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?

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