Monday, November 22, 2010

Wonder is culturally relative

Or, rather, I am full of wonder at Carolyne Larrington's essay, "'Undruðusk þá, sem fyrir var': Wonder, Vínland and Medieval Travel Narratives" (available here).

It looks at medieval Icelandic saga accounts of voyages to Vínland, the sagas' term for Northern America, in light of H. R. Jauss' reception theory and le Goff's and Grenblatt's work on the marvellous (references below). While the essay is in itself a study of medieval Icelandic literature and a number of relatable, early modern texts, it opens up a range of ideas and issues applicable to much travel literature, modern and medieval. The article, though:

  • An opening premise, drawn from Jauss: in reading medieval travel narratives, we are able to map an "horizon of expectation of the addressees for whom the text was originally composed" (92).
  • One of the curious aspects of medieval Icelandic accounts of the New World is the absence of what we might think of as a sense of wonder. The sagas, in typical style, prefer to create a sense of the real (even, the realism of the extraordinary) over the miraculous.
  • Perhaps this is because realistic representations of new encounters are more useful, in a material and mental mapping sense, than representations that are quoting pre-existing tropes. 
  • It may also be down to the sagas' narrative point of view, which is almost always a third-person, objective one.
  • And, after all, "[w] culturally relative" (97) - medieval Scandinavians recognize that skis might seem extraordinary to those who are new to Scandinavia. But the New World is, to an extent, an extension of their own.
  • And as important as wonder, in fact, is curiosity.

In the context of the saga accounts of the European discoveries of 1000, these are factors in an audience demand for the real as it is represented through a strongly communal history, but which, as part of a "[r]evelling in the sheer variousness of the world", produces an "openness to the marvellously unexpected." (114)

The important point for all travel writers is that realism and objectivity are always to some extent the products of how the audience reads, and that an "openness to the marvellously unexpected" is not at odds with a commitment to the real. The best audiences often want both.

In order of appearance:

Larrington, Carolyne. "'Undruðusk þá, sem fyrir var': Wonder, Vínland and Medieval Travel Narratives." Mediaeval Scandinavia 14 (2004): 91-114. 
Jauss, H. R. Toward an Aesthetic of ReceptionTranslated by Timothy Bahti. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
Le Goff, Jacques. "Le merveilleux dans l'Occident medieval." In L'Imaginaire Médiéval: Essais. Paris: Gallimard, 1985. 
Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.