Friday, February 6, 2009

Writing after Wallace

As David Wallace illustrated last Friday, conceptualizing a literary history of Europe from 1348-1418 -- a "regenerative" generation achieved through writing -- comes with a series of tricky questions.  What is the "shape" of Europe? Where does it begin and end? And what is the role of literary history within it?  Rather than delivering a straightforward presentation, Wallace asked us not only to ponder these questions, but also to participate in this ongoing, ambitious, and collaborative project (approximately eighty scholars are involved).  So far, the project includes nine "itineraries" of textual production and exchange across diverse locales -- for example, Venice to Prague, Cairo to Constantinople, Mount Athos to Muscovy, and Calais to Walsingham. These itineraries are what I, and I think many others in attendance, found the most provocative. By focusing on locales and local variations rather than (anachronistic) nationalistic paradigms, by magnifying rather than suppressing linguistic difference, by shedding the vestiges of insularism to highlight the nuances of textual production and exchange, we begin to feel anew that delightful "strangeness" of cultural interchange. 

I loved Wallace's use of that word. Discussing the presentation with my "Myths of Britain" students on Wednesday (I lead two discussion sections), parallels between the course and the talk intriguingly arose: What is at stake by stressing "England" over "Britain," and vice versa? What voices are unheard and differences elided when we consider literature and history in discrete, national blocks? I reminisce of Gawain and the Welsh wilderness in Green Knight, or of the fracas and fluidity of identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History. And I will definitely continue to ruminate on the limits and possibilities of literary history. 

Thank you to all who attended and contributed to last Friday's event!

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