/ Literature /
I rented the DVD Beowulf & Grendle: realized I’d seen it before, for forgotten it toally. Then I realized that I’ve seen (and read) a bunch of Beowulf things: some called Beowulf, some not. I want to say a couple of things, tell a couple of stories: here I can scrapbook all day long.
One evening in the 1960s I was dining at my in-laws. My mother-in-law’s husband’s brother was also there: as he so often was. Emile Benoit was an economist, he was world famous as the chairman of the committee for disarmanet, his invention, you have to have two PhDs from Harvard to come up with that bit of fraud: make fifty hydrogen bomb: last year you made forty: that’s an increase of ten. The year before you made thirty-five. Next year plan to make fifty-nine. That’s an increase, not a decrease, but it is a slowing down of the acceleration of armaments. Now you can con civilization that you’re a peacenik: and still shovel obscene profits to the princes of profit with no conscience. Emile’s younger brother, Raymond was world famous for his symbolic logic. Despite being a high school dropout he’d written the definitive books on the subject, used as texts: taught at CCNY while Emile was at Columbia.
You can look Emile up under his name Benoit, but don’t look his brother Raymond up under “Benoit”; they were born Benoit-Smulyan and spilt the name as adults: so Emile Benoit’s brother is Raymond Smulyan. Anyhow the boys regarded their fields as real: economics, mathematics. They did not regard my field as real: English: and they chose that evening to disrespect me though it, aloud. The fulcrum of their attack was Beowulf:
Do you really think Beowulf is a great poem?
A wall of distaste advanced before the pair. Euww, yich. Clearly they didn’t think it was a great peom, clearly they hated it. I didn’t bother to establish whether they’d read the whole thing: in English: that is, in Olde English. I didn’t bother to establish how well they read Old English: or their acquaintance with heroic cultures … Viking morality …
I knew what was going on without discussion. Emile was a star in his field, the White House listened to him. Raymond was a star in his field. What the world hadn’t understood with Lewis Carol said it, the world did understand when Raymond said it. More guys who followed math around the world knew what Raymond was saying than knew what Emile was saying: even though we all paid for the thirty-five bombs, and the forty bombs, and the forty-nine bombs. My PhD committee didn’t understand what I was saying about Shakespeare, or about information, and Emile and Raymond made no attempt to learn that I had said anything about either, or tried to. I really should have begged the school to put a bullet behind my ear when I was in the fourth grade and it was clear that they were never going to listen or understand: then I wouldn’t be dining with those guys, the women having fled the table.
No, hell. I didn’t even try to establish with these guys where they got the proof that you had to like something to find it worth study.
I’m gonna quick survey a couple of points, fast-flash on them:
Beowulf is the oldest epic in English. Furthermore it’s one of those things composed with at least five hundred years between the time of the story and the time of the telling. Beowulf the Geat hero was from say the Fifth Century; the poem is from 900-something.
The poem shows Danish warriors dying in their drinking hall at the hands of a troll. There are three cultures present: Danes, Swedes, Geats: oh, and a Celt: a Christian missionary, his mission taking hold of the heroes only a little.
Actually it’s a little more complex than that: there’s witches, there’s the trolls …
more in a sec, damn internet connection keeps slipping