Saturday, August 13, 2011

Spiritus Mundi and Synchronicity**

I caught myself using a Metropolitan Transit Authority metaphor to explain stanza 2470 of the Libro de Alexandre (and specifically the reference to the "quinze cabrones") in a lecture that I am writing for my fall introductory class.* I tend to get nervous when I'm presenting, and that, combined with the fact that this is a brand new class for me (actually, it's just a brand new class, period) means that I'm seriously overplanning. I'm writing out all of my lectures, even the ones like the walkthrough of the Great Mosque of Cordoba that I could give in my sleep at this point. And I'm even planning, down to the minute, all of the metaphors and jokes I intend to use to make the material more accessible to my students. Even so, I stopped to reflect after writing this part of a paragraph, in which I am talking to my students about using intratextual references to history and to material culture to place a literary text more firmly in its context (please bear in mind that this is essentially lecture notes, written in a style meant to be spoken):

We know that this poem was written after the scribe who wrote it down could have chosen between paper or parchment. The poet is making a point of telling us that he (or his scribe) chose parchment, the luxury item. People tend not to comment on things that are common, typical, everyday, or obligatory. If there’s only one subway route you can take between campus and where you live, you’re not going to tell people that you took the F, specifically, to West Fourth Street. You’re just going to say you took the subway to campus. If you had lots of choices, though, then it becomes a noteworthy detail whether you took the F to West Fourth Street or the 6 to Astor Place or the N/R to 8th Street. If the Alexandre poet had no choice but to use parchment, he might not have written that verse the way he did. He’s making a point of telling us that he chose, and that he chose the luxury good. And so indirectly, he is telling us the high value of the text. He chose not to use paper because this poem was worthy of being written down on parchment.

I paused when I wrote this and first thought to myself that it must mean that I'm really a New Yorker now if I'm working detailed subway analogies into my introductory lectures in between the Libro de Alexandre and Judah Halevi. And then I got to thinking about whether the most effective way to explain the significance of the "quinze cabrones" reference was in terms of the modern. And that question, the value of making the medieval relevant by means of the modern, is the one that I want to explore a bit further here.

I was reminded of an interesting blog post (albeit one with a truly bizarre non-sequitur about horseshoe arches in the Great Mosque) that was aggregated via the medieval Iberia page on Facebook. The post was written by a modernist and describes a class session in which she taught her students about the kharjas, the colloquial couplets that are literally the "exits" from longer strophic poems written in classical Arabic or Hebrew, and that are generally, unlike the body of the poem, written in the voice of a woman. This blogger described the kharjas to her students by explaining that they were a bit like facebook status updates from the middle ages. Reading the post, I was uncomfortable with the analogy initially because it divorces the kharjas from the muwashshahat. (To be fair, the author hints at the fact that she is (obviously) aware of the debate and of the idea that there is another way of reading, so focusing in on the kharjas may just have been a question of the limitations of how much tangential explaining one can do in an introductory survey class for undergraduates.***)

But in spite of my initial discomfort, there's also something charming about that analogy, and I don't know that I can really, honestly differentiate it from any of the ways that I, as a medievalist, draw sometimes-flawed comparisons with modernity in an attempt to make the material make more sense to my students. I caught myself while writing the previous sentence because I had been about to say "to explain the material better" to my students. And that's the crux of the question. Is it better this way?

I don't actually think there's any way of getting around drawing good, bad, ugly and silly analogies in classes when introducing dramatically unfamiliar material to students, particularly non-majors or students who are just beginning their major, nor should there be. It's best, perhaps, to draw on the familiar (as long as one makes clear the places where any given analogy may be flawed) and make sure that there is a sensible frame of reference for what is going to be, let's face it, very foreign and esoteric material to the vast majority of students. (I suppose that one could argue that drawing on modern material to contextualize the medieval is in some way equivalent to asking the humanities to justify their existence in terms of what is relevant to the real world; but I don't think it's nearly as pernicious as that.)

But this does raise the more interesting and potentially thorny issue of diachronic reading and its place in teaching. If we can use blogging and facebook to make sense of muwashshahat and kharjas, and the F train to drive home a point about the Libro de Alexandre, what about using The Moor's Last Sigh to teach the Poema de mio CidDiachronic reading is something that we do as professionals. In other words, this isn't a question of dumbing down or distorting the material for the introductory level; collectively we (or some of us, at least) have accepted that modern life and modern reinterpretations (and certainly early modern texts) are not invalid or useless ciphers for our interpretations of medieval texts. So by doing something like drawing a subway metaphor or asking my students to read Rushdie alongside the PMC, I'm teaching them one of the tools of the discipline, just like I teach them how to read closely or to formulate a research question. But I think that in the future, I'll be much more careful about explaining why I believe it is okay to draw in modern analogies, examples and metaphors. But perhaps that explanation (and a connected, wider discussion of diachronic reading) itself should be the subject of a separate, future post.

*Hey! I'm footnoting my blog posts! (Ahem.) I anticipate writing mostly for a medieval Hispanist audience. But my definition of Hispanist is quite a bit more expansive that most, and furthermore, I anticipate there being many discussions were scholars in other fields could participate fruitfully, so I'll just provide a bit of apparatus when I refer in shorthand to texts that might not be familiar to everyone. Stanza 2470 refers to all of the wondrous things that Alexander and his men saw, and then notes that if one were to write down all the details, they wouldn't fit on the skins of fifteen goats. I'm referring to it in the context of a lecture on the role of paper and parchment in medieval Iberia.

** With apologies to Sting and the Police.

*** I was also more uncomfortable with the analogy once I read through more of the blogger's posts, particularly one in which she was completely dismissive of the literary value of U2 lyrics. Without turning this into a referendum on U2 per se, I would just like to note this: Like modern song lyrics, the kharjas are not necessarily great literature but are literary and are also, like modern song lyrics, very real snapshots of the language and the culture. It absolutely does raise the question of whether and why medieval literary ephemera is of greater literary value than modern literary ephemera, and that might be something for me to address in a future post. But I mention it now because I'm also not sure that I'm prepared to accept an interpretation of the kharjas that is juxtaposed against an absolute arbitration of what constitutes literature, and an arbitration that seemingly excludes literary ephemera, at that. (Edited on 9/4/11 to add: In my original version of this post, I had linked to the post I referenced in this paragraph. I have since decided that not only can I not keep reading the blog that contains it, I'm also disinclined to link directly to it because of the extent to which the author drives the comment threads to deteriorate into a series of ad hominem attacks and then defends them as good rhetoric that simply can't be appreciated by us, the benighted Americans (among a variety of other justifications)... I'm happy to share the link with anyone who asks, but I'm no longer willing to, in effect, endorse the blog by keeping the link embedded in my post.)


  1. I actually understood what you are writing about. I am very pleased since I am educated neither as an Hispanist nor a medievalist. I enjoyed working with the "Libro de Alexandre", but while I know what the kharjas are, I have not read any. I decided that, while I wish I had learned Arabic & Hebrew 45 years ago when I was in college, I have more pressing ways to spend my time today.

    Are Sting, the Police and U2 relevant to young adults today? I would think that would mean as much to them as if I wrote to you about Jack Casady, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

  2. That's awesome! Yes, this post was pretty singularly directed towards an imagined readership of colleagues, so you're right in picking up on that. Most of the kharjas themselves are not actually written in Arabic or Hebrew. They're written in those two scripts, but in Ibero-Romance. You could definitely make some headway reading them if you found an edition that had them transliterated or even if you just learned those two alphabets. As far as the reference to Sting, that's not one I'd ever use in class (in no small measure because I'm not old enough myself to be able to make a useful metaphor out of it). It's just one that I was using here in this context. And in fact, it's also a reference to an essay on lyric poetry (mostly Provençal, actually) that talks about its context in terms of classic rock and roll. The major singer in play in that essay is Eric Clapton, but since it is already working in that mode, it makes reference to the Police songs "Synchronicity" when it talks about synchronic reading. Again, my mentioning it here was really a wink and a nod to those who would pick up the meta-reference. Things I have used as analogies or as familiarizing pop culture references in class, with varying degrees of success, have included the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Monty Python, West Side Story, Kingdom of Heaven (the Orlando Bloom movie), Lawrence of Arabia, the illegal immigration debates in the US, and (in spite of myself) Harry Potter.

  3. Ibero Romance I can read. So transliterated kharjas would work. I foresee a trip to Amazon this weekend. I must admit that I did a double take at "quinze cabrones" at first. My Mexican swearing background came to the fore initially.

    Regarding diachronic reading and it's place in teaching, I have found it informative. I first read "Poema de mio Cid" in high school about the time that the film with Charlton Heston & Sophia Loren came out. It was just one more "spear & sandal" epic for me at that time. When I read it again 20 years later I was also reading Mario Puzo's "Godfather". While I'll admit that Puzo is not Rushdie, I found a different understanding of the Cid, Sancho, Alfonso, Garcia, Urraca and the murderous aristocracy of the middle ages after comparing them with Puzo's mafia.

  4. Please suggest a book (hopefully in paperback)of transliterated kharjas. In my enthusiasm I forgot about the controversies regarding the topic & that Hebrew & Arabic have "poor" or no vowel indicators. I am aware of Alan Jones' 1988 publication & the criticism of García Goméz. I love the new background. It is difficult to read some of your homepage, but it is worth the effort for the gorgeous photo.