Friday, March 30, 2012

Man Played Banjo

Earl Scruggs, RIP.

Here're a few rippin' instrumentals with Earl & Lester, all recorded, I think, on the Martha White show in the early '60s:

"Cumberland Gap":

"Ground Speed":

 "Fireball Mail":

One more: "Earl Scruggs Breakdown". Is he using the tuning peg here to "bend" the note instead of bending the string--or is he re-tuning while playing? I've never seen anyone use the tuning peg to bend a note, although I have seen Junior Brown tune down the low E so he could hit lower notes (and then tune it back up to E to keep playing with standard fingering):

And here's a longer documentary from '72 with performances by Dylan, Baez, Bryds, etc. Amazing to think that it was called "The Complete Earl Scruggs Story" though recorded 39 year ago:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

More than g-strings and sex changes

The strange tilt mirrors the natural formation to it's right (Sugarloaf Mountain).  It is nature regularized.  Perhaps an explicit reference to the doctrine of the rational imposition of order upon nature, defying it or improving it.  Something Gid's been looking at in the checkerboard motifs, echoed in images of regular furrows in plowed fields and perpendicular fences, perhaps as a reflection of a Pietist doctrine.  Perhaps this also implies the doctrine of human perfectibility.  It would also imply a civilizing mission....

The theology of turning the wilderness into a garden has most explicitly been vocalized by Protestants, but this idea was also present in Catholic thinking, excited by the discovery of the New World.  Which is what this pyramid celebrates: it is a monument to Estácio de Sá (1520-1567), the Portguese soldier who founded Rio de Janeiro.  Rio, like many another New World burg, doesn't have an origin lost in the mists of time, thus given a mythical founding.  Romulus and Remus for Rome.  Isis for Paris.  No.  In the Americas we have dates, concrete starting points for cities founded out of whole cloth, laid out in orderly grids.  The utopian impulse in urban planning.  The fresh start.  Regeneration.  "Order and Progress" as the flag of Brazil states.  Rationality and improvement, the themes we began with.

Now, I might be willing to write this monument off as just another pyramaid, albeit one with a nifty lilt; nothing esoteric here, folks....but damn it all if this one doesn't have, like our old friend in Blagnac, 13 layers.  I'm sorry, but artists and architects mean something.  This isn't just random chance, coincidence.  This pyramid is trying to communicate something.  Given that 13 colonies formed the basis of that utopian experiment of order and progress to the north, it's hard not to create a link.  Weaving spiders and whatnot.

Before the pyramid is a glass triangle on the ground which lets light into an underground "crypt", where a reproduction of Sá's tomb, the city seal and sand is illuminated from above.  (A picture of this can be found here:

No need to go back into the solar connections of the pyramid, obelisk and pyramidion, but this aspect of the monument does call to mind the Voortrekker monument, which also has a cenotaph illuminated from above by natural sunlight.  The Voortrekker Monument also celebrates a hearty band of colonists looking to create a new life out of whole cloth and more specifically, a group which thought it had a special covenant with God.  In addition to the theology of human improvement and the mastery over nature, New World theology is also one of covenant theology.  You'll have to take my word for that.

This Sá monument was designed by Lúcio Costa, a Brazilian architect in love with modernismwho privileged Brazil's Portuguese architectural heritage over the contributions of other cultures, resulting in losing a significant amount of non-Portuguese urban architecture over the years he held sway in these matters.  Costa, incidentally, was the chief designer of Brasilia, capital of Brazil.  Brasilia holds the distinction of being the world's only major metropolis inexistent at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was designed and constructed where nothing had existed before, rife with utopian idealism, much like the early colonial cities of the New World.

Costa lived to ripe old age, a visionary, a schemer and a political hack.  Sá died at 46 after an arrow went through his eye.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Coptic Pope

The Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda III, died March 17, 2012.

His fuller title is, apparently,

Pope and Lord Archbishop of the Great City of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Orthodox and Apostolic Throne of St Mark the Evangelist and Holy Apostle; Father of Fathers; Shepherd of Shepherds; Hierarch of all Hierarchs; Pillar and Defender of the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church and of the Orthodox faith; Dean of the Great Catechetical School of Alexadria; Ecumenical Judge of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church; Thirteenth among the Apostles.
The Coptics have 7-13 million followers, and are, with the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, one of the major catholic churches; but there are other catholic churches.

I don't know much--basically nothing, in fact--about non-Roman Catholic churches, so if you don't mind educating me in public, please pour on the comments. I'm not even sure that I've used "Catholic" and "catholic" (capital and non-capital c's) correctly--or the word "church" correctly. I think that the Coptics and the Greek Orthodox may have started naming Popes earlier than what became the Roman Catholic church--but again, I'm not sure.

"Pope", incidentally, stems from words meaning "Father" (think "poppa").

I'm not sure how true this is, but the site that clued me into the Pope's death, said that when choosing a successor, "the final choice is made by a boy who is led blindfold to the altar and invited to pull one of the names out of a hat."

As we all know that the Pope wears a funny hat, I hope the young fellow can keep a straight face and not think about bears in the woods...

Monday, March 19, 2012

A thing to devour

These strips were created by LoS pal .sWineDriveR., assuming the authorial identity of Jonathan Trenchwheat as he documented the surreal adventures of the Lil' AA.  The children of the Lil' AA were caricatures of actual Associationalist personages, embodying in an exuberant form the salient characteristics of their adult counterparts.  Pen and ink avatars of avatars.

They first appeared on Plastic Tub, which as far as I know was the first Wiki published online to be used for collaborative fiction of a sort, albeit one presented à la Wikipedia or Wiktionary.  I believe it to be the first Wiki "art project".  Created over a glorious couple of years, it has been dormant now for what seems like decades.

When it failed, it could be banal and awkwardly written, when it succeeded, it was brilliant.  Not to sound egotistical; it was the brilliance not of each individual, but of the so-called "third mind" arising from the furious vapors of sustained collaboration.  We Second Advance AA'ers honed our skills there and created, if not a universe, an amusing least.  We put in hours and made each other laugh in a game of one-upsmanship and in a labor of love, only rarely descending into dispute.  Any resulting acrimony was usually beer-fueled and indicative of genuine passion, generating heat equal to anything aroused by say, discussions about the West Bank.

But this is not time for nostalgiac paeans to a sleeping giant.  I re-stumbled across these strips this evening and was struck yet again by their seeming casual brilliance.  .sWineDriveR. here evokes the golden age of comic strips with a style and humor uniquely his own.  They're baffling.  They're funny.  They "work".  A blend of pure psychic automatism and meticulous craftmanship.

But enough of my pretentious flattery, just enjoy the strips.  Don't get distracted by my hunt and peck accolades.  I only hope that by putting these strips out there again, those accolades will be sung by someone who is not a friend and collaborator of their author, someone far more clever than myself.  Because these strips deserve some accolading.

Anyway, we've availed ourselves in slow times of the Tub before....they're easy posts, sure, but it's really to help promote our obscure past.  Gid and I were regular editors on the Tub and, to be frank, it irks me that the Tub is hasn't garnered some online attention for it's wit and innovation.  That's not what we did it for, but after all the work, I'd like it to be seen and read.  Yeah, I'm being self-serving and self-congratulatory, but what of it?  We should all to toot our horn every once and a while.  I risk coming across as a pompous ass, which in fact I am, but that doesn't make me wrong!

So check it out already!  And maybe, just maybe, the best interpretations offered up will be rewarded by a collage or hand-written poem, delivered to your door by post, wherever you door may be.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Tessellation of the Plane ... and Beer (Again)

The Midwest is awash in independent breweries--and that's good. Jesus, after all, turned water into wine, and the good St. Kevin turned water into beer!

Millstream Brewing Co. is one of the older independents in the midwest. They're in Iowa, bordering me (Minnesota) to the south.

Maybe it's just the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, or maybe it's that I'm their new target penetration market--but I feel like I've been reading about and seeing their beer every time I take a left turn these days.

May I speculate fancily? It seems to me that the rise of the independent brewery is somewhat akin to the Protestants splitting off the Catholics. It gets hard to say if new movements destroy the old movements (anti-tessellation), or if new movement further sub-divide the old, a sort of hyper-tessellation.

Anyhow, I picked up a twack of Millstream the other day, and I was delighted by this label:

Good beer & an interesting label

Good beer & a good label! Let's talk about the label.

Let's Talk About the Label

I was startled to see mountains. And a mill. In Iowa. But damned if Google don't have Iowa mountains and Iowa mills, so pardon my ignorance. Quite frankly, every time I talk to anyone about Iowa, I leave the conversation with two thoughts:
  1. Iowa's a much better place that I imagined. 
  2. I'm sometimes a bit of a condescending dumbass, which is especially stupid for someone living in Minnesota (not because there's something wrong with Minnesota, but because so many dumbass condescenders direct their condensation our way).
But back to that label. It's a very cool pastoral scene they evoke.

And it contrasts, for me at least, so strongly with their coat of arms.

Granted, there is something definitely medieval feeling about a mill--but that's not what I'm trying to get at here. See, the coat of arms draws my mind immediately to feudalism, and the checkerboard pattern draws my mind even further into the way that feudalism tessellated the land, i.e., dividing it up like a checkerboard for the ruling class.

Meanwhile, the image of the U.S. plains with the mountains in the background and nary a barbed wire fence draws my mind to cowboys and the open frontier. "Open frontier." It's so cliche that it's easy to forget what it means. Even the idea of a stream-powered mill in this image might be taken as an example of someone using the land without a striking sense of ownership--I mean, the stream keeps flowing, after all, free and open for anyone down stream to use. Turner claimed (in his famous Frontier Thesis) that this frontier shaped the U.S. character, made it different from Europe.

Now this is where my thinking gets a little weirded out. I suggested that a prominent aspect of the U.S. frontier is no fences, graze the cattle where you want and don't dam up the streams--and this is started to sound rather communal, nobody owns the land, share and share alike. Too much like a European commons to be the root of the U.S. character?

So we not only have the frontier as an area that is not governed, we also have the frontier as an area that is shared by all and owned by none. (Native peoples, of course, rightfully view this quite different.) This strikes me as closer to anarchy, an idea militantly discouraged by the U.S. government--not an idea that is typically considered the expression of the U.S. character.

On top of that weirdness, we have the tessellated coat of arms mapped atop the image.

Well, what to make of these contrasts?

I bumped this by Daurde, and he pointed me to where we are in this image: according to label, Amana, IA.

Let's Talk About Amana

Amana was a religious colony founded by German Pietists. The Amanians lived communially up until the the 1930s. They cooked and ate in communal kitchens and labored in jobs that were rewarded in credits for Amanian goods and services.

How'd they end up in Iowa? The group started in Germany/Switzerland. They splintered off the Lutherans--depending on your point of view they either tried to bust up the tessellation of Christianity, or they were hyper-tessellators. Anyhow, they fled religious and governmental persecution in Europe and went to the U.S. In the U.S., they initially settled near Buffalo, NY, but eventually found the area too crowded, bringing too many worldly attractions too close to hand and also making it too expensive to expand as their membership flourished.

So, in the 1850s, they fled to the frontiers of Iowa and settled into a new commune.

Let's Tie it Together 

We have an image invoking a communal and government-free frontier. We also have the historical site of a commune settling on to the frontier as part of an escape from official prosecution and from worldly trappings.

Not bad.

But what to make of that coat of arms in the image? It creates a sense of dissonance in the image. Likewise, Amana, a commune, is dissonantly placed on the frontier.

In 1923, under economic and internal social stresses, the Armanian Elders (yes, they actually had Elders with a capital "E") met to vote on disbanding the commune. They ended up with a peculiar half-disbanding, expressed by Wikipedia as:
The Amana Society, Inc., corporate heir to the land and economic assets of communal Amana, continues to own and manage some 26,000 acres (105 km²) of farm, pasture and forest land. Agriculture remains an important economic base today just as it was in communal times. Because the land was not divided up with the end of communalism, the landscape of Amana still reflects its communal heritage.
Is the Amana Society, Inc. the feudal shield stamped atop Iowan frontier?

"Nah," is what I'm totally thinking to myself, "they just drew a pretty picture of the hometown and thought a cool looking knight's shield would be nice, kind of awesome, touch."

Could be--I might be right on that point.

Let's Have Another Beer

On the other hand, I grabbed another Millstream beer from my mixed twak tonight. Get a load of the label on this puppy.

Another good beer and another interesting label

For Pete's sake: Why the tessellating checkerboard blanket tossed across the very image of openness?

Let's grab another beer.

Yet another good beer with an interesting label!

Okay, so for serious foax. I know your thinking I saw all these labels before I wrote any of this, but really, I didn't!

As you can see:

  • This label shows the mill encroached upon by a farm, the fence running through the formally open prairie, and the land across the fence is tessellated by a plow (though the buck runs free).
  • Other labels show a feudal shield and a tessellated picnic blanket dropped upon the frontier.
  • Amana was a commune dropped on the frontier.
  • The Amana Society, Inc., dropped a corporate heir upon the land and economy of communal Amana, but the land was not divided.
Am I imaging things? Tell me what you think!

Monday, March 12, 2012

ESP Mail

In my English class a couple of weeks ago we had a discussion about non-compliance issues in aircraft manufacturing, specifically about what they call FOD, or Foreign Object Debris.  (This is a big deal, costing the airline industry an estimated 13 billion dollars per annum in direct and indirect costs, ultimately paid for by the traveller.  More importantly, it can and has resulted in significant loss of human life).

During the course of the discussion someone mentioned a "man-hole cover" on the wing of a plane; this left me puzzled and I struggled to make sense of what they really meant to say.  In fact, man-hole cover is perfectly correct.  A man-hole is a small access port to the interior of a wing, where the fuel tanks of large commercial aircraft are located (neat, eh?).

These covers are made of carbon-based composite, which forms an increasingly large part of aircraft structures. Something like 50% of the principal structure of Boeing's Dreamliner, for example, is made of composite.  It's lighter and thus cuts down on fuel-consumption, but to be honest, it's not an entirely reassuring choice; I predict serious problems with composite planes in the coming decades.  Hell, they've got serious problems already.  Boeing and Airbus would prefer that not get around too much though....

So the day after this FOD discussion, I open my junkmail and I get an email titled "composite manhole covers".   I thought a student was sending me a link to some sort of article on the subject.  But no, it was spam from a Chinese company that sells....carbon man-hole covers.  The kind for sewers.

What's the point of randomly spamming people to flog such a specialized product, purchased only, one would assume, by municipal procurement agencies?

I was actually a bit startled by this coincidence.  That I would discuss the subject one day is not odd; I work for an aerospace subcontractor after all.  That I'd get a spam for an entirely different product using the same terms I'd used the day before was....unusual, especially given the product.  If I'd been discussing the sad spectacle of retired Americans taking buses to Canada in order to afford their medications (generic Viagra anyone?) that would be different.  Cheap pills and penile enhancement are spam classics.  But man-hole covers?

If that was the only occurence, this post wouldn't have come about....

A few days ago, my attention was drawn to a footnote in an essay in the anthology I'm reading (Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Body Politics in Latin America), thanking a person by the name of Xóchitl M-----.  The name (meaning "flower" in Nahuatl) jumped out at me because of its relative rarity, plus the fact that is was one of only two Mexican names in the list of thankees (the article being about Mexico).

The very next day, in my junkmail, I received a spam from one "Nereida Xochitl."

At this point I was jolted.  The name is rare.  It's not as if I'd gotten an email from John Smith.  My junkmail was once a riot of cool bot-generated monikers, but this one, the day after I'd first seen it, in a footnote?  Reading a book which I was led to after writing a post in which I discussed, among other things, the phenomenon of coincidence?  Seriously?

Coming upon us unexpectedly, the recurrence of images in which we've taken an interest can be delightful, startling, even alarming.  Crediting these sudden appearances with special significance, however, is more than a paranoid delusion; for some it's a sign of conspiracy, for others mystical synchronicity.  It certainly has a poetic aspect to it.  For many it's simply an excuse to say "It's like, weird" and go on to mimic The Twilight Zone theme music.

So basically, my mind began turning and I jokingly imagined the only way this would be possible is if someone or something were reading my mind.  I amused myself with other explanations:  Amazon had contacted some marketing agency, giving them the title of books I'd ordered; a computer then picked out a random word to use in a name to capture my attention.  Maybe I'd seen the word, maybe not.  Any chance was better than none.

In the case of the manhole covers, a student of mine had contacted the same or another agency to feed them unique terms which I'd recognize.  While this is more possible within the constraints of the physical universe as we know it, the possibility of marketing by ESP actually seems more probable than Amazon or a colleague in cahoots with some Spam Lord, using dubious marketing tactics requiring a global network of informants to target a single person.

Of course, these thoughts of mind-reading and targeted marketing are just diversions.  I call it coincidence.  See Littlewood's Law or the Baader-Meinhof  Phenomenon, which we've touched on a couple of times and which  are the unspoken understanding behind a lot of our posts.  My coincidences are not "objectively" meaningful, but they are meaningful....the genesis of poetry and, if all the stars are in alignment, a cosmic trigger.  A random peal of laughter precipitating the fall, if ya get me.

Unless of course there is a vast marketing campaign targeting me using a global network of informants and/or mind-reading devices.

Because I am that important, you know.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Take heart!

We've grappled with disembodied hands at great length; kicked about the mystery of Canada's floating feet; taken a look at the removal of eyes; milked the story of amputated breasts and chewed on the puzzle of  mysterious teeth found in a house's walls.  We've dicked about with symbolic castrations until our energy petered out.  We've picked our brains about the Egyptian practice of removing them through the nose.  We've talked the subject of corpses into the ground and raised hell about relics and saints.  Small wonder then that when Gid and I both came across this tale, independently, he signaled it to me and I'd linked to it on Facebook.

During the night this weekend, a relic of St. Laurence O'Toole (1128-1180), a heart housed in a heart-shaped box, was stolen from an iron cage affixed to the wall.

A stolen heart, a literal stolen heart, the relic of a saint no less, cannot but be mentioned here on LoS.

Says the article:  "His heart has [had] been preserved in Christ Church Cathedral since the 13th century and was a major pilgrimage site during the medieval period."

Rev. Dermot Dunne, cathedral dean said:  "It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father, St. Laurence O'Toole."

He added: "We have a peace candle, and we invite people to light candles during the day ... when staff were on their rounds, they found that it was lit already.  And then in our Trinity chapel - our prayer chapel on the north transept - all the candles were lit there. It's quite confusing."

Well, Dunne don't have much faith in his own relics.  A true believer might pay a small fortune for the miracle-producing church organ.  The lit candles may indicate the thief/thieves were religious men or women, praying for forgiveness as they defaced the church and stole away in the night.

The cathedral has a venerable history and dates from some time after 1028, about the time a Dane named Sitric Silkenbeard (!) made a pilgrimage to Rome.  A lot of other stuff happened after that.

Our man O'Toole, patron saint of actors (not), was honored with a chapel erected in the 13th-century.  All light-heartedness aside, the cathedral has a colorful history worth looking into, but I'll focus bit on the saint.
(Though I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the church also displays the mummified remains of a cat and rat found behind an organ, known by locals as "Tom and Jerry" and mentioned by Joyce in Finnegan's Wake....)

O'Toole was born Lorcán Ua Tuathail into a noble family down in the county Kildare.  O'Toole was the kind of man you don't meet everyday.  In his professional career he played important roles as a diplomat, church reformer and cleric.  Indeed, during a pause in an important series of negotiations, O'Toole was off saying Mass at the Shrine of Thomas Becket in Caterbury when an allegedly deranged fellow with the idea of creating another martyr struck him on the head.  Not one to let history repeat itself with a wooden blow to the top of his head, Ua Tuathail got knocked down, got back up again and finished Mass.

He died of an unrelated illness four year later while on yet another diplomatic mission, in Normandy.

Actor Peter Seamus Lorcan O'Toole, btw, played in 1964's Becket opposite Ricard Burton as Henry II, the man behind Becket's death....

O'Toole was a vegetarian ascetic, fasting every Friday and taking a retreat every Lent for the full 40 days.  Like another man with a famous head wound--John the Baptist--O'Toole wore a hairshirt.  (And here we are nearing Lent, which we've recently discussed, also recently citing a sculpture of JB that pales in comparison to an obscure Black Madonna).  O'Toole was canonized 45 years after his death due to a rapid succession of miracles at his tomb.  His bones were interred separately from his skull, the former disappearing some time duting the Reformation; his heart was brought to Christ Church, where it had stayed until this weekend.

(Biografickal info Wiki sourced)

Does the post-mortem fate of O'Toole's heart reflect the growth of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus?  His execution actually predates the most popular period of this devotion; in O'Toole's time it was a more latent than widespred and its diffusion belongs more properly to the centuries after O'Toole's martyrdom.  Yet it was present in some form in the 10th and 11th centuries.  It's possible that St. Laurence was a devotee of sorts, but I haven't found anyhing linking him to it directly.

Whereas the head is the expressive faculty of the interior life and the windows on the world and into the soul, it is obvious choice for special veneration and unsurprisingly widespread from the earliest days of Christianity.  The martyrdom of John the Baptist was represented by the prophet's head on a plate.  We have already mentioned the cephalaphores in a few other posts.  These are saints whose heads continued to speak after their death and who are especially numerous in France.  We have also seen them connected with the Virgin Martyr genre in Portuguese exemplars as well as Saint Saturnina in northern France.  St. Denis, patron of Paris and arguably the most important saint of early Chrisian France, was a cephalaphore.

This "head worship" seems to have leaked into other domains as well.  The Templars, crushed in the 14th century, were accused of worshipping an idol representing a human head.  The guilloutine has always seemed to me to be something much more than an efficient killing machine.  It exerted a gruesome fascination upon the Parisian crowds and I'm tempted to see in it a reflection of a particular Gaulish psychological preoccupation with the head as an object of veneration.  There are tales from the Revolution of decapitated heads looking with terror at the crowds, mouths moving as if to speak, last vestiges of life.... Secular cephalaphores, a new kind or martyr.

In any event, the Middle Ages are rife with tales wherein relics are bought and sold, fabricated out of thin air, stolen, traded and raided.  An important relic could bring immense wealth and glory to a ctity, stir immense civic pride.  I'm currently reading an anthology entitled Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Body Politics in Latin America.  Various authors evokes the cult of the saints as a precedent for the struggle over bodies and body parts of national heroes in Latin American politics.  This fascinating series of essays demonstrates the power of relics in our own times.  In a religious sense, that power remains wholly undiminished:  Jesus is found on a Cheeto, the Virgin on a piece of toast.  We've even reported on a dog piss-stain revered as a portrait of Jesus.  Even when the Church is reluctant to name new saints, the people force them upon the church.  Such is the case that unofficial saints have developed wholly outside Church authority:  Santa Hélèna of Toulouse, Gauchito Gil in Argentina, Jesus Malverde in Mexico, Saint Wilgifortis in Flanders.  A relic is powerful magic, a body part even more so.  But whereas reliquaries in the south of France might hold a meager chip of bone, Dublin had an entire organ....a human heart!  Which is actually small potatoes.  Churches in Italy are wont to have entire cadavers on display.  I've seen one Roman chapel where the altars and decorative niches were made entirely of human bones and full skeletons used for a series of decorative memento mori. 

The economic and even genuine spiritual value of relics is obvious to me and I'm not surprised by this theft at all.  Sadly though, the result will be that churches will become locked when not in use, making access more restricted.  A loss of innocence and convenience both for the faithful, the curious and writers such as I. (Fuck the faithful masses of Dublin, this is my blog we're talking about!)  But seriously, I've missed out on a lot of opportunties due to a locked church door.  That these last bastions of trust (the buildings, not the institution) are endangered by thievery is not a shock in our thoroughly debased world, but it is, erm, disheartening. 

Some time soon, we'll do up a bit on heart removal; from a Mexican devotee of the Emperor Iturbide to the Temple of Doom, heart removal has a fun and colorful history....

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sad Feet

We've been tracking the strange saga of shoe-clad feed washing ashore in the Salish Sea (British Columbia) pretty closely.

According the authorities--the mystery's been solved: it's suicides: "Mr Fonseca [an investigator on the case] told the New York Post that most of the victims jumped from a bridge over the Fraser River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver [..] Mr Fonseca said: ‘It’s very explainable. The unusual nature of this is that the feet were found in a very short period of time.’"

I'm not sure exactly which bridge Mr. Fonseca is referring to--perhaps the Skybridge?

Skybridge over the Frazier River in Canada
There do seem to certain structures that are suicide magnets, like the Golden Gate Bridge and Toronto's Prince Edward Viaduct. (Toronto's Prince Edward Viaduct lost its draw after the installation of the Luminous Veil, a barrier stopping would be jumpers.)

It's difficult, quite frankly, for me to write about this because suicide has touched my life too many times. Once I had to wake my aunt up in the middle of the night when the police called us to tell her that her son had killed himself. Over the next several years, both of her other children--my older cousins--killed themselves. That's not the only time I've been with a parent when they heard that their child had committed suicide. And another time I sent a postcard to a friend who was living with his parents, only to find out, minutes after I dropped the postcard in the mailbox, that he had killed himself about a month before.

So I'm keenly aware of the tragedy and horror of these events.

But I do have to say that, to quote Mr. Fonseca, the fact that "the feet were found in a very short period of time" does still seem awfully bizarre to me.

Has anyone explained this element of the mystery?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Mare de Déu de Meritxell

A postcard of the original statue, destroyed in 1972*
Mare de Déu de Merixtell (Our Lady of Merixtell) is not, as far as I can tell, considered a Black Virgin, yet her origin story and role as tutelary figure of Andorra certainly are consistent with the profile. Though the original late-12th century statue was destroyed in 1972, several copies exist. Some of these are decidedly dark; others a riot of color upon a pink-faced mother and child. Photographs of the original, such as the postcard above, reveal that the original was indeed polychrome.

Why then, are some copies dark, defying the original coloration? There are at least two other Virgins in Andorra which are significantly dark, although I've had a hard time finding any information on them. Some of this is due to the fact, I'm sure, that I have very little (almost none) knowledge of Catalan and don't know what to look for. On the other hand, there seems to be a dearth of information about Andorra; internet searches are heavy on brief blurbs geared towards general tourism and light on details, at least in English.

I will address these two other sculptures of the Virgin and Child in Andorra which I have not seen identified as Black Virgins. My photographs, however, will show that they are very dark, especially striking when compared to sculptures just to either side of them. In my opinion, their darkness cannot be an accident.

The legend of Our Lady of Merixtell is as follows:

On January 6, in the 12th century, a wild rose was found blooming by peasants on their way to Mass. Miraculous enough that a flower would be in full blossom in the middle of winter, high in the cold and dark Pyrenées. But lo! at is base was the statue of Our Lady. The peasant naturally it placed in the nearby church at Canillo, but the sculpture disappeared....and was found again under the bush. Next it was taken to the church at Encamp. Same story, the statue returned to the source. So the villagers decided to build a chapel especially for her, where she wanted to be. We have already seen this element in our discussions of Notre Dame de Sabart and Notre Dame de Boisville and it features in several other legends surrounding venerable and highly venerated statues of the Virgin, both polychrome and "Black".

January 6 is Epiphany, the day when the Three Magi visited the baby Jesus and revealed that God would walk among humanity in the form of Jesus Christ. A fitting day for the Mother of God to be found. Whereas Protestants and Western Catholics celebrate Christmas Day with an exchange of gifts, Iberian and Latin American tradition places more weight on Epiphany. Epiphany marks a beginning, but it also signifies an end. "I am the Alpha and the Omega." (Revelation 1:8 and 22:13) Epiphany marks the beginning of the Carnival season, which ends with the Crucifixion. But just as Jesus rose from the grave and the Phoenix rose from its own did Our Lady of Merixtell.

The original church for Our Lady burned to the ground in 1972 and was re-designed in 1976 by Catalan architect Richard Bofill, whose work we've seen before. The Mare de Déu de Merixtell, in what might have been a traumatic catastrophe, was destroyed. But the destruction of the statue did not destroy the cult. Like many examples of cults where the venerated object was destroyed, say by the Huguenots or the Jacobins, the cult may have only gotten stronger. I have seen several copies of the statue, and She is still the Patroness of Andorra. Merixtell remains, like Montserrat, one of the most popular names for girls in Catalan-speaking countries. (My wife's cousin married a young Catalan with this name).

The postcard at the top of this post reveals a colorful sculpture. But as you can see from the following pictures, the copies differ. The more brightly colored, pale and rosy-cheeked version on the right more closely resembles the coloring of the original. On the left, both mother and child are much darker. The fact that this dark varnish-like hue extends to the clothing may indicate that the darkness of skin tone was not meant to be emphasized, but that the artist merely wanted a less brightly-colored copy. Perhaps this was an accident, as time turned the varnish used by the artist darker. But these are relatively recent copies, and I think it more likely to be intentional. If the latter is true, why? It might be that the artist was referencing the tradition of the Black Madonnas, especially strong in the Pyrenées (Indeed, several examples we have looked at in other posts are Pyrenéen). Unfortunately, I don't recall where either of these were photographed, nor who made them. Further interrogation thus becomes difficult and we are left with speculation. A ridiculous situation given that the artists may very well be alive to ask! If anyone breezes through Andorra though, take a look at the sanctuary in Escamp and the Sant Esteve Church in Andorra la Vella, which is where (I think) I photographed these two.

The image below is a Virgin and Child from the retable behind the main altar of the Sant Esteve Church in Andorra la Vella. The darkness you see here is definitely not due to poor lighting. The shining gold adorning her would indicate she hasn't been blackened by candles or aging paint. The hands and face have a lush chocolate-brown tone, if you'll excuse the expression. Obviously, this would mean less if the other saints figured on the retable were likewise dark. But as you can see from the second photograph of St. John, the other saints are quite pale by comparison. There is a markedly lighter skin tone on all the saints depicted; take my word for it that the contrast is much more evident in person. The question then becomes, why? Of all my encounters with the Black Virgin, this example led me this question most forcefully. For those who have followed my posts on this topic, the question of why they're dark has become less important to me than the question of when people began to see this darkness as something important. But here, I'm led back to my original question.

Clearly, there is some reason to accentuate the Virgin's darkness. Unless these statues are separated by some years, I can't imagine that this is not intentional; some special meaning was to be communicated here. I find it incredible that in all the literature I've read on the topic, in all the lists of Black Madonnas I've read, no one has mentioned this Madonna at Sant Esteve.

On a final note, this second retable is found in the parish church of Ordino, dedicated to Sant Corneli and Sant Cebrià (Saints Cornelius and Cyprian). Again, one can clearly see that the Virgin is darker than the saints pictured to her left and right. She is not as dark as the Sant Esteve exemplar, but she is definitely darker than the pale saints beside her.

Once again, I am led to ask why, much more so than in French examples.

"Merixtell", ironically is a diminutive of merig, from the Latin word for midday, meridium, according to at least one Catalan philologist. Shepherds apparently use this to refer to a pasture which receives a lot of sunlight, particularly attractive in the mountains.

Somehow I doubt this is why Our Lady of Merixtell is dark. She doesn't, as Silvio Berlusconi once said of Barack Obama, simply have a good tan.

*An original of this postcard is available for purchase I have no interest in this, btw, but I'd like to make a gesture in return for using this image.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

King Kill 2012: Transvestites in Cathar Country

Lent is the 40-day period when some Christians commemorate Jesus' 40 days in the desert by giving up something:  meat, smokes, candies, alcohol.  A time of sacrifice which concludes with the ultimate sacrifice.  Carnival is thought to have originated in the feasts which preceded this period, as the goods which would not be touched were consumed to prevent them from spoiling.  Or just one last fling before the long haul.

I recently had the opportunity to attend Carnival festivities in Limoux, in the Aude.  Cathar and cassoulet country.

Drunken goudil
Carnival is mostly a Catholic tradition, and in the US folks tend to call the whole thing Mardi Gras, even though Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is actually a specific day in the overall celebration.  They call it Pancake Day in the UK, when people consume....pancakes.  In France they eat crèpes, more or less the same thing.  To me, this would be evocative of the Last Supper and an echo of the (in some denominations) weekly rite of Communion, a syrup-covered version of the Staff of Life.

It should come as no surprise that many scholars speculate that Carnival has pre-Christian roots, most likely in the Roman Saturnalia, itself based on the Greek Dyonisia and other Near Eastern Festivals.  As with New Orlean's Mardi Gras or Rio's gigantesque spectacle, most celebrations around the world involve parades and masquerades, features which originated in Italy and then spread to the rest of Europe.
Nicolas Sarkozy, gangster clown

Under the cover of masks, Carnival was a time of great liberty and is often associated with licentiousness and sexual energy, a time when the reigning social order is turned on its head.  This was definitely an aspect of the Saturnalia, in which the servant played the master and vice versa.  Several related celebrations, featured a king for a day.  We will see this is also true in Limoux and is a clear example of one of James Frazer's central themes in The Golden Bough, traditions Frazier sees as survivals of widespread pre-Christian practices.

As for the name, some say it comes from the Latin words for the removal of meat (carne levare)
Diddled by a goudil
or farewell to meat  (carne vale).  Some scholars say it comes from "carrus navalis" the latin words for the adorned wooden boats used by masked revelers to carry an icon of Isis to the sea during the festival known as Navigium Isidis, celebrated in Italy as late as 416 CE and in Egypt into the 6th century.  This may explain we call the trailers used in parades "floats", at least indirectly.  History records that in Medieval celebrations the first floats were indeed decorated barges, hence a "float", but perhaps these barges hearkened back to earlier practices.  It is also worth noting that the word for "float" (as in a parade float) in French is "char," used in Quebec to mean "car."  It seems likely then the word also derives from the Latin "carrus."  Interesting to see that in French and English the words derive from words for or associated with adorned boats, which would be evidence of a sort for the claim that Carnival traditions derive from the Navigium Isidis.

Basically, Carnival can be found wherever Christians are.  Africa, Asia, the Americas.  Everywhere except the Muslim world, basically.  Carnival features masks, parades, music, revelry and defiance of social convention.  I would like to focus on Limoux because it's the only one I've been to recently and well, the phenomenon is too widespread to cover it as a whole.

Limoux's carnival is hailed as the longest in the world, from January to March, but it doesn't run continuously.  Each weekend, different groups, which are almost like neighborhood-based secret societies, represent their quartier.  In this it reminds me of the Palio in Siena, a famous horse race of peculiar character, in which neighborhoods are in fact, I thought this was only a Siena thing, but Palios exist all over Italy.  It's not impossible that as Carnival spread from Italy, this neighbor versus neighbor element also derives from Italian custom.  This also would support the idea that the Carnival has a Roman point of origin.

Goudil as 18th C. Lady
Carnaval in Limoux has roots in the 14th century, when millers celebrated the delivery of their tithes to the local monastery, walking about town throwing grain.  In the early 16th century this became the ritualized Carnaval celebration when revelers walked the town accompanied by bands dressed as millers, wearing a sack of grain over the shoulder.  These days the bands are led by  fécos, or masked dancers, going from cafe to cafe for a drink, throwing confetti and followed by masked citizens in outrageous garb (goudils). The goudils on this day were very sexual in nature, with large breasts, carrying penis-shaped water pistols and wearing S & M-style outfits:  vinyl skirts, fishnets, whips...

The fécos all do a stylized dance, wear the same masks, outfits and gloves, and carry a kind of whip called a carabéna.  This latter resembles the long stick often carried by the Virgin Mary, itself an echo of the accoutrements of certain Greek and Roman Goddesses.

Trouser snake
The end of the Carnival takes place on a night celebrating the blanquette de Limoux, the local sparkling wine, at which time the excesses of the Carnival period are symbolically expiated.  A kind of trial is held (in the local dialect of Occitan) and a straw effigy, personification of Carnaval, is cremated in a fire fed with the carabénas, masks and confetti.  The bands and goudils dance together around the fire, honoring one last time their "god" and crying for Sa Majesté Carnaval (His Majesty) singing "Adieu, pauvre Carnaval".

Grotesque goudil
The burning of a straw man is so widespread that one is led to wonder if this is a vestige of an almost universal (pan-European) pre-Christian religion.  In Britain this survives in the festivities of Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes' Day.  In the US we see it has survived in the Burning Man festival, Santa Fe's burning of Zozobra (aka "Old Man Gloom" ) and in the Bohemian Grove's Cremation of Dull Care ritual.  At Burning Man the cremation marks the end of the festival, as in Carnival, whereas Zozobra and Dull Care would serve an opposite function; instead of burning away license and abandon--a concluding ritual--these latter symbolise the burning of worldly concern and seriousness--a commencement.  All of them may hearken back to a lost age when actual human sacrifice was performed for the expiation of sin and/or to placate powerful spirits.

Heady stuff and worth looking into further.  Any number of books are available on the subject.  I've made a (not very musical but literal) translation of the Limoux Carnaval song, from the French, but I include only the original Occitan version below.

Adieussiatz, amics!

Adieu paure Carnaval
  • Adieu paure Carnaval
Adieu paure, adieu paure,
Adieu paure Carnaval
Tu t'en vas e ieu demòri
Adieu paure Carnaval
Tu t'en vas e ieu demòri
Per manjar la sopa a l'alh
Per manjar la sopa a l'òli
Per manjar la sopa a l'alh
Adieu paure, adiu paure,
Adieu paure Carnaval

La joinessa fa la fèsta
Per saludar Carnaval
La Maria fa de còcas
Amb la farina de l'ostal

Lo buòu dança, l'ase canta
Lo moton ditz sa leiçon
La galina canta lo Credo
E lo gat ditz lo Pater
  • Goodbye, poor Carnaval
Goodby poor, goodbye poor 
Goodbye poor Carnaval
You're leaving and I'm staying
Goodby poor Carnaval
You're leaving and I'm staying
To eat garlic soup
To eat oil soup
To eat garlic soup
Goodby poor, goodbye poor 
Goodbye poor Carnaval
The youth party
To greet Carnaval
Marie makes breadrolls
With household flour
The ox dances, the ass sings
The sheep recites his lesson
The hen sings the Creed
And the cat says the Pater