medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
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 differentvisions.org!) - 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.