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'Á Kálfskinni': Sagas and the Space of Literature

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The " space of literature " is a metaphor for literature introduced by the French writer and critic Maurice Blanchot to express the specificity of literary discourse , which says what otherwise cannot be said. In this it produces a
  ejss2017; 47(1): 168–180 Tor H.Tulinius* ‘Á Kálfskinni’:Sagas and theSpace of Literature  Abstract:  The “space of literature” is a metaphor for literature introduced by theFrenchwriterandcriticMauriceBlanchottoexpressthespecicityofliterarydis-course,whichsayswhatotherwisecannotbesaid.Inthisitproducesacommunityaroundtheunsayable.Thisabilitytosaysomethingpreviouslyunsaidmakesliter-aturetosomeextentakintoscienticinquiry.Inthelastdecades,researchinOldNorse-Icelandicstudieshasnotfocussedonthisaspectofthesagaliterature.Thestudy of the sociological conditions for literary production in medieval Icelandcan explain why the self-conscious pursuit of literary expression resulted in theemergence of a unique literary genre, the Saga about early Icelanders (  Íslendin- gasögur  ). This group of sagas projects on a particular temporal and spatial con-struct, that of Iceland during the Settlement and Conversion periods, the unspo-ken concerns of their time of writing, the Sturlung age and its aftermath.Thechoiceofthetheme‘SagasandSpace’forthe2015SagaConferenceinZürichconrmshowreceptiveOldNorsestudieshavealwaysbeentonewapproachestotheir sources. Throughout the history of scholarship, many breakthroughs in theeld can be associated with theoretical developments in the wider humanitiesand social sciences. In recent decades, structuralist and post-structuralist theoryhave been applied to narrative and poetic texts, as well as methods inspired byanthropology (Glauser 1983; Tulinius 2002; Pálsson 1992). More recently, gender studies, post-colonial studies, new philology and memory studies have broughtnew insights to the study of Old Norse-Icelandic literature (Clover 1993; Jakobs- son2007;Ríkharðsdóttir2012;Eriksen2013;Hermann,MitchellandArnórsdóttir2014). None of these new discoveries were foreseen. That is what is so excitingabout research, even in a domain with such a long history of scholarship. Thereare always new and unpredicted developments. Something not yet imagined anduntil then unimaginable comes to the surface in the collective endeavours of thescholarly community.This ability to bring forth the unimagined and unexpected is also an aspectof literature. The art of arranging words to tell a story, and/or to create a poetic *Corresponding author: Tor H. Tulinius,  UniversityofIceland, Gimli #129, 101 Reykjavík,Iceland, e-mail:  Authenticated | author's copyDownload Date | 9/16/17 8:25 AM  Á Kálfskinni |  169 eect, the way literature experiments with meaning, all this is just as inductiveto discovery as scientic inquiry. It can say the previously unsayable, that whicha culture or a society cannot express otherwise. It opens up what Maurice Blan-chotcalled“l’espacelittéraire”orthe“spaceofliterature”,averyimportantspaceindeed and the subject of this paper (Blanchot 1955). The literary (re)turn Many of the recent approaches challenge the study of the sagas as literature. An-thropology underlines the otherness of the culture which produced them: a cul-ture with dierent attitudes to kin, to honour, to gender, etc.; a culture in whichthe historically constituted concept of literature did not exist in the way it doestoday (Meulengracht Sørensen 1993, 25–28). Literature as we now conceive it isthe product of numerous historical developments: that of a market for books andtheir professional production, the subsequent invention of the printing press, of copyright and–most importantly–the idea of the inspired author who came, fora while, to occupy a similar slot as that of the priest or prophet in a culture fromwhich religion was receding (Laurenson 1971).Three more recent approaches, also represent a challenge to the study of OldNorse texts as literature. They are Mediality, New Philology and memory studies(Glauser2007;Eriksen2013;Hermann,MitchellandArnórsdóttir2014).Contentschange when they are expressed in dierent types of media: the runic inscrip-tion, the oral performance, the stone-carving, the illumination, the manuscript.Insomanyways,itisthemediumwhichisthemessage.NewPhilologymakesusaware of the uidity and protean nature of the medieval text which can acquirenewmeaningineachnewmanuscriptcontext.Memorystudies,nally,remindusthat both sagas and poetry are preoccupied with the past and are based on somekindofmemory,albeitshapedandtransformedbymedia,bysocialdemandsandcircumstances as well as by individual point of view.These approaches diverge from the more traditional attitude of the so-calledIcelandic school (Sveinsson 1971; Nordal 1983). One of its features was to cele-brate the saga authors for their literary skills. More recent methods are critical of concepts such as that of individual authors, composing ction and uniquely re-sponsible for a xed text. They contextualize the creation and writing down of the sagas and other texts from the medieval Norse world. They do not deny theirliterary value, but it is not their main emphasis.The time has come to focus again on the sagas as literature. We now havetheoretical tools to think about their literary artistry in the context of the period  Authenticated | author's copyDownload Date | 9/16/17 8:25 AM  170  | T.H.Tulinius under study in its own terms, and not based on a nineteenth and early twentiethcentury conceptions of literature. The theme chosen for the saga conference,, is an invitation to do so.I will begin by outlining the probable development of a sociological eld of literature in twelfth and thirteenth century Iceland, before going on discuss itsimplications in the light of Maurice Blanchot’s philosophical reections on the“spaceofliterature”(Blanchot1955).Forhimliteratureisnotjustanelevatedpas-time. On the contrary, it is the expression of our very humanity. It confronts uswith our mortality and our monstrosity. It also creates community. The openingup of the space of literature is both a social and an existential event. I will illus-trate this with an example from the saga literature. In a nal part, a childhoodmemorywill,Ihope,conveybetterthananytheorizingwhatmaybelearnedfromBlanchot about the sagas.Inrecentyears,I have,amongothers,attemptedtostudytheliterary produc-tioninIcelandandtherestoftheWestNorsearea,inlightofthesociologyofPierreBourdieu (Tulinius 2014, 167–209). He invites us to view society and its complexweb of relations, representations and meanings, as a three-dimensional “socialspace” in which social actors compete to enhance their positions by acquiringdierent types of capital: economic, symbolic and cultural (Bourdieu 1990). Dif-ferentpositionsinsocietyengenderdierentwaysofnavigatingthesocialspace.Here habitus, a set of dispositions, representations and attitudes, acquired fromthesocialgrouptowhichonebelongs,willshapehowtheactorbehaves,whathestrives for and how he evaluates it (Bilton et al. 1987, 331). Literary eld With his theory of elds, Bourdieu also enhances our understanding of societyas a complex, multi-layered and dynamic space. To explain the concept of eld,Bourdieu uses the metaphor of a room full of people sitting around tables andplaying cards. This room represents society as a whole. A person comes into theroom and assumes that the same game is going on at each table, but soon dis-covers that this is not so. At every table a dierent one is being played, follow-ing dierent rules and for a variety of stakes. The tables with their special gamesand their respective rules and playing chips are the dierent elds within society(Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 94–115).In Commonwealth Iceland, it is possible to identify several elds. One wouldbethatoffreelandholdersandtheirdomainofactivity,whichinvolvesamongoth-ers interaction with the chieftains, who also belong to that eld. Another would  Authenticated | author's copyDownload Date | 9/16/17 8:25 AM  Á Kálfskinni |  171 be that of the Church, and a third eld that of the royal Court. In addition therewould be what I have called a eld of power where these dierent other eldsintersect but where only the major players within society are active: chieftains,bishops, kings and their retainers. Close to this eld of power, there also evolvedinIcelandaseparateeldofliterature.Thisspecialspacewithinsocietywhichal-lowedforthepursuitofexcellenceintheartisticuseoflanguagewouldhavebeenin some sense comparable with the eld of literature as it evolved on a larger andmoregeneralscaleinWesternculturefromtheRenaissanceonwards.Forobviousreasons, it would also have been quite dierent (Tulinius 2009, 65–68).Ifaeldisanareawithinsocietywhereactorsareallcompetingforthesametypes of capital by engaging in the same activities and following the same rules,what would the game of literature look like in this period? Or to put it dierently,what are the stakes the dierent actors are playing for? On the one hand, theywould be competing for some kind of material reward, on the other for recogni-tion.Weshoulddistinguish,tobeginwith,betweenthepracticeofpoetryandthatof prose. Both material rewards and honours bestowed upon good poets are welldocumented in the literature. They stem mostly from rulers and can be seen in anutshell in the life of Snorri Sturluson who composed poetry in honour of promi-nent Norwegians and was recognized for it both in the form of gifts and positionat the royal court ( Sturlunga saga , 254; 256–257). It is his nephew, Sturla Þórðar-son, who tells us this, and we should of course be careful not to take his accountentirely at face value. Snorri’s success in Norway should also be seen in relationto the promises he made to the Norwegian king and regent to bring Iceland un-der Norwegian rule and also to Snorri’s status as one of the most powerful menin Iceland in his time and therefore in a position to implement these promises( Sturlunga saga , 263).The idea of the Icelandic poet at the foreign court, recognized and rewardedfor his poetic talent, is probably to some extent a cultural or social myth, inthe meaning given to this concept by Roland Barthes in his famous  Mythologies (Barthes 1957). Such myths are quite present in the discourse of society but onlyoccasionally attested in reality: the young movie star “discovered” in a dinerand promised to success on the silver screen, or the self-made entrepreneur, ris-ing from rags to riches through intelligence and hard work in the mythology of the capitalist democracies of recent times. Like these, the idea of the skald atcourt seems to be a cultural construct, hiding a more complex reality. It is nev-ertheless quite a productive myth. People believed in it and it inuenced theirbehaviour.One of its eects would have been an incentive to strive for excellence inthe art of poetry. Snorri’s  Edda  is a strong indication that such a pursuit existed,  Authenticated | author's copyDownload Date | 9/16/17 8:25 AM  172  | T.H.Tulinius since it acknowledges that young men wanted to engage with it. The episode in Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu  in which the protagonists, Gunnlaugr and Hrafn, areasked to comment on each other’s poetry adds to this picture. The judgements of taste they produce are informed, but also indicative of perceptions of dierencesin style and quality ( Gunnlaugs saga , 80; 86). Skaldic poetry is a demanding artform.Toappreciateityouneedtobeaconnoisseuranditspractitionersarebetterqualied than others to judge its value.Moreover, the practice of poetry transcends social classes, at least to someextent.Theliteraturetellsusofskaldsashighupinthesocialladderaskingsandearls,butalsoofpoorfarmerswhosepoeticskillsarerecognizedbytheirpeersintheeldofliterature.AnexampleofthisisastanzabySnorri,whichisaddressedtoanotherwiseunknownpoetfromNorthernIceland,Eyjólfr,whoisnotrich,buta good man and an excellent poet. Here is the second half: þvít skilmildra skáldaskǫrungmann lofak ǫrvan;hann li sælstr und sólusannauðigra manna (Bjarni Einarsson 1992, 34–35). In translation it says: “I praise the generous poet and remarkable man. May helive happy under the sun, this truly wealthy man.” Eyjólfr’s true wealth resideseither in his moral qualities or excellence as a poet or both. One can assume thatthe attention paid by Snorri to this man inferior to him in wealth and status hasto do with the latter. It indicates that though Eyjólfr is far from the eld of power,in which Snorri is such a gifted player, they belong together to another eld, thatof poetry.That the importance of poetic excellence is greater than just the reward theskald can expect for his poetry, is also attested by several examples of skaldsshowing irritation when their works have been criticised. Their achievement hasvalue in itself and when that worth is called into question, their position withintheeldofpoetryisalsochallenged( Gunnlaugssaga ,79–81; Sturlungasaga ,264;269).But did this eld of literature also encompass the practice of story-telling,written or oral? Here, the sources give us less to build on. We are informed bySturla Þórðarson that Snorri composed “bóksögur”, i.e. stories on books. Thefact that books were read aloud for entertainment is also attested in the accountof Þorgils skarði’s last night in 1258, when the saga of St Thomas of Canterburywas read to him ( Sturlunga saga , 734). As Hákon the old lay dying in the Bishop’spalaceinOrkney,in1263,booksofallkindswerereadaloudtohim,bothinLatinand the vernacular (  Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar  , 261).  Authenticated | author's copyDownload Date | 9/16/17 8:25 AM
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