Saturday, December 31, 2011

Rational Discourse

Somewhere in W. Virginia
We have just returned from our 5-day 3-city (4-city in the end) tour of loved ones during which we spent, I now realize, a significant amount of time in science museums. (We also spent a significant amount of time eating food - pierogis, Thai, Stollen, and ham are highlights that reveal our good fortune.)  Glorious hours in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and almost an entire day in the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.  Two observations emerge: one, that America must surely love her children deeply to offer and renew such spaces for discovery. And two, that science, in being rational thought quickly tinged with wonder, is really quite terrific. I am often puzzled that I can be such an enthusiastic medievalist when I am at the same time such an unreconstructed enthusiast of the Enlightenment Project, whereby it is fervently believed that rational thought in the form of education will provide dignity, comfort and meaning to all human beings (and all beings if you stretch the implications which, really, I do).  Now, rational discourse may be a myth (it has proven limited in its ability to stem human folly), but as I watched the kids delight in repeated experimentation, and proclaim triumphant predictability, I'd be willing to say it's one of the better myths we have.  I think that I'm particularly sensitive to the importance of rational discourse in their lives because they are of an age when they are starting to feel the power of that reasoning: Oliver just read his first Agatha Christie and marveled at Poirot's ability to discern and decide from seemingly random but all telling facts; Iris worships Miss Frizzle who drives the scientific Magic School Bus on its adventures; and Eleanor is liberated in her realization that Santa was her uncle all these years to posit that aliens might then be what are real (see above).  It's important that rational discourse maintain wonder - for those who truly love the law or the economy, there's a sense of wonder there. And the best academic writing rallies evidence or objects or original sources unto a theory that enlivens the whole lot. But for all of us, in so many ways, there is science, by which I think I mean scientific method more than anything else, which, actually, gets us very quickly to medieval Arabic scientists like Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) and his work On Optics (which ought to interest an art historian). And so the Middle Ages are not so far after all, and I wonder anew how I will think through medieval thinking from stone to statue, and from carving to devotion, from what we have billed as nature to what we think we know as culture, and what I will learn along the way. This New Year's Eve there is a delight in knowledge, and a seeking out of the wonder that leaves us wanting more.

Monday, December 26, 2011


MS. Douce 199, fol. 252r, Bodleian Library at Oxford
Displaced image, I know, what with this being a scene of Whitsunday (after Easter), but the feasting and the sharing of tales of adventure to Arthur does call to mind the spirit of this season, as we get ready to embark on a 5-day 3-city tour of people and cities we love (Cleveland and D.C., here we come!), and as Mac and Iris get ready to leave with students for Paris and Berlin.  There is no time to lend an ear to tales of exploits now (though I do need to get the details of my "Crusades: Fact, Fiction and Film" Winter Term course down, despite my heart being already deep into rethinking "Monsters and Marvels" and putting more Of Giants and Orientalism readings in instead of just presenting the theories (I want to read them with students this time) and really giving Columbus his due - I am this close to going to the New World in this class) - BUT, so as not to forget in the fleeting of everything:

Curried Eggplant Soup
Lamb Shanks with Pomegranate, Pistachio, and Pears
Israeli Couscous
Brussels Sprouts
Early Grey-infused Apricot Tart in a Hazelnut shortbread

And there was Macmas, too, that time of year when all good friends gather and there is brunch and we unite, as with all these holidays and surely since the Middle Ages (ok, since Saturnalia), to hold off the cold and be together.  Mac was truly valiant this year in gift assembly, as two out of three dreams come true required extensive tinkering: a doll house (Eleanor) and a microscope (Iris).  Oliver's wish of a cat has come true in the form of two kittens who will enter our lives after the first of the year - a wee girl and a boy who have been named by the kids (somewhat inexplicably but it works) Miss Frizzle and Darwin.  Cats and dogs entered medieval households with much less fanfare - though every time I say that, I think of all those Books of Hours and those noblewomen with pampered lap dogs and know there's a a study to be done of the medieval pet (maybe already has?).  Perhaps as that tiny terrier helps Mary of Burgundy think on her Book of Hours, Miss Frizzle and Darwin can help me say something meaningful about siege engines and medieval colonialism. Or I can think on the most excellent Pangur Ban, the Irish cat who helps his monastic companion hunt and wrestle with ideas because he does the same with mice.  We are not alone in our struggles.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bach and Barbecue

Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor
The title is that of Eric Edberg, professor extraordinaire of "cello, life, and everything" (his blog rocks).  He, on the cello, and his wonderful ex-wife Allison Edberg, on the violin, set up shop at the restaurant Chief's tonight, which ran specials on barbecue - because alliteration is awesome and because, it turns out, rich and saucy is sometimes exactly what Bach's cello can be.  Mac and I have listened to the Yo-Yo Ma CD for years, and I'd always been hushed by the intensity of the pieces.  But when Yo-Yo Ma played here this fall, yes, the room was quiet, by there was a joy in the room emanating from his love of the music.  That joy was there tonight: deep affection for the two generous musicians in this little restaurant of twelve tables, eager pleasure to hear lush live music, and the comfort of good food.

I felt especially safe there as not an hour earlier, we'd been rear-ended on the rainy road coming back from ice skating in Bloomington. Everybody in both cars is fine (yea! seatbelts!), and our car is even drive-able (not the other driver's though - really, seatbelts are everything).  So we found ourselves driving back into town still with the possibility of making it to Bach and Barbecue.  Originally, I was just going to go, but then all three kids wanted to go as well, so we all went. And I'll be honest, for Oliver and Eleanor it was more the Alfredo than Bach, and for Iris it was definitely the barbecue, but once they were there, they loved it. The tables at Chief's are covered in paper that the kids can color, so we started drawing "What this music makes me think of."  Iris, ever the literalist, drew a bunch of notes.

I bet that Bach would have enjoyed this evening.  What were the listening conditions for his Coffee Cantata?  Ok, wait, I just looked it up, and it appears that it was performed at Zimmerman's Coffee House in Leipzig in the 1730s.  The libretto is hilarious. And quite the feminist rebellion: (a daughter refuses to give up her three (!!!) bowls of coffee a day, despite her father's entreaties; she won't marry any man that won't let her drink her coffee; and it turns out that generations of women have loved coffee).  Why do people relax around music when there is food?  It must be the sensuality and comfort of the food, the pleasure of the meal shared.

from Robert Bartlett's Medieval Panorama

Of course, one can go too far with these things! No need to "go medieval" on this - may your holiday tables be filled with mirth, music and many tasty morsels!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Everything and More

Annunciation, 1400s.
The meeting with Jim the geologist and Dan the chemist was terrific. This vivid (look at the breath of God!) alabaster Annunciation from the Philadelphia Museum of Art will help here. What is this profound thrill of newly gained knowledge? What is this fascination with things scientific? There are vague stirrings of a love felt in high school, but it sadly was not pursued.  Now, every piece of scientific information is hopelessly (but wondrously) aestheticized.  SEM images of alabaster? Breathtaking in their intricacies in revealing the structures of the (many) minerals involved in alabaster.  Specularity, heat capacity, hardness scale - all of these frameworks make alabaster more alive, more giving, more fascinating every minute.  Key words as I keep thinking about this: porosity, permeability and calcium.  Alabaster is a 2 on the hardness scale (where talc is a 1 and a diamond is a 10), and in that number lies its malleability.  Alabaster is truly an open stone: it registers a 2 on this hardness scale because it is porous and permeable. Some stones are just porous (lots of open spaces within its structure). Alabaster is also permeable (the connections between the open spaces allow other elements (for us, pigment, gold gilding) to flow through.  The pleasure of this paper will be to struggle to find the language that binds scientific insight with historical action.  Medieval sculptors of alabaster didn't think in terms of porosity and permeability- what were their terms?  I may or may not be thinking of only language here - there is trial and error in seeking a stone that "gives in to" or "works with" (what words will I choose) the human touch. I will be inspired by Jeffrey Cohen and Valerie Allen who invited touch by giving small stones as hand-outs in conference talks, and who first inspired the possibility of thinking of the liveliness of stones. Another part of the joy here will be to witness the transference of these ideas from medieval literature to medieval art. Every object in the world has heat capacity: how long it takes from heat energy to transfer from one thing (the flesh of the human hand) to another (stone).  Alabaster's is rapid.  It responds, acknowledges human touch, welcomes (?) human intervention, avails itself to complex minerals like vermilion, takes in absolutes like gold.  At some point, in some way, medieval sculptors figured this out, and their patrons loved it.  In those years between roughly 1300 and 1550, patrons relished the fleshy, emotive materiality of alabaster: there is an argument to be made for an emotional iconography driven by alabaster's materiality: the 97 heads of John the Baptist that remain bespeak (all too vividly) the theatricality of the stone: the blood of the saint is limpid and his flesh warm to the eye.  The Duke of Burgundy's alabaster mourners are treasured for what are surely their hot tears.  The fullness of the lilies stirred by the golden breath of God in the image above is met in the promise of the Virgin's open hands, in the swags of drapery around her ready belly.  And Gabriel's stunning peacock wings, their vibrant red still embraced by the complex chemical structure of the alabaster after all this time, seem to have just folded.

And then calcium, and its revelation, I'm persuaded, of a medieval knowledge of materials and what they can give.  Alabaster, a.k.a gypsum, is a combination of calcium, sulfur, oxygen, and water: thus the beautiful hieroglyph: CaSO42H2 (dang, can't do subscripts here, that's where you'd put the numbers).  Lots of calcium there.  What I need to ask my colleagues is whether or not calcium is "responsible" in some way for the porosity. For guess where else calcium shows up in huge amounts? Ivory. Calcium phosphate to some. Favorite medieval carving material to others. Hardness level? 2.  This calcium commonality may be a bigger whoop for us moderns, because it likens two separate disciplines - we realized we needed a vertebrate biologist at the table when ivory emerged.  A medieval sculptor existing within no such disciplinary divides could desire both equally for their give to touch, pigment, and gold.  I'll confess that it's the presence of calcium in the human body, too, that thrills me here.  A chemical commonality that reformulates these works of art as material extensions of the human.  Or human participation in their materiality.  Scientific facts, medieval practices, modern desires - let's see how this goes.

Monday, December 12, 2011

So Excited

I can hardly sleep for how excited I am about tomorrow. It's not the student presentations on Jerusalem (although I'm sure those will be swell), and no, it's not the grading. Rather, I'm having lunch with two really nice colleagues, a geologist and a biochemist, who have kindly offered to help me decipher a science article about alabaster. It's so science-y, that I can't even reproduce the title here. There are spectotropic methods of indecipherable names and intentions. I seek to understand how (geologically and biochemically) alabaster could sustain pigment and gold leaf. It's a porous stone, open and, I can't help but think, generous. Articles discuss its "veins." The alabaster you see above is not the kind that I'm researching, which was used in making devotional statuary (much of it of hand-held scale) from about 1300-1550. But I love the veins and the landscape it presents. We spoke, this semester in the "Nature" unit of Gothic Art, about the agency of aesthetics - the way a beautiful stone can "work" you, can draw you in, solicit touch and desire. Alabaster is cheaper than marble, shorter lived in the realm of human fascination. But it's warm and receptive to impositions of the human imagination. What makes a stone available to become art in the Middle Ages? Is its malleability its liveliness? Does it project forms to its maker? Does alabaster, for instance, warm to the human touch? I don't know of another stone that can hold gold and pigments so well and so long, that works so willingly with the dramatic elements of art. Is this why there are a full 97 (that's a big number) alabaster Heads of John the Baptist left to us? Is this why human skin can be lauded as alabaster? There'll be much more to write tomorrow (Caillois, Marbod of Rennes) but for now, I just wanted to register excitement as I start to think of the process from stone to statue, from unhewn to hewn.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

"Because I Can Interrupt"

A week-end rich in reveling in the human imagination, including the children's first screening of Duck Soup (oh the laughter and the multiple riffs on the mirror scene!), yields all sorts of hope for humanity, love of the holiday season, and absolutely no desire to grade yet more papers.  So a brief musing on something Eleanor said yesterday which has kept me smiling....

Hmmm - I wrote that a week ago Sunday. Note to self: never title a post with the word "Interrupt" in it, for it is doomed to be interrupted.  Life has been as hectic and at times as absurd as that in Freedonia, but without the leadership of Rufus "All I can give you is a Rufus over your head" T. Firefly. We've since seen Duck Soup about ten times and the kids can do several of the dialogues ("You can leave in a huff; if that's not fast enough, you can leave in a minute and a huff" is the current favorite) and a pretty tight mirror scene.  We're hoping that Santa brings more Marx Brothers into our lives because that would only be appropriate.

Eleanor's comment, which I can still savor, had to do with this absurd dog toy that she won in France at the end-of-the-year festival (yes) - a squeaky doggie newspaper. She loves this toy, sleeps with it, carries it around, brings it to school, makes drawings of it.  It finally dawned on me to ask her why she loved it so, and she replied: "Because I can interrupt."  The power to interrupt: this small, squeaky, annoying toy gives her that power, and she loves it for that reason. Never mind what she might interrupt - Eleanor is unencumbered by the transitive needs of the verb. She just can.  And she has: we've heard that damn thing squeak in the midst of the most intense conversations/frantic searches/power struggles. That high-pitched squeak of the air going out, the breathy whine of the air coming back in.  What a joy, what a fantastic disruptive joy, to be able to interrupt.  Ask Groucho Marx.

MS. Rawl. liturg., f. 13 Bodleian Library, Oxford
At the end of the semester, and an especially good group of students in the Gothic Art class (the class about class), I see afresh the vigor with which images interrupted text in medieval art.  We read a lot of Michael Camille, and so that power was relished in religious manuscripts, secular streets, and everything in between it seems.  For funny and surprising examples of marginalia interruptions, see this wonderful blogger. I'm just going to spend a couple of minutes on this interruption: the Annunciation to the Shepherds ('tis the season and all that). Now this scene is not nearly the Interruption of a Lifetime that Mary received at her Annunciation, but it registers interruption very nicely nonetheless: drop your spinning, and your bagpipe, your bread cutting, and your barking - there's a new idea, a new presence, an interruption in the steady flow of human and divine relations.  Most of God's manifestations are interruptions, aren't they? A steady flow of interruptions from Abraham to Jacob to Moses. Unsought, intense, absurd. But the more I think about them, the more necessary and terrific interruptions are. It's a complicated word, etymologically: rumpere already means to break, and then inter just intensifies it with its meaning of between. Interruptions can really spill your world wide open. They deter and deflect, render you incapable of finishing what you started, make you forget why you're here in the first place.  But Eleanor delights, Groucho ruffles, and God's been known to try and reveal a thing or two. Is it any wonder, as we enter exam and grading week, that I shall welcome all interruptions?