Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Shielding" Slaughter - Order, Center and Circulation in Beowulf

Carcass flame

swirled and fumed,

they stood round the burial

mound and howled,

as heads melted,

crusted gashes

spattered and ran

bloody matter.

The glutton element

flamed and consumed

the dead of both sides.

On a cosmic level, the universe is amoral and violent. Ordered formations do not cancel out their chaotic heritage, but merely conceal it, perpetuating the illusion that form is prior to process. Certain forms of energy cycle back upon one another to form a generative matrix which remains productive insofar as it does not cannibalize itself. By earthen vision it is all too easy to forget the incredible seas of noxious, roiling plasma composing that cleanly luminous and geometric sphere whose natural majesty heralds our daily emergence. Humans revere centers as engines of regulation, mitigating the radical discontinuity of objects by situating them within an arrangement (systematizing). Basic narrative pattern works by subjecting a normative state to some species of tension that drags it toward a vortex of disorganization. We savor the controlled return of the chaotic, of that which challenges stability by disrupting rudiments—fort/da, ritual displeasure to re-validate the power of the compromised milieu, that of local or prevalent human ordering (egoistic, socio-cultural, legal, cognitive, literary/ludic, philosophical, mythic-religious, etc).

I follow Paglia where she writes that “art…is never simply design. It is always a ritualistic reordering of reality,[…] a ritualistic binding of the perpetual motion machine that is nature.” Art is “spellbinding” because its fundamental act is “to tame some uncontrollable aspect of reality” by committing its “daemonic energy” to a manner of “perceptual stillness,” or a frozen form in which it can be submitted to the understanding by ritual conjuring (repeat consumption).[1] Where repetition does not kill the daemon, it at least provides a sense of control by making the chaotic familiar and thus assimilable to an interior (local) milieu in a neutralized form (inoculation).

Heroic sagas like Beowulf directly call to mind this integral function of art by dramatizing the upswing of the disorderly and eulogizing the ability of men to neutralize it by expulsion or subordination. Grendel, the ruthless man-beast of the murky moor, “dwell[s] apart” in a filthy, forbidding mere that defines the center of a peripheral exterior milieu opposed to King Hrothgar’s mead-hall Heorot, sacred center of the Danish warrior culture as tribal gathering-place and locus of communion between lord and retainers. For a span of twelve winters he violates the sanctity of Heorot by nightly reterritorializing it (or threatening to) as a daemonized theatre of anthropophagy wherein the human is reinstated to a position of vulnerability before darkness that chews before it swallows—the grinding gulf of undifferentiation by digestive alchemy.

As long as either lived, / he was hateful to the other. (Beowulf ll. 813-14, Heaney trans.)

Hrothgar had ordered Heorot built as a place where “he would dispense / his God-given goods to young and old— / but not the common land or people’s lives.” As Leyerle writes, “the strength and security of heroic society depend on the symbolic circulation of treasure” (149). In exchange for loyalty and service, the king disperses tokens of respect and acknowledgement which are also of decorous and/or protective value. This “ring-giving” or ritual bestowal of rewards maintains cohesion among retainers and lord by obviating potential anti-social violence rising from unregulated or uneven distribution of wealth. Such giving is also critically important for forging alliances or commitments to peace between tribes, or in atonement for past casualties (weregild: the death-price). It is precisely such that unites Beowulf and Hrothgar, the latter having appeased the Wulfings in a feud involving Beowulf’s father, by the dispatch of treasure.

Metallurgy and craftsmanship create a register that parcels out the flux of perception by anchoring desires to extrinsic materials which endow them with weight and permanence. They allow for dealings among men to be lifted from the stratum of blood and bodies and reconfigured among that of objects, mobile and transferable entities which are able to stand in for (or mediate) complex processes. Like language, such objects constitute a symbolic nexus that unifies by drawing disparate entities into a systematic inter-relationship (arrangement). The weregild, for example, reconstitutes destroyed flesh in terms of transferable objects to heal the unitary rift caused by the slaying of individuals. The Beowulf poet praises words and crafts (mail-coats) alike by the facility with which they are “woven” and “entwined,” testaments to man’s skill in generating ordered systems to fortify and protect him again the disordering currents of the universe.

We need protective walls and sheltering roofs; language is the sternest of the walls we erect against the unknown, and though invisible (except as script or print) it is the most enduring. Conrad, Cassell’s History of English Literature.

The deep boiled up / and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild. / My armor helped me to hold out; / my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked, / a fine, close-fitting filigree of gold, / kept me safe when some ocean creature / pulled me to the bottom. (Beowulf recounting his race with Breca, ll. 550-54).

When Beowulf speaks he “unlocks his word-hoard,” an expression that links civil discourse with lordly ring-giving and points to the fundamental importance of releasing or setting things off for the maintenance of socio-symbolic cohesion. There is an important contrast in Beowulf’s ready admission of his nation, loyalty and purpose when questioned upon coming ashore by the Danish lookout, who likewise explains his own position, and Grendel’s refusal to announce himself by declaring his heritage and purpose before entering a realm to which he is not kin. Formal greetings among strangers alleviate the fulminating tension of uncertainty and establish a preliminary bond mediated by the socio-symbolic. They also imply a compact of mutual assuredness in the humanity of the other (that is, the sense that the other is ethically compatible with local (tribal-interior) arrangements), and the capability to expand or augment the local milieu (ie., the accrual of like-minded alliances). Language weaves an overstructuring order that motivates relations between bodies; to lack or eschew it, as Grendel does, is to move asymptotically with respect to the socio-symbolic, approaching and shadowing it but never integrating with it.

Language in Beowulf is socially binding also in terms of poetry, which is not only entertainment but also a creative affirmation and account of man’s place in relation to the universe on the one hand, and local ancestral history on the other—two strands, intricately bound. That Grendel is driven to rage by bardic glorification of man’s privileged status in a divinely-structured universe suggests not linguistic comprehension on his part (as it might appear, though we have no other cause to believe this), but the author’s desire to ground Grendel’s hostility in his estrangement from this order. Bestial spawn of a monstrous genetic pool covertly bled from the human stream by Cain’s fratricide, Grendel is a morphogenetic re-presentation of that primal rift in the continuity of creation whose (Christian) symbolic archetype is the transgression in the garden. But whereas Satan is a substantially alien being, Grendel is a “consanguineous” monster, “the definition of humanity at war with itself” (Phillips, 24). Leyerle anticipates this idea, observing that Beowulf’s monsters “function in part as an outward objectification and sign of society beset by internecine slaughter between friend and kin” (148). Grendel is a figuration of daemonic energy (in Paglia’s sense), himself a cleft that cleaves space for chaos and uncertainty in the human order, but without maiming the robe of divine overstructuring. In a way he opens up a necessary outlet for the superfluous energies granted man by the excess of the natural/divine plenum, “wildness” that “[has] to brim over,” and will seek internal targets if no exterior expedient is present, as is suggested in the saga of Finn (ll. 1069-1157).

The narrative of Beowulf is somewhat problematic in terms of overarching religious perspective, lamenting once how the warriors pray at “pagan shrines” and ignorantly plead oaths to the “killer of souls,” yet painting Beowulf as one guided and favored by the Lord, who he believes sanctions his victories. We are repeatedly and unambiguously reminded of the Lord’s dominion over Grendel, however, it being “widely understood / that as long as God disallowed it, / the fiend could not bear [men] to his shadow-bourne” (ll.705-7), and noted that as “the Lord’s outcast,” he was “kept from approaching the throne [in Heorot] itself.” He cannot occupy a centralized position of power even illegitimately because lordly status is a lower expression of the stratifying Godhead. Grendel is incapable of ascendance because his method of entrance into the world is itself illegitimate, discontinuous, making him extrinsic to the hierarchic continuum linking created to creator. However, he maintains an oblique affiliation with the deity in a way similar to Cain, who is protected even as he is scolded and exiled. After their fight, Beowulf states that “the Lord allowed” Grendel to break from his arm-lock and escape (l. 967), and the narrative ambiguously mentions how Grendel and his ilk “strove with God / time and again until He gave them their reward,” perhaps a foreshadowing of their (merciful) future eradication (ll. 113-14).

Grendel is an inversion of the virtuous lord figure represented by Hrothgar in that he takes things out of circulation and hoards them, specifically the bodies of Hrothgar’s men, and refuses to pay the weregild: “no counselor could ever expect / fair reparation from those rabid hands” (157-8). The circulation of goods among the Danes is predicated on the notion that all property is loan, all worldly wealth conditional upon the beneficence of an approving sovereign. In this context, at least, the Lord maintains the dual aspect of both generous giver (creator) and uncompromising collector (destroyer) which constitutes the exterior plenum. Whatever Grendel carries back to his dank domain (whether human carrion dispatched to his maw, or objects brought back to mere-mother) is critically reappropriated, since it is effectively bled out of the circulatory system of warrior society continuously purged and fed by an exterior theo/geocentric plenum, which becomes in man’s reflections a systematizing force possessive of central gravity that draws into balance disparate arrangements. The center is implicit compact between man and plenum. This bond is conceptual rather than actual, because it depends upon a socio-symbolic gesture that attributes complicity to an aleatory and uncompromising outside—it grants the local (human) milieu access to radical exteriority by conscripting it in terms of the interior (that is, the local milieu). What is God but apotheosis of singularity, of disparate routes between being and not-being, emergence and withdrawal, condensed into a single artery?

[The] Sun is not the heart of darkness but that which cauterizes the gaping wound from which pulverizing contingencies (or climates) of the cosmic abyss bleed into our world. (Negarestani explaining his anti-solar ecology, “Solar Inferno and the Earthbound Abyss”).

Post in Process.

[1] Indeed, I find this phenomenally true as I modulate this flux, flinging down planks to move forward over mucky misshapen earth, so many guideposts in the fluttering abyss.

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