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.

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