Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The Carolina Chocolate Drops
Well, wow!  Maybe it's music that is going to save the world after all.  It certainly did tonight - as a little slice of heaven from North Carolina came to our humble town and played and played. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are making sure we don't forget: black banjo music, North Carolina Piedmont music, Scottish songs (!), and (the name of their new album) "genuine Negro jig" (the phrase found scribbled by the white man who wrote down the music he heard the black man play - tales to tell there).  If you can hear even a bit of that song, do it: I've never heard anything like it - it doesn't sounds like any melody ever.  They've been together for five years, traveling and gathering music from elders who are often in the '90s - they seem utterly inexhaustible, so it looks like modern audiences are on their way to being reawakened to this tradition.  The group was just in the Netherlands and... in France! I can't find out on their website where they played - wonder if they made it as far out as Brittany? There were a couple of boatmen's jig that would have found a home.

So it's the effects of the music I'm reveling in. Minutes before settling in with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I was finishing a discussion about the documentary Encounter Point which we were showing to students going on the Israel trip.  Intimate time with families who have lost children and who are coming together for a peace movement.  And there was great music in the background. If I knew more I could tell you if it was Israeli or Palestinian - it was beautiful.  When the first notes of music were played on stage tonight, I sat stunned at its richness and determination, its fun and its expertise.  Iris asked Mac to dance with him (Eleanor joined in, too) - there were other people dancing in the aisles, and joyful cries when a certain song would be announced (they covered Johnny Cash's "Jackson" which made Mac inordinately happy).  There we all were: happy.

Too much to process - everything to remember.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Tales We Tell (Again and Again)

Roman de la Rose, MS Douce 195, f. 1 - Bodleian, Oxford
In talking about the ethics of readership (what do we do with the knowledge we gain), a student of mine wanted to discuss the "politics of reinscription," by which she meant, I'm paraphrasing here, "those stories we tell or get told over and over again even though they're totally harmful, or frightening or depressing." This is a very bright student who loves medieval culture, Romantic literature, and science fiction - three traditions that are keenly aware of their re-framing of twice (or a million)-told tales. Why repeat stories that hurt?  I find myself asking this question as in both of my classes, and one of my independent studies, I will be working through texts rendered difficult by their retelling of grotesque racism (in the Women's Studies class) and of brutal violence (in the Love and War class).  I spent the better part of the afternoon being repulsed by what I was learning about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of Herland who had been taught to me as an unmitigated heroine of feminism in college 20 years ago.  There had been a comment or two about the noticeably white racial identity of the women of Herland, but that was it.  Scholarship since then has unearthed her other writings, letters to the editor, journals, and pamphlets and good God was she vile.  Specifically against African Americans. And here is the naïve and hopeless part of my attitude to all of this: I care deeply about the African American students in my class and I simply don't want to subject them to reading through her racist screeds and nasty comments, even packaged in critical secondary scholarship.  I wince similarly in "Love and War," where my female students are having to read the Jealous Husband speech from the Roman de la Rose, in which he calls his wife every name in the book and then brutalizes her.  This is my third time with the text, and I feel as though I am better able to frame it so that it doesn't just sit there, raw and ugly and painful - I now have responses from critical authors; I've found places where the text (the author?) responds to its (his) own misdeeds - in other words, I've found some good reason that they have to "suffer" these nasty texts. 

The problem is that somewhere in all of this I detect my own cowardice.  In my compulsion to protect my students, am I just protecting myself from having to discuss the nastier aspects of the human condition?  I admire professors, one of my dearest friends among them, who day after day confront the most devastating aspects of the human condition (the Holocaust, rape, racism...).  And it's not that I can't address those topics in class - it's that I have a very hard time assigning reading that I consider still toxic to certain of my students.  I've been through the experience of having a student who was raped write to me about the class's assigned reading on rape - and no she wasn't helpless to it, and yes we talked about it, and indeed parts of her felt vindicated and parts of her felt further bruised.  What right had I to evoke those memories for her for the benefit of having other students think this through? What right have I to subject my African American students to reading about Gilman's nasty ideas to make a point to my white students about the virulence of racism? In having a rape victim read about the violence of rape, am I not just perpetuating that violence? In having black students read a racist writer, am I not just perpetuating racism? On a lighter note, the only place I've ever seen a porn movei was in a Women's Studies class in college - could I have done without seeing that particular exploitation of women? Probably.

Here's the cowardice part: there are times when I would honestly prefer to let the sleeping dogs lie. What if my female students never had to read that "all women are lying whores"? What if my black students never had to know of Gilman's bright idea to sequester African Americans until they "evolved"?  Wouldn't they be a little bit more free from fear and humiliation?  This logic breaks down with the Holocaust - an evil that must be discussed because it must never be forgotten.  And we should never forget the suffering that came and still comes at the hands of rape and of racism.  We should honor that with at least our discomfort, if not more (much more) - our vow, our commitment, our activism.

And so what if my activism is the suppression of racist and sexist texts?  No good.  We have to confront this stuff. Students have to know This, It, That happened so (the logic goes) that This, It, That doesn't happen again.  We get told over and over that we need to make our students "uncomfortable" and yes, I agree with that, but I think that that better applies to majority students, to taking them out of their comfort zone and making them realize their privilege and its costs to others.  And yet, just writing this, I feel the wincing give way to some kind of conviction: that I can frame this so that it doesn't hurt my students. I myself feel humiliated by some of the text in the Rose (it really is horrible), but I've had years of academe to create a bulwark against it. I can gain mastery over that text with the frameworks of history and literary criticism. And I can teach those frameworks, and the use of those frameworks to my students - in some sense that is the most important part of my job, no? And resistance - resistance so that we don't "leave" the topic with silenced victims but instead with the voice of resistance: Christine de Pizan to erotic violence; bell hooks to racist feminism; Viktor Ullmann to the Holocaust.  Or is that another form of escapism? of not letting the really tough, depressing stuff sit there being tough and depressing long enough?  It has to be made clear that bell hooks doesn't write away racism (it actually really does have to be made clear that resistance doesn't "make everything all right").  A balancing act of two ethics: those I owe knowledge (no injustice should be silenced) and those I owe my students (to cause them no harm or humiliation).  The "answer" is to keep talking, to be aware of (maybe even honest about) the two (multiple) sets of obligations we have.

Above is Robinet Testard's opening miniature to the Roman de la Rose: on one side the author (who writes terrible things, even if they are not in his own voice), and on the other the dreamer (who will "hear" all of these things and have to decide what to do with them).  Students and I have often come to hate him for what he wrote - but he himself reminds us these terrible things are in the world of the dreamer whether the dreamer be awake or asleep, and he is only telling of them again (and again).  Whether and how we wake up to that knowledge is up to us.

Friday, November 26, 2010


The marvelous, stealthy magic of traditions makes it so that I cannot tell you when reading Art Buchwald's  Thanksgiving column became one in our house.  All I know is that every year thinking of Miles Standish as Kilometres Deboutish cracks us up, and the line about Thanksgiving being the only day of the year when Americans eat better than the French still elicits a gleeful grin (but also some melancholy for what we're missing in France the other 364 days of the year).  This year, Oliver and Iris totally got it (Eleanor was asleep in Mac's arms), and my Dad laughed as hard as he ever had.

It rained all day in absolute perfect November weather fashion, so we spent the day tending to the turkey and gathering dishes to accompany it and playing board games and even Skyping with baby Henry (such a handsome lad, and very advanced: already doing things well beyond his mere 12 days!). There's much to be said about medieval feasts and medieval recipe books (and they really are cool: many preoccupied with the effects of food - did you know, for example, that a leek tart can make your amorous?), but with Art Buchwald setting the tone (and what a voice - what a life!), I'm more in 1952 (the date of his column) than even the 17th century! And so we enjoyed:

Cranberry Ginger cocktail (take out the vodka and leave in the ginger beer and it's fine for the kids!)
Carrot, Fennel, and Orange Soup (the fennel makes a huge difference!)
Cider-Glazed Turkey (wow oh wow - no basting (none!) and yet delicious - gorgeous caramel color)
Perfect Mashed Potatoes (garlic)
Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta  and Thyme (pretty)
Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges with Smoke Chile Cream (yum yum yum)
Sourdough Stuffing with Sausage, Apples, and Golden Raisins (tons left, all good)
Bourbon Pumpkin Pie (touch o' Bourbon in the whipped cream, too - mmm)

Can't wait to hear about your wonderful menus and meals. In the meantime, here's the last toast of the day to dear friends far away - we love you and miss you and yes, are grateful for you.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Here are things I'd rather not let slip away; things to savor.

Inspired by the mid-term elections, Iris ran an election at our house between myself and Mac.  Mac won 2-1, with the girls as a voting block (gotta get a better campaign ad) - and here is what Iris produced in declaration: "Mikol [Michael]! Mikol the Prasdint. Mikol yiey [why] do you think you won. "I think doeth [both] my grols [girls] loved me the moest." Wall cogragyowglaeshins [congratulations - the coolest way to spell congratulations ever]. And we hoep [hope] you are a good prasudint like Odamu [Obama]."  It's really fun to read out loud, especially the congratulations part.  Can't wait until Iris and I can discuss this book!

 Some years ago, someone gave DePauw an abandoned limestone quarry which the University has since transformed into a Nature Park where we like to go take walks/hikes.  It's the most interesting landscape: kind of a post-apocalyptic feel what with the ravaging of the earth and all that; but also this sense of renewal (post-post-apocalypse?) in the trees and shrubs and water working together to reclaim the terrain.  I love Iris's combination of Mary Jane shoes and a walking stick.  Go forth, little pilgrim.

Speaking (sort of) of Biblical landscapes: Donna Haraway (phenomenal future science feminist, who rocked everyone's world with ideas of the post-human and the cyborg - i.e. what if technology really does change everything? a question addressed here by two gentlemen I greatly admire) has a fascinating critique of Eden and its prizing of an originary, complete self (and that self being a man, Adam).  She argues that if we continue to long for Eden, or the Edenic state of wholeness and innocence, a self unclouded by specific and political identities, we are doomed to fail in ever collapsing the dualisms that social change tries so hard to overcome (think those of the have and have nots of gender, sexuality, race, and class).  So what is the alternative? the always already hybrid identities of people who live in a world in which technology (a human invention after all) offers genuine, authentic emotional and political experiences - where your identity (fragmented between its body, its existence in the physical public sphere and its mind, or whatever part of your interacts with the internet) is fluid and unfixed and there is a common framework (the computer, the internet) approximating a common language. She talks about identity not as objects in the world (bodies) but as networks of information.  To which a student contributed: "So, Babel except it's not a bad thing?"  It's been a Babel-y semester.  I looked up Genesis 10, seeking a description of pre-catastrophe Babel, but it's not there, instead, a listing of the generations of the sons of Noah.  To ponder further: are we selves working towards a return to an innocent wholeness, or are we selves always already hybrid within complicated knowing identities? I probably ought to ask a kid. Or Adam himself (did he ever feel whole, actually, after the rib was taken? does the search for plenitude go back that far?). Or Hildegard of Bingen, or Catherine of Siena or any number of mystics who lived most of their lives virtually.

So Mac took 75 students to Chicago for the day last week-end and the kids and I drove up the night before to reunite with childhood friends of his (because to know Mac is to love him for a long long time).  Here, the kids are preparing themselves for when the CTA trains becomes a roller coaster, as promised by Uncle Sean, whom you see smiling on.  Uncle Sean is very funny and leads to much mayhem.

We tooled around downtown before meeting up with Mac and touched the Flamingo sculpture by Calder.  Oliver's just read the Calder Game (book report!) and so this was pretty terrific. I love how serious he is, how intentionally he touches the steel.  The look on Eleanor's face is pretty much the one she had when she told me the other to "outgrow yourself" as I was heading out the door to go teach.  Little kids in the big city.

I just like the strange strange expressions on the girls' faces here, at  the Brookfield Zoo.  Intrigue at the penguin house.

and so finally:
  • if you wish to rethink both Leviticus and parenting, please oh please oh please read this piece by Ian Frazer - I never did quite catch my breath I was laughing so hard; Oliver loved the cadence of the language (thereby confirming my increasing suspicion that he was an Old Testament prophet in a past life); Iris kept saying "this makes no sense" (my non-fiction child); and Eleanor said "just like at our house!" an alarming number of times.
  • also: in that marvelous time that is the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving break, when respite and recipes shimmer in their fullest potential before you, when your kids are beaming happy with plans for board games and play-doh, when your husband's going to read this awesome piece by Ian Frazer at dinner, when really just for now, but also absolutely, all is well with the world, few things are more fantastic than a sidecar at the cocktail hour and cacio e pepe for dinner. I'm just saying...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Welcome Home, Henry Francis

It happened! Two days ago, Henry Francis Ferranda Harris was born - my kith, my kin, the tiniest member of whatever clan we are!  It's powerful, the sense of pride and protection for him that I feel.  The kids are in daily ecstasy at the thought of a cousin, and I just marvel to hear the love and wonder in my brother's voice.  In these first hours (when you're still counting the hours of your child's life) every single everything is seismic, is utterly meaningful.  I still can't believe he's there, or here in the world - with no possibility of knowing how already loved he is, just for being here.  We spent a lot of time today in "Love and War" talking about consciousness (it's Roman de la Rose season) and its intersection with knowledge and identity.  So here will come Henry, emerging into his dear self, and coming to know his mother's laugh as she looks deep deep into his eyes, and the rhythm of his father's breathing for sleeping on his chest.  What an infant knows.  We dismiss it, forget it, supplant it.  But it actually is quite wonderful, isn't it: knowledge (absolute, certain, complete knowledge) without consciousness. It shouldn't frighten us the way it does - now that I breathe on my own, without waiting for my infant's breath, I can see the beauty in it. As I struggled to make sense of it all when Oliver came, Mac opened Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents to the passage on "oceanic feeling" - I still laugh when I think of that moment.  But oceanic it is, for Henry, for his parents - adrift in this place without horizons they have made together.  I recall looking at markers of the mundane (food, television) with curiosity ("Oh, you're still here?") and finding them quaint in the face of touch, smell, weight - all my new knowledges.  Oh dear Gina, dear Steve, every unbelievably unique minute is yours - and we can hardly wait to be in his presence, to feel it and to  find it impossible to think of a time when Henry wasn't with us.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Pilgrim's Progress

St. Aemilion. 1060, ivory. The Met.
I've struggled with this before and will again: was there an operative concept of social progress in the Middle Ages?  with its necessary preconditions that there are grave injustices that need to be righted? with its promise that ideals enjoyed by the few should be lived by the many? with its work and protests and community organizing? I'm not talking about angry peasants with pitchforks (although they did help, didn't they?), but rather that sense (gnawing, driving, hopeful) that Things Don't Have To Be This Way.  When God reaches down for Saint Aemilion, or any number of saints who get a hoist from Him, is that an allegory for all of humanity to "rise up," change their perspective, make things better?  Or is that just me over-interpreting? It's the latter, I know it - but then I get anxious, about (to be raw about it) loving this period in history in which social progress isn't at work; in which (worse!) some of the most profound social injustices we are still fighting take root.  Must I, ultimately, study the Middle Ages to destroy them?  Apocalyptic, yes, but hey, we're talking medieval here.  If social progress is at the core of what we do (and yes, we do want to make the world a better place), then where do I find it in the Middle Ages?  This is an unreasonable request of history, but it's late, I've just seen For Colored Girls, and I feel like making it.

I'm here, in Denver (Denver!), where hundreds and hundreds of people devoted to Women's and Gender Studies (and their injustices, and promises and community organizations) have gathered to be together and talk and be living proof of the operative concept of social progress. And I'm having dinner with my friend and colleague who has just done six and a half hours of interviews with me, and we are awash in the words of our candidates: fervent and precise, untested but true, exciting and invented.  It's wondrous and incredible, talking to newly minted Women's Studies PhDs: they are a sign, an indication, a confirmation, that change happened, that it can keep happening. They are new terms and languages, new questions and frames, more certitude and conviction, less apologizing, no excuses.  I love the feeling of being carried along by social change, as though it were not us, but society itself, that were "hard-wired"(a term I dislike, but whose insistence I appreciate) for it.  It's not, and I know that social change is not a force, it's hard-won through millions of individual acts.  Are some of those acts medieval?

And it's in talking to my friend about BABEL (the conference, more on the Biblical event in a bit) that I realize that the strange gift of medieval is not in itself but in its modes of survival - the images and the texts that survive long enough to be preserved by a collector's desire or a believer's fervor, now reinvigorated by scholars and thinkers reaching back for resistance or mercy.  In this way, ivories are polished and decoded; manuscripts are touched and thought through, even stones can start to move (you do me great honor by "lurking," JJC!) (actually, I'll never tire of thinking of the heaving and the hauling that occurred in the Middle Ages when they took down over 400 neolithic megaliths at Montneuf - making the stones dance indeed).  Medieval social progress comes in our traveling further still with the survivors of history we call medieval artifacts. So for my students, Beowulf can now be about Grendel; and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be about gay desire; images of Jerusalem can be about empire; and an ivory plaque can be about the pleasure of touch and tracing a trajectory from an African elephant tusk to Spanish reliquary shrine (the bones of the beast enshroud the bones of the saint). Medieval social progress emerges from the inscrutability of the age, from the very inability of the period to be easily understood.  And so we interpret, and so we offer new terms and languages, questions and frames (we'll always have to work on the certitude and conviction).

So Babel is good. It turns out that to be confounded is perhaps the very start of social progress. This is what I'm thinking after reading a response to my Babel-agonizing from my very dear friend. I could summarize his words, but I've been summarizing words all day - plus, his writing is beautiful and great and I want it here with me.

Or was God really so small-minded as to have confounded our facility to communicate just for the hell of it? He certainly forbid Adam and Eve from eating of the tree whose fruit gives the knowledge of good and evil... They each took a bite nonetheless, and yet, the essence of all his commandments is about choosing good over evil, making us cognizant of good and evil not automatically but as a conscious, even legal, process.  In this same vein, then, God is ordaining that communication not be automatic, but conscious and intentional: we have to strive to understand and be understood, to hear and to be heard.  And by making conversation thus complicated, He thus invited the human creation of Art and Music, and of making language an art and a music as well. 

And look, David, there in the image of a man "raised up" (by God, by ideas of Something Greater, by theological truth, poetic allegory, or social change), is an image of that same man with not one but two instruments of music (one for the beasts and one for the less savage breast of man?); and the words above play and tell us that the shepherd of sheep will be the shepherd of men. Someday. When the world improves and we take better care of each other.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Best Conference Ever

Pieter Breughel the Elder The Tower of Babel (1563)
What's great about attending an academic conference is that you forget, for just a bit, that you are quite the freak for doing what you do for a living.  This conference was all about celebrating the freaky, seeing it as the only home for humanity, actually, and celebrating what we freak about.  Literary critics loved language, art historians loved art - more specifically, art historians (the few, the proud, the convinced) loved the materiality of art: the stuff, the solidity, the touch of it.  I reconnected with my dear, wonderful, strong, funny, generous friend Nancy (meals out, breakfasts shared, notes on art and life exchanged) - and she introduced me to a slew of super-hip kindred spirits. It's interesting: they're all about sabbatical cycle younger than me (PhDs in the 2005 area), and awesome - Young Turks ready for the revolution (who knew there really was a Young Turks Revolution?). The Revolution will be material, and a return to the lyrical. If that makes no sense, just know that it seeks immediacy, and cutting through all of the things that make art make the world a better place (freedom, interpretation, meaning).

The more I look at Brueghel's Tower of Babel, the more beautiful it appears: its layers of architecture, its ports, its workers in the foreground; and that wonderful light that shines upon it. Does Brueghel making it beautiful favor it? Express some sympathy for it?  There's much to sympathize with. One wonders about Tolkein seeing an image of this before constructing his own towers in writing... It appears as though the Tower is simultaneously being built and being destroyed. And where is God? Is he that ominous dark funnel cloud?  Still can't get over his squelching of human ambition.  Pretty bold to call the whole conference BABEL, isn't it?  There was such revelry and goodwill there (makes me think of Genesis, Chapter 10 again - what was the city of Babel like before its divinely ordained destruction?) - and PLAY: with words, with language, with what things might mean.  Which is what critical theory lets you do: is experiment and try out an idea and see to whom it speaks.  I know that I can translate all of this back to the students (maybe without the critical theory per se) and get them to see see see even more.

And so now I'm back, having graded a set of midterms finally (only one more set to go) and facing a hectic week before taking off for Denver for the National Women's Studies Association conference. Wonder how the two will compare (let's just say that at the BABEL conference, there was a tattoo contest!).  I'm taking more Jerusalem books and plan on writing in here a bit - you have to see Iris's election day coverage in any case.

Last thought: it is amazing to me to think of myself now in our 3rd floor studio office with Mac, deciding to find out what is going on in the world of blogging when it comes to medieval, finding "In the Middle," feeling like I'd come home in my head, and then now, meeting the people who making it all come alive.  It's really quite remarkable, the technology thing.  Tomorrow, I start "cyberfeminism" - will let you know what that is, and if there's a medieval connection.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Dang! I had a great photo of Iris's response to Election Day, but it wasn't downloaded somehow. Oh well, no matter, I seem to be about 5 days behind in everything, so I'll post it when I get home from this (marvelous, terrific, mind-blowing) conference (in Austin, Texas!).  This is us at the Big Halloween Party on the lake that our friends throw every year (maybe we just love people who live in intimate proximity to water more!).  Oliver was the Grim Reaper (more like, the Earnest Reaper - always with the elaborate explanation as to why it was Your Time to Die); Iris was a Go-Go Pumpkin (who got more and more annoyed with my tag line "The 60s must never die!"); and Eleanor went the road of nostalgia with a pumpkin outfit she has worn since she was 1 (she flirted briefly with SuperGirl, but decided she looked too much like a cheerleader - to unpack!). Mac, my dear rational Mac, was a satyr (he made those satyr pants himself!). I wore the wig the girls said any self-respecting mother should have (and some awesome black and orange striped witchy tights that I would wear every day if I could).  I'll be honest, I like thinking about Halloween more than doing it (the candy stickies everywhere - the agony over the outfit being Not Quite Right!) - but I love watching the kids, watching the world upside down.

When was the last time you read about Babel in Genesis?  It's Genesis 11:5-8 and it goes like this:

5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the
tower which the sons of men had built.
6 And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people,
and they all have the same language. And this is
what they began to do, and now nothing which they
purpose to do will be impossible for them."
7 "Come, let Us go down and there confuse their
language, that they may not understand one
another's speech."
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there
over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped
building the city.

What was God thinking?  How could He have been so petulant and mean? Moreover: really? There was a time when nothing would have been impossible for humanity? Immediately, I think: we could have had justice and peace and harmony?  What was God worried about? What impossible did He see us reaching for?  There was a very intelligent, brilliant response to this text by a plenary speaking last night in this BABEL Conference I'm attending whose theme is "After the Catastrophe."  This is my own petulant, shocked response.  I've been reading and reading about Jerusalem (in Karen Amstrong's wonderful book) and so have had more of an occasion than usual to think about the desire to have God come down and dwell among us (a desire that the city of Jerusalem has striven and sacrificed to answer for 3000 years now).  And so my childish response is: This guy?  The one who messed everything up for some kind of eternal (and eternally condemning) morality lesson about not being too ambitious? The speaker was careful to remind us that Babel was not Eden - that there's never just one thing that messes everything up (even if that one thing is God).  What I love about this conference is that it takes our raw, corny desire to make the world better through studying medieval culture (don't laugh! that actually unites everyone at this conference, even though it goes unspoken - these are all totally left, community activist, radical thinking medievalists - they do exist, and I'm proud to at least naïvely count myself among the persuasion that this, plus what I do in my everyday life, might assuage a little suffering, might provide a different enough respective that we don't have to keep talking past each other (thanks, God!) and that we might actually help someone.) Lest you find me unbearable blasphemous here: being angry with God has produced some of the best thinking in all of human history; if I'm not angry with God about Babel, if it's not His fault that we lost the ability to speak the same language, then humanity has all along been built for doom.  Babel before the catastrophe, to my mind, becomes more important than Eden for the human condition. Guess I'll have to read Genesis 10.