Horsing around, or hippocampery

As a boy, my mother would take me into Carlisle, the big city (population 100,000), located 10 miles from Brampton (population 4,000), the small market town in which I was brought up. One thing I liked to do, as probably every child does, is to peruse pet stores, although my mother was quite impervious to my entreaties to return home laden with various cute creatures. Fish didn’t interest me much (children are tactile and soon grow tired of watching things swim around without being able to touch them) until the day I first saw seahorses. I must have been 4 years old, perhaps 5 at most, and I was utterly transfixed by these strange, quite unearthly beings. There is something eerie about their appearance and their very slow movements in the water that seems to hint at another, hidden truth: they are alien creatures transplanted on earth. Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic here, but the seahorse is a fish unlike other fish and unique in all marine life. And let’s face it, there are some weird and positively bizarre life forms in the oceans of our planet.

 

Courtesy of

Courtesy of Flickr

 

It’s quite easy to see where the equine nomenclature came from and people have always seen a horse’s head in the features of this delicate fish; the genus name is hippocampus which comes from the ancient Greek for horse (hippo) and sea monster (kampos). The French term, hippocampe, derives from this root, a suitably exotic name which shames the sheer banality of the English one. The Greek term has a nod to the strangeness of the beast but also to its savagery. Looks are rather deceptive in this case for the seahorse is an unreconstructed predator, its long snout being developed in order to devour escaping plankton and small crustaceans, of which it consumes massive amounts since it is bereft of a stomach meaning that food passes through its tiny system very quickly. Unlike most fish, our greedy friend doesn’t have scales, only a thin layer of skin arranged in rings, and it’s also a very poor swimmer. The dwarf seahorse, for example, only covers a distance of 5 feet per hour. It is for this reason that it prefers to use its tail as an anchor and patiently wait for food to comes its way. Nature has compensated the lack of nautical speed with camouflage. The upright posture of the seahorse also aids it to pass as a reed or plant to any unsuspecting smaller prey which should have the misfortune to venture near its stationary post.

 

Sea dragon

 

This past weekend I visited the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and encountered a close relative of the seahorse belonging to the same family, Syngnathidae: the leafy seadragon. I had never seen this particular fish before nor even heard of it, and I captured the image above of one. It is an absolutely ravishing animal, one which inspires wonder at the beauty and ingenuity of nature. And dare I say it, points to the hallmark of a Creator who has so patently designed the intricacies of life in all of its forms? Its name refers to the leafy protrusions all over its body which serve as superb disguise, making it resemble seaweed or an aquatic plant. Behind this visual beauty is the harsh reality of the fact that this fetching piscine specimen survives by daily acts of extinguishing the life of other creatures through means of stealth. One could describe it as the politician of the sea.

The little fellow is also often monogamous (though not all are, many tend to be) and, famously, the male carries the fertilized eggs instead of the females, allowing the French adjective enceinte for pregnant to be used in the masculine form of enceint and therefore an anecdote for a grammar class on a rainy afternoon. Lest it be thought that male seahorses are completely nurturing, the father has nothing more to do with the upbringing of the young once they are born and released from his pouch. Sounds familiar. What is absolutely astonishing and more so than the males carrying eggs to birth, is the fact that seahorses engage in an elaborate courtship ritual. While they normally have disjointed and somewhat clumsy movements, preferring to remain at rest, they will spent on average 8 hours in a mating dance. Not only that, this dance is incredibly graceful and really stunning to behold. There’s a clip, here. It’s tempting to anthropomorthize the creature and to see human traits in this; at the same time, such an expending of energy and time in purely evolutionary terms serves no purpose or function. Yet again, this lovely animal gives pause for thought.

 

Toshikane 009

 

Today’s cufflinks capture a little of the elusive allure of the seahorse. The pair is made by the Japanese artist Toshikane Arita. The company is something of an enigma in terms of its history but we know that it was active from the 1940s to the 1960s. This pair is made out of porcelain with sterling silver backs and dates to the 1950s and is a marvelous work of art. The vivid almost turquoise blue is embellished with some careful hand-painted detail, notably in gold leaf. What is interesting is that this looks like a pregnant male. The seahorse has long functioned as a symbol of strength and tenacity, something that was resonant with post-World War II Japan which was on a difficult road to economic and psychological recovery. And we can all find something that hits home in that search for inner resources of fortitude that we think we don’t have and yet with which biology and genetics -and our Creator- has endowed us.

Solar potency

Of all of the historical figures that I would rather like to dine with, Louis XIV invariably heads the list, dependent on my mood. He was a fascinating character, someone whom, while not intellectually brilliant, intuitively understood the mechanisms of power. Not unlike Margaret Thatcher, in this respect. He was also a deeply paradoxical man. He was adept at making the social codes of etiquette and dress into instruments of his own power, and yet he steadfastly refused to become involved in any disputes of precedence among courtiers at Versailles and always preferred to eat with his hands rather than use implements. Complex, and sometimes bizarre, rules governed the royal court. The embittered Duc de Saint-Simon details in his memoirs the “war of the stools” concerning the right of certain ladies to be seated on a small, backless stool in the presence of the Queen, with other women having to indecorously stand throughout the proceedings. Fights over the occupancy of a stool sometimes became physical. This modest item of furniture is emblematic of the sheer futility of human ambition, being invested with such passion over what is, when all said and done, a rather uncomfortable seat. Not only that, because of the dwarfish size of the tabourets, it was really impossible to sit down on and stand up from one with any degree of dignity or decorum.

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Louis XIV might have inherited much of the court ceremonial, but one thing which he very much made his own was the presentation of his image. Few leaders in history have ever been so able at self-promotion and propaganda than this king, with the exceptions, perhaps, of the Emperor Augustus and Adolf Hitler. Famously, one of the earliest and most cultivated metaphors that he chose for himself was as the Sun-King, presenting himself as Apollo, the god of light and the sun. The monicker of Le Roi-Soleil was first formulated in 1653 when Louis, a handsome and athletic young monarch who was not yet 20 years old, choreographed the “Ballet de la nuit” [Ballet of the night], dancing the lead role and with the music written by the brilliant and ambitious Jean-Baptiste Lully. A very watchable and largely accurate reconstruction of this dance may be viewed here, an extract from the highly recommended movie Le Roi danse (2000).

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As well as displaying his dancing skills and showcasing the talent of his court artists, Louis XIV also used the occasion as a moment of spectacular visual power. A few months earlier had seen the end of the French civil war called the Fronde (1648-53), which had nearly brought down the monarchy itself. The stakes were real, considering that the English Parliament had murdered its king during the same period. The momentum of war had petered out, and people started to crave stability again, for better and for worse. In other words, the monarchy had triumphed. Louis used the dance to have a young member from each of the prominent families who had rebelled during the civil war kneel in homage to “Apollo”, but in reality to the French Crown, as part of the performance. It was an incredible act of propaganda and confirmed that the young man was of a different mould from his father, Louis XIII, who had a series of unedifying crushes on attractive male favourites, mostly utterly unworthy of any preferment and some of whom who would delight in humiliating the sovereign in public, something the king evidently encouraged. It was also a more successful occasion than the later Carrousel du Louvre in 1662, a public festival to mark the birth of the dauphin. Louis dressed as a rooster, symbolizing the French nation, and this was met with some ridicule. Still, the official depictions of the occasion were able to airbrush this unique lapse in taste and portrayed Louis dressed as a more fetching Roman emperor rather than the humble cockerel.

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Solar symbolism is universal and may be found in virtually every religion, with some placing a particular emphasis on the sun. In Christianity, there are very deep uses of the sun with the word halo used in religious iconography being derived from Helios, the Greek personification of the sun. In Orthodoxy, the halo, which is obviously a form of the sun, is often christianized from its pagan origins through the use of a cross, as above. Traditionally, the main altar and therefore the elevation of a church faces the east, towards the rising sun which represents Christ coming in glory, with the priest celebrating Mass and all of the congregation facing this direction. It is a pity that the sloppy post-Vatican II practice of the priest facing the people is such a thoughtless, unhistorical, and symbolically barren phenomenon.

The sun is, for me, a two-edged icon. On one hand, it brings light, warmth, and life itself. Yet, as the solar appropriation by Louis XIV demonstrates, the sun can also symbolize oppressive heat, creating deserts and inhospitable conditions, and the sun demands that we always know that we are its mere and temporary subjects. I do not care for summer. I find that it is the vulgar season; winter brings snow, ice, and ice-storms that can transform the most banal of landscapes into a mysterious fairy-tale kingdom. Spring gifts us the blossoming metamorphoses that represent hope. Autumn dazzles us with its colours and changes. But summer brings us only heat, and enslaves us by this very thing. It suffices to speak to sun-worshippers and summer lovers -most people in point of fact- to appreciate how widespread solar fanaticism is among the populace.

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There is a very poignant moment in the Japanese movie The Sun (2005). The Emperor Showa, known as Hirohito during his lifetime, has to meet with General Douglas MacArthur following Japan’s defeat by allied forces in 1945 (pictured above, their respective poses and dress being highly revealing). When Hirohito arrived at allied headquarters and is led to the MacArthur’s room, he stands and waits for a while. The American soldier stationed outside of MacArthur’s office finally understands: the Emperor has never opened a door by himself in his entire life since servants have always done this for he, and he doesn’t know how to. As part of  the American conditions imposed on post-war Japan, Hirohito, who was an expert marine biologist, was obliged to renounce his divinity (it has recently been revealed that MacArthur was a secret lifelong monarchist, a fact that may have saved the Japanese monarchy from abolition, as seemed completely inevitable until MacArthur’s mission). Hirohito fulfilled this requirement in a very ambivalent, oblique manner that passed largely unnoticed in Japan but which made headlines in the West. The current Emperor, Akihito, chose to make the traditional communion ceremony with the sun goddess, Amaterasu, when he was installed as sovereign in 1989. This was a very surprising decision and one to which he held fast, revealing that, like his father, he believes that he is a descendant of the sun deity. Clearly, solar iconography still burns brightly.

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Today’s cufflinks were made by the Danish jewellery firm Anton Michelsen and bear its maker’s mark on the stems. Their material is sterling silver -the cufflinks are heavy- with a central solar indentation having a gold-washed surface that has aged in an interesting way. Michelsen concentrated largely on ceramic-based jewel creations after 1968, when it was taken over by Royal Copenhagen, a ceramic firm, indicating that this item dates to the early to late 1960s. I like the craftsmanship of these cufflinks but, most of all, love the dominance of the silver and the fragility of the golden core, a singular refusal of solar tyranny.