Sunday, December 31, 2006

Noted with interest: Lacan's medievalism

From the UMP website:

Lacan’s Medievalism
Erin Felicia Labbie

Reveals the important links between medieval studies and Jacques Lacan.

One of the foundational premises of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical project was that the history of philosophy concealed the history of desire, and one of the goals of his work was to show how desire is central to philosophical thinking.

In Lacan’s Medievalism, Erin Felicia Labbie demonstrates how Lacan’s theory of desire is bound to his reading of medieval texts. She not only alters the relationship between psychoanalysis and medieval studies, but also illuminates the ways that premodern and postmodern epochs and ideologies share a concern with the subject, the unconscious, and language, thus challenging notions of strict epistemological cuts. Lacan’s psychoanalytic work contributes to the medieval debate about universals by revealing how the unconscious relates to the category of the real.

By analyzing the systematic adherence to dialectics and the idealization of the hard sciences, Lacan’s Medievalism asserts that we must take into account the play of language and desire within the unconscious and literature in order to understand the way that we know things in the world and the manner in which order is determined.


Introduction: The Unconscious Is Real

1. Singularity, Sovereignty, and the One
2. Duality, Ambivalence, and the Animality of Desire
3. Dialectics, Courtly Love, and the Trinity
4. The Quadrangle, the Hard Sciences, and Nonclassical Thinking
5. The Pentangle and the Resistant Knot

I'm curious to see which medieval texts Labbie selects, and how much of what she says is new. I also wonder how much of Lacan's medievalism is really the same as his catholicism. Looks intriguing.

Friday, December 29, 2006

2 MLA observations

(1) This meeting of academics has to be the most concentrated gathering of people sporting "cool" (expensive, sleek, ostentatious) eye glasses that ever unfolds anywhere at any time.

(2) It is slightly unnerving to be surrounded by people who look vaguely like you, reminding you that you are not so much an individual as a type.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry MLA to all

Off to Philly on Wednesday for the Big Meeting. Very little blogging before and after.

Unlike many, I actually enjoy this convention. Even when my time is dedicated mostly to interviewing job candidates.

UPDATE 12/27 7.30 PM
After two hours on what was apparently the world's most crowded train, I'm here in Philadelphia. Because GW is hiring for two positions this year, I'm staying in Interview Central: the Embassy Suites, where each of the 25 floors has 12 suites mostly inhabited by departments interviewing job candidates. Do the math: that makes this hotel the center of the MLA job market vortex. The elevators are filled with a mixture of aging academics in their festive convention attire and young scholars nervously heading towards their interrogations.

Friday, December 22, 2006

We Interrupt This Blog to Bring You This Announcement:

Eileen will be on hiatus visiting Luddite relatives without Internet connections who will resent her trying to sneak off to wireless coffee shops until Saturday, January 30th. Until then, as the year draws to close, just remember George Bailey's important words, "I want to live, Lord! Please, Lord, let me live again!" Or something like that.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The shrunken head upon my Christmas tree

Eileen gave us her holiday-inspired ruminations yesterday. Today I offer a few of my own.

Last week, just as Hanukkah was revving up, I mentioned the syncretism that haunts the various celebrations occurring at this time of year: both Christmas and Hanukkah have quietly absorbed rituals that don't have all that much to do with the historic events they commemorate. The birth of a child in a Bethlehem manger and the miracle of eight nights of oil are not innately connected to fir trees festooned with electric bulbs, holly and berries, gift giving, lighting candles against long nights, the celebration of winter's advent and the dwindling of the year. The present has a way of not forgetting what is ancient in human history: the impulse to joy at winter solstice, for example. Eileen was wondering about where god might be in all this end of the year activity, or in the command that sent Abraham with a knife to a mountaintop. Right now I'm wondering why it is that, even in the absence of gods, the short days and the long darkness here in the northern hemisphere move us not to gloom but to hope. I also wonder (following Eileen's train of thought again) if hope isn't really what we mean, in the end, by love.

Back to syncretism. The great historian of Anglo-Saxon England, Bede, wrote of a king of East Anglia who couldn't completely commit to the New World Order instigated by Christianity's advent. Rædwald kept two altars in his temple, one for sacrifices to the parvenu God, "and another small altar on which to offer victims to devils [that is, the pagan gods]" (Ecclesiastical History 2.15). Here we see vividly the syncretism for which the period is now renowned: a commingling of traditions without synthesis and (at least for people like Rædwald) without much cognitive dissonance. A contemporary analogue of Rædwald's dual altars might be the Easter Bunny: clearly this furry little fertility symbol, striding into houses to deliver more fertility symbols (eggs), has little to do with the person whose resurrection is being commemorated on that day. Easter silently gathered to itself primordial celebrations of spring, procreation, fecundity.

As you can guess, I have no problems with syncretism. We can be as purist as we like, declaring that randy rabbits shall have no part in our paschal solemnities, or that having a Tanenbaum in a Jewish home is like hanging a cross instead of a mezuzah, but we are thereby denying a part of what makes us creatures of history: our reluctance to abandon the ancient when asked to replace old celebrations with novel ones, our inability to forge wholly new identities, our intractable gravitation towards the cycles of birth, death, light and dark that provided humanity's first glimmer of an awesome and endless exteriority, of what might be the divine.

This is a long way of explaining why the Cohen family of Bethesda, Maryland -- who do in fact have a mezuzah on their door and a hanukkiah blazing away each night at their window -- also have a Frasier fir in their living room so decked with lights it can barely support itself. Yes, it is a Christmas tree, and it is topped with what looks to be an angel ... but on closer examination that Seraphim on the topmost branch is actually a dachshund in a white robe with a halo, a saintly version of our dog Scooby. You won't find a nativity scene beneath the Christmas tree, nor "small altar on which to offer victims to devils ," but on its boughs you will spot the following objects dangling: ornaments shaped like disco balls; two toucans; Sponge Bob Square Pants in a Santa hat; a pickle; some cows; a flamingo in a hula skirt; and a shrunken head. In our family we have a saying: "It isn't a Christmas tree without a shrunken head."

Happy holidays, everyone. May the year ahead bring peace, love ... and hope.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

On Religion and Love: Some Random Thoughts Prompted by the Season

I have said before, in another context, that I have wondered whether love, in our present moment, might not represent the ultimate taboo subject for critical thought. Sexuality, even queer sexualities—sure, that’s “in” and cool as an academic subject, but . . . love? Now, with Christmas looming [a holiday that, in one sense, revolves around the idea—admittedly a Western Christian notion—that God loved us so much—“us” denoting stupid, vile, and sinful humans—that “He” sent his “only son” to earth to die to redeem us; only, it wasn’t a real death, was it? I mean, if you know you are going to “rise again,” it kind of takes the sting out of death, but, oh heck, forget the fine print], and also with various religious and ideological conflicts raging around the world, I am thinking again about love, and about all the ways in which I am both in love and in hate with religion, both as a human impulse [or even, possibly, as a substrata of human neurology] and as a cultural institution, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, what-have-you. I should be up front, I think, and share that, although I was raised Catholic by parents who were mainly indifferent to religion [but who signed a contract with my mother’s family to raise me Catholic so that her family—Irish Catholic in a strenuously dogmatic fashion—would accept my mother’s marriage to my father, who was raised by “dissenting Congregationalists”—seriously; my brother and sister were raised Episcopal and every Sunday the three of us would dutifully tramp off to two different churches while my parents mainly stayed home and drank martinis and listened to Sinatra LPs], I have spent most of my life fiercely wanting to be Jewish. Think of me as a kind of Simone Weil-in-reverse. She was raised by agnostic Jews and spent most of her life wanting to be Catholic, but never converted because, in the end, she couldn’t belong to anything, whether a labor union or a church or a political party, that was “organized” [and that insisted, further, on strict adherence to any kind of ideological dogma]. And neither can I.

But still. I really have wanted to be Jewish for a long time, and almost converted a few years back when my best friend Amy [raised by an Arkansas Baptist] converted. We talk about it a lot and I will be attending her bat mitzvah on December 30th, so this subject has been on my mind a lot lately. There is not enough time to enumerate all the reasons here why I have wanted to convert; suffice to say, it has something to do with how I view Judaism as a deeply ethical religion that focuses more on the “here and now” of daily life than does Christianity, which I see as too focused on rewards [or punishments] in a supposed afterlife [it’s the whole “works” versus “grace” thing, and I’m on the side of “works”]. When I finally realized that I couldn’t belong to any religion at all because I mainly can’t stomach the horrors done in the name of religion [and because, deep down, I don’t really believe God exists and I think any idea or representation of God is mainly a wildly hopeful fiction], and also because I think religious orientation is deeply culturally constructed [hence, if I’m anything, I’m Irish Catholic and trying to be a Jew would be like forcing myself into an historically inauthentic identity], I gave up on the idea of conversion. And anyway, conversion from what, exactly? Since I’ve never really practiced any religion with any degree of sincerity, converting *to* something would be a deeply inauthentic act. Or so I think. But like Woody Allen’s rabbi Ben [played by Sam Waterston] in Crimes and Misdemeanors, I want to believe, “with all my heart, that the universe has a moral structure.” In any case, I mainly sublimate my religious feelings by reading Simone Weil [especially her short writing collected in Gravity and Grace and her only long work, L’Enracinement], Emmanuel Levinas, and Zygmunt Bauman [especially Postmodern Ethics], and watching Kieslowski films [especially his Decalogue and Trois Coleurs trilogy]. For the consideration of fate and chance, I throw in Paul Auster and leave it at that.

But why should any of this matter here on In The Middle? Well, perhaps because religion, in general, is so deeply historical—it relies upon the imprimatur of history to lend it a certain sacred realness and “truth.” It has need of stories—narratives—and the more “ancient,” the better. Indeed, it relies on the idea that virtue, or morality, is not possible without its codified encouragements and threats, all grounded in historical precedents. It partakes in primeval forms of mysticism and magic. In some traditions—especially the Christian one—it offers a chance to cheat time, and therefore history itself. It “grounds” itself in sites that become artifactual pathways to foundationally sacred moments in past time. It offers images of an “original” communalism, but also of various “original” heroic acts of self-sacrifice, without which love is not thought possible [or eternally guaranteed]. Indeed, the “old” stories of religion provide somewhat of an antidote to the insight of sociobiology that, as David P. Barash put it in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “selfishness resides in our very genes.” Or, as Freud put it, in Civilization and Its Discontents, the “ideal” commandment of the New Testament, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” “is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man.” Further, Freud wrote,

. . . men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.

Ouch. But, while loving one’s neighbor may be the ideal commandment of the New Testament, the supreme commandment of the Old Testament [and of the Torah, or Pentateuch], would seem to be, “obey God,” and further, “obey God without question, without hesitation, without even thinking about it.” Such is the lesson Abraham demonstrates when he agrees to murder his son at God’s behest, and also because when God initially calls him, his answer in Hebrew translates as, “Here I am,” as opposed to Cain’s response to God’s question regarding his brother’s whereabouts, which is to both say “I don’t know” and to ask, belligerently, “am I my brother’s keeper?” [or, more literally: “am I supposed to keep track of where my brother goes?”]. The stories of both Cain and Abraham, foundational in many respects for Jews and Christians alike, are highly important in the Western tradition and yet, I would argue, they offer counterintuitive lessons. Throughout the Middle Ages, the figure of Cain was especially important as the historical progenitor of “monstrous” races [or, at the least, of pathological persons], and much medieval theological writing—both Christian and Rabbinic—sought to explain the various ways in which Cain was somehow spiritually [and therefore, also humanistically] deformed even before he killed Abel [he is viewed in some Rabbinic accounts, for example, as the child of Eve and Satan, or as having been born from the “impure” side of Eve’s body, with Abel being born from the “pure” side, etc.]. Grendel in Beowulf, as we all well know, is supposedly a descendant of Cain’s. A much overlooked and incredibly comprehensive treatment of this subject is Oliver F. Emerson’s “Legends of Cain, Especially in Old and Middle English,” PMLA 21.4 [1906]: 831-929.

But the point I mainly want to make here is that, as mightily as some may have striven to demonize Cain, his story, I would argue, is one that we can readily understand, even as we may harshly judge his actions. In other words, he had a very human motive for killing his brother: jealousy. God favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s, thereby making Cain feel belittled and unwanted. Fratricide, of course, is seen as one of the highest types of murder, even today, but the original story displays, not a monstrous man, but a very human one—albeit, ill-equipped to deal with what he views at the world’s injustice to him. Abraham, on the other hand, held up by many theologians, and even philosophers such as Levinas, as an ideal example of a perfect servant of God’s [or, of the ethical relationship “to the Other,” more generally], appears almost inhuman to us. No matter how many times we are told otherwise, his unstinting obedience, even to the point of being willing to murder his own son, strikes us as unfeeling, even barbarous [a great and much underappreciated film that touches upon this subject, which is based on a true story, is The Believer, starring Ryan Gosling as Daniel Balint, a Jew who hid his identity in order to become a neo-Nazi and when discovered, committed suicide]. What kind of a god, we want to ask, would create humans just so he could ask them to annihilate each other in his name? Of course, God isn’t really asking that—it’s just another one of his “head games,” but why should such blind obedience to a “first principle,” let’s say, always trump one’s individual desires? Why is freedom given, only to be used as a kind of cognitive technology for always choosing God over everything else? Wouldn’t that result in a kind of historical passivity in which, frankly, human history could not even happen, or could only go in one direction?

It is precisely because human beings love the world, and those closest to them in that world, too much, and will often choose that world over God, that there is, indeed, what I would call real history—one that has no particular direction, but is tied instead to the various passions of its actors [with these passions ranging from love to hate, joy to bottomless grief]. This has something to do, too, I believe, with what Freud identified as the libido, or “love-force,” of which sexuality is only one manifestation. As Jonathan Lear explains it,

. . . a person is erotically bound to the world. That is a condition of there being a world for him: that is a condition of his sanity. . . . love is not [in this scenario] just a feeling or a discharge of energy, but an emotional orientation to the world. That orientation demands that the world present itself to us as worthy of our love. That is what it is for the world to be lovable. . . . The world must now be conceived as, at least potentially, providing an occasion for [individuation] . . . . [Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New York, 1990), pp. 153-54]

At the same time, certain cataclysmic historical events, including wars, have occurred because certain people in particular places have believed, fervently, that God demanded something of them that apparently requires destruction of cities, murder, and even suicide. In other words, there will always be those who buy wholly in to a version of a sacred history in which this world is a kind of fighting ground between differently “chosen” groups, and in which love of one’s self or of particular other selves, or the concern for one’s individuation in this world, will always matter less than the supposed “bringing about” [or, revelation] of a queerly utopic and utterly inhuman future [although in the heat of the various acts of bringing this future about, we are still dealing with Freud’s love-/life-force, which can pull us in various directions, toward mob mentalities and onward with those mobs toward death]. And it is because of this state of affairs that I, finally, “lose” my religion, and side with one of my students in my British literature survey course this past semester, who, when writing about Book 9 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, indicated that, even though he understands that Adam chose wrongly when deciding to face death with Eve rather than obey God, that Adam would not really be human if he had chosen otherwise. “On this rock floating in space called Earth,” he wrote, “it is human to want to be with others, and not to want to be alone, even with God in Paradise.” Amen.

Medievalists worldwide are up in arms ...

... joining the furor over Portsmouth High School's decision to deny Patrick Agin the right to wear chain mail and hoist a broadsword in his yearbook photo.

Click here to read about this developing story in the New York Times.

Seems the picture violates the school's no-weapons policy. The Rhode Island ACLU points out, though, that "the school’s position is particularly untenable ... given that the school mascot is a Revolutionary War soldier carrying a rifle." The school's principal, Robert Littlefield, says that the Minute Man mascot cannot be construed as "a threat to our educational environment" -- implying, of course, that boys in chain mail are far deadlier than men with muskets. [As a medievalist and a Bostonian I am deeply conflicted on that issue.]

To add a note of pathos: the chain mail was forged by Patrick Agin's uncle, his mother sells armor at fairs, Patrick belongs to the local Society for Creative Anachronism ... and the crestfallen teen describes the banned portrait as "one of the first good photos I’ve taken in a long time."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Winner: Most Clever Title in a Forthcoming Medieval Studies Book

CLAUSTROPHILIA: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature by Cary Howie, to be published in the New Middle Ages series. Here's the description:
Through extended readings of English, French, and Italian writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Claustrophilia shows that medieval enclosures actually make room for desires and communities that a poetics of pure openness would exclude.

Give that author a golden tiny shriner.

Monday, December 18, 2006

RIP Bluetail 2003-2006

Today after a long fight against a fungal infection, Kid #1's pet betta fish Bluetail gave up the ghost.

To be honest, he had become the living dead several months ago: covered in rot, barely able to move, unresponsive to medicine ... but, weirdly, always happy to see us and forever able to gather enough energy to gobble down some food. Kid #1 created a beautiful sarcophagus for Bluetail out of a small wooden box, now painted with golden accents and decorated with plastic rubies. The little coffin has ben set out and ready for many weeks. Somehow, though, Bluetail clung to life.

He will be buried in our backyard this evening. He leaves behind a small plastic aquarium filled with fake seaweed, colored rocks, a plastic sea serpent, and a ceramic castle; some bloodworms; some unused antifungal pills; and a family who adored him, including one kid who is kind of relieved to have a friend for whom he had already grieved finally perish and another kid who -- despite every attempt to convince her otherwise -- is certain that Bluetail is being cared for by our neighbors and will return next week.

Donations in Bluetail's memory can be made to any organization that fights betta illnesses like fungi, rot, and (I kid you not) Ick.

Friday, December 15, 2006

What Time Is It, Anyway?

Speaking of lighting menorahs at sundown on the first day of Hanukkah, does anybody really know what time it is? JJC may not have realized it at the time, but when he and his family decided to light their menorah candle at sundown this evening [4.47 pm, according to JJC], JJC was signalling that he was on the side of the astronomers versus the physicists on the question of "keeping time." What on earth am I talking about? Let's just say, first, that, thank god the semester is over, because now I get to do some fun reading, and I just this evening finished a fabulous article in Harper's [December 2006 issue] by Michelle Stacey, "Clash of the Time Lords: Who Will Own the Measure of Our Days?" This is a nifty essay that I think JJC, especially, would be interested in, about a kind of disciplinary argument--between the astronomers and the physicists--over how best to "clock" the minutes, hours, days, and eras of our earth and history, but which also has deeper implications, for, as Stacey herself puts it,

Timekeeping has always been one of mankind's greatest challenges, less vital than the need for food and shelter but more fundamental than most other quotidian concerns. Without an understanding of time, we are lost, wanderers in a murk of experience where yesterday and tomorrow are seen only in broad strokes, banded by sunrise and sunset.

So, as my teenage daughter might say, what's the diff? The story that Stacey tells is infinitely technically complicated [even, in parts, beyond my meager understanding], but suffice to say that, whereas the earth's rotations around the sun do not keep perfect, regular time, atomic clocks do, and for a long time now, in order to keep the sun shining at noon and the winter solstice always falling on a certain day in December, atomic clocks [like the ones maintained at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, DC] have been manipulated to "leap" ahead a second here and there, so that our very regulated timekeeping devices [such as global positioning systems] can continue to be in synch with what might be called geophysical "mean solar time." The ways this works is: "Whenever solar time is about to fall nine-tenths of a second behind the atomic count, global timekeepers force all the atomic clocks in the world to count an extra second . . . giving the earth a second to catch up." The sun and earth, as it turns out, don't keep regular time [whatever "regular" might mean], whereas "electrons within a cesium atom oscillate at an astonishingly unvarying rate, regular to within nanoseconds, never changing, never slowing or speeding up, more accurate by far than any clock ever invented." It turns out, therefore, that a second is not 1/86,400th of a day, but is, rather, 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a cesium atom. Both solar and atomic time are "natural," according to Stacey, but one [atomic time] is supposedly more "perfect."

And so, a kind of academic debate--but with "real world" implications--has ensued between the astronomers, who believe that we should use "leap seconds" to calibrate atomic time with solar/Greenwich mean time [after all, who wants to sit around in the dark at noon, which could happen three to four thousand years from now if we don't utilize leap seconds], and the physicists, who believe we should maintain, as strictly as possibly, the most technologically "regular" time we can, although this would mean, as Stacey puts it, that "the sun, along with the stars and the and out measurements of the earth's rotation, will become irrelevant to telling time. 'Time' will become an abstraction, numbers on display, unbound from the outside physical world." [Although I might say, if atomic time is based on oscillating atoms, isn't it still bound to the physical world, just at a different level?] Certain questions are raised as objections [of a sort] to eliminating leap seconds: "If we're not going to worry about civil time matching solar time . . . why not simplify global timekeeping even more by reducing the number of global time zones from twenty-four to five?" And: "How will we decide what time it is on Mars or Jupiter?"

Most interesting to me in Stacey's article was an historical "prequel" to all this that she shared of which I had been completely unaware. Apparently, in 1752, "English and colonial American subjects went to bed on Wednesday, September 2 and awoke the next morning on Thursday, September 14. The intervening eleven days . . . never came into being." The reason for this decision [mandated by the English government] had its impetus in an even earlier time-shifting event in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, which was essentially a revision of the Roman Julian calendar [and which we still use today]. In this calendar, the days stretching from October 5 to 14, 1582 were eliminated to make up for the fact that the lunar month never easily matches the solar year [if you put twelve lunar months together, you get 354 days, not 365], and the Julian calendar had compensated for this by adding about eleven minutes to each solar year. Over time, this adds up, and the calendar began to "lose time." Hence the Gregorian solution. But here's the fun part: the English government, caught in the throes of Reformation struggles, refused to go along with it:

So began a strange, off-kilter period of European life--quite possibly the only moment in history when humans could experience something akin to time travel. In those years [between 1582 and 1752] a traveler who went from England to France immediately leapt forward by ten days, and then fell ten days back upon his return.

Here's the even more fun part: the new legislation in 1752 to adjust the calendar in England to match up with rest of Europe apparently caused some social mayhem, and there were even Calendar Riots in some cities, resulting in several deaths in Bristol [this may be a bit apocryphal, Stacey admits, although the slogan "Give us back our eleven days!" is scrawled on a poster in a 1754 political cartoon by William Hogarth]. It turns out, then, that "time is, of necessity, an affair of politics and diplomacy as well as of science." In the current global debate over timekeeping, England is actually reprising its sixteenth-century role as foot-dragger, wanting to hang on to its Greenwich Mean Time, while the rest of the world, including the U.S., would like to switch to a "Universal [Atomic] Time Clock." Rob Seaman, an astronomer who fervently opposes elimating leap seconds, has written that we need to stop "blaming poor Mother Earth for her middle-aged unsteadiness" and seek instead "a grand vision of the shared meaning of time in human concerns." Regardless of the so-called "perfection" of certain timekeeping machines and oscillating atoms, there is, as Stacey writes, "an opposing and gorgeous imperfection that somehow also manages to be true."

I will stop here by saying that all of this got me thinking, partly also because of the current observance of Hannakuh and with Christmas looming around the corner, of how we also measure time through memorialized sacred history, and of the ways in which we measure, in our work, medieval historical time as pre- or post-Conquest, pre- or post-Crusades, pre- or post-Conversion, early or late, etc. In other words, beyond the measurement of time through calendars and nanoseconds, there is also the measurement of time through more broadly delineated historical memories that, beyond the centuries and decades in which we claim they are "contained," also bleed over and through those boundaries while also presenting themselves as somewhat static entities. And I thought, too, about Anthony Giddens's claim about the premodern era as a place in which time and space were merged together with the domain of the gods, whereas in modernity, time is supposedly lifted out of space and thrown across broad geographic spaces, thereby unsettling and disturbing what might be called the premodern "comforts" of "local time." To be medieval, then, was to be situated *in* time, whereas to be modern, is to be thrown *out* of time. But maybe Giddens is wrong?

happy hanukkah

At 4.47 this evening, just as the sun dips below the horizon, the Cohen children will light the menorah, gobble the gelt, and complain that the latkes don't taste very good (Kid #2 has asked that hers be flavored with candy canes). Hanukkah is a secular holiday, not a sacred one. No, this is not part of the War on Christmas.

I love how the cross has toppled the tree at left, as if to say that the pagan conifer has a hard time supporting the symbol it's been made to bear. Festival of Lights, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Saturnalia ... who cares? Doesn't everyone need a little syncretic celebration of winter's advent?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Soy, Masculinity, Warriors, and Monks: Again, with the Meat

Some of my favorite blogs have been in a tither over this:

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That's why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today's rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products.

- James Rutz, Megashift Ministries

Image credit, appropriately enough, to

The mockery of Rutz at blogs like Crooks and Liars, Pandagon, and Sadly No has been topical, but mine,
charissimi, is historical. Rutz's opinion, despite the scientific veneer he gives it, derives from a longstanding masculinist discourse described in work by Julia Twigg, Carol Adams, Nick Fiddes, and, for the Middle Ages, here and there in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present and Colin Spenser's The Heretic's Feast. Ultimately, the whole complex of these notions has been summed up by one of Derrida's last coinages, "carno-phallogocentrism," a word that refers to the violent relationship of humans to nonhuman animals that "institutes what is proper to man," namely, reason, selfhood, immortal soul, language, and so forth.

Unsurprisingly, the Middle Ages are far from innocent of the connection Derrida saw between meat-eating and human - especially masculine - claims to power. In a formulation that may stand (at least during this post) as a maxim applicable to the whole period and all its cultures, the thirteenth-century dietetic manual by Aldobrandino of Siena declares that "among all the things that provide man with his nutrition, meat provides him with the most. It fattens him and gives him strength" (cf Rush Limbaugh, who once explained that "Vegetarians are a bunch of weaklings who wouldn't be able to bench press 50 pounds after one of their meals. Ask anyone in the [National Football League]"). In a vita of Columba of Iona, the saint asks a reaper what his customary diet had been when he was a warrior; the reaper recalls, "'I used to consume a fat ox to my full meal,'" and when presented with an ox, this is what the reaper proceeds to do, in the process showing what it is that a warrior - the quintessential figure of masculine power - should eat. Einhard records Charlemagne's irritation with his doctors when they compel him to give up the roast meat he seems to have enjoyed almost to the exclusion of all other food: as the Middle English Alphabet of Tales observes, Charlemagne "ete bod littyl brede, bod at ans he wolde ete a quarter of a weddur, or ij hennys, or a guse, or a swyne shulder, or a pacok, or a crane, or a hale hare." In the Chanson de Guillaume, Girard and William on separate occasions each devour an enormous meal whose centerpiece is an entire shoulder of a boar eaten hot off the spit. Their porcine diet separates them as Christians from the Saracens they battle, but the meal, taken as a whole, also separates them from lesser humans, weak men and women both. While watching Girard eat, William's wife Guiburc cries out to her husband:
"Par Deu, bel sire, cist est de vostre lin!
Qui si mangue un grant braun porcin,
et a dous traiz beit un cester de vin,
ben dure guere deit rendre a sun veisin,
ne ja vilment ne deit de champ fuir!" (1053-59)
"By God, my good lord, he's one of your family! Anyone who can eat a great brawn of pork and drink a whole gallon of wine in two draughts will wage a bitter war on his neighbor and never disgrace himself by fleeing the field!" trans. Philip E. Bennett
Still exhausted by battle, Girard then sleeps, but he rises refreshed, calls for his arms, and is made a knight: the meal has done what it was meant to do. Later, after Girard has been killed in battle, and William sulks, despondent at his many military setbacks, he eats a loaf of bread, two roast pasties, and a whole pork brawn, and then tops this off with an entire peacock (1407-32). Once more, Guiburc reminds William that no one could eat like this and not be a great warrior, and this time, the Christian knights finally emerge victorious, fulfilling the promise of their diet.

Monks present a special problem in my catalog of carnivorous masculinity. Ideally, they should have at least avoided the flesh of all quadrupeds, and many of them ostensibly followed Rules that also forbade the flesh of fowl. Yet monks tended to slide towards a diet commensurate not only with the class from which they were drawn - for monks tended to be drawn from the ranks of the elites - but also with the actual power they exercised as monks. Like any elites, monks could be great landowners, political leaders, and even, as indicated in the
Gesta Herewardi's record of William the Conqueror's siege of Ely, able warriors. As much as they may have claimed to be otherworldly, monks, as members of the elite, were more "masculine" than the poor (following the work of Sharon Farmer, Ruth Mazo Karras, and, ultimately, among other theorists, bell hooks). It should come as no surprise, then, that monks turned to masculine diets.

The twelfth-century vitae of Gilbert and Abbot Sampson of Bury St. Edmunds attest to how rarely monks hewed to their ideal alimentary strictures, as Gilbert and Sampson's abstention from meat merits their biographers' special admiration: for example, Gilbert "abstained at all times from meat and from any food made with meat except when afflicted by serious illness, and he also avoided eating fish throughout the whole of Lent and Advent, though he would very often eat freely of vegetables, pulses, and similar cheap things." I can't help but be reminded of a classic Chris Rock bit about, er, people taking credit for the things they're supposed to do: " 'I ain't never been to jail.' Whaddya want? A cookie? You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!" Not infrequently, monks drew fine distinctions between meat (carnes), which they refused, and flesh food that didn't count as meat (carnea), which they allowed themselves. Scorning meals in the common dining room, the refectory, where normal rules applied, monks often ate instead in the sick-ward, where meat was allowed. They had their blood let more frequently than they should have, since meat was allowed to monks who had lost blood, and, eventually, they even established "misericordia," special rooms set aside just for meat-eating. (I am of course doing violence to the subtleties of monastic history, which has increasingly tended towards precise analysis of local institutions and dispensed with clumsy great narratives of the rise and fall of entire orders. Bear with me, at least, for the purposes of this blog post.)

This dishonest monastic taxonomizing appears in a number of satiric medieval tales. Marie de France tells of a Wolf who vows not to eat meat during Lent. But when he finds a sheep in the woods, he rationalizes breaking his vow by thinking, "mangerai pur un saumun" (I'll eat it as if it were a salmon). Marie also tells of a likeminded wolf that encounters a pig and asks the pig what it is called. The pig ran through the list of its names - hog, and the like - and finished with
porcus, and the wolf, mishearing this as porpoise, ate the pig. This tale should be classed with another tale, in which a wolf, being taught to read, can spell only "lamb" no matter what letters he learns. But there's more going on, as the wolf's (mis)knowledge of Latin gives him the power to classify things to his advantage. If we accept that Latin was the most powerful of England's languages in the twelfth century, this capacity to use Latin to make his food (and by extension his world) whatever he wants it to be is a perhaps a kind of lupine manifestation of masculinity. In another widespread tale, the steward of a traveling bishop can't find his master any fish on a Friday. The disappointed bishop orders partridges from his innkeeper. When his steward chides him for being no better than a Jew or Saracen, the bishop explains that, given his ability to turn bread into the body of Christ, it is a simple matter for him to turn a bird into the substance of a fish while preserving its visible accidents (nota bene: "Transubstantiation differs from every other substantial conversion in this, that only the substance is converted into another — the accidents remaining the same — just as would be the case if wood were miraculously converted into iron, the substance of the iron remaining hidden under the external appearance of the wood"). In this case, eating a partridge on Friday is a sign of his Christianity and of his possession of a power both to make Christianity bend to his wishes and to reduce his steward to silence.

Invitation: Among the strange things about monastic masculinity is that it notoriously relies upon identifying women as the bearers of bodies and men, especially monks, as having tamed or purified their bodies. But meat is the most bodily of foods. Yet monks certainly don't feminize themselves by their habitual meaty diets. I can imagine some ways this analysis might go, but my post is already more than long enough. Any of our medievalists want to take a stab at this problem or help me refine my discussions of masculinity? Alternately, you may want to go less medieval and discuss peoples' responses to your own dietary restrictions, especially if these responses tried to remind you of your proper gender. Lord knows I suffered a lot of those responses in my decade of vegetarianism.

Heavy Posting today, by the way: don't let my post keep you from reading JJC's posts on The Lady in White or The 1/2 man, 1/2 cow.

Washington's Margery Kempe

From yesterday's Washington Post, a well composed little essay by Michael E. Ruane about a homeless woman who walks the sidewalks and subway tunnels of Friendship Heights (very close to where I live). Because she dressses in white and often sings gospel-like music in a loud voice, I have always thought of her as a modern Margery Kempe. When she is in full throat, her often wordless songs of praise echo through the subterranean chambers of the Metro as Kempe's sonic volleys once blasted through cathedrals. The article doesn't mention it, but the "Lady in White" is African American, so the thick shoe polish on her face is not as historically loaded as it would be were she pale skinned. The polish is all the same quite striking, especially because she frames her head with a white hood.

The woman is very sweet. She has been a regular in Friendship Heights for at least twelve years. Last Saturday she was standing in front of the Borders bookstore when I passed with Kid #1. She told us she was cutting trans-fats out of her diet and wished us a blessed day.

Perhaps you've seen her. She's a plump middle-aged woman who wears what appears to be shoe polish on her face and who garbs herself from head to foot in white clothing tinged with the ash-colored grime of life on the street.

When I got on, she was standing in the doorway of the Metro car with her stuff piled on a shopping cart that was also shrouded in white. She was wearing white sneakers, white pants rolled up at the cuffs and a dirty white winter coat.

I see her now and then. She's kind of a ghostly figure. She'll turn up at a Metro station or in the shadows on L Street. If you give her money, she says, "God bless you."

This was the first I'd seen her on the train.

She was surrounded by startled-looking commuters. There were no seats, so I moved to the center of the car as instructed. I could hear her talking amiably to nobody in particular. I looked around to see if people seemed alarmed. "Don't worry," I thought I might say, "it's only the Lady in White."

Then I heard her harmonica. It was faint at first, but its strains gradually drifted through our end of the car. I remembered seeing her play the harmonica on the street, but rushing past, you don't catch more than a fragment of the music.

Here she was, playing for us on the Metro on a middling Thursday morning in December.

The harmonica may be the sweetest musical instrument ever invented. It can make the saddest, and happiest, of sounds. It has the rhythms of breathing, and if you stick one out the window of a moving car, it'll play a long, beautiful chord all by itself.

That morning on the Red Line I listened closely for the melody.

There was none. Up and down the notes went, wandering, searching for a tune. Once in a while, the Lady would stop and talk a little about how she wished she played better. She said something about growing up in New Jersey and something about the "holy church." At one stop, she welcomed aboard new riders squeezing by, then wished everybody a Merry Christmas.

Stations passed. Van Ness. Woodley. Dupont. People read or stared. The Lady in White played on. The music was aimless and peaceful. After one break, someone applauded. The Lady acknowledged the admirer.

At Farragut North, many of us got off. She did, too. As she stood on the platform off to one side, several people came up to tell her how nice her playing had been and to give her a buck or two. She smiled and looked sheepish, like a kid after the school recital, and she repeated that she really wished she played a little better.

Fabulations, Third and Final Installment

A longrunning thread here at ITM has examined the genesis and subsequent abandonment of the elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog I've been calling "The Book I Did Not Write" (for part one, look here; for part two, here; for the orphaned epilogue, here; for the book I actually did publish, look here). Today I offer a few more fabulations culled from that project.

These imaginings are taken from a chapter originally entitled "Impure Blood: The Monsters of Gerald of Wales." Its first draft will be familiar to readers from The Postcolonial Middle Ages, and its fullest version can be found in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity as "In the Borderlands: The Identities of Gerald of Wales." The fabulations will likely make sense only to those who know Gerald's work fairly well. The medieval equivalent of a mixed race child, Gerald used species difference and monstrosity to articulate identities that could be both suffocating and liberating. No language but that of monstrosity existed for their expression.

The first fabulation is a dream I dreamt for Gerald, a vision in which he is haunted by a creature that is not exactly a love cow, but not all that far removed from one, either. The story has no direct source in Gerald's writing, other than his fascination with the lines quoted from Ovid and his deep regard for his own dreams (see especially his ominous vision of the corpse of Henry II in De Principis Instructione and the dream of a bloody attack on heaven that causes him to fear he is losing his mind in the Expugnatio Hibernica).
A Vision of Blood, c. 1197
The same dream again. A stylus scrapes vellum, etching a Latin rubric. Gerald knows the white sheepskin is not stained with ink. It is alive. It bleeds. He can feel the force of every word in his own flesh. This flow that is the ink spells out the same lines, over and over: SEMIBOVEMQUE VIRUM SEMIVIRUMQUE BOVEM. Lines from Ovid, the Roman poet of transformation. Lines that have haunted Gerald since he learned them as a boy, when reading the Art of Love seemed a deliciously wicked pursuit for an aspiring cleric.

SEMIBOVEMQUE VIRUM SEMIVIRUMQUE BOVEM. A man that was half a bull and a bull that was half a man. Ovid's resonant description of the Minotaur. Gerald thinks back to ancient Crete, when love-stricken Pasiphae burned for a handsome white bull. She turned to clever Daedalus, that father destined to lose his beloved son to melted wings. He devised a copulation machine that allowed the queen and her animal lover to consummate their ardor. What unnatural mixing had Daedalus engineered, what mingling of forbidden categories? Gerald imagined that he was watching the birth of the monster in all its taurine glory. As the bullish snout inhaled its first Aegean air, as the pup erupted into very human sobs, Gerald looked into huge, round eyes and divined a future: abandoned by bulls and men, trapped in a labyrinth that offered no escape. Gerald gazed at this mixed up thing lost in his winding maze. Gerald gazed at this monster that could find no people to love him, no destiny, no home, and he knew that he saw himself.
Later in the chapter a vignette that picks up on this oneiric opening appears, this one based upon an anecdote in the Journey Through Wales in which a man and a bull fall in love, spawning an unanticipated child. The style I attempted here is supposed to seem overwritten, glossy, indulgently romantic:
Of the Knight and Bull

No one knows for certain how Gilbert Hagurnell fell in love with the bull. Was the knight returning home to Brecknockshire after a campaign against the princes of the north, weary to the bone of a fighting that never seemed to end? Perhaps on a moonlit evening, the more precious for its winter rarity, the tired rider first glimpsed all that bovine muscle, frisky in the field. It could be that he surrendered to the animal then and there, the blood of war lost in a forgetful orgy.

Or perhaps it was a slower process of bull and knight in mutual admiration. We may imagine that Gilbert's dreams were haunted by the glow of lunar silver on dark eyes, black snout, a tail that flicked with casual indifference. Long days in windy fields brought the two lovers closer, Gilbert clasping a handful of grass like a lover's bouquet, his quivering lips pressed ever nearer to sniffing nostrils. Cold stars and scud clouds found the knight out of bed, restlessly roaming the field with a desire he could not speak. At last a drenching rain brought man and animal to the shelter of a lonely hut, and perhaps it was there that they were first moved to consummate their love. Gilbert must have offered himself to the bull with an awkwardness that, he hoped, did not make his beloved think any the less of his passion.

Who knows if knight and bull burned with an equal ardor, or if for one or the other the relationship was simply convenient, a joyfully uncomplicated surrender to lust. Who knows how many times these assignations were repeated, or even how long Gilbert Hagurnell knew the bull to which he humbly offered himself. But the consequences of the secret trysts were clear to everyone. On a certain day the knight felt his abdomen contract, as if in an attempt to expel something inside. Perhaps Gilbert knew already what his taurine union had engendered upon him, perhaps he had felt the first stirrings of life within an expanding belly months before, but the fact of the matter is this. Gilbert Hagurnell spent three years in unremitting anguish, his body wracked by the severest of labor pains. Eventually his ache climaxed, and maybe he even felt the first push of a snout heading for the exit. At any rate he managed to attract a multitude of onlookers, witnesses to the culmination of his labors: the birth of a calf -- a boy [vitulus], as it turns out.

We do not know if the witnesses applauded the arrival of this progeny or ran away in fear. Did they really believe the explanation (perhaps offered by the embarrassed parent himself) that this birth was simply an omen of some impending catastrophe, a sign delivered by God through his innocent and suffering body? Or did they hold with the sole medieval reporter of this marvel when he tartly observed that Gilbert Hagurnell was being punished for some unnatural act of vice?
I know I haven't been giving the scholarly context for these fabulations so far, but perhaps this foray in bestiality deserves some background.

Gerald had earlier in his life explored race in Ireland through animal flesh, associating the Irish too closely with the cattle they revered in order to render their subjugation at his family's hands ethically uncomplicated. Gerald had been especially fascinated by a creature that came to dwell at his conquistador uncle's Irish outpost, a semibos vir (Ox Man) who had apparently been engendered through interspecies desire. Gerald is uncharacteristically sympathetic towards this creature. I observed:
Because he belonged to two categories but could not be absorbed into either – because he had no possibility of home other than the Marcher castle at Wicklow, a place of welcome as well as murderous violence – the Hibernian minotaur (semibos vir) stands at the limit of starkly dualistic racial thinking. This sympathetic monster was capable of engendering what uncle Maurice had decried as ignavia and mora, impedimental hesitation. In Ireland Gerald experienced the confidence of conquerors. In his Welsh writings, however, he became increasingly fascinated with hybrid figures like the semibos vir, with bodies that lose their integrity, their purity, and bring into the world new and intransigent possibilities for identity.

This Irish Ox Man finds a parallel in Wales, where Gerald tells the story I rendered a fabulation:
In the same region ... a remarkable event occurred. A certain knight, name Gilbert, surname Hagurnell, after a long and unremitting anguish, which lasted three years, and the most severe pains as of a woman in labour, at length gave birth to a calf, and event which was witnessed by a great crowd of onlookers. Perhaps it was a portent of some unusual calamity yet to come. It was more probably a punishment exacted for some unnatural act of vice. (Gerald of Wales, Journey Through Wales)

Here is my scholar's explication:
In isolation, the knight's difficult labor and strange progeny is yet another wonder offered for the reader's consumption, only slightly more remarkable than Saint Patrick's horn and the pig that thinks it is a dog. When a similar birth occurs in Ireland, the "man-calf" [vitulum virilem] of Glendalough born ex coitu viri cum vacca, the prodigy seems almost dull, so usual is "unnatural vice" (nefandi criminis) on those shores. Yet this story is not set across the sea in Hibernia but at the heart of Norman Wales. It involves not some nameless Irish native who can stand in for the entirety of his race but a knight whose name declares him an alien to the land to which his passion attaches him. Unlike the disidentification that motivates the narration of Irish minglings of human and beast, joinings supposed to demonstrate the utter animality of that race, this unnatural coupling is fraught with undecidability. It seems that, looking back on his Welsh work around 1197, Gerald is unable to muster the same confidence that had propelled the Topography of Ireland. During this major revision of the Journey, Gerald began to landmine his text, introducing ambiguities that undermine the unconflicted prose of his earlier days. Gerald, it seems, has taken the vocabulary of race that he developed for the estrangement of Ireland and transferred its animal obsessions to his own locus of origin.

Added to the Journey through Wales in the revision of 1197, the story of Gilbert Hagurnell, his taurine paramour, and their unanticipated progeny is an intriguing meditation on gemina natura, dual race. The episode is preceded, after all, by a story that declares that a body carries in its flesh the history and the context into which it is born (a wild sow suckled by a domesticated hound becomes a composite form, physically porcine while functionally canine; the flow of breast milk overcodes the biologically innate with the culturally contingent) . . . Gerald is not telling a reductive or nostalgic story about the eradication of native purity by a colonialist regime. Indigenous culture has not simply been replaced by imported customs, language, modes of being. The Welsh March is already impure, and Gerald is a living embodiment of its complexity. The Journey through Wales explores how both Wales and England were changed when two bodies formed a third that carries with it something of both parents without fully being either. Mixed racial descent is disruptive because it arises when cultures meet in unprecedented, "unnatural" couplings. The offspring of a knight like Gilbert Hagurnell who mixes his flesh with native animals (and it is useful to keep in mind here that the Welsh were consistently depicted by the Normans and English as a gens bestialis) perhaps suggests that race is not necessarily an arrest into some dwindled stability, but an opening up of contradiction-riddled possibility. The knight pregnant with a calf through his alliance with a bull transforms a male into a maternal form, a human into an interspecies hybrid ... Gilbert Hagurnell and the baby bull that he bore after three years of labor and an unspecified duration of "unnatural vice" figure the boundary-smashing work of medieval race, especially when its contours are shaped through the energetic flow of impure blood.
For a fuller analysis with many a footnote, see the book that I did publish. For more on animality and race and innovation, you might want to read this post from days of yore.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

New look

No doubt you have noticed that our blog lost its template when it was migrated to BloggerBeta. We'll be redesigning in the weeks and months ahead ... please let us know if you have any suggestions. Kill the kitschy new mascot, for example?

We now interrupt this discussion of aesthetics and superfluity

Enough high seriousness, we need a schmaltz break. How about a mawkish anecdote involving children?

This morning as I dressed, Kid #2 declared "It's a Purple Day" (for Kid #2, it is sometimes a Purple Day, but typically it is a Pink Day). I own precisely one purple shirt. I am wearing it in her honor.

Need some more? It is the time of the year for surfeiting on sweets, after all.

As we drove to her school this morning, Kid #2 (AKA "The Little Drama Queen") languidly declared, "I'm too tired to play in the sandbox." She glanced out the window with studied ennui, then continued "I am tired of the world."

Monday, December 11, 2006

Inapposite Art

An intriguing conjunction of paragraphs, culled from my Sunday reading. First, from Robert M. Stein's very good book Reality Fictions: Romance, History and Governmental Authority, 1025-1180:
I suggest in this book that provocation to romance writing is the same as the provocation to history: they grow out of the same cultural need and intend to do the same cultural work ... I am writing about a political process [state formation] and its connection with literary innovation ... I intend ... to deal directly with the pressures on modes of representation that are correlative to changes in the structure of political power. Above all, I do not see the political process as a static or knowable factual context in which to situate artistic change in order to explain it. To paraphrase what Marx refers to as the guiding idea of all of his inquiry, it is the sphere of culture in its largest sense in which people become conscious of changes in their existence and in which these changes are fought out.(2)

Stein's linking of romance to history through changes in governmental structures and ambitions is a highpoint of his study. I want to point out, though, its deployment of a doctrine that historicists taught us long ago to accept: art is intractably enmeshed within the culture that generates it; art (here, historiography and romance) performs labor; art does cultural work.

Compare Stein's point of departure to Helen Vendler's swift application of the emergency brake when critics perform this kind of politically-minded reading. Rachel Donadio writes in "The Closest Reader" (NYT Review of Books):
[Vendler] can be harsh about those she sees as subordinating literature to an ideological agenda. In a review of David Denby’s “Great Books” (1996), the film critic’s account of how he returned to college, immersing himself in Columbia’s core curriculum, Vendler wrote, “Seeing the Columbia course use Dante and Conrad as moral examples is rather like seeing someone use a piece of embroidery for a dishrag with no acknowledgment of the difference between hand-woven silk and a kitchen towel.” In 2001, again in The New Republic, her main venue in recent years, Vendler took the critic James Fenton to task for his interpretation of Robert Frost’s 1942 poem “The Gift Outright,” a version of which was recited by the aging poet at the Kennedy inauguration in 1961. Fenton, in her view, had imposed a mistaken interpretation on a poem as much “about marriage as about colonials becoming Americans,” because “his politics has wrenched him into misreading it.” (Some argued Vendler herself was misreading the poem by choosing to ignore its subject matter.)

I'm guessing that most (though certainly not all) medievalists will find their sympathies more drawn to Fenton and Denby and Stein than to Vendler. We work in a discipline which stresses historical context so heavily that it is difficult for us as critics to play the "impassioned aesthete who pays minute attention to the structures and words that are a poet’s genetic code." Sure, we can and do look closely at prosody ... but seldom do we detach such analysis from a social context that we argue is either much like our own (the Middle Ages as threshold of the Same) or very different from our own (the Middle Ages as hopelessly or chastely Other).

I wonder, though, if either model really does much for art. It's not so much that one or the other model need be chosen (as always the truth no doubt resides between the extremes), but rather that there seems something in art that is inapposite, extraneous, not capable of being reduced to pure aesthetics or pure politics. One of my favorite books by one of my favorite neglected theorists, the surrealist biologist Roger Caillois, argues that art is not possessed only by humans or by animals: it is a superfluous beauty that is made as much by stones as by hands. His book The Writing of Stones is a stunningly illustrated tour of nonhuman art: lithic sculptures offered for no particular audience to admire, the petrification of a universal impulse to produce beyond utility, the thing that unites the human to what had seemed until Caillois looked so intently upon it to be the inert.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Tiny Shriner Review, Issue #2: Things that Are [Almost] Funny

When not occupying his usual spot on J.J. Cohen's occasionally flooded office windowsill, the Tiny Shriner [not to be confused with's gnome] surfs the blogosphere looking for interesting threads and conjunctions. But first, the Tiny Shriner agreed to pass along an intereresting moment of convergence [or is it synchronicity?] between BABEL and Michael Crichton, which he and I, following Karl's injunction, thought might be funny, in a trans-species kind of way. This past October, when the BABEL Working Group was in Oxford, MS at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, one of their invited speakers, Deirdre Joy, who is a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health in the Labaratory of Malaria and Vector Research, delivered a paper, "The Planet of the Apes Comes to Mind," in which she informed us that,
In 2001 a paper was published in Science in which human brain stem cells were grafted into the brains of fetal monkeys. Subsequently, a working group was convened to consider the ethical implications of such studies and the findings were published in Science in 2005. The working group unanimously rejected ethical objections grounded on unnaturalness or crossing species boundaries. A recent National Academy report notes the notion that there are fixed species boundaries is not well supported in science or philosophy.

They agreed that the central issue is whether introducing human cells into nonhuman primate (NHP) brains raises questions about moral status. One conceivable result of human-HNP neural grafting is that the resulting creature will develop humanlike cognitive capacities relevant to moral status. How does that change our moral obligations towards them? To the extent that a NHP attains those capacities through neural grafting, that creature must be held in correspondingly high moral standing. (Which I suppose might include not having to undergo neural grafting).

The criteria deemed plausible and widely accepted for determining moral status were mental capacity such as the ability to feel pleasure and pain, language, rationality, richness of relationships. But there’s a problem here, acknowledged by the working group - establishing whether and in what ways engrafted animals undergo cognitive or behavioral changes requires an understanding of what the normal range is for a particular NHP species. But we really don’t know. The report concedes that, “Even if we observe what appears to be more humanlike capacities in an engrafted animal, we may be unable either to establish whether capacities are outside of the normal range of that species or to interpret the moral meaning of observed changes.”

As the Tiny Shriner himself concedes, in such difficult ethical dilemmas as these, we must turn to the fiction writer. It appears our wait is already over, as Michael Crichton's new novel, NEXT, the promotional tagline for which is "welcome to our genetic world--fast, furious, and out of control," in addition to a main plotline about a cancer patient, Frank Burnet, who is being hunted down by a biotech company who wants his rare cancer-fighting cells, includes the following side-plots:

Tourists in Sumatra are cursed in fluent French and Dutch by an orangutan that has human genes, the result of an experiment barred in Europe. A transgenic parrot named Gerard embarrasses people by reproducing the words they say and the sounds they make during illicit love scenes. A UC San Diego scientist, Henry Kendall, learns that sperm he donated to a federal primate research center in Maryland has produced a son, a 4-year-old transgenic chimpanzee named Dave. Dave is scheduled to be terminated — this experiment too was illegal — but Kendall sneaks him out of the facility, takes him home and tries to raise him as a normal child, though schoolmates call him "M
onkeyboy" and a passing farmer sizes him up as stoop labor. Advertisers dream of implanting their messages in genetically altered fish and animals.

Since Karl has been asking us to think about humor, is it just me and the Tiny Shriner, or is the above really, really funny? Or, scary [as Crichton would likely have it]? In other, related news, I think we can go ahead and laugh at Crichton's vision of the future [present?], since Richard Dawkins has finally decided to make it [almost] definitive: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.

Got medieval, anyone? Still trying to stay in Karl's humor groove, we note that over at Geoffrey Chaucer's blog, the apparently self-styled medievalist rapper Baba Brinkman, who created The Rap Canterbury Tales, has absolutely no sense of humor at all. Meanwhile, Glaukopidos is laughing at Britney Spears reflecting on Antigone, among other things. JKW of Pistols in the Pulpit has finally posted his 2007 Dead List, which for some, including JKW, may be funny. And Margaret Soltan over at University Diaries lets us know that Christopher Hitchens has decided women are not funny at all, which Prof. Soltan finds amusing. The Tiny Shriner is not laughing. The Tiny Shriner is also hoping that Pete Doherty, as JKW surmises, will not die in 2007, as that would leave Kate Moss all alone with no one to behave badly with and look good together while doing it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Let Hodain have his fun

Happy dog!
Originally uploaded by mivox.
Earlier today, I started to write a post on the Middle English Ser Tristrem. In this version, as in several others, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because of a magic potion. In an odd, funny touch, Tristan's dog, Hodain, also has a taste of the love potion. Here's what happens:
Tristrem in schip lay
With Ysonde ich night;
Play miri he may
With that worthli wight
In boure night and day.
Al blithe was the knight,
He might with hir play.
That wist Brengwain the bright
As tho.
Thai loved with al her might
And Hodain dede also. (1684-94)
That last line's quite a shocker, isn't it? I read it, initially, as a hint of bestiality, a sort of menage à chien, and rushed--in my desultory way--to write a blog post, before I caught myself up short: what if the medievals knew this was funny?* In the spirit of our various posts about reuniting pleasure and scholarship, and in honor, too, of Wiley, I decided I wanted to try to allow the past a bit of unadulterated pleasure. While I'm sufficiently disenchanted to know there can never be such a thing, nonetheless I think we--or certainly, I--all too often treat all things in our field as pathological: the crisis of this and that, everything and its discontents, and so forth. It's as if what we study merits our attention only in direct proportion to its danger: it must threaten everything we know and are, it must keep its world under control only by strenuous disavowal, it must not be just a silly obscure pig joke or an article about farts (warning: pdf). Otherwise, we're wasting our time, letting ourselves and the medievals have too much fun, while real scholarship stomps past, fixing us with its baleful eye, upholding its sense of importance in a world that daily views us (perhaps justifiably so!) as less and less relevant.

Of course, we can ask why the hint of Hodain mixing himself up in this way is funny. In part, it's recognition. I think we've all had a cold dog nose meet us where we'd rather be left alone. But there's also the mixup, the fact that nonhuman animals should not be involved--whether alive or dead--in sex. At least not with us. Why that is certainly merits a suspicious investigation into the psychopathology of the human--which is precisely the post I initially meant to write--but for now, I just want to let well enough alone. I had a laugh, shockingly, while reading a Middle English chivalric narrative. For that laugh, much thanks to whoever's responsible for
Ser Tristrem, and much thanks to Alan Lupack for his excellent introduction to the TEAMS edition and his argument for its parodic content.

Now, an invitation, for the weekend and following, as we stumble towards the end of the semester. Either talk a bit about humor and scholarship, or, if you have something in mind--and I know this will be particularly difficult for the Anglo-Saxonists--give us a few medieval bits that you've decided to let be funny. Extra credit if it's not from Chaucer or Deschamps.

* Update: Okay, I know it probably means "And Houdain loved her too," in the sense of some kind of canine agape. And that's why the dog was so loyal to the two of them. But that joke is all the funnier, I think, for not being as straightforward as all that. Ok?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Scholarship and Writing Creatively

This post attempts to front page some of the discussion unfolding here and here, conversations spurred by posts here and here.

Way back in Ye Olde Olden Days of Yore, I was a semi-miserable graduate student who had just completed a year of study. I felt like I was in the grip of crisis, unable to decide between the reality of advanced literary study and the fantasy of being a novelist or poet or some other kind of lucrative creative writer [I write "fantasy" now but at age twenty-two it seemed that all I had to do was embrace the writer's vocation and I would, of course, become famous. I had taken enough creative writing courses as an undergraduate to minor in the subject so, hey, I had the credentials ... I just needed a good plot or something]. I had just been to a public lecture by Helen Vendler at which she had mentioned that, as a girl, she wrote poetry of her own, including a piece in which she figured herself as Moses in the arid desert, striking water from a rock (SPOILER: for those who have trouble with symbols, that "water" would be mellifluous verse). The image haunted me, but so did Vendler's admission of an abandoned career.

Helen Vendler had been my teacher in a Wallace Stevens seminar. I admired her confidence, her gift for finding the perfect descriptive word, her definitiveness. Yet after that lecture I kept wondering: at what point did this famous scholar of contemporary poetry decide that she was going to be an interpreter of art rather than an artist? A critic rather than a poet?

Having decided to confront Vendler with my question, I made an appointment with her secretary and came to her office in the English department. I was filled with an excitement I only vaguely understood. I suppose I thought that on this day I was going to be granted an epiphany: Vendler would reveal to me how she resolved her own inner struggle over critical analysis and the scholar's life versus poetic production and the artist's. I'd be given the tools and inspiration to resolve my own insomniac uncertainties.

We exchanged pleasantries as her assistant bustled, gathering correspondence and arranging unanswered mail into neat stacks. I sat uneasily in my chair, knowing that the Big Question was about to be uttered. I blurted it out too quickly, revealing too much of my own turmoil as I spoke. She looked at me quizzically, and then the telephone rang. "Excuse me," she said and gave a brief interview to some newspaper. As she hung up and realized I still sat expectantly before her, she smiled and said, "I don't know." She turned to her piles of mail. "I really don't know. I've never thought about it." Pause. "There was a time I was writing poetry." Envelopes whizzed into the trash bin. "Then there was a time when I was writing poetry and writing about poetry. At some point the poetry just stopped." She looked at me in a way that signaled it was time to leave. "I suppose I realized without knowing it that I wanted to write books about poets. But it's not as if there was a turning point."

"Thank you," I said, but I really thought NO! Can it really be that easy? Can we choose without a crisis?

Many years later, I'm prepared to say: yes. We carve what we do into so many sub-disciplines and we draw so many lines to box our products from contamination with other forms. But let's face it, sometimes the crisis doesn't arrive ... or if it does arrive, it's getting in the way of thinking about the alliances, the shared energy, the potential for monstrous offspring. I am currently the chair of an English department that combines a creative writing faculty with a literature faculty. We all gain from the fact that we're not segregated into separate quarters. Yes, I do think some incredibly shallow writing comes from introductory creative writing courses, just as each semester I grade some incredibly shallow interpretations of Beowulf, the Wife of Bath, Marie de France. If we're good teachers, though, we instruct our students in such a way that such depthless response is challenged and creatively rethought.

One last thing to admit: my own Helen Vendler moment has been in not going into crisis over abandoning the fabulations in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity. Of the manuscript's three initial readers, only one suggested that I remove them (actually, he requested that I delete the book from my hard drive). I took the fabulations out because I found them too distracting. They demanded attention disproportianate to their brevity; the argument suffered through being outshone. I'm not yet a good enough writer to integrate such flights in a way that satisfies me, but I do hope that in the future as I continue to work upon my craft I'll find a way to make such experiments work.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I'm Hopping Mad,

about this essay by Margaret Soltan and JKW's discussion of it over at Pistols in the Pulpit. I've posted on this over at University Diaries. Somebody calm me down. Seriously.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Book I Did Not Write, Part II

Way back in August, I offered an excerpt from a misbegotten ancestor of the book that eventually became Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles. That post gave some examples of what I called fabulations, or
brief, fictionalized, and experimental asides are meant to function like the strange moments that occur throughout twelfth-century historiography, moments when the sedate and scholarly course of the narrative is startled by an irruption of the marvelous, the monstrous, the new.
I promised to share a few more. A mere three months later, I do so.

The first is taken from the chapter that became "Acts of Separation," an overview of how medieval writers sorted the intractable impurities of the world into the neat little boxes of race. The original version of the chapter began with a fabulation based on a case from the early thirteenth century: a group of Norwich Jews were accused of kidnapping a five year old boy and circumcising him. His father, the physician Benedict, was most likely a convert to Christianity, and the circumcision and renaming may have been performed to reclaim the child as a Jew. Interestingly, the men who undertook the ritual seem to have been confident that the king would side with them in a case that eventually cost many of its participants their lives.
A Vision of Blood, 1230
Jurnepin of Norwich sat by the river Wensum, crying. The swaying of the ships at dock, the gurgle of the silty water helped him think of something, anything, besides the ache. His leg was wet with blood. Yesterday the little boy had been a Christian named Odard, skipping rocks off muddy puddles in the streets of Norwich. That name, given by the followers of the Hanged One, had been blotted out forever. He was now Jurnepin, a circumcised Jew. You must never eat pork again, Senioret told him as he prepared the knife. The stroke that had cut his foreskin had also excised his Christianity. The gates of heaven slammed shut, and left him in tears and blood among the Jews.

Benedict, Jurnepin's father, was a Christian convert. A high price, his friends had sneered, to belong to a community that hates us. Jurnepin had known their faces long before, had seen them glaring at his father as he made his physician's rounds. As a captive in Jacob's house, he caught their names in the flow of their familiar French: Leo, Deudone, Joppe, Elias, Mosse, Simon, Sampson, Isaac le Petit, Diaia le Cat. These men had their revenge on Benedict when Jacob and Senioret reclaimed his son. Once a Jew, always a Jew, they said. It was funny, Jurnepin had often heard the Christians repeating the same phrase, even when he and his dad were together in the cathedral. Were there some lines that just couldn't be crossed? Can a Breton ever become French, or a Welshman English? Can the leopard change its spots, or the Ethiopian his skin? Might a boy growing up in Yorkshire ever become as English as a Londoner? Must a Jew always remain a Jew?

Benedict had learned to praise in Latin the son of a God who was not supposed to have any sons. He had mastered all the local customs and assimilated to Norwich with a convert's zeal. Yet there was something in him and in his son that perhaps could not be changed, something that even now Jurnepin felt trickling along his cheeks, felt congealed along his thigh. At the age of five Jurnepin the Jew knew that race is born of trauma, race is born of blood.

The second story inviolves a boy about whom very little is know, other than that at a certain point his name was legally changed -- at his request -- from Tostig to William. I was attempting to embody within a small story the strange ardor of the conquered English for taking upon themsleves a Norman patina.

Whitby, c. 1110
Tostig dreamt of storms all night, tempests formed of words. When he was five years old Tostig and his father had been caught by a sudden gale, blown across a blackened sea. Now he was amid the wind and waves again, alone. In the rush of air and heave of brine he could hear his name, over and over, a taunt in a language that could barely wrap its mouth around its sounds. His name became alien syllables, blown to pieces in a tempest's change.

Tostig had been the purest melody when whispered by his mother, when breathed, even in exasperation, by his dad. Now each time he walked the cliffs to see if the fishing boats had returned, or strolled the docks to look at the goods from London and from abroad, he was sure to be jeered as Tostig the Dane. His friends pronounced the words as if they were fresh from Norway. They never tired of the joke.

Tostig's grandfather, his namesake, had once taken him at tide's ebb to a secret cove. Above its rocks Tostig saw the monastery, the very place where a cowherd named Cædmon once composed an English poem about the creation of the world, a poem that people in Whitby sometimes still sang. Grandfather Tostig told him that his own grandfather – also named, of all things, Tostig -- had a happy career raiding the villages along the North Sea. One night he was separated from the rest of his party. He huddled until dawn on the wet sand of the cove, wondering if he would ever find his kinsmen and their boats. He wandered into Whitby the next day, and never left. Yes, Tostig was descended from
vikingar, pirates, but so were many of the families who lived hereabouts. It was just that these vikings had long ago become farmers, fishermen, ordinary.

Tostig hated his name. He begged his parents to change it, even if grandfather would be angry enough (as his father had claimed) to wake from the dead and walk. His parents had, at last, agreed. Tomorrow he would truly become Angelcynn, because tomorrow he would be known as William. It did not occur to Tostig that the name was not in fact English at all. A few decades ago Tostig was the more comfortable name to pronounce, while William was the kind of word a speaker in Whitby had to train a tongue around. None of this mattered to Tostig, never again to be Tostig the Dane, viking island in an Anglian sea.

William. A name as sweet as the breath of air with which it began, as melodious as the hum into which it dissolved. Hundreds of boys from every part of England were even now being christened with its dulcet sounds. So what if at the age of twelve Tostig was a little late in embracing this new destiny?

The last story involves another little boy, this one destined to become the famous Bede. Its title is James Campbell's description of Bede's native Northumbria (Essays in Anglo-Saxon History 29). The fabulation is based upon an episode in the Life of Ceolfrith that has traditionally been assumed to refer to the young Bede. During the devastating plague of 686, abbot Ceolfrith and a young boy (puerulus) are said to be the only survivors at Jarrow, where even in the wake of the devastation they continued to sing the psalms with their antiphons. Judith McClure and Roger Collins have argued that the Latin noun puerulus would not likely refer to the twelve year old Bede (see their introduction to Bede's Ecclesiastical History, xiii). Yet puerulus could indeed be used of a twelve year old in order to stress innocence and pathetic suffering in the face of traumatic events.
"At the Extremity of the Known World," c. 686
At the age of twelve Bæda was a veteran of monasteries. His kinsmen had delivered him to the monks of Wearmouth five years ago, a tearful boy. Now he had learned to love the cloister's solitude. Gone were the thoughts of rolling apples down the slype to see how many monks he could trip. Gone too were the plans he once entertained of composing red caricatures of his brethren in the pages of the bible he had been copying, though it did still amuse him to consider the nose he would have given Wulf.

Not long ago Bæda left Wearmouth for nearby Jarrow, a new monastery that wanted inhabiting. He accompanied its abbot Ceolfrith and twenty monks who had become twenty friends. Puerulus, the older men had called him, "little guy." At twelve the affectionate nickname did not fit him as well as it once had, but now that all the brothers who had spoken it lay dead, Bæda did feel like a small boy again. Only he and Ceolfrith remained. Two monks slumbered in the dormitory, two monks chanted the daily cycle of prayers, two monks persevered in the daily routine that kept Jarrow alive. The monastery had become too large, its stone too cold. The sound of his feet no louder than the briny drizzle, Bæda feared that he was becoming a ghost.

In his dreams he saw faces burning with fever. He had done what he could to ease their anguish, had carried bread and broth for dwindling appetites, water for thirst beyond endurance. Sometimes he relived the last moments of their lives, when shaking calmed, eyes stilled, warmth emptied. Washing corpses with cold water, he saw the patterns that blood forms under dead skin, cloudy stains that pool, blue and then yellow and then brown. The return to oblivious earth. What haunted Bæda most, what had settled poisonously in his stomach and would not be dislodged, was that monks were supposed to die filled with joy, rushing toward heaven's secure embrace. Cuthwin had been the worst, screaming against the ebb of life as if screaming alone could arrest his dissolution.

For three days Bæda drifted through the monastery, the world slowly fading. The sea sent cold mist drifting. The drip of water from the roof was for the boy the only reminder that time had not stopped. Then Ceolfrith suddenly brightened, and insisted that they no longer abbreviate the daily singing of the psalms. They would pray as if Jarrow's unity endured, and it would endure. So they again chanted psalms with anitiphons, this convent of two, and in that circulation of heavy Latin Bæda learned something he would carry with him for the rest of his life. Words are powerful enough to revivify the dead, to anchor the vanishing in life, to create from the broken past the stone-solid foundation of communities yet to come.

A few more to come.