Monday, April 4, 2011

Material / immaterial - interpretation / indeterminacy

Shoemakers in the Relics of St. Stephen Window at Chartres
As I read Chaucer's inserts of stained glass in The Book of the Duchess, I start to realize the truly funky things he's doing with it, and I start to see this volatility between material and immaterial that I know is there is the physical medium (glass is both heavy, molten (material) and transluscent, a series of hues (immaterial)).  In working his ideas of material / immaterial into my own of interpretation / indeterminacy, I'm relishing this connection between the shifts in the experience of reading that silent reading (which began to really take off about the time that Chaucer was writing The Book of the Duchess in the 14th century) provoked.  The very material of literature changed: from the body of the narrator in the public oral performance of the text (reading out loud) to the material of the manuscript held in the hands of its owner (silent reading).  The meaning of a text arrived at by a community of listeners after an oral performance has the experience of discussion, debate - a kind of certitude (maybe even agreement, determination) of interpretation after that process.  The meaning of text arrived at by a single, silent reader (before any discussion with anyone else) seems much more existential - indeterminate, immaterial. But all within the new materiality of a possessed, perhaps loved (fetishized, even) manuscript.

I hope that I can work in the window above from Chartres cathedral, because it's stained glass within stained glass and presents the duality of material and immaterial so beautifully. First of all, it's a phenomenally lush and gorgeous window, taken by Henri Feraudy, an incredibly generous photographer who has kindly let me publish his stunning images on several occasions. Secondly, it depicts the handling of stained glass (held up on an altar) in a way that is utterly impossible in actuality (stained glass is assembled within its architectural frame puzzle piece by puzzle piece, soldered tracery by soldered tracery).  This heaviest, most unwieldly of mediums is here light as a feather, balanced devotionally.

Now the challenge is to make that jumble into something lucid and convincing.  I see Chaucer using stained glass to call attention to a new tension between the material and the immaterial within the new experience of reading alone in silence.  This same tension (material / immaterial) exists within a communal oral performance as well: different terms of material (the performer's body) and immaterial (voice). I don't like the word "immaterial" (though I need it for the contrast) - immaterial sounds dismissive. The colors projected by light through a stained glass window are immaterial, but quite powerful (beautiful, awe-inspiring, drenching). The voice of a narrator projected during an oral performance is also immaterial, but also all-encompassing, fervent, intense.  Material / projected doesn't make sense - but that's where my immaterial stuff is going.

Bottom line: what does it mean to read and what does Chaucer have to say about it? He uses stained glass to get us thinking (I argue).

Now, again, to make this lucid, while grading exams, gobs of papers, oh yea - teaching, advising students, chairing the department, doing committee work (etc etc), and engaging in the kids' wildly active activities (and we don't even do that much).  No matter: I will not be deterred! The deliciousness of this idea keeps me coming back for more; and the living room / dining room where Mac and I do our grading and class prep (our poor studies buried under books and piles of projects) are now filled with the honeyed smell of the Hawaiian flowers, which seem to have had some kind of second awakening: they are all wide open and delicately, sweetly sweetly fragrant and more present than ever. Material / immaterial.


  1. I was already thinking that "immaterial" doesn't quite work even before you said it. Light and sound are both material forces, and I think you're better off insisting on that. Really, you're dealing with different modes of materiality that are perceived and understood differently by human beholders. So, perhaps "ephemeral" or "evanescent" or something along those lines?

  2. I should add, this post is just making me even more bummed that I'm skipping K'zoo this year. This is fascinating stuff, and that image from Chartres is fantastic.

  3. thanks for the feedback, Ben - i like the temporal quality of "ephemeral" - so crucial in performance, reading and of course, in seeing medieval art. love that lush glass, too. next year Kalamazoo: be there!!!