One of the challenges that I faced on the first day of the new semester was how to broach the topic of Byzantium with my Byzantine Civilization class. Superficially, this should be easy; after all, they were taking the class. But University of North Dakota students can be a skeptical, conservative, and reticent audience and their comportment will show me that enrolling in a class is hardly a sign of interest. They’ll have names ending in “-son”, wear baseball caps because their dad wears ball caps, and have limited patience for the humanities for the sake of the humanities.
All in all, it reminded me of how lucky I was to have an understanding community when I decided to drift toward Byzantine studies. When I told my friends and family, they all offered their unconditional support for my decision even if it was not a lifestyle that they wanted or understood. They got that this decision to lean toward the Byzantine was important for me.
(I have to admit that I was tempted to channel my inner Chris Farley and come into the room yelling “So, you want to be a Byzantinist” but I realized that this could lead them to living in a van, down by the river, eating government cheese.)
That being said, I went through a series of scenarios for offering to broach Byzantium to a skeptical classroom.
1. Byzantium complicates the West. A colleague of mine told me about a controversy in his department over whether a course on Byzantine should get “non-western” or some other facile “diversity” designation in their complex rubric of required coursework. Apparently a member of this department randomly emailed Byzantinists across the U.S. I recall getting his email and thinking “how odd”. While I never really heard the result of this dispute, I am fairly confident that consensus did not rule the day. In fact, this controversy demonstrated how the West and its legacy are not a clear cut set of values and ideas (despite appeals to the notion of the West as a kind of common ground). Byzantium fits oddly within any categories. Its Christian, Roman, and Platonic roots make it awkward as a genuine other. We can’t help but see much of ourself in the Byzantine struggles between episcopal and imperial power or the historiographic conceits of Michael Psellos or Anna Comnena. At the same time, the mystical, ceremonial, and autocratic stand outside of our commonly accepted continuum leading from democratic Athens to Republican Rome, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment (via Gibbon).
2. Byzantium as culture. This would have involved going all “Kostis Kourelis” on my unsuspecting students. I could trace the cultural legacy of Byzantium from 19th century architecture to Huysmann, Andy Wharhol, and Kristeva. Of course Byzantium could be local as well. When Kostis was in town, he noticed the Byzantine inspired pilaster capitals on our Metropolitan Opera House. This approach – grounded in aesthetics as much as history – would push the students to see their world as a complex blend of cultural influences that function on multiple levels. At the same time, it would require the student (and the teacher!) to understand the complex filtering processes that create culture through time from the Enlightenment, to Romanticism to Post-Modernity.
3. Byzantium and the Middle East. A year worth of bleak news from Syria and Egypt of course drew me to thinking about the Byzantine legacy in this part of the world. The scenes of bombed Christian churches, Christians protecting praying Egyptian Muslims, and the complex religious backdrop to the political strife in Syria and Iraq. The vividness of the images and stories from Egypt and Syria make the Byzantine legacy current and compelling. The downside to this approach is that the legacy of Byzantium becomes a metaphor for the turmoil in the Middle East and obscures the colonial or even Ottoman root of the political situation in these countries. In effect, Byzantium becomes the progenitor for an Orientalist perspective on the world.
4. Byzantium as fantasy. Of course many students take this course because Byzantium like the Ancient and Medieval worlds form part of a dynamic fantasy life that is not modern, not local, and not bound by the walls of the university, the demands of a job, and the realities of a difficult economy. The world of Byzantium is an escape to a time where the issues of theology and survival played out against a backdrop of domed churches, gilt palaces, processional ways, dirty crooked streets, and dusty agricultural villages. Indulging student fantasies is part of the teaching game, but I wonder if by moving Byzantium to the realm of Tolkien and Larry Potter that we offer a weak argument for its place in our practically minded curriculum.
As I blogged about when I originally announced this class, the issue of broaching Byzantium is a tricky one in the modern, American academy where its place in the so-called “master narrative” is hardly secure.