Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Questioning New York Medieval

Es necessario caminar, ¡de prisa!, por las ondas, por las ramas, por las calles deshabitadas de la Edad Media que bajan al río
[We’ve got to move – Hurry up! – through the waves, the branches, the deserted streets of the Middle Ages going down to the river]
(Frederico García Lorca, Poet in New York, trans. Greg Simon
and Steven S. White [New York: Noonday Press, 1998], 125).

Since coming to New York to teach at Brooklyn College in 2002, I have carried a question in the back of my mind, a question which suddenly finding myself the president of the Medieval Club of New York is pushing to the surface: what does it mean to be a medievalist in New York? So, by way of an appropriate inaugural post, I would like to write something on this question and invite others to take it up, or more poetically, to walk across it like a hermeneutic Brooklyn Bridge – but in which direction? – and reenter being a medievalist in New York.

But this is a very silly question. One does not come to New York to be a medievalist the way one comes to New York as an artist or immigrant or banker. Medievalist, the vocational category, is not part of the life-essence of the city, materially or symbolically (though of course it is both, especially if you are a medievalist). I did not choose New York as a place to profess medieval literature, perhaps some have, but instead found a job here. So I am here to be a medievalist, but not to be a medievalist here. And yet the silliness of drawing this distinction, a distinction which dissolves in the realities of present life and work, or must dissolve if we are to be present in place, suggests that the question may not be so silly after all. The question is also an index of larger questions, about thrownness, place, homelessness, and so on. Cf. the two sessions the Medieval Club is sponsoring at Kalamazoo 2008, The Global Middle Ages and Why am I Me? On Being Born in the Middle Ages, both of which promise to resituate the medieval in various ways. Which brings up the very ambivalent place of place within academic culture and identity more generally, the scholar as both someone who transcends place, through sheer intellectual self-presence, and someone who is dependent, even delicately so, as a person, upon place, for happiness, connoisseurship, good croissants, what not. A person who transcends place, but only in certain places! New York is a rightly desired place to be a professor (ergo the CUNY salary), but the idea and the reality are both wonderfully and frustratingly different.

The question is also silly, or maybe embarrassing, because it sounds like an expression of the emptiness at the heart of the mythology of big cities, namely, that everything that goes on within them is in some mystical or transcendent way of the city or about the city, so that simply being in New York is both always already a significance itself and a vacuum that must be filled by the fullness of one’s own being. So that not to fill it, which is not to fulfill the myth, by being nobody in a great city, by not being somebody, is to be a kind of double nothingness, a lost soul, just as being somebody in New York is a kind of double greatness. “If I can make it there / I'll make it anywhere / It's up to you, New York, New York.” Note the ambivalence of “you.” Is it oneself or the city? The city as maker of one’s self-making! But the emptiness of this mythic structure, its tautology, is also a site of fullness, a place for the small and the great, and the smallness and greatness of each, as events that equally happen here, in the unique nowhere of the city, and thus in a more true somewhere than the superficial somewheres of geographical, cartographical space. In the De Monarchia Dante defines action as a kind of turning up of the volume of individual being, whereby what is principally intended in every action is to “disclose one’s own likeness” [propriam similitudinem explicare], a disclosure that takes place through action as self-intensification, for “in acting the being of the agent is in a way enlarged” [ac in agendo agentis esse quodammodo amplietur]. Complementing the placelessness of this event, this becoming, the city is often experienced and construed as something that accomplishes this for us, calling forth the action of latent selves, wakes them from slumber. So rather than merely being a place for self-disclosure, does not the city, as something that structures action and experience, call forth even medievalist-becoming in a specific ways? The title of one local medievalist blog, Old English in New York, certainly suggests so. I would sum up my experience in this direction by saying that New York, as an ongoing spectacle of radical contrasts (cf. Huizinga's autumn) -- wisdom and heedlessness, arrogance and kindness, opulence and poverty, cosmopolitanism and parochialism, garbage and beauty, tradition and alienation, et al -- has made more insistent and present certain questions, above all the question of the human, its nature and limits, so that if the city nourishes being a medievalist, it does so by calling one to be more than medievalist.

Does being a medievalist in New York have something to do with the several points of contact between New York and the Middle Ages? Sure. Among those that come to mind are: 1) the closer-to-the-end-of-the-Middle-Ages-than-to-now origins of the city. Googling “new york medieval” led to this interesting slip: “By the 1660s the settlement had become a small fortified, European-like medieval city at the tip of Manhattan Island” (Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall, Unearthing Gotham, 169). In other words, Europeans re-medievalized themselves in the New World, which actually makes quite a bit of sense, and fits well with pre-modern concepts of reform and renovatio. 2) Gotham. 3) The formal presence of the medieval in New York, on which see the Medieval New York webpage by Paul Halsall and students. 4) The whole skyscraper as false cathedral (a.k.a. tower of Babel) critique, of which my favorite is the Australian poet Francis Brabazon’s

The sky-scrapers of New York are the cathedrals of America.
A cathedral is an aspiration, a glory, a peace –
a silence reaching to the Silence which is God.
. . .
You should go to New York. You should see culture
stockpiled. You should see the herd of faces which don’t smile,
the crowd of eyes which don’t laugh; the poor children of the rich
being wheeled in Central Park, buttoned to the eyes from the weak sun.
The skyscrapers of New York are beautiful in their reach to death –
lovely with red tears of undedicate labour. (Stay with God, V.15)

5) The modern metropolis as the site of a New Middle Ages, ala Umberto Eco: “What is needed for a good Middle Ages? First of all, a great Peace that is breaking down, a great international state power that had unified the world in language, customs, ideologies, religion, art, and technology, and which at a certain point, by it actual ungovernable complexity, collapses . . .” (“Towards a New Middle Ages,” in On Signs, 490)

My own take on this realm of contact is more about absence than presence, dissonance and discontinuity, and thus the possibility for the new, than connection with the past. In tune with the passage from Lorca, I tend to think and experience the medieval via New York not as an originary space the city is connected to but as an absence, even as its own absence to itself, like the gargoyles that are too high to see, its being medieval in a unrecognizable way, in a way that is signaled but not determined by the literal semblances of the medieval within it. Being in the hurried streets of New York is something like moving through the deserted streets of the Middle Ages, through a space that is the presence of an uninhabited place, a place of people who do not know they are in it. Is this a reasonable thought or a horrible entrapment within the very concept of the medieval as other? One point of entry into this perception is the idea that New York represents a kind of hyper-medieval. Where London and Paris, for example, constitute the modern metropolis as the horizontal ad infinitum expansion of the medieval city beyond its walls, so that the modern city equals the city without walls, without communitas, New York, at least through the (false) synecdoche of Manhattan, constitutes the modern city as more medieval than medieval: bounded, vertical, within itself, but on a scale to admit communities ad infinitum, not communities of dependence, of shared faith and fear, though there is also space for these, but communities of independence, of individualities, founded upon shared self-fashioning. A neo-medieval bourgeois fantasy? Yes.

So rather than projecting some specific significance onto being a medievalist in New York, for now I think it wiser to understand the intersection as an experience of disinhabiting the modern, not via medievalism or nostalgia, but by inhabiting the modern as an uninhabited space of the medieval, and therefore, as a future that is already present.

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