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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Whispering In the Reeds

My dad holding Oliver in 2002
Sleep has gone, in that dismaying way you know it has gone when you wake up at 3 in the morning and all of a sudden your mind is racing and you're thinking, "Where's the melatonin/Hypnos, already?" I've been losing abysmally to a sudden and vicious head cold over the past two days and have to hope that being awake now is some kind of resurgence of energy on my part. We'll see. I'm here writing because of where my mind was racing when I awoke. Disclaimer, as one must: this is all very personal, though of course I do wonder about the experience and understood causes of insomnia in the Middle Ages. Upon awakening, then, I immediately realized with a vivid force just how much I used to worry about my dad getting a cold these past five years when he was so much weaker. Yes, it was because of the fear of pneumonia, which he'd had to endure twice already by then, but mostly, it was the idea of his suffering without resource. Colds come and go and you know they do, but when you're in the thick of it, you feel miserable, and I realize now that I used to worry every time one of us had a cold about giving it to him, and putting him in this state, and his not being able to think his way out of it (because of the brain injury, because of his dementia, all of it). It was the strangest feeling, to wake to realize this, and to feel a truly strange sense of relief that he was safe from even such a small thing as a cold.

Ian Bogost has a post up about Object Oriented Ontology and suffering that I got to through Levi Bryant's response to it. (Because yes, I was reading these before I was writing this). It's really just two things that I would pull out for this space: the first is Bogost's idea of attentiveness to all things, the second is Bryant's idea of relation and/over content. Bogost and Bryant are ultimately talking about the human/post-human debate in philosophy and how OOO operates, but here, in the wee hours, I'm finding their thinking tremendously helpful in framing my own life/death debate in my thinking about my dad. It's a debate because here I am rethinking these worries I had in his life, which somehow are leading me further into my own living with his death. I remember thinking about bacteria, about their existence, about how if they were to develop into what we would call pneumonia, it wouldn't be personal - it wouldn't be intentional or moral. It helped, at the time, in that worry, to remember that my dad was part of an enormous web of living things, thriving and pulsing, emerging and receding. I fully understand that these thoughts were easier to have because he was in his late 80s - it's much harder to see that web making sense if you're thinking about someone young. But this attentiveness to that which I feared was a place that made sense to me. (It also relies, to a certain extent, on the idea that philosophy is there to ease human suffering - but that truly is another debate.) I recall a New Yorker article of many, many years ago in which an oncologist wrote of a young woman coming in to look at her cancer cells under the microscope. He described her quiet and the time she took, and I've always thought about her, her attentiveness to the thing that was causing her suffering. This is where Bryant's comment about Lacan and relation over content comes into play. (Again, he's talking about discourse, I'm talking about memory, but this is my whispering in this set of reeds). The content of suffering and of death, too, is at once much too personal and much too universal to contemplate. I cannot describe my father's suffering (at any time in his life), I can hardly describe my own. And yet everyone does suffer, and see, it's almost equally trite and painful to say that death comes to all. But the relation between self and suffering, and between multiple selves around suffering, can be articulated, it can be honored specifically: in memory, especially - in the stories we tell, the pictures we keep, in what we wake up thinking about at 3 a.m.. Worry, love, fear all mingled together in this memory of past colds - but it recalled a primary dynamic in the relation I had with my dad during his last years: to watch over him as he'd watched over me.

The second thing I realized vividly and absolutely in this night was just how much love this man had shown me. I remembered all of a sudden in a way I haven't thought about in probably thirty years, how he would soothe my childish qualms, his hand covering my forehead to check for fever, his thumb stroking my temple to say it was going to be ok, his telling me a story. I just lay there thinking "Wow! That was a lot of love." It's why I put this picture of his holding Oliver ten years ago (probably close to the day, actually!). This picture was taken before the brain injury, and I just love to know that my dad was talking with our friends, all the while holding Oliver who was so comfortable in his arms. I love to see my dad's hand there on Oliver's back, holding him safe. A photograph is a relation that philosophers (and everybody else) has delighted in for well, close to 150 years now. It's related to the relationships that Baxandall talks about in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy - it's a repository for those relations. But you don't have to be a powerful Florentine banker any longer to enjoy it. A snapshot, even more than a photograph, can acknowledge even that most mundane of relations and make it wonderful. For the time it bridges, and the intervening events it ignores, patiently waiting for you to enter into relation with the event it holds for you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's Hanukris Time: the Loaded Latke
It is the moveable feasts of all moveable feasts; the festival of lights and lamb and latkes: Hanukris! Our third annual, and Rebecca and I went for it again. My images won't load, so I'm going with the witty latke mug, because' it's making me smile.  The latkes vied with the lamb this year in utter crazy deliciousness:

LATKES with the following options:
Greek yogurt and honey with pomegranate seeds
sour cream and scallions
wasabi mayonnaise and caviar
traditional applesauce

Butterflied leg of lamb with an artichoke stuffing
Pomegranate Juice infused leg of lamb

I'm totally falling down on the job with the "Christian side dish" - I just can't bring myself to open a can of cream of mushroom soup and cook ironically. So we had steamed asparagus. And then for dessert, my new thing: a cranberry meringue tart. Meringues are cool, alchemy for the easily impressed (which is totally me, since I think egg whites develop photographs, which they do, but not how I think they do). As wonderful, of course, is this occasion to be with our dear friends. Hanukris is a Thing now: the kids look forward to it. They start asking when it's going to be in late November. Oliver and Jakie came up with a restaurant they want to open: the Loaded Latke. I'd be first in line. Moveable feasts are great for reasons that I would love to elaborate upon at some point. For now, this piece from the Biblical Archaeology Society will do nicely as a meditation on the moveable feast that stopped moving: Christmas.

Can you tell there's a mountain of grading to be done? Can you tell that all I want to do is read and talk and cook?  In three minutes, students will hand me another mountain. But I shall grade that one, too, and finish grading All Things this week. Next week will thus be completely mine for the final revisions to an article and the last polishing of the Ecology of Medieval Art syllabus. Huzzah!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Swerving Into the Fray

Mandeville writing, British Library
This will be a brief swerve as end of the semester mayhem calls, but in honor of the charivari of saint Nicholas Day (when the lowly young clerks ran the show for a day in the Boy Bishop festivities), and in honor of some of the best student presentations I have ever seen (which worked across the medieval-renaissance divide and were deeply engaged in the lives of the texts and images we've been studying), I just want to add the briefest of statements about periodization, this habit of naming ages and pitting them against each other.  Few eras in history suffer as badly from this obsession with naming as do the Middle Ages, betwixt and between, neither old nor new, never full here or fully there.  And yet, despite attempts to relegate them to the infinitely liminal, the Middle Ages remain an object of fascination and inquiry.

All the more disheartening, then, to not only see Stephen Greenblatt write a book that relies heavily on the Middle Ages being a Dark Ages (and honestly, writers haven't had to rely on the "closed" mind of the Middle Ages to make their own age "open" and "enlightened" in decades - shame on him), BUT to see him awarded for it.  There are several brilliant conversations going on about this at In the Middle, and I highly recommend reading these smart and insightful critiques of Greenblatt's book and the concept of periodization in general, and a really smart analysis (with links to reviews) at In Romaunce as We Rede. Greenblatt's book was excerpted in a late-summer New Yorker and for the first time in my life, I was prompted to write a letter to the editor.  I spent way too much time on it, but I was so unnerved to watch this scholar whose fascination with Mandeville kind of makes Marvelous Possessions for me insist over and over that the Middle Ages were closed to curiosity, questioning, pleasure, beauty and wonder that I wrote it and sent it in. (I guess that I need to reread the Mandeville chapter, look for more sinister ways to understand what he's saying). The letter to the editor never was published, of course, but, hey, I get to be the Boy Bishop out here, so I reproduce it herein forthwith.

Stephen Greenblatt's essay "The Answer Man," traces the excitement and poignancy of wonder and pleasure in the face of death with a thrill to discovery that made it possible to imagine Lucretius's project as never before. I would only question his characterization of a "Dark Ages," as a time in which "the idea of pleasure and beauty" was "forgotten" because of a gnawing fear of death and damnation. No culture is so monolithic as not to contain what to us might appear as glowing exceptions, and these often rethink our sure historical boundaries.  When Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) saw herself as "a feather on the breath of God," or when Marbod of Rennes (c. 1035-1123) described coral's ability to quell lightning, they were turning a keen eye to natural sensations, their pleasures, and thrills. When Poggio discovered the Lucretius manuscript, he did so in the tradition of a long line of medieval marvelers who had translated Pliny, Vergil, Aristotle, Dioscorides, and many other classical authors of science.  Medieval wonder is resplendent with different idioms than modern science, but to overlook its ability to marvel is to miss an important chapter in the history of human curiosity.

I stand by these words, more than ever.  I can mourn the lost opportunity to further push restrictive boundaries of thought that Greenblatt has squandered, or I can invite you to join me in charivari laughter by following Bruce Holsinger's fantastic Twitter feed in which he uses quotes from the book itself to make apparent the absurdity and small-mindedness of relegating an entire era of human endeavor to darkness.  I'll undoubtedly be doing both as we continue to think through the sense (or nonsense) we make of the past.