Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Nature of Comedy -- Essay 3

This week I had my first experience "teaching" a graduate-level seminar. Yay!

One of my former professors had to leave town to attend a conference, and to my delight she asked me to substitute for her one night.

The seminar discussion centered on Silko's novel Ceremony, and while I mangled the pronunciation of the word "synecdoche" -- as well as malaproply referring to the anthropic principle as the "anthropomorphic theory" (sheesh) -- I think it went pretty well. The people in the class all seemed engaged, with the exception of one soul who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else but there.

And, bonus teaching moment fun -- after class, one of the students asked my advice on their final project. How cool is that?

I learned more about Silko's book through this teaching experience, as I hoped I would. All told, a really fun change of pace for me, and I hope it was an equally good experience for those students.


Since I have heard the handful of people who stop by here are as busy as I am -- and therefore too busy to ask for, or read, those essays I've been posting -- I am changing the format.

Going forward, I'll post the first paragraph and the last, so you can get a tiny bit of the wrap-up. Let me know if this is mo' bettah.


“But Elizabeth Knew Nothing of the Art”:
Society, Comedy, and Portraits in Pride and Prejudice in Relation to Bergson’s “Laughter”

As Jane Austen herself intimated in Pride and Prejudice, an artful portrait—whether painted with words or with brush—can provide a sufficiently different perspective from one’s own prejudice to shift the viewer’s, or reader’s, internal social landscape. In this brief paper, I will consider some of the ways in which Austen’s palette of laughter in Pride and Prejudice supports Henri Bergson’s statement, “By organizing laughter, comedy accepts social life as a natural environment, it even obeys an impulse of social life.” (Bergson 71) I will also show how Austen’s work undermines both the continuation of that statement, “And in this respect [comedy] turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature” (Bergson 71), and Bergson’s notion that comedy is not quite art. Moreover, I will explore the role of the comic impulse, defined by Bergson as vanity and its puncture (Bergson 71-72), in Austen’s portrait of Elizabeth and her visit to the Pemberley picture gallery.


However, the scene itself shows the prejudice in Bergson’s statement, “And in this respect [comedy] turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature.” (Bergson 71) There is nothing further from pure nature than late-18th century English portraits. (Tscherny) Comedy may turn its back on the flattering vision Reynolds produced, but “pure nature” is nowhere in evidence. Further, when Bergson writes that comedy is not quite art (Bergson 63), Austen’s artful work in her social comedy contradicts him. Elizabeth’s comedic arc is Bergsonian in that her vanity, vanity held because of others’ regard for her wit and insightfulness, is punctured. That puncture began in the picture gallery, where a somewhat idealized portrait allows her to feel something new for Darcy. It is the non-Bergsonian emotion at the end of the novel, in that last mention of pained laughter in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth’s portrait is nearly complete. Austen’s painting of Elizabeth’s dreadful doubt surpasses Reynolds, and vanity’s puncture no longer matters. Her, and our, hope for love and a happy ending carries us away from Bergsonian laughter into something richer.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Nature of Comedy -- Essay 2

My husband Murry is astonished that anyone would actually want to read my schoolwork. I told him that most of my friends are art-and-lit-nerds who think it'd be fun, and if you're reading this blog, you likely resemble that remark.


That said, here's an intro to my second essay.


Is the Spirit of Comedy a Genius Loci?
An Essay on Meredith’s Consideration of Molière and its Extensibility Beyond Cultural Boundaries

George Meredith’s elegant, eloquent disquisition on the “comic spirit” led me down an unexpected path. In this essay, I will not only examine Molière’s Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, seeking the thoughtful laughter Meredith considers a hallmark of the comic spirit. I will also seek examples of that laughter in a culture which, at least superficially, resembles the Court of Louis XIV—that of the Chinese Ming Dynasty. If the Court of Louis XIV inspired Molière, an exemplar of the comic spirit according to George Meredith, might we find the Spirit of Comedy in different culture containing a similar setting? While this brief essay cannot hope to make sufficient assay across so broad a topic, I hope the abbreviated effort to determine whether Meredith’s spirit of comedy is a genius loci or not will bring a smile to the essay’s reader.

When Meredith wrote “One excellent test of the civilization of a country…I take to be the flourishing of the Comic idea and Comedy…” (Meredith), he implicitly raised a question—if the Spirit of Comedy reflects what is both human and humane in a civilization, is it found not only in Western civilization, but in Eastern as well? Or is the Spirit of Comedy a genius loci, its smile not a universal smile but one constrained by cultural boundaries? Meredith himself hints this may be so in his unflattering description of German laughter:

"The German literary laugh, like the timed awakenings of their Barbarossa in the hollows of the Untersberg, is infrequent, and rather monstrous—never a laugh of men and women in concert. It comes of unrefined abstract fancy, grotesque or grim, or gross, like the peculiar humours of their little earthmen. … This treble-Dutch lumbersomeness of the Comic spirit is of itself exclusive of the idea of Comedy…"(Meredith)


Want to read more? Leave me a comment to that effect. And any comments, to any effect, are of course welcome.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Nature of Comedy -- Essay 1

I had heard this course was challenging. Since I am way too susceptible to things resembling dares, I registered.

And then I saw the syllabus...reading two plays or more per week, a form I've struggled with in the past. An essay due every other week. And no advance info on the essay until the week before -- OMG, how was I going to get it all done?!

I had no idea, and no idea what I was in for...

Below is the intro to my first essay (sans MLA formatting.) If you'd like to read more than this bit, you can leave a comment to that effect, or email me at lwitzel {at} austin {dot} rr {dot} com. In any case, I'm glad you stopped by!


The Two Plauti: Reflections on Seeing Double with Frye and Bakhtin

Plautus wrote his plays primarily for audiences who expected to be entertained (Slater 6), rather than for literary theorists and critics—so why consider his work through the lens of literary theory? More specifically, what is the relevance of literary theory to Plautus’ comedies The Brothers Menaechmus and The Haunted House? In this essay, I will briefly consider how two literary theorists, Northrop Frye and Mikhail Bakhtin, think about comedy; how applying their views to Plautus yields a doubling that recalls the comedic complications of Plautus’ same-named twins in The Brothers Menaechmus; and what this might tell us about the role of literary theory in relation to comedy.

Let us first consider Northrop Frye’s approach to literary theory. Frye believed the critic held the key to understanding art; in his view, artists could not understand and unlock the value of their own work, nor could the public, without the added perspective provided by criticism (Hart 56-64).

"The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with." (Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, in Hart 59)

Friday, October 31, 2008


In response to a gentle clamor from Marly, among others, I'm refreshing and renewing this blog.

The expanded mission?
Sporadically share my classwork, independent study, and experiences, for those who are inclined to read such.

The rules of the game?

I'll post the first paragraph or two from my writings; if you'd like to read more, leave a comment to that effect. If needed, I'll spell out my email address in a comment reply. You can then email me your address if I don't have it, and I'll send you a soft copy of the whole thang (in some cases, minus images -- the file sizes grow unmanageable with images.)

That way, I'm not easily feeding a 'bot trolling for plagarizable fodder, and I'll know who's reading what.

Most recent set of "be careful what you wish for" circumstances?
The class project that spawned this blog, my very first MLA class, led to a directed studies in art history focused on medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Which led to my asking some interesting questions about the medieval frame tale in relation to Giotto, which led to my being nudged to write an abstract for a possible presentation at a medieval conference, which led to my work being accepted and me presenting, and then to another conference accepting my work for presentation this coming spring.

What was it like having completed only three MLA classes, and presenting alongside professors of art history?
Terrifying beforehand; gratifying after. Dr. Steele and Dr. Elliott could not have made me feel more welcome, and have been supportive and in touch post-conference.

Thank goodness for Dr. MacArthur, the adjunct art history professor at St. Ed's, helping me rehearse, and those friends of mine who were kind enough to play audience.

Would you like more details?
Do you want me to share some of the essays I've written to date for my current class, "The Nature of Comedy"?
Let me know what you'd like to know.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A taste of things to come

An intro section from my Directed Studies in Art paper.

Warning: For any lazy so-and-so's who found this in an effort to not think or write their own thoughts for work or school, remember these lines are very findable through Google as well as through Don't plagiarize. Aside from the bad karma, everything you find that I've written is copyrighted by me.


Image and After-Image:
Some Reflections on Carnival Marginalia and Images of Jews
in Medieval Christian Illuminated Manuscripts

Although George Kubler’s classic work, The Shape of Time, focuses on form through sequence/series rather than iconography (Kubler vii-viii), it offers an interesting platform from which to consider the content of illuminated medieval manuscripts. Kubler posited, “…astronomers and historians have this in common: both are concerned with appearances noted in the present but occurring in the past.” (Kubler 19) The thought-exercise of comparing art historians to astronomers and works of art to stars (Kubler 19) serendipitously mirrors the importance of the heavens, both physical and spiritual/psychic, to medieval Christians and Jews. Indeed, Kubler’s analogies are relevant to a central challenge of understanding medieval art—that of understanding it in context, despite our apparent remove in space and time from the world of the works’ creators.

Why, other than these felicitous metaphors, am I choosing an art historian known mainly for his writing on ancient Mesoamerican art as a connecting thread in an exploration of medieval Christian imagery? In part because Kubler famously (and controversially) wrote that “art stands outside culture” (Willey 674-75), he provides a useful counterpoint as we test the resilience of established methodologies and the strength of cultural filters applied by modern scholars to medieval art. Since Kubler downplayed the importance of an individual artist’s biography when considering the impact of the work itself (Kubler 5-8) he may provide an approach to the communal creativity represented by medieval codices. And his discussion of prime objects and replications (Kubler 39) is of particular interest for an examination of the images of Jews in medieval Christian illuminated manuscripts, if we consider real Jews of the time as prime object and the progressive change over time and series in depictions of Jews as replication.

In this paper, I will examine contemporary scholars’ views of medieval Christian illuminated manuscripts across a variety of secondary sources, with a look at the role of carnival imagery—imagery full of mockery, sex, filth, inversions, monsters, and puns—in marginalia, and a more persistent gaze at the role of images of Jews whether in marginalia or not. Specifically, I will discuss imagery associated with the concept of “the good Christian” and the accompanying after-images of “the Jew” in an effort to understand the meaning of these images for medieval Christian culture and the impact of these images on medieval Jews. In a very modest way, I hope to clarify the powerful impact these images had on medieval people and—in line with Kubler’s thought that the metaphoric light or shadow cast by a work of art creates a field of influence (Kubler 19) through time—I hope to show the equally powerful impact they continue to have on us.


More to come...if you'd like the whole thing once done, please email lwitzel {at} austin {dot} rr {dot} com, thenkyewverymuch.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Better images

Shelly Lowenkopf's prototype pages.
You can also see it on Flickr here.


Rachel Barenblat's prototype pages.
You can also see it on Flickr here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A big, juicy dream

I've been steeping and stewing on the self-portrait portion of this semester's class, and have been feeling a little anxious. I've been working so hard I was feeling dried out, wondering if I'd run the well dry.

Thank goodness the spring that feeds the well of creativity keeps flowing, whether I'm in an arid phase or not.

I had a big, juicy dream last night, and in the interest of keeping the compost freshly turned, I'm posting it -- and accompanying random notes, all unfinished and raw -- here.

For your puzzlement, your enjoyment, your whateverment. Seems like there's lots going on beneath the surface after all.


Dream notes

I was living in some beautiful large city—unnamed, but “in the heartland”—and I went to a very beautiful suburb to see an art exhibit by the potter Gary Soto and his wife. (Gary Soto is a poet in real life, and Ishmael Soto is a local Austin potter.) In the dream, they were friends of mine. A Craftsman-style house was the gallery, and walking in I expected to see pots, but didn’t. I saw, however, the most beautiful modern flattened barrel-vaulting (think of 2’ wide ribs, slightly bowed down, spoon-polished in a very clean way and at the joints almost suede-like matte) for the ceiling. At first I thought it was burled wood, but then realized this was the ceramic work—a sky of earth, smoke-swirled and just gorgeous. I met up with Gary and his wife; Gary was a lean and witty Hispanic man, his wife was a sharp-featured, curly-blonde-haired-blue-eyed slender German woman who had such a melodious voice I asked if she were a singer. She was, and she sang some bits of beautiful soprano-toned lieder. We had a very nice chat, and they told me I needed to see the Children’s Art Museum (downstairs in the basement level.) As I went down the first flight of stairs (again, all was light, with honey-colored wood and the most open/serene feeling about it) I saw the museum shop. I looked in, and saw a fantastic ring—of pale green, almost light-jade-colored chalcedony, architecturally carved and with the center a delicately sculpted carving of the Tablets of The Law as a shield in front of a medieval synagogue. I decided to buy it, and was told by my friends I could wear it in lieu of my wedding ring—Murry wouldn’t mind. And then the alarm went off, and I woke to go to work.

Chalcedony was one of the stones on the High Priest’s ephod or breastplate.


"In 1272, while in western China Marco Polo wrote, “Chalcedony and jasper, which are taken for sale to Cathay (the populous eastern provinces), and such is their abundance that they form a considerable commerce.” This is a key, for the gemstones that Marco Polo thought were chalcedony and jasper are in fact white jade and spinach jade from Xinjiang Province in west China. These two nephrite jades have colours similar to chalcedony and jasper, (familiar stones in Marco Polo’s home country Italy). This helps us to identify both jewels from Revelation 21. CHALKEDÓN is white jade, and ÍASPIS is spinach green jade. Jade jewels are costly; the white and green jades are both elegant jewel stones and well suited to carving. Modern chalcedony gets its name from Chalcedon, an ancient Greek seaport of the eastern Aegean Sea known for the jewel trade. But Pliny the Roman historian described CHALKEDÓN as different from modern chalcedony. (In his time white jade was evidently marketed under that name.)"

The white jade relates to the tribe of Dan. Dan—a tribe of great judges, a tribe associated with serpent energy, a tribe “not sealed” because of its affinity for pagan practices.


“Writers of the Old Testament disliked the Danites, whom they called serpents (Genesis 49:17). Nevertheless, they adopted Dani-El or Daniel, a Phoenician god of divination, and transformed him into a Hebrew prophet. His magic powers were like those of the Danites emanating from the Goddess Dana and her sacred serpents…. Daniel was not a personal name but a title, like the Celtic one.”

Daniel was the dream-interpreter, the one who acquired power through “translating” dreams—and winning the confidence of the king.

From the Tanakh, the Daniel section:

This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE, G-d hath numbered thy kingdom, and brought it to an end.

TEKEL, Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.”

What did the words literally mean? Per Wikipedia, in the verb form, they were: mene, to number; tekel, to weigh; upharsin, to divide - literally "numbered, weighed, divided".

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Adam Kadmon, c'est moi

Thinking about the potential “creative component”—a fine art work of some kind related to the content of the art history study—I’ve been struggling.

There are artists like Michael Ray Charles and Kara Walker who’ve taken racist iconography and have suborned it and made it their own, transgressing the transgressors. While that approach has worked brilliantly for those folks (although not always for others), the thought of making more images using elements whose origins rest in ignorance, fear and hate was too toxic for me.

But I didn’t want to do something weak and inadequate—a “happy face” uplifting gloss— in response to the difficult content I’m studying.

I met with a potential instructor/mentor for the creative component of this semester’s work. I showed him the two prototype pieces I finished for the Book of Hours project, and he said, “These are beautiful—what do you need me for?”

Well, my art history prof won’t mentor or evaluate creative work…and so, without a fine arts prof involved, while I might do the art, I won’t get the stamp-of-approval for it.

And if I want to teach creative work, I need that MLA to serve as a useful credential; therefore I need more not less review and mentoring from the fine arts side of the academic fence.

Once he heard that my art history prof wouldn’t review creative efforts, Don Haughey was ready to help. He sparkled with interest about one approach to the problem—the possibility of my using elements of these medieval texts, as well as medieval Jewish Kabbalistic imagery focused on “Adam Kadmon” or the primordial, ur-Adamic prototype Kabbalists posited as one of the stages of the material universe manifesting—but as an armature for a self-portrait.

The transgressive element is, of course, a modern woman using “male” medieval imagery as the landscape for her form of expression, in a reflection of one of the portions of Genesis—“…male and female He created them.” The redemptive element is my use of the same, and of some items from Christian medieval iconography.

And the detox? By focusing on the proto-creation, the “creation before creation,” I can indulge my hopeful side and my strong faith that creative energy is a positive, healing force (even when it shows up as Kali Ma ringed with skulls.)

As we discussed this approach, I told him, “It scares me.”

Why? You, dear reader, might find this funny (reading it as you are on a blog the whole internet-connected world can see) but I’m scared of what a self-portrait might reveal to the world at large.

Don said, eyes twinkling, “But think about the self-discovery!”

No less scary, that. And so, because it scares me, I’ll have to do it. And Don said “Yes” to working with me.

Stay tuned…more to come, of course.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tangental, between drafts

This tiny short story is what happens when one spends too much time looking at medieval illuminated manuscripts and reading scholarly exegesis of the same.


The Book of Night

There is a corner of the Cloisters Library, among the papers of Sumner McKnight Crosby, where no light shines.


The Benedictine monks of the Abbey of St. Denis, devoted as they were to rooting out heresies, bought manuscripts produced by enemies of the Church in order to study what lies they contained and in order to keep them from the hands of the laity.

Unlike the beautiful gilded manuscripts produced by the Church, most were scrawled by mad ascetics in a crabbed hand with oak gall…except for one. One manuscript, written with minium, illuminated with lead, and smelling of salt and sulfur, was an early alchemical text of unknown authorship titled “The Book of Night.” The masons building the Abbey were greatly distressed when the monks bought this particular codex, for wherever the book was placed, shadow fell and light disappeared, making it impossible for construction to proceed.

The head of the masons’ guild tried to reason with the brothers of the order that this manuscript had no place in God’s house, to no avail. And so the masons took it upon themselves to entomb the book within a false wall and burn the plans that showed where it had been laid. The Benedictines were never again able to find the codex, and this act of rebelliousness sowed the seeds for later discord between Masonic guilds and the Church.


In 1938, the art historian Sumner McKnight Crosby began supervising the excavation of Saint-Denis. Plagued for years by insomnia, he was surprised to find he had less and less trouble sleeping as the work proceeded; and while he had difficulty retaining workers for the delicate work around the crypt, he himself felt oddly at peace, as if this was work he had been born to do.

The world was not at peace, however, and Crosby had to abandon his efforts in the face of the encroaching conflict—but not before he uncovered a hollow wall where light seemed to vanish into velvet blackness. Although he did not speak about what he found, Sumner McKnight Crosby never was troubled by insomnia again.

On those days where the weight of time and scholarship pressed him hard, Professor Crosby would tell his assistants that he wished not to be disturbed.

They’d see the lights dim through the milky glass on his office door, then darken to an inky black. Inside, Crosby would rest for a few endless minutes within a starless, dreamless corner of Night before hiding the instrument of his respite in an old linen sack and returning to the wakeful world.


To this day, if you were to search through the papers of Sumner McKnight Crosby at the Cloisters, you would not find all of Professor Crosby's work. There is one archival box too dark to be seen—the box containing “The Book of Night,” its lead illuminations casting an eternal midnight, waiting for another sleepless wanderer.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Here's the scoop, er, scope

After a lovely back-and-forthing through email, Rick MacArthur and I have a plan jelled. I have not been able to make contact with the prof who'd guide the "creative work" part of the project, so until I do, the scope may not include "for credit" art or other creative activity outside paper-writing.

That said, the outline of the work-to-unfold is below.


As I take on a project full of hateful imagery made part of beautiful objects, the question I keep coming back to is this:
How do I make something beautiful and useful, an akido-like transmutation of hate into love, from a work like this?

I use the word "beautiful" in the Navajo sense of hózhó, wholeness and balance.


Oddly enough, most of the books I need for this effort have been checked out of the University of Texas library, so someone else local is working on a similar project.

There has been a recent spate of scholarly publishing around the negative images of Jews in medieval illuminated manuscripts, so my poking at the metaphoric edge of these things will at least be grounded with some well-thought and well-vetted religious historians and art historians.


The roadmap, aka the outline for this work.

The Indispensable Other: Some Reflections on Images of Jews in Christian Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

1. Introduction.
1.1. Background on medieval illuminated manuscripts.
1.1.1. What does this form represent?
1.1.2. Who are its patrons? Audiences? Creators?
1.1.3. Was it a primarily secular or religious form?
1.1.4. Why look more deeply into a subset of the form—religious Christian medieval illuminated manuscripts?
1.2. Thesis statement.
1.2.1. Christian medieval illuminated manuscripts are full of carnival imagery with seemingly scatological, outside-the-sacred content. In this paper, I will briefly examine the role of carnival imagery—images of the Other—in medieval Christian art with a particular focus on marginalia and on images of Jews. I will reflect in more depth on the indispensability of the Other-as-Jew for medieval Christian culture as shown in images, and discuss the impact of images of Otherness for medieval peoples and for us.

2. Challenges.
2.1. Lack of preservation of sources.
2.2. Issues involving access to sources, both primary and secondary.
2.3. Seeing through medieval eyes, not modern eyes.

3. The variety of carnival imagery.
3.1. Types and counts (Counts are optional, assuming I can find access to
3.1.1. Hybrid monsters.
3.1.2. Animals and proverbs.
3.1.3. Sexual improprieties.
3.1.4. Mocking the clergy.
3.1.5. Mocking the nobility and others.
3.1.6. Emesis, defecation, and gold.
3.1.7. Depictions of other religions and cultures.
3.2. Iconographic content. What do scholars like Camille (and others) indicate these images meant to the people of the time?
3.3. Are these images found within or without the “core content” of the page? If without, what do scholars think that segregation represents?
3.4. Are images of Jews different from other types of marginal, carnival Others? If so, in what ways?

4. Jew and Christian—imagery of each as the ultimate Other.
4.1. A deeper look at images of Jews and Jewish culture within medieval Christian art.
4.1.1. Patriarchal Jews and contemporary Jews—“good Jews” and “bad Jews”?
4.1.2. Imagined Jews—anti-Semitic imagery in medieval England after the expulsion of the Jews.
4.1.3. Jews as source, Jews as target. (Jews and women as “source” discussed in Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare, 2004, by Lisa Lampert.)
4.2. A brief look at images of Christians and Christian culture within medieval Jewish art. (Optional, depending on source availability.)
4.2.1. Purim— triumph-over-the-persecutor imagery and narratives.

5. The indispensability of the Other, the impact of images of the Other.
5.1. Implications of the imagery for the medieval viewer—imagined Jews and imagined Christians, real consequences.
5.2. Implications of the imagery for the modern viewer.

6. Conclusion.
In brief…
6.1. Is the Other indispensable? If so, what may trigger people to turn from wariness to hate?
6.2. What role do images play in this transformation, and what responsibility do image-makers have?
6.3. Have contemporary interfaith efforts used the power of images? If not, is there something to be gained by emphasizing imagery?
6.4. Areas for further research.


Still waiting for time to get the artwork I made last semester back, and then off to a high-quality scanning service for hi-res images, and then off on a "tour de participants."

But that too shall pass.

Now, off to take another round of antibiotics for The Cussed Bicuspid, and to set to work on some reading.