Saturday, December 31, 2011

Rational Discourse

Somewhere in W. Virginia
We have just returned from our 5-day 3-city (4-city in the end) tour of loved ones during which we spent, I now realize, a significant amount of time in science museums. (We also spent a significant amount of time eating food - pierogis, Thai, Stollen, and ham are highlights that reveal our good fortune.)  Glorious hours in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and almost an entire day in the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.  Two observations emerge: one, that America must surely love her children deeply to offer and renew such spaces for discovery. And two, that science, in being rational thought quickly tinged with wonder, is really quite terrific. I am often puzzled that I can be such an enthusiastic medievalist when I am at the same time such an unreconstructed enthusiast of the Enlightenment Project, whereby it is fervently believed that rational thought in the form of education will provide dignity, comfort and meaning to all human beings (and all beings if you stretch the implications which, really, I do).  Now, rational discourse may be a myth (it has proven limited in its ability to stem human folly), but as I watched the kids delight in repeated experimentation, and proclaim triumphant predictability, I'd be willing to say it's one of the better myths we have.  I think that I'm particularly sensitive to the importance of rational discourse in their lives because they are of an age when they are starting to feel the power of that reasoning: Oliver just read his first Agatha Christie and marveled at Poirot's ability to discern and decide from seemingly random but all telling facts; Iris worships Miss Frizzle who drives the scientific Magic School Bus on its adventures; and Eleanor is liberated in her realization that Santa was her uncle all these years to posit that aliens might then be what are real (see above).  It's important that rational discourse maintain wonder - for those who truly love the law or the economy, there's a sense of wonder there. And the best academic writing rallies evidence or objects or original sources unto a theory that enlivens the whole lot. But for all of us, in so many ways, there is science, by which I think I mean scientific method more than anything else, which, actually, gets us very quickly to medieval Arabic scientists like Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) and his work On Optics (which ought to interest an art historian). And so the Middle Ages are not so far after all, and I wonder anew how I will think through medieval thinking from stone to statue, and from carving to devotion, from what we have billed as nature to what we think we know as culture, and what I will learn along the way. This New Year's Eve there is a delight in knowledge, and a seeking out of the wonder that leaves us wanting more.

Monday, December 26, 2011


MS. Douce 199, fol. 252r, Bodleian Library at Oxford
Displaced image, I know, what with this being a scene of Whitsunday (after Easter), but the feasting and the sharing of tales of adventure to Arthur does call to mind the spirit of this season, as we get ready to embark on a 5-day 3-city tour of people and cities we love (Cleveland and D.C., here we come!), and as Mac and Iris get ready to leave with students for Paris and Berlin.  There is no time to lend an ear to tales of exploits now (though I do need to get the details of my "Crusades: Fact, Fiction and Film" Winter Term course down, despite my heart being already deep into rethinking "Monsters and Marvels" and putting more Of Giants and Orientalism readings in instead of just presenting the theories (I want to read them with students this time) and really giving Columbus his due - I am this close to going to the New World in this class) - BUT, so as not to forget in the fleeting of everything:

Curried Eggplant Soup
Lamb Shanks with Pomegranate, Pistachio, and Pears
Israeli Couscous
Brussels Sprouts
Early Grey-infused Apricot Tart in a Hazelnut shortbread

And there was Macmas, too, that time of year when all good friends gather and there is brunch and we unite, as with all these holidays and surely since the Middle Ages (ok, since Saturnalia), to hold off the cold and be together.  Mac was truly valiant this year in gift assembly, as two out of three dreams come true required extensive tinkering: a doll house (Eleanor) and a microscope (Iris).  Oliver's wish of a cat has come true in the form of two kittens who will enter our lives after the first of the year - a wee girl and a boy who have been named by the kids (somewhat inexplicably but it works) Miss Frizzle and Darwin.  Cats and dogs entered medieval households with much less fanfare - though every time I say that, I think of all those Books of Hours and those noblewomen with pampered lap dogs and know there's a a study to be done of the medieval pet (maybe already has?).  Perhaps as that tiny terrier helps Mary of Burgundy think on her Book of Hours, Miss Frizzle and Darwin can help me say something meaningful about siege engines and medieval colonialism. Or I can think on the most excellent Pangur Ban, the Irish cat who helps his monastic companion hunt and wrestle with ideas because he does the same with mice.  We are not alone in our struggles.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bach and Barbecue

Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor
The title is that of Eric Edberg, professor extraordinaire of "cello, life, and everything" (his blog rocks).  He, on the cello, and his wonderful ex-wife Allison Edberg, on the violin, set up shop at the restaurant Chief's tonight, which ran specials on barbecue - because alliteration is awesome and because, it turns out, rich and saucy is sometimes exactly what Bach's cello can be.  Mac and I have listened to the Yo-Yo Ma CD for years, and I'd always been hushed by the intensity of the pieces.  But when Yo-Yo Ma played here this fall, yes, the room was quiet, by there was a joy in the room emanating from his love of the music.  That joy was there tonight: deep affection for the two generous musicians in this little restaurant of twelve tables, eager pleasure to hear lush live music, and the comfort of good food.

I felt especially safe there as not an hour earlier, we'd been rear-ended on the rainy road coming back from ice skating in Bloomington. Everybody in both cars is fine (yea! seatbelts!), and our car is even drive-able (not the other driver's though - really, seatbelts are everything).  So we found ourselves driving back into town still with the possibility of making it to Bach and Barbecue.  Originally, I was just going to go, but then all three kids wanted to go as well, so we all went. And I'll be honest, for Oliver and Eleanor it was more the Alfredo than Bach, and for Iris it was definitely the barbecue, but once they were there, they loved it. The tables at Chief's are covered in paper that the kids can color, so we started drawing "What this music makes me think of."  Iris, ever the literalist, drew a bunch of notes.

I bet that Bach would have enjoyed this evening.  What were the listening conditions for his Coffee Cantata?  Ok, wait, I just looked it up, and it appears that it was performed at Zimmerman's Coffee House in Leipzig in the 1730s.  The libretto is hilarious. And quite the feminist rebellion: (a daughter refuses to give up her three (!!!) bowls of coffee a day, despite her father's entreaties; she won't marry any man that won't let her drink her coffee; and it turns out that generations of women have loved coffee).  Why do people relax around music when there is food?  It must be the sensuality and comfort of the food, the pleasure of the meal shared.

from Robert Bartlett's Medieval Panorama

Of course, one can go too far with these things! No need to "go medieval" on this - may your holiday tables be filled with mirth, music and many tasty morsels!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Everything and More

Annunciation, 1400s.
The meeting with Jim the geologist and Dan the chemist was terrific. This vivid (look at the breath of God!) alabaster Annunciation from the Philadelphia Museum of Art will help here. What is this profound thrill of newly gained knowledge? What is this fascination with things scientific? There are vague stirrings of a love felt in high school, but it sadly was not pursued.  Now, every piece of scientific information is hopelessly (but wondrously) aestheticized.  SEM images of alabaster? Breathtaking in their intricacies in revealing the structures of the (many) minerals involved in alabaster.  Specularity, heat capacity, hardness scale - all of these frameworks make alabaster more alive, more giving, more fascinating every minute.  Key words as I keep thinking about this: porosity, permeability and calcium.  Alabaster is a 2 on the hardness scale (where talc is a 1 and a diamond is a 10), and in that number lies its malleability.  Alabaster is truly an open stone: it registers a 2 on this hardness scale because it is porous and permeable. Some stones are just porous (lots of open spaces within its structure). Alabaster is also permeable (the connections between the open spaces allow other elements (for us, pigment, gold gilding) to flow through.  The pleasure of this paper will be to struggle to find the language that binds scientific insight with historical action.  Medieval sculptors of alabaster didn't think in terms of porosity and permeability- what were their terms?  I may or may not be thinking of only language here - there is trial and error in seeking a stone that "gives in to" or "works with" (what words will I choose) the human touch. I will be inspired by Jeffrey Cohen and Valerie Allen who invited touch by giving small stones as hand-outs in conference talks, and who first inspired the possibility of thinking of the liveliness of stones. Another part of the joy here will be to witness the transference of these ideas from medieval literature to medieval art. Every object in the world has heat capacity: how long it takes from heat energy to transfer from one thing (the flesh of the human hand) to another (stone).  Alabaster's is rapid.  It responds, acknowledges human touch, welcomes (?) human intervention, avails itself to complex minerals like vermilion, takes in absolutes like gold.  At some point, in some way, medieval sculptors figured this out, and their patrons loved it.  In those years between roughly 1300 and 1550, patrons relished the fleshy, emotive materiality of alabaster: there is an argument to be made for an emotional iconography driven by alabaster's materiality: the 97 heads of John the Baptist that remain bespeak (all too vividly) the theatricality of the stone: the blood of the saint is limpid and his flesh warm to the eye.  The Duke of Burgundy's alabaster mourners are treasured for what are surely their hot tears.  The fullness of the lilies stirred by the golden breath of God in the image above is met in the promise of the Virgin's open hands, in the swags of drapery around her ready belly.  And Gabriel's stunning peacock wings, their vibrant red still embraced by the complex chemical structure of the alabaster after all this time, seem to have just folded.

And then calcium, and its revelation, I'm persuaded, of a medieval knowledge of materials and what they can give.  Alabaster, a.k.a gypsum, is a combination of calcium, sulfur, oxygen, and water: thus the beautiful hieroglyph: CaSO42H2 (dang, can't do subscripts here, that's where you'd put the numbers).  Lots of calcium there.  What I need to ask my colleagues is whether or not calcium is "responsible" in some way for the porosity. For guess where else calcium shows up in huge amounts? Ivory. Calcium phosphate to some. Favorite medieval carving material to others. Hardness level? 2.  This calcium commonality may be a bigger whoop for us moderns, because it likens two separate disciplines - we realized we needed a vertebrate biologist at the table when ivory emerged.  A medieval sculptor existing within no such disciplinary divides could desire both equally for their give to touch, pigment, and gold.  I'll confess that it's the presence of calcium in the human body, too, that thrills me here.  A chemical commonality that reformulates these works of art as material extensions of the human.  Or human participation in their materiality.  Scientific facts, medieval practices, modern desires - let's see how this goes.

Monday, December 12, 2011

So Excited

I can hardly sleep for how excited I am about tomorrow. It's not the student presentations on Jerusalem (although I'm sure those will be swell), and no, it's not the grading. Rather, I'm having lunch with two really nice colleagues, a geologist and a biochemist, who have kindly offered to help me decipher a science article about alabaster. It's so science-y, that I can't even reproduce the title here. There are spectotropic methods of indecipherable names and intentions. I seek to understand how (geologically and biochemically) alabaster could sustain pigment and gold leaf. It's a porous stone, open and, I can't help but think, generous. Articles discuss its "veins." The alabaster you see above is not the kind that I'm researching, which was used in making devotional statuary (much of it of hand-held scale) from about 1300-1550. But I love the veins and the landscape it presents. We spoke, this semester in the "Nature" unit of Gothic Art, about the agency of aesthetics - the way a beautiful stone can "work" you, can draw you in, solicit touch and desire. Alabaster is cheaper than marble, shorter lived in the realm of human fascination. But it's warm and receptive to impositions of the human imagination. What makes a stone available to become art in the Middle Ages? Is its malleability its liveliness? Does it project forms to its maker? Does alabaster, for instance, warm to the human touch? I don't know of another stone that can hold gold and pigments so well and so long, that works so willingly with the dramatic elements of art. Is this why there are a full 97 (that's a big number) alabaster Heads of John the Baptist left to us? Is this why human skin can be lauded as alabaster? There'll be much more to write tomorrow (Caillois, Marbod of Rennes) but for now, I just wanted to register excitement as I start to think of the process from stone to statue, from unhewn to hewn.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

"Because I Can Interrupt"

A week-end rich in reveling in the human imagination, including the children's first screening of Duck Soup (oh the laughter and the multiple riffs on the mirror scene!), yields all sorts of hope for humanity, love of the holiday season, and absolutely no desire to grade yet more papers.  So a brief musing on something Eleanor said yesterday which has kept me smiling....

Hmmm - I wrote that a week ago Sunday. Note to self: never title a post with the word "Interrupt" in it, for it is doomed to be interrupted.  Life has been as hectic and at times as absurd as that in Freedonia, but without the leadership of Rufus "All I can give you is a Rufus over your head" T. Firefly. We've since seen Duck Soup about ten times and the kids can do several of the dialogues ("You can leave in a huff; if that's not fast enough, you can leave in a minute and a huff" is the current favorite) and a pretty tight mirror scene.  We're hoping that Santa brings more Marx Brothers into our lives because that would only be appropriate.

Eleanor's comment, which I can still savor, had to do with this absurd dog toy that she won in France at the end-of-the-year festival (yes) - a squeaky doggie newspaper. She loves this toy, sleeps with it, carries it around, brings it to school, makes drawings of it.  It finally dawned on me to ask her why she loved it so, and she replied: "Because I can interrupt."  The power to interrupt: this small, squeaky, annoying toy gives her that power, and she loves it for that reason. Never mind what she might interrupt - Eleanor is unencumbered by the transitive needs of the verb. She just can.  And she has: we've heard that damn thing squeak in the midst of the most intense conversations/frantic searches/power struggles. That high-pitched squeak of the air going out, the breathy whine of the air coming back in.  What a joy, what a fantastic disruptive joy, to be able to interrupt.  Ask Groucho Marx.

MS. Rawl. liturg., f. 13 Bodleian Library, Oxford
At the end of the semester, and an especially good group of students in the Gothic Art class (the class about class), I see afresh the vigor with which images interrupted text in medieval art.  We read a lot of Michael Camille, and so that power was relished in religious manuscripts, secular streets, and everything in between it seems.  For funny and surprising examples of marginalia interruptions, see this wonderful blogger. I'm just going to spend a couple of minutes on this interruption: the Annunciation to the Shepherds ('tis the season and all that). Now this scene is not nearly the Interruption of a Lifetime that Mary received at her Annunciation, but it registers interruption very nicely nonetheless: drop your spinning, and your bagpipe, your bread cutting, and your barking - there's a new idea, a new presence, an interruption in the steady flow of human and divine relations.  Most of God's manifestations are interruptions, aren't they? A steady flow of interruptions from Abraham to Jacob to Moses. Unsought, intense, absurd. But the more I think about them, the more necessary and terrific interruptions are. It's a complicated word, etymologically: rumpere already means to break, and then inter just intensifies it with its meaning of between. Interruptions can really spill your world wide open. They deter and deflect, render you incapable of finishing what you started, make you forget why you're here in the first place.  But Eleanor delights, Groucho ruffles, and God's been known to try and reveal a thing or two. Is it any wonder, as we enter exam and grading week, that I shall welcome all interruptions?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Black Friday Pilgrims

Pilgrims at St. Edwards' Tomb
I'm sketching out a short essay for Literature Compass on teaching things medieval in the modern world, specifically on teaching a culture of (medieval) belief within a culture of (modern) secularity.  I'll be talking about three main points of resistance that students most often bring to the study of the Middle Ages: "An Aversion to Fervor" (dismissing the passion for miracles or legends as childlike belief - relics is the hot button issue here); "That's Not My God" (not recognizing the character of a divine they think unchanging - Christ as the romantic, sensual Lover of the Soul in the Song of Songs really brings this out); and "Mistakes Were Made" (shrugging off the entire period as long past and mistaken - a conviction fed by 18th/19th century inventions such as the chastity belt).  The point, to my mind, is not to demonstrate the maturity and gravitas of medieval belief, or that God/Christ was more revelatory in the Middle Ages, or that the Middle Ages were right somehow, but rather to present strategies that seek to get students past a safe dismissal of the period, and moving towards a more challenging interpretation of its phenomena. One strategy that I will not argue for is that of bringing in the gravitas and complexity of medieval theology to quell students' doubts and hesitations about the worthiness (gravitas and complexity) of the period. This was the tried and true strategy in art history until the 1980s and Michael Camille (and thus why to this day the absolutely overwhelming majority of medieval art historical scholarship still focuses on religious art). The study of the Middle Ages can, and indeed must, appeal intellectually to students who are not initiated into its theology.

Enter the strategy of comparing behaviors. [Geez that sounds facile when I put it like that.  (Maybe I should drop the "geez").  My anxieties about publishing anything-not-in-an-anthology are pathetically debilitating - ack!] - of comparing behaviors not to say "we are all the same," or "we are no better than the Middle Ages" (though the shock value of the latter statement has proven effective in shaking the complacency that we here and now live in the best of all possible worlds, or that our world needs no improvement), but rather to examine the conditions of possibility for both responses, to try and understand what's motivating and driving the actors in both scenarios.  This is why in teaching relics and reliquaries I introduce the idea of the belief in the power/currency of saints' bones by asking a student if I may tear up his or her $20 bill.  Of course I can't - why not? Because we somehow believe that that piece of paper, inked in that particular way, is worth something.  And so the interest in the class discussion becomes "how materials of intrinsic non-worth come to have worth" instead of "medieval people were naïve for believing that old bones were worth something" (it's actually really helpful in teaching art period, and I never cease to marvel that paint and canvas, or bits of stone have come to mean so much).

And so at the end of a really swell Thanksgiving holiday which included hiking and movies and reading and talking with the kids, and talking about Egypt and California and protests and pepper spray and violence with the adults, I am left wondering about footage like the one I invite you to view below. Medieval pilgrims and their fervor tend to unsettle students.  Perfect, let's bring that to Thanksgiving, its talk of pilgrims, and the modern incarnation of a fervent rush.

I am fascinated watching that crowd surge. It's not the secular, rational, controlled world I live in, and I'd never ever put myself there. But there's something satisfying in watching that powerful flow of people (maybe to compensate for all the crowds crushed by authoritarian regimes of late?).  It's easy, as the commentators do, to dismiss their fervor as stupid and naïve, but they exist and they are driven and they are interconnected (by love of family, and pull of objects, and hope of connection and yes, even happiness) - and we should be asking why and how, for then and now.

Pilgrim Steps at Canterbury
This essay will be fun to write and I've hopefully exorcised some of my yet/but/though side-stepping here (with apologies to you, dear reader!).  I think that at the bottom of this comparative approach of popular cultures is my own resistance to the higher orders of culture determining worth.  Why not take fervor seriously and ask whence its conviction and where to its reach?  Why not discuss the irrational that exists outside of academic discourse within the rational discourse of the classroom?  Popular belief, in its messiness and poignancy and excess, has its own gravitas: just ask the stone steps of Canterbury Cathedral leading up to Becket's shrine, worn smooth and rubbed away by the fervent ascent of pilgrims.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Revisionist Thanksgiving

Privacy Box, 1430, painted wood, Basel, Switzerland
It's 20 minutes to the start of Thanksgiving prep and so just enough to put together three random thoughts about rethinking that have been knocking about more or less amiably in my head. First things first, the menu (inspired by the lady busily grating above her pestle in the image to your left), which involves some kind of rethinking of things (she's grating her lover's heart), as I find myself gravitating towards two classics previously unexplored: pecan pie (so easy! so sticky!), and oysters in the stuffing (so weird!). The full menu reads:
  • Turkey with lemon sage butter
  • Oyster stuffing with fresh herbs
  • Potato and celery root gratin with leeks
  • Spiced, glazed carrots with sherry and citrus
  • Pumpkin gingersnap cheesecake
  • Bourbon pecan pie
We are combining Thanksgivings this year with another family (yes, there will be two turkeys), and so my dear friend is looking after the cranberry element and the green vegetable (and boldly brining her turkey). We picked up said birds Monday night at the farm of an awesome local organic farmer, after having watched them grow from little chicks via repeated visits. That's new, too: going organic and local with the turkey. Ah! And the pumpkin cheesecake as well. So, a somewhat revisionist menu, in the direction of both classicism and innovation.

Pepper Spraying Cop at the Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe
Which somehow inevitably leads me to this, one of dozens now of images of the nasty, nonchalant Lt. John Pike nastily, nonchalantly pepper spraying docile innocents. It's become a meme, a response scattering across the internet to the stupid and thuggish police treatment of UC-Davis students engaged in a peaceful protest. Here he is interrupting a really nice half-naked meal with his damn pepper spray. He's been spraying his way through art history, and the Huffington Post's fascination with the phenomenon has gathered several impressive, and mystifying examples. The Washington Post has the most unusual ones, and I will admit that the utter absurdity of Pike pepper spraying a Jackson Pollock is rapidly becoming my favorite. Can this cop's name really be that of a medieval weapon? Does satire always set itself up this neatly? The smart and elegant thinker of this blog positions the meme as gallows humor, a humor of despair, of the dispossessed. I've been thinking of, I guess you could call them, medieval memes. Painful powers real and imagined taken down in the satire of excess and absurdity.

Frau Minne Breaks Hearts, 1479 woodcut
The power of women was simultaneously constructed and vilified through sex in images like this one. I don't want to get off topic and go down the paths of imagined power, for they are truly truly twisted, so it's the relentlessness of the ways she comes up with to break a lover's heart that makes the connection to Pike's stinging walk through art history. We see her sawing the heart, stabbing it, putting it in a book press (!), setting it in a slingshot, branding it, putting it in a bread box - all the while standing in prancing contrapposto. Frau Minne will occupy your heart. Ouch!

Lancelot margins
There are medieval memes of chivalric violence, too. More, actually. Manuscript margins writhe with monkeys and men wielding the weapons of the aristocracy they never get to control in real life. At the top of the page, a naked man (the ultimately dispossessed) gestures wildly in an insane satirization of the knight's easy possession of weaponry. I hear him say: "Oh yea? Well, I can stick a sword up my ass!" The similarities for me are between the medieval artist and the contemporary Photoshop-er incongruously combining the real violence they've witnessed with the high culture they're meant to be serving. In other words, I don't think it's just John Pike that's being made fun of. There's something satisfying about seeing these classic painted surfaces disrupted. Michelangelo's God Creating Adam gets it every way: Adam spraying God, God spraying Adam, and the cop just spraying them both. The world upside down.

Charles Mann's wonderful book
Which is how you feel when you read Charles Mann's incredible book, 1491, detailing the pre-conquest violence of epidemics that preceded European arrivals and allowed the grand myth of a mostly empty land for the taking to take root. Unknowing slaughter on the molecular level. There is more to be rethought here than I have time for. Tom the turkey is calling, and I must wrestle a celery root into submission. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone - may we keep rethinking together.

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Bill Clinton Said

Arthur, Nine Worthies, the Met
Bill Clinton has to be a pretty swell former president if he can be quoted by a kid whose dog had to leave.  "It's just like Bill Clinton said," sobbed Oliver, "I took him for granted."  Clinton's original statement, during his address on campus, was about what we can take for granted in the industrialized West: that our water is clean, that our food is safe, that our electricity will turn on.  Oliver pursued the simile: Sawyer was refreshing like water, fun like food, and bright like electricity.  Sigh.  Today was strange where yesterday was awful - the only ambitions in the house now are human, and there isn't that unspeaking presence I love so much about animals.  The strangest realization was how much emotions felt remind me of those of a miscarriage: the loss, the guilt for not being able to see it through, the wanting it to have turned out not this way so so much, the helpless fantasizing that it hadn't, the wondering if it will ever work out, the hesitation to try again too soon, the unconscious turning to a presence now gone.  We're all pursuing our similes to try to make sense of things.

Bill Clinton had a phrase that he repeated in his rousing argument for the possibilities and efforts of a global social justice: he called for systems (water, sanitation, electricity, yes, but also education, housing, banking) - "Systems! Systems with predictable consequences for hard work."  My God, that's awesome for both teaching and parenting.  But upon reflection, I also see it as the most basic framework for the predictability of civilization against the unpredictability of nature. The moral structure of civilization vs. the amorality of nature. You've seen the nature documentary of the baby turtles working so so hard to reach the sea - and the very few who do (utter unfairness, what system?). Or the enormous tree whose hard work pushing and straining and sustaining so much other life is wrenched by wind (or here in February this year, crushed under the weight of an ice storm).  We have worked so hard to systematize nature (calling Linneaus!), and yet there are no predictable consequences for hard work in nature.  Not really. Still, there should be in civilization (if we are really to believe that we can oppose civilization and nature, which we can't, thus, perhaps, Clinton's impassioned plea) - too many people in the Western world have "too much leverage" within our systems, thus our demise.  Thus the call for a more balanced system. A politico-ecosystem in harmony.

I think of the balance and harmony of the medieval Nine Worthies, a 14th-century phenomenon presenting 3 heroes (worthies) from pagan antiquity, three from Jewish antiquity, and three from the earlier medieval period.  In general (there were occasional variations, and eventually the Female Nine Worthies, too), the three Worthies of pagan antiquity were Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Caesar; the three Worthies of Jewish antiquity were David, Joshua, and Judah Maccabeus; and the three medieval Worthies were Charlemagne, Arthur (whom you have above), and Godfroy de Bouillon (a leader of the First Crusade in 1099).  It's a system of worthiness, each man having worked for some greater triumph, for the establishment (or the destruction, actually) of another system.  It's not a rational system (I can't say what was predictable in poor Arthur's world), but it singles out its heroes. The fun begins when you try to think of whom we would place in what category in the modern period. Bill Clinton would definitely have to feature in there - for that reach to global social justice, and the immediacy Oliver was able to feel and apply to his thoughts as he tried to make sense of this first true clash of civilization and nature in his life.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Very Sad

A.-F. Desportes, Dog and Pheasant, 1780s
This painting has always reminded me of Sawyer: change the coat to black and elongate the tail, and there's our hound.Was. I'm so sad to write that we've decided to find another home for Sawyer.  Mac is taking him to the Bloomington Humane Society, where he's bound to find a better situation.  Things have been progressively worse on the children front (this was the stuff that I couldn't write about: who can't fix this?), and we've now had enough close calls that we couldn't in good conscience live with the risk of his aggression to kids-not-his-own.  He was so good to our kids: gentle and he'd stretch out and Iris would rest her head on his great big heart.  And he was great with the dogs in our playgroup - a beautiful runner and chaser and always thinking of new games.  And we loved our walks (even (especially, actually) the 5:45 a.m. ones) and learned from what he watched and listened for.  But a three-hour stand- (snarl, bark and rush) -off while Iris had a friend over two weeks ago started us thinking in this direction.  Consultation with the trainer at PetSmart (where he did pass his class, he is responsive and dear, just God, not around children) confirmed that Sawyer probably needs "rehabilitation" to socialize with strangers.  We don't know what life was like for him those first 10 months before he was brought to the shelter where we claimed him.  Maybe he'd been a guard dog, maybe... I don't know. And now we won't know what happens to him next - although Bloomington is the very best city in the entire state, and Mac has a whole list of specificities to tell the behaviorist there (they have a behaviorist at this Humane Society).  This has to sound strange and awful - and it is.  We're so sad, and Oliver and Iris, especially, are taking it really hard. Four months with us - three and a half of them under the siege of this one conflict.  People had stopped coming to our house (there's aggression with adult strangers, too, but he calms down after about half an hour), kids certainly.  How can a dog be so sweet with his family and then so aggressive with everyone else? As I write it down, of course I know that in some ways that's how it works - you're in the pack circle or you're not.  But I guess we're not a pack.  Shit.  It was not supposed to turn out this way, and I keep replaying the last four months in my head: what could have been done differently, did something go wrong, what might still be done?  I feel as though I have failed this beautiful dog. I definitely definitely feel a tremendous sense of failure here. I can't bear to think of what he'll feel over the next few days. Mac says that dogs live more in the moment and that Sawyer's good moment will come - that somebody who doesn't have a steady parade of comings and goings in his space will be able to reward his powerful protection of his family.  Maybe a big, open farm where he can finally chase the deer that kept crossing our paths.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Happy Hunting!

Gaston Phoebus - Livre de la Chasse
Deer hunting season started this week-end in our fine state! And how do I know such a thing?  Because the kids came home from school on Monday with reports from their buddies (in 4th and 2nd grade) of having killed a "first buck."  "What's a buck?" said Iris, clearly curious that this kind of thing is even possible, but relieved to find out it's not mandatory. "Why do they call it 'game'? It's hardly a game for the animal" said Oliver, more shocked, more petulantly. How to explain it all? The deer stands in the trees (cowards!), the outfits (ack!), the insane firepower (around children!?!?).  So yes, there's a lot I don't understand about modern hunting, but I know enough to feel the excitement in the air when the season "kicks off."  We do have deer absolutely everywhere here (and the dog to the left pulling is pretty much Sawyer at a deer sighting which, this morning, we got from all sides - seven (7!) seen!); and some people do eat the meat (a local restaurant was shut down for three months when authorities were tipped off that the kitchen was being used to process deer). But despite all that, it still seems weird and crazy to me. Do deer stand hunters use dogs?  Medieval hunting was, of course, a major part of the human-hound relationship (a phrase I grew to love in research this summer), and we see up above an aristocrat's huntsman being led by a very eager dog (on a leash?! wrapped around the man's left wrist, just like we do!) undoubtedly towards prey.  Deer, boar, fox, if you are to believe Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were the most popular hunted.   But back to the dog - it's fascinating to think of the connection between human and hound in hunting: the communication between the two, the distribution of knowledge between the two.  Who's getting pleasure here?  How do we ask questions of animal agency within a historical (as opposed to just activist) framework?

Saint Guinefort legend, 15th c.
Because Bill Clinton is coming to campus and speaking at 3 p.m. on Friday, all 2:50 p.m. and 1:40 p.m. classes have been canceled, and so I rearranged my syllabus to add on two more days to our investigations of "Nature" in the Gothic class (which meets at 1:40 p.m.).  This means no discussion of Roland the Farter (sigh) and other ribald entertainments.  But the students wanted to stay with the nature material, anyway, having been completely captivated by Jeffrey Cohen's "Stories of Stone" piece, and wanting to ask more questions of the agency of non-human entities.  Enter: Karl Steel and "How to Make a Human" (the Exemplaria article - as a student has my copy of the book and I couldn't get it back in time to post it!).  Cohen and Steel's wonderful works wound up framing the older, and differently methodologized (and motivated) book by Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound; Saint Guinefort, healer of children since the 13th century (1983).  And with terrific results.  There were questions about class perceptions of animals (Steel deals with, among other things, a clerical text that proves human superiority (and worthiness of a soul and immortality) through humans' ability to dominate animals; while Schmitt explores a healing site visited by peasant woman with sick children that had sprung up over the grave of a greyhound unjustly killed by its knightly owner who thought the dog had killed his child, when in fact the dog's mouth was bloody because it had killed a snake that was approaching the child in his cradle).  There were questions about what modern distinctions we use to preserve the divide between human and animal (the medieval one is soul; the modern one? reason, yes, but increasingly humans without reason (coma, developmental disorders) are better protected than intelligent animals, so if not reason then...?).  And there were questions about what kind of domination of animals follows from absolving animals of moral responsibility (nicely challenged by those famous animal trials in the Middle Ages that do hold animals (sometimes their owners) morally responsible for a crime).  It all made for happy hunting of ideas. Ok, sometimes quite tormented hunting of ideas.

Blind Musician and His Dog
It also led to some hunting of images of animals in relationships with humans. This image really surprised me (although I don't think it should): there's a blind musician to the left with a dog who holds a begging bowl for its owner.  A medieval seeing eye dog?  I find "service animals" (like seeing eye dogs, or dogs that comfort traumatized witnesses during trials, or dogs that help autistic kids) incredibly sympathetic and good creatures.  With a selflessness, in some ways, and a definite altruism - do they feel empathy for those they help?  Do they feel good helping, the way we might?  The questions have to be the point, since the answers are unattainable.

Mass of St. Gregory
And so to end with a canine conundrum, this one from a Book of Hours whose central image depics the Mass of St. Gregory (in which Christ as the Man of Sorrows, very bloody and very present appears), while the foreground tucks a praying nun into the right corner, and places a dog staring straight out at us on the steps leading to the central scene.  It appears to be a pampered pet (is that a cultivated mustache?) and fluffy and well-fed.  Is it there to create space? Speak to the social status of the manuscript's owner? Connect our lived space with the imagined space of Saint Gregory? Be cute? Make us wonder?  Is he a distant cousin of the fly on the ledge of a Portrait of a Carthusian Monk by Petrus Christus, there to remind us of life's ephemeralities? Small and poised as he may be, he initiated a hunt for meaning that will hold me and the students until next we meet, post-Clinton.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

History of Emotions

Roman de Fauvel
Opera just blows my mind.  It's been years since I've gone, yet there I was on Friday night for an IU Jacobs School of Music performance of Puccini's La Bohème.  Wagner's gesamkunstwerk always helps, with the sensory assault of costumes and sets and trying to not think too much about plot but instead about everything else.  But it's the emotions that get me - the incongruity and intensity of the emotions.  One minute there's Christmas Eve revelry and the next Marcello is writhing in agony before Musetta's pretty prancing (and the most famous tune of the opera); one minute there's song and laughter about pretend champagne and the next Mimi is dying (dead!).  And we're right there with each emotion. You're laughing one minute, and choking back a sob the next. Granted, this was an IU Jacobs School of Music audience (thousands of people who live and breathe music absolutely), but still, it was pretty incredible.  What is it about the swell of music that can do that to you?  You know the emotions are caricatures (thus the Fauvel image here - it's a parade, a charade), but the laughter is real, the tears are hot. 

Yvain and Laudine
One of the chief complaints students have about medieval art is how little emotion it displays. How expressionless it is. Stony-faced knights and damsels - how are students to believe Yvain and Laudine are feeling passion? The complaint can sometimes extend to literature as well. "What's their motivation?" I'll often hear.  Lancelot is Lancelot, he loves Guinevere, that's it - there's no motivation, just being.  Yvain loves Laudine and goes instantly mad when she spurns him, that's it.  Laudine hates him (ok, he killed her husband - good motivation), but then she loves him (ok, Lunette's pragmatic argument that her fountain needs a protector - good motivation).  It's the back and forth (she hates him, she loves him, she hates him, then at the very end, she loves him) that puzzle us.  Frederick Cheyette and Howard Chickering take this on in one of the best examples of the relatively new study of the history emotion.  They're trying to understand the strangely abrupt ending of the story in which, despite his betrayals and inconsistencies, Yvain is taken back by Laudine and there is "happiness" and "peace," when really it's clear that Laudine is having her hand forced, and that Yvain stumbles back into her life not really the wiser (this is "Love, Anger, and Peace: social practice and poetic play in the ending of Yvain," Speculum 80:1 (January, 2005): 75-117).  They ask us to consider the emotions associated with peace and social reconciliation as defining this "happiness" - an emotion differently subjected, I would say: an emotion that we today associate with the individual ("I'm so happy!"), here associated more with the state of the community ("A happy realm").  That's the way over-simplified version of a much more complex argument.  But it confuses things productively to then consider the incredible shift that the image provokes in its final image, in its response to the scenario of reconciliation of happiness: it depicts Yvain and Laudine in bed, under the covers.  That sure looks like a personal reconciliation, but I also completely buy the argument that the reconciliation is social and communal.  Metonymic sex?  If the lord and lady are doing it, all is well in the realm?  I can only wonder.

Smiling Angel of Reims
So I'll end with what may be the most direct emotion in medieval art, the smiling angel of Reims.  Surely this is an easy one to read: this is the Angel of the Annunciation, downright gleeful with his secret but displayed knowledge of everything from (depending on how far you want to follow the theology) divine presence to virgin birth to the redemption of humanity.  This angel could be happy about a lot of things, actually.  He could be happy about something else entirely - his return to the celestial realm, the kings and queens and tourists walking beneath his gaze, his nicely his wing feathers sit.  The thing is, emotions displayed (whether in opera, painting, literature, or sculpture) elude easy deciphering.  And yet, they are so fundamental to our understanding of emotions - they resonate, these displays these representations, as transcendentally true - as the shining examples of the reaches of human emotion.  Thus why we herald them, and come to know them, and somehow, feel with them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Books Doing Their Own Thing

Between piano and fixing dinner and rushing out to hear the incredible Karen Abu-Zayd, I glanced down on our coffee table and had to laugh to see the pairing that someone's strewing(s) had provoked.  Underneath is Jacques Derrida's The Animal that Therefore I Am, a heady tome that was the subject of a reading group this semester that I've been too sick to attend (the book has, consequently, been following me around the house successfully inducing guilt and longing); and on top is Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty vs. Uncle Murray, a romp between a dolt and a cat. The former questions the line drawn (by philosophers of all people!) between the human and the animal from the human point of view; and the latter has a cat vehemently reassert the line between animal and human thank you very much. I can't tell you how much I mourn not being a part of that reading group - Mac and I might read the book together next summer, which I'm looking forward to, but it's not the same as sitting in a group of twelve pondering.  On the other hand, I've read Bad Kitty vs. Uncle Murray about 15 times - so there's your accomplishment for you.  The Bad Kitty That Therefore I Read.

But that unlikely juxtaposition of books is, of course, an expansive allegory. Of life in academe ("It's Tuesday, must be the Late Roman Empire!" after one's morning coffee) and elsewhere. I think of Karen AbuZayd's call for dialogue and (and this is what we talked about the most afterwards amongst ourselve) naïveté.  Can you believe that, naïveté? A woman who has worked and negotiated for refugees for over thirty years making a call for naïveté, as a necessary element to sitting down and starting a dialogue (she spent 10 years in Gaza, which only makes her statement the more remarkable).  A colleague of mine said it beautifully when she shrugged and said "It's about how you keep working in the absence of actual progress."  I love this colleague. And so I think of my students' naïveté, and my own (neither of which are productively directed, but there they are), and I've been mulling the fourth paper assignment in my Jerusalem first year seminar for about a week now, and I think I have it: I'll be working on it right after this, and it will ask them which event in the history of Jerusalem they would choose for discussion, if (the naïve part), both sides had agreed to sit down to discuss a historical event.  Since we're right before the Balfour Declaration in the syllabus, this could include a great number of events.   They were fascinated as a whole by Suleiman the Magnificent's clearing of the area around what we know today as the Western Wall, and his securing of it for Jewish worship.  An unexpected pairing, a naïve second look.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Almost a Palimpsest

Little did I know when I wrote that last entry that it would herald a road to nowhere. Yeesh.  I have felt the slow erasure of all vitality this semester - a short series of rubbing away that has changed the picture. Nothing drastic, nothing tragic - but a change. Thus why we see king David praying to God on his own, his accompanying demon having been rubbed out by some later, cautious and more tremulous viewer.  I'm definitely more tremulous, weakened it seems. I have been involved in conversation, these past many weeks, with entities that can't talk back: my past via therapy (finally), and my body via a tenacious virus (and insistent secondary infections).  They strike back, yes, but they don't talk back.  And I can't talk about them, because they are at once incredibly too trite, and excruciatingly too personal.  And so here we are with erased muddles in the picture.

Yet, there are positive/extreme love erasures, too.  Drawings like the wound of Christ (and yes, we could go there about its form, but we won't tonight) which have been kissed and rubbed into near oblivion.  The third entity that I'm in conversation with but that doesn't talk back is our dog. Our big black dog who provides such comfort and surety, but has also so completely taken possession of us and the house that no one can come over without major barking and drama. We are eagerly going to, as Mac calls them, "dog re-education" classes, but the beast within and all his mysteries remain.  I love his animal presence, but am utterly mystified as to his gentleness with us and his crazy barking-ness with others.  Doesn't he see the conviviality?  There must be other parameters. More to feel out, to understand, to sense. These can't really be discussed either, as they are trite, too. But we're reading about the Holy Greyhound for my Gothic class (Jean-Claude Schmitt's classic) and I can't wait to read it with new eyes.

I keep thinking that if I can get through these trite but meaningful erasures, if I can (what?) see to the other side of the page, I might become that most wonderfully transformed of medieval matters: the palimpsest.  The manuscript scraped clean and rewritten. (Here is a current, fascinating example). There has been, equally in this semester, plenty of materials for re-awakening: a visit by Yo-Yo Ma and transcendence, a beautiful funny and true (more transcendence) story from my dear friend in Brittany, the exciting, energetic work of others...  I think that there's something transformative going on - or my attention is skewed, or I'm getting older and feeling some frailty (the ever-helpful French phraseology calls it a "coup de vieux"); or we're just far enough out from Brittany that we've lost the vitality that infused us all there; or maybe in all this summer's thinking about a world filled with the agency of non-living entities, I have lost some of my own - which I can't see as all a bad thing. A certain humility to one's past, to a virus, and to a dog may yet uncover new ways in which the world moves.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Territories, Boundaries, Marks

The walk today
There's a game you can play in which you move through a word from its Latin root to its Latin-derived French cognate to its Anglo-Teutonic root. So: exit, portal, door.  You could do this for a long time with many words if you're sitting around in total goofy love without kids.  In the quiet of the morning walk created by Sawyer, the game came back to me when I rounded a bend in what had already been a walk full of surprises. On the week-ends, I try to go farther out with him and so here I am finding parts of our tiny town I've never seen before. This is a stretch called the People's Pathways: they seem to be either abandoned railroad tracks or otherwise unclaimed pieces of land.  This particular path blooms lushly between two housing developments so new there's not a tree to be had anywhere.  So there's this unexpected forest all around, really thick and wonderful, and Sawyer and I are elated (for different reasons - I'm fairly certain, his involve the tiny rabbit tushes scurrying in all directions as he approaches). I couldn't help but think of medieval forest law: a separate set of laws for the forest - who has the right to hunt, to live there, to use its resources, to claim it. Can you imagine?  Well, yes, we're even more territorial and territorially specific today.

The walk had already been surprising because of a ritual that Sawyer's making apparent. Today was the third time that he's left the house with a well-chewed rawhide in his mouth with great intention. The first day, he dropped it the block from our house that we always walk no matter where we go.  About five days later, he dropped it two blocks from our house in a direction we mostly go (these are long blocks).  And today, he dropped it another block further, this time in a different cardinal direction (the streets are laid out that way, but still).  And then, on the way home (which can be 30-45 minutes later), he picks it up again.  What's he doing?  Is he marking his territory somehow? Is he testing the boundary of his roaming with us?

And so today, I thought about those three words: territory (from the Latin territorium), and boundary (from the medieval French bodne, itself from a _medieval_ Latin word bodina, which is interesting), and then mark (from the Old English mearc).  We all probably have difference valences for each one.  I see territory as a more political, intellectual term. I think that perhaps it's no wonder that boundary is one of the most popular words of therapy. And I have that shudder (familiar now in realizing how Old English root words move in our psyche), of how physical a word like mark is.

What commemoration will we engage in today? I think of W.J.T. Mitchell's provocative play with what he calls the false etymology of territory and terror (this is from his article "Holy Landscape: Israel, Palestine, and the American Wilderness in Landscape and Power).  I wonder about the threatening of every boundary once a territory's center has been marked.  I think about the fine line between marking and claiming a territory, about the process of violating and shoring up boundaries, and, if you think about the site itself, about the marks left behind.  Boundaries don't fall away: even my dog needs to know where the space beyond him begins and ends. The question might become how we get from one familiar spot to the next. Or create them.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Empathy for What You Would Never Be

Canterbury Adam
Goodness. How the start of the academic season will take over.  Today is the first day that feels like it had traction, and so the first day to have a clear thought (all else is of new things and people and formats and improvements and ah, academe).  On the first day of Gothic class, I found myself saying the title phrase out loud as one of the underlying philosophical goals of the class: "empathy for what you would never be." Either because it would be impossible or improbable.  We'll see about achieving the goal (and about what empathy might actually mean - in a classroom, in life, in relationship to the Middle Ages), but I've liked the challenge of confronting differing identities with the promise of empathy.  Much must precede empathy: curiosity, some degree of understanding, warmth.  Gothic is my "class" class - I've modeled the class on the vision of a tripartite social order of those who pray (your monks n' such), those who fight (your knights and kings), and those who labor (your peasants) first articulated in the age of Charlemagne (c. 800) and finally dismantled decidedly in the French Revolution (1789 and on) - a rather long-lasting socio-political system, contested the entire time. What I love about the Gothic period (1200-1500 in art history) is that the identities are dividing out: there are now monks in the city (Franciscans, Dominicans) competing with the Benedictines and Cistercians of the countryside; the dukes are in constant roil against the king (a little something called the Magna Carta from 1215 exemplifies this); and there are urban laborers now with all sorts of wonderful complications (I was stunned to remember that in his Book of Chess, Jacobus de Cessolis includes Gamblers and Courtiers as the eighth pawn).  These are all identities that are remote in every wise save through the familiarity of my studying them.  I am fairly confident in claiming that I teach the modern-day equivalent of the knightly classes at my college, and yet the students feel closer to the peasants than anything else.  It also helps to have Michael Camille's incredibly sympathetic article (" 'When Adam Delved': Laboring on the Land in Medieval English Art," in Agriculture in the Middle Ages, ed. Del Sweeney. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995: 247-276) to have you feel unity with the Adam of the Canterbury glass.  Knowing that the spade was used in February prompts instant sympathy for Adam's nearly unclad state; seeing the axe, which is a land-clearing tool, in the tree, lets you know that Adam has already been working quite a while to prepare this pebbly soil for his crop.  Details create intimacies.

Art Institute of Chicago
 So do calls for equality in the midst of articulated hierarchies.  Especially if they rhyme:

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?

They loved that: the simple logic, the biting rhetorical question.  I love it, too.  The phrase is probably as old as the Canterbury glass (c. 1200) says Michael, but it came to prominence around the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.  The radicality of Biblical history.  The nature of origins.  Wonderfully tricky business.  At the end of the day, though, it was this image from a Picture Bible at the Art Institute of Chicago (must find color image!) that I found most empathetic. It's God, teaching Adam how to use a spade. Click on it for a closer look: Adam's astonished open-handed gesture, his almost delighted face, his pink cheeks, his foot tripping over the edge of the image, his scrawny body clothed in a fragment made of the same fabric of God's garment.  And God: delving, holding the spade with a strange intimacy (because though a Bible Moralisée shows God using a compass to make the earth, it's seldom you see him with such handy tools), pressing his foot upon the spade to break open an unfriendly earth. The rubric above the image reads "Adam apprent a laborer [la] t[e]rre" -  Adam learns to work the earth. This is no longer Eden (is it? did God give Adam a quick lesson before the Expulsion?), yet God and Adam are together, and it seems friendly and empathetic - as God gives Adam the tool of his salvation, having created the need for it. One could argue about this.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer's Writing

There is much that I could write about the anxiety of putting together invigorating writing assignments for my syllabi, about anxieties and aspirations of writings for myself, and about all of the other seasonal writing anguishes of this time of year. Instead, as inspiration to keep on writing throughout the coming year, and grow the little writing I did this summer, I just want to write down two of the children's writings from this summer. As ever, I keep their spelling. Thanks, guys.

Three Poems by Iris about Getting a Dog
Dear Mom and Dad, I have writin three poems that prove my point that a dog or pupy is way better then a cat or kittin.

Puppy, a poem
I'd really like a pupy dog thoe
my siblings want a cat. A cuet
little pupy dog that will jump when I open the door.
Unlike a cat.
The pupy dog I want is going to be like Misse Kissy Face.
Pleas Mom and Dad, say yes.

Cat, a poem
A cat just sits aruond all day and meows when you pet it.
A cat is really worthlis
Unlike a pupy dog.
My siblings want a cat a boring pet
Well, I want a active pupy dog.
Pleas Mom and Dad, say no.

Pupy and Cat, a comparing poem
A cat just lays around all day.
It prrs when you pet it
like a mashein.
While a pupy dog jumps when you enter.
and is very active.
Which one do you think will keep us beesy for the summer?

A Brief Response by Oliver to the prompt "What is a place that makes you feel like a different person and why how?" [he crossed out the "why" and wrote in "how"]

Usually, I'm Oliver everywhere. A place that makes me feel diffrent is Israel. It just makes me feel free and without boundaries and laws and I feel very adventurous.

Friday, August 12, 2011

For Keeps

And so, after months of earnest discussion, and weeks of serious house rearranging, we have brought Sawyer home.  He is a one-year-old black lab with a little something else thrown in, and is gentle and attentive and beautiful and curious and really, really nice.  We somehow managed to keep it a secret from the kids (they had basically given up on us ever coming through), and so the homecoming was all theirs.  There was standing aghast and running and looking at us and a lot a lot of talking.  We've had friends over to meet Sawyer and provide wise counsel (Mac grew up with dogs, me, not at all) and the neighborhood itself looks different (other dogs come over to say hello while on their walks) than it did before.  Eleanor declared this the best day ever (and this part of it may well be), Oliver was full of questions ("How does a dog feel love?" "Do you just recognize someone by their smell, or do you really get to know them, know who they are by their smell?").  Iris said nothing for a long, long time - too busy hugging her dog and walking with him here and there. But at the end of the day, I did ask her: "What do you think of it all?" and she replied "It's just incredible that it's for keeps."

Yolande de Soisson
 Do animals have a history?  Can one speak of a medieval dog the way one does of a medieval person, as a being with different conceptions of self and world?  Nature (ask Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists) can be understood as the ultimate transcendental entity - it may change in form, but not in essence.   Humanity, on the other hand, has cultivated and ritualized even its most "natural" behaviors (sex, childbirth, death have produced cultures and subjectivities whose essential differences are the historian's fervent work).  Where does a dog, so closely tied to humans, so closely attuned to nature, exist on the continuum between nature and humanity?  Would the same things matter to a medieval dog as to a modern dog?  Is the human-hound relationship transcendent? Is Yolande de Soisson's lap dog represented as attentive to the statue (or vision) of the Madonna and Child because its mistress's concern for salvation has become its own somehow? Or is the artist using the dog to point out that "even animals" respond to the presence of the divine?

Gaston Phoebus
 Would I be better off asking questions of survival rather than symbolism?  Looking to the mutual benefit of the human-hound relationship in something like hunting?  But looking at Sawyer tonight, and watching him keeping track of the kids, feeling glad when he decided to settle at my feet, I have to think beyond pragmatism, to the complexity of emotion that accompanies a hunt, or that presides over the company after a victory (J. Salisbury, in The Beast Within; Animals in the Middle Ages present examples of ritualized feeding of certain cuts of meat to the hounds after a hunt).  

Mary of Burgundy
 What, then, of Mary of Burgundy's dog, curled up in her lap while she reads her Book of Hours?  Does its comfortable inattention to the divine signal a distinction between her secular world and the sacred space framing the Madonna outside her window?  Or is it her own, a comfort to her?  I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and I wonder how you'd research them.  The one I return to is, Would the same things matter to a medieval dog as to a modern dog?  These images of intimacy and comfort would venture to say yes, even as the selfhood and worldview of a young woman today are essentially different entities.  Or is it that animals awaken the transcendental in us: have young girls throughout all history looked up and marveled "for keeps"?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Next Beast Over

"Ape" from a Bestiary. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, fol. 16v
We know what to do with the beast within.  Our poets and psychologists expose it and soothe it, let us see it and understand it and, all told, pretty much control it.  It's the next beast over that is truly terrifying.  The one that is so close that we see ourselves, but outside of ourselves. The one called "simian," the medieval bestiary ventured, because it is so "similar" to us. The one that apes us.  And so it is that 48 years after the wild success of the novel surprised even the author, Pierre Boulle's 1963 book La Planète des Singes can still be made into a kickass movie.   It being the end of summer, we decided to make an event out of it. In honor of its author, we had a fully French meal (crème d'asperges soup, poulet rôti, pommes de terres, salade de tomates, fromages, tartes aux fruits, and fine wines).  In connection with this summer's fellowship, we had the wonderful student who worked with me over and, because he'll be visiting Paris while he's studying in Rome this fall, we also had the wonderful student who'd lived in Paris at the table.  We were a jolly company, trying to understand the hold that Boulle's book continues to have on the imagination.

Mac is sitting here at the breakfast table right now reading the original French version. He picked it up the minute he found out that Boulle also wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai in 1952.  Pierre Boulle turns out to be a really interesting guy: an engineer who worked on French rubber plantations in Malaysia; a member of the Resistance in its Indochine theater of war captured by Vichy France forces in 1943 and award the Legion d'Honneur for the hardships endured; an author of 24 novels and several short story collections.  His career explains the wincing colonial content of the book, and its first movie's continued emphasis on race-and-class warfare.  Mac reports that the book has Betelgeuse (the planet of the apes) as a much more European place, where the hunters stop at an "auberge" after capturing their human trophies. The apes in the book live in multi-storied buildings within industrialized cities and drive cars.  The American film version from 1968 was not willing to give them that, instead creating the nightmarish quasi-medieval, quasi-19th century landscape (villages! science labs!) that kids of my generation grew to know so well from the endless Sunday afternoon screening of the Planet of the Apes movies (five) and spin-offs (countless) and parodies (always funny).

Until this latest film, Planet of the Apes had really always been about the struggle between oppressor and oppressed.  The human race behaved badly and got its comeuppance.  But now, and this is where I can't help but pay attention in connection with this summer's reading, there's a new player: a virus.  Humans behave no better and no worse than they usually do, but the amorality of the virus completely changes the game.  There's some weird science in there: the cure to Alzheimer's (vast improvements to brain function first tested out on apes) is delivered by a virus in mist form that has one effect on the apes and another on the humans (trying not to spoil it for you here, as, clearly, you must see this movie).  But the weird science works to awaken what we might fear even more than intelligent apes: intelligent apes in a network established by a virus.  Our fear of the closeness of apes is totalized by the inscrutable distance of viruses. The fear of apes, first, in the form of a naïve question: why are dogs domesticated but apes not? There are many ways to ask this question: why were humans able to domesticate dogs, who are genetically and in many other wises quite different from us, and domesticate them to such a degree that "having a dog" is a sought-after commonplace of millions and millions of people? Why were we unable to domesticate, on any kind of large scale, apes, who are so similar to us, who understand our ways (social, behavioral) so much more?  The proximity issue (that apes are too much like us to domesticate) doesn't answer it.  Human beings have, at different periods in history, enslaved more other human beings than they've ever enslaves apes (despite the contention to the latter of the utterly lame 1972 prequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Or, as Adam Gopnik would have us ask in a recent marvelous essay in The New Yorker, why have dogs chosen us for cohabitation, while apes have not?  The reason that I chose the medieval image above is because it represents humans hunting a female ape (who, according to Pliny, will hold her preferred child against her chest, and let her less loved child ride on her back), in the company of dogs.  The dogs assist the human endeavor which places the apes oppositionally.  Medieval bestiaries are a fascinating world of human and animal intersection and difference unto themselves.  Animals here exist to reveal something about creation, and possibly, in those moments of intersection and difference, about humans themselves.  Or they just exist. Apes are deemed able to live only in Ethiopia, their place of origin, not next door.

We have one strange commonality with medieval attitudes to apes: humor. I could show you many more naughty marginal images of apes (and the fine mind at gotmedieval has plenty).  There are entire sub-genres (the ape as physician, the ape as knight, the ape as lover); so commonplace are ape parodies that one begins to wonder who is laughing at whom.  Parody is an enormous part of the entire Planet of the Apes sub-culture as well. I don't think that Pierre Boulle meant to be funny, but there is a long, rich strain of (nervous?) laughter from Charton Heston's clenched-teeth "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape" to its repetition in this latest film.  For us moderns, apes are funny, and then quickly, really really not funny.  They may have been just funny in the Middle Ages, living all the way far away in Ethiopia the way they did.

A final comment here might be about what makes the film so fantastically creepy: it's the motion-capture film technology that allows Andy Serkis to play the lead role of the ape Caesar wearing a computerized suit which captures his motions and then digitally dresses them in the body of an ape.  It makes me realize how much of our identity as humans (which may or may not be the same as our humanity) lies in how we move.  It's when the birds gather as hundreds of sentinels that Hitchcock can freak us out; it's when the apes start to walk on just two legs that we shudder.  There are grand motions like walking that make us human, but one thinks also of the famed uniquely opposable thumb, as a gesture wherein our humanity may lie.