Friday, February 24, 2012

The Specificity of Experience

Cloisters Cross, 12th. c., walrus ivory, the Met
I have had this post in my head for 3 days now with nary a minute to spare and now I am tired and in between things, and when will I ever learn to HEED THE MUSE when she comes knocking?  Sigh.  But, I'm about to leave for another week-end away, an important week-end, and I want to get this idea down.  I thought almost constantly about "Monsters and Marvels" this week as we started working with medieval anti-Semitism.  Students wince and shirk and honestly don't want to know - wish it hadn't happened, don't know how to respond. I've agonized out here about showing students things in class more heinous than they would encounter in life, and host desecration accusation (and its ensuing pogroms) is right up there.  But this time, I knew what our entry point into the hate and the difficulty would be.  We'd read Kathleen Biddick's brilliant chapter "Christians Mapping Jews" from the non-stop brilliant The Typological Imagination; circumcision, technology, history in which she argues that far from a murky and unknowable depth that we should shrink away from in despair and not deal with, anti-Semitism emerges through a precise set of rational (and rationalizing) technologies.  Enter, maps, the alphabet, and printing, and abuses of history.  She cites the Paris 1240 condemnation of the Talmud (and the 1242 burning of the Talmud) as a "denial of coevalness," a primitivizing of medieval Jews.  With the Talmud, and its contemporaneous commentary "gone," the Jews became Hebrews of the "Old Testament," from a far-off time, and (and here is where urban technologies and the medieval creation of ghettos come in) a far-off place.  The students and I worked through some of the history and I started to feel the quiet and the not-talking, and so I had to stop and I had to ask rhetorically why we were reading about this - beyond the "lessons of history" model.  And what emerged is this idea of witness - that by studying this, by gaining knowledge of it, we are honoring the suffering of those who perished.  We worked hard to articulate answers to all of these awful questions, but we had to have the humility of witness as well.  And this worked, and it actually opened up conversation and students wanted to talk about the rational technologies that assure/prop up racism and homophobia as well, and these past two sessions have been honest in their limits, I feel, but reaching in their depths.

But then I look at the Cloisters Cross and the Jewish and Christian figures debating between each other upon it.  Scrolls are as gestural as hands, and the nature of the divine is debated between Christians and Jews (as it was around the Victorine school of 13th century Paris). The texts leave us with incredibly lively back-and-forths and smug Christian victories, but I wonder about the actual debates themselves, I wonder about the specificity of that intellectual (theological?) curiosity.  I wonder about the specificity of experience.  Does the experience of anti-Semitism have to speak to that of racism, homophobia, sexism - all of the ills for which we seek social justice?  Or in this call to witness, is there a call to specify, to notice this ill in its specific contours? At what point can suffering be claimed by a person instead of a people?

This might be the week-end to keep these questions in mind.  I'm off to a Posse retreat in the woods where students lead faculty members into thinking through their experiences of college, life, and everything in between. The topic for this week-end is "Gender and Sexuality."  Oof.  Posse is a smart program that brings a group of urban students to small liberal arts colleges and finds that individuals thrive within that group, aren't lost within this strange, white crowd quite so easily, and are happier - do better.  DePauw was actually mentioned in a recent New York Times article about the organization.  I'm excited (honored) to go, even as I can't possibly imagine what awaits.  The vicissitudes of academe being what they are, two week-ends ago I was in Naples, Florida with the Board of Trustees and there were cocktails everywhere and people playing steel drums in the lobby (!) for atmosphere. This week-end, we've been told to bring our own bedding and snacks as the food is "very institutional."  This might be what bonds us as we search for the specificity of experience, as we seek to witness difficulties, and maybe triumphs, too.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Making My Way Back

Broceliande Forest
A grant has been granted and I am on my way back to Brittany.  To forests and friends and a landscape that has become legendary in the depths of my longing for it.  I will be working towards a wooden, painted choir screen from a small chapel in a small town called Le Faouët.  The article that is to follow will be, I realize, my first publication that seeks to introduce a work of art that has had very little play in scholarship. I'm leaving the massive stomping grounds of Chartres and the Roman de la Rose for these quieter woods.  There's folk religion and liturgical space, which are familiar territory, but a new navigation of the issues in ecocriticism. If I could leave tomorrow I would.

Iris at Montneuf
Being there without Mac and the children will feel very strange.  I will see them around corners and playing in fields and yearn for them, I'm sure.  And bring back little pieces of Brittany to prepare for their return, not yet knowing how we'll do it.  But I bet we will.  For two years Brittany has been a space of memory and story-telling, as well as a fertile ground for teaching projects and research.  Now it's about the become real again, and I breathe deep at all the possibilities.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Monsters Without Monsters Within

A little strange to start with this image of the Arnolfini (convex!) mirror from my posh hotel room in Florida, but the undefinable, unbounded, and uncertain space of a convex mirror is precisely where I need to be to talk about where it is that we work so hard to put our monsters. Are they in the room or projected only in the image? Are they on the mirror or in our mind's eye? Today was our day with Grendel's Mother (and who wouldn't want to spend an afternoon with that helldam?) but the conversation wound up being largely shaped by a talk presented last night by Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.  How our little college does this is nothing short of miraculous, but there was Leymah Gbowee, splendid and direct, and there we were, packed into the American Gothic gathering hall that somehow this time felt perfect and intimate - but that was all her.  She spoke of Liberia, and a peace process with roots in anger, and energy in these incredible fellowships of women she creates, and the relentlessness of the horrors of the Liberia of Charles Taylor, and the drive to keep doing this.  And at the end, a student asked her the strangest question (you could feel the apprehension ripple through the crowd): "What good do you see in Charles Taylor?" he asked. She took the time to smile and, having pointed out (to the crowd's relieved laughter) that Charles Taylor was a sociopath, she took the time again, this time to say "I absolutely believe that in every soul, there is a little light." And the room was absolutely still, absolutely silent, wondering about this fiery woman's magnanimity, "And also, a little darkness."  And the idea is that you can build on the light, or you can build on the darkness - and there's no perfect state to start from and end to, there's just you and the care of your human nature.

And I should try and figure out why this offer of an interior origin of evil meant so much to me, but all that I can tell you is that it provided a powerful contrast to the increasing wonder I was experiencing at just how much evil can be understood to be exteriorized in Grendel and Grendel's Mother. Grendel is the outcast of outcasts, his mother is a water-demon - they are the evil "out there" that visits "us here." They are the evil (and believe me, the Anglo-Saxon is way better: hail-watcher, death-shadow, hell-brute, troll-dam) to be purged from the landscape. Beowulf is good and heroic and does it.  And so with the Book of Enoch and a great article by R.E. Kaske from a 1971 Speculum issue about "Beowulf and the Book of Enoch," we started working through this problem of the interiority vs. exteriority of evil.  Many things needed to be defined (evil for one, since there are so many: some indeed that emerge from within and take over, others that fall heavily from elsewhere entirely), but really, we were after the "nature," the character of Grendel's monstrosity, of the monstrosity of Grendel's Mother.  The argument goes that knowledge or a version of the Book of Enoch was around when the poem Beowulf was composed (either through oral tradition or written down) sometime in the 8th century (the date of Beowulf is a matter of continuing debate - really intense, continuing debate), and that its monsters influenced the character of Grendel and Grendel's Mother.  The monsters of the Book of Enoch (especially in books 6-16) are the offspring of the Sons of God (fallen angels? descendants of Seth?) and the daughters of men (descendants of Cain) - they should have never been, but they became and they taught men the arts of metal working, the beautifying of the eyelids (!), and astrology and, and, and, until they had revealed "the eternal secrets which were preserved in heaven, which men were striving to learn." They also starting devouring humans and spreading unrighteousness and terror everywhere all over the world (the follow-up is that God wishes for a clean slate and concocts the deluge, enter Noah and you're back in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament proper). It's such a vivid telling of the origins of evil that it's a wonder to me that the Book of Enoch (itself!) became an outcast (apocrypha) from canonical writings (both Jewish and Christian except for the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches), and that it would be Adam and Eve who would carry the day on Original Sin. It was written about 200-300 years before the birth of Christ, and became apocrypha about 200-300 years later (the Dead Sea Scrolls have significant chunks). 

And so we turned it over: is Grendel's Mother the bit of darkness inside us that has grown on the need for cold vengeance and hurtful fury? or is she the evil visited upon us from the outside, a terrible settler of accounts we may not have known we were the debtors of? The interest came in articulating how she was both, rather than deciding which she might be. The variation of scale on which we could ask it of her was staggering: from an individual evil to the mass murders we can scarcely fathom. And we can ask it of her also because she seems less helpless than Grendel in her fury, her violence is more precise, scarier - more like a human might be. And yet, she seems more both spirit (interior) and body (exterior).  We watched the encounter between Beowulf and Grendel's Mother in the 2007 Zemeckis film written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, in which Grendel's Mother feeds and thrives on (perhaps is even nothing more than a full projection of) Beowulf's desire for power and glory. That was individual. But Charles Taylor led an entire nation against itself in still unimaginable slaughter. We talked and talked and could not pin her down.

I have no way of understanding the ravages of the civil war in Liberia.  I only have that incredible hour in the presence of Leymah Gbowee who worked to make it stop. And Grendel and his mother, emerging from within or creeping down from without.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hapless Cretins

Oliver's Blemmyae, not a hapless cretin
There is so much to do that I can't stand it anymore, and if I'm to get anything done I have to stop doing things for just 20 minutes.  There are some things to savor and to realize: it's my "Monsters and Marvels: Visualizing the Other in Medieval Art" semester and we've had two really good days thanks to spending a whole day on Jeffrey Cohen's (as ever fantastic) "7 Theses" on Monster Theory.  I revamped and re-organized the course and it now has more theory (Monster, Orientalism, Race) and a better order from Prester John to Columbus.  I decided to take my time with the Marvels of the East, now that I know the Vitellius (the c. 1000 one uniquely in Anglo-Saxon, with Beowulf and the sketchier images) and the Tiberius (the c. 1050 one in Anglo-Saxon and Latin with the fleshier images) manuscripts better.  So today, it was Vitellius with a terrific-in-every-way article by Asa Mittman and Susan Kim ("Anglo-Saxon Frames of Reference" - get it at!) - Thursday will be Tiberius with Greta Austin's piece and structure and soteriological concerns.  The students are articulating entirely different opinions (hard to do sometimes in the Midwest) really well - Mittman and Kim's work with simulacrum helped get that going (what imaginary system do you make your reality accountable to?).  So I've been thinking a lot about the Monsters and Marvels class and thinking ahead.  And I suppose that I've been talking about it more than I know in the family, and clearly leaving pictures open on my computer, because lo and behold, at the Wonderlab on Saturday, Oliver calls me over to those disconcerting pushpin things (where you push yourself through from the other side and it leaves a ghostly impression of you) (and you pick up a million germs from the last kid who shoved her face through) and says with great pride, "Look, Mom, I made a Blemmyae!"

Blemmyae, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f 82r
When you look at the example from Tiberius, it's really pretty swell!  Oliver's is markedly happier, but there's something about the red and the framing (and the excellent erasure of his head in favor of the face in his chest) that made it instantly, warmly recognizable as one of "our" monsters.  The recognizability of the monstrous is interesting: just enough details to "know" that you're looking at something you'll never actually see in real life.  Oliver was full of gifts this week-end, notably the phrase "hapless cretins" which he used without any self-consciousness in asking a question about, basically, carnies (he asked it sympathetically, curious about their plight).  I tried not to laugh, but it's been useless - I'm laughing right now. It's not at all in thinking about the meaning of the sentence (we wound up having a whole conversation about working at amusement parks vs. carnivals and the itinerant life and why there are really no happy circus movies). There's just something about the phrase, the way the words work so beautifully together.  Devoid of its medical meaning, cretin is just an all-around great word (used medically, as one of Mac's oldest relative once did in describing a mentally handicapped family member, it's tragic and sad).  Hmm, just looked it up, and the etymology is French 18th century - late.  Not a medieval word at all.  Well, that makes sense if you think of Augustine, who saw both monstrous races and monstrous births within individual races (whatever he may have meant by races) as ordained/orchestrated by God - not to be shunned, and certainly not to be denied salvation (whether they wanted it or not).  In the medieval world, a hapless cretin is not a monster at all - it's just a hapless cretin. Medieval monsters are anything but hapless, and thus (?) not cretins in the slightest.  Certainly not when I have a student in 2012 Greencastle talking about "when we realize the monster understands us better than we understand it." Shudder.  All this to say that the phrase is proving enormously useful in moments of self-criticism ("Oh, don't be such a hapless cretin, write the 10-page curricular change proposal you're supposed to write!"), but I reserve the right to wield it upon others when things get even more intense later in the semester.

Dervishes, BN ms. fr. 2810, f. 299
In the meantime, I am to be one of three speakers at the newly inaugurated "Winter College" for the Board of Trustees' "off-site" (i.e. posh Florida golf resort) meeting.  I am the only academic speaker (the other two are wildly successful businessmen) and so have plenty of ambivalent feelings about the whole thing.  These wash away in the face of three anticipations: getting to talk about "Image and Imagination in New Worlds" (pure evocation, gorgeous images, great original sources quotes), getting to see my godparents (whom I haven't seen since my wedding in 1998), and the crisp and quiet of some outrageously comfortable hotel bed.  Nothing like naïve eagerness to dispel qualms.