This post was written in response to a prompt from a Black Literary Traditions course; felt it was worth posting here, too.
On March 20th, 2021, Black conservative author Candace Owens penned an opinion article on The Daily Wire, the headline of which reads: “Cardi B is a Symptom of a Sickness in Our Society.” The article was preceded by an eighteen-hour Twitter debate between the two women, sparked by Owens’ on-screen criticism of award-winning hip-hop artist Cardi B for a recent, sexually charged Grammy performance, and perpetuated by each woman’s oppositional views on paradigms of feminine presentation, respectability, and sexuality. “We are celebrating perversity in America,” Owens is quoted as saying, telling Cardi B she must “do better” (Nolan).
The dichotomy of views presented here are not dissimilar from those expressed between the Black “intellectuals” of the North and the Black “blues women” of the South in Hazel V. Carby’s “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” The essential core of the argument remains the same, where one party argues that objective displays of Black feminine sexuality perpetuates the long-established racial fetishization and exoticism of Black women by the white majority, and threatens to debase the community as a whole through “improper” representation. In speaking of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Carby explains that the cultural backlash to racial objectification of Black women within certain communities, namely those in closest proximity to the hegemony, manifested as an avoidance of sexuality altogether: “The response of Larsen’s heroine to such objectification is also the response of many black women writers: the denial of desire and the repression of sexuality” (12). The other party accepts sexuality as an integral and important part of the lived experience of Black women, and likewise seeks to distance feminine sexuality from patriarchal dominance and reclaim the idea as an aspect of feminine liberation. Carby writes: “Their [blues women’s] physical presence was a crucial aspect of their power; the visual display of spangled dresses, of furs, of gold teeth, of diamonds, of all the sumptuous and desirable aspects of their body reclaimed female sexuality from being an objectification of male desire to a representation of female desire” (20). It is not difficult to see the strong resonance between the lyrical attitudes and visual presentation of historic feminine blues singers and the feminine leaders of contemporary hip-hop.
“Respectability politics” is a term used to describe a long-standing strategy adopted by African American women “to reject white stereotypes by promoting morality while de-emphasizing sexuality” (Pitcan, et al.). This entails behaviors such as code-switching, self-censure, curating a neutral image, and avoiding behavior or relationships which could be perceived by the ruling class as “lowly.” While the conservative side of the historic argument may appear on its surface to hold some validity—and often, at times, does offer avenues of upward mobility to subordinated groups—there is a dangerous precedent set in playing the respectability politics game, the most obvious problem being that appealing to Western culture as the governing authority perpetuates Western culture as the governing authority. Likewise, merely politely ignoring, rather than directly challenging, the stereotypes of Black women which are rife within white, Western culture allows these stereotypes to continue to be validated by white supremacy, as the cultural narrative is then primarily controlled by the oppressing class. This is an important stance that the blues-singing women of the Harlem Renaissance recognized: “The women blues singers occupied a privileged space; they had broken out of the boundaries of the home and taken their sexuality and sexuality out of the private and into the public sphere” (20). By leveraging their platform and refusing to adhere to the societal expectations of the governing authority, blues women allowed the narratives of large communities of Black women, specifically those further removed from the privileges of Western society, to be heard: “Many women heard the ‘we’ when Ida Cox said ‘I’,” explains Cardy (21). Hip-hop artists such as Cardi B, a single mother and former exotic dancer from a working-class background, likewise carry narratives and attitudes of feminine empowerment that do not pay heed to the arbitrary and racist constrictions of Western “propriety.”
Lastly, and most importantly, it’s easy to see that playing respectability game within an authority which economically and socially thrives on racism simply does not work. Former First Lady Michelle Obama is perceivably one of the most powerful Black women in American history; she is incredibly well-educated, articulate, economically viable, and has held one of the most highly respected positions in the United States government. This did not stop her from being openly criticized across mainstream media outlets for exposing her arms; for being too fit at times, and for also being too heavy at others; for being family-oriented; for not being “classy” enough; for wearing shorts; and even for placing her left elbow on a table (Kendall). These references don’t include the numerous hateful, stereotypical, and racially charged remarks regarding the former First Lady’s appearance and physical body by authoritative figures and prominent outlets (Kendall). If bourgeoisie oppressors cannot be bothered to buy into respectability politics even as Black individuals ascend to the very heights of the Western hierarchy, then what else could possibly compel them to? Nearly a hundred years ago, Bessie Smith recognized the futility of striving for approval, and her admonition in “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” still holds truth:
There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say
That folks don’t criticize me
But I’m goin’ to do just as I want to anyway
And don’t care if they all despise me.
As always, thank you for reading.
Carby, Hazel V. “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” Radical Amerika, 1987, retrieved from https://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1142530423771460.pdf
Kendall, Mikki. “22 Times Michelle Obama Endured Rude, Racist, Sexist, or Plain Ridiculous Attacks.” Washington Post, November 2016, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/16/22-times-michelle-obama-endured-rude-racist-sexist-or-plain-dumb-attacks/
Nolan, Emma. “What Cardi B Said About Candace Owens as Spat Escalates to Legal Threats.” Newsweek, March 2021, retrieved from https://newsweek.com/what-cardi-b-said-about-candace-owens-spat-legal-threats-1576771
Pitcan, Mikaela, Alice E. Marwick and Danah Boyd. “Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 23, issue 3, May 2018, pp.163-79, retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article/23/3/163/4962541
Christianity as a Weapon: The Appropriation of Western Constructs in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
This is a short paper I wrote for a graduate course in Black Literary Traditions. I was a bit disappointed in realizing that, although we were told to purchase a two-volume anthology of African American authors spanning two hundred years of literary craft, this course would focus almost exclusively on slave narratives. Although slave narratives undeniably play a critical role in the establishment of Black literary traditions, in my anecdotal experience, education in the United States seems doggedly determined to explore little of Black culture but the period of enslavement. This tunnel vision puts at our periphery a vivid, rich, unique, and compelling tradition of literature, political theory, poetry, and fiction which deserves exploration, critique, and response. I look forward to reading through the rest of the anthology on my own time.
I have other aspects about the course I find somewhat problematic, largely in how the material is presented and how prompts are composed, but they’re worth their own blog post, if I bother to get into them here.
John Adams is quoted as saying that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” and, technically, he would be correct: The United States Constitution was deliberately composed to omit any allusion or appeal to a god or higher power. Likewise, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federalist Papers undeniably support the secular origins of our government, and writings and quotes from various founding fathers affirm the desire for the clear separation of church and state. Despite these inarguable goals set out by the founders, the United States has been endlessly contextualized as a “Christian nation,” both historically and today, and religion is frequently and openly weaponized by the ruling class to perpetuate patriarchal Western rule and the subjugation of oppressed classes, both domestically and abroad. Recognition of women’s rights and reproductive choice/bodily autonomy as well as issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality have all faced strong, organized opposition within state and federal governments on the basis of Christian values. The ruling class has likewise utilized Christianity to create justification for the aggressive colonization of independent nations, oppression and genocide of indigenous peoples, and enslavement. However, members of oppressed classes have historically sought out avenues to leverage Western constructs and ideals on their journey to liberation, borrowing the immaterial weapons of the ruling class and using them for their own ends. In the essay “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself,” Douglass’s emphasis on Christianity within the work can be argued as a deliberate appropriation of a prominent construct of the ruling class, utilized by Douglass as both an act of rebellion against the ruling class and a display of commonality to a potentially sympathetic audience.
The “Curse of Ham” is one of the more common Biblical justifications for the enslavement of Black peoples, though the narrative makes little sense outside of Biblical context: Canaan, son of Ham, who is the son of Noah, is punished by God with a life of servitude after Ham witnesses Noah drunk and naked. In the colloquial and more popular version of the story, Canaan is omitted from the narrative, Ham is identified as a Black person, and his descendants are purported as Black peoples of all nations; Ham’s “curse” is thus put upon all Black peoples by extension, and their darker skin is framed as a signifier of their inherent “sin,” justifying their enslavement (Rae). Douglass makes direct reference to this Biblical passage in his own narrative: “If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery in the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters” (339). Here, Douglass showcases just one minor aspect of the hypocrisy between the Biblical justification of slavery and the material circumstances of enslavement. The commonality of slavery among Israelites and various snippets of the Old Testament were also popular in justifying slavery: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ…” (Authorized King James Version, Ephesians VI 5-7). Slavery was also purported as providence to the necessary “civilization” of enslaved and indigenous peoples, who were contextualized in the Western hierarchy as savage, barbarous, immoral, lazy and so on (Rae). The manufacture of “slave Bibles” was not uncommon, removing portions of scripture that could be perceived as inciting rebellion. Aligning with the still-common Western view of the white savior role, slavery was frequently contextualized as divine intervention to allow enslaved peoples exposure to the messages of white Christians, which, in the oppressor’s view, assured docility among enslaved peoples and allowed for the supposed “charitable” nature of their enslavement.
English literacy, another Western construct commonly weaponized by the ruling class, played an integral role in the liberation of enslaved peoples. Literacy in enslaved peoples was heavily discouraged by the white majority for this very reason, as Hugh Auld demonstrates early in “Narrative.” English literacy opened the door not just to the most common and accessible form of communication, but for appropriation of other social constructs in the Western context, such as religion, but also gender roles and familial structures, laws, press and media, transportation, and so on. Yolanda Pierce, dean of the divinity school at Howard University, says on the subject, “As soon as enslaved people learned to read English, they immediately began to read the Bible, and they immediately began to protest this idea of a biblical justification for slavery… As soon as Black people took pen to paper, we [were] arguing for our own liberation” (Zauzmer). This is true of many narratives of the enslaved, though Douglass is a particularly prominent figure on the subject of Christianity as an argument against slavery. The continued popularity of Douglass’s narrative may reside in just how effectively he appropriates Western views and constructs through both his actions and his words, which showcases an undeniable commonality between the oppressed classes and the ruling class, encouraging solidarity and sympathy from the oppressor to the oppressed. Douglass adheres closely to the idealized forms of Western gender roles in both feminine and masculine characterization and frames his narrative toward the attainment of other common Western ideals, such as formal education, economic prosperity, physical prowess, social clout, bodily autonomy, and, most emphatically, an individualistic attitude. However, English literacy and, by its extension, Christianity, prove to be the weapons Douglass wields most effectively, marrying the two in scathing attacks demonstrating the egregious hypocrisy between purportedly Christian values and the actions of Christian peoples: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (Rae). In “Narrative,” the audience sees such behavior exhibited repeatedly by the ruling class, such as Thomas Auld’s quotation of scripture after the merciless whipping of a young, lame enslaved woman.
The acceptance or rejection of Western constructs continues to be a topic of concern for much of the Black population in contemporary America, as Blacks face both sustained and new opposition and gatekeeping in the fight for respect and recognition of Black personhood. While the enduring prominence and popularity of Douglass’s many narratives may be popular because of their adherence to Western sensibilities, such as Christianity, they have likewise received criticism for that same aspect. In examining Douglass’s “Narrative,” Valerie Smith cautions that “by demonstrating that a slave can be a man in terms of all the qualities valued by his northern middle-class reader—physical power, perseverance, literacy—he lends credence to the patriarchal structure largely responsible for his oppression” (55). In other words, there is a danger of appealing and adhering to the values and ideals of the oppressor, as this works to uphold and validate the same constructs used to oppress selected populations. Christianity, likewise, has proven to hold a problematic dichotomy for Black populations. While Douglass and others embraced Christianity for its “powerful and profound sense of hope,” many of descendants of the enslaved have “rejected Christianity as the religion of the oppressor,” opting to explore the Islamic and African spiritual tendencies of their ancestors (Zauzmer). Ultimately, authentic faith in the religion was not necessary for the enslaved, and acceptance of the religion may have simply been part of a long history of shrewd social coding which Black and other non-white populations quickly adapted to aid in their continued survival. Rather, mere recognition of the influence which Christianity held within the ruling white population held sway towards Black liberation. Like English literacy, Christianity proved to be an avenue which enabled enslaved Blacks to appeal to white oppressors on terms they both understood and preferred. The appropriation of Christianity by the enslaved population not only emphasized commonalities of humanity between white oppressors and Black enslaved populations, it also allowed the narratives of Christianity to be weaponized against the horrific, inhumane acts of white slavers and the institution of slavery itself, as whites no longer had exclusive access to this social narrative or others. As Pierce says, “[Black populations] very quickly learned that the only way we can be heard is to speak the language of our slaveholders, to speak to them about the text that they love, that they believe in” (Zauzmer). Until whites recognize and respect the sovereignty of Black voices—a struggle still hugely prevalent today, as Americans march by the millions in protest of the unqualified oppression, imprisonment, and murder of Black populations—these voices will likely be forced to continue speaking on the terms of the oppressor. However, in continuing to selectively utilize these Western constructs as weapons, Black populations can leverage them on their own terms, for their own means.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature: Volume One, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith, third ed, 2014, pp.330-93.
Rae, Noel. The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery. Overlook Press, 2018, accessed via Google Books.
Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Harvard University Press, 1991, p 55.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 2021.
Zauzmer, Julie. “The Bible Was Used to Justify Slavery. Then the Africans Made It Their Path to Freedom.” Washington Post, 2019, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/local/the-bible-was-used-to-justify-slavery-then-africans-made-it-their-path-to-freedom/2019/04/29/34699e8e-6512-11e9-82ba-fcfeff232e8f_story.html
The following was a discussion post I put together for a Master’s lit course. The selected passage to be analyzed starts on page 85, from the paragraph beginning “Since about that time, war had been literally continuous” to the end of the chapter on page 91, which ends, “succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent, for the first time in several years” (page numbers from print edition).
Marx’s crisis theory asserts that the unsatisfiable demand for the generation of capital creates the very conditions which necessitate capitalism’s eventual collapse. Capitalism seeks to debase and disperse the power of labor—for example, through assembly lines or outsourcing—and as a result, wages fall. As a result of wage repression, corporate profits increase, roughly proportional to wage deflation. In order for these corporations to continue positive profit generation—now inflated by wage deflation—additional demand must be created in the market to sell more goods/services. However, the consumer pool purchasing these goods/services is generally the same pool of workers experiencing the effects of wage repression. The buying power of the market is thus reduced, and corporate profits cannot be elevated above the levels brought about by wage repression. As a result, labor is further dispersed and/or wages are further repressed to generate profits, and credit markets are inflated to compensate for a lack of discretionary income. Increased debt and decreased wages eventually generate a torrent of defaults, resulting in institutional and/or market collapse. In the United States, the housing market collapse and subsequent economic recession of 2008 serves as a material example of the contradictions outlined by Marx’s crisis theory.
Additionally, manufactured scarcity of employment, food, and housing are all common sociocultural stressors which result from the outlined contradictions created by capitalist modes of production. Despite necessitating these conditions through the governing economic structure, the Western sociocultural hegemony simultaneously exalts and values consumerism, material possession, and wealth accumulation as the highest markers of both social and moral valuation. These idealizations are necessary to continue compelling the consumer market to spend their wage in the consumer market, and thus satisfy the capitalist market’s singular interest of creating more capital. Capitalism demands the continued generation of massive capital wealth in a few hands while simultaneously and deliberately suppressing the purchasing power of the entire working class, thus demanding blood from stone.
In 1984, The Party relies on memory as a form of capital to justify its continued expansion and influence over the people, much the same way capitalism continuously demands the generation of monetary capital to justify expansion of production and consumerism. The concept of memory utilized as capital by the Party is demonstrated by the lengths exacted to see the Party’s narrative actualized: the literal and continuous altering and revising of historic fact and media account and the endless, cloying production and cultural emphasis of propaganda to be “bought” by the market. Take, for example, a Party slogan: “Who controls the past… controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 41). In capitalism, those who control the capital control the market; those who control the market control the perceived value of capital. Marx explains that when capitalism “defines the relationship of wages to profit, it takes the interest of the capitalists to be the ultimate cause; i.e. it takes for granted what it is supposed to evolve” (718). Likewise, when the Party (inexplicitly) defines the relationship of memory to influence, it takes the interest of the Party to the be ultimate cause.
In the selected passage, contradictions showcased in Winston’s internal narrative serve as micro representations of contradictions presented by Marx’s crisis theory of capitalist production and class structure. Capitalism’s contradictions “demand blood from a stone” by degrading the wealth of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding wealth from the oppressed class; this is achieved by creating debt, “notes” of owed wealth deliberately issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be repaid in full. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse. The Party expresses this same contradiction by degrading the memory of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding the actualization and adherence to a “remembered” narrative; this is achieved by creating information, “notes” of constructed and artificial reality that are issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be sustained in full. Winston demonstrates: “There was no knowing how much of this legend was true and how much invented. Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence… Sometimes, indeed, you could put your finger on a definite lie” (Orwell 42-3). The Party builds by perpetuating its current version of reality, but simultaneously bankrupts the oppressed population’s perception of reality by constantly demanding revision. Again, Winston: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies… That was the ultimate subtlety” (Orwell 42). In this way, the Party likewise demands blood from stone. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse—some irreparable snag, like Winston’s known lie, can call into question the legitimacy of the entire structure.
Freud’s theory of personality presents a tripartite view of the self, three unique but interdependent systems which develop at various stages of life. The id is the earliest development of consciousness, representing biological or instinctual desires and demands. The id seeks to fulfill every demand immediately and has no perception of consequence, no awareness of reality or logic, and does not grow or change as a result of time or experience. When the demands of the id are satisfied, the self experiences pleasure; when these demands are delayed or ignored, the result is anxiety, tension, anger, or other forms of displeasure. The ego is the logical and reason-governed component of the personality. While the ego simultaneously seeks to fulfill the irrational and unrelenting demands of the id, it also works to avoid harm to the self, both literally and in terms of social harm or ostracization. The ego, however, does not govern morality; any action is good if it satisfies desire and avoids harm, any action is bad if one of these aspects fails. The ego is the sense of self-control, evaluating various methods of desire fulfillment and weighing those options against potential consequences based on known boundaries. The superego works as the conscience and informs the ego of the “ideal self,” or ego-ideal. The ego-ideal is a fantasized version of the self that drives the ego to operate beyond pleasure fulfillment and strive to work toward some greater goal or purpose.
Freud argues that the superego is largely informed by the parental figure(s). However, independent or separated from the parental units, humans are also necessarily informed by a governing culture. A child who was spanked by their parents might grow up to be an adult who does not spank their children, because the governing culture has influenced the moral paradigm of the superego. If a person shoplifts to obtain desire-fulfillment, the superego may inflict feelings of guilt or shame, if that person was raised in a culture which places value on corporate compensation. If that person was being initiated into a street gang, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might incite feelings of accomplishment or superiority in the superego. If that person was an anarchist, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might bring feelings of vindication and liberation in the superego. The superego’s morality is not inherent; it is a learned construct, based on the familiar values and taboos of the most influential authority to the consciousness at any given point in life.
In the selected passage, Winston’s internal narrative showcases contradictions between the superego, informed by the governing culture, and the ego, which strives to rationally fulfill the irrational, genetically encoded demands of the id. Winston, suffering from violent coughing fits, vigorously participates in the calisthenics program mandated by the Party. Despite being in physical distress—highly aversive from the pleasure-seeking impulses of the id and ego—Winston’s superego compels him to not only continue the action, but to feign enjoyment: “Wearing on his face the look of grim enjoyment which was considered proper… with a violent lunge, [Winston] succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent” (Orwell 39, 43). Though this action seems innocuous on the surface, the greater implication is more sinister; the governing culture’s influence over the superego is strong enough to compel the self to override its most inherent instincts, such as pain avoidance, as a means of demonstrating fealty. The self is sustained and protected through learned physical and emotional boundaries, i.e. this action causes pain, and this action causes shame. These boundaries are created to keep the self alive and part of the social collective (thus, with a better chance of staying alive, and procreating). The Party’s ability to override these boundaries suggests the Party’s ability to compel the destruction of the self.
Contradictions created within the self are also showcased through the Party’s manipulation of memory. If sociocultural boundaries endlessly shift and alter, the ego and superego lack appropriate and/or accessible input to comfortably navigate sociocultural expectations. Because boundaries are essential to the self’s imperatives of harm reduction and social affirmation, their lack fosters a sense of unease and tends to easily trigger fight-or-flight mechanisms. Winston perpetually exists in this state, though he fights against it: “Never show dismay! Never show resentment! A single flicker of the eyes could give you away” (Orwell 43). Winston’s superego attempts to exert control over the immediate harm-reduction instincts of the ego because it is aware that the greater harm lies in the Party’s ability to make the self non-existent. The Party’s omnipotent reach and scope in rewriting sociocultural narratives, and thus memory, and thus reality, is to Winston, “more terrifying than mere torture and death” (Orwell 41). Winston’s superego contradicts imperatives of the id and ego to show fealty to the governing culture, but the self is still essentially acting in self-preservation, aware that dissonance from the moral paradigm of the superego necessitates death.
Freud, Sigmund. “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 615.
Marx, Karl. “The Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 718.
Orwell, George. 1984. Houghton Mifflin Court, 1949, pp 39-44, accessed via Google Books.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations… And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance—barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn’t so good, on account of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
A deconstructionist view argues that language is uncentered; we cannot perfectly convey the ideas in our heads because of the limits inherit to the signifier/signified relationship. For example, if I say “cat,” there is a distinct image (the signified) which comes as a result from reading or hearing the word “cat” (the signifier). However, the image which appears in your mind is not a perfect replication of the image which is in my mind. I could say, “a cat with black and white spots and a grey patch over one eye,” and the signified image in your head might be closer to what I am imagining, but there is inevitably some sort of failure, some room for interpretation. Where are the cat’s spots located? Does it have a few large spots, or many small ones? Is the grey patch representative of a discolored area of fur, or is the cat wearing an actual eyepatch? Another example could be our dictionaries. If you look up any given word, there are more words used to describe that word. If you look up those words, there will be more words to reference and point to the meaning of what is trying to be conveyed. Eventually, you’d just end up starting back at the original word you looked up. Derrida argues that language conveys ideas imperfectly, and thus fails every time we utilize it to express ourselves. As a result, absolute truths cannot be discovered in language or speech, because there is an inherent failure to communicate absolute truth from the moment that we start to express ourselves. If it sounds a bit nihilistic, well, it is.
When we look at fiction, we generally look to find meaning by examining the tensions/conflicts/oppositions of the narrative and the way these things are rectified (or not rectified) at the resolution. Often, these tensions are described in terms of binary oppositions: male/female, good/evil, white/black, culture/nature, speech/writing, with each precedent of these pairs having an implied or presumed hierarchal governance over the other, as a result of the dominance of Western-European cultural paradigms. The goal of the deconstructionist lens is to show that these elements are not actually in opposition or that tensions do not exist, not by reversing the hierarchal structure, but rather by neutralizing hierarchy entirely. This is often done by critiquing the sociocultural structures and beliefs that reinforce these binaries.
Examining the passage above in a deconstructionist lens, there are a number of oppositions suggested in the excerpt which could be examined: civilized/uncivilized, sane/insane, tamed/wild, pure/corrupt, moral/immoral, rationality/instinct, or the greater opposition which these all allude to, good/evil. Marlow listens to Kurtz grieve for his “immense plans,” and takes this as affirmation of Kurtz’s aspirations of aristocracy: “Your success in Europe is assured in any case” (Conrad). Within this context, Marlow assumes Kurtz’s “final burst of sincerity” is a mourning of the sacrifice of his career, engagement, and wealth for a strange, predatory reign over the indigenous people of the land (Conrad). Marlow believes the isolation of the wilderness has put Kurtz under a “spell,” having “beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations” (Conrad). The implication is that Kurtz’s behavior in the jungle is entirely uncivilized, and, had Kurtz simply held steadfast to his supposedly civilized principles, he would not have been torn apart by regret and shame in his final hours, and may have lived a great deal longer.
However, Marlow’s assumptions present a number of problems. First, Marlow defines Kurtz’s sanity in the moment quite plainly: “I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear” (Conrad). Marlow weakens his own argument by portraying Kurtz as a rational, sane, and intelligible human; he is not, therefore, insane. Kurtz has enough cognizance to “struggle blindly” with an issue which is implied by Marlow as relating to his behavior in the wilderness, suggesting the presence of a moral paradigm. So, though he may have succumbed to immoral behavior, the suggestion is that Kurtz is a moral person, now weighed by the gravity of his decisions. This would likewise weaken the suggestion of the good/evil binary attached to Kurtz by proxy.
The most fatal blow to Marlow’s observations, however, is the colonizers’ occupation of the continent. Marlow critiques Kurtz actions in the jungle: his baseless governance over the indigenous people; his tactics of manipulation and influence; the exploitation and oppression of an unsuspecting and vulnerable population; the leveraging of resources and power to intimidate, enact violence, and overthrow existing hierarchies, and so on. As a result, Marlow brands Kurtz as insane, irrational, uncivilized, and/or evil. However, every single one of these actions is reflected in the very trade which affords Kurtz his resources: his wealth, his connections, his status, his career, his fiancé, and so on. These are the things which Marlow believes Kurtz laments in the throes of death. They are the things which sparked Marlow’s interest in Kurtz. They are the very source of power which arguably compelled Kurtz to his current predicament. They are also composed of the Western European sociocultural signifiers that suggest Kurtz was once a successful and therefore good person, and would have continued to be, had he kept to that path.
However, had Kurtz kept to his accepted path, he nonetheless would have participated in all the same activities for which he is demonized, even without his pretentious and violent “reign” over the indigenous people. The looting and aggressive colonization of the African continent for the enrichment of the European economy constituted a baseless governance over indigenous people, exploitation and manipulation of a vulnerable population, the leveraging of resources to intimidate, enact violence, and overthrow, and so on. Kurtz is merely deemed evil, insane, or uncivilized because he did not participate in these activities in a way which held to the expectations of the sponsoring organization. Therefore, Marlow’s implied qualification of Kurtz as evil, insane, or uncivilized does not hold up; the performative manner of these exact same actions is all that concerns the civilized group. The civil, sane, or good population participates in the exact same behavior as Kurtz; the behavior is merely hidden behind a corporate umbrella.
I chose to examine this passage through a deconstructionist lens for a few reasons. First, Marxist theory is heavily criticized for its lack of intersectionality; the oppositions examined through this view are generally only bourgeoisie/proletariat, ruling class/working class, or oppressor/oppressed. Though this could provide some compelling insights into the power dynamics of the narrative, I felt that this piece would be more effective with both a wider and a more cynical lens. There are obvious, problematic views in this novel, particularly in terms of racial oppression, and the Marxist view generally disregards race in favor for class. Marlow and Kurtz are arguably of similar class distinction, making the Marxist lens somewhat less compelling for this piece. I favored the deconstructionist lens for its ability to critically examine and take apart the implied hierarchal structures or binary oppositions of this piece, specifically because those structures are inherently problematic.
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Project Gutenberg, 2018, retrieved from https://gutenberg.org/files/219/219-h/219-h.htm.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
Another project. This is a comparative, linguistic analysis between a historic work and a contemporary one: “Völuspá,” an excerpt of the Poetic Edda, and “Before the Beginning, and After,” taken from Neil Gaiman’s magnificent Norse Mythology. If you know the guy, feel free to pass this along.
For this project, I plan to analyze and compare two works of Norse mythology. “Völuspá,” or “The Prophecy of the Seeress,” is a creation poem featured in both Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and the elder Poetic Edda of the Codex Regius (“Royal Book”), which remains unattributed to an author. “Before the Beginning, and After,” is an excerpt from Norse Mythology, a collection of Norse myths retold by best-selling fiction author Neil Gaiman. The English translation of “Völuspá” used in this paper was originally published by Henry Adams Bellows in 1936 and is now a work of public domain. Small fragments of the translated prose were altered in 2006 by Dr. Marion Ingham, to reflect a more literal translation of Old Norse. The original manuscripts of the Prose and Poetic Eddas date back to the early 13th century. In comparison, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology was published quite recently, in February of 2017.
Both versions of the narrative provide some measure of context for the entire Norse mythos, introducing the Nine Worlds and how they each came to be. The creation of gods, giants, men, and dwarves—and the conflict and chaos that eternally rules their existence—is laid out within these verses. The traditional telling of “Völuspá” is from the perspective of a certain volva, or wise-woman, raised from the dead by Odin to foretell of Ragnarök, or “The Fate of the Gods”. In Gaiman’s adaptation, the author serves in place of the oracle, imparting a quick and easily digestible framework for the Norse chaos/creation/destruction myths.
II. Morphological, Phonological, and Semantic Analysis
Before being recorded in piecemeal by Christian missionaries, Norse mythology was strictly an oral tradition. Gaiman had similar intentions for his own retellings of the Norse mythos—he himself is the narrator of the audio version of Norse Mythology, and his introduction urges readers to “…on some dark and icy winter’s evening, or on a summer night when the sun will not set, tell your friends what happened when Thor’s hammer was stolen, or how Odin obtained the mead of poetry for the gods…” (6). From a linguistic perspective, I thought it would be compelling to examine the shifts in language from traditional Skaldic poetry (translated) to English (U.K.) fiction. Because these works were intended to be spoken, I think a phonemic analysis may provide curious insights into how the sounds of our storytelling traditions have changed over nearly ninety years, since Bellow’s 1936 translation.
Verses 33 and 34 of “Völuspá” features more voiced constants than voiceless, the voiced of which are emphasized here:
33. From the branch which seemed | so slender and fair
Came a harmful shaft | that Hoth should hurl;
But the brother of Baldr | was born ere long,
And one night old | fought Othin‘s son.
34. His hands he washed not, | his hair he combed not,
Till he bore to the bale-blaze | Baldr‘s foe.
But in Fensalir | did Frigg weep sore
For Valhall‘s need: | would you know yet more? (33-4)
Reading the prose aloud, I was struck by the sound of these verses in particular; though not pure alliteration, there are similar voiced and voiceless consonant and vowel sounds repeated within each line. Alveolar consonant phonemes are the most prevalent, but they also appear to generally be the most prevalent within the English language—there are more sounds listed in that column than any other, so that may simply be expected. The third line of verse 33 and the second line of verse 34 repeat the bilabial / b / stop four times within each respective line. These stress of these word-initial consonants starkly contrast the nasal, glide, and liquid manners of articulation that comprise most of the sounds in these verses. The stops seemed to act as a sort of punctuation, causing the narrator to slow and annunciate each / b /, where the rest of the sounds behave in a way congruent to their descriptors: the mouth moves with a gliding, liquid-like buoyancy in comparison to the choppy / b / breakers.
In Gaiman’s “Before the Beginning, and After,” another alliterative sentence caught my attention: “Niflheim was colder than cold, and the murky mist that cloaked everything hung heavily” (14). Beyond the obvious repetition of consonant sounds seems to be an almost formulaic sound construction: Nasal, glide, stop, fricative, stop, nasal, fricative, nasal, nasal, fricative, stop, fricative, glide, glide. As they did in “Völuspá,” the / k / stops here—all the same phoneme—seem to serve as a rhythmic punctuation between silkier sounds, drawing the listener’s attention and forcing the narrator to articulate carefully to avoid slipping the tongue. Repeating the consonant sounds most likely to be stressed when speaking, you end up with something like [ kuh-kuh-muh-muh-kuh-huh-huh ] (colder/cold, murky/mist, cloaked, hung/heavily). The repetition of sound and stress here echoes the poetic and near-lyrical quality of the “Völuspá” verses.
“Before the Beginning, and After,” and “Voluspo,” are both works of fiction; the latter is more likely to be defined as literature than the former, though both cover the subject matter of the ancient Norse mythos. Due to the fictional nature of the two works, an examination of the figurative language contained within both pieces seemed the most appropriate choice in semantic analysis. According to Linguistics for Everyone (2013),figurative language is generally defined as “language that shifts meaning from the primary meaning of the word” (p. 310). However, there are many specific types of figurative language, a few of which will be explored in these selected works.
Metaphors are probably the most common and easily recognizable category of figurative language. We use metaphors in our everyday language to draw comparisons between one idea and another: something is like something else. Denham and Lobeck (2013) inform us that the word metaphor comes from the Greek metaphero, which means to “transfer” or “carry over” (p. 312). Metaphors are often heavily used in fictional writing as a means to convey an image, idea, or sensation to the reader through imagery and association: He said the words, and her heart cracked like an old mirror. In this example, the girl’s heart isn’t actually anything like an old mirror, but the figurative comparison allows the reader to draw a mental imagery and association of things broken, shattered, irreparable, and so on.
Gaiman is a celebrated fantasy author, but the writing in “Before the Beginning, and After,” takes an almost scholarly tone, and the information contained therein—though rooted in mythology and entirely fictional—is presented in a straightforward and largely factual manner, lending Gaiman’s voice an authoritative quality. This deliberate separation from commonly used figurative literary devices makes the creation story of Gaiman’s Norse mythos more comparable to canonized religious texts, such as the Bible; there is a marked difference in the writing here when compared to the other plot-driven and traditionally-presented narratives contained in Norse Mythology.
In order to achieve this scholarly tone, Gaiman’s writing in “Before the Beginning” is markedly restrained in the use of metaphors and other non-literal language, though there are still a select few buried within the text: “The land was aflame with the roaring heat of a blacksmith’s fire,” (p. 14) or “a person bigger than worlds” (p. 15). What is interesting about these metaphors is that, though they draw comparisons between two concepts or ideas—a piece of land as a blacksmith’s pit, or a humanoid entity larger than a planet—these ideas are still expressed in a way which maintains continuity of Gaiman’s authoritative and factual voice. Gaiman seems to deliberately avoid the word like: Ymir, ancestor of all giants, is not presented as like a planet, but “a person bigger than worlds” (p. 15). The latter phrasing lends more weight than the former, presenting the idea as concrete and indisputable rather than imaginative. The same presentation is given in Gaiman’s description of the flame-world of Muspell. The land is not like the heat of a blacksmith’s fire, but rather, the blistering heat of a blacksmith’s fire is undeniably contained within the land.
Personification is a specific type of metaphor, and another example of a commonly used figurative device. Denham and Lobeck (2013) define personification as the “attribution of human qualities to something that is not human” (p. 313). Personification is not always immediately obvious—a sentence like the tree’s branches grasped at her hair might not immediately strike a casual reader as personification, though in actuality, a tree’s branches lack the nervous system, muscle, nerves, tendons, and bones, and other tissues to be able to grasp anything the way a human hand would, as is suggested by the text. Thus, personification is simply a more specific characterization of something is like something else.
Personification is used heavily throughout the writing in “Voluspo”: “The sun, the sister / of the moon, from the south / Her right hand cast / over heaven’s rim” (stanza 5). The sun is entirely devoid of any true human attributes, but mythology across all cultures often utilizes personification in the description of many earthly and celestial elements. This particularly makes sense when you consider that many cultures’ mythology includes ideals of animism, or the belief that both animate and inanimate entities (animals, trees, rocks, rivers, stars, etc.) contain a human-esque consciousness, awareness, or soul (Solomon & Higgins, 2003). The heavy use of personification in many mythological works, including “Voluspo,” likely has ties to the animistic beliefs of pagan and Viking cultures.
Drawing comparisons between human beings and non-human objects, ideas, or entities may have been a more effective use of non-literal language and imagery versus other methods; in the early 13th century, when the oral traditions of the Norse peoples were first transposed to written record by Christian missionaries, worldviews and education were likely to be highly limited, particularly among the “common” folk these myths so often entertained. Drawing comparisons between human attributes and non-human entities/objects/ideas could be reasonably seen as one of the most effective and easily understood uses of figurative language. Human beings are inherently social creatures, intimately knowledgeable from a tender age of the expressions, movements, sounds, and other non-verbal cues that humans use to convey meaning. Thus, it would seem logical that personification would be a common well of comparison to draw from, easily understood and put into the proper context by the masses.
III. Register Levels
In any written or spoken work, the narrator’s selection of language affects the register of the text or dialogue. Denham and Lobeck (2013) define register as a “speech or writing style adopted for a particular audience” (p. 350). This means that humans adapt the style, word selection, formality, and tone of our language depending on the context of the situation and intended audience. In his article titled “What Is Register in Linguistics?” (2018), linguistics professor and English expert Dr. Richard Nordguist explains that there are five generally accepted forms of register: frozen (or “static”), meaning language that is intended to remain unchanged, such as the recitation of a formal prayer; formal, which is used in academic and professional settings; consultative, which is the register used when imparting specialized knowledge or advice; casual, which is the relaxed and informal register used between friends and family; and intimate, which is a private—often loving, sexual, or conspiratorial—register used between two people.
As touched on previously, the register level within “Before the Beginning, and After,” reads differently than the subsequent chapters. This part of the narrative is conveyed factually, with unadorned language, consistent grammar, few figurative devices, and no dialogue; Gaiman’s seeming canonization of an uncanonized belief system lends the opening chapter a consultative register, such as that of a scholar or historian. In contrast, subsequent stories in Norse Mythology heavily feature informal and non-literal language (euphemisms, idioms, similes, metaphors, etc.), slang, dialogue exchanges, expletives, and so on. Once the setting and cast of characters have been formally introduced by Gaiman, the register takes on a much more lively and unceremonious tone. Though the creation myth contained in “Before the Beginning” is highly imaginative and entirely fictional, Gaiman chose practical language and heavily favorited literal description in creating the readers’ context for the remainder of the mythos.
The register of “Voluspo” is a bit more difficult to ascertain, largely due to the archaic language and poetic structure of the narrative. In this story, Odin summons a volva, meaning a seer, oracle, or wise-woman, from her grave in order to discover the future which awaits the gods. The volva initially addresses the gods with a tone somewhere between formal and consultative, seeking to impress the gathering of gods with her formidable knowledge of past, present, and future events. However, despite the formality of the volva’s language, slang, euphemisms, personification, metaphors, similes, and other forms of poetic license are heavily at play. Thus, it is necessary to make a distinction between the register of the characters and the overall register of the writing, which is lively, highly imaginative, and grammatically impractical in comparison to contemporary language use (though this is common in all poetry, even modern). So, while the register of volva to gods reads as formal and consultative, the overall register of the piece can be perceived as casual: the imparting of a wildly imagined tale from storyteller to audience; the tone is engaging, and the language, vivid.
The dialect of “Voluspo” can make interpretation and analyzation of the piece more challenging than other works of poetry, particularly when compared to contemporary pieces. The edition of “Voluspo” analyzed in this paper was translated by Henry Adams Bellows in 1936; even considering how recent that translation is in comparison to the timeline of the Edda’s existence, there are still peculiarities in the dialect that stem from conversion from Old Norse to English, artistic license and interpretation, grammatical irregularities, and so on. The language, structure, grammar, and voice of “Voluspo” immediately indicate to the audience that this work is likely historic. When reading through the piece, it’s often necessary to laboriously rearrange and contextualize the language to properly comprehend the message conveyed by the writing. Though much must be left to the interpretation of the translator, Bellows’ likely prerogative was to preserve the integrity of the original work as much as possible; this potentially affects word choice in the translation and may result in some measure of grammatical or contextual oddities within the text.
Though Neil Gaiman hails from Portchester in the United Kingdom, there is a stark absence of regionally-specific English in his writing. I imagine this is likely the work of skillful editors and, were a reader to buy the U.K. edition of Norse Mythology, they would likely find discrepancies between the American-English version and British-English version of the books. This is not an uncommon occurrence; take, for example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which is alternately titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone throughout the European nations. The title change in the North American release was simply due to the fact that J.K. Rowling’s publisher did not believe American children would be interested in reading a book with the word philosopher in the title; sorcerer imparted a more exciting and magical inflection.
The dialect within “Before the Beginning” is difficult to specify, as the opening chapter reads more like the retelling of a myth that would perhaps be contained within a textbook on anthropology or philosophy or religion: factual (though it indeed is not), unembellished, and largely expository. The most curious feature within the dialect of this work are the names—both of geographic locations and characters—which efficiently inform a non-Nordic reader of the tale’s exotic origins: Niflheim, Hvergelmir, Muspell, Ymir, Ginnungagap, and so on. These are not words (or even arrangements of letters or phonemes) that would seem intuitive to a native English speaker and indicate to the audience that Gaiman’s story takes place in a time and/or location different than our own.
V. Stylistic Elements, Use of Language, Intended Message, and Recommendations
The writing of “Voluspo” certainly informs the audience of the period from which it originated, but that is not the most interesting stylistic element of the piece. “Voluspo” is narrated through one character—the volva, or oracle—and the stylistic elements of her speech to the gods takes an interesting journey through the sixty-odd stanzas that comprise the poem. Her recollections of past, present, and future are not presented to the reader or listener on a linear timeline, but they are effective enough in informing the audience of a general series of events that leads from the creation of the gods, giants, and the Nine Worlds to the eventual (and inevitable) destruction of the known universe—Ragnarok.
Word repetition seems to play two key roles within “Voluspo”. First, names and/or locations appear repetitious when signifying importance, either in status or relevance to the plot. For example, Othin (Odin) is almost exclusively referred to by his proper name throughout the body of the text. In contrast, many other major characters are described within the tale in more indirect ways: Freyja is “Oth’s bride,” Fjalar is “the rust-red bird,” Fenrir is simply “the wolf” (stanzas 25, 43, 40). The repetitious use of Othin’s name seems to set him apart from the other gods, which makes sense in the context of the Norse mythos: Othin is the All-Father, the Heerfather, the Old One; he is the most wise, ancient, and powerful of the gods. The repeated use of his name, in this instance, seems to serve as an honorific to distinguish Odin from the rest of the characters.
Secondly, repetition of certain phrases is used to convey and stress certain messages to the audience of gods within the myth, as well as the reader. Near closing of the prose, the volva presents Odin with a question at the end of each of her revelations: “Would you yet know more?” (stanzas 48-66). The repetition of this phrase creates tension in the plot, as the oracle flaunts her power (with a decided measure of haughtiness) in the face of the most powerful and terrible of all the gods. These demonstrations of prophesy and the challenge the volva presents to Odin at the end of each one also signals to the reader the impending climax of the narrative, which is the foretelling of Ragnarok, the “Twilight of the Gods”.
Where Gaiman’s approach is straightforward and studious, the originating poem is a madcap whirlwind of places, periods, events, and characters. The word choice is vivid and melodic; the prose is heavy with imagery, figurative language, and grammatical flexibility. Though the formatting of “Voluspo” reads as decidedly nonstandard in today’s world, without a proper understanding of the syntax of Old Norse, it’s difficult to ascertain whether grammatical inconsistencies are a result of translation or whether they are built within the framework of the poem’s original structure. Lines such as “Loud roar the dwarfs / by the doors of stone,” demonstrate nonstandard but not unintelligible grammar; were the sentence written in “plain English,” it would likely translate to “By the doors of stone, the dwarves loudly roar,” or some variation thereof. However, shifting the grammatical structure does a fundamental disservice—if not outright damage—to the lilt and rhythm of the prose. In contrast, Gaiman’s approach to grammar is entirely standard and fairly unremarkable: “The giant drank the milk, and grew” (p. 16). Much like the straightforward approach Gaiman took to language, voice, and style in this piece, this fastidiously minimalist approach seems rooted in a desire to mute the absurdity of the myth and instill in his audience a sense of factualness and believability.
VI. Changes and Differences Throughout Time
In “Before the Beginning, and After,” Gaiman lays an expository framework for his mythological retellings in the form of the Norse creation/origin story. “Voluspo” similarly deals with the Norse destruction myth, though only in its foretelling; “Voluspo” is not the poem of Ragnarok. Additionally, the volva featured in “Voluspo” through which the poem is narrated makes several passing references to the original creation myth; thus, “Before the Beginning” and “Voluspo” both deal with a small measure of overlapping subject matter. Because of this, it is not necessary to entirely speculate at what “Voluspo” might look like in modern interpretation; there are a few small examples of contemporary shifts hidden within Gaiman’s work. Consider stanzas three and four from Henry Bellows’ 1936 translation of “Voluspo”:
3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.
4. Then Bur’s sons lifted | the level land,
Mithgarth the mighty | there they made;
The sun from the south | warmed the stones of earth,
And green was the ground | with growing leeks. (Bellows)
In examining changes from a phonetic view, there are two notable phoneme shifts comparable between the Bellows’ translation of “Voluspo” and Gaiman’s “Before the Beginning”. First, the consonant evolution of the voiceless fricative / θ / to the voiced stop / d /, observable in shifts such as Mithgarth to Midgard and Othin to Odin; secondly, the vowel shift of the mid-central / ^ / (but) to the mid-back / o / (boat) in words such as Bur to Bor and Skuld to Skold (Denham and Lobeck, 74-85). The phonological processing of the consonants / θ / → / d / seems intuitive when you consider how frequently English (particularly American) speakers unconsciously shift / t / → / d /. For example, the word butter is generally heard as “budder” rather than “but-ter” in the majority of North American diction. The vowel shift from / ^ / → / o / is likely a form of phonetic assimilation, where one vowel sound is overtaken by a similar vowel sound depending on regional, cultural, or environmental norms. Consider the many different pronunciations of bag in the English language: bahg, baeg, baag, beag.
The fact that “Voluspo” is a work of prose lends the piece a large measure of flexibility concerning grammatical structure; poetry tends to violate grammatical rules of English more often than follow them, generally from a motivation of artistic expression. “Before the Beginning” is decidedly standard in its use of grammar. Compare Bellows’ translation of the aforementioned third stanza to Gaiman’s take on the same subject: “There was no sea and no sand, no grass nor rocks, no soil, no trees, no sky, no stars” (16). Gaiman makes a notable shift from the subject + adverb structure used almost exclusively in “Voluspo” to an adverb + subject form, which is more commonly used in standard grammatical English (“I walked the dog” versus “The dog I walked”). However, the non-standard use of grammar in “Voluspo” could easily be argued as artistic, and therefore still applicable in a contemporary, prose-driven interpretation of the work.
Beyond proper nouns—names of specific people and locations—the vocabulary of “Voluspo” is not wildly different than the word selection featured in Gaiman’s contemporary work. This is more likely due to Gaiman’s desire to maintain a certain amount of continuity and integrity between the original Norse myths and his reinterpretation of them. The register of Gaiman’s work in “Before the Beginning” is formal and consultative; had he chosen to write from a more casual register, the vernacular and style may have created a drastically different impression on its audience. In the 82 years between Bellows’ translation and Gaiman’s reinterpretation of the myths, the formal use of English has shifted only slightly, while the colloquial use of English has seen dramatic change—consider recent dictionary additions such as weak sauce (n.) or facepalm (v.), or the newly-introduced verb form of the noun ghost (Debczak). Gaiman, therefore, shows a good measure of restraint and reflection of the original work in his word choice in order to retain a certain formality and create an appropriately anachronistic feel to the narrative; his deliberate selection of language enhances his intended message, rather than hindering it.
VII. Environmental, Historical, and Cultural Influences
Though there are examples of now-dated language used throughout “Voluspo”—words such as oft, hither, girdled, trodden are infrequently used in contemporary English—context and semantics would likely allow for any average reader to discern their meaning. Confusion is more likely to arise from grammatical structure, which, as previously noted, often takes the opposite form of standard, present-day English. For example, take the first two lines of stanza 23: “On the host his spear / did Othin hurl, / Then in the world / did war first come” (“Voluspo”). Though the vocabulary is fairly unremarkable, the reader will likely make a mental rearrangement of the lines before discerning the intended message: “Did Othin hurl / on the host his spear / Did war first come / then in the world,” which can then translate to something such as, “Odin and the gods take up arms, and the first war of the Nine Worlds is waged.” Though the grammar used in “Voluspo” often requires the contemporary reader to carefully analyze and restructure the language to discern the intended meaning, poetry often presents this challenge, even in modern forms. Thus, it is necessary to consider that the intended message may include the artistic structuring of the language; the non-standard use of grammar often creates a distinction between prose and literature, and may be essential to maintaining the overall integrity of the narrative.
Gaiman’s general avoidance of slang, idioms, euphemisms, metaphors, and regionally-specific or colloquial language—even the marked absence of dialogue within the story—lends the piece a certain formality which could be argued as historically influential. The restraint and simplicity demonstrated throughout “Before the Beginning” allows the work to be easily connected to the original myth, where a more casual register or relaxed approach to vocabulary may have obscured the myth beyond recognition.
Still, Gaiman’s approach does away with the outdated vernacular seen throughout “Voluspo”—you rather than ye, had over hath. Likewise, Bellows’ translation of Old Norse demonstrates significant changes in English language use between the Cottle translations (1796) and his own (1936). Consider the format and vocabulary of this excerpt from Cottle’s version of “Voluspo”:
With magic rites the concave rung;
Necromantic airs he sung;
Hyperborean climates view’d;
Runic rhymes around he strew’d;
Deep the incantation wrought;
Then the maid sepulchral sought. (Cottle, 105)
Where Bellows’ vocabulary feels only slightly dated when compared with Gaiman’s language use, the word choice in Cottle’s translation adds an additional level of obscurity, more so than the prose structure alone: words such as hyperborean and sepulchral, or the seemingly peculiar use of concave, might require a good deal of mental gymnastics for the average reader to properly comprehend.Much in the same way Gaiman’s reinterpretation of the Norse mythos feels appropriately modern, Bellows’ translation likely read as quite contemporary in 1936, when compared to previous translations of the Eddas. The evolution of the same myths—from English translations dating two hundred and twenty-two years apart—demonstrates remarkable shifts in vocabulary, grammar, structure, pronunciation, spelling, and definition.
The evolution of storytelling, speech, mythology, and
narrative is directly tied to the evolution of language. Distinct and recognizable
shifts in pronunciation, grammar, slang, word choice, and so on are essential
to informing the reader of not just the when,
but also the where and likely
even the why of a given narration. The
stories contained within “Before the Beginning” and “Voluspo” are essentially
the same; it is the selection and application of language which makes these two
works entirely distinct from one another. However, through attentive and
meticulous analyzation, it is still entirely possible to trace the roots of one
myth to another. Understanding where language originates from, how it is used,
and how it changes over time lends a deeper and richer understanding of the
cultures built around language, the nuances and subtleties of human
communication, and the way those two elements converge to endlessly shape and
reshape the expression of unique ideas.
Cottle, A.S. “The Edda of Saemund Translated into English Verse”. Magdalen College, 1796, p 102, PDF, accessed 30 November 2018.
Debczak, Michele. “30 of the New Words Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary”. Mental Floss, 8 February 2017, retrieved from mentalfloss.com/article/92032/30-new-words-added-merriam-webster-dictionary, accessed 30 November 2018.
Denham, Kristin, and Anne Lobeck. Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth Publishing, 2013, pp 69-103, MBS Direct, accessed 30 November 2018.
Gaiman, Neil. “Before the Beginning, and After”. Norse Mythology, Bloomsbury Publishing, 7 February 2017, pp 6-14, Google Play Books, accessed 10 November 2018.
“Völuspá”. Poetic Edda, circa13th century, translated by Henry Adams Bellows (1936), edited by Marion Ingham, 2006, verses 33-4, retrieved from voluspa.org/voluspa31-35.htm, accessed 10 November 2018.
Nordguist, R. “What Is Register in Linguistics?” ThoughtCo, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/register-language-style-1692038
Solomon, Robert, and Kathleen Higgins. From Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Mythology, 2003, Rowman & Littlefield, MBS Direct, accessed 16 December 2018.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2018, all rights reserved.