TMR ID: 06.08.08
Reviewed: Studies in Medievalism XIII: Postmodern Medievalisms
Utz, Richard and Jesse G. Swan, eds, with the assistance of Paul Plisiewicz
Woodbridge, U.K: D.S. Brewer, 2005
Review Author: Angela Jane Weisl, Seton Hall University, email@example.com
Publication Info: Ann Arbor: University of Michigan University Library, Scholarly Publishing Office
The Medieval Review 2006
Postmodern Medievalisms, the most recent volume of Studies in Medievalism, suggests that the "cultural phenomena known by the terms 'medievalism' and 'the postmodern' are rich and eclectic, in conception as well as in application" (1). The collection's chapters relax "disciplinary restraints between historiographies that centralize either medievalism or postmodernity," yielding "a deeper critique of the modern as well as several possible ontological states for realizing knowledge in ways other than those of the last several hundred years" (1).
This is a lofty ambition, and the first sentence is perhaps more representative of the volume than the second, for the terms "medievalism" and "the postmodern" never reach anything like a coherent definition in the articles the editors offer. While some pieces apply the discourses of postmodernism to medieval texts, the bulk of the articles, examining modern (or postmodern) medievalisms, often find themselves stretching to reach conclusions in concert with the work's intentions, or, as Leopold Brauneiss, the author of "Arvo Part's Tintinnabuli Style: Contemporary Music Toward a New Middle Ages?" declares in his conclusion, "If you like, you may call this blending of different historical layers 'postmodern'" (34). If what makes up the postmodern is uncertain, there remains an additional lack of clarity as to what constitutes medievalism, or perhaps, "the medieval." For example, in an otherwise informative essay, "I Learned It at the Movies: Teaching Medieval Film," William D. Paden chooses Oliver Stone's Platoon as his example of "the imaginary" kind of medieval film, merely because it resembles The Song of Roland, despite Stone's avowal of a number of non-medieval sources and no awareness of this or any other medieval influences. Saying "if a medieval spectator had the opportunity to see this film, I imagine that he or she might be reminded of the poem" (89) seems overly speculative. If this boundary of "medievalism" is unclear, the boundaries of what constitute "medieval" are equally so, since the collection includes Elena Levy-Navarro's "History Straight and Narrow: Marvell, Mary Fairfax, and the Critique of Sexual and Historical Sequence." Fascinating as the article is, it is hard to buy Marvell and Fairfax as medieval, or as constructing medievalisms themselves.
The Postmodern is indeed no one thing, and at least at some level, these essays are convincing because they expose the fragmentary nature of this kind of analysis and how fitting it is for the often fragmentary, layered, and complex qualities of medieval literature and art. The collection also expresses very effectively the varied contemporary understandings of the medieval--as reality and as fiction, or perhaps myth, or fantasy--and how these are informed by a fragmentary understanding of the past. Because of these multiple understandings of what constitutes the Middle Ages through a contemporary lens, this work's breadth makes sense. The essays range from topics dear to the hearts of many, such as Paden's essay and the others on medieval film, to the rather obscure, such as the opening piece on Romanian folk music. The collection's organization is also a bit mystifying and seems imposed in an attempt to order what may be a simulacrum of the postmodern after all. As a result, I imagine that I, and other reviewers, may be the only readers to experience Studies in Medievalism XIII from cover to cover. That said, doing so is not without some significant rewards.
If individual essays suggest a tendency in the field towards fairly intense specialization, reading them together shows the breadth of what constitutes medieval studies, duly reminding us what a rich field this is, and the methods of analysis it offers, particularly in the final section, offer up new approaches to old material that will continue to expand our understanding. In addition, it shows how alive the medieval remains, echoing throughout contemporary culture from music to architecture to film. In a pragmatic sense, many of the methodologies, as well as the concrete examples, can prove extremely useful for teaching medieval studies to students poorly versed in history but well steeped in contemporary media. Professors may find themselves simultaneously better able to talk about Monty Python and the Holy Grail in critical, analytical ways and at the same time able to point out the ways the college campus itself retains vestiges of medieval understandings of space and community; in addition, the essays at the end of the collection may provide a method for talking about medieval texts in ways that enliven class discussions.
Studies in Medievalism XIII is divided into four unequal sections: Music, Art and Architecture, Cinema, and Literature. The last two contain the bulk of the essays in the collection and will provide the most fodder for readers, as they deal with less obscure material. However, those with an interest in music will be interested by the material in Florin Curta's "Pavel Chinezul, Negru Voga, and 'Imagined Communities': Medievalism in Romanian Rock Music," which explores the use of medieval stories and themes in creating first a national identity and then a more imagined identity in the music produced under communism. Medieval history and folklore, and indeed medieval folk music and instruments, provided the imagery and content that allowed the very Western form of Rock and Roll to distinguish an acceptable and motivating political form. Paul Murphy's "Disparate Medievalisms in Early Modern Spanish Music Theory" suggests conflicting responses toward medieval music as Spain developed its own concepts of music in the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, setting a defense of the past and its creative energy against a modernizing force which sought to keep the devotional mission of medieval music alive in new forms with new influences, playing off an interest in preserving "the old" and championing "the new" (24). Finally, the aforementioned essay on Arvo Part examines the composer's interest in using both medieval methodologies and attitudes, such as a lack of individuality and accent patterns, in producing his contemporary forms. This section is the most remote from my own research background, but it stimulated me to put my Arvo Part disc on the CD player and listen for the concepts Brauneiss put forward.
John M. Ganim's "Medievalism, Modernism, and Post-Modernism in Contemporary Architecture" and Karl Fugelso's "Robert Rauschenberg's Inferno Illuminations" make up the second section of the book. Unfortunately, both would have been enhanced by illustrations, especially Ganim's article which ranged broadly over contemporary architecture. While Phillip Johnson's AT&T; building was easy to call to mind for this New Yorker, and it would be rare to find anyone now without a concrete image of the World Trade Center, other of his references, particularly to dormitories and science buildings on American college campuses, were harder to imagine, and without a substantial architecture library or fast modem at hand, hard to find. Showing Rauschenberg's illustrations for the Divine Comedy in concert with his medieval predecessors' would also have illuminated Fugelso's discussion. Both articles drew intriguing conclusions, Ganim suggesting that "the medieval will continue to haunt the postmodern present, just as it possessed the soul of the modern past" (44), finding both external and internal expression in architectural design dialogues that echo the "variety of spaces within medieval buildings" as well as in the "video games played by the bored teenagers of the suburban Gothic worlds we have created" (44), and Fulgenso demonstrating the ways Rauschenberg invokes medieval illumination in his use of art to expose urban corruption and in "veiling the narrative" and "at least partially grounding that obfuscation in fragmentation of the narrative" (63). In both cases, the past is brought to bear on the present in multivalent ways.
Most readers are likely to jump directly to the section on medieval films. Verlyn Flieger, in "A Distant Mirror: Tolkien and Jackson in the Looking-glass" examines J. R. R. Tolkien's creation of the Middle Ages and its speaking to his own world, creating a medieval-modern hybrid, then noting the ways that Jackson's films essentially replicated that process. His discussion of George Lucas' Star Wars films provides the filter through which Jackson's reaches back to its Tolkien-created medievalism, building new traditions on top of old ones. Paden's article, offering the most practical advice for teachers of medieval movies, works to define what makes a "medieval" film, providing a range of possibilities including films set in the medieval period, films of medieval works, and those which "can be compared interestingly to some medieval work" (79). These three categories--historical, literary, and imaginary, as Paden calls them--"can tell us a lot about what a society thinks of the Middle Ages" (92) and as a result, "by seeking to understand medieval movies we can gain insight into what the past means for us" (93).
The next two articles take similar approaches. Brian Levy and Lesley Coote's "The Subversion of Medievalism in Lancelot du lac and Monty Python and the Holy Grail" considers how medieval material, whether literary sources, styles, or historical background, "may have survived the camera lens and the director's cut" (99), ultimately drawing the conclusions that the Middle Ages, like the Holy Grail, iconically present in both films, can not be possessed but only reduced to a confluence of discourses that can create ironic subversion or absolute chaos. A. E. Christa Canitz employs a similar mode of comparison in "'Historians...Will Say I Am a Liar': The Ideology of False Truth Claims in Mel Gibson's Braveheart and Luc Besson's The Messenger." Examining claims of historical authenticity, she reveals that both suggest an association of literacy and danger, a feature of a corrupt, deceptive, and immoral society, cast in opposition to the "truth" put forward by the films' notions of an oral culture and affective spirituality. In doing so, both films play fast and loose with the history they claim, an anti- intellectualism that "reinforces some of the mind-forged manacles that continue to impede true but unromantic "freedom" and liberation" (139).
If the film section is likely to be the most widely read, the literature section offers some of the most intriguing readings. Leaving aside the question of medievalism, these articles make use of the discourses and assumptions of postmodernism to read a series of medieval texts. Jennifer Cooley's "Games for the Nation: A Postmodern Reading of Alfonso X's Libro de ajedrez, dados y tablas" offers an optimistic counterpart to the pessimism of the previous piece. The postmodern notion of the fragmented self, she suggests, is found in Alfonso X's notion of a convivencia or multicultural peaceful community in which tolerance and equality are achieved functionally because they allow "us to sense the intricacy of the social subject taking shape within shifting modes of representation" (145). Using gamelike qualities that invite everyone to play, Alfonso X's model, Cooley notes, might help contemporary Spain establish "a political model capable of nurturing the multicultural diversity of its population without trampling on its citizens' personal rights, beliefs, and identities" (154). Paul Smethurst considers postmodern and postcolonial approaches to travel writing in "The Journey from Modern to Postmodern in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo's Divisament dou Monde," recognizing the value of these approaches in understanding what both Polo's more reliable narrative and Mandeville's ostensible fantasy can teach readers about medieval modes of understanding themselves and the world, existing in and as "multiple conflicting spaces" (177).
The collection then concludes with three additional articles, Elena Levy-Navarro's consideration of Marvell's "Upon Appleton House" as a model of ironic history, Anita Obermeier's "Postmodernism and the Press in Naomi Mitchison's To the Chapel Perilous," which takes up the modernized version of the Arthurian court, presenting an idealized view of tolerance and heterogeneity, which simultaneously proposes and critiques the possibility of a multicultural, polyvalent Europe. The final article is Sylvia Mittler's "The Crusades and Frankish Medieval Greece as (Re)Appropriation: Carnivalesque Historiography and Modern Greek Humorist Nikos Tsiforos." Published in the 1960s, Tsiforos' books on the Crusades, Mittler shows, offer a satire on the Frankish occupation of Greece, which proves itself "a brave and original postmodernist work that posed an ethical alternative to aestheticized history well before it became popular to do so" (230).
Studies in Medievalism XIII: Postmodern Medievalism thus provides a broad range of approaches for scholars interested in new ways of reading a broadly-defined medieval world whose imagery, assumptions, and ideologies are no less current in the contemporary world than they were in their own. If it sometimes feels like the collection offers too much, at its best it provides something for everyone. And those who choose to read more widely will certainly learn a great deal about what is out there and ready for critical analysis.