Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer's Writing

There is much that I could write about the anxiety of putting together invigorating writing assignments for my syllabi, about anxieties and aspirations of writings for myself, and about all of the other seasonal writing anguishes of this time of year. Instead, as inspiration to keep on writing throughout the coming year, and grow the little writing I did this summer, I just want to write down two of the children's writings from this summer. As ever, I keep their spelling. Thanks, guys.

Three Poems by Iris about Getting a Dog
Dear Mom and Dad, I have writin three poems that prove my point that a dog or pupy is way better then a cat or kittin.

Puppy, a poem
I'd really like a pupy dog thoe
my siblings want a cat. A cuet
little pupy dog that will jump when I open the door.
Unlike a cat.
The pupy dog I want is going to be like Misse Kissy Face.
Pleas Mom and Dad, say yes.

Cat, a poem
A cat just sits aruond all day and meows when you pet it.
A cat is really worthlis
Unlike a pupy dog.
My siblings want a cat a boring pet
Well, I want a active pupy dog.
Pleas Mom and Dad, say no.

Pupy and Cat, a comparing poem
A cat just lays around all day.
It prrs when you pet it
like a mashein.
While a pupy dog jumps when you enter.
and is very active.
Which one do you think will keep us beesy for the summer?

A Brief Response by Oliver to the prompt "What is a place that makes you feel like a different person and why how?" [he crossed out the "why" and wrote in "how"]

Usually, I'm Oliver everywhere. A place that makes me feel diffrent is Israel. It just makes me feel free and without boundaries and laws and I feel very adventurous.

Friday, August 12, 2011

For Keeps

And so, after months of earnest discussion, and weeks of serious house rearranging, we have brought Sawyer home.  He is a one-year-old black lab with a little something else thrown in, and is gentle and attentive and beautiful and curious and really, really nice.  We somehow managed to keep it a secret from the kids (they had basically given up on us ever coming through), and so the homecoming was all theirs.  There was standing aghast and running and looking at us and a lot a lot of talking.  We've had friends over to meet Sawyer and provide wise counsel (Mac grew up with dogs, me, not at all) and the neighborhood itself looks different (other dogs come over to say hello while on their walks) than it did before.  Eleanor declared this the best day ever (and this part of it may well be), Oliver was full of questions ("How does a dog feel love?" "Do you just recognize someone by their smell, or do you really get to know them, know who they are by their smell?").  Iris said nothing for a long, long time - too busy hugging her dog and walking with him here and there. But at the end of the day, I did ask her: "What do you think of it all?" and she replied "It's just incredible that it's for keeps."

Yolande de Soisson
 Do animals have a history?  Can one speak of a medieval dog the way one does of a medieval person, as a being with different conceptions of self and world?  Nature (ask Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists) can be understood as the ultimate transcendental entity - it may change in form, but not in essence.   Humanity, on the other hand, has cultivated and ritualized even its most "natural" behaviors (sex, childbirth, death have produced cultures and subjectivities whose essential differences are the historian's fervent work).  Where does a dog, so closely tied to humans, so closely attuned to nature, exist on the continuum between nature and humanity?  Would the same things matter to a medieval dog as to a modern dog?  Is the human-hound relationship transcendent? Is Yolande de Soisson's lap dog represented as attentive to the statue (or vision) of the Madonna and Child because its mistress's concern for salvation has become its own somehow? Or is the artist using the dog to point out that "even animals" respond to the presence of the divine?

Gaston Phoebus
 Would I be better off asking questions of survival rather than symbolism?  Looking to the mutual benefit of the human-hound relationship in something like hunting?  But looking at Sawyer tonight, and watching him keeping track of the kids, feeling glad when he decided to settle at my feet, I have to think beyond pragmatism, to the complexity of emotion that accompanies a hunt, or that presides over the company after a victory (J. Salisbury, in The Beast Within; Animals in the Middle Ages present examples of ritualized feeding of certain cuts of meat to the hounds after a hunt).  

Mary of Burgundy
 What, then, of Mary of Burgundy's dog, curled up in her lap while she reads her Book of Hours?  Does its comfortable inattention to the divine signal a distinction between her secular world and the sacred space framing the Madonna outside her window?  Or is it her own, a comfort to her?  I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and I wonder how you'd research them.  The one I return to is, Would the same things matter to a medieval dog as to a modern dog?  These images of intimacy and comfort would venture to say yes, even as the selfhood and worldview of a young woman today are essentially different entities.  Or is it that animals awaken the transcendental in us: have young girls throughout all history looked up and marveled "for keeps"?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Next Beast Over

"Ape" from a Bestiary. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, fol. 16v
We know what to do with the beast within.  Our poets and psychologists expose it and soothe it, let us see it and understand it and, all told, pretty much control it.  It's the next beast over that is truly terrifying.  The one that is so close that we see ourselves, but outside of ourselves. The one called "simian," the medieval bestiary ventured, because it is so "similar" to us. The one that apes us.  And so it is that 48 years after the wild success of the novel surprised even the author, Pierre Boulle's 1963 book La Planète des Singes can still be made into a kickass movie.   It being the end of summer, we decided to make an event out of it. In honor of its author, we had a fully French meal (crème d'asperges soup, poulet rôti, pommes de terres, salade de tomates, fromages, tartes aux fruits, and fine wines).  In connection with this summer's fellowship, we had the wonderful student who worked with me over and, because he'll be visiting Paris while he's studying in Rome this fall, we also had the wonderful student who'd lived in Paris at the table.  We were a jolly company, trying to understand the hold that Boulle's book continues to have on the imagination.

Mac is sitting here at the breakfast table right now reading the original French version. He picked it up the minute he found out that Boulle also wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai in 1952.  Pierre Boulle turns out to be a really interesting guy: an engineer who worked on French rubber plantations in Malaysia; a member of the Resistance in its Indochine theater of war captured by Vichy France forces in 1943 and award the Legion d'Honneur for the hardships endured; an author of 24 novels and several short story collections.  His career explains the wincing colonial content of the book, and its first movie's continued emphasis on race-and-class warfare.  Mac reports that the book has Betelgeuse (the planet of the apes) as a much more European place, where the hunters stop at an "auberge" after capturing their human trophies. The apes in the book live in multi-storied buildings within industrialized cities and drive cars.  The American film version from 1968 was not willing to give them that, instead creating the nightmarish quasi-medieval, quasi-19th century landscape (villages! science labs!) that kids of my generation grew to know so well from the endless Sunday afternoon screening of the Planet of the Apes movies (five) and spin-offs (countless) and parodies (always funny).

Until this latest film, Planet of the Apes had really always been about the struggle between oppressor and oppressed.  The human race behaved badly and got its comeuppance.  But now, and this is where I can't help but pay attention in connection with this summer's reading, there's a new player: a virus.  Humans behave no better and no worse than they usually do, but the amorality of the virus completely changes the game.  There's some weird science in there: the cure to Alzheimer's (vast improvements to brain function first tested out on apes) is delivered by a virus in mist form that has one effect on the apes and another on the humans (trying not to spoil it for you here, as, clearly, you must see this movie).  But the weird science works to awaken what we might fear even more than intelligent apes: intelligent apes in a network established by a virus.  Our fear of the closeness of apes is totalized by the inscrutable distance of viruses. The fear of apes, first, in the form of a naïve question: why are dogs domesticated but apes not? There are many ways to ask this question: why were humans able to domesticate dogs, who are genetically and in many other wises quite different from us, and domesticate them to such a degree that "having a dog" is a sought-after commonplace of millions and millions of people? Why were we unable to domesticate, on any kind of large scale, apes, who are so similar to us, who understand our ways (social, behavioral) so much more?  The proximity issue (that apes are too much like us to domesticate) doesn't answer it.  Human beings have, at different periods in history, enslaved more other human beings than they've ever enslaves apes (despite the contention to the latter of the utterly lame 1972 prequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Or, as Adam Gopnik would have us ask in a recent marvelous essay in The New Yorker, why have dogs chosen us for cohabitation, while apes have not?  The reason that I chose the medieval image above is because it represents humans hunting a female ape (who, according to Pliny, will hold her preferred child against her chest, and let her less loved child ride on her back), in the company of dogs.  The dogs assist the human endeavor which places the apes oppositionally.  Medieval bestiaries are a fascinating world of human and animal intersection and difference unto themselves.  Animals here exist to reveal something about creation, and possibly, in those moments of intersection and difference, about humans themselves.  Or they just exist. Apes are deemed able to live only in Ethiopia, their place of origin, not next door.

We have one strange commonality with medieval attitudes to apes: humor. I could show you many more naughty marginal images of apes (and the fine mind at gotmedieval has plenty).  There are entire sub-genres (the ape as physician, the ape as knight, the ape as lover); so commonplace are ape parodies that one begins to wonder who is laughing at whom.  Parody is an enormous part of the entire Planet of the Apes sub-culture as well. I don't think that Pierre Boulle meant to be funny, but there is a long, rich strain of (nervous?) laughter from Charton Heston's clenched-teeth "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape" to its repetition in this latest film.  For us moderns, apes are funny, and then quickly, really really not funny.  They may have been just funny in the Middle Ages, living all the way far away in Ethiopia the way they did.

A final comment here might be about what makes the film so fantastically creepy: it's the motion-capture film technology that allows Andy Serkis to play the lead role of the ape Caesar wearing a computerized suit which captures his motions and then digitally dresses them in the body of an ape.  It makes me realize how much of our identity as humans (which may or may not be the same as our humanity) lies in how we move.  It's when the birds gather as hundreds of sentinels that Hitchcock can freak us out; it's when the apes start to walk on just two legs that we shudder.  There are grand motions like walking that make us human, but one thinks also of the famed uniquely opposable thumb, as a gesture wherein our humanity may lie.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Transylvania University
It's been a soberingly long time since we've been back from vacation, and this needs to be mercifully short as we enter the melancholy, going to furtive, going to panicked, transitional time before school begins again.  My mind is on many returns, most notably the one from France a year ago this week.  Every step new again, every memory vivid, every event strange in its familiarity. I miss France and Brittany and Josselin and that walk and that turn and that view so much.  As you can see, I am in the melancholy phase.  Furtive escapes here about mundane points should follow, then the final flurry before that breathless moment when students pull their chairs up and I dim the lights for the first image of the course.  This fall it's a First Year Seminar on Jerusalem (can't wait to write about that), and that old chestnut, Gothic Art (1200-1500).  But to the title of this post.

Mercy was a concept that I would not allow myself to articulate to my colleagues at a seminar on "The Liberal Arts Education: A Contested Concept," that I attended at Transylvania University over the week-end.  It seemed too sentimental, too tiny in the face of the grand pronouncements being made about what education might do.  There were two basic schools of thought: 1) education should elevate the mind (and soul) by exposing both only to texts of intrinsic value, and all else (all good) will follow; 2) education should expose its students to the world in all of its relativism, as that is the only way that society will be transformed for the better.  The first school produces thinkers of beauty and truth, the second of critique and politics.  We had all been chosen, we decided over what was for many of us our first glasses of truly fine bourbon ever, much like the cast of a reality TV show: with purposefully oppositional views.  There were a few die-hards (mostly in the beauty and truth camp), but the truth is that most of us want beauty and critique, truth and politics.  These should not be oppositional terms. Dewey is the big educational thinker that promoted the idea that a free and just society had to be an educated one (and his ideals of just how many people should be fully educated remain radical - everyone), and that it was not anathema to teach Accounting alongside Aristotle.  If we want our NGOs whose beautiful principles are nurtured by truths of human dignity to not flounder and fail, then maybe their members should take an accounting class. Pragmatism does not tarnish the liberal arts.

You can start to see why "mercy"as a motivation for teaching seemed out of place in the midst of this debate. And truth be told, it is not a pedagogical ideology that I would ever elaborate upon in public. But out here, whispering in the reeds as I can, mercy seems like one of those fundamental ideas that, if I stop and think, keeps me going. Perhaps it's being a medievalist, or perhaps it's having accumulated just enough experiences, but I cannot escape the idea that the human condition is fraught.  That there is no perfect state, no equilibrium, no stasis.  There is great joy and happiness, but it is the contingencies and fragilities of that joy that I have come to appreciate and treasure, not just the blazing happiness itself.   And so yes, to me, education is merciful, education offers mercy to aching questions and deep desires - sometimes by shifting the horizon line (by altering your perspective), other times by distracting you (by showing you something, anything, else).  Embedded in its definition and operation are the ideas of compassion and thankfulness, and my aren't those good things to include in an education?

Ruins of a portico of an antebellum house
"Mercy" is also something that Southern women say when it is unbelievably hot and they wish to signal their gracious coping with said heat.  I absolutely love the way that "Mercy" is used as an expression in the South: most of the time, it would have to be short for "Give me mercy," which is always a humble thing to ask for.  But it can also be a sharp rebuke, as in "God have mercy on your soul for whatever horrid thing you've done that I'm sitting here rebuking."  Would you be surprised to learn that "mercy" first comes into usage in the Old French of the 13th century? Goodness, no.