Friday, July 15, 2011

Voici venir les temps . . .

It's my last full day in the reading room at my favorite library, and I'm trying desperately to see all the rare books I need to see, and to consult all the sources at my fingertips before I have to go home, put the final touches on my manuscript and send it out. Oh, and I start teaching again in a month, so there's that grad course syllabus to prepare (Note to colleagues: Do NOT open an email from a student in the summer if the subject line is "Reading List." It will make you very unhappy).

I've just returned a wonderful, very rare manuscript bound in vellum and created by the Goldsmith's Company. It's in two books, the first dealing with weights and measures, assaying gold and silver and the mint. The second, which is more along my lines of research, lists precious stones, and describes where they are found and how they are valued. This was very helpful for a few references in my chapter on pearls, but also for the piece I hope to write on Jessica's turquoise ring in The Merchant of Venice.

The book ends with descriptions of some hard substances that are decidedly not precious stones, but were also of great value in the East and were traded as currency: lack and indigo (red and blue pigments), ambergris, musk, and civet (animal excretions used in perfumes and aphrodisiacs). These things interested me the most, in part because what are dyes, perfumes and aphrodisiacs doing in a book whose title is ye knowledge of all sortes of Gemmes or Praetious Stones, describing the Places wheare they growe, their Names, Coullors, Vertues & Valewes, According as they are bought from Marchant to Marchant worthy their Studie, which profess themselues Iuellers or are desirous to be made acquainted with those Secrets of Nature? In other words, how is indigo a precious stone? Yet from an early modern sensibility, the inclusion of pigments and perfuming materials with gems makes perfect sense, as all of these objects were traded, along with spices, "from Marchant to Marchant" in the East Indies, Persia and the Ottoman empire, and all of these items were employed together with sugar and spices and mummia (mummy) by apothecaries in the early modern pharmaceutical industry (if you can call it that).

I learned a lot from this manuscript, and because it's my last day at this beloved archive, was sorry to have to say goodbye to it, just as I'm sorry to have to say goodbye to my new friends.

I'm feeling melancholy and out of sorts today in general, as when anything stimulating and inspiring--not to mention frequently frustrating--comes to an end. We had our last seminar yesterday, and I am very grateful for the new colleagues and friends I've made, but oddly sad that it's over.

Despite all of the work I have to do today, I'm finding it rather challenging to concentrate, feeling a little distracted. I move around as if I were under a spell, or as if I had taken some powerful drug, my heart beating a little faster than usual. (It doesn't help that I've been reading about early modern aphrodisiacs and Sonnet 119 is thrumming through my head). I will be relieved to return to the regularity of daily life at home. But today everything is triste et beau comme une grande reposoir.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Blogging about the New Media

So I've been in a summer seminar for the past month, at my favorite library. This is what we academics do in the summer: when we're not teaching as many summer school classes as we can manage in order to afford home repair, or churning out another manuscript or set of articles, we get paid to go back to graduate school. Except that it's like one of those accelerated summer-school classes that we teach, only grad-school style. This means 4-6 hours a day, 4 days a week, with a nightly reading list that far exceeds the weekly reading list I had from some of my most demanding professors back at Quill & Stylus. And if you're also trying to get a manuscript ready for a preliminary review, then farewell liberty.

Still, it's been a wonderful, stimulating and engaging experience. The seminar seems to span time, space, and dimension. It's too broad to describe here, and since I'm still writing under the gossamer veil of anonymity-ish-ness, I won't bore you with the details. But it's nearing its end, and the last two days have been devoted to readings, explorations, and discussions of The New Media, led by a brilliant pair of guest scholars.

We talked about film, database, archive and virtual space. We all created avatars and jumped around virtually on the Globe in Second Life (well, some people did. I couldn't figure out how to get off the roof of the balcony). We looked at a number of interactive on-line learning communities. But we haven't yet talked about blogs. A colleague mentioned blogs in an email message addressed to seminar participants today. The gist seemed to be "So, folks, what about blogs? Do they participate in the curatorial function of databases?" (We established last time that archives and databases kind of do have an author function and even an argument, even though many present themselves as being objective and all encompassing). Anyway, this made me think about my almost-defunct blog, and how only a couple of years ago everyone seemed to be participating in the academic blogosphere and now, well, notsomuch. That said there are still some wonderful academic blogs that I read regularly and for which I am grateful (shout-out to Flavia, and In The Middle!) I have to remind myself to blog, in a way that I never did before facebook, or twitter, or smartphones. Obviously blogs aren't just curated archives. I'm not sure they are archival at all, but they do participate in the collaborative thinking that goes along with new media. And what about blogs that are no longer active, like Blogging the Renaissance? Do people still read "dead" or "dormant" blogs, when there is no activity there any more? Or are they kind of like virtual archival materials themselves?

What will people think of blogs in times to come? What would Herzog's mutant albino crocodiles think of blogs?

Monday, June 06, 2011

A Delectable Discovery

When I'm spending so much time writing and researching, I like to escape now and then to a good novel on my kindle. When I'm not reading Spenser, Milton, and Donne, of course. My favorite historical novelists tend to be those that absorb the literary stylistic touches of their periods, like John Barth and Allison Fell, or who adopt a (post)modern style all their own, like Hilary Mantel and James Morrow. To give you broader a sense of my escapist reading tastes, the last few novels I've read have included medieval mysteries by Ariana Franklin, historical fiction by David Mitchell, Michel Faber, Ronan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks, Sarah Waters, James Morrow, and the early modern young adult fantasies of my friend and colleague Marie Rutkoski. Not to mention the literary fiction of my adorable beau, who likes to tease me when he sees me reading something fun by calling it a "trashy novel." This time, when he asked me what my "trashy novel" was about, I immediately called it rarebookporn, which left him a bit confused.

As fate would have it, I chose A Discovery of Witches, and finished it (579pp) in two days. Anyone who loves reading historical novels, fantasy, research, and early modern rare books ought to be aware that the talented historian Deborah Harkness, author of the remarkable book The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (New Haven: Yale UP 2007), has written this, and though by no means high art, it is still a fantasty romp that is nearly impossible to put down. I kind of felt as if it had been written just for me (and not simply because it ends with quotations from the two poets who feature in the final chapter of my book). If you mix what's seriously cool about material textual research with Buffy (and I realize that may already be a redundancy to those familiar with Joss Whedon's series, since in the Buffyverse a fair amount of strategizing takes place in rare book rooms and Latin and Aramaic are living languages), Brooks's People of the Book, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, you might come a bit closer to what was so pleasurable about this book, but basically reading it felt like a vacation filled with magic and illuminated manuscripts and tiny pointing manicules and emblems and Giordano Bruno and sexy vampires in Duke Humfrey's library.

I am even more contented by the knowledge that there's going to be an Elizabethan sequel. Now, back to my manuscript. With the new chapter completed, it's off to thinking about language and the body politic in Poetaster. And I've got almost no time to lose, as I've seen the syllabus for my summer seminar, and it's more reading per day than I had in grad school per week at Quill & Stylus, which was kind of known for overloading its courses.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Procrastination can be Fun (and debilitating)

Speaking of time . . .

In a little under 2 weeks I will head to our nation's capitol, where I will spend 6 weeks doing some work at my favorite library in the whole world and participating in a summer seminar with a reading list as long as my bibliography.

I promised an editor that I would send him my book manuscript at the beginning of the summer as it was nearly completed when we met in January. Then I got sick (pneumonia--don't try this at home). Then I got better, and wrote to him, and we agreed that I needed more time. Then I got the brilliant idea of scrapping about 50 pages from one of my chapters and rewriting it based on a brief paper I recently gave at MLA. Then I got the second brilliant idea of turning my introduction into a separate chapter, and writing a new, short introduction to the book.

The work has been going well, though not exactly as quickly as I would like. I am not entirely sure I will be done in time to send the manuscript off by the end of June, though I sincerely hope I will. I'm about 90% finished with the sweet new chapter and I'm really happy with it. Then on to the intro-spin off chapter, which needs about 15 pages on Jonson's Poetaster, which will be smooth sailing and loads of fun to write. Then back to the new, shorter intro to give it an update on recent theory and scholarship. Then I shall double-check my intros and conclusions to all the other chapters, and set it free, only about 3 months late.

Since I clearly have this all planned out, and have been writing on average about 6 pages a day, every day, no days off, this should be no problem whatsoever, correct?

WRONG! For some reason unless I am at my desk during the school-year stealing a few hard-earned non-student-filled hours, or in the middle of an archival reading room surrounded by other scholars more diligent than me, heads bent dutifully over books and laptops, I am unable to stay focused for long stretches of time.

After two hours at the computer I feel great because I'm clearly, honest-to-god WRITING. So still feeling pleased with myself, I wander outside and pet the porch kitty (more on him later), water the plants, sweep the porch, swiffer the floors, make tea, go for a walk. Then I go back to work and carefully write another four to six paragraphs. Then I fiddle around adding footnotes and images and pulling quotes in. Then it is too late to do any more work at all because it is time to go to the gym, where I lift weights and do cardio intervals on the elliptical thingy without falling off, so I actually feel like I'm getting stuff done, and then I get to sit in the sauna or steam room and feel good about myself because I am being HEALTHY and getting THINNER, so yay! Then it is time for dinner and because it is now summer we get to cook and prepare yummy fresh things from the farmer's market, like salade nicoise or chilled pea soup or gazpacho and then have minted honeydew popsicles for dessert (adorable beau is a popsicle addict so we make them every week). Then it's time to maybe watch a movie and/or to read the New Yorker in bed with my adorable beau and our cat, so yay!

Then I fall asleep and dream dreadful anxiety dreams about putting a 20page manuscript in the mail, or about the apartment flooding and the landlord trippling the rent, or about losing everything I've ever written, or losing the ability to write or see or think or about going up for tenure suddenly tomorrow (by the way, I can totally control when I go up for tenure at this new job, meaning I can go up as soon as I get a book contract, or wait a few years, which is awesome, but also might be slowing me down a little bit). When I wake up, I rush to the computer to make things right. In other words, I only manage to get things done if I do them half-assedly and then put them off enough to cause me to fret and worry about it unconsciously to the point of waking up in a cold sweat, shaking with apprehension. My cycle looks a lot like this and this.

I recently started blogging again in the hopes that it would help me stay focused on finishing my manuscript. I'm not sure if it's working, but it certainly beats making tea or going for a walk. And hey, at least I'm writing stuff.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Keeping Time

Because I write about poetry and antiquity, I am always keenly aware of the way that time seems to keep us guessing. The lyric mode can suspend, extend, and rewind time. Just look at Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," which moves from the longest length of time imaginable (apocalyptic), "vaster than empires and yet more slow," to the grave, where worms consort with his mistress's corpse, to the pounding heart beats of the last few lines. Or look at Shakespeare's sonnet 59, which imagines that time itself is revolutionary; all of this has happened before, all of it will happen again. The poet imagines encountering an illuminated miniature of his beloved in a medieval book, centuries before the young man was born. Or else he's imagining projecting an early modern book containing a portrait of his lover into the future, perhaps our future:
Show me your image in some antique book
Since mind at first in character was done
That I might see what the old world would say
To this composed wonder of your frame
Whether we are mended, or whether better they
Or whether revolution be the same

And then there's the way that music itself transports us into a different time-scape, one in which time seems to stop, or move at a different pace from normal life. It doesn't always happen, but when it does it can be sublime for the audience and for the performer. I remember distinctly that it happened one spring when I performed the Chopin Barcarole at Oxford, during graduate school. I went into a trance and it really felt as if the music was doing something to the fabric of time, stretching it, unwinding it, repairing it, folding and pleating it.

There's an excellent article by Burckhard Bilger in The New Yorker that came out last month, in which Bilger anatomizes David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and author who is fascinated by the way that the brain registers time differently depending on the situation. The brain can appear to stretch time, for instance, during a near-death experience. Eagleman has begun studying musicians. I'm more interested in what happens to our perception when we feel like we have somehow walked outside of time. You feel it in the early stages of a romance, when you stay up all night and the night seems to go on forever and ever and then suddenly it's daylight and whoops, it didn't go on forever and your romance grinds to a bumpy halt (cue Romeo and Juliet 3.5).

There's also the weird sensation we get when we remember and try to relive those moments. For me, they are all connected to music. When I play a certain piece, like Schubert's G flat major impromptu, or listen to one, like Beethoven's A Minor quartet Op. 132, I am again transported by memory to that place where (when?) time stood still. Only instead you can't get it to stand still again, and the experience is somehow cheapened. That's why we sometimes cry, because we know we can't rewind. And of course the experience of loss is heightened when it's Schubert or Beethoven, because somehow in their music, they both seem to yearn for the same thing and yet remain profoundly aware of its futility. When adolescence hit me like a giant blow to the head, I would listen to my favorite childhood record, Mary Martin in Peter Pan, over and over again, tears streaming down my face as I mourned my lost innocence. Ovid was right: change is the only constant. But sometimes I think I feel it a little too powerfully.

I recently learned that an old boyfriend, now a friend, has gotten married. I am happy for this old boyfriend, and very happy in my current relationship. I also have very powerful and intense memories of my time with the o.b. (old boyfriend), and most of these memories are strengthened by their association with music. Listening to him play the last movement of the Beethoven Op. 109 and trying not to look at his facial contortions, crashing through the fugue of the Schubert F minor fantasy together, lying side by side on his tiny bed staring at the ceiling and trying not to move, listening to recordings of the Beethoven trio Op. 70, No. 2, and to Op. 132.

We went our separate ways. We parted amicably (in fact it was the most amicable and satisfying break-up I have ever experienced). We dated other people, we stayed in touch as friends. We saw one another once in a while, and when we did, we went to musical performances, and it was not without awkwardness, confusion and nostalgia. I know people always select which memories to retain and then we edit and modify them, usually unconscious of what we are doing. Maybe the o.b. remembers things differently, or different things.

A small part of me wants to believe in revolutionary time. Not that everything repeats itself exactly, but that the past is still animated, that these old memories are somehow alive and ongoing. A part of me really wants those two young people listening to that quartet on the floor of that tiny Oxford room six years ago to go on listening to it and to go on thinking that time is standing still.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Returning to the Blog

I'm tickled. I really, really am. A few weeks ago, at an important early modernist conference on the West Coast, more than one person I admire (including the inimitable Bardolph, of the currently catatonic Blogging the Renaissance) said they missed reading my blog. As did Veralinda, in comments on the last entry. I always succumb to flatterers (and I don't mean it in the Renaissance, negative sense).

I've been so busy with the move and with my book I had forgotten about this space. I was also pretending to be trendy and acting like blogs were so ten minutes ago.

But now I find myself back here. Partly because I miss writing in this free, public-yet-intimate way, and partly because I read somewhere that if you stop blogging then blogger deletes your account and everything is lost. So much for posterity!

So I'm back. Still in the South, still finding it quirky, still marveling at life, writing, scholarship and early modern studies. Please stay tuned.