Thursday, May 19, 2011

Happy Birthday, Eleanor

And so she came, this utterly unexpected and treasured little pixie girl with a fiery heart who would have been called Edgar had she been a boy.  She's very interested in this part of her birth: our unknowing, whereas we knew with Oliver and Iris that it would be a boy and a girl.  She surprises herself, I think, with her desires for excitement and her yearnings for tenderness.  She sucks her thumb and twiddles your ear, but she'll kick your ass if you mess with the hotel for runaway dolls she's just built.  She loves the song "Maggie's Farm" but the Rage Against the Machine version (!!!), not Bob Dylan's. She does ballet and craves "Rocky and Bullwinkle."  She learned to walk early, and nursed late. She can't stand to be alone, but you are hers alone when she wants you. She moves in constellation with her brother and sister, and I watch in awe as her galvanizing force moves them. Did I think of Eleanor of Aquitaine when I wasn't thinking she was an Edgar? Yes. And now she is five years old, and newly conscious - of memories and ambitions and things she wants to accomplish.  Read, go to the Hindu Kush, be a pony rider (these were read at her pre-K graduation last night).  I love you, Eleanor, my bright flower.

Oh, the humanities!

Mac has turned on the Les Baxter, which is what's on when we're Really Grading, but I'm still not ready to take the plunge. Iris sleeps peacefully upstairs, buoyed by friends' warmth and good ideas for whiling away the hours.  So I will let Les lushly coat the room in his languid exotica (with the occasional titillating xylophone note) and think on the evening instead (grading tomorrow, I promise, seniors!).  Whenever I teach the art history senior seminar, I like to have the students over for dinner for a menu designed according to their thesis topics.  Since they get to choose their own topics, the mix can be eclectic - but see what you think. Tonight we had...

White Russians (in honor of a paper on the Moscow Metro)
Shrimp Cocktail (...Las Vegas architecture)
Caesar Salad (... the video game, Dante's Inferno - one anachronism meets another!)
Ribs (...Saint Louis - bones o' the crusaders!)
British Baked Beans (...Damien Hirst - the alternatives were too ghastly)
Apple Pie (...Lilith)
Sachertorte (...Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer)

I have a deeper appreciation of the idea of "respite" these days. Aside from being (of course) a medieval word whose first use is recorded by the OED in the 13th century, it has roots (probably) in the Latin "respectus" - to look back.  So respite isn't escape, it isn't forgetting what's happening, or what's troubling us - it's looking back and somehow in doing so, gaining that ephemeral rest or relief.  The question is, how far are you looking back when you're in respite? to before the mayhem? to the mayhem itself but from afar?  In this rush to the finish of the end of the semester, this respite was most welcome.  The students wanted to know much more about Kalamazoo than I could post, so of course I sent them to In the Middle, fount of All Happenings Medieval. I now see that one of today's posts holds humbling words for these words and smile to think of what we talked about at dinner.  Which was Jeffrey Cohen's "radical project to humanize everything."  These were my words (his are better and go, go read them).  What if the act of holding a stone was not just a human act, but a humane one? (and here I should specify that by "humanize" I don't mean anthropomorphize) What if a Breton scientist listening to a stone with a stethoscope was neither poetry nor madness but an act of interpretation based on understanding gained from intimacy in working with rocks for an entire career?  I shouldn't be asking these as rhetorical questions because they're not.  They constitute what I increasingly come to see as the political mission of the humanities - to create/provoke acts of interpretation within discourses that have been relegated to the natural or the established. This, to me, is the core of social change, and the provocative possibilities I see in Jeffrey's work.  Of course stones are inanimate, one says. And yet perspective and interpretation invite you to think differently. Of course women can't work outside the home. And yet... Of course gay people can't get married. And yet... Something nags at me that I am being too literal and pragmatic and prosaic in my approach to these ideas, that I am losing their radicality for thinking beyond the immediate political and social needs, all the while that those are there. I may be pushed to make these claims for this kind of thinking because I teach at a small liberal arts college where a) we are not in competition for big grants from the institution because there aren't any and so, really, interpretive models are the main thing you have to share, and b) you can witness students changing their minds pretty radically even on pragmatic issues. With enough respite we could have both the pragmatic gains and the ideas beyond pragmatism - those just at the beginning of articulation.  Well, Les Baxter's "Harem Silks from Bombay" is prompting some much needed irony, so I'd best stop here and go bed down with Iris for the night.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Fragility of Goodness

Sometimes the reminders of the above are incredibly swift.  Iris had a bicycle accident yesterday - in the strangeness that follows, we spent five hours in the emergency room, were under lockdown for an altercation in the waiting room, had conversations about stitches vs. gluing, and in the end she came home around 11 p.m. with three stitches in her mouth and a very swollen face. But her head and her nose and her chin are fine - a chipped tooth in the front we can deal with later. Baby Pink Dragon and Her Friend the Little Girl made a re-appearance from last year and sustained us for the duration.  I always think that kids are incredibly brave anyway, and Iris's quiet confrontation with what was going on was humbling.  Stitches are simple and efficacious and utterly unnerving, too.  These will dissolve after a week or two. In the meantime, I can feed her through a syringe, and I'm going to try to not worry about how swollen everything is. This feeding is both a careful and heartbreaking act and has her as my little little one all over again. She can't talk either, and the quiet is very strange. Time and space shift with events like these and the realizations they provoke.  Things aren't unrelated.  The respite from fear for the health of a friend has ended with some difficult news yesterday.  We make plans to gather, just somehow to be together.  Here at home, Iris and I are staying close and thinking far away: we've drawn pictures from David Stein's garden (it's in Brittany and is apparently growing pumpkins) and from that room in the Children's Museum in Indianapolis where you can make machines (ever working on that perfume dispensing machine for cars) - we've also played a significant amount of UNO and now, Madagascar 2 is doing the trick. I see her powering down into the pain. Rest is what I start to hope for. The fragility of goodness puts things into suspended animation.  You're waiting for the next thing, for some certitude you can either fight or embrace.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What the Summer Looks Like

A stack of blue books and electronically submitted papers are all that stand between me and the reading and writing I am eager to do for the summer.  My projects are lined up on the right of this page, the books are in various stages of being read, the papers in various stages of writing and unwriting, the kids have babysitter-friendly projects all ready to go, and hey, look, there's my husband and partner in crime in the doorway coming to talk about his projects for the summer (including 3 weeks in India) - let's do this thing!

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Oh but there were so many pictures to be taken that I couldn't! The esteemed canon law scholar having a go at blowing some impossibly large hunting horn; the prom kids in restaurants (Kalamazoo is always during prom week-end in town); my monk and my Chaucerian hipster in the cafeteria...  Pictures not taken are emblematic of Kalamazoo: there are 580 sessions and 3000 people, and so, no you're not going to get to every session and you're not going to see everyone you want to.  It is an embarrassment of riches. I hit a point of emotional exhaustion (from sad parent stuff, not from the congress) on Friday night and missed out on a great writing session with friends (say the word "Manifestival" and see if you don't feel happier!) and a celebration of an incredible new book series. But (and this gets said a lot) there will be other Kalamazoos. I have been coming here, having missed maybe only two or three times, for 19 years. Embarrassment of riches. Last night I missed the dance due to a marathon ICMA Board Meeting (students: see this as a sign of its stamina and join!!).  Yes, I said dance. In the beforetime, we would pile into cars and make the drive from the University of Chicago to Kalamazoo early Thursday morning. From then, it was non-stop sessions and passionate discussions about the upheavals to art history we were going to provoke. Then, Michael Camille would put on his red shoes, and we'd all go dancing until God knows when. In this before time, the dance was not held in the Ballroom of the Bernhard Center, with its air conditioning and its carpet; it was in the cafeteria of the dorm known as Valley II - think linoleum and concrete and windows that open just a little bit and (now unthinkable) an open bar and pretty close to 3000 medievalists dancing all night long. We called it the Dance Macabre.  But at the same time, the dance was/is? the great humanizing factor of Kalamazoo, maybe even of medieval studies - esteemed scholars sweating it out to "Brick House" and "YMCA" and the release and freedom (and intrigue and passion) of it all.  Last time I went was five years ago - I wound up giving birth to Eleanor two weeks later instead of the predicted three.  I smile to think on it.

Well, I'd best pack and get ready for breakfast with a scholar whose stained glass image of Charity stabbing Christ (while putting her arm around his neck) made people gasp yesterday (can't wait!), but I should say that the stained glass sessions were terrific. There were new images, new ideas, lots of energy in the room. My dear friend gave a paper on Franciscans' conception of glass as a spiritual tool that was fantastic - all of the papers were good, and it really was kind of incredible to see stained glass (dubbed a "minor art" by art historical categories) not just front and center, but interconnecting with other art forms and spaces.  For the record, my paper was well received - I loved the questions I received about laughter in Chaucer, and people seemed taken with the ideas of stained glass as a speculative framework for inscrutable or boundless narrative. Afterwards (this is when people come up to you more informally), the word that was used over and over again was "beautiful."  This, I treasure most of all.  The writing of this paper was deeply influenced by the writing I do out here, which itself finds any courage to be that it has in the writing I follow at In the Middle, and have heard at the BABEL and Objects conferences.  That the result of this collaboration is the rush to tell me that my paper was beautiful is an absolute wonder to me.  I am not on the ground or in the archive enough to do that incredible discovery of art history (and I live for those papers when I come here) in which new images are revealed and new connections are made.  But if I can offer writing deemed beautiful about a medium as wondrous as stained glass in a place as fantastic as Chaucer's imagination, well, then, I must keep on just this way.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Going In

Hey, what do you know? The post re-appeared! 

Students and the kids have asked what Kalamazoo is like (my adult friends shudder too much to think what 3,000 medievalists gathering on a university campus might be like to ask), so here come a few super short posts pecked out on my iPhone (and as soon as I figure out how to post images, I will). It's swell here! Spartan rooms (I know I should say medieval), lushly green campus, brilliant people whose books and articles you've read, the occasional nun or monk. The geese on campus will get you, though, so watch out!! It's the possibilities of highly specific knowledge that draw me: Byzantine porridge, the plow, forest law, that one verse in _The Romance of the Rose_. So I'm off!


Abode Humble Abode
Dang it! Blogger (the Entity, the Thing) lost a wee post that I'd written on my iPhone. So much for hipness -  I will just go back to typing quickly and look for my carrier pigeon.  I AM AT KALAMAZOO! Here are small mentions of great things: breakfast with a scholar of generous mind and thrilling brilliance (he gave a talk today about the poignancy (in every sense of the word) of stones that had me both in Brittany and starting to wonder (through the process of lithography and other technologies of the word) about the souls of computers); reunions with my dear friend and late-night confessions and discoveries in our humble Kalamazoo abode; the sighting of a fully frocked monk (almost) brushing shoulders with a hipster (a Chaucerian, I bet) bedecked in a tank top and short skirt in the marvelous world that is the cafeteria during Kalamazoo...

The Geese of Kalamazoo
... the Killer Geese of Kalamazoo (yes, Oliver, like the killer rabbit - I just know that someday they will strike); difficult work with a talk about images in Cyprus, but the tantalizing idea that the Muslim Christ gave shape to the Christian Christ within a New Testament image cycle; an occasion to think through the Ovide Moralisé as a confessional text rather than a collection of exempla (yes, this is exciting); Indian food; the power dynamics of conspiracy theories, history, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and Assassin's Creed and World of Warcraft (holy cow!); speaking on a panel that left me hovering between my allegiance to medieval texts and images, and my allegiance to my students' pleasure and/or critique of the same; looking forward to speaking on stained glass and Chaucer tomorrow; the purchase of many books; now trying to make my way across campus in the pouring rain. But drinks with Italianists await, so, you know, things are great!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Possibilities of Silence and Erasure

"The Great One, when he'd heard of Darius's passing,
hastened his course with restless mind and washed
the corpse with tears that flowed forth in a stream.
Laying aside a prince's mien, he sat
wringing his hands and grieving for the slain man,
whom he had tried so often to cast down
while he stood."
-- The Alexandreis, c. 1180, Gautier de Châtillon

The narrative of Osama bin Laden's death keeps changing shape, building on itself with additions and subtractions.  The telling and retelling has involved both fireworks (no less than three fraternities at DePauw shot them off as the President was on television) and facebook (the embellished Martin Luther King quote, the sobering citation of Proverbs 24:17 - "Do not gloat when your enemy falls, do not let your heart rejoice when he stumbles").  It has experienced contradictions and is now turning itself over the ethical dilemma of image and memory.  And so it's Gautier de Châtillon's 12th century poem that comes to mind.  The moment between death and commemoration that Alexander experiences as he gazes upon Darius's dead body.  It's not a comparison - the tears shed around bin Laden's death were for others, not for him. But it works over this idea of commemoration - of remembering or forgetting the enemy.  Alexander builds Darius a tremendous, globalizing memorial that ekphrastically encompasses the entire world, and we are left to wonder at (and remember) Alexander's conquest of absolutely everything.  Bin Laden's corpse is in the sea, enshrouded in a heavy silence compounded by an invisibility that will make commemoration impossible.  Memory will be another matter.