medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
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.