Monday, April 11, 2016

DePauw Dialogue 2.0

Last Wednesday, DePauw University hosted its second Day of Dialogue, in which the campus becomes the classroom and the entire community comes together to learn. I was honored to give welcome comments before the day's keynote speaker: the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington (whose incredible work you can see here and here, and which is transformative and powerful). In response to several requests which themselves do me honor, I provide my comments here. It's my first post since becoming Vice President for Academic Affairs, a position which does not lend itself to the kind of musings I was doing out here - but for this, for that day, for the joy and commitment of saying these words out loud to two thousand people, I am grateful for this space. Thanks for reading, and long live the liberal arts and their connection to social change.

Welcome to DePauw Dialogue 2.0

Thank you--All who participated in making this day happen---Please stand
·      Staff, Students, and Faculty who did the sub-committee work: structural, logistics, pre- and post-planning committee, advertising and mobilization
·      Facilitators who will guide our discussion groups this afternoon
·      Prepared for today: facilities, technical support, food services
·      Speakers/presenters for a breakout session

I stand before you today in partnership with the incredible members of our community who shaped this day. We have come together today – speakers, presidents, trustees, alums, students, staff, and faculty.

We have gathered here today to have conversations we have rarely allowed ourselves to have. Because, as a community, or as individuals, we were too busy, or we were too afraid, or it was too new, or it was too old, because we didn't know how, or because we knew only too well.

We are here to talk with each other. We are here to build our community by speaking across our differences.

We are at an incredible moment, one highlighted by professor Joe Heithaus at this year's Convocation when he read the work of the Syrian poet Adonis titled "The Beginning of Speech." We are at the beginning of speech.

We are like the character invited in the last three lines of Adonis's poem:
Child who once was, come forth—
What brings us together now,
and what do we have to say?

We are at the beginning of a conversation that starts over and over again - with each Convocation, with each first class day, with each introduction…

It's been 30 years since I was a college student. Some things are different and some aren't. Our nation is different; I see fear, anger, and a frustration I have never seen before:
-fear of change
-anger because of change
-anger because of not enough change
-frustration because of absences and silences when we need fullness and presence

The DePauw bubble is not - and should not be - protection from our society or our world--it is the place we address the world in our study, in our work, and in the lives we lead to transform the world – starting with our community as a community.

We are here to be intentional about engaging with one another- and with difference.

This is our day - we have dedicated this day to listen and learn differently.

We are giving each other this day to have conversations we can take back to our homes and our dorms and our classrooms, conversations that give forth to those same spaces of our lives. What comes out of those conversations is an opportunity to lead, and to lead from within this institution, this experiment filled with hope and energy for the world, this university.

The values of our liberal arts education shape this day:
-to create access to knowledge and each other
-to collaborate across difference
-to live in creativity fostered by curiosity
-to deepen and dignify the human experience in its interconnectedness with the world

-I deeply value this education because of its intensity, its seriousness of purpose, its difficulty, and its joy.
- I believe that it is the education that fulfills the promises of equity and opportunity of democracy
-I think that it produces strong leaders – the kind that change the world in all its complexity because they value a multitude of perspectives and experiences

To me, the leadership the emerges from conversation leads you
-to pursue knowledge and expertise
-and to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses
-but also the value of people and their contributions

We know this, right?
Leadership is not about having the highest GPA or having people report to you
We know that it's bigger than that.

That leadership is
-about recognizing that when you think you have looked wide, you look wider still.
-That it's about how well you motivate people to bring the best of their abilities
-That it’s about listening
-That it’s about valuing others and their unique experiences

I challenge each and everyone of you to be that person, to lead and step out of your comfort zone, not only today, but after today, and every time the conversation starts again.

We can only be at our very best when all of us have an opportunity to contribute.
The very best results come out of engaging in difference:
different experiences in different thoughts shaping different ideas.
To foster a culture that embraces difference we must value one another and our differences and our similarities. We must understand what we mean to each other.

When we are all valued and respected for the contributions that we provide and make to our community, then, yes, we let us say

We. Are. DePauw.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Of "Lithic Coils" and "Petric Pregnancies" - _Stone; an Ecology of the Inhuman_ by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

Fossils in Viollet-le-Duc's
gargoyles of N-D Paris
I've just closed the pages of Stone, an Ecology of the Inhuman, a book written (given, it feels) by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. And so this isn't a review of the book, with measured time and thinking and synoptic thought. This is the desire to stay in the book, to remain readerly and to not quite re-emerge from the "lithic coil" (87) wherein Albertus Magnus finds himself when thinking about the tiny fossilized shellfish he sees in the limestone of medieval (and modern (see image!) in the persistence of stone) Paris; to keep walking on the beach with Augustine as he makes temporal and theological sense of a fossilized tooth he finds in Utica (93); to think of Merlin as "an artist of estranged materialities" (176); to consider how many of the works of art I study I might conceive of now as "deracinated souvenirs," (204) objects wrenched from one world and triumphed into another; to never stop reveling in the "petric pregnancy" (240) of the stone paenita as described by Marbod of Rennes. The gifts of words rapt of stone gleam throughout the book. Within its entanglements and enmeshments, language and the lithic are both immemorial to the human perception of time - and yet both immediate to our perception. To make stone present through words, to make words as present as stone: this is one of the many wonders of the book.

Caillois's collection at the
Galerie de Minéralogie, Paris
It's hard to leave the book because it's hard to leave its fellow travelers. You enter a company of strugglers: those who have come up against stone and tried to understand intimacies, scales, and narratives provoked in the encounter; those who have come up against the uses and abuses of stone: when to lapidify is to racialize, when metaphors of stoniness curtail the human, when stone is reduced to resource. Understanding sifts down through layers of stone and becomes proposition, meditation, legend, strange love, unresolved science, enduring activism. Bennett, Latour, Bogost, Deleuze and Guattari, Joy, Alaimo, Morton, Iovino and Opperman join Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gower, Chrétien de Troyes, Noah, Gerald of Wales, John Mandeville, William of Newburgh, Marie de France, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chaucer and the fellows in the previous paragraph and others and others and others join Roger Caillois (whose collection you see gathered here) and Jean Kerisel (who heard stones suffer, who invites their struggle) join the efforts of the builders of Stonehenge, the architects of cathedrals, the designers of the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin, and the builders of hearths in Iceland. A good deal of the sense of companionship, I think, comes from Jeffrey Cohen counting himself as one of those strugglers. Each "Excursus" did not, for me, wander from the path of the book: each excursus marked the way for thinking as completely and vulnerably as one can upon the very hardest things. It's within each excursus that I began to think of the companionate struggle of stone and human, that I was able to fold back that thinking into the powerful claims of the chapters: that, for marvelous example, "stone invites a more ethically generous mode of worldly inhabitance" (250), that "every stone desires" (237), that stone is "always on its way to artwork" (135).

A persistent amethyst
Sainte-Chapelle Treasury
This book, with which (even in writing this I realize) I will live and think for a long time, leaves me in a quandary that I relish puzzling through. In clearing space for stone, Cohen writes "This book, however, takes as its focus stone that may be hewn but has generally not been domesticated into cornerstone or sculpture, into a display of human craft." (13) How do I, as an art historian and a beholder and teacher of medieval visual objects, keep them and their materials from which they are not separate from being domesticated? not only by human craft but by iconography and symbolism and transcendence - by all the disciplinary tricks we have come up with to control and still images. The works of art that have persisted since the Middle Ages have a hold on the human imagination that escapes its control. For the book convinces me absolutely that stone (and bone and ivory and all the searching materials that come into visual form) is harder to domesticate than we have led ourselves to believe, even in our finest mimesis, even in our grandest constructions. Theologians may make pronouncements on art about anagogical readings and ladders of transcendence, but romances and lapidaries tell very different tales of vibrant matter. A work of art isn't enduring because it has been infused by some human or divine force; it endures because it matters - this will have to be argued, I know. My own work now has me thinking more of the impress of material upon artist than that of artist upon material. The amethyst above, carved with Caracalla's portrait and inscribed with Greek letters, surviving the fall of the Roman empire to resurface in the Treasury of the Sainte Chapelle where it was inserted into the cover of a magnificent Gospel book - how can I think through its own domestication of its human handlers? How can I pursue the material persistence, the unruliness and "allure" (133) of stone (and ivory and paint and parchment and all the media fervently emerging in the Middle Ages) within "human impress"(13)? Is (isn't?) the divide between raw material and wrought form a human one? Maybe there is a way to think of the transformation from the raw to the wrought as a series of enmeshments and beholdings - this is certainly the project of my work. And so I am so grateful for the calls of this book - to "materiality in action" (228), to "a life of embeddedness, artistry, and ethical relation" (192) and to the phenomenal meditation on art and nature provoked by Albertus Magnus as he suggests the "force and inspiration of the stars" on both, and Cohen writes so beautifully of "humans and rocks... stirred to action by astral magnetism" (170-1).

Montneuf, always
I will also miss the spaciousness of Stone. One of the elations of reading it was how spatial it was, how often I found myself thinking through expansive places: on the beach with Augustine (a long, long walk, fossil in hand); in the forest of Broceliande in Brittany (its stones bedecked in moss and hosting wonders); near and far and in and around Stonehenge (and there and back again with Geoffrey of Monmouth); in medieval and modern Paris (and Jeffrey's writing is generous, it invites your own imaginings and memories); in Scotland perched atop Arthur's Seat; and, magnificently, at the end, in Iceland. Stone calls forth in these expansive landscapes not as boundary, but as dense world, memory holder, portal, witness, survivor, fluid and fragile within a temporal expansiveness that defies human perception, powerful to us in our tiny time, companion, fellow traveler, presence. This book - its gifts and struggles, the company it keeps, the trouble it bears, and the beauty it gleans - I hope that you will read it, that you can join its endeavors and "plumb the petric" (10) with its wondrous author.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Lost in Thought" at Kalamazoo

Just returned from a truly wondrous Kalamazoo medieval congress. Not quite able to let go of the powerful experience of speaking on the "Lost" panel, gathered by Jeffrey Cohen and peopled by an intensely attentive audience and speakers who shared beautiful ideas and writing with a gladness and vulnerability that will stay with me for a long, long time. Here was my contribution.

There's a phrase in French when you're out at a restaurant and the food is too salty: "The chef is in love!" Growing up in Switzerland, I remember older aunts and uncles, stunned at the sting of their super salty fresh lake perch, saying "Ah ben là, le chef est amoureux!" For a long, long time, I would think of love as a salty thing, a surprising too much that shocked older relatives and awakened a winking secret. It was only much later that I understood the scenario behind the phrase, the chef in love over-salting the food because of being lost in thought – mind gone to blissful memory or sublime fantasy, while body performed mundane tasks in repetitive rote for ordinary things like people and food; a Cartesian divide in the kitchen.

But what if it's not a divide? What if it's a trust? What if it's the body's desire to be suffused with memory or fantasy? The mind's yearning to materialize touch and daydream? And objects, then, become portals, agents of transfer, from one time and scale to another. When Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot follows the lady-in-waiting off trail in the forest, he is "pest de son panser qui molt li plest" ("lost in his thoughts which please him very much"). He is completely taken with the ivory comb he finds upon a rock, its gleam glinting with the flaxen strands of hair intertwined within it, and he stands there, "molt longuemant," holding it, feeling its weight, thinking the weightlessness of the hair. He stands there so long that the horses start to paw the ground and the lady-in-waiting laughs – and teases him out of his reverie and into a delirium when she reveals that the hair is Guinevere's. Lancelot almost loses it, almost faints, is almost really lost in thought – but the maiden catches him before he falls from his horse, brings his body and his mind back to their here and now, and they continue in the forest.

We joke about being lost in thought, or gently laugh at those who are, calling them back, because the thought of being truly, irrevocably lost in thought is pretty scary. Those we can't call back, those who don't return to find themselves in the mainstream of time and space, are deemed… different, unabled, mentally ill. My father lived the last eight years of his life with a brain injury that left him lost, deep in thought, his body mis-guided by his mind soaring in all directions. At some point in conversations with him about North Carolina waterways, the Hong Kong dollar, Fidel Castro in the hills, the not-so-zen paradox of being lost only if you can or want to be found again, came to me. Are you really lost if you've forgotten to be found? My father's wanderings, his ramblings and roamings, and his circumlocutions (and that's a technical term of traumatic brain injury, but it's also what I love most about what we're all doing here at Kalamazoo in gathering and tendering words to each other), his circumlocutions, were rationalized for us with various metaphors: "His mind and his brain are just taking off in different directions;" "He has all his marbles, they're just scattered" – metaphors meant to create a rational distance between our normal and his weird. There was one that truly helped: "He can't see the forest for the trees." I tried to be lost with him, no longer beholden to a big picture, to walk with him among endless metaphorical trees free of the discursive frame of forests: elephants on the beaches of Ceylon, bringing buttermilk to someone named Solomon, snatches of Portuguese, his long silences.

And so when Jeffrey's lost pine branch came to me in the mail, I felt for the first time I think, the collapse of metaphor into reality. This twig was, might as well be, from my father's expanse of forestless trees. This twig could skip, might as well travel, through arboreal generations and literary time, and elide with those in the paths of all those knight errants stumbling through forests: dear delusional Don Quixote brushing up against trees, scattering needles; the Fisher-King brooding by the shore, the trees of his domain parched and barren behind him; Yvain sleeping on twigs and branches in an endless forest, eating hermit's bread. Sometimes, the allegory reaches up for the reality: in the Book of the Love-Smitten Heart, René d'Anjou's dreamer and his Heart are two knighted companions on a quest for Lady Mercy. They wander lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, tricked by Jealousy; Desire comes to give them companionship and encouragement, and helps the Heart disarm and lay aside his sword. And Desire and the Heart, lost in the forest, talk long into the night beneath an aspen tree.

In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit offers her take on the etymology of los, the Old Norse word meaning the disbanding of an army. "This origin suggests," she writes, "soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world." Loss, lost, losing, loosening – that moment of disbanding, not necessarily to find home again, maybe just to wander a wide expanse, to get lost in thought. There are those who seek to be lost: the mystics lost in the thought of Christ, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing - persistent questers of lostness.

The Judeo-Christian tradition begins in the mind of a brooding God, hovering over everything, sweeping over the waters. What unknowns stretch out within its hesitation? Maybe the tehom of the deep in the original Hebrew, the etymological descendant of "radiant Tiamat" of Mesopotamian creation, was so beguiling and wondrous that God stopped rushing in, stilled the wind, and remained suspended – a lost god, unsure. A doubtful, distracted, day-dreaming deity before the time of days, poised over the deep, intimate with darkness, lost in thought, without sign, or referent, or scale. And then God stopped trusting His lostness, and started making distinctions and divides.

Later, much later, after the tree and the apple and the accusations and the denials and the wailing and the leaving, there would be gathering around a fire, and dazed by survival, we humans would start to stare into the hearth: its crackling warmth, its mesmerizing dancing flames, its complicated light. Gaston Bachelard, in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, prized the reverie we enter when we stare into the fire and become lost in thought. He called it a "hypnotized form of observation," wanted us to think about it as a way of seeing the world. In reverie, we might well see the world in all its salty love and grief among trees and forested wanderings; we might well re-emerge within the trust to be lost in thought.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

By the river with 7th graders, Mary Oliver, and Fafnir

There was an outing today. 150 kids, the entirety of the 7th grade, a drive out of our small town, and through Amish country to one of our glorious state parks. Warm, breezy, clear air redirected by cries of glee and teasing, kids running ahead, kids lagging behind, the incredible energy of this age. So here, a few impressions of working with these children who live on a thrilling cusp, somewhere between wonder and self-consciousness, moving across the gulf from 12 to 13 years of age. Mac said it beautifully, about what it was like for some of them to read the poem by Mary Oliver with which we started  - "It's as though some of them didn't want the words to be fully in their mouths." They spoke hurriedly, brushing over the sounds of their own voices - feeling (maybe) the words too strange, the idea of standing by the river in a circle reading one line of the poem each too disorienting. Much rejoicing at the invitation to make structures. The river was too high for us to have access to the stones that make good cairns, so we expanded our materials. The circle above of big and little standing stones surrounding seashells was made when the mud was still soft in the morning. We all loved thinking about how far the seashells had come - to wash up in crazy, misplaced plenitude on these inland shores.

The science teacher had suggested this next idea, which was an intense one, actually: stand blindfolded for five minutes and observe the environment around you without the sense of sight. I started thinking "There's no way that I could do this with college students" and I'm still not entirely sure I could put my finger on why. Bigger discussion, but I am wary of making my students too vulnerable - somewhere between 7th grade, and college, hurts and distrust accumulate. Here, there was willingness - and these kids' trust was very poignant to me. Those who wanted to stand in the quiet rush of the river were the most still. I thought that that was so cool: to purposefully stand where the ground would shift beneath your feet. Then, after big gasps of air as the blindfolds came off, they wrote (of birds and water and sensing others nearby and many many things).

There were three Sigfrids, one for each group of kids who gathered to hear the tale from the Völsunga Saga. Each time, when Mac called for a hero, one stepped forth. And a human Fafnir and a dragon Fafnir, and birds and Ragnar and Otter and the Other Brother and more. Sometimes (here) a crutch was the sword, others a stick long dead. Each time, Fafnir met his doom and then we'd all line up on the beach and throw rocks (Fafnir's gold) into the river at the same time, the sinking stones' expanding circles disassembled by eddies swirling past. The third time we did it, Sigfrid from the second group came back to join in the story again - to hear once more about gold making men mad, and dragon's blood revealing the language of birds, and wild throws by the river's edge.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Concerted Effort

A predecessor of my wonderful
biochem professor, teaching
geometry (key for structural
diagrams!) in a 14th c.
Euclid mss. (British Library)
Today was the last day of Biochemistry for me. The students will valiantly review for their exam on Wednesday, and I will be walking away with my head full of a new language. It's been very interesting to learn the language, rather than the practice, of biochemistry. I have not spent time in the lab, spending the past month thinking about the work (operations) of art (really, visual surfaces) in Chaucer's dream poems, and the idea of being "lost in thought" as well as the insistence of matter in medieval art. But I've consistently been trying to find my footing within biochemistry's language about the structure and function of proteins. Having studied amino acids and enzymes and carbohydrates and all kinds of saccharides and lipids and finishing up with RNA and DNA, I walk on the very dynamic ground of millions of biochemical reactions a second. Looking at these reactions up close, in human time and scale, I can understand how a protein folds, how RNA can be self-folding - all sorts of things. I can understand that there is a tremendous amount of randomness and reactions that go nowhere, and I can understand that what makes my body work is an enormous series of things "recognizing" each other, and fitting together to produce the reactions that we call living.

Zodiac Figure within
cosmological and
molecular possibility;
Très Riche Heures, 15th c.
(Bibliothèque Nationale)

Where wonder supplants perception is in my inability to conceive of these millions of reactions happening all at the same time, and in concert. I know that they are happening, as I think and type, but I cannot possibly keep track of them all. And yet, because reactions at the cellular and molecular level are happening in concert, I live and breathe. A comment made by my collaborator on this article about how humans live with/overcome/negotiate the (poignancy of) the limits of human perception comes back with full resonance now: cellular reactions don't stop happening with death; cellular activity is as frenetic and energetic as in life - but now, the effort is no longer concerted. Death is, indeed, disconcerting. The idea that hydrophobic amino acids keep right on clustering inside the cell, that carbons are still looking to attach or disconnect, that proteins are still probably somewhere folding is different for me to think through than decay and decomposition. Those two sad terms are written from the point of view of human life. We would need other words to describe cellular activity once it is no longer in concert for the sake and experience of human life. Metabolic persistence? Molecular stamina? Cellular reactions keep happening arguably forever after death. They are eternally persevering in their energy and randomness; they "recognize" each other, however, for purposes other than human living. There is perhaps no greater presence of the post-human than in our own cells. We are always (yes, already) displaced by the energy that preceded us and will endure beyond us. Knowing more about how enzymes operate in antibiotics and laundry soap (for example), opens up thousands of other questions, blunt questions asked obviously. What are the biochemical reactions in operation when I cry? when I feel pleasure? when I'm tired? when I remember? How can I begin to conceptualize the permeability of what I call my body to biochemical reactions in my environment? (microcosm-macrocosm is a start but after that? we are very, very permeable indeed - at all times, in every moment). What are the worlds (let alone proteins) unfolding within the concerted effort of my person without my knowledge or control?  How much of my existence is beyond my perception? That one we've been asking for a while, but it really never gets old, and there are always new answers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Taking Leave of a God

One of my sabbatical treats to myself was to read an entire issue of Speculum because (true confessions), I have never done so. It was a great thing to do: felt a bit like going to a dinner party where each guest is pretty fantastic and brings great stories (here's the current Table of Contents). Christopher Abram's essay, "Modeling Religious Experience in Old Norse Conversion Narratives" opened up the confusion and intensity of conversion of Hallfreðr, an Icelandic poet, dubbed "troublesome" by the Norwegian king, Olaf I, who converted him to Christianity in 996. Abram's essay goes well beyond what Hallfreðr is known for: the five so-called "conversion verses" in which he struggles with his leave-taking of Odin, the god he's known his whole life. It was my first time reading them, though, and I can't quite leave them. [Here's a link to an article by the scholar who translated the poem in full that provides the verses in translation].

Viking Stele, 8th c.
The conscious and mournful leave-taking of a god. That loss. "It was different in former days, when I could sacrifice to the mind-swift... Odin himself." I think of intimacy, and ritual gestures, and surges of emotions, of a god who is mind-swift, coursing through thoughts, quickening a consciousness. I think of the honesty of this loss, this staring into new voids - none easily replaced, all felt gone. I think of Hallfreðr's having known Odin, of his trying to put his intimacy and knowledge (and love and admiration and thrill) of Odin somewhere. Where does a god like Odin go when a king like Olaf comes? Hallfreðr tries places. In words, which used to trip from his mind in praise of Odin. In sounds: I count how many times he says Odin's name in these verses meant to signal the god's negation. In memory, of course, in remembering ceremonies and pleasures that are now banned by Olaf, "the Sogn-men's sovereign." In the pathos of living with inexorable doom: "All mankind casts Odin's clan to the wind" - a god swept away, betrayed, longed for, dispersed back into a landscape (think of Iceland!) that waits to receive him. And it isn't just Odin, of course, it's the waft and weave of his clan, all the love and knowledge and fury and past of a god. "And I am forced to leave Njörðr's kin, and pray to Christ." In Hallfreðr, Odin and Christ co-exist. It's that simultaneity, which Hallfreðr maintains through the painful remembrance of what must somehow cease to exist for him, that keeps me circling around these words. It's Hallfreðr's knowledge of both, his intimacy with both; those two divine entities in one human psyche. It's this simultaneity of beings that also holds my fascination for the time when two genetically distinct hominid species interacted: when Neanderthal and homo sapiens were in contact with each other, when two hominid entities existed in one ecological psyche. I've circled around that loss, too: around knowing that we weren't the only human species, around never knowing what it was like to experience or communicate with a proximate consciousness. There was no leave-taking of that other species, no good-bye in song (is this when we debate Grendel?), was there mourning? Two gods in one poet - it will be a long time before I stop thinking of Hallfreðr's trouble.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Musca pictura

A nice little slew of deadlines have successfully been met and thus an hour's play with an old friend opens up. The fly that sits (oh my goodness, where?) upon the painting, and the sill, and the frame, of Petrus Christus's Carthusian Monk from 1446, now at the Met, pulls us to strange margins. Its presence is both interference (a fly!) and mastery (a fly on a painting that measures 8.5" by 11.5" inches - yes, the size of a piece of American notebook paper!) - both pesky and prodigious. It is also simultaneously mimetic (fly shown actual size!) and in violation of every mimetic convention: its position performs a spatial morph between the actual world of the viewer and the represented world of the painting habitually granted to gold, inscriptions, or Christ's hands in other paintings of this period. No matter how close you get (the closer you get), it's impossible (the harder it is) to pinpoint the place of the fly: the sill it sits upon is in the space of the monk and can belong to his world; the inscription it sits atop of is in (on?) that of the painting and puts a claim to the fly being in our world. It is, of course, in both - though we seem to notice it more than the monk does. Or (my favorite gambit) is the monk depicted ignoring the fly? - eschewing its disturbance with his penetrating gaze. And yes, there's a quick moral message that could be made about the grandiose human with his deep thoughts and the negligible fly with its mundane presence, but let's not reduce this marvel to a meaning - somehow Petrus Christus has used mimesis to make us question the surface, depth, space, and time of our mimetic abilities and expectations, and so (to attempt an anamorphic reach without anamorphosis), I'd like to try to have the fly's spatially- and temporally-complex point of view mess with my own.

I wouldn't see the fly as temporally complex if it weren't for the following lines of questioning: 1) the persistent questioning of periodization that Jeffrey Cohen and Steve Mentz enact in their work (which makes the observational prowess Christus brought to the painted fly not the triumph of a moment in Renaissance time, but rather a continuous fascination with representation and illusion) and 2) the continuing shockwaves of reading Carolyn Dinshaw's How Soon Is Now? (which will forever change how I think about any observation or knowledge that comes out of love and enthusiasm and is not meant for academic production). Wait, add to that 3) Keith Moxey's brilliant meditation on painting and time in Visual Time (which remembers the painted fly as part of an object that itself travels strangely through time, even as it sits now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York). All of these take the ephemeral alighting of Christus's fly and stretch it in time: to the painter's actual experience of a fly alighting on his work and to the painter's actual experience of deciding to paint a fly; to the monk's depicted experience of a fly alighting in his space and to the monk's willful or sincere ignorance of its presence; to the viewer's illusionistic experience of noticing the fly and to the viewer's struggle to place it, both visually and intellectually. That fly has no business being there, and so we feel compelled to find a business for it: a moral business (mundane fly, human devoted to heavenly thoughts), a historical business (Christus humbly vying with Zeuxis)... It is very, very hard to just let the fly be there - in any kind of time. A fly in our lived experience is meaningless: an annoyance at best, a carrier of disease at worst. A fly in our experience of illusion is pulled to meaning: see above in an eternal loop of worry about under- and over-interpretation. Are simultaneities enough to break down binaries?

The fly cannot know itself as I know it (insert something smart and snappy about Derrida and his cat here) (not an editorial note-to-self, just me eschewing an enormous series body of animal studies because I only have 10 minutes left to write). But I can use its spatial and temporal morphs to hear Emily Dickinson when I see Petrus Christus. I can go down the Linnean rabbit hole and revel in its scientific denomination: Musca domestica - the only creature I've found thus far that has "domestica" as part of its scientific name ("musca" being just the Latin word for fly - "domestica" being then a scientific nomenclature based uniquely on the human experience of observing flies in houses). I can reach up and find that the constellation Musca shines in southern skies charted (and named) by explorers on the first Dutch trading expedition to the East Indies in 1595. I can marvel at all the flies I know (buzzing poetic illusionistic allegorical scientific stellar imagined sung avoided). I can continue to think on about resistance to meaning in the midst of wonder.  Some of this is where the networked knowledge of Google takes my curiosity, some of it is old, old hauntings (I've never been able to shake that poem by Emily Dickinson). A lot of it is a moment very far away from anywhere else that is insistently here.