Friday, March 29, 2013

Mechthild Gretsch, RIP

One of my prized academic possessions
is a small yellow post-it note that I received in 2005.

With great trepidation I had sent Prof. Mechthild Gretsch an offprint of my article, "Re-Dating the Old English Translation of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang: The Evidence of the Prose Style," from JEGP.  I had originally submitted this article to another journal, which had asked Mechthild's husband, Prof. Helmut Gneuss, to be the outside reviewer.  Helmut sent his review directly to me as well as to the editors: typed, seemingly on a manual typewriter, on a narrow sheet of paper.  My German isn't great, but I knew enough that when I read the words "grosse mangel" in the second line, I broke out in a cold sweat.  Needless to say, the journal didn't publish the article, but by addressing the helpful criticisms of Helmut and another reviewer I was able to fix the essay and get it published in JEGP

But it was not because of her connection with Helmut that I sent my article (which was my best technical work up to that point) to Mechthild, but because she was the living Anglo-Saxonist whose work I most admired.  But she didn't know that, I had never met her personally, and she had a fearsome reputation as a scholar who did not hesitate to point out errors and lacks, particularly if they were grosse. It had taken some willpower, and maybe a drink or two, to put the offprint in an envelope and mail it off.

You see, though I never told her this, my intellectual debt to Mechthild is very great.

In 2001 I had been stuck. The success of Beowulf and the Critics was combining with the difficulty I was having in putting together my first monograph on Anglo-Saxon to pull me away from the field. Kalamazoo that year had been a big, depressing disappointment. What other people seemed to find exciting did nothing for me, and the terrible job market had caused a number of my friends to leave academia altogether. The intellectual spark had gone out.  Anglo-Saxon studies was following a path that led only to insignificant but all-consuming quibbling. The field was entangled in miserable thickets of personal and institutional politics, and those who--through the positions they occupied, if not the work they were no longer doing--should have led were instead dissipating the hard-won intellectual inheritance of our titanic forebears (not on debauchery, more's the pity, but on orthodoxy, groveling, scheming). It was just a radical change from my feelings of immense excitement at ISAS '95 at Stanford or '97 at Palermo or '99 at Notre Dame. I wanted out, to be away from this whole field that I had loved so much.

I clearly remember sitting on the floor of O'Hare airport at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning exhausted (having gone to bed at 3:00 and gotten up at 4:30), bored, and with a five-hour wait ahead of me, thinking that this was going to be my last Kalamazoo. I would focus on Tolkien, get my tenure in a couple years, and spend my energies on my 1-year-old daughter.

Then, to pass the time, I opened a book I had bought: Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform. I wasn't expecting much. The Cambridge UP Anglo-Saxon England books are always well-done, by smart (albeit connected) people with good training. They're usually correct in whatever it is that they say, the kinds of books that smart, connected people create to gather up and transfer knowledge.  But they aren't exciting. Or at least one never had been until I started reading Gretsch.

Then my whole intellectual world changed.

Here, finally, was what I had been looking for without knowing it: an approach to Anglo-Saxon texts that was scientifically rigorous, linked always to specific knowledge taken from texts rather than guesses or abstractions. Here were arguments the built upon one another with the same kind of logical beauty as those in math or physics. But what these arguments did was absolute romance: they brought the dead to life.

And Gretsch did this with Psalter glosses.

Psalter glosses! Possibly the most boring set of "texts"in the history of earth. But by sorting through layers of such glosses, categorizing them, understanding the ways that the medieval authors had tried to understand their Latin sources, the mistakes they made, even, perhaps, the puns that amused them, Gretsch had reconstructed the an "Aldhelm Seminar" at Glastonbury in the tenth century. Æthelwold and Dunstan had gathered their followers together and sweated out the difficulties of Aldhelms "dense wood of Latin." And then they had burst out to change English culture forever.

By the time my flight arrived, I had recaptured my love for Anglo-Saxon studies.  I read Intellectual Foundations the way Richard Feynman said to read a physic textbook: read until you reach a point where you don't understand, then go back to the beginning and re-read, hopefully getting further the second time. When I finally understood each step of the argument, I was ready (and able) write my own book.

In the process I stumbled upon stylistic patterns in the Old English translation of the Rule of Chrodegang that allowed me to re-date that text and put it in its correct Benedictine Reform context. I tried to make that argument as logically rigorous as Mechthild's argument in Intellectual Foundations, and I guess, thanks to the influence of that model, I succeeded.

My post-it note from Mechthild reads, in part:

Dear Michael,
Thanks for your offprint.
I think you are right.

It is in part due to Mechthild's scholarly example and her achievement that "I think you are right" is a greater compliment than any effusive praise could be.

Thank you, Mechthild, for your inspirational scholarship, for your uncompromising intellectual toughness and for your blend of logical rigor and creativity. Thank you for being so kind and encouraging. I hope you are resting peacefully and that you now know the authors of the glosses and their purposes, that you've had a chat with Æthelwold and Dunstan and Wulfstan and Ælfric and that when they tell you,"I think you are right" it gives your spirit as much joy as your words gave mine.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Feynman on "Pretentious Science"

The "work" is always

(1) completely un-understandable,

(2) vague and indefinite,

(3) something correct that is obvious and self-evident, worked out by a long and difficult analysis, and presented as an important discovery, or

(4) a claim based on the stupidity of the author that some obvious and correct fact, accepted and checked for years is, in fact, false (these are the worst: no argument will convince the idiot),

(5) an attempt to do something, probably impossible, but certainly of no utility, which, it is finally revealed at the end, fails or

(6) just plain wrong.

There is a great deal of "activity in the field:" these days, but this "activity" is mainly in showing that the previous "activity" of someone else resulted in an error or in nothing useful or in something promising.