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.

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