Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Things Left Unsaid

Bruegel's Tower of Babel, always
I am used to things left undone: hovering, waiting impatiently, pressing, pleading, finally getting done, maybe - or left unfinished like the Tower of Babel. But I am not so used to things left unsaid. A lot of things can (and probably should) go unsaid. But to be left unsaid, to ask  for and be denied expression, that is different. My teaching and administrative roles have taken a turn lately to where I am now dealing with a lot more confidentiality issues. I find this difficult - no outlet, no place or time to put words to raw and sudden emotions, no means by which to settle a lot of what is unsettled in being left unsaid. I realize how deeply deeply true it is for me that language reconciles reality, especially when that reality is complicated or painful. I am hopelessly prosaic - I go on and on with many words, I marvel at (but do not understand enough and seldom put into practice) the poetic practice of treasuring words so much as to use very few. I don't know that I treasure words as precious objects so much as see them as necessary bricks that I'm to walk on if I'm to keep going. And so I keep returning to the jagged edges of the unfinished Tower of Babel - the ultimate site of things left unsaid once the ability to all speak the same language was stripped from humanity.

I hope that you can click on the image to the right and make it bigger because the bricks there are just spectacular. I became fascinated (nay, obsessed) with them through the "Pyromena" paper I shared at that most incredible of gatherings, the "Elemental Ecocriticism" symposium last April at the University of Alabama (and which will now appear in much esteemed company in an anthology (brilliantly, generously) edited by Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert). The bricks of Babel are the first things made with fire in the Bible and I kept (I keep) thinking of how prosaic they are, one after the other brought forth in blocks.  Look at them there in their neat packets, waiting to be brought into the increasingly confused mass of the Tower of Babel. Moments of modular lucidity in the midst of chaos. That's what I need now: plain speech to enter and shape the structure of complex thought and emotion. But I can't, and I understand why, but I still want it.

Ivory writing tablet and case - at the Walters
And so to change the scale. To move from helplessness to poignancy: from things left unsaid because words are doomed to fail in the chaos of Babel, to things made unsaid because words are meant to fade in the secrecy of intimacy. I will comfort myself about the enormity of silences that seek to be broken with the smallness of whispers that want to stay quiet, and look at these tiny erasures. The wonderful Walters holds an ivory case which holds a tablet into which wax can be poured and inscribed. Words are etched in the hardening wax, the case with its scenes of lovers in and out of the Castle of Love is slipped on, and the lot delivered to a recipient who will read the words, scrape out the wax, melt it down and begin again. The slow motion SnapChat of the Middle Ages in its ephemerality and intimacy. Do you think there were pictures, too? Goofy faces, hearts pierced with arrows, bawdier tracings, mockeries of the duke? I imagine more freedom in assured erasure. In this instance. And so ok, so there are things I can't write about - not because they're great big secrets, but because they're not mine to speak to, they are mine to witness and support as a teacher and colleague. And so ok, even though at times I wish that I could set the situations I'm in to rights with the written word, I can't. So off I go to find things said and then unsaid - the lighter side (the rebellion, the fun, the agency) of silence: erasing instead of erased words. Can you imagine that? In our massive individual archives and digital palimpsests everything we write remains. We can unsay very few things in writing. There is no assured erasure. But in that mass of wax cradled in its ivory case there may have been some of the greatest freedom of writing ever enjoyed by any writers. I wonder what they did with it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Art for All

There are Other Things to talk about in our current world, but this was The Thing that kept coming back, and then the wise and wonderful Alexa Sand posted the Kennedy quote below and I looked up the entire speech and this is the letter that emerged right away. When you send a comment to the White House, you're asked to choose a subject. I chose "Civil Rights." 

Dear Mr. President,                                                                             Sunday, February 2, 2014

            Suggesting that art and its history are not for workers in manufacturing, as your comments in Wisconsin on Thursday did, is a betrayal of democracy. Presented as folksy populism, your comments in deed safeguarded the gross elitism that seeks to reserve art only for the very wealthy. It wasn’t always that way, Mr. President, and it shouldn’t be that way. When my students and I spoke of your comments in class, we were studying cave paintings, art made 30,000 years ago; we were studying images that strongly argue that art is fundamental to the human experience, and that it shouldn’t be denied by socio-economic class or political gain.  I would remind you of the words of your illustrious predecessor, John F. Kennedy, spoken at Amherst College in 1963, to honor the poet Robert Frost:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

I’ve added the emphasis, although I imagine that Kennedy spoke those particular words with fervor.  Please do not make the class divide that America’s democracy already suffers from worse, Mr. President.  Please recall that just because something that should be a priority for all human beings has been hijacked by the very wealthy does not mean that it should no longer be accessible to the rest of America. On this point, art joins good health, economic opportunity, and freedom from fear and want. Please revisit one of the most important goals of art history and democracy: to present the achievements and power of human creativity and make them accessible to more and more people all the time. I very much hope that you might have the chance to see the upcoming film Monuments Men and renew your admiration for the men and woman who risked their lives in WWII to protect and rescue works of art threatened and stolen by the Nazis in a time when art was held in sacred trust by nations and important enough for people across all economic levels that it was fought for at the highest levels of democracy.

            Anne F. Harris
            Professor of Art History

            DePauw University