Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy Hanukris Everyone!

Wary of separate celebrations and traditions, Jakie and Oliver long ago came up with Hanukris, and we finally made good on it this year.  Ah, Hanukris, a time of togetherness and unity - when we can pull together the best of all traditions.  It's all about mirth and melding. Pedar gave a most excellent homily (everyone looks forward to the Hanukris homily), intoning meaningfully about the true meaning of Hanukris.  We're still looking for a deity, striving for a female one just, you know, to keep things going - but thus far, Hanukris Kristin isn't inspiring anyone.  Hanukris Kafka and Hanukris Kali are right out. We're contemplating Hanukris Kalanit (the name means flower which would be lovely, but might not be irreverent enough) (because God forbid we should take our parody seriously!). :-)

As with any holiday, the feast is key.  It took Rebecca and I about two seconds to come up with the Jewish side of the feast: lamb and latkes, of course. A fabulous combination of flavors, plus, if you say it out loud, it sounds really, really delicious. Go ahead, try it "Lamb n' Latkes."  Mmmm.  The, as it was soon dubbed, "Christian side dish" was harder to come up with.  I had the honor of looking through a Minnesota church cookbook, but the amount of cream of mushroom soup used in unthinkable combinations was too much. So I went for green beans with shallots - probably Presbyterian in its sparseness.  Turning to English dessert traditions of this time of year, however, I did come up with...

...a Trifle!!! Definitely the most mis-named dessert of all time.  It's not dessert, it's architecture! And endless in its possibilities. Mine was pound cake, whipped cream with Grand Marnier, and for the layers kumquats in syrup and wine-poached cranberries.  A Happy Hanukris was had by all!!!  All of this made me so grateful for friends and our laughter and the ersatz utopias we create that nonetheless can take on plenty of meaning. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Always Almost Jerusalem

12th c. map of Jerusalem
Most unexpectedly, I have had a couple of hours alone in the house while one kid is at a friend's house, and the other two are with Mac and friends at a museum. The mind reels! Laundry called, then piano, but now, just a few minutes to reflect on the on-going and ever-pressing thoughts of our upcoming trip to Israel - me, and Oliver, my friend Rebecca and her son, and 25 students. The mind reels again (has been for months, as I've thought about how to even begin to put into words what this trip might mean). The title of the post is Oliver's take on that post-modern phrase "always already" (beauty is always already a contested concept, Eden is always already lost) - a handy little phrase that does away with a firm originary: if something is "always already" it has never "really been." We think there's a point of origin, a perfect place, but when we look at that point of origin, we see that our very first tales of it are about its loss, or contest, or struggle for existence.  There is no Eden, really - but there is really a loss of Eden.  Cool, huh? We could talk about that for a long time (especially as it tackles the tradition of a fixed beginning point to human existence and meaning - existence and meaning emerge, the argument goes, in much more haphazard, less fixed "always already" ways).  In any case, Oliver was remarking on how I speak of Jerusalem, which shows up a great deal in my teaching of the Crusades and Crusader Art, and he said "It's like we're always almost in Jerusalem."

And of course he's right.  I don't know how many years I've given that city thought, practically daily thought as my research has a taken a turn east - since graduate school started in 1991, for sure, but I know that Donna had taught me many things before then as well.  And now, as it's reality looms large and possible, I find that I have many questions, that I know really very little really, but that I know of a great many people's desires and dreams for Jerusalem.

Modena cathedral, 12th c. Guinevere archivolt
12th-century Modena for example, as the marvelous essay by Jeanne Fox-Friedman ("Messianic Visions; Modena Cathedral and the Crusades," Res 25 (Spring 1994): 77-96) tells us, displayed images of Guinevere captured by Mardoc (with their Welsh names inscribed above!) in its archivolt above a northern church door.   Sermons reveal a intertwining of Guinevere's capture by Mardoc with Jerusalem's capture by the Muslims. Oh the tales we tell: Jerusalem as Guinevere, Guinevere as Jerusalem - both always already captured and desired.

There are big questions to be asked here: why want Jerusalem? why does it matter? why is the pull to the city so relentless? (don't forget, even Christopher Columbus wanted to use the riches of the New World to fund a crusade to win Jerusalem back).  My questions of late have been specifically geared to Europe: what is this strange, brutal chapter in which Christians desired Jerusalem?  A city far from European seats of power; a city at the heart of one of the strangest colonial empires, surely; a city that produced more art and literature pining for its possession than I'll ever know about.  There are some answers, some lucid explanations, but I'll save those for a post written from the office where the books are.  For now, I find myself much more interested in coming up with good questions than finding answers.  Will I understand the desire for Jerusalem? Probably not (the secular enthusiast for the Enlightenment in me wishes to strip away every shred of mysticism anyway).  Will I be moved by the markings that have been left by the always already fleeting possession of the city?  Yes (the non-secular enthusiast in me (whatever she may be called) wants to understand the meaning of place, wants to somehow perceive and feel the layers of history).

Matthew Paris - Road to Jerusalem, 13th c.
Was there ever a Jerusalem at rest? An Edenic Jerusalem?  No (as much as we might want King David to be the originary point, there was already someone there). Was there always war? No (there are remarkable chapters of co-existence).  Has the identity of the city changed with each layer of desire, occupation, and possession?  Yes.  As I write these absurdly short sentences, I realize how difficult it is to write about Jerusalem.  I keep trying to organize my expectations and questions, my knowledge and approach - and it all collapses a bit into a "wait and see" - wait until you are there, and walking and breathing there.  Will everything fall into place then? How can it?  I will try try again to put some order to these thoughts - I don't mind if they get jumbled again - there's something wonderful about having the time to try, though.  Look at Matthew Paris, tracing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem that he probably never took and adding bits and pieces of velum - additional thoughts, places, approaches, knowledge. Always almost there.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Oliver's been questioning Santa's existence, though at this point he has "no evidence that Santa does not exist," as he puts it.  But, crafty kid that he is, he thought of leaving the iPhone with its built-in camera and asking Santa in the note left with the cookies to take a picture of himself.  And check it out, Santa complied! It's a fast-paced night for the guy, all that giving, and the action shot tells it all.  The kids were all thrilled, but not overly so, as that would have "meant that we doubted too much" (Oliver speaking here, too).  Belief is so tricky in its inevitable relationship to doubt - even if you're 8 years old.  Eleanor at 4 has a much more uncomplicated to relationship to belief - she was just excited that Santa knew how to work a camera.

The day was completely relaxed and focused around the discovery of presents and new objects, books, savories, and music to become familiar throughout the year.  We went to visit my dad who had some odd things to say, but Christmas with a brain injury is like any other day with a brain injury.  I accidentally texted a friend my dad's strange pronouncement when I had meant to send it to Mac.  Luckily for me, this friend is incredibly gracious and kind and understanding, and took this glimpse into not only my dad's strange world, but how I deal with it (by immediately sharing the strangeness with Mac so that he helps me bear it - in every sense of the word) in stride.  It was strange, too, in that moment to realize how constantly conversations about my dad flow between me and Mac, and how completely odd they must seem to anyone else.  I'm not explaining that well - the strangeness has something to do with a powerful guilt I felt at inflicting this on my friend (the strangeness and the sadness, and the push to laugh instead of cry); a guilt assuaged by her kindness and good will, thus my gratitude to her.  Sometimes, I wish that I could write about my dad's brain injury every day, or rather, that it were a more quotidian and mundane occurrence to do so - I think about it every day after all - but then this would be a very different kind of writing place, wouldn't it? Brain injury is kind of overwhelming and all-encompassing if you let it be.  And it would make sense that on a holiday, it would somehow become more significant - as though we can't help but notice the loss of him more.  But we laughed and so it was ok, and the kids were, as ever, great (Iris greatly intrigued by my dad wearing one black glove).  We'll go see him again tomorrow with Eleanor, who was napping at home at the time, and who was totally distraught that she missed seeing him.  This is why I must constantly take my cue from the kids, and not from myself, in struggling to know and love my dad now that he's a completely different person.  I think that it's their trust in the reality of the present that makes a lot of things make sense to children - that helps.

Both of their thoughts are inscrutable to me, but this is the love I want to understand.

Hard to switch gears, but you must know: actually, Santa took two pictures of himself (clearly testing out the iPhone) - you can see here that he really had to go.  For Christmas dinner we had:
  • Broccoli cream soup with wild mushrooms and shallots
  • Coffee-braised beef chuck roast with orange and cinnamon
  • Brussel sprouts in garlic butter
  • Mashed turnips
Dessert was somehow out of the question - perhaps all of the Swiss chocolate generously provided by my mom, and all the Christmas treats.  We will valiantly try try again tomorrow.   For all its fleeting images, of Santas and fathers, it was a full day lucid in its joy.

The True Meaning of Macmas

Today is Macmas! Or, as some call it, Macanalia.  It is a day of celebration for a man whose kindness and wit and patience and light makes this planet pretty terrific to dwell in.  Brunch for friends in the morning, great big snowstorm in the afternoon, Mamie driving in early, impromptu dinner, inexplicable love for the Vicar of Dibley, and then tracking Santa on the way cool NORAD (which stands for North American Aerospace Defense Command - best uses of American tax dollars ever) for the rest of the evening.  Oh man! He's in South Dakota as I write - best get to bed. Our rational child (Iris) went right to bed; Oliver stayed up reading, despite "trying really hard to exhaust myself today;" and Eleanor, sweet wild Eleanor, refuses to go to bed - this is how I find her passing the time until I can swoop her off to bed to wait for Santa with her.  Happy hoping for all good things, everyone.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What We Know About Ourselves

Three cheers for the American Museum of Natural History and its awesome "Hall of Human Origins," which, dear Gina noticed, was partially funded by the U.S. Congress (and lots of other donors).  There'll be no time for long writing this morning, so it will just be to say "thank goodness," there's an educated stand out there (in our nation's capital at that!) on human evolution.  The depressing amount of denial of reality that has to take place for any denial of evolution is here countered with thrilling (the entire human species has a DNA variation of .01 percent - we're that much alike, really), fascinating (cast after cast of the primate species that didn't make it), intriguing (more stuff than I had time to read about the big split in the family tree between Neanderthals and homo sapiens - the oldest "us vs. them," one that some have flirted with to explain monsters like Grendel - actually, a huge post awaits on this issue once I teach "Monsters and Marvels" again), and art historical (cave art from 15,000 B.C.E.!) scenarios to think through. The presence of artistic creativity at the end of this narrative of genetic survival is fantastic for discussion (idea for next survey class session on Paleolithic art!) - art is a moment of recognition, an act that collapses thousands of years of history into an "Oh! They did that, too!"  What I love is that, so is burial (and there's a great display and explanation of a Paleolithic burial site in modern-day Iraq).  Kunstwollen (the will to art), the Germans would say, and then draw all sorts of horrid racist conclusions about Paleolithic art in Europe and contemporary art in Africa.  Any critique of that move becomes a critique of a transcendental kunstwollen, a transcendental art history.  Art is always already historically specific.  And yet, I can't deny that thrill of recognition when I see cave painting - even though we really have no idea why they did it (oh, we have plenty of theories, lots and lots of theories: ritual, memory, mimesis, simulation, stimulation, pleasure... basically, all of the reasons that we make art). I can't deny that intense feeling of continuity, one that lasts so much longer than the one that writing/literature gives us.  But here, I'm invited to think of art along the lines of evolution - I don't know what that means yet, especially in terms of teaching, but I can't wait to think more about it. 

I mourn (ok, am angered by) any end of inquiry, any discourse that closes down questions, makes you stop asking, and the so-called anti-evolution, and anti-global warming campaigns make me nuts.  It's prompted several conversations here at the House of Inquiry, Laughter, and Babies about the presence of anti-knowledge groups throughout American history.  Iris and I are going home today and will be sad to go - glad to see Eleanor's Holiday Program at school tomorrow, but sad to leave this wonderful house and aaaah, our nation's capital.

You can totally see why when you have an aunt and uncle who make you a Shirley Temple in a super fancy glass that floats on ice.  And a baby cousin Henry who goes out and about in town with you to the American Museum of Natural History and smiles and hangs out and sleeps and is so, so dear.  Life is good in this happy house, as we discuss and play out this narrative of birth and infancy that has had stunning evolutionary success against so many odds.  What we know about ourselves is that we are part of an amazing set of shifting circumstances, some of which we recognize and make sense of, others of which we move within.

Oh! And they have an Easter Island Head at the American Museum of Natural History - notice the tiny hands folded across the bottom part of the statue, which is made of hardened volcanic ash.  Neolithic megaliths have always fascinated me, and they are now that much more gripping with Jeffrey Cohen's awesome Geochoreography ideas.  The move from Easter Island to D.C. must have been something.  Itinerant creatures we are all.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Thousand Years of Don't Ask Don't Tell Starts to End

detail of Saint Eligius, 1449. The Met.
There are already two favorite quotes that have emerged from the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" - one is by my wordsmith friend David Guinee: "Don't let the door hit you in the ass, don't ask don't tell" - and the other is by Congressman Barney Frank: "I do not think that any self-respecting radical in history would have considered advocating people's rights to get married, join the Army, and earn a living as a terribly inspiring revolutionary platform."  How else to commemorate this momentous event? How else to mark the day that ends the discrimination of asking people to put their lives on the line by serving in the military, but denying their right to identify by their sexuality? You can die, but you can't be yourself. You can prove your patriotism, but you can't profess your love.  The incredible harm and hypocrisy might just start to be over.  And so we are presented with that strange, but not unprecedented, phenomenon of civil rights being supported and defended in the military domain with more certitude and absoluteness than in the public sphere - think of the racial integration of the military in the 1960s (and isn't this an interesting volume?); now maybe think of the repeal of DADT.  I'd like to commemorate some of the momentousness here by considering a medieval painting whose visual representation of a male couple in the liminal space of a convex mirror embodies the occluded visibility of gay identity in this period. For the Middle Ages were a "Don't Ask Don't Tell" culture if there ever was one - if one did ask or did tell, persecution was sure to follow.  And so, it takes oblique readings and sidelong glances to realize medieval gay presence.

Petrus Christus, Northern Renaissance painter extraordinaire, can help us out here.  His painting of Saint Eligius in his Workshop from 1449 (of which you see a detail above), has become, thanks to the incredible work of Diane Wolfthal, a critical image in medieval art history's quest for understanding the visual representation of gay culture.  Her essay "Picturing Same-Sex Desire: The Falconer and His Lover in Images by Petrus Christus and the Housebook Master" (in Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality and Sight in Medieval Text and Image. ed. Emma Campbell and Robert Mills. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004: 17-46) remains one of the few to analyze an image of a gay couple.  Medieval literary criticism has here far outstripped art history: "queer theory" (a set of ideas that extrapolates from a marginal sexual position to decenter, destabilize, denaturalize any and all normative discourses) has informed fantastic scholarship on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, troubadour lyrics, Catherine of Siena (oh my, yes), the Roman de la Rose, the entire Arthurian Round Table, and much more. Chaucer himself has a queer nation.  Art historians have operated within the confines of the visible, I think to our detriment.  It seems absurd that art history should deal with invisibilities, with non-images, but it depends on what the goal of art history is: the history of sight, or the history of images.  I'm not going to tackle that here, I'm just trying to think around the limits of the field and why on the issue of gay culture, the two fields are so far apart.  Here's what else I'm not going to do: I'm not going to agonize over the historical parameters of gay identity (the debate goes: there have always been and will always be gay people; vs. gay identity, like every other identity, is constructed in historically specific periods.  For the former see John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality from 1980, for the latter, see Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality from ). I'm also not going to rehearse Diane's fantastic argument (it is far too cool and too complex to be dubbed here), but I will be influenced by it in everything that follows.

Petrus Christus. Saint Eligius, 1449. The Met.
As an image of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the detail of the male couple in the convex mirror evokes the whispers and the codes, the silences and the intimate knowledge, of identities marginalized by oppressive normative forces. The male and female couple looms large in the painting. His hand on her shoulder, and hers reaching for the gold that saint Eligius is measuring bespeak the possession and materiality of heterosexual couples, possibly of heterosexual married couples, if these two are in the purchase of a wedding ring.  Saint Eligius was the patron saint of goldsmiths and we see him here transported from his 7th century origins to a 15th century goldsmith's shop.  It's interesting to me just how material the world outside of the mirror is: the "stuff" of the shop is a marvel of oil painting, a treasure to the eye of desirable, transluscent surfaces (the decanters, the ivories, the corals, the gold, even the window panels are marvelous to behold).  The girdle (a kind of belt as virginal signifier) is draped upon the wooden counter that reads "Petrus Christus me fiat 1449" - even the painting speaks within the material world of the painting!  But the men in the mirror are silent, looking into the representational space of the shop from that of the street; looking into the social space of material normativity from the reflected (reflective?) space of dematerialized vision - they are an image within an image, and their interpretation necessarily puts us outside of the confines of the easily visible or legible despite attempts, the Met's among them, to chillingly reduce them to a moral anecdote.  You're much more than that when you reside in a mirrored world.

Here, I'm not operating within the confines of academe, so I feel no compulsion to have anything I write supported by more authoritative discourses. So I feel free to ask questions: What are they whispering to each other? What made them stop at this window? Is there someone inside the shop/the painting they recognize? Do they see themselves reflected back out? Is the falcon, bird of prey and signifier of the hunt for love, a gift? a flaunt? a dare? How do we think about the juxtaposed textures of the bumpy stamped coins and the smooth, glistening mirror? Who put the mirror there in the first place? Who else has passed within its frame? Who has freedom of movement here? Where will they go once they leave the shop window? They are out and about, but are they out?  It's this last question (though many more could be asked) that prompts the commemoration of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell - the move from the margins to the center, from being an image within an image (an identity within an identity) to being a coherent part of a larger image.  There is perhaps a thrill, a romance even, to coded whisperings and furtive glances - but any power is contingent, and there is much danger of someone moving the mirror, and of thus being taken from view, erased.  Not now - not if our lovers can leave their whisperings and speak declaratively.  We can ask how this linguistic turn, this freedom of speech reclaimed, could repaint our image - who would stand where, or if some would leave the goldsmith shop altogether and be present elsewhere.

detail of Arnolfini Portrait. 1434. Nat'l Gallery, London

We can also ask after other mirrored couples - the Man in Red and the Man in Blue who face the Arnolfinis in van Eyck's 1434 painting. Why, we can start to question a lot things.

Carthusian. 1446. The Met

For now, I can thank Petrus Christus for his portrait of a Carthusian monk - not for any reasons of historical identity (although it's nice to think of him as saint Bruno, and it's nice to think of him as a man from 1446) - but because with him, we can look directly into the eyes of an individual who is himself central.  No mirrors or occlusions - no easy explanations of the self either.  There is an inscription that has the painting speaking again ("Petrus Christus made me" - "me fecit") - another (a greater?) voice in representation.  And it being medieval art, there is that fly on the ledge.  There is much to ask, and much to tell.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Funky Peace

When in D.C. at the fabulous National Art Gallery, knowing there's an Arcimboldo show your mom can't wait to take you to, and having just been through the awesome kid section of the gift shop, what else is there to do but don your funky hologram glasses and hang out in the garden atrium with your baby cousin? A funky peace reigned today, the best kind: fun, unexpected, blissful. Warning: a picture of every single member of the household over the age of 1 month with baby Henry features below. He is the gift that keeps on giving.

Lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian, whose reputation for being fantastic is well earned.  The key to its success in academic circles is that it doesn't just herald the early (read "primitive") American Indian, but instead presents contemporary American Indian cultures (skateboard art, for instance, or the Indigenous Contemporary Arts Program). There's a post at some point about the concept of the primitive in the Middle Ages (I used to think there wasn't one, that The Primitive is a product of Modernism, but sometimes I'm not so sure).  Anyway, here's Iris pushing Henry in his swank stroller.

And here is Henry's sweet mama, Gina.  He's four weeks olds and already the love radiates when he sees her.  Gina's calm and good humor makes all the difference in this little household. I remember a much more fraught and frenetic time - Oliver was the one with the calm and the good will.  Thank goodness for these little ones who know what they're doing. Henry and Gina are a beautiful team - she is in utter love with her little guy, and knows him deeply, and knows there is fun to be had.

See what I mean about the radiant gaze?  And can you imagine hanging out in those huge, comfortable arms all day?  A significant amount of our conversation yesterday was spent trying to figure out exactly that.  Seeing Steve as a dad is still more mind-blowing than I can really write about - except to say that he and Gina are amazing and totally symbiotic around Henry, that Steve's state of wonder (which we have all treasured for his whole life) is exponentially beautiful around his son, and that all of us can only marvel at the fun that awaits you, Henry.

Here is my proud chicita, feeding Henry while he gazes pensively out the window - there's clearly already much to ponder. Iris and I keep talking about what it must be like to grow up in D.C. - these cousins will have some wild notes to compare.  What always amazes me about the first three months is that they actually do pass - but the memory of holding an infant is immediate: that special heaviness, that unique warmth. I remember Iris holding Eleanor four and a half years ago. My proud Iris.  Happy Henry.

Good to know I still have a soporific effect on infants. Look how long that little guy is!

It might be difficult to see, but the moon was already out at about 3:30 p.m. as we were making our way back from the National Gallery.  Why is a dome such a great architectural shape for grandeur and order?  Even though the Republicans insist on besmirching it with their unbelievably cynical politics, it looks pretty grand.  The thing with architecture is that it allows you to transcend all that.  Just ask the domes of Jerusalem: the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock, and the Shrine of the Book.  The thing with babies is that, I swear, you get that same transcendence - that embodiment of goodness at the very least.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Kith and Kin

Against all logic and much rationality, I am in D.C. with Iris, settling in for a week-end of adventures with Baby Henry.  There had been talk of surgery for Gina and then that went away, and then I thought "Well, I'm not really needed," and then I thought of all of the times that Steve has come out to see us at the drop of a hat, and then I thought of lovely Gina and dear Steve and brand new Baby Henry, and so there we were with Iris in the car on the way to the airport at 5:30 p.m. and here we are now. I have a set of exams with me, and final papers from my three independent studies - the other paper grading and grade compilation will have to wait upon our return. Plus, Iris really wants to go to the Natural History Museum, and Gina does, too!  After a semester of non-transcendental everything, being in the presence of a newborn is pretty powerful.  For how many thousands of years have babies started out like this? Small, helpless, determined. Really, really cute.  Freud's "oceanic feeling" visible in sweeping gestures of the arm.  That odd, ancient wisdom in their eyes, fleeting and oft replaced by some painful physical accountability to food or sleep or want.  My little kith, my little kin. It's not even the genetic stuff, it's that it's my brother raising him!  A Soviet historian dad and a State department mom. A Steve and a Gina. Who are both so happy, and so calm, and so filled with wonder and fun - I admire them greatly. I think of all that he is surrounded by.

Which leads me to this awesome image about which everything is cool. It is a birthing tray from around 1400, from Italy, and depicts Venus in a mandorla being adored by six heroes of legend and lore: Samson, and Tristan and Lancelot and the like.  These trays (and there are a surprising number left, especially from Italy) were used to bring in nibbles for the laboring mother (!) - and then, once the child was born, they were used to bear gifts from the mother to the godparents and other witnesses waiting outside.  Some ritual! I guess what I'm marveling at is just how surrounded by narratives babies are, from the very beginning.  Their transcendence recedes in the face of our specificity. But you never forget those first moments, those first gifts.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Glad Music

There's my petunia - the littlest one, with her belly still kind of poking out the way little children's do - she seems so small up there!  But she was expansive in her possibilities playing her three pieces of piano for the recital. There does indeed seem to be a great deal of music going on these days - many many people making a joyful noise - and the good will and fervor in that recital hall was marvelous.  I'm so grateful for all these glad songs, and I am grateful that I can broadcast them into the ether and its expansive possibilities - the image of music spreading gladly across some unknown expanse from such tiny fingers is really kind of lovely.

So that's a piece called "The Waltz of the Christmas Toys" - Iris thought it sounded more "toylike" up high, so dear Mrs. Carkeek said by all means, play it up top.

 And here are "The Blue Bells of Scotland" to take you back to the old country (!). Check out the curtsy on that girl!  She had such a good time - we both did.  There was a third one called "The Butterfly," too.  While the recital was happening a snow storm whipped up quite a bit of excitement outside - this season is bringing out some real warmth.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Songs of Songs

Angels. Ghent
Does anybody give it their all the way the angels from the Ghent Altarpiece (1427-29) do? Their effort, their gusto, and the concerted (ha ha!) effort of those incredible frowns render the act of singing a completely physical, and possibly existential, one.  Their refinery is pretty swell, too.  The Ghent Altarpiece is a world unto itself, and the angels have always been favorites: the most physically real of the hundreds of figures painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.  While we know that their facial expressions are actually prescribed by singing manuals (one could read the music on singers' faces as well as hear it in their voice in the Middle Ages), I don't think that we know what they're singing.  A song oft sung before, undoubtedly, a song of a song.  And so today, I have two songs of songs - two sets of renditions of songs originally sung by someone else.  For how else to know if a song lives then by someone else singing it?

The first is of wee Eleanor, singing "Cornbread and Butterbeans" (and you across the table; hugging you and kissing you, as long as I am able).  It's by none other than the Carolina Chocolate Drops (who just received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album!!!) and there I am driving her to school the other day, when out of the back seat emerges this little song.  Nice.

The second song resung is actually a gateway to a whole universe of songs resung. History teachers have taken our favorite songs from the 1980s (and yes, mistakes were made, but Siouxie and the Banshees did rock) and rewritten the lyrics to give us prescient and pithy (and rhyming) versions of history. I give you Beowulf, but they have their own channel on YouTube where you can enjoy all 48 they've done thus far (Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" for the French Revolution is pretty swell).

Happy Holidays to us all!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

With an Eye to Babel

Oxford, Bodleian, MS lat. th.b.4, f. 168r. Decretals of Gregory IX, 1234.
And so this is where we leave this semester: with an eye to Babel, inspired by good friends, spurred by events, puzzled by ideas, and pushed by desires.  For what else is there? What else does there need to be?  Well, actually, there is one more thing. Ok, two (we all want jet packs). The other thing would be gloss.  Wonderfully strange word, isn't it?  And yet that is the medieval term for writing about writing: to gloss a text is to interpret it, to frame that text with your interpretation. And in this fantastic manuscript page, which I have here big for I want for you to be able to revel in its Babel-alia (you can click on it to see even more), you see at least three levels of gloss framing the original text (the two columns in the middle) - a first reader/ writer/ interpreter hugged the text close, then there's a second hand in the margin to the right, and a third whisper down at the bottom of the page.  I wish that I could tell you that this was the Bible, being interpreted and reinterpreted (for what I really really want is a Talmudic tradition, a habit of interpretive struggle, extending into today), but no, the text being glossed is a copy of the Decretals of Gregory IX, the new collection of canon law written between 1230-35 - basically, laws and regulations to live by according to the Bible.  Pretty fantastic, though, how they couldn't leave the text alone, how visible they made the acts and consequences of interpretation: reframing, reshaping, rebinding that text.  The litcrit term is "hypertext" and my beloved advisor, Michael Camille, talked about the hyper-textuality of post-modern internet text - writings dematerialized in being rewritten thusly, but re-understood in the process.

Possibly my favorite part of that page is where they stitched the velum back together again (do you see it in the middle right section? with the red thread?) - medieval manuscript surgery.  Well, it is skin after all (lamb's skin) - clearly a well-worn page, but salvaged, these stitches being another gloss. Glosses can appear in the most unexpected places: Chaucer, ever impish, wakes his Book of the Duchess dreamer up in a room lit by the colors of stained glass windows depicting the siege of Troy (the Aeneid to you and me) and walled on one side by a mural depicting "the entire Romance of the Rose, both text and gloss" (at almost 22,000 verses and already hundreds of pages of interpretation by the time Chaucer was writing (millions now), that is a fantastically impossible wall).

What's amazing is that in Brittany, the simplest statements brought the greatest joy: "Cinq croissants, s'il-vous-plaît," - "Oui, oui, un petit café" - "C'est si gentil, on arrive!" Here, I seek to complicate things.  Both are equally fascinating: to notice blades of grass around a neolithic megalith, or to get ready to read 14 student exams about "Secrets, Epistemologies, and the Ethics of Readership"  and images of Tristan and Isolde, Gawain and the Green Knight and the Romance of the Rose. (They're taking the exam as I write, and, truth be told, I can't wait to read what they've written). If an epistemology pushes us to ask how we know what we know (what kinds of assumptions and expectations frame our knowledge), then maybe that is why this love of interpretation, this gleeful push to over-interpret at times so that the categories collapse (and that potentially, every secret is its own epistemology and every epistemology its own secret)? Is it just the absence of beauty and history and direct truths that make American scholars wander so?  Sometimes I think so. Other times, I think I do it in response to my students' convictions that things are simple, that there is black and there is white, there is good and there is bad, and that that is that.  Without complications, can there be change? Hardly.  Change is the most complicated thing. It takes the most understanding.  I see David's point better now: an eye to Babel is a return to the human task of understanding - each other, the inexplicable, the divine.  Is this why I love France? Because there you can do it and enjoy a buttery pastry? Mmmmm - delicious complexities.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Not Sharing the Wealth

Greed, from a Vices and Virtues capital at Autun (France) c. 1120
I want to write something intelligent and angry about Obama caving in on prolonging tax cuts to the wealthiest of the wealthy, the Republicans holding the unemployed as hostages to those tax cuts, and probably other things, but the blogosphere, twittersphere, and every other thing internet is pretty much bristling with intelligent and angry things. Plus, while I have the anger, I have neither the intelligence nor the time these days. The wonderful woman at Apt. 11D cites the indefatigable Robert Reich's twitter posts, which are really quite wonderful, and make me think of bold pronouncements spoken in the marketplace - I'm thinking medieval transmission of discontent here, even more than examples of Tax Revolts, of which there were plenty.  So instead, I'll let Autun's creature of Greed do the talking - and it is rather eloquent, with its great big greedy mouth, holding on to its full, full money bags. Note how it squats under the weight of the bags, its legs drawn up to almost under its arms. Its great big greedy mouth is open: is it chortling, calling out, in pain? Haunting little thing, isn't it?

Most of us don't know what it's like to have 5 million dollars newly immune to taxation, so I'm not sure where to draw my understanding for the wealthiest from on this issue.  And I do know that much philanthropy comes from the wealthiest - this isn't about parsing the good rich from the bad rich. It's more the principle of a government telling those who could contribute to the common good that they don't have to.  It's more the cold statement about people with more than they need being justified to ignore those who don't have the basics of what they need. It's more further tanking of the federal economy. There are so many exasperated statements to make (no, this isn't a call for communism, or socialism; yes I understand the basic incompatibilities of capitalism and democracy), but no time to be lucid about them.  The bottom line: to throw crumbs at the poorest in order to justify keeping the fattest meat on the lord's table didn't sit well in the Middle Ages, and it doesn't today.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Adventures in Reading the Bible

That's my Dad's Bible - the one he had with him during WWII, along with the red Shakespeare volume.  Oliver and I found it over Thanksgiving, clearing out an old box of my Dad's.  I realize now that finding it triggered yet anew my growing ambivalence about the kids' religious education.  Sometimes I marvel that this ambivalence has grown as much as it has. I was raised Protestant in Geneva, Switzerland, making me pretty solid Protestant stock. Mac was raised Catholic in Chicago, making him pretty solid Catholic stock (the priest that married us stuck with Augustine for the homily). But that's not the ambivalence (no, no, that would be too easy).  No, it's an ambivalence about Christian religious education period.  And no, I'm not ambivalent about all of the horrid idiocies that have been promoted under Christianity's name (the exclusivity, the condemning to hell of complete innocents, the condemning to hell period, the hundreds of years of oppression and the millions of deaths). Nor am I ambivalent about the strange, soft beauty of some of Christ's pronouncements (the helping of the weak and helpless, the forgiveness of those who have hurt you personally, the call for social justice, the hope for those suffering right now). I love those. It's the relationship to all that we know about Christianity, the good the bad and the ugly that I'm ambivalent about.  At some point (and really, I need to nail this down), Christian teaching traded in critique for acceptance.  The point now seems to be to accept what is in the Bible, and accept it uncritically. There's so little struggle, so little questioning of the text or of its authority, so little asking about the historical period in which it was written, so little wondering about the uses over time of an idea.  So little doubt. So little room for being perplexed. The sources are right. Jesus is always right. Paul is always right. And the interest is not in saying they're wrong - the interest is in asking about the anxieties and challenges that follow from these ideas. The interest is in not being preached at, but talked with. And recognizing the utter hybridity and general and utter strangeness of this text we call the Bible - its arbitrariness, its struggles to capture a sense of divinity, one that people can live with, its losses in translations, its manipulations, its history, its shortcomings, its silences, its borrowings, its unwitting contributions.  One of the wildest things about the Middle Ages is that there was no Bible - there were lots and lots of holy texts, but those didn't become consolidated into The Bible until the 17th century and the King James Bible.  What gets called the Bible in the Middle Ages is the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) - everything else existed in bits and pieces, each explored, tested, stretched, tried, extrapolated on its own.  What we call The Bible today was always already incoherent in the Middle Ages, always already in pieces that sought each other out through resonances and references.  The Bible was not a material entity - it was an ever-shifting and re-interpreted and used assortment of texts which themselves produced hybrid texts (liturgies, books of hours, meditations, and more).

So all this to say that the children have never been to church around here. We go when we're in North Carolina and they're generally interested in the pageantry and the stained glass windows (one of which bears my grandparents' names) and the awesome barbecue and fried chicken and pie afterwards. (And I do know that one of the great benefits of religion is community, but that's not the discussion here, the relationship to the text is).  But there's not a whole lot more engagement for them.  And I do want more for them.  But how? And then (who knew?) I discovered the Bible App on my iPhone. I'd been looking for access to an on-line Bible for the trip to Israel, and lo and behold, there was one for free with not only 23 English translations and 46 overall translations, but various and sundry Reading Plans (the Bible in 90 days! the Essential 100 passages!) including one entitled Rediscovering the Christmas Season. And there it was: the framework within which I would be eager to talk about the Bible with my children. A dematerialized text, one lifted out of ritual and community and what clearly is for me a consequential amount of baggage - a dematerialized, digitized, serialized text. That was the answer.

And so we threw ourselves into it with gusto.  Too much gusto.  For it turns out that one is only to read a very few select verses from the chapter for that day. And when it came time to read Mark 9, I was only supposed to read verses 33-37 (which are really cool and about Christ lifting a child up on his knees and telling the disciples that to be first you must be last and a servant to all - it has the "welcome the little children in my name" line). But like a fool I kept reading and in verse 43 Jesus tells the disciples that if their hand causes them to stumble, they should cut it off, because it's better to be maimed than to go to hell.  (The kids got quiet.) Verse 44: if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, because, well, better than hell.  (Good grief, I'm thinking, what is this text doing to my kids? It's ok, we're going to talk about it, but what the Christmas message is here, is lost on me.) Verse 45: if your eye... yep, pluck it out.  There's a total silence at the table at this point, and Oliver ventures "Maybe this is the Halloween reading."

So what's the lesson here?  Read bits and pieces of the Bible? This is not a coherent text (how do you emotionally follow helping the helpless with brutal self-mutilation, even if it is metaphorical?) (and then that really weird passage about salt losing its saltiness in verse 50) and one of the hardest discussions about the Bible is how all of these parts are meant to relate to each other.  Once you start reading there's nothing simple and coherent about it. And that's what makes it interesting. That's what makes the struggle come. And so we've kept on reading, past the maiming bit, and on to Christ as the light of the world, to the idea of a light of the world, of hope - the very cool and demanding concept of hope that humans have come up with. Do animals hope, or just desire? Is hope more painful than desire?  What can hope push you to do? to endure?  We talked. We talked about Biblical text, and it didn't necessarily make sense, and there was no one message to walk away with, but there they were my little ones talking about it all.

I feel like Oliver at breakfast yesterday morning whose first words of the day, completely unrelated to all of this, were: "I'm overwhelmed. There's just so much to say."

So here's a pretty nice picture of the snow everywhere.  I love the observatory under snow - makes its attempts to see the stars that much more audacious, so heavily does the snow blanket the entire sky.  The kids played out there every day - snow angels down to the grass below they flapped their arms so hard.  They bounded out the door within minutes of the "Halloween reading" incident.  They are resilient and eager for the next thing.

Which is my segue to this fantastically absurd image of Iris and my Dad.  Why she chose to wear sunglasses and a purse with her outfit, I don't know, let alone why she is staring at my Dad with what, by all appearances, is a stony stare.  He was explaining this tiny piece of paper that Oliver and I found (cleaning out the same box) folded into a tiny ring box with a pearl and diamond ring within it.  It turns out (most probably) to have belonged to my great-grandmother (widowed two years after the Civil War - that's some incredible genealogical math!) and, like her wedding ring which is now mine, fits my finger perfectly.  My dad used to be very sentimental, and had a hushed and loving awe for his family and its past - it's different now, of course, but I could tell he was satisfied that the ring had come to light, that it would get some life now. No use hiding your light under a bushel.

No segue here, just Eleanor and Iris in front of the fantabulous Christmas display at my Mom's retirement home, before we went to The Nutcracker.  And now to work, and then somehow to bed, and a final brutal week of university life - with nothing resolved and that's ok.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leaks in the Ship of State

The Great Khan sending a letter to the Pope, 1410.
How does one stop reading about the WikiLeaks? They've become a not-so-minor obsession, every revelation another wince, another stunned face, another foray into rarefied vocabulary.  Sarkozy is "mercurial" (one of my all time favorite words to use for a political ruler) - delightful! Switzerland is a "frustrating alpine democracy" (as opposed to those easy-going sea-level democracies). Berlusconi is "feckless" - do tell! Medvedev is Robin to Putin's Batman - come on, now you're making this up! Angela Merkel is apparently "risk averse and rarely creative" - who knew?  Well, now we know that the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi once called the Iranian president "Hitler" (to quote Mac sitting here next to me: "If the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi compares you to Hitler, you've made a poor impression on the world.")  I know that this is serious, I know that Hillary Clinton has other problems than these.  But out here, David will take a minute to laugh at Goliath ; be (frankly) impressed by the precision of wit of the American diplomats' language (mercurial? alpine?); and wonder about how the divide between what we say and what we mean shrinks when we think no one's listening.  Plus, we get to wonder about the effect of the private conversations of a major bank organization coming to light (first democracy exposed - now capitalism!).

In the same manuscript whence the wonderful image above depicting an early diplomatic cable is pulled, John Mandeville describes a conversation he had with the Sultan, just the two of them:

Now I shall tell you what the Sultan told me one day in his chamber.  He made everyone else leave his chamber, lords as well as others who were there, for he wanted to have a private talk between ourselves alone. And when they had all gone out, he asked me how Christians governed themselves in our countries. And I said, "Lord, well enough - thanks be to God." And he answered and said "Truly, no. It is not so.  For your priests do not serve God properly by righteous living, as they should do... On holy days, when people should go to church to serve God, they go to the tavern and spend all the day - and perhaps all the night - in drinking and gluttony... Christian men commonly deceive one another... And they are, moreover, so swollen with pride and vainglory that they never know how to dress themselves... For Christians are so proud, so envious, such great gluttons, so lecherous, and moreover so full of covetousness that for a little silver they will sell their daughters, their sisters, even their own wives, and no one keeps his faith to another... Certainly it is because of your sinfulness that you have lost all the land which we hold and keep.

Pretty harsh assessment, no?  Kind of makes "feckless," "risk-averse," and "alpine" seem tame, yes?  This ought to get Mandeville's dander up - the injustice of these accusations! The cheek! But instead... 

I asked him with great respect, how he came by so full a knowledge of the state of Christendom.

Wha-? No wincing, no stunned face, no foray into rarefied vocabulary ("lecherous" counts)???  Scholars have taken Mandeville's reaction to mean that he recognized Christendom in exactly the vilifying terms the Sultan gave it.  And that's the thing, isn't it? We recognize the characterization of these political figures - the revelation is not in the knowledge itself, it's in the incontrovertible proof that the highest dignitaries criticize each other with perhaps more wit, but definitely with less dignity than we had thought.  But Mandeville is serious in his question: "No, really, how did you come to know us so well? We thought all of that stuff was only in the cables, in our private conversations, in our intimate sphere..."

And then he had all the great lords and worthies that he had previously sent out called in; and he detained four of them - great lords - to talk to me.  These described to me all the manners of my country, and of other countries in Christendom as fully as and as truly as if they had always lived in them.  These lords and the Sultan spoke French wonderfully well, and I was astonished by that.  Finally, I understood that the sultan sends some of his lords to different kingdoms and lands in the guise of merchants - some with precious stones, some with cloths of gold, some with other jewels - and that these visit all realms in order to size up the manners of us Christian men and spot our weaknesses.  

Medieval spies! Looking for leaks in the medieval Christian state and finding it in the flagging moral character of its inhabitants. Mandeville's Travels is a generally pretty astounding text, but this passage may be one of the most confounding of all, don't you agree?  What is the author doing in revealing what the Sultan really thinks of the Christians and (worse) what the Christians really think of themselves? What has been sought here with WikiLeaks? What has been revealed? Well, the diplomats' petty humanity (and there's some kind of great sympathy in seeing this - "Oh wow, that guy (just happens to be the president of Iran) got on your nerves, too?"). And the real emotions and resentments behind the façade (we knew it had to be there and look there it is!).  So we have more realism - do we have more understanding? and of what?

On this night it might make sense to think of Judah the Hammer and his five sons and all the others, and of the re-dedication of the Temple and of the language of ritual supplanting that of war, and of both eschewing diplomacy altogether  - but maybe let's just enjoy the light.