Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Out of Synch

When the reviewer of my new book for the Washington Post began by invoking Jung’s theory of “synchronicity” I had an uneasy feeling, since synchronicity hasn’t always worked out all that well for me.  In this instance things were hardly grave.  It meant that somebody else had also had “my” bright idea of writing a book about Enlightenment esotericism, and that the two books had appeared at approximately the same time.  I’ll get around to reading the other one at some point.  For the time being I’m satisfied by the venal information that I am outselling it two to one.  Of course it would be better if that were a ratio rather than the actual number of books sold in a week.

            Synchronicity snuck up on me in another way.  Only two weeks ago I wrote a post about what I called “dead letter scholarship”, essays written for collections that never get published.  That very week I got a dunning letter about an essay I thought I had finessed, and therefore not even thought about.  It turned out that the editor, on the other hand, had been thinking about it pleasurably for some time, and looked forward to reading it soon, confident as she claimed to be that I would certainly make the deadline—July 31st!  The boot was apparently on the other foot.  Dead letter scholarship is distressing, but deadbeat scholarship is even worse.  The deadbeat scholar is a wretch, scorned and rejected of men.

            Thus I have been beavering away for the last few days on a short  essay on “The Structure of the Pearl”--the Pearl being, as I shall briefly explain in a moment, a very beautiful fourteenth-century English poem.  Since the deadline is actually today, I am going to have to grant myself a forty-eight hour reprieve, but by the end of the week I shall hope to have unburdened my conscience.  Getting into this mess involved not synchronicity but another feature of my professional career—in addition to recurrent mental aberration, that is. I have been haunted by what might be called “reputation lag”.  Publishing an essay on some obscure subject should not have the force of a religious vow to forsake all other obscure subjects in perpetuity, but I am freuqently asked to talk or write about something I established my “expertise” on in middle school.

             I believe that it was in 1982—before more than half the readers of this blog were even born—that I wrote something about the structure of the Pearl.  I haven’t thought a whole lot about it since.  None of us can dictate the way that others will think about us, but it is terribly cruel to have to imagine that someone has been thinking, as I passed by on the street: “Oh, there goes whatzisname?  You know, the expert on the structure of the Pearl.” 

 Reunion of the Poet and the Pearl: A River Runs Through It

            The Pearl is one of the most beautiful poems in our literature, but today’s readers are precluded from its easy appreciation by several daunting problems.  Its language is very difficult—considerably more difficult than that of Chaucer, of whom the Pearl-poet was a contemporary.  It is written in a Midland dialect—not in the London dialect that became the basis of modern literary English.  It is full of unrecognizable words, often chosen to satisfy the technical requirements of internal rhyme, or alliteration, as we usually call it—a poetic form with which we are not generally familiar.   Its narrative element is slight and its precise subject matter—concerning which even medievalists are by no means of one mind—often elusive.  In a nut, or rather oyster shell, it is this.  A man laments at great length that he lost a perfectly exquisite pearl in a garden.  It fell “through the grass to ground”.  Further details make it seem that he is probably talking about the loss of a young daughter.  Later, a beautiful young girl appears in the poem to engage the narrator in heavy theological rap.  She explains that if only he could see the reality of things he would be joyous rather than despondent.  For his lost pearl is now one of the 144,000 virgins cavorting around the Lamb in the New Jerusalem, as described in the Apocalypse of John.

            The Pearl exists in a unique manuscript, along with a few others by the name author, including the priceless Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  The poet was knee-deep in number mysticism.  Sir Gawain is all about five, which is why it has 101 25-line stanzas for a total of 2525 lines.  Pearl is all about twelve, which is why it has 101 12-line stanzas for a total of 2525 lines.  If you want to know about the 101, you will have to wait until I finish my essay, should I in fact do so.

 Sir Robert Cotton

The manuscript, now in the British Library, is known as “Cotton Nero A. x”.  Its one-time owner, Sir Robert Cotton (1570-1631), had a wonderful library of old books shelved in a number of elegant architectural bays, each of which was presided over by the sculpted bust of a Roman Emperor.  The notation “Nero A. x” meant that this manuscript was the tenth book from the left on the first shelf of Nero’s biblio-bay.

one mean librarian