Sunday, March 27, 2011

House of Sick

Iris and Eleanor and Mac first succumbed about two weeks ago, and now finally, Oliver and I have been felled.  I think we have a stronger, crazier bug: much more fever, hot eyeballs, aching all over. Debilitating.  Reading today was reduced to movie reviews (decided to love the phrase "gauntlet of formative traumas" from a scathing review of Suckerpunch - yes, I was stooping that low); writing has been nil.  I'm out here for just a few minutes to prove to myself that I can indeed put fingertip to keyboard and write in more or less complete sentences. There's a steadily rising tide of despair, as I think of the two papers that need to be written by April 15 - I love them both, want to linger over both, have core phrases that I want to build around, but it'll probably be the more usual crazed, frantic writing, squelched in between grading and committee meetings. A colleague once said "Do not be deterred."  This may be the time to not be deterred.  One thing (since I'm free associating and thinking of an essay I'm actually proud of) that's been great in reading the first four short essays of Graham Harman's Towards Speculative Realism is watching Graham Harman move away from being a Heideggerian towards the articulation of speculative realism. Heidegger's thing with Thing is the seed, I realize, to the more materialist approach to art history that we're trying to craft. And it's interesting to me that we're by-passing phenomenology (short version why: identity is too transcendent; not enough about political identity).  I want to artfully weave this all in, you see, but I know that it's not ripe enough, and so it won't be what I envision it to be. SO - I will read and think and write, not in the order that I want to, but I am not alone here and I know that summer is not far when these talks can be written up and reveled in.

Wow! That felt good! Unnecessarily angtsy, but good.  It's the first time that I've had energy to write anything and it feels great.  We've had all three kids come down for warm milk, so this can't last long, but all of us are looking forward to when this Sick lifts.  Yeesh.  In some feverish state, I was thinking about agency and consciousness again (we were all basically some kind of warped consciousness with all too little agency). Viruses are wild. Alive, intent, invasive, systemic.  And when they're gone (or die off, right?) you really do feel that sense of lifting, of being back to yourself.  This all makes medieval medicine much more understandable to me - you bet it's going to feel like a miracle to walk without aching oddly.

The comparison between episodic illness and chronic illness is hard of course.  I feel like a jerk for even complaining, knowing full well that all of this will go away.  Not the same for everyone.  My dad's birthday was so so quiet. I watched my mom love him absolutely: say incredibly kind and loving things to him, remind him of their love and their life together. And he just looked at her with this bemused look, a kind of "what's the fuss?" look. With his bright blue eyes, and his beatific smile. I see him fading, though, and it's another urgency I feel: not to capture all of the important stories of his life, but rather to seize the random ones: the picture of the two young boys on an elephant on a beach in Sri Lanka (which Dad now has gone back to calling Ceylon); the Quaker meeting house across the creek from where he grew up (and which a cousin of mine has opened up to an East Carolina University archaeological dig); lots more. I want the summer to come.  In the meantime, once more unto the breach and all that - spring break is over.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Heavy and Light

It's spring break and so we're all moving differently. I happened upon this scene this morning (Iris: Magic Tree House; Oliver: Eldest) and just stood transfixed.  They're older now: it's really happening.  Reading, interiority, knowledge: Iris warning Mac about cobras in India; Oliver playing out moral dilemmas presented by the book.  I love to watch them deep into their books, and then also to see them re-emerge into the busy world they create for themselves.  They move between heaviness and light so much more easily than we do.

Fragonard. Girl Reading.1770
Hmmm - I'm not the only one who loves to linger on images of kids reading.  It's been a productive day what with being at home with the three kids, (two articles and half a book read, 9 out of 17 essays graded, and I hope to do the short answers of a midterm before bed), but I couldn't wrap my mind around any writing. Partly, I've undoubtedly doomed myself to a bit of writer's block by inviting my future Kalamazoo audience to spend our time together between the "heaviness of matter and the indeterminacy of meaning" in considering stained glass (but that's exactly where I want to be, as I'd like to work with Chaucer's wild stained glass window in the Book of the Duchess, and the struggles for meaning that the pilgrims have before the Canterbury windows in the Tale of Beryn).  Partly, with more time to think it through, the world is rushing in, and I am reeling at news of a bus bombing in Jerusalem (already at the end of a string of explosive exchanges), and I wonder how to even think about Libya.
Lion of the Desert (1981)
Enter Mac and his splendiferous Netflix queue. Lion of the Desert starring (incredible) Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, John Gielgud and a cast of thousands from Libya itself.  It's splendid to see Anthony Quinn inhabit the role of Omar Mukhtar - the opening scene has him teaching the Quran and you feel like surely you're just seeing him at home, relaxed, natural. Everything else is really hard to watch: another chapter of colonial history complete with concentration camps, rape, barbed wire walls, and all of the other "civilizing" enterprises of occupation.  Mussolini is played by Rod Steiger and is portrayed with manic, dogged rage.  Oliver Reed plays General Rodolfo Graziani, the 6th governor sent by Mussolini in 1922 to take care of the Libyan "problem" that had been on-going since the 1911 invasion.  It would be September 11, 1931 before they would hang Omar Mukhtar; and 1981 before Gaddafi invested $35 million into the movie.  The director was Moustapha Akkad (Syrian-American, known for the Halloween movies, and getting ready to film a movie about the Crusades and Saladin starring Sean Connery when he was killed by a suicide bomber in Jordan in 2005).  So it looks like people held the Gaddafi funding against the film - and Italy itself banned the movie, showing it one a cable TV show one day that Gaddafi was visiting Rome in 2009.  The movie's really surprising as I think about it: splicing footage (devastating footage of the miles and miles of tents that made up the concentration camps tightly bound in barbed wire) with filming, scenes staged from photographs (reading the Wikipedia article while watching the movie was downright weird) and giving full eloquent reign to Omar Mukhtar.  Does it make thinking about what's happening in Libya today any easier? Not at all. But I love Mac for this.

And so back to light somehow - a butterfly and a pirate outside in 72 degree Farenheit weather; finding out that Mac most likely won't sustain any hearing loss from his ruptured eardrum of last week (and being so grateful the pain is receding); the kids coming up with elaborate rituals to say goodbye to the old, dying tree we had to take down in the front yard today (the very phrase "stump grinder" had Iris fascinated (and repeating it) for hours); finding myself unable to think through Chaucer as author except through the lens of his blogger; getting ready to celebrate my Dad's 91st birthday tomorrow.

The best part of this is Iris's deep, delighted chuckle at the end after having so laboriously loaded her arrow. Ok, and the way Oliver reveals his true identity by ripping off that tiny white sailor hat. Oliver deployed the old "we are sailors in need of help" trick to fool the captain of the British Navy into falling into his pirate clutches. Mac really gave it his all. Huzzah for spring break!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Cloudgate, Chicago - Sunday
Hard to tell if this image is lovely or terrifying, isn't it? It has symmetry, which is pleasing, but also quite the abyss (and folds before the abyss) which can be terrifying (yes, calling Georgia O'Keeffe and Freud here).  The color is also pretty confusing: patches of dead gray and swaths of light.  Welcome to Cloudgate, and Chicago, and the discoveries of a week-end in the big city. Cloudgate (are all public sculptures doomed to this fate?) is better known by its nickname, The Bean, because it curves like an enormous, perfect bean to optically frame the Chicago skyline (see the link above for pictures).  I've always loved the piece, but this week-end, it became a place to think through the capacity for matter to alter perception. Ever since the D.C. conference, I've been kind of here and there at the same time (with thoughts leaning much more to there), so it felt good to leave "here" behind and go "there" some more (the kids, of course, are "everywhere").  Cloudgate is an enormous allegory for the idea that objects shape our world much more than we (think we) shape theirs. It puts into play the fragility and manipulability of our perception of the world around us: how easily, and gleefully, we are led to see things differently by a frame that shifts before us, moves with our bodies, seems to respond to our presence - think of a walk in a forest, of entering cathedral doors, of being guided by a garden. I think that more of us than we know are willing to give over our illusions of agency to objects (those who resist might be confusing agency with consciousness - am I claiming that rocks and cathedrals (made of rocks), and flowers have consciousness? no, although I would question the sure boundary of human consciousness. Am I claiming that they have agency? absolutely - what is a day unguided by objects? no, really).  So here is Cloudgate, with its 168 panels of stainless steel, at 1-2000 pounds each (heavy, heavy object), and its ability to make the Chicago skyline dance before you, a plaything of your movements. It took polishing the welds of the omphalos (the belly-button of the world turns out to be in Chicago!) to give us that smooth surface of endless possibilities, perceptual and metaphysical.  Huzzah, Anish Kapoor, brilliant manipulator of form, color, shape: primal aspects of objects.  I may start everything with him - I've just found out that I received a University grant to develop a new course on medieval environmentalism - better term, I realize, is eco-criticism: how ecology is framed, by what systems and gestures, images and texts.  As ever, medieval doesn't have all the questions (I will not be counseling that we return to the system of the Four Humors in order to be better macrocosmically linked with the environment), but I like the questions that it asks (rocks move, nature talks, things morph, boundaries (of consciousness and body especially) aren't set).  It's a Student-Faculty Summer Research Grant, so summer looks great (funny thing: one of the categories I want to research is the representation of nature in India (Alexander romances write of two harvest seasons, an abundant and ever-giving nature) and there Mac will be for three weeks this summer! Maybe he can bring back some of the emeralds and rubies that burst unbidden from the soil there. 

But on to our titular concern: the humble puddingwife. We spent almost 3 days in Chicago: first afternoon: the Robie House (Oliver and his buds visited rooms and secret places mentioned in the cool book); second day: the Art Institute (and a phenomenal show that is a separate post); and third day: Shedd Aquarium.  I've been to my share of aquaria (total kid pleasers), but I never tire of them: there's always something wondrously new, something unheard of - a new name, new species, new hybrid form (I really do see Linnaeus's naming project as a turning point in human-nature relations: look at the way it attempts to tame something as grotesquely wonderful as the frogfish?).  This time it was the puddingwife that utterly seized our imagination.  Oliver found her, or at least her name, and we all just stopped and, I don't know, were taken with the name.  We'd narrativized the alewife (I always pictured an overworked, flustered fish trying to clean up the drunken debauchery of her client fish) - but what's the narrative to be for the puddingwife?  And who names these fish?  I have a chemistry colleague I'm working closely with on the "Art and Truth" ArtsFest for this fall and we talk frequently now about the visual, emotional and even moral narratives of scientific representation (there are good molecules, and there are bad molecules, oh yes). So the puddingwife - is she lax, soft, kind of done with it all? or is she a source of comfort, sensing others' needs and meeting them with something warm and butterscotchy?  Puddingwife, we love you.

The kids helping each other out!
There were some beautiful little moments at the Shedd, like this one when the kids spontaneously lined up to help each other put on penguin outfits in the penguin playscape.  Kids will manipulate an environment faster than anyone else (and yes, there's something to think on in that objects in children's worlds have tremendous agency, not to mention consciousness), and so watching these guys dress the penguin part was fun.  They all three broke the rules, though, and were gently but firmly reminded by the penguin playscape master that "Penguins don't know how to climb rocks."  To which Oliver asked me (after, chastened) "So why are those penguins called "rockhoppers"?). 

Iris and the jellyfish
I'll end with an exuberant Iris before her favorite life form: the jellyfish.  Number one thing that fascinates her: they have no brain. That just "blows my mind" she says.  And so spring break begins: I have the next two days to write to my heart's content, thanks to Mac, and so will begin.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Irish Guys Are Smiling

Tipu's Tiger, 18th c. India
Let's draw this first half of this Beast of a Semester to a close with some surreal slippage into the absurd.  First and foremost, Happy absurd Saint Patrick's Day, one of Oliver's favorite holidays.  Last year in Pontivy we found an Irish shop (Brittany being one of the six Celtic nations after all) that proffered forth a singing leprechaun whose voice mechanism made it sounds as though it was singing "When Irish Guys are Smiling" (instead of the traditional take of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling").  I can't tell you why I find Iris Guys Smiling infinitely more charming than Irish Eyes doing so, but oh boy do I ever.

Speaking of musical boxes inserted in playthings (segue of a lifetime!), I draw your attention to Tipu's Tiger above - a life-size sculpture of a tiger pinning a British East India Company soldier down and sinking its teeth into the man's neck. (Actually, Irish Guys might well be smiling at this scene, having themselves endured the abuses of British colonialism.) It was owned by Tipu Sultan until 1799 when, in the course of the fourth (yes, fourth) Anglo-Mysore War, pitting his kingdom of Mysore against not the British government, but the British East Company, Tipu perished and all of this possessions were seized. Passed over by the Prize Committee (which divided up the booty of these types of conquests), Tipu's Tiger came to rest in the East India Company's museum in London (it is today in the Victoria and Albert Museum). It is the featured object in a chapter of the book by Richard David, The Lives of Indian Images, which is spectacular in its detail (you learn a million cool things).  The tiger contains within its body a small pipe organ, playable on beautiful ivory keys - if you hit the right combination of notes you can make the tiger roar, and the man groan.

Tipu's Tiger, 18th c. India
But it gets even better.  Aside from being an enormously productive image to discuss in the post-colonial methodology section of the Art History Senior Seminar I'm teaching, Tipu's Tiger fascinates for its astounding re-inventions.  First, consider its original manufacture: a complex political allegory (the tiger was Tipu's personal emblem/symbol)? something to make the Sultan smile (when you play the organ, the East India Company soldier's arm waves a pathetic and helpless beat up and down in rhythm)? (To add to the complexity: there's evidence that the musical mechanism may have been made by a Frenchmen in the Sultan's employ - apparently there were many French craftsmen in his employ).  Then, its capture and display: its rejection by the Prize Committee (who went for jewels or statuary, the more traditional "stuff" of value), and its simultaneous, instant, and enduring popularity with crowds at the East India Museum in London.  Now, there is an even more surreal scenario to consider, for, yes. Tipu's Tiger has become an iPhone App.  !!!!!  I don't know what I love more, that you get to see the East India Company soldier beat time to a reedy version of "God Save the Queen" (thereby displacing the Sex Pistols' as my favorite), or that you can rotate the entire sculpture around 360degrees at the touch of your index finger (the length of the actual sculpture is about 7'!).  Or that you can play your own tunes by touching the ivory keys of the organ.  There's deep poignancy here, too - for this object that survived the ravages of British colonialism and went on to become dear somehow to a British public - and now is (what?) elevated through this absurd, intensely satisfying technology. I'm trying to decide if this is kitschy, and my indecision lets me know it's not.  It's cool somehow - it furthers the object's function and yes, there's something thrilling that it can do so in our living room, as my little pre-spring break gift to Mac.  In reading the V&A website's mini-essay (there's a link at the bottom of the V&A page to a 30-minute video!) on the piece (which, granted, was written in 1976, but updated in 2006 after all), you also find out that while we may be post-colonial, we are by no means post-Oriental: it's a piece which is described as still having a magical draw and pull over its audience.  The Orientalized call of objects is what I'll be working on over Spring Break in preparation for the Big Lecture - ooo, I absolutely can't wait to revel in the impossible stack of books I have lined up for next week. Before that happens, we drive to Chicago this week-end to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House through the lens of a tour designed around one of Oliver's favorite books, The Wright Three, and also to see what promises to be a phenomenal show of (deep, excited in-take of breath) French Renaissance Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Before that happens I have to design a midterm for the love of God) That the vessel (oh let's just call it a reliquary!) for Anne de Bretagne's heart is the star image of the show only makes me more excited. We'd seen it at the Musée Dobré in Nantes, and now will revisit it again in (of all places) Chicago - how she travels. Of all the reasons to love Anne of Brittany, that she accepted that her body be buried in Paris with her husband, but that her heart be returned to Brittany in this vessel, is a really good one... With any luck, the Chicago River will still be sporting the green dye that the mayor pours into it each year for Saint Patrick's Day. And maybe some Iris guys will be smiling.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


It's amazing what happens when intellectually generous people get together.  I always held that medieval mattered - thus, well, my entire life, but here, there's a pertinent place for that insistent sometimes even urgent belief.  In talking about objects and ethics (animal, vegetable, mineral), we are talking about power, meaning, boundaries which are not so fancy academic ways of saying politics (personal and communal), language (words we use), and difference (us vs. them, us and them, etc.). In other words, I can revel in these ideas and translate them back to students (who in turn will be more critical and aware of the world and make it better place - because that's how it works, right? We can address that another time).  Actually, words have been a fascinating element in the conference. The two main critical words yesterday were not from French philosophy (useful as it is), nor were they neo-logism - they were really old English words: "thing" (which in the before time meant a gathering - no, really), and "hoard" (which instantly bring Beowulf to mind - and this project).  I can't quite express why that's so wonderful to me that this ancient language would reach forward, that we would reach back into it, to work hard to make sense of objects: what and how they are, and their agency.

Digging for Emeralds and Sapphires
One thing is certain: the "Medieval Environmentalism" course is a go (yes, I'll have to think of a better title). Images such as this one from the Marco Polo section of the Livre des Merveilles (1410, BN ms. fr. 2810 - made for Jean, Duc de Berry, and handed down (yes!) to François Ier) showing men digging for emeralds and sapphires for the Khan in a split and writhing nature - now have a discussion.  Of minerals, desire, and future markets in the West.  One of the key things (and I'm going to go soon because it's time!) is agency: who has it, how it's exercised. We think it's us, we've shaped our very philosophies and politics so that we either have it (justice) or don't (injustice). How's that working out for us? Not all bad, but claiming human agency as primary hasn't solved how we are in the world, or those gross injustices and tragedies we seek to understand. What if we considered (seriously) the agency of objects, their pull on us? What if we considered those elements we have relegated to Nature (animal, vegetable, mineral) as having agency? as framing and shaping more of our experiences than our post-Cartesian world would ever want to know was possible? As Jan Bennett's great talk on hoards was ending last night, I thought of unintentional hoards, hoards revealed by natural disasters. I thought of the tragic, terrifying pictures of Japan and how the tsunami has made thousands of cars, buildings, stuff and things flotsam and jetsam in its rage.  Nature has agency - it's just not moral (not at all), and so we dismiss the idea.  One last clarification: it's not a return to an innocent age when objects spoke and nature exercised a will - as ever, medieval doesn't have all the answers, it's the questions they ask that I think could help us shape our own.

There have been great pleasures (and only one day of the conference thus far!).  Walking out into a sunny urban space, making my way to the Steve-recommended Founding Farmers (oh my Lord, that was good - and I sat next to two people working for anti-poverty organizations who were here to do the work of politics with their congressperson - and who had majored in classics). And thinking of Michael Camille, who would have so loved this crowd, and would have had us laughing and rethinking as he brought forth image after image from his hoard, which he always shared so generously.  I miss him.

For now - off to play with Baby Henry and then off to think with others!

Friday, March 11, 2011

La Dolce Vita

Oliver at Beit Shean
Elation! Joy! and Glee!  I am in D.C. in the home of my nephew, and tomorrow stretches out luxuriously with ideas and controversies and really smart, adventurous people.  Today's talk to dear faculty colleagues was intense: the images kind of took over (which is thrilling in its own way), but there were too many of them, and I couldn't stop showing them.  Gracious colleagues and probing questions made it all worthwhile, but I think on the compulsion to collect and display these images - as they themselves were collected and displayed in the Middle Ages. Why is there never just one monster, but many? Why many marvels, not just one?  Gems without measure, monsters without end. And I became a hoarder of images. The images that received a lot of play/questions were those of East/West interaction: Mandeville in the Sultan's chamber (just a phenomenal text: a colleague recognized a Tacitus strategy in critiquing the regime through an enemy's words, the way the Sultan castigates all Christians); Ghengis Khan giving the Polo brothers diplomatic letters; Prester John receiving cries-for-help-letters. I read a lot of Susan Akbari's book on the plane over (really? I have to go up high in the sky to get the biggest amount of reading I've done in months done?) and her invitation to look at bodies gives me another way to look at these images.  I'm torn between analyzing the images through François's eye (the moral education of a king) or through some more general cultural eye (late medieval France).  "Late medieval France" (whoever she is) didn't get to look at these manuscripts... well, I'll worry about audience tomorrow. For now, it was glorious to have spent an hour with dear friends thinking through a more permeable, uncertain and contradictory Middle Ages.

Beit Shean
One of the issues I keep naïvely bumping up against is righteousness of possession: what gave the Crusaders the conviction (to the death!) that Jerusalem belonged to them?  One can go forward or backwards on this one: what on earth were the British in India/the French in Algeria thinking? how did the Romans come to think they could continue endlessly with the empire? There is the great line from the Aeneid about (basically) being the best civilization and spreading that wealth.  And spread it they did.  One of the disconcerting things about Israel is how familiar this new land feels - and that the familiarity is from the copious amounts of Roman ruins in just about every site.  Beit Shean makes you think it was pretty swell to be a Roman citizen (what were the quotidian perks of Christian community? the everyday pleasures?): covered colonnades, big beautiful temples, a cardo (main street through the heart of town) - same idea as other major Roman towns, something linking all the citizenry together.

Baths at Beit Shean
Like the baths - every Roman town invested in this communal socio-gymno-philosophical space.  The ones at Beit Shean were particularly complete, revealing their full underground operations wherein hot air could circulate to warm up the floors: sign me up for the caldarium!  I want to know more about the strategies of righteousness and appropriation that the Christians put into play in the Holy Land (although, as I think about, righteousness probably eschews strategies).  How did Christians make Muslim and Jewish Jerusalem look/be Christian? Yes, they took over certain sights (Al-Aqsa Mosque) and refurbished old Christian ones (Holy Sepulcher), but was it just the crosses on buildings that let you know you were in a Christian land?  The Romans had this familiarity game down so pat that I, a 21st century utterly modern human, can feel a sense of return, belonging and even homecoming when I see a Roman town ruin. That is quite a feat. Colonnades. Baths. Mosaics everywhere. Rome. Also, they renamed everything (Beit Shean was Scythopolis; Jerusalem was Aelia Capitolina). What I'm after is the Fulcher of Chartres quote: "We who are Occidentals, have now become Orientals."  He makes it sound so easy (and he's writing in the context of the First Crusade - 1099), and so certain (the previous sentence is about God bringing the West into the East). I neither know what it means to be Occidental nor Oriental in the Middle Ages, but I could begin to articulate what I think it meant to be Roman in antiquity.  Go know.

Earthquake damage at Beit Shean
Like many Roman towns which today lay in romantic ruins (think Pompeii), Beit Shean contains a tragedy. Two, actually. One is the earthquake of 363 C.E., of which you see the remains today.  Columns still lie where they fell, structures remain levelled.  The second tragedy is that Beit Shean was the end site of Saul and Jonathan's demise. The result is the exquisite lament of of David for Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1: 17-27 - you have to scroll down a little bit, but gee whiz it's beautiful - oh daughters of Israel, weep for Saul indeed). This landscape of ruins seems bleak in a way, considering all of the joy and revelry, fervor and love this place must have witnessed.  A ruin that easily fills with a very pleasant life indeed.  Is that it? Is that how you make the unfamiliar familiar - pleasure? Pleasure and its potent possessive subjectivity? Medieval Christian pleasure - discuss.  Medieval Christian revelry and return (back to the gems and jewels, back to the lands of double harvests, back to monsters who do commerce and play music). 

If it weren't late, I'd rehearse Freud's uncanny with you, because it best gets at this strange sensation of familiarity in a far-off land - and a familiarity provoked by ancient Romans! Familiarity that they themselves instilled in their take-over of  a Greek town (whose foundation was, by legend, due to Dionysus). We spent a good long time at Beit Shean, and for  a minute there, I forgot I was in Israel. It was familiar when it couldn't possibly have been. Where did the Crusaders think they were that it was familiar enough to possess? Where did Columbus think he was?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stones (Avanim)

Crusader Column in Bethlehem
Is it possible to write the world's shortest blog entry? I am so so tired, and tomorrow am giving a talk to my colleagues that I'd like to be peppy for (is 46 images of monsters, orientalism and morality too much for an hour?), but I just can't stand not writing out here, and plus I'm so very excited for my trip to D.C. tomorrow to attend what promises to be an absolutely marvelous conference.  The hope is that, as these thinkers and muses have inspired me so often out here, I will feel equally and utterly inspired at the conference and will come home and write write write over Spring Break. In honor of the scholar whose provocative, fantastic work I eagerly anticipate more than ever (I've recommended a hearty trip to Brittany for the megaliths!), I will write, if ever so briefly about stones, both hewn and unhewn (as apparently "avanim" connotes, I was told by David, our guide in Israel).

Just about everything about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is sad. Bethlehem is such a choked place, existing now behind the wall. But these weathered (don't they almost look torn?) marble columns of the Crusaders I find especially moving.  Fading witnesses.  There are something like 24 of them that line the basilica plan of this old, old church.  Their faded glory also bespeaks some kind of crazy experimentation in medieval painting: who paints (in tempera?) on marble??? I need to look up the work of Jaroslav Folda to get the full details.  But it's Da Vinci painting in oils on frescoe avant-la-lettre: an attempt to do something grand and new with something old and grand.  I don't think that there's any hope of restoration, either technically or financially, and so they're going to keep on fading, these stones, until they will go back to just hewn and unadorned - the smooth surfaces of the Romans that the Crusaders had sought to embellish.

Beit Guvrin
Beit Guvrin is an archaeological site that relies of volunteers to come dig for a day within the organization Archaeological Tours (motto: "We dig Israel!").  Rebecca (friend, archaeologist extraordinaire) was quite skeptical, both about the method and the site (could inexperienced diggers really cause no harm? was there really no strata to mess up?). But at the same time, we both admired this American archaeologist who had come up with an endless and independent funding source.  Turns out a lot of people want to touch old stones. The site is a series of caves in this chalky stone that were basically used as work and storage spaces (a garbage can is what he said).  But there are dozens and dozens of these caves, and he is finding some fantastic stuff in there. This image (it's in the negative, so look at it that way) of an Egyptian-type figure/goddess for example...

Sifting at Beit Guvrin
... of the dozens of pottery shards and animal bones (his favorites) that Oliver found digging and, here, sifting.  Touching ancient stones carries its own thrill.  Jeffrey Cohen is right: stones move, breathe and shift with our desires for them to tell us about history, to be real and a witness.  I remember the first time I spread my fingers out onto a megalith at Montneuf - it hardly seemed inanimate (plus, we'd been reading Breton fairy tales in which the stones walked once a year to slake their monumental thirst).

Inside a cave at Beit Guvrin

And so when you're done digging, you go inside one of the undug caves and realize for yourself the unbelievable amount of work that remains (there are dozens of these caves), and the incredible potential for discovery - for more artifacts, more traces of human presence, more evidence of struggles and triumphs.  This hallway, for example: incredibly hewn.  Carved out not by archaeologists but by the original inhabitants.  I spread my fingers out on those marks, too.

Entrance Gate of the City of Dan
These smooth, "Cyclopean" stones made one of two monumental gates to the Canaanite (c. 3000 B.C.E.) city of Dan (near the Jordan river).  I took dozens of pictures here, of the stones marking off building, boundaries, walls.  Heavy and still imposing - still able to make us feel as though we are leaving one place and entering another.  The flat space to the left is where people would have come to do commerce or petition to get in, or conduct a visit.  Diplomats and subjects waiting, looking at those massive stones, hoping that the walls will disappear as a welcome is extended.

City of David, Jerusalem
And then there are hewn stones, enormous piles of hewn stones, that remain a mystery.  The City of David in Jerusalem is a burgeoning archaeological site. But here when you are touching stones (which you are actually not allowed to do), you are touching the history of King David - he who bought the threshing floor around 1000 B.C.E. that would become the home of Solomon's Temple, and then the Second Temple.  These are heavy stones. I hope that you can see the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers underneath the canopy there. 

There are many stones in Israel - I could keep going (plus, I love to type and say "hewn") and wondering specifically about stones as witness to history that we will to speak through archaeology, through our presence.  They move, it's true, because they move us.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

This will be actually be a post about authenticity in the Holy Land, an endeavor both utterly absurd and absolutely sincere, and best evoked, to my mind, by Noel Coward's memorable lyrics.  When he wrote the song in 1932, the Garden Tomb, whence the video above was taken, was only 45 years old.  In 1883, a British general by the name of Charles Gordon was sitting on the rooftop patio of a friend of his (at midday?) just inside the Damascus gate on the northwest side of Jerusalem. He began to notice that the rock formation across the way looked increasingly like a skull, conjuring up thoughts of Golgotha.  Fundraising and digging ensued, and a rock-cut tomb was found, a site was declared, and thousands of pilgrims, especially Protestants, come each year.  Never mind that the tomb type is from the First Temple period (800-700 B.C.E.), never mind that nothing else about it adds up - it looks right, it feels right, as one of my students said "I can appreciate it more" [than the Holy Sepulcher].  An affable Anglican leads you through the English-garden precision park, makes quips about how fussy archaeologists are, makes scientific certitude seem petty, and constructs a world of possibilities in which we are to wish fervently that the Garden Tomb is the real deal, even if there's less than no proof that it is. Why does this repel me so? Why am I so willing to give the Holy Sepulcher a pass, and come down hard on the Garden Tomb? Maybe I prefer fervor to complacency; maybe it's the way that authenticity is claimed (the crowded unthinking passion of the Holy Sepulcher, vs. the manicured calm of the Garden Tomb).

What makes a site authentic?  What persuades someone who can't possibly know (because no one can possibly know) that they are in the true presence of what they so desperately want to be in the true presence of? Are authenticity and truth the same thing?  Etymologically they're not, authenticity being closely tied to authority, and authorship - closer in meaning to original, originary, than truth or truthful. So shall we dispense with truth here, and just deal with authenticity? with that striving for some kind of genuine, original, unique experience that Israel, the Holy Land, seems to make us want? Yes, let's do that.  All I can say now looking back on it is that the students craved this authenticity - and were pretty much thwarted at every turn.  The student who had written about "walking in the dusty footsteps of Jesus" especially.  I think that authenticity is linked to origins, to a sense of the authoritative, the knowing.  But the phenomenon extended beyond religion - Israel wasn't Middle Eastern (read, exotic) enough; it wasn't "foreign" (direct quote) enough; it didn't "feel old."  I recall being helpless to those accusatory complaints, wanting so much to be able to promote the idea of multi-layered constructions of history - but that never sounding quite right.  I remember feeling a sympathy for their desire, because just about everything in their lives is mediated. But then, too, some of their expectations of authenticity are themselves derived from media, from film especially.  It gets complicated.

It now strikes me as odd that the sites I want to write about under this theme of authenticity are those that I have the fewest pictures of.  Our evening at the home of a Druze community has not a single photograph - the evening was spent seated on low couches, eating from an enormous communal plate and listening to a Druze talk to us about reincarnation, and the Knowledgeable and the Ignorant.  There was the sense of being in the presence of something genuine precisely because it was very foreign, very new - even as accommodations were made for the gluten-intolerant student and we had to wonder about how many student groups parade through their rooms.  The religion was founded in the early 11th century, and I know that al-Hakim (the slightly deranged caliph who burned down Constantine and Helena's 4th century Holy Sepulcher in 1009) was somehow involved. But that was it in terms of familiarity. So there, with the Druze, it was the utter difference and our complete ignorance that made for authenticity - that left many feeling as though they'd been in the presence of something unique and sincere.  

The Bedouin camp, whose landscape you see above, was a different matter.  Once you've heard of something (i.e., once you've had your expectation shaped/mediated by narrative) your search for authenticity intensifies.  Riding a camel was just so cool that it transcended any self-consciousness about the tourism of it all - we hopped on after the last group had hopped off, and hopped off to make way for the next group.  I don't know how many students were channeling Lawrence of Arabia, but it wasn't far from my mind. We had tea, we had coffee, one of our School of Music students sang a wedding song with our host, and then we bedded down for the night in our enormous tents.  For the students who hadn't sought religious authenticity, the Bedouin camp was it - was where they were going to feel the "real Israel."  What thwarted the authenticity this time was quiet spectacular: a birthright group from Argentina staying in neighboring tents and positively giddy with their youth (i.e. loud), and then, an Israeli software company having a Roman toga party in the main hall.  Being about 10 miles from Masada (where in 72 C.E. Roman troops either massacred or prompted the suicide of hundreds of Jews) made it all the stranger.  I was secretly thrilled that some students were aghast (they cared enough about Masada to be outraged!).  One student, a young Lutheran who is learning Arabic and is about to join the Marine Corps, had had his authentic Israel thwarted one too many times. In the quiet of the night, he took off and walked about an hour out into the sand dunes and sat in the still darkness of the desert very far from the madding crowd (at midnight?).

I get postmodernism, I really do.  The constructions of authenticity are more interesting than the authenticity itself. How this young man arrived at the certitude that solitude in the desert (so Lawrence!) was the authentic experience of Israel is fascinating. The meta (the frame, the desire, the talk, the expectation) of authenticity is where I will willingly linger.  Does that mean that an authentic response to Israel, the Holy Land, the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden Tomb, the Druze, the Bedouins is impossible?  It might mean that it's beside the point - because all of the institutions, histories, and narratives that would make that authentic experience are just so interesting that they will always distract from the abandon and passion that authenticity require.  I can distinctly hear a particular friend of mine dubbing postmodernism and its interest in frames rather than centers as a defense mechanism to the Real, the True, and the Authentic. Granted. But granted, also, is the importance of understanding how authenticity is achieved (or thought to be achieved). I think, now, of the Crusaders, and of the feat of certitude and authenticity that they pulled off.  For authenticity is also linked to possession - the intimacy it creates with its site avails that site to your possession.  And possess the Holy Land they did, those Crusaders. Authenticity, to sum up, connotes origins, authority, the exotic, possession, the familiar, and maybe even truth. It calls for the bracketing off (yes, think Husserl) of distractions and frames and anything that might condition the authentic experience, or make it contingent on anything but an immediate (sensory?) response. It is all center with no margins. (Hmmm, this is starting to sound awfully modernist, and I wonder about medieval authenticity, and its being bolstered by multiple frames of reference, typology (think Kathleen Biddick) and the like.) I do think it can happen: Nature, Sex, Birth, Death (hmm, Lacanian categories of the Real) are all sites of authenticity. But can a land as complicated as Israel yield up an authentic experience of religion? of the divine?

You'll think me irreverent if you follow this link, but this guy makes me (and 25+ million other viewers) genuinely happy (and unsettled, and then happy again).  Here's an authentic response if ever there was one. And, for the record, I think he's high on life. It can happen.