Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Henry Chichele's Junk

I loved my Kalamazoo paper for this year.  Just absolutely fucking LOVED it!

Which is pretty amazing, since before I wrote it, I'd not written anything in months and was despairing a bit about my ability to write.  I was deep into this curriculum craziness that is going on at my university and was feeling more like a mid-level bureaucrat than a scholar or an intellectual or a writer or a person or...  You may have noticed that I've not even written here since February, when I try to write at least one post per month.  I have to dive back into all that craziness now, but I want to try and capture this feeling first (in fact I fell down the curriculum rabbit hole for about a week and am now coming back to finish this and try and recapture that feeling).

On the one hand, the paper was a tight historical argument about the tombs of Henry Chichele (above) and Richard Fleming understood in the context of Lollard anti-image rhetoric and occasional acts of iconoclasm (given that Chichele and Fleming were both involved in anti-Lollard prosecutions and so would have been familiar with Lollard words, ideas, and deeds).  And at the same time, it made some general claims about life, death, and sculpture.   The links come through the transi figure on the lower level of the tomb, which represents Chichele's dead body, and the Lolllard tendency to identify sculptures as dead things; in combination with the effigy on the upper part of the tomb, which combines signs for death (the horizontal posture) with suggestions of life (the open eyes and active gesture), and Lollard acts of iconoclasm that kill images in order to prove that they were dead to begin with (because they weren't).  The combination of the tombs and the Lollards gave me a way of articulating historically some of the same ideas about sculpture I've worked with here in terms of my own responses as creepiness and in terms of theory as sincerity.

Some quotes from the paper, because one of the things I LOVED about it was the language:
For the addition of the transi effectively emphasizes the fact of death and so highlights the deathly aspects of the effigy, but without eliminating the effigy’s contrasting signs for life.  He is dead, he is dead, he is dead – it seems to say – except in the ways in which he is still in fact just a little bit alive.  Thus we are again doubly haunted, by the tomb’s doubled form, by the presence of death in the transi, and by the presence of life in death in the effigy.  And how much more true would this have been in the approximately twenty years between the creation of Chichele’s tomb in the 1420’s and his death in 1443.  For his tomb announced that he was dead, dead, dead, except that he was still alive! Perhaps even seated in his throne positioned opposite the tomb inside of Canterbury cathedral.
The Lollards were thus haunted by images. Their insistence that images were dead, dead, dead – that each was the site of an absence – seems to have been a response to persistent disruptive perceptions of their potential for life – for each to be a presence. And so images had to killed in order to prove that they were dead all along, because they weren’t, or at least not entirely. Or else they had to be punished by burning, either for their disruptive potential liveliness or for their disappointing deadness. And so there are some structural similarities between the forms of Chichele and Fleming’s tombs and Lollard attitudes towards images: both insist on death, the tombs in joining the transi to the effigy and the Lollards in their rhetoric of dead sticks and stones, and yet neither can let go of the signs of life, the tombs through the effigy’s ambiguities and the Lollards through their iconoclastic actions and desires.
The language about haunting in both quotes refers to the theme of the session and to my own provisional definition of haunting as the disruptive presence of that which is supposed to be absent.  I want to turn this piece into article in which this rough idea about haunting is replaced by some theoretical work on zombies, but I have to read up on that first.

The discussion in the session took an unexpected turn in focusing on one detail in Chichele's transi, which I'd not really thought much about, his gesture of covering his genitalia with the shroud.  Its a little easier to see in this detail:
on the right side, the lower bit of cusping in the arch overlaps with his hand which is holding the cloth in place. 

My first though was, well of course his junk is covered up, he was the archbishop of Canterbury after all, he's not just going to be letting it all hang out right there in the cathedral.  But then, if it was just a matter or propriety or prudery, the sculptor could have covered his junk without making use of the dead man's hand.  The shroud could have been there on its own, for example; its not really cloth after all, it's carved stone, and so it doesn't need to be held in place, it's not going to go anywhere. The hand gesture could be artistic convention, since its something like a pudica pose from ancient sculpture.  Although that could suggest some interesting gender-bending, the archbishop of Canterbury as Venus Pudica?  And yet as a dead and decomposing body?

Because the gesture is most interesting to me at least in relationship to the obvious deadness of the rest of his body.  It is the one little sign of life in that otherwise clearly dead body.  It then extends the ambiguity of the effigy into the transi, so that neither is entirely or simply dead nor alive.  Both are both, at least to some degree; the effigy is maybe more alive, but still partly dead, and the transi mostly dead, but still a little bit alive.  And life as signaled in the transi is defined in a very specific way by that gesture.  What does it mean to be just a little bit alive?  Is it to be able to produce life, thinking of the genitalia as life-giving organs?  Or is it to have a sense of self-control, self-protection, self-possession - or simply of self - thinking of the gesture itself more than what it is covering?  

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