Archive for June, 2007


“Cartoon capers happen in reality…”

A while back, my neighborhood listserv was abuzz with important issues: road construction; the relative merits of rotisserie chicken; and, of particular interest to me, the sudden appearance of le renard.

Was he red? Was he gray? The neighbors didn’t know, but they analyzed his habits and traded fond tales with each sighting. They spotted him skulking through their yards, and they noticed his tail slipping furtively into the bushes at twilight. To my amazement, I saw him nearly every evening while walking on the side streets. Fleeting and indistinct, he was almost like something from a dream. Occasionally, he crept from the tree line; usually, he dashed from the grounds of the local schoolyard and hid himself deep in the woods. Once, I watched him trot up the sidewalk just like any other neighbor, happy and fat, a dead rat dangling from his snout.

Weeks passed. No one mentioned le renard on the listserv, and I stopped seeing him on the sidewalk. Our newcomer seemed to have gone.

And then, this week, he reappeared, darting in front of my car—just hours, I should note, after the block was infested by six-foot-high cardboard roosters.

At this point, I’m sure that you, dear reader, are thinking exactly what I thought: “Gadzooks, man, it’s like The Canterbury Tales have come to life!”

No, not the tales with all the farting and the saucy language, but “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” the story of Chaunticleer, the mighty rooster who defends the henhouse against the depredations of a fox. These days, I almost feel for old Chaunticleer, who was baffled by a creature in his dreams:

Me mette how that I romed up and doun
Within our yeerd, wheer as I saugh a beest
Was lyk an hound, and wolde han maad areest
Upon my body, and wolde han had me deed.
His colour was bitwixte yellow and reed,
And tipped was his tayl and bothe his eeris
With blak, unlyk the remenant of his heeris;
His snowte smal, with glowynge eyen tweye.
Yet of his look for feere almoost I deye…

Not nearly as perceptive as he is bold, Chaunticleer tries to divine the meaning of his dream. His wife thinks that her husband simply needs a laxative, the better “to purge yow bynethe and eek above,” but Chaunticleer is one erudite rooster. The barnyard sage delivers a dissertation on heeding the warnings in dreams, carefully citing hagiography, patristics, and Biblical lore—right before he’s distracted by a few spare seeds on the ground. Before the tale is over, though, Chaunticleer will encounter the monster from his dream; the conflagration to come, the Nun’s Priest tells us, will be of world-historical importance, a tragedy to rival the fall of Troy, the destruction of Charlemagne’s army, and the betrayal of Jesus Christ.

Can anyone doubt that similarly epic events are unfolding here on my sidewalk? A crafty fox, a giant cardboard rooster—you don’t need to be Chaunticleer, or even the Five Man Electric Band, to read those signs. No less a thinker than Chaucer himself might have suspected that something is up:

But ye that holden this tale a folye,
As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,
Taketh the moralite, goode men.
For Seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.

What is the moral of this tale, the “fruyt” to be plucked from this local drama, the grand doctrine to be drawn from this seemingly random affair? I haven’t the faintest idea—but often, in a neighborhood like this one, familiarity breeds so few surprises. Therefore: vive le renard! This time, I’m rooting for the fox.

“…but when it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way.”

What hath Tony Soprano to do with Charlemagne? Matthew Gabriele at Modern Medieval poses the question and ponders two points of comparison: Charlemagne’s coldly methodical consolidation of power, and the rex quondam et futurus vibe that resonated long after the Frankish king’s death. As someone who’s written about Charlemagne and as a proud son of the great Garden State, I’m happy to throw a few coals on the “Tony Sopranomagne” debate, letting it smolder like the hearth at Aachen on a cold winter night—or like cigarette butts in a half-eaten pork-roll sandwich at a north Jersey diner at 3 o’clock in the morning.

While the description of Charlemagne as a “cold-blooded thug” is certainly plausible for the king’s earlier years, I’m not sure the comparison fully stands. Granted, Charlemagne kept his family close; he propagated a famously contentious dynasty; and, like Tony, he loved his onion rings. But generally speaking, Charlemagne was more likely to exile his enemies, not have them whacked. He finagled Bavaria from his former brother-in-law with a big-picture strategy that would have left a brute like Tony Soprano gaping in amazement. At the same time, he cultivated a loyal inner circle and maintained it through wariness, charisma, and worthy rewards rather than mob-boss paranoia. Within the modest limits of his intellectual gifts, Charlemagne was also far more inquisitive than one might expect of a man who discovered learning fairly late in life; it’s safe to suggest that, unlike Tony, Charlemagne was more enlightened at the start of his own personal season six than he was at the start of season one.

As for Matthew’s theory about the factors that caused later medieval people to doubt Charlemagne’s demise and further inflate his legend, I can’t argue with it. I’ll defer to, and eagerly await the publication of, the very neat-looking book of essays he’s editing. I should disclose, however, that I have a vested interest in a Charlemagne who isn’t dead. Think of the sequel possibilities! Becoming Charlemagne II: The Rise of the Silver Denarius. Or maybe Become Charlemagne or Ein Hard. Even better: 62,036 Weeks Later. Yes, I can already hear the rumbling voiceover at the start of the trailer: “In a world shattered by chaos, one man…”

“Takes more imagination when everything’s remote control…”

In 1608, Thomas Coryat—the man described by writer Robin Hunt as “the first pure English tourist”—rambled across Europe, on foot and alone, simply for the pleasure of doing so. Nearly four centuries later, Hunt has set off from England to recreate Coryat’s journey. After announcing this five-month project on the group blog Contemporary Nomad, he promptly began BETWIXT, a site where he’ll chronicle his travels using advantages old Tom never had:

Unlike Thomas Coryat, who wrote in a notebook with a quill pen and whose preparation for the trip amounted to little more than watching The Merchant of Venice and joking with Shakespeare, I have several additional tools at my disposal. These include an Apple laptop computer, Leica cameras, a Tri-band mobile, an I-Pod, microphone and a blogger account.

Follow Hunt’s journey at his blog, a quirky and already overwhelming compendium of anecdotes, photos, observations, and encounters with the oddballs and ancient mariners one necessarily meets on a walk across western Europe. The whole business may strike you as fascinating, bemusing, perhaps even frustrating. I find Hunt’s Coryat-quest an inspiration—even if what it inspires on these restless summer evenings is something close to envy.

“Spring’s a girl from the streets at night…”

She once came home to find Allen Ginsberg in her bed, or so she claimed, and I didn’t yet have reason to doubt her. I hadn’t heard of him, nor had I heard of James Joyce, but she spoke a little too highly of the guy. Had he ever wound up in her bed?

“My mom hosts a reading every year at the store,” she explained. “All the professors bring their eloquent selves, and then some of them drink too much and leer at me and it gets a little ca-reepy.”

I stared at her with utter incomprehension.

“Molly’s soliloquy is one of the most beautiful things written in the English language. You’ve really never heard of it?”

When you’re a very stupid seventeen, you don’t expect such arch disappointment from a wild-haired girl with paint-stains on her jeans. You shrug, and you let her console you with a giggle and a whisper.

“It’s an orgasm.”

She exhausted me—not only because she barnstormed through each new day, but because I soon understood that my every experience, every memory, was merely a feeble imitation of her far more interesting life. If I dabbled at the guitar, she had fronted a band at a nearby roadhouse. If I got a speeding ticket, she had an ex-lover in prison. (The infamous James Joyce? I couldn’t ask.) If I wrote a poem, she printed her own magazine and pocketed checks from a mysterious benefactor in New England. If I sighed, she swooned—and someone reported the news in the local paper.

Her mom was of little help. The dirty dishes in her stairwell and the sink full of books seemed vaguely Continental, at least to someone who had never actually been to a Continent, and I was charmed when the grinning pixie extended a wisp and greeted us, greeted her dahlink, in the German accent that everyone knew was a put-on. She led me by the hand to her living room, where seated on the couch was a grim, chin-whiskered man who looked rather literary. Was this the famous James Joyce? He was ancient—at least 35.

“This is the guy my mom wants me to marry,” came the whisper in my ear. “He’s a Quaker.”

Mother and daughter vanished, so my rival and I politely ate exotic fruit together. He was a mechanic. His name, alas, was William.

But I never forgot about the elusive James Joyce. Two years later, when I found myself in Dublin on a June sixteenth, I sought him out. He and I had unfinished business.

I looked for him at his favorite cafeteria, but I found only scones. At the college, I wandered through dismal old rooms, pushing past tourists and one musty book. Disheartened, I trudged to the ferry terminal, intending to leave, but on a whim, I followed a sign to the thrice-blessed tower that bore his name. The sun was setting and the tower was closed, but it felt like a start.

After her late shift at the convenience store, I told her all this—and then I waited, and braced for her reply. I expected her to say that she had found James Joyce where I had failed, that by typical coincidence he had sauntered into the bookshop, kissed her mother’s hand, and whisked her away to Paris or Zurich. She would have proof: autographed books, unpublished letters, secret photos. Reporters would clamor. Quakers would be stunned.

Instead, she managed a faint smile and stared at her coffee. She’d had a long day, she said, and the diner was cold, so I drove her home, to the shabby house next to the projects where she was raising her brother. She still had stories to tell, sadder ones than when I’d known her, but I scarcely cared. All I saw was the look she gave me as the door shut. I knew the look well, but I was thrilled to see it, because I had never seen it on her. She, finally, was exhausted too.

A lifetime later, I teach English. I guide curious students through great works, and I watch as long-dead authors bring out the best in them. My star pupils shine with pride—the pride of discovery, of creativity, of intellectual optimism. Garrulous and confident, they insist that the best art is transcendent. They mean it, so I smile and nod. I dread what they’ll eventually learn: that sometimes, literature makes us look for things that aren’t there—and that sometimes, a simple book can cause us to be truly and terribly cruel.

“Breaking open doors I sealed up before…”

Years ago, during a cross-country road trip, I convinced my friend Dave to pause for dubious contemplation at the Helium Centennial Time Columns Monument, a fourth-tier attraction if ever there was one. More recently, when we traveled to Rome, Dave reciprocated by suggesting that we seek out what others might consider a similarly minor site. As it turned out, I didn’t need much convincing, because when Dave unfolded his map, he pointed to a place that should rate higher on the itineraries of history-minded travelers, especially medievalists.

And so, rushing to snap a few photos before the sun set, we became the rare tourists who deliberately visit the remains of the Porta Salaria.

I’ll let Dave tell you what we found there. In this brief but pensive piece, he contemplated the limitations of historical travel, especially when the reality of history turns out to be right in front of you—and sixteen centuries beneath you.

“I’ve heard it said, or maybe read…”

Ever since I started working on you-know-what, Charlemagne has been a frustrating roommate. He can barely sign the rent check, he pretends not to hear you if you don’t flatter him (“O Father of Europe, is the shower free?”), and he can’t be bothered to scrape the meat scraps off the George Foreman. However, to my great delight, he does find himself in the news nearly every week.

If you had hoped to glimpse the holy relics supposedly acquired by Charlemagne, you’re too late: after being displayed for veneration at Aachen during a ten-day period of pilgrimage, they’re going back into the vault, like Disney DVDs, for another seven years. This Deutsche Welle report focuses on the ambivalence, even unease, that relics now inspire. Just try phoning the Vatican for their comment on the subject and you’ll see what I mean.

If you’re interested in Carolingian manuscripts but can’t get to Paris in the next two weeks, take heart: the Bibliothèque Nationale has put its current exhibition on the Web. Thoughtfully, for three of the exhibits, the online version of “Trésors carolingien: Livres manuscrits de Charlemagne à Charles le Chauve” offers one feature that merely gawking at the books under glass does not: it lets you turn the pages.

Best of all, we can expect Charlemagne to stride across the silver screen next year in Love and Virtue, an adaptation of the 16th-century poem Orlando Furioso. I’d prefer a more straightforward take on Karl and friends—but you know, I think I need to see any movie that casts Peter O’Toole as a sorcerer named Atlantes…

“And in this town of stops and starts…”

Welcome! In the days ahead, I’ll use this site as a place to ponder books, writing, teaching, and medievalism. As the folks in my blogroll have shown, this format offers real opportunities to write pieces that otherwise might never find an audience, from essays and criticism to extremely short stories. I may be a traditionalist in many ways, but I do know that not everything worth reading needs to be committed to print or bound between covers.

Of course, mindful of my civic duty, I’ll sometimes put aside my usual concerns to alert you, dear reader, to matters of the utmost profundity. For example, those times when an 80’s classic asks the ukulele, “Where have you been all my life?”

I’m eager to see how this site will evolve. “Quid plura?” is typically translated as “need I say more?” or “what more can I say?” Ancient and medieval writers considered it a rhetorical question. I’m not sure it has to be—and I’ll enjoy using this space to see if I can answer it.