Spidery suggestivity

Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) was a writer who put his eggs into the wrong basket. His first patron, to whom he remained devoted even after the disgrace of the former, was the brilliant Nicolas Foucquet. This administrator and benefactor to the arts committed the ultimate sin: he outshone the Sun King. In the lavish ceremonies to celebrate to opening of Fouquet’s newly built palace at Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661, the finance minister realized, all too late, that his guest of honour, the 22-year-old Louis XIV, had a very displeased dismeanour. He immediately offered to donate the estate to the monarch, but Louis acerbically replied that kings did not receive grandeur from their subjects. A few weeks later Fouquet was arrested by D’Artagnan and a small band of trusted musketeers. Although Louis was able to stage manage a show trial -on the basis of financial corruption- he was ultimately unsuccessful in his efforts to pressure the judges to enforce the death penalty; the justices opted for life imprisonment. Every judge who voted against a capital sentence was removed from office within a matter of months. In one of the great injustices of the seventeenth century, a man who had helped himself to perks in a much more modest way than his predecessors found himself imprisoned for the rest of his life. La Fontaine remained vocal in his support of the beleagured politician. For this act of disloyalty to the regime, he was to receive his own disgrace. When he was finally elected to the Académie Française aged in his 60s, Louis XIV refused to grant his assent for several months, an unprecedented course of action. La Fontaine’s fables are crammed full of examples of injustice and abusive power. In one of the fabulist’s most curious poems, “Le lion et le moucheron” (The lion and the gnat), he takes up a tale first spun by Aesop, about a gnat which buzzed around a lion and had this beast hopping mad at its inability to destroy the source of its annoyance. The gnat flies away, very pleased at its victory, only to fly straight into a spider’s web thus meeting an untimely demise. La Fontaine spells out two morals which amount more or less to the same thing: firstly, we should not underestimate apparently small enemies; secondly, we are often distracted by major affairs when it is sometimes little things that bring us down. There is, undoubtedly, a hidden message to Louis XIV here (La Fontaine dedicated the first collection of fables to the dauphin in 1668 with the implicit imperative of following literary wisdom rather than imitating his illustrious father). While the lion and the gnat come out rather badly, the spider alone seems triumphant and full of foresight.


Spiders are the object of the most universal phobia, arachnophobia, yet this intense and widespread fear is also coupled with millennia of positive associations, symbolism, and mythology. Spiders can be very beautiful and have evolved into some ingenious forms. My personal favourite is the bird dropping spider, above, which, as its name so prosaically states, resembles avian dung. Not only that but the spider also weaves a white silken base that looks like a spatter mark beneath its body and emits an unpleasant odour that approximates fecal matter. This disguise is far from crappy as it succeeds in attracting prey and repels predators, a perfect combination. Many spiders, such as the tarantula, look fearsome but contain relatively harmless venom, though it’s been a struggle to adapt to living in the Midwest where there are brown recluses -I regularly find them in spider traps below my bed- given that I come from a country which boasts of no harmful arachnids. My mother would always urge me to check my suitcases closely, as she strongly suspected that I would one day unwittingly bring a brown recluse back with me on my visits home. I used to tease her about it, joking that I had seen something run out of my suitcase, but Mother became inured to this!


Perhaps it is not so much the appearance of spiders but rather their devious means of trapping prey that so unsettles us, as it does seem to point to an intelligence that spiders do not actually possess. Arachnid brains are very simple and operate a few reactions such as run, eat, and, quite rarely, attack. The appearance of cunning is a tenacious one. Some versions of the Japanese Jorōgumo legend depict a spider taking the form of a seductive woman who lulls a gullible man with her lascivious appearance and soothing music only to weave a web around him and then devour him. A nineteenth-century woodcut, above, represents a man being rescued from this fate. While such sinister manifestations are to be found in folklore and even populate horror movies, the spider’s industriousness generally enjoys a more positive spin – pun intended.


My favourite version is one familiar to Scottish schoolchildren, that of Robert the Bruce. While Robert spent several months hiding in caves on the Irish coast during the wars that threatened his position as King of the Scots (he ruled as Robert I from 1306 to 1329), he one day watched a spider spin a web to connect two points of the cave’s roof. It kept falling down but commenced again and again until, on the eighth attempt it successfully had weaved the skeleton of its web. He was heartened by the resourceful stubbornness of such an insignificant creature and felt emboldened in his own quest, which would culminate in the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), a decisive victory over English colonialism in Scotland. The same story of arachnid voyeurism is also to be found in a Jewish legend about King David, while closer to our time, Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” makes a metaphysical trope along the same lines:

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

On the subject of religion, the patron saint of spider bites is St Conrad of Constance, seen in the stained glass below with a rather cute spider peering over the top of his golden chalice. The hagiographical detail is that this tenth-century prelate was celebrating Mass when a large, vicious-looking spider dropped in the chalice. St Conrad was singularly unimpressed and downed the contents, spider and all. It was popularly believed that all spiders were poisonous, whether venomous or not, so the saint was taking his life into his hands, somewhat literally. Nowadays, liturgists only recommend swallowing a spider if it is small, digestible, and non-toxic. Otherwise it should be scooped out with a purifier -a white linen- and both the spider’s corpse and the linen burnt when dried out. If there are any ashes, these should be disposed down the sacrarium, a sink within the church’s precinct that goes straight into the earth. The Catholic Church may be accused of many things, but being unmethodical is not one of them.


While there are countless horrid urban legends concerning spiders, it is gratifying to know that Spiderman and St Conrad exist to counter the negative connotations. Hagiography and comic books share many affinities.


I think that the most appealing arachnine appearance in art has to be the Maman series of sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. The image above shows one outside of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, which stands at over 30 feet in height. The title of the work is the French word for Mum or Mom, and Bourgeois manages to create a sense of maternal comfort in these sculptures that somehow eclipses the menace of the form. It is interesting that spiders are most often represented and understood as being feminine. In dream interpretation, the presence of spiders is usually deemed to relate to the dreamer’s mother or a strong female in their life, particularly if the spider bites. I can’t help but feel that this symbolism seems to reflect society’s long-standing misogyny more than anything else.


Today’s cufflinks strongly suggest a spider to me, and a female one carrying eggs on her back. There are no maker’s marks to be found on this pair other than an 835 silver stamp, denoting 83.5% grade silver, which often oxidizes in a more appealing way than sterling silver. I acquired them from Germany and would guess them to be studio made in the early 1970s. The swirly lines of the framed spider is most definitely positive and hints at gateways such as the worldwide web rather than fear of the unknown.

Knotty ends

Few things can hold such importance in the fabric of our lives and yet remain so ignored as knots. From their sartorial use in laces, ties, and ribbons to more pragmatic service in boating, rescue and mountaineering, and surgery, and even in the mathematical discipline of knot theory, a pause for reflection reveals that the knot is both ubiquitous and crucial. I remember the particular rites of passage of learning and being able to tie first my shoelaces and then a necktie, at the ages of 5 and 1o years old respectively. I had to wear a necktie for school until I was aged 15, although my first one, at the tender age of 4 years old, was a pre-tied one, to spare me the trauma of frustration. Then there was the equally symbolic shedding of the tie during my seminary years when I wore a Roman collar around my neck, affixing it each morning with the prayer “Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum” (“Make me white, o Lord, and cleanse my heart”). There is an enjoyably ritualistic aspect to putting on a necktie -I always wear one when teaching- and a commensurately symbolic moment when it is loosened. What better signifies a positive night of imbibing and socializing at a formal event than a black bowtie being worn unbound and hanging down straight on the wearer’s shirt? There is something inherently roguish, louche, and utterly charming about this state of slight disarray.


I much prefer the French term for bowtie: papillon or butterfly, a great improvement on the decidedly prosaic tie with a bow of the English equivalent.  There are many different knots for the necktie, my own favoured one being the half-Windsor. The variety of knots that exist generally is absolutely mind-boggling, with there being several hundred different forms of fastening, each one having varying degrees of strength, complexity, and practicality. Some preferred knots act as signatures, with murders having been solved because of the employing of unusual knots to tie up victims. Unsurprisingly, the range of knots has given rise to some striking names, such as Alpine butterfly, half-blood, monkey’s fist, and Turk’s head. The expression hanging on to the bitter end refers to clinging steadfastly to a rope until the very ends, which are bitts, whence butt in English and but in French, and has nothing to do with the negative associations of the word bitter. On an unrelated note, bittersweet is surely one of the most delicious words in the English vocabulary.

The knot is a long-standing and rich literary metaphor, with the oldest version possibly being the famed Gordian Knot, a quandary that Alexander the Great resolved with his sword, a potent and dreadful sign of the effectiveness of violence over thought, as seen in the depiction by Jean-Simon Barthélemy below. In “The Artist and His Time”, Albert Camus picks up this episode and sees the decadence of civilization severing through the knot like Alexander, with writers having the vocation of being anti-Alexanders in resisting this through re-crafting the intricate knot by means of their verbal prowess. Following on from Aristotle, French uses the notion of dénouement or unravelling to describe the resolution of a work. I’ve long been struck at how English does the exact opposite in that we tie up the loose ends rather than unbind them. I personally prefer the analogy of untying my necktie after a long day’s travails rather than fastening it again. There is a particular Marian devotion that is related to this: Our Lady, Untier of Knots, in which prayers are directed to Mary to intercede with troublesome situations. It’s a very appealing, if not curious, image. It is very special to Pope Francis, who did much to propagate this pious practice in his native Argentina.


On that note, I devoted an article to the concept of dramatic endings (“Comic and Marital Frustration in George Dandin,” Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature 72 (2010), 15-30; available here), in which I compared tragic and comic dénouements. While tragedy traditionally is ranked above comedy, I was interested in the fact that tragedy is, in some senses, bound by formulaic conventions and is nothing but a slave to its ending. The action, characters, and plot might be tragic but unless this is sustained and culminates in a tragic close, then there is no tragedy. It is the ending that endows tragedy with its tragic identity and it is therefore in a state of dependence on the outcome. Comedy, on the other hand, is free of this pre-requisite and can therefore even flirt with tragic aspects in a dark ending, whereas any substantial degree of comedy in a tragedy would suffocate and ultimately destroy it. There is a wider application of these concepts, I think. We, as a society, have become tragic in our dependency on outcomes, resolution, and closure. In fact, there is a quasi-fetishization of purpose in the workplace, in our affections, and even in our leisure. This has in turn eroded our sense of fair play, of the very act of doing being worthwhile no matter what the eventual result. At the end of the day, there is nothing as enslaving as an apparent and chimeric sense of freedom.

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Today’s cufflinks are made by the Danish silversmith Hugo Gruen and bear his maker’s mark of HGr. I have several pairs of links by Gruen and have blogged about one pair, here, a few months ago. This pair features an overhand knot, a universal emblem of eternity, and are crafted in 830 silver, that is to say 83% silver purity, a grade which oxidizes in a more interesting fashion than sterling silver. It is difficult to date this pair, but at a guess I would estimate the late 1950s. I first wore them in Vancouver last weekend, and you can see the city beneath the apartment balcony in the image above. I particularly like the air of fragility that these compact cufflinks convey, a reminder of time’s decay amid the timelessness of the symbol.

Coffee passion

In one way or another, coffee has played quite a significant and symbolic role in my life. My first memory of coffee is the aroma. My mother would take me outside John Watt and Son in Carlisle and encourage me to take in the smell of coffee beans being slowly roasted in a shop where they have been roasting beans since 1865. I always make a point of stopping back there on my visits back to my home region in the north of England and there is something very reassuring about the pedigree of this coffeehouse. I took the photograph below when I popped in last July, three days after my mother had passed away and a day during which I had been sorting out legal and administrative paperwork and it was very appropriate to gravitate back towards this place that held so many positive memories and smells. It is  popular haven for serious shoppers who like serious coffee peppered with serious gossip.


The ritualistic standing in front of the store and breathing in the inebriating odours of roasting coffee beans marked me for life. There was simply no way that I could ever treat something possessing such an incredible scent with anything other than reverence and, most of all, desire. I have, I will confess now in the interests of full disclosure, been serially unfaithful to coffee over the years. Yet, while the charms of tea, juices, and sparkling water have lured me away at many points, I always return to coffee’s embrace and my heart will steadfastly be hers. Not only is coffee a factor in my drinking habits but it has also become part of my research. The book I’m currently working on concerns unlikely avenues of subversion in France during the 17th and 18th centuries that contributed towards and signalled the French Revolution. Michel Foucault observed “where there is power, there is resistance”, and I find it fascinating -and comforting- that resistance can take unexpected forms.

And this is where coffee comes in. In 1669, the Ottoman Empire sent an embassy to Paris in what was supposed to foster and herald a new relationship and exciting opportunities between the Turks and French. Unfortunately, it all went very wrong. The French mistook one of the servants in the Turkish group for the ambassador; he was, in fact, a gardener. Then, when this faux pas was resolved, Louis XIV received the ambassadorial mission with lavish ceremony and honour, wearing a luxurious specially commissioned suit for the occasion that was liberally encrusted with precious, large diamonds. Rather than being impressed by the Sun King’s efforts, the ambassador, Suleiman Aga, declared that even the most lowly of his Sultan’s horses wore more magnificent outfits that the one that the monarch was sporting. Louis was, not unreasonably given the circumstances, vexed and immediately banished the undiplomatic diplomat from Versailles. Suleiman Aga spent several weeks thereafter in Paris, entertaining visitors and offering them the exotic drink of coffee. Despite the sovereign’s displeasure with this man and notwithstanding his having declared his dislike of coffee, the beverage became a way to assert, albeit subtly, a certain individualism within the context of an increasingly centralized -and controlling- government. Coffeeshops took off, though in the 1670s it was extremely expensive. Joan DeJean in the extremely readable The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour points out that a pound of coffee beans cost the equivalent of $6000 in today’s money. Fortunately, prices fell and coffeehouses became popular throughout Europe. Since they would usually have a library of books for patrons to read, censored books could easily be left there and these places became hothouses of political discussion during the eighteenth century. The Café Procope, the world’s oldest coffeeshop, has had many famous clients since it opened its doors in 1686, including Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.

ImageThere has been an academy of coffee meeting within the historic walls of the Procope (where, incidentally, the owner Procoppio, created the first ice-cream in the 1690s as an alternative to his native gelato) every month for well over a decade now. One of the founders of this academy is a wonderful, energetic woman pictured above, Gloria Montenegro de Chirouze, who opened La Caféothèque near the Hôtel de Ville six years ago and revitalized the dire state of coffee in the capital. Gloria was Guatemalan ambassador to France before then, and decided to stay on and do something she loved. Gloria is very passionate about coffee and the process that goes into creating the end product, sourcing beans from plantations that she has visited. Finding that the vocabulary to describe coffee was inadequate and neglected, she created and developed the science of caféologie or coffeeology (it sounds better in French) which treats the drink much as oenology does wine. Her philosophy can be summed in her defiant motto of “no blends”, which can lead, in Gloria’s opinion, to some unhappy marriages.


I’ve been working on an article on coffee history on and off over the years and I decided that I needed to have greater technical insight into what goes into making the drink. So, during the summer of 2009, I followed a barista training course under Gloria’s direction involving roasting, drink preparation, knowledge about every part of the process, and finally being examined. The photograph above was taken by Yadh Elyes, who also instructed me. Yadh was one of the judges in the French national barista competitions. What I took away from this apprenticeship was more than a formal qualification; Gloria taught me to see coffee differently and afresh and, more than anything, to respect it and the people involved in its production. I’ll never forget the day when I saw her cry because she’d over-roasted a batch of beans. It was the fact that she knew what had gone into making those beans -she had been to the plantation they came from- and felt she had disappointed them, and the beans. She is an amazing person. When my mother died this summer and I returned to Paris, where I’d been during that period, one of my first port of calls was the Caféothèque. I wanted and needed a hug from Gloria as I knew it would help me. And it did. We all need people with passion in our lives.

ImageI’ve been reminded of Gloria’s singular passion for coffee here in Lawrence, Kansas. A coffeeshop opened a week ago, intriguingly called Alchemy. Benjamin Farmer, a history graduate, founded the business with the support of his family and it’s taken off briskly. There are no espresso drinks but rather pour overs and chemex, drinks that take time to prepare. Benjamin’s enthusiasm and devotion to coffee is absolutely contagious, as can be seen above, with Benjamin in the foreground with his apprentice, Nathan, behind him. What I like about people like Benjamin is that their commitment to their art commands our compliance, invites us to pause, and lures us from banality.

In our lives, we always have a choice. We can swing by Starbucks and engage in a version of caffeine prostitution, prepared by non-baristas, with over-roasted beans, in a poor semblance and pale imitation of real coffee. Or, we can have good beans, roasted by artisans, and prepared for us, with care, by professionals. In a sense, the kind of decision we have to make is a metaphor. The true alchemy of spots like Alchemy, and they are to be found if we seek them, is that they transform a caffeine fix into a moment of reflection over a cup of something that is very good. Johann Sebastian Bach understood this. Amidst his output of sacred music and haunting airs is a whimsical, non-religious piece, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211, otherwise known as the Coffee Cantata. This is one of only four secular compositions by Bach and is a mini-opera about a young woman who is addicted to coffee and is refusing her father’s overtures to marry her off since she is worried that a new husband will forbid the beverage to her. She sings “If I can’t drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat”, and there is an absolutely delightful aria in which a soprano sings:

Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
Coffee, Coffee muss ich haben,
Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
Ach, so schenkt mir Coffee ein!

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

This aria is available on YouTube, here. It is incredibly beautiful and I find it reassuring that the sombre and sometimes melancholic composer -his Matthew Passion is surely one of the most sublime musical works in existence- devoted his art to the beverage. This should, surely, tell us something.

ImageToday’s cufflinks remind me of coffee beans. Their shape is approximate, but it’s also the hue that evokes the bean. They are made by the Copenhagen jewellers Anton Michelsen, bearing their maker’s mark, and most probably date from the mid- to late 1960s. I’ve also featured another pair by the same company, here. They are crafted out of sterling silver but with a gold wash, giving an absolutely lovely and subtle surface. Their slightly bent shape invites us to see something mysterious and inviting in what some treat as a pedestrian object, much like the allures of coffee.