Kalamazoo 2011: Gif me se witega ne leag: Probing the Critical Past, Present, and Future of Old English Wisdom Literature

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Karl Persson, University of British Columbia
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Since Morton Bloomfield's initial identification of wisdom as an under-discussed category in Old English literature, two critical responses have emerged. On one hand, numerous critics have proven him right by taking his suggestion in a variety of fruitful critical directions; such critics include T. A. Shippey, Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Susan Deskis, Carolyne Larrington, Paul Cavill, and T. D. Hill. On the other hand, these critics' extended discussion of wisdom literature, while it has done much to help us understand some of the more obscure Anglo-Saxon poetry, has also underscored the immense difficulties in undertaking such discussion; the corpus of wisdom literature varies from critic to critic, with Shippey including some of the so-called elegiac poetry, Hansen including the calendric Menologium, and Deskis extending the wisdom discussion into Beowulf. Moreover, the field remains quietly divided by the question of whether the study of wisdom literature should be confined to that literature which adheres strictly to formal proverbial form (Deskis and Cavill), or whether it should be opened up to include passages and works that are not strictly proverbial, but that seem to evince a wisdom "tone" or "mood" (Hansen and Shippey). Thus, if scholars have realized the immense importance of this category for the study of Old English literature, they have also had ample opportunity to learn what Maxims II wryly asserts, that "soð bið swicolost" (truth is most elusive). There is still, therefore, much work to be done in this field, and many issues that require clarification

According to Shippey's concept of "proverbiousness," the Old English wisdom tradition itself consists in dialogic exchanges between past, present, and future concerns, and involves neither slavish iteration of dead sententia, nor a clean break with the past in the name of an ostensible and too quickly lauded progress; instead it shows respect for traditional sapience even as it brings such sapience into dialogue with pressing concerns of the present. Thus, in the spirit of this tradition, I propose a session with dual objectives: to recognize and discuss the contributions of scholars that have gone before us in the study of Old English wisdom literature, but also to ask what it means for us to be heirs of this critical tradition as Twenty-First Century scholars.

Scholars are invited to submit papers on any subjects dealing with either or both of these objectives, including but not limited to responses to the following questions:

How unique is Anglo-Saxon wisdom literature against the backdrop of world wisdom literature? How unique is it in terms of other cultural wisdom traditions (e. g. classical and biblical) that may have influenced it?

After post-structuralism, must wisdom be interpreted as a form of power-knowledge or logocentrism? If not, what are the alternatives?

Is wisdom literature a mode of literature, a genre, or something else entirely? To what degree can we classify literature as "wisdom" without mapping modern classifications onto medieval (con)texts? To what degree is such ostensible objectivity desirable?