Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Devil in the Altarpiece 

Image hosted by Photobucket.com My favorite piece of artwork is the Isenheim Altarpiece. When we were in Germany for a wedding about 5 years ago I insisted on driving a heart pounding, 6 hour Autobahn death ride detour to see it in person in Colmar, France. Art history books and these pixelated images don’t do justice to its breathtaking scale and its searing, bright colors. When I finally saw it, I stood before it, swaying and slack jawed, for hours. The polyptych depicts the life of Christ and the temptation of St Anthony. It was commissioned in 1515 for an Anotine monastery that also served as a skin ailment hospital. Many of the patients treated there suffered from St Anthony’s Fire, also known as ergotism, an affliction brought about from eating bread made from rye contaminated with the fungus ergot. In its latter and most serious stages, ergotism could cause severe hallucinations and open sores which quickly turned gangrenous. Amputation was often the only treatment, and its victims suffered excruciatingly. The work was to remind them of the life of Christ and how he, too, suffered but was resurrected in pain free glory. The beauty was to take the patients’ mind off their agony as they writhed on their pallets. The paintings, which range from horrifying grotesque to exquisitely beautiful, are almost hallucinatory, like a fever vision.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com The most intriguing panel depicts a concert of angels, who have all struck up a chord to celebrate the birth of Christ. But who is this odd, enigmatic feathered figure with the strange green hue? And why is he looking off quizzically in the wrong direction, away from the Nativity (on the panel to the right), his mouth slightly open in bafflement? Art historians believe he is the devil, the beautiful fallen angel. He is missing out on the action because, through his own actions, he has been cut off from the glory of God forever, and doesn’t recognize Christ because he has taken human form. The comb on his head is a peacock’s comb, signifying pride. Why he is feathered is anyone’s guess, but representing the devil in this fashion was unprecedented. I’m also intrigued by his strange, spindly, bejeweled fingers at the bow and on the strings, which play the instrument at physiologically impossible angles. He was the most beautiful of angels but now that he is corrupted he has turned a sickly shade of green exactly that of gangrene. He also seems to be developing a wattle.

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Gangrene Christ

The altarpiece's most famous panel is the one depicting the crucifixion of Christ, and what a nauseating, awful vision it is. Christ’s sore encrusted, scourged limbs are twisted in agony and his shoulders stretching and dislocating from the weight of his body. This portrayal pulls no punches. Take that, Mel Gibson! I think the message to those afflicted with ergotism is: So, you think you're in agony with your paltry skin disease? Well check out the son of God here! He was crucified, and all for your sins! So suck it up.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comPsychedelic Jesus Christ, Super Star!

Here is the Resurrection panel and behold Jesus, unfettered and floating, healthy and golden, his skin alabaster and perfect except for nail punctures. He has felled and scattered all of the soldiers with his explosive radiance. I can’t believe how psychedelic the colors are in this panel. It looks like something out of Heavy Metal. This is the promise of the Resurrection, that the sufferer, like Jesus, will one day be restored clean and whole.

The Isenheim altarpiece has a fascinating history. It sank into obscurity in the 18th century, was nearly destroyed by fire, escaped the whitewash brush during the Reformation, was dismembered and hidden away during the Reign of Terror, nearly destroyed by Napolean and almost stolen by art hoarding Nazis. It now resides in Colmar, France at the Unterlinden Museum.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Medieval Hygiene 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe manner of living throughout the Middle Ages made general lousiness inevitable. In England, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the houses of the poor were mere hovels, often with only a hole in the roof to let out the smoke of the central fire; and in cold weather the families were huddled together at night without changing the simple garments – usually a single shift – which they wore in the daytime. Washing was practically out of the question, and the better classes – not very much more comfortable in their badly heated domiciles – wore a great many clothes, which they rarely changed. MacArthur’s story of Thomas a Becket’s funeral illustrates this:

The Archbishop was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of the 29th of December. The body lay in the Cathedral all night, as was prepared for burial on the following day. The Archbishop was dressed in an extraordinary collection of clothes. He had on a large brown mantle; under it, a white surplice; below that, a lamb’s wool coat,; then another woolen coat; and a third woolen coat below this; under this, there was the black, cowled robe of the Benedictine Order; under this, a shirt; and next to the body a curious hair-cloth, covered with linen. As the body grew cold, the vermin that were living in this multiple covering started to crawl out, and, as MacArthur quotes the chronicler: 'The vermin boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron, and the onlookers burst into alternate weeping and laughter.'

From my favorite book of all time, Rats, Lice and History: A Bacteriologist's Class History of Mankind's Epic Struggle to Conquer the Scourge of Typhus

One of our pages reported a man waiting for a public computer who was casually picking lice off of his skin and flinging and flicking them around him indiscriminately, as if they were pieces of lint.

The guard who asked him to leave reported that his favorite lice story – and we all have one here at the library – happened a few years ago. Two rough, unkempt men asked to borrow a magnifying glass from the science desk. The librarian, curious, saw them examine something pinched between one of the men’s fingers, and then compare it to the page of an open book. One turned to the other, a look of satisfaction on his face, and said, “See, I told you it was lice!”

Before the miracle of Topspot I lived in Alabama with my Jack Russell terrier, Sid. Fleas there were impervious to baths and collars and other chemical poisons, so every morning I would use my fingers to comb through his coat searching for fleas. Upon capturing them I would pinch and rub them between by thumb and forefinger, and then, for good measure, drop them in a bowl of dish soap and water. The dish soap somehow prevented them from jumping back out, so I was ensured of them dying a watery, as well as fragrant, death. On his all white coat there was nowhere for fleas to hide, and I found grooming him a very relaxing, soothing, almost meditative task. When Sid was about a year old Topspot eliminated my need to do this, and, although I was overjoyed to be rid of the fleas, as I'm sure Sid was, I found myself missing our morning grooming ritual. Human beings are primates, after all, and monkeys spend a large portion of their day grooming each other, and seem to take great pleasure in doing so, grooming serving both a practical and social purpose. Some evolutionary biologists believe that gossiping is a verbal replacement for grooming.

Here is the complete picture of Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Un Partido de Futbol 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI noticed that I was getting a ton of traffic from people searching for the translated lyrics of the Guatemalan love song so exquisitely sung by Jane Lynch in the 40 Year Old Virgin. Lynch garbles the first line a bit, and takes some liberties with Spanish grammar, all of which really challenged my rusty Spanish. E finally had the brilliant idea of playing the DVD in dubbed Spanish, and we discovered that Lynch's Spanish dubber sang it much more clearly. Then, just for fun, E compared it to the French dubbed version, which was delivered by the French dubber in a hilariously sultry/smoky cabaret chanteuse sort of way. I would love to hear the German dubbed version, since each dubber can't seem to resist putting her cultural stamp on it.

Anyway, here are the Spanish lyrics.
Cuando limpiado mi cuarto
No encuentro nada
Adonde va con tanta prisa?
Al partido de futbol

Which roughly translates to:
When my room is cleaned
I can find nothing
Where are you going in such a hurry?
To a soccer game

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Y'all Are Brutalizing Me! 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI got a little homesick for Alabama today when an exquisite example of a dirtball - the Platonic Ideal, really - stomped up to the desk. He had a canary yellow dyed mullet and his belly was poking out of his cut off tank top like a child's. His woman, cowed, pale and skinny, waited silently about ten feet behind him. Her eyes were cast downward.

"I need these here videos," slapping some Creepshow videos on the counter, "that are on hold for my brother to be put on hold for me so I can rent them right now."

My colleague scanned the videos' barcodes.

"There's a list of people waiting for these videos. If I cancel the hold for your brother, the computer transfers the videos' hold to the next person in line. There are 4 people ahead of you. But, if you have the notice letter from the library, and your brother’s card, you can pick them up for him. Wait, didn’t someone already talk to you this morning about this?"

His eyes shifted back and forth. "That was my brother - my TWIN brother. That was NOT me. We do live in the same place."

My colleague looked at him quizzically. “As in, we have the same address.” He rolled his eyes heavenward in this exaggerated, slow, 'My God you try my patience' way.

"I see your card - I mean your twin brother's card - is too delinquent to check out the videos."

It was obvious that he had defrauded the system into getting two cards, but couldn't use the one that he had reserved the videos under of because of its excessive fines. He wanted to videos badly enough to alert us. I had to admire the brazen way he was trying to conduct his little trashy con.

“It don't matter anyway! My brother's incarcerated. There's no way he come and pick them up. He'll be incarcerated for at least two weeks. I cain’t get his card, so put them on my card! How damn hard is that?"

"As I said, I can't transfer the holds to your card. The computer will automatically go down the list to the next person. There are four people ahead of you."

He finally gave up. "Ah, nevermind. These videos suck anyway." He walked up to his female companion, jerked her arm and pulled her out of the library.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mosquito Coast 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comBack in Tennesse on E's family farm we were tormented into the night by the tiny buzzsaw whine of a mosquito. I was up reading when I finally spotted it hovering by the wall. Bloated and weighed down from feeding on us all, the mosquito had become careless as it lazily made its way to the next blood source. I took my book and smashed it against the wall, leaving a silver dollar size blood stain.

I'm usually terribly squeamish and reluctant to kill any creature but whenever I destroy a mosquito I think of the scene in Mosquito Coast. Some camoflauged soldiers, three menacing deserters, actually, each armed with machine guns, have demanded hospitality from the character Allie Fox (played by Harrison Ford) and his family in the middle of the jungles of Central America. The men get increasingly drunk and begin eyeing the women in the family with evil intent. Fox locks them in their ice house and poisons them with ammonium hydroxide.

As Fox and his young son are crouched in the bushes, listening to the men die, he tells his son, "Don't pity those men, Charlie. I gave them plenty of opportunity to leave." He then slaps his own neck, killing a mosquito, and shows his son his bloodstained hand. "Don't pity this insect. That's not his blood. That's my blood."

Friday, May 19, 2006

Eminent Maricones 

I have known from the South.

Dickie's mother suspected he was gay when he showed zero interest in Tonka trucks and began vacuuming the house at the age of four. He had taken complete control of the house’s decoration by age twelve, which his mother, a distracted socialite always late to some charity committee meeting, was more than happy to concede to him. He would while away most afternoons of his boyhood polishing the family silver, dusting antiques and gossiping in the kitchen with the African American maid, Pearline. When his mother reupholstered a chair in a color not to his liking he had a full scale tantrum and refused to speak to her for a week. He then crept down to the living room in the middle of the night and pulled out all of the offending upholstery's tacks. His mother sighed and started giving him a budget for redecoration projects. He was ten years old.

One time a mutual friend told me about a telephone conversation he had had with Dickie. He was in the middle of telling Dickie a story when he was interrupted by Dickie commanding, “Don’t put that there!” “Put what where?” “Oh, nothing. I wasn’t talking to you. MY MOTHER" - obviously talking to her - "was trying to put a vase where it doesn’t belong.” In high school, while the rest of his friends traveled to the beach, he spent his spring break stripping and exquisitely and meticulously refinishing the back stairs.

His family's exalted social position afforded him complete protection, and he lived in New Orleans, a city that appreciated cultured 'eccentrics.' He was wildly popular with his girl classmates because he knew how to dance, was witty in a cruel, catty way and of course could be trusted never to lay a hand on them. Dickie was a highly sought escort for debutante balls.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Tennessee Jed 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI apologize for the lack of posts, but I'm back in Tennessee for my little brother's graduation. The post is being written on the fly, with an erratic dial-up connection, and not my usualy crutches like spell check, so please excuse its disjointed quality.

German Folly

If you're like me, there's nothing more enjoyable than watching an idealistic German director slowly go insane in the Amazon jungle, Kurtz style. So I wonder what it is that took me so long to see The Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog's snake-bit film about an obsessed Irishman trying to build a glass opera house in the middle of the jungle to entice his idol, Enrico Caruso, to come perform.

The whole endeavor sounded very similar to Coppola's Apocalypse Now experience, and was fraught with disaster from the beginning. Problems included including warring, arrow shooting native extras, grotesque tropical diseases and parasites, mutinous German crews, grandiose and impossibly ambitious goals like dragging a 50 ton boat over a hill in the sucking jungle mud to prove some sort of artistic point.

The situation is unmanageable almost from the beginning, and when Herzog moves the crew to the middle of the jungle and keeps them there indefinitely (for over a year!) waiting for the right conditions to film he begins to lose it. One memorable scene has an exhausted Herzog addressing the documentary film maker's camera about his opinion of the jungle. Imagine this delivered in the same flat, Teutonic tones as Rainier Wolfcastle or Arnold S.

"If it was made by a God, if there is a god, then it was an angry God...
Kinski says the jungle is full of erotic elements. It’s not so much erotic, but full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotic here. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there’s a lot of misery, but it’s the same misery that’s all around us. The trees are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing; they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of harmony. It’s the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It’s not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”

Great stuff! Only a German could morbidly wax with this poetically. I can't wait to move on to more of his oeuvre.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

French Citizens React to the Widespread Use of the Word "Le Weekend" 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comOr maybe that's when Hitler is marching through. I can never remember. The other day I heard a colleague speaking softly into the phone. Although his voice was very low, I detected the words “hoe,” “bitch,” and “pimp.”

He saw my eyes widen. When he finished the call he explained that the sweetest old lady had asked him to read the lyrics for the Academy Award winning song, “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp.” He warned her that its lyrics were explicit, but she said that she didn't care, and that he was to read every word to her. I wonder if it’s the same patron I get occasionally who likes for me to read the definitions of various neologisms and slang words to her. Her curiosity and appreciation for the words are really delightful, and I always have a lot of fun answering her questions, and with the discussions that often result. On one phone call she asked me to define:

Jarhead: Slang for a Marine, stemming from when the Mason Jar company got the government contract to make helmets in WWII.

Bling bling: Flashy jewelry. “ I love this word’s onomatopoeic quality.” “It’s like you can just hear the ropes of precious metal striking against each other and see them glint in the sun!”

Bootylicious: A portmanteau of booty (buttocks) and delicious and it means having strong sexual appeal. Another descriptive, rich word, if kind of vulgar.

While I described the meaning of the word "bootylicious" we both began giggling like school girls. “Well, I like to keep up with new words, so every time I hear one I like to keep a list and then call you all. Keeps me spry.”

I love clever slang, and marvel and appreciate how English absorbs and assimilates homegrown slang and neologisms, as well as words and phrases from around the world. I'm glad we don't have our version of the Acadamie Francaise, and that we welcome all of these verbal immigrants. In fact, screw the Acadamie Francaise, which is as flimsy and ineffective as the Maginot Line. It’s folly to try to block off a language, which should be organic, dynamic and constantly evolving. New words introduce new concepts, and invigorate a society. I don’t want to get into wooly linguistic theory, because I would soon be talking out of my hat, but it’s theorized that limitations of language can actually affect a person’s reality and thought processes. Having a word for something can actually bring the concept into reality, which is why the totalitarian state of 1984 was pushing Newspeak so hard. If there were no words for democracy or freedom or rebellion, then people wouldn’t be able to imagine the concepts or act upon them. If the totalitarian state achieved authority over language, it would obtain ultimate control over everything, including one’s thoughts.

As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's said, "The limits of my language mean the limits to my world."

I have been reading a wonderful book called They Have a Word for It, which contains all of these wonderful words and phrases from languages around the world. They are often reflective of the culture from where they originate, sometimes hilariously so, and would be incredibly enriching if they became part of the English lexicon. I welcome these verbal immigrants!

Tingo - (Pascurnse, Easter Island) – outrageous, insensitive borrowing of objects,

Hakamaroo,= (Pascurnse, Easter Island) Tingo's sister word, and it means to hold onto borrowed objects until the lender has to ask them for it back. Passive aggression at its finest! Homer Simpson is always pulling this with Ned and his yard and power tools. In fact, Flanders walks next door one day and discovers Homer trying to sell a bunch of his borrowed tools in a garage sale.

Anga anga – (Pascurnse, Easter Island) A thought, perhaps groundless, that one is being gossiped about.

Sounds like people got on each other's nerves and in their business on that isolated island community.

Fisselig – (German) Flustered to the point of incompetence, as in when someone is standing over one's shoulder.

Holopsis kuntul baris (Indonesian) A phrase uttered in order to gain extra strength when carrying heavy objects

Fusto - (Italian) – A man who likes to flex his muscles and dress provocatively, like a speedo with lots of gold jewelry at the beach.

Drachenfutter - (German) Literally, dragon's food, it's a gift peace offering guilty husbands bring their wives, say, after a night out drinking.

Attaccabottoni - (Italian) A bore who corners people and tells sad, pointless tales. Someone who buttonholes you.

Kyoikumama - (Japanese) Mother who pushes and drives her children into academic achievement. As pejorative a term as stage mother.

Epater les bourgeois -(French) To shock people deliberately who have conventional values

Mokita – (Kiriwina, New Guinea) Obvious truth everyone knows but doesn’t speak of. (Elephant in the room)

Aware (Japanese) Feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty (The example the book uses is the poignant feelings that arise as one sees a cherry blossom float to the ground)

Radfahrer - (German) One who flatters superiors and browbeats subordinates.

Faux frais -(French) Items you are likely to forget to include when making a budget.

Razbliuto (Russian) - The bittersweet feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but now does not.

There's a new book out, The Meaning of Tingo and other Extraordinary Words from Around the World, that covers similar territory.

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