Seven Quick Takes No. 9

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1. I've been sick all week with what I am convinced is the same flu I've had already three times thisyear. That's four weeks in total of sore throat followed by dizziness, sinus congestion, aches and pains plus that weird throbbing clarity you get with flu. I've still got the itchy-throat-with-mild-cough thing going now, but at least I can bend over without feeling like my head is going to explode. What I want to know is, why? I thought the whole point of getting sick with something was that you would be immune to it afterwards. This flu seems to have taken up permanent residence, just waiting for that moment when I'm slightly overtired to reassert itself. I know, I know, school hasn't started for me yet, but it did last week for my son, which meant waking up at 5:45am so as to be able to do my centering prayer and yoga before we set off for campus. It was just enough, apparently, to trigger the flu.

2. Possibly but not necessarily as a consequence of having been so whacked out by the flu, I had a terrible time yesterday not chasing after other people's hares. Read: websurfing through colleagues' publications lists, wondering why I have comparatively so few (compared, that is, to the colleagues to whom I was comparing myself), comparing our sales on and our number of libraries listed on WorldCat. It's like the flu, in fact: just when I think I have finally centered myself sufficiently not to be caught up in the whole academic rat race thing, there I am, once again, tormenting myself about why I don't publish more, why I take on the kinds of questions that I do rather than ones that might make it easier for me to publish more, why I seem to have so much difficulty letting myself write what I really want to say, why I am so convinced that I have yet to say something really important. Part of me knows that it is, in part, simply a consequence of being a writer: the work that is not yet done always oppresses more than the work that is done comforts. But I do so wish I could take more comfort sometimes in the work that I have done and, gosh darn it, let myself off the hook!

3. About that novel that I keep saying I don't want to write. Novels by definition are fiction, right? The problem is, I don't seem to be very interested in fiction anymore. I can't explain it; I used to love reading novels, especially historical fiction. But now, well, it seems like there are only two choices (well, mostly only two) for stories that one sets in the Middle Ages: a) make the people out to be just as rational and sober-minded about things as people today (presumably) are, particularly with respect to religion; or b) make the people out to be wildly superstitious about everything, especially religion. And, of course, throw in a good conspiracy theory, preferably with a churchman as the ultimate villain. I'm exaggerating, I know, but I've not been able to pick up a novel set in the Middle Ages for some years now because I just know how they're all going to end: with some bad (usually secularizing) theology masquerading as profound insight and more than likely a witch in there somewhere. About the only thing I find that I can stomach is Terry Pratchett, who, of course, sends up the whole genre wonderfully. I'm rereading (for about the tenth time) Maskerade right now.

4. Still on no. 3. Part of the problem, I know, is that I am simply too familiar with the actual medieval stories. And they are always at once more sober and more wonderful than anything most modern writers (other than, of course, the likes of Lewis and Tolkien) are able to invent. So modern efforts to set a story in the Middle Ages just come off as, well, forgeries: perhaps convincing for the first decade or so after they're published, but fairly soon after that clearly identifiable as stories written at a particular time with all of the obsessions and convictions of their own day layered onto the past. This can be fun if what one is primarily interested in is "medievalisms" (gotta love Walter Scott!), but it is deeply dissatisfying as a way of getting out of one's own time into another (purportedly the goal of fiction, at least so I've been told). But I know that my frustration goes deeper than this. Most fiction offers the wrong kind of escape, particularly all those novels so many authors seem drawn to write today that pretend to deal with the supernatural. It's why Tolkien and Lewis still resonate: they knew what the real escape was.

5. And while we're on the subject of historical fiction, a taste of the real thing, courtesy of the fourteenth-century Italian Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ by John of Caulibus. The scene is Egypt, as Mary, Joseph and Jesus are preparing to leave: "Now let us get on with the Lord's return. Pay careful attention to it, because this meditation is exceedingly long. On your return to Egypt to visit the boy Jesus, and when perchance you have found him outside with the children, he will catch sight of you and run up to you immediately; for he is so friendly and easy to talk with and caring. Kneel and kiss his feet; and sweeping him into your arms with a hug, find a bit of sweet respite with him. Then he will say to you, 'We've been given permission to return to our own land, and tomorrow we must leave. You've come at a good time, because you will be going back with us.' Answer him at once that you are overjoyed at this; and that you hope to follow him wherever he goes (Rv 4:4). In conversations like these you can take delight with him" (trans. Francis X. Taney, Anne Miller and C. Mary Stallings-Taney [Asheville: Pegasus Press, 2000], pp. 49-50).

6. And speaking of taste, we now have our very own drinks bar at home. Who needs a fancy European cafe when you can have Italian-style vanilla soda on your very own porch? Note the Soda Stream carbonator for making your own fizzy water, too.

7. I'm still caught up on this problem of fiction. It afflicts what we write as historians, as well. What happens when we wake up one day and realize that everything we've been writing about the past is actually only about us? We constantly accuse people in the (by definition) Middle Ages of doing this, as, for example, in the above meditation: ignoring anachronisms, making the figures of history into people of their own time. But don't we do this, too? And in pretty much in every novel or movie we make. Not that I'm saying this is necessarily a bad thing; I love the way A Knight's Tale tries to show tournaments and dances as the obsession of the young they most definitely were. And how Jocelyn's dresses are never anywhere near historically accurate. I just miss any real sense of (out with it!) sacramentality in modern efforts (other than Lewis' and Tolkien's) to portray the Middle Ages. I'm tired of magic as metaphor; I want the real thing. I need to think about this more.


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