Sunday, September 11, 2011

Territories, Boundaries, Marks

The walk today
There's a game you can play in which you move through a word from its Latin root to its Latin-derived French cognate to its Anglo-Teutonic root. So: exit, portal, door.  You could do this for a long time with many words if you're sitting around in total goofy love without kids.  In the quiet of the morning walk created by Sawyer, the game came back to me when I rounded a bend in what had already been a walk full of surprises. On the week-ends, I try to go farther out with him and so here I am finding parts of our tiny town I've never seen before. This is a stretch called the People's Pathways: they seem to be either abandoned railroad tracks or otherwise unclaimed pieces of land.  This particular path blooms lushly between two housing developments so new there's not a tree to be had anywhere.  So there's this unexpected forest all around, really thick and wonderful, and Sawyer and I are elated (for different reasons - I'm fairly certain, his involve the tiny rabbit tushes scurrying in all directions as he approaches). I couldn't help but think of medieval forest law: a separate set of laws for the forest - who has the right to hunt, to live there, to use its resources, to claim it. Can you imagine?  Well, yes, we're even more territorial and territorially specific today.

The walk had already been surprising because of a ritual that Sawyer's making apparent. Today was the third time that he's left the house with a well-chewed rawhide in his mouth with great intention. The first day, he dropped it the block from our house that we always walk no matter where we go.  About five days later, he dropped it two blocks from our house in a direction we mostly go (these are long blocks).  And today, he dropped it another block further, this time in a different cardinal direction (the streets are laid out that way, but still).  And then, on the way home (which can be 30-45 minutes later), he picks it up again.  What's he doing?  Is he marking his territory somehow? Is he testing the boundary of his roaming with us?

And so today, I thought about those three words: territory (from the Latin territorium), and boundary (from the medieval French bodne, itself from a _medieval_ Latin word bodina, which is interesting), and then mark (from the Old English mearc).  We all probably have difference valences for each one.  I see territory as a more political, intellectual term. I think that perhaps it's no wonder that boundary is one of the most popular words of therapy. And I have that shudder (familiar now in realizing how Old English root words move in our psyche), of how physical a word like mark is.

What commemoration will we engage in today? I think of W.J.T. Mitchell's provocative play with what he calls the false etymology of territory and terror (this is from his article "Holy Landscape: Israel, Palestine, and the American Wilderness in Landscape and Power).  I wonder about the threatening of every boundary once a territory's center has been marked.  I think about the fine line between marking and claiming a territory, about the process of violating and shoring up boundaries, and, if you think about the site itself, about the marks left behind.  Boundaries don't fall away: even my dog needs to know where the space beyond him begins and ends. The question might become how we get from one familiar spot to the next. Or create them.

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.