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  • A SEA OF STORIES:Introduction
  • Lourdes María Alvarez and Ryan Szpiech

Passion and intensity were constants in María Rosa Menocal’s world. Such were her energy and enthusiasm that everyone she touched –students, colleagues, neighbors, friends, yoga teachers, vendors at the farmers’ markets she loved– all felt that they had a special bond with her. She could be counted on to give frank and unvarnished advice on any topic: “Are you crazy?” was the preface to much of the advice she gave us. No matter how busy she was, she managed to find time to host an impromptu dinner party, write an elegant, thoughtful letter of recommendation or an enthusiastic blurb, or arrange for one person in her vast orbit of friends and colleagues to help out another. As Howard Bloch remarked at a remembrance held for her at the Whitney Humanities Center in 2012, that sense of specialness prompted him to wonder, “What are all these other people doing here?” Few could match her energy and even fewer her generosity. [End Page 93]

María Rosa brought the same intensity, vision, and poetic grace to her scholarly work, and in so doing, she left an indelible mark on the study of the Iberian Middle Ages. Ever the iconoclast, María Rosa railed against antiquarianism, against seeing the Middle Ages as a stodgy museum or an irrelevant historical category. “We can’t dance together”, she taunted Alan Bloom and all the others who held up Petrarch as a high-culture classic while dismissing his medieval Troubadour predecessors and his modern avatars such as Eric Clapton or Jim Morrison. She may have been on to something important: the classicizing lens most certainly distances and distorts even as it discerns, and for all her love of her colleague and friend Harold Bloom, she would insist that canons are often myopic, impoverishing our sense of history and culture as much as they institutionalize and protect our memorialization of them. She insistently reminded us that the ways in which we remember –the songs we sing and the poems we recite and the histories we write– have everything to do with how we live in the present and with who we imagine ourselves and others to be. History, for María Rosa, was not merely a science of the past, but also –and perhaps primarily–a narrative of the present. To claim and act otherwise is, for her, to succumb to the worst illusions of positivism and to misconstrue the noblest goals of the Humanities.

As co-editors of this volume honoring our mentor María Rosa, we fretted about the form that our introduction should take – for, María Rosa’s legacy, like her work and her relationships, is unique. A scholarly overview or a festschrift encomium simply would not do; she had little patience for either form. In thinking about how best to speak to her legacy, we discussed her far-ranging work, her innovative and eclectic perspective, her passionate devotion to her work, her generosity with students and colleagues, but we have returned again and again to discuss her interest in dialogue –her commitment to speaking about her work in a meaningful and personal way and her insistence on making her work always open-ended, always the product of collaboration and discussion in the public sphere. “Maybe we could stage a kind of a medieval dialogue”, one of us suggested –between water and wine, youth and old age, body and soul, the philologist and [End Page 94] the historian, María Rosa’s twentieth-century- and twenty-first-century students. “Tell me, dear friend, about the impact that Professor Menocal had on the august profession of Spanish medievalists”. “Aye, dear sir, why, with pleasure…”. Or perhaps, the other replied with a wry smile, a parley among her students would have to be more of a “coloquio de los perros”, a lively swapping of humorous anecdotes between Mother Hen’s chicks.

In what follows, therefore, we have decided to introduce her work and her ideas not through simple explanation but through a conversation. We have each asked the other three questions about María Rosa’s work, and we hope that...


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