Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Nice Day!

A Message from In the Middle
The great and good scholars at In the Middle are heralding the new, but already deeply steeped in ritual and fervor, tradition of "International Hug a Medievalist Day."  I absolutely adore the poster (great graphic quality!) and especially prize the choice of what looks very much to be a detail of a Visitation image: Mary rushing to embrace Elizabeth, Elizabeth rushing to embrace Mary as they both feel the "quickening" movements of Christ and John the Baptist in their wombs.  It is one of the greatest hugs of all time, prized for all of its unspoken knowledge, painted for its promise, and exploratory of the bonds of friendship - between the women, between the boys.  The Visitation has been painted thousands of times, a pause (a hug) in Christ's Nativity narrative, before it picks up speed and the dramatic action sequence of the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt take over. 

Pontormo, Visitation, 1514-16
 But there is no gladder rush to friendship than Bill Viola's remarkable Greeting video (thank you, SFMoMA, for the clip!), in which the artist brought a Pontormo Visitation to life by staging the figures and then slowing down the real time of the approach and embrace (something like 3 seconds) to a full minute (or five or ten - it feels like a blessed forever).  The short, tersely spoken but intensely felt passage from Luke has been subsumed by this rush to gladness. Mac and I saw the video projected in Paris at a church right near Les Halles (and Innocents church?) and I'll never forget it. It was awesome.  The hug of all time.

There's a medievalist, or a crypto-medievalist, or a neo-medievalist, or a quasi-medievalist somewhere in your midst: give them a hug and feel good about the complexities of the human condition!  :-)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Breton Fantasies/American Realities

Another Breton fantasy
It doesn't take long to realize that Brittany is French cinema's favorite place to go for tales or moments of beauty and wonder, renewal and healing, meditation, and life realization. The landscape lends itself to those emotional phenomena, and frames whatever narrative moment you've got with poignancy and meaning. And so I'm turning over in my mind the latest use of Brittany as setting for such a tale in 17 Filles, the French take on the infamous American high school "pregnancy pact" (there was no such thing save in the high school principal's (maybe) and media's (definitely) imagination). It's very much worth reading the critique by June Thomas of Slate because it will get you past the bluster of trying to understand how on earth French directors Muriel and Delphine Coulin could romanticize the sad phenomenon of seventeen teen pregnancies at the same high school in Gloucester, MA into what appears to be, in the trailer anyway, a beautiful phenomenon of seventeen beautiful young women creating a pregnant utopia at the same high school in Lorient, Brittany. Nowhere is the Atlantic wider between France and America than on issues of young femininity. The key distinction is, as Thomas points out, that the French state provides enough social and medical assistance that the Breton teenagers can afford to rent a place together and create their utopia - whereas the American teenagers are, in total opposition, rendered woefully dependent upon their families (who cannot support them in the first place) by the absence of any significant help from the state. And so I find myself in the strange situation of being angry at the Coulin sisters for creating an impossibly romantic situation that would in fact be possible - but in France only. (But even there, one (the American) wonders about the realistic wear and tear on the teenage body (on any female body) of pregnancy, about the complexities and difficulties of pregnancy, as wondrous as it is - never underestimate the power of French culture to romanticize every single aspect of the feminine experience, continues the American - whether that power to romanticize is affirming or oppressive is for us all to debate). I have to get beyond the American Realism/French Romanticism dichotomy that this film puts me in the mind to writhe within, because I hold French Romanticism dear for showing us beautiful things. Teen pregnancy is an ugly phrase in American discourse, bespeaking failures of morality, economics, and opportunities. In this French film, it just doesn't seem to be, and I'm unnerved by the possibility of thinking, even for a minute, that teen pregnancy could be a beautiful thing. There's much to be said about the morality and aesthetics (that gorgeous pool scene in the trailer) of teen pregnancy, and I should see Juno before too long. For now, I just marvel at the seemingly inescapable French cinematic solution that strange beauty is best set in Brittany. Is it the deep layer of Arthurian legend in the landscape? The world apart of a terrain marked by such ancient human aspirations as neolithic megaliths? The sublime sweep of those beaches at the end of the world? Brittany as refuge and possibility, for the translation (in every single sense of the word) of tragedy to romance.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Interplanetary Travel

Astronomers atop Mt Athos, BL24189, f. 15
Possibilities are speeding up. We're in the liminal breath-catching week of spring break, and then six more weeks of hurtling forth, and then Kalamazoo, and then summer.  There's a pull now to stories of travel, really far away travel.  I think of Mandeville's astronomers to our left here and their calculations and their measurements and I wonder about what they desired. There's infinite interest in their instruments and groupings and the sticks (alignments?) they're poking at the illuminated letters of a cryptic language upon the ground. Images of astronomers studying the planets show up regularly in the treatises of late medieval moral education I've been studying.  It would be easy and tempting to fold their presence into a desire for universal conquest bestowed upon the princes meant to read these treatises, but I wonder about taking their presence at face value for a little bit: about considering the morality of interplanetary (any?) travel.

Mercury et al. BNMS143, f. 26v
Goodness knows the planets themselves were moralized. Here, with the author wishing them good luck, Mercury sets out with Juno, Minerva and Venus to help the Lover negotiate an inter-planetary chess game, through which he will learn much about the human condition. The planets were given names and adventures and motives, all within an allegorical framework now seen as (wow, almost literally) window-dressing to the physics and astronomy through which we experience planets today. But what if these planets really did have a morality? Never mind what if we saw them that way. What if there was a character to Jupiter that wasn't just gasses and mass? What if Venus really is the only planet that resonates with the feminine? Oh wait, it would mean that nature has morality, too, and Darwin took care of that (thank goodness).  As ever, there's no nostalgia in these wonderings, more of a curiosity about how these medieval frameworks still shimmer beneath our own every once in a while (and why they do). 

Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1917
Take the film John Carter (and the 1917 Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars Barsoom series along with it) - universally, it seems, rejected by the public, adored by myself, my family and those we love.  Who wouldn't want to see how machines on Mars were imagined in 1917 and illustrated in 2012?  Why wouldn't it make a marvelous kind of sense that an American Civil War veteran would wind up in the midst of another civil war on Mars?  Interesting to me in all this, is the kiss of death: what didn't capture audiences. Was it the inter-planetary romance? (apparently, that's a sub-genre of science fiction which I find inexplicably delightful) Was it the confusion of the civil war itself? (human creatures (but with blue blood instead of our red!) fight each other, while skinny green tusked creatures watch and try to choose a side) Was it, could it be, that whatever racial politics motivated Burroughs to write the Tarzan series are present here and unappealing to modern audiences?  Is it the pseudo-science as too thin a veneer for skin-tight outfits and the weird, disturbing sexiness we so often ascribe to aliens?  When Mandeville writes about peoples beyond the realm of the imagination in the 14th century, it's their kinship structures he describes in detail. For us post-Freudians, we always have to know the sex lives of others.  I should take the time to figure out why we loved it, but the end of my time alone here draws nigh - it wasn't plot or character, it was watching the future  back then now. Some love of the gesture of making a 2012 film of a 1917 imagining of a Mars-in-1917 reality. That can't be why Oliver and Iris loved it, so I'll need to ask them more.

Because it was so easy to get the kids to come to Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's performance at DePauw of Gustav Holst's The Planets, premiered in (hello!) 1918.  "Mars" had both girls clutching my arm, and "Neptune" left the entire 1400-seat hall suspended in his mystic web - followed up during the applause by Oliver literally gasping for air at how awesome that had been.  A father of a dearest friend of ours who came with us intimated that had the pieces not been named after planets, the orchestral suite by itself would never have become famous.  Quite perhaps so.  But therein lies the power of our imaginings of the persona, and necessarily then morality, of the planets.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Just So You Know

From the genius at WTF-Art History
The adjoining image was devised by the genius behind the inexhaustible font of works of art that stun and amaze. The range of spaces and popular culture references are hilarious, and remind me to consider what most students think they're in for when they come to an art history class. "Who knows?" is the only thing I can answer now. This semester has me oscillating between the wild romp that is the Renaissance to Modern survey (it's Monday, must be the Rococo! French Revolution by Friday!) and the critical confrontations that are "Monsters and Marvels." It's been actually hard to switch from one mode to another, more on the issue of pace than content (turns out critical romping is an option). I stumbled over theoretical readings on Orientalism by Said and Uebel last Thursday as it became apparent to me that students had little idea what I was talking about when I referenced the readings to the Crusades. I have a hard time teaching theory without a historical context, without any images to test the theory on. But I should have waited for the history and images this time around, let Said and Uebels have their say. Beauty of teaching is, there's always a next class, so tomorrow we're going to Jerusalem to look at the Holy Sepulcher as colonial architecture.

Mandeville and the Sultan, BN ms. fr. 2810
But in some ways what I really want to do is revisit Said and Uebel's ideas of (Western) knowledge (about the Middle East). How do we come to know the Orient? the Holy Land? Whence the certitude of our knowledge (these sure institutions that guarantee knowledge)? How does the West exercise this knowledge? And I always return and look forward to thinking about Mandeville's exchange with the sultan in which the sultan reveals all that he knows of Christianity (and it's shocking). Two remarkable men spoke at DePauw tonight: Imam Yahya Hendi and Rabbi Gerald Serotta of Clergy Beyond Borders out of Washington D.C.. The conversation was about inter-faith dialogue writ large (how does it happen? what does it mean?) but of course the most powerful force in the room was the two men's long-standing friendship and collaboration. They spoke of knowledge "from the inside" - not books about Judaism but going to a service, not television shows about Islam but working together on a Habitat for Humanity project. I asked about what we do with history (the hate speech of the Crusades, medieval anti-Semitism) and they spoke of confronting history thinking simultaneously of texts and interpretations. Texts present themselves as highly authoritative, of course, but interpretation is what keeps them alive - the point is to interpret them (and the tough ones are the ones rabbi Serotta identified as "genocidal texts" in the scriptures) towards the good. A Talmudic interpretation of the call to kill inhabitants of the land for their evil was that those evil people no longer exist, that that work is done, so move on - don't repeat. And somewhere in between texts and interpretation lies history. And beyond that us. And I'm struggling where to put images. Do they emerge with history in the space between texts and interpretation? Or do they emerge with texts? Images are not as originary as texts in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Nor are they entirely secondary. They are perceived as human manifestations of divine presence (sometimes will) in the Middle Ages - but they are, as Michael Camille always said, just as flawed in the translation of the divine word into human experience as human language (text) is. They offer a knowledge, too - not of history, not of texts, of something else. Of the process (the need) to visualize knowledge, to enliven it with gestures that provoke more interpretation.

Geez, this was going to be a funny interlude in class prep, reveling briefly in the goofiness of Academe, but Seriousness somehow prevailed. That will not do. In "homage" to the one Republican candidate whose knowledge of the Crusades prompted him to defend them (!!!), I leave you, with thanks to the dear friend who put me in the know, with what we now know him to be saying. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Temperate Zones of the World, 15th c.
A friend of mine from San Francisco in graduate school used to rejoice and ask to get to our rooftop patio whenever he'd be over and there was, as he would call it, "weather."  The rooftop patio was not as fancy as it sounds (much improvised by our landlord to raise the rent) and I always worried about him up there during tornado warnings or big, windy storms, or severe thunderstorm warnings.  But he'd always come back down soaked, windswept, and exuberant - "Now that's weather!" he'd say, and then we'd all get back to debating Foucault or our professors' personal lives or something else really important.  Now, and not just because I live in the Midwest, and not just because of global warming, weather has become very interesting indeed. The horrific (and so early in the season) tornadoes of last week, now that I see them in images, drive home the force and possibly the will of nature.  The last vestiges of the medieval belief in the will - the possibly malevolent agency - of nature is the legal phrase "Act of God."  I could savor the fact that one of the very last places in our culture where divine agency is still universally accepted and applied is the incredibly secular sphere of the law.  Wait, I think I will.  An on-line legal dictionary defines an "Act of God" as an "inevitable accident" and then goes on to debate "whether a violent storm of other disaster was an act of God (and therefore exempt from a claim) or a foreseeable natural event." I do wonder if global warming will eventually be blamed for late February tornadoes.  For now, it's getting ready to snow in Henryville, IN (the small town that was completely destroyed by the tornado), which just seems cruel.

Nature and Art, MS Douce 95, f. 115v
Nature was notoriously anthropomorphized in the Middle Ages, perhaps most notoriously in the Roman de la Rose, where she seems more concerned about sex and the propagation of the species than the weather. (Venus will take care of her concerns later in the poem) But nonetheless, this is one of my favorite images: Art kneeling in homage before Nature's superior powers (here, forging the life of an animal) to Art's mere re-presentations.  I've always been intrigued that Art is on land (grounded?) whereas Nature hovers above the sea, above the murkier, more mysterious watery element, within which floats a small mountainous crag. These places of Nature apart from Art become in our culture, places of authenticity apart from artifice.  Nowhere did I feel this more strongly than at the Posse Plus Retreat last week-end.  We were indeed "out in Nature" and the goal was absolutely some kind of genuine experience.  I watched with a distinct combination of admiration and dismay as the facilitators brought 150 college students to catharsis on the issue of gender and sexuality.  It's no mean feat, and they did it in 36 hours.  But we (cranky, disoriented-by-the-proceedings professors) felt like a lot of it was done on the backs of a very few students and their public, cathartic, confessionals.  None of it would have happened if we hadn't all been out there in the woods. And I would argue that the cold makes you feel exceptionally vulnerable.  Wind-whipped, not wind-swept.  Negligible. So much flotsam and jetsam on the earth's surface.  That's certainly what came to mind making it into the art building on Friday amidst cold, high winds and hail (hail!).  Do I start to wonder, as medieval thinkers did in considering temperate and intemperate zones and their effects on character, that Achilles and Aeneas strode forth so valiantly, whereas Beowulf triumphs only in the night and under water?