Sunday, December 18, 2005

Hanging odes

I just finished reading an account of the culture of medieval Islamic Spain, The Ornament of the World (see ).  The book describes a vibrant, tolerant and multicultural medieval Spain, when Islam was dominant as both religion and cultural influence, and also traces its downfall at the hands of fundamentalist tendencies from both within Islam and from Christians to the north.

Works of creativity, and especially poetry, are at the heart of this account.  Menocal traces one thread of this love of poetry back to pre-Islamic Arabian tribes, who are reputed to have gathered for a yearly poetry competition.  Winning odes were displayed on gold-embroidered banners; as the banners were hung for display, the best poetry became known as "hanging odes."
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One of the books I remember from when I was a kid was about a field mouse named Frederick.  While all the other field mice were gathering nuts and seeds and such to store for the winter, Frederick lazed about in the sun, admired the flowers, and acted in a generally bohemian manner.  During the winter, when the field mice huddled together in dark burrows under the snow, Frederick recreated the sunshine and the flowers for them with poetry.
When I was a young, bohemianish creative person I liked remembering this story for its obvious promotion of bohemianish creativity, but now I like remembering this story for its clarity about the social relations that govern creative work.  Physical labor is necessary to sustain creative labor.  In the "primitive communist" society of these imaginary field mice, Frederick is not appointed as the mouse laureate -- he must take the initiative and is subjected to reprimand for evading his nut-gathering duties -- but the value of culture, at least during the dreary winter, is affirmed in the end by the community.  The food gathered by the others is shared equally with Frederick.
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As a teenager I remember always seeing a book called "Albion's Fatal Tree" on the small bookshelf that sat just to the right of my father's seat at the kitchen table (the same seat I would take over after my parents went to bed, and I would stay up late reading and listening to the all-night jazz show).  The title and something about the design of the book always fascinated me, but every so often when I would pick it up the academic-ness of its contents would always put me off -- it was a collection of 5 longish essays on crime and society in England during the early days of capitalism.  The title references the explosion of crimes punishable by hanging during the eighteenth century.  To quote the back cover, "From one point of view eighteenth-century England, with ... its polite arts and culture ... appears as a stable, self-assured civilization. ... This book explores these contrasts: a settled ruling class which could only rule through forms of judicial terror; a population deferential by day but deeply subordinate at night."
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Maria Rosa Menocal, who wrote the Ornament of the World, is a professor at Yale.  Yale is a hugely rich institution in the middle of a struggling, blue-collar city.  It is the alma matter of both Bush presidents, as well as John Kerry.  Its institutional hostility to recognizing the value of labor extends even to its own graduate employees (who are overwhelmingly from white middle-class backgrounds), who have fought an uphill and so far unsuccessful battle for union recognition for well over a decade.  The Muslims, Jews and Christians celebrated for their "culture of tolerance" in Menocal's book are overwhelmingly men of power; the fundamentalists who tear down their sumptuous, cultured palaces and ultimately their polity are poor.