guy stories by Englishmen, two by Peter Cheyney and one by James Hadley Chase. The Chase was America-set and hyper- sensational, and these were not Cheyney’s fully nationalised version with Irish Slim Callaghan in charge. Here he still has American setting and pretty tough Lemmy Caution, who gained mythic status in France: in Godard’s Alphaville the name was memorably pronounced as Cochon.
Rolls and Walker sophisticate the French origins of noir story by noting the impact of Leo Malet, whose first Nestor Burma story locates the private eye in Paris –in hybrid reference to Sue of 1842 he called it a new Mystères de Paris. Nestor is wry, cynically insightful rather than tough, a voice of true human inter-relations. But the key thing is the date: he was first published in 1943. What you work on as a writer under occupation must be a tense decision. I recall being impressed to find the only good French translation of the great Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published in 1945 by the academic Ēmile Pons  – he nailed the book’s sub-textual meaning in the dedication to his brother, dead in the first world war.
Malet’s choice of an American-style hero, named for a classical old wise man and a French overseas territory, is surely a form of  literary resistance, and the most interesting part of Rolls and Walker’s book is the strength with which they relate Vian, and the whole Série Noire phenomenon, to the situation of a country reeling after occupation. But one not like Germany, required to make public its citizens’ war-guilt, and yet in literary terms not all willing to stagger defensively back into the older modes – though that was effectively what Simenon, another Gallimard stalwart, was doing. They call their first chapter on Vian and his followers `Liberation Noir’, as the French both respect and resist the American brand of literary freedom. It is a rich account: Cheyney’s Poison Ivy becomes La Môme vert-de-gris: grey-green was the colour of the very stylish SS uniform; the central môme, or `dame’ is here cleverly read as a sort of occupation-hybridised Marianne.
After this the book verges towards that style French scholars favour mixing materialism and elevated theory, debating for example the role and meaning of strangulation in the novels. Sartre gets a guernsey and of course so does Barthes, but something more interesting returns in the chapter on the representation of the feminine – the femme is fatâle, but the contextual attitudes that make her be that way are themselves fatally misguided. Then follows a scholarly and intelligent chapter on how French film picked up new American modes, particularly through the leftist emphasis of artists like Jules Dassin and his post-McCarthy transfer to France, with his influence via the great film Rififi on the great names of nouvelle vague -- still operating on directors like Bob Swaim, discussed here through his Nestor Burma film of 1977.
The book ends with a short account of transcultural films, less searching than the strongly socio-political previous material, but the book as a whole makes a very important contribution to understanding crime fiction around the world: it shows how behind this apparently low-level culture-vulture boom in post-war France there is in fact a potent mix of national anxiety and international perceived value. The counter-rational themes that Ascari has exposed are here seen quivering in the national psyche, and the impact is such as to make you think carefully about post-war periods in general, such as Christie and the first world war death rate, Spillane and American 1945 triumphalism, perhaps even Blackwood’s Magazine back in the post-Napoleon aporia of authority.
If the non-rational dynamic of crime fiction and the Franco-American connections have been less than prominent until these recent revelations, it has to be acknowledged that the emergence of Nordic Noir has been a widely observed phenomenon, both in the book shops and the book pages. Building up in the 1990s with Henning Mankell, pushed on by Liza Marklund at the millennium, it peaked with the sales triumph of Stieg Larsson’s very sadly posthumous trilogy starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo across the world from 2005 – but has also continued with new major figures like Jo Nesbo.
Quite a few publishing outlets have responded, with some quality-varied Larsson memoirs, a rather bland Barry Forshaw  round-up, and the sharpest is the Nestingen and Arvas essay-collection – itself the best of the University of Wales Press European Crime Fiction series. Dull old scholars will perhaps be aware that there were some interestingly early Swedish contributions, as charted by Yvonne Leffler (in Italy in La Questione Romantica 2.2, October 2010): they  combined the Hoffman tradition with early English banal detection. Not much else criminographical happened for a long time around the Baltic, but a world breakthrough was the ten-book series started by Maj Sjowall and her partner Per Wahlöö with Roseanna in 1965 -- a police procedural with a distinctly leftist orientation and a world reception. Ed McBain thought they were plagiarising him (didn’t he notice the politics?); they were widely read across Europe, and were the impetus for the basically unsuccessful Pluto Press London venture into radical mysteries.
That was then: Wahlöö died early, but they completed their decalogue – interestingly Larsson planned ten novels as well, and he and his family were Sjowall/Wahlöö readers like most in 1970s Sweden. What this essay-collection shows is how things have moved on, or back, since those bright leftist days, and also how the Scandinavians have made a major thrust in the ultra-modern theatre of world crime fiction.
After a brief introductory account of the not very rich past, the collection offers two essays which define how crime fiction has registered the abrupt shift from the left-liberal post war hey-day that featured S and W’s thoughtful detectives Beck and Kollberg. Michael Tapper’s strong start shows how on television the whole series has been rejigged to heroise the Tory thug cop Gunnvald Larsson, a Swedish version of Dirty Harry.  Less spectacularly neo-liberal, but perhaps more insidious, is what  Kerstin Bergman shows as a depoliticising of the older procedural pattern in favour of  `well-adjusted, calm and sexy officers’ – though this is still the novel, the bland banality of television is infectious. A less fully conservative move,  Karen Klitgaard Povlsen argues, is the rural television mysteries where women investigators have more room to grow, though in somewhat limited contexts, including thematically. Even when larger issues do invade the rural material, as in Henning Mankell, there is, Shane McCorristine suggests, a pervading sense of isolative pessimism that can be read (though he doesn’t) as a self-satisfied psychically conservative effect, grounded in gratuitous locational stability.
Not all is lost from the radical years. Sara Kärrholm on `Swedish queens of crime’ shows how major writers like Liza Marklund and Camilla Läckberg remain faithful to the idea of `gendered agency’, while Ellen Rees deals with the sharper edged patterns of Anne Holt’s `transnational lesbian detective fiction’. But this collection shows as much interest in the more dubious radicalism of the postmodern move, with one essay by Magnus Persson praising Peter Hoeg’s elements of transgression in Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, but falling well short of the disruptively postmodern writers of final interest to Ascari, and there is something equally tentative about Sylvia Söderlind's essay on the essentially conservative  Håkan Nesser, claiming his interest in the ramifications of guilt undercuts his old world certainties about man and woman and family, as if a replay of Chestertonian magniloquence. There is also some shortfall in critique in Andrew Nestingen’s essay on the emergence of melodrama as a way of realising the post-rational millennial position of the Scandinavian policing and the state itself. It is an interesting idea, that might  have linked to Ascari’s concept of a popularly mediated counter-history, with counter-positions being shaped against rational confidence, but it is hamstrung by making so little reference to Larsson (Stieg, not Gunnvald), the major figure in both deploying melodrama and critique of the neo-liberal state.
The restrictions this collection ultimately places on itself are outlined most clearly by the other three essays which do in theory at least move on to discuss the political dynamics of the genre today. One is Katrin Jakobsdóttir’s account of Icelandic crime fiction, where she argues that the writers have worked to discredit the role of the national in the – well, national – ideology. They look to the place of Icelanders among global forces, of people movements and ultimately, though this is not stressed – of international capitalism and its intrusive and often criminal agents. That was where Larsson started from in the exposés of his journalist hero, just like his own. Paula Arvas’s essay looks at the other theme of importance to Larsson, the incursion of Russians, usually criminal and essentially treacherous, into the Swedish state (and shooting and burying the dragon-tattoo-bearing heroine). This, though less stressed, is a recurrent theme in Mankell too, and what we are seeing here is what Karsten Wind Meyhoff calls in the last of these three parapolitical essays `rewriting history’, the politicisation of the genre by a `relocation in the past’, back as far as the war. He looks at it in the police procedurals, stressing the changes since the radical days of  Sjowall and Wahlöö, but this theme is observable through much of this crime writing – and here meshing, if for these authors invisibly, with the work of Rolls and Walker.
Scandinavia projected itself in the post-war period as having had a basically respectable war – occupied in Denmark and Norway, neutral in Sweden, away from it all in Iceland, and in Finland fighting for honourable freedom against Russia and eluding the worst impact of being allied to Germany, even with its army on site.. But apart from Iceland there was a down-side. While the left-liberal state had no wish or need to be too anxious about the past, when the right came to power, retrospective voices were raised about what had actually happened. Larsson’s father was jailed for being a communist -- in neutral Sweden. The Germans were pretty pressing on what they saw as their natural Finnish ally against  Russia; Denmark and Norway suffered a reduced version of the kind of Occupation angst that has traumatised France for over half a century.
These issues come through as past crimes resonating in the present. In Larsson’s first novel they are parallel to, even interwoven with, anti-Semitism, murderous private justice, and incest, and crimes that the Swedish state has chosen to obscure as part of its new – and perhaps also old --compact with international capitalism. Interestingly, it was Germany where Larsson’s work first gained international lift-off: maybe readers there were keen for other countries to embrace self-examination as they long and painfully had.
But if this matches the French evaluative outwardness, the recognition of global forces can also be deployed in defensive, even personally conservative ways. Characters in the new rural Swedish mystery can just admire their setting like the recessivist element of the Greens party – and that internalism can operate through fantasy too. The wonderchild Solander uses her global electronic skills and even her womanly dress-and-disguise cunning, to steal a huge fortune from the arch villain, before tipping off his enemies and so bringing about his -- sort of justified – death. A fable of meeeee, rich and triumphant.
That idea of a negative internal move in all this apparently boldly questioning fiction brings with it another sneaking suspicion about the rise of Scandinavian crime fiction. It is read across Britain, the USA, Australia. White bourgeois readers love it. And why not: it is foreign, and it is about foreign threats, but it is all resolved through terms familiar to the white bourgeois object-dominated world. Though Blomkvist sort of fancies Solander, his real girls are a bossy journalist and a gym-fanatic cop. He may sort out the evil people, notably the foreign ones, but he is also pretty acceptable to white Western liberalism. And Solander is pretty much like the daughters, and even sons, that many of the readers might, however regretfully, have.
The Scandinavian miracle may indeed be just an Anglo-American avatar. The real foreign stuff is the third-world and postcolonial fiction, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Patrick Chamoiseau and right up-to-date, Vikram Chandra. Just as the French internalised for their own mental security the American liberators of not the French national but the American self, the white Anglophones are reading how the Swedes escaped from socialism and became like us, and with our anxieties, and with new responses to them, including the faux-foreign.
Ascari would no doubt say, though with that self-deprecating smile, I told you so. Inside the rationality and the procedurality of Nordic Noir is a set of fears: the modern liberal sense of a lost world; but also the white bourgeois reader’s sense of wanting to avoid the really incomprehensible and psychically destructive actual modern foreign world. Modern Swedish crime fiction, like French noir, is the rational compensation for the sub-rational traumas of modern people, and nations. The genres are themselves on our case. The literary sublime is deployed to sublimate the psychotic sublime. As it was in Godwin, where we all started.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Speaking from the Grave: Universities Past, Present and Question-mark Future

Stephen Knight
This essay was written for the Melbourne-based leftist magazine Arena: this has been running since the 1970s and has consistently offered a radical take on social, economic and governmental issues with a recurrent interest in cultural matters. I used to write for it when at the University of Melbourne around 1990 and having  returned post-retirement to Melbourne have met up with the editors and am producing an intermittent series of essays, including in 2012-13 a sequence on The Politics of Myth, which is also a course in the Melbourne Free University programme.

This piece comes out of my retrospective consideration of  the university as it is now, immersed in the economy, and so unsurprisingly experiencing commercialisation of outcomes, labour specialisation, fetishisation of work, alienation of the producer. The underlying method is to suggest that a decent knowledge of history, read in social terms, can explain our situation and also indicate that while the university as we know it  appears finished as a medium of intellectual inquiry, that process will emerge elsewhere, probably surprisingly.

In Australia the universities are now in market competition for internal as well as external students. In Britain all students will pay full-cost costs. The tertiary sector has been immersed in the economy. My recent British colleagues are having to dream up advertising slogans. Cardiff, from which I have just retired, is considering `Friendly but Challenging’. Have we hit bottom ? .

Back here in Melbourne, self-funded research ($1.70 a week for the Wednesday Australian) reveals almost all the university job adverts are in business, engineering or health, managing not thinking (though one Koori lectureship raised the tone last week). Most brain-employing academics hold the situation is dire, and darkening.

Yes indeed. But not for the first time. High-quality knowledge has always been fugitive, both needed by and distrusted by the authorities. They must control those on whom they rely. As a result, as I see it, in nine hundred years of universities there have only been four high periods, all quite short. Studying the first three was part of my work as a cultural historian; for the fourth, I saw it come and go.

The first surprise may be that `university’ actually means `union’, as in `trade union’. In the twelfth century, as Europe settled to comparative peace (the Normans had seized enough, even for them) and remarkably good weather, harvests, trade, surpluses and cathedrals all grew upwards. For religious purposes and to generate administrators for expanding systems, the cathedral schools expanded in major centres, to be called  studium generale where outsiders flooded in, like Bologna, a centre for Roman-style civil law, and Paris, another major crossroads where the church's hold was stronger and theology was top dog. Language was no problem –Latin was the original lingua franca (hence the Latin quarter) -- but management was. The Bologna students formed their own universitates to demand better provision; in Paris organisation was led by the working masters: to be an MA meant you were out of your apprenticeship and could teach, and they organised.

The university/union personnel responded to authority pressure with industrial seriousness. From 1217-20 the students simply left Bologna until they had acceptable terms; in 1229 the Paris masters dispersed the university to unheard-of places like Cambridge, until their demands were met. How we dreamed in the late 1960s of dispersing Sydney University, but were tied down by families, mortgages, and other modern enfeeblements.

Medieval socio-economic innovations meshed with new content – that’s what makes a high phase in universities. The long-forgotten Aristotelian method, founded on rational analysis, was available again, especially through Islamic commentators like Averroes and Avicenna (hence Arabic numerals) and cut deep into Christian traditionality. This material permitted the major development of medieval dialectic pioneered a century before by Abelard (not merely Heloise’s lover heading for castration) as Paris started university operations. This tradition of truth-seeking debate (now only surviving among high-paid barristers) drew on Abelard’s Sic et Non, `Yes and No’ (c.1121). You argued logically to validate your position, and also that of the church. Neither Abelard nor his great successor St Thomas Aquinas ever doubted faith as the prime force: Thomas’s hugely influential Summa Theologica (1265-74)  is a set of questions trying to rationalise apparent biblical contradiction, and clear our believing heads. These were heady times: students filled the lecture rooms and would shout from the windows to the their friends just what the masters were saying: some scholars have called it the twelfth-century renaissance.

Though the embattled Paris Chancellor tried to ban the teaching of Aristotle, faced with the Zeitgeist embodied in the massed and unionised masters, by the mid thirteenth century he was a central curriculum figure. Logic-driven learning in the Greek tradition expanded, with Europe-wide figures like the widely-travelled  Duns Scotus (Scot still meant Irishman) and at Oxford science and optics were outstanding under the famous Roger Bacon (remembered as a dark wizard) and the well-named Robert Grosseteste (French for big-head).

Crucially, the intellectual dynamism of the period embodied both teaching that was vocational training – for brain-work in church and state – and research writing at the highest level. There was no separation of  what Weber would later call charismatic leadership from collegial activity. It is when those two modes of higher education are separated that universities weaken as social and intellectual drivers

Genius is succeeded by repetiteurs: the exciting scholarship turned into Scholasticism and before long Duns was remembered as a Dunce. Yet change brings change. If Greek-Arab input fired the twelfth century, it was in the second high phase Latin, though not church Latin, that was the dynamo. The rich secular literature of Rome was a natural source of old values for the new world  of humanism – the phrase for it was translatio studii, translatio imperii  `transfer of culture, transfer of power’. Italian universities were largely locked down into local functional control looking for old-style lawyers and administrators, and Catholic tradition had a grip on France, so creative writers forced the charismatic pace, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio in Italy, Machaut, de Pisan in France – and Anglo-European Geoffrey Chaucer. The new humanist force had university bases where the forces of Protestantism, supported by secular power, resisted Catholic dominance. Martin Luther was professor of theology at Wittenberg, not some wild-eyed radical; protestantism avows a personal contract with God highly compatible with both humanism and emergent bourgeois individualism.

In England King Henry’s wife-swapping entailed a change of religion, but more dynamically growing prosperity (some stolen from the monasteries, some in booming trade) located young men at Oxbridge simply eager for polish to match and validate daddy’s money. Erasmus, from Holland, reached Cambridge just as the exquisitely medieval King’s College Chapel was being finished: his influence led the last charge by which the `Greeks’, armed with the new humanist classics, defeated the old-style Scholastics whom, having read their Homer, they wittily called `The Trojans’.

Civic activity was involved –  as in those social handbooks Elyot’s The Governour (1531) and Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570) --  but English humanism went further. Those Cambridge `university wits’ like Greene, Nash, Peele and especially Marlowe who took their college learning onto the London stage established through Shakespeare’s inspirational borrowing a mode of art that, combining grand events with personal feeling, would shape western culture through many media to the present – War and Peace and Citizen Kane for two examples. Out of that new secular context came the insistence on scientific learning typified by Bacon (another one), and also the intellectual formation of  Milton, staggeringly learned in books and languages, who became both the most important poet of  protestantism and also a major ideologue for Cromwell’s revolutionary government.

That second high period also had limits, notably in England. Protestantism became either Puritan or slackly Anglican, the royal Restoration of 1660 and the bourgeois revolution of 1688 between them did for intellectual vigour: for nearly two centuries: science grew in specialist Societies while Oxford and Cambridge mostly went to dinner: Thomas Warton, the late eighteenth-century resurrector of Spenser and medievalism, also edited a food-oriented poetry anthology, The Oxford Sausage (1775). The Oxford Movement of the 1830s, which jerked affective religious worship into a nearly dormant Anglican church, was a one-off. The dons dozed on.

New energy came from Germany, which already had a remarkably high proportion of universities, notably from the sixteenth century. Most were central to a city or small state, and in the early nineteenth century under the guidance of the long-lived Alexander von Humboldt, they generated scientific and social research to guide their regions forward. Research professors led, and their  trainees were doctoral students. The medieval university only had doctorates in really serious stuff, Theology, but now the PhD covered many areas of study,  including practical fields like agriculture, education, linguistics, at places like Göttingen, the newly linked Halle-Wittenberg and Marx’s own Berlin. In the post-1815 long peace and a newly thrusting economy (dynamic universities need both those conditions) energetic students flourished: they played a noticeable role in the 1848 Euro-risings, and were constrained afterwards, but the Germans did not give up the essentially charismatic system that was delivering real Wissenschaft, which implies `knowledge- business’.

This was too narrow a stream to be a truly high university phase, but the Americans had noticed. There the Oxbridge collegiate system had been followed in small teaching-oriented institutions, providing first training for the upper professional stratum of the citizenry. But after the Civil War (peace again a factor) and in the giant growth of American trade and industry (the economy chipping in), conscious moves attached the German research-focused model to the older collegiate pattern. Johns Hopkins was founded in Baltimore in 1876 as a professor-heavy institution; older Harvard and Yale added that level, and big cities across the county followed with public funding – Chicago and Wisconsin were notable instances. Those local links and local service inspired the massive donations American universities still enjoy. Across the country high-level charismatic research operating beside collegial institutions, often on the same campus, and a big PhD programme trained both future researchers and college staff. In 1876 the US awarded 44 doctorate,  by 1918 as many as 500. Oxbridge continued to think they were vulgar, right into the 1950s.

There were other positive features. Where the Germans had narrow research-subject focussed structures, the Americans had a town-meeting style of broad-range departments in a coherent faculty, and, most impressive of all, in response the academics saw themselves as high-level generalists.  Charles Eliot Norton was professor of art history at Harvard, translated Dante, and was friend and supporter, including financially, to Ruskin, Carlyle and Longfellow. My own hero Francis James Child, star mathematician and linguist as a student, studied in Göttingen, assembled his great collection of the British ballads with correspondence in many languages, and (starting at 26) worked right across the literary field from Chaucer on as professor of Rhetoric and then English at Harvard.

Britain never matched American breadth or professionalism (and probably as a result never got the donations). Secular education at least was guaranteed at University College London in 1826, but its catchment was still the haute bourgeoisie. There were a few moves towards external studies – 1867 saw James Stuart, a Cambridge scientist, start public lectures in the north; the Cooperative movement soon weighed in, sponsoring massive lecture audiences, but it was not till after 1900 that Oxbridge admitted some elite workers and established, parallel to the new WEA, the external tutorial classes system – to be in 1946 Raymond Williams’ first employer. These outreach activities thrived across Britain—especially in Wales, Scotland and the English north: you could see it as an early OU, or  a web of its day – but very little certification followed study and this was not in effect a collegiate system. Though actual enrolment numbers increased in Britain from 1850 to 1950 not a lot had changed: Perry Anderson argued in  his essay `Components of the National Culture’ that the professional middle classes were in fact acculturated via cultural capital to the aristocratic/religious power structure of the past.

Dating the end of the north American boom (Canada was involved as well) is elusive: I feel the third high phase had become routinised by the early twentieth century, when subject specialism and the fetishisation of research into patents began to dominate as they have to the present in that part of the world. But we have seen a fourth high phase.  It was not, as if by magic, until after another war and in a new period of boom that universities across the Anglophone world, very noticeably in Australia,  began to change structurally and intellectually. The present had arrived. Or what s now the past.

After the second world war north American universities had the facilities and structures to increase student numbers without serious restructuring. In Australia the one uni per state model was soon bulging under pressure of returned service personnel and increasing demand from the young for educational mobility, notably women. By the mid sixties most capitals had more than one campus, with Sydney and Melbourne up to three. Britain was slower  both to expand and change: its first wave of innovation was in the art colleges, but  new universities like Warwick, Sussex and York were operating well by 1970.

Expansion didn’t mean anything in itself for this last (so far, and perhaps for ever) high phase of university activities. Key elements were the type of students and staff that expansion attracted, their new facilities, and aspirations. I saw this from the inside. I went to Oxford as a working-class grammar-school boy in 1959.  It was like Time Team. My college tutor was an expert in fifteenth-century English pronunciation. He discouraged us from lecture attendance as distracting (what from?). In second year he was made a professor and instantly stopped teaching (charismatic doesn’t seem the right word).His replacement gave us a sheet of paper, with names and titles on it. We had never seen a reading list. By sheer luck, I had for two terms a brilliant and later famous American PhD student, Del Kolve, as tutor: no doubt why most of my work is medieval still. We all need help.

I saw the new world when I became a lecturer in Sydney, in 1963. They were hiring anyone. There was real teaching --  lectures and tutorials -- and truly collegial colleagues, libertarians like fondly-remembered Bill Maidment (never published an article, influenced us all) and already multi-talented Michael Wilding;  and seriously generous scholars like Bernie Martin, folklorist, rhetorician, Celtic scholar, and George Russell, mighty medievalist: he shared his teaching with me, including a course in medieval universities, useful to the present.

It was a rowdy, dynamic department, with fifty lecturers at its peak (with a cricket team and a snooker team: the latter did better). Most of the young staff  were uncomfortable disseminating platitudes about what we had just learned to call cultural capital. With the Sydney radical philosophers on hand, the place hummed with left theorisation, Althusser and Macherey everywhere: we thought Derrida and Foucault were pretty middle-of-the-road. We found avatars on other campuses in what we called the New Humanities and increasingly across Britain – Methuen handbooks by the likes of Terry Eagleton, Kate Belsey, Terry Hawkes and (soon working in Australia, as now again) Tony Bennett made cutting-edge teaching much easier. The historians and the political scientists were as energetic and active – they led the democratisation of the campus and for some it didn’t go far enough. A free university was one active ideal: Terry Irving and his friends set one up in Redfern. It was widely thought the People’s University of Balmain would have a winning acronym.

History remembers the 1960s and 70s on the streets. Vietnam and the authoritarian structures of Berkeley and the Sorbonne were certainly detonators for resistance, but  deeper educational change was in the teaching and learning. There were some material bases (there have to be). I recall when the first photocopier arrived. It smelled terrible, but now  you could expect students to read serious articles and chapters; when academic paperbacks started flooding into the increasingly well-funded libraries lectures no longer needed to dictate facts, as when there was only one book on each topic for a class of six hundred, but could launch critical discourses. Among the students the confidence and new world cheek of a full-employment economy, they were ready to have a go at anything out of interest, without fear of losing a place in the job queue. There was a sense in those Whitlamesque days that it was just worth going to uni to find things out you didn’t yet know. In recent years I have often told my nervous British colleagues about the mid 1960s year when New South Wales added a year to study – and there were no undergraduates. What should the university do ? Close first year ? Very grandly, it did nothing, stayed open, and took anyone who fancied it. As I recall it, the entire Sydney Anarchist club, led by Bulgarian taxi-driver Jack Grancharoff, attended in an unprecedented expression of single purpose, as did many members of the semi-employed thinking classes -- some of the Sydney Push showed up, even in the morning.

Not only critical energy, social variety and political energy hit the newly expanded campuses. There was a sense of ownership among students and staff. Women, leftists, non-whites, and gays, pretty much in that order as I recall it, claimed a say in what they were going to study. That was international, and the Americans led in many areas, with the Australians close behind. Many British campuses lagged, but in some, notably Sussex, Cardiff, Warwick, York, influential new work was done. The story of those innovative years is not yet written (why not ?),  and my account is inevitably restricted,  but innovation was right across the campus. Australian historians made major strides in re-shaping national consciousness after Britain lurched towards Europe; British scholars developed Cultural Studies to account for the interests held, and the pressures felt, by those outside the elites. Sociology, largely driven by American models, but gaining a critical edge in Britain and Australia, delivered stinging critiques of the status quo, as in more muted tones did  Educational studies.

Dialectics always works. From the start of this fourth high phase there was opposition, notably in Australia. B. A. Santamaria’s National Review, report E. R. Trevaud and John McLaren in Equal but Cheaper, on the 1970s colleges, attacked `the creation of  a class of idle youth fed with slogans they are incapable of evaluating and lacking skills that might be turned to useful purposes’.  The right had young cadres too; I  recall the blustering at Sydney of their chosen vessel the pugilistic Tony Abbott. In America the right spoke through people like Alan Bloom,  who denounced the new educational thrust as The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Bloom and his kind fingered any affirmative action as a breach of personal freedom for those who already had plenty of affirmation.

The bottom line in repression was, of course, economic. After the oil price hike of 1974 increasingly right-wing Western governments (quite a few of them Labour or Labor) steadily sought to control public expenditure and impose financial values. The crunch in Australia was the mid 1980s Dawkins initiative to dictate policy through the purse, and impose  the shades of the mercantile prison-house on free thought. Research funding was not to be collegially distributed through departments, but in government-approved grants; overseas students became the golden calf. Research productivity was numerically assessed, and so goodbye to collegiate teaching as an ideal. The survivors moan about management, but in fact it is all meta-management, only concerned with processes, having no interest in, indeed hostility towards, the content that drives top-class teaching and learning.

It needn’t be so. America has kept the collegial system going underneath a charismatic superstructure: the German campuses I have visited seem to have held onto many of their best traditions. Australia has very noticeably thrown out the infant learners with the collegial bath-water (and the Barthes-water as well). In Britain this anti-pedagogical downturn has been largely restricted to the high-end research departments like Chemistry and Engineering, because you couldn’t get big research funding in the humanities anyway. But Cameron has fixed that version of culture-lag with all-round cuts and a radical instrumentalisation of learning.

The fourth-phase university boom lasted  about a generation. They all seem to. The Americans still have real quality on some campuses, though they say they feel very pinched. Elsewhere I think it’s clear that knowledge has packed its tents and moved on -- into electronic modes, into informal encounters, into the intellectual hills. But while I am sad to see what people I knew created so well fading away, and I recognise that the young lecturers who saw it for a while are more angry than sad (a proper response), the sort of narrative I have recounted here tells us that knowledge, of the  non-fetishised, socially and intellectually vigorous sort, doesn’t die, and will re-emerge.

There is a myth about undying knowledge. My recent book Merlin: Knowledge and Power (2009) explores how he is always a figure of pure knowledge, and he is eventually harassed by the powers he generates and supports. Inattentive scholars say he disguises himself. But there is no single Merlin identity. He is knowledge, that’s it. He never appears in the form of a figure of power, a king or a lord or even a lady. His usual trick is a boy or a peasant or an old crone, sometimes an animal. But none of them is ever really Merlin; he, being knowledge, is only a polymorphous force that takes many forms, all of them as much a challenge to power as knowledge is absolutely necessary for the survival of power. And Merlin always speaks from the grave.

So having reflected on the various formations of university knowledge, sometimes at its best and most critically functional,  we can only predict, hopefully, and confidently, for its new formations, its re-formations …electronic, neomorphous, unexpected --but elusive, challenging, and crucial as ever.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Was the Otherworld Journey Single or Return? Emotional Sociality in Medieval English Romance

Stephen Knight

This paper was written for a conference in mid 2013 held by the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Melbourne University where I am an Associate Investigator. It links to and develops from other work on  the representation and significance of emotionality in early medieval material, Irish, Welsh and French, and extends this into medieval English romance. Further papers will look at Malory and the late medieval sub-aristocratic material namely the Robin Hood ballads and the `king and subject’ poems.

1. Words for Social Pleasure

In medieval romances, here restricted for close analysis to Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal, but with a glance at Sir Gawain, the default socially positive state is one of mirthe or joie or solas. The general adjectives for the situation ranging from French courtois to English (or rather Scandinavian) menskful, and the personal ones noting women as lufsum – stressing emotionality -- and men as noble – stressing sociality. The instrumentally evaluative core of the mirthe/joie situation, ratified by reported deeds, is honour or worship (Anglo-Saxon-derived and French-derived words have almost equally currency here).

This lexicon is at once insistently social/general/collective in reference, and also essentially non-physical—there might be some material attributes implied in lufsum, a physical teleology of lovableness that may well be attributable to the dominantly masculine viewpoint, but even with lufsum the semantic ambience seems general rather than personalised.  

This verbally-delineated positive world of social emotion opens each text, is abandoned for other states, recurs in various ways, and is finally treated differently in the texts. Orfeo returns at the end to his world of feudal collective suprapersonal and socially emotional positives. But Launfal goes in a quite different direction to an alternative context with his otherworld lady: this state is both privatised (he cannot share it or he will destroy it) and yet it is also suprapersonal, indeed supersocial, royal, a fantasy of a high-emotion collectivity. Offstage here, yet shadowing this analysis,  and even critiquing it, Sir Gawain  returns to the world where collective generic value is expected, and indeed offered, but it is dissented to by the focal character, to some extent in terms of a religious or at least moralised perspective, a third way both personal and differently social. With this yes, this no (and Gawain’s maybe), about collectivised social emotion in the aristocratic world of romance, we have a thorough analysis of attitudes to emotion, social relations, and essentially to the outcomes of the dialectic of personal and public that appear to underlie both the realities and the cultural ideologies of medieval feudal culture. (By the way, or perhaps not, this paper sees no reason to continue the suppositious not to say spurious title of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Why not Sir Gawain and Sir Bercilak ? Or Sir Gawain and Morgan La Fay ? Medieval hero-focused romances routinely go by the name of the central character.)

Related to, even productive of, the dialectic of public and private at the core of the realities and the cultural ideology of medieval feudal culture, is the system by which the social bonds were the personal swearing of allegiance to a particular land-holding lord; and the processes of social evaluation rested on the status attained – at least in the cultural domain of the romances --  by personalised military or quasi-military success over other private combatants in tournaments or even in actual war. The high formality of the code of honour – as set out in immense detail in the Vulgate romances or in the Tristram book in Malory’s Morte d`Arthur -- depended on personal violence between men, just as the bonds of social constraint depended on swearing a specific personal but also public oath. Also the personal bond of marriage was itself the basis for social status, for men as well as women, as in Yvain. The dialectic of the personal and the public was both structural to the society and explored in the literature, notably in the  texts under consideration (and in Sir Gawain and in Malory), where public emotion is positive, private emotion is either subsumed within that generic coherence or an expression of severe dysfunction – and as all the heroes, especially Gawain, found, it is hard to find a way between the social emotion of courtly mirthe and the social dysfunction that caused the lonely misery of exile from society.

2. Sir Orfeo: Return Journey to the Otherworld

The rather grim story of Orpheus and Eurydice was more imperiously translated into the early medieval than most of the Matter of Rome the Great. Orfeo became a great harper who also happened to be both  king and knight, so asserting the reach and rationale of feudalism; the world where he found his beloved was not the dark classical underworld, but the bright alternative world of Celtic myth; and that last shift permitted the major appropriation – the beloved wife is regained.

Major values attach to both harp and wife. Orfeo `most of ony thing Lovede the gle of harping’[1] (10-11) and not only as a spectator:  `himself lovede for to harpe’ (13) and he did it so well anyone who herd him `shulde thinke that he were In one of the joys of Paradis’ (20-1). The delight Orfeo felt is transmitted out as a generalised quasi-heavenly experience of communal delight. The harping will have parallel instrumental value in re-assembling the fragments of Orfeo’s public life. The harping is always social, even when he is alone. The harping codes the default nature of social emotion in this context .

The harp is one of his two loves. The other is Heurodis. She too is a generalised quality. She too is dialectic: she is not just looking lovely, `The fairest levedy for the nones That that might go on body and bones’ (29-30) she is `Ful of love and godenisse’ (31): the love of which she was a source had no malign propensities. The poem, often close to lyric in performing its effects, catches this when Orfeo expresses his `luf’ in assonance `O lef lif, what is te’ (78), and the climax of his lament is that social emotion is reversed from general love to personalised hate: her `lovesum’ (87) eyes, that that created love from and to her, i.e. were a source of collective love, have become agents of hate and look `so man doth on his fo’ (88)

Both of the royal lovers – and their royalty make them more than personal lovers -- express grief: they who as she says have `ever …y-loved’ (99) must now separate and she explains the royal visit from the otherworld, rich in the overt power of splendour – and without any expression of emotion on the part of the King of Fairy. He has social splendour in plenty, but no social emotion words like mirthe, or joy or solas. Orfeo’s grief is personally expressed in `”O we,” quath he, “allas, allas”’ (152) but is also public in its effect: he is `forlorn’ (103), lost, and will physically become lost. The Queen’s abduction is greeted with public grief  and by Orfeo with the swooning that is the climax of negative emotion and the sign that the distressed individual is therefore dysfunctional.

So he leaves, appointing his steward in his place and this too receives public grief, and they beg him no to go, but he went `so poverlich out of toun’ (212) – we may recall that `toun’ implies `civilisation’ not collection of buildings.. This too is new: classical Orpheus was not a king and just went off after his wife. Orfeo, however, is in total dysfunction. It might seem tempting to liken this to the running wild of Yvain, Launcelot and Tristan when love has gone totally wrong. But they did not allot their responsibilities or recommend arrangements after their death. And they had not totally lost their rightful ladies – they had just bungled an already awkward, even improper, situation or in Yvain’s case behaved idiotically, privileging male social emotion by going tournamenting with Gauvain over the richer, in every sense, amatory and royal  social emotion with Laudine.  

Why does Orfeo leave ? Is his love of Heurodis so strong he just can’t live without her ? That is a Romantic back projection. He can live without her, just not as a king. It is tempting to see beneath the innovative shape of Sir Orfeo at this point the Celtic tradition of sovereignty, that the king rules only by right of being married to the queen who bears genetic power, sofraniaeth.  In early Irish and Welsh, only a woman can do that – matrilinearity survives. This is not that story, but it has some of that feeling about it. And of course women of comparable power were not hard to imagine like Eleanor of Aquitaine, inheritor of the greatest duchy in Europe and successively queen of France and England. The point is there may be a more public, even political, element than we appreciate in Orfeo’s exile. Both Marie de France and Walter Map worked on the frontiers of Celtic and Anglo-Norman culture. People seem unaware Map is a Welsh cognomen, from Mab, son, with the characteristic Welsh fortis pronunciation heard as devoicing. Like Fluellen and the poys and the paggage.

Orfeo suffers for ten years and more. What does he feel ? We do not know. Feeling in these texts is interactive, people weep together or share those group words like joy and mirth and solace, or lament their absence. The last operates here. He sees `nothing that him liketh’(227) – the impersonal does the collectivising here. The animals have collective emotive power though  and `For joye’ (250) they gather round to hear him harping, because of its own collectivised quality -- `So miche melody was therin’ (254). The epistemological generality is worth stressing, it is so easy for moderns to miss. It is when Orfeo has the capacity to interact, that he can feel again: he sees the hunt and laughs: `ther is fair game’ (291)  – he feels something like `that hunting looks fun’. Heurodis weeps to see him – how does she know him in his changed state ? She sees some sign of the loss of their collective love, not the ragged and rugged ten-year outdoors exile. Note the resemblance to Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid where Orfeo too is stricken with grief, but this is because they have not spoken, not engaged in the collective action of recognising/realising  their love. In the absence of the shared life, he moves towards it: he is filled with social energy to rejoin human action to follow her. There is some parallel as a resocialisation story in Malory’s Tale of Sir Tristram: Launcelot in wild exile is attracted to a sword hanging on a tree, engages in fighting, and is eventually recuperated into human and chivalric order.

Orfeo arrives at the Otherworld court just like a knight or indeed a Welsh hero at a dangerous location – the porter is always crucial, liminal to social order and external exile. Shakespeare didn’t miss the tradition in Macbeth, though he played with it, his porter is socially both outside and ironically far inside. The people Orfeo sees, including Heurodis, are all alone, they are the dead and taken, isolated, out of their own social environment and not operating together in a new one. The Otherworld is always alienating in some way. But Orfeo has brought his remembered world with him and sees her as `his lef lif’ (382), verbally just as she was before she was abducted. The King has his own Otherworldly socialisation to receive resocialised Orfeo, taking pleasure from music in the company of the palace residents (not the still isolated dead and taken); and the King’s objection to an Orfeo-Heurodis reunion is based on a social, hierarchical reading of this notional couple, recognising Heurodis as `lovesum’ (436) and therefore it would be `lothlich’ (437) – hateful, just like her reaction  to the king’s original threat. But we find in this feudal appropriation of the Otherworld that he has to keep his word, as did the king of the classical Underworld, but not in such specifically feudal terms that insist it were `a wele fouler thing’ (440) to hear the king lie: `fouler’ here implies social degradation.

So Orfeo wins Heurodis and joins court collectivity again: `His wif he took by the hond’ (449). They do not speak; there is no expressed joint emotion; and there will not be any in the rest of the poem. No-one seems to have noticed this, or perhaps cared if they did. The secret title of this paper is `Were Heurodis and Orfeo pleased to be together again ?’ Towards the end we will hear of the steward’s `love’ of his lord (494), see `he fell aswoon to grounde’ (525) in thinking about his loss of his lord , and have that love specifically reciprocated by Orfeo (531), and the popular collective excitement and joy: `Glad they were of his live’ (559). The people weep to see king and queen again, presumably their joy deriving from noting they are together again: we hear that Orfeo and Heurodis `lived long afterward’ (571), and surely that time was happy and loving. But the words aren’t said to verify the renewed positive joint feelings of King and Queen.

How do we handle this unemotional – apparently autistic – treatment of  the totally loved wife and the totally loving husband in the final sequence? I fancy we could talk about trauma-theory if we wanted to perform that translatio studii that makes all medieval characters like nervy modern people, or at least nervy modern academics. I fancy we could talk formalistically about the constraints of the short text and the frequency of enigmatic, discussion-inviting, endings, we could pretend the author is teasing us as we like to when we can’t work something out. Or we could learn from our own study and see that the return from the otherworld here is a complete return to function – the harp is recognised, the royalty is still operative. The personal physical change of Orfeo is merely used as the basis for a plot-trick on the steward – we know Heurodis still looks the same. The story is not in fact about the feelings of the characters: their feelings have only in fact been the keys to the nature of the social dysfunction that is occurring and the emotions are expressed in socially functional mode; the joy of the loyal steward is a reverse example: he is so joyful he breaches his household stewardly duties and knocks the table over. That presages another social fact, that he will become king, not table-arranger. The delight of the court lies in the fact that:

They brought the Queen into the toun
With all maner menstracy.
Lord, there was grete melodye !
For joye they wepe with her eighe
That hem so sounde y-comen seighe. (564-8)

The emotion is publicly operative: it validates the operating function of an operating structure. King and Queen do not have personal feelings, except when they recognise the absence of social function, which is distressing. Emotion is social –  when the King of Fairy visited Heurodis he was in royal appropriative function, not in love, nor in lust, not a cause of petty private feelings. Now again for Orfeo and Heurodis royalty operates. Just as we will never know really why Orfeo go into the forest except that he was not-King, so we will never know what it feels like to be King and Queen. What it feels like is like being the cause of general joye and mirthe and solas.

3. Sir Launfal: The Otherworld Returns for You

Like Sir Orfeo, this poem comes out of twelfth-century French into later English, but here there is an ultimate source by Marie de France. This is at time clearly a source even at the verbal level, but there are some English changes – notable is a much longer and more painful period of distress for the knight before he meets his fairy lady, a sequence which English critics have felt related to anxiety about low social status (a touch of autobiographical projection here perhaps) but the English story amplifies the kind of exile that Launfal finds himself in before his Fairy adventures. There are also some interesting minor changes at the very end, as will be noted later.

Essentially Sir Launfal is Sir Orfeo played upside down, as musical scholars often say when discussing previously unnoticed relationships between items. From the start to the finish it traverses the same terrain as Sir Orfeo, but consistently in a reversed mode which provides the big finish when the otherworld steps in and Launfal disappears to a non-feudal but super-courtly personal collective otherworldly delight with the true love of Tryamour (as `true love’ the name is an Anglo-French creole: she is unnamed in Marie de France).

If Sir Orfeo was royal fantasy this is knightly fantasy. It starts with Arthur at `Kardevyle’, perhaps Carlisle, though I prefer Chester, Caer de Ville, Castletown in Welsh/Norman creole -- perhaps an authorial joke. There all operates in the correct socialised emotive collectivity - `With joye and greet solas’ (9). The knights are themselves listed like a team and we focus on Launfal who equally has public values, of `his largesse and his bounté’ (31). He is the king’s steward for ten years (is that a conscious hint that this reverses Sir Orfeo ?), but when Arthur marries Guinevere negative personal emotion merges – he `likede her nought’ (44) though the reason is itself collective – she was taking lovers already. She replies with a personalised negative indicator in the collective mode – there is no present for Launfal and he has personal feeling as a result: `That grevede him many a sithe.’ (72) So Launfal invents another form of isolation – the death of his father – to justify his isolative leaving of the court, though Arthur, collective king as ever, insists he take two royal nephews with him as a trace of courtly society. These are Sir Huwe and Sir John, who will leave Launfal when he is really poor, though they will conceal his dysfunctional state and in fact report him to King and Queen as having `Moche worchip and greet honour’ (163)  -- but she is privately very pained, this re-asserting her failure to belong correctly to the emotionally positive evaluative ensemble. These nephews are an interesting feature, appearing to be what Macherey calls the `strain’ feature that reveals ideology within the text. Chester has invented these nephews for the sequence – as you hear Arthur speak you think Launfal is to be mightily supported by Gawain and Gyheries or Agrafain (all listed early and Agrafain having no negative connotations, like the common early French positive references to him). Launfal’s lonely misery is not like Orfeo’s  classical and Celtic style intervention by an ineluctable force: it is as in the case of the other dysfunctional knights like Yvain, a  rift caused by the failure to moderate the personal-public dialectic of the social-emotive world.Here it is a failing of the court system to hold together, though Arthur tries to resolve the strains. Chestre has made Guinevere the agent of this crisis, bringing forward her malice from the end: in Marie here it is just general envy of Lanval’s excellence that leads to Arthur slighting him as he has received no praise of him.

This is emphasised by the reason Launfal becomes so poor: when he arrives at Caerleon (and topographically his journey is curiously like a reverse of Sir Gawain’s), especially if he has left Chester, because he is not part of the royal regime he is excluded from the extended Arthurian largesse. The sub-courtly mayor stigmatises him because Launfal reports he is not now part of the honour of Arthur’s world, and so he is banished to a sort of pariah’s outhouse. At this treatment Launfal laughs, but it is in `scorn inough’ (116) – he is shaping an emotionally asserted separate position for himself – and he even behaves accordingly, `So savagelich his good he besette That he ward in greet dette’ (130-1): he did not behave with courtly largesse, but out of control, asocial. The word `savagelich’ means `of the woods’, `wild’, so out of courtly order – even ahuman.

In his asocial state one woman is generous to lonely Launfal: the mayor’s daughter invites him to dine with her, another para-collective moment like Arthur sending the nephews with him. He declines because he cannot dress properly for public identity: but being a knight he can operate in function alone and borrows a horse. But she is only a shadow of his privately helping lady to come. His wretched solitary state frustrates her partial socialisation. His state is not enough even for knightly riding: because he has no `knave other squier’ (212) to help him get ready, he can only ride  with `litill pride’ (213), and the horse slips: are the lack of service and the accident connected ? Is the equipment not fixed right, the shoes not checked properly? The detail is a telling brief instance of the way the knight depended on his own little social world of service, usually kept off stage in romance. Launfal, and his horse, find it is very hard to be really alone.

As Launfal sits alone in the forest `in symplité’ (226) , which Sands glosses as `innocence’ but more relevantly means  being free from pride and socially lowly, he is naturally `in sorow and sore’ (229), alone, miserable,  feeling his dysfunction as we never knew that Orfeo did – but then he was a king in waiting for return. Launfal’s ontological status is truly violated, and his release is epistemologically just as asocial. Just a quarter of the way into the poem, the Otherworld ladies arrive, and very fine they are even for Otherworld ladies. They do public power like nobody else could. The change of gender for the fairy rout is itself interesting: this outfit belongs to the `The King’s daughter of Olyroun’ or in Marie de France, `Avalon’, in Welsh, the Isle of Apples. Perhaps the gender-change is just to permit Launfal to escape as lover: a King or Prince of the Otherworld could hardly strike the same accord as Tryamour does. She sets aside `Al my joye’ (302)  – her Otherworld royal social life it would seem: she too is isolated like him  -- because she loves him more that `King neither emperoure’ (306), her natural partners. She too is alone, it’s just that being Princess of the Otherworld alone is far grander, in the collective splendour category, like being King in the human world. Launfal reciprocates her love, kisses her, calls her `Sweting’ (311) and he sees this imaginary pairing as a social collective -- `I am to thin honour’ (312). She will equip him suitably to his public honour, as well as provide her own private physical delights, starting that night.

 Then comes the trick by which it all operates, a medieval version of the Hitchcockian MacGuffin.  He can, she says, always have total access to her, but always `privily’ (355) – and it follows that her existence and his access to her must be totally private. There is usually a structural trick about the Otherworld – it might not get hot or cold there, or like the first hunt in Sir Orfeo, it maybe silent, for the assembly of Bendigeidfran’s head you can’t open the door towards England, or as for Pwyll there maybe unexplained requirements that the visitor mysteriously fulfils. Only here is the Otherworld given a specific social alterity and made entirely a private world – though also a richly public one in its provisions. It is a private asocial world with all the collective emotive trimmings of the public world. In Marie their world is simply the unnamed lady’s condition, much like her imperious whims in invoking Lanval and then sending him away. For Orfeo the Otherworld was not imaginary at all: it worked by public systems, that is how he won Heurodis back, and even in his exile the animals were a form of society: his isolation was merely a cessation of  social life where only music was capable of any connections. But for Launfal the Otherworld is an alternative and epistemologically competing world, based on a different concept of actuality and value. It is as much an inner world as an Other world, and it both trumps and recuperates the public Arthurian world. Maybe it has, in Bourdieu’s terms, social meaning as a movement towards a bourgeois habitus, but it has no language other than that of aristocracy unlike say the King and Subject ballads or the Robin Hood ballads.

It operates splendidly with its internalised external values: there is a magnificent tournament at Caerleon with splendid performance by the hero, followed by him wining the European chivalric Cup by defeating in Italy the mighty  champion Sir Valentine (literally mighty, he is fifteen feet tall). When Launfal is back home and so great a lord `With solas and with plawe’ (612: `plawe’ is a variant for `joye’), firmly back in the saddle of collective emotion, Arthur hears of it and, never having wanted him to be an exile in the first place, invites him to Camelot to act as steward at a major feast. This should ring a bell. The parallel in narrative terms is another knight with mighty powers deriving from a source parallel to Arthurian chivalry who is invited to Camelot but things go wrong –  Perceval, having developed his status as the Grail knight, sets up an alternative domain that cannot in fact be linked to Arthur’s world. Sir Launfal is also imagining another domain of value, albeit without the rich clerical support of the Grail myth, which will soon consume the north Welsh real Holy Fool and construct the clerically perfect two-dimensional Galahad in his place.

Launfal enjoys the `merthe and moch honour’ (628) at Arthur’s court (not named as Kardevyle now or even Camelot: we later – 965 -- find it is Caerleon),  so much that Guinevere notices his capacity to `daunce large’ (647), an intriguing challenge for a translator -- `dance in an ultra-lordly manner’ perhaps, and she decides  `I love him as my lif’ (654). Her access to disruptive personal emotion is being ratcheted up, but still targeting Launfal. Previously she just had picked up he disapproved of her: now she goes dialectic and asserts she loves him, but, keeping to her disruptive individualism,  instead of the social `lof/lif’ assonance she offers her individual death in default of him: they cannot have a life of love in fact because of her public status.  He rejects her in terms of public courtly values: `I nell be traitoure day ne night, Be God, that al may stere.’ (683-4). Guinevere responds in hyper-personal terms: `Thou lovist no woman ne no woman the – Thou were worthy forelore.’ (689-90) – she wishes on him the forlorn exclusion experience that Orfeo suffered. And Launfal, though `sore ashamed’ (691) which is a collective emotion, answers her in terms of his private, quasi-public world and love – and so exposes it to destruction.

But Launfal also expresses the challenge of his Tryamour world as well, the challenge of this poem to the possibility that the narrative of chivalric honour can be restored. He does not say to the queen she is fairer than you: he says she is fairer `Than thou evir leidest thin ay upon’ (695) and, the clincher, that even her `lothlokste maide’ (the most opposite of `lovesum’) `Might bet be a quene Than thou, in all thy live.’ (697-99).  Guinevere’s personal misdeeds and plotting is what makes her an unsuitable queen (this is a simpler version than Malory, where she remains noble and redeemable), and Launfal’s inner other world is better than this public world riven with error, as was that of Perceval and Galahad, but it had its own fabricated world, Christianity operating even more elaborately and allegedly permanently than the world of Tryamour.

Guinevere’s anger, vengeance, misrepresentation all operate in the public system. She lays emotional-laden public values on the line to Arthur, perhaps formally undercut by running over a stanza break:

                        `Sire, curtais if thou were,

                        Or if thou lovedest thin honoure,
I shuld be awreke of that traitoure’ (918-20)

Arthur is required to exercise the values of the court, and also to internalise his value of honour as love, because this  anti-social individual who is bothering her (she omits it is because she has individually bothered him) is, because she is Queen, being cast as a traitor, so excluded from the social world. The private versus public shuffle works, and Arthur will have him hung and drawn (not quartered here). But the internal world has also pronounced its judgement and everything has gone. Even Launfal’s armour has turned from its Otherworldly white to emotively mournful black. His grief for loss of `joye’ and his `blissful berde’ (748. 750) climaxes properly in a swoon (he no longer has access to individual inner riches, just collective nullity), and he is arrested.

But collective systems leak: the private is always a dialectic weakness to the public. Guinevere has a `los’ (790) – reputation, itself a public feature  -- for serial adultery, and so Launfal is by the knights who are appointed in judgement given the right to produce his evidence in a year and a fortnight. Launfal knows he can do nothing to save his life; only with `So greet sorowe’ (823) can he face the apparently certain prospect that `he wold his heed forego’ (826) – the shadow of Sir Gawain seems to fall across the text in terms of seemingly inevitable outcome.

When he says he can do nothing to save himself – like Orfeo his incapacity will be rewarded by the story  and not himself – the king asks for a judgement.  But the public system is not always direct, it can attempt to divert its brutality. There is another deferral, like the king sending his nephews and the mayor’s daughter lending him a horse. The Earl of Cornwall (a place which has a para-royal, possibly alternative authority, status in the Arthurian world, this is the origin of Cador, Gorlois, Constantine – and Guinevere) says they would themselves receive `Greet shame’ (841) to damn `that gantilman That hath be hende and fre’ (842-3). Launfal’s public honour has been so good it would reverse upon those who destroyed it with execution. This is new: in Marie it is because only the king has accused Lanval that evidence is required (that is an early medieval French issue: the lords want him to be a fainéant). And in any case Lanval’s fate will only be to be banished. Here, as with the steward remaining loyal to Orfeo, the public system strains in its own terms to escape its distress. So the Earl recommends `Out of lond Launfal shall fle.’ (846)

And so he will, but not because the Earl or the King dictate. The Otherworld, and the narrative, take over the tangled dialectic of public and private at Arthur’s court. The slow, climactic, authoritative build-up of the Otherworld arrivals asserts its own case for the power of alternative fantasy. With maidens like that, and an organisation like that, who would not put his faith in his own personal true lover Tryamour and her power to replicate in internal mode a far superior external world, including the will to forgive breaching her McGuffin. She rides alone, but proclaims her alternative power though her gold and jewelled crown and in the splendour of herself – when she unveils, in a climax of quasi-public privacy, `That lofsom lemede light’ (942). She retains power: when Launfal sees her he does not say I am saved. He says `She mighte me of my balis bete, Yef that lady wolde.’ (971-2). And her privately available version of public power does punishment too. Guinevere had  said, perhaps unwisely, to the judges, when Launfal was required to produce his lady `Yif he bringeth a fairere thinge, Put out my eyn gray.’ (809-10) But Tryamour runs the show now, not the judges or the King, and takes her at her word: she `blew on her swich a breth That never eft might she se.’ (1007-08).

Tryamour, ladies and Launfal leave in their alterative Otherworld grandeur, correctly denoted as being a simulacrum of public social emotion: `With solas and with pride’ (1019-20) they go to the `jolif ile’ (1022) of Olyroun where Launfal maintains chivalric life: you can hear his horse neigh, you can see him ride, you can even go and joust with him. He remains `That noble knight’ (1034), just as Orfeo returned to honoured kingship, but this is not an Otherworld journey that supports the continuing status quo in our feudal world. Where Marie de France reasons for telling a no-return Otherworld journey had no doubt to do with her gender, and perhaps also with her investment in the power of the Celtic material, Chestre’s version appears to relate to late medieval scepticism about the whole feudal-courtly structure and its cultural capital.

4. Sir Gawain: The Unforgettable Otherworld Journey

Celtic cultural products go in threes, and there is a completing part of this triskel of adventures, though unfamiliarity with the Celtic otherworld and its effects have tended to let it languish in favour of an Avalon of modern-style identity politics. As has been suggested here and there, Sir Gawain can be read as an otherworld return, and one that intriguingly combines the structure of the Sir Orfeo return with the dissent of the Sir Launfal single journey. In that magical bright castle after the cold journey of isolation,  and combining at Hautdesert both the nasty mayor and the (untrustworthy) over-courteous mayor; but we also find both Tryamour and Guinevere, in a more complex distribution of femininity. But which is which ? Gawain is finally like a Launfal who has been to theological college, and Arthur remains his blandly cheery and misguided self (and Marie’s Lanval was offered no year plus for his rendezvous with death, had the Gawain poet read/heard Chestre ?). At the end of Sir Gawain the collective public applause is challenged by the private dissent, now empowered by the force of Christian confession, that para-inner judgement that previously only worked for Perceval’s own super-evaluative exile from court. There were  even traitors at Troy as the poet drily, slyly, notes.

This Otherworld tour has shown  not only the fetching matching reversing pair of Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal, but also suggests the great complex poem Sir Gawain has more in it than has yet been seen. We could travel further – somewhere in all this is Rhiannon, both old and young, educator of well-born idiots, figure of sovereignty, horse goddess and great queen (Welsh Rigantona is Morrigan in Irish: she is also Morgan).But it may be enough just now to rest after our journey, still in function, but having learned a bit, even if only what, or whom, to avoid.

[1]  References to Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal are taken from Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Donald B. Sands, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, omitting his recurrent and distracting use of exclamation marks.