Thursday, October 21, 2010

Passivity and Entitlement

A wildly wonderfully humorous friend of mine who teaches at one of the UK's top universities is frustrated to the limit by his students. Today he wrote:

"...the emergence in many students of a somnambulistic passivity
coupled with a sense of absolute entitlement. Don't get me wrong,
'Sammy' and 'Timmy' are nice boys and they will probably do fine, but
it's like teaching a pair of paralyzed gannets. Not only do you, the
zoo-keeper, have to prepare the nourishing fishy mixture, but you also
have to march over to them, prise open their sodding beaks and tip the
herring in, so reluctant are they to stir their stumps in the pursuit
of their own intellectual nourishment."

Much of the pursuit of so-called spirituality, it seems to me, has been infected by this same spirit of sloth and entitlement. It seems to me that if one is serious about engaging God, then one does what is necessary to the task.

Learning Middle English, for example, is not any more difficult than learning how to decipher text messages and uses the same skill set. There are only three letters in ME that are different from the normal English alphabet. The Middle English text of The Cloud of Unknowing is now online at
with modernised spelling and footnotes that explain words in almost every line so that one doesn't even have to learn the three odd letters any longer. It's a clever site because you can scroll the text and notes together. The Middle English dictionary is online so that one can look up unfamiliar spellings and the much richer, multi-leveled and sometimes very different meanings of the ME words. It's fun and startling to check the most seemingly familiar words, not to mention suffixes (such as "hede" for example).

Adequate Greek and Hebrew interlinear resources are also online at scripture4all, to cite just one source. Strong's concordance is online; you can Google it. Parallel translations are online, ditto. The Latin Vulgate is online, as are plenty of Latin resources (Google now translates Latin, but Lewis and Short, the classical dictionary, is there too), along with the bible in just about any ancient or modern language you like, from Syriac to rap. The greatest resource for Greek I have found is a site called "Great Treasures" where you can pull up Greek and English versions in parallel including the Tischendorf, which is transliterated Greek with the words colour-coded so that if you click on a word, a short or long analysis (you can choose) of the word pops up. I have never studied either Greek or Hebrew formally but these sites are easy to use and give amazing insights into texts and interpretations.

Finally there is a question of translations. We all start somewhere, usually with translations. All translations have their faults but when something as critical as the experience/excessus mentis issue is wrong in a translation of a text that addresses this specific question, then recommending such a translation is like giving a child a snake instead of a fish, or a stone when he has asked for bread.

If one has bothered to watch one's own mind, one can often tell when a translation is suspect (see the comments on "insight" at the end of "Listening to Words" of 13 October). The question is whether one chooses to make the effort and take the risk, or whether one chooses to be a paralyzed gannet in a zoo. A child of God who knocks on the door and asks to be fed will find a feast with clear wine strained from off the lees; a paralyzed gannet will only be able to wallow in a lot of fishy goo.

[NB for those who don't know about gannets, they are a seabird that can hardly stand up, much less walk on land]


OpenID said...

Maggie, can you comment on some of the editions of both Julian and the Cloud that are available? Concerning Julian, which would you recommend, among these various editions: Baker (NCE), Crampton (TEAMS), Colledge and Walsh (PIMS) edition, or Glasscoe (Exeter)? Also, what do you think of Reynolds/Holloway "Extant Texts" (we'll ignore their translations for now). As for the Cloud, there's Hodgson (EETS) and Gallacher (TEAMS). Just would love to know your thoughts on these various editions.



1:03 pm, October 22, 2010  
OpenID said...

Oh, and one more thing: do you have a particular Middle English Dictionary or two that you recommend?

1:12 pm, October 22, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Glasscoe is the edition for Julian. None of the others can touch it. The positioning of the words is as important as the words themselves.

Hodgson is the benchmark for the Cloud, both text and introduction. I'm not happy with Gallacher's intro but his text seems to follow Hodgson fairly closely and I find the line numbers helpful. I haven't read the footnotes yet. I'm just starting work on Gallacher's text although I haven't yet compared it with Hodgson.

I don't know anything about the Reynolds/Holloway "Extant Texts" but the very mention of Holloway's name makes some scholars apoplectic.

You can't go wrong with EETS texts.

Hope this helps.

1:30 pm, October 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this website address!

I have begun reading the Middle English text and find it to be entirely fascinating.

5:53 pm, October 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What long tangled up sentences!

Was Middle English text read aloud?

If the manner in which one writes "echoes" the manner in which one thinks, a conversation, in the time of Middle English, must have been a quite different experience (as patient)than we are accustomed to in these times. now.

6:45 pm, October 22, 2010  
Anonymous AM said...

I'm just getting to know Julian. I'm not sure about this particular 'book adventure' of mine but i started with Ritamary Bradley, whose field of scholarship is on medieval studies in general and Julian of Norwich in particular, with her practical book - Praying with Julian of Norwich: Selections from a Revelation of Love. Both "beseeching" and "beholding" take prominence page after page.

2:34 am, October 23, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To AM and Julian readers: "beseeking" does NOT mean "beseeching"; it means seeking into the beholding from the depth of one's being, as in "I am the ground of thy beseeking". In our core silence the beholding is continuous. By faithfulness to beholding we learn to live from that.

10:16 am, October 23, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Middle English Dictionaries: there's a one-volume one that's not too bad but I can't remember who publishes it (mine is in the USA). Try Amazon. There is one under construction online at Search the entries (there are several options) and then do a Boolean search (type the word in the top box and hit 'search'. You will get a list of words). You may have to go to the library to access it, but the last time I checked the public could still get into it. I tried to look up "wetyn" (knowledge) yesterday without success, so it really is still under construction. There is a multi-volume Middle English dictionary that university libraries have on reference shelves (state university libraries are open to the public). You can google a Middle English word and sometimes find quotations that reveal the meaning. Hope this helps

10:24 am, October 23, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel a personal stake in this conversation, and wish to ask a question in all openness – a genuine question without subtext.

I began a blog last summer intending to address the Cloud philologically, through its original language as much as possible (see I am fully convinced that translation cannot do it justice, but at length became anxious by the makeshift of my efforts to do better, and left it off in concern. I would be grateful for some methodological guidance.

I began to work from an awareness of the history of words as a moving target. I identified terms on which units of texts seemed to hinge, using the etymologies from the OED and whatever I could find in Mossé’s Handbook of Middle English. This is limited in ways both predictable and not. For one thing, consideration of semantic histories is probably a better way to undermine one’s confidence in facile correspondences that to establish positive constructions of terms. For another, there must be nuances of syntax as well. And finally, the Cloud’s author surely mastered the Trivium and used it; thus all sorts of logical and rhetorical nuances are at work here that I am not trained to unpack.

All of which potentially means that I am left with the prospect that I am, even with the good faith effort I began at my blog, simply creating a different set of misunderstandings than translations of the Cloud advance – different, not necessarily better. Additionally, I can’t fully believe the text we have was meant to be transmitted as text alone, and see no way of re-establishing the human chain of transmission and interpretive apparatus that gave authority to certain of its meanings rather than others.

So: Work with the original language? I am fully in your corner. Take heart and confidence that this solves many of the perils of misinterpretation? Can’t quite do that yet. What do you advise?

2:10 am, October 24, 2010  
OpenID said...

Another question. Do you know of a readily available edition of Hilton's Scale of Perfection in Middle English?

3:29 pm, October 24, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Anamchara: Here is an online edition of the Scale:

9:40 am, October 25, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Anonymous Throughother: Wow, you have clearly thought about this in great depth and with great humility. I'm with you on the perils of mis-interpretation, but at least if one is working with the original we can argue about what's actually there instead of an interpretation of an interpretation.

Yes, its difficult not to have the chain of transmission. I think the author intended for it to be widely read (see ch. 45 and his inclusion of women. I have some theories about transmission but am not ready to discuss them publicly.

I have a couple of questions I'd like to ask of you privately, if you are willing and could send me your email, which won't be published as I moderate all comments. Many thanks.

9:45 am, October 25, 2010  
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4:07 pm, March 29, 2011  
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