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.