5X5

1. Everything is Already Abstract

The forms that seem only seem,
And seeming are they formed in you.
You are the fire-forge of a present face,
Persephone, whose clean eyes and lips
Do not shine until they shine in use.

2. Signification as Fishing

The form in the mind for catching
The pitched fish of her musical lisp
is, itself, another river in which
Other fishes flow. They do not swim,
Her scaly thoughts, but roll along a living tide.

3. Persephone at the Market

The great pyramid in aisle three
Is made of fruit from the orange tree.
But the color is the thing, sharp and course,
That makes her think of him, eyes growing,
Whose pupils always shrink at noon.

4. The Blind Leading the Dead

Slowly, strongly, foot by foot,
Unhinge your trunk from every root
And cut your course with a sturdy hoe,
Muse, in my head, so that I can make poetry.
The devil that sings my thoughts will not care.

5. Willfully Obtuse

I cannot say what it would be I wanted
When I spoke to you beneath the olive
And the apple, Persephone. I can only
Speak to the dry wind that cluttered up the steps
Draped with dead leaves and purple light.

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Thistletongue and Waterfoot Go to the Movies

Pushing his glasses up to his eyes and blinking wildly, a comely man driving a Ford Pinto suddenly burst into being on Route 2, east by southeast of Duluth.

‘We’ve gotten there, yeah?’ Thistletongue said between sniffles, ‘brrrf, Infrastructure needs to repave that horrid road. The skulls aren’t ground finely enough and I can’t sleep.’

‘It’s the screams, not the skulls.’

Coming Up, as it’s called, had always been a difficult process for Thistletongue. The bottom few layers of hell were quiet, but hitching demons to human bodies requires at least sixteen hours of sleep before the transition point (a stone altar usually located high up in the infernal superstructure). The screams of the numberless damned nearer the Gate always landed on the fallen cherub’s ears like a chorus of thunder. You aren’t supposed to be able to sleep in hell.

‘Fuck Nebraska,’ he moaned, ‘I already want to go home.’

‘We’re in Wisconsin. Nebraska is south of here and it’s much less beautiful.’

Waterfoot knew that Thistletongue would rage and holler until they arrived back at Central, and began resolving himself to the stalemate. This is part of the deal, Waterfoot figured. We don’t come for fun anymore. Let’s just fuck with ol’ Thistletongue in the meantime.

‘What’s the point of complaining? Everything is miserable, yes. Even when we come up here, they always partner us with incompatibles so that we won’t enjoy ourselves. It’s all part of the Big Mission. New Dyophysitism and whatever. Let’s just imagine our miserable conversations and spare the… breath, or whatever.’

‘ONE BODY, THOUGH!’ Thistletongue snorted, incensed. ‘I fan the flames that swallow Constantinople and the bastards make me share a mind with some noobie fucktwat from finance. And, lo and fucking behold, he’s a goddamn Buddhist about it.’

‘Buddha’s…’

‘In heaven, sure. Now take whatever thought you’re about to manifest in this fucking monkeything’s skullhole and shove it. I’ve already heard it and it’s dumb. We should’ve stopped designing new models in the 1800’s. You’re a bureaucratic redundancy.’

Waterfoot grinned and gave up. Big, blue trees shivered as the fell Pinto passed. Two coyotes behind a rock scratched each others eyes between big gulps of carboned-up air from the demons’ wake. Owls hooted and careened toward little flickers in the leaves and grass, to no avail. Thistletongue switched on the radio and flipped through channels at an infuriating pace.

‘Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Let’s just listen to fuzz. This decade is bullshit.’

‘Better fuzz than no music at all?’

‘No, better fuzz than your breath, or your eyes, or any more minute indicator of your miserable, incompetent presence, Waterfoot. Five thousand years ago I’d be squashing you like a beetle on the top of a slave-mound in the desert. I’d be drinking your souljuice and fucking a thousand virgin brides in holy, fiery honor of how vastly superior I am to you. I’d compel generation on generation to worship my conquest of you. That’s what a ‘little trip Uptown’ used to mean. Healthy competition. Now I get a shitty date with the apotheosis of middle management. In a FORD FUCKIN’ PINTO at that.’

The pinto spun around a corner at full blast and whistled down a busier road, disregarding traffic lights and stop signs. The car’s lone occupant wore a clear, empty gaze and shivered occasionally as his own occupants shifted control of his nervous system between them. Waterfoot crackled and writhed at the unfamiliar sensory input. His last trip upward had been to a small village in East Africa, where he’d been tied to a tenth century Nordic demon whose idea of communication involved transmogrification, hallucination, and furious spitting. The experience had been altogether more traditionally hellish than this.

The shaking car screeched into a Regal Cinemas parking lot. Waterfoot felt a twinge of something utterly cacophonous when he looked through the host body’s eyes at the girl behind the ticket counter.

“er…. two tickets please.”

‘ER? Oh, Fuck you. A goddamn demon, quaking at the prospect of a little social interaction. Shit, I hope you get your finger out of your ass before we actually do Satan’s work up here.’

‘Shut your goddamn mouth, Thistletongue. We have to get in the fucking cinema first.’

‘Ooooh, the floodgates open.’

‘Don’t underestimate me, old man.

‘YES.’

Thistletongue’s subatomic eyes flickered in the nethersphere. Hot bolts of pleasure illuminated the host body’s pupils, and his penis swelled.

‘Cool it. Now.’

‘Yes, let the hate flow through you…’

‘There’s quite enough flowing going on already, thank you. Let’s get to business.’

The host settled into a seat at the back right corner of the cinema, adjusted his glasses and began idly munching his popcorn.

‘Buttterrrrrrr,’ hissed Thistletongue, ‘I had forgotten ye!’

‘Pay attention.’

Watermoon was losing patience. Unusual. Their mission was to sexually harass a depressed fourteen year old teenage boy who would, according to the latest intelligence, otherwise feel inspired to change his licentious, self-absorbed ways by watching the film ‘Tree of Life’ on the big screen. Thistletongue had felt insulted by the paltry assignment, but Watermoon knew that the old demon’s bombastic style would work perfectly. His role was less clear: “Avoid logistical foul-ups and moderate Thistletongue’s improvisation to ensure advantageous outcomes.” The whole operation rang with the kind of simplicity Satan had loved recently, but Watermoon felt overwhelmed. Before receiving field assignments, he had been writing self-help books for the propaganda department on the suicide level. It had been far less alienating work.

‘Ok, Thistletongue,let’s wait until the film starts and then throw some whispers out…”

‘I’ll do this exactly as I intend to, boy, and I’ll file a report concerning your inadequacy in the morning.’

‘I swear to Satan, Thistletongue…’

“Psssssst, heyyy, kid!!”

‘No self control at all.’

“Yeah, you, kid… Your dick get big yet?”

“What the fu–” the boy began.

“Just ignore him, honey.” His mother intervened. Shit.

“Mom,” the boy whispered, “that was so weird.”

‘Shit shit shit,’ Watermoon muttered, ‘look, now he’s turning to his goddamn MOTHER. Two steps forward…’

‘I know what I’m doing, watch and learn.’ Thistletongue resumed:

“I think you know what you like, kiddo…”

“shit, mommmm…”

“….I think I know what you like, too…”

‘Is that supposed to be suggestive? You’re really unimpressive for an old timer.’

The host body squirmed in its seat as Thistletongue raged. The Mother now became perturbed and began searching her purse for a cell phone. Fool! thought Waterfoot, What’re you going to call someone for help? Ha. Run outside! These moderns. Shit, a voice!

“If you don’t leave my son alone, you fucking creep, I will personally see to it that my cop husband personally sees to it that your fucking…”

She trailed off as the movie began. The light of the film reflected into the audience and illuminated the host’s radiantly handsome face. His eyes sparkled as waterfoot desperately poured his art out. Facial muscles twisted and shimmied to convey a delicate balance of sympathy, good humor, and regret. The mother’s mind spun in place trying to calculate how such a beautiful human specimen with such a seemingly gentle air could be so malicious and disgusting toward her son. Alternate possibilities wove through her head. Rationalizations psychological, sympathetic, and humane melted her heart. This man is not evil, she thought gracefully and hopefully and woefully, he must be ill.

Waterfoot had taken control and lost it. All his art, his deception, his brilliance had been poured into that face.

TBC

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I

They stood looking and calibrated with hooks

the tea and coffee and parsley and an orient sun

blew over them and cooled them,

and they remained and laughed together,

in darkness protesting.

They watched shadows weep from their footsteps

onto folds of skinship

and shuffled, smartly, into the overwhelming dusk,

where blind ships would blindly sink

and suck down the drops of labor

to digest in other darkness,

darkness of not-knowing: the dappled ocean

the last hard thing before a prancing sunrise

and home. 

II

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On Reading Psalm 1

Blessed be the man who steps out in winter,

            body to bear the crackle-wind,

            mutters he the cold way to what needs doing;

the door for fixing, the wall mending.

The while winter’s man beats, tumbles, trims,

makes do with shovel and sweat;

ripe and always weary,

slips caramels between breaths,

Sleeps through summer, chewing still air

and watching gnats in twilight nip;

thinking again of nippy wind

and the hard earth to come,

We others dawdle desires and dream together

ambitious ghosts,

clock-watchers all and worried;

stand-still sorrows stretching for the summer pace. 

III

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Smocks hollow and hung

guard a tight-wound romanesque

of rosemary, spilt and sprung

on our shabby sawhorse desk

awhile you wait mostly naked on threshold

shod in charcoal and sweat

and I, putting up steel-cold

swords on the mantlepiece, for their threat

watch you and not what I’m up to

till with split fingers I a-wailing

for thy bothered bosom come to you

and you send me out, hay-baling

in the night, because its absurd

and you nuzzle tea and grin

and know I’m looking for a word

while I work, to undo my sin.

IV

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Time

(Tick Tock) Time is cursed, yet we watch him go

By longing the long walk to lengthen still.

Meanwhile his cousin, distances to show,

Lacks mass and so lacking mocks our will

To touch and make our love’s last transgression,

And brief, against his shuddering deep.

Each kiss is so a body’s confession

Against its own absence, just as sleep

Is confessed by blinking and swollen eyes

And red, perhaps vainly pronouncing too

A passion, or sadness at memories,

For their passing, no less sad now than true.

By time, it seems, we wax; by time we wane;

By time we sin; by time, forgiveness gain.

 

The Poetics of Narrative in La Folie Tristan

The medieval literary predilection for challenging the adequacy of written signs to access, identify, or contain “truth” is well documented: both Eugene Vance, in Mervelous Signals, and Umberto Eco in The Limits of Interpretation describe the relationship of pre-scholastic forms of interpretation to language as presupposing a fruitful “arbitrariness of the vernacular sign” which produces the semiotic landscape of “artistic play” evident in the literary output of high medieval vernacular culture.[1] “The medieval metaphysical symbol is neither epiphany nor revelation of a truth concealed under the cloak of myth;” claims Eco, rather “Symbolism (in an Augustinian context) must make rationally conceivable the inadequacy of our reason and of our language.”[2] Vance explains how this “conceivable inadequacy” figures as constitutive of the transgressive pleasures of vernacular textuality in the twelfth century trouvére lyric and succinctly demonstrates that this phenomenon extends over the whole of the century’s vernacular culture.[3]

            This “cultural awareness” that “bondage to the carnal signifier and to the law of the letter is the soul’s death” expands, within the Anglo-Norman Romance tradition (though not exclusively), to articulate an additional suspicion of verbal narrative as meaningfully expressive of identity.[4]  Rarely is this suspicion better articulated than in the twelfth Anglo-Norman La Folie Tristan, a “story of stories” containing, most importantly, a depiction of a series of narratives told by Tristan to Ysolt in an effort to persuade her to believe that Tristan is himself. Ultimately, these “narrative instrumentalities” fail.[5] Since they form a summary of well-known Tristan narratives, their suspect effectuality at identifying Tristan to his lover articulates a secondary, critical suspicion of the romance-narrative’s effectuality at identifying “truth” or “chivalry” to the reader of Romance.

The mechanism of their failure is thus critical: Just as the trouvére lyric eroticized the “arbitrariness of conventional verbal signs” by expressing the “curious but subtle relationship of redundancy between non-sense in poetic language and self-thwarting libidinal desire,” La Folie Tristan poeticizes the inadequacy of conventional romance by expressing a corresponding relationship of redundancy between the failure of spoken narrative to reveal identity and lovers condemned to separation.[6] Vernacular narratives therefore become as any outward signs in the Augustinian framework: lineaments of desire doomed to separate the individual from his “true” self and conventions derived from our imperfection rather than traditions directing us to God. “He (God) is not contradictory in Himself. Contradictoriness belongs to our discourses about Him and arises from our imperfect knowledge of Him.”[7] Doomed to wholly ungratified desire from the beginning, Tristan’s narratives are undermined by the indices of his altered appearance. Ysolt’s desirous and extramarital love is demonstrated to respond ultimately to Tristan’s “appearing” to be himself, not on the truth of that self as such, which cannot be demonstrated by any conventional narrative within the text anyway.

The fragmentary La Folie Tristan narrative operates in three distinct parts, each demanding exegesis as it speaks to the text’s meditation on the limitations of its own textuality and narrativity: First, Tristan’s “disarmament”, wherein he puts on the outward appearance of a fool, shunning all of the conventional social symbols which identify knighthood as such within Romance; second, Tristan’s almost meta-textual litany of his own narratives, the most substantial of the poem’s portions and a discourse that is hyper-personal within the context of the poem and hyper-public within the broader social context of the poem’s reception; and finally, the uneasy resolution, where despite the failure even of “tokens” at convincing Ysolt of her lover’s identity, his self-hood is restored as he wipes away the deceitful outward signs by which he penetrated King Mark’s court.

The “honorific calculus” at work in a good knight’s “going incognito” as a fool has been effectively treated in J. A. Burrow’s article “The Uses of Incognito”, and demands no explication here: suffice it to say that the “scorn and ridicule” undergone by a knight disguised as a fool “contribute not only to his love-sufferings (in the dynamics of exchange which underpin courtly love) but also, in the end, to his ‘pris’. It is as if… the receiving of underserved scorn has the same effect as the refusal to receive deserved praise.”[8] However, he finds the text he treats to be “conspicuous among English romances for its hospitality toward chivalric values, and for its relative reluctance to invoke more general moral ideas.”[9] The same cannot be said of La Folie Tristan. Here Tristan’s “love-sufferings” predominate as a motive. “Miserable, dejected, sad, and downcast,” the poem opens, “Tristran dwelt in his land… He suspected everyone and hid his mind from them, fearing betrayal.”[10] Already the poem identifies his motive as escape rather than achievement, and whatever “glory is left to accumulate undiminished” by his disguise must draw upon the interpretive faculties of the reader for acknowledgement at the story’s end.[11] For Tristan, and the poet, the disguise trope engages in the tragic poetics of identity rather than any honorific calculus:

           

He kept his thoughts so quiet that he said nothing to anyone; he was wise, for disclosing secrets beforehand often brings great harm. No misfortune, I believe, will ever befall the man who thus hides, and will not reveal, his thoughts. Telling and disclosing secrets is often the cause of many disasters. People suffer from their own thoughtlessness.  (122)

 

 

Secrets, which imply an inner self at odds with the apparent, here form the key to unlocking Tristan’s disguise. Hidden thoughts produce a hidden identity- disclosure jeopardizes that identity and appearance must change for its protection. This escape from disclosure also activates an escape from life, indeed, from Tristan’s Tristan-ness:

 

Death, then, was certain, since he had lost his love, his joy, since he had lost Ysolt, the queen. He wished to die, desired to die, but only so long as she knew he was dying for love of her, for if she knew it, he would at least die more easily. (121)

 

 

Life being a problem (without Ysolt), Tristan puts on the trappings of a new life, effectively bringing death to the old. We must be careful not to express this jeopardized concept of self as operatively internal. As Caroline Walker Bynum suggests, “If the religious writing, the religious practice, and the religious orders of the twelfth century are characterized by a new concern for the ‘inner man,’ it is because of a new concern for the group, for types and examples, for the ‘outer man.’”[12] Wherever, in La Folie Tristan, an “internal individual” is suggested, that individual is expressed by a vocabulary of externals. Indeed, in the end we see Tristan’s visible “outer man” finally conformed to the speaking “inner man”, but that speaking inner man had deceived Ysolt just as effectively as the herb which turns his skin dark.

Which man, then, speaks to Ysolt? Tristan’s narratives form a catalogue of sign-identity structures, each recalling a token or moment to which Tristan attaches his self, defined, as it is, by its relation to Ysolt. Each account engages one person or object which “means” the memory which in turn “means” Tristan. However, “it would be mad and deceitful to recognize him as Tristran, when she saw, thought and believed he was not Tristran but another.” The validation of these sign structures as unifying the intent of their performance with their meaning depends, therefore, on Ysolt, for whom belief must precede recognition. That belief, in turn, depends not on the truth of the content of those signs but on their effective coherence with the signs surrounding them:

 

Ysolt said: ‘Tokens will convince me. Have you the ring? Show it to me.’ He drew out the ring and gave it her. Ysolt took it and looked at it; then she burst out weeping, she wrung her hands, she was distraught. ‘Alas for the day I was born!’ she said, ‘I’ve finally lost my love, for I know well that no other man would have this ring were he alive. Alas! I will never be comforted.’ (139)

 

 

Though the ring must be Tristan’s, its effect as evidence depends ultimately on Tristan being the one to produce it. Without the visual sign system which means ‘Tristan” surrounding it, the “meaning” of the ring is lost in a realm of fractured possibility. Each narrative possesses no intrinsic meaning which can be correlated independently to Tristan’s self, rather, their meanings depend on a relational system of sign structures rooted in the apparent signs of Tristan-ness which would lead Ysolt to “see, think, and believe” that Tristan stands before her.

But what does the text’s internal, relational semiotics suggest about the functionality of textual meaning? Twelfth century Romances had already developed a distinctive internal vocabulary of reference; as Melissa furrow demonstrates, “stories of Tristram and Isolde provoked specific readings that light up for us the variety of ways in which romances more generally were read morally and remembered as exemplary.”[13] A wide range of “different, contentious” ways of reading the well-known story appear simultaneously to illustrate that variety as an unstable proliferation, subject to and representative of the variation in theological and philosophical perspectives produced by the twelfth-century renaissance. Indeed, it seems no interpretation stands as the correct one; rather, “in the disparate emotional responses it produces,” the Tristram and Isolde narrative “is not different from the genre (of romance) as a whole.”[14] La Folie Tristan illustrates and engages with this disparity, relying upon the reader’s familiarity with the controversial Tristram narrative to develop ambiguities already at work more generally in romance as specific themes. 

So we are asked to perceive the Tristan narratives similarly, in a sense, to Ysolt. Their meaning is ultimately developed relationally: rather than offering a consistent and coherent moral interpretive structure, dependent on the propriety of the text and the reader, romances in general, and specifically the Tristan and Ysolt story, operate in a flexible matrix of possible meanings. By cataloguing Tristan narratives, La Folie Tristan opens up these possibilities, engaging, ultimately, with their failure at summoning a “reality” independent of those factors -curiously absent from the text- which posit that reality as contiguous with our own.

Those factors, or signs of the text’s engagement with the social or cultural context of its production, are thereby rendered suspect within our reading. Stephen knight posits this social-critical aspect of romance a rare and redeeming characteristic for a genre generally bereft of such sophistication, but such elements feature prominently in a wider range of Romances than he allows.[15] “Rather,” as Furrow argues, “twelfth century religious writing and behaviour show a great concern with how groups are formed and differentiated from each other, how roles are defined and evaluated, how behaviour is conformed to models.”[16] It would seem, in fact, typical for the literary output of a culture so interested in its own social construction to speak to that construction, and, for the reasons outlined above, La Folie Tristan forms just one example.

But how does La Folie Tristan speak to its social context? What does it say? The trope of washing at the poem’s conclusion implies a vaguely moral aim, and indeed, “Sanctity,” in a twelfth century context, “is finally reformation of the total man, and it can be gained by imitation of the sanctity of others, which is accessible to us exactly because it is outer as well as inner.”[17] By this logic, the emphasis on conforming Tristan’s outward appearance to his inner self justifies and affirms the Christian emphasis on faith expressed visually in the trappings of priesthood, church architecture, symbolic statuary and iconography. Certainly, the faithful reader could find a plethora of textual examples of the problems associated with the social expression of the internal phenomenon of love and devotion: the entire problem of the story revolves around love which is true, though unconsummated and disruptive of the socio-political hierarchy of King Mark’s court. A Christian ethos does not exclude the interpretive possibilities of an interpretive mode based on “a profound disillusionment with the possibilities of a noble life.”[18] Rather, as wealth of examples (including the entire phenomenon of mendicant devotion) demonstrate, even an orthodox Christianity could produce such a reading.

However, it is also clear that the Tristan and Isolde archetype may be and was conceived as “depicting deeply immoral actions,” a “thoroughly secular” text in a thoroughly ecclesiastical age.[19] Tristan’s continuing adultery is, by any measure, sinful. The flexibility with which medieval writers engaged Tristan’s transgression necessitates a further, all-encompassing description: Tristan operates as an outcast, holy or sinful, who, by abandoning his proper social stature, grants the reader access to an outsider’s perspectives on the social mores of the typical medieval court and, through the text’s particular operations, the narratives of romance which surround that court.[20] These mores and narratives are, ultimately, neither affirmed nor critiqued. Rather, they form a structure whose dissolution produces a sophisticated and valuable –to the modern reader- meditation on the role of “identity” in the social norms of court life.

The poetics of sign and identity at work in La Folie Tristan therefore demonstrate the interpretive flexibility operative in Anglo-Norman literature. Romance narratives seem, at last, to follow the pattern at work in the general symbolic modes of pre-scholastic literary culture: the “conceivable inadequacy” of language systems spreads upward through more complex language artefacts, casting over chivalric tales a shadow of that disdain for “carnal signifiers” detectable elsewhere, but breaching also the very structural composition of narratives in general. In La Folie Tristan, “arbitrariness of conventional verbal signs” spreads to include a more general arbitrariness of conventional narrative modes whose truth-as the text argues- depends on the coherence of whatever social signifiers which surround it, not the inherent value of those social signifiers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Aers, David. Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, & History. New York: St. Martin’s, 1986. Print.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California, 1982. Print.

Eco, Umberto. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.

Furrow, Melissa M. Expectations of Romance: The Reception of a Genre in Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2009. Print.

Haidu, Peter. “Text, Pretextuality, and Myth in the Folie Tristan D’Oxford,” in Modern Language Notes Vol. 88 No. 4 (May, 1973): 712-717. Print.

Meale, Carol M. Readings in Medieval English Romance. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 1994. Print.

Vance, Eugene. Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1986. Print.

Weiss, Judith, and Malcolm Andrew. “Folie Tristan.” The Birth of Romance: An Anthology : Four Twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Romances. London: J.M. Dent, 1992. N. pag. Print.

Weiss, Judith, Jennifer Fellows, and Morgan Dickson. Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Print.


[1] Eugene Vance, Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 86.

[2] Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 10.

[3] Vance, Mervelous Signals, 87.

[4] Vance, Mervelous Signals, 86.

[5] Peter Haidu, “Text, Pretextuality, and Myth in the Folie Tristan D’Oxford,” Modern Language Notes 88 (1973),713.

[6] Vance, Mervelous Signals, 87.

[7] Eco, The Limits of Interpretation, 10.

[8] J. A. Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A” in Readings in Medieval English Romance, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), 32.

[9] Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A,” 33.

[10] “Folie Tristan” in The Birth of Romance: An Anthology, trans. Judith Weiss (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1992), 121

[11] Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A,” 30.

[12] Caroline Waler Bynum, “Did The Twelfth Century Discover The Individual?” in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (London: University of California Press, 1982), 85.

[13] Melissa Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde” in Expectations of Romance: The Reception of Genre in Medieval England, (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009), 144.

[14] Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde”, 175-176.

[15] Stephen Knight, “The Social Function of Romance” in Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology and History, ed. David Aers (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1986), 99-122.

[16] Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde”, 144.

[17] Bynum, “Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?”, 102.

[18]  Arlyn Diamond, “Unhappy Endings: Failed Love/Failed Faith in Late Romances” in Readings in Medieval English Romance, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), 66.

[19] Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde,” 143-144.

[20] Morgan Dickson, “Verbal and Visual Disguise: Society and Identity in Some Twelfth-Century Texts” in Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation, (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 53.

Dr. Bickerstaff's Unearthly Wonderblog

So it turns out that Peter Jackson is further expanding the already expanded two film version of The Hobbit into three films.  It’s somewhat unclear just what this hypothetical third film will entail – one idea floating around is that it’ll use more material from the Lord Of The Rings Appendices to bridge the two series, making The Hobbit basically a prequel trilogy.  Still, it does seem that if Jackson wants to continue working on film adaptations of Tolkien’s work, there is already a vast corpus of writings to build on that does not require making stuff up outside of Tolkien’s writings.

That corpus is, of course, The Silmarillion, the vast collection of stories and legends from the First Age, a mythology upon which the characters of the Lord Of The Rings (set in the Third Age of Middle Earth) look back.

Naturally, due to its immense…

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Apropos of the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus

Given the recent interest in the Grateful Dead (my favorite band) on display in the New Yorker article and the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus, I thought it might be worthwhile to set down my thoughts, if only for future reference. Having never seen a Grateful Dead show myself (alas: Jerry died when I was 4), that might be an exercise in futility. It would seem that the recorded legacy of the Grateful Dead, extensive as it is, pales in comparison to “the thing itself”, real and in the flesh. My Dad saw the Dead a number of times. One of my professors at University followed them from show to show. My access to their musical adventures is removed; an academic and artistic interest at best and a neurotic obsession at worst. 

More than that, I have no great love for the culture of the Dead. As I mature through university, I find my tastes wandering farther and farther away from the tie-dye wearing, shower-avoiding idealism of the Dead’s fanbase. Gorging myself on poetry of the high-serious vein and devotional art, what room could be left in me for the acid-drenched insanity of of a 68 That’s It for the Other One or the plaintive simplicity of Workingman’s Dead? Evidently, quite a lot.

That, I think, would be my first observation about the Dead’s achievement. A world unto itself, the Dead’s musical landscape evades easy categorization. Remember that professor who toured with them? Theology. My dad? Attorney. His buddy, also a deadhead, works in computer science. Sure I met a barefoot guy on the street in Atlanta once -I bummed him a cig and we got to talking about the jamband scene- who seemed to have wandered the paths of Grateful Dead pseudo-spirituality a little too far, but I’d posit that nowadays those types are the exception rather than the rule. Any way you look at it, the Dead’s appeal slices through social and vocational strati like a knife.

The reason is simple: variety. Sure, Check Berry plays Chuck Berry better than the Dead. John Coltrane’s extended improvisations put Dark Star to shame. Like Workingman’s Dead? Listen to some real Bluegrass for heaven’s sake. I could go on: ragtime idioms, country, hard rock, prog, folk ballads, reggae, psychedelia and more come to mind. But where else can you find all of most of these things all wrapped up in one three (or four… or more…) hour show? More than that, where else can you find any such diversity expressed without compromising the musical identity of the players? The Dead always sound just entirely like the Dead (except when Brent is on that damned synth…), regardless of the peculiar characteristics of the song they might be performing. And, furthermore, in their 30 year career they hardly EVER repeated a setlist tune-for-tune from one night to the next. To top it all off, Jerry, Phil, Bobby, and Billy weren’t in the business of memorizing arrangements and recreating the magic (HA!) of their studio performances. These guys manufactured their music anew -to one extent or another- nightly, though with enough consistency between performances that each year puts on display a unique “group identity”, i.e., ’70 is folksy, ’74 experimental, ’77 smooth and slick. Very few artists work with such flexibility (Young and Dylan come to mind). Almost none have a book of recordings so thick.

That means two things, mainly. First, The Dead’s fans are not like any other fans. They listen to more music from one group more closely than any other I can recall. Imagine if George Lucas had made a movie out of every Star Wars-universe novel ever written. Such a thing would consume lives, and I’m fairly sure the Grateful Dead do. I see in this a very clear expression of one significant impulse in cultural activity, one which we inherit from the Middle Ages and earlier. People like more. We want more and more culture to interpret. Marvel Comic fans, Lost fans, Wine fanatics and gearheads display the same basic phenomenon when they interpret, reinterpret, unpack, unfold, watch, read, listen, watch again, read again and listen again to the same or different content time and again. Whether the “depth” they see is purposefully built into those texts (join me in imagining wine and cars as texts) is (almost entirely) irrelevant. The “correctness” of the interpretations is (mostly) irrelevant (for now.). What matters is the fact that there’s always more cross-referencing, analysis, tasting, studying, and assessment that needs doing. These “hobbies” are often construed as meaningless time-wasters, even by their devotees, simple “leisure” activities that allow us to distract ourselves from the stress and hustle of working life. But I’d argue such hobbies, generating the discourse and invoking the close study that they do, should occupy the status of “culture” far more than most of what I saw at the Whitney Biennial last year. Eco defines the poetic effect as “the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.” That’s suspiciously close to how the Dead spoke about Dark Star. Compare a version from 68 to a version from 74 and you’ll see why.

So the difference between the Dead and many of these other hobby-culture cults is that varied interpretive actions are (purposefully) built into the structure of the Dead’s craft. They developed the “Open Work” (another Eco concept thankyouverymuch Umberto) of Rock music, opening the boundaries of their art to each other and expanding the act of musical creation to occupy the very moment of its presentation. Sure, Jazz did this first, but the Dead changed the game by dismissing the formal limitations of genre. Those limitations may have been productive by allowing jazz to develop improvised melodies over sophisticated harmonic structures, but I’d posit that as much is gained as lost, since the listener no longer need acquaint himself with the nuances of the jazz vocabulary to appreciate the “momentary” value of Dead performances. It doesn’t alienate its listener. No one could confuse the Dead for elevator music (except in the 80’s. good grief.).

Additionally, abandoning the limits of a singular vocabulary of genre opened the door to a historical growth over time no other band has ever replicated (cool off phish phans). As I said, the Dead in 1970 are NOT like the dead in 1977… and yet they are. In destroying those limits, the dead made their own personalities, which, like all personalities, changed while they stayed the same, the genre-content of their opus. Listening to the Dead’s music as it unfolds is like listening to a conversation that, convening for a few nights every week, takes three decades, held between several very interesting, very personable, and very smart people. The personalities, warts and all, of those people are on display, modified by the lens of their craft.

So if you have a deadhead friend, try to understand. Its not all nonsense; they’re studying something with far more gusto, perspective, analysis, and depth than most University students can be bothered to demonstrate. The same goes for any fanboy. This stuff is culture, whether you like it or not, and, whether you like it or not, in a couple hundred years someone might look back and try to understand it. At least they’ll have something clear to say for themselves.

 

Three Quotes

“There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.”

-James Joyce

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

-William Faulkner

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”

-T. S. Eliot

Thoughts forthcoming.