Friday, November 30, 2012

Medieval actually really does meet world!

Courtly Comb, the Bargello in Florence

How about that? I have a post on the Material Collective blog! It's entitled "On Speculative Touch" and benefited from the Gothic Ivories project at the Courtauld (a wonder), as well as the usual gratifying pages of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a trusted companion).   The post itself is a meditation I've long considered on objects awakened by touch.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mimesis and Intention

Helictites of Marengo Caves
Mimesis and intention are two crucial terms in traditional art history (what does the image look like? did its maker intend that for it?).  The field asks different questions now (about appropriations by the audience, about the agency of the image), but I find myself drawn to what is surely a mimetic fallacy in caverns.  We were in Marengo Caverns today, close to the town of Marengo, named after the Napoleonic battle for Marengo, Italy in 1800, its own (really weird) kind of mimesis.  And throughout, part of the delight of being underground again was in recognizing what the formations might be, seeing resonances with things above ground.  These helictites gathered together in bunches looking like so many little trees, the calcite deposits above them flowing like drapery. Roger Caillois did this with abandon in The Writing of Stones, each stone more available than the last to express a mimesis, an aesthetic understood by humans. Why do we do this?  It's almost irresistible, and yet surely absurd: mimesis pulls away from the ontology of materials...

The Crystal Palace
 ... it asks paint to be the Mona Lisa's smile, it asks stalactites to be an organ, it turns the mind away from stone and towards a Crystal Palace, a futuristic city, a moonscape. We do this all the time to nature, we apprehend natural forms and rethink them: a tree looks like an old man, a rock like a landscape. The only thing I can say in defense of the mimetic impulse/fallacy in an Indiana cavern is that in limestone (of which these caverns are carved) being a sedimentary rock, it does indeed participate physically in things above ground: somewhere in the mud and sediment that became limestone, there were trees - crushed, compressed, carried. But this is a physical resonance, not an aesthetic one. And it takes millions of years for this layering of trees into rocks to occur, and my mimesis takes but a second.

A stalagmite
And then the matter of intent. The careful placement, it seems, of stalagmites - some, in alignments, some perfectly framed by surrounding stone, solitary statues, abstract carvings.  It looks intentional; it looks placed there just so.  That, in some ways, is no more mind boggling a thought than the geological reality that the entire cavern -- all the arrangements and alignments and placements -- is the result of insistent, indeed relentless, chance.  A push of water bringing with it sediment here, an accumulation there, a concentration here, and before you know it (and I mean that literally in terms of millenia), an entire composition has been created - a scene, an environment, sometimes with symmetry and a center, often with whimsy and expression.

But is there any possibility for mimesis in nature? It is, after all, the cardinal indulgence (ask Tim Morton in Ecology without Nature) of the human apprehension of nature: to make it what it is not - to reduce it, to wrench it, to the human. There is one thing that I would argue cavern formations represent, however, one thing I would vouch they are mimetic to: time.  This impression is just as untrue as trees in the helictites, but it is, I realized today, the punctum of these visits: the awe and poignancy that keeps me coming back.  A cubic inch grows every one hundred years (the amplitude of "cubic" slowing down the process even more: the formation doesn't just grow one inch up or down, but one inch all around).  So yes, these stalactites are images of time, perhaps monuments to time's passing more than anything else.  And to time passing so beautifully, so randomly, in such seemingly purposeful poses. 

Mere Lake
There are many opportunities to fool yourself here.  An entire vista reflected in a limpid pool, one that looks to be dozens of feet deep, but turns out to be only a few inches of water.  The lighting of the caverns is kind of like the editing of a movie - the silent commentary that absolutely shapes the narrative.  The cave was discovered by Blanche and Orris Hiestand in 1883 (15 and 11 years old respectively), who did so by candlelight.  A week later, the property owner had the cave open for paying tours, with big changes in 1910 and the 1970s.  These are the human agents, the intentions of whom are clear.

Yes, they held square dances in the caverns
Clear, but strange nonetheless.  There's more I need to read in order to understand not just our mimetic impulse towards nature, but also the 19th and early 20th century mimetic uses of the caverns.  The ease with which, elsewhere, Howard Carter and his investors dined upon linen tablecloths laden with fine china and thick silver in an Egyptian tomb; the glee with which, here, an annual "underground square dance" is announced as an extravaganza.  And so: a huge opening in the cave with 20' tall ceilings becomes a grand ballroom; a rock that juts out before an open space becomes a pulpit for a pastor to preach (from 1924 on into the 1940s); a smooth, grand mound hosted Elk Lodge meetings until the 1950s; Boy Scouts slept here until the late 1970s  - it's like an extreme mimesis: a mimesis of use.  "Can we let nature be?" - I can ask this very literally.  What is the non-mimetic apprehension of the natural?  There are books about post-humanism that I am eager to read to answer this question (there are geology books, too).  In the meantime, I register this phenomenon: the more I visit these caverns, the more mimetic my response - as though a growing familiarity with the natural avails more human fantasy.

Pennies from Heaven
To end, then, with a reminder that we are, after all, in Indiana.  Marengo Caves is a National Landmark, but it benefits from little to no government oversight, and in previous cave visits, this has meant everything from banging boats in order to create sound effects to other home grown fantasies.  Here, there is a stretch of the cavern whose ceiling is entirely covered in mud - all of it, a slick, smooth, pervasive surface.  And so, were one to throw pennies up to the ceiling, one would have the happy satisfaction of seeing them stick up in said mud.  The cavern becomes hungry for the pennies, keeping most, letter others fall - another story, another mimesis.  The camera wants to play, too, making a mud surface full of pennies look like a night sky, offering new constellations of possibilities.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving here and there

A sentinel for the turkey
Maybe it's been reading Sara Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, and savoring its critiques and ironies of the Boston pilgrims since mid-September, but a Tandoori Turkey seemed like the right thing to do.  So with all Modern Family references granted, and with thanks to Bon Appetit, Eating Well and Rachael Ray (can you believe it?) here was the menu for today:

Tandoori Turkey
Naan and Cashew Stuffing
Cranberry-Mango Chutney
Peas with Coconut, Cumin, and Coriander
Cardamom Vanilla Custard
Cranberry Meringue Pie
Sweet Potato Pie
quite a bit of wine

Mac, wonderful Mac, constructed a three-hour playlist alternating between modern Indian dance music and 17th-century English madrigals (as recommended by our 17th-century English music friend, and yes, I am thankful to have such a marvelous friend) and we ate and oscillated between two very different worlds - Plymouth Pilgrims and Bollywood Boogie.  Oliver somehow combined the two in this futuristic sentinel role, guarding the turkey against... cats? This was a Thanksgiving of individual slices, maybe disparate things: Iris's sweet face completely beset by poison sumac (sumac!) and treatments both modern (steroids) and medieval (unguents galore) - missing my dad - and then this glorious, happy news of a new life, sooner than we thought, but safe: my brother's son, soon to come home from the NICU at George Washington University and named Emmett Alexey.  And so now to put the kids to bed, to pour another glass of wine and talk of many things.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

10 Years in the Same House

Village of the Year 1000 - Morbihan, Brittany
If you Google "medieval house" while seeking an image of such a structure before finding your own (see left), the top hit will actually be a Minecraft tutorial on how to build a medieval house in the imaginary universe that is Minecraft.  Oliver and I could totally bond over this! But for now, I'll just savor the idea of a virtual hearth, as the surrealism and good fortune of today set in.  For today is the 10th anniversary of the day we moved into this house.  Oliver was five months old, we had commuted from our previous town with the little guy twice before calling a realtor for a house in this town, and we had decided that moving the day before Thanksgiving was a good idea.  We couldn't find anything with certitude except Oliver for the next month, but we made it: we settled in, and this funny 1960s split-level house with a nice, long history of eccentric owners became ours.  I don't think that we're the longest-lasting owners of the house, but I do know that this is the longest I've ever lived in any one place. Mac, too, for that matter. This is my twelfth abode in life, spread out over eight cities and forty-three years, with long-term Parisian and Breton stays blessedly sprinkled throughout. It goes quickly, this living in a habitat thing.  And I think of the big moves: from Switzerland to the States, and (bigger even, more intense) from the Northeast to the South, and then (who knew?) from the South to the Midwest. Each time, re-establishing a world, making it familiar. And I do think of medieval habitats: hearths rebuilt, thatch renewed, births and deaths from year to year.  The Village of the Year 1000 was just that until it was abandoned for bigger villages in the fief around the 1500s.

Alley outside the Village of the Year 1000
But archaeologists were able to clear part of the main alley that encircled the village and it's here, more than the perpetually renewed thatch houses, that you can feel and start to see the age of the place. The moss does such good work signifying time and ruin (and I have lunch next week with a botanist to talk about moss and time and ruin in preparation for Brittany in January).  Remembering habitats has been a strange and fleeting process: I remember neighborhoods better than rooms, individual furniture better than floor plans, specific events better than addresses.  These frames of the familiar, borderlines of the mundane, keepers of fragile memories.  As I commemorate and realize the steadfastness of this home, the others become more narrative, less structural - more moss, less thatch.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

On problematic sympathies for authors and artists

Venus Draws Her Bow. MS. Douce 195, f. 148v
The spring of 2006 saw my first teaching of the course "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" (the one that should be called "Desire and Subjectivity in Medieval Art and Literature").  It's a course comprised of one part epic, one part Arthurian legend, and one part Roman de la Rose.  I've always wanted to expand into other illuminated dream allegories, but once in the Rose, well, one gets snared by the thorns most assuredly.  This fall is my fourth time teaching the course, which also means my fourth attempt to master the Rose.  More on what that could possibly mean in a minute.  First a pause, a digression if you will, on having problematic sympathies for certain authors and artists. Somehow this is all related to my being fascinated with Kipling and Iris Murdoch, too - neither of which you're supposed to be fascinated by or even think of teaching (not that I have) or deem as having any particular merit. My continuing to read Iris Murdoch I can explain personally: I am drawn to her excruciating analyses of the mundane, her descriptions of tinned foods, of repeated gestures, of worn ways.  I come back to read how she will peel back that layer of the mundane to poke around irresolutely into unfulfilled passions, thwarted desires, bad wishes.  She usually does it with some explosive dramatic act which makes for fun reading, but (I've been told) bad literature. I've never read her philosophy but will always pick up one of her books to enter the characters' lives - and I would reread The Sea, the Sea always. Kipling is a different matter, not so much personal as interpretive.  He approximates the struggles with Jean de Meun more closely (but I always think of him and Iris Murdoch together as my literary sins or misplaced sympathies, so there you have it).  I cannot help but read Kipling as satirical to the English imperial project. The mincing rhythms of "The Young British Soldier" (picked up a few years ago and rewritten by a British soldier serving in Afghanistan to slam the military's treatment of its soldiers), the imploding fantasy of The Man Who Would Be King, especially present this edge of satire to me.  And I know I'm wrong, that's what gets me. I know that Murdoch is not a particularly innovative or radical philosopher or writer, and that Kipling fervently believed in the missions of the British Empire. But it's with these two (and maybe with Jean de Meun) that the work starts to separate from the author, that there are things I come to in the works that the authors never meant to provide.  This phenomenon is nothing new (although I wish that I had a pithy name for it), and has allowed thousands of people to admire Gauguin's art (he himself was a jerk). And so it is with Jean de Meun, whose complex dream frameworks, challenges to the process of interpretation itself, and endless games of "catch me (my intention) if you can" draw me back year after year.  Despite the misogyny, despite the arguably sadistic toying with the reader, despite the unnervingly different interpretations that he presents (is the whole damn thing a screed against love or a series of subversions and rebellions that push the concept of love to new radicalities? But this year, I think I have him. This year I think I mastered the Rose. And all I really mean by that, I realize, is that this year our own interpretations overcame our attempts to pin down his intention. We took the text elsewhere.  To the ethical problems of using realism to provoke social change (the Jealous Husband speech as a call to activism against domestic violence); to testing out the weight of the moral burden of literature and art on the shoulders of the author/artist, the work of literature/art itself, and the reader/viewer.  But in the back of my mind, I still see two Jean de Meuns: one smiling and nodding calmly that this kind of ethical quagmire was exactly where the text should place its readers, and the other looking at me like I'm a freak and stalking off across the Paris University courtyard muttering about women.

Who's to know?  All I do know is that the prompt I wrote for class discussion this time around gave us a power to interpret and take the text away from the dichotomy of either apologizing for Jean de Meun or championing him that we hadn't had before.  This is ironic only in that it was the promise of reading the Querelle de la Rose between Christine de Pizan and the Col brothers during the next class session (and the querelle revels in exactly this dichotomy of apology and championing) that made this one possible. So, for the sake of posterity and my own rethinking on this, I copy the prompt below, and am left to wonder, now that I have him where I want him (now that I've plucked the Rose), will I be done with this problematic sympathy and move on to other authors? René d'Anjou has a lovely illuminated dream allegory in The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart...

And so we come to the convoluted center of the Rose.  You will be reading key excerpts of five speeches:
  • 7201-8424: Ami's advice about love (pulled from Ovid's Ars Amatoria (the Art of Love of which we read excerpts), remembered by the Lover and told to us.  This is, in its call to deception, strange advice to receive from a Friend (Ami).
  • 8425-9330 : the Jealous Husband speech (a "ventriloquized" speech in that it is embedded within Ami's speech (i.e. what we read is Ami re-telling the Jealous Husband speech), which is itself remembered by the Lover and told to us). (9331-9463 are Ami's response to the Jealous Husband speech, and contain the stunning declaration close after 9391).
  • 13781-14516 : the advice of the Old Woman (also pulled from Ovid's Ars Amatoria), which offers the equally stunning declarations of 13845 and the lines following 14263) - Chaucer fans: Alisoun, the famed Wife of Bath, was modeled directly on the Old Woman!
  • 15105-15272 : the author's apology (this incredible passage comes at the textual center of the Rose, and this placement has given it great importance - does the placement give it the supreme importance to determine the meaning of the entire Rose? this has been debated for hundreds of years).
  • 16317-16622 : the speech of Genius about secrets (a brief, but key passage I include here to add to our discussion - plus, secrets are fascinating)
Having just emerged from an election which included a much-discussed "War on Women," we are well positioned to study this series of statements about women's "true" natures.  In both the modern and the medieval "war," sexual violence played a role.  In our recent election, the violence of rape prompted statements about the power of female chastity and the will of God both.  In our medieval Rose, we witness the first ever this graphic description and discussion of domestic violence.  It is hard to read, and I will completely understand if you lose patience with the Jealous Husband - indeed, being angry with the Jealous Husband may be the entire point here.  Nonetheless, we are presented with a problem of the ethics of readership/viewer - and authorship/art-making: the Jealous Husband speech is incredibly violent and mean, but it is embedded within Ami's re-told speech which is itself remembered by the Lover.  The author's speech is presented directly, not through any frame whatsoever, possibly even outside of the frame of the dream - does that make it more honest? more real? It makes a pretty powerful apology for what we have had to endure in our reading.  Genius's speech follows the author's apology, and is spoken in the midst of the narrative action that will result in the take-down of the Castle of Jealousy and the conquest of the Rose. The question I have for you is simple enough to write, but will require you to consider difficult options within the ethics of readership: Does the frame forgive the content? Does the Jealous Husband's speech ventriloquized status diminish its power? its claims? does it ridicule it or amplify it? Does the author's apology "make up for" the Jealous Husband speech? Does Genius's speech "undo" the author's apology?

How does one find an ethical footing within this text? Many manuscripts used images to start to chart their way through the Rose's complexities.  Desmond provides wonderful information within her article which you are welcome to read in its entirety, but her work with the images of the Jealous Husband speech on pages 86-98 provide the most direct analysis of what I wish to discuss in class with you: this problem of interpretation, of how to deal with painful and violent realities like domestic violence and misogyny.  Please read those pages (starting with the line "The speech of the Jaloux is frequently illustrated..." and ending right before the section on "The Vieille") with particular attention to the discussion of images leading up to the point: "Taken together, these images, actually emphasize the vulnerability of male heterosexual perfomrance" on page 91.  Together, we will join the thousands of readers who over the past several hundred years have struggled with this text, and we will forge our own understanding of it.  Do we take it seriously? Do we take it as satire? What are the ethical benefits and perils of each stance? Can't wait for Tuesday!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Really Nice Dream

Opening of the Roman de la Rose, MS Douce 195, late 15th c.
I don't know if it's my impinging decrepitude or just too much of everything but I have been tired to the point of no longer working at night for about three weeks.  Where usually Mac and I settle down to work at around 9:30 p.m. and get a few good hours in, I'm in bed by 8 or 9!!!  It could be that grief changes sleep patterns (what one kind friend suggested), or I'm just getting older and can't do the night work anymore.  Two good things have emerged, though: one is that I get up on my own much earlier, around 4 or 5, and of course I'm finding those hours just as quiet as the night-time ones, but now with a much clearer head.  The other thing is that I'm remembering my dreams much more often. I haven't been able to remember a dream since the wild and crazy ones of the pregnancies (lush landscapes, impossible bodily feats, lots and lots of discussions with fictional characters).  But now I do. And two nights ago I dreamed of my dad for the first time.  And it was one of those dreams where the feeling stays with you all day long, and, in this instance, on into the next.  And the feeling was great, pure and mischievous joy. We (the wonderful amorphous "we" of dreams, a combination of familiars and welcome extras) were in a restaurant at the end of a long and wonderful meal. And my dad was there, laughing and smiling, standing behind some dinner guests to talk to them, lounging against a piece of furniture with his hands in his pockets, one ankle crossed over the other.  I was standing on the other side of the table, watching him in wonder and amazement, looking at his legs - so relaxed and strong; looking at him - so comfortable and happy, sharing his customary warmth, listening to the guests, delighting in them.  I was so incredibly happy, felt so deeply at home.  And then it hit me, in the logic of dreams: here we all are, loving my dad's company, but he's dead, and so, are the waiters just seeing us talk to an empty space in the room?  But he's here, he's really here, and the waiters are just going about their business clearing plates and bringing desserts.  And it did, the dream, have that tingly feeling of a shared secret: we were all there, and Dad was there, and reality was none the wiser.

I've been teaching the allegorical dream poem, the Roman de la Rose, for the past two weeks and it may slowly be having its effect on me.  This is my fourth time teaching it, and I think that I finally have a grip on how to teach the images in conjunction with the text, on the ethics of readership issues (how do you read misogyny? what do you do with the knowledge of bad/sad things?), and maybe even on at least how to outline problems of interpretation: must we mean what we say? the repercussions of straight or queer readings, of face value or satirical approaches.  The authorship of dreams is so mysterious - somewhere between Freud and Scipio (and Cicero and Macrobius) identities and desires flicker.  We want to know why we dream what we do; we'd love to know that we write the scripts.  But we also know that we are not in the realm of complete consciousness, that we have left our fulsome subjectivities.  And so what we wish for enters, sometimes feeling more real than the denial of the wish that reality itself insists upon. To see my father laughing and relaxed in body, to feel his delight in the midst of jovial company, to know him to be enveloped in warm welcome - it was more than a gift: it was abundant and glad, and (and I do love to continue to think this, and it does provide me with this lasting secret joy), reality was none the wiser.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Laughter and Fire

Abraham and Isaac, Chartres Cathedral, 13th c.
There is a place where laughter and fire meet, and that is in the story of the Binding of Isaac.  (Though one does wonder about the presence of laughter in the union of firestones - Marian Bleeke wonders about their gender here.) "Isaac" isn't only a name, it's a lovely phrase in Hebrew: he laughs, he who laughs, he will laugh. The announcement of his birth caused the first controversial laughter: Abraham laughed to think of parents as old as he and Sarah having a child; and Sarah laughed (and here you must decide, for she and God and Abraham do a little back and forth on this) to think that a woman as old as she could become pregnant from a man as old as Abraham.  But she did, and Isaac was born, and at a certain age (he's a child in the images, but the text indicates a young man) he became a part of one of the must haunting stories of the Bible (all those commentaries, all those images).  In this beautiful window from Chartres, the story of the Binding of Isaac is split into two panels placed on either side of the Descent from the Cross (the entire window is typological, creating a kind of visual echo chamber between Hebrew Bible/Old Testament events and New Testament events). I say "beautiful" because representing this particular scene, in which Isaac carries the wood that will be lit for his sacrificial pyre, is relatively rare. There's a human touch here in the small child struggling with the (of course) cruciform wood, while his father looks back - to hurry him along? to comfort him? to offer to help? The dangers, the trouble, the agony of reading the Binding of Isaac story is reading it literally. You just can't. What father would do that to his son? And so, let the interpretations begin, about tests and loyalty, about prefigurations and mercy.  Thank goodness.  This panel is also exceptional to me in how it isolates all of the key elements visually: Isaac, the wood, Abraham, the fire.  Stained glass, whose existence relies of fiery processes, is in a unique position to represent fire. There's a thickness about that torch flame, a depth of color, that gives the fire character: controlled and sure now, before it's to be used for unimaginable purposes.  The fire that Abraham will light believing he is about to sacrifice his son because Gold told him to, is only the second one lit in the Bible.  The first occurs in the firepot that burns between the pieces of sacrificed animals as God makes his first covenant with Abraham, the one about land. The second fire is Isaac's. And the scene above reveals Genesis 22:6 ("Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together") with an unnerving simplicity.

Abraham and Isaac, N. transept, Chartres
And so laughter and fire have been conjoined for a long, long time.  Their suddenness and their power and their salvific ability have been sought since the earliest stories of the Bible.  The story offers moments that have nothing to do with its ending: volatile moments that turn the story from beautiful to sinister, moments that themselves oscillate between blessed innocence and horrific knowledge.  This sculptural group from Chartres is one. I have always been completely captivated by the way Abraham runs his fingers along his son's neck, how divided his attentions are between his dear boy whom he steadies in that gentle touch and his inscrutable god to whom he addresses with his gaze.  I have always wondered about Isaac's stance: his hands are not actually bound by anything, they're just resting that way, his legs in slight contrapposto as he relaxes against his father's body.  I always imagine him pressing his left ear into his father's palm.  His feet are bound, resting lightly on the ram's head - the animal figure upon whom Isaac's deliverance depends.  Melchisedek stands to their left, ready with ritual offerings, ready to make all of this symbolic and take it out of the realm of the real. Away from the intensity of a boy who is laughter and a sacrificial fire.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Rembrandt, c. 1629 Indianapolis Museum of Art
Laughter, like fire, is difficult to represent visually.  Something so sudden and glad, warm and quick, resists the stilling of representation.  Videos are fine, but they lack the rush of both, the chemical changes in the room provoked by both.  When I asked my wonderful chemist friend how he would define fire chemically he did so as "visible energy."  It's that energy that is elusive, that you want to be a part of, that you want to be warmed by.  The essay that will eventually be dedicated to fire thus far explores its dark side (its accidents and manias), but here, in the warm afterglow of the election, in thinking about a couple of discussions in the "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" class, in finding more reasons to laugh than earlier this semester, and more moments around hearths, I'm going to ask about laughter and fire, about mirth and hearth (wow, are those words ever pleasant even just to say - oh Old English, how I love thee).

There's a room in the IMA that's designed like a library: three walls are lined with books, and there are leather reading chairs, and the requisite globe and table for a toddy.  The room is intimate and entirely devoted to self-portraits.  This early self-portrait by Rembrandt presides. It's been through the Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt ringer and I think emerged as Rembrandt - and yes, we could have an entire conversation about authentic laughter and artificial fire and their inverses.  But I love this painting because it hovers right before (or right after?) laughter. Let's say it's the moment before. It's this beautiful moment of dawning realization: the joke becoming funny, the spark igniting the flame.  There are multiple other ways to interpret the fabulously ambivalent expression on his face: hesitation, wonder, surprise - but I am turning to the moment before laughter this time, perhaps to think precisely of that hesitant pause before laughter breaks out in a room, the bated breath before the fire takes.

4th image of the Gawain mss.
We wondered, in "Love and War" about the laughter of King Arthur's court at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  My literary friends will tell me if there's an elegant solution to it out there - we remained happily mystified. We had just worked through the four scant images of the manuscript, pared down images that contrasted with a text so rich in visual imagery because it led you along so steadily across a multitude of visual details to imagine: from the tip of the Green Knight to his toes, from the beginning of the forest to its center, from the first horn of the hunt to the presentation of the pelt, and so on.  The images don't lead the same way: they hold still the most intense confrontations: the Green Knight and the court, Bertilak's wife and Gawain, Gawain and the Green Knight, and Gawain's return to the court.  All four of those moments are so intense: everything is in play, enormous tensions barely contained by their settings (courtly, domestic or sylvan).  And three of the four further construct Gawain's demise: the challenge of the Green Knight will fall to Gawain, the seduction of Bertilak's wife will be his fall, and the meeting with the Green Knight will reveal the ruse.  But the final court scene, to us, unravels all the tension, disassembles the demise in that one incredible moment of laughter.

2513þe kyng comfortez þe kny3t and alle þe court als
2514la3en loude þerat and luflyly acorden

"The king comforted the knight, and all the court laughed loudly, and all agreed..." (a much better translation exists, but it's at the office). Gawain is seething in shame just before this moment, just mortified at all that's happened. And that the court's response is laughter -- warm, enveloping, forgiving laughter (as they all pledge to wear a green band in solidarity with Gawain) -- took the students by surprise. Maybe I'm being naïve, maybe it's mocking laughter - but it doesn't feel that way. It has that gladness and relief - of the end of the game, of the warmth of recognition.  The image doesn't re-present the laughter, it sets up the joke - the return of the errant knight, the welcome of the gathered court, the kindling of shared mirth.