Horsing around, or hippocampery

As a boy, my mother would take me into Carlisle, the big city (population 100,000), located 10 miles from Brampton (population 4,000), the small market town in which I was brought up. One thing I liked to do, as probably every child does, is to peruse pet stores, although my mother was quite impervious to my entreaties to return home laden with various cute creatures. Fish didn’t interest me much (children are tactile and soon grow tired of watching things swim around without being able to touch them) until the day I first saw seahorses. I must have been 4 years old, perhaps 5 at most, and I was utterly transfixed by these strange, quite unearthly beings. There is something eerie about their appearance and their very slow movements in the water that seems to hint at another, hidden truth: they are alien creatures transplanted on earth. Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic here, but the seahorse is a fish unlike other fish and unique in all marine life. And let’s face it, there are some weird and positively bizarre life forms in the oceans of our planet.

 

Courtesy of

Courtesy of Flickr

 

It’s quite easy to see where the equine nomenclature came from and people have always seen a horse’s head in the features of this delicate fish; the genus name is hippocampus which comes from the ancient Greek for horse (hippo) and sea monster (kampos). The French term, hippocampe, derives from this root, a suitably exotic name which shames the sheer banality of the English one. The Greek term has a nod to the strangeness of the beast but also to its savagery. Looks are rather deceptive in this case for the seahorse is an unreconstructed predator, its long snout being developed in order to devour escaping plankton and small crustaceans, of which it consumes massive amounts since it is bereft of a stomach meaning that food passes through its tiny system very quickly. Unlike most fish, our greedy friend doesn’t have scales, only a thin layer of skin arranged in rings, and it’s also a very poor swimmer. The dwarf seahorse, for example, only covers a distance of 5 feet per hour. It is for this reason that it prefers to use its tail as an anchor and patiently wait for food to comes its way. Nature has compensated the lack of nautical speed with camouflage. The upright posture of the seahorse also aids it to pass as a reed or plant to any unsuspecting smaller prey which should have the misfortune to venture near its stationary post.

 

Sea dragon

 

This past weekend I visited the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and encountered a close relative of the seahorse belonging to the same family, Syngnathidae: the leafy seadragon. I had never seen this particular fish before nor even heard of it, and I captured the image above of one. It is an absolutely ravishing animal, one which inspires wonder at the beauty and ingenuity of nature. And dare I say it, points to the hallmark of a Creator who has so patently designed the intricacies of life in all of its forms? Its name refers to the leafy protrusions all over its body which serve as superb disguise, making it resemble seaweed or an aquatic plant. Behind this visual beauty is the harsh reality of the fact that this fetching piscine specimen survives by daily acts of extinguishing the life of other creatures through means of stealth. One could describe it as the politician of the sea.

The little fellow is also often monogamous (though not all are, many tend to be) and, famously, the male carries the fertilized eggs instead of the females, allowing the French adjective enceinte for pregnant to be used in the masculine form of enceint and therefore an anecdote for a grammar class on a rainy afternoon. Lest it be thought that male seahorses are completely nurturing, the father has nothing more to do with the upbringing of the young once they are born and released from his pouch. Sounds familiar. What is absolutely astonishing and more so than the males carrying eggs to birth, is the fact that seahorses engage in an elaborate courtship ritual. While they normally have disjointed and somewhat clumsy movements, preferring to remain at rest, they will spent on average 8 hours in a mating dance. Not only that, this dance is incredibly graceful and really stunning to behold. There’s a clip, here. It’s tempting to anthropomorthize the creature and to see human traits in this; at the same time, such an expending of energy and time in purely evolutionary terms serves no purpose or function. Yet again, this lovely animal gives pause for thought.

 

Toshikane 009

 

Today’s cufflinks capture a little of the elusive allure of the seahorse. The pair is made by the Japanese artist Toshikane Arita. The company is something of an enigma in terms of its history but we know that it was active from the 1940s to the 1960s. This pair is made out of porcelain with sterling silver backs and dates to the 1950s and is a marvelous work of art. The vivid almost turquoise blue is embellished with some careful hand-painted detail, notably in gold leaf. What is interesting is that this looks like a pregnant male. The seahorse has long functioned as a symbol of strength and tenacity, something that was resonant with post-World War II Japan which was on a difficult road to economic and psychological recovery. And we can all find something that hits home in that search for inner resources of fortitude that we think we don’t have and yet with which biology and genetics -and our Creator- has endowed us.

Phoenix rising

The phoenix is an ancient and familiar mythical bird which has been surprisingly versatile and tenacious in its applications. Originally developed among the Greeks (with an Egyptian counterpart, the decidedly less glamorous benu), it was soon adopted as a symbol by early Christians since it is associated with the sun and with rebirth, like Christ. There are versions of the firebird which exist among the Chinese, Persians, and Native American tribes, so it’s a universal creature. The appearance of the phoenix is well known to us through art as in the 18th-century engraving below by Friedrich Bertuch, although iconography often shows the bird with scales and with a golden color or, failing that, a combination of red and yellow.

ImageThe bird is often depicted as a kind of superhero version of an eagle but, in fact, sources are conflicted about fundamental details about its size and even its gender. Some sources, notably Pliny, considered the bird to be the size of an eagle whereas others had it pegged as being larger than the ostrich. The confusion about its gender is connected to the fact that the ancients considered that there was only one bird in existence and reproduction was spontaneous by means of parthenogenesis. Some authorities held it to possess male and female gender but most treat the bird as sexless. This fitted in well with the appropriation of the bird as a trope for Christ and also for the soul. What we might find surprising about the traditions which existed about the phoenix is that the method of rebirth with which we are acquainted, that of being born out of the ashes of its predecessor, is only one of two accounts of its manner of survival. These two narratives share the essential element of the myth, namely that by submitting voluntarily to death the animal renews its life. In the other, less common, version, the phoenix gathered aromatic herbs when it felt the approach of its end, then built a nest out of them. When it died, its body decomposed among the aromatic plants and the new bird came out of these remains, usually in the form of a worm. It is easy to see why the fiery finale has become predominant. It is more dramatic, unnatural, and visually striking. Decomposition is decidedly prosaic and for the purposes of Christian symbolism doesn’t stress the incorruptibility of the soul in any neat way. Mythology, if it is to have any use at all, has to involve high melodrama and fireworks, in other words a complete removal from the ordinary. We do not purposely seek the pedestrian in any human endeavor, whether it be love, religion, or art. We might be satisfied with transient and immediate pleasures, but satiation implies a disconnect from banality, or at least the impression that we have some real relief from it.

ImageThere is something very attractive about the myth of the phoenix, which was thought to be a real creature by the ancient Greeks and early Christians. My favorite personal artistic interpretation is the Fire Phoenix (1999), above, by Thetis Blacker, a quirky artist whose work is infused with a fecund spirituality. It was commissioned for the college to which I belonged as a graduate student and at which I was a moral tutor, Grey College, Durham University. The phoenix was adopted as the emblem of the fledgling institution in 1959 after its first buildings were destroyed by fire. This huge work of art hangs over the college’s high table as a constant reminder to students of triumph over adversity and of the necessity of struggle. What should surprise us about this avian allegory is the fact that the bird is chimeric. It is a fictional creation, existing only in our imaginations, yet it occurs liberally and ubiquitously in modern culture (see some of its uses here), from coins to gaming, from literature to the names of businesses. It is significant that this elusive and iconic creature cannot be said not to possess any existence in reality yet  we are able to design, describe, and give life to it. It is not an unknown quantity in any way. Recent research in varied fields such as cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology has been underscoring the process by which we read and identify with fictional literary characters. The conclusions to be drawn are that people who read fiction and read well are markedly and demonstrably more empathetic than their non-literary counterparts, and this makes the phoenix a very powerful representation of how crucial reading is and, more than that, it testifies to the enduring potency of human imagination.

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Today’s cufflinks were crafted by the Scottsdale-based designer Ray Graves and are made out of pewter containing much detail, probably dating from the 1950s. I’ve already blogged about another pair of his here. Graves tended to prefer scenes from the desert landscape of Arizona and the choice of a mythic animal is a curious one, though perhaps is linked to the proximity of the city of Phoenix. In any case, on this Easter Sunday, the bird is a timely symbol of hope and perseverance -unlike many mythic bestial creations, it is an entirely positive one- something we all need to varying degrees.

Portable art

It’s a great shame that hand-held mobile devices are now known, particularly in North America, as cell phones. There is nothing evocative let alone poetic about cell phone whereas portable, mobile, and hand-held phone manages to capture a sense of ease and novelty. I remember my first one in the mid-1990s which was vastly expensive -thus creating a sense of respect that only fiscal pain can generate- during a period in which some people would routinely acquire dummy devices to give off the appearance of affluence. Mobile phone was almost ironic since the generous dimensions of these early handsets were positively hernia-inducing.

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It must be said that there’s nothing especially attractive about handsets. Unlike bakelite (or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, to give it its decidedly prosaic formal name, though it sounds like a disease or a Romanian brothel madam) telephones of the 1930s, cell phones have never striven to be pretty adornments to our daily lives. Functionality is the end of these apparatuses, which is why there is a whole industry of skins and covers to beautify these singularly unappealing items. Not only that, they’ve become an emblem of the breakdown in normal and healthy social intercourse in society. I have a draconian policy in my classes with respect to cell phones as there’s a time and a place for everything; a classroom is not a cocktail lounge. Most of all, there is the tragedy of cell phones usurping clocks and now computers. We don’t merely communicate using our phones but we also send e-mails, check the weather, check people out, as well as telling the time. We’ve come a long way from my extreme youth when the telephone -now termed the quaintly archaic “landline”- was to be found in the hallway and never, ever in the living room of a house, since conversations were private affairs.

One thing I particularly like about cufflinks, and the same might be said of jewelry in general, is that it is art that can be worn. Many mid-century designers aimed to produce wearable art, a movement discussed by the collector turned dealer Marbeth Schon in her fascinating and detailed study, Modernist Jewelry 1930-1960: The Wearable Art Movement. In an interview talking about collecting, Marbeth sums it up succinctly: ” You can wear it and appreciate it as a work of art. That’s what’s wonderful about jewelry as opposed to maybe a painting—it touches you. That’s what’s unique about it. You can actually wear something that’s unique, beautiful, sculptural, and is a piece of fine art with an interesting history. All of that is in one piece. It’s a wonderful thing to get into”. There is also an accessibility about wearable art since it isn’t necessarily expensive (though, inevitably, in all things touched by our tainted nature’s corruption, profit and greed aren’t excluded from the equation).

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The wearable-art movement attracted some amazingly talented if not eccentric figures. One of the most influential and creative designers was Ruth Roach (1913-1979) pictured above at work in her studio (courtesy of Marbeth Schon’s article on her, here). The chain-smoking artist had a untreatable vision problem which meant she saw two images and would concentrate on one when making her jewelry, which is perhaps one reason for which her work is so striking. Her studio was in the basement of her Iowa home and she would often stay up all night long working on pieces. Like some other mid-century designers, she would produce one-off pieces rather than a line, making each one truly unique and a very special thing to own. Owning a piece of jewelry by Ruth Roach means that you can own -and more importantly, enjoy and show- something that is one of a kind.

 

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I’ve just got back, this very afternoon from an extraordinarily rewarding trip to Chile, paid for using the proceeds of this year’s tax refund. One of the other things I used the refund for was to acquire a pair of cufflinks by Ruth Roach, above, and date to the 1950s. They’re incredibly alluring, crafted out of sterling silver with white-gold-fill backs and incorporating a moss-agate stone. There is an unexpected complementarity between the natural mineral and the crafted silver faces which hold it. I’m a little hesitant to wear something which is essentially invaluable, but one of my personal rules with collecting is that I must wear everything which finds its way to me. Otherwise, there is something masturbatory about the endeavor and sharing raises collecting from being a merely solitary vice.

ImageThe shape of these cufflinks is almost brutalist but there is a gentleness which moderates this impression and which, to my mind, reflects their idiosyncratic creator. I like to think of her working through several nights on this pair which was made for one of her nephews, endowing it with an additionally unique quality. These cufflinks, like a few pairs I own, are museum pieces and I will almost certainly leave them to an institution when I shake off this mortal coil. There is something both humbling and gratifying about being custodians of special, beautiful things which will outlive us and reveling in the reflected glory of an inspired work of art. It might appear to be morbid but we need reminders of our mortality to remind us of our humanity and, more crucially, to forge a sense of perspective into our egotistical spirits. And that, surely, is the ultimate and overriding purpose of art and why we so desperately need it, whether or no we realize this.

 

 

Eagle eyed

Along with owls, eagles are easily the most recognizable of all birds. One might confuse a crow with a blackbird with a raven, but an eagle is not to be missed or mistaken. It occupies the highest place in the avian food chain exemplified in the curious fact that it alone, out of all the range of birds of prey, does not cast a backward look before swooping down on its victim. Quite simply, it doesn’t have to exercise any such caution. Unfortunately, in a terrible metaphor for the destructive force that is humanity, its threat is humankind in the form of the elimination of its habitat or  via poisonous chemicals which have been unleashed into the environment. Added to this in the UK is egg collectors indulging in their eccentric and illegal pursuit of oology. It’s a bizarre hobby that could only exist in the UK and was the subject of an excellent article in the New Yorker a few months back.

The different aquiline species eat a range of animals from snakes to sheep and there have been reports of dogs being carried off. In parts of southern Europe, some breeds enjoy turtles, dropping the unfortunate creatures from great heights onto rocks in order to shatter their shells. This enterprising habit led to one of the most unusual alleged deaths in history, that of the Greek playwright Aeschylus in 455 BC, when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock -an entirely natural and understandable error- and released a turtle aimed at his skull. Not content with this quirky demise, fate had another twist in store: the turtle survived unscathed and with its shell intact. There is a helpful illustration of the episode below, from the fifteenth-century Florentine Picture Chronicle by Maso Finguerra. It still doesn’t overshadow the death of the Greek scholar and writer Philitas of Cos, who was so obsessed with erroneous word usage that he forgot to eat during his research and wasted away in around 285 BC. This confirms what many of us have long suspected: pedantry is a health risk. Philitas would have been the ultimate Internet troll.

ImageThe eagle has a venerable tradition of symbolizing nations and deities, featuring on countless coats of arms, flags, and standards from Poland to Mexico. It was the beacon of imperial Rome and the emblem of Jupiter, a fitting sign of colonial aggression being an accomplished predator. Jupiter adopted several animal disguises to come from Olympus and copulate with attractive humans: with Europa he assumed the form of a bull; with Lyda, he was a swan; perhaps the most peculiar is in the form of golden rain which impregnated Danaë, locked in a tower by her husband. There is something quite fitting about carnal lust being literally incarnated in bestial form, but little wonder that the Romans would ultimately reject the seedy and sadistic violence of mythology for the audacious religion of peace and compassion which would flow through its networks like a virus. It was, paradoxically, that great persecutor of Christians, Diocletian, who perhaps did more to facilitate the end of paganism. Diocletian, who ruled as master of the West from 284 to 305, had two radical methods of power: he delegated, ruling with a co-emperor, Maximian named Augustus, and then also two junior emperors, or Caesars; then, he relinquished power in 305, with no coercion to do so, spending his last years tending his garden. It was Diocletian’s unexpected approach which led to the accession of one of the two Caesars, Constantius, to follow him in an uncontested and uncontroversial succession. While Constantius only lived for a few months, this relatively internal stability led to his son to succeed him. This named heir, Constantine, would turn the world on his head with his conversion to Christianity. The eagle would be supplanted by the dove.

ImageJupiter’s tastes were not confined to women and his closest love, exemplified in the fact that he was transported to the heavens and made immortal, alone out of all the god’s lovers, was a beautiful youth named Ganymede. The homoerotic subtext of the myth is not as important as its stress on the homosocial nature of patriarchy; Rome was built on the concept of patria potestas, that every father in society, from the head of the familial unit to the leader of the gods, had authority of life and death over the women and children in his household. Michel Foucault reminds us that this notion evolved directly into the western subordination of women which remains a feature of societies today, albeit subtler than in times past. Rubens’s visually stunning representation of the Rape of Ganymede (1611) -rape here in the old sense of abduction- does not shy away from same-sex sensuality in the close and affectionate grasp of the young man on to the eagle, the quiver of arrows possessing a prominent phallic suggestion. Ganymede, here, seems like a nervous bride before her wedding night rather than the unwillingly kidnap victim of some visual and textual versions. Take the stark counterpoint in Rembrandt’s interpretation of the scene in 1634, below.

ImageNot only is the boy completely unwilling in this painting but his extreme youth -he is a toddler- firmly desexualizes the legend. At the same time, the somber, dark colors evoke menace, as does the evil-looking eagle. The most disturbing element in the painting is to be found in the child’s real distress, for he does more than cry: he actually urinates himself out of fear. Rembrandt’s picture is certainly closer to the savage nature of classical mythology, which took few prisoners over the millennia which it held humans captive to its institutionalized threats.

ImageThe eagle’s reputation has certainly come far since its Roman synonym for dominance. We stand in awe of the size and plumage of this beautiful bird, and the founders of the American Republic adopted the North American bald eagle, above, as the fledgling state’s national emblem in 1782. In doing so, their intention was undoubtedly to create a link with imperial Rome but they unwittingly forged one with Native-American tribes which had venerated this bird as a spiritual messenger between humans and the divine.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are from Taxco, Mexico, a country whose official flag and coat of arms feature an eagle. They’re made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Jaimes. They feature a stylized four eagle heads and are rather distinctive, though their age is difficult to estimate since they could date from the 1950s to the 1980s. A reminder, perhaps, that the eagle is timeless. Unless, that is, humans don’t succeed in making it extinct.

Enduring symbols

Some keyboard symbols are distinctly and distinctively pedestrian. Take the pound or hash, for example, dear old #. We might use it a lot and it may be rather useful, but it cannot be said that this is a pretty sign, resembling an impoverished waffle or an italicized noughts and crosses. Other symbols are more suggestive, such as the curvacious ampersand which hints at functionality & playfulness at once. The most used symbol of all is the at symbol: @. And yet, despite this poor creature being relentlessly pressed into service day in and day out, we have not come up with a satisfactory and universally accepted term for it in English other than the at sign or at symbol. This would be like describing our friends as bipeds. The shame is compounded by the fact that the at symbol is patently a pretty one, looking like an A which has been apotheosized. There is something very attractive about it with the faint hint of subversion suggested by the fact that it curves to the left and not to the right. No, our ubiquitous symbol does not veer forward and to the right but rather curls on its own terms.

ImageWhat adds insult to injury is that the at symbol enjoys a variety of terms in different languages ranging from the quirky to the delicious (see a list here). I’m partial to the French term, arobase, which has a ring to it. In Hebrew, the popular word is שטרודל or strudel whereas Slovak sees it as zavináč, or pickled fish roll. Swedish has it as an elephant’s trunk, the traditional Luxembourgish term is a monkey’s tail, the Greeks prefer little duck, and Kazakh opts for Moon’s ear or dog’s head. And then, in English, we use the outrageously prosaic at symbol in a gross manifestation of linguistic prostitution. We are better than this. If we cannot treat the tools which we use the most frequently with a modicum of respect, then how can we muster up any sentiments of dignity for anything, or anyone at all? It is not only that the at symbol is brought into service so often – in every e-mail we compose and receive, on Twitter, and on Facebook – but also its unlikely story of survival and triumph which makes it a symbol to be admired. While it made its entry on to the typewriter’s keyboard in 1885, on the Underwood to be precise, its use in our modern sense to denote at dates to at least the sixteenth century and it may be a scribe’s contraction for the Latin “ad”. Anyone working with manuscripts will immediately see the sense in this theory, since the curly D in “ad” is utterly commonplace and sometimes extravagant. They liked their little sleights of hand.

ImageFor nine decades, the at symbol lingered on typewriters as a little-used key -save for commercial settings where quantities would be typed as “15 @ $1.20″ etc.- until 1971 and the first e-mail. Ray Tomlinson, the electrical engineer charged with the development of electronic communications, chose it because it was underused in addition to the fact that it couldn’t occur in a proper name. And thus began the phoenix-like rise of the at symbol. There is an interesting recent development in Spanish which also presses the at symbol into an unlikely role. Spanish is like French with gendered plurals. In French, there can be a million women present at an event but if a sole man should be there, “ils” must be used to describe the group. Many proponents of reform in Spanish, desirous of ending this patriarchal intrusion, have advocated “amig@s” for a mixed group of friends, and so on, instead of “amigos” or “amigas”, as a way of gender neutrality, or perhaps more accurately, neutrality. The Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), which could give the Académie Française a run for its money in terms of stuffy reactionary attitudes, has violently disapproved of this use of a symbol as a letter, displaying that its members know nothing about this particular symbol’s resilience and flexibility.

ImageToday’s cufflinks suggest an at symbol to me, even though they predate its Internet resurrection. This sterling silver pair is made by Caroline Gleick Rosene, an important mid-century designer who was also a teacher and museum director, training in various places including Hawaii, New York, and Paris. She was based in San Francisco from around 1940 to 1970, and this pair probably dates from early 1950s. Rosene’s work is very distinctive and I have several pairs by her. This beautiful pair has so much attention to detail: an oxidized disk topped with a fragile yet sturdy coil. Paradoxically given its technological connotations, some languages call the at symbol a snail or snail’s shell. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, MoMA, officially announced it was acquiring the at symbol as a design classic in 2010, acknowledging the beauty to found in the ordinary. For me, Caroline Rosene beat them to it.

Wily coyotes and walking birds

The myth of Sisyphus is a particularly grim and haunting one. As a punishment for his repeated deceit, the gods condemned him to roll a boulder up a hill, only for him to see it roll back down and to have to repeat this action, with its reversal, for all eternity. They didn’t mess around, these gods, and there is a malign genius behind the chastisement which makes it almost beautiful were it not for the appalling infliction of frustration and repetition. It is difficult to know what constitutes the worst aspect of this sentence: the fact that it is repeated day in and day out; the exertion expended in rolling up the immense boulder; or the aimlessness of it all. I suspect it is the latter; this task is entirely void of any purpose or goal other than to impose perpetual suffering. Not content with this case, classical mythology provides us with four other examples of similar incessant torture with Tityos (whose liver was slowly pecked out and devoured by two vultures during the day and which grew back during the night), Prometheus (whose liver was extracted by an eagle, perhaps a touch more merciful than two vultures, during the day then nocturnally regenerated – the focus on the liver has nothing to do with alcohol for the Greeks believed it was the nucleus of human emotions), Tantalus (who was condemned to stand in a pool of water underneath a fruit tree with low-hanging branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp and the water always receding before he could take a drink), and Ixion (whose fate was to be attached a winged fiery wheel which span without cease, giving a whole new meaning to coming full circle). Little wonder that these populations were to embrace Christianity so wholeheartedly as its central message of forgiveness is completely and starkly alien to the vengeful and vindictive nature of the pagan deities.

ImageI have always liked Titian’s version of the Sisyphus story, above, completed in 1549. Many artists choose not to show Sisyphus’s face, which creates the sense that the individual is overshadowed by his fate and overwhelmed by the boulder. Titian, on the other hand, does show a glimpse of his face and the blank, expressionless eyes of the subject adds a much more bleak undercurrent to this scene. The light, glimpsed in the distance, evokes the possibility of salvation, but it is one which will come with Christianity picking up on the symbolism of Christ being the rising Sun in the east. Above all, the contortions of the protagonist suggest an inverted question mark. A question mark would imply an answer but there is no solution or resolution impossible with this scenario nor the ideology which has created it and the inversion underscores the perverse and aimless nature of what we see. In short, the painting apparently shows a mythological theme yet is a work of orthodox Christianity. The year it was painted should also give us a clue, since Europe was in the midst of violent religious upheaval resulting from the establishment of Protestant sects. Truth and punishment were therefore burning topics.

The myth of Sisyphus was the title and subject of a brilliant 1942 essay by Albert Camus, who begins the work by stating that the only truly serious philosophical question is suicide. The book uses the figure as a study in despair and absurdity, asking the question of whether the apparent futility of existence justifies suicide as an exit strategy. The one aspect which has always struck me in this work is that Camus is most interested in Sisyphus’s thoughts as he walks down the hill to begin anew. It is during this time that he becomes truly tormented and, ultimately, truly tragic. Camus does not embrace faith as an option, though is very far from being dismissive of it and has more sympathy towards religious belief than Sarte and de Beauvoir. The work, which opened with a startling assertion, ends with an equally surprising invitation: we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Critics, inevitably, are divided about this last word but to me it’s always meant that the power of the human imagination can defeat anything no matter how dark. This is the mental revolt of which the philosopher speaks.

ImageI’m afraid that my first exposure to this Sisyphean archetype was not through reading about the myth or even via a cinematic version of it such as Groundhog Day (1993), but rather through my favorite childhood cartoon, the Looney Tunes-produced Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts. The Coyote tries again and again to outwit and capture the Road Runner, but never succeeds. It is an eternal situation for he is quite impervious to death, suffering mishaps which should have him shake off his mortal coil (falling off cliffs, being pulverized by rocks, being blown up, or having his head imploded by an anvil) yet he rises, Lazarus-like, to begin anew. The cartoon is hopelessly formulaic, more than most cartoons, yet the constant ingenuity of the Coyote and his endless frustration provide a degree of pleasure. I secretly rooted for the Coyote and wanted him to succeed, one day. What I didn’t realize is that this guilty longing is, in fact, the premise of the entire concept. Our sympathies are not with the rather annoying, less intelligent bird but with the cunning yet hapless lupine foe. Many of us only become aware of this when having drunken conversations in our adulthood with friends who shared the same covert and naughty desire.

Seth MacFarlane did what we all wanted to do: he had the Coyote finally triumph over his nemesis in a 2’09-long short entitled “Die, Sweet Roadrunner, Die”, available here. After enjoying the roasted bird with his friend, he is asked what he will then do with his life, and the poor animal, obsessed with the chase for two decades does not know. He ends up on the brink of suicide then finds religion. MacFarlane roundly demonstrates why the Coyote must never kill his prey; it is his essence, his very life’s mission to pursue, and it is not without purpose since it gives him his central purpose. In fact, Chuck Jones’s original series did entertain the concept a couple of time, here. In the first, he finally catches the Road Runner only to see the bird has grown to gigantesque proportions (without explanation, but who needs explanations in an absurd world?). Breaking the fourth wall, the unfortunate dog holds up a sign to the view displaying “Okay, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him. Now what do I do?” The episode ends with this surreal outcome. The second occasion on which the bird is defeated occurs towards the end of a regular episode and also breaks the fourth wall. The scene pans out into a television screen and then we see two boys seated in front of it, with one remarking “Sometimes I feel very sorry for the coyote. Sometimes I wish he’d catch him”. Thereupon we return to the action and the Coyote kills the bird, roasts him, and we see him feasting on the roasted carcass. We return to the two boys visibly upset at the fulfillment of their secret desire.

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Like the fairy tales and fables from which cartoons spring, the cartoon acts as a rich metaphor. There are two principal features of the western desert location in which all the shorts take place: there are no humans (and this is consistently the case; sometimes post trucks deliver packages but the driver is never visible) and there is no sound other than the music, the beep beep of the bird (which sounds like “meep meep”), and later on the very occasional whimper a dog in pain, which served to increase our sympathy towards the predator. The latter fact, together with the slapstick hyperbole, give the shorts the air of silent films. Wanting the audience to identify with someone who is evil is nothing new; we rather like Frank Underwood in House of Cards and tolerate Dexter’s dark side in the series of the same name, despite the inescapable depiction of their wrong-doing.  Hitchcock often played on this. In Psycho (1960), immediately after the murder of the first victim, we see Norman Bates pushing her car into a swamp. As it is slowly being enveloped into the swamp, it stops a couple of feet from its end. Even though we have just witnessed the savage murder of the young woman in the shower, the audience wants the car to sink fully into the swamp at that moment. It does after a brief pause, as if through the energy of the audience’s collective wish for it to do so.

In a thought-provoking article (Douglas R. Bruce, “Notes toward a Rhetoric of Animation: “The Road Runner” as Cultural Critique,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 18 (2001), 229-45), the author suggests that the cartoon “is, above all, an anti-technological use of technology” (232). Rather than rely on his own inane and natural talents, the Coyote has recourse to the faceless Acme Corporation (a rather delightful list of Acme products is available here). The indefatigable coyote is also often depicted with a knife and fork in his hand and a napkin wrapped around his neck, a visual portrayal of his reliance on non-natural tools for he is a beast and has usurped the implements of humanity, in particular those of civilized society. The ultimate message, one which would resonate with the audiences of the 1950s and 1950s living through the Cold War and the potential of nuclear weapons is: “As these technologies distance us from the natural world, they also may alienate us from each other and even from ourselves, as our lives revolve increasingly around using and maintaining technological gadgets” (234). Like fairy tales which have rich layers of meaning which often escape a juvenile readership, this cartoon is immensely subversive in its anti-establishment message. Many Native American traditions believe that the coyote accompanied the first humans in the birth of the world, a reason for which it was never killed by some tribes. The location of the cartoons certainly hints at the “wild west” and a clash of two opposing ideologies. Little wonder that the animated Coyote did not succeed in his quest.

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As to the real road runner, I assumed it was a fictional bird, growing up in the rural north of England. In fact, I’ve now seen it; not in Arizona or New Mexico (it being the state emblem of the latter) but rather in southern Kansas. It is a very curious bird, for the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus, a member of the cuckoo family) chooses to move around by running, even though it can fly, and has a particular penchant for roads. Just as some domestic pets imagine they’re human, so too this bird seems to be under the impression that highways are its playground. Even though its call does not, disappointingly, resemble a “beep, beep”, it does have speed in common with its animated counterpart, for it can reach speeds 26 miles an hour. It has a slightly comical gait while running and seeing it in action rather makes one think of Ronald Reagan: impressive but also somewhat ridiculous at once.

ImageToday’s cufflinks depict this wonderful bird, a quirky and beautiful pair with an impressive size, being 1 3/4″ in length. They’re made out of pewter and have much detail, crafted by Ray Graves with his characteristic “Gŕā-Wun” maker’s mark. Graves is an important figure in the modernist jewelry movement and his store operated in Scottsdale, Arizona, from 1959 to 2001, when he retired at the age of 80 years old. This pair looks like it dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s (also the period during which the cartoon was appearing). His creations often depict the west (cacti, desert scenes, wildlife) but he was particularly fond of the indomitable road runner. I think his affection may be seen in this gently executed pair. The road runner, in opting for its strong legs (and using a dark skin patch on its rear as an effective solar panel to raise its body temperature by 9 degrees before running) over its wings, is surely a symbol of stubbornness. Perhaps, then, it’s not so surprising that the Coyote was never victorious over this little headstrong avian marvel.

Compass of the notes

Last week, on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated (in the west; eastern churches keep it a little later because of the Julian Calendar, on  what is January 19 in the Gregorian Calendar, as is their time-honored custom). It was once the grandest festival in the Christian calendar, now eclipsed by Christmas and Easter, and I suspect few people know much about it. My second term at university was named Epiphany (the first term being Michaelmas and the third one Easter) and I remember fellow students wondering why this was. A remnant of its previous importance may be seen in the wide range of Epiphany traditions kept across the world, from marzipan and puff-pastried galettes des rois in France (I shared the one below last week from Stohrer in Paris, which has had almost three centuries to perfect its recipe) to music and sweets in Brazil. I think the decline of Epiphany is a very sad one since it is endowed with an extraordinarily rich symbolism, one that at once universal and personal. There is something quite strange in the story, a heady blend of the mystical and the practical.

ImageThe strangeness of the story lies in the characters associated with it: the Magi. Traditionally, these are the three wise men, though the New Testament does not specify their number, somewhat curiously in a text in which numbers play a prominent role. There are, however, three gifts which they bring leading folk to assume, not unreasonably, that there were three people involved. The passage of time has allowed an elaborate legend to be created around these men, giving them kingdoms, names, and narratives. In a real way, this detracts from a central element in the biblical passages about them. Since they are anonymous in name and number, they represent us, the reader, in a tangible manner. More of that in a little bit. What is astonishing about these individuals who make the journey to worship a baby is that they are not Jewish and they are therefore outside of the chosen race, bereft of God’s favor. They clearly belong to the Zoroastrian religion and they find out about the birth of Christ through astrology, a practice consistently condemned by both Judaism and Christianity. At the same time, they are scientists, astronomers to be precise, and it is the unusual stellar event which guides them to their destination. So, they are mixture of the certain (science) and the speculative (astrology), being exposed to the literal birth of a new religion but belonging to a pagan one already centuries old. They take a leap in the dark to reach the unexpected epiphany of witnessing the startling circumstance of a baby child being sheltered in a stable. We should remember this is not the immaculate hay and benign animals of Manger scenes but rather a dirt- and noise-filled basic and unadorned structure. You don’t have to be a believer to see the striking and devastatingly attractive symbolism of this scene. Sometimes in our lives, the most significant epiphanies are those which are the simplest and the least expected, and come to use by means of the least likely people and events. The problem is that we rather pine for fireworks and neon lights to illuminate our moments of self-realization. This is perhaps one of the core tragedies of the human condition.

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The painting above is Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Adoration of the Magi (1660). The spectator is first struck by the rampant yellow hue of the royal robes of the elderly kneeling figure, a nod to the legend that the Magi were kings. However, the triumphant note of the golden, ermine-trimmed cope with its meta-joke of embroidered stars embellishing it is subverted by the back view of the king for monarchs are never portrayed from behind. They face forward and are seen their subjects but here we have the enormous clue that the order of things in the universe has been changed by this event; poverty has become the new wealthy, lowly has become lofty, royal has become submissive. The second disturbing note in the painting is the cross, hints of which are seen in the crossed spears and beams of the upper right-hand corner as well as featuring on the kneeling sovereign’s cope itself. The generous amount of ermine on the cope punctured by the copious black stoat tails also constitutes a subtle clue about a deeper, less obvious reading: the beauty and warmth of the fur has been obtained from the deaths of a myriad number of animals. The metaphor works on a double level for it both stands as a critique of the brutality of humanity and underscores the painful cost of beauty. Finally, there is a sense of urgency in the scene which is depicted in the crowding. Traditional nativity iconography has a sense of space. Here, animals and humans are squashed together, another indictment of the futility of our endeavors. While the open box at the bottom of the painting suggests that salvation is open to everyone, everywhere, irrespective of any consideration, the looming presence of crosses reminds us of the price that was to be paid. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of this scene which, at first glance, appears to be quite tranquil yet which, on closer inspection, turns out to be decidedly dark, paradoxically in the midst of the light which emanates from the child, and is also to be seen in the star seen in the sky, and, finally, implicitly and metaphorically in the quest for Truth.

I have my own particular epiphany related to Bethlehem. On my first visit to Israel in 1996, I decided to visit Bethlehem from Jerusalem, where I was staying. I had the route planned but for some reason the alarm did not sound or I did not hear it. I was woken instead by the building shaking violently and the sound of an explosion. I will never forget the very unsettling and eerie silence which followed for a short time though seemed elongated, broken by screams, shouts, and sirens. A suicide bomber was on the bus I would have taken and had exploded his bomb a few yards after the stop I would have got on. Almost everyone on board was killed. This radically, brutally, and definitively changed my perspective on a lot of things, not least my attitude the final examinations of my undergraduate degree which took place a few weeks later. All because of a bus not taken. I did get to see Bethlehem on my second visit to Israel, assisting at Christmas midnight Mass there in 1998.

Compass

Unlike the Magi, we can rely on more accurate, though less romantic, devices to guide us on our paths. The humble and iconic compass has suffered a terrible prostitution of late, along with clocks, for most people simply use their cell phones to tell the time or to chart their journeys. It is eminently practical, of course, but I wonder whether it doesn’t drain the awe-inspiring notions of time and magnetism of their mystery. A life void of mystery leads us to seek out compensation and it is then that we risk distorting our moral compass.

A collection of essays which I edited in 2010 entitled Collaboration and Interdisciplinarity in the Republic of Letters was originally intended to be called Through All the Compass of the Notes. The press didn’t like it and thought, quite reasonably, that people would imagine it to be a work of musicology. The quotation is from John Dryden’s A Song for St Cecilia’s Day (1687) and the section it’s from is as follows:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,

This universal frame began:

From harmony to harmony

Through all the compass of the notes it ran,

The diaspon closing full in Man.

The poem was set to music by Handel as the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (1729) and is one of my favorite pieces of music. An admirable though somewhat aggressive performance of the work in its entirety is available here, by Arts Florissants. The chorus quoted above is particularly pleasing as it involves all of the instruments of the orchestra with the vocalists rising up the scale at the mention of “compass of the notes” (from 08’26 onwards). The poem is really not concerned much with St Cecilia, the patroness of music, but rather muses on the Pythagorean theory of harmonia mundi which became popular once again in the seventeenth century following the publication of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices mundi (1619). In a nutshell, the theory speculated that music was central to the universe and that cosmic harmony was dependent on this. The planets, in particular, had their own distinctive harmonies, the music of the sphere. Gustav Holst would create his own version of their respective tunes in The Planets (Opus 36) in the twentieth century, a work much haunted by the devastation brought by World War I. Of course, we know that sound doesn’t travel through space but nonetheless the theory isn’t altogether dead since sonification is bring used to understand and visualize, in a sense, patterns in the cosmos using analogue techniques. There is an interesting talk, here, by Honor Harger, giving examples of sound waves of celestial objects such as stars and pulsars. We might not use the night sky much to help us in our travels these days, but the universe still remains something which inspires and fascinates us. Very few astronomers are atheists.

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Today’s cufflinks are designed by the Norwegian jewellers Frank and Regine Juhls and date from the mid-1960s. I’ve already blogged about another pair I have, here, and like that pair, this one is part of their Tundra series. The pair is crafted in sterling silver and the brutalist lines suggest a compass, or perhaps a ship’s wheel. My mother believed that a better night’s sleep would be had if your body is aligned in a north-south axis and I’ve consistently found this to be the case. Choosing directions in every part of our lives, then, seems to have consequences, for better or for worse.