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When I was barely an adolescent I read “Les Miserables” and the vast scope of the work caught my brain on fire. It was like living hundreds–or maybe thousands–of lives over multiple generations. We can (and will) return to that remarkable novel’s great themes of humanism, systematic oppression, historicism, Christianity, and economics (among other things), but for now I would like to concentrate on the first chapter of Book III. The chapter is titled “The Year 1817” and it details what everyone was talking about in France in 1817.
Naturally, the excited 14-year-old me was hoping for soaring words about battle, republic, redemption, and perfect compassion, and so the chapter was an immense disappointment. It was about the mincing affairs of unknown aristocrats and quibbles about fashion or taste which were utterly incomprehensible (and even more ridiculous). Here is a random sample of this Bourbon Restoration word salad:
Criticism, assuming an authoritative tone, preferred Lafon to Talma. M. de Feletez signed himself A.; M. Hoffmann signed himself Z. Charles Nodier wrote Therese Aubert. Divorce was abolished. Lyceums called themselves colleges. The collegians, decorated on the collar with a golden fleur-de-lys, fought each other apropos of the King of Rome. The counter-police of the chateau had denounced to her Royal Highness Madame, the portrait, everywhere exhibited, of M. the Duc d’Orleans, who made a better appearance in his uniform of a colonel-general of hussars than M. the Duc de Berri, in his uniform of colonel-general of dragoons– a serious inconvenience.
It goes on in this fashion for several pages. If you want the full effect, you can read the rest here (along with the other 1200 pages of the book, come to think of it).
Now I can understand these words individually, and even piece together their social importance, but the sense of momentous grandeur is entirely gone. This is, of course, as Victor Hugo wanted it. His true story was about people vastly beneath the notice of M. the Duc d’Orleans. To give the appropriate sense of scale, he needed to show how ephemeral the allegedly important and noteworthy people and things in a year actually are. What is really important takes longer to comprehend—and even the consensus of history keeps changing as history progresses. Naturally Hugo also wanted us to take a step back from our own time and realize that soon it will all be as dull, insipid, and inconsequential as the affairs of 1817.
I really really hope you will take that lesson to heart, because most of our shared experience is made of flotsam—stupid tv shows, bad songs, political hacks who are already fading away, ugly fashions, and useless hype. In 25 years, nobody but old fogeys and experts in early 21st century culture will have any idea who Beyonce is. In a hundred years nobody will understand Facebook or Google. Even if he destroys the republic and precipitates universal war, precious few people will recall Trump in 2217. By next week we will have forgotten this accursed “Milo” (who, I guess, is a failed actor who pretended to be a Nazi to make money off of conservative frenzy?). It already doesn’t make sense!
As you proceed through the year 2017, hang on to the lessons of “The Year 1817”. Most things that are current and fashionable and celebrated are useless piffle. Celebrity culture has always been a meretricious mask used to defraud people of their money and attention. The great are mostly not so great (sorry, Beyonce and Duc de Orleans), but beyond that, even the fundamental concept of current events or contemporary culture is predominantly a soap-bubble. And where does that leave us?
A popular luxury item of the ancient Mediterranean world was the unguentarium–a little glass container which contained perfume, salve, balm, or suchlike precious unguents (the purpose is right there in the name, people). Today we would probably keep such cosmetics or medicines in a hermetically sealed plastic containers vacuum sealed by machines with metal or foil tops, but the Romans did not have such materials or technology. In order to keep their basalms fresh, they used the glassblower’s art. The jalop was put in the container during manufacture and the glassmaker sealed it in.
In order to use such a material, the buyer would snap the glass and break the seal (and alas, the vessel). Dove-shaped unguentariums (or whatever the English plural of that word is) were particularly popular because the shape was beautiful and effective. A user could break the beak for getting small amounts or snap off the tail if she wanted to use all of her lotion at once. Additionally, doves were sacred to Venus–a particular favorite goddess of the Romans. I wonder what sort of lubricious lotions and potions were in these lovely glass doves. In some cases we could perhaps find out. Some of these were never broken by the people they were made for, now dead for more than a thousand years. We could break them and find out what the contents were with our machines…but after so long it seems like an unimaginable shame.
The year 2016 was infamous for death and grievous setback. While beloved celebrities died in droves, major western institutions were rocked to their core by poor choices (indeed the American democracy itself may be dead after voters decided to elect a nefarious con artist as president). The Great Barrier Reef, cheetahs, giraffes, beautiful compassionate elephants, and even teleosts all seem to be rapidly heading out the door as well. It makes you wonder about 2017.
However we are already getting away from the sad topic of 2016 obituaries. I loved David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher as much as anyone, but I feel like their lives were celebrated by, you know, popular websites. Ferrebeekeeper has always tried to emphasize scientists, artists, and people from my own life in the year-end obituaries, so I am leaving out David Bowie even though he arguably fits into “art” and “space” categories (and maybe “Deities of the Underworld”as well). You can read amazing obituaries about Prince, Princess Leia, and the Thin White Duke anywhere.
Harper Lee, (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was famous for writing a single book,To Kill a Mockingbird, a child’s eye view of America on the precipice of sweeping social changes.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali (November 14, 1922 – February 16, 2016) was an Egyptian diplomat who helped orchestrate Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and later served as a largely ineffectual U.N. secretary-general.
Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016) was an Italian novelist and semiotician who wrote popular works of fiction about medieval scholastic philosophy (!).
Bob Ebeling, 89, was a booster rocket engineer who spent thirty years filled with remorse that he was unable to stop the ill-fated 1985 launch of the space shuttle Challenger (which was destroyed by faulty O-rings in the booster rockets). His story is a cautionary tale for executives and politicians to listen to the people who build things.
Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was a country music star (ok, so we are slipping a pop star into this list) who came from a background of poverty and prison. His songs address the hard-scrabble nature of rural life in the south and west with a mixture of sadness, machismo, and national pride.
Marisol Escobar (May 22, 1930 – April 30, 2016) was a conceptual portrait sculptor of great originality (see Ferrebeekeeper tribute from spring).
Elie Wiesel, (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust. His stark & simple prose detailed the atrocities he experienced in a Nazi death camp. Despite the darkness of his personal history, Wiesel was a great humanist and humanitarian.
Edward Albee, (March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016) was a playwright whose twisting inward-looking writings detailed the anomie of post-war American. His plays ask probing questions about the possibility of finding true common ground in social relationships.
Bhumibol Adulyadej (December 5, 1927 – October 13, 2016) was the king of Thailand for a long time (see Ferrebeekeeper obituary).
Mark McFarland (July 13, 1961 — November 29, 2016). Mark and I were business partners. Together we created a line of animal building toys called”Zoomorphs.” After numerous corporate tribulations, we had a serious falling out. Although he was tormented by dark implacable personal demons (see above), his toys delighted hundreds of thousands of children.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016) was an American pilot, engineer, and astronaut. A war hero, who flew in over 122 combat missions during World War II and Korea, he was the first American to travel into Earth orbit in 1962. He later became a United States Senator and then became the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to space in 1998.
Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who demonstrated the existence of dark matter through visionary work on galactic rotation.
Richard Adams (May 9, 1920 – December 24, 2016) was a novelist who infused anthropomorphic fiction with zoology and naturalism (and with sociology and religion). I have trouble with some of these concepts. After all humans are animals too. maybe we need to revisit some of his works in future posts.
and there were so so many others–and I left a lot of people out. Sigh…good bye, 2016. We’re missing some people, but that is always the way of things. We will keep working to make it all better.
The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvarangam is a colossal temple to the Hindu god Vishnu (or, more specifically, it is dedicated to Ranganātha, a reclining form of Vishnu). Located on an island in the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu, the temple is one of the most illustrious (and largest) temples in India. The complex includes 21 monumental ornamental towers (including the 72 meter (236 foot) Rajagopuram), 39 pavilions, fifty shrines, all within a 156 acre complex which includes six miles of concentric walls. The shrines, walls, and towers are bedecked in stunning stone statuary painted in all of the brilliant colors of South India.
The story of the temple’s creation is steeped in Hindu myth: Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu completed his devotions to Vishnu by worshiping a mysterious idol. After killing Ravana and returning victorious from Sri Lanka (as detailed in the Ramayana) Rama gave this sacred statue to King Vibhishana. The king planned on taking the statue to Sri Lanka, but when he set it down while resting on an island, it became rooted to the spot.
The temple itself was built by the Chola Dynasty, India’s longest lived dynasty. There is a further legend of the temple’s construction: a Chola king chased a parrot into the deep forest and found the idol overgrown by jungle. He built the complex around the statue and the temple was maintained and expanded by the great dynasties of Southern India–the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties. The oldest parts of the building seem to date back to the 10th century AD, but written sources do not accurately convey the precise chronology. The great temples of South India are themselves primary historical sources, but alas, they are not as particular about dates as historians might like.
It is difficult to even begin to describe the sumptuous beauty and complexity of the ornaments of Sri Ranganathaswamy. The colorful and intricate statues of the figures from Vishnu’s lives and incarnations have an otherworldly and alien beauty not found elsewhere. Nor will I attempt to describe the meaning of Vishnu’s iconography (although if you are as smitten by his reclining beauty as I am you can read about Ananta Shesha, the many headed cobra god which serves as his divine couch).
Today amidst the internet flotsam and jetsam, there was a post about archaeologists discovering this exquisite mosaic in Şanlıurfa, Turkey. There are two male and two female figures surrounded by beautiful decorative frames of interlocking geometry. It is not known who the figures are–perhaps we will never find out–but look how expressive and amazing these ancient portraits are!
What is now the Turkish town of Şanlıurfa was once Edessa, capital of the kingdom of Osroene. The city has an ancient and complex history, but between 100 AD and 600 AD (which is the rough age estimate for this mosaic) it was a vassal state first to the Parthian Empire and later to the Roman Empire, before becoming part of the Byzantine Empire. Later on, in medieval times, Edessa would be taken by the Sassanid Empire, the first Caliphate, the Crusaders…and on and on and on.
However this mural seems (to me) to be an artwork of Osroene, where the Syriac dialect first developed. Syriac literature and culture flourished there. These people lived and died and were buried in rocky tombs (which were then buried beneath the Castle of Urfa and forgotten…till now.
One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society. In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era. Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.
Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items. At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.
The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm. Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.
Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops. The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society. The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros. Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…
Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things. In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.
Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful. Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?
Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much. But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?
Throughout October, I had the uneasy feeling that I was missing something….and lo! such was indeed the case… Sadly, I somehow forgot about the Shepheardes Calender October eclogue. I am now faced with an unappealing choice. Either I must publish the October chapter swiftly, before your memory of October fades away forever, or I must wait for next year. The Shephearde’s Calender came out in 1579, and the passage of the years is not making it any easier to understand, so I think we better have a belated little piece of October in November. On the plus side, the October eclogue actually makes sense: Cuddy is lamenting the poet’s life and the meager remuneration thereof. It all sounds too familiar somehow…. Here it is.
A R G V M E N T.
IN Cuddie is set out the perfecte paterne of a Poete, whishe finding no maintenaunce of his state and studies, complayneth of the contempte of Poetrie, and the causes thereof: Specially hauing bene in all ages, and euen amongst the most barbarous alwayes of singular accounpt & honor, & being indeede so worthy and commendable an arte: or rather no arte, but a diuine gift and heauenly instinct not to bee gotten by laboure and learning, but adorned with both: and poured into the witte by a certaine [enthusiasmos], and celestiall inspiration, as the Author hereof els where at large discourseth, in his booke called the English Poete, which booke being lately come to my hands, I mynde also by Gods grace vpon further aduisement to publish.
Cuddy, for shame hold up thy heavy Head,
And let us cast with what delight to chace,
And weary this long lingring Phoebus’ Race.
Whylom thou wont the Shepherd’s Lads to lead,
In Rimes, in Riddles, and in Bidding base:
Now they in thee, and thou in sleep art dead.
Piers, I have piped earst so long with pain,
That all mine Oaten Reeds been rent and wore;
And my poor Muse hath spent her spared Store,
Yet little Good hath got, and much less Gain.
Such Pleasance makes the Grashopper so poor,
And lig so laid, when Winter doth her strain.
The dapper Ditties thee I wont devise,
To feed Youth’s Fancy, and the flocking Fry,
Delighten much: what I the bett for-thy?
They han the Pleasure, I a slender Prize.
I beat the Bush, the Birds to them do fly:
What good thereof to Cuddy can arise?
Cuddy, the Praise is better than the Price,
The Glory eke much greater than the Gain:
O what an honour is it, to restrain
The Lust of lawless Youth with good Advice?
Or prick them forth with Pleasance of thy Vein,
Whereto thou list their trained Wills entice.
Soon as thou ‘gins to set thy Notes in frame,
O how the rural Routs to thee do cleave!
Seemeth thou doost their Soul of Sense bereave,
All as the Shepherd, that did fetch his Dame
From Pluto’s baleful Bower withouten leave:
His Musick’s Might the hellish Hound did tame.
So praysen Babes the Peacock’s spotted Train,
And wondren at bright Argus’ blazing Eye;
But who rewards him ere the more for-thy?
Or feeds him once the fuller by a grain?
Sike Praise is Smoke, that sheddeth in the Sky;
Sike Words been Wind, and wasten soon in vain.
Abandon then the base and viler Clown,
Lift up thy self out of the lowly Dust;
And sing of bloody Mars, of Wars, of Giusts;
Turn thee to those that weld the aweful Crown,
To doubted Knights, whose woundless Armour rusts,
And Helms unbruzed, wexen daily brown.
There may thy Muse display her fluttering Wing,
And stretch her self at large from East to West;
Whither thou list in fair Elisa rest,
Or if thee please in bigger Notes to sing,
Advance the Worthy whom she loveth best,
That first the white Bear to the Stake did bring.
And when the stubborn Stroke of stronger Stounds,
Has somewhat slackt the Tenor of thy String;
Of Love and Lustihead tho mayst thou sing,
And carrol loud, and lead the Millers round;
All were Elisa one of thilk same Ring,
So mought our Cuddy’s Name to Heaven sound.
Indeed the Romish Tityrus, I hear,
Through his Mecoenas left his Oaten Reed,
Whereon he earst had taught his Flocks to feed;
And laboured Lands to yield the timely Ear;
And eft did sing of Wars and deadly Dreed,
So as the Heavens did quake his Verse to hear.
But ah! Mecoenas is yclad in Clay,
And great Augustus long ygo is dead;
And all the worthies liggen wrapt in Lead,
That matter made for Poets on to play.
For ever, who in Derring-do were dread,
The lofty Verse of hem was loved aye.
But after Vertue ‘gan for Age to stoup,
And mighty Manhood brought a bed of ease;
The vaunting Poets found nought worth a Pease,
To put in preace among the learned Troup:
Tho ‘gan the Streams of flowing Wits to cease,
And sunbright Honour pen’d in shameful Coup.
And if that any Budds of Poesy,
Yet of the old Stock ‘gan to shoot again:
Or it Mens Follies mote so force to fain,
And roll with rest in Rimes of Ribaudry;
Or as it sprang, it wither must again:
Tom Piper makes us better Melody.
O peerless Poesie, where is then thy place?
If not in Princes Palace thou dost sit
(And yet is Princes Palace the most fit)
Ne Breast of baser Birth doth thee embrace;
Then make thee Wings of thine aspiring Wit,
And, whence thou cam’st, fly back to Heaven apace.
Ah Percy, it is all too weak and wan,
So high to sore and make so large a flight:
Her peeced Pineons been not so in plight,
For Colin fits such famous Flight to scan;
He, were he not with Love so ill bedight,
Would mount as high, and sing as soot as Swan.
Ah Fon, for Love does teach him climb so high
And lifts him up out of the loathsom Mire:
Such immortal Mirror, as he doth admire,
Would raise one’s Mind above the starry Sky,
And cause a caitive Courage to aspire:
For lofty Love doth loath a lowly Eye.
All otherwise the state of Poet stands;
For lordly Love is such a Tyrant fell,
That where he rules, all Power he doth expell,
The vaunted Verse a vacant Head demands,
Ne wont with crabbed Care the Muses dwell:
Unwisely weaves, that takes two Webs in hand.
Who ever casts to compass weighty Prize,
And think to throw out thundering Words of Threat,
Let pour in lavish Cups and thrifty Bits of Meat;
For Bacchus’ Fruit is friend to Phoebus’ Wise:
And when with Wine the Brain begins to sweat,
The Numbers flow as fast as Spring doth rise.
Thou kenst not, Percie, how the Rime should rage;
O if my Temples were distain’d with Wine,
And girt in Girlonds of wild Ivy Twine,
How I could rear the Muse on stately Stage,
And teach her tread aloft in Buskin line,
With queint Bellona in her Equipage.
But ah, my Courage cools ere it be warm,
For-thy content us in this humble Shade:
Where no such troublous Tides han us assaid,
Here we our slender Pipes may safely charm.
And when my Goats shall han their Bellies laid,
Cuddy shall have a Kid to store his Farm.
Agitante calescimus illo, &c.
Happy Halloween! This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish. I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically. Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right: they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans. Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances. Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world. Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.
The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me. Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube). At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device? Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.
The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths. Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse. The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.
I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page. You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age). I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!
Our week of dark art continues apace…hopefully you aren’t too overwhelmed by the vistas of beauty and horror…yet…MWAHAHA… Today we feature an image from a living artist, Santiago Caruso, an Argentine illustrator who is well-known for creating unique artworks for horror literature. Gustave Doré and Alfred Kubin have passed on their great reward, but Santiago is very much in the world of the living, so I am just going to post the one sample image above and recommend that you look him up or, better yet, go to his web gallery (so he gets the traffic for himself). The picture above shows the mind as a haunted cabinet of curiosities–a conceit which appeals to me greatly. Among the oddities on display are a cornucopia, a snake skeleton, and a twisted dark duck, but clearly there is more in the cabinet…and more which might be in the cabinet. The Latin epigram is from the great dark masterpiece of silver-aged Roman literature The Golden Ass. Roughly translated, it says “That which nobody knows about almost did not happen.” It makes one wonder what skeletons are in this ghastly closet (as though that was not already the foremost thought in everyone’s head as our ghastly election enters the homestretch). Go check out Santiago’s other work (although some of it is pretty NSFW) and think about the strange curiosities in your mental cabinet…if you dare…MWAHAHAHA.