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.