Saturday, November 13, 2010

Pilgrim's Progress

St. Aemilion. 1060, ivory. The Met.
I've struggled with this before and will again: was there an operative concept of social progress in the Middle Ages?  with its necessary preconditions that there are grave injustices that need to be righted? with its promise that ideals enjoyed by the few should be lived by the many? with its work and protests and community organizing? I'm not talking about angry peasants with pitchforks (although they did help, didn't they?), but rather that sense (gnawing, driving, hopeful) that Things Don't Have To Be This Way.  When God reaches down for Saint Aemilion, or any number of saints who get a hoist from Him, is that an allegory for all of humanity to "rise up," change their perspective, make things better?  Or is that just me over-interpreting? It's the latter, I know it - but then I get anxious, about (to be raw about it) loving this period in history in which social progress isn't at work; in which (worse!) some of the most profound social injustices we are still fighting take root.  Must I, ultimately, study the Middle Ages to destroy them?  Apocalyptic, yes, but hey, we're talking medieval here.  If social progress is at the core of what we do (and yes, we do want to make the world a better place), then where do I find it in the Middle Ages?  This is an unreasonable request of history, but it's late, I've just seen For Colored Girls, and I feel like making it.

I'm here, in Denver (Denver!), where hundreds and hundreds of people devoted to Women's and Gender Studies (and their injustices, and promises and community organizations) have gathered to be together and talk and be living proof of the operative concept of social progress. And I'm having dinner with my friend and colleague who has just done six and a half hours of interviews with me, and we are awash in the words of our candidates: fervent and precise, untested but true, exciting and invented.  It's wondrous and incredible, talking to newly minted Women's Studies PhDs: they are a sign, an indication, a confirmation, that change happened, that it can keep happening. They are new terms and languages, new questions and frames, more certitude and conviction, less apologizing, no excuses.  I love the feeling of being carried along by social change, as though it were not us, but society itself, that were "hard-wired"(a term I dislike, but whose insistence I appreciate) for it.  It's not, and I know that social change is not a force, it's hard-won through millions of individual acts.  Are some of those acts medieval?

And it's in talking to my friend about BABEL (the conference, more on the Biblical event in a bit) that I realize that the strange gift of medieval is not in itself but in its modes of survival - the images and the texts that survive long enough to be preserved by a collector's desire or a believer's fervor, now reinvigorated by scholars and thinkers reaching back for resistance or mercy.  In this way, ivories are polished and decoded; manuscripts are touched and thought through, even stones can start to move (you do me great honor by "lurking," JJC!) (actually, I'll never tire of thinking of the heaving and the hauling that occurred in the Middle Ages when they took down over 400 neolithic megaliths at Montneuf - making the stones dance indeed).  Medieval social progress comes in our traveling further still with the survivors of history we call medieval artifacts. So for my students, Beowulf can now be about Grendel; and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be about gay desire; images of Jerusalem can be about empire; and an ivory plaque can be about the pleasure of touch and tracing a trajectory from an African elephant tusk to Spanish reliquary shrine (the bones of the beast enshroud the bones of the saint). Medieval social progress emerges from the inscrutability of the age, from the very inability of the period to be easily understood.  And so we interpret, and so we offer new terms and languages, questions and frames (we'll always have to work on the certitude and conviction).

So Babel is good. It turns out that to be confounded is perhaps the very start of social progress. This is what I'm thinking after reading a response to my Babel-agonizing from my very dear friend. I could summarize his words, but I've been summarizing words all day - plus, his writing is beautiful and great and I want it here with me.

Or was God really so small-minded as to have confounded our facility to communicate just for the hell of it? He certainly forbid Adam and Eve from eating of the tree whose fruit gives the knowledge of good and evil... They each took a bite nonetheless, and yet, the essence of all his commandments is about choosing good over evil, making us cognizant of good and evil not automatically but as a conscious, even legal, process.  In this same vein, then, God is ordaining that communication not be automatic, but conscious and intentional: we have to strive to understand and be understood, to hear and to be heard.  And by making conversation thus complicated, He thus invited the human creation of Art and Music, and of making language an art and a music as well. 

And look, David, there in the image of a man "raised up" (by God, by ideas of Something Greater, by theological truth, poetic allegory, or social change), is an image of that same man with not one but two instruments of music (one for the beasts and one for the less savage breast of man?); and the words above play and tell us that the shepherd of sheep will be the shepherd of men. Someday. When the world improves and we take better care of each other.


  1. ….or maybe there are two instruments because we need harmony and counterpoint as much as melody, and different timbres and intonations, to sing all the complicated things that can’t be said? And maybe "shepherd of men" is just a metaphor for "conductor of orchestra" and he is simply off to a rehearsal...

  2. mmmmm, when is your next concert? and whose music are you giving voice to? and oh man oh man, can we be there? :-) off to be purposefully confused...