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.

No comments:

Post a Comment