Friday, July 11, 2014

Ice is precarious substance

Langjökull with melt pond, a picture I took in 2012
by J J Cohen

I depart Sunday for Reykjavik, where I'll be participating in the New Chaucer Society 2014 Congress (#ncs14 if you want to follow the event on social media). I'm presenting a paper in a session called "Should We Believe in the Agential Object?" that consists of precisely one word ("Yes.") I've also organized two roundtables on Ice: see this blog post for a complete description, including abstracts and a few words about why I arranged for the presenters to hike Sólheimajökull with an endearing glaciologist beforehand.  And if you'd like some insight into why Iceland and glaciers haunt me, see this blog post, where I offer the draft epilogue of my book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. That epilogue is called, simply, "Iceland."

But enough about endings. Below you will find my introduction to the two "Ice" roundtables I have organized and will moderate in Reykjavik. If you are attending NCS, please come! I would be very happy to see you there.

Here, from the poetry of Vergil, are two things that burn: (1) the wretched Dido, and (2) the piercing cold wind. This odd convergence of fire and ice was noticed by the etymologist Isidore of Seville. He was fascinated by the fact that elemental forces seemingly in opposition should work analogously upon human and inhuman bodies: “Thus by a single word [burn] two different processes are signified, because they have a single effect. Indeed, the forces of freezing and of heat are similar, and either of them can split stones.”

Ice for Isidore is not a frivolous substance – not a component of cocktails and refreshments, but lethal force; not a berg or sheet we mourn for vanishing, but a cogency allied with fire; element and climate in one. Even rocks don’t stand a chance. Isidore’s ice is never thin: indeed, compacted over centuries into what we would now call glaciers, ice can eventually petrify into crystal and assume a form almost impervious to change. Ice in Isidore's account is an elemental interface, gathering together water, fire, air, earth, heat, cold.

Whereas Isidore discerned in ice a permanence, like the polar scientists who drill into glaciers and remove in core samples an ancient archive, Geoffrey Chaucer looked at ice and saw melt. Ice for him – as I think for many of us -- is loss. In the visionary text called The House of Fame, the dreamer arrives at a palace in the world’s middle: halfway between heaven and earth, at the edge of land and sea, a space where every sound ever made eventually arrives in acoustic ripples. This palace of Fame (rumor and reputation) is built upon a shimmering glacier: “congeled matere” “a roche of yse and not of stel.” Incised into the ice are the names of writers. Some, exposed to the sun’s warmth, have dissolved into illegibility. Others, protected by shade, have endured for centuries. These, it seems, may also someday vanish, story that melts into obscure puddles, the deliquescence of human history into storyless substance. The elements always convey narratives, but not necessarily familiar ones.

Ice is precarious substance:
  • the congealing of a liquid into impermanent solid form
  • a living ecology imperiled by warming
  • brittle fragility mixed with inhuman power
  • a step, an agent, and an archive long geologic process
  • a substance symbolic of a hardened human state, as in Dante's cold hell
  • an insecure, melting foundation
  • a wellspring of vital resources.

Examining ice as actor, symbol, geography and thing, this roundtable explores ice as a living element in medieval and later textual and material ecologies. 

Ice is a matter for hazardous tales.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

As if in proof.. Will I go down in history as the medievalist who brought 15 conference panelists to their icy doom?