Crux of the matter

No symbol is quite as universally recognized as the cross. Whether it is in art, churches, jewellery, or decoration, it is a part of our world, whether we are religious or no. It is a peculiar thing that a Roman method of a torturous death has become a ubiquitous emblem representing hope, strength, oppression, suffering, or resistance, all very disparate yet sometimes closely related concepts. I remember vividly the first time I went inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and seeing the carved crosses leading down to the original parts of the building, all dating from 1099 when the crusaders reached and captured Jerusalem, each cross standing for an individual crusader (below). The massacre that was carried out by those men, those very same men who created these crosses, has had centuries of repercussions. Even today, Hebrew uses ﬩ instead of + as its mathematical and grammatical plus sign, to avoid the controversial connotations of the cross.

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The crucifixion has been a favourite subject for artists for centuries, related to the church commissions that rewarded painters but also because of the challenge of representing humanity in the midst of barbarism, of triumph in a scene of desperation, of love amidst hatred. Many years ago I went to confession in Westminster Cathedral in London, where there is a priest hearing confessions throughout the day, every day, in a busy church located in a bustling city. I made my matter-of-fact account of my banal sins and following absolution, just as I was about to get up and leave, the cleric caught me unawares with a parting remark that reduced me to tears: “Go in peace, now. You might think that you’ve come here to this little corner of a church in London, but what you are doing is kneeling at that timeless scene before the Cross at Calvary, receiving that same forgiveness earned there two thousand years ago”.

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My personal favourite artistic representation of the Crucifixion is not medieval or baroque, but rather from the mid-twentieth century, above, the Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí. The work was executed in 1951 and is based, very loosely, on a sketch by the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross, thus the name. Dalí’s painting is very bold since it rejects the traditional perspective of the Cross, usually seen from below or in its direct face, as well as omitting the gore and blood that is customary, perhaps integral, to this topic. What the artist does is offer a phenomenal fresh representation of a very old icon. He endows the scene with a timelessness – Christ is above the first-century Sea of Galilee yet seems to transcend all ages- in addition to a cosmic aspect. This, as Dalí admitted, was linked to the advent of the Atomic Age and the dreadful possibilities it brought to humankind, now crucified by the Cold War.  For me, the most striking component to the painting is the fact that the central figure’s face is hidden. We put a face on Jesus in those we reject, ignore, and hate, for it is our personal tragedy that we are often more the soldiers in that scene than the protagonist.

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Dalí returned to the Cross three years later, with a 1954 work known as the Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus). The same preoccupations are present in this painting. It really is an extraordinary image, with his wife having been the model for the solitary figure of Mary Magdalene, making the theme of redemption explicit, a notable absence from the 1951 version. The unorthodox and decidedly brazen heterodox shape of the cross is, I think, a very affectionate and respectful homage to the universal iconography of the cross. What stands out most for me is the chessboard underneath, and here Dalí suggests the very ancient metaphor of life being a chess game in which we always lose. Is it a coincidence that Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal was released only three years later, being one of the greatest movies by one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century, concerning the chess game between a knight and Death, who, of course, cheats, as he always cheats everyone out of their very lives?

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Today’s cufflinks evoke the theme of the cross. They are made out of sterling silver and bear no maker’s mark, though they look very much like German studio work of the early 1970s, with very attractive sculpted grooves, enhanced by oxidization.  They really are both attractive and simple. While the cross represents many things to different people, some positive and some negative, I would like to cling to the outrageousness of the cross with its deeply shocking message of hope, despite everything and, more crucially, in spite of everyone. Happy Easter!

The deception of perfection

One of the great pleasures of my life lies in teaching some astonishing works of literature. I make it a point to re-read every work I teach for each class, meaning I’ve read some pieces a couple of dozen times over the years. There is one work that never fails to bring some new insight or pause on each fresh reading: the Princesse de Clèves, published in 1678 and generally regarded as the first real psychological novel. The story of a young sixteenth-century aristocrat who is married off to someone she doesn’t love -the norm in early modern Europe until relatively recently- she falls in love with the court’s proverbial bad boy, a general rake but the most handsome and alluring man of his peers, the Duc de Nemours. Despite her passion for Nemours, she resists succumbing to temptation even when, following her husband’s death (admittedly he dies of a broken heart, convinced she has been unfaithful to him), she is free to marry him.

The tragedy of her situation is a common one, perhaps explaining the novel’s popularity. Her husband is a virtuous, lovely man, yet she does not and cannot force herself to love him. Nemours, on the other hand, is utterly unworthy of her. In a pivotal scene at the novel’s end when she has a final meeting with Nemours, a heart to heart in which she resolutely and definitively rejects him then cuts herself off from the world, she thanks him for having entered her life. Notwithstanding his baseness, his morally ambiguous actions, and his shady past, it all does not matter, for, without their having met each other, she explains, she would have never known love, that package deal that brings out the most selfless -and, sadly, selfish- crevices of our beings. In her last few words before she leaves, never to see him again, she says: “Ayez cependant le plaisir de vous être fait aimer d’une personne qui n’aurait rien aimé, si elle ne vous avait jamais vu ; croyez que les sentiments que j’ai pour vous seront éternels, et qu’ils subsisteront également, quoi que je fasse.” [“Know, however, that you have the comfort of being loved by someone who would have loved no one or nothing if she had never set eyes on you; you must know that the feelings I have for you are eternal ones, and they shall endure no matter what happens in my life” – my loose translation]. It is a passage that I am incapable of discussing without tearing up. This story is made all the more poignant by the fact that its author, Madame de La Fayette -a distant ancestor of the general who fought for American independence a century later- penned it with the assistance of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, a poet with whom she almost certainly was in love and a man who wasn’t her husband.

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A striking episode in the story occurs when the princess, who has recently married, first meets Nemours. It is at a ball to celebrate a royal engagement and Nemours returns after an absence from the court, so the princess has never met him, though the preceding pages have built up his reputation both to her and to the reader. There is a commotion on his arrival with people greeting him, the volume of which rises above the music. Their eyes meet. To get to her, he has to climb over some chairs, a very delicious metaphor for the barriers which will always impede the consummation of their love. They find themselves in front of each other and they immediately dance. They dance so well together, they dance so elegantly, that there is a murmur among the crowd of people expressing their admiration and, no doubt, jealousy as only a beautifully matched couple can inspire. The astonishing thing about this dance is that it is public. In baroque dancing, only one couple dances in the centre of the other spectators at one time, the central couple rotating every so often. The other striking element to this physicality between the two is that they have never met nor been formally introduced, a grave breach of the court’s social code of etiquette. This magical account of the very first meeting of the couple, the manifestation of love at first sight, is the ball scene that has inspired every subsequent ball scene in western literature, be it in fairy tales, novels, or film.

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I’ve always endeavoured to incorporate art, film, and music into my literature classes, to provide a broader snapshot of genres and periods, and there is one particular dance that I talk about and show in connection to the first extraordinary dance of the princess and Nemours. It is the landmark 1962 production of the 1841 ballet Giselle with Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev playing the two leads. Nureyev (1938-1993) was twenty-three years old and had recently defected from the Soviet Union. He was one of the most accomplished dancers of the twentieth century, with a stage presence that exuded a monumental talent. He was also equipped with an absolutely remarkable feline beauty, as seen in the painting above. Dame Margot (1919-1991) was almost twice his age, making it a very unlikely pairing. She was considered to be at the very tail end of her career and about to retire from professional dancing. Endowed with incredible grace and poise, Fonteyn was, and still is, considered to be one of the greatest classical dancers of all time. She was also the chancellor of my alma mater, Durham University, during the last years of her life.

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Giselle is an arch-romantic Romantic tale about a prince, Albrecht (played by Nureyev), who disguises himself as a peasant in order to court the eponymous Giselle. She dies of a broken heart when she discovers he is a noble and already betrothed. He goes to her grave to mourn and while female spirits try to punish him by cursing him to dance himself to death, the strength of Giselle’s love metaphorically and literally saves him from this fate. It is a particular favourite among dancers, since it is a meta-homage to dance, though the 1962 production brought two unlikely characters together to play these roles. Fonteyn had first played the role before Nureyev was born. And then something happened at that first performance and at every subsequent production in which the pair danced together. We are extremely fortunate to have a recording of one of the early 1962 performances of Giselle since the BBC filmed it. There is a clip here, and please go to 2’00 onwards to see the harmony of two superb artists dancing together as one. It is staggering to behold and one critic at that first performance recalls the total silence of the audience during the performance, the utter awe in front of beholding artistic perfection on stage. The silence was broken by uproarious applause after the curtains went down and there were twenty-seven encores lasting for over forty minutes, during which Nureyev fell to his knees in a spontaneous gesture of respect to the partner who had generated this electrifying performance from him. Dame Ninette de Valois describes the two dancers coming together: “Emotionally, technically, physically, in every way, they were just meant to meet on this earth and dance together. The ideal partnership.” Despite the differences in age, culture, and sexuality (Nureyev was gay), they had an intimate and enduring emotional and professional relationship, one which began with the surprising and palpable chemistry that existed between them.

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At the same time, there is a certain melancholy to be had in seeing the best possible achievement of a work of art or a sporting feat, since we also possess the knowledge that this is a peak that cannot be bettered. This is the price of perfection, but, like love, it is a price that costs much and is worth paying. There are, in fact, relatively few performances that are unequivocally benchmark ones. An example that stands out in the theatre would be Dame Edith Evans’s role as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, first on the stage then in the 1952 film version, a clip of her role to be found here. Dame Edith’s magisterial, shrill utterance of the line “A handbag?”, a four-second clip of which is here. Inevitably, every performance of the play is compared with the definitive mid-century one and these two words are so associated with Dame Edith’s interpretation of them that Patricia Routledge resorted to mouthing the exclamation in a 2001 stage production, to preempt any unfavourable comparisons.

Personally, I don’t believe that our encounters with perfection are necessarily maudlin. They can fill us with a sense of what humans can achieve and, in this, represent a glimpse of the divine. In many ways, our glimpses of perfection reminds me of the great Greek poet C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “The Mirror in the Front Hall”:

The luxurious house had a huge mirror
in the front hall, a very old mirror,
bought at least eighty years ago.

A very handsome boy, a tailor’s assistant
(on Sundays an amateur athlete),
stood there with a package. He gave it
to one of the household who took it in
to get the receipt. The tailor’s assistant
was left alone, waiting there.
He went up to the mirror, looked at himself,
and adjusted his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt. He took it and went away.

But the old mirror that had seen so much
during a life of many years—
thousands of objects and faces—
the old mirror was all joy now,
proud to have embraced
total beauty for a few moments.

Perfection is perhaps not as uncommon as we’d like to believe. We all have the quest for perfection, the sheer yearning for it. It is visceral and we cry out for it because our tainted nature demands nothing less.

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Today’s cufflinks are of two dolphins entwined as one. Delphine symbolism is one of the most evident; these amazing creatures symbolize harmony and accord. They are hypnotic animals to watch in the wild, swimming and jumping together in uncanny synchronization, and having a playful curiosity towards human commerce. This particular pair is made out of gilded brass and dates from the late 1970s, being made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from an art-nouveau design. They’re incredibly striking links and were inspired as a purchase by my partner, with whom I have danced as one since our very first, unlikely, meeting.

Comma knowledge

At the age of 10 years old, I spent a solemn few days at school exchanging a pencil for a pen. This was a threshold, a write of passage -sorry- as it were, for it felt as though we were transitioning from children into something greater, a kind of participation in the adult world of permanency and real script. We were provided with fountain pens and taught how to hold them, how to change the cartridges, and, above all, to appreciate the feel of the tool and what it could do. Fountain pens were viewed as old-fashioned even then and I’m sure my school was one of the last bastions holding out against the barbarism of the ballpoint, itself to fall prey to the printer. However, I’ve never lost the sheer sensual experience of using a fountain pen and my first was very similar to the image below. It is not for nothing that writing has been compared to an act of love-making whose procreation results in a new life, with a destiny of its own, and the erotic suggestion of the phallic pen spilling its ink on the blank page (page vierge or virginal page in French) is obvious. Yet it is also a relationship that seems rooted firmly and definitively in the past.

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I was reflecting earlier that the only time that I ever use a pen these days is to sign a debit-card slip, and then only in the US. This makes me a little sad but at the same time increases my respect for this writing implement. If a fountain pen is used properly, it will feel as if part of the hand and allow for graceful -and, more importantly, natural- movements. A ballpoint pen is a utilitarian thing, possessing neither grace nor pedigree, with its whole existence being based on ease, like a carpet slipper or a cupholder. People often complain that ebooks will never replicate paper books, but they are making the wrong argument; the truly tragic loss is not the medium in which we read but rather the method in which we write. Being a Catholic, hypocrisy and guilt come easier to me than most, and I am certainly not blameless when it comes to penmanship. All of my classes have been paperless for the past four years (assignments, handouts, exams), but at times I pause and feel the sense of loss of the connection with paper and ink, which is really a connection with nature. The indelible character of ink means that you have to think out your ideas instead of shooting off e-mails in the throes of pettiness and while we might mishandle our electronic devices, a careless attitude to a fountain pen will result in ink on our clothes and skin, or a broken nib. I always liked the counsel of never letting anyone use your personal fountain pen as the nib had become accustomed to the precise manual pressure of your dominant hand. The pen demands fidelity from its custodian, and nothing less than this.

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One of the most straightforward marks to make with a fountain pen is the comma. And let it be said that it is surely the most pleasing of all punctuation, with its attractive curve tailing off as well as its function of marking a pause, of allowing us to catch our breath, to ponder, and to have a little moment in the midst of the clamour of grammar. Punctuation seems to bring out the best and the worst of it and while its primary function is to enable us to use a written system of communication, I secretly though strongly suspect that it was devised by a cabal of pedants for the sole purpose of inflicting correction and misery on the rest of us. Pedants are an annoying breed and are more numerous than we’d like to believe, for it is a sad fact that there is a pedant hiding inside all of us, awaiting her or his moment of liberation. As well as being the most attractive punctuation mark, the comma is the most common. Its use might seem to be uncomplicated, but as a journal editor I can assure you that this is not always the case. I insist on the use of the Oxford comma from my contributors only for consistency’s sake, since it can eliminate ambiguity. The most striking example of where this would be so comes from the Times, which summarized a documentary about Sir Peter Ustinov with the judgement that “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”. The lack of a final comma after “demigod” leaves the impression that Mr Mandela is eight centuries old and has an unusual hobby. Things are never easy with grammar, however, and there are also occasions on which employing the serial comma will create ambiguity, such as “I wrote to the bishop, John Smith, and the pastor”. This could imply that the prelate was named John Smith, so omitting the comma altogether would eliminate the ambivalence. The most readable book in this area has to be Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Approach to Punctuation, whose author goes out equipped with a marker pen to write in missing apostrophes on street and store signs. I think the award for punniest title must go to M. B. Parkes’s surprisingly enjoyable Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West.

ImageNow none of this is riveting or of any great consequence for decent people living in normal society, except that sometimes punctuation can have very serious results. The photograph above is of Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916) who was executed for treason by the British during the unjust occupation of Ireland, a man who was popularly said to have been “hanged on a comma”. The Irish-born Casement was a nationalist though worked for the British government as consul, being knighted for his services. He was implicated in the Easter Rising though the charges related to a period during which he had been in Germany. The wording of the Treason Act of 1351 was that treason was committed “if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere”. The state successfully argued that the comma before “or elsewhere” meant that it could apply to the first part of the sentence rather than simply the aiding and comforting of the King’s enemies, and therefore Casement could have committed treason outside of British soil. The presence of the comma allowed for this grey area to be argued to the point where it cost Casement his life, though he was finally given a state funeral five decades later in 1965, metamorphosing from betrayer to national hero. Nowhere is punctuation seen to be as deadly as in the academy and in the law. Casement’s fellow countryman Oscar Wilde had a more casual relationship with the point. When asked what he had been toiling on, Wilde replied “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma”. When queried about what he had been occupied with during the afternoon, he answered “In the afternoon – well, I put it back again”.

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My favourite occurrence of the comma has nothing to do with punctuation but rather is to be found with the comma butterfly, the common name for the Polygonia c-album, above, so named for the white comma that is on the underside of its wings, a rather curious marking. As to the etymology of the comma, it comes from the Latin word comma which denotes a short phrase or clause. There is a singular irony in our appropriation of the word for the punctuation mark, since Latin was a language blessed without punctuation, the verb indicating where sentences were to end.

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Today’s cufflinks evoke a comma, to me. They are made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Joseph Skinger. This artist worked in Vermont from 1946 to 1967, though this pair exudes the distinct flavour of the 1950s Modernist movement. Above all, to me the comma serves as a metaphor for the necessity of punctuating daily tedium with moments of introspection and, more importantly, reflection. As with the cufflinks themselves, simplicity is often the most noble and most beautiful of traits.

Queer quirkiness or quirky queerness

Eccentricity is a subject that has preoccupied me over these past months. A chapter of the book I’m writing (Surreptitious Subversions: Breaking Institutional Codes in Ancien Régime France) is devoted to four eccentric figures, all priests and all scholars from seventeenth-century France, a cross-dresser, a conspiracy theorist, a compulsive-obsessive pedant, and a sexually obsessed prude. All good and well, but the primary problem that I’ve encountered in working on this chapter is an overwhelming lack of scholarly interest in eccentricity. The majority of hits on any library-catalogue search using the keywords of “eccentricity” or “eccentric” will bring up books such as Noel Annan’s The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses or studies of great British eccentrics, but there is a dearth of serious treatments of the theme.  This contrasts with related –yet, of course, very different- issues such as madness and abnormality, which are the focus of much historical, literary, and philosophical research, notably Michel Foucault. And this has left me with an almost total lack of theoretical framework with which to have as a canvas for the chapter. The lack of interest in eccentricity and eccentrics is, on one level, understandable and at the same time provides the rationale for delving into the area: eccentric individuals appear to be harmless folk, and harmless folk do not, it would seem, contribute much to society nor do they rock the boat because of their marginal status. We are disposed to tolerate much from eccentrics in terms of their ideas and behaviour, because it does not strike us as offensive.

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Among the few serious studies that have been undertaken on eccentricity, honourable mention has to made to two books by David Weeks, a neurospsychologist. In Eccentrics: The Scientific Investigation published in 1988, he asks what an eccentric is:

This is a mystery, not only for the average intelligent person, but also for most psychologists. Eccentrics are the last category of people to have eluded their scrutiny and investigation. This is not because of any deliberate evasion on their part, but is rather a neglected oversight by students of the mind, who perhaps see such research as rather a daunting prospect with few potential rewards. (p. 1)

He terms the lack of investigation into eccentrics as psychology’s black hole. Weeks uncovered some fascinating data in his pioneering work. Eccentrics tend to be only children or youngest children. They live longer, feel happier, and have higher IQs than the rest of the population. There is no such thing as an archetypical eccentric. Finally, there is no satisfactory definition of an eccentric, and this is a central premise of his work. However, like Dr Weeks, many people feel that they can identify an eccentric when they meet one. I know that I have done and do and I’m sure it’s the same for you. Can you think of someone you’ve encountered or who you know, that you just instinctively knew was eccentric? Salvador Dali was certainly such a person and was eccentric by his own and universal admission. When meeting someone you mentally categorize as eccentric, what was it about them that made them eccentric in your eyes? It’s an interesting question, because we don’t usually hesitate, in pondering, “could she be eccentric?” We just know, and unlike gaydar, everyone’s eccentridar is finely attuned to recognize specimens in the field. Sadly, a book demands some clarity and so I have come up with the following formulation as my personal working definition:

An eccentric is an individual who acts, dresses, and behaves in ways that deviate from accepted social codes, and who may also hold ideas or espouse ideologies that are unusual, non-normative, or are generally acknowledged to be strange. The eccentric is almost universally regarded as an innocent individual, incapable or unwilling to be dangerous to him or herself, others, or society.

The last part of the definition is the money quote. Since eccentrics get away with behaviour that would otherwise not be tolerated in other people, owing to their neutral or harmless status, it is my suggestion that some individuals fake it. That is to say they assume an eccentric persona in order to indulge in their heterodox ideas or actions. This is the case with the four clerics I study in my book-in-progress and I term such pseudo-eccentrics as active eccentrics to distinguish them from genuinely, often unself-consciously, eccentric folk that I label passive eccentrics. The consequences of such simulated eccentricity can be significant. Many scholars and patrons of radical ideas during the Enlightenment were deemed to be eccentric. More recently, the formerly congenial British national treasure and all-round oddity Sir Jimmy Savile has been exposed as one of the most prolific child abusers in history. I believe he assumed the profile of an affable eccentric in order to facilitate his terrible offending.

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Weeks’s central assumption was that eccentricity is best studied in the eccentric, an opinion I share. Some cultures are more tolerant, even encouraging, of the eccentric, a factor intimately linked to these societies’ acceptance of dissent and freedom of speech. The United Kingdom has long been a particular hotbed of eccentrics, particularly in the arts, the academy, and the Church (meaning all denominations). This is perhaps best seen in the choice range of vocabulary that exists in English to describe such people: quirky, queer, quaint, strange, odd, curious, bizarre, barmy, off-beat, off-kilter, crazy, kookie, funky, peculiar, zany, outlandish, outré, off-the-wall, singular, screwy, wayward, weird, wacky, and whimsical. One of the most glorious eccentrics in history in addition to being one of the most fabulous human beings ever to walk this earth is Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), shown above in a photograph taken by Cecil Beaton. As an example of how utterly captivating she was, I beg you to watch this brief clip on Youtube, here, taken from a television interview in 1959 when she was aged 72 years old but possessing a charismatic and fresh vitality that is astonishing and in which she explains her curious sartorial choices. A recent academic biography has helped restore her much-neglected literary status. Her poetry was ranked with and spoken of in relation to T. S. Eliot’s in the 1920s, and during the same decade pioneered a genre of spoken poetry recited to the rhythm of music by William Walton, Façades, which has been rightly compared to proto-rap. What is unusual about her eccentricity is that she was conscious of her own version of it and could analyze is dispassionately, writing a definitive study of it in 1933, The English Eccentrics. Dame Edith had eccentric parents. Her mother was imprisoned for fraud and her father, Sir George Sitwell, invented a small pistol with which to shoot wasps and had a large sign posted on the front door to his house stating “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night”. He engaged himself in researching books, most of which sadly never saw publication, which demonstrated his unusual choice of subjects and which included A Short History of the Fork, Lepers’ SquintsThe Introduction of the Peacock into Western Gardens, Domestic Manners in Sheffield in the Year 1250, and Acorns as an Article of Medieval Diet.

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My study calls for a re-evaluation of the eccentric, urging people to go beyond the amusement generated by such individuals and to see how their contribution can, at times, challenge our very notions of what is normal and what it means to conform. One of the most accepted band of eccentric people is to be found in the lives of saints. There are many episodes from hagiographic writing that illustrate the fine line or often cramped intersection between sanity, sanctity, and genius, whether it is the hermits living on the top of pillars for decades, or there is the example of St Simeon who would drag himself around on his buttocks, trip people up, or run naked into the female section of the local bathhouse in order to conceal the fact that he was holy and to be written off as a crank, surely the patron saint of kookiness if not of annoying people.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are the product of a rampantly eccentric imagination. A married couple, both former dancers, founded the jewellery firm of Flora Danica in Copenhagen in 1953. The company still exists and specializes in crafting items of jewellery in the shape of Danish natural flora, though present-day items lack the quality of the founders. Orla Eggert was particularly obsessed with the beauty of garden herbs and had a penchant for the humble parsley plant. He would go on to found the Parsley Club in 1971, in an effort to stem the tide of dullness invading society. I am reminded of Uncle Monty in the cult movie Withinail & I who grows root vegetables in his home and opines “I happen to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose”. In a similar vein of passionate dedication, Orla would make many examples of cufflinks of herbs such as dill and thyme during the 1950s and 1960s, but the most striking example is that of that of his beloved parsley. The pair I have date from the late 1950s to the early 1960s and bear the Flora Danica maker’s mark. They are made out of sterling silver with a gold wash – Orla would insist that members of the Parsley Club would wear a real piece of parsley dipped into gold. They also possess an astonishing level of intricate detail, revealing the love that Orla bore for this genus, and each one of the pair is different from the other, reflecting the uniqueness of nature. Above all, this beautiful pair of cufflinks of an unlikely and not especially pretty plant show us the real power of eccentrics, for the colour that these unusual people can bring to the grey landscapes of our banal lives is nothing other than magical. It is a form of visual and ideological transubstantiation. It is a magic that we can all, and should, believe in.

Avian apparitions

Birds and avian symbolism have been on my mind over the past few months as the book I’m working on has a chapter devoted to fantasy and science-fiction. Madame d’Aulnoy, a seventeenth-century writer of great sophistication as well as a redoubtable and unreconstructed feminist – she attempted to have her much older, tyrannical gay husband framed for treason and dispatched by execution, aided by her mother – uses birds a great deal in her tales. In one of my favourite stories, “La Belle aux cheveux d’or” (Beauty with the golden hair), the hero, Avenant, goes on a quest to win the hand of a queen, on behalf of his ruler but the handsome courtier ultimately ends up marrying her himself after the king inadvertently poisons himself when attempting to use a beauty potions. There are no hapless heroines waiting to be rescued in d’Aulnoy’s fantasy world, only strong women who decide their own destinies and choose whom to marry. Avenant (literally “Comely”) encounters some trapped animals on his journey and instinctively saves them. It is interesting that two of the distressed animals are birds (an owl and a crow), which leads the adventurer to reflect on humanity’s cruelty to the vulnerable. It also functions as a commentary on his own journey from being the pawn of a ruthless and vain king of whom he is obviously the lover to the liberating embrace of a heterosexual relationship (as Madame d’Aulnoy sees it, almost certainly a reflection of her own loveless marriage to a violent man who preferred young male favourites). The bird is a very rich and deep-seated trope often symbolizing freedom and independence, and it features often in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, for example. At the same time, a caged or tame bird stands for the manipulative and unsavoury side of our human natures. I can think of fewer sadder and more perverse sights than that of a bird confined in a small cage.

La Colombe Picasso MOME 1948 lithograph

Avian symbolism can be as diverse as it is rich. Eagles and other aggressive birds often represent predatory behaviour whereas the owl is a sign of wisdom. Paul Tipper devoted a monograph to the subject, The Dream Machine: Avian Imagery in “Madame Bovary” (Durham: DMLS, 1994), in which he proposes  a “sliding scale of suggestivity” depending on the particular bird in question.  He lists twelve variables that affect our interpretation, including flight, size, plumage, whether the bird is mundane or exotic, and whether or no it is a conventional symbol. One bird that is most certainly conventional and universal in figurative terms is the dove. A dove, almost always a white one, is a ubiquitous symbol of peace, accord, and spirituality.  This is quite astounding in one sense since, as the lithograph by Picasso amply shows, above (1949; MOMA), the dove is very closely related to and distinctly resembles the humble and despised pigeon.

The white dove has a particular biblical role. In the Old Testament, one is sent to Noah with an olive branch in its beak as a sign that the Flood has ended and divine wrath has been appeased. In the New Testament, it has a close affinity with the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity and who comes to dwell in our bodies making them temples. In some concrete way, the dove represents the presence of God in our very beings or acts as a messenger of the divine, a very curious symbolism given that the bird is not the largest, most beautiful, or even most fascinating of birds. The captivating flight of the hummingbird or the dulcet tones of the nightingale could have, for example, been a more immediate sign of the other world. El Greco’s peculiar style captures something of the strangeness of the dove as a religious signifier in his representation of Pentecost, below, painted at the tail end of the sixteenth century, one of the most turbulent and conflicted periods in human history.

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The scene is one of confusion. Fifty days after Easter, the Apostles and Mary, in some disarray, convened and suddenly the Holy Spirit came down on them, causing them to speak in tongues and have flames of fire. They who were seeking elucidation find themselves linguistically divided and unable to communicate.  In some deep sense, El Greco captures the strangeness of life beyond this natural life, the supernatural encroaching on the normal rhythm of things, best seen in the contorted postures of some of the figures in the painting. However, the most remarkable element in the painting is the very marked division between shadow and light. The Holy Spirit is depicted as appearing out of nowhere and catching the spectators unaware. Some part of us seeks this kind of assistance, aid sweeping in and sweeping us off our feet, part of the appeal of Superman. On the other hand, the bird also looks like a massive burst of electricity, a mini supernova illuminating the gathering like a lamp. This, I think, is the real potency of this painting. In a real way, El Greco manages to picture the bizarreness not of belief but rather of our own human nature. A light is put to the dark cracks of our psyches, our struggle to be better, to do good, and to put our own desires to one side and think of others and other considerations. Somewhat paradoxically given its theme, the painting ultimately focuses on humanity.

Mass Pentecost

As if to underscore the unusual and unworldly aspect of Pentecost, its liturgical colour is not white, as would be expected, but rather red, otherwise used to celebrate martyrs’ feastdays in the Mass. This is perhaps not as curious as might seem, since the invisible force of the Spirit taking hold of our being is not only representative of divine love but also human love. For what is more intangible, inexplicable, and unexpected than love? It is the force over which we have no control, that is irrational, and so necessary, but only so when it is absent. A person who has never known any kind of love is someone to be pitied and avoided. The Church has always taught that human love can ennoble us and make us receptive to the love of God. Just as with our attraction towards a beautiful person can draw us in and we fall in love with their personality, so, too, does the magnificent beauty of the Church’s rites, the vestments, and Latin plainsong, also tempt us to discover the deeper meaning to which they stand as a portal. Once this is crossed, we will see the world with new eyes, as through a glass darkly, a delicious image of St Paul suggesting that the world itself is the illusion and the supernatural life is the authentic version of ourselves. And the same applies to human love. Hugh Grant’s character William observes in the charming Notting Hill (1999), that falling for someone is like taking love heroin, in that takes a hold of you and drives you to want more.  On this note, it must be added that doves do not always denote pure love. Various legends about Semiramis, a Babylonian queen who was the wife of Nimrod, depict her unbridled and insatiable lust yet most accounts relate that she had been brought up by doves.

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Today’s cufflinks are made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Creed. This is the name of a company that specializes in Catholic religious goods, particularly jewellery, in 1946 and still going. They don’t make cufflinks any more, but this pair are very striking in the modernist lines of an ancient symbol, which dates them to the mid to late 1950s. They were almost certainly priest’s cufflinks. I particularly like the detail, such as the eyes, adding new life to a trope that bridges the taboo association between sexuality and spirituality, yet nonetheless a very old and biblical one; in the gently erotic lines of Solomon in the Song of Songs (6:9), his beloved is compared to an unblemished dove. This allusion also references the sacrifice and pain of love, since a spotless dove was a sacrificial offering in Jewish Temple worship.