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  • Compulsory Figures
  • Arthur Bahr

Erich Aucherbach's "Figura" brilliantly elucidates the dizzying range of meanings and associations that word enjoyed from Antiquity into the Middle Ages. Two of these meanings particularly interest me here: mutable shape or form, especially as it contrasts with what is immutable or imperishable; and figuration in the Augustinian sense, namely the person or occurrence that resembles and so anticipates an ultimate fulfillment yet to come.1 I want to use these meanings of figura to ask a few questions. Can a shape have ethical content? What is the relationship between embodiment, fulfillment, and failure? And finally, how might either the so-called Pearl manuscript or the sport of figure skating help us think through these questions?2

"Figure skating?" you may ask. But the reasons for this counterintuitive juxtaposition will soon become clear. My title, compulsory figures, designates the now-obsolete practice of using the blade to first etch and then retrace geometric patterns onto a blank sheet of ice. This is how figure skating got its name in English: you literally skated figures. Early in the history of the sport, skaters designed their own elaborate shapes that might resemble tulips, snowflakes, or Maltese crosses, and they were judged both on the beauty and originality of their designs and on the precision of their execution on the ice. In due course, however, the patterns were simplified and standardized into a handful of variations on the basic figure eight. At competitions, a few of these figures were selected for each skater to perform so that judges could compare like to like. Thus figures became "compulsory," as against the so-called free skating that took place later in the competition and is all that most people now imagine when they think of the sport: jumps and spins, music and costumes.

As a kid, I was a deeply mediocre but very eager figure skater, and after I quit skating in college, I stayed involved in the sport by becoming a judge. Ever since I became interested in medieval manuscripts, also in college, I have been fascinated by analogies between medieval scribal labor, which involves drawing shapes (ruling patterns, letter-forms, marginal grotesques) onto a two-dimensional surface—the sheet of parchment—and figure skating, which involves carving shapes [End Page 295] (whether geometrically precise compulsory figures or the inadvertent scrapes, divots, and gouges produced by free skating) onto another two-dimensional surface—the sheet of ice. And there are other, less obvious lexical tangent points between figure skating and book history: the completed figure was called the print; to skate a figure on clean ice during practice was to "lay it out," recalling the page layout that so fascinates manuscript scholars (mise en glace complementing mise en page); the giant compass that skaters used to make perfect circles to trace during practice was even called a scribe.

Compulsory figures do not explicitly represent or symbolize anything, and in this respect they are quite unlike the shapes from Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that I will consider momentarily. Yet the ability to skate good figures was frequently attributed to, and in that sense represented, specific qualities of the athlete: phrases like intense focus, mental discipline, and nerves of steel recur time and again in the relatively brief and rare video footage of figures events shown on television. Indeed, the word compulsory itself is redolent of such rather austere virtues. Figures demanded and thus made manifest the depth of your almost monastic devotion (up at 4 a.m. to be on the ice by 5, then working for hours in solitary silence) to pure craft, as against the artistic self-expression of free skating.

If compulsory figures had only implicit ethical content, the Pearl poet goes out of his way—tarries, as he puts it—in order to emphasize the ethical significance of the figure on Gawain's shield:

And quy þe pentangle apendez to þat prynce nobleI am in tent yow to telle, þof tary hyt me schulde.Hit is a sygne þat Salamon set sumquyleIn bytoknyng of trawþe, bi tytle þat hit habbez;For hit is a fygure þat haldez fyue poyntez...