Sunday, August 29, 2010


It turns out that there is a pithy answer to the slightly worried question "So, how is it being back?"  And it's completely true, too: Where everything was new, now everything is familiar.  And I can elaborate (always): where we lived propelled by the momentum of discovery, we now live paced by the certitude of a life well-shaped by habits and rituals.  Which may explain why I hurled myself out the door in my nightgown the other morning when I awakened to see that thick fog had blanketed our town.  We live next to an observatory built in 1884 (it's all brass instruments and wooden chairs inside), and its solid whiteness melted into the milky fog.  I took this shot from underneath the tree in our front yard and I love how the crisp closeness of the leaves frames all that beautiful incertitude of fog.  But I also know what I was really doing: I was remembering the morning that the castle in Josselin was completely shrouded in fog - you could barely see the walls and the towers had been swallowed up.  It was early March and it felt mystical and weird and we took picture after picture.  But this foggy morning, I was trying to make Josselin the familiar - I was using the discovery of that March morning as the familiar framework for this August surprise.

The melancholy of not being in Brittany feels like a secret - something I return to and turn over while walking across campus.  I'm all grown up: I know it's over and will become a fond memory and that it was good and that it's over. But make no mistake: there's a good deal of pining going on.  One of the emotional phenomena of the Middle Ages that fascinates me is the Christian desire for Jerusalem. It's, arguably, a 400-year pining. (Two framing dates could be 1095: Pope Urban II's Call for the First Crusade; and 1492: Christopher Columbus's letter to Isabella and Ferdinand asking for the riches of the New World to be used to reconquer Jerusalem) (the Spanish monarchs demured and took the riches for themselves).  It's complicated (the righteous possession medieval Christians felt for a land that was absolutely not theirs), and extensive (the images, the texts, the eight Crusades themselves, let alone the pilgrimages which continue to this day).

We'll be studying the poems of the earliest troubadours, many of whom were returning Crusaders, later this semester in "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature."  The one that emerges for me now, as I think on this phenomenon of desire for a land that isn't yours (on a scale much larger and more complicated than my own), is William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), Eleanor of Aquitaine's grandfather. Upon his return from the First Crusade, he composed a series of songs that somehow survives - he's dubbed the first troubadour, and I think that it's key to know that these "medieval love songs" (as they're sometimes called) emerge from the troubled and troubling experiences of the first Christian conquerors of Jerusalem. What filters through, and what gets perpetuated by other writers, is this intense love of Jerusalem, as though the city itself were a long-lost lover (Jerusalem is compared to Guinevere, at one point - we are Lancelots, all). It's a confusing and downright strange set of reactions to have to war - but then again, surely swooping down on Jerusalem and massacring its inhabitants, reconfiguring its urban topography, and re-envisioning the lands of the entire region within the system of feudalism troubled many a medieval mind. In the midst of these early poems, William IX writes a poem so surreal in its embrace of its own lack of meaning as to be dubbed post-modern by modern scholars.  "Farai un vers de dreyt nien" begins "I've made a poem that means nothing" that, he claims, he composed half asleep on his horse.  There is a sense that he is somewhere along the return journey from Jerusalem ("no suy estrayns ni suy privatz" - I'm neither a stranger nor a native): he's uncertain as to whether he's awake or dreaming, he can't remember the lady he loves (and decides he doesn't care), he thinks he might be dying, but he sends the poem off "to someone who will send it to someone else" ("e trametrai lo a selhuy/ que lo m tramertra per autruy").  Does he miss Jerusalem? Does he miss home?  Does he seek familiar scenes and smells of heres and theres that become confused?  Does a fog in Anjou conjure up a misty morning in Jerusalem?

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