Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Monsters on the Frontier: The Denial of Liminality and the Restoration of the Lifeworld by Baptism

As I traverse "Terrain and Territory" in Anthony Steinbock's fascinating and difficult study of phenomenology, Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl (Northwestern, 1995), I allow my favorite monster from literature to intrude upon the landscape: Grendel, who famously appears in the Old English epic poem, Beowulf. Of course, Steinbock's presentation of the 'homeworld' and 'alienworld' and his adoption of these Husserlian ideas within his project of 'generative phenomenology' sets the stage for Grendel's entrance within the 'lifeworld' of the Danes.

Grendel, of Cain's kin and the 'shadow-walker,' hates the sounds of 'joy,' the celebrations within Heorot, Hrothgar's hall, where this king of the Danes gathered with his retainers in the evening. Joy, singing and even inebriation continue until the monster stopped all that with nocturnal murder. What kind of being but a monster could rage against joy? Why does joy and song enrage such a creature? Another nickname for the monster holds a clue: mearcstapa, the 'border-stepper.'

Grendel, whose name suggests both 'ground' and 'border' (consider Mod. Ger. Grenzen) or 'frontier,' crosses from the fens he holds fast to Hrothgar's mead-hall, without ever stepping into liminality.  He personifies the limit, yet never stands at the border of two world, as the 'hero on the beach' often does in Old English poetry (the hero at the border of two worlds is thematic in the Anglo-Saxon poetic record). As a shadow consigned to the lineage of Cain, Grendel can never cross over the outer limit, never become the brave one, sporting a glinting light, near the edge. He remains alien to his enemies and to himself: regenerativity (or generativity) is off limits to him: even in victory he stands alone in Heorot, sterile and the stranger. He is never at home.

As Kenneth P. Quinn has noted in his The Use of Baptismal Liturgy in three Old English Poems, the imagery of the outer limits or edges in Beowulf conjures the liminality of the baptismal font and its liturgy. Liminality, as ontological status, is something denied to Grendel through his proscription, but open to all others, presumably even to the drunken 'thanes' celebrating in Heorot. As the 'mark-stepper' Grendel is denied baptism, the play of 'homeworld' and 'alienworld' is denied its authentic relationality. For Grendel, the 'lifeworld' never reaches perfection (in the sense of completion or fulfillment), and he remains condemned to reign over the limits with no hope for liminality.

Enraged at what is possible for the revelers in the mead-hall, Grendel acts out what is impossible for him; in a mockery of a liturgy of new creation and the baptismal font, which he can never approach, he destroys what is created and celebrated in the scop's (the singer of tales) song of creation, which he cannot endure. Steinbock's delightful discussion (HB, 208-19) of 'narrative' and the role of the 'narrator' in the 'homeworld' provokes an interpretation of a dimension to Grendel's wrath: the scop, as 'narrator 'of cultural narratives, weaves not only tales of history but also of the social virtues and values. In this sense, the teller of tales re-invents the fabric of the lifeworld. The scop, then, continually weaves a world which Grendel can 'visit' but never enter.

The monster reigns over Heorot for 12 years until Beowulf turns the laughter in his heart to fear. Grendel, ripped apart from his own hand and shoulder, his very grip on Heorot, and eventually beheaded in death, rests disjointed and hewn apart whence he came, underscoring his separations in life, denied as he was a co-constituted and co-relative 'homeworld' and 'alienworld.'

The hero's eventual epic descent to the depths of Grendel's mother's lair restores the traversal of water as new life, as he secures victory over evil. The balance of 'alienworld' and 'homeworld' is also restored. Heorot is made whole again, and enjoys an integration of worlds denied its attacker. The baptism of regeneration is for some, but not for those others conscripted into the line of Cain.

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