Friday, April 27, 2012

Tales of Land and Sea: More on Medieval Mappae Mundi

To continue my earlier post on maps, I thought I would go into some of the details of the mappa mundi. As many of you may know, the basic form for these maps is called the T-O map, since the main structure is a "T" inside an "O." The T and O are formed by water, so that the water bounds and shapes and encloses the land, even though the land takes up most of the space and is the focus of the map. The T is the Rivers -- the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Tanais (i.e. the Don). The O is the ocean, a nameless circle that surrounds the land. The T also separates the continents, with Asia on top, Europe on the bottom left, and Africa on the bottom right. You can see in the above map that each continent is associated with one of Noah's sons: Asia with Sem (Shem), Europe with Iafeth (Japheth), and Africa with Cham (Ham). Jerusalem is at the middle of these maps, where the rivers and continents meet. This location means that Jerusalem was literally the center of the world, the most central and important location available. Move further from that center and things get . . . stranger. On the edges of the map are the so-called monstrous races. Human-like creatures with single feet, or with no heads, or with dog heads, populate the margins of the earth, far from Jerusalem and yet still part of the landed realms. An early (and still very informative) work about the monstrous races is John Bloch Friedman's The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. There's also much interesting work being done on the placement of Great Britain on these maps, and more still to do. Both Asa Simon Mittman and Kathy Lavezzo have discussed the meaning for England, and English map-makers, that Great Britain is also on the edge of the world in these maps, and I suggest their work to those interested in the topic.

When I teach these maps, I try to get the students to discover the ways in which modern maps are constructed as well. We look at modern maps and discuss the things that aren't directly representative of the geography the maps depict. We talk about those things we've naturalized to the point of thinking they're just true. Since the aspect that surprises the students the most about medieval maps is that Asia is on top, I like to show them an Australian map which flips our normal sense of north as up. I ask why north is on top other than the fact that we've always seen it that way. Who decided? Maybe the fact that compasses point north (for now) had something to do with it, but it still has become the normal depiction to the point that most people think it's somehow natural. The "upside-down map" looks strange, the shapes of the continents unfamiliar, and this defamiliarization is useful for a number of reasons. One is that it helps us to see the geography anew, to attend to the details, since we rarely look as closely at the familiar (like the art assignment where students draw the human face upside-down). Another is that it allows us to think through the implications of the choices the mapmaker has made. What does it mean for north to be on top? What does it mean for Europe to be in the center? What does it mean to choose a projection which contracts and expands different parts of the world? I'm reminded of an episode of West Wing in which "The Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality" take their case to C.J. Cregg. At first, she laughs at the idea of maps having anything to do with social justice. But they show her how different projections alter the image of the earth, and her jaw drops as she realizes that they have a point.
Maybe I'll show that clip next time I teach this material.In any case, looking at different projections and different versions of world maps is a useful exercise, and we're all more ready to discuss the mappae mundi when we return to them. Yes, they're strange, but they're not stupid. And there's nothing inherently wrong with putting east on top. The verb orient comes from the fact that maps were originally oriented to the East (the Orient).

There is much to say about all of this, but I want to focus here on what is barely apparent on the maps: the ocean. Though the ocean forms the "O" and bounds the circle of the land, it nonetheless takes up very little space on the maps. We moderns, used to maps that depict the ocean as more than 70% of the earth's surface, may be surprised to see just how little ocean there is on these medieval world maps. I argue that this is not because medieval mapmakers misunderstood the ocean's vastness, but rather because their maps were ideological, encyclopedic, and aesthetic creations, and the ocean's place around the edges suited these purposes. It left the map symmetrical, but also left the land, and therefore those things that had happened on land, as the primary focus. The land in these maps is covered in classical and biblical and historical details associated with the various spaces on the earth. Humans are at the center of this narrative, and the land is humanity's realm.

There were other kinds of maps for navigating the ocean, and portolan charts helped seafarers from the 13th century on. The fact that mappae mundi and navigational maps were being produced simultaneously indicates that neither was meant to supersede or replace the other; they were simply for different purposes. The mappae mundi did precisely what they were meant to do -- they gave order to geographical and historical and spiritual information. And the land, and all of the things that had happened there in human history, was the focal point. The ocean is an unmarked space surrounding and outside of the land, more marginal indeed than the monsters that populate the edges of the world. The story is on the land, not the ocean, and thus the ocean depicts nothing; it is simply there to gird the earth. Unlike land, the ocean's topography cannot be marked or altered. It's both vast and unaffected (unaffectable) by humans. The contours of the ocean are ever-changing waves. How can you point to a historical location on the shifting contours of the water? How do you make your presence known to later people when you're floating on the sea? Humans may venture out onto the waters of the world in little wooden vessels, but these vessels will either be brought back to harbor or they will sink into the deep. (See my last post on Titanic for more about that.) No man-made contraptions can stay on the ocean's surface, none can leave a trace of human presence except in the depths of the ocean floor, subsumed by the ocean itself.

So the ocean is a blank space on these mappae mundi. It does not partake in the narrative domain of the land, nor does it participate in the historical or ideological aims of the land. It is a realm apart.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dredging up the Past: Titanic and the Body of Memory

I just saw Titanic in 3D. I hadn't thought much about going to see it, and had even laughed at this rerelease as an easy money-making endeavor. Yet when some friends asked me to join, I went. I hadn't seen the film since it was in theaters the last time, before it won too many awards and became a parody of itself (i.e. "I'm king of the wooorld!"). I saw it on my first real date, cliche as that may be, and watched it with a mixed response. For the teenaged me, it was sad and awkward and romantic and manipulatively emotional. Then, as now, I loved the costumes. Even then, though I enjoyed the movie, I felt inklings of things I noticed this evening. I could talk, for instance, about the probably well-meaning but not very subtle way in which the film attempts to engage with issues of class or gender. The way that the rollicking party below decks lets us know that people with less money are more authentic, or at least more fun. The way that Rose's mother declares that women's choices are never easy just as she pulls Rose's corset strings tight. Yet something else caught my attention tonight, something I'd missed completely before. Seeing it after all these years, I still remembered the main Rose and Jack plot quite clearly, but the frame narrative hadn't stuck with me as well. Yet tonight I was fascinated by that frame.

The film opens with images of the submerged ship. Mundane objects are strewn about the ocean floor, the only testament to the lived experience of that drowned and broken metal hull. Eyeglasses, a baby-doll, a pair of boots exist in ghostly perpetuity, everyday items made strange by their decontextualization. The ocean, these objects seem to say, is not the natural realm for humans. It swallows us up. Unlike the topography on land, which can be marked by people, the contours of the sea shift continuously, and we can either float to shore or sink to the sandy depths. One must delve deep, quite literally, in order to find any traces of human existence in the ocean. The crew that opens the film, seeking history, fame, and fortune in the wreck, can reconstruct the sinking via computer, but they can't really understand it. They only see material value when they look at the submerged debris. As their inability to interpret the underwater landscape becomes apparent, a drawing of a young woman slowly emerges. They're not sure what to make of that either, except that the woman in the drawing is wearing the costly diamond they want to find.

It is at this point that a sweet elderly woman enters the picture, as if the re-emerged drawing had conjured her from the depths. She joins the crew and tells them all about her memories of the night the Titanic went down. Their fancy equipment can't help them to really understand, but this ancient lady appears just in time to interpret the objects and events for them. All of our images of the original ship and crew and passengers are through this elderly Rose's memory. The primary narrative is therefore invoked by her verbal recollections. For someone who has never spoken of the events before, who never even told her family about Jack, this lady sure can tell her story without a stutter. The men, who've only looked at the wreck for the fortune it could bring them, sit transfixed. They finally see the Titanic.

All of this reminds me of the Middle English poem Saint Erkenwald, which tells the story of an excavation that unearths an ancient tomb. As builders erect a cathedral atop the ruins of a pagan temple, they find a mysterious sarcophagus marked with ancient script. I think it's no accident that this image of palimpsestic architecture unearths such a living relic. While trying to build over history, the workers dig it back up in the form of this strange tomb. All of the most learned men attempt to read the mysterious writing on the tomb and to interpret its meaning. They look at the garments of the body inside the tomb and make conjectures about who he was, perplexed that none of their chronicles mention such a person. None of them can figure it out. As they begin to give into their frustration, they call in Bishop Erkenwald. He prays for guidance, and the long-dead judge buried inside the tomb arises and tells his story from the grave, explaining to them who he was and when he lived. And they finally understand. Erkenwald's understanding and empathy for the dead pagan man get represented physically in the tear he sheds upon learning that the good judge has been in hell all these years, and that tear serves as a kind of baptism that allows the judge's body to dissolve and his soul to rise to heaven. I never understood how the judge can speak English (or some language that the people recognize) when the writing on his tomb is in a language so foreign as to be completely unknown. But that is, I guess, beside the point. The material object from the past is illegible, even the writing from the past is unreadable, so the past needs to be literally revived in order to tell its own story. The resuscitated body of the past can help the people understand in a way that objects and letters never could. Or perhaps the revived body is representative of our attempts to get at that past via the objects and narratives we have. As Christine Chism argues in Alliterative Revivals, "death grants ghosts an interrogative force, imbuing the impossible, unceasing communication between the dead and the living, the past and the present with fearful intimacy" (1). The past is zombie-like in such texts; it rises from the grave and speaks aloud in order that we may hear it.

Though this film is quite different from that Middle English poem, it nonetheless features a past that becomes accessible through a figure emerging and speaking for it. The shot of young Rose's eye morphing into old Rose's eye (again, the film is not trying to be subtle) depicts the direct and physical link between the experience of the sinking ship and the story being narrated today. Though all is mediated via Rose's perspective and memory of long-past events, I suppose we are meant to trust her. If we have any doubts, the fact that she appears at the end with the diamond indicates that she's been conveying the events accurately. She's someone interested in tangible recollections, someone who carries all of her photographs with her when she travels. Yet she admits that she has no photograph of Jack, that there's no record of Jack. He lives on only in her memory. Jack has sunk deep into the sea, not to be brought back to the surface except through Rose's words. For the duration of her tale, the living, breathing, steaming love story can resurface. The captain and Mr Andrews and all the people above and below decks can breathe and speak and live and die as they did so many years ago.

The film could have simply told the story without the frame. It could have begun with Rose and Jack getting on the ship and ended with Jack's death or Rose's survival. It could have even been made from Rose's current perspective, but only in private recollection or more vaguely to us the viewers. Instead, the frame is of people today explicitly seeking something in the wreck and finding it in the person of an old women who once walked the decks of the ship they search. The past emerges bodily and memory is conveyed in color and sound and state-of-the-art special effects. Rose even opens with a description of the smell of fresh paint aboard the ship, a sensory contrast to the rusted and peeling metal we see today. When elderly Rose is finished with her tale, she can finally return to Titanic and to Jack, in dreams or perhaps in death. The narrative has not only brought those around to the ship, but it has returned her to it as well. She rose from the wreckage to tell the story, and then returned to it, along with her heart-shaped necklace.

The past, like the ocean, is never fully accessible to us. We can try to see what lies beneath the waves and we can pull a few things up to the surface, but it is never completely in reach. As a medieval scholar, I understand the frustrations of trying to access the past. And there is no one alive from the 14th century to tell me about it. The image of a body from the past emerging to speak to us is a tantalizing fantasy, as even people's narrations of the past can't actually take us there. Yet it's a fantasy that speaks to our continued longing to plumb those depths, to understand what lies beneath and beyond our own existence as we pass over the same land and through the same waters as people of long ago.

As I sit watching the same film as I did 15 years ago, I see the impossibility of fully understanding or reliving the past, even when that past is my own. On a superficial level, the film is now rendered 3-dimensional, but time has wrought its changes on me as a viewer as well. I notice different things and respond in different ways. My colleagues and I discussed the ways in which films and viewers have changed more broadly. My friend Amanda noted that this movie is situated in its time and place. Post-9-11, its disaster narrative would have meant something very different than it did to us all in 1997. Now we picture the twin towers or think about the socioeconomic realities that allowed some to escape Hurricane Katrina while others could not. I look at pictures of flood and remember the horrifying images from Japan after the recent earthquakes there. The film, already a heavily mediated image of history, is now filtered through all the disasters we've witnessed on the evening news in the past decade and a half. All of these connections make the film and the history it attempts to depict both more and less immediate. And yet it remains as an artifact and we engage with it and with both Roses and with our past selves as we sit in the theater. And we narrate the memories of our previous experiences with the film even as the film gives memory a tangible existence in the person of an elderly lady with a story to tell.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"And we all shine on . . ."

A lot has happened since I last wrote, and I have a list of posts (on dissertating, on NEMLA) that I plan on submitting to the blog very soon.

For now, however, I want to talk about something else. Two years ago today, my beloved father-in-law passed away. This anniversary is hitting me particularly hard, so I don't honestly have all that much that I can say right now -- words aren't coming that easily, and there are so many stories that I could tell.  Too many for a single post though, and they deserve more justice than I can give to them right now.

What I do want to announce, however, is that my incredible mother-in-law has written a beautiful book about Mark, and it's going to be released tomorrow. It's called The Humanity of Medicine: A Journey from Boyhood to Manhood, and you can find it here

 For those of you who don't know, Mark survived what should have been terminal cancer as teenager, and went on to have a miraculously long and rich life. He was diagnosed again with malignant melanoma in October 2009, and while the months (and especially the weeks leading up to his passing) were among the most brutal our family has ever experienced, I will never forget what he told us when we saw him shortly after the diagnosis.  He reminded us, in his gentle way, of all the cards stacked against him throughout his life. He was told he wouldn't survive cancer as an eighteen-year-old, and yet he did. He was then told that he wouldn't have children because of the chemo, but he went on to marry the love of his life and they have not one, but three amazing kids. He was told he wouldn't live long, but he lived cancer-free for about thirty years. He reminded us of all of these things, and he told us that he was going to fight hard to beat the cancer again, just as he did before; but if it turned out that this was his time, he told us that in his mind he felt he'd already lived a truly blessed and rich life.  Here he was, facing down his own fears and confronting them with grace, but also finding a way to lead his family through the storm; truth be told, he never stopped being a healer, not even on his death bed . . . one of his last lucid conversations involved him asking his doctor (who had known him a long time) how she was holding up.  He somehow found it within himself to be strong in the face of immeasurable sorrow and fear -- and not even just then, in 2009, but throughout his entire life. He chose to live his life by looking forward rather than over his shoulder, and that was, in no small part, what he sought to give and instill in all of us in the last months that we were able to spend with him.  

I can't express how glad I am that this book is going being released tomorrow. I just made the discovery a few moments ago, and it struck an immediate chord.  Loudly and clearly, it reminded me to spend tomorrow/today trying not just to remember and grieve for the amazing person I was so blessed to know, but to live by his example, to try -- as best I can -- to "take a sad song and make it better" (Mark's motto). Because truthfully, we control precious little in this life. The only thing we seem to have any control over is the way in which we digest and respond to our circumstances.  True joy lies within those choices -- even in the face of sorrow and loss. This was a truth that Mark knew deeply and well, and I hope that I can do him proud by striving to live in that awareness.