Butchery and bitchery

Because I work a lot with women writers, the history of sexuality, and literature in general, the concept of masculinity has loomed large in my interests and in my research. For one thing, for example, is there really an identifiable style of writing that reveals the author’s sex if it isn’t known? Can we truly pick out a feminine style of writing or a masculine sensibility? I asked a scholar who has spent the past four decades working on female authors of the early modern period whether he thought that gender could be determined from a work, or perhaps out of its preoccupations. His answer was that sometimes it’s possible to feel that a work couldn’t possibly have been written by a man or by a woman. As a final thought, he added that, in his experience, the question of whether there is a distinct feminine literary register is one that is invariably only ever asked by men. With fashion, however, we are on apparently clearer ground, historically speaking. There are separate sartorial trends for men and women until metrosexuality and androgyny came to the fore during the twentieth century. Except, of course, these trends are not new at all.


The painting above is Hyacinth Rigaud’s spectacular (I choose the qualifier with care) portrait of Louis XIV, executed when the monarch was aged in his mid-60s. In some respects, it is a conventional work. The monarch, for example, is standing as was usual in royal portraiture. His knee is prominent since traditional obeissance to a monarch involved the kissing of the knee, a tradition doubtless based on the fact that the person doing homage would have to be on bended knee to perform the act. However, Peter Burke’s incisive study The Fabrication of Louis XIV draws attention to the underlying and unresolved tension to be gleaned from the image. Rather than a depiction of regal majesty, the viewer cannot help but observe the curious contrast between the sunken cheeks of the ageing and toothless sovereign’s world-weary and quite frankly miserable face with the entirely unrealistically athletic and long legs of someone who was 64 years old.


I am more interested in another aspect: the luxurious, thick, and, quite frankly, outrageous wig atop his skull. Objectively speaking, the hairpiece looks, well, utterly camp. Until Louis’s reign, wigs had been seen as a woman’s accessory. There had been a brief vogue for male wigs towards the end of Louis XIII’s reign. This monarch, Louis XIV’s father, enjoyed lavish clothing and the company of handsome young men. In fact, Louis XIV was known as Louis le Dieudonné, Louis the God-given, when he was born in 1638 since the king and queen had not had offspring until that point (Anne of Austria was 37 years old and her husband had been ruling for 28 years). The obstacle had been one of taste rather than biological, given Louis XIII’s penchant for attractive men. Entirely by chance Louis XIII had found himself in his wife’s bedchamber during a particularly violent thunderstorm nine months earlier; he had lost his entourage in the Louvre and had a pronounced and irrational phobia of lightning leading to some unexpected marital intimacy. When his son reached his majority and ruled in his own right, he eschewed the wig as obsolete, preferring to show off his own locks. Male wig-wearing was derided as old-fashioned until one day in 1672 when Louis XIV appeared in public donning a wig. He had lost his hair because of illness and, inheriting his father’s vanity, decided to age disgracefully. The long-standing association of wigs with women, and often women of ill-repute -a blonde wig in Rome signified a prostitute- was abruptly reversed. Courtiers who had hitherto laughed at hairpieces had an immediate conversion and within a few days every noble at the Court was wearing a wig, no matter what the state of their natural locks.

Louis was a crafty creature. He knew that men would be obliged to follow the trend. At the same time, wearing a tall wig together with heels concealed the fact that he was 5′ 2″ tall, shorter than most of his contemporaries. He would go on to have an entire room devoted to wigs and would wear a short one while getting dressed before choosing an elaborate version for the day. What the ruler’s dress decision reveals more than anything is how fluid our notions of masculinity are, for the virile and vigorously heterosexual Louis XIV opted to put on clothes that would make Liberace blush.

The fad for wigs, which was long-lived -it was to last until the early nineteenth century until wig taxes put paid to it for good- filtered through to the clergy. Since clerics were obligated to wear a small tonsure in the crown of their hair, special clergy wigs were designed incorporating a fake coin-shaped bald spot on their crowns, usually in sheepskin, to emulate the tonsure. Some critics had a field day, including an apparently barmy priest on whom I’ve worked, called Jean-Baptiste Thiers. This eccentric ecclesiastic penned thirty books on positively marginal subjects such as monks’ beards, horse carriages, and the correct Latin pronunciation of the word for Holy Spirit. He turned his scholarly and pedantic eye towards wigs, producing a fat volume published in 1690 entitled L’Histoire des perruques in which he denounces the fashion in scathing, though not entirely humourless, terms. He expresses understanding at uninteresting men wanting to sport wigs to draw attention away from their mediocrity and red-headed men at wanting to hide their colour (noting that Judas was reputed to have red hair), but concludes that wigs are unnatural, decadent, and, most of all, unseemly for they are an effeminate accoutrement. As I argue in an article published in a French journal in 2008, here, all is not what it seems. Behind this obsessive and hilarious moral work is a more serious, and more subversive agenda. In a treatise in which the wig is roundly judged to be shameful and unmanly  and in whose pages wig-wearers are critiqued (such as the portly bishop Louis de La Rivière, notorious for both his wig and for leaving a massive bequest to his mistress), one name is conspicuous by its absence: Louis XIV. In criticizing the wig so vehemently and at such length, the man who spearheaded the trend is, by implication, also condemned since every reader knew who France’s most famous and devoted wig-wearer was.

What the wig fashion does demonstrate is the links between status and masculinity. While masculinity might be a difficult notion to define, it does seem very dependent on asserting itself. To be masculine, men often have to act masculine which in turn invariably involves the display of aggression. We only need to negotiate a four-way stop to see male competitiveness in action. While the word noble might denote altruistic values today, the nobility of the past earned their status through violence and the elimination of their enemies. Even the coat of arms, the sine non qua of aristocratic credentials, involves a shield and often incorporates bellicose motifs. Rather than act as a visible sign of superiority, coats of arms likely originated as battle standards enabling noble officers to have their troops rally round them, a pretty useful tool in the absence of uniforms and in conditions in which soldiers would get very messy indeed (the expressions to have guts or to be gutsy are derived from having someone’s guts for garters, that is to say to eviscerate or disembowel somebody).


Given such inauspicious origins, it is somewhat surprising that all Catholic bishops have their own coat of arms as a sign of their office. Ecclesiastical heraldry is a less exact and controlled science than mainstream heraldry, governed in the UK, for example, by the College of Arms, and it is a great pity that Father Guy Selvester no longer runs his blog in which he used to feature and comment on episcopal coats of arms. Fr. Selvester would take delight in critiquing coats of arms that were formulated by amateurs with no regard for rules, tradition, and sometimes even the rudimentary elements of design. Wikipedia has a sizeable page featuring papal coats of arms going back to 1198. Pope John Paul II had a unique design with a huge letter M emblazoned on his shield, standing for Maria, a sign of his deep-seated devotion to Our Lady. Having letters on coats of arms transgresses every rule in the heraldic book. When asked about this, the late Archbishop Bruno Heim, who was an internationally renowned expert in heraldry, tactfully replied that such usage was a Polish custom. It wasn’t. Rather than displaying an aristocratic pedigree, the pontiff preferred to customize the shield as he wanted, though ultimately this constitutes assertiveness, of sorts.


Today’s cufflinks are, to me, very masculine. At first, I thought that this was because they were chunky but I’ve come to decide that it is more because they evoke armour, a shield, or a coat of arms. They are crafted out of sterling silver by David Heston, a Californian designer based in San Rafael. I acquired them a couple of years ago, brand new, and they are ageing very beautifully with subtle oxidization giving a slightly matted appearance to the silver. What I really like about them is that, although they are masculine in their suggestion, their symmetrical form also hints at the feminine. Above all, the initial impression of assertion in this piece of jewellery gives way to an appealing vulnerability and, if it doesn’t sound ridiculous, this makes these links almost human.

Earning stripes

Fashion, by its very definition, is an ephemeral affair. Sartorial vogues come and go and costume historians can date historical periods sometimes to the month by what people in a painting or engraving are wearing. One item of fashion that has been surprisingly tenacious is the necktie. This completely redundant accessory owes its modern appearance to 1692. At the Battle of Steenkerque, French officers were subject to a surprise attack by the Dutch; not having time to dress, their neckerchiefs, the linen cloth wrapped around the neck and covered by the top of a jacket, were in disarray and were outside of their jackets. So willing were they to engage the enemy that these gentlemen went out to battle with their undergarments showing. Wanting to commemorate one of the few French military victories in history -it is the Germans and the British who are the true military peoples of Europe, the former because of the long obsession with unification and the latter because of the vulnerability of inhabiting an island- fashionable ladies in Paris took to wearing a scarf around their necks that became known as a sternquerque or steinkirk in English. The image below shows Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, the wonderfully gossipy Liselotte who was married to the monarch’s transvestite gay brother, wearing one, which was crossed around the neck. I find it interesting that the contemporary sign of solidarity with troops coincidentally borrows the same crossed ribbon shape.


For women, this was not only a question of flexing their patriotic credentials but also served a more practical function of covering up their plunging necklines when attending church or in the presence of ecclesiastics. Decreasing necklines had occupied many a moralistic sermon and Jean Polman, a priest and canon, published a book in 1635 in which, at some length and with a suspiciously high degree of interest in his topic, he likens the décolleté fad to a canker eating away at society and infecting it with the pus of  lubricious thoughts and lewd deeds. The association of beauty and the breast is a deep-seated one; the English word gorgeous is derived from the French term for bosom, gorge.

ImageMen feeling pressure in their turn to empathize with the King’s soldiers, began to emulate the display of the stock on the outside of their jackets, as above. In this way, the chance awakening of French officers in the Netherlands gave rise to the ancestor of the modern necktie, women’s scarves, and indirectly as a refusal, the white Roman collar worn by clergy who chose not to follow the trend. Judicial, academic, and ecclesiastical dress has always had little to do with pragmatism and much to do with a conservative refusal to adopt evolving tastes.

Unlike the necktie, most fashions seem dated very easily. I remember being very struck by the Jungle Room in Graceland, both for how ghastly this room appears and for how it could only be the product of the 1970s. Elvis Presley loved the furniture with which he decorated this space in 1974, though his father remarked -in the affectionately judgmental way of a parent- that it was filled with the ugliest items of furniture he had ever seen.

ImageOne element that anchors the room to the 1970s is the presence of stripes in the room. The 1970s saw many striped trends, usually non-uniform, zebra-type stripes. In terms of general fashion, stripes are a relative newcomer. It was Coco Chanel who reclaimed the Breton stripes of French sailors (and, it might be added, bathing costumes) to more widespread use in garments. Coco had the art of making simple concepts into effortlessly sophisticated ones and she resisted the traditional wisdom of fashion in appropriating a working-class feature for high fashion, rather than a style filtering down.

Coco is pictured above with her unique casual finesse. Some people exude grace from their very pores. Coco was such a person. Without her input, stripes would not be so integral a part of our clothing and interiors, for better or worse. Why the zebra-striped theme was to become popular in the early 1970s is somewhat mysterious, but my own pet theory is that the idea was sparked by the iconic album cover for the Beatles’ Abbey Road album which was released in September 1969.

The image is memorable, unusual, and permeated into collective minds.  Since an obscure battle resulted in the necktie and silk scarf, why should we ponder the unintended sartorial consequences of a record sleeve?

Today’s cufflinks are designed by the Finnish jeweller Karl Laine and bear his maker’s mark. They are made out of sterling silver with oxidized indentations forming stripes. Because they are made in Finland they have a date code of 1974, but even without this, it would have been possible to place them at around the same time that Elvis was embellishing his Jungle Room with striped furniture. Regular-striped patterns hail very much from the 1960s, but the following decade saw a more eccentric use of them. This pair was unused stock, so had never been worn until I first put them on. While these kind of tiger stripes did fall out of fashion, they are now held up as vintage chic, and so, once again, things come full circle.


Clams may not be the most glamorous of bivalves and lack the aphrodisiac connotations of oysters, yet a giant-clam shell is a very striking and recognizable object. In Greek mythology, it was one of the items associated with the goddess Aphrodite, since she was safely carried to shore in clam shell after being generated from Uranus’s castrated member coming into contact with the sea. I remember, many years ago, smelling the sea breeze at Paphos, before the cliff below which she traditionally landed ashore on the beautiful island of Cyprus. This iconic scene is most familiar to us from Botticelli’s painting of her birth and I regret that it wasn’t part of the spectacular exhibition of his work that I saw in Paris at the Luxembourg in 2003, though the equally impressive Primavera was a fine consolation.


The clam also features in a Polynesian creation myth involving the world being formed from the separation of the two halves. There is a quirky use of giant-clam shells in early modern architecture in that there was a vogue for using them as holy-water stoups at church entrances. The most striking example of their use, in my opinion, is to be found in the Parisian church of Saint-Sulpice (which also boasts the best Crib in all of Paris at Christmastide; it’s quite a tradition for mothers, even the most non-religious ones, to take their children on a church crawl to see some of the impressive and massive nativity scenes). These are real giant clam shells that were presented to King Francis I of France by the Republic of Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century, at a time when the creature was unknown in Europe. King Louis XV, perhaps having no use for them, donated them to the church in 1745 which commissioned Jean-Baptiste Pigalle to design their charming pillars (below).  This sculptor gave his name to the decidedly less spiritually salubrious Place Pigalle in the same city.


Clam shells became so synonymous with church fonts that a current term in French for giant clam is actually the same word for holy-water stoup: bénitier. This has also given rise to an expression where, once again, French has English beat. Where we might use the decidedly prosaic term Bible-basher, the French equivalent of an overly pious, holy-than-thou type is grenouille de bénitier, literally a holy-stoup frog. A person that spends so much time in church that they live in the stoup. Delicious.

Ritually washing yourself to symbolize purification is common to many religions and it is a metaphor that is direct and easy to grasp. Before a sung or High Mass on Sundays, the priest passes through the congregation and sprinkles holy water over them, and it is a pious tradition to cross oneself with holy water from the stoup – whether a clam or not – on entering a church, though it should never be done on leaving as this would shake off the penitential symbolism. Clams also feature in many fountain designs, particularly in southern Europe, though we often lose sight of the mollusk itself and focus on its shell.


The clam might seem an unlikely piece of ecclesiastical furniture, but I think it’s a particularly apt one. They are tenacious organisms that can be very beautiful and can also grow to up to 4 feet, in addition to possessing impressive longevity. They are reckoned to stand for secrecy or something that is being sublimated in dream interpretation, linked to the common English expression to clam up. Sylvia Plath has a haunting poem based on a dream entitled Dream with Clam-Diggers that picks up on its negative connotations. It’s not all bad press, however, as we also say happy as a clam though rarely add the second part, in high tide (since they would be hidden), which has been corrupted to happy as a lamb which in is turn has resulted in happy as Larry.


Today’s cufflinks have an unusual shape that suggests, to my mind at least, a giant-clam shell. In fact, I will post two pictures of them to show this form off best. It pleases me to see a positive use of the inimitable shell.


They were made by the long-established German jewellers Henkel & Grosse out of sterling silver and the pair has developed some really catching patina. They bear their distinct maker’s mark of G surmounted by a crown and, unusually for a non-Finnish company, this firm always dated its pieces, with this one being crafted in 1971. True clam glamour, one might say.

The destroyer of worlds

When I was growing up, in the midst of the Cold War, it not only seemed a possibility that there would be a nuclear conflict in my lifetime but it also appeared to be a morbid certainty. It is strange, looking back on the atomic-bomb-haunted teenager that I was, to have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet system and subsequently, a new enemy to Western civilization emerge since 2001. I have always been an adamant opponent of nuclear weapons. I do not think that there is any ethical framework or value system that can justify the mass obliteration of civilian populations, no matter what end is intended. Nuclear power is equally a dangerous tool, as demonstrated with the Fukushima disaster following the earthquakes that devastated Japan in 2011. Atomic capabilities did not always hold such equivocal possibilities, and the Atomic Age of the 1940s and 1950s seemed to herald a future in which this new potential would transform humankind for the better. This optimism is visually incarnated in the credits for the 1959 Disney film, Our Friend the Atom.


The death of such buoyant enthusiasm is often dated to major accidents such as Three Mile Island in 1979, but in reality the nuclear dream perished with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. During these two weeks, the leaders of the USA and the USSR brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war, a conflict which would, by its very nature, end all conflicts. Contemporaries felt as if such a terrible prospect was almost reached, and historians have been able to verify just how close our planet came to its own act of suicide.


The leaders, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro, do not come out of the situation with any probity. Not even Fidel himself, who far from being a pawn, vehemently pushed the Soviet Union to initiate a nuclear strike. Fortunately, there are two relatively unsung heroes from both ideological sides. Vasili Arkhipov was aboard a Russian submarine and refused to countenance a nuclear-headed torpedo strike on US ships, an act that would, without any doubt whatsoever, have precipitated a full-scale, authentic war. The decision needed the unanimous consent of all three senior Soviet officers, and the other two were strongly in favour of a strike, leading to a heated argument. Arkhipov would not back down, and but for this stubborn and courageous man, there might not have been a world after 1962. The other quiet hero is Pope John XXIII, pictured above. John XXIII was elected pope in 1958 and his robust frame contrasted sharply with the ascetic appearance of his predecessor, Pius XII. John loved good food, smoking, and had a wicked sense of humour. He was also a remarkable, gifted man who had the common touch and a deep love of his fellow creatures. Before meeting Jacqueline Kennedy, above, at the Vatican, he asked his aide how he should address the First Lady. He was told to call her Mrs. Kennedy or Madame. He repeated both over and over, trying to get the one that seemed most natural. When the doors were flung open and she was formally announced, the pontiff opened up his arms, and in a spontaneous and welcoming greeting that came from the heart though breached all official protocol, exclaimed “Jacqueline!”.

During the worse moments of the Crisis, he issued a public appeal, writing a letter and giving a radio address in his faultless French, which may be found here. Because he urged compromise in the cause of peace for humanity, it enabled the Soviet leader to back down with grace. The Romans well understood the absolute necessity to offer defeated enemies a means of saving face, and John XXIII engineered this to happen. The Pope had informal but direct contacts with both leaders, and his role was acknowledged by all the players. The import of this is enormous. What is striking is that John XXIII had received news that he was terminally ill just before the crisis took place, a revelation that did not diminish his concern for the planet he was to leave within a matter of months.


Another unlikely hero, and one who was a witness of the passage of the Atomic Age from potential to fear is Robert Oppenheimer, largely responsible for the creation of atomic weapons. When the first successful atomic bomb was tested, Oppenheimer’s reaction was poetic and prescient:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

I would urge you to take one minute to watch this brilliant, gentle man say these words in 1965, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and utter them with tears in his eyes, here. Oppenheimer had been publicly blacklisted by the anti-Communism committees of the 1950s under the odious Senator McCarthy who, while a Republican politician, was heavily bankrolled by the Kennedy family. It was finally proved from Soviet documentary evidence in 2009, that not only had Oppenheimer not been a security risk, but that he had consistently refused Soviet approaches to recruit him and he had also, without fuss or ostentation, removed any personnel from the atomic project who had any Communist leanings. He had been denounced by a jealous colleague. Great individuals are often felled by little ones, but their greatness remains impervious to the stain of pettiness and envy. While the sad affair of the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates the worst crevices of our dark nature, the acts of the two men above, a cleric and a commander, also demand that we never lose hope.


Today’s cufflinks evoke a hopeful period during the Atomic Age and evoke the atom itself. They are crafted by one of the greatest Mexican artists, Sigi Pineda, in 1955 and carry his cheerful and distinct maker’s mark of “Sigi”. Pineda used a purer grade of silver than sterling, 970 or 97% pure silver, which gives a different oxidization and patina over time with a slightly yellowish hue. These cufflinks are large (1.5″ from face bottom to face top) and quirky, evoking the Atomic Age theme of the 1950s yet off-kilter in their symmetry and count among the designer’s best work. Pineda’s piece of jewellery does not capture any sense of impeding world danger nor of the car accident which would end his designing career for several decades and, in this, there is a touching innocence to be found in them, with the benefit of hindsight.

Strigine symbolism

As an undergraduate I was fortunate enough to spend three years living in the same room in a university college with beautiful grounds (St Hild & St Bede, Durham) which was within a building on the edge of the countryside, not far from the remains of the Iron-Age fort of Maiden Castle. I used to find it consoling to hear the hoots of an owl that must have made its home in one of the trees a few yards from my top-floor window. There is something very special about this bird, something that makes it stand out from any other avian species. It is not only in its characteristic appearance -and each of the 200 odd varieties of owl are distinct, shown in the beautiful photographs below taken by Tim Flach- but also in the fact that it is nocturnal and has evolved to have silent flight enabling the fearsome predator to swoop down on its prey, catching it unawares.

ImageThe word we use for this bird of prey is also distinctive, for the owl belongs to a small category of animals whose call has onomatopoeically developed into its name. It is testimony to the bird’s singularity that this is the case in many languages, such as hibou in French. The Latin word, strix, does not cut the mustard and our current English term has many affinities with an older Indo-European word, being similar to Hebrew and Indian-language names. Somehow, owl-like is much more electrifying than strigine. For once, Latin, you come in second place.

It is not only in its name and physical attributes that the bird can claim a certain uniqueness, for its symbolism is equally unusual. Famously, the owl represents wisdom and was the emblem of the goddess Athena and of the city of Athens itself. This carries on today in the collective noun for the creature; a group of them is a parliament of owls. Rejecting this positive association, it was a portent of doom for the Romans; Julius Caesar and Augustus had their deaths indicated by daytime sightings of the animal. Christian strigine symbolism has inherited this mythological schizophrenia, for the bird has variously been held as an allegory of Christ, relentlessly seeking out lost souls in the darkness (of sin and error), or of Satan, being aligned with dark forces and cunning. In any case, it is not used often in Christian symbolism, though sometimes finds itself in Crucifixion scenes; it was more common in the Middle Ages as seen in 14th-century manuscript illumination below (Reims, MS 993, fol. 153r):


In popular folklore and superstition, the bird conjures up largely negative imagery, such as in Grimms’ tale The Owl, which relates how an owl is trapped in a barn and a “brave” villager goes in to tackle it only to flee in terror when he hears it hoot. The story ends with the barn being burnt down and the unfortunate bird being roasted (though not, presumably, eaten since it is one of the long list of fowl prohibited in Leviticus, along with cuckoos, gulls, and ostriches). There are some notable exceptions; Madame d’Aulnoy’s La Belle aux cheveux d’or turns the unlucky diurnal appearance on its head, as the adventurer in the tale, Avenant, releases an owl trapped in a net who later helps him, and reflects on humans’ inhumanity towards the vulnerable. Edward Lear provides the redemptive tale of an owl marrying a cat with the aid of a ring taken from a pig’s snout in the whimsical and surreal The Owl and the Pussycat. I always stay at his house in London, located in Marble Arch and now a hotel. Lear is one of those rare breed of people who look as they should look, and the image below does rather depict a fellow who would pen a poem about the mixed marriage between a bird and a feline, though at the same time definitely not someone to whom you would entrust money, children, or pets.


It has been suggested by some recent critics that the curious, alternate world he created in the self-styled nonsense verse expresses the feelings of alienation from Victorian society that he felt as a gay man, though the most powerful literary expression of similar sentiments has to be found in Hans Christian Andersen’s delightfully dark fairy tales, particularly The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. For my part, I think it’s about time to reclaim the owl and to reject its sinister reputation. It is not always a morbid bird as seen in the magnificently named Owl Nebula (M97), below.


The owl also featured consistently in designs produced during the Eames Era, in the mid-twentieth century, perhaps a trope for the movement mirroring the bird itself and finding something beautiful that was not universally accepted thus.


Today’s cufflinks date from the late 1960s and their abstract and brutalist shape suggests an owl to me. They are crafted by Gilles “Guy” Vidal, a Quebec artist who saw himself foremost as a pewtersmith; they are made out of his own formula of a very pure tin-based pewter plated with silver and bear his maker’s mark of GV within a check mark. Vidal is my favourite designer. I love all of the designs of his 44 known cufflinks and possess 15 of them. I think that I can best describe the attraction of his work with reference to the owl itself. It may not possess the evident beauty of the eagle or the sweet song of the nightingale, yet its mysterious nature endows it with a very special kind of draw.

Breaking the Fourth Wall . . .

I just wanted to thank you for reading the somewhat wander-happy thoughts that I put down in this blog. I have had over 1,000 hits in the past two weeks hailing from every continent. The cufflink-philosophy conceit of the blog, that is using cufflinks to meander here and there, developed organically but seems to work, at least for the moment. I am on sabbatical and miss teaching very much as it’s always an occasion in which to share thoughts and explore concepts. I’m always amazed at teaching a work for the tenth time and having read it sometimes a couple of dozen times, then having a student’s feedback that will suddenly breathe unexpected life back into it (and me) or reveal an angle that I’d never seen.

In short, if you’re here or have been: merci.

Regal flower

The fleur de lys is an extremely familiar symbol, beloved of interior designers and fashion designers, and is an almost universal motif. It also features on many flags such as that of Quebec. However, there is a much older religious imagery associated with this flower as it triune shape suggests the Trinity. Moreover, it is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary and many depictions of her portray her with a lily or the fleur de lys motif, the most famous of which is probably the Vierge de Paris statue that adorns Notre Dame Cathedral. The white lily, an emblem of purity, is also linked to her spouse, St Joseph, and the Archangel Gabriel who is traditionally depicted holding the flower at the Annunciation, as seen in the painting below by Philippe de Champaigne.


Unfortunately, this is a serious and historically constant case of mistaken identity for the fleur de lys has nothing to do with lilies. Think of Monet’s water lilies; do they really suggest the form of the fleur de lys, other than a close inspection of their stamens? The fleur de lys is, in reality, an iris, the species iris pseudacorus to be precise, a yellow beauty of a flower that favours waterside and wetland conditions and grows alongside rivers, streams, and ponds. The image below amply demonstrates that this flower is the fleur de lys rather than the less glamorous water lily. According to an eighteenth-century naturalist, Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages, the confusion arose from the lys actually referring to the river Lis rather than the floral homonym.


The fleur de lys probably evokes France for most people. It is a thoroughly Gallic image and yet there is a paradox here since this French association is grounded in the monarchy. It was the mark of the French Crown being used in coronation regalia, the national flag, and on public buildings. It is perhaps because it was so ubiquitous that it has survived several revolutions ousting several monarchies in France. It is not only French royalty that employed this shape but also many other national dynasties adopted it as part of their coats of arms, dress, or jewels. It adorns all royal crowns in the United Kingdom, as seen on the Imperial State Crown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at the State Opening of Parliament in May of this year.


This all begs the question of why the flower is so tied up with the display of royal power and in pageantry. The sacralization of European sovereigns in the Middle Ages does go some way to explain the borrowing of what had hitherto been a flower with sacred connotations, as does perhaps its golden hue. However, there is a problem here: the flower is not especially rare and not particularly uncommon, growing abundantly in the wild. The image below was taken by myself in May of this year on the campus at the University of Kansas and shows some of these irises next to Potter’s Lake (incidentally, the imposing building at the top of the picture is the Spencer Research Library – a purpose-built research library), not far from where I work.


So, why did this common plant find itself elevated to the adornment of crowns? If I were a cynical sort, I would suggest that it is because the iris pseudacorus is an invasive flower. It establishes itself at the expense of other plants and is very difficult to uproot, supplanting other organisms in the process. All royal claims ultimately boil down to usurpation or conquest, so this is, despite appearance and a case of mistaken identity, a very apt royal symbol after all.

The fleur de lys was also the focus of one of the strangest episodes in French history, when a man turned down the French throne over the matter of a flag. After the collapse of the Second Empire, French royalists became a majority in the National Assembly in 1871, for the first time. The problem was that they were deeply divided in the way that only French factions could be, between supporters of the comte de Paris, the Orléaniste claimant who was a descendant of Louis XIV’s cross-dressing brother Philippe and followers of the légitimiste comte de Chambord, who was a direct descendant of Louis XIV. A perfect compromise was found, however, that miraculously united these two inimical groups: the comte de Chambord was aged in his 50s and childless. He would rule as Henri V until he died, then the crown would pass on to the comte de Paris. It seemed like a flawless plan. Except that the comte de Chambord dictated that he would only consider becoming king if the Tricolore flag, an emblem of republican values, was abolished before he was appointed. He wanted the traditional royal flag embellished with the fleur de lys, below, as the sole national French flag. Negotiations attempted to persuade him to accept a concession whereby the royal flag would be the fleur de lys standard and the national one the Tricolore, but Henri would not have it and France’s chance of returning to a monarchy was lost forever, with the exception of a brief prospect of a restoration of the monarchy during the disastrous Fourth Republic of the 1950s, a possibility satirized in the positively brilliant novel by John Steinbeck, The Short Reign of Pippin IV.

He issued a declaration to the French people on 5 July, 1871, ending with the rousing motto: “Henri V ne peut abandonner le drapeau blanc d’Henri IV” – Henri V cannot abandon the white flag of Henri IV.  He gave up the throne over a flag. A nineteenth-century historian friend has suggested that there may be more than meets the eye to this story of stubborness and political loss and that Henri had evidence that his mother had had an affair of which he was a product. As a devout Catholic he could not take a throne that he knew did not belong to him by right and he therefore concocted a stance over the flag to avoid becoming monarch. We will most likely never know the truth but it is a powerful example of the draw of the fleur de lys.


Today’s cufflinks are made out of sterling silver and fired blue enamel by Kai Zaunick, a German designer based in Lima, Peru, and they bear his maker’s mark and symbol.  The clear blue enamel is beautifully intense, complementing the locally sourced silver in a fetching way, also making for an attractive background to the fleur de lys adorning the faces. The iris is my favourite flower as there is something captivating about its fragile form, so the fact that the fleur de lys refers to the iris rather than the lily is, to me at least, a happy case of mistaken identity.

Maze meanderings

It is by no means definitive, but there are some who adamantly distinguish between a maze and a labyrinth; these are evidently people with too much time on their hands, those refractory types who delight in inflicting grammatical misery on others. The distinction they make is, however, not without interest: a maze offers choices, alternate and wrong routes that are dead ends; a labyrinth has a path that goes directly to the centre or an exit. It is easy to see why both have been richly mined as metaphors for the human condition, with a maze representing a conundrum that must be solved, thus the Moral Maze, a long-running programme on BBC Radio 4 that deals with ethical conflicts in specific cases. The labyrinth, on the other hand, with its inevitability, can symbolize a more pessimistic outlook on the course of time.


There is an historical interchangeability between the two terms, best demonstrated in what is probably the most famous example of either: the labyrinth that was found under the palace of Minos and which was inhabited by the Minotaur. This had been constructed to house the mutant monster which lurked at its focal point awaiting sacrificial victims. The myth serves as a powerful representation of love and passion for the Minotaur is the physical result of the queen, Pasiphae, having mated with a prize bull, the consequence of a curse but also a potent emblem of the bestial grip of lust that can shed us of our humanity and reduce us to being enslaved by our animalistic undercurrent. Ariadne, a royal princess and half-sister of the half-man/half-beast, falls in love with one of the intended victims to be fed to her half-sibling, Theseus, and enables him to escape by means of a red thread indicating the route, the “clue” or solution to the elaborate edifice. Love moves her to betray and Theseus will choose her sister, Phedra, over her and simply abandon Ariadne on Naxos. All in all, love has a very bad rap in Greek mythology.

The architect of the labyrinth was also the designer of the machine that Pasiphae demanded be constructed to enable her to engage in carnal relations with the bull, a taurine fornication device, namely Daedalus. This poor man, as might be expected, had had his fill of his rather demanding hostage-taker and put his creative side to good use by inventing wings to enable him and his son, Icarus (yet another lesson will occur with this lad; Greek myths are richer than Bill Gates), to fly away, literally and figuratively, from the turbulent world in which they had been caught up. French borrows his name for its term for maze, which is un dédale, or a daedalus. This delicious mythological allusion is almost trumped by the English word amazement which has the same root as maze. When we are amazed, we are as if placed in a maze and stand stupefied and puzzled at which way to go. As shown by these two examples, sometimes etymology flirts with us.


A very different allegorical use may be seen in the Middle Ages with some labyrinths being found in churches, the most famous example of which is the 43-feet wide labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, dating from the thirteenth century (above). The exact function of such constructions is debated, but the symbolism is clear, representing either the Christian’s struggle in this life or the pilgrim’s path towards Jerusalem -a pilgrim’s progress-, a trope for the soul journeying towards the celestial Jerusalem: Heaven. The labyrinth is striking and, in its way, beautiful. Unfortunately one of France’s other famous labyrinths, located in the gardens of Versailles, was destroyed in the late eighteenth century and so no longer exists.


This was not simply a hedged pathway such as to be found at Hampton Court, impressive though that is, but was also filled with points with sculptures depicting Aesop’s Fables, so walking along the labyrinth was intended to be an educational and cultural experience. The labyrinth also served a less noble and salubrious function in being a conveniently hidden location for nocturnal rendez-vous. This same site, albeit the remnants of the labyrinth, featured prominently in one of the most bizarre episodes in French history, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. An enormously expensive necklace had been commissioned by King Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry. It took so many years to accrue enough large diamonds that, by the time it was completed, the monarch was dead and his lover had been exiled from Versailles. The jewellers, desperate to get some money back on their extraordinarily expensive investment, offered to sell it to the new queen, Marie Antoinette, who wanted nothing to do with it as she had detested the former royal favourite. It took a royal command from Louis XV to force her to address Madame du Barry in public after years of ignoring and spurning her. The sentence that satisfied the monarch and stunned courtiers used to Marie Antoinette’s refusal to recognize the existence of the mistress was a perfectly pedestrian one: “Il y a bien du monde aujourd’hui à Versailles ” – There are a lot of people at Versailles today. History is littered with examples of such banal talk that has changed the course of nations’ destinies.


To cut a long, fascinating story short, an ecclesiastic who had disgraced himself because of his indiscreet, gossipy criticism of the new Queen (Marie Antoinette), and who hailed from a long line of politicians and prelates, Cardinal du Rohan (above), harboured political ambitions which led him to become the unwitting pawn in a complex fraud. He was the ideal stooge; ambitious but stupid. A group of fraudsters made contact with him purporting to be the Queen and arranged a secret meeting. The cleric met a woman who closely resembled the Queen one sultry August night in 1784 at the site of the labyrinth at Versailles, a former prostitute, who told him she very much wanted the necklace. When he spent a fortune obtaining it, the real Queen refused it and he found himself promptly arrested and brought to trial. He ended up being acquitted and Marie Antoinette, one of the most unfairly maligned people in the annals of human history, was nonetheless blamed and implicated in the affair, with many believing that she engineered the ruse itself in order to come into possession of the jewels. The ramifications of this episode were far-reaching; this helped to seal the fate of the Ancien Régime and led to the French Revolution.

Whether a maze or a labyrinth, this concept occupies a visible place in our culture and has haunted artists (such as Picasso), writers (Umberto Eco, notably), and both pagan and Christian iconography. It is no accident that James Joyce names his hero and alter ego Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for, like the eponymous mythological figure, Stephen Dedalus/Joyce negotiates and flees the labyrinthine world of Irish politics and religion.


Today’s cufflinks are made from 835 grade silver and bear the maker’s mark of HM, namely Henning Munnecke, a Danish silversmith who was active from 1953 to 1973. The abstract rendition of a labyrinth-type theme suggests they date from the mid to late 1960s. The wonderful oxidization highlights the interior of the faces very pleasingly and this piece is an effective visual example of why not all older silver jewellery benefits from polishing. While not a common motif on jewellery, it is, nonetheless, a powerful emblem of our life’s progress, even the days on which we cannot see which route to take or where we are headed.


One of the things I loved about moving to the USA, almost nine years ago, was the uniform way in which most towns are planned. Having a carefully mapped-out block pattern in the shape of a grid still strikes me as exotic and, while Second Street or Thirty-Second Avenue might not resonate to North-American ears, to me they scream out New World. What I didn’t know then and was surprised to discover, is that urban grid-plan layouts hail back to the Romans, and this very modern concept is, after all, an old idea.


Los Angeles at night, courtesy of idle time software, Flickr

The grid plan of urban planners is logical, convenient, and makes travelling easier for pedestrians and drivers alike, at least, in principle; cyclists might disagree with this judgement. I enjoy thinking of distance in cities in terms of blocks rather than being measured by minutes or in metres. While modern cities might not possess the centuries-old stubborn charm of medieval towns, there is a certain brutal beauty to be found in the lights and heights of our contemporary urban centres.


In 1925, Le Corbusier proposed razing the Marais area of Paris to the ground and replacing it with a grid system of tower blocks (the design for which is shown below). The Plan Voisin was formulated over three years and for some people, this project stands as a metaphor for soulless architecture. While the Marais district -Marais is French for Marsh and the name has tenaciously lingered over the centuries even though it was drained almost eight centuries ago- is today a byword for sophistication and is littered with restored seventeenth-century buildings, it was in a radically different state in 1925, being mostly squalid and made up of dilapidated slum dwellings.


Thanks to urban planning, the grid has become synonymous with progress and technology in the public imagination, an association that has been consolidated with the advent of computers. Circuit boards and networks suggest grids and it is no accident that the first effective laptop computer was called the Grid Compass.

It is difficult to assess the extent to which computers have affected human society during the past three decades and only future generations will possess the hindsight that comes with the necessary distance to do so. It has been a revolution of sorts which has had far-reaching impacts on every area of our lives and yet, computers -or more specifically the Internet- have not radically changed our mindset in the way that the invention of the printing press did in the fifteenth century (spawning or invigorating the Renaissance, Humanism, and the Reformation) or the industrial revolution (which ultimately transformed the make-up of society). With an eye to the past, I can see many affinities with the development of a postal network in the early modern period allowing efficient and frequent communication between individuals of different nations, religions, and ideologies. This led to the creation of the concept of the Republic of Letters, a radical notion of intellectuals belonging to a society that knew no barriers. It did not take long for the spying of correspondence to become routine, much as might be observed of our current electronic version of the Republic of Letters.

Technological developments caused a major crisis for science fiction during the 1980s and 1990s, for the information explosion had simply not been predicted -at least not in its extent and form- by writers and directors. It is a brutal letdown, for example, to read in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation series, that the Second Foundation’s location is discovered by a character, Mis, visiting the Great Library of Tranton and spending time researching among its holdings of books, even though these events are many centuries in the future. The genre was helped out of temporary disarray by Cyperpunk as well as writers tackling the potential negative downsides to the changes. It would be computers rather than robots who would turn on their human masters, something already foreseen in 1968 by Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the brilliant creation of Hal, a dysfunctional, disobedient, and dangerous computing system. As technology has advanced during the recent years, it seems that our optimism for the future has also decreased in equal measure.


Today’s cufflinks are designed by Else and Paul Hughes, a married couple (she was Norwegian and he was English) who founded their Else & Paul Studio in Hadelund, Norway, in 1959. They are made out of sterling silver which has aged wonderfully to give a slightly yellowish silver matte surface. These probably date from the late 1960s. I’ve seen a couple of other patterns by the pair that involve the same theme of interconnectivity and intersection, which leads me to believe that Else and Paul tended towards a positive outlook for the future. After all, the grid’s most noble use is in conceiving the layout of the universe.

Gentle brutality

Tundra is a short, sharp word with the final A giving it the hint of the exotic in English (words that are generally of Latin or Italian origins such as barista or pasta). This term, however, comes to the language from the Lappish word tundar meaning elevated wasteland. The tundra areas are spread across the northern reaches of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Russia, all of Iceland, and parts of Greenland. These regions have a consistently cold climate and a short growing season, and the plants that have adapted to survive there are low-lying and not tall at all.


Tundra in Greenland

For all of the harshness, barren climes, and wilderness associated with these parts of the world, both the term itself as well as what it denotes are not without their charm. There is something admirable, something we instinctively respect about natural things that survive the extremes of cold and geographical remoteness of these places. The tundra stands as a permanent reminder that there is something rather special about this world of ours and about nature, but also serves to underscore the fact that nature can be inherently savage and that we can find ourselves pitted against it.


A menacing nature is very much the focus of Arthur Rimbaud’s three-part poem, Ophélie, which he wrote when he was aged only 15 years old. He took his inspiration from Millais’s painting of Ophelia about to drown, a copy of which was in his school library. It is interesting that, during the nineteenth century, attention began to be given to the character of Ophelia rather than the eponymous prince in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, particularly among artists. What Rimbaud does with this figure is mesmerizing. He sees her in a timeless and eternal state of death, a sort of perpetual suspended animation, and portrays her as having been lured to die by nature itself, the fifth and sixth stanzas explaining why she allowed herself to drift into drowning while gathering flowers by the river:

O pâle Ophélia ! belle comme la neige !
Oui tu mourus, enfant, par un fleuve emporté !
C’est que les vents tombant des grand monts de Norwège
T’avaient parlé tout bas de l’âpre liberté ;

C’est qu’un souffle, tordant ta grande chevelure,
À ton esprit rêveur portait d’étranges bruits,
Que ton coeur écoutait le chant de la Nature
Dans les plaintes de l’arbre et les soupirs des nuits ;

O pale Ophelia! beautiful as snow!
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river!
– It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.

It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights;

[original here; adept English translation here]

Nature, then, does not protect but rather smothers Ophelia and it is a calling of nature, a sinister, siren enticement, that beckoned her to leave this world; though not to destruction but rather to peace, of sorts. What Rimbaud depicts is Mother Nature as suffering from a kind of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, and the allusion to white and snow evokes the evil stepmother of Grimm’s Snow White. The third and final part of the poem is composed of one stanza, in which Rimbaud defiantly places himself on par with Shakespeare as someone who can carve being out of nothing, in fleshing out and creating life to a non-existent character and making them deeply authentic and alive to us.


Rimbaud was a poetic genius, writing a corpus of poems between the ages of 15 and 19 years old that radically altered the course of poetry. He was also a thoroughly contemptible and despicable human being, capable of acts of great unkindness and spite. The older, more established, and heterosexual poet Paul Verlaine, fell completely under this beautiful young man’s spell when the latter sent him some of his poems, including Ophélie, when he was aged 17, falling in love with the brilliance of the teenager. Verlaine immediately summoned him to Paris, promptly abandoned his wife and children, and thereafter led a nomadic and largely unhappy existence with the younger man until one day, while drunk on absinthe, he tried to shoot Rimbaud in the head and only succeeded in injuring his wrist. He was imprisoned for this act of violence -denounced by the neighbours who had had their fill of drunken bickering-, had a profound conversion to Catholicism while incarcerated, and on leaving his cell after two years, parted ways definitively with Rimbaud when the youth tried to make Verlaine blaspheme, unsuccessfully. Verlaine ensured that Rimbaud’s works were later published and always acknowledged his artistic and personal debt to Arthur. The raw, tempestuous, and above all, savage, beauty of Rimbaud’s body and soul inspired Verlaine and led him to religious belief, paradoxically, because it taught him more than anything ever could or would have done about the fragile and deep-rooted flaw that burdens human nature: in the words of Hamlet, our “too sullied flesh”.


Today’s cufflinks are designed by the Norwegian jewellers Frank and Regine Juhls in the mid-1960s. They were a married couple who worked, harmoniously, together. They are made out of sterling silver and are part of their Tundra series of jewellery, a very organic and gently brutalist range (the brooches in particular are outrageously beautiful). It is very interesting that the couple chose to craft a range of jewellery by this name during the socially turbulent decade of the 1960s, and I think they capture perfectly the sense that, despite everything, nature has a way of winning in the end.