Staircase wit

There are times when I am reminded about how utterly delicious French can be. There are many terms and expressions in this language that make English look positively impoverished (a prime example would be faire du lèche-vitrine; whereas English speakers merely, and politely, window shop, their French-speaking counterparts indulge in window licking, a description that captures being in the throes of materialistic desire). Words can be beautiful and powerful tools. The only time I’ve fainted in my life happened when I was around 7 years old. I was a hyperactive child and constantly craving attention and creating a maelstrom. One particular day I was running around the house and my mother, never one to refrain from apposite commentary, blurted out in exasperation: “Stop running around like some flibbertigibbet”. I am still not sure whether it was the expended energy or simply the hypnotic quality of this old English word denoting a spirit or fiend, but I was momentarily overcome. In some senses, my life has been punctuated with such moments where the strangeness, beauty, or cadence of words has forged out a pause in my time. One of my absolute Gallic favourite idioms is l’esprit de l’escalier, or staircase wit. This describes the moment when, after the fact, you think of what you should have said in response to someone’s put-down, joke, or unexpected interjection, that retort which would have been perfectly perfect. The idea is that you’re on the staircase on the way out (with reception rooms being traditionally on the upper level of a residence). While in English we have to resort to a long-winded comment such as “Oh I wish I’d thought of that at the time”, French possesses a succinct phrase that is so attractive that it could be taken out on a date.

ImageStairs are so much part of the very canvas of our daily lives that we take them without even realizing what we are doing for much of time. It’s interesting that we take stairs rather than use them (using only being employed when it’s an alternative to another route such as an elevator). They have been with us for at least three millennia and make life easier and much more practical, at least for able-bodied people. There are some magnificent staircases and stairwells in existence, such as the sixteenth-century double-helix stone staircase at the Château de Chambord, above, which was probably designed by Leonardo da Vinci. While there are countless examples of attractive, impressive, and large stairways, it is very rare that we would deem one to be ugly; at worst, they would only be practical. Often, otherwise interesting buildings can be let down by uncomplicated and unimaginative stairs but, happily, some designers see this integral item as a challenge, whether it be in the conceptualization, materials used, or simply the detail. I very much like the organic yet modernist design below, of Atmos Studio.

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The designer explained this bold design as follows, and I quote this since it is so poetic:

The stair is a continuation and intensification of the simple graphic skirting board lines that trace their way through the house. As they turn the corner into the stair void, they expand like a genie released from a lamp, curling and separating and bifurcating from the wall to form the delicate edge of the stair treads, lifting into the air to rise as the veil of the balustrade. This veil hangs gently from above as a series of thin paired threads, softly pulled back at the entry to allow movement past, gently splaying around the corner to meet and carry the arriving visitor onwards and upwards.

It seems to me that poets are rarely architects, though if there were more who were, we would undoubtedly be living in a more dangerous world. Given the ubiquity of stairs in our lives, they have long functioned as a metaphor. Freud somewhat inevitably held that dreaming about stairs had erotic connotations, explaining that the feat of climbing and descending stairs imitated the rhythm of making love, though this seems to ignore the fact that we are either going up or going down; rarely would we dream of doing both actions. Stairs have more tie-ins with the symbolism of going places, achieving things, since we take steps in our jobs and relationships, we climb the ladder of ambition, we social climb, and we take one step at a time. Conversely, we can make false steps and fall down the spiral. There is something quite startling as well as exhilarating about looking down from a tall staircase. It is certainly a reminder about the frailty of our mortal coils. Hitchcock used a staircase to great effect in Vertigo (1958), a masterpiece whose lead character, Scottie, played by the demure James Stewart, is a man inflicted with the psychological defects of obsession and stalking coupled with the physical one of acrophobia. There are two iconic stair sequences (here and here), both involving the same staircase and the director captures Scottie’s terror on his sweat-spotted face and a camera zoom that is now called the Vertigo Effect. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most disturbing, use of stairs in cinema is the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), depicting a massacre of innocent civilians, including the elderly and babies, by the Czar’s troops. The clip has been enormously influential in cinema and art, not to mention as a propaganda tool. The atrocity itself was an artistic liberty; no such outrage ever took place.

ImageStairs have long featured in spiritual symbolism to represent the path towards salvation and God, separation and sin being only a false step away. One of the most curious episodes in the Old Testament is Jacob’s Ladder, the dream that Jacob experiences of angels climbing and descending a ladder (Genesis 28:10-19). A ladder is, of course, nothing than a vertical, simple set of stairs. Jacob needs God to provide an interpretation of the dream the following day -not a Freudian one- and it concerns the foundation of the Promised Land. Despite the fact that stairs are used for the two-way process of going up and coming down, the English word derives from the proto-German word staigri meaning to climb, a sense also retained when we say a “flight of stairs”. Since it comes from the Barbarian tribes of Europe, it is obvious to see why they wanted to concentrate on reaching goals, rather than coming down. The same sense of overcoming and mastering the stairs is to be found in the Latin scala, from which we have acquired the term to scale something or the variations to be found in a musical scale.

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One more obvious stair symbol occurs at the beginning of the Mass. Before starting the Mass proper, the celebrant recites what are known as the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar before he takes the three steps up to the altar (the right foot must be the first to ascend). The image above was taken during a High Mass at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. During these prayers, contrition is expressed for being unworthy at being a participant in the sacred mysteries that are about to take place. The prayers themselves are mainly scriptural and are very beautiful, with a psalm and the Confiteor being said. The Confiteor is where the “mea culpa” is intoned thrice and the breast struck with the head bowed, a surprisingly haunting prayer and act. The whole section is a dialogue in which the cleric sets out how unworthy he is to stand at the altar of sacrifice; yet, go to it he must, since God overlooks transgressions and forgives. I like the sense of all of this; we do not dwell in Lent but head for Easter, though there are many religious people who are somewhat happy to remain steadfastly in Lenten rigour and set aside the splendour of beauty, truth, and grace. The symbolism of these prayers is overwhelmingly rich and the act of the priest preparing to climb the steps and the moment he does so become endowed with a higher purpose. The moment has its secular equivalents too; certain leaders and monarchs are often led to a raised dais or chair (or throne) on assuming their responsibilities. And who could forget the fairy-tale balls in which stairs play a crucial part? Cinderella’s descending the stairs into the ballroom denotes her social ascent out of the ashes of the kitchen. And we should rather hope for this than the endless frustration of Escher’s never-ending, and destination-less, stairways.

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Today’s cufflinks are by my very favourite designer, Guy Vidal, a Quebec pewtersmith who was active in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He used a pewter and silver mix of metal and injects great imagination into his work. I have 23 pairs by Vidal, representing half of the cufflinks he ever produced, though I’ve only blogged on one other pair before, here. They’re really rather lovely, with different sizes of square-shapes set at differing heights, embellished with a variety etched or plain tops. The faces suggest stepping stones to me, which mentally led me to stairs. These cerebral connections are actually not unlike stairs, taking us from one place to another, but leaving the opportunity of return, possibly with new knowledge and experiences, tantalizingly and eternally open to us.

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Against the storm

Ever since Oedipus refused to cede priority to Laius at the intersection of three roads and ended up killing him -in self-defence when the king tries to run him over in his chariot- the younger generation has ached and longed to take over from the older one. The myth is pregnant with symbolism. Unwittingly, Oedipus has killed his own father, fulfilling a disturbing prophecy and the elements of power, sexuality, and adulthood are explored to terrible effect. Little wonder that Freud, when coming to analyse the deepest and darkest aspects of human nature had recourse to Greek archetypes that encapsulated his theories. The episode occurs at a crossroads and pride is present in both characters, imbued with a youthful stubbornness on the part of the young man, and an engrained stubbornness on the part of the elder man, in both cases a different manifestation of a patriarchal and deadly trait. Ingres’s version of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, below, executed in 1808, in the wake of the French Revolution’s merciless dismantling of the old order of things, captures the ambivalence of Oedipus. He is seductive, endowed with the timeless allure of youth, yet there is something dangerous in his self-assured posture, consolidated by the elements of destruction and death to be found on the canvas.

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Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Edipo Re uses the story as an implicit commentary on his time. The movie was made in 1967 and the young traveller has an acute case of road rage. The incident takes up 9 full minutes of the film and Oedipus picks off the guards one by one, then brutally slaughters a helpless Laius (the full clip is here). It seems that the director is both entranced with the unbridled frenzy of the youthful social revolution of the 1960s and aware of the risks of it allowing to have its full expression.

ImageThis struggle, youth rebelling against its elders, has punctuated history in every place, every culture, at every time. Societies have had their own statutes and taboos in attempts to contain it but it is never far beneath the surface in even the most oppressive, or repressed, environments. The most potent literary portrait of this phenomenon is in Shakespeare’s brilliant yet difficult King Lear. The play deals with many power struggles and women have parity with men in their desire to seize control from their elders. It is not a coincidence that the work was begun in 1603, the year of Elizabeth I’s death and during which James VI of Scots, son of the monarch the tyrannical Elizabeth had had executed, came down to London to take the English throne. James was in his 30s and provided quite a contrast with Elizabeth who died in her seventieth year. The aged Lear decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, with the largest portion going to the child who loves him the most. The two flatterers gain a half-share each. The other daughter, Cordelia, genuinely loves her father but cannot find the words to express her affection. Lear is infuriated and disinherits her. It soon transpires that the two heiresses despise him and consider him to be a liability as well as a fool. When the monarch finally realizes his gullibility, the product of his vanity, he rushes out in a storm and rants furiously and impotently against the tempestuous conditions. It is one of the most striking and affecting moments in any drama of any age, represented above by William Dyce (c. 1851).

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

The former ruler is on the threshold of despair. He has lost everything, including his judgement and is beginning to lose his mind. And yet, Shakespeare does two marvellous things at this juncture. Firstly, Lear might be without hope, hopeless in the true sense of the term, but he has one remaining weapon that does, despite everything, empower him: his tongue:

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. (III.2)

 The other significant feature of this scene is that Lear is not alone during this iconic moment of irascible realization. There is a fool present to paraphrase the most tragic words that we can ever hear: “I told you so”. Yet the company and interjections of the fool during this powerful scene add an unexpected ingredient: they moderate Lear’s fury and in so doing, they serve to humanize this headstrong, silly person.

Recently, in fact during the course of the past few months, Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and King Albert II of the Belgians have all abdicated, citing the infirmity of age as the reason. Media commentary has, on the whole, been positive, hailing the chance of different, younger people to have their turn. There is, I think, something quite dangerous about this implicit form of ageism. It relies on the belief that younger people have more energy and dynamism and therefore can prove to be more effective leaders. As I’ve dealt with in a different post, The destroyer of worlds, it was the young John F. Kennedy who very nearly precipitated a global nuclear war in October 1962. It was an elderly, peace-loving Italian, Pope John XXIII, who played a major part in averting the wicked possibility. We can learn from older, wiser people. Unfortunately, we now live in the midst of a cult of youth which goes hand in hand with a disdain for knowledge of the past. And those who do not know the past will inevitably repeat its errors. Our elders might be slower, less fit, and more physically frail and vulnerable than younger men and women, but we are making a capital mistake in not tapping the wisdom of our previous generations. Winston Churchill was 71 years old at the end of the Second World War. Set this aside, and we commit metaphoric patricide, leaving us orphaned and exiled in the realm of our pride.

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Churchill was Queen Elizabeth II’s first prime minister, a fact of which she reminded Tony Blair in 1997 during the audience in which she appointed him prime minister after a landslide general election victory. It was an important fact to remind the young premier of; his time would come and go. Every week, the Queen has an audience with her prime minister. They are alone and no record is made of the occasion. One former prime minister spoke of this hour as the most precious of his week since he could tell her anything at all and know that it would never be repeated to another human soul. The same ex-premier, James Callaghan, added that this was an invaluable asset, particularly when sometimes one’s very own colleagues could not be trusted. The birth of the child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is imminent and there has been some speculation about the Queen’s continued role as sovereign, given the fact that there will be three heirs apparent in line to the Crown, an unprecedented occurrence in British history. The Guardian, which claims to be a newspaper, has been running a series of articles urging Elizabeth II to abdicate. In all of these, the journalists miss the point. It is precisely her age and wisdom which make her an attractive asset as head of state and abdication would be nothing other than a shameful enslavement to the spirit of the age and the outrageous and ageist youth cult of contemporary society. I think the photographic portrait of the Queen taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2007 eloquently shows why Her Majesty should not bend to pressure. Her pose, with the mediocre and menacing conditions outside is both regal and human, at once assured and exposed, and, above all, reassuring. Throughout the storms that we endure, we desperately need the anchorage of constants, whether it be in our leaders, our values, art, or liturgy. Fortunately, the Queen believes that hers is a job for life and she is not going anywhere just yet.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are hand-wrought, etched copper cufflinks made by Gret Barkin in the mid-1950s. She specialized in copper and almost all of her work involves this fetching metal, operating out of the delightfully named Hope, Pennsylvania. I have three pairs of Barkin cufflinks, this one consisting of two superimposed, etched disks with the top disk curving upwards, shown better in the second image below.

ImageHer ouput is spectacular, in particular her women’s jewellery. I like the fact that she had simple yet enduring designs with an attention to small details. Gret was active right up to her death in 2007 at the age of 99 years old, injecting a lifetime’s expertise and craft into her work, a well-needed anti-ageist beacon for these troubled times.

The mating game

Ever since I was taught how to play at the age of 10 years old, I’ve been rather fond of chess. I like to say it’s my favourite sport, along with bitching. It is a board game that never disappoints, can be as fast-paced or as slowly thought-out as the players desire, and involves reserves of foresight and strategy. An individual can reveal much of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses through their manner of playing. And the way in which they win, or more crucially, lose a match. There is something rather special about the hierarchical arrangement of the pieces and their capabilities, with the most important piece, the king, being effectively imprisoned by its token greatness.

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The most powerful piece, given what it can do on the board, is the queen, but this was not always so. Since chess is so ordered, it has echoed major social trends across the centuries. In Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, Marilyn Yalom details how this piece’s power on the board increased with the influence of female wives and rulers in medieval Europe. Yalom views the chess queen as “the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world”. Before around 1000 AD, there were no female chess pieces, the queen’s role being occupied by a vizier or advisor in the Middle East and India, where the game originated. Yalom suggests that its creation was as a result of Empress Adelaide (931-999), the second wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great. She was later canonized. As a result of having to escape from an attempted political marriage to the son of her first husband’s assassin by means of an underground tunnel, she is the patron of victims of abuse, as well as of second marriages, prisoners, and people experiencing conflict with their in-laws. The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff has pointed out another marker of social change in the rules of chess: with the social mobility afforded to craftsmen because of the advent of strong, large stone structures in the Middle Ages, peasants could learn a trade and become wealthy, a impossible prospect before the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is at precisely this juncture that the pawn, the humble, doggedly populous piece of the game -there are 16 pawns in all and, as in the Lewis Chessmen above, the pawn is often faceless and therefore dehumanized- suddenly has the possibility of being queened, that is of becoming any greater piece (generally though by no means always the queen) if and when it reaches the final row of the board.

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Because of its extraordinary tenacity and enduring relevance -and one can think of the Cold War chess games to know how long it has functioned as an effective emblem of power and struggle- chess has a long and varied pedigree of use in art and literature. I am particularly fond of Lucas van Leyden’s “The Chess Players”, above, painted in 1508. The game depicted in this canvas is courier chess, the forerunner to the modern game in which there were more squares and the queen was only empowered to move one square at a time, exactly like the present king. That would change during the sixteenth century with effective queens who yielded power as regnants rather than spouses or dowagers, such as Isabella I of Castile and Elizabeth I of England. There is so much going on in this painting and, as the title suggests, the interest is focused on the people rather than the pieces. The scene is positively crammed with people, mainly men, and there is the definite impression that the authentic game is not that being played in plain sight. The two women stand out both by the relative luminosity given to them but also in less aggressive features. While there is a female player, her male opponent appears to be disinterested in her and a male figure seated to her right is advising her. It is not difficult to see this gentleman as a “mansplainer” and it is tempting to interpret the painting as a representation of women, like the chess queen, having to negotiate the brutal rules of patriarchy in the midst of which they find themselves, caught up but there is not, however, the slightest hint that the females are at all subjugated or browbeaten.

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There are countless examples of chess in literature across the centuries, such as Thomas Middleton’s A Game of Chess (1624), an allegorical play in which political tensions between Spain and England are satirized in a chess match. As well as being an apt source for political tropes, the game has featured in more whimsical works, such as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), above, and has also been brought into play -dreadful pun alert- to reflect the power struggles involved in love. I’ve long been planning an article on chess in French literature, particularly during the early modern period when the first chess manuals were published in order to cater for the upwardly mobile who had to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and be able to converse and act as if to the manner born. Chess has, naturally, loomed large in film and television and there are iconic chess matches such as the one played in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) between HAL and Frank, this particular match -based on a real game- symbolizing and foreshadowing the sinister power struggle between the computer and the human. Kubrick was obsessed with chess, an affliction that blights many creative people; Vladimir Nabokov also possessed an obsessive-compulsive relationship with the game.

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For me, there is only one cinematic depiction of chess and that is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 movie, The Seventh Seal. If you haven’t seen this film, I would urge you to. It is a brilliant work by a brilliant writer and director. I wrote a few blog entries ago that you never forget your first kiss nor your first Bergman movie. Set in the fourteenth century, a knight returns back to his native Sweden after having survived a decade on the Crusades. The film opens on a beach, shortly after his return, and the vivid sound of the sea of the first couple of minutes subsides as the crusader, Antonius Block, faces the personification of death, come to remove him from his mortal coil. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, and the movie’s action veers around this staggered game. Block is, of course, playing for time. As indeed are we all in this game of life and love and ultimately we will lose since Death cheats us all. The film is the first of Bergman’s series exploring faith -and doubt, and the work is at once spiritual and existentialist, austere and rich, uplifting and pessimistic. Like life itself, then.

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There are countless other examples of chess, such as in The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) and Star Trek but only one blog entry. I could not talk about artistic depictions of chess without alluding to the inspired and inspiring use of it in the 2005 spring and summer collection of the late, gifted Alexander McQueen. The theme was “It’s Only a Game” and the catwalk was replaced by models who went through a choreographed game of chess, which can be seen here. The concept is breathtaking and McQueen holds up a mirror to fashion itself, which is, after all, a vicious, ephemeral game with prizes to be won and victims to be vanquished. As Roland Barthes noted in Système de la mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967), clothes are, above all, not about concealing the flesh but rather constitute an expression of the individual wearing them, which he terms a description. Our dress describes us to others. What we wear is, then, completely about deceit based on the conceit of covering our bodies or keeping us modest and warm. Sartorial garments are all about power and seduction and little else, so McQueen’s chess topic hints at the depression that would later, very sadly, take him.

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 Today’s cufflinks are a really exquisite pair, made from sterling silver which has developed interesting oxidization. They each have each of the six chess pieces on the faces with very Nordic lines. The cufflinks have date stamps to 1957 and also bear the place mark of Stockholm. The maker’s mark is BHS, which is B. Sorlings Konsthantverk of Stockholm, active with this mark from 1949 to 1986; I’m grateful to Patrick Kapty for supplying information about this designer. The artist was very skilled and I would like to think that the chess-themed cufflinks are linked to the screening of The Seventh Seal that very year, a source of great pride for Sweden and Swedish cinema, though, of course, it didn’t win an Oscar; another striking and outrageous example of the vicissitudes of the game of life.