Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Force of Will (Koach Ratzon)

"Stop and look, and you will realize you are in the midst of a miracle." -- Theodore Herzl

This phrase "force of will" started playing in my head within a day of being in Israel.  What is it about this land that encourages impossible feats?  Sees them through to historical realities that change everything from Nature to God?  Here you see what remains of Herod the Great's Caesarea, a harbor he willfully carved out from Israel's absurdly straight shore line (from 22-10 B.C.E. Josephus tells us) in his efforts to flatter and impress the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.  It still makes a point, even though the harbor is long gone after the passage of Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Crusaders, Ottomans, and now tourists.

Construction at Caesarea
It has been demonstrated that in order to create this harbor, Herod built cement foundations out into the water itself, sending workers out to dive in order to build a wooden structure held in place by beams into which the concrete was poured.  How badly do you have to want to build a harbor to do that?  How much do you have to decide you're going to defy convention and received logic?  How profoundly do you have to know that this is what needs to happen? Welcome to Israel.

Western Wall of the Temple Mount
Herod would go on to expand the Temple Mount and renovate the Temple itself in Jerusalem in 20-19 B.C.E. and of course he did so on an unprecedentedly grand scale.  The Romans destroyed it all in 70 C.E., and many stones (these enormous stones known as Herodian ashlar) still lie today where they fell then. How could Herod know that the harbor he built in Caesarea would be so close to the port city of Haifa, which welcomed Jews arriving to build the country of Israel in the early 20th centutry? How could he know that his massive Western wall would become one of the holiest sites in Judaism?  What's amazing about Israel is that you find yourself asking "How could he not?" It's a constant, and insistently seductive, illusion, a kind of spiritual mirage maybe, that here everything adds up; that these events layered so intensely one on top of the other in order to mean one grand thing.  Three of the world's major religions have thought so anyway.  And I cannot deny reveling in the marvel of these great narratives as they unfold in telling ruins which had no possibility of becoming mundane.

Western Wall of the Temple Mount
I can't show you the image that took my breath away the most, and made me decide on this as the first of several entries I hope to write about this trip.  It was Shabbat and taking photographs has fallen under at least a couple of the 39 prohibitions against work that one should honor (has to do with closing a circuit).  And so while you see a clear view of the section of the Western Wall that, since the time of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, has been a sacred site, what you would need to imagine is thousands of people welcoming Shabbat as the sun set. Singing and dancing in enormous circles, rejoicing, laughing, chatting, praying, touching the Wall, walking away from it backwards to keep your gaze lingering upon it longer, just a little bit longer.  Having just entrusted small Oliver to David, our guide, who shepherded him through the men's side of the partition, I found myself completely unmoored in this sea of celebration.  I was awed then, forever humbled, to think of what was being celebrated: Shabbat, yes, a day of rest and family after so much work - but the scale could get bigger and bigger until it was easy and thrilling to see these throngs made up of Ultra-Orthodox and IDFs, men and women whose faces were upturned in laughter or bent down in prayer, and children for whom these grand occasions are starting to become the rhythm of their lives as celebrating Israel itself: the phenomenal necessity and unlikelihood of this nation state.  The force of will (which David did not hesitate to transliterate as "koach ratzon") it took, has taken, still takes for Israel to exist traces many a pendulum swing.  But there, in the midst of that perfect joy, it felt like history stood still in acknowledgment of Jewish koach ratzon.

The last site for this idea is Masada where we once again find Herod, this time amplifying a 2nd century B.C.E. stronghold that he conquered in 43 B.C.E.  Here you're seeing the lowest level of this three-tiered defense palace which grasps onto the side of a mountain rock face.  It's a small space on the narrow prow of the edge of the cliff, and would have been Herod's private palace.  Who builds himself a palace our here in the mountains near the Dead Sea?

View from Masada

No really, who?

View from Masada

It's unspeakably beautiful and terrifically harsh.  We climbed up the 1300 feet up to Masada, about a 45 minute hike, at 5 in the morning having spent the night in a Bedouin camp (surely Western tourists have been doing this since the 19th century). The view we had looking up as we were climbing was the same beheld by those who lived the events of 74 C.E..  The Temple in Jerusalem (Herod's great big beautiful idea) had been destroyed in 70 C.E. and now the last of the Jewish resistance had retreated to Masada.  Josephus is our only source for the story, so there's controversy as to its absolute veracity, but that doesn't matter for the thousands of IDF soldiers who used to take their oaths there, or the Birthright group from Argentina that was there with us. Or for most of us for that matter.

You can see better in this photograph taken by a National Geographic helicopter how the Romans built a ramp, whose remains you see stretching down to the right of the rock face; so you can better imagine the siege towers battering away at the walls until finally fire broke through and Masada's defenses began to crumble.  So confident were they of their victory, goes the story, that the Romans paused for the night, giving the leaders of Masada time to make their historic suicide pact, leaving 960 dead.  Modern archaeology has not found so many bodies, but Yigael Yadin, the grandfather of Israeli archaeology, found the ceramic lots on which names were drawn to decide who would be the last man to kill himself as the Romans came.  Two perfectly matched forces of will, with all the historical controversy that entails.  And so I'm pushed to think of what is possible, of what is not impossible, from harbors that defy nature, to walls that house the divine, to cliffs that hold very important secrets.  Of all the things from this trip that I want to keep reading and learning about Herod the Great emerges as a subject I crave to know more about.  That and 1930s Israeli pioneer songs.  But that's tomorrow.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Israel Tomorrow

Rembrandt. Jeremiah Lamenting Jerusalem. 1630
This painting does not express the mood all around here, which is one of jubilee and anticipation, but it's just too beautiful a painting to not consider for just a bit. Of all of the things that I have been captivated by (and have been so frustrated in not having time to write about), the loss of the Temple, and all that it entailed continues to draw me back.  The loss of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E. at the hands of the Babylonians, which is the one that Jeremiah had predicted and which you see him mourning here, makes God itinerant, no longer fixed.  The return from the Babylonian exile (starting in 538 B.C.E.) provokes great theological confusion: can God be elsewhere than in the Temple? Yes! say those returning from exile. How can that possible be? say those who stayed. And then difficult discussions: if not in the Temple, then what does it take to make God present? A dear friend and prof came to speak to the class this morning about Jewish ritual and had a great statement about Shabbat: that it was a way to make time holy - during the Sabbath you mark time so as to make it sacred.  And you get to breathe, and be with family, and think.  The 39 categories of work you cannot do alone is years of thinking.

So what is it that Jeremiah is mourning? Is it the loss of a place to commune with God? A loss of God Himself?  Pathos at the human suffering occurring in this conquest?  Hopelessness at not having been heard when he prophesied? Introspection at how to now rebuild a relationship with the divine?  Doubt as to the lucidity of God?  How Rembrandt painted such introspection will always be a golden mystery. His Bathsheba will forever take my breath away.  We're going to Israel with 25 students - what will be their thoughts? Almost half of them look forward most of all to floating in the Dead Sea - we can always start there.  I'll be thinking of Jeremiah as I look at the absence of the Temple on the Temple Mount, and its presence in models and drawings in museums.  I need to start thinking about architecture within an object-oriented ontology.

Darius of Persia, Christ, Judas Maccabeus care for the Temple
Here's a layered view of the draw of the Temple: Darius of Persia (who conquered the Babylonians, therefore allowing for the return from exile) counsels a Jew to rebuild the Temple; Christ throws the merchants out of the Temple; and Judas Maccabeus counsels his men to reconsecrate and rebuild the Temple. A care for this place, a desire to keep it sacred.  This is different from the desire for Jerusalem that medieval Christians exercised - there, they oscillate between the very real (land, principalities, laws, taxes) and allegories (Jerusalem as Guinevere, Jerusalem as the center of the world).  My God, we will be going to Acre, the last stronghold of the Crusaders - when Acre (Akko) went in 1291, that was the end of the Crusader era - 300 years of assault.  Confronting that architecture - made from local stone, in styles from Western Europe (which themselves may have been influenced by Middle Eastern architecture), what was this construction?  What was lamented here?

Psalter Map, c. 1300. British Library
Things are going to be virtual for a while - I'm not taking my computer and have not yet figured out how to upload images from my iPhone. Plus, I want to take lush full images with my real camera, not just my iPhone camera.  So this may mean that there is little to no writing out here for the next two weeks, which I will miss tremendously. I have a smart little green leather notebook for ideas for posts, and will look forward to writing these up one at a time upon my return.  I'm going to the center of the world - a strangely shared center but with such powerful chapters (Suleiman the Magnificent (Muslim Ottoman Turk) creating the space around the Western Wall as a "lieu de receuillement" (gathering space) for the Jews in the early 16th-century comes to mind).  There will be conflict, but also persimmons and the source of the River Jordan and walking up to Masada at sunrise, and Oliver by my side.  A good 15 years of studying this city and the land that frames it and somehow, I'm going to be in Tel Aviv tomorrow afternoon.  So laila tov to all and, indeed, shalom.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

All the Other Israels

screen shot from
If there was more that I could do to prepare for this trip to Israel, it actually wouldn't be to read more history or art history or archaeology - it would be to read novels, watch television shows, see movies.  It would be to think more through what I realize I've categorized in my head as "All the Other Israels" - the contemporary, the natural, the entertaining, the musical.  This screen shot from a site sponsored in part by the Israel Ministry of Tourism gets at the kaleidescopic picture I know nothing about.  I don't know what will surprise me more: the history or the contemporaneity.  It will be stunning to be at Masada and Acre and Caesarea. It will be equally stunning to see ads, fashion, hipness: those things which mark not just modernity (which I won't be surprised to see there of course), but the pace and the flow and the general disregard for history of modernity.  That, I think, will surprise me: the co-existence of the two.

The Jerusalem of 135 (final expulsion of the Jews by Hadrian), or 614 (arrival of the Persians), or 1099 (arrival of the Crusaders), or 1187 (departure of the Crusaders), or 1516 (arrival of the Ottomans), or 1917 (the arrival of Allenby), and the spaces and stories thereof, will seem more familiar to me than anything contemporary that I will see.   How can that be? It can only be true in an imagined sense - it's the familiarity of thought, nothing more.  So I think with wonder about my dear student Shani who is living in Tel Aviv and has just joined an ensemble that sings only in Hebrew and which has asked her to sing "La Vie en Rose" ("HaChaim BeVarod") for an upcoming concert. Won't take be great?

Also: there is humor. Now for this to appear funny, it will help to know about "Angry Birds," the 99cent iPhone game out of Finland which has been purchased over 30 million times, and which is being played by millions of people as I write this.  The plot line is simple: the pigs have the birds' eggs and the birds want their eggs back damnit.  And who knew that therein lay an Israeli-Palestinian peace process parody?

So you see, I know nothing about where I'm going. But I can't wait to get there.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Get Well Cards

Roger of Salerno. Chirurgia
Iris, the plucky rational one, has been sick: massive head cold which inevitably led to an ear infection which led to antibiotics which led to stomach troubles - the works.  Not one to wallow in self-pity nor ask for help, she used her brother's Moshi Monsters (don't ask) account to send herself a get-well card.  Who does this? Who does this at the age of almost seven, and then not tell anyone? There I am singing Oliver's praises for being such a good brother in sending his sister a get-well card (it went from his Moshi account to hers) and all the while it was she who had broken into her brother's account, constructed a get-well card and sent it to herself, never taking credit (letting her brother get all the praise) until he couldn't stand it anymore and outed her ploy.  I. love. her. 

14th c. Urine Chart
The whole incident has prompted thinking about the possibilities of getting well in the Middle Ages, and the illuminations thereof. I'm trying to decide how much of an emphasis on medieval medicine I'm going to put in my "Women and Medieval Art" class next semester (fantastic images on birth and sex await). I'm also thinking through what place medieval medicine might have in my idea for a new class on "Environmental Consciousness in Medieval Art" (medieval medicine being so microcosmically inter-related to the natural world).  So I've started thinking of images that show hope for wellness.  Roger of Salerno's 12th century surgery book never ceases to fascinate a) for its amazing "how-to" illuminations and b) for the placement of these beneath religious scenes (you see the Flagellation in the top central panel above).  We struggled with these images in dear Michael Camille's "Medieval Art and Medicine" seminar - the religious imagery flows narratively from one page to the next, and while every once in a while you can make a connection between the religious narrative image and the surgical image below, most of the time they seem to exist in parallel space and meaning with each other: no direct correlation.  People didn't only pray to get well in the Middle Ages.  But the body was more contingent: upon the planets, the stars, the seasons, the zodiac and, sure, God.  Urine analysis was always a favorite visual moment of mine - the aesthetics of it in those charts, as multiple colors of health and illness encircle the physician and his apprentice.

Vovelle and Vein Man, 14th c.
Ok, writing about these makes me want to give several weeks over to medicine in the environmental consciousness class.  It's the idea of the contingency of the body upon the greater natural world that seems worth exploring.  And it's not in a "child of the universe" kind of way, either.  It's a precise series of correlations that defy modern understanding at first - it's correlations between body and planets and stars etc., but also ratios and proportions thereof.  This becomes very important in blood-letting, thus the vovelle which is a wheel co-ordinating lunar and planetary movements in ways I can't describe (but (ha!) will be looking into).  Blood-letting allowed you to re-establish the balance of your humors, to, in brief, get well.  I'm going to want the students and I get mired in issues of agency: is it the modern or the medieval body that is more contingent? Yes, the Enlightenment gave us the promise of an enclosed, complete self, to be managed and nurtured, but that self is more permeated than ever today with genetics, pharmaceuticals, and (ah) the environment.  Was Adam (to rethink Donna Haraway's awesome critique of Eden) ever whole?

Jewish Zodiac Blood Man
There will be much to talk about in this course on the issue of whence Western medieval environmental consciousness came from: the rich inheritances/appropriations from Muslim medical traditions (themselves worked from Greek medicine) - and then this wonderful illumination of a Jewish (noticeably circumcised) zodiac man: the signs of the zodiac writhing all over his body, indicating which blood-letting spots are best used when (pisces at the feet seem particularly eager to demonstrate the technique).  I've always loved the stoicism of these medieval medical figures - I know that seeing emotion is not the point of these images, but there's something  poignant to me about the patient and vulnerable stance that they always take: displayed, sometimes flayed, always penetrated in some way.

Zodiac Figure. 14th c.
The only one(s) to remain enigmatically closed is the twinned figure from Jean Duc de Berry's 14th century Tres Riches Heures. Is this a fantasy of wholeness - the body looking out to our space and beyond to where we cannot see, ungrounded but certain, marked and encircled by a sure and predictable universe. Or is it a fantasy of contingency? Those strange clouds whirling faster the more you look at them, the twins grasping greedily on each arm, the self in fact split not twinned.  For some reason, it is an image of wellness for me: contingent, momentary, enjoyable,  somewhat unconscious - as all wellness is.  Perhaps I'll show this to Iris, as she works her way back to wellness, and can once again run about, gloriously uncontingent.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ages of Man

The Ages of Man. 13th c. illumination
There were many, many things to get done today, and I had another unexpected window of time on my own. But it was more than just a couple of hours: it stretched out luxuriously for 5 or 6 hours. And so existentialism set in, and now it is the end of the day, and everyone will be coming home soon and I have a clean downstairs office and a lot of inertia and tears to show for it.  Whenever I am not busy, I mourn my father.  I cannot help but visit the horror of his current state - Iris Murdoch's sense of horror gives it all shape here: that confrontation with the naked truth of loss and sickening vulnerability, of everything raw we've ever wanted from another human being, of the absolute inevitable inglorious end of all this. It makes me sad that my time alone always culminates in these kinds of thoughts: I'd wanted to work on my essay, read my Jerusalem book of late, clean everything all over the house. If I were more resourceful I'd find a way to turn all of these confusions, these things that are happening to so many people after all, and do something productive, something worthy of my father. Instead, I just stare into the incredible hollowness, or this hollow place (because there are such riches and colors elsewhere) that his demise emits.

And lately, things in my father's brain have made confronting all of this more and more intense. He calls every morning telling me to take him to North Carolina; he says lots and lots of things that aren't worth writing down because they're ridiculous and awful and the words will stay out here, while his thoughts will have fled long ago.  So I go to see him, I go to apologize to the nurses for all of the yelling that he's doing: he's refusing to sleep in his bed, he wants to dictate letters, he won't let them change him.  I try to talk to him, to reason with him a little bit, to cajole him, joke with him, distract him.  He says totally crazy stuff back. And then he says stuff that's not crazy at all: his gaze is familiar, the tone of his voice makes the deepest sense - there's a lucid flash that makes me believe completely for that moment that everything else is what's false and this is what's real. But then he says something to make me realize afresh anew that no, no he's gone and why can't I get that through my head? I know that I'm supposed to put all that somewhere, the things he says, the looks, the gestures; I know that I'm supposed to dismiss it and chalk it up and sequester it. But in these moments I just can not. And yet (I start to tell myself), everybody goes through this: everybody loses someone at one point or another.  Faster or slower. There is absolutely nothing unusual or terrifying about any of this.  Like with so many other things, I need find the larger narrative, join it, help it help me make sense of things.  Move away from the raw existential thrust of it (this is my father whom I knew, who is alone and angry and strange), to the expansive narrative frame for it (there is love and there is loss that everyone endures, and you are not alone and his anger is not real and actually it's not so strange).

The general tenor surrounding old age in the medieval period is that of the ridiculous: the doddering, the wandering, the negligible.  The medieval west was not a culture to respect its elders - there's no ancestor worship, no great amount of time or ritual spent making the old venerable.  There's an interesting history there, no doubt. For now, these 10 Ages of Man fascinate. Here they are again:

You read it starting at 7 p.m. - you are born and held by your mother warmly by the fire; you are young and vain; you measure things (a trade?); you are a young squire/knight falconing - ah, the time of love and war; at the noon position, you reign you are supreme you are self-possessed and full of possessions like a king; and then you bid farewell to yourself, walking away with a cane; you do in fact talk to small children (this roundel is so, so interesting - I can't see the writing enough to know, but will pursue the image to find out); and then you take to your bed and the physician reads your demise in the urine flask; a priest reads over your dead body, and (I think) empty sits the altar over which your mass was said.  The scroll held by the king in the top left reads "Iuventus" (youth), the one held by the bearded prophet to the right "Senectus" (old age).  The one to the bottom left reads something about infancy, I bet.  The whole thing is in the shape of a wheel, and conjures up Fortune's wheel which has you up on top of the world, and down below getting crunched - all within a lifetime, sometimes within a day. I don't have to be lost in some unfixed state: this enormous narrative keeps moving, it has the momentum of history - and, as I've found out in the process of writing this post and visiting others' writings in the quest for images and answers to medieval questions, the companionship of kindred spirits. I'm humbled and comforted to read about the complexity of memory and its call to further mysteries.  My dread can turn to fascination if I think of the others who have thought this through.

Days of Feasts

Happy Feast of the Circumcision everybody! That's what was on the medieval liturgical calendar anyway. In the Middle Ages, there'd been revelry since at least December 6 (Saint Nicholas Day), often since November 11 (Saint Martin's Day) - had to do something to stave off those winter months.  The Roman Saturnalia rituals had never really left entirely (and of course are commemorated every time a Christmas tree is decorated), but there's one Roman tradition to talk about that had a cool revival in the Middle Ages and has since fallen away today.  The ├ętrennes were the gifts and gift exchanges of New Year's Day, self-consciously revived by the Valois court, as Brigitte Buettner's gorgeous article "Past Presents: New Year's Gifts at the Valois Court c. 1400" (Art Bulletin 83:4 (Dec. 2001): 589-625) will tell you.  While the Valois practiced their "vello-mania" (another great phrase of hers from another great article) we reveled in deep friendships and fantastic culinary feats.

Dear Alison made one of her phenomenal brunches - everything is made from scratch and I really do think of a medieval kitchen and the warmth of a hearth. Plus, it's a pleasure to watch the kids devour everything in sight.  This time last year, we were having our first bites, our first realizations of distance, our first outings. I realize that I could relive last year almost day by day - a daunting opportunity for nostalgia.  No need - I think of Brittany every single day anyway.  It's amazing, really, how many comings and goings there are in these cozy, settled days: Mallory is getting ready to go back to college, Grandmama will be taking off... thank goodness for the home-made cinnamon buns, the company, the warmth...

And then St. Sylvester's (New Year's Eve!) at Pedar and Rebecca's. The menu, without further ado:
  • Edamame mousse on rice crackers
  • Carrot blinis with creme fraiche and caviar
  • Cheeses: Tome de Savoie, Morbier, Iberico
  • Celeriac soup with thyme croutons
  • Herb-Encrusted Beef Tenderloin
  • Gratin Dauphinois
  • Broccolini with an herbed oil
  • These gorgeous tarts!
And so a happy new year was had by all.  The kids actually stayed up until midnight, and were for the first time excited at the change from 2010 to 2011 - some wonderfully meaningless event that is a thrillingly meaningful moment.  They're starting to stir now, so there's no time to write, but that's ok - there's a momentum to everything now: a week from today, we leave for Israel!

And herein lies my hope for all of us this year: belonging and understanding and anticipating - something this picture of the girls seems to have captured for just a moment.