Thursday, December 13, 2012

"Long Live Restless Texts!"

Yvain Lunete, Laudine. Paris, BN, fr. 1433, f. 118
It's that moment of the semester in which I oscillate wildly between a lapel-grabbing "Have I taught you nothing?" and a tender "Soft, what light from yonder blue book breaks?"  It's exam week and I'm grading or writing letters of recommendation all the time. Students feel this rush to dismay or ecstasy as well, with little notes at the end of the exam, some singing the praises of medieval secular art and literature, others remonstrating that if they'd had more time... This semester's "Love and War in Medieval Art and Lit" class was particularly terrific: twenty-two students and all of them engaged, very generous with each other, very trusting and thorough - and so great discussions every time.  At the end of an essay on "Frames and Games" a student wrote: "Long Live Restless Texts!"  A happy cry, indeed.  The idea that the texts we read were "restless" (never quite easing into an easy authorship or authority, being pulled in different directions by different illuminations, never easily settling into a message or even an ending) was one that we started to develop even with the Song of Roland but really kicked in with Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de Champagne's collaboration on Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart.  In the end, they were all restless texts, or rather, the restlessness was what we prized about the texts.

We read the  
  • Song of Roland 
  • Conquest of Orange 
  • Floire and Blancheflor
  •  Crusader Songs
  • Yde and Olive [does anyone know of a translation? we used Anna Klowsowska's marvelous chapter in Queer Love in the Middle Ages which provided translated passages, but I crave the entire work in an edition I can teach to undergrads!]
  • fabliaux
  • Ibn Hazm
  • Andreas Capellanus
  • Chrétien de Troyes: Lancelot 
  • Hartmann von Aue: Iwein
  • Gottfried von Strassburg: Tristan 
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 
  • and the Romance of the Rose interspersed with the Quarrel of the Rose and other writings by Christine de Pizan.
I love each and everyone one of those texts so much - and I love how images interact with them all, pushing meaning towards the literal, the allegorical, the symbolic; stilling, valorizing a particular moment. I love that this is a course with very few masterpieces of art - none of them are named, few are instantly recognizable.  But what I treasure most is the students' acculturation to open-ended texts, to, as one student so well said, "an appreciation for episodic structure rather than an anticipation for dénouement." That's a big shift in expectation when you think about it - but then, that's orality for you, too: episodic, open-ended. We became very involved in the trajectories of stories, especially as carried along by images - Tristan and Isolde on an ivory mirror back, Lancelot on a Sword Bridge on a church capital, Yde and Olive understood through an image of two women playing chess from an Alfonso manuscript.  The image I include here, illuminating the end of Yvain's adventures, invites an entirely new trajectory in understanding Yvain and Laudine's state as "happy" by showing the two lovers entwined in bed. Happy indeed.  Possibly my favorite comment came from a student interested in the trajectory "from secret to story" (yes, I had a question about secrets, this time involving Gawain and the Rose).  Maybe every story starts out as a secret, or with a secret, delightful tragic beautiful.  That the students sought the restlessness of that trajectory, well, that was a fine thing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Whispering In the Reeds

My dad holding Oliver in 2002
Sleep has gone, in that dismaying way you know it has gone when you wake up at 3 in the morning and all of a sudden your mind is racing and you're thinking, "Where's the melatonin/Hypnos, already?" I've been losing abysmally to a sudden and vicious head cold over the past two days and have to hope that being awake now is some kind of resurgence of energy on my part. We'll see. I'm here writing because of where my mind was racing when I awoke. Disclaimer, as one must: this is all very personal, though of course I do wonder about the experience and understood causes of insomnia in the Middle Ages. Upon awakening, then, I immediately realized with a vivid force just how much I used to worry about my dad getting a cold these past five years when he was so much weaker. Yes, it was because of the fear of pneumonia, which he'd had to endure twice already by then, but mostly, it was the idea of his suffering without resource. Colds come and go and you know they do, but when you're in the thick of it, you feel miserable, and I realize now that I used to worry every time one of us had a cold about giving it to him, and putting him in this state, and his not being able to think his way out of it (because of the brain injury, because of his dementia, all of it). It was the strangest feeling, to wake to realize this, and to feel a truly strange sense of relief that he was safe from even such a small thing as a cold.

Ian Bogost has a post up about Object Oriented Ontology and suffering that I got to through Levi Bryant's response to it. (Because yes, I was reading these before I was writing this). It's really just two things that I would pull out for this space: the first is Bogost's idea of attentiveness to all things, the second is Bryant's idea of relation and/over content. Bogost and Bryant are ultimately talking about the human/post-human debate in philosophy and how OOO operates, but here, in the wee hours, I'm finding their thinking tremendously helpful in framing my own life/death debate in my thinking about my dad. It's a debate because here I am rethinking these worries I had in his life, which somehow are leading me further into my own living with his death. I remember thinking about bacteria, about their existence, about how if they were to develop into what we would call pneumonia, it wouldn't be personal - it wouldn't be intentional or moral. It helped, at the time, in that worry, to remember that my dad was part of an enormous web of living things, thriving and pulsing, emerging and receding. I fully understand that these thoughts were easier to have because he was in his late 80s - it's much harder to see that web making sense if you're thinking about someone young. But this attentiveness to that which I feared was a place that made sense to me. (It also relies, to a certain extent, on the idea that philosophy is there to ease human suffering - but that truly is another debate.) I recall a New Yorker article of many, many years ago in which an oncologist wrote of a young woman coming in to look at her cancer cells under the microscope. He described her quiet and the time she took, and I've always thought about her, her attentiveness to the thing that was causing her suffering. This is where Bryant's comment about Lacan and relation over content comes into play. (Again, he's talking about discourse, I'm talking about memory, but this is my whispering in this set of reeds). The content of suffering and of death, too, is at once much too personal and much too universal to contemplate. I cannot describe my father's suffering (at any time in his life), I can hardly describe my own. And yet everyone does suffer, and see, it's almost equally trite and painful to say that death comes to all. But the relation between self and suffering, and between multiple selves around suffering, can be articulated, it can be honored specifically: in memory, especially - in the stories we tell, the pictures we keep, in what we wake up thinking about at 3 a.m.. Worry, love, fear all mingled together in this memory of past colds - but it recalled a primary dynamic in the relation I had with my dad during his last years: to watch over him as he'd watched over me.

The second thing I realized vividly and absolutely in this night was just how much love this man had shown me. I remembered all of a sudden in a way I haven't thought about in probably thirty years, how he would soothe my childish qualms, his hand covering my forehead to check for fever, his thumb stroking my temple to say it was going to be ok, his telling me a story. I just lay there thinking "Wow! That was a lot of love." It's why I put this picture of his holding Oliver ten years ago (probably close to the day, actually!). This picture was taken before the brain injury, and I just love to know that my dad was talking with our friends, all the while holding Oliver who was so comfortable in his arms. I love to see my dad's hand there on Oliver's back, holding him safe. A photograph is a relation that philosophers (and everybody else) has delighted in for well, close to 150 years now. It's related to the relationships that Baxandall talks about in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy - it's a repository for those relations. But you don't have to be a powerful Florentine banker any longer to enjoy it. A snapshot, even more than a photograph, can acknowledge even that most mundane of relations and make it wonderful. For the time it bridges, and the intervening events it ignores, patiently waiting for you to enter into relation with the event it holds for you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's Hanukris Time: the Loaded Latke
It is the moveable feasts of all moveable feasts; the festival of lights and lamb and latkes: Hanukris! Our third annual, and Rebecca and I went for it again. My images won't load, so I'm going with the witty latke mug, because' it's making me smile.  The latkes vied with the lamb this year in utter crazy deliciousness:

LATKES with the following options:
Greek yogurt and honey with pomegranate seeds
sour cream and scallions
wasabi mayonnaise and caviar
traditional applesauce

Butterflied leg of lamb with an artichoke stuffing
Pomegranate Juice infused leg of lamb

I'm totally falling down on the job with the "Christian side dish" - I just can't bring myself to open a can of cream of mushroom soup and cook ironically. So we had steamed asparagus. And then for dessert, my new thing: a cranberry meringue tart. Meringues are cool, alchemy for the easily impressed (which is totally me, since I think egg whites develop photographs, which they do, but not how I think they do). As wonderful, of course, is this occasion to be with our dear friends. Hanukris is a Thing now: the kids look forward to it. They start asking when it's going to be in late November. Oliver and Jakie came up with a restaurant they want to open: the Loaded Latke. I'd be first in line. Moveable feasts are great for reasons that I would love to elaborate upon at some point. For now, this piece from the Biblical Archaeology Society will do nicely as a meditation on the moveable feast that stopped moving: Christmas.

Can you tell there's a mountain of grading to be done? Can you tell that all I want to do is read and talk and cook?  In three minutes, students will hand me another mountain. But I shall grade that one, too, and finish grading All Things this week. Next week will thus be completely mine for the final revisions to an article and the last polishing of the Ecology of Medieval Art syllabus. Huzzah!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Swerving Into the Fray

Mandeville writing, British Library
This will be a brief swerve as end of the semester mayhem calls, but in honor of the charivari of saint Nicholas Day (when the lowly young clerks ran the show for a day in the Boy Bishop festivities), and in honor of some of the best student presentations I have ever seen (which worked across the medieval-renaissance divide and were deeply engaged in the lives of the texts and images we've been studying), I just want to add the briefest of statements about periodization, this habit of naming ages and pitting them against each other.  Few eras in history suffer as badly from this obsession with naming as do the Middle Ages, betwixt and between, neither old nor new, never full here or fully there.  And yet, despite attempts to relegate them to the infinitely liminal, the Middle Ages remain an object of fascination and inquiry.

All the more disheartening, then, to not only see Stephen Greenblatt write a book that relies heavily on the Middle Ages being a Dark Ages (and honestly, writers haven't had to rely on the "closed" mind of the Middle Ages to make their own age "open" and "enlightened" in decades - shame on him), BUT to see him awarded for it.  There are several brilliant conversations going on about this at In the Middle, and I highly recommend reading these smart and insightful critiques of Greenblatt's book and the concept of periodization in general, and a really smart analysis (with links to reviews) at In Romaunce as We Rede. Greenblatt's book was excerpted in a late-summer New Yorker and for the first time in my life, I was prompted to write a letter to the editor.  I spent way too much time on it, but I was so unnerved to watch this scholar whose fascination with Mandeville kind of makes Marvelous Possessions for me insist over and over that the Middle Ages were closed to curiosity, questioning, pleasure, beauty and wonder that I wrote it and sent it in. (I guess that I need to reread the Mandeville chapter, look for more sinister ways to understand what he's saying). The letter to the editor never was published, of course, but, hey, I get to be the Boy Bishop out here, so I reproduce it herein forthwith.

Stephen Greenblatt's essay "The Answer Man," traces the excitement and poignancy of wonder and pleasure in the face of death with a thrill to discovery that made it possible to imagine Lucretius's project as never before. I would only question his characterization of a "Dark Ages," as a time in which "the idea of pleasure and beauty" was "forgotten" because of a gnawing fear of death and damnation. No culture is so monolithic as not to contain what to us might appear as glowing exceptions, and these often rethink our sure historical boundaries.  When Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) saw herself as "a feather on the breath of God," or when Marbod of Rennes (c. 1035-1123) described coral's ability to quell lightning, they were turning a keen eye to natural sensations, their pleasures, and thrills. When Poggio discovered the Lucretius manuscript, he did so in the tradition of a long line of medieval marvelers who had translated Pliny, Vergil, Aristotle, Dioscorides, and many other classical authors of science.  Medieval wonder is resplendent with different idioms than modern science, but to overlook its ability to marvel is to miss an important chapter in the history of human curiosity.

I stand by these words, more than ever.  I can mourn the lost opportunity to further push restrictive boundaries of thought that Greenblatt has squandered, or I can invite you to join me in charivari laughter by following Bruce Holsinger's fantastic Twitter feed in which he uses quotes from the book itself to make apparent the absurdity and small-mindedness of relegating an entire era of human endeavor to darkness.  I'll undoubtedly be doing both as we continue to think through the sense (or nonsense) we make of the past.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Medieval actually really does meet world!

Courtly Comb, the Bargello in Florence

How about that? I have a post on the Material Collective blog! It's entitled "On Speculative Touch" and benefited from the Gothic Ivories project at the Courtauld (a wonder), as well as the usual gratifying pages of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a trusted companion).   The post itself is a meditation I've long considered on objects awakened by touch.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mimesis and Intention

Helictites of Marengo Caves
Mimesis and intention are two crucial terms in traditional art history (what does the image look like? did its maker intend that for it?).  The field asks different questions now (about appropriations by the audience, about the agency of the image), but I find myself drawn to what is surely a mimetic fallacy in caverns.  We were in Marengo Caverns today, close to the town of Marengo, named after the Napoleonic battle for Marengo, Italy in 1800, its own (really weird) kind of mimesis.  And throughout, part of the delight of being underground again was in recognizing what the formations might be, seeing resonances with things above ground.  These helictites gathered together in bunches looking like so many little trees, the calcite deposits above them flowing like drapery. Roger Caillois did this with abandon in The Writing of Stones, each stone more available than the last to express a mimesis, an aesthetic understood by humans. Why do we do this?  It's almost irresistible, and yet surely absurd: mimesis pulls away from the ontology of materials...

The Crystal Palace
 ... it asks paint to be the Mona Lisa's smile, it asks stalactites to be an organ, it turns the mind away from stone and towards a Crystal Palace, a futuristic city, a moonscape. We do this all the time to nature, we apprehend natural forms and rethink them: a tree looks like an old man, a rock like a landscape. The only thing I can say in defense of the mimetic impulse/fallacy in an Indiana cavern is that in limestone (of which these caverns are carved) being a sedimentary rock, it does indeed participate physically in things above ground: somewhere in the mud and sediment that became limestone, there were trees - crushed, compressed, carried. But this is a physical resonance, not an aesthetic one. And it takes millions of years for this layering of trees into rocks to occur, and my mimesis takes but a second.

A stalagmite
And then the matter of intent. The careful placement, it seems, of stalagmites - some, in alignments, some perfectly framed by surrounding stone, solitary statues, abstract carvings.  It looks intentional; it looks placed there just so.  That, in some ways, is no more mind boggling a thought than the geological reality that the entire cavern -- all the arrangements and alignments and placements -- is the result of insistent, indeed relentless, chance.  A push of water bringing with it sediment here, an accumulation there, a concentration here, and before you know it (and I mean that literally in terms of millenia), an entire composition has been created - a scene, an environment, sometimes with symmetry and a center, often with whimsy and expression.

But is there any possibility for mimesis in nature? It is, after all, the cardinal indulgence (ask Tim Morton in Ecology without Nature) of the human apprehension of nature: to make it what it is not - to reduce it, to wrench it, to the human. There is one thing that I would argue cavern formations represent, however, one thing I would vouch they are mimetic to: time.  This impression is just as untrue as trees in the helictites, but it is, I realized today, the punctum of these visits: the awe and poignancy that keeps me coming back.  A cubic inch grows every one hundred years (the amplitude of "cubic" slowing down the process even more: the formation doesn't just grow one inch up or down, but one inch all around).  So yes, these stalactites are images of time, perhaps monuments to time's passing more than anything else.  And to time passing so beautifully, so randomly, in such seemingly purposeful poses. 

Mere Lake
There are many opportunities to fool yourself here.  An entire vista reflected in a limpid pool, one that looks to be dozens of feet deep, but turns out to be only a few inches of water.  The lighting of the caverns is kind of like the editing of a movie - the silent commentary that absolutely shapes the narrative.  The cave was discovered by Blanche and Orris Hiestand in 1883 (15 and 11 years old respectively), who did so by candlelight.  A week later, the property owner had the cave open for paying tours, with big changes in 1910 and the 1970s.  These are the human agents, the intentions of whom are clear.

Yes, they held square dances in the caverns
Clear, but strange nonetheless.  There's more I need to read in order to understand not just our mimetic impulse towards nature, but also the 19th and early 20th century mimetic uses of the caverns.  The ease with which, elsewhere, Howard Carter and his investors dined upon linen tablecloths laden with fine china and thick silver in an Egyptian tomb; the glee with which, here, an annual "underground square dance" is announced as an extravaganza.  And so: a huge opening in the cave with 20' tall ceilings becomes a grand ballroom; a rock that juts out before an open space becomes a pulpit for a pastor to preach (from 1924 on into the 1940s); a smooth, grand mound hosted Elk Lodge meetings until the 1950s; Boy Scouts slept here until the late 1970s  - it's like an extreme mimesis: a mimesis of use.  "Can we let nature be?" - I can ask this very literally.  What is the non-mimetic apprehension of the natural?  There are books about post-humanism that I am eager to read to answer this question (there are geology books, too).  In the meantime, I register this phenomenon: the more I visit these caverns, the more mimetic my response - as though a growing familiarity with the natural avails more human fantasy.

Pennies from Heaven
To end, then, with a reminder that we are, after all, in Indiana.  Marengo Caves is a National Landmark, but it benefits from little to no government oversight, and in previous cave visits, this has meant everything from banging boats in order to create sound effects to other home grown fantasies.  Here, there is a stretch of the cavern whose ceiling is entirely covered in mud - all of it, a slick, smooth, pervasive surface.  And so, were one to throw pennies up to the ceiling, one would have the happy satisfaction of seeing them stick up in said mud.  The cavern becomes hungry for the pennies, keeping most, letter others fall - another story, another mimesis.  The camera wants to play, too, making a mud surface full of pennies look like a night sky, offering new constellations of possibilities.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving here and there

A sentinel for the turkey
Maybe it's been reading Sara Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, and savoring its critiques and ironies of the Boston pilgrims since mid-September, but a Tandoori Turkey seemed like the right thing to do.  So with all Modern Family references granted, and with thanks to Bon Appetit, Eating Well and Rachael Ray (can you believe it?) here was the menu for today:

Tandoori Turkey
Naan and Cashew Stuffing
Cranberry-Mango Chutney
Peas with Coconut, Cumin, and Coriander
Cardamom Vanilla Custard
Cranberry Meringue Pie
Sweet Potato Pie
quite a bit of wine

Mac, wonderful Mac, constructed a three-hour playlist alternating between modern Indian dance music and 17th-century English madrigals (as recommended by our 17th-century English music friend, and yes, I am thankful to have such a marvelous friend) and we ate and oscillated between two very different worlds - Plymouth Pilgrims and Bollywood Boogie.  Oliver somehow combined the two in this futuristic sentinel role, guarding the turkey against... cats? This was a Thanksgiving of individual slices, maybe disparate things: Iris's sweet face completely beset by poison sumac (sumac!) and treatments both modern (steroids) and medieval (unguents galore) - missing my dad - and then this glorious, happy news of a new life, sooner than we thought, but safe: my brother's son, soon to come home from the NICU at George Washington University and named Emmett Alexey.  And so now to put the kids to bed, to pour another glass of wine and talk of many things.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

10 Years in the Same House

Village of the Year 1000 - Morbihan, Brittany
If you Google "medieval house" while seeking an image of such a structure before finding your own (see left), the top hit will actually be a Minecraft tutorial on how to build a medieval house in the imaginary universe that is Minecraft.  Oliver and I could totally bond over this! But for now, I'll just savor the idea of a virtual hearth, as the surrealism and good fortune of today set in.  For today is the 10th anniversary of the day we moved into this house.  Oliver was five months old, we had commuted from our previous town with the little guy twice before calling a realtor for a house in this town, and we had decided that moving the day before Thanksgiving was a good idea.  We couldn't find anything with certitude except Oliver for the next month, but we made it: we settled in, and this funny 1960s split-level house with a nice, long history of eccentric owners became ours.  I don't think that we're the longest-lasting owners of the house, but I do know that this is the longest I've ever lived in any one place. Mac, too, for that matter. This is my twelfth abode in life, spread out over eight cities and forty-three years, with long-term Parisian and Breton stays blessedly sprinkled throughout. It goes quickly, this living in a habitat thing.  And I think of the big moves: from Switzerland to the States, and (bigger even, more intense) from the Northeast to the South, and then (who knew?) from the South to the Midwest. Each time, re-establishing a world, making it familiar. And I do think of medieval habitats: hearths rebuilt, thatch renewed, births and deaths from year to year.  The Village of the Year 1000 was just that until it was abandoned for bigger villages in the fief around the 1500s.

Alley outside the Village of the Year 1000
But archaeologists were able to clear part of the main alley that encircled the village and it's here, more than the perpetually renewed thatch houses, that you can feel and start to see the age of the place. The moss does such good work signifying time and ruin (and I have lunch next week with a botanist to talk about moss and time and ruin in preparation for Brittany in January).  Remembering habitats has been a strange and fleeting process: I remember neighborhoods better than rooms, individual furniture better than floor plans, specific events better than addresses.  These frames of the familiar, borderlines of the mundane, keepers of fragile memories.  As I commemorate and realize the steadfastness of this home, the others become more narrative, less structural - more moss, less thatch.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

On problematic sympathies for authors and artists

Venus Draws Her Bow. MS. Douce 195, f. 148v
The spring of 2006 saw my first teaching of the course "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" (the one that should be called "Desire and Subjectivity in Medieval Art and Literature").  It's a course comprised of one part epic, one part Arthurian legend, and one part Roman de la Rose.  I've always wanted to expand into other illuminated dream allegories, but once in the Rose, well, one gets snared by the thorns most assuredly.  This fall is my fourth time teaching the course, which also means my fourth attempt to master the Rose.  More on what that could possibly mean in a minute.  First a pause, a digression if you will, on having problematic sympathies for certain authors and artists. Somehow this is all related to my being fascinated with Kipling and Iris Murdoch, too - neither of which you're supposed to be fascinated by or even think of teaching (not that I have) or deem as having any particular merit. My continuing to read Iris Murdoch I can explain personally: I am drawn to her excruciating analyses of the mundane, her descriptions of tinned foods, of repeated gestures, of worn ways.  I come back to read how she will peel back that layer of the mundane to poke around irresolutely into unfulfilled passions, thwarted desires, bad wishes.  She usually does it with some explosive dramatic act which makes for fun reading, but (I've been told) bad literature. I've never read her philosophy but will always pick up one of her books to enter the characters' lives - and I would reread The Sea, the Sea always. Kipling is a different matter, not so much personal as interpretive.  He approximates the struggles with Jean de Meun more closely (but I always think of him and Iris Murdoch together as my literary sins or misplaced sympathies, so there you have it).  I cannot help but read Kipling as satirical to the English imperial project. The mincing rhythms of "The Young British Soldier" (picked up a few years ago and rewritten by a British soldier serving in Afghanistan to slam the military's treatment of its soldiers), the imploding fantasy of The Man Who Would Be King, especially present this edge of satire to me.  And I know I'm wrong, that's what gets me. I know that Murdoch is not a particularly innovative or radical philosopher or writer, and that Kipling fervently believed in the missions of the British Empire. But it's with these two (and maybe with Jean de Meun) that the work starts to separate from the author, that there are things I come to in the works that the authors never meant to provide.  This phenomenon is nothing new (although I wish that I had a pithy name for it), and has allowed thousands of people to admire Gauguin's art (he himself was a jerk). And so it is with Jean de Meun, whose complex dream frameworks, challenges to the process of interpretation itself, and endless games of "catch me (my intention) if you can" draw me back year after year.  Despite the misogyny, despite the arguably sadistic toying with the reader, despite the unnervingly different interpretations that he presents (is the whole damn thing a screed against love or a series of subversions and rebellions that push the concept of love to new radicalities? But this year, I think I have him. This year I think I mastered the Rose. And all I really mean by that, I realize, is that this year our own interpretations overcame our attempts to pin down his intention. We took the text elsewhere.  To the ethical problems of using realism to provoke social change (the Jealous Husband speech as a call to activism against domestic violence); to testing out the weight of the moral burden of literature and art on the shoulders of the author/artist, the work of literature/art itself, and the reader/viewer.  But in the back of my mind, I still see two Jean de Meuns: one smiling and nodding calmly that this kind of ethical quagmire was exactly where the text should place its readers, and the other looking at me like I'm a freak and stalking off across the Paris University courtyard muttering about women.

Who's to know?  All I do know is that the prompt I wrote for class discussion this time around gave us a power to interpret and take the text away from the dichotomy of either apologizing for Jean de Meun or championing him that we hadn't had before.  This is ironic only in that it was the promise of reading the Querelle de la Rose between Christine de Pizan and the Col brothers during the next class session (and the querelle revels in exactly this dichotomy of apology and championing) that made this one possible. So, for the sake of posterity and my own rethinking on this, I copy the prompt below, and am left to wonder, now that I have him where I want him (now that I've plucked the Rose), will I be done with this problematic sympathy and move on to other authors? René d'Anjou has a lovely illuminated dream allegory in The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart...

And so we come to the convoluted center of the Rose.  You will be reading key excerpts of five speeches:
  • 7201-8424: Ami's advice about love (pulled from Ovid's Ars Amatoria (the Art of Love of which we read excerpts), remembered by the Lover and told to us.  This is, in its call to deception, strange advice to receive from a Friend (Ami).
  • 8425-9330 : the Jealous Husband speech (a "ventriloquized" speech in that it is embedded within Ami's speech (i.e. what we read is Ami re-telling the Jealous Husband speech), which is itself remembered by the Lover and told to us). (9331-9463 are Ami's response to the Jealous Husband speech, and contain the stunning declaration close after 9391).
  • 13781-14516 : the advice of the Old Woman (also pulled from Ovid's Ars Amatoria), which offers the equally stunning declarations of 13845 and the lines following 14263) - Chaucer fans: Alisoun, the famed Wife of Bath, was modeled directly on the Old Woman!
  • 15105-15272 : the author's apology (this incredible passage comes at the textual center of the Rose, and this placement has given it great importance - does the placement give it the supreme importance to determine the meaning of the entire Rose? this has been debated for hundreds of years).
  • 16317-16622 : the speech of Genius about secrets (a brief, but key passage I include here to add to our discussion - plus, secrets are fascinating)
Having just emerged from an election which included a much-discussed "War on Women," we are well positioned to study this series of statements about women's "true" natures.  In both the modern and the medieval "war," sexual violence played a role.  In our recent election, the violence of rape prompted statements about the power of female chastity and the will of God both.  In our medieval Rose, we witness the first ever this graphic description and discussion of domestic violence.  It is hard to read, and I will completely understand if you lose patience with the Jealous Husband - indeed, being angry with the Jealous Husband may be the entire point here.  Nonetheless, we are presented with a problem of the ethics of readership/viewer - and authorship/art-making: the Jealous Husband speech is incredibly violent and mean, but it is embedded within Ami's re-told speech which is itself remembered by the Lover.  The author's speech is presented directly, not through any frame whatsoever, possibly even outside of the frame of the dream - does that make it more honest? more real? It makes a pretty powerful apology for what we have had to endure in our reading.  Genius's speech follows the author's apology, and is spoken in the midst of the narrative action that will result in the take-down of the Castle of Jealousy and the conquest of the Rose. The question I have for you is simple enough to write, but will require you to consider difficult options within the ethics of readership: Does the frame forgive the content? Does the Jealous Husband's speech ventriloquized status diminish its power? its claims? does it ridicule it or amplify it? Does the author's apology "make up for" the Jealous Husband speech? Does Genius's speech "undo" the author's apology?

How does one find an ethical footing within this text? Many manuscripts used images to start to chart their way through the Rose's complexities.  Desmond provides wonderful information within her article which you are welcome to read in its entirety, but her work with the images of the Jealous Husband speech on pages 86-98 provide the most direct analysis of what I wish to discuss in class with you: this problem of interpretation, of how to deal with painful and violent realities like domestic violence and misogyny.  Please read those pages (starting with the line "The speech of the Jaloux is frequently illustrated..." and ending right before the section on "The Vieille") with particular attention to the discussion of images leading up to the point: "Taken together, these images, actually emphasize the vulnerability of male heterosexual perfomrance" on page 91.  Together, we will join the thousands of readers who over the past several hundred years have struggled with this text, and we will forge our own understanding of it.  Do we take it seriously? Do we take it as satire? What are the ethical benefits and perils of each stance? Can't wait for Tuesday!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Really Nice Dream

Opening of the Roman de la Rose, MS Douce 195, late 15th c.
I don't know if it's my impinging decrepitude or just too much of everything but I have been tired to the point of no longer working at night for about three weeks.  Where usually Mac and I settle down to work at around 9:30 p.m. and get a few good hours in, I'm in bed by 8 or 9!!!  It could be that grief changes sleep patterns (what one kind friend suggested), or I'm just getting older and can't do the night work anymore.  Two good things have emerged, though: one is that I get up on my own much earlier, around 4 or 5, and of course I'm finding those hours just as quiet as the night-time ones, but now with a much clearer head.  The other thing is that I'm remembering my dreams much more often. I haven't been able to remember a dream since the wild and crazy ones of the pregnancies (lush landscapes, impossible bodily feats, lots and lots of discussions with fictional characters).  But now I do. And two nights ago I dreamed of my dad for the first time.  And it was one of those dreams where the feeling stays with you all day long, and, in this instance, on into the next.  And the feeling was great, pure and mischievous joy. We (the wonderful amorphous "we" of dreams, a combination of familiars and welcome extras) were in a restaurant at the end of a long and wonderful meal. And my dad was there, laughing and smiling, standing behind some dinner guests to talk to them, lounging against a piece of furniture with his hands in his pockets, one ankle crossed over the other.  I was standing on the other side of the table, watching him in wonder and amazement, looking at his legs - so relaxed and strong; looking at him - so comfortable and happy, sharing his customary warmth, listening to the guests, delighting in them.  I was so incredibly happy, felt so deeply at home.  And then it hit me, in the logic of dreams: here we all are, loving my dad's company, but he's dead, and so, are the waiters just seeing us talk to an empty space in the room?  But he's here, he's really here, and the waiters are just going about their business clearing plates and bringing desserts.  And it did, the dream, have that tingly feeling of a shared secret: we were all there, and Dad was there, and reality was none the wiser.

I've been teaching the allegorical dream poem, the Roman de la Rose, for the past two weeks and it may slowly be having its effect on me.  This is my fourth time teaching it, and I think that I finally have a grip on how to teach the images in conjunction with the text, on the ethics of readership issues (how do you read misogyny? what do you do with the knowledge of bad/sad things?), and maybe even on at least how to outline problems of interpretation: must we mean what we say? the repercussions of straight or queer readings, of face value or satirical approaches.  The authorship of dreams is so mysterious - somewhere between Freud and Scipio (and Cicero and Macrobius) identities and desires flicker.  We want to know why we dream what we do; we'd love to know that we write the scripts.  But we also know that we are not in the realm of complete consciousness, that we have left our fulsome subjectivities.  And so what we wish for enters, sometimes feeling more real than the denial of the wish that reality itself insists upon. To see my father laughing and relaxed in body, to feel his delight in the midst of jovial company, to know him to be enveloped in warm welcome - it was more than a gift: it was abundant and glad, and (and I do love to continue to think this, and it does provide me with this lasting secret joy), reality was none the wiser.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Laughter and Fire

Abraham and Isaac, Chartres Cathedral, 13th c.
There is a place where laughter and fire meet, and that is in the story of the Binding of Isaac.  (Though one does wonder about the presence of laughter in the union of firestones - Marian Bleeke wonders about their gender here.) "Isaac" isn't only a name, it's a lovely phrase in Hebrew: he laughs, he who laughs, he will laugh. The announcement of his birth caused the first controversial laughter: Abraham laughed to think of parents as old as he and Sarah having a child; and Sarah laughed (and here you must decide, for she and God and Abraham do a little back and forth on this) to think that a woman as old as she could become pregnant from a man as old as Abraham.  But she did, and Isaac was born, and at a certain age (he's a child in the images, but the text indicates a young man) he became a part of one of the must haunting stories of the Bible (all those commentaries, all those images).  In this beautiful window from Chartres, the story of the Binding of Isaac is split into two panels placed on either side of the Descent from the Cross (the entire window is typological, creating a kind of visual echo chamber between Hebrew Bible/Old Testament events and New Testament events). I say "beautiful" because representing this particular scene, in which Isaac carries the wood that will be lit for his sacrificial pyre, is relatively rare. There's a human touch here in the small child struggling with the (of course) cruciform wood, while his father looks back - to hurry him along? to comfort him? to offer to help? The dangers, the trouble, the agony of reading the Binding of Isaac story is reading it literally. You just can't. What father would do that to his son? And so, let the interpretations begin, about tests and loyalty, about prefigurations and mercy.  Thank goodness.  This panel is also exceptional to me in how it isolates all of the key elements visually: Isaac, the wood, Abraham, the fire.  Stained glass, whose existence relies of fiery processes, is in a unique position to represent fire. There's a thickness about that torch flame, a depth of color, that gives the fire character: controlled and sure now, before it's to be used for unimaginable purposes.  The fire that Abraham will light believing he is about to sacrifice his son because Gold told him to, is only the second one lit in the Bible.  The first occurs in the firepot that burns between the pieces of sacrificed animals as God makes his first covenant with Abraham, the one about land. The second fire is Isaac's. And the scene above reveals Genesis 22:6 ("Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together") with an unnerving simplicity.

Abraham and Isaac, N. transept, Chartres
And so laughter and fire have been conjoined for a long, long time.  Their suddenness and their power and their salvific ability have been sought since the earliest stories of the Bible.  The story offers moments that have nothing to do with its ending: volatile moments that turn the story from beautiful to sinister, moments that themselves oscillate between blessed innocence and horrific knowledge.  This sculptural group from Chartres is one. I have always been completely captivated by the way Abraham runs his fingers along his son's neck, how divided his attentions are between his dear boy whom he steadies in that gentle touch and his inscrutable god to whom he addresses with his gaze.  I have always wondered about Isaac's stance: his hands are not actually bound by anything, they're just resting that way, his legs in slight contrapposto as he relaxes against his father's body.  I always imagine him pressing his left ear into his father's palm.  His feet are bound, resting lightly on the ram's head - the animal figure upon whom Isaac's deliverance depends.  Melchisedek stands to their left, ready with ritual offerings, ready to make all of this symbolic and take it out of the realm of the real. Away from the intensity of a boy who is laughter and a sacrificial fire.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Rembrandt, c. 1629 Indianapolis Museum of Art
Laughter, like fire, is difficult to represent visually.  Something so sudden and glad, warm and quick, resists the stilling of representation.  Videos are fine, but they lack the rush of both, the chemical changes in the room provoked by both.  When I asked my wonderful chemist friend how he would define fire chemically he did so as "visible energy."  It's that energy that is elusive, that you want to be a part of, that you want to be warmed by.  The essay that will eventually be dedicated to fire thus far explores its dark side (its accidents and manias), but here, in the warm afterglow of the election, in thinking about a couple of discussions in the "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" class, in finding more reasons to laugh than earlier this semester, and more moments around hearths, I'm going to ask about laughter and fire, about mirth and hearth (wow, are those words ever pleasant even just to say - oh Old English, how I love thee).

There's a room in the IMA that's designed like a library: three walls are lined with books, and there are leather reading chairs, and the requisite globe and table for a toddy.  The room is intimate and entirely devoted to self-portraits.  This early self-portrait by Rembrandt presides. It's been through the Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt ringer and I think emerged as Rembrandt - and yes, we could have an entire conversation about authentic laughter and artificial fire and their inverses.  But I love this painting because it hovers right before (or right after?) laughter. Let's say it's the moment before. It's this beautiful moment of dawning realization: the joke becoming funny, the spark igniting the flame.  There are multiple other ways to interpret the fabulously ambivalent expression on his face: hesitation, wonder, surprise - but I am turning to the moment before laughter this time, perhaps to think precisely of that hesitant pause before laughter breaks out in a room, the bated breath before the fire takes.

4th image of the Gawain mss.
We wondered, in "Love and War" about the laughter of King Arthur's court at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  My literary friends will tell me if there's an elegant solution to it out there - we remained happily mystified. We had just worked through the four scant images of the manuscript, pared down images that contrasted with a text so rich in visual imagery because it led you along so steadily across a multitude of visual details to imagine: from the tip of the Green Knight to his toes, from the beginning of the forest to its center, from the first horn of the hunt to the presentation of the pelt, and so on.  The images don't lead the same way: they hold still the most intense confrontations: the Green Knight and the court, Bertilak's wife and Gawain, Gawain and the Green Knight, and Gawain's return to the court.  All four of those moments are so intense: everything is in play, enormous tensions barely contained by their settings (courtly, domestic or sylvan).  And three of the four further construct Gawain's demise: the challenge of the Green Knight will fall to Gawain, the seduction of Bertilak's wife will be his fall, and the meeting with the Green Knight will reveal the ruse.  But the final court scene, to us, unravels all the tension, disassembles the demise in that one incredible moment of laughter.

2513þe kyng comfortez þe kny3t and alle þe court als
2514la3en loude þerat and luflyly acorden

"The king comforted the knight, and all the court laughed loudly, and all agreed..." (a much better translation exists, but it's at the office). Gawain is seething in shame just before this moment, just mortified at all that's happened. And that the court's response is laughter -- warm, enveloping, forgiving laughter (as they all pledge to wear a green band in solidarity with Gawain) -- took the students by surprise. Maybe I'm being naïve, maybe it's mocking laughter - but it doesn't feel that way. It has that gladness and relief - of the end of the game, of the warmth of recognition.  The image doesn't re-present the laughter, it sets up the joke - the return of the errant knight, the welcome of the gathered court, the kindling of shared mirth.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Paleoanthropological Limerick

Mermaid and Traveler, Luttrell Psalter, 14th c.
Let's start our day, shall we?

Cried an angry she-ape from Transvaal
Though old Doctor Broom had the gall
To christen me Plesi-
athropus, it's easy
To see I'm not human at all

Rarely is the debate about what it means to be human more fraught, intense or weirder (see above) than in the first decades during which fossils of ancient (really ancient) human remains were being found and acknowledged as such. I picked up Ian Tattersall's The Fossil Trail (OUP 2009) at the Museum of Natural History on Sunday and have been reading it in every spare moment. He lays out all that is at stake with an intimacy (he'll write "Alas!") and care (timelines, maps, dates, all the precision and more that an enthusiast craves) that makes this book a page-turner. And there is so much at stake: the fixity of the species first (it was actually quite important that humans had always been transcendentally, essentially humans). And then the idea of descent (from whom, how, when? asked in increasingly panicky ways). But mostly, what it meant to be human. What precise size of the brain (cast after wondrous cast of paleolithic skull caps is discussed), what kind of jaw (used in making what kind of sound), what kind of walking (no slouching!). And so there are those, as in the limerick above, who seek to preserve an absolute line between homo sapiens and anyone else. The "she-ape" in question belonged to a female fossil that Broom dubbed plesianthropus (near man) transvaalensis for her proximity to the human (determined by her teeth, her place in the growing paleoanthropological timeline determined by the fauna associated with her find-site). Broom saw the remains is confirming an "in-between" species; Hooton (the limerick author) saw another ape - never mind how by then already nebulous both the terms "human" and "ape" had become. The paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, antiquarians, doctors, and other enthusiasts who jump into the fray all give their fossils names: species follow rapidly one upon the other, little poems of wondering about a commonality or a difference. How we ask about that limit between human and non-human, how we put the question to ourselves about what differentiates, reveals almost everything about how we understand our commonalities. This precise statement is why I can't wait to teach Karl Steel's book next semester. As far as reading Tattersall now, I feel the need to see what happens in the very moment when a realization of commonality with difference emerges to start to think about medieval conceptions of human relations with the natural world (which in turn will, one hopes in designing this class, provoke more questions about our modern goings-on in our modern ecologies). The ease with which the mermaid and the traveler occupy the same space, the fluidity of their bodies, will push us to ask how the difference was maintained. We align ourselves with nature through metaphor; the gentlemen I am reading about these days balked and fought when an alignment with a distant human nature revealed a primitive they were still busy defining in opposition to their own modernity. In these rich and full days with my Eleanor in D.C. we've asked ourselves both what it means to be human, and what a government owes its people. Interestingly for a 6-year old she, at one point and then another, gave the same answer to both: "dignity." Mercy!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mercy redux

Van Gogh Roses (1890) at the National Gallery in D.C.
I had been told this would happen, and indeed it has started happening: completely unexpected and unassociated thoughts of my dad blazing through. So there I stood in the National Gallery yesterday, inexplicably riveted before Van Gogh's 1890 white roses while Eleanor was running between me and a Tahitian Gauguin scene she was sketching (busy busy). Maybe it's not so unassociated, maybe never that disconnected - white roses from dear friends were waiting for us when we got home from the funeral. Powerful, very very present, gladly gorgeous roses. And as I stood there, a phrase I'd found myself saying in a Skype to a warm and vivid friend (with whom conversations always create these gifts to think on later) emerged crisp and clear and lucid: Beauty is mercy in times of sorrow.

Beauty is mercy in times of sorrow. A goodly part of me doesn't even want to describe how, just wants to leave this untouched and alone already - but my prose is going to blunder in, shoulder past the aesthetics, and stand there and try to understand this. Why we smile at flowers. Why we bow down to them, curious or eager for their scent. Why we put them in the center of things. Why sometimes we hold them in our arms. Why we want to capture them in art. Why the Little Prince would have done anything in the universe for his rose. Very living lively things that can only sustain so much depth (look to how much more seriously one can speak of trees or rocks; consider the flat discursive space of iconography which reduces the lily to a sign for virginity). And yet every last one of us would notice if there were fresh cut flowers in the room - initiating their own little cycles of beauty and death. (But that was actually another good thing: when the roses faded and it was time to throw them away, that was a specific time (of all-enveloping mourning, of pointed sadness) that had passed.) If there were flowers when we walked in, every last one of us would notice and be gladdened, even if fleetingly gladdened.

Mercy starts in the etymology of gift (9th century), itself with roots in exchange and markets (Lat. mercedem). Mercy is merciful because it bespeaks a relationship right away. You are not alone. Mercy is a tipping point: it is not a solution to your woes, it doesn't explain or fix things. It is not a philosophy, though I think it could be an ethics. This is why it is found in embraces, gazes, and flowers - simple, fleeting things that aren't going to resolve anything, but instead will alight on your sorrow and spare you from that sorrow for just a little while. It is also something Southerners say when It (life, the heat, what you just said) is just too much. "Spare me" - a lovely phrase that can be turned sarcastic by angst and exasperation. Peel that back and you get the most serious element of mercy: to be spared. When people "cry out" for mercy, they are asking to be spared (yes, an Old English word), to be safe from harm, for this fear and panic, this feeling of being at war with something in the world, to stop. I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's book A Field Guide to Getting Lost in preparation for the return to Brittany. In it, she present the etymology of "lost" as Old Norse: "los, meaning the disbanding of an army." (7) I think that this comes up now because mercy comes when you feel lost. Mercy comes at moments of loss. She goes on: "this origin suggest soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world." How did the pilot at the beginning of the Little Prince come to be lost? And so these thoughts, the beginning of this post, realizing I've written about mercy before in these pages but oh so long ago and so differently it now seems, while standing there in front of Van Gogh's very present, very material, very brave roses - making me think of my father and his mercy, in his mercy. And Eleanor, meanwhile, wanting to know more about Tahiti and when are we going to the Air and Space Museum and what's next.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Thorough Thoreau

I would be willing to bet that Thoreau did not have children when taking his walks, especially six year olds who do not suffer pebbles in their shoes gladly.  The fall colors are here, quite suddenly it seems, and so we take to the woods.  But Transcendentalism is hard.  Kids are much more utilitarian about nature, specifically the fun it should provide.  The whole idea of a walk can be kind of lost on children.  "So, we're basically going to be right back where we started when this is over?" asked Iris, ever the pragmatist, ever needing to know the lay of the land.  Yes, we'll be back - we'll be taking an enormous loop around the exhausted rock quarry that was given to our university and is now a Nature Park - but we'll be transformed, or at the very least invigorated, by the walking and the communing. That's the idea for grown-ups. I think, a little stunned, of the scale and scope of some of these walks - my dad's phenomenal 92-year leave-taking and return to North Carolina; the three-hour walk I'm charting in the forest of Broceliande in Brittany for my Winter Term students this January, trying to make sure I'm not lost in this Arthurian forest with 26 college kids; the pilgrimage loop of medieval travelers: to the local shrine, to Santiago de Compostela, to Jerusalem.  Thoreau gets medieval right there on the first page of Walking, with the (poetic license?) etymology of a word that's lost its gravitas (which makes me question if it ever had it to begin with):

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,  - who had a genius, so to speak for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived from "idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Terre Sainte," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.

So it's the medieval children (and I think of sauntering as a child-like way to walk) who provide the language for the walking Thoreau wants to theorize.  Well, he was a teacher, when he wasn't a handyman or living at Walden far from the madding crowd - but I still bet he didn't take kids on walks.  I think that Iris is asking her question only now because she's old enough to see the horizon and know we won't cross it, know that this is a matter of hours away and then a return home.  I think that when they're smaller, walks for the kids were these huge adventures and they were always a little surprised to return home.  Like Mandeville's traveler who circles the globe and can't understand the language of the people of his homeland because it's inconceivable that he's made it all the way around the world.  Eleanor became fascinated by the idea of a "one-way ticket around the world" - I don't know if it's a conundrum or an oxymoron, but I love thinking of it, too.

Sometimes you know you're setting out only to come home at the end, and sometimes you know you're setting out not to, and sometimes you just don't know. There are itineraries and there are trajectories. I think of Mandeville's traveler, and Thoreau, and my beloved friend David in France, and Mac in India, and Iris's restlessness to see something new, and Oliver's yearning for all the familiars of France. I think of the medieval word "wander" and the modern one, "wanderlust;" of medieval walkers, of (help from Tim Morton here) the possibility of an aesthetic response to a walk in the Middle Ages. And I realize that the scale and scope of a walk are indefinitely negotiable.

I often think of blogging as being one of a company of people walking through the woods: you follow your own path, but you're frequently calling out to the others, rushing over to see what they found, crossing paths. There are medieval bloggers going off the beaten path in wondrous ways these days: Eileen Joy's resignation from the university (this incredible piece will make the ground shift beneath your feet), whose beautiful writing and powerful wit are the stuff of what could surely be the first academic road movie ever. Asa Mittman and Shyama Rajendran starting the blog fumblr (check it out!), in which contributors can share the walk of the road (best) not taken. I love the trust in these departures, in these walks: in each other, in what awaits, in that what we might share will bring us further knowledge and wonder.  And (to close by finally addressing the image above though, truly, fire will soon claim its own post), the fires we gather around along the way for warmth and stories and respite.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"of simple things with profound meaning"

My father was buried within the familiarity of his first idioms. This is saying something for a man who took pictures of boys on elephants in Sri Lanka when it was still called Ceylon.  But there we all were near the banks of the resolutely unpoetically-named Clubfoot Creek, singing "Shall We Gather at the River?" at my father's graveside.  There we all were speaking of "Mr. Emmett." There we all felt the breeze being pulled along by water moving out to sea. There we all sat, drinking sweetened iced tea and eating Carolina barbecue.  There we moved through old houses: the one his brother built, the one where my dad grew up.  There we marveled at this man who had left here at the age of seventeen and always came back - steadily, dearly, now for good.

I don't know if it was coincidence or the South, but I began to notice that it was in quiet asides, not in the midst of big group conversations, that female relatives would put a gentle hand on my arm and ask "So you were with him, honey?". These beautiful, kind, strong cousins, and their husbands, that made everything possible.  I was with him.  And I thought that the images of his last six hours would always stay, indelible, forever pristine and painful - that I would never forget the labor of his breathing, the sound of his last breaths, my horror and wonder, the lightness of his hand, the different realities before and after 4:14 a.m. when he "crossed over" (a phrase that makes more sense than "died" for what I saw).  But my heart already doesn't pound the same way to think of it - there is more marveling, less anguish.  The tight space of his death expands to include a flood of images of trees and rivers and lovely loving faces.  My sadness is diffused in others' memories of him, their stories, their eagerness to tell them.  Death trumped the brain injury, the wheelchair, the bed - it wrenched him free of what truly had become a mortal coil.  Down in North Carolina, Dad was vibrant once again: we pulled out old letters and pictures, realized that there are entire chapters yet to be discovered.  Steve will start working through the multiple boxes of letters; I will look to the 8,000 slides.

I am not actually sure what happens next.  I will combat these feelings of emptiness, the creeping doubt that after all the rituals are at an end, there might be nothing. Even as I know that rituals are full of the emotions we can't otherwise contain. Because they, these rituals, they were something.  My father had never been one to talk about WWII, watch the History Channel, reminisce and in any way glorify his nine years in the Navy.  But after the brain injury, he talked about it more often, and I wonder if the brain injury didn't free him up to ask for a military presence at the funeral. It doesn't matter. What mattered was the way those two young men held the flag as "Taps" (yes) played; the way they folded it in full length and time; the way one knelt before my mother, took off his hat, gave her the flag and spoke "on behalf of a grateful nation."  This greater institution (I wouldn't have minded if God Himself had come down) acknowledging that my dad was a wonderful man - that was nice.  And then, the small voice of my Oliver, beginning with "Actually..." as he sought to correct Pastor Ben in a reminiscence about my dad - precisely what Dad would have done had an anecdote presented wayward information.  Was it laughter or the transmigration of souls that made us feel so glad?

I can hear my dad's laugh much more clearly now.  I can more easily tell the kids the stories about the Creek, the War, Caracas, Mumbai, more travel always travel, Citibank, the "Jupiter Rex" certificate from Pan Am commemorating his crossing the equator (!), tenderness when we were sick, endless algebra sessions, trips, discussions of Ben Hur, more books always books, and (looping around) tales of his grandmother, catching soft shell crab as a kid, resting on the banks on the river.  I can quote a letter that Steve found from February 21, 1971 (preserved in carbon copy!) that dad wrote to his mother and whose tender beginning makes me love him all the more for how it describes a moment so many of us share, or will:

"Watching the clock, I come to my desk to tell you of simple things with profound meaning, of a father's love for his family, of his home which he seeks to shield from the harsh aspects of life outside, not only for wife and daughter but for himself as well."

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Possibility of Other Worlds

The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
I've been thinking through a few of the ideas of John Buridan, the 14th century philosopher of the natural world and the cosmos via Aristotle in preparation for a talk next week-end with a colleague in Biochemistry about perceptual models for things we can't perceive.  Taking up the call of the BABEL conference of "performing [our] respective methods in proximity to one another," we've been speaking together over the past few weeks. At first with no task at hand, instead working in and out of the process and the moments of fervor of our fields.  Eventually finding a dizzying common ground in the attempts of our respective fields to build perceptual models for what is beyond perception.  The visual empiricism boat sailed in science long ago and most of the things that Dan studies exist far below the "crust of the visible world" (to quote one of my favorite lines from Stephen Millhauser's spectacular short story about a miniaturist)  The world of biochemistry is filled with phrases like "molecular time" that I keep turning over in my head; it has analogies of scale that remind me of Brian Doyle about the hearts of hummingbirds and the hearts of blue whales (if you've never read this piece, oh please do); it dances with staggering numbers that rally to create three-dimensional models we might actually think through. It traffics in metaphor (itself characterized as an "inter-subjective bridge between two world views" in Jonathan Hsy's wonderful post ). Medieval art valiantly, exhaustively, fleshes out one perceptual model after another for what triumphantly escapes human perception: God, death, power, Arthur, love... and so on.  Every medieval image exists within a perceptual model: ritual, touch, taste, gift...another endless list.  Enter John Buridan and his treatise On the Possibility of Other Worlds where he argues about their existence.  The text is at my office, and my grasp of Aristotelian cosmological vocabulary is fleeting, but there is something there about a generative God because all things of good form reproduce themselves.  And so why not another God with another set of creations?  Why not an entire existence outside our own?  He spends some time being fascinated by the parallel universe, its earnestness and lack of consciousness of our existence.  I think that's important, the articulation of an other world that does not think on our own.  I have seldom in my life lived out so many disparate worlds, worlds that cannot possibly perceive each other: my birthday, my father, my full professor file, Don Giovanni (Mozart - with Oliver and Mac), teaching.  My southern relatives are ready for my dad's demise, as it is being referred to.  They have so many perceptual models for death - first of all, it's never called death, but instead, going home, or down the river, or taking the walk.  Analogy becomes anamorphosis; anamorphosis is given new image by analogy.  Even trying really hard to think about it, to understand that my dad will leave this world, my perception fails - I can accept it, see its contours and their shape: the gentleness and the quiet and the merciful absence of suffering. Nonetheless (a really apt word here), I can't conceive of it. Not really.  But I can think about the possibility of other worlds, the wonders of time and scale, and the relentless efforts of the human heart to make perceptual models for what it can't perceive.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Troubadour casket from Vannes, in Brittany
We have an "S" (for speaking) requirement where I teach, and long ago I decided to make "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" an "S" class.  I've never had the courage to call the class what it really is, "Desire and Subjectivity in Medieval and Literature," mostly because "Love and War" work better in advertising the course, and then I don't have the resist the temptation of adding "and Lacan" to the title.  It's really only this year that I feel that I am truly embracing the "S" aspect of the course, beyond the usual discussion of the class and a final project.  This year, thanks to the low-tech tech of PhotoBooth, I can ask students to record themselves reciting 20-30 lines of medieval poetry in translation.  Four or five students sign up for the same day, are sworn to not discuss their recitations with each other, record their recitations, and then we play them all in class at the star of the next session.  The first two to go were passages from the Conquest of Orange and were fantastic: one student struck a tone of incredible urgency and time felt compressed and we felt like helpless bystanders to doom; the other played with accents and poses and highlighted the different speakers, giving it a slower cadence and making us laugh at Guillaume's plight in the tower with Orable.  All this is inspired by Evelyn Birge Vitz's performance project at NYU, which offers single interpretations of scenes of medieval literatures in all languages (and hours of fascination).  It results in students very directly understanding that recitation is interpretation, it sets up the stage really nicely for a discussion of discourse, and it lets those texts breathe.  Some students have filmed themselves, others images that resonate with the text, and one (for Guillaume IX's poem about nothing) had a piece of crumpled up paper with scribbles on it as its star.  I ought to see if I can post some of these up here, get students' permission. 

One starts to wonder about scripted language, unscripted thought.  I went to a screening of My So-Called Enemy tonight - it's a documentary by Lisa Gossels that traces the lives of 6 Israelis and Palestinians (2 Jewish, 2 Muslim, 2 Christian) who are in a group of 22 young women and spend 10 days together at a peace camp in (of all places) New Jersey.  The point of the camp is not to agree, but to hear each other out.  As my colleague said, "There's no Kum-ba-yah, here."  It's raw and intense and the friendships fight for air amidst family and media.  And of course here, it's the editing that makes the piece make sense.  It's the editing that gives it its narrative arc, its interpretation. I had never thought of editing as a recitation until I heard Lisa recite a quote from one of the young women in the film verbatim.  It's then that I realized that Lisa had the entire film memorizes: every exchange, more than made it into the film, every line.  Documentaries, it turns out, are a kind of recitation then.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Into the Woods

Girl Scout Camp
There has been no way (good, bad, helpful, articulate, cathartic or otherwise) to write about the loss of a family friend and the process of putting my father into hospice.  I still don't have a way, but to not write leaves things too lost, too unreal.  The surreal, we have down.  Reading an e-mail about the death of our beautiful friend in Brittany; signing paper after paper (did you know there were so many?) to initiate the merciful project of hospice care.  These two deaths intertwine: one so sudden and tragic and absolute; the other gentle and comforted and intentional.  As the medications have worn off, my dad has been more alert - he really connects when he looks at you now.  I searched briefly for his knowledge and wisdom about what is happening, but gave that up to instead stay for as long as I can in his knowing of me.  He looks at me with such understanding, such kindness. I will miss being known by my father.  I tell Oliver, who is sad, that he will keep on getting to know his grandfather through the 8,000 slides of world travels, the notebooks kept during WWII, the record albums from Brazil, France, everywhere it seems.  And I think I believe that, even as I see the call to memory as kind of beside the ultimate point, which is that my dad will be gone.  Oh my poor mind, back and forth between realism and mercy.  What we tell ourselves, what we tell others, about death.  Hospice is the new ars moriendi, the new art of dying well, and it changes the conversation from lush metaphors of what happens after to quiet discussions of what is happening now.  Now is a contested concept here - within a month? most likely; tomorrow? could be. "But you never know." And so, into the woods - the combination of knowing and not knowing; the tiny allegory of Eleanor and her best friend Sophie sharing a walking stick upon starting a hike at Girl Scout camp; the presence of wonder in the mundane; the places your thoughts wander; the things that surround you that have nothing to do with you; the connections and sense you try to make; the giving up and giving over you do to sunshine or pockets of cool air.  Here we go.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

TIYDK #4 & #5: Duckpin Bowling and Glacial Mud

The cats got me up early this morning, so I'm using the time to catch up on The Indiana You Don't Know (TIYDK) entries: two more in the continuing series of escapades that are substituting for a family vacation this year.  Truth is, we're enjoying them so much that this may just be a continuing series period, as we're now envisioning going to a wolf howl, Biblical gardens, and (creeeeepy) a doll factory in the fall.  All states/cities/environments have these places off the beaten path, and I realize now that my seeking them out has as much to do with the materiality studies and ecocriticism I'm reading as with taking the kids out for a good time. It's the idea that networks shaped by more/other than human will have created scenarios whose reality doesn't mesh seamlessly with its surroundings. Oh my dear children: what does it bode for you that my recent purchase of In a Pickle was completely motivated by Ian Bogost's awesome description of the game in Alien Phenomenology?  But back to duckpin bowling.  My brother and his beautiful growing family were in town and, in addition to being an awesome Soviet historian, he is also a baseball and duckpin bowling fan. No problem finding a baseball game (whose laid-back, relaxed two-and-a-half-hour (!) rain delay showed me again that baseball brings out the gentler more lyrical side of American culture).  But a pleasant surprise to find a duckpin bowling alley right in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis!

I think that my favorite thing about nostalgia is how kids' imperviousness to it (it's new to them!) makes them slip right into a space hallowed by commemoration.  Duckpin bowling came into prominence in Baltimore, MD around 1900 and came to Indianapolis in 1928.  The usual series of downfalls and closings ensued, and it re-opened in 1994, fully refurbished in a blend of 1930s and 1950s decor.  Everything is done according to specifications (there is a National Duckpin Bowling Congress after all), and we quickly came to love the smaller balls, the three turns you get when you're up, and the plump little pins that are, in fact, harder to knock down.  Yours truly incongruously scored a spare (don't quite know where to put that in the big picture).  I should say little kids' imperviousness to nostalgia.  Eleanor strode right in, but Oliver and Iris both commented on the "old" stuff (Oliver's unerring aesthetic sense took in everything from the trim to the benches; Iris just loved the jukebox and how it dropped the small records into place as it played).  At what point do you see old? At what point do you know something is not from your time?

Bluesprings Caverns
One could well ask this question of temporal and physical perception in the Bluespring Caverns near Bedford, Indiana.  These caverns came to light in 1947 after a heavy storm created enough pressure to push through an opening at the bottom of a farmer's pond.  What had been a pleasant pond was completely drained into the cavern overnight and became an enormous sinkhole.  I can't help but think of the farmer's awakening to his utterly transformed landscape, his pond drained "like a bathtub," said our guide. Unlike the Squire Boone Caverns which lay in wait behind thickets of foliage, these caverns burst forth unexpectedly, messing with perception and expectation, setting the tone in their emergence for what became our experience of them.  They're all water for one thing - there is no ground to walk on.  You go 120' underground, enter a flat boat, and then glide along these corridors lined by stone formations which extend dozens of feet beneath the water line.  To float above the earth's ever-receding surface this way is disorienting, almost disembodying - there is no ground to stand on here and (yes yes, it's true) I thought immediately of Grendel's mother's watery lair.  Are there caverns like this in the land whence Grendel came? (I know that this leads to "Is Beowulf mimetic, then?" but we don't have to go there now). What brave warrior indeed would swim through these waters lighting his way with a torch? What water demon wouldn't thrive here?

flow stone
There are the same geological formations (straw stalactites and flow stones) that we saw at Squire Boone Caverns, but it all seems muted somehow, by the water and the low ceiling and tight corridors.  It's much darker here, and I realized how much the careful lighting at Squire Boone created a mood.  Here, the only lighting came from the lights on the boat - the light moved with us, and any look back was completely engulfed in an impenetrable darkness. Seeing was done in glimpses and was unaccompanied by touch (our fingers being capable of creating havoc in the ecosystem of the cave, we were asked not to touch).  If we had been able to touch, I would have been in for the shock of my life much earlier.  As he spoke of the caverns and their shapes and their matter, the guide revealed that we were near the limestone capital of Indiana (and beyond), that there were massive amounts of limestone here.  Strange, I thought, how even the color of limestone (which is near white at times) has become a muted brown down here.  Oh, and I should add: there is no algae, and very little life (transparent and blind fish and crawfish) down here. So the space around me positively morphed when the guide told us that the entirety of the cavern stone is encased in mud.

Glacial mud!
Mud, mud, mud - everywhere mud! A thick inches-thick layer of it coating everything! If you look to the far right of the image here, you can see where a passing boat has bumped into the wall and scratched the mud away to the white limestone.  What I thought had been hard rock would have softly pressed in had I touched it.  Savvy Mac collected some of the mud that had scraped onto the boat and gave it to me: it was cool and springy, utterly un-rock-like. The guide said it was "glacial mud," but when I search the term, I get Alaskan beauty products - an option not explored by our Indiana guide. He also referred to it as "peanut butter mud," but I don't even need to tell you that all I'm getting are brownie recipes when I search that.  I'll be meeting with my geologist friend today, and will ask him oh yes absolutely.  Some of this mud is surely deposited by rising waters, but once I could see what I was actually looking at, I realized that this mud is about 5 inches thick on the surface - what time is marked there? and also by the curves (the sculpting!) of the corridors?

The elephant
There's something to register here about privately owned Indiana natural landmarks. There is very little mystique, and much love of effect. Recall the revving of the motorcycles to get the lions to roar at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center.  Here, we came to a huge stone dubbed the Rock of Gibraltar which created a sonar surface.  "Y'all want to hear some sound?" asked the guide?  Gulp. Yes? I know that there would be gentler, more poetic ways to demonstrate how sound moves 350' down a watery cavern corridor, but I can't think of anything that will beat the thunderous effect of our guide slamming one of the square boat seat cushions on the bottom of the boat as hard as he could to make his point. Damn, that was loud.  The physicality of the sound (around my cheeks, through my legs, in the grip of Eleanor's hand) was tremendous as it hurtled madly through the space, bouncing off that crazy thick mud, surely rippling the water as it went.  I would give anything for an image of that sound moving through space. Grendel's mother again.  After the slammed seat cushion sound experiment, our guide turned off all the lights, and I sat in complete, palpable, mind-numbing darkness for the first time in my life. Why does the dark make us quiet? Sure it's some primordial instinct (although I'm so skeptical of the extreme historicism of those) to keep quiet because predators see better in the dark than we do, but we're not afraid of predators, we're in a little boat with a seat-cushion slamming, good-time guide. We were a little floating sociological experiment - completely hushed by the surrounding darkness and the limpid sounds of water shifting around us, until a child broke the silence, and then our relief rippled through to fight the dark.  The guide said that in two or three weeks we would go blind down here (I assume this would come after going stark raving mad). I almost immediately couldn't tell if my body was huge or puny, if I was seated or standing - Oliver spoke of floating. The lights came back on and the guide pointed out a rock that looked like an elephant - a comforting moment of recognition in this (yes) unfathomable scenario.

And then outside, taking huge gulps of warm air, and holding Eleanor close while Iris asked what's next and Oliver wanted to go back inside.  We found a hike, a small trail that looped around a "sinkhole forest."  An entire ecosystem that has grown up around a cavern entrance too small for us to fit in (but apparently they're excavating it to pierce through to where you could!).  You can just barely see the entrance there at the bottom; what the camera can't convey is the vertiginous slope down to the sinkhole.  What the camera also can't convey is Eleanor's screeching phobia of spiders which we discovered when we discovered the spiders as we were sliding down the sinkhole.  My poor darling - I had no idea I could crawl up the side of a sinkhole with a 40 pound child on my back at any speed.  Spiders make the ground shift under your feet, and that was just one too many for her.  Solid ground and dinner in a Turkish restaurant in Bloomington made it all better.  Simple, but telling, moves to bury Grendel's mother and keep the spiders away.