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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Venus And Cage Crinoline

Having addressed three specific years in prior essays, 1892, 1964 and 1510, it would be apposite to expand beyond them and examine an epoch. An epoch is an interval memorable for extraordinary events --the historian's way of tying up loose ends. For this purpose I have selected the subdivision of time between one million B.C. and seven P.M.

It was during this period that humans made art. Art is an objective expression of thought and feeling and is mostly about stuff we like (or it doesn't sell). Sometime in the stone age people realized we were human and full of consequences. This had the aesthetic effect of scaring the hell out of us. So we decided to emphasize desirable consequences over undesirable ones. We invented beauty! Because I type slowly and have other things to do, this study will be limited to the evolution of Venus and the abolition of cage crinoline.

Nearly any human activity can result in art, and whittling a clod is stretching it but that is precisely what happened in the stone age. It resulted in The Venus Of Tan-Tan:

We could examine prehistoric Venuses --all of which epitomized feminine beauty in later ages-- of Berekhat Ram and Vaussel but they were still hip-and-bosom-heavy fertility figures unlikely to happen in nature or last long if they did --especially since they didn't always have heads or arms to do anything useful with. Despite the beauty they conveyed in their times, they all look like pocky rocks to us. It is at this juncture we must proceed to Venus de Milo. Unlike most of her predecessors, she had a head and, before they fell off and got lost (and let this be a lesson to everybody), arms.

This Venus was sculpted around 100 B.C. She looks like a woman. Archetypes were changing. An artistic and creative faction had ascended to the idea of reality and settled for it, but they were in a minority. Revolution ensued. Lots of people didn't want the paradigm of beauty to look anything like a real person. Opposing sides of this conflict were occupied by idiocy and truth. For a long time, idiocy won --as an examination of underwear attests. I refer to cage crinoline.

Here I will draw liberally upon an article in a back number of Stereo World magazine (from 1996) because I wrote it. Crinoline was a stiff, heavy fabric of horsehair and linen. Worn as a petticoat, it satisfied fertility configuration by exaggerating female contours beyond nature. Lighter cotton crinolines emerged in the 1800s. Gathered, bunched, bound, glued and sewn to other tackle, they equaled the original in strength and unlaunderability but didn't surpass it until 1856.

A patent was issued that year for a crinoline cage of steel hoops rigged to a waistband by tapes and wires. It not only looked like a big birdcage but posed the same problems in mobility and hygienic access. In the 1870s, after improving only from irritant to insult, crinoline departed the world of fashion. Its end was not peaceful.

The National Women's Suffrage Association formed in 1869 to challenge laws that denied women authority equal to their responsibilities. When, in 1872, Susan B. Anthony got arrested for voting, the cage crinoline became an especially effective metaphor.

This thrusts us forward to seven P.M. One hour before the traditional curtain time of musical theatre, I am standing beside a modern Venus, about to go out. She has a head and arms and normal contours, which I have appreciated for a good portion of human history and, I can attest, constitute a modern archetype. She also votes.

[picture credit: Daughter]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


["La scuola di Atene" by Raphael - File:Sanzio 01.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -]

Over this text is a fresco. Fresco is painting in wet plaster. Not freehand, that would admit too many variables even for Raphael, who did this one between 1509 and 1511. One starts with sketches and incorporates their primary lines into a cartoon. Cartoon is a drawing on stout paper, same size as the projected fresco, which one goes at with a pounce wheel --bigger than tailors use on patterns but same principle-- then the image is transferred to the wall by puffing charcoal through the holes. After that, one tries to get the painting done before the wall dries. Tricky work.

Around 1510, Raphael produced this fresco entitled "School Of Athens". It was intended to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura, or Popehouse, for Julius II and Leo X, whose careers coincided so closely it's pardonable to assume they were roomies. The fresco is in a chamber dedicated to human intellect. That means there were intellectual things in there. Leo kept a pet named Hanno. I don't know if Hanno was an indoor elephant or an outdoor one --or if it was housetrained (lack of housetraining is why I became a gardener), but suspect it was the reason Julius moved out.

The fresco was Raphael's idea of what a college should look like: philosophers of all ages lounging around on the steps of fantastic architecture, learning and teaching, fiddling with stuff like kittens do. He's got everybody on those stairs from Socrates to Sartre --even Zoroaster and himself! When I first saw a slide of this thing in college, I looked down at my hard desk, my unlaundered jeans, sensible shoes and despaired. How much easier it would be each morning to simply roll out of bed in one's sheet and wear that all day.

Togas were a pre-Christian-missionary invention. You didn't have to make outfits to clothe the naked. You just tore off a bit of your sheet and let them spin into it if they wanted. I remember college and know many of the naked didn't want to be clothed. Students used to make friends among the naked and would not dream of insulting them with a whole industry designed to cover them up. But the composition has other points of interest. It includes Epicurius, Pythagorus, Xenophon, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato and Euclid. The central, reclining figure is Diogenes --but in the cartoon, which now reclines among the treasures of Milan, Diogenes is a talking duck in a sailor suit.

Point is, these boys all had two things in common. They all devoted their lives to a calm inquiry into existence. They valued existence especially because they believed in a universe that is geometrically closed. That means it only has a certain amount of energy in it, subject to laws of conservation. Because the universe is a closed system --that is, there's nothing until it gets there-- all energy can be traced back to its beginning. The energy I use to write this, and the energy you use to read it, connects us to the beginning and ends of time. In college we sometimes got off the stairs to protest war, which we considered poor use of the universe's finite energy.

Other thing the philosophers had in common was room in the imagination of Raphael, who was a good use of the universe's energy.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


In keeping with a somewhat irritating recent preoccupation with dates, I am going to examine 1964. Hadn't intended to, but I was in the pumphouse  and found an old uniform patch in a disused humidor --as one does. I picked it up, ran my thumb over its stiff threads and thought of old chums --Tom, Jack, the boys we used to be. The embroidered patch measures about one and a half inches by two and depicts our first president, Geo. Washington, on bended knee proposing to a lily.

The lily is a fleur-de-lis, a heraldic flower that does not occur in nature. It represents royalty, in which case it's unlikely Gen. Geo. was proposing marriage. It also represents north, which makes Washington's pose even more improbable. However, the patch was one I wore on my Boy Scout uniform that year and fleur-de-lis was on everything scouty. Also, north is a favorite direction of mine so I gave it benefit of the doubt.


I just made a long arm and fetched my Handbook For Boys --39th printing-- and found this: "You probably know there is a huge chunk of iron in the earth, up north, that attracts the magnetized needle of your compass -- that this iron deposit is known as the magnetic north pole." --page 162. I have never had reason to challenge this idea. Even now, the symbol attracts my memory like a big magnetic brain-chunk.

I am in my 60s now and highly suspicious of brain-chunks. I do not like to think my hairline is receding so much as my mind is expanding, but one cannot rule out brain-chunks. I was only 14 for most of that year and thought no more of them than I did of dingleberries on livestock.

In the summer of 1964, last half of July, I was one of 50,000 Boy Scouts camped in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. You probably know about Geo. Washington's awful winter there in 1777. It was all snow and blizzards and the Continental Army ruining in ice. If you were in a high school marching band in the 1960s, you probably know that's where your uniform got donated from. Here is a slight exaggeration of what Valley Forge looks like in summer:

It was hot. It was very hot and my chums, Tom and Jack, and I tried to do all the things Boy Scouts are supposed to do. We were, after all, young Americans with vigorous bodies, hearts of lions and the digestion of goats. We hiked and tied knots, worked on merit badges, cooked and puked. But usually we'd give in to the heat, find a little shade, share cigarettes and discuss the future. We liked discussing the future --there was so much of it back then-- and as our stay proceeded we got excited about it. President Johnson was going to visit the Jamboree on its final evening and give a lecture about the future.

That evening arrived, unfortunately not without incident. One scout, in a dash to catch up with his troop, was hit by a bus. Word spread and we all reflected negatively upon our illusion of immortality. Jack led Tom and me in a prayer over our little supper. Jack was very religious, even though he laughed when I once asked him why the Pope dressed like a hand-puppet and considered the symbolism instructive. He responded by asking why we dressed like circus chimps. There were no answers.


Doubts were forming even as we made our way to three hills that served as rough seating for 50,000 boys. Three slopes converged upon a dingle and we arranged ourselves like berries around it. There was a little stage and microphone down there. Lyndon Johnson arrived! We clapped and clapped.

The president began by assuring us we were "the hope of Amurricah", then outlined what we might expect of our country. He said: in the next 50 years tremendous progress would be made in medicine, the puzzling out of biological mysteries; space exploration would take us closer to the stars and advance earthly technology, especially in communication. From this remove of a half-century, I must admit he was correct. We clapped and clapped. But still, there was doubt. Jack and I looked over at Tom. He was not clapping.

"Come Tom," I said."Clap for Lyndon!"

He clenched his teeth and said, "Do you have any idea what that s.o.b. is going to demand we do in four years?"

Having learned sufficient wilderness survival skills to decide against a career in homelessness, I left the Boy Scouts shortly thereafter. Jack also quit to pursue an interest in sociology, then psychology and finally theology. Tom stayed in Scouts longest, well into high school and his teeth remained permanently clenched. Years later, I asked him why.

"Brown shirts," He said through teeth. "I like the brown shirtssss."

Tom became a neo-Nazi. Jack became a Catholic priest. As usual, I became a gardener.