Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reducing the Medieval (with an anecdote about dissertating!)

Apologies for the hiatus, folks. I am in the last two weeks of dissertation editing before I file (o.O).  I feel, at the moment, much as I felt when I (stupidly) decided to swim at Waimea Bay a week before surf season started despite the black flagged beach and the warnings of a dangerous shore break (n.b. DO NOT EVER DO THIS). Despite these warnings, swimming at this beach seemed like a great life decision, and so I did.  My solution to dealing with the large waves crashing ominously close to shore was to time my entry in between the dangerous waves, swim out a nice distance, and tread water far enough away from shore so that the waves wouldn’t toss me around and damage my person.  I did this for as long as I could until I began to get tired and pruny – about an hour or so.   My hope is that my exit from the dissertation editing will leave me with at least a shred more dignity than what remained after I tried to exit the ocean on this particular day.  To say that I “exited,” in fact, assumes far more dignity than what I actually maintained.  “Projectile vomited by Mother Nature” is probably a more accurate description.  It certainly comes closer to capturing what I looked like as I emerged, like a geriatric Swamp Thing, from the chop.

So, here’s hoping I look a lot better on the 13th of March than I did at Waimea a few Novembers ago! I would post comparative pictures, but a) there were, quite mercifully, no photographs taken on that fateful day at Waimea and b) there WILL be no cameras anywhere near me on the 13th of March.


In the meantime, I wanted to share a few thoughts that came to me as I commented on student questions a couple weeks ago in my medieval literature course.  My students are fantastic, by the way, and have managed to make the past few weeks a truly innervating teaching and learning experience – even though we are only three in number!  One of my students brought up Eve in a recent comment, referring to her as many tend to do — as arguably the most negative exemplar for women in medieval iconography, the binary opposite of the Virgin Mary.  In truth, however, Eve’s treatment in medieval literature, as John Flood has recently observed, is far more nuanced and – in several cases – more deeply sympathetic than we’d necessarily assume.  My student was hardly at fault for not realizing this, since the negative portrayal of Eve in the Middle Ages tends to take the foreground more often than not.

The process of clarifying my student’s understanding of Eve’s representation in medieval literature, however, got me thinking about reduction and its imbricated relationship with proximity.  It is so much easier to strip away nuance —from a person, a religion, a culture, etc. — when the object in question is distanced from the viewer.  I’d even go so far as to say that the farther away you get from an object, the easier this process becomes.  Many pre-postcolonial theorists who examine medieval literature have noted as much about the treatment of cultural others in medieval European literature (the work of Sylvia Tomasch comes immediately to mind), and my dissertation argues, in part, that the stark binaries that appear in so many Middle English crusades romances are maintained specifically because of this relationship between proximity and reduction.

The conversation with my student, however, reminded me that this ability to be reductive by way of distance can also apply to 21st century perceptions of the Middle Ages. As John Ganim has observed, the Middle Ages as a time period is both consistently and conspicuously Othered, and scholars who invest themselves in the study of it will always be at odds with the reductive approaches that have been endorsed and perpetuated for centuries.  Because of this treatment, however, studying the Middle Ages can allow students to become more aware of how we are conditioned— and how we condition ourselves — to consider and quantify “things in the past.”  Perhaps one of our broader purposes of teaching these dusty tomes, then, is to invite students to challenge their own tendencies to strip nuance away simply because the object in question is – and always will be – profoundly alien.

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