When we were having lunch at the Circle Bistro in D.C. this past week, just before the "Touching the Past" symposium at George Washington University, and in between some silly discussions having to do with the 1976 movie Logan's Run, valium, and turning into oranges [thanks Julian Yates!], the conversation turned to whether or not we believed that there are certain things [certain subjects, certain objects, certain frames of mind, landscapes, places, weather, etc.] that have always preoccupied each one of us and continue to do so, such that, even if we peer into our childhood, long before we were medievalists, or into our earlier non-medievalist careers [for Karl, his stint in a punk band, for Jeffrey, his flirtation with biology, for me, my life as a gardener and fiction writer and general ne'er-do-well hedonist--oh, and that applies to Karl, too, circa 1980s and, for me anyway, into the mid-1990s], we might notice, with a sudden surprise, that we were *always* thinking about history, or we were always obsessed with animals [Karl], or with time [all of us], or with injustice [me], or with bodies [Jeffrey], etc. It is my own firm belief [although Karl demurred a bit] that there really are certain dispositions and orientations [desires, leanings] and habits of mind that we possess very early on, and almost unawares, these dispositions and preoccupations creep into everything we do, they won't let go of us, but we don't always readily admit this [or maybe don't always see it]. Are we formed so early on in our orientations to the world that, as Sara Ahmed has argued in Queer Phenomenology, some things appear in view to us, while other things, although present, remain out of view to us?
For me, I can only say that, yes, I really think this is so. Unlike a lot of other people, I came to medieval studies very, very late, only finishing my Ph.D. just before I turned 40, and after quite a few stints as anything but a medievalist: bookkeeper, garden designer, fiction writer, travel accountant, filmmaker, business entrepreneur/capitalist whore, photographer's assistant, interior designer's assistant, payroll manager, secretary/receptionist, etc. But throughout all of this I was, for the most part, surrounded by artists [chiefly writers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, musicians] and I was always, in one way or another, working on my own art [my fiction], and when I reflected on that at the Circle Bistro last Friday, it occurred to me, with something almost like a shock [because I had not really thought about it before], that pretty much all of my stories [and my one novella] are absolutely all about history [about the past and its hold on the present], and also about resurrections of the various dead [and isn't this why I also love the paintings of Stanley Spencer?], and of course, they are all, in some fashion, love stories--albeit, rather queer love stories, not meaning they are about same-sex relationships, but rather that they are about queer couplings of all sorts: between Pablo Neruda and Marie Curie, who I paired up in one story, "I Have Kept My Heart Yellow," between Emma Bovary and a baker of blackbird pies, in "A Sweet, Crunchy Tart," between Edmund from Lewis's Narnia and a dharmic colony of ants, in "About the Author," between Lot and his daughters, in "Lot's Wife," between a male stripper and a Volvo that could fly, in "Volvo in the Sky" [these are just my published stories]. But speaking of the more conventional denotation of "queer," at least in our current critical parlance, I was always turning certain historical figures into lesbians: Marie Curie, Emma Bovary, etc. This, embarrassingly, has to be admitted.
It seems to me that we have to have created what might be called a "petit"-body of work, not with any particular forethought, just following our creative whims, and then some time passes, and we look back on what always seemed pell mell, and a certain beautiful order emerges--something strange and yet so familiar because it was what we always wanted, or were trying to say, all along. We love certain things so much, have such affection and loyalty to them that, even when we don't notice their presence, they are always emerging within us and flowing into our work. We have dispositions, in other words, and we should embrace them, maybe even give them more room to really, as it were, ravish us. Because I would like to think that the things I love in this world could not only be taken, but could take me in return. And wouldn't this also be an/other way of thinking about history and about writing history? We could have histories of dispositions, habits, preoccupations, orientations, or we could write our own medieval devotional manuals.
And so I'm also wondering: what is your disposition? Can you look at the work you've done in medieval studies, for example [your theses and dissertations, your essays and articles and books, your courses, etc.] and then, while also considering your former selves, your child self, do you see that you have certain subjects and objects and landscapes that preoccupy you, concern you, obsess you, inhabit you? And what are they? I would love to know.
And although Jeffrey asked me to share here on ITM one of my short stories, I'm not sure I feel entirely comfortable with that [they can be found, in any case, here and there in various journals and books such as Black Warrior Review and The Sun and Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction], but I will share here just the beginning of one story, published in 1992, "A Sweet, Crunchy Tart," told from the point of the view of the blackbird pie maker who lives on the imaginary island of Merula, and which got me thinking about all of this to begin with [and I will admit here, as I did to Jeffrey, that the first lines of this story came to me one afternoon [in their entirety] in 1991, in the midst of a hellishly hot summer when I was living in Virginia in a house without air conditioning and I would spend almost every single day lying in one of those antique, claw-footed tubs, where it was cool, and staring out the window, and just waiting, I guess, for anything to happen]:
History has many skins, layer upon layer of fragile papyrus, a thick apocrypha of facts and fictions, strands of white hair, cups full of brown teeth and jewelry gone green with rust. If our skin becomes dust and dust persists through all of our calamities, then I'm as eternal as air, sitting on the prow of the ship that sails to Byzantium, a twinkle in my eye. My bones might rot on the hull of the earth, but I hope there is a part of me that will settle on the wing of a gull and I will survive, yes, I will survive in spite of everything. It is love, the star in my palm, that will get me through, shake me out of time, make me like the seed shaken out of the poppy, small and hard, tasteless, eternal.