Sunday, October 23, 2011

Elephant Memories

First, I just want to express my deep affection for elephants.  Back in the day, in the summers during college to be precise, I had a job doing food service at the zoo back home in Portland (popcorn, snow cones, hot dogs, ice cream, etc), which just happens to have the largest herd of Asian elephants in captivity.  We would occasionally get to go behind the scenes of the animal exhibits and twice I went to the elephant house.  Once, we were there on a tour and they had one of the bulls in an enormous squeeze cage.  He saw us, starting swinging his trunk at us, and sprayed us with his snot.  Another time, we got to see a new baby that had been born overnight: he was surprisingly hairy.  I spent one summer by the elephant house at a cart that sold "elephant ears," big slabs of deep fat fried dough topped with butter and either cinnamon sugar or raspberry jam (or both, on either half, we would fold that in half and eat it as a sandwich for lunch).   I came to love the massive solidity of the elephants and their apparent capacity for joy.  Have you ever seen an elephant swim?

I stole this image of an elephant from another blog,  It identifies the image as from as Jacob van Maerlant, Der Naturen Bloeme. Flanders or Utrecht, circa 1450-1500.  Whatever.  I like its long long legs, wicked grin, toothy tusks, and vacuum cleaner hose trunk.  And I like the mushroomy trees.  Why can't nature look like that? 

I wanted an elephant for today because I've been reading and thinking and writing about ivories and I want to acknowledge where they come from.  Sometimes you can see it in the objects, in the big standing Virgins that bend following the curve of the trunk; in the the small very round seated Virgins cut from smaller cross sections.  Flip either over, if you could,  and you would see the hole for the vein that ran through the tusk.  And of course you can often see the veining of the ivory itself, the mark that it was once alive.

I've been reading the inventories of 14thC French kings and queens to see what they thought of ivory as a material.   Its interesting in being both elevated and ordinary, religious and secular or personal, used for Virgins mounted on silver and silver-gilt bases and dripping with jewels and pearls, but also for buttons and boxes and the handles of knives and fans or flyswatters.  Even the Virgins are sometimes these deluxe objects but other times smaller things, just asking to be held in your hand.

But never a mention of the elephants.  They are supposed to have long memories, to go to the remains of their dead and handle the bones, which makes me think of medieval relics, ceremonies of their translation, and commemorations of the saints.  Would the elephants themselves be able to remember the elephant in the ivory? Would the carvings be for them the relics of their ancestors?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ivory Virgins

So here it is, the opening image for the article I'm currently revising and, more immediately, a talk I'm working on for a symposium two weeks from today.  It's an ivory Virgin and Child statuette and the museum (our own CMA) says its 13th century Mosan.  It looks much more monumental here than in reality: it's only a few inches tall and I can image that it would have fit easily into an owner's hands.  It would have been an intimate object, then, and encountering it now in the museum is rather frustrating since its sealed away in a glass case.  I have a couple of other, older, images from the museum that help me imagine handling it up close, turning it in my hands (they also show the crown that it is now obviously missing and an additional base).

Visually, my major interest in this image - and others like it - is in the Virgin's clothing and how it shapes the relationship between her and the child.  From the front, we see her mantle come forward over her shoulders, then tuck back under her free arm and extend over lap to underneath the child.  It creates an outer layer to her body that opens up to expose her interior and it locates the child just on the edge of that inner space.  He reaches into her, reaching with one hand into her interior space, inside of the mantle, to grasp her breast, and reaching up with the other to clasp her veil.  His gestures create a relationship between her inner space and the veil that drapes over her mantle and down her back - so that her inside and outside are again joined by his body.  Turning the statuette from side to side puts this relationship between inside and outside into motion.  Turned to the left, we see that his reach into her body is returned by her reach around him.  From this angel, the line of her veil seems to continue into the line of her arm, which is draped in her mantle, so that her clothing draws him in.  Turned to the right, negative space opens up between their bodies and is bridged only by his gaze and his gesture in to her - with what is now a broken arm. 

Now all of that is fine and lovely and hopefully you will be able to read all about it someday (I'm shooting for Gesta with this one).  What I want to begin to think about here, however, is how my choice to write about motherhood in my scholarship relates to my choice not to become a mother myself.  To finally make this clear, openly in the world, that later choice is not just a theoretical, general, abstract one: it began as a practical, specific, concrete decision.  About 13 years ago, during graduate school, I accidentally got pregnant and I chose to terminate that pregnancy.  It was the right thing to do and I do not regret it.  Over the years since that choice has gradually become the choice not to have children in general.  I know perfectly well that it is possible to have children after having an abortion.  But the choice to terminate was so immediate, so obvious, and so forceful, that it made clear to me that I do not want to be anyone's mother.  I want to be myself and, for me, those two things are opposed to one another, probably because my first and closest brush with motherhood came in this unexpected and unwelcome way.

The turn to writing about motherhood in my scholarship happened at about the same time as the abortion and so the two are clearly related, although the turn in my work also had an academic motivation.  I wanted to find a way to write about the female body in medieval art without writing about the medieval church's negative attitudes towards sexuality, since I thought that had already been covered and didn't need to be repeated again (and I'm thinking of Howard Bloch's diagnosis of misogyny as a discourse of repetition here). Interestingly, in the light of my very clear choice, my writing about motherhood in medieval art is largely about ambivalence of one form or another.  In terms of this ivory, it's the tension I see between in and out, between the child's merger back into the mother's body and his separation from her, which probably does reflect my feeling that a child would be a threat to my identity and autonomy. 

The only tension I feel over my actual choice is an occasional voice in my head saying, but aren't you supposed to want children? Isn't that what everyone wants?  Is there something wrong with you that you don't? That voice has emerged over time, as the context for my choices has changed, as my more general choice not to have children has become more obvious and somewhat more problematic - primarily for other people.  As more and more of my contemporaries, colleagues and friends, have had children there has sometimes come to be tension between those with and without children.  My current group of friends has worked very hard not to allow the arrival of children for some to become a problem between us - but that tension is still there at times and with others.  I chalk it up to insecurity (and I thank my former therapist for this insight): people often get uncomfortable when your decisions are different from theirs because it suggests to them that your choices constitute a critique of theirs.  Something like, if Marian chooses not to have children, it must mean she thinks my choice to have children is wrong.  To be clear, I don't think that.  My choice not to have children is just that, my choice. It is what's right for me and has nothing to do with anyone else.  I may sometimes play up my choice as a choice, but that's because I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me, assuming that I must want children and must be unhappy with my life as it is.  And yes, that's my insecurity showing: I become uncomfortable too when someone else's choice seems to become a judgment on my own.

Friday, October 14, 2011


This is one of my favorite faces in Romanesque sculpture (specifically from Saint-Pierre at Aulnay, its a capital on the west front).  I like its puffy roundness and the way that seems to soften the stone.  I like how the shapes of the mouth and tongue are repeated by the eyes sockets and eyeballs.  I like how the mouth collapses inwards, even as the tongue, ears, tendrils (hair?), and forehead stretch out in different directions. 

I've chosen it for my first post here because of the combinations it creates: soft and hard, mouth and eyes, in and out.  Because my purpose here is to join those things for myself.  I plan to pick an image and write about it for a while, so joining eyes and mouth in the sense of seeing and speaking - or in this case writing.  But a different kind of writing than my normal academic prose: something softer and more clearly connected to my insides.  I'll be letting those insides come out - even if the result is a bit grotesque as it is in this image.  I imagine that sometimes the images will come from my research or teaching and the content of my writing will then be more academic in content, if less formal in tone.  Otherwise the images will come from my postcard collection or from my own photography and the content of the writing will be more personal.  But I do expect and even want to see the lines between those two categories begin to blur, to see the outside academic collapse inwards and soften even as my messy insides become visible in words out in the world.  The images will be mostly medieval because that is what my research and teaching focus on and because many of my postcards were purchased and my photographs taken on research trips.  I am opening up to investigating why I work on medieval art, to discovering what inner personal investments drive my professional work.

Starting this was inspired by one of my students, who opened his big mouth to ask if I did any other kind of writing besides the scholarly stuff.  I said no, just boring academic work, but then I started to think...

Over the summer I had been thinking about my writing and myself very differently.  I'd just got tenure in my job in the spring.  I was trying to get used to that idea and thinking about what difference it might make in my life.  I knew what I didn't want: to become one of those tenured profs we all hear about, you know, the ones who basically stopped working once they got tenure.  I'd been joking around a lot about that, about how now I could be lazy and irresponsible and there was nothing anyone could do about it, but I didn't want that to be true.  I also didn't want to become a service whore: you know, the people who are on every committee and do every little administrative task, who feel martyred by all that but do it anyway, and then don't get any of their own work done (I see a real danger for me here).  So I had resolved to start to think about myself  as a writer, instead of as an academic, as a writer who just happens to primarily write academic art history - but perhaps writes other stuff too???  And I had started a different project, a personal memoir focused around something that happened in grad school (which I don't want to get into right now).

So how did I get from there to telling my student that I am just a boring old academic hack?

Well, its been a hard start to the semester.  My department is going through a huge transition: a new chair with new ideas, moving to a new space, a new budgetary reality (cuts!), and some new pressures from the upper administration who don't seem very sympathetic towards the arts or humanities.  We've had a long stream of meetings and the tension has run high.  Tenure hasn't meant freedom for me.  Its meant the realization that I need to care about all of this stuff now, since I am probably going to be working here for the rest of my career.  And I know from my past that this kind of stuff gets me all wound up inside in a way that nothing else does.  My own work, the productive positive thing that I do for and by myself, goes out the window as I obsess over who said what to whom about what and what I should have said and what we could do to fix it all if only and so on.  This time I finally snapped at someone and I never do that.  I can't remember the last time I lost my composure - although this person, a colleague, provoked it with some really insensitive remarks about my personal life.  That was almost two weeks ago and I am still obsessing over it, wondering why she thought it was ok to speak to me in such a hurtful way, thinking about what I should have said in response, reliving the whole thing in my head.

So I am hoping that this is a way forwards from all of that.  A way back to that idea of being a writer first and to doing a variety of different kinds of writing, both academic and personal, and maybe even somewhere in-between.  A way out of the mind-fog of the semester and its constant demands.  A way to make a more positive connection between the personal and the professional.  A way in and a way out.