Friday, August 20, 2010

Deconstructing G-ds, Monsters, and Heroes in John Gardner's Grendel

In Western mythology gods, monsters, and heroes exist beyond social, cultural, and religious boundaries and are marked as "other," living in a permanent state of exile. It is important to note, however, that whereas monsters are viewed as an evil other and banished from society, gods and heroes are viewed as the good other, pedestalized and elevated beyond its boundaries. Both groups form the "other" or "outside" half of a binary pair with society, which constitutes "self" or "inside." The "outsiders" are further divided into the following binary pairs: good/evil, presence/absence, and light/dark. This essay will examine the existence of and interaction between binary pairs in John Gardner's Grendel—that is, Grendel (evil, darkness, and absence) versus Beowulf (goodness, presence, and light); and Grendel, Beowulf, and G-d (those who are outside of society) versus Hrothgar's Danes (those who are inside). Gardner's story is an adaptation of the 8th century Old English epic poem, Beowulf, and is told from the perspective of Grendel, the monster, offering a surprisingly sympathetic perspective of the monster's life. As the story unfolds, we see that although there is a sharp division between the so-called civilized world that King Hrothgar inhabits and Grendel's wild mere, the boundaries between these worlds sometimes blur and disappear as we learn that Hrothgar's people can be just as wild, brutal, and barbaric as Grendel and his mother. I will examine how Grendel's universe is structured according to these binaries and how each member of the binary pair is defined by and depends on the other; each containing elements of the other within itself. I will argue that Grendel and Beowulf are really two sides of the same coin, just as Hrothgar's hall, or the "inside" world is closely related to and inseparable from Grendel's mere, or "outside" world. I will also examine the god(s) that rule over the divided and chaotic worlds and how these gods are (de)constructed by the language of their mortal creators.

When Grendel first encounters Hrothgar and the Danes, he believes that because they speak his language, they must be related to him in some way. Grendel follows the humans back to their mead hall and sits outside, listening to their songs and conversations for awhile before he is moved by loneliness to join them inside. After he enters the hall, the Danes immediately attack him because they are threatened by his frightening alien appearance and force him to retreat to his mere in the forest. It is at this point that Grendel begins to identify himself as the "other" and "outsider" existing in direct opposition to King Hrothgar and his Danes, who occupy the center of society and constitute "inside." Thus the lines are drawn and each side has been assigned its role. Grendal realizes that in this world he "must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of this hideous fable" (55).

According to structuralist theory, in each binary relationship, the boundaries between each member of the pair are static and clearly defined and one member is always privileged over the other, defined by what the other lacks. Thus, meaning is relational and defined by how it differs from its opposite (Eagleton 84). However, Derrida slightly twists the static structuralist binary model, and posits that rather than existing as separate and opposite forces, each member of the pair is connected and necessary to the other and to the overall structural system they occupy. Each member of the binary pair contains elements of the other within itself, causing each to draw closer to the other at certain times and repel, expel, and exclude one another at other times. There is a constant striving between each member of the binary pair, a push–pull relationship of constant movement, unsettled tension, and of becoming, rather than being. Derrida states, "Every concept is necessarily and essentially inscribed in a chain or a system, within which it refers to another and to other concepts, by the systematic play of differences. Such a play, then – difference – is no longer simply a concept, but the possibility of conceptuality, of the conceptual system and process in general" (Differance, 285-286).

Derrida posits that there is a constant shifting between signifier and signified that there is no static one to one relationship or central idea that binds the pair absolutely (Of Grammatology, 303). It is through language that Grendel first begins to re-imagine his world as a fragmented place and starts to see himself as a wicked outsider walking the boundaries between the outside and inside of this world. The court harper, whom Grendel refers to as the Shaper, re-creates reality with his words as he composes heroic ballads about the battles men fight and recasts the bloody and violent deeds of men into something laudable, thus reshaping reality and making heroes of monsters. The Shaper also sings G-d and the Devil into existence. The Shaper separates light from darkness and deems man good and assigns a god of light to rule over him and declares Grendel dark and evil and assigns him the role of man's chief adversary. Grendel states that the Shaper sings of, "an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race G-d cursed. I believed him. Such was the power of the Shaper's harp!" (51). Through the power of words, the Shaper creates gods, monsters, and heroes, defining everything according to his own conception of the universe.

Grendel believes in the illusions the Shaper weaves with his words until he meets a dragon, who is not a god himself, but is endowed with the power of transcendent knowledge and foresight, and tells Grendel that man, in order to give meaning to life, creates, "New laws for each new form…New lines of potential. Complexity beyond complexity, accident on accident…It's all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple or complex. No difference, finally" (71). He also tells Grendel that he is the, "brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from—the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment…you are mankind, or man's condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain…[you must] scare him to glory" (73). Grendel understands that although humans are brutish and violent—as he followed them on many occasions and has seen them kill their neighbors for gold, property, and other trivial things—men need to define themselves against a monstrous other in order to justify their actions and give meaning to their existence. The dragon warns Grendel that if he refuses to play the role of monster, then men will find another to take his place.

Grendel's otherness is defined by men and the society they created; and he, in turn, defines them and gives structure to their society. In her book, Embodying the Monster, Margrit Shildrick, states, "The monster is not simply a signifier of otherness, but an altogether more complex figure that calls to mind not so much the other per se, as the trace of the other in the self. And as Derrida reminds us…we should learn, 'how to let it [the monster] speak…or how to give it back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself'" (129-130). The power of the monster lies in its ability to express itself as a monster, and in doing so, he allows man to define himself as man against his aberrant image. In Grendel we see the line between monster and man collapse as they share many of the same qualities and are dependent upon each other for their identity.

In Grendel's world, meaning is relational and there is a constant shift and change between signifiers and signifieds. In his new understanding, Grendel realizes that the G-d that the Shaper sings of "is an illusion of language…[and] where alternatives exclude…Theology does not thrive in the world of action and reaction" (159). If meaning is relative and each member of a binary pair creates and defines the other, then there is no room for the kind of G-d the Shaper and Hrothgar's priests talk about. In his article, "Monsters in Eden," Colin Milburn states, " Derrida challenges the metaphysics of man, 'the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology-in other words, through the history of all his history-has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game'" (616). Derrida denies the existence of a transcendent universal being, or superessential universal reality. Similarly, the dragon in Gardner's novel denies the existence of the Shaper's anthropomorphic G-d, and tells Grendel that it is simply another creation of man in his attempt to make sense of his world.

However, Anselm Min, in his article, "Naming an Unnamable G-d," states that according to Derrida, "the God of ontotheology is an idol to be rejected, that there is no way of direct, predicative reference to God, and that we have to go beyond the language of predication to some mode of testimony and invocation" (113). In other words, if there is a G-d, then he is beyond anyone's ability to comprehend or express him. Because all language falls short in the attempt to describe what is ineffable, apophasis explains G-d in terms of what we cannot know about him and argues that we will never fully have the ability to understand or describe what he is.

When the dragon, starts to describe how the universe originated, he eventually falls silent when he realizes that he is losing Grendel because the concepts he is trying to explain are beyond his comprehension. The dragon is unable to frame his explanation in terms that would make sense to Grendel, so, in frustration he states, "It's damn hard, you understand, confining myself to concepts familiar to a creature of the Dark Ages" (67). At this point, Grendel understands that the Shaper's G-d does not exist and that if any sort of a deity does exist, then it is beyond his comprehension and beyond anyone's ability to describe it him.

This new understanding allows Grendel to conduct his raids on Hrothgar's mead hall for many years without fear of reprisal either from men or the gods they created. Grendel is invulnerable until Beowulf arrives on the scene. Upon seeing Beowulf, due to a connection they share, Grendel immediately recognizes him as a fellow "outsider not only among the Danes but everywhere" (154). Grendel understands that he has met his equal and opposite in the world and states, "the world is divided, experience teaches, into two parts: things to be murdered, and things that would hinder the murder of things" (158). Beowulf is Grendel's moral and physical opposite. He is not only the hero who has come to stop the monster from "murdering things," but, in stark contrast to Grendel's alien form, he is physically perfect and represents the ideal man.

Although Grendel and Beowulf are binary opposites, they have much in common, which connects them, making them like two sides of the same coin. They are both outsiders, who are endowed with super human strength and are extraordinary in their physical appearance. They are invulnerable and cannot be hurt by the ordinary men that exist "inside" society. And, lastly, and most importantly, they are mad. Grendel states, "I understand at last the look in his eyes, he was insane" (162). When Grendel is waiting for the hour when he confronts Beowulf, he says, "I too wait, whispering, whispering, mad like him" (165). The madness that Grendel speaks of is not clinical insanity, but the Platonic madness described in the "Allegory of the Cave." Those who have left the cave moving beyond its false gods and constructed truths to learn higher truths, are perceived as mad when they return to the cave to tell those who have never left about what exists outside. Those who have never been outside of the cave insist on holding on to their small ideas and comfortable limitations and see those who have traveled beyond the cave's walls as insane (Republic VII, 760-766). It is the kind of madness shared by those extraordinary individuals who have crossed society's boundaries and live outside its limitations, gaining wisdom and understanding that seems strange, alien, and even mad to those who are blinded by the darkness of their limited understanding.

Georges Bataille defines this outside place as the:

heterogeneous world…[which] includes everything rejected by homogeneous society as wasted or as superior transcendent value. Included are the…numerous elements or social forms that homogeneous society is powerless to assimilate: mobs, the warrior…different types of violent individuals or at least hose who refuse the rule (madmen, leaders, poets, etc.) (Heterology 276).

In Gardner's story, Grendel and Beowulf are the heterogeneous outsiders, the madmen who live beyond the boundaries of what is ordinary and normal—one being exiled and the other elevated by the homogenous to the heterogeneous world. To this group I will add the gods—the anthropomorphic gods that man created in his own image, who are simple gods and can be explained in simple terms, dwelling as a real presence accessible to all minds; as well as the gods who cannot and do not exist in human conception, the uncreated, the ultimate absence. The homogenous and the heterogeneous define themselves against each other. The latter group is further divided between Grendel, who represents evil, lack, other, monster, and darkness in a binary whose other half is Beowulf, who represents goodness, presence, self, hero, and light. It becomes clear very early in the story that Grendel is not wholly evil and Beowulf is not perfectly good and that the two embody a mixture of good and evil.

John Gardner's story exemplifies a fragmented, Derridean universe where there are no knowable universal absolutes because there are no particulars that can instantiate with absolute accuracy the forms they attempt to represent. Signifiers and signifieds are constantly shifting and moving against each other to create meaning. Such movement is reflected in the binary pairs that exist in this world, which are dependent on each other for meaning and definition, sometimes divided from each other and sometimes united. Gardner takes the simple tale of Beowulf where good and evil are clearly defined and ruled over by a G-d who can be described in positive terms, and reworks it, completely turning the tale on its head by placing its characters in chaotic, disjointed worlds of a post-modernist universe where nothing is as it seems and meanings shift and change with each extraordinary line.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. "Heterology," Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp.273-277.

Chapman, Robert L. "Alas Poor Grendel," College English, Vol. 17, No. 6, Mar., 1956, pp. 334-337. .

Derrida, Jacques. "Difference," Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp.278-299.

Derrida, Jacques. "Of Grammatology," Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp.300-331.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Milburn, Colin Nazhone. "Monsters in Eden: Darwin and Derrida," MLN, Vol. 118, No. 3, German Issue (Apr., 2003), pp. 603-621. .

Min, Anselm K. "Naming the Unnameable God: Levinas, Derrida, and Marion," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 60, No. 1/3, pp. 99- 116 .

Plato. "The Republic," Plato: The Collected Dialogues. Trans. Lane Cooper. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Shildrick Margrit. Emboying the Monster: Encounters With the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage Publications, 2002.

Wheeler III, Samuel C. "Derrida's Differance and Plato's Different," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 999-1013 .

Wyschogrod, Edith. "Autochthony and Welcome: Discourses of Exile in Levinas and Derrida," Derrida and Religion. Eds. Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart. New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. 53-62.

Annotated Bibliography

Chapman, Robert L. "Alas Poor Grendel," College English, Vol. 17, No. 6, Mar., 1956, pp. 334-337. .

In this article, Chapman argues that the anonymous author of the Old English epic poem, Beowulf, treats Grendel and his monstrous mother with ambivalence and even sympathy, using such expressions as, "'unhappy man' (105); 'deprived of joy'(721); 'destitute man' (973); 'sin-afflicted' (975); 'deformed' (earmsceapen, 1351). 'alone-goer' (165, 449); 'his death was to be miserable' (805-807); 'Grendel must flee, fatally hurt, to seek the joy- less abode under the fen-slopes' (819- 821); and 'how he, weary-minded and set upon, doomed and chased, on the path to the mere took his bloody track' (844- 846)" (334). Chapman states that the author, "who had recently been pagan, and whose understanding of Christian doctrine was perhaps unrefined," may have treated Grendel and his mother with sympathy because they were evil not by choice, but had the role of monster thrust upon them by society. Beowulf includes many elements of Northern paganism, which does not recognize a universal order of heaven, hell, or purgatory. A man is judged by his community. If Grendel is evil because he is doomed to be evil, like the Biblical Cain, then the author removes some of the blame and treats him with sympathy. I selected this article because John Gardner takes the same approach in his work, which is an adaptation of the 8th century Old English poem, and takes it a step further by telling the story from the monster's point of view. Gardner's account of Grendel's story is a sympathetic one, demonstrating that the monster is evil because he is chosen for the role, not because he chooses it.

Milburn, Colin Nazhone. "Monsters in Eden: Darwin and Derrida," MLN, Vol. 118, No. 3, German Issue (Apr., 2003), pp. 603-621. .

This article provides a Derridean and Darwinian reading of monsters in nature and in literature. Derrida defines a monster as something that challenges what most consider "normal" and moves beyond acceptable boundaries both with its transgressive actions and abnormal appearance. Milburn argues that, "Derrida employs homologous textual strategies. He attempts to deconstruct metaphysics and undermine humanism by stripping structure of its center and boundaries. He engages the concept of a generalized writing for a violent reversal of natural orders. And invokes the myth of the Garden of Eden so as to deconstruct the metaphysical 'fall narrative,' to break its stranglehold on Western culture" (608). Both Darwin and Derrida collapse the traditional Western dichotomies of good versus evil, outside versus inside, and presence versus absence, deconstructing the boundaries that separate each binary, and empowering the monster by giving it a more important and more central role. Derrida deconstructs the structure of each dichotomy and replaces it with instability where each element is in a constant state of flux and change.

Min, Anselm K. "Naming the Unnameable God: Levinas, Derrida, and Marion," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 60, No. 1/3, pp. 99-116 .

Min points out that Derrida's earlier rejection of apophatic theology stemmed from his understanding that although negative theology rejects an anthropomorphic conception of G-d, it still affirms the possibility of, "hyperessential presence…and the possibility of union with G-d" (104). In his later works, however, Derrida returns to negative theology and begins to see it is another form of deconstructionism. Negative theology becomes a way of moving beyond everything—unity, essence, reference and referent, and G-d. It posits that we are not only incapable of understanding G-d or universals, but all means of expression—all forms of language—fail to communicate these concepts. Thus, Derrida favors silence when it comes to the question of universals. Min states, " such, negative theology constitutes an essential part of deconstruction itself applicable to all areas of life. It embodies not only a subversive critique of all claims to identity, unity, and presence but also the most intense yearning behind such a critique for a life freed from all enslaving ideologies" (107). This article aided me in my Derridean analysis of the idea of G-d in John Gardiner's Grendel.

Shildrick Margrit. Emboying the Monster: Encounters With the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage Publications, 2002.

Margrit Shildrick's book explores the concept of monsters in Western thought. She asks what it would mean to, "reflect on, rework and valorise them" (1). Shildrick examines the boundaries that are set up to define what is normal as opposed to what is abnormal or monstrous. She rejects the long accepted, clear cut binaries of good and evil, outside and inside, and self and other; and argues that the boundaries between the elements in each binary are permeable. In other words, the line between monster and self is not so clear. Referring to Derrida she states, "I shall argue, neither vulnerability nor the monstrous is fully containable within the binary structure of the western logos, but signal a transformation of the relation between self and other such that the encounter with the strange is not a discrete event but the constant condition of becoming" (1).

Wheeler III, Samuel C. "Derrida's Differance and Plato's Different," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 999-1013 .

Wheeler compares Plato's discussion of universal forms and the particulars that instantiate them to Derrida's discussion of Difference and the relationship between signifieds and the signifiers that represent them. Neither the signifiers nor the particulars can accurately capture the full meaning of the signifieds or the forms that they attempt to represent. Meaning is relational and there is a constant shift and change between signifiers and signifieds. I chose this article and Anselm Min's article, "Naming the Unnameable G-d" because they offer information about Derrida's response to Platonic philosophical concepts, such as universals, and how these concepts may have shaped his own philosophy. In my paper, I use Plato as a point of comparison in my analysis of G-d in the universe that John Gardner creates in Grendel.

Wyschogrod, Edith. "Autochthony and Welcome: Discourses of Exile in Levinas and Derrida," Derrida and Religion. Eds. Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart. New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. 53-62.

In her article, Edith Wyschogrod examines what constitutes the boundaries between public and private, between outside and inside within a society. She states that the, "The home is always already a place of inclusion and exclusion, of friend and enemy, a place in which the stranger may evoke distrust: is s/he friend or enemy?" (56-57). She points to Derrida's argument that the line between political and private and between friend and enemy is often blurred or nonexistent. Friendship is defined upon the exclusion of others—or creating a set of non-friends. Also, showing hospitality to a friend or allowing an outsider to enter into a community involves risk to the host, in that the stranger may harm the host. Welcoming an outsider into a community may also involve an expectation of reciprocity, which leads one to question whether true friendship really exists. This article helped in my analysis of the boundaries that are drawn in Grendel and what constitutes inside versus outside and friend versus enemy in this text.