medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
Saturday, July 13, 2013
Will Princess Olive choose Cinderfella?
The scene is set. The Grand Ball is on. In walks Cinderfella (shh! it's really Popeye) in finery bestowed him by his fairy godpappy. Olive Oyl sweeps him off his feet, wooing him with a singular combination of gender, cultural, and temporal hybridity: "Ah, ma chérie, cometh with me to ye Casbah." But it's only seconds before he's confronting Bluto, who is already contemplating Olive's crown for himself. "I seeneth her first!" quoth he. To which Popeye replies with the memorable words "Soeth what?" The scattershot appending of "-eth" onto words that prevails throughout the barely 7 minute cartoon really sticks its landing here. More defiant than dismissive, it's come to embody a cheeky resistance found useful by my children, who use the phrase liberally. The quick n' classy way to signify Things Medieval, the addition of "-eth" simultaneously gives everything a certain flair and makes it ridiculous. It reminds me of Ira Glass noticing that within minutes of being at Medieval Times, he was no longer using contractions: more formal, more correct, but funny, out of place. Misplaced linguistic elegance (your "soeth what," your "oneth, twoeth, threeeth") has the pleasures of both asynchrony and system. The experiences and repercussions (and yes, pleasures) of asynchrony (explored in Carolyn Dinshaw's exciting new book, How Soon Is Now?, and Jeffrey Cohen's excellent review of the same) engage the abandon and defiance of free play - language takes you to medieval times faster than a car to Medieval Times. You can be there, you can get medieval, you can go all funny, simply by tweaking your speech, your system of talking. Adding "-eth" to just about everything is the comic companion to Jonathan Hsy's observation (in the midst of a brilliant meditation on (re)animating dead or endangered languages) that "[v]oicing Middle English aloud is just one way of physically inhabiting a language that is not one's own." With a quick "Soeth what?" my seven-year old makes the Middle Ages her own for the time of the laughter she elicits.
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1869)
"Whose Middle Ages?" is a question we are jolly well asking. Sitting in Ira Glass's minivan and then sharing a banqueting bench with him during that unforgettable visit to Medieval Times, Michael Camille talked about the disparate reasons people momentarily want to make the Middle Ages their own: it's an orderly time (when a knight was a knight and a peasant was a peasant), it's a chaotic time (monsters and miracles and beasts), it's everything in between. What it's not, what it can't be, is authentic. This is what makes medieval re-enactments both fantasy and farce. Where Ira Glass at times worried about the accuracy or correctness of the Middle Ages at Medieval Times, Michael reveled in the fantasy and the play - in the end it's what made Medieval Times medieval for him. That, plus, you get a crown. The class defiance of modern medieval fantasy (so perfectly encapsulated in "Soeth what?") is pervasive, but necessarily occluded in its performance. "You know," the helpful young woman told me as I picked up tickets in the lobby of Medieval Times for me and my students several years ago, "for $10, you can upgrade to royalty." I've never forgotten that. The sweet and simple possibility of moving five rows closer to the action and getting extra medieval Pepsi - for a mere $10! There are so many things to love here: what it means to be royalty at Medieval Times, the ease with which one can become royalty, and the resulting absurdity of royalty. It's, I think (as I read through his travel writing following a trip to Hannibal, Missouri earlier this summer to celebrate the kids' love of Tom Sawyer), what Mark Twain relished: the ease of access that moderns have to the mysticism and pomp of medieval life. The simultaneous immediacy and irony of Medieval Times, A Knight's Tale, and the Society for Creative Anachronisms (the opening question of the website is fantastic!). I'm always amazed at how quickly (how immediately) the Middle Ages can be conjured up ("Soeth what?" / "Getting medieval"). The "transposition of epochs" (a wonderful phrase positioned in parallel to the "transmigration of souls" at the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court from 1889) isn't even necessarily virtual: you can stand in front of cumbersome and plumed medieval suits of armor in any number of castles open to visitors. The owners of the castles in Twain's day "were all out in the country for the summer, and might not have known enough to ask us to dinner if they had been at home" he quips in Innocents Abroad (Chapter 17), well aware that the ease of access is itself a fantasy - that the aristocratic (even if impoverished enough to open their properties for tours) owners of the castle wouldn't give tourists traipsing through their turf the time of day. Even the "lackey" in his "petrified livery" is "malignantly respectful" of the visitors - because class and access, immediacy and irony, fantasy and farce are always complicated.
Eleanor, at seven, has discovered the wit and wisdom of Mother Goose, and, it seems, the built-in invitation to mock them. The sing-song of the rhymes, the absurdity of the situation, and the facility of the moralization (not that she would use these terms) make Eleanor laugh. Sitting and reading for a good while in the garden behind our house the other day, she sighed in a Brooklyn accent, "Mother Goose and her nursery rhymes, what does she know about modern times?" The line, it turns out, is spoken by Little Audrey, bored in school that she has to recite Mother Goose rhymes instead of being able to read her Phony Funnies comic book featuring "Pinhead and BirdBrain." The accent is performed by Mae Questel (born Kwestel and appalling her Orthodox parents as she broke into vaudeville and television) who also gave voice to none other than Olive Oyl and Betty Boop. Cheeky defiance is not a critical mode, but in the rimshots and pot shots it takes at the expense of hierarchy and certitude, it's pretty swell.