Saturday, December 1, 2007

Upcoming Event: Manuscripts and Incunabula from the Rare Scripture Collection of the American Bible Society

Thursday, December 6th, 6:30-8:00 p.m.
2nd Floor, Museum of Biblical Art (northwest corner of 61st & Broadway)

Presentation of Manuscripts and Incunabula
Liana Lupas
Curator of the Rare Scripture Collection
American Bible Society

Dr. Lupas will give a presentation of manuscript and early print bibles from the Rare Scripture Collection of the American Bible Society.

PLEASE NOTE time and place, which differ from the Club's usual schedule.

See you there!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Upcoming Event: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

Friday, November 2, 2007, 7:30 PM
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo
Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell
CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave. @ 34th St.), Room 4406.
Reception follows.

Over 700 years after Marco Polo set out on his travels, photographer Denis Belliveau and artist Francis O'Donnell became the first to retrace Polo's itinerary in its entirety by land and sea, traveling over 33, 000 miles in two years. In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, a film documenting their experiences, will be aired on PBS. This Friday, Belliveau and O'Donnell will present stories and images from their adventure -- one of the most daring and literal acts of textual interpretation!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Heterospecularity: Wanderings in the Mirror

Last weekend at the conference on "Medieval Bodies: Traversing Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages" organized by the Columbia University Medieval Guild, Karma Lochrie gave a keynote address entitled "When Heterosexuality Disappears: Queer Whereabouts in the Middle Ages." Lochrie presented her thesis that heteronormativity is not medieval and worked it out via a reading of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, arguing that medieval concepts of sexuality are grounded instead in ideals and the "disordered affectivity" that renders them rarely realized. The weekend before last Eileen Joy wrote on the question of medieval heterosexuality over at In the Middle: "Art Reveals More of Life than Life Does: Heterosexuality, Erotohistoriography, and Our Perverse Desires for a Pleasurably Queer Medieval Studies." Joy's post responds to James A. Schultz's essay “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies” [The Journal of the History of Sexuality 15 (2006): 14-29], touches most helpfully on much recent work on the issue, and turns overall, via Anna Klosowska's Queer Love in the Middle Ages, towards the erotics of reading, our reading: "Literature provides access, finally, not only to 'official' cultures, but also to their queer obverse and 'unofficial' wishes, desires, & bodies, and even to that which, even today, still remains unthought, untouched, and therefore, unfelt."

So I followed the call of the question of medieval sexuality into the classroom this week, on the lookout for textual moments to play it out. Or, to allegorize my own experience (which seems a pretty handy definition of reading), I was, unlike-like Adam and Eve, bound to fall into the question when the opportunity presented itself, in the form of the following passages from Erec and Enide (cited from Kibler translation, Penguin edition):

"What should I say of her beauty? She was truly one who was made to be looked at, for one might gaze at her just as one gazes into a mirror . . . He could not gaze at her enough; the more he looked at her, the more she pleased him . . . But the damsel, for her part, looked at the knight no less than he looked at her . . . They would not have accepted a ransom to leave off looking at one another. They were very well and evenly matched in courtliness, in beauty, and in great nobility. They were so similar, of one character and of one essence, that no one wanting to speak truly could have chosen the better one or the more beautiful or the wiser. They were very equal in spirit and very well suited to one another . . . When they were left alone in the room, they paid homage to each member. The eyes, which channel love and send the message to the heart, renewed themselves with looking, for whatever they saw greatly pleased them. After the message from the eyes came the sweetness, worth far more, of the kisses that bring on love; they both sampled that sweetness and refreshed their hearts within, so that with great difficulty they drew apart. Kissing was their first game. The love between the two of them made the maiden more bold; she was not afraid of anything; she endured all, whatever the cost. Before she arose again, she had lost the name of maiden; in the morning she was a new lady" (42-63).

About which I will find something to say in a moment. But first, the reason Adam and Eve came to mind is that before rediscovering these specular, sexy passages, Lochrie and Joy had rendered inevitable (as reflection from a mirror) rereading the chapter in The City of God (14.26) in which Augustine imagines, and precisely cannot imagine, prelapsarian sex, from which the following lines (cited from Walsh translation, Fathers of the Church edition) stood out:

"Surely, every member of the body was equally submissive to the mind and, surely, a man and his wife could play their active and passive roles in the drama of conception without the lecherous promptings of lust, with perfect serenity of soul and with no sense of disintegration between body and soul . . . the seminal flow could have reached the womb with as little rupture of the hymen and by the same vaginal ducts as it at present the case, in reverse, with the menstrual flux. And just as the maturity of the fetus could have brought the child to birth without the moanings of the mother in pain, so could connection and conception have occurred by a mutually deliberate union unhurried by the hunger of lust. [The online CCEL edition preserves the Latin here and thus the putative purity -- totally against the text's meaning -- of untutored minds. The histrionic language ('roles,' 'drama'), pace the performativity of gender, Butler's "constituting the identity it is purported to be," is the translator's not Augustine's] . . . The trouble with the hypothesis of a passionless procreation controlled by will . . . is that it has never been verified in experience, not even in the experience of those who could have proved that it was possible. . . . Hence, today it is practically impossible even to discuss the hypothesis of voluntary control without the imagination being filled with the realities of rebellious lust" (406-7).

The moment combines in a deeply fascinating way two crucial Augustinian principles (or at least principles that many medievalists, though perhaps not so clearly as when Exegetics was still controversial, would recognize as Augustinian) that Lochrie and Joy, apparently without thinking them as such, respectively evoke: 1) that human sexual desire as experienced is fundamentally disordered, i.e. structured by a being that is "out of order" in the sense of having a fractured will and thus destined to habits, passions, and other self-modifications that divide persons against themselves; 2) that reading, interpretation, understanding are similarly fundamentally acts of desire and its imaginations, expressions of a will that, wandering in this regio dissimilitudinis, is trying to find its way back to its own wholeness in the only object, God, that can satisfy its infinite desire.

A disorder of questions and ideas: What role can/do these principles play in the medievalist contribution to gender and sexuality studies? What are the possible and impossible alliances, covert or overt, between 'queer' and 'Augustinian'? Need to read: J. Joyce Schuld's Foucault and Augustine, Virginia Burrus on theology and eros, Amy Hollywood's Sensible Ecstacy, Catherine Conybeare's The Irrational Augustine, Rollan McCleary's A Special Illumination, Marcella Althaus-Reid's Indecent Theology. In Sexual Dissidence Jonathan Dollimore catalogs "the Augustinian echoes in several popular notions of sexual perversion in our time" (144). But might this genealogy not also have an intrinsic redemptive potential, for redemption of desire from codes, norms, ideologies that reduce persons unjustly, subjectively and objectively, philosophically and socially, to things they are not? One of heteronormativity's synonyms seems to be "healthy sexuality," the notion that there is a mode of sexuality, a "sex life" (simultaneously a life composed entirely of sex and sex wholly removed from life!) that is intrinsically good and worthwhile, a kind of mean to which all should keep and aspire. (This by the way suggests another angle on a problem which Steven Kruger raised at Karma Lochrie's lecture, about how to understand the coexistence and intersection of 'vertical' and 'horizontal' values, ideals vs. norms, across the medieval/modern divide, name, that the Aristotelian mean looks like a precursor and subtext for modernity's ethico-statistical averages). Insofar as Augustinian sexuality impossiblizes "healthy" sexuality and recognizes sex as always already a problem for self and society it offers at minimum a way to think around hetero/queer and other binaries through which sexual ideologies are thought and experienced. By contrast, medieval senses of the normal seem rather faithfully married to persepectives on worldliness or the civitas terrena, to a recognition of mass practice as fundamentally misguided, heedless, blind to the real nature of self and world. "Since the worldly, in their madness, never come to realize how the joy of eternal love penetrates the hearts of the elect, the mortal mind never ceases staggering along in the business of worldly affairs and in those sins which have proved fatal to others," opens Richard Rolle's Contra Amatores Mundi. How much are our "perverse desires for a pleasurably queer medieval studies" perverse desires for the normal, for the normalcy of the "queer," for the pleasurably queer as bourgeois? How much are they infinite desires, "perverse" in their insatiability, in their desire for the end and beginning of desire? How much are they desires for a both-and-neither space between these, for an enworlded-otherworldly queer grounded in the actuality of love?

"Seeing something simply in its being-thus -- irreparable, but not for that reason necessary; thus, but not for that reason contingent -- is love" (Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community 105). This needs reading into the Romance of the Rose.

I am not sure that the absent original procreative sexual act of Augustine's imagination is heterosexual. Nor am I sure that his imagination of it is. At minimum, this idealized heterosexuality is not, as heterosexuality is often construed and represented, a relationship of essentialized difference. Rather, each sexual person is portrayed as a harmony of body and soul, a harmony that is extended formally to a non-penetrative sex act. This is in keeping with Augustine's commitment to rational, spiritual equality of male and female natures and his location of difference and hierarchy in bodies (See Lloyd, "Augustine and Aquinas," Feminist Theology, ed. Loades, 90ff.) There is difference, but, where metaphysical order reigns, it is a maximally minimized difference. Except, of course, in the structure of the representation itself, which is conspicuously absorbed with the female organs to the elision of the male, an absent phallus present (like the unmoved mover?) as a kind of pure causality, present only in what it emits and its effect on the female. Shall we understand this as the product of an absolute masculinity, or more literally, as coded assertion that the male body as body is not fallen, a text that does not alter as the record of sexual origins is played backwards, which needs no emendation? Or shall we say, as the text more directly equips us and does not equip us to, that this is the expression of a fallen mind in a male body, a being struggling against yet bound within its own embodiment, a being founded on the "mistake" of being its body, of identification? What exactly would a conversation between Irigaray and Augustine look like?

My reading, perforce a desire for a certain kind of desire, is of Augustine's desire as a desire for a sexuality that is not heterosexual, for a sexuality that might be thought as heterosexuality's unfelt, its seized impossible, meaning something like a mutual structure or economy of desire to which both male and female are interreflecting witnesses, where there is, not infinitely regressing intersubjectivity, but an actual breakdown in duality. The dimension through which the text points to this, where it is negatively achieved, is the dimension of perversity, the way in which it can imagine our originary sexual encounter only in terms that transgress the reproductive heterosexual norm, the order of nature. The external ejaculation of Augustine's imagination, at once pure and polluted, defines the gratuitous, extra space of human sexuality, its desires for a sex that is both pure sex and not sex, and its externality, the being outside of what should be inside, signifies perfectly exile from Eden, the displaced state of the fallen self. Perversity, the queer, is a negative sign of transcendent essence and origin. Negative, but not in itself.

Cf. Agamben's "operations in which desire simultaneously denies and affirms its object, and thus succeeds in entering into relation with something that otherwise it would have been unable either to appropriate or enjoy" (Stanzas, xvii-xviii).

Plenty for now! Perhaps more later on the Erec et Enide passage.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Upcoming Lecture: Andrew Galloway

"Iconicity and Alliterative Poetry: Piers Plowman and the Bohun World"
Andrew Galloway
Cornell University
The Eighteenth Annual Rossell Hope Robbins Lecture
Friday, October 5, 2007, 7:30 PM
CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave. @ 34th St.), Room 4406.
Reception, with wine and cheese, follows.

"Iconicity and Alliterative Poetry: Piers Plowman and the Bohun World"
Andrew Galloway

Late-medieval alliterative English poetry is often emphatically sumptuous in its imagery, but (with rare exception) its medieval copies are notoriously not de luxe nor, it seems, valued by the world of the higher nobility. Indeed very little is known of the origins and supporting patronage of the alliterative writings that appear in a large and rich quantity from the mid-fourteenth century, supreme among which is the work with the most complex social and intellectual vision and the most elusive social and intellectual immediate context of production: Piers Plowman. One earlier and much less popular alliterative work, however, from mid-fourteenth century Herefordshire or Gloucester, and indeed the earliest datable instance of the "alliterative revival," William of Palerne, directly claims noble patronage: that of Humphrey de Bohun, seventh earl of Hereford and Essex. This connection has long been pondered, as has the possible connection between the poet of Piers and that of William of Palerne. But one avenue—by way of visual materials—to pursue the connections between this one instance of alliterative poetry and the world that Humphrey also evidently supported hasn’t been pursued: the magnificent Vienna Bohun Psalter that appears to have been made directly for Humphrey. I will discuss the modes of visual and textual literacy that both the Vienna Psalter and William of Palerne present around the treatments of an ethic particularly relevant to the world of the higher nobility: pride. I will then consider some of the same elements in Piers Plowman, a popular, in some ways anti-aristocratic London work whose origins in some Hereford or Worcester background are clear in the poem. The present study cannot prove the connections between the author of the two alliterative poems, although it does present some new support. The comparison I will make does, however, show more clearly than ever how radically novel were the social ethics and poetic mode of Piers Plowman. The comparison I will set forth also offers a new look at the broad history of the visual and literary circumstances of late-medieval alliterative traditions, as those came into somewhat wider "public" prominence in the late fourteenth century—even as such growing readership continued to bypass the fifteenth century higher nobility.

Andrew Galloway is Professor of English and Medieval Studies at Cornell University. He is the author of The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman, Volume One: C Prologue-Passus 4; B Prologue-Passus 4; A Prologue-Passus 4 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), Medieval Literature and Culture (London: Continuum Press, 2007), and numerous articles on Middle-English literature.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Joining the Medieval Club

Annual dues for Medieval Club membership are $25.00 for faculty and $10 for graduate students. These funds are used to defray the cost of the receptions that follow each of our on-site lectures and for the guided museum tours.

In addition, we are grateful to accept donations towards to the Rossell Hope Robbins fund, which is used to maintain our single endowed lecture, given every year in favor of the late scholar by that name.

Checks, payable to the Medieval Club of New York, should be mailed to:

Emily Sohmer Tai, Treasurer
Medieval Club of New York
33-47 14th Street, Apt. 5a
Long Island City, New York 11106

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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.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

2007-8 Schedule of Events

Friday, October 5, 2007, 7:30 PM
Iconicity and Alliterative Poetry: Piers Plowman and the Bohun World
Andrew Galloway
Cornell University
The Eighteenth Annual Rossell Hope Robbins Lecture

Friday, November 2, 2007, 7:30 PM
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo
Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell

Thursday, December 6, 2007, 6:30 PM
at The Museum of Biblical Art
Presentation of Manuscripts and Incunabula
Liana Lupas
Curator of the Scripture Collection
American Bible Society

Friday, February 15, 2008, 7:30 PM
The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby: Shaping the Image of St. Vincent Ferrer
Laura Smoller
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Friday, March 7, 2008, 7:30 PM
The Subjects of Friendship, Medieval and Medievalist
Panel Presentation and Discussion
Eileen Joy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Franco Masciandaro, University of Connecticut
Yoshihisa Yamamoto, Chiba University

Friday, April 4, 2008, 7:30 PM
Remembering Medieval Spain in the Twenty-First Century
Maria Rosa Menocal
Yale University

Friday, May 2, 2008, 7:30 PM
Out of Darkness, or Why and How the Fifteenth-Century Middle English Doctrine of the Heart Matters
Denis Renevey
University of Lausanne

Unless otherwise noted, all lectures meet at the CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave. @ 34th St.), Room 4406. Reception, with wine and cheese, follows.