Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Wisconsin is not Michigan (Where's Troy?)

Last week, I posted a blog posting on "In The Middle" about an inventive re-imagining of Chaucer's "Troilus and Crysede" - Francesca Abbate's Troy, Unincorporated (2012) re-tells the story of love and betrayal through a series of lyric monologues, and the story is set in the present-day in a place called Troy, Wisconsin.

In my original posting, however, I misidentified the town in question as Troy, *Michigan.*  Let me assure you that I very much know that WISCONSIN IS NOT MICHIGAN and these places are, like, two totally two different states and everything.

This is not to make excuses for myself, but I might attribute my morning error to a late-night Facebook conversation: someone saw a link I had posted about Abbate's book and said that she wished the book had been set in Troy, MI, instead - but she came around once I her that there is indeed a real unincorporated town of Troy in WI, and that Abbate herself lives and works in WI. Perhaps that conversation made me dream of "Troy, MI" during the night and when I woke in the morning I couldn't dislodge that idea from my brain.

Of course, in Chaucer's day, Troy was already a strangely translated/transported city: London styled itself as Troynovant (New Troy), and the way Chaucer's representations of ancient Troy evokes his own contemporary London city life has been richly explored - see Sylvia Federico, New Troy (2003); Marion Turner, Chaucerian Conflict (2007); and Ruth Evans, "The Production of Space in Chaucer's London," in Chaucer and the City, ed. Ardis Butterfield (2006). Troy is always "here" and "not here," perpetually dislocated from itself. As far as the US is concerned, this "translatio urbis" (shall we say?) can be seen in the number of place-names: a search of US cities reveals *multiple* places named Troy (WI, MI, and 17 other states) but also Athens (14 states), Carthage (11 states), Rome (8 states), Ithaca (5 states), Jerusalem (2 states), and a solitary Thebes (IL).

Thankfully, Blogger allows you go back in and edit your postings - so I fixed this city-translation error at ITM. I can say I sincerely meant no offense to any Midwesterners (Michiganders *and* Wisconsinites) who saw the post before it was corrected!

-Jonathan Hsy

P.S. Thanks to Ben Tilghman - Wisconsinite and inventor of the name "Fumblr" - for bringing the "Troy, MI" error to my attention.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A revolting revolt

[Editor's Note:  This is an anonymous grad student fumble!  Other grads, send us your fumbles -- I, too, was once a grad student, and fumbled frequently (once unintentionally obscenely, even).  Asa]

I taught for the first time ever as a teaching assistant last year for a medieval literature survey class. I was teaching the students about Jean Froissart’s Chronicles and the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt. I had prepared by designing a lecture on the Peasant’s Revolt and had a handout outlining the main points of the revolt for the students. I got through the rundown of what the Peasant’s Revolt was just fine, and passed out a decent handout. Where I failed was in capably leading the discussion. I showed them a passage from the John Ball letters on the projection screen, and that’s when it started going downhill. For one thing, I didn’t take them through the passage, and attempted to jump straight into discussion--rookie mistake. I floundered through leading the discussion, and my (amazing) professor who I was TAing for jumped in to help direct the conversation, and we ended up co-teaching the class. Thankfully, my students gave me a break and were very enthusiastic and participatory during that particular class. I’m happy to say that my most recent teaching experiences have been much better- you live and learn I suppose!

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Failures of Symbolism

Reading a host of recent reviews of exhibitions and publications all relating to Symbolism, I was reminded of a really uncomfortable experience. Years ago, when I was defending my dissertation proposal, one of the members of my committee told me that I “didn’t really understand Symbolism properly,” and that this failure would cause serious problems for the project.   This was exactly the kind of comment a young and insecure scholar really didn’t want at such a pivotal moment.  And as you might imagine, it also pissed me off to no end, because of course I had worked very, very hard to master the complexities of the topic.  The diffuse, peculiar, murky late 19th century movement in art and literature loosely defined as Symbolism played a considerable role in my thesis and research into turn-of-the-century American art. Because it appeared in America very differently than it did in Europe, I felt this scholar had missed my point entirely.   The question, as I saw it, was not whether I did or didn’t ‘get’ Symbolism, but whether Gilded Age Americans did or did not ‘get’ it. “What temerity and arrogance!” I thought, soothing my wounded pride.  “They are wrong.  Not me.”

Moreover, this scholar did not seem willing to acknowledge that the ‘failure’ to understand Symbolism was in fact a pervasive problem, even for this movement’s leading practitioners, some of whom, such as St√©phane Mallarm√©, seem to have regarded it as a kind of massive game of interpretive hide-and-seek. But, given the person’s expertise in the history of 19th century art, the comment made me think—very hard—about the stakes of my potential failure in this regard.  Was I just fundamentally wrong, and was the problem truly one of my own failure to understand? Or was this more a matter of their failure to understand the nuances of a field that was not quite the same as their own? Or, yet again, was the observation the result of an equally awful prospect:  my utter failure to communicate my point? What was the underlying nature of this rather discomfiting, and potentially devastating mutual misapprehension?

That eventually led me (after a friend and a strong cocktail had helped me to settle down), to think about how in many ways the entire Symbolist movement is still widely regarded as a particular kind of failure. To many observers, Symbolist art is unforgivably weird and will always remain so, as demonstrated by the wide-ranging critical opinions concerning the work of Swiss Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler, whose work is currently on view at the Neue Galerie in New York. As Markus Verhagen observes, some believe mystifying art such as Hodler’s is the result of “the worst impulses of the Symbolist generation, exploring ill-defined metaphysical questions in canvases that have come to look hopelessly dated and affected.”  In a recent review concerning Hodler’s contemporary Edvard Munch, Thomas Micchelli terms the diversity of Symbolism a product of its “florid hokeyness.”   Yet others suggest Symbolist works may look ‘dated and affected’ because the art produced in the Symbolist spirit was meant to be confounding and very difficult—hard for viewers to encompass in a way that forced them to strive towards forms of knowledge beyond the facile scope of material reality, during a historical period of great anxiety propelled by rising commercialism and technocratic complexity. And just as scholars today seem to have considerable trouble coming to terms with Symbolism’s many manifestations and styles, there were also plenty of individuals, in Europe and America alike, who similarly tried, and perhaps often failed, to understand the intentionally vague, ambiguous or hermetic modes of thought governing the spirit of the movement.  Thus, my committee member and I were both wrong, and both right:  Failure was built into the system.

In fact, as I mulled the stakes of ‘failure’ over more deeply, I discovered another question:  isn’t such a ‘failure to understand’ any historical mode of thought, or movement, or object, or attitude, the kind of problem that provokes us in the first place?  Is such an instance of ‘failure’ as the one I investigate—that is, the way in which Americans at the turn of the century ‘failed’ to look at Symbolism the way their European peers did—merely an alternative way of conceptualizing the movement in their own terms, and thus not a ‘failure’ at all? The deeper reasons for this apparent error in comprehension turn out to be far more interesting than I had initially realized, mired as I was in a crisis of utter confusion, irritation and humiliation.

In the long run, as I worked through the many consequences of my ‘failure to understand,’ I followed more investigations, worked through anxiety, thought deeply and—at last—reached an acceptance of the fact that I investigate a historical period that will always offer up such instances of profound discomfort.   To wish it were otherwise would be to wish away that aspect of the problem that continues to inspire me, as much as it remains a challenge.  And ultimately the nature of this scholarly misapprehension granted me some really valuable opportunities for insight regarding the complex, often competing claims of what ‘Symbolism’ was attempting to do. I am sure I will continue to fail to understand it, but those moments are the ones I welcome in anticipation of the worthy surprises they will reveal.  Thus the many ‘Failures of Symbolism’ are in fact some of its signature virtues.

-Emily Gephart

Saturday, 3 November 2012

John Wayne goes to Oxford

One year way back when, I was planning a research trip to the UK, with stops to see some manuscripts at the BL and the Bodleian. I had never used the manuscript rooms at either place, so I emailed to see how to get permission. The BL was fairly straightforward with directions, but the person I contacted at the Bodleian wrote that he’d have to check with Duke Humfreys about the MS I wanted to see.  He later wrote again to say that Duke Humfreys had granted permission to use the manuscript library.

Somehow, my American brain just assumed that “Duke” was a first name, kind of like Bo or Jeb, or Butch — one of those. Why I did not think “Duke” = nobleman and “Duke Humfreys” = ancient aristocratic benefactor of Oxford for whom library is named, I don’t know. Instead, I thought that Duke Humfreys must be a very powerful librarian indeed, since the other librarians apparently deferred to him.

So I wrote back expressing my gratitude to “Mr. Humfreys” for letting me use his library.

Oops. heh heh.
-Lara Farina