21 September 2011

Legens Dense

There are multiple directions I could take today’s blog entry in. Quite frankly, I’m not sure what I want to write about. This blog is primarily meant to be about my dissertation process, but there are lots of different processes that feed into putting a dissertation together: thinking about what I accomplished on a specific day, thinking about what my long term goals are (these are not necessarily straight forward and are just as susceptible to change as daily goals, perhaps even more so), thinking about the specific dissertation ideas I wrote about that day and how I can build on them (or abandon them, depending on what came out of the writing session), and so on. I’m hesitant to write about my goals at the moment, which was the subject of this morning’s writing session on process. I would like to share some of the insights I’ve had on why I’m going through this journey, but I’m not feeling up to it at the moment. I was exhausted (in a good way) after I wrote about this morning and don’t want to tire myself out right now. I’d rather finish the day strongly. So I think I will write about the close reading I did in my second writing session.

The close reading of a passage is a mainstay in today’s research in literature, though it is not the only approach, nor necessarily always the best one. How to 'read' a text depends on the interests and purposes the reader/writer of the text has in mind when they get to the writing stage. The close reading would not be well suited, for instance, to a paper on how Chaucer is being taught in the classroom today, though a close reading of what educators have said about teaching Chaucer could be done. The close reading is a good choice for the book length chronicle written in verse that I am currently studying. It also lends itself to the kind of uncensored, raw kind of writing I am doing at the moment. I wrote several pages about four or five lines of verse, which is a very close reading indeed.

I chose to do a close reading of a passage that has been chewed over by scholars in my field and by folks interested in Arthurian literature in the context of Translation Studies in particular. Because I already knew it had received lots of attention (in fact I’ve written down ideas about it before, but I think it’s a good idea to rethink a passage after a while and see if anything new or different presents itself to me), I tried to throw out all of the assumptions I had ever made about it. Instead of writing down answers to what I thought the passage meant, I asked every question that quickly came to mind. And I tried to curb my impulse to quickly develop answers to those questions. Doing so it not always easy, and I did speculate at times about how I might answer the questions I was putting to myself. But I think the real pay from this approach was seeing a pattern emerge from the types of questions I was asking. Without realizing it, I had asked a lot of questions about what the passage was telling me about how ethnicity is constructed ‘in translation.’ I’ve written about this topic elsewhere, but I hadn’t had a chance to give it much thought as far as the primary source I am now working with goes.

(Re)Discoveries like this excite me. Asking questions instead of trying to supply answers didn’t just tell me something about what I think the passage is about. It also told me something about my research interests that I have been taking for granted. This kind of (re)discovery can be a great motivator for writing a dissertation, especially one that focuses on medieval literature. I emphasize medieval literature here because, even though we are ultimately separated from the read texts we read in space and time, no matter how recently they were written, the sense of distance we feel when read a text can be a bit overwhelming where medieval literature is concerned. I have remarked on more than one occasion to friends who are either writing or have successfully defended their dissertations that, because my primary texts were all written between 800 and 900 years ago, I do not feel any particular attachment to them. I don’t feel personally invested in them. Or it is hard for me to find that personal investment. And I’ve been really jealous of friends who have found that personal sense of attachment. I have event felt that their dissertation topics are more worthwhile than mine because they are personally invested in what they are writing about while I have not been, or so I had been telling myself.

I’m not going to commit the fatal new critical error here and state that all literature transcends space and time so that we don’t need to think about the specific historical and social circumstances that may or may not have influenced the writing of the texts I am working with. But, after seeing a pattern emerge in the questions I was posing today, seemingly of its own accord, I now feel as though I can find ways to relate to medieval texts by asking the kinds of questions that many of us ask ourselves today. What does ethnicity have to do with all of this? What about race? What about gender? What about colonial discourse? And I think asking those sorts of questions today helped me to relate to the text I’m examining in a way that I can make personal.

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