Thursday, December 13, 2012

"Long Live Restless Texts!"

Yvain Lunete, Laudine. Paris, BN, fr. 1433, f. 118
It's that moment of the semester in which I oscillate wildly between a lapel-grabbing "Have I taught you nothing?" and a tender "Soft, what light from yonder blue book breaks?"  It's exam week and I'm grading or writing letters of recommendation all the time. Students feel this rush to dismay or ecstasy as well, with little notes at the end of the exam, some singing the praises of medieval secular art and literature, others remonstrating that if they'd had more time... This semester's "Love and War in Medieval Art and Lit" class was particularly terrific: twenty-two students and all of them engaged, very generous with each other, very trusting and thorough - and so great discussions every time.  At the end of an essay on "Frames and Games" a student wrote: "Long Live Restless Texts!"  A happy cry, indeed.  The idea that the texts we read were "restless" (never quite easing into an easy authorship or authority, being pulled in different directions by different illuminations, never easily settling into a message or even an ending) was one that we started to develop even with the Song of Roland but really kicked in with Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de Champagne's collaboration on Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart.  In the end, they were all restless texts, or rather, the restlessness was what we prized about the texts.

We read the  
  • Song of Roland 
  • Conquest of Orange 
  • Floire and Blancheflor
  •  Crusader Songs
  • Yde and Olive [does anyone know of a translation? we used Anna Klowsowska's marvelous chapter in Queer Love in the Middle Ages which provided translated passages, but I crave the entire work in an edition I can teach to undergrads!]
  • fabliaux
  • Ibn Hazm
  • Andreas Capellanus
  • Chrétien de Troyes: Lancelot 
  • Hartmann von Aue: Iwein
  • Gottfried von Strassburg: Tristan 
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 
  • and the Romance of the Rose interspersed with the Quarrel of the Rose and other writings by Christine de Pizan.
I love each and everyone one of those texts so much - and I love how images interact with them all, pushing meaning towards the literal, the allegorical, the symbolic; stilling, valorizing a particular moment. I love that this is a course with very few masterpieces of art - none of them are named, few are instantly recognizable.  But what I treasure most is the students' acculturation to open-ended texts, to, as one student so well said, "an appreciation for episodic structure rather than an anticipation for dénouement." That's a big shift in expectation when you think about it - but then, that's orality for you, too: episodic, open-ended. We became very involved in the trajectories of stories, especially as carried along by images - Tristan and Isolde on an ivory mirror back, Lancelot on a Sword Bridge on a church capital, Yde and Olive understood through an image of two women playing chess from an Alfonso manuscript.  The image I include here, illuminating the end of Yvain's adventures, invites an entirely new trajectory in understanding Yvain and Laudine's state as "happy" by showing the two lovers entwined in bed. Happy indeed.  Possibly my favorite comment came from a student interested in the trajectory "from secret to story" (yes, I had a question about secrets, this time involving Gawain and the Rose).  Maybe every story starts out as a secret, or with a secret, delightful tragic beautiful.  That the students sought the restlessness of that trajectory, well, that was a fine thing.

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