Sirens and Secrets

Reading through Montaigne’s ‘De la gloire’, I came across this piece of verse from Homer’s Odyssey which ventriloquises the Sirens and suggests content for their mysterious enchanting song. On his endless voyage home to Ithaca, Ulysses became the first man ever to resist the singing of the strange, monstrous bird-women, who lured sailors off their ships and dashed them onto the rocks of their island – and so became the first man ever to report the words of the song. Homer and Montaigne after him speculate that the irresistible song is in fact an interpellation, a mirror lifted up to the passing hero that offers him an image of himself that panders to his vanity and is thus spell-binding. Montaigne says:

Le premier enchantement que les Sirenes employent à piper Ulisses, est de cette nature, Deça vers nous, deça, ô tres-louable Ulisse, Et le plus grand honneur dont la Grece fleurisse.

The first enchantment the Syrens employed to deceive Ulisses, is of this nature. ‘Turne to us, to us turne, Ulisse thrice-renowned, / The principall renowne wherewith all Greece is crowned.’

I like this idea that the Sirens offer us visions of ourselves that are irresistible and glorious to us, rather than any other enticement. They seem to play the role of the Lacanian mirror, showing us beyond all doubt that rather than the broken, fragmented, vulnerable creature we feel ourselves to be, we are in fact, whole, competent, capable – heroes, in fact.

I remembered reading a poem by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood when I was a teenager about precisely this kind of Siren song which left a lasting impression. Her Sirens also appeal to the hero in the passing sailor – you are my saviour! You will rescue me! – but they use the rhetoric of secrecy as lure in a way that Erasmus would have recognised.

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
[…]
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
[…]
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Margaret Atwood, ‘Siren Song’, You Are Happy (1974)

What is clever about Atwood’s poem is that it is only at the end that you realise it is in its entirety the lure, the enchantment: the pose of the damsel in distress, the disillusion with the whole business of shipwrecking sailors. From this point of view it is a real siren song: it is not what it appears to be at first glance: rather than a beautiful singing maiden, it is a hideous squawking beast. But it is only because we want to believe them that they have any power.

Shake the feminine tree

In his speech on the pleasure of defecation (‘En faveur de la felicité chiatique’ – see previous post, ‘Hang four hams from a peg’), the early seventeenth-century comedian known as Bruscambille claims that the joy of crapping is greater than that of sex because:

‘one can breathe the air easily for a month, a year, even to the very brink of the tomb, without it being necessary to shake the feminine tree, to get fruit, but it’s entirely impossible to stop oneself going for a crap, because it is such a pleasure that if we are deprived of it for five or six days, we may as well put our boots on to travel speedily to the other side, for it is in such harmony with life, that the one cannot survive without the other.’

One of the main jokes of a speech like this, an ancient genre technically known as a mock encomium, or praise of something normally deemed unworthy of praise, is to use the most elaborate language and argument for the most ignoble of subjects. Dominic Hills’s print of this image, ‘Locher l’arbre fœminin pour en avoir du fruict’ (‘To shake the feminine tree to get fruit’), is similarly elaborate, a three-dimensional animated woodprint with moving parts:

Locher l’arbre féminin © Dominic Hills

Locher l’arbre féminin
© Dominic Hills

Other recent examples of such prints are in the gallery and may well be appearing as a dedicated, indeed unique, art app in the not too distant future.

Hang four hams from a peg

In his speech on the pleasure of taking a crap (‘En faveur de la felicité chiatique’), the early seventeenth-century comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts), compares the delight of defecation with the joy of sex:

‘When men, while night has its black nightcap on, imitate carpenters and amuse themselves pegging the mortise while their wives, like good housekeepers, hang four hams from a peg, and get busy with a Cyclops in their furnace, who more often than not works so hard that he seems enraged, given how much he spits, I would concede that then they receive the greatest contentment you can have here on earth…’

Pendre quatre jambons en une cheville © Dominic Hills

Pendre quatre jambons en une cheville
© Dominic Hills

One of the remarkable images in this extraordinary speech has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest print, ‘Pendre quatre jambons en une cheville’ (‘Hang four hams from a peg’), which takes its cue not only from metaphors involving pork products, but also from Jean-Édouard Vuillard.

Incidentally, Bruscambille argues that while you can live for many years without ever hanging hams from a peg or indeed shaking the feminine tree to get the fruit, if you are deprived of faecal felicity for even a few days, you will surely leave this vale of tears behind. The delight of defecation is more vital than that of ham-hanging. QED.

Ben Jonson’s churnd bollock

On a recent trip to the British Library, I took an idle look at Ben Jonson’s copy of Rabelais’s complete works, in which he made copious notes, in the hope that he would have tried to decipher the nonsensical ‘Antidoted Fanfreluches’, which contain the giant Gargantua’s genealogy and that were discovered in an ancient tomb, in a ‘big, fat, great, gray, pretty, small, mouldy, little pamphlet, smelling stronger, but no better than roses’. While Jonson had dutifully glossed the opening chapters to the book, the ‘Antidoted Fanfreluches’ were understandably left untouched by his hand.

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van BlyenberchI did however identify some of Jonson’s notes that other scholars had not spotted before, especially to Rabelais’s catalogue of the Library of Saint-Victor, which contains such learned tomes as The Codpiece of Law and the Art of Farting Politely in Public. Jonson’s marginalia include ‘churnd bollock’, actually a mistranslation of La Couille barine des preux [The Elephantine Penis of the Valiant], and ‘bridle champer’, the latter meaning a lawyer, ‘from his mule, which attending while her master is in court, hath leisure enough to champ on the bridle’ (this from Randle Cotgrave’s Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), which Jonson clearly had by his side as he took his notes).

Other gems can be consulted in a note on Jonson’s notes:

Previously Unnoticed Annotations to Jonson’s Copy of Rabelais

Small talking things

As I get further away from you
I see you more clearly.
Your souls should have been immense by now,
not what they are,
small talking things –

(Louise Glück, ‘Retreating Wind’, Wild Iris)

The poem speaks with the voice and the perspective of the retreating wind, or perhaps of God, a once-present deity who has given up on its creation and withdraws from it, leaving it to spool out on its own. Perhaps the creator has been disappointed in its desire for an interlocutor, a respondent who could rise above mere noise and chat to a purer level of communication. ‘You’ are not like that. Your talk has restricted your soul, tied you to earth, perhaps, and to the everyday, stunted your growth. I am reminded of the sixteenth-century Christian preference for silence, which for pious and erudite worshippers like the reformist queen Marguerite de Navarre was closer to God than the babble of everyday prayer – a way to praise God more fully, perhaps even communicate with him. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, as Diarmid McCulloch puts it in Silence: A Christian History, he wanted to chatter; Jesus refuses to engage in conversation. Generations of ascetic Christians took Jesus as an example and withdrew into silence and inaccessible places. What all this suggests is the banality of the evil of chatter: it ties us to the contingent and the worldly, bogs us down in the detail, distracts our souls from following the retreating wind. Chatter is minute; silence is immense.

Ad te levavi

In Rabelais’s Gargantua (1534) the characters discuss ‘Why monks are the outcasts of the world; and wherefore some have bigger noses than others’. On the latter issue, Friar John argues that his own large nose is the result of his wet nurse having had large, soft breasts, enabling the growth of said organ, whereas a wet nurse with smaller and harder breasts would have impeded its expansion (this, incidentally, seems to have been an entirely respectable medical view of the time, since the royal surgeon Ambroise Paré cites it in all apparent seriousness in his complete works).

Friar John concludes ‘ad formam nasi cognoscitur ad te levavi‘ (‘from the shape of the nose one can see that of “to you I rose up”‘). The last three words come from Psalm 123 (or 122 depending on your Bible): ‘canticum graduum ad te levavi oculos meos qui habitas in caelis’ (‘To thee have I lifted up my eyes, who dwellest in heaven’). It might seem surprising for even a fictional friar to use Scripture to joke about the age-old association between the size of the nose and that of the penis. Such humour was however apparently widespread in monastic communities and especially among Franciscan friars who would also preach in the market place and thereby need some ready wit at their disposal to engage their audience.

Friar John’s theory has had quite a considerable afterlife, and doubtless the most recent adaptation is to be found in Dominic Hills’s illustration (best viewed in Chrome, Firefox or Safari, since Internet Explorer struggles to convey the enormous nose in all its animated excess):

Ad te levavi

Perhaps the fullest discussion of the saying is in the learned doctor Laurent Joubert’s Erreurs populaires au fait de la medecine (Popular Errors Concerning Medicine) (1578):

‘Et quoy qu’on dise Ad formam nasi cognoscitur ad te levavi, d’autant que la proportion des membres n’est observée en tous, plusieurs ont une belle trompe de nez qui sont camus du reste et plusieurs camus du nez sont bien apointés du membre principal.’

['And although one says Ad formam nasi cognoscitur ad te levavi, yet the proportion of parts of the body is not seen in everyone, several have a fine elephantine nose who are snubbed elsewhere and several snub-nosed men are well appointed as far as their principal member is concerned']

Rabelais’s joke also found its way into two of Bruscambille’s speeches (see previous posts). In one devoted to recounting the genealogy of his underpants, he comments that he does not want women to judge his essence by his codpiece but rather to say of him ‘Ad formam nasi cognoscitur ad te levavi‘ (presumably the comedian was graced with a large nose) and, in a speech in praise of large noses, he cites the same saying as proof that the nose is ‘the true mould of the codpiece’ (‘le vray moule de la braguette’).

Gossip Transcripts

An occasional series of overheard gossip: on phones and in person, in the street, on the train, in cafes and at bus stops. (If I were an early modern woman, I would also add the bath house and the public mill.)

He’s a womaniser, an alcoholic, and a bounder. That’s all you can say about him. (Friday 29 Nov 2013, London, street)

  • He’s just a bit of a grumpy git.
  • With glasses?
  • He just looks like he’s got a miserable face. Some people do, don’t they? When I first met Angie, I thought… Then I got to know her, and she’s really nice, isn’t she?
  • She doesn’t mean to. She’ll just look at you, and go…
  • She ought to stop that, though. Cos when she’s at the front of the church, singing… People might get the wrong impression! (Wednesday 11 December 2013, Kent to London, train)

Do you remember little Sally? What? Yes, they’re on the way. So I’m sorry I’ll be so long, but it seems silly to come out at half past four and not carry on. I was going to take the tube but … so many things to carry … Yes, it’s lovely. Yes, did you find your stuff? Yes, did you find your stuff? Yes, you said that when you got it. I’ll tell you all when I get in, but there’s not much more to tell. OK? Yes, I said you were very upset… Can you hear me? Yes, sorry, erm, probably a valley… To hear about the place in Cornwall, what? Yes, I know! Derby or something… (Thursday 19 December 2013, London to Kent, train, phone)

Gossip and Nonsense in Basel

Following fly-posting in Berlin, Savannah, and London (see gallery and previous posts), Dominic Hills’s prints have now been propagated in Basel by our friend and colleague Dominique Brancher.

Dominique chose strategic locations for the art-work, including ‘Milchhüssli’, a bar of ill repute that had recently been shut down, and the University Hospital on Spitalstrasse, as settings for ‘Forger sur l’enclume de nature’ ['To forge on nature's anvil']:

Basel

Basel

The Rathaus (town hall) and a fountain on Missionstrasse for the ‘Jeu du bilboquet sans chandelle’ ['Cup-and-ball game with the lights off']: Basel

BaselThe ‘Donjon d’amour’ ['Dungeon of Love'] found its way to Mittlere Brücke, overlooking the Rhine, and to Hans Holbein’s house:

Basel

Basel

There are other examples in the Gallery.

Dominique reports that a passer-by told her that she should be afraid of the police but we are pleased to report that her posting of Dominic Hills’s prints has not yet led to her incarceration in a Swiss dungeon.

The London chatterati

In The Guardian on 12 October 2013, Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, responded to the outrage at his paper’s article by Geoffrey Levy on Ed Milliband’s father, dismissing the criticism as so much froth and steam from the London chatterati. It made me think about chattering again, and why it’s so contemptible for papers like Dacre’s – and how it is different from the Mail’s online ‘sidebar of shame’. Turning for enlightenment, as ever, to Erasmus, I wonder if the idea, already commonplace in the sixteenth century, that chattering and gossip is practised compulsively by servants and women, making it both servile and effeminate, is still in operation here. Chatter has no substance, it is pure frivolity. Men should be ashamed of being associated with the chattering habit, a silly, effeminate tradition worthy only of overpaid, over-pampered London journalists, miles away from the Mail’s readers, ‘hard-working Britons’ with no time to chat. Chattering is the opposite of doing: it is distracting nonsense, and it is representative of only a tiny, privileged section of the population, who have lost contact with ‘the real world’. Like women and servants in the sixteenth century, the journalists of the chatterati have no real power. They make up for this by making a lot of noise.

Welcome to Happy Redoubt

I have recently been involved in another artistic collaboration, Welcome to Happy Redoubt, an installation in Somerset House, London, until 15 December. The artists, Juneau Projects, have imagined a world after a data meltdown, a post-apocalyptic marketplace where the robot remnants of a technological society convey partial and fragmentary information and ask you to do craft projects for them. In return, you can earn wooden ‘currency’ which you can swop for things in the marketplace. I was involved in a stall called the Rumour Mill, which invites you to elaborate on the originary myth of the Crash, its origins, and the possible future. Every week, Juneau Projects will read out the additions and alterations to the story in the Happy Redoubt Headlines, and the full version will be unveiled at the Finale Event on 15 December.

This is the sketch for the origin myth that will be elaborated and changed by visitors to the installation:

Before the Crash, the whole world was a web, controlled by the Cloud. Everything anyone had ever known was contained in the web, and all you had to do to find out anything you wanted was to plug yourself into one of its screens. You can still see these screens, now blank and useless, banked up in huge disintegrating piles. You could talk to anyone you wanted, anywhere in the web. People were never alone. No-one had ever seen the spider at the heart of the web, but it was there, growing bigger and bigger with each update people made. But people became curious about the spider and they wanted to reach the Cloud. They built tall masts in attempts to pierce the Cloud and bring it down to earth. You can still see them dotted around the city. Perhaps it was these attempts to reach the Cloud that brought about the Crash. But what was brought down to earth wasn’t the Cloud, but the tangle of cables that we see everywhere. This is all that is left of the web. The Cloud itself broke into millions of fragments, and these clouds are still visible in the sky, too far away to reach. But the Cloud left its guardians behind on earth: the robots, who are there to warn us if we ever get too close to destroying the Cloud again. They look after us. They police us.

But others say that it wasn’t human hubris that caused the Crash. It wasn’t our fault. A sudden flood of data overwhelmed all the electronic systems. They couldn’t cope. Or a sudden sun flare short-circuited all electronic equipment, and it’s never worked again. In any case, there is somewhere a data-ark that has survived: maybe in America, maybe in China. It will find us eventually and pull us back into the communication age. The robots will tell us when it’s getting closer.

Others say that the web never collapsed, and the Cloud never disintegrated: but rather, after an electro-magnetic surge, that we were all uploaded into the Cloud, and now exist as bits of data. All physical experience is merely data-activity in the Cloud. The robots are not robots but remnants of physical bodies that have congealed together. That’s why you can’t touch them.