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.
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.