Friday, September 2, 2011

Empathy for What You Would Never Be

Canterbury Adam
Goodness. How the start of the academic season will take over.  Today is the first day that feels like it had traction, and so the first day to have a clear thought (all else is of new things and people and formats and improvements and ah, academe).  On the first day of Gothic class, I found myself saying the title phrase out loud as one of the underlying philosophical goals of the class: "empathy for what you would never be." Either because it would be impossible or improbable.  We'll see about achieving the goal (and about what empathy might actually mean - in a classroom, in life, in relationship to the Middle Ages), but I've liked the challenge of confronting differing identities with the promise of empathy.  Much must precede empathy: curiosity, some degree of understanding, warmth.  Gothic is my "class" class - I've modeled the class on the vision of a tripartite social order of those who pray (your monks n' such), those who fight (your knights and kings), and those who labor (your peasants) first articulated in the age of Charlemagne (c. 800) and finally dismantled decidedly in the French Revolution (1789 and on) - a rather long-lasting socio-political system, contested the entire time. What I love about the Gothic period (1200-1500 in art history) is that the identities are dividing out: there are now monks in the city (Franciscans, Dominicans) competing with the Benedictines and Cistercians of the countryside; the dukes are in constant roil against the king (a little something called the Magna Carta from 1215 exemplifies this); and there are urban laborers now with all sorts of wonderful complications (I was stunned to remember that in his Book of Chess, Jacobus de Cessolis includes Gamblers and Courtiers as the eighth pawn).  These are all identities that are remote in every wise save through the familiarity of my studying them.  I am fairly confident in claiming that I teach the modern-day equivalent of the knightly classes at my college, and yet the students feel closer to the peasants than anything else.  It also helps to have Michael Camille's incredibly sympathetic article (" 'When Adam Delved': Laboring on the Land in Medieval English Art," in Agriculture in the Middle Ages, ed. Del Sweeney. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995: 247-276) to have you feel unity with the Adam of the Canterbury glass.  Knowing that the spade was used in February prompts instant sympathy for Adam's nearly unclad state; seeing the axe, which is a land-clearing tool, in the tree, lets you know that Adam has already been working quite a while to prepare this pebbly soil for his crop.  Details create intimacies.

Art Institute of Chicago
 So do calls for equality in the midst of articulated hierarchies.  Especially if they rhyme:

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?

They loved that: the simple logic, the biting rhetorical question.  I love it, too.  The phrase is probably as old as the Canterbury glass (c. 1200) says Michael, but it came to prominence around the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.  The radicality of Biblical history.  The nature of origins.  Wonderfully tricky business.  At the end of the day, though, it was this image from a Picture Bible at the Art Institute of Chicago (must find color image!) that I found most empathetic. It's God, teaching Adam how to use a spade. Click on it for a closer look: Adam's astonished open-handed gesture, his almost delighted face, his pink cheeks, his foot tripping over the edge of the image, his scrawny body clothed in a fragment made of the same fabric of God's garment.  And God: delving, holding the spade with a strange intimacy (because though a Bible Moralis√©e shows God using a compass to make the earth, it's seldom you see him with such handy tools), pressing his foot upon the spade to break open an unfriendly earth. The rubric above the image reads "Adam apprent a laborer [la] t[e]rre" -  Adam learns to work the earth. This is no longer Eden (is it? did God give Adam a quick lesson before the Expulsion?), yet God and Adam are together, and it seems friendly and empathetic - as God gives Adam the tool of his salvation, having created the need for it. One could argue about this.

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