Sunday, November 27, 2011

Black Friday Pilgrims

Pilgrims at St. Edwards' Tomb
I'm sketching out a short essay for Literature Compass on teaching things medieval in the modern world, specifically on teaching a culture of (medieval) belief within a culture of (modern) secularity.  I'll be talking about three main points of resistance that students most often bring to the study of the Middle Ages: "An Aversion to Fervor" (dismissing the passion for miracles or legends as childlike belief - relics is the hot button issue here); "That's Not My God" (not recognizing the character of a divine they think unchanging - Christ as the romantic, sensual Lover of the Soul in the Song of Songs really brings this out); and "Mistakes Were Made" (shrugging off the entire period as long past and mistaken - a conviction fed by 18th/19th century inventions such as the chastity belt).  The point, to my mind, is not to demonstrate the maturity and gravitas of medieval belief, or that God/Christ was more revelatory in the Middle Ages, or that the Middle Ages were right somehow, but rather to present strategies that seek to get students past a safe dismissal of the period, and moving towards a more challenging interpretation of its phenomena. One strategy that I will not argue for is that of bringing in the gravitas and complexity of medieval theology to quell students' doubts and hesitations about the worthiness (gravitas and complexity) of the period. This was the tried and true strategy in art history until the 1980s and Michael Camille (and thus why to this day the absolutely overwhelming majority of medieval art historical scholarship still focuses on religious art). The study of the Middle Ages can, and indeed must, appeal intellectually to students who are not initiated into its theology.

Enter the strategy of comparing behaviors. [Geez that sounds facile when I put it like that.  (Maybe I should drop the "geez").  My anxieties about publishing anything-not-in-an-anthology are pathetically debilitating - ack!] - of comparing behaviors not to say "we are all the same," or "we are no better than the Middle Ages" (though the shock value of the latter statement has proven effective in shaking the complacency that we here and now live in the best of all possible worlds, or that our world needs no improvement), but rather to examine the conditions of possibility for both responses, to try and understand what's motivating and driving the actors in both scenarios.  This is why in teaching relics and reliquaries I introduce the idea of the belief in the power/currency of saints' bones by asking a student if I may tear up his or her $20 bill.  Of course I can't - why not? Because we somehow believe that that piece of paper, inked in that particular way, is worth something.  And so the interest in the class discussion becomes "how materials of intrinsic non-worth come to have worth" instead of "medieval people were naïve for believing that old bones were worth something" (it's actually really helpful in teaching art period, and I never cease to marvel that paint and canvas, or bits of stone have come to mean so much).

And so at the end of a really swell Thanksgiving holiday which included hiking and movies and reading and talking with the kids, and talking about Egypt and California and protests and pepper spray and violence with the adults, I am left wondering about footage like the one I invite you to view below. Medieval pilgrims and their fervor tend to unsettle students.  Perfect, let's bring that to Thanksgiving, its talk of pilgrims, and the modern incarnation of a fervent rush.

I am fascinated watching that crowd surge. It's not the secular, rational, controlled world I live in, and I'd never ever put myself there. But there's something satisfying in watching that powerful flow of people (maybe to compensate for all the crowds crushed by authoritarian regimes of late?).  It's easy, as the commentators do, to dismiss their fervor as stupid and naïve, but they exist and they are driven and they are interconnected (by love of family, and pull of objects, and hope of connection and yes, even happiness) - and we should be asking why and how, for then and now.

Pilgrim Steps at Canterbury
This essay will be fun to write and I've hopefully exorcised some of my yet/but/though side-stepping here (with apologies to you, dear reader!).  I think that at the bottom of this comparative approach of popular cultures is my own resistance to the higher orders of culture determining worth.  Why not take fervor seriously and ask whence its conviction and where to its reach?  Why not discuss the irrational that exists outside of academic discourse within the rational discourse of the classroom?  Popular belief, in its messiness and poignancy and excess, has its own gravitas: just ask the stone steps of Canterbury Cathedral leading up to Becket's shrine, worn smooth and rubbed away by the fervent ascent of pilgrims.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Revisionist Thanksgiving

Privacy Box, 1430, painted wood, Basel, Switzerland
It's 20 minutes to the start of Thanksgiving prep and so just enough to put together three random thoughts about rethinking that have been knocking about more or less amiably in my head. First things first, the menu (inspired by the lady busily grating above her pestle in the image to your left), which involves some kind of rethinking of things (she's grating her lover's heart), as I find myself gravitating towards two classics previously unexplored: pecan pie (so easy! so sticky!), and oysters in the stuffing (so weird!). The full menu reads:
  • Turkey with lemon sage butter
  • Oyster stuffing with fresh herbs
  • Potato and celery root gratin with leeks
  • Spiced, glazed carrots with sherry and citrus
  • Pumpkin gingersnap cheesecake
  • Bourbon pecan pie
We are combining Thanksgivings this year with another family (yes, there will be two turkeys), and so my dear friend is looking after the cranberry element and the green vegetable (and boldly brining her turkey). We picked up said birds Monday night at the farm of an awesome local organic farmer, after having watched them grow from little chicks via repeated visits. That's new, too: going organic and local with the turkey. Ah! And the pumpkin cheesecake as well. So, a somewhat revisionist menu, in the direction of both classicism and innovation.

Pepper Spraying Cop at the Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe
Which somehow inevitably leads me to this, one of dozens now of images of the nasty, nonchalant Lt. John Pike nastily, nonchalantly pepper spraying docile innocents. It's become a meme, a response scattering across the internet to the stupid and thuggish police treatment of UC-Davis students engaged in a peaceful protest. Here he is interrupting a really nice half-naked meal with his damn pepper spray. He's been spraying his way through art history, and the Huffington Post's fascination with the phenomenon has gathered several impressive, and mystifying examples. The Washington Post has the most unusual ones, and I will admit that the utter absurdity of Pike pepper spraying a Jackson Pollock is rapidly becoming my favorite. Can this cop's name really be that of a medieval weapon? Does satire always set itself up this neatly? The smart and elegant thinker of this blog positions the meme as gallows humor, a humor of despair, of the dispossessed. I've been thinking of, I guess you could call them, medieval memes. Painful powers real and imagined taken down in the satire of excess and absurdity.

Frau Minne Breaks Hearts, 1479 woodcut
The power of women was simultaneously constructed and vilified through sex in images like this one. I don't want to get off topic and go down the paths of imagined power, for they are truly truly twisted, so it's the relentlessness of the ways she comes up with to break a lover's heart that makes the connection to Pike's stinging walk through art history. We see her sawing the heart, stabbing it, putting it in a book press (!), setting it in a slingshot, branding it, putting it in a bread box - all the while standing in prancing contrapposto. Frau Minne will occupy your heart. Ouch!

Lancelot margins
There are medieval memes of chivalric violence, too. More, actually. Manuscript margins writhe with monkeys and men wielding the weapons of the aristocracy they never get to control in real life. At the top of the page, a naked man (the ultimately dispossessed) gestures wildly in an insane satirization of the knight's easy possession of weaponry. I hear him say: "Oh yea? Well, I can stick a sword up my ass!" The similarities for me are between the medieval artist and the contemporary Photoshop-er incongruously combining the real violence they've witnessed with the high culture they're meant to be serving. In other words, I don't think it's just John Pike that's being made fun of. There's something satisfying about seeing these classic painted surfaces disrupted. Michelangelo's God Creating Adam gets it every way: Adam spraying God, God spraying Adam, and the cop just spraying them both. The world upside down.

Charles Mann's wonderful book
Which is how you feel when you read Charles Mann's incredible book, 1491, detailing the pre-conquest violence of epidemics that preceded European arrivals and allowed the grand myth of a mostly empty land for the taking to take root. Unknowing slaughter on the molecular level. There is more to be rethought here than I have time for. Tom the turkey is calling, and I must wrestle a celery root into submission. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone - may we keep rethinking together.

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Bill Clinton Said

Arthur, Nine Worthies, the Met
Bill Clinton has to be a pretty swell former president if he can be quoted by a kid whose dog had to leave.  "It's just like Bill Clinton said," sobbed Oliver, "I took him for granted."  Clinton's original statement, during his address on campus, was about what we can take for granted in the industrialized West: that our water is clean, that our food is safe, that our electricity will turn on.  Oliver pursued the simile: Sawyer was refreshing like water, fun like food, and bright like electricity.  Sigh.  Today was strange where yesterday was awful - the only ambitions in the house now are human, and there isn't that unspeaking presence I love so much about animals.  The strangest realization was how much emotions felt remind me of those of a miscarriage: the loss, the guilt for not being able to see it through, the wanting it to have turned out not this way so so much, the helpless fantasizing that it hadn't, the wondering if it will ever work out, the hesitation to try again too soon, the unconscious turning to a presence now gone.  We're all pursuing our similes to try to make sense of things.

Bill Clinton had a phrase that he repeated in his rousing argument for the possibilities and efforts of a global social justice: he called for systems (water, sanitation, electricity, yes, but also education, housing, banking) - "Systems! Systems with predictable consequences for hard work."  My God, that's awesome for both teaching and parenting.  But upon reflection, I also see it as the most basic framework for the predictability of civilization against the unpredictability of nature. The moral structure of civilization vs. the amorality of nature. You've seen the nature documentary of the baby turtles working so so hard to reach the sea - and the very few who do (utter unfairness, what system?). Or the enormous tree whose hard work pushing and straining and sustaining so much other life is wrenched by wind (or here in February this year, crushed under the weight of an ice storm).  We have worked so hard to systematize nature (calling Linneaus!), and yet there are no predictable consequences for hard work in nature.  Not really. Still, there should be in civilization (if we are really to believe that we can oppose civilization and nature, which we can't, thus, perhaps, Clinton's impassioned plea) - too many people in the Western world have "too much leverage" within our systems, thus our demise.  Thus the call for a more balanced system. A politico-ecosystem in harmony.

I think of the balance and harmony of the medieval Nine Worthies, a 14th-century phenomenon presenting 3 heroes (worthies) from pagan antiquity, three from Jewish antiquity, and three from the earlier medieval period.  In general (there were occasional variations, and eventually the Female Nine Worthies, too), the three Worthies of pagan antiquity were Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Caesar; the three Worthies of Jewish antiquity were David, Joshua, and Judah Maccabeus; and the three medieval Worthies were Charlemagne, Arthur (whom you have above), and Godfroy de Bouillon (a leader of the First Crusade in 1099).  It's a system of worthiness, each man having worked for some greater triumph, for the establishment (or the destruction, actually) of another system.  It's not a rational system (I can't say what was predictable in poor Arthur's world), but it singles out its heroes. The fun begins when you try to think of whom we would place in what category in the modern period. Bill Clinton would definitely have to feature in there - for that reach to global social justice, and the immediacy Oliver was able to feel and apply to his thoughts as he tried to make sense of this first true clash of civilization and nature in his life.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Very Sad

A.-F. Desportes, Dog and Pheasant, 1780s
This painting has always reminded me of Sawyer: change the coat to black and elongate the tail, and there's our hound.Was. I'm so sad to write that we've decided to find another home for Sawyer.  Mac is taking him to the Bloomington Humane Society, where he's bound to find a better situation.  Things have been progressively worse on the children front (this was the stuff that I couldn't write about: who can't fix this?), and we've now had enough close calls that we couldn't in good conscience live with the risk of his aggression to kids-not-his-own.  He was so good to our kids: gentle and he'd stretch out and Iris would rest her head on his great big heart.  And he was great with the dogs in our playgroup - a beautiful runner and chaser and always thinking of new games.  And we loved our walks (even (especially, actually) the 5:45 a.m. ones) and learned from what he watched and listened for.  But a three-hour stand- (snarl, bark and rush) -off while Iris had a friend over two weeks ago started us thinking in this direction.  Consultation with the trainer at PetSmart (where he did pass his class, he is responsive and dear, just God, not around children) confirmed that Sawyer probably needs "rehabilitation" to socialize with strangers.  We don't know what life was like for him those first 10 months before he was brought to the shelter where we claimed him.  Maybe he'd been a guard dog, maybe... I don't know. And now we won't know what happens to him next - although Bloomington is the very best city in the entire state, and Mac has a whole list of specificities to tell the behaviorist there (they have a behaviorist at this Humane Society).  This has to sound strange and awful - and it is.  We're so sad, and Oliver and Iris, especially, are taking it really hard. Four months with us - three and a half of them under the siege of this one conflict.  People had stopped coming to our house (there's aggression with adult strangers, too, but he calms down after about half an hour), kids certainly.  How can a dog be so sweet with his family and then so aggressive with everyone else? As I write it down, of course I know that in some ways that's how it works - you're in the pack circle or you're not.  But I guess we're not a pack.  Shit.  It was not supposed to turn out this way, and I keep replaying the last four months in my head: what could have been done differently, did something go wrong, what might still be done?  I feel as though I have failed this beautiful dog. I definitely definitely feel a tremendous sense of failure here. I can't bear to think of what he'll feel over the next few days. Mac says that dogs live more in the moment and that Sawyer's good moment will come - that somebody who doesn't have a steady parade of comings and goings in his space will be able to reward his powerful protection of his family.  Maybe a big, open farm where he can finally chase the deer that kept crossing our paths.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Happy Hunting!

Gaston Phoebus - Livre de la Chasse
Deer hunting season started this week-end in our fine state! And how do I know such a thing?  Because the kids came home from school on Monday with reports from their buddies (in 4th and 2nd grade) of having killed a "first buck."  "What's a buck?" said Iris, clearly curious that this kind of thing is even possible, but relieved to find out it's not mandatory. "Why do they call it 'game'? It's hardly a game for the animal" said Oliver, more shocked, more petulantly. How to explain it all? The deer stands in the trees (cowards!), the outfits (ack!), the insane firepower (around children!?!?).  So yes, there's a lot I don't understand about modern hunting, but I know enough to feel the excitement in the air when the season "kicks off."  We do have deer absolutely everywhere here (and the dog to the left pulling is pretty much Sawyer at a deer sighting which, this morning, we got from all sides - seven (7!) seen!); and some people do eat the meat (a local restaurant was shut down for three months when authorities were tipped off that the kitchen was being used to process deer). But despite all that, it still seems weird and crazy to me. Do deer stand hunters use dogs?  Medieval hunting was, of course, a major part of the human-hound relationship (a phrase I grew to love in research this summer), and we see up above an aristocrat's huntsman being led by a very eager dog (on a leash?! wrapped around the man's left wrist, just like we do!) undoubtedly towards prey.  Deer, boar, fox, if you are to believe Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were the most popular hunted.   But back to the dog - it's fascinating to think of the connection between human and hound in hunting: the communication between the two, the distribution of knowledge between the two.  Who's getting pleasure here?  How do we ask questions of animal agency within a historical (as opposed to just activist) framework?

Saint Guinefort legend, 15th c.
Because Bill Clinton is coming to campus and speaking at 3 p.m. on Friday, all 2:50 p.m. and 1:40 p.m. classes have been canceled, and so I rearranged my syllabus to add on two more days to our investigations of "Nature" in the Gothic class (which meets at 1:40 p.m.).  This means no discussion of Roland the Farter (sigh) and other ribald entertainments.  But the students wanted to stay with the nature material, anyway, having been completely captivated by Jeffrey Cohen's "Stories of Stone" piece, and wanting to ask more questions of the agency of non-human entities.  Enter: Karl Steel and "How to Make a Human" (the Exemplaria article - as a student has my copy of the book and I couldn't get it back in time to post it!).  Cohen and Steel's wonderful works wound up framing the older, and differently methodologized (and motivated) book by Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound; Saint Guinefort, healer of children since the 13th century (1983).  And with terrific results.  There were questions about class perceptions of animals (Steel deals with, among other things, a clerical text that proves human superiority (and worthiness of a soul and immortality) through humans' ability to dominate animals; while Schmitt explores a healing site visited by peasant woman with sick children that had sprung up over the grave of a greyhound unjustly killed by its knightly owner who thought the dog had killed his child, when in fact the dog's mouth was bloody because it had killed a snake that was approaching the child in his cradle).  There were questions about what modern distinctions we use to preserve the divide between human and animal (the medieval one is soul; the modern one? reason, yes, but increasingly humans without reason (coma, developmental disorders) are better protected than intelligent animals, so if not reason then...?).  And there were questions about what kind of domination of animals follows from absolving animals of moral responsibility (nicely challenged by those famous animal trials in the Middle Ages that do hold animals (sometimes their owners) morally responsible for a crime).  It all made for happy hunting of ideas. Ok, sometimes quite tormented hunting of ideas.

Blind Musician and His Dog
It also led to some hunting of images of animals in relationships with humans. This image really surprised me (although I don't think it should): there's a blind musician to the left with a dog who holds a begging bowl for its owner.  A medieval seeing eye dog?  I find "service animals" (like seeing eye dogs, or dogs that comfort traumatized witnesses during trials, or dogs that help autistic kids) incredibly sympathetic and good creatures.  With a selflessness, in some ways, and a definite altruism - do they feel empathy for those they help?  Do they feel good helping, the way we might?  The questions have to be the point, since the answers are unattainable.

Mass of St. Gregory
And so to end with a canine conundrum, this one from a Book of Hours whose central image depics the Mass of St. Gregory (in which Christ as the Man of Sorrows, very bloody and very present appears), while the foreground tucks a praying nun into the right corner, and places a dog staring straight out at us on the steps leading to the central scene.  It appears to be a pampered pet (is that a cultivated mustache?) and fluffy and well-fed.  Is it there to create space? Speak to the social status of the manuscript's owner? Connect our lived space with the imagined space of Saint Gregory? Be cute? Make us wonder?  Is he a distant cousin of the fly on the ledge of a Portrait of a Carthusian Monk by Petrus Christus, there to remind us of life's ephemeralities? Small and poised as he may be, he initiated a hunt for meaning that will hold me and the students until next we meet, post-Clinton.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

History of Emotions

Roman de Fauvel
Opera just blows my mind.  It's been years since I've gone, yet there I was on Friday night for an IU Jacobs School of Music performance of Puccini's La Bohème.  Wagner's gesamkunstwerk always helps, with the sensory assault of costumes and sets and trying to not think too much about plot but instead about everything else.  But it's the emotions that get me - the incongruity and intensity of the emotions.  One minute there's Christmas Eve revelry and the next Marcello is writhing in agony before Musetta's pretty prancing (and the most famous tune of the opera); one minute there's song and laughter about pretend champagne and the next Mimi is dying (dead!).  And we're right there with each emotion. You're laughing one minute, and choking back a sob the next. Granted, this was an IU Jacobs School of Music audience (thousands of people who live and breathe music absolutely), but still, it was pretty incredible.  What is it about the swell of music that can do that to you?  You know the emotions are caricatures (thus the Fauvel image here - it's a parade, a charade), but the laughter is real, the tears are hot. 

Yvain and Laudine
One of the chief complaints students have about medieval art is how little emotion it displays. How expressionless it is. Stony-faced knights and damsels - how are students to believe Yvain and Laudine are feeling passion? The complaint can sometimes extend to literature as well. "What's their motivation?" I'll often hear.  Lancelot is Lancelot, he loves Guinevere, that's it - there's no motivation, just being.  Yvain loves Laudine and goes instantly mad when she spurns him, that's it.  Laudine hates him (ok, he killed her husband - good motivation), but then she loves him (ok, Lunette's pragmatic argument that her fountain needs a protector - good motivation).  It's the back and forth (she hates him, she loves him, she hates him, then at the very end, she loves him) that puzzle us.  Frederick Cheyette and Howard Chickering take this on in one of the best examples of the relatively new study of the history emotion.  They're trying to understand the strangely abrupt ending of the story in which, despite his betrayals and inconsistencies, Yvain is taken back by Laudine and there is "happiness" and "peace," when really it's clear that Laudine is having her hand forced, and that Yvain stumbles back into her life not really the wiser (this is "Love, Anger, and Peace: social practice and poetic play in the ending of Yvain," Speculum 80:1 (January, 2005): 75-117).  They ask us to consider the emotions associated with peace and social reconciliation as defining this "happiness" - an emotion differently subjected, I would say: an emotion that we today associate with the individual ("I'm so happy!"), here associated more with the state of the community ("A happy realm").  That's the way over-simplified version of a much more complex argument.  But it confuses things productively to then consider the incredible shift that the image provokes in its final image, in its response to the scenario of reconciliation of happiness: it depicts Yvain and Laudine in bed, under the covers.  That sure looks like a personal reconciliation, but I also completely buy the argument that the reconciliation is social and communal.  Metonymic sex?  If the lord and lady are doing it, all is well in the realm?  I can only wonder.

Smiling Angel of Reims
So I'll end with what may be the most direct emotion in medieval art, the smiling angel of Reims.  Surely this is an easy one to read: this is the Angel of the Annunciation, downright gleeful with his secret but displayed knowledge of everything from (depending on how far you want to follow the theology) divine presence to virgin birth to the redemption of humanity.  This angel could be happy about a lot of things, actually.  He could be happy about something else entirely - his return to the celestial realm, the kings and queens and tourists walking beneath his gaze, his nicely his wing feathers sit.  The thing is, emotions displayed (whether in opera, painting, literature, or sculpture) elude easy deciphering.  And yet, they are so fundamental to our understanding of emotions - they resonate, these displays these representations, as transcendentally true - as the shining examples of the reaches of human emotion.  Thus why we herald them, and come to know them, and somehow, feel with them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Books Doing Their Own Thing

Between piano and fixing dinner and rushing out to hear the incredible Karen Abu-Zayd, I glanced down on our coffee table and had to laugh to see the pairing that someone's strewing(s) had provoked.  Underneath is Jacques Derrida's The Animal that Therefore I Am, a heady tome that was the subject of a reading group this semester that I've been too sick to attend (the book has, consequently, been following me around the house successfully inducing guilt and longing); and on top is Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty vs. Uncle Murray, a romp between a dolt and a cat. The former questions the line drawn (by philosophers of all people!) between the human and the animal from the human point of view; and the latter has a cat vehemently reassert the line between animal and human thank you very much. I can't tell you how much I mourn not being a part of that reading group - Mac and I might read the book together next summer, which I'm looking forward to, but it's not the same as sitting in a group of twelve pondering.  On the other hand, I've read Bad Kitty vs. Uncle Murray about 15 times - so there's your accomplishment for you.  The Bad Kitty That Therefore I Read.

But that unlikely juxtaposition of books is, of course, an expansive allegory. Of life in academe ("It's Tuesday, must be the Late Roman Empire!" after one's morning coffee) and elsewhere. I think of Karen AbuZayd's call for dialogue and (and this is what we talked about the most afterwards amongst ourselve) naïveté.  Can you believe that, naïveté? A woman who has worked and negotiated for refugees for over thirty years making a call for naïveté, as a necessary element to sitting down and starting a dialogue (she spent 10 years in Gaza, which only makes her statement the more remarkable).  A colleague of mine said it beautifully when she shrugged and said "It's about how you keep working in the absence of actual progress."  I love this colleague. And so I think of my students' naïveté, and my own (neither of which are productively directed, but there they are), and I've been mulling the fourth paper assignment in my Jerusalem first year seminar for about a week now, and I think I have it: I'll be working on it right after this, and it will ask them which event in the history of Jerusalem they would choose for discussion, if (the naïve part), both sides had agreed to sit down to discuss a historical event.  Since we're right before the Balfour Declaration in the syllabus, this could include a great number of events.   They were fascinated as a whole by Suleiman the Magnificent's clearing of the area around what we know today as the Western Wall, and his securing of it for Jewish worship.  An unexpected pairing, a naïve second look.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Almost a Palimpsest

Little did I know when I wrote that last entry that it would herald a road to nowhere. Yeesh.  I have felt the slow erasure of all vitality this semester - a short series of rubbing away that has changed the picture. Nothing drastic, nothing tragic - but a change. Thus why we see king David praying to God on his own, his accompanying demon having been rubbed out by some later, cautious and more tremulous viewer.  I'm definitely more tremulous, weakened it seems. I have been involved in conversation, these past many weeks, with entities that can't talk back: my past via therapy (finally), and my body via a tenacious virus (and insistent secondary infections).  They strike back, yes, but they don't talk back.  And I can't talk about them, because they are at once incredibly too trite, and excruciatingly too personal.  And so here we are with erased muddles in the picture.

Yet, there are positive/extreme love erasures, too.  Drawings like the wound of Christ (and yes, we could go there about its form, but we won't tonight) which have been kissed and rubbed into near oblivion.  The third entity that I'm in conversation with but that doesn't talk back is our dog. Our big black dog who provides such comfort and surety, but has also so completely taken possession of us and the house that no one can come over without major barking and drama. We are eagerly going to, as Mac calls them, "dog re-education" classes, but the beast within and all his mysteries remain.  I love his animal presence, but am utterly mystified as to his gentleness with us and his crazy barking-ness with others.  Doesn't he see the conviviality?  There must be other parameters. More to feel out, to understand, to sense. These can't really be discussed either, as they are trite, too. But we're reading about the Holy Greyhound for my Gothic class (Jean-Claude Schmitt's classic) and I can't wait to read it with new eyes.

I keep thinking that if I can get through these trite but meaningful erasures, if I can (what?) see to the other side of the page, I might become that most wonderfully transformed of medieval matters: the palimpsest.  The manuscript scraped clean and rewritten. (Here is a current, fascinating example). There has been, equally in this semester, plenty of materials for re-awakening: a visit by Yo-Yo Ma and transcendence, a beautiful funny and true (more transcendence) story from my dear friend in Brittany, the exciting, energetic work of others...  I think that there's something transformative going on - or my attention is skewed, or I'm getting older and feeling some frailty (the ever-helpful French phraseology calls it a "coup de vieux"); or we're just far enough out from Brittany that we've lost the vitality that infused us all there; or maybe in all this summer's thinking about a world filled with the agency of non-living entities, I have lost some of my own - which I can't see as all a bad thing. A certain humility to one's past, to a virus, and to a dog may yet uncover new ways in which the world moves.