Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Things Left Unsaid

Bruegel's Tower of Babel, always
I am used to things left undone: hovering, waiting impatiently, pressing, pleading, finally getting done, maybe - or left unfinished like the Tower of Babel. But I am not so used to things left unsaid. A lot of things can (and probably should) go unsaid. But to be left unsaid, to ask  for and be denied expression, that is different. My teaching and administrative roles have taken a turn lately to where I am now dealing with a lot more confidentiality issues. I find this difficult - no outlet, no place or time to put words to raw and sudden emotions, no means by which to settle a lot of what is unsettled in being left unsaid. I realize how deeply deeply true it is for me that language reconciles reality, especially when that reality is complicated or painful. I am hopelessly prosaic - I go on and on with many words, I marvel at (but do not understand enough and seldom put into practice) the poetic practice of treasuring words so much as to use very few. I don't know that I treasure words as precious objects so much as see them as necessary bricks that I'm to walk on if I'm to keep going. And so I keep returning to the jagged edges of the unfinished Tower of Babel - the ultimate site of things left unsaid once the ability to all speak the same language was stripped from humanity.

I hope that you can click on the image to the right and make it bigger because the bricks there are just spectacular. I became fascinated (nay, obsessed) with them through the "Pyromena" paper I shared at that most incredible of gatherings, the "Elemental Ecocriticism" symposium last April at the University of Alabama (and which will now appear in much esteemed company in an anthology (brilliantly, generously) edited by Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert). The bricks of Babel are the first things made with fire in the Bible and I kept (I keep) thinking of how prosaic they are, one after the other brought forth in blocks.  Look at them there in their neat packets, waiting to be brought into the increasingly confused mass of the Tower of Babel. Moments of modular lucidity in the midst of chaos. That's what I need now: plain speech to enter and shape the structure of complex thought and emotion. But I can't, and I understand why, but I still want it.

Ivory writing tablet and case - at the Walters
And so to change the scale. To move from helplessness to poignancy: from things left unsaid because words are doomed to fail in the chaos of Babel, to things made unsaid because words are meant to fade in the secrecy of intimacy. I will comfort myself about the enormity of silences that seek to be broken with the smallness of whispers that want to stay quiet, and look at these tiny erasures. The wonderful Walters holds an ivory case which holds a tablet into which wax can be poured and inscribed. Words are etched in the hardening wax, the case with its scenes of lovers in and out of the Castle of Love is slipped on, and the lot delivered to a recipient who will read the words, scrape out the wax, melt it down and begin again. The slow motion SnapChat of the Middle Ages in its ephemerality and intimacy. Do you think there were pictures, too? Goofy faces, hearts pierced with arrows, bawdier tracings, mockeries of the duke? I imagine more freedom in assured erasure. In this instance. And so ok, so there are things I can't write about - not because they're great big secrets, but because they're not mine to speak to, they are mine to witness and support as a teacher and colleague. And so ok, even though at times I wish that I could set the situations I'm in to rights with the written word, I can't. So off I go to find things said and then unsaid - the lighter side (the rebellion, the fun, the agency) of silence: erasing instead of erased words. Can you imagine that? In our massive individual archives and digital palimpsests everything we write remains. We can unsay very few things in writing. There is no assured erasure. But in that mass of wax cradled in its ivory case there may have been some of the greatest freedom of writing ever enjoyed by any writers. I wonder what they did with it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Art for All

There are Other Things to talk about in our current world, but this was The Thing that kept coming back, and then the wise and wonderful Alexa Sand posted the Kennedy quote below and I looked up the entire speech and this is the letter that emerged right away. When you send a comment to the White House, you're asked to choose a subject. I chose "Civil Rights." 

Dear Mr. President,                                                                             Sunday, February 2, 2014

            Suggesting that art and its history are not for workers in manufacturing, as your comments in Wisconsin on Thursday did, is a betrayal of democracy. Presented as folksy populism, your comments in deed safeguarded the gross elitism that seeks to reserve art only for the very wealthy. It wasn’t always that way, Mr. President, and it shouldn’t be that way. When my students and I spoke of your comments in class, we were studying cave paintings, art made 30,000 years ago; we were studying images that strongly argue that art is fundamental to the human experience, and that it shouldn’t be denied by socio-economic class or political gain.  I would remind you of the words of your illustrious predecessor, John F. Kennedy, spoken at Amherst College in 1963, to honor the poet Robert Frost:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

I’ve added the emphasis, although I imagine that Kennedy spoke those particular words with fervor.  Please do not make the class divide that America’s democracy already suffers from worse, Mr. President.  Please recall that just because something that should be a priority for all human beings has been hijacked by the very wealthy does not mean that it should no longer be accessible to the rest of America. On this point, art joins good health, economic opportunity, and freedom from fear and want. Please revisit one of the most important goals of art history and democracy: to present the achievements and power of human creativity and make them accessible to more and more people all the time. I very much hope that you might have the chance to see the upcoming film Monuments Men and renew your admiration for the men and woman who risked their lives in WWII to protect and rescue works of art threatened and stolen by the Nazis in a time when art was held in sacred trust by nations and important enough for people across all economic levels that it was fought for at the highest levels of democracy.

            Anne F. Harris
            Professor of Art History

            DePauw University

Friday, December 27, 2013

Of Mastodons and Macmas

Mastodon! at the Indiana State Museum
I live in a state of multiple personal histories, but where History Itself hardly ever happens. Indiana is a state of people (both the Amish and the KKK have thrived here) more than events (though we're all meant to know something about drug discoveries at Eli Lilly's, and John Dillinger did rob a bank here). Memorials where Things Happened are few and far between - think plaques rather than pedestals. And my kids have picked up on this: they've pointed out on different occasions that no one comes to Indiana to sign a treatise, or tread in the footsteps of something amazing that happened, or touch the column of that one house where that declaration was made, that book was written, that changed everything. And yet. But now. We've seen... the Mastodon! And it was here! "Right here in Indiana?!?" as the kids kept asking incredulously. "Right here in River City!" kept answering Mac (furthering their bewilderment). But of whim, of a morning when we should have been grading and preparing for the holidays, we took off for the Indiana State Museum, propelled by Mac's reading of Elizabeth Kolbert's absolutely terrific piece in the New Yorker about George Cuvier and his discovery/declaration of the concept of extinction based on his work with mastodon and mammoth bones. The totally wonderful and absurd juxtaposition of the Celebration Crossing (Santa! a Train! Raggedy Ann handing out cookies!) and the Mastodon exhibit I will leave to your imagination. Instead, I hope to revel a bit in the tension of historical scales: the huge, massive (yes, mammoth!) statements of an extinct species plodding this very (now very mundane) ground we walk, and the ephemeral entreaties of my own love for my husband and children, which are so individual as to not matter (in an archaeological/historical sense), but which mean the world to me.

Mastodon Mandibles Mostly
Maybe it was thinking of Cuvier and back to the Museum of Natural History in Paris as it used it be before the, granted, fantastic renovations, but the displays looked very early 19th-century to me. Big taxonomic layouts aligning a wealth of bones that have been dug up from beneath the cornfields of Indiana. Easy realizations about the differences between Mastodons and Mammoths. It's all over: in the skull, the curve of the back, the length of the tail, the curve of the tusk. But those all look related. What really gives away Cuvier's discovery of two totally different ancestral trees for the mastodon and the mammoth are the teeth and the jaws: the mastodons had huge rounded teeth (that reminded Cuvier of breasts!!! - and gave them their name) that moved in their jaws' circular motion.

These don't look like breasts at all
Mammoths had blocks of unindividuated teeth that chewed in jaws that moved only up and down. I loved learning this. Simple, drastic knowledge that things are more complicated than you thought they were. Knowledge lodged in the crucial mundane: teeth are boring, but without them, no mastodons, no mammoths. I still can't quite explain the thrill of knowing that both species trod this land. It's linked to the thrill of place surely: I have a friend who is going to Dublin for four days in preparation for teaching Ulysses. I know that being in the landscape where Icelandic sagas were written will be one of the greatest thrills of my life. I remember Mac's careful study and then reveries when we walked all those many WWI battlefields during sabbatical. And now to close our eyes and not have to think any further than the next cornfield to imagine the roaming, and the eating of 400 pounds of ruffage a day, the enormity of this wondrous difference so close. Only time, really, separating us. 12,000 years to be imprecise but evocative of some type of scale. It's in Arizona that evidence of humans hunting mammoths and mastodons has been found - not here. Here, we get to imagine this place before people, before history, before things happened. But for the kids, mastodons being here is something big that happened. It is huge.

So there we are, the five of us in the galleries, being thrilled to discover that something really cool and huge and awesome had indeed happened here. It gave us a new sense of belonging here, I tell you: our fantasies and curiosities being met with big, solid, bones of reality. Of all things for us to feel connected to: mastodons and mammoths whose horizon of consciousness couldn't even begin to begin to begin include us. One could say the same for so many things we love: Chaucer, the Icelandic saga tellers, that one soldier next to Otto Dix in that one trench that Mac wants to think about, all of the creatures that people the books and games the kids read and play. But we retool the scale with our own yearning: we bring them closer, Chaucer and the Mastodon, Eragon and the soldier. Meanwhile, we live within the intimate otherness of family. Those whose horizons of consciousness do include us, those we yearn for all the more for being so close. I stepped outside of our gathered glee just long enough to take this picture and feel a powerful rush of sentimental emotion: their smallness in the scheme of everything, their hugeness in my world, the fragility of goodness, the thrill of love. The intimate scale is a sentimental one. The mammoth scale is a heroic one. Somehow we bridge the two with our desires to know and be known.

The mighty mastodon
And so I'm looking at this mighty mastodon, who meant so much to us. And I'm thinking about how the mastodons of Indiana are by no means unique, how the Le Brea tar pits are filled with them, how in Arizona they are the remains of the hunt. I'm thinking of the tremendous ethical problem of intimacy and uniqueness (and the impossibility of both) presented in Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. When I took this picture, I was thinking about the preparations for Macmas: Mac's December 24 birthday that has become a brunch that gathers our treasured friends, all of us here, more or less explicably, in this place. And I'm thinking of where to put things on a scale, a spectrum of mattering, a range of intimacy and uniqueness.  What courses throughout is the fundamental absurdity of imagination.

The mighty mammoth - totally different animal
And so to end with the reach of our wondrously absurd imaginations stretching across the unknowable and into love. There's Mac initiating an entire dinner's conversation by suggesting that Greg (of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) (!) is an unreliable narrator and that Rowley might actually be smart. And each kid presenting totally cogent arguments as to why an unreliable narrator might nonetheless be telling the truth. Mastodon bones and mammoth teeth present themselves as absolutely reliable narrators of a heroic past, one made more wondrous by being right here. They are reliable because they are gone: in their extinction is a kind of wholeness, a kind of completion, that makes them reliable - heroic and sure. We are more open-ended, sentimental and unsure, reliable only in our entanglements and heroic in our imaginations.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Becoming Trees/Trees Becoming

Mondrian, Tree II, 1912 (Minn. College of Art & Design)
"Becoming" (and its partner "fetching") has always fascinated me as a word signifying something beautiful, or at least pretty and pleasant. So wayward and complex is the English language (the pronunciation conundra of labels/lapels and cough/through/dough are the tip of the iceberg) that the very same word "becoming" has two different etymologies altogether. There is "becoming" as gerund: "a coming to be, a passing into a state". But there is also "becoming" as adjective derived from "comely" (as bejeweled is from jeweled). And comely (as this morning's OED romp revealed) is an Old English word, cymlic: beautifully constructed, delicately fashioned, fittingly wrought. "Becoming" then has its roots in the description of objects, finely made, but it's come to describe the beauty of persons, too. Becoming object and becoming person meet in the "Dream of the Rood," to which I've made a glad return in finishing an essay on the "hewn" (and oh my yes, that's a great etymological trajectory, too). There, the tree that becomes the wood that becomes the cross is a beautiful personified object, an object that speaks and marvels, and trembles with gladness and desire when Christ's (of course beautiful) body is placed upon it. It is trees, then, where the ontological and aesthetic cadences of "becoming" meet. Ever since being a companion to that early morning hunt, and granted, since thinking about trees a good deal over the past months, I've come to see them as shifting forms, Ents on the run, oscillations between states of being and beauty; I've come to see them as becoming. While Deleuze and Guattari may have resented their firmly planted roots and their hierarchic reach, there's room, in the ache and growth and, dare I say it, manipulations of trees by the human imagination to understand becoming trees in their state of perpetual becoming: to see them as unstable forms, opening to fear and transformation and beauty.

Mondrian, Apple Tree, 1912 (Minn. College of Art & Design)
And so Piet Mondrian draws and draws an apple tree in an insistent series of black chalk on paper renditions. If you Google "Mondrian Trees" any number of fascinated bloggers will take you through the transformation from landscape art to abstract art better than I can here. It's not so much the trajectory that fascinates me (though the "visual etymology" of trees in Mondrian paintings is a lovely little piece of knowledge) as the instability. Mondrian is not progressive in his tree paintings: there is no simple trajectory from lush tree to grid. Instead, there are a series of simultaneities and oscillations between branches and bars. In trees, rather than seeing an icon of stability and seasonal return, Mondrian sees fragmentation and disintegration, a hide and seek of predictable form, and elusiveness of shape. I wonder now if he, too, didn't at some point see dawn in the forest, or the sun etching (yes, that's the word) the apple tree in his yard into lines.

Bosch, drawing, Cooper Union Museum
Who knows, as one must ask, what Bosch was seeing? But there's reveling in the instability of form here, as comely creatures float up from the tree's form and the artist's pencil. These finely wrought grotesques that fascinate because they are so sure and possible, and so creepy that we really hope they're not. Deep in the OED entry on "comely" is the idea of difficulty and suffering: the effort of making the thing that is finely wrought, the dark side of the delicate: its worry and failed first attempts. Here is Bosch at play, worrying (over) tree forms until by the end it's the breath of a frothy bird and the weird gas coming out of the ass of a tusked insect. Here, as with Mondrian, I might want to be comforted by the trajectory of an abstraction, by the dematerialization of rough boring bark into abstracted tendril. But, like Mondrian, Bosch stays true to form: it's trees all the way up. Limbs (and oh how wonderful is the phrase "tree limb") and branches and shoots all over the page...

... a dynamic of shifts and transformations that happens insistently. It starts (if we wanted to choose a starting point, but really, there may be no origin here) at the bottom of the page, in the fantastic confrontation between the tree on the right whose face frowns at the flying creature whose talon/root limb reaches out to land, its own right limb still an uprooted tree part. "Who are you?" "What have you become?" Iris, who has just emerged ready to delight in the thick snowfall coming down outside (and is of course bedecking the tree outside the window in its own white mantle of snow) has just made this more interesting: the "limb creature," as she calls the flying one, has just broken free from the tree on the left and seeks another companion to liberate itself, a cleaving the tree on the right, frowns upon, maybe unwilling but certainly helpless to stop the proliferation of forms.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Being There

Actually, Sts. Cosmo & Damian
I wonder if this is how we might have appeared to her, two still strange creatures - high up, transfixed, similarly bedecked, the one on the right making hesitating gestures, the one on the left more sure. She worked around us in a long, absolutely not leisurely arc, stomping her front leg, never taking her eyes off of us, then huffing at her two spring deer who, following, leapt with unnecessary grace. She could have taken her cue from their oblivious abandon, because my guide had no intention of shooting a doe. Had a buck not been so coy, had it made an appearance, it would not have been so lucky. That is one of the many things that hunting late in the season means: the rut (what a word!), which renders the deer stupid with sex and initiates the hunting season, is drawing to a close - along with the fall that had signaled it was time to rut to the deer in the first place; most of the hunting for meat (does and spring deer) is at its end, and now hunting is for trophy (bucks). And in our measured democracy, everyone (not just the lord of the land) has the right to kill a buck, but just one (and only one). Hunting late in the season and early in the day came to mean a series of observations, a stilling of the brutal spectacle of the medieval hunt, and a slowing of the blunt narrative of the modern one. This now was never about killing a deer or shooting a gun (I don't have a license for either, so really, that was never the point), it was about the tremendous other goings-on.

the view from up here
It turns out the forest has its own dawn. Or the forest as it starts to thin into a field, a glade, a clearing. The Middle Ages kept coming up with words for this space, defining and refining what it could mean to whom. We moderns woke up early, in long tradition with Lord Bertilak (but without the squires and the mass), and traipsed through dark forest, each step crazy loud.  It's my guide's land, so he knows it very well, takes turns, a path through a shallow creek, no pause up an unexpected hill, a sure kick where a huge branch had fallen in last week's storms. For me, it's trust and hurry. All greys and then suddenly a climb up a ladder (15'? 20'? I'm notoriously bad at measurements, but it was enough to be dizzying), a tiny platform for our feet, and a simple parallelogram platform for our seats. I sit. I'm exhilarated but my body's puzzled: isn't this the part where we keep going, where the momentum builds? Hunting is about waiting. But it turns out it's the dawn, an hour later, that's first going to take my breath away. I took the picture above long after (I didn't want to have the camera's clicks and whirs bother things, I was a still still Byzantine icon, remember) this marvelous dawn, this stealing of pale peach fingers on the forest floor, this crinkling of bark into high relief, this matter of branches being recognized as such and swiftly redrawing the entire landscape from hues to lines. It was incredibly trippy, this little moment of time speeding up when everything had been so still. How alarming and resolute it must be when the sun withdraws at dusk.

yep, same spot
If this shot looks pretty much the same or closely related to you then you're like me, and you're not like my guide, the perceptive and magnanimous Virgil to my utterly ridiculous but really sincere Dante eager to traipse through the long memory of the hunt so much do I love this medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I sat in the spreading pool of silence, I could absolutely let myself imagine the crash and tumult of Bertilak's first hunt, I could even pretend to see ghostly forms as "Deer dashed through the dale, dazed with dread" (l.1151, Marie Borroff's translation from the Norton Critical edition, 2010). What I could not see was what my guide saw: deer; legs and elegant necks moving in gliding parallel with the lines of the trees. He kept seeing them many minutes before I could. A connoisseurship that left me marveling every time the deer would materialize from between the trees. Looking at the image above, you'd wonder that I couldn't see them before. But the lines are not so clearly delineated, there's a good deal of confusion in the stillness.

the edge of the forest, of the clearing
I had come out here to think along the lines of Gawain (ll. 1126-1178 and 1319-1364 were the ones I read and reread - translation is below the late-14th-century English) and the Saint Eustache legend, and even just line 29 from The Dream of the Rood. And I did, I newly understood the desire for the rush of life in sylvan silence: the plenitude of the deer herd that excited Bertilak's dogs so, the stag filling the glade with its resplendent antlers in which Saint Eustache saw a brilliant crucifix, the tree that would become the cross of the crucifixion remembering its original place at the forest's edge before the men came to cut it down. Despite this attempt to write, I still don't know why place, or rather  being there (forest, glade, clearing, tree place) meant so much here. It wasn't re-enactment certainly, it wasn't medieval authenticity (I live in Indiana for crying out loud), it wasn't hunting ( a big part of life where I live which I now understand completely differently and still hardly). (There is a long caveat to be written about hunting, its mixed status around here as both sport and food, the ethics (oh yes) of thinning herds so fewer deer starve to death, but i want to think more about that in relation to the ethics and aesthetics (and class!) of the medieval hunt before I write it). I think that there is this idea of resonance, of trees and deer present and past; but even more so, there is this idea of stretching out these texts in a place other than the classroom or the study, of letting them mingle with the brief (whispered) interruptions of silence my guide and I exchanged, human commonalities in mundane moments of extraordinary circumstances: talk of looking after our fathers, kids today, our kids, of meeting our spouses, our friends, of doing our work. Talk of revelation and adventure, of plenitude and respite.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cease your toils

During the time that Brillat Savarin wrote The Physiology of Taste (for the 30 years prior to his death from pneumonia in 1826 after standing in the glacial abbey of Saint-Denis to attend the 30th anniversary commemorating Louis XVI's execution), the turkey, domesticated and amply sauced in France, was already no longer called a coq d'Inde. The dinde (as the humble turkey is still called today in French) had been stripped of its New World origins and its Christopher Columbus misnaming, and had become commonplace, a bird for everyman.

The turkey is the largest and, if not most delicate, at least the most flavorful of our domestic birds. It also enjoys the unique advantage of attracting to it every class of society. When the vine tenders and the plowmen of our countryside want to treat themselves to a party on a long winter night, what do you see roasting over the bright kitchen fire where the table is laid? A turkey. When the practical mechanic or the artisan brings a few of his friends together to celebrate some relaxation all the sweeter for being so rare, what is the traditional main dish of the dinner he offers? A turkey stuffed with sausages or with Lyons chestnuts. -- from M.F.K. Fischer's (marvelous) translation of La Physiologie du Gout. 

Brillat-Savarin experienced the original exoticism of the turkey while in exile in America, when his New York friends whisked him away to a hunting property in Connecticut and he hunted wild turkeys. He successfully shot one and recounted with great, wry pride, "this deed... [that] I shall recount all the more eagerly since I myself am its hero." But before the shooting and the eating, deep in the hunting woods, our hero engages in a reverie worth the telling on this day when just maybe we might get caught in daydreams, cease our toils, and meander as well as feast and laugh and toast and cheer.

I found myself for the first time in my life in virgin forest, where the sound of the axe had never been heard. I wandered through it with delight, observing the benefits and the ravages of time, which both creates and destroys, and I amused myself by following every period in the life of an oak tree, from the moment it emerges two-leaves from the earth until that one when nothing is left of it but a long black smudge which is its heart's dust.

This year's Thanksgiving gets to observe the benefits of time, with us less sad that my dad is not here, and, in great wonder and joy, hosting both deeply happy newlyweds and a mom made new by a wondrous adoption. We will be grateful and remember and hope. And read Art Buchwald's "Le Grande Thanksgiving" column, and add the new favorite McSweeney's "Public School Education Thanksgiving." And we will feast.

Parsnip Pear Soup*

Maple Glazed Carrots*
Green Beans and Radishes Braised in Orange Juice*
Cumin-Roasted Beets*

Winter Squash Pot Pie with Swiss Chard and Chickpeas*
South of France Turkey**

Simon and Garfunkel Stuffing
Pomegranate Ginger Cranberry Sauce*

Rosemary Mashed Potatoes**
Gratin Dauphinois**

Candied Cranberry Tart***
Pumpkin Creme Caramel*

*From this year's issue of Vegetarian Times
** From this year's issue of Rachael Ray (I know she's creepy, but her test kitchen is good)
***From my Epicurious app


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Objects that Orient Ontology

Petrus Christus, Carthusian Monk
We've been spending the semester in my medieval art history class thinking about "Painting and Presence." Petrus's Carthusian Monk was my avatar on Facebook, I found him at the Met - we're in deep. Though I knew (with great relish and anticipation as I contemplated teaching these lush works of art with their vital wood supports, their vibrant oil surfaces, their fervent color projections, and their intense degree of illusion) where the course was going in terms of content, I didn't really know where it was going to go conceptually. I had set up "painting" as an emerging category (the newness of oil and its visualizing possibilities, the shifts in patronage arrangements, the gathering of different audiences) and "presence" as a kind of open category (aura? power? theology? ontology?).

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini

I don't expect the category of "presence" to be the same for every class (students' interests and my own will push and pull that different ways each time I teach this course, I hope), but this time, it was definitely ontology. The existence, the conditions of being, grappling with what it means to be so many things: painting as object, painting as vision, painting as devotion, patron, patron as image, patron as soul, and objects, so many objects that positively glowed by the time we'd realized we'd been talking and writing about them for weeks: shoes and mirrors and dogs and candles and windows and textiles (oh the textiles!) and tiny sculptures writhing on bedposts and the ends of benches and fruits and windows. What were they all doing and being? And though my writing presents them as a cascade of things, in each painting they are neatly arranged, suspended in a poised quiet.

Campin, Mérode, tools
If (if!) a hammer is a hammer when it hammers, what is it (doing and being) when it is in a work of art? (An equally good question, with a fantastic answer from the painter himself, is to ask after and asparagus: go ahead, look at Manet's one asparagus and ask!)This alone makes me wish we'd read more Heidegger, more Bogost, more Morton, more Harman, more Bennett - more object oriented ontology all over the place. (It also makes me wish that Harman and Morton would take their awesome art criticism to medieval art). The question is one that art history has asked in its own within-the-frame way (and, in being our "writing in the major" course, "Painting and Presence" has a historiographic element): a hammer is not ever (ever!) just a hammer ever since Panofsky wound the connecting threads of "disguised symbolism" into Early Netherlandish Art. It is the tool that helps Joseph make the mousetrap that will catch the mouse that is the devil for whom Christ is the bait from the typology of that one Psalm. The field of art history has wrestled much with disguised symbolism and social history has done tremendous work to shift the conversation. And yet, far from social history and deep into questions of being and painting, ontology and representation, that Panofsky started asking, this detail from the Mérode Altarpiece that holds some very prized objects has everything I want to be thinking about right now: tools, representation, and a table. Friday afternoon, I denied all grading and obligations and read Sarah Ahmed's essay "Orientation Matters" in the New Materialisms anthology and she wrote of tables (from a table) with Husserl and Heidegger and Derrida, and I can't stop thinking about objects that orient ontology, objects that are the starting point (Husserl's mode of orientation) for existence. You can start (oh my goodness anywhere, but let's just say) with the hammer in the world that Campin saw, and translated into representation. That represented hammer then does work an in-the-world hammer never could: it can (if our interpretive minds respond to it this way) be a symbol, or engaged in the symbolic construction of the devil-catching mousetrap. In some ways, the bigger challenge is just letting the hammer be. But I learned with elemental eco-criticism that we seldom let even the smallest blade of grass be, we and our yearning minds.

Christus, Goldsmith, coins and a mirror and...
And so I am left to think of these arrangements on tables, on wooden tables and wooden boards that become paintings. Of objects without symbolism, objects that might be "in and of themselves" objects, except they never are, being, as they are, pigments suspended in oil swirled over polished and treated wood. Except that they are objects because my mind perceives them so and is able to see great meaning in them (symbolic, radical - think Dian Wolfthal's piece from the Troubled Vision anthology about this very mirror). As Jeffrey Cohen's marvelous book on stones gathers, as I savor what Tim Morton has me thinking about in Hyperobjects, I want to think more about simultaneity and being: a stone as inert and vital; a painting as representational and real, an object as itself and salvation.