Troupes & Tropes

Cirque du Soliel is now in Pittsburgh performing ‘Totem. This troupe is reliably brilliant so off we went to Pittsburgh’s Grand Chapiteau to enjoy the spectacle. Totem is a modification of an Ojibwa word referring to a clan or family group. Although it uses a Native American term the performance reaches beyond that tradition to explore ontological myths and other narratives of creation and identity.  Cirque du Soliel’s ‘Totem’ is an interesting dance and visual expression of myth and archetype. Since I am reading Literature of The Middle Ages right now I thought it was a stunning allegory of the literature I am enjoying so much.

This term I decided to concentrate on Literature of the Later Middle Ages. It is a really a marvelous experience. At first I was concerned that it would be challenging to read, which it definitely can be, though a working knowledge of German makes it much easier. For me, these texts are remarkably engaging, affecting and well worth the effort.

After engaging with these incredible texts I decided to wait until next term to sit the exam. These texts are so astonishing I want to spend an additional year reading them.  What impressed me most is the way tropes and other aspects of this great literature is so ingrained in Western culture and identity.  Tropes are part of literature of course but while reading Chaucer again I realized how particular metaphors and turns of a phrase are still in common use over 600 years later; or how the Gawain Poet’s genius with description and symbolism makes that body of work so emotional.  The authors I am enjoying from this period produced works of great complexity and beauty which infuse Shakespeare, Coleridge and our daily expression.

Shakespeare and Coleridge found language and forms in Chaucer which they rightly used to great effect.  The Cirque du Soliel troupe’s performance of ‘Totem’ inspired me to think about how allusion and genre conventions found in Literature of the Middle Ages are so intertwined with modern western culture. Cirque de Soliel’s performance art inspired a new way of thinking about the texts I am currently reading and also about the role of literature in society.

There are so many things which interest me about Literature of the Later Middle Ages.  I am very impressed by how these conventions resonate with writers from Chaucer to C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, why they are so enthusiastically embraced by such a wide audience, and how these narratives manage to simultaneously create social commentary and startling, highly personal and intimate comments on individual character and identity. For me, these texts are a kind of very interesting totem.

Cirque du Soliel’s ‘Totem’ gave me some interesting things to think about. In a few weeks I will be visiting the great annual Chippewa pow-wow near my home and will no doubt look for narratives to explain our individual and shared experience. Chippewa is the anglicized pronunciation of Ojibwa, so Totem will come full circle. We will all bring our ontological narratives to the pow-wow. It will be inspiring to see familiar things with a fresh eye and gain a greater appreciation of ‘totems’ by Chaucer, Malory and Kempe.

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