What do you want to know more about? was the question Naima Lowe’s friend asked her as she was working on Thirty-nine  Questions for White People. I hear that question as a sibling to the question Montaigne liked to ask: “Que sçay-je?” or “What do I know?” (His 16th-century spelling nicely shows the Latin word scire at the root of “to know” in French — same root as “science”).
This coupled with her description of her pedagogy as a form of collective risk-taking leads me to suggest that Thirty-nine  Questions for White People is an essay in that root sense: essai as “attempt.” At the center of the words “experience” and “experiment” is the Latin root peri, for danger (as in “peril”); the essay, in this sense, is form of calculated risk-taking. What was most remarkable to me about Thirty-nine  Questions for White People as we experienced it in performance this morning in the Art Lecture Series at Evergreen was that it was an experiment actually conducted (for the most part, if not exclusively) by and with the essay’s subject matter: white people.
No less remarkable, given the provocative clarity and rawness of the inquiry (“Do you notice when the last white person leaves the room?” — really, do you? Have you ever even thought about it in those terms?) were the moments of laughter as the experiment was being performed — laughter being, as Tom Stoppard puts it somewhere, the sound of comprehension. Not so much recognition, in this case, as something closer to cognition: not repeating what you already knew but maybe forgot and just needed a quick reminder about, but actually asking the question, being made to show up for it, being located and sounded by means of what, we should remember, was understood by all involved to be an aesthetic encounter, which from where I was sitting, far from reducing succeeded in deepening the ethical scope and force of the inquiry.
[…] When I say that the early modern consumption of classical texts was “implicitly and explicitly bundled” with insurrectionary energies and came packaged with unpredictable political vectors of conflict and resistance often accompanied by violence, I mean it both literally and figuratively. Let’s begin with a literal instance. Consider Petrarch’s famous response to his discovery of a packet of letters Cicero had written late in life. At last he has found something new in Latin worth reading (in contrast to the clunky writing of his contemporaries). So what does he do? Stimulated by a recognition of his master’s style, and the force with which it rings out across the ages, he sits right down and writes Cicero a letter — a remarkable reaction, in and of itself, a kind of projective recognition. Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that he takes it upon himself to admonish his master for involving himself in Roman politics at such an old age (when he should by his own reckoning have been studying philosophy). What politics, you ask? Petrarch makes shorthand reference not only to Cicero’s extrajudicial execution of the Catiline conspirators, but also his perseverating in the name of the Republic against the overreaching ministrations of Marc Antony and the Second Triumverate.
It’s worth filling in what Petrarch leaves out, because we too often forget that not only did Cicero lose his head on the command of that Second Triumverate, but moreover that the hand he wrote his speeches with and with wch he gesticulated as he delivered them was itself removed from his body and stapled to the rostrum for all to see. This conjunction in Petrarch’s letter between admiration and admonition stands as a blunt and bloody signal of the unsettled relation between ruthless physical force exerted on behalf of political gain, on the one hand (so to speak), and the exquisite verbal power Petrarch was recruiting to enhance his own authority, on the other. Remembering the end Cicero meets puts Petrarch’s account of his encounter with the fragments of Quintilian’s corpus in an altogether new and gruesome anatomical light: “I saw the dismembered limbs of a beautiful body, and admiration mingled with grief seized me.”
Grief was one passion through which Petrarch palpated this distance, but his relationship to the past took shape in other more ostentatious assertions of continuity. Given that Petrarch crowned himself in 1341 with a laurel wreath, and given that the Nobel laureates were announced last week, I cannot resist observing another instance of violence encoded in an encounter between classical past and modern present, a violence, that in this instance is manifest at both ends of the spectrum, both figuratively and literally. Our side of things is easy: most of us know, or should, that Alfred Nobel was the inventor of nitroglycerin, better known as “dynamite,” and made the fortune out of which the prize money is paid as a munitions magnate. (Apparently before he settled on “dynamite,” from the Greek word, dunamis, for potentiality, he’d considerd calling this special substance “Nobel’s Safety Powder.”)
But do you remember why we call laureates laureates? What does this figure of speech contain? It’s a bombshell, let me tell you. Victors in antiquity — whether athletes or warriors — were crowned with the laurel wreath because the laurel tree was a metonym for the Apollo (who was often depicted with a lyre, which is how poets get in on the deal). But if Ovid’s telling of the story is anything to go by, that metonym for Apollo is in fact a body part trimmed from the nymph named Daphne who metamorphosed into a laurel tree in order to evade Apollo’s attempted rape. She escapes this unwanted assault only to get her metamorphosed attributes requisitioned as symbols of her would-be rapist. Here’s how Arthur Golding translates the scene in question:
We’re still in that train (whether we like it or not); the tree’s still writhing.
“The laurel wreath […] was immune to natural flux, verdant amid the decay of time, staunch against the bolt of judgment”: thus Margaret O’Rourke Boyle on Petrarch’s understanding of the durable, non-deciduous character of this leafy symbol. And thus we still call laureates those persons who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind,” and reward them with largesse derived from the sales of an explosive “Safety Powder.” Which is to say: the laurel is one signal of authority sinuously continuous between past and present that comes explicitly bundled with unexpected and forgotten energies of violence and resistance. […]
[ “Scenes of Instruction, Scenes of Insurrection” = a paper carved out from work in progress that was read at the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society Annual Conference this weekend at St. Martin’s University in Olympia, WA. ]