medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
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?