Saturday, October 23, 2010


Well, they did it: the French Senate passed the pension reform bill raising the retirement age to 62 and the availability of full benefits to 65.  The vote was 177-153 and there are still a couple of steps to go towards implementation, but the path is now charted out.  The unions had already called for two more strike days even before the vote (October 28, November 6) - what will the response be now?  Will there be a revolution on the scale of May 1968? I'm always a little amazed to remember that May 1968 only lasted for two weeks ("only" for anybody who lived through it, I'm sure) - it's the scale that was huge: 11 million workers mobilized into strikes. It truly was the world upside down. Charivari: boisterous, heretofore disallowed actions, messy propositions.

A time when the little man can be King. Or Royal Pumpkin Carver (yes, that is a knife in the pumpkin's eye). Halloween is the ultimate ritualized charivari.  The low becomes high, power is powerless, the powerless are powerful, street talk is political speech - but then (and this is the trick of survival of charivari) everything goes back to the way it was: boys are no longer pharaohs, girls are no longer witches, De Gaulle's party (it turns out) came out stronger than ever in the June 1968 elections.  The world "righted" itself - except in America, where, that same month, JFK was shot.  Louise de Savoie (1476-1531) would have looked to the stars for explanation.  There's one mystic touch in French Senate elections that I return to: each vote is cast in the form of a plastic card which is weighed not counted. The cards go into yes-no-abstain urns, and the urns are then poured out onto scales - whichever side the scales tip to is the side of right.  Where did that ritual come from? Sounds Roman, doesn't it?  Human will decides the precarious balance of social justice.

Will the unions lose the hard-won victories of the November-December 1995 strikes?  All I remember in the haze of archival research and being completely crazy in love with Mac was walking all over Paris, eventually shoving him on the last train out of Paris (from the Gare du Nord), and then connecting the dots (walk, bus, bus, train) to Belgium so I could make my way to him in Germany.  I had no political consciousness except to admire the will it took to make the government backtrack.  The small held the big.  But I don't know this time if power is just a matter of will.  The Economy seems constructed as a bigger power, above all governments, driving all things.  A real beastie, hungry and insatiable.  And so it faces off with Charivari.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


In the Middle Ages, when you were mad at God (which happened), you would take your frustration out on His representatives, the saints.  There is an entire set of stories involving the Humiliations of the Saints: statues overturned, rituals denied, upkeep neglected.  There is even a subset of those (and they seemed to be mostly women) who dared take on the Virgin Mary herself: a woman whose son was being held captive took the Christ Child from a Virgin and Child statue group and declared that she would return the statue when the BVM had done what was necessary to return her own son.  Mary complied, the woman's son was returned, and the Christ Child was returned to his statuary Mary mother. 

What do you do when those entities that were meant to look out for you, protect you, take care of you, fail in their duties?  In France, they're blockading oil refineries, airports, and highways; they're burning tires; marching in the streets; shouting (a lot of shouting) and demanding.  The strikes in France are on the brink of some pretty massive economic and social disorder, and the government is "fighting back" (I'm not sure what that means) in dogged determination to pass pension reform and raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 (and access to full benefits from 65 to 67).  I had been ready to mock this slight rise in age when rumblings began in the spring, but I had to rethink my smug stance when José talked about it in terms of rights to a better life that had been hard-won by a past generation of activists and politicians.  And then yesterday, I learned from Mac that it's the French who instituted the paid vacation (back in the 1930s, I believe he said), and it's them that we need to thank for even the little breathing room that we get in American work culture.  What makes me squirm is the paralysis of the country through the strike (and there's a harrowing tale that awaits the telling from David who made it out of France most improbably). What I can't help but admire is the position, the core belief, that a government should take care of its people. That there is enough to go around, and that it's the government's job to spread the wealth so that you can sit under a tree and have tea, read all of Baudelaire, travel hither and yon, and actually talk to your grandchildren.  There's a simple logic to this that I know is scoffed at by some economists, but, it's the one the protesters are holding to.  Now, things are complicated (bien sûr) and there are dastardly hoodlum elements at work, and the unions have to read the public (which in the last poll was 71% behind them), and the government has to do the same, and somehow this all has to make sense within the global economy, but for now, I watch the tires burn on the news and think of overturned statues and everybody holding their breath for their justice.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Wo-ha - I'm in Montréal.  There's a 16th-century Conference, which is later than I'm used to, but my gal died in 1531, so fair game, yes?  Everything is suspended and strange - and thus wonderful.  Lots and lots of work that needs to be done haunts me, I miss Mister M. and the kids, and I wish that (arhum) my paper were done, but all in good times, these things will fall into place. Tomorrow morning, there are two great sessions at 8:30 a.m. (my gal) and 10:30 a.m. (Orientalism), and then lunch with a dear friend at what looks to be a fantastic place, and then all afternoon and evening to think and write. Plus, they have really big plush robes in this hotel. Plus, my window looks out over what has to be the biggest church ever. It makes the Madeleine in Paris look like a camper ; Brunelleschi's dome look like a thimble! And the name: Basilique Cathédrale Marie Reine du Monde de Montréal, which when said "Mary Queen of the World Cathedral Basilica" is just as grand!  So, really, I have inspiration (and terry cloth) galore here.

I think that I like Canada, I really do.  It's very disconcerting, though: hearing French, and people being really (really really) nice to you, all at the same time.  True reaction: when I got off the plane and heard my first official French over the loud-speaker, I immediately panicked that I hadn't called the hotel to let them know I would be there after 9 p.m. - immediately; hadn't thought about the possibility of them canceling the room until that very moment. Official France always makes me feel small; intimate France (our friends) make me feel like all thoughts and feelings are possible.  Dichotomy.  Now I have to think complicated thoughts about France, as this strike over the possibility of bumping the retirement age up two years gears up.  Part of me admires the absolute conviction that the government is lying about the math, the absolute conviction that there is enough to go around, we just have to keep redistributing the wealth; part of me just wants them to just stop already and let our dear friend make his way home to his kids in the States (and everyone else actually live their lives).  Strikes have always seemed like a big collective holding one's breath - I've come to trust that France won't pass out, but I still worry!  Ok, to bed in my big comfy hotel bed - who knows what thoughts await tomorrow?

Sunday, October 10, 2010


There are lots of good blogs that will walk you through medieval moments in the modern world, and reveal just how medieval we still are sometimes, so this is my little contribution to that discussion - in the funny vein.  Miss E and Miss I were asked to bear the crowns for the Homecoming King and Queen at the football game yesterday afternoon.  (Actually, Mister O was asked, too, but recused himself, citing "too many eyes" upon him - he is, as I write this, working out a spy communication code for he and his best friend, so that all makes perfect sense.)  The girls jumped at the chance and you see them here moments before the crowning, Miss E in ambitious expectation (she had just said to me "For the queen to get her crown, she'll have to kneel before me" - yikes!), and Miss I in total preparedness (the sunglasses, I was told, was to make sure her vision was "sharp" for her to find the king to crown).  And behind them is this crowd of football go-ers (a peoples I know exist, but am always stunned to find out exist in such numbers), and before them, was the court assembling - six young men and six young women, all of whom have done really good things (one young woman had worked with orphans in Ecuador) and want to do more really good things (oh please, oh please, do). 

What we might call "deep" medieval in American popular culture are those events that are not even recognized as medieval - they just are. You just crown a Homecoming King and Queen, that's all there is to it. And, actually, if I were a better medievalist/art historian, I could tell you the iconography of those crowns: when modern medieval queens started sporting tiaras, and why the guys always have to wear those fur-trimmed numbers.  As with most of these events, I'd have to look to the 19th century as well.  I also love the idea of a court: Camelot! and someday will get a student who wants to research how JFK's court obtained the title.  Homecoming itself, of course, is a late 19th-century tradition, inviting alums and former members of the community back - is this part of the reason it went medieval? Medieval being such a signifier of nostalgia on college campuses (nostalgia for what is where it gets interesting: a company of valiant companions, for starters, but there's wonderful more).  That the court would be voted on by college students was also an earliest tradition. I love "medieval democracy" - my favorite being the young woman at the ticket booth at Medieval Times who told me: "For $10, you can upgrade to royalty."  Best medieval-modern ever.  Back to the game: was medieval the format chosen because it could accommodate both genders? Was a Roman Senate too male? There were plenty of single-gender Homecoming courts until schools became co-ed, so that's not the answer.  Was a Greek array of deities too close to the Greek fraternity and sorority systems emerging?  Was anything else (Norse gods?) too ethnically specific? Renaissance and Enlightenment courts too problematic, rigid?  What were those first 19th-century discussions that, in some long weird way, resulted in my daughters walking crowns out to the middle of a football field? It's a strange and harmless tradition (and there's a place for those!), and I like to think about it. Meanwhile, the girls had a blast and are looking to crown other people - come over! 

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Iris's little classmate is improving daily - eyes focusing, laughter, touching his mom. He's coming back, he's going to be coming back - it will take much longer than anyone wants it to ever ever, but he's going to do it.  When I see how well this little guy is doing now, I realize how my dad never really had a chance for a full recovery. But then, an 83-year old brain and a 6-year old brain are entirely different phenomena.  I remember hoping, daydreaming about a conversation in which my dad would tell me what it had all been like, to have been kind of here kind of there. But he's never made it far back enough to let me know.  This little boy will, but I realize now that there's really no way of talking about that return trip. You re-emerge. This little boy will re-emerge into his own consciousness, which is the coolest, most astoundingly miraculous thing to consider. He's already recognizing people, reaching out to them, knowing who they are.  My dad re-emerged into another consciousness, another personality altogether. I know the science for this, but it's never stopped feeling strange in all these seven years.  I keep thinking about the beautiful family of this little boy, of how loved they are, and (this is the odd part) of how much I want to protect them.

I keep having memories of events from the early days of dad's brain injury (memories I haven't thought about in forever) and I remember the feeling of this incredible oppressive presence - I guess you'd call it evil (which sounds a bit dramatic, but that's what it was, the sense that there was this bad, very very bad, heaviness all around). In the early weeks after Iris was born, this raccoon made its way into our garage and I could hear it bumping around down there while I was up in the middle of the night nursing her.  And it became this perfect allegory for that presence: this lumbering, hunched invader.  Mac trapped it (peanut butter) and drove it to the edge of town - and  that was that: it was gone. I still love thinking about that. All of the love that this family is being surrounded by just has to be a bulwark against that presence, that bad.  All of the local businesses have signs up for this little boy, there are thousands and thousands of visits to the blog that his parents are running, dozens of people go to see them every day, and hundreds of people write in the guestbook daily. Surely, hopefully, this will protect them, give them moments of peace and safety within all the new things to understand.  And in the midst of it all, the will of this little boy, making his way back.

So the image is of a dream vision that Jean Thenaud has of the terrain governed by Prudence (who is the rather incredible babe in the middle of the image - yes, that's milk).  It's the main image of my conference paper which needs to be done by Thursday morning (I leave Thursday afternoon). I've been living with this image and thinking about it for weeks now, and feel ready to write, even as I've felt completely split between thinking about this little boy (something I can't do nearly enough about), and thinking about work (something I should be doing so much more about).  Dream allegories are one of the most popular genres in medieval writing - a whole lot of works gets done when the Dreamer has his out-of-body experience.  Thenaud articulates (in thousands of pages) his longing for Jerusalem (and this is what I want to write about in here soon soon).  What I love is that, no matter how far away they go, or how complex their allegorical dreamscape is, these dreamers always make their way back.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


That, you see, is how "fabulous" is spelled when you're Miss I writing about your week-end.  And indeed the adventures these chickitas managed to have bespeaks some serious fabyowlosity. How long, do you think, before Miss E joins a punk band?  I have this picture here because kids are great, and powerful, and their energy is totally unlike ours.  This is what our entire community is fervently reminding themselves of right now.  Because the truth is, things are not fabulous, things are really hard: a little classmate of Miss I's was hit by a car and suffered a brain injury.  The parents are incredible, the community is incredible, and the little guy is a hero.  I find myself reliving very specific moments of my dad's brain injury and finding hope in the comparison - this little boy is going to be ok; he's already so much farther ahead than my dad was (in some ways than my dad ever got). It's just going to take months of rehab and therapy, and the road seems very very long.  But kids are different, right? They heal, they adapt so differently.  They are not immune to feeling tragedy, they just enter into it with a matter-of-factness that adults don't have.  They live in the moment.  And they have the energy that these girls have.  Helplessness is a really hard one, and all of the adults are feeling it.  There will be many things we can do when things are more stable. For now, the kids tell the adults that things are going to be ok, and we need to believe them.  And hope for a return to wholeness, to the fabyowlis.