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It’s time we had a painful talk about the pornographic ‘novel’, “Fifty Shades of Gray,” a best-seller published in 2011/2012.   [Disclaimer: I haven’t read this work nor watched the awful-looking movies.  I am guilty of a cardinal sin of scholarship: writing about something I haven’t read.  I don’t care: I never plan to read this thing.  My point here is not really about bad popular fiction] This uh…romance (?) book is about a shy & awkward virginal nobody who is sent to interview a manipulative billionaire creep.  Unsurprisingly, the manipulative billionaire seduces her with his obscene wealth and power and locks her in a contract where he is allowed to do anything he wants to her. Romance ensues!

It is tempting to look at this moronic plot, shrug, and say “Who likes this stuff?” Yet actually, we should not be surprised that this book was a top-of-the charts best-seller for years–a second look reveals it to be an extremely germane allegory of our actual lives.  America’s fantasies of being enslaved and abused by creepy billionaires are not harmless fantasies: they are the reality of our times!  It is the top item of the news every day.  The extent to which this slimy bondage narrative about billionaires abusing underlings has become the main story of our entire culture should not be overlooked or underestimated.

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The characters in “Fifty Shades of Gray” at least have a safe word.  We do not.  The new oligarchs can do anything they wish and face almost no repercussions (as was illustrated by the lack of accountability for the events which caused the Great Recession…and illustrated again, afterwards, when the people who caused the crisis became much richer).   This is because of a devilish nexus of market consolidation and oligopoly.  Since the super rich now own almost everything (including the media outlets and tech platforms we use to communicate), it also means that we live in a world awash in glowing panegyrics to these monopolists,raiders, and conmen. We also live in a country where both political parties are captured and compromised by monopolistic moneyed interests (all of this is elucidated in this rather superb Atlantic essay about how the political crisis of the 21st century is taking us much further down “the road to serfdom” than we would have imagined).

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Obviously in addressing these problems, I am talking about President Trump, but I don’t think Trump is actually a billionaire.  He lost his inherited fortune in the 80s and has been adding billions and billions of dollars of increasingly shady debt ever since.  However he certainly identifies as a billionaire (snicker) and he serves the crooked schemes of oligarchs…and the even darker schemes of his unknown true creditors. It is these finance, tech, and real-estate tycoons who are the real problem.  Unfortunately it is difficult to even fathom how they are removing real competition from the system or real political power from the hands of voters.  Here is a rather fascinating article about he true darkness of money in politics.

If you followed that link you will see it was mostly about money in conservative political circles, but the Democratic Party has a similar problem.  Every day some new Christian Gray flies out of the sky and offers to tie us up and save us from ourselves.  “Come on, you know you’ll like it” says Bloomberg as he pushes us onto a stained sofa and fumbles for the straps.

In case you are laboring under the ingenuous middle-class fantasy that this applies to all of those slutty self-hating poor people but not to a worthy, hot, hard-working burgher like yourself then wake up! We are all poor compared to people whose net worth is measured in nine and ten and figures.  The prevalence of SLAPP suits, K Street consultants, and secret nondisclosure agreements  with Epsteins,  Weinsteins, and Michael Jacksons reflects a world where the rich are too big to fail and the rest of us are two small to ever succeed.

It all needs to change. Instead of wasting your life in some monopolistic company’s taupe open office while counting other people’s money or building marketing concepts for stuff you can’t afford, you could have your own business.  Instead of health care that can only be obtained through working for a gigantic company, we could have a real safety net.  We need rules and regulations, but not the sort of rules that can only be followed by organizations with giant compliance departments and that only benefit huge corporate cartels.  Barriers to market entry that are too high for anyone who isn’t an international oligarch. Globalism is the story of how vast new international cartels and oligopolies have broken politics and culture in such a way that we can’t even respond (except with essays that nobody reads).

This is unacceptable.  Let us talk about how to rewrite this bad codependant SM tale.

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The French were the original masters of the erotic tale.  From Clovis I until Louis XVI, they wrote an unrivaled “Shades of Gray” style series of bondage novels which started hard and grew even more perverted and extreme as the centuries rolled by.  But the French people got tired of this series and flipped the script and rewrote the whole premise in the boldest way possible.  Perhaps we need to think of doing some radical editing and rewriting before the story of our own lives becomes even more like “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “The Story of O”.

We can rewrite this tale with thoughtful political reform and  redistribution (we use to call such thing taxes and expect everyone to pay their fair share so we could have a society and make real scientific discoveries).  Billionaires need to sign up for this and agree to just being extremely wealthy instead of needing to have ALL the wealth. Otherwise someday they will find not President Trump or Bloomberg, but President Robespierre.  They should think that the forces we are now unleashing could result in billionaires getting screwed too. Not the Christian Gray way.  The French 1789 way.

 

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An artist’s conception of Ani during the reign of King Gagik I (ca 1000 AD) at the height of its power and success

One of the unexpected things I learned about when studying Byzantine history was the existence of Ani, “the city of 1001 churches.”  At its zenith, around the the beginning of the 11th century AD, Ani was one of the largest cities in Central Asia. Ani was the capital, ecclesiastical center, and chief city of the Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia.  During the long reign of the gifted King Gagik I (989–1020 AD), Ani supported a population of more than 100,000 inhabitants.   The great stone city of churches, monasteries, bridges, and shops was located on a naturally protected triangular elevation with the ravine of the Akhurian River on one side (providing abundant water) and steep valleys on the other two sides.  Some inspired artist made this astonishing map of Ani at its heyday (here is a link to a high-res image).  Not only does the image illustrate the opulent beauty and sophistication of Ani, the decorative map also shows how it was nestled beautifully in its protected location.

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The Kingdom of Armenia was likewise admirably situated between the Byzantine Empire to the west, the Abbassid Caliphate to the south, the Georgian kingdoms to the north.  To the east were riches! Ani was near the western terminus of the famed silk road which runs through Central Asia.

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Today though, Ani is known (insomuch as it is known at all) for being an uninhabited ruin. It is a disconsolate city of the dead, despised and ignored by its Turkish overlords as a hateful symbol of medieval Christian Armenia.  A few empty cathedrals and ruined churches sit in the wasteland like the sad bones of a feast devoured a thousand years ago.

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What happened to destroy this thriving city?  Well, as you might imagine, it was conquered again and again by meddling potentates and invading armies from all of those various states around it.  The most serious of these invasions was in 1064 when a Seljuk army under the command of Sultan Diya ad-Dunya wa ad-Din Adud ad-Dawlah Abu Shuja Muhammad Alp Arslan ibn Dawud (to use his full name) sacked Ani after a 25 day seige. Here is a description of the occasion from Sibṭ ibn al-Jawzi, the famous Baghdad-born scholar and historian:

Putting the Persian sword to work, [the Seljuk invaders] spared no one… One could see there the grief and calamity of every age of human kind. For children were ravished from the embraces of their mothers and mercilessly hurled against rocks, while the mothers drenched them with tears and blood… The city became filled from one end to the other with bodies of the slain and [the bodies of the slain] became a road. […] The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive…The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000 souls. I was determined to enter city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible…

But what left the Kingdom of Armenia so weakened and unable to defend itself that the Seljuks were able to do as they pleased?  Division and ruinous factionalism! King Gagik had two sons who bitterly fought over the succession.  The favored elder son controlled Ani and its cosmopolitan wealth, while the other son controlled the countryside.   So greatly did the brothers despise each other that they set the country folk and city folk against each other and invited outsiders into Armenia hoping to secure a political advantage. The Byzantine Emperor Michael IV, claimed sovereignty over Ani in 1041. The Byzantines hollowed out Ani’s wealth and strength for their own ends leaving it defenseless against the Seljuks.  After the 1064 sack described above, the Seljuks sold the decimated city to the Shaddadids, a Muslim Kurdish dynasty, which was largely tolerant of Ani’s Christianity. Yet the Shaddadids fought with Georgians. The Georgians fought with Mongols.  Mongols fought with Persians.  By the time, the Turks took over in 1579, all that was left was a small town nestled in the rubble and even that was abandoned by 1735.

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Undoubtedly Ani’s location at the edge of the Central Asian steppe did it no favors; yet a clever historian or political theorist might be able to draw other important lessons from Ani’s fate. One wonders what other cities will look like Ani a thousand years from now…assuming there even are any cities.  These days, humankind’s mistakes are coming in whole new orders of magnitude from those of a thousand years ago when a city the size of modern-day Peoria was considered one of the largest cities in all of Eurasia.

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American Forest Before the Chestnut Blight

Once upon a time, American deciduous forests were filled with a magnificent tree, the American chestnut tree.  It is estimated that, prior to the twentieth century, a quarter of the trees in the forests of Appalachia were chestnut trees.  The trees grew to 30 metres (98 ft) in height and were prized for giving stout timber and large quantities of delicious nuts.  They were also renowned for their beauty.  But then, something bad happened.  In 1904, some Asian chestnut trees were planted in the Bronx (in what is now the Bronx zoo).  These Chinese chestnut trees had a pathogenic fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, living on them.  Chestnut tree species of Asia have evolved some defenses to this rapidly spreading fungus, but the two American species were completely unprepared.  By 1950, the blight had killed more than four billion trees and only strange isolated single specimens and sad still-living (yet undead) stumps remained.  The chestnut blight opened our eyes to the perils of invasive species in a world of almost-instant shipping (although I don’t think we have yet fully understand how pervasive and potentially dangerous fungi can be), it also marked an irreversible change to our beautiful forests…

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Evidence of the Chestnut Blight!

Except maybe not.  Molecular biologists, mycologists, and arborists have been quietly working for years to hybridize a blight-resistant modern American chestnut tree.  They failed at hybridizing a vigorous tree with the desired characteristics of the original American chestnut trees, so they turned to transgenic tinkering and this technology has yielded results.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at New York state’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry has utilized the same sort of technology behind genetically modified crops (like BT rapeseed and such) in order to create American chestnut trees which have a gene from wheat that helps the trees survive and tolerate Cryphonectria parasitica.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project is readying an army of these genetically altered trees to go into the wild forests and reseed North America as it used to be, but their plan is not without controversy.

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Some opponents worry (understandably) that bringing back the chestnut will represent “a massive and irreversible experiment” on our living forests.  Additionally, as we know from the hysterical response to transgenic crops in Europe and even here, many people are extremely emotional and ill-informed about gene-manipulation technologies (probably because the phrase “gene-manipulation technologies” sounds so much like a 1950s horror movie tagline).   Transgenic blight-resistant American chestnut trees still need regulatory review from the Food and Drug Administration (and maybe the Environmental Protection Agency) before they can be planted and allowed to disperse pollen.  Such a process may take many years.  Yet tree lovers and concerned ecologists point out that the near-extinction level mass deaths of American chestnuts was caused by humankind’s actions and choices.  And more blights are arriving every year to destroy other cherished species of trees.  We live in a world of emerald ash borers, Dutch Elm Disease, spotted lantern flies, gypsy tent moths, and oak wilt.  If we don’t start doing something, the only tree left might be the diabolical invasive tree of heaven (I can’t believe nobody commented on that post! Am I the only person to despise that nightmarish monster?).

The regulators are starting to analyze the proper course of action, and I guess we will be hearing more from them, but, in the meantime, what do you think?

 

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Ghostly Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink on paper

I meant to post a weird evil clown flounder picture which I had (a “clownder”?), but, infuriatingly, I could not find it among my boxes of drawings.  I suspect it will show up next year, during election season when we have forgotten all about evil clowns (rolls eyes).  Anyway, for Halloween, I will just put up the drawing I was working on for All Soles Day, the biggest holiday in the flounderist’s calendar (?).  It is a picture of a ghostly sole, on the bottom of the ocean surrounded by apparitions playing musical instruments and ethereal sea creatures and monsters.  There are some other things in there as well.  Hopefully it is becoming evident that my flatfish series of artworks represent an elegy for the dying oceans.  Shed a pearlescent tear!  But also remember: the oceans are in deep trouble, but they are not dead yet.  Filled with plastic and floating Chinese fish factories and bleached coral and acidified warm water they still team with life.  We could safe them and live together on a beautiful planet, but we will have to be better versions of ourselves.  It is a chilling message for All Sole’s Day (and an unhumerous end to Halloween season) but it is the most important advice you will find on the internet, despite the fact that it is abstract and open-ended.  Just look at the picture though, you wouldn’t want to live in a world with dead oceans would you…I mean even if you could.

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This year’s Halloween theme (both in Ferrebeekeeper and our benighted democracy) is “Evil Clowns”.  Clowns date back to dynastic Egypt and they have always been liminal figures who have straddled lines between wisdom and foolishness, outcast and insider, living person and weird effigy, and even between good and evil.  Evil clowns really got up and running as a meme in the 19th century with stories like “Hop Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe, yet there is a critical precursor which I overlooked.  Back when I was young and innocent, I started a toy company with a mysterious & dodgy business person I met.  For some reason, running an international business proved impossible, but I loved making toys and I also enjoyed looking back through the history of toys which combines cultural, technological, and art history (and which stretches to before Eridu rose from the mud).  Evil clowns turn out to have a very direct link with one of the most successful and powerful toy concepts of the last thousand years.

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In the early 16th century, a German clock-maker known as Claus built the first known example of what we would call a “Jack in the Box” for a local princeling.  Claus built a wooden box which popped open when the user turned the crank.  Except it wasn’t a clown that popped out, it was a devil!  The French name for this toy is “diable en boîte” (devil in a box) which hearkens back to the first generation jack-in-the-boxes which were all devils.   Some toy historians speculate that all of this was related to a 14th century English prelate named Sir John Schorne who was said to possess a boot with a devil inside it (for reasons which are obscure).

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Fairly on, jack-in-the-box toys diversified from being just devils, but a lot of these clowns maintained a sort of Krampus-like demonic aspect to them.  Here are some photos I stole at random from around the web and I think they illustrate how alarming Jack in the boxes are (although people with sensitive and anxious temperaments could already tell you that–this is after all a toy meant to startle you)

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Gah! Just look at these puppies…and they were made for children.  Jack-in-the-boxes are already bad enough, but imagine if one of these things popped out.  The depraved marketers for the movie “It” made a jack-in-the-box featuring Pennywise, the evil clown from that movie (see below) but frankly Pennywise looks like he would be mugged by any of these older anonymous jack-in-the-box clowns.  It is hard to say anything with certainty when we are talking about nebulous and ancient cultural concepts, but I wonder if the idea of clowns as terrifying bogey-men didn’t come as much from generations of jack-in-the-box scarred children as from literary lions like King and Poe.

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Is this thing…a garbage can?

Ok, these evil clowns are sort of getting to me (and we have a lot more territory to cover before Halloween) so let’s take a little breather with some clown mascots!  Now this brings us to a classic problem which lies at the heart of the uneasy love/fear/contempt relationship we have with clowns.  Clowns wear make-up, prosthetics and masks (assuming they aren’t just a picture of a crazy face–like some of these characters). These exaggerated new features blur or occlude the very subtle facial muscles which we primates are laser-focused on in order that we can tell if a grinning stranger is a new ally or a murderous lunatic.  If the orbicularis oris is occluded with paint–or cast in imperishable plastic!–is hard to tell if a clown is evil or wretched or…happy, I guess.

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Clarabell the Clown was Howdy Doody’s mute partner and the definitive TV clown of the generation before mine

All of this is a long way of introducing some old familiar clown mascots while asking that you examine them with a fresh eye.  When seen anew, some of these guys look a lot more disturbing then I recall–not to mention the fact that they are almost all trying to sell greasy sugary food, weird costumes, or dangerous carnival rides!  You can really see how people become afraid of clowns…or capitalism.  But don’t worry, this is a safe space and this big-shoed saunter down memory lane is all in good fun.

 

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Ronald McDonald was the face of McDonalds when I was growing up, and he can still be found around the 36,000 McDonald’s restaurants worlwide…but I feel like they have been moving him towards a more ceremonial role and shilling deep-fried fast food by other means

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Is Jack Box of Jack in the Box even technically a clown?

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Oh wow! It’s Osaka’s Famous Clown Mascot, Kuidaore Taro!

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Bozo was a figure from the first days of television–he was franchised but each station had their own version!

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Dammit, Mr. Softee, get out of here, you are clearly an ice-cream.

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The Grinning Face of Steeplechase is still an emblem of Coney Island

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GET. KRINKLES. AWAY. NOW.

 

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Emmett Kelly as famous depression-era clown, Weary Willie

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I just don’t know…

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The Trademark Jester of Mardi Gras!

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To say nothing of vintage pinball!

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The Vintage Fanta Jester

Well that was a refreshing break, I guess.  It does illustrate the point that clowns–even the most anodyne ones meant to sell pop and hamburgers–are pretty unknowable and stand right in the middle of the uncanny valley.  Yet they are inexpensive corporate spokespeople and they have a way of hanging on in our memories, if only for nostalgia’s sake.

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OMG! It’s Sweet Tooth from “Twisted Metal”! Did we ever unlock him? Robbie? Nick? Anybody?

 

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Self Portrait With Masks (James Ensor, 1899)  oil on canvas

Yesterday we sure had some…fun?…looking back at the evil clowns in the literature and music of yesteryore.  Before we push through to the evil clowns of the twentieth & 21st centuries (and examine why they excite and disturb so may people), let’s take a break and check out some disturbing clown art from Belgium’s most famous artist!  This is not Ferrebeekeeper’s first post about dark clown art–we already featured a controversial evil contemporary clown painting a few years back (it is funny–and maybe meaningful–to reflect that that post was from the last Halloween when I was a drinker!). But anyway, in today’s post, we are going to try to look at art which is not contemporary (since the art world these days sometimes seems like nothing but evil clowns), yet, moving back in time to look at James Ensor’s garish & phantasmagorical artwork raises a lot of disturbing questions.

Now whereas we know whether clowns of literature and opera are evil, things become less clear when we get to visual art–since all we have are visual cues.  Clearly the wistful clowns of Picasso’ rose period, the clowns of Pigalle as seen through the eyes of Toulouse Lautrec, and the sad twilight clown of Watteau don’t belong here (gosh, artists really do like clowns!).  Instead we are going to look at the decidedly mixed nihilistic clowns of James Ensor.

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James Ensor (1860-1949) was a sort of outsider artist of the Symbolist era.  He lived in his parents’ attic much of his life and rarely traveled.  His mother owned a costume shop, so, one could argue that many of these “clowns” are really strange masks or ludicrous costumes.  What is a clown though, but a masked costumed comic performer?  Ensor’s art might be described as thriftshop existentialism: skeletal beggars and weird apparitions in fancy rags struggle through their days towards oblivion.

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Two Skeletons fighting over a Dead Man (James Ensor 1891) oil on canvas

A more cutting argument might be that Ensor’s clowns are sad rather than evil.  A lot of these clowns do look very sad indeed–like they are trapped with the three stooges in an Albert Camus novel.  One of Ensor’s paintings (immediately above) features two bedraggled skeletons fighting each other for the corpse of a hanged person as a bizarre cast of ghostly outsiders look on.  All of the figures are dressed weirdly and have peculiar makeup, but are any of them evil?  Are any of them clowns?  Are any of them living humans at all? Maybe???  It certainly doesn’t matter: the pitiable spectacle paints existence as a nihilistic and sordid tableau with such force that it doesn’t matter if I have betrayed the theme of today’s post by putting it up. It’s not like evil clowns are paying me for writing this anyway [evil clowns, if you want to pay me just drop a note in the comments and we can move the discussion to email]

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King Pest (James Ensor, 1895) etching

Ensor was also a political artist.  For some reason, he felt that the pompous masters of society were abusing and degrading the people below them in the social hierarchy.  He was not however a romantic or an idealist:  one gets the sense that the victims in these interactions would behave just as meanly if the roles were reversed.  Ensor was also famously an atheist (although he sometimes painted Jesus as a sort of ultimate moral philosopher).  The haunted queasy feeling of these works is thus a metaphor for ultimate oblivion.

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Comical Repast: Banquet of the Starved( James Ensor, ca. 1917-18) oil on canvas

Ensor painted life as a meaningless clown show where social hierarchy was a rickety ladder of betrayal and corruption.  In his world, everyone is a sad clown, but the aggressive, abusive, and domineering clowns are in command because of their mean tricks.  It is not an uplifting view of existence, but he painted it with such bravura force and ghastly energy that his work has a sublime aspect.

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Red and White Clowns Evolving (James Ensor, 1890)

There is a spirit of bitter mockery and unfulfilling vengeance which motivates these works about fin de siècle European society as it moves towards the Great Wars.  Evil clowns in literature and art are all about vituperative nonbelief!  James Ensor got that.   His clowns are a cutting metaphor for cruel existential absurdity.  And, to wrap up, here is Hop Frog again!

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Hop-Frog’s Revenge (James Ensor,1896) Oil on Canvas

Though I had my doubts when I first started writing this, I now have to say, some of these clowns are not just sad, they are definitely super evil.  Thanks James Ensor, you always come through!

 

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The Assassination (James Ensor, 1888)

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Ok! Well, evidently it’s evil clown week here at Ferrebeekeeper so I guess we better aim for the juggler and find some evil clowns to start with.  As we will see later this week, clowns, jesters, mimes, buffoons, and comic/disturbing tricksters go wayyyyy back to the roots of civilization (and beyond?) in pretty much every civilization. Brother Jung really seems to have been on something…um, I mean onto something when he identified this as an enduring human archetype.  However the definitive evil clown as a well-known literary trope is rather more recent.  Our Western clown tradition descends from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Comic buffoons were a mainstay in the bits of Roman comedy which have survived, yet, although the clowns of Terence and Plautus were lusty and sometimes violent, they are principally oafs who are not necessarily together enough or self-aware enough to be properly evil.  The Roman clowns of antiquity were certainly grotesque and disturbing though (and we only have bits and pieces of Roman art, culture, and literature–it’s possible there were evil clowns we just don’t know about).  This tradition of clowns as earthy, honest, and physical continued on through the dark ages.  Medieval jesters, such as we find highlighted in the works of Shakespeare, were slanted characters: they are risible and rather sad, yet they can speak truth to the most powerful figures (and they seem to know some of the dark secrets of the grave as well).  The Yorick scene from Hamlet does not involve an evil clown per-se, but it is a messed-up and gruesome scene.

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To my (sadly incomplete) knowledge the first proper evil clown of our study is found in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The grotesque cripple Hop Frog (from the 1849 story “Hop Frog”) is a small person and slave who is forced to serve as a jester and general punching bag for a cruel king (you can read the entire original story right here, and should do so now if you want to avoid spoilers).  Hop Frog is a pitiable figure whose deformity pains him and who is unable to protect his one friend, the lovely small woman, Trippetta, as the grotesque narcissistic monarch and his seven wicked councilors torment them.

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Poe’s brilliance is that he makes us sympathize fully with the dwarf (the literary antecedent to Oskar Matzerath and Tyrion Lannister) and despise the king.  Indeed the evil king is practically an evil clown himself: he’s a showman who brutally insults and hurts people “as a joke” (this cruel, debauched, and loutish ruler seems weirdly familiar). We thus become complicit in Hop Frog’s scheme for revenge.  And Hop Frog gets full vengeance!  The trick he pulls on the king and the seven cruel ministers results in the death of all eight–in the most mortifying, painful, and public spectacle possible, while Hop Frog uses his upper arm-strength (and planning abilities) to escape with Trippetta.  Hop Frog is quite sympathetic…at first but the reader’s sympathy is part of Poe’s own cruel jape.  The way the little jester gets the king to conspire in his own demise (the murder seems like a staged prank–to such a degree that nobody helps the dying monarch and courtiers)  is so hideous that, by the end of the story, the reader does not know what to think and has nobody to sympathize with.  There is a room filled with charred bodies dangling on chains and the clown (and his paramour) are nowhere to be found.

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The fame of Poe’s work (and the bourgeoning circuses of the rapidly industrializing 19th century) brought more evil clowns to prominence during that century! In Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci (which means “clowns”) the jealous and manipulative Tonio obtains revenge upon Nedda and her lover while dressed as a clown…inside a play…inside an opera.

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With both Hop Frog and Pagliacci the murderous wrath of a costumed maniac is only part of the horror.  Arguably the staged manipulation of different levels of verisimilitude is the truly disconcerting aspect of the works. Even in their earliest manifestations, the best trick of the evil clown was to stage manage the audience’s fear into something which crept through different layers of artifice into the real worlf.  These tricks within tricks… inside plays within plays… become a dark hall of mirrors where the fears of social disorder metastasize into something darker… [to be continued]

 

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We are in the second half of October and it’s high time to reveal Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween theme for 2019!  Past years have featured themes like Flowers of the Underworld, The Mother of Monsters, Flaying, Necropolises, and, my personal favorite, The Undead.  A cursory glance at the top-selling masks at the giant costume shop on Broadway has made me realize that this year can only have one choice.  For mysterious reasons which probably have half to do with contemporary American politics and half to do with winding up an accursed jack-in-the-box found at the annex of Hell (insomuch as those two things are different), this is the year of scary clowns.  Who is Ferrebeekeeper to stand in the way of this tiny car filled with quasi-infinite dark pranksters?

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In 2019 Joker, Harley Quinn, and Pennywise rule the box office,  Pagliacci rules the opera house, and “Clown Girl” rules the Barnes and Noble (ok, actually, maybe I am the only person who read Monica Drake’s perplexing 2007 down-and-out in Baloneytown novel, but it has certainly stayed with me).

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Clowns are hardly a modern or even a western phenomena.  They stretch through almost every culture and, as we shall see, they trace their roots to the beginning of civilization (and probably beyond).  Carl Jung, who has many strange and interesting things to say, sees teh trickster as one of the oldest and most fundamental archetypes which humans recreate again and again.  On one hand the trickster is a figure of buffoonish comic fun, and yet,  the trickster’s nature has always been dual.  Let’s hear a quote from Jung himself (from Four Archetypes: Mother Rebirth Spirit Trickster):

In picaresque tales, in carnivals and revels, in magic rites of healing, in man’s religious fears and exaltations, this phantom of the trickster haunts the mythology of all ages, sometimes in quite unmistakable form, sometimes in strangely modulated guise.n He is obviously a “psychologem,” an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity. In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level. That this is how the trickster figure originated can hardly be contested if we look at it from the causal and historical angle. In psychology as in biology we cannot afford to overlook or underestimate this question of origins, although the answer usually tells us nothing about the functional meaning. For this reason biology should never forget the question of purpose, for only by answering that can we get at the meaning of a phenomenon. Even in pathology, where we are concerned with lesions which have no meaning in themselves, the exclusively causal approach proves to be inadequate, since there are a number of pathological phenomena which only give up their meaning when we inquire into their purpose. And where we are concerned with the normal phenomena of life, this question of purpose takes undisputed precedence.

Wow! Brother Carl really did have some peculiar things to say.  What on Earth is he talking about?  Join me in the days leading up to Halloween and we will see if we can make sense of what he is talking about by looking at clowns in history and art, and running the trickster back to his/her ancient roots.

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Of course, trying to trap and analyze the ancient spirit of dark mischief doesn’t sound like a venture which is going to work, but at least there should be some spine-tingling surprises and some hair raising mishief (and maybe some funny pratfalls).  Anyway, it’s all in good seasonal fun.  What is the worst that could happen?

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Oh…

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Self-Portrait of Theodor de Bry (1597) engraving

Uh, happy Columbus Day…maybe? Some holidays don’t age well, and the Italian-American festival of the European rediscovery (and colonial conquest) of the New World certainly seems to be under exceedingly stern re-evaluation.  While other people are working on that project, let’s run away and check out some amazing and also quite problematic exploration-era art of the New World.  The Flemish illustrator and engraver Theodor de Bry was born is Spanish controlled Netherlands in 1528.  Both his father and his grandfather were engraver/illustrator/jewelers and they taught him the family trade (which he in turn passed down to his own son).  Although born a Catholic, the religious controversies and reforms of his time moved de Bry to convert to Protestantism, which caused enormous trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (which was all-powerful in the Netherlands, since the low countries were then a part of Spain).  Thus, in 1570, at the tender age of 42, De Bry and his family were permanently exiled from Spanish-controlled Liege, and all of his possessions were confiscated by the state/church.

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A refugee, De Bry moved first to moved to Strasbourg. Then in 1577, he moved to Antwerp (which was then part of the Duchy of Brabant).  Between 1585 and 1588 he lived in London, and then in 1588, De Bry and his family moved permanently to Frankfurt.  To make ends meet, he illustrated books concerning the exploration and geography of the New World.  If you reread the history of De Bry’s desperate scramble around Northern Europe, you may note that American destinations are notably lacking.  His famous engravings of the New World, which influenced a generation of rulers, thinkers, explorers, and artists were made by someone who never set eyes upon the New World.

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The Coast of Virginia (Theodor de Bry, ca. 1585-1586) engraving

All of this sounds pretty unpromising from a photojournalism perspective, and, indeed, De Bry’s works were criticized even in his time for inaccuracies.  The indigenous people all look a bit like naked Walloon peasants (except perhaps for the most exotic tribes–who look perhaps slightly Mediterranean with some Native American bangles and props).  The new world forts and seedling colonies are portrayed as though they were erected in a Baroque nobleman’s parterre garden.  Also there are more frolicksome naiads, random Greek gods, and mysterious mythological beasts like sea serpents, dragons, and capricorns than was perhaps literally accurate.

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Engraving of Columbus, the discoverer of the New World (Theodor de Bry, 1594)

Yet, despite, this (or maybe because of this) De Bry’s illustrations strike me as exquisite works of art.  They pack enormous amounts of complicated yet comprehensible visual information into tiny narrative/didactic frames.  De Bry did carefully read the primary source accounts of adventurers, natural historians, and other New World-involved folk.  He collected artworks and studied curios and ethnological objects. Additionally, if you look closely at De Bry’s personal history, you may find reasons for him to dislike the Spanish masters of the Americas.  I suspect if you look at the seething anti-European anti-Western diatribes of the internet today, you would be hard-pressed to find descriptions more lurid and anti-Spanish then some of De Bry’s works. The Spanish may frequently be the protagonists, but the cruel lords clad in velvet and armor are not exactly heroes, even as they travel through exoticized realms of peculiar cruelty and mayhem designed…to sell books.

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For, as much as he was a pioneer of imagery of the Americas, De Bry was a pioneer of new media.  Just as the internet has unleashed a torrent of exciting new ideas, robust philosophies, incomprehensible imagery, lies, half-truths, and heartfelt personal convictions upon an unexpecting world, the first great blossoming of the printing press in the 16th century saw a similar boom (upon societies even less equipped to handle this information than we are equipped to make sense of the info overload of today).  I can’t tell you what to make of De Bry.  Much of his work is more disturbing and more problematic than what I have included here.  But I feel like it is all visual treasure which you should seek out (if you have a strong stomach).  Of all the artworks about the mad crash of civilizations when America and Europe came together, his work burns brightest in my mind’s eye.

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Their danses vvhich they vse att their hyghe feastes (De Bry, 1590) Engraving

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