Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Chaucer and Vanishing Ice: A partial retrospective of NCS 2014

Jökulsárlón (March, 2006).
I have so much to say about my recent trip to Iceland — and about the marvelous New Chaucer Society conference I attended there — that I barely know where to begin. My fondness for this particular gathering of medievalists seems to amplify with each successive conference, and so much of what I said about the Portland gathering certainly rings true here as well: that as a fairly recent Ph.D. who, until just two months prior to NCS found herself still in the yawning realm of job contingency, this conference — given and its assemblage of so many kind-hearted and enthusiastic colleagues and friends — always seems to innervate me when I need it most. There are so many parts of the trip and the conference that I want to write about — from the magnificent Settlement Museum, to the stark beauty of the Icelandic countryside, to the deep intellectual and personal generosity of colleagues and friends, to the joys and challenges of traveling to a foreign country and a conference with a three month old — but for now, I'll limit myself to the topic of ice. 

Jökulsárlón (March, 2006)
I was thrilled to be a part of Jeffrey Cohen's Ice sessions at this particular gathering, in no small part because I've found myself fascinated and in awe of Iceland's glaciers ever since I first caught glimpses of them during my 2006 trip to the country. They loomed in the distance as the Flybus hurtled down the road from the airport to Reykjavík, and they towered over us magnificently as Robbie and I careened around the Ring Road from Reykjavík to Skaftafell National Park and back (over a period of a few days, of course!). I remember being simultaneously awestruck by the immensity of Skaftafellsjökull and alarmed by how much the glacier had retreated over the past few decades. I vividly remember ambling along the edge of Jökulsárlón, marveling at the eery quiet, the otherworldly blue hues of the ice, and the seals that frolicked between the icebergs.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of glacial ice, however, is of the lagoon at Gígjökull, one of Eyjafjallajökull's outlet glaciers. We scampered on top of icebergs encased in the frozen waters and hiked to the edge of the glacier itself.  The snow-coated landscape could not have been more gorgeous -- I even recall our guide, Kristin, matter-of-factly assuring us that heaven would be at least this beautiful. But I also remember being stunned to hear Kristin say that, just fifty years prior, the glacier extended far past the edge of the lagoon itself. I thought I heard him wrong at first. "Surely," I thought, "he said five hundred years." I simply couldn't wrap my head around that much vanished ice.

The Gígjökull lagoon, as I will always remember it.
I have an immense fondness for that lagoon and for the hours that we spent in awe of both its stark beauty and its ephemerality. And so, I was more than a little saddened when I learned from Oddur (the glaciologist who participated in the Ice sessions at this years NCS gathering) that the lagoon (featured right) was obliterated when the now infamous volcano under Eyjafjallajökull erupted back in 2010. I'm fairly certain, in fact, that this video captures its destruction; you can also see current photos of the location here. Saddened as I was to hear of the lagoon's extinction, its swift demise brought home to me the volatility of Iceland's landscape, and of how a glaciers can act as both its creator and destroyer. In this way, my brief conversation with Oddur anticipated what so many of us evoked in our papers: that glacial ice remains a dangerous and remarkable substance — but also a deeply imperiled — substance. After all, as Jeffrey stated in his introductory remarks, Iceland's glaciers will cease to exist in two hundred years' time — a span that, by all accounts, is but a geological blink of the eye. 

Jeffrey has already summarized each of our papers in his post about the sessions, so I won't repeat that work here, but what I will say is how struck I was by the ways in which our papers intersected with one another and how our ensuing conversations encouraged me to revisit certain aspects of my own speculations. Case in point: I asked in my own paper how deft of a reader Geoffrey (HoF's narrator) can possibly be if he can't figure out, and quickly, that he's climbing all over a massive rock of ice.  Dan Remein pointed out, however, that it can be startlingly easy to mistake parts of a glacier for rock when one is climbing upon it — something he discovered while on our group's glacier hike the previous day. Perhaps, then, Geoffrey's not a bad reader -- just a confused one! As an aside, Dan's observation, born out of the visceral experiences of the day prior, truly brought home how essential that glacier hike was to our session; and for that reason I do hope, like Jeffrey, that more of us will consider taking these kinds of interdisciplinary turns in our work -- especially at conferences, which are by their very nature designed us to present exploratory works-in-progress.

During the Q&A, Dave Hadbawnik asked about the indeterminacy of the House of Fame's foundation (is it made or is it natural? certainly a question to keep musing upon as I work on this nascent topic), while another attendee asked about the likeliness/possibility of Chaucer having ever seen a glacier on his travels and what that question might mean for an "icy" reading of the poem. Regarding the latter, the matter of imagination was offered up -- the notion that if modern day scientists can imagine what other kinds of ice are possible (at, say, the center of the earth or on distant planets), certainly Chaucer could have conjured up an imagined glacier having only heard of one. And towards the end of our second Ice session, Karl Steel asked us to comment on the risks of giving ice a privileged ontological position. I appreciated that question very much, because it forced me to ask myself whether there was anything arbitrary in my approach to HoF. Was I, in other words, randomly privileging a particular object and, in the process, forcing an otherwise untenable reading out of the poem? I think that Karl's question is an important one to keep asking myself as I continue to examine potentially agential objects in Chaucer's works. At the same time, though, my sensing was that our sessions, didn't afford any undue privilege to ice but rather encouraged us to scrutinize references that all too often go unnoticed and, in the process, see what happens to the texts in question when we do so.

And so, in that spirit, I'll offer up my paper:

"Vanishing Ice and The House of Fame: An Ecocritical Interrogation"

In this talk, I want to consider ice-as-agent in House of Fame. What does it mean for ice to have agency in this poem? How does ice fit within the ecological framework of The House of Fame? And what happens when we consider the agential force of Ice in House of Fame alongside images of moving, melting glaciers? While many scholars have explored the poem’s emphasis on poetic creativity and limitation, reading ice as an agential object (rather than as a mere descriptive feature) might offer an interpretation of the poem that more accurately captures its persistent enjambment of the non-human with the human. The powerful presence of ice in The House of Fame reminds us that, while the poem concerns itself in vibrant ways with human stories and objects, there exists in tandem to the manmade a force that (however glacial its movements or its meltings) may ultimately get the last word.

Ásbyrgi. Photo by Mats Wibe Lund (www.mats.is)
But let’s talk for a moment about glaciers and their creative movements.  In the north of Iceland lies Ásbyrgi, a canyon carved out by one (possibly two) enormous jökulhlaup — flashfloods born of subglacial volcanic eruptions — at Vatnajökull during the last ice age. The eruptions, which took place under the mighty Vatnajokull, instantly melted a tremendous amount of ice, and the resulting flashfloods violently carved out the canyon in a matter of days. The canyon is approximately three kilometers long and one hundred meters high at its deepest point. Vatnajökull itself lies far to the southeast, and covers almost eight percent of Iceland’s landmass. It is parent to over thirty outlet glaciers, and you can reach one of them, Skaftafellsjökull, by a scenic and sobering hike. Along the path, stakes labeled by decade mark the points where the glacier used to reach. And in the background, where there arrow is located, you can see the glacier itself. The amount of absent ice attested by these posts is simply staggering, almost as staggering as the massive expanse of land carved out in its wake, or the stones in the valley that lay split like hardboiled eggs from the immense pressure of the now-absent glacial mass. These spaces stand as quiet, looming memorials to the power and the impermanence of ice. 

Ice, by its very nature, is liminal, and its liminality likely contributed to Chaucer’s decision to perch his House of Fame upon it. The palace sits, after all, “in myddes of the weye / betwixen” heaven, earth, and the sea — an allusion, perhaps, to the vaporous, solid, and liquid forms that water can take. The melting of the building’s glacial foundation, in all of its inexorability, consistently threatens its existence and the stories preserved in its walls. Like the Mississippi River described by Jeffrey Cohen in Prismatic Ecologies, ice is an “earth artist,” “its projects tak[ing] so long to execute that humans have a difficult time discerning their genius” (xix). This very problem of perception certainly plagues our narrator in HoF. Consider, for instance, how he struggles to identify what kind of [CUE] “rock” the HoF is built upon:

But up I clomb with alle payne,
And though to clymbe it greved me,
Yit I ententyf was to see,
And for to powren wonder lowe,
Yf I koude any weyes knowe
What maker stoon this roche was.
For hyt was lyke alum de glas,
But that hyt shoon ful more clere;
But of what congealed matere
Hyt was, I nyste redely.
But at the laste aspied I,
And found that it was every del
A roche of yse, and not of steel.
Thought I, "By Seynt Thomas of Kent,
This were a feble fundament
To bilden on a place hye.
He ought him lytel glorifye
That hereon bilt, God so me save!" 
-- House of Fame, 1118-35

It takes him sixteen lines-worth of musing to figure out that the “rock” is actually ice, which certainly brings into question (given that he’s climbing all over it) how adept he is at reading his surroundings (i.e. couldn’t he feel that it was cold?).

Consider as well how he struggles to understand why it’s built on ice in the first place. He criticizes the builder — essentially calling him/her a fool — and then ponders over the names etched on one of the foundation’s walls that have all but melted away. He seems reassured, however, by the castle, which,  as he describes it, seems to protect one of the walls from the melting effects of the heat (lines 1136-64). I think, however, that HoF invites its audience to see Geoffrey’s shortcomings in this very analysis. For as Bernd Herzogenrath observes, ice is “a shapeshifter” “prone to powerful expansion.” And while humans might not be able to see that expansion take place, the fact remains that all ice, even the glacial foundation of HoF, is forever on the move.

Geoffrey’s initial lamentation over the feebleness of the House of Fame's foundation is, then, the more accurate of his two observations. But it seems to be one that Geoffrey cannot sustain, because to do so would be to admit how much of human ingenuity and accomplishment lie at the mercy of the natural world.  A message that these images* of moving and melting glaciers certainly bring home to us in vital ways. Our narrator may largely assume that ice can be managed by manmade forces, but the fact remains that The House of Fame — and all that it seems to represent and contain — remains forever at the mercy of the foundation upon which it has been built. Human achievement and existence are, by extension, forever at the mercy of the non-human. Ice, then, becomes the primary agential object in HoF, quietly moving, melting, threatening the collapse of all that humans seek to build upon it. Our narrator’s description of the House of Fame and its glacial foundation, then, ruefully reveals the limits of human perception, especially of our ability to read the movements of the natural world and measure our power over it with complete accuracy.

By foregrounding a vibrant ecology with ice as the primary agential object and mover, HoF invites us to reflect upon the tensions between nature and culture that Lisa Kiser sees in Parliament of Fowles, and also invites us to reconsider the limits of human sensory perception. John Muir, the great American naturalist, encountered glaciers in sensual ways not all that removed from Geoffrey in this poem. He saw and embraced them as “vibrating, vibrant things” (to paraphrase Lowell Duckert) and Geoffrey, at least for a brief moment, acknowledges them as such (an admission that I think audiences are meant to keep firmly in mind even if the poem’s narrator cannot). In this way, HoF, through its positioning of ice as the unstable foundation upon which all human achievement is laid to rest, reminds us of a truth that Muir heard echoing through an Alaskan glacier — that “the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation.”** Thank You.

*In the actual presentation, I showed excerpts from James Balog's time-lapse photography, which he showcased in both his TED talk and the documentary Chasing Ice. I selected two clips: one of Sólheimajökull (the glacier on which many of my fellow panelists hiked the day before), and one of the Ilulissat glacier in Greenland. You can find them in this video, which is worth watching in its entirety in order to get a sense of Balog's project and the staggering amount of vanished glacial ice across our planet. 

**I owe a debt of gratitude to Lowell Duckert, whose article "Glacier" introduced me to Muir's description of the Alaskan glacier. 


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 

Duckert, Lowell. “Glacier.” postmedieval 4.1 (2013): 68-79.

Herzogenrath, Bernd. “White.” In Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Kiser, Lisa J. “Chaucer and the Politics of Nature.” In Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism. Eds. Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace. Charlottesville, VA: UP of Virginia, 2001, 41-56. 

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