Monday, December 31, 2012

Fever in a Snowstorm: Musings on Perspective

I've had a fever for the past couple of days, and it's got me thinking about perspective. There's something surreal about feeling the heat radiate from your own skin as you watch the snow fall and fall. The dissonance between my experience of the world right now and the fluffy, frozen reality of the world mingles with the haziness of my fevered brain. Of course people always feel temperature slightly differently. I joke with a good friend that we could never get married because the thermostat wars would be epic. But fever brings these differences of experience into sharp relief.

Not only do we feel the air differently, but we often see the world differently as well. I bicker with my mother when she mentions a blue car that I am quite sure is violet. I've never understood why such moments of seeing color differently are so annoying, but now I think that it's those very trivial moments that call our attention to the fact that we may not be looking at the same thing as everyone else when we open our eyes. We go about our days resting upon the assumption that we're seeing basically the same things as the other people in our vicinity. Our sense of sanity rests upon this premise. But when you say that's a grey shirt and I insist that it's tan we bump uncomfortably into our own assumptions. Color definitions are more tangible than other differences of experience, such as one friend commenting that it was a lovely dinner party just as another blurts out that it was a terribly awkward evening. Such moments are startling, but we can chalk them up to mood, whereas color seems more objective, verifiable.

Yet color, like everything else, exists on a spectrum. Even assuming I am not color blind, I neither see nor identify color in the same exact way as everyone else. Primary colors are fairly straightforward, but things get murkier as we delve into the complicated depths of the color wheel. It's incredible how three basic pigments can produce such infinite variety ... And it's not just how we define colors, but how we experience them. What emotions they provoke.

Senses are strange. We speak of our senses as ways of directly engaging with the world, of accurately assessing our surroundings. Yet what does accuracy mean when something that looks suspiciously like opinion flavors our sensory perceptions? This song sounds beautiful to me, but you say it's just noise. That food tastes delicious to you, but I find it revolting. What factors mediate our senses? And what do we do when our most direct means of accessing reality proves to be so fickle?

Perhaps it can be refreshing to admit that we have individual perspectives. Maybe we could see the world more clearly if we admitted that none of us is omniscient and that multiple perspectives are useful. I am part of an interdisciplinary group in grad school, and we joke that all our discussions boil down to how we approach T/truth. We read the same text, but notice different things and approach it in different ways. We define words differently. Like the cliched story of the blind men and the elephant, we all emerge with a bigger picture when we compare notes, when we engage in dialogues rather than monologues (and promoting dialogue is certainly at the heart of my teaching). What good does it do any of us to assume that our own way of reading is the correct one, that alternate methodologies are silly? Rather than devalue other disciplines, I find myself grateful that so many people are trying out so many different paths. I find the best approach is to acknowledge that my perspective is both valuable and limited, and that it is more valuable if I can admit that it's limited.

Granted, a fever is an extreme. Certainly this illness alters my perception in potentially dangerous ways. But as I try to nurse myself back to health before I have to head to Boston for the MLA conference, I consider that fact that we're all always perceiving things differently to a greater or lesser degree. And maybe these perspectival particularities could be useful and even delightful.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

In fields where they lay: The Second Shepherds' Play as the original Christmas special

In keeping with my tradition of writing a holiday blog (started last year with Gawain and the Green Knight), I would like to write this year on another of my favorite medieval Christmas stories, The Second Shepherds' Pageant. The Second Shepherds' Pageant, also called The Second Shepherds' Play, has been burdened with its confusing title simply because it's the second play on shepherds in the Towneley manuscript (though the two weren't necessarily meant to be performed as a pair). Though the play is anonymous, the author has become known as the Wakefield Master. The play inserts common shepherds into the nativity story, and it combines social commentary and humor with piety. Simultaneously medieval England and biblical Bethlehem, the play is a beautiful example of the ways in which biblical stories were alive for medieval people through medieval dramatic practices.

The play opens with a lone shepherd's complaint. The weather is cold, and conditions are intolerable for poor men, who are beaten down by hard living and made submissive to the gentry. Both the weather and the social structures described sound an awful lot like late medieval England. As other shepherds arrive on the scene, squabbling (good-natured and otherwise) ensues. When Mak, a man of unsavory reputation, makes an appearance, the shepherds greet him with suspicion. Their suspicion soon proves well-founded, as Mak slips away while the shepherds nap and steals a prize sheep. He takes it to his wife, Gill, and the two concoct a plan. If the shepherds come looking for their missing sheep, they will put the lamb in their cradle and Gill will pretend to be in childbirth. Mak and Gill are known for having children constantly (sometimes twice a year, Mak complains earlier in the play), so her sudden condition shouldn't take any one by surprise. The trick works well at first. The shepherds do show up quickly (and angrily) to seek their lost lamb, but Mak begs them to pity his wife in her childbed while Gill makes terrible moans. The shepherds finally leave, and Mak and Gill breathe a sigh of relief. But then one shepherd realizes that he gave the new baby no gift, and the others respond in kind. Their generosity proves troublesome for our thieving couple, when the shepherds return and pull the swaddling clothes aside to present the child with birthday presents. They cry out that the child is a monster, and then recognize that monster as their own missing lamb. It's no accident that they only discover their lamb once they turn from anger against Mak and Gill to generosity toward the "child." At this point the play, so farcical in tone, could turn deadly. The shepherds have a right to execute Mak for what he's done. After some deliberation, they turn merciful and decide to toss him up in a blanket instead, a humorous solution to the problem. Tired out, they lie in their field to sleep. As if in response to their mercy, a star appears and an angel tells the shepherds of the birth of a savior. They go to seek the Christ child in his manger, and this time they do remember gifts. They give cherries, a bird, and a ball (meant to symbolize life in a time of death, the holy spirit, and a royal orb, respectively). This story, an alternate to the Magi, shows us not wise men, but everymen. They are common shepherds, people the audience might know, granted entrance into the joyous and miraculous scene of the nativity itself.

The setting of the play is particularly resonant, since it is always both Yorkshire and the Holy Land. The characters talk of walking on the moors, and mention many English locations throughout the play. When Mak first arrives, he pretends to speak with a southern English accent, and the others tease him until he resumes his customary Yorkshire speech. People and place all seem firmly located around Wakefield itself. Yet when the star appears, the shepherds need not travel far to find Bethlehem. And, as David Bevington notes in his Medieval Drama, there would have been two platforms for the play. Mak and Gill's house would have been parallel to the manger on the set, with the shepherds' field in between, connecting the two and presumably holding the audience as well. Bevington explains how the staging gives "a visible form to the parallelism of the farcical and serious action. Although the Wakefield Master never calls explicit attention to the resemblance between the two births, the stage itself would help make the point" (384). The playing space would have visually enacted the themes of the play, yoking together sacred and profane, past and present, there and here. For many people in medieval England, the Bible itself was inaccessible. Books were expensive and the Bible was in Latin. Medieval Drama was thus an important way in which people of the period engaged with scriptural material in a highly interactive way. They wrote and acted in these plays. They stood in their city centers among biblical set-pieces and cheered and laughed and booed and cried. Perhaps they threw things at devils and perhaps they sang along with songs they knew. Puritans were horrified by such spectacles, wanting people to have access to scripture itself instead. But the plays give us insight into the way people of late medieval England saw these as living stories, as stories that were real parts of their own lives and with which they could engage actively. Real emotions, including humor, could be part of sacred drama. Biblical time and place collapsed with contemporary English spaces. The Second Shepherds' Play takes the collapse of time and place to an extreme as the play inserts Yorkshire shepherds into the nativity. In fact, the majority of the play follows these shepherds, who could be anyone from anywhere and anytime, and yet are also clearly from Yorkshire. It's not until the star appears near the end of the play that we get any overt hint that this is a Christmas story. The play seems to suggest that even mundane moments can be part of a miraculous larger narrative, that we are all part of this narrative together and that it thus continues to have real existence in the world.

I had the good fortune to see the play performed at the Folger Institute several years ago when my good friend and colleague Dan Stokes and I participated in an Early English Drama workshop there, and the performance was engaging, beautiful, hilarious, and moving. I laughed; I cried. I know that sounds cliché, but I really did laugh and cry over the course of the production. And I wasn't the only one. The most amazing part was the mixed audience. Scholar of medieval drama sat next to families with small children, and all were captivated. Dan and I were having a pint at the pub after the performance, and we saw the actor who played Mak there. When we told him how much we'd enjoyed it, he was thrilled and offered to buy us a round. Apparently, the actors had been terribly nervous that night, since they knew that the academics were coming to the show. We reassured him that they had managed to make the play both wonderfully accessible and scholarly fascinating. In fact, I found it fitting that this play had remained so engaging to so wide an audience. The way in which the play infuses the familiar and yet incredible story of the nativity with everyday people and their hijinks is striking even to modern audiences. The way that these quarreling, complaining, scheming characters can be so moved by the baby in the manger lends the final scene a real sense of awe.

As funny as the play is, the ending is surprisingly poignant. These characters we have come to know seem a bit awkward in the holy scene, but they are so genuinely enamored with the baby that it's hard not to feel a shared sense of joy in the moment. Their gifts to the child may be simple, but they are heartfelt. And the manger is a humble space not unfamiliar to our common shepherds. A play that could have ended in death (either of the sheep or of Mak), ends instead in miraculous birth. And while the symbolism of the lamb in not lost, nor is the audience unaware of the larger story which includes the Passion, we are allowed for a moment, like the shepherds, to just enjoy the scene. Affective piety was popular in the later Middle Ages, and holy people imagined themselves at the foot of the cross and felt the pain and sorrow of that moment. The Second Shepherds' Play gives us a chance for a different kind of affective engagement, one in which we place ourselves instead in the manger and feel the shared joy. After I saw the play performed, the group of us remarked at how moving it was to all of us, despite our different belief systems. The message is one of mercy and joy and hope, a sense that any one of us could play a part at any moment in something greater than ourselves. This year has been difficult for many, and these last few weeks filled with unimaginable heartache (see Kate's recent beautiful post on the Coventry Carol). I only hope that we can respond to tragedy with compassion. Like the red cherries picked in the frozen white winter, like the baby born when nights are longest and days are coldest, even the bleakest moments are available to hope and beauty. And the beauty of basic human compassion is that we all have the power to bring it into the world. Perhaps this is the perfect time to think about how the simplest things can be miraculous. Even moments that are common or silly or petty or sad can be made precious if we remember to treat each other with kindness. With that in mind, I wish you all a season filled with love.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Most Interesting Man in Medieval Studies: Redux

As a sort of holiday gift to all our readers (that is, if you consider medieval jokes gifts and not afflictions), I decided to revisit a post I composed a little over a year ago. I realized that our most interesting man was sorely in need of some new accolades, and so I've provided the newest top ten below. Please add to the mayhem in the comments -- the more the merrier! I'm convinced we can't have enough of these.

And so, without further ado, I wish you all a happy holiday season and give you:

The Most Interesting Man in Medieval Studies . . . Redux. 

1. The MLA recently awarded him a prize for his translation of Piers Plowman   . . . into flawless Dothraki.

2.  Flashmobs the world over have popularized his interpretive dance of “The Complaint” (also known as "Hoccleve Style").

3. Students refer to any uncertainty on his part as “The Cloud of Unknowing.”*

4. He once travelled from the Syria to Northumberland by rudderless boat . . . just to see what it would feel like.

5. When he registers for a conference, he does so twice: once for himself, and once for his beard.

6. When he sleeps, Langland has a dream vision . . . about him.

7. Conferences are held annually to unpack his stirring analysis of Scandinavian rune sticks.

8.  His lectures on the absence of stirrups in Merovingian Francia regularly move audiences to tears.

9. He lulls his children to sleep at night by reading to them . . . from the 13th century Rolls of Parliament.

10. To protest Greenblatt’s most recent book, he will host an open bar at Kalamazoo 2013. Drinks will be shaken, not swerved.

*Many thanks to Kristi for the idea behind this one! 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Coventry Carol

"The Coventry Carol" always seemed a terribly odd, and terribly eerie song for the Christmas season, given that Christmastime — as one commentator on the Sandy Hook tragedy poignantly lamented — is supposed to be joyful. Full of good cheer. This particular carol, however —the sole survivor of a now-lost 16th-century mystery play— tells an important part of that story. A bleaker part. It is sung from the perspective of a mother lamenting the loss of her child, one of many slaughtered on Herod's orders: 

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

On this day, as the updates on the incomprehensible Sandy Hook killings continue to come in — and as the press performs their shameful, but predictable, pandering for ratings by dwelling on the killer's story — I am struck by the fact that while we know and remember Herod for the awful orders that he gave, we have no names of those he ordered to be killed. We only know them by their epithet: the Innocents. Little children killed on the orders of — according to the stories that come down to us — a single, scared, hubris-addled man. 

And yet, though we have no names for the children of this legendized narrative, their story survives and is told again and again. In a gospel. On the church floor of Siena's Duomo. In countless other artistic renderings. In medieval mystery plays. In "The Coventry Carol." Their deaths are inextricably wrapped up in the Christmas season, and they remind us of the profound sadness that can, and does, course through the clamoring joys of the season. 

Its haunting melody gently challenges the very idea that Christmas is supposed to be filled with simple joy. I've grown to strongly distrust the word "supposed" and its cousin "should." Having spent the better part of a very brutal year chiding myself because I "should" be happier, I can definitely attest to how inertia-inducing (even damaging) the word can be. The fact is, for many people -- certainly the survivors and the families of the innocents killed this week -- this time of year could not be further from joyful. This time of year, for them, has become something to be survived, and it becomes so at least in part because of the cultural pressures that insist on joy as the only acceptable feeling of the season. 

"The Coventry Carol," however, reminds those who suffer in this time that they are certainly not alone. That a long time ago, as magi came to Bethlehem to find a babe in a manger and rejoice in the finding, and as hosts of angels sang of his birth to bedraggled shepherds, there were also many families weeping for a loss too profound and too final to comprehend. It forces those of us fortunate enough to experience joy at this time of year to remember those with bleaker stories to tell. And, hopefully, to remember to be that much more grateful for our joys because they are so very fragile. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Musings of an InterSwervist*

Reactions to Stephen Greenblatt's recent book The Swerve reached a fever pitch on the blogosphere and twittersphere yesterday and today in response to the announcement that the book has been awarded the James Russell Lowell Prize by the MLA. Much has been said already about the book's willful disregard of facts in favor of a highly reductive approach to the roughly thousand-year period known as The Middle Ages, and you can find wonderful responses to the MLA's questionable decision and to Greenblatt's book here, here, here, and here.  The reactions of medievalists and early modernists on Twitter have been equally vivid.

I've been trying to pinpoint why I've been so dismayed by Greenblatt's book and, most recently, about the MLA's decision to give it a prestigious award. I think it comes down to a few concerns, many of which have already been eloquently expressed by the posts I mentioned previously. 

One of my primary concerns lies in Greenblatt's baldly outdated approach to the Middle Ages, made very clear in the book's preface when he states: "Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body. The cultural shift is notoriously difficult to define, and its significance has been fiercely contested." There is, quite simply, no way to support this statement if you include, say, Alfred the Great's investment in literacy, the popularity of French Fabliaux, the ENTIRE polymorphous "genre" of medieval romance (and let's not forget about Chaucer and Boccaccio).

Another of my concerns ties into the conversation on periodization well underway in the interwebs: click here for a great recap. Call me a naif, but I had thought that we had largely moved passed the idea that the complex millennia between the so-called "Classical" and "Early Modern" periods was nothing more than an intellectual sink hole. As Elaine Treharne so eloquently put it, by presenting this fictionalized view of the Middle Ages, Greenblatt "provides us with a sequence of superficial imaginings that might yet prove damaging to readers who, assured by the prize-winningness of this volume, assume they are being told something other than fiction." This really bothers me — that a book like this one (because of its Dan Brown-esque glitz and its earning both a Pulitzer and the Lowell Prize) has so much potential power to reinscribe and promote popular myths about all things medieval. The fact that much of the damage in The Swerve is done by way of insults made in passing ("[In the Renaissance] it became increasingly possible to turn away from preoccupations with angels and demons . . .") make the work's popularity even more vexing. 

As many have already noted, The Swerve is overtly polemical. One of the most obvious of such moments occurs in the passage below, which Jim Hinch explores at length:

"It is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing. As the Roman Empire crumbled and Christianity became ascendant, as cities decayed, trade declined, and an anxious populace scanned the horizon for barbarian armies, the ancient system of education fell apart. What began as downsizing went on to wholesale abandonment. Schools closed, libraries and academies shut their doors, professional grammarians and teachers of rhetoric found themselves out of work, scribes were no longer given manuscripts to copy. There were more important things to worry about than the fate of books. Lucretius’s poem, so incompatible with any cult of the gods, was attacked, ridiculed, burned, or ignored, and, like Lucretius himself, eventually forgotten.
The idea of pleasure and beauty that the work advanced was forgotten with it. Theology provided an explanation for the chaos of the Dark Ages: human beings were by nature corrupt. Inheritors of the sin of Adam and Eve, they richly deserved every miserable catastrophe that befell them. God cared about human beings, just as a father cared about his wayward children, and the sign of that care was anger. It was only through pain and punishment that a small number could find the narrow gate to salvation. A hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage, and an obsession with the afterlife: these were death knells of everything Lucretius represented." 
Hinch does a beautiful job pointing out the voluminous fallacies in the above quotation, but what struck me most about this passage is how it seems to have far more to to say about very contemporary anxieties over the state of education than it does about the Middle Ages. Like the film 300, it is a fantasy that appropriates historical events in order to fuel personal agenda. In this respect, the passage above, and the general tenor of The Swerve, reminded me of some of Frank Miller's more inflammatory statements offered in an NPR interview shortly before 300 hit theaters:

"Lets talk a minute about the enemy . . .  and the 6th century barbarism that they actually represent. . . . These people saw peoples head's off. They enslave women. They genetically (???) mutilate their daughters. They do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I'm speaking into a microphone that never could have been the product of their culture and I'm living in a city where 3,000 of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built."

A clue as to the inspiration for Frank Miller's garbled and factually inaccurate description of the Middle East (and for his investment in the film version of 300) lies in that final sentence: his very personal experience of the traumatic events of 9/11. Greenblatt is nowhere near as unhinged as Miller, but a similar tell exists in Greenblatt's book. Indeed, the entire premise of the book seems less inspired by Bacciolini's discovery of Lucrecius that it was by Greenblatt's discovery of Lucretius  as a young man -- a discovery that, no less, allowed him to heal from the emotional traumas of his youth. I have no problem with personal anecdotes (I actually found his willingness to get personal refreshing), and I am not saying that the personal has no place in academic discourse -- Kristi and I frequently interweave the two here, and I recently argued in favor of that kind of approach in an earlier post. I wonder though whether this book might be a perfect example of what can happen when someone becomes far too invested in making a speculative version of history (fueled by personal response) an authoritative one. Far too many of his arguments rely on what I can only describe as personal opinion and bias for their existence, and he disregards (as Bruce Holsinger's recent tweets make hilariously clear) a vast array of information in order to perpetuate his own vision of the so-called "swerve to the modern." This is a hard pill to swallow when I have to explain to students (in almost every class I teach) why you have to rely on MORE than the stuff that's in your own head when you try to substantially add to an academic conversation. 

I think, in the end, what I find so problematic about The Swerve and the accolades it has earned is this: that the author makes the same rhetorical mistakes (over and over again) that I find in freshman essays. I expect to find these kinds of mistakes in the latter, just as I expect to encounter misconceptions about the Middle Ages (or in Frank Miller's case, the Middle East and its inhabitants) in popular culture. But it's more than frustrating to see those kinds of errors not just overlooked but actively perpetuated (and rewarded) in a book written by a well-known scholar. What kind of example is this possibly setting for the students we teach and in whom the MLA is ostensibly invested? What kind of example is it setting for discourse in general? What does it mean that factual inaccuracy and dated polemic are overlooked by prestigious award committees in favor of rhetorical swagger? 


Ok -- I think I've vented my spleen enough for one day. Time to practice sochin (the Mjollnir of all katas . . . good lord, did I just write that?!?!) and listen to Tool on repeat while doing so. I will, however, leave you with the following (my very first meme contribution) before I jump into my white pajamas and pretend to kick copies of The Swerve around my living room. A message from all InterSwervists, perhaps: 

*All due credit goes to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen for coining the term!