Dreams of Venice Repeated in Sacred Rituals…and No Cheat Codes: Edward Muir’s Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice

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I promise it’s not because of Blue this time, or at least not entirely.  It was because I got to shoot the Doge, during Carnival, on his own boat, while he was giving a speech, while wearing a gold mask.  Assassin’s Creed II was the shit dude.overly sarcastic productions

My regular reader may have observed (assuming they actually care about my intellectual movements, or at least enough to give the first few paragraphs a glance) that lately I’ve been reading more and more history.  Part of this largely because, as ever, I’ve been watching more and more of Overly Sarcastic Productions as well as Shadiversity and Suibhne.  These channels have been not just a joy to discover, they’ve been a great personal solace as I think more and more about my future and what I want to do with my life and my time.  This is, namely, that I want to spend what time I’ve got enjoying my actual passions and one of my unending passions has been history.  That…and the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  I was about eighteen or nineteen when the series came out, and oddly enough I wasn’t even that interested when the trailers for it first appeared.  I was far more interested in, and I admit this to my great shame, Modern Warfare 3.

Mistakes were made.  I see that now.

My sister received Assassin’s Creed II for Christmas that year and started playing the game once I was done fighting Uber-nationalists in a Russian Gulag or some shit.   Assassin's Creed 2In no time I started to notice that killing Brazilians with automatic rifles wasn’t anywhere near as cool as scaling the Santa Maria del Fiore, meeting Lorenzo de Medici and Leonardo da Vinci, killing people with hidden blades and brooms, collecting every Renaissance painting ever made, hunting down the Pazzi one by one and murdering the shit out of them, fighting the goddamn pope Alexander VI (Roderigo Borgia, a.k.a. the Spaniard) in an underground bunker beneath the Sistine Chapel that was built by gods, and then, of course, there was Venice.

I could spend hours talking about Assassin’s Creed II (and Brotherhood, and Revelations, and Odyssey which I got from Christmas this year care of my wife who I will love until the day I die) and trying to explain why the game left such a philosophical and intellectual impact upon my life, but honestly the only reason that mattered was that it was just a damn good game.  And in between the assassination contracts I managed to ingest a great amount of actual history.  It was in Venice though that most of the game took place, and after watching OSP’s four-part series on the Republic of Venice(for the tenth time I think), and rekindling my love of history, and reflecting on the Assassin’s Creed game which helped further solidify my love of history, it made sense that my sister gave me one of the books she read in graduate school which just happened to be about img_5340Venice.

Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice by Edward Muir is a book that, honestly, I didn’t think I was going to review while I was reading it.  The book is academic to a level that is almost painful, and there are numerous instances throughout where almost half of a page is dedicated to footnotes alone.  If the reader is not fluent in English, French, Italian, and Latin they’re sure to be stumped by the neat constant use of all of these languages with, conveniently, no footnotes to explain what words or expressions he’s attempting to communicate.  And finally, if the reader has absolutely no knowledge of the history of La Serenissima de Republica de Venetzia, or, The Most Serene Republic of Venice then the near constant references to doges, oligarchs, merchants, and notable individuals is sure to leave you either annoyed or stumped.Venice Flag

With all that said, this book was a fucking blast and I enjoyed it till the end.

Part of what makes Muir’s book so enjoyable to read is his observation of the Ritual in Venetian society and how rituals helped create a sense of identity.  In his Introduction as he sets up his argument he lays out the seven parts of his book and explores each of the aims:

In numerous medieval and Renaissance examples, legal and “constitutional” precepts and precedents found expression in ceremony long before they were written down in formal codes; and Venice, it seems, was indeed no stranger to the habit of ceremonial law.  Sixth, the historian of civic ritual investigates how NOT PUBLIC DOMAIN_1920px-Piazza_dei_Signori_(Vicenza)_-_Statue_of_the_Lion_of_Saint_Markceremonies may reveal the citizen’s own sense of their city’s relations with the outside world, relations that the Venetians saw by and large in imperial terms. […]. In Venice, one finds that the legally defined social classes, the patrimonial family, age groups, and women all shared varying degrees of ritual recognition that marked their place in the political and social organization of the city.  (6-7).

Yeah, just a forewarning, most of these quotes are going to be painfully academic.  This quote alone demonstrates Muir to be concerned more with the construction of an argument than a narrative and that in itself implies that he’s writing mostly for a handful of academics.  And while I will admit freely that I’ve grown to despise academic writing, especially after finishing graduate school, Muir’s book was still enjoyable to read because of the way he made Rituals seem like something important and relevant.

Being a citizen of the United States I recognize this.  Growing up in East Texas the Fourth of July was always an obligatory event, rather than a passive one.  It was required that Pietro_Longhi_010you go out and blow shit up or watch people blowing shit up regardless if you suffered from allergies like I did.  Watching fireworks, listening to people singing the Star Spangled Banner, or watching War movies on TV were events which were supposed to create a sense of American identity, or else national Pride.  And while I found far more patriotism in the act of living my life the way I wanted to , as well as my freedom of expression (David Bowie Electric Tiger pimp surprises) for a great number of people the ritual is the means of finding a sense of one’s self politically, emotionally, and for some, religiously.

Muir’s book then tackles some of the rituals of Venice such as the Marriage the Sea, The Feast of Mary’s, and the Coronation of the Doge in order to understand how politics and religion helped establish the notion of La Serrenissima, or the “serenty” of the Republic Venice Dogeof Venice.  Venice as a city, and as a government, still stands as the longest running single government in human history spanning from 697 CE to 1797 CE, a time of almost 1100 years surpassing any civilization in human history.  What’s inspiring, or at least fascinating is that part of this lasting success was the merging of religious and political ritual to create this sense of identity as the “serene” republic.”

Muir notes:

According to fifteenth-century Venice humanist, Giovanni Caldiera, the cardinal virtues—Faith, Hope, and Charity—underlay the republican virtues; so obedience to the state was metaphorically obedience to the will of God.  Thus, in Venice patriotism equaled piety.  The Venetians conception of themselves as a chosen people in consequence, was always revealed in their attachment to certain sacred institutions. (16).

He continued this point later down the page noting:

Belief in Venice-as-the-chosen-city and adherence to the historical institutions of the republic enabled the Venetians to withstand the tremendous forces for changes, including the temptations of millenarian enthusiasm, that ravaged the rest of Italy during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  (16).San Marco Venice

And finally he adds more more point on the following page:

For the Venetians, “liberty” was a matter not of personal freedom, but rather of political independence from other powers.  (17).

The history of Italy during the Renaissance, is quite possibly one of the most fascinating topics to cover in history because there was simply so much chaos, warfare, political manipulations, and internal strife coupled with an explosion of academic, technological, and cultural innovation.  Legions of mercenaries were scattered across the peninsula hired and fired freely as they for or against any city state that might hire them, and while the blood flowed men like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci created paintings that would infer in society’s collected consciousness for centuries.  And in the midst of all this turmoil, Venice somehow managed to stay above the fray, or at least, managed to maintain some level of, wait for it, serenity that the rest of the country could only aspire to.  Gentile Bellini ProcessionMuir tries to show then that it was because of the rituals, and their underlying rhetoric that Venetians were somehow ordained by divine grace that they were able to channel their efforts and psychology into maintaining a republic.

The Marriage of the Sea best represents this idea.  Without taking too much time, the ceremony would involve the Doge of Venice, the political and spiritual leader of the Republic, sailing out to the opening of the Adriatic on a massive and ornate sailing lion-of-venice-1900barge.  There would be music and prayers and pomp and circumstance, but the main event would involve the Doge reaching the spot where the lagoon of Venice met the Adriatic and, after uttering psalms and prayers, the Doge would drop a gold ring into the sea signifying that Venice was “married” to the seas.  This ritual, which for the record still continues to this day almost three centuries after the republic ended (meanwhile I can’t even find ten minutes to do a few push-ups), was supposed to imply Venice’s “mastery” of the sea, which in turn would explain their economic and political prosperity.

Muir dedicates a significant portion of his book to this ritual, largely because it was so psychologically significant to the Venetians.  He says in one passage:

The marriage of the sea was a Venetian version of a spring fertility festival.  The usual goals of agrarian fertility rites—safegaurding the fecundity of women and crops—were transformed by the Venetian rites to serve maritime and Mercantile needs: the rites ensured the safety of sailors at sea, expressed political and commercial hegemony, established fair trade for the crowds, and invoked through Venice Marriagea mystical marriage, continued prosperity.  At the moment of their occurrence such fertility rites characteristically contribute to social cohesion and unanimity within the community.  (131).

By “marrying” the sea Venice in effect created a narrative where they were effectively in control of it, and therefore if they had any sort of success it was because of this ritual.  Though on the note of control the feminist in me immediately demands I provide the next quote which Muir provides on the next page:

The Sensa also deprived the sea of its frightening demeanor by feminizing it.  The men who said abroad could most easily imagine the sea as a female archetype: unpredictable, fickle, sometimes violent, other times passive; but assuredly sheVenice Carnival could mastered by the resolute male.  (132-33).

Muir completes this charming metaphor by providing the following analysis:

The Sensa revealed two profound psychological habits of belief: that natural forces could be comprehended by personifying them, and that through understanding these forces one could better control them, or at least predict their influences.  And in symbolizing sexual conquest the processional movement took full advantage the female metaphor.  Through the marriage each year at the beginning of the sailing season and through the subsequent voyages that consummated the union the sea was deprived of her mystery; men now “knew” her.  (133).

Misogyny is always fascinating to read about largely because one gets a sense to what limits men were, and still are, willing to go to in order to perpetuate bullshit.  The implied misogyny of this ritual aside however, Muir is able to demonstrate that this ritual helped complete a sense of Venetian identity.  For centuries Venice was a maritime power-house and no-one could actually dispute that fact.  Using a thalassocracy, a system of government and rule mostly executed through naval power rather than territorial Venice Carnival 3claims, Venice was able to establish a powerful military and economic system which kept them rich and prosperous.  Whatever opinion the reader might have about Venice they have to acknowledge that this ritual helped the citizens of the Republic believe that they were exceptional which in turn helped them execute this vision.

But at this point my contester feels compelled to speak up.  So what?  So what about Muir’s book?  It’s a long, dry, academic book about a bunch of rituals that are irrelevant.  Venice isn’t a republic anymore, in fact they’ve become nothing but a tourist attraction.  What relevance does a bunch of old rituals have to my life.

Well, if I may correct my contester, the book isn’t long, it’s only 305 pages.  To put it in perspective, while I’m writing this review I’m also reading Grant by Ron Chernow, a book which is 940 pages, and 48 hours long in terms of the audiobook.Francesco_Guardi_034

As for the relevance this is a fair point.  Like I said before, Muir is writing Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice for academics.  He’s writing for people who study Venice, and study the time period of the Renaissance.  This book is clearly designed for a small audience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant.  While the topic may seem specific to a set of conditions, Muir’s book is largely about a larger theme: the practice of rituals in human history.  While he centers his study in Venice he’s able to demonstrate that rituals are just a part of human behavior and then tries to show how these rituals translated into political, religious, and civic success.

Human beings like symbols, and we craft rhetoric and narratives from those symbols.  Whether it’s the various religions human beings practice, the modes of politics that we participate in, Battle_of_Zonchio_1499or simply the millions of stories that we create and read and watch every year, human beings like stories that make us feel connected to one another because the can inform us about what the purpose of meaning of our existence is.  Muir’s book tries top understand the narratives the Venetians of La Serrenissima told themselves through these religious and political rituals, and how that translated into a success that lasted for, literally, a thousand years.

It’s an incredible testament to the fact that human beings like rituals, because even if they may seem ridiculous or offensive in hindsight, their power over those who participated in them allowed said individuals to feel connected to a larger idea.  Venice as a government, as an idea, and as an institution are due entirely because of the Map of Venicenarratives Venetians crafted for themselves, and so as I look to Muir’s book I do recognize that, while it may not be entirely approachable as a book, as a history it’s incredibly relevant.  Good history should be about observing trends in behavior, and so the history of Venice is about recognizing the potential of the self, and the capacity for human beings to work together and create something incredible.

It’s nowhere near as enjoyable as shooting the Doge on his own boat during Carnival, but it is its own joy to read a book, find the name Marco Babarigo, and remark to yourself, “Hey I killed that guy.” 

Though I might recommend you say that internally as you co-workers are likely to look up from their lunches at you and begin to wonder if it was such a good idea to invite you out for a drink later after work.

Venice Doge 2

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes from Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice were cited from the paperback Princeton University Press edition.

 

**Writer’s Note**

I’m gonna leave the soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed II here, because, well, because you just deserve it.  I really haven’t experienced a game with such an incredible soundtrack before.  Hope you enjoy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iriiZOeInDg

 

***Writer’s Note***

I’m going to leave a few links to articles and encyclopedia entires and videos about La Serenissima in case the reader is interested.  Enjoy:venetian-carnival-mask-1467204600tcu

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_of_Venice

http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Republic_of_Venice

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ktq3iK2r_Ek

And, because I’m a man obsessed, I’ve included links to all the videos Blue of Overly Sarcastic Productions has done over the Republic of Venice.  If you decide to watch, maybe you’ll understand or appreciate them as much as I do…Appreciate them I said!  Ahem.  Please enjoy.

Part 1:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86PybilU7k0

Part 2:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byMleAJ5kRs

Part 3:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4da1S6moF2Q

Part 4:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph9bM56g_a0

Operation Odysseus video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cHK4xzAhzE

 

****Writer’s Note****

I’m going to remind my reader that, since this writing I’ve begun a podcast series entitled “Jammer Talks About” and Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice just happened to be the fourth book I discussed.  You can find a link to the podcast in the “Jammer’s Podcasts” link at the top of the page, or you can follow the link below.  Hope you enjoy:

 

*****Writer’s Note*****

Finally I want to give a little bit more street crew to Dr. Edward Muir, who’s the real focus of this essay anyway.  I’ve found his Professor page for Northeastern University and I’ve posted it below.  It includes his credentials, awards, publication history, Circulum Vitae, etc.  Definitely look him up because the man is a great writer, a wonderful scholar, and, if it hasn’t been made apperent, his book is definitely worth your time.

https://www.history.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/core-faculty/edward-muir.html

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Uzumaki by Junji Ito

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Uzumaki by Junji Ito

2 April 2019

Hatari!  Hatari!: John Wayne’s Adventures Through Africa and the Problems of Colonialism

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I mean they just let the black guys handle the ostriches while they watched and laughed.  I’m not saying it’s openly racist, it’s just kinda messed up.  Those birds are huge, scary, and they bite and it’s kinda-super-fucked how Kurt just gave up halfway through.

I’ve written before that growing up John Wayne was something of a personal hero of john wayne true grit 1mine, and that relationship became complicated as I got older and realized that John Wayne was…complex

Racist, I mean racist.  The dude was just racist. 

It’s for this reason I no longer idolize the man, but I do recognize that, since I spent most of my childhood watching his movies, I can’t ignore that a fair amount of my consciousness is built around his films.  Mom and Dad always had his movies playing at night when they went to bed. I’ve never been a good sleeper, and in fact I usually wound up making a palette and sleeping on the floor of their bedroom instead, and while they would snore or rumble the way parents tend to, I would watch those movies over and over again until sleep would eventually take me.  There were usually three I could rely on dependably: Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Hatari.  The last one always had a special significance for me, largely because it was set, not in the old West like the other two, but in a far more magical and mythical place to my young mind: Africa.

I’ve been wanting to write about Hatari for some time, largely because growing up Africa was always a bit of a mystery to me.  Being part of the generation that was brought up on Hatari 10VHS Disney collections of original animated films I remember The Lion King and how it created this perception that Africa was a continent largely of incredible beauty and wild animals, and Hatari only added to this sense of wonder.  Watching the film as I usually do once a year I’m still pretty spellbound as there are shots of John Wayne riding the front of an old beat-up truck lassoing zebras and giraffes and the camera shows these creatures reacting honestly to their capture.  Whether it was rhinos, monkeys, water buffaloes, leopards, or even baby elephants Howard Hawks last major motion picture inspired me to learn more about the wild animals that populated the continent of Africa because they were foreign and wonderful.  It also didn’t hurt that I lived twenty minutes from a zoo which was not only free to the public, it also had most of the animals I watched in the film.

Reflecting on it though, I’ve begun to reassess my love of the film.  I’m not saying that I’ve abandoned it completely. Hatari is still a beautiful movie that I watch every year.  The cinematography is breathtaking, the characters are fun, the music is a sumptuous collection of jazz, and more often than not there are actual scenes in the film which make me laugh.  What I can’t get past though, is the implied racism of the film.Hatari 8

Hatari is about a group of American and European contract workers and adventurers who literally capture animals for zoos.  As the film was made, and is set in the early 60s, there is no tranquilizer guns and so Sean Mercer (John Wayne Himself) and his crew have to wrangle and capture animals using only ropes and battered second-hand automobiles.  The film begins with their attempt to capture a Rhino, and during this attempt Little Wolf “The Indian” (long-time Wayne co-star Bruce Cabot) is gored in the leg.  The crew manage to rush him to the hospital where he’s saved with a blood-transfusion by a frenchman named Charles Maurey who eventually becomes part of the crew.  Not long thereafter an Italian photographer named Anna Maria D’Allesandro (played by the rapturous Elsa Martinelli) joins the crew to take photographs of the crew capturing the animals.  From this point onward Hatari becomes, like many Howard Hawkes movies, more of an exploration of the characters and their relationships than an actual plot.  Sean and D’Allsesandro, who eventually goes by Dallas, fall in love and the reader is also entertained with a love triangle between Pockets (Red Buttons), Charles, Kurt, and a young woman of the crew named Brandy de la Court.  And along with these character arcs the reader is given scene after scene of the crew capturing wild animals with nothing but ropes, crates, and willpower.Hatari 5

From afar this summary doesn’t appear to give much in the way of revealing the problems in the film, and in fact if one watches the characters themselves they’re entirely likable people.  As a viewer I love these characters and I love watching them work towards their goal, and I love watching them fall in love.  But the problems begin to appear when one looks at some of the small moments in the films that can go unnoticed.

As I noted at the start, at one point in the film the ostriches they have captured get out and so the crew has to capture them again, however in the film the only people doing any of the work are the local Africans who are often chased and attacked by the birds Hatari 13while the host of the crew, again all of them white Europeans or Americans, are laughing and enjoying themselves.  In fact at one point Kurt, who began helping them stops, and Louis asks him why he he gasps laughing saying: “I better let the boys do it.”

THe use of the word “boy” to describe the Africans is problematic.  Even if the reader is not American they’re sure to at least catch this moment and will probably have the same reaction I do now, which is usually a small “twist” followed by a small repressed gurgle.

Another moment, earlier in the film, is when Kurt arrives to take Brandy to the hospital.  On the compound there are many native African people who cook and clean for the crew, one of them is named Argo.  He is, for the record, the only black man in the film who receives any sort of meaningful line.  Kurt is shuffling through the main hall telling Argo about the attack, looking at the floor.  When Argo asks how bad Little Wolf is hurt Kurt says plainly, “I don’t know.  Make me some coffee would you?”Hatari 7

No please.  No eye contact.  Just an order.

These are small moments, but they contribute to a larger whole.  Perhaps a more obvious moment is the scene of actual blackface.  Dallas, during the film adopts several baby elephants whose parents have either died or abandoned them and a local tribe decides to honor her by welcoming her as a member.  They take her back to their village and the reader eventually discovers that they’ve covered her face and arms with clay to make her appear black.  Sean and the crew laughs and the following exchange is offered:

Dallas: [Dressed as a Warusha] I don’t think it’s very funny. They want to shave my hair! They want to take my clothes off and there was a man in there.

Pockets: Why, he doesn’t speak any English.Hatari 2

Kurt Muller: You are now a member of the Warusha Tribe.

Sean Mercer: And they’ve given you name. Mother of Elephants. Mama Tembo! Well you’re supposed to dance with them.

Watching this scene today, I honestly cringe.  It was probably funny at the time, but today I just can’t not see that we’re supposed to be entertained by the blackface which is the punchline of the scene.

At this point then my contester emerges.  Well then so what?  This sounds like a racist old movie about white people being dicks to Africans.  How could there possibly be any relevant entertainment or art in such a movie?  Why should I watch an arguably racist film.Africa

To this I would argue, because it is an arguably racist film.  But also an interesting one, largely because it has an element of colonialism that could be explored.

The Africa in Hatari is a not a “Dark Continent,” but that doesn’t mean that colonialism has been completely abandoned either.  The white Europeans and Americans that the reader watches and follows aren’t plundering the land of its diamonds, gold, or ivory the way the Europeans and Americans had done in the past, but that doesn’t mean Africa still doesn’t possess wonder and wealth.  Instead it’s the natural wonders, the animals which still inspire Western imagination that are being captured and sold to zoos.

Watching Hatari I’m struck by the fact that the native Africans help Sean Mercer and his crew capture giraffes and water buffaloes, the implication being that they’re somehow profiting from this venture, though probably not in the same level as the crew.  There’s Hatari 11an implied idea that in this continent of wild and exotic beasts, white people can still find adventure and exoticism that they can’t necessarily find in their own homelands.  They can also find, in their own way, a sort of wealth and domestic comfort.  Africa, its animals, and in some ways even its people, become a backdrop for the Europeans and Americans who are looking to these native creatures and seeing personal opportunity, rather than a chance to help native Africans.

It could be that I’m looking too deeply in this film for some kind of troublesome narrative, but I don’t think I am.  The implication of the narrative, and the small moments scattered throughout the film, contribute to a conclusion that Hatari is yet another in a long line of colonial narratives that paint Africa as a continent where fortune can be had, and adventure is to be gained by those willing and/or able to pursue it.  And that, unfortunately, is a racist narrative.  Africa is a complex continent with a rich history and a developing sense of itself in the aftermath of European colonialism, and as the peoples of that continent begin to rebuild their cultures and histories, narratives like “The Dark Continent” can hold the culture back.Hatari 4

I’m not saying that a film like Hatari should be wholly condemned.  It’s still a beautiful film, with shots that can leave a modern audience who are tired of bloated CGI effects stunned and amazed.  But the realities of contemporary existence, and the complexities of the actors who starred in such films, demand that the reader take a moment and ask themselves, is this movie a healthy presentation?  Or is it plagued  by the biases and unintended prejudices of its makers.

I’ll leave the reader to make up their own mind. 

As for myself I still love watching John Wayne lasso a giraffe while hitched to the front of an old truck and yelling at Pockets when they drive through a river getting him soaking wet.  Though I will say that I agree with my little sister who pointed out the problems of the last quotes directed at Dallas when she first arrives:

Luis Francisco Garcia Lopez: My name is Luis Francisco Garcia Lopez, and I don’t wear pajamas.

I don’t think Luis would have survived long in the #MeToo era, but then again he’s a Mexican man so I suppose it’s a wonder he was able to get any actual dialogue in this movie.

Hatari 14

 

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes from Hatari were provided by IMDB.com.  Though for the record I’m bothered by how few quotes there actually were.  I think I used all of them actually.

 

**Writer’s Note**

Having taken an African History course in college I have a basic understanding of the complexities inherit of that particular field.  A traditional approach to history, or at least a more Western approach is the reliance of written records to substantiate claims.  This is one of the reasons why African History has become a controversial topic in historical dialogues largely because the traditions and histories were oral traditional and the few people who had those histories memorized were, well, killed, or else enslaved.  Because of this historians working in Africa today are steadily trying to rewrite the history of their continent and regions.

In the interest then in giving a more nuanced view of the history of Africa I would point you towards this video by Blue of Overly Sarcastic Productions who provides a nice overview the topic while explaining some of the pitfalls of the subject:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk3iOqKOD7g

I’m also going to post a link to his review of Egypt, because, don’t forget, Egypt is in Africa.  Yeah.  Too many people forget that shit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3hJHmomKvc

I’m also going to leave a link to Extra history’s video on the Zulu Empire.  I haven’t disappeared into Extra History as much as OSP, but I have watched their reviews on Genghis Kahn and it’s amazing.  Definitely check these guys out:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZLGKFWlRzY

Finally, I thought I would share this, it’s the soundtrack to Hatari.  Regardless of your opinion of the film what should never be denied is the fact that this film has a beautiful soundtrack.  And I’m not just saying that, the AFI says so too.  Check it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4KuowE2WdU

In Bed with David and Jonathan by Tom Bouden

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In Bed with David and Jonathan by Tom Bouden
13 February 2019

Lay Lady Lady, Lay Across this Big Brass Bed…and “Cause” the “Fall” of Rome: Cleopatra, Stacey Schiff, and the Dangers of Literate Women

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DEzPFyvEghsl

She was conspicuously absent which is especially insulting when you consider I had the time and space to find worksheets and National Geographic articles about Ahmenhotep and his weird Sun cult.  I mean I respect Sun worshippers more than any of the established religions in this world, but even I have to admit that Ahmenhotep was a weird dude, and kinda of a prick when you consider the fact he just threw out gods like Thoth, Bast, Isis, Set, and Ptah in favor of this weird sun-disc with hands.  Ptah was a god of craftsmen and a cool dude who always brought over beer and Doritos whenever we played Smash Bros at Chuck’s place. 

You don’t just throw that dude out with the broken toaster.  You ass.

As I’ve started digging back into history and ingesting as many history-centered YouTube channels I can get my hands on, I’ve been spending more and more time reading actual history.  This has translated into the start of something that I hope becomes an eventual podcast or YouTube channel, but for the time being I’m just enjoying reading actual history and learning more and more about people and events that I thought I had a clear conception about.  This development actually makes a fair amount of sense to my friends and family given the fact that I’ve always appreciated history as a discourse, an institution, a practice, and as a means of nerding-the-fuck-out.  The most obvious example of this of course was the “Egypt-Folder.”Ph

Sometime during sixth-grade ancient Egypt entered my life and totally consumed me.  I think it had a lot to do with the release of a PC game entitled Pharaoh.  It was an isometric city-building game that, as opposed to Sim-City or ROME, was actually quite enjoyable to play.  Whether it was building hunting lodges, chickpea farms, potter studios, or setting up bazaars in just the right place so as not to reduce adjacent property values, I spent hours just building cities in ancient Egypt trying to appease the gods.  In hindsight the game probably wasn’t that great, but I will defend the time I spent on it because it lead me to books and materials about Ancient Egypt.  It didn’t matter what it was actually about, as long as it had something to do with the myths, culture, history, or art of ancient Egypt I wanted it.  So much so that I eventually collected all the worksheets, magazine articles, and occasional sticker-books about the subject I could find and access into a blue three-ring binder that I carried everywhere.Cleopatra 3

This is all just a way of saying that ancient Egypt was my jam. 

Yet despite my devotion to Egyptian history, Cleopatra remained conspicuously absent.  I don’t have an explanation for this really, the woman just never had much appeal to me for some reason.  And what I did learn from teachers and writers was not particularly flattering either.  Cleopatra was, according to most history I was taught, a slut who brought about the end of the Roman republic and the downfall of men like Mark Antony and Julius Caesar.  Rather than an interesting character, Cleopatra was more of an idea or force who was largely responsible for the end of Egypt as an autonomous country.  And, I suspect, this was the perception many readers were also raised on should they have received any education about ancient Egypt.

Fortunately my aforementioned obsession with Overly Sarcastic Productions changed all of this as Blue made an entire video about Cleopatra which lead to me Stacey Schiff’s biography Cleopatra: A Life.Cleopatra SSch

Cleopatra is a monumental effort and not simply because Schiff places herself between men such as Plutarch, Dio, Livy, and Octavian Caesar.  Schiff’s biography is more than just an effort to clear the charges against Cleopatra of being a seducer and destroyer of “great men,” rather it’s an effort to point out to her reader of the bias of the men who’ve written Cleopatra VII’s history.  Bias is something that is inescapable, and any reader of history has to recognize the fact that the person writing it will always be plagued by some personal, political, and philosophical bias.  Looking then at Cleopatra, Schiff is attempting to demonstrate the fact that the only records that come to us about the life of Cleopatra VII were all written by men, and Roman men at that, and Roman men who had something to gain by portraying her as a seducer and harlot.  The implications for her ability as a ruler were then entirely forgotten, and her capacity as an intellectual are also completely lost to the reader because who cares about her abilities in language, diplomacy, poetry, and philosophy when it’s far more important to know which roman general was banging her on a regular basis?

I’m sorry, do I sound salty?  Because that’s what this book does, it makes you salty, which is not a bad thing.Cleopatra 2

Schiff addresses the issue with our sources for Cleopatra in the first chapter of her book, aptly titled “That Egyptian Woman”:

History is written not only by posterity, but for posterity as well.  Our most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra.  Plutarch was born seventy-six years after she died. […]. Appian wrote at a remove of more than a century; Dio of well over two.  Cleopatra’s story differs from most women’s stories in that the men who shaped it—for their own reasons—enlarged rather than erased her role.  Her relationship with Mark Antony was the longest of her life, but her relationship with his rival, Augustus, was the most enduring.  He would defeat Antony and Cleopatra.  To Rome, to enhance the glory, he delivered up the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed.  He magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions so as to do the same with his victory—and so as to smuggle his real enemy, his former brother-in-law, out of the picture.  The end result is a nineteenth-century British life of Napoleon or a twentieth century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao.  (6)Schiff

Schiff then provides a beautiful summation of our current historical knowledge on the next page:

Affairs of the state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart.  A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages, silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creations of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors.  She is left to put a vintage label on something we have always known existed: potent female sexuality.  (7).

The topic of “potent female sexuality” is its own essay, though I note with great shame that it’s something I should have already dedicated a seven-part essay series to at this point.  I do have a reputation to maintain after all.  But after reading this quote I hope my reader has the same reaction that I did, which was a combination of shock, intrigue, and then outright anger.  Cleopatra VII is a woman who has had her story written solely by men who had something to gain by discrediting her, and while I don’t want to suggest the woman was the working definition of virtue, it does speak a greater trend in human history where a woman’s sexuality is often used against her to write someone else’s story.Cleopatra 9

Perhaps the finest example of this was Octavian Caesar, the adopted-adopted-nephew of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra’s first famous lover.  Octavian quickly established himself as the leader of the Republic following Julius’s assassination by members of the Roman senate, and in no short time he established, along with Mark Antony, the Second Triumvirate which sought to hunt down and destroy the assassin’s of his uncle.  This was all partly for show, and Octavian’s wiles in establishing powers will be the stuff of later essays and podcasts (I hope), but for the time being Octavian is important because no figure appears in such contrast to Cleopatra in Schiff’s wonderful biography than Octavian.  Throughout his efforts to acquire power Cleopatra was a constant source of useful distraction largely because of her sheer personality and reputation in the minds of the roman political establishment as well as the common people.  It was not enough that Cleopatra was a woman, nor was she just an Eastern woman, she was a woman that posed a real philosophical threat to Rome.Cleopatra 4

Schiff elaborates:

Octavian seems to have been the one who decided that Cleopatra plotted to make Rome a province of Egypt, an idea very unlikely to have crossed her quick mind.  He had on his side the familiar type, the scheming, spendthrift wife, for whom no diamond is large enough, no house spacious enough.  As Eutropius put it centuries later, Antony began a war at the urging of the queen of Egypt, who “longed with womanly desire to reign in the city as well.”  Already it was acknowledged “that the greatest wars have taken place on account of women.”  Whole families had been ruined on their account.  And Cleopatra 5already—the fault as ever of the sultry, sinuous, overtly subversive East—Egyptian women had caused their share of trouble.  They were snowed with insatiable ardor and phenomenal sexual energy,  One husband was not enough for them.  They attracted and ruined men.  Octavian only corralled the evidence.  (257).

Cleopatra appears often in Schiff’s biography from an increasingly Western and Roman perspective and this at times made the book somewhat frustrating.  As I noted before, Schiff is trying to show her reader how our perspective of Cleopatra VII was largely created by Romans and therefore it’s going to be incredibly biased.  It just became frustrating as a reader that so much time was spent with aforementioned romans.  Whether it was passage after passage of Julius Caesar’s ambitions, Mark Antony’s attempted and failed military conquests in the East, or Octavian’s endless schemings and manipulations, a fair amount of the biography is actually about the men who determined Cleopatra’s future. 

Now this could be, in and of itself, a revealing method.  Since our knowledge of Cleopatra VII largely comes from Roman voices, focusing on these roman men as a way of revealing Cleopatra does work.  Julius Caesar appears to the reader less a brilliant Rex Harrison Cleopatramilitary master as a sort of bumbling and often simply lucky man who was saved thanks to the graces of an intelligent and politically savvy Cleopatra.  Mark Antony is revealed, less a military genius, as a sort of bumbling baboon who managed to acquire a significant position because of Cleopatra’s personal political gains as well as her fortune.  And as for Octavian he appears less a grand and epic leader of the roman populace, as a scheming jerk who only attained the power he did because he had the benefit of a perfect scapegoat in the form of a well establish foreign monarch.  These three men were all intertwined with Cleopatra VII, and it’s because of her associations and connections to them that we begin to observe, not a crafty seducer of “great men,” but in fact a great woman brought down by three selfish and ambitious clowns.Taylor

I think it’s safe to say that Schiff is trying to show that Cleopatra VII shines for the woman she actually was when you take a step back and really observe the true character and achievements of these men when set in contrast to Cleopatra herself.

And Schiff’s book is not simply an endless encomium and defense, she does perform a great amount of actual historical analysis revealing Cleopatra VII as not just the arm candy of great men, but as an effective ruler.  In one such passage she notes Cleopatra’s approach to the economics of her country:

In economic affairs she took a determined hand, immediately devaluing the currency by a third.  She issued no new gold coins and debased the silver, as her father had done shortly before his death.  For the most part hers was a bronze age.  She instituted large-scale production in that metal, which had been halted for some time.  And she ushered in a great innovation: Cleopatra introduced coins of Cleopatra 6different denominations to Egypt.  For the first time the markings determined the value of a coin.  Regardless of its weight, it was to be accepted at face value, a great profit to her.  (103).

Creating a central standardized currency created a dramatic upsurge of wealth which helped Cleopatra tremendously during her reign as Pharaoh, and this decision is presented as an informed choice brought about by the fundamental strength of Cleopatra’s personality: her intellect.

Schiff repeatedly reminds her reader that Cleopatra VII was a woman above everything else, educated, and that was in part because of her upbringing.  Schiff observes early in the text how Cleopatra was taught:

And from an early age she enjoyed the best education available in the Hellenistic world, at the hands of the most gifted scholars, in what was incontestably the Library of Alexandriagreatest center of learning in existence: The library of Alexandria and its attached museum were literally in her backyard.  The most prestigious of its scholars were her tutors, its men of science her doctors.  She did not have to venture far for a prescription, a eulogy, a mechanical toy, a map.  (29-30).

And Schiff continues this passage observing just a few such exercises she might have had to practice:

When Cleopatra graduated to syllables it was to a body of abstruse, unpronounceable words, the equally esoteric; the theory appears to have been that the student who could decode these could decode anything.  Maxims and verse came next, based on fables and myths.  A student might be called upon to render a tale of Aesop’s in his own words, in simplest form, a second time with grandiloquence.  More complex impersonations came later.  She might write as Achilles, on the verge of being killed, or be called upon to restate a plot of Euripides.  The lessons were neither easy nor meant to be.  Learning was a serious business, involving endless drills, infinite rules, long hours.  (30).Cleopatra 8

Though perhaps most important of all, Schiff notes that CLeopatra’s education has one unique aspect that was unlike any of her former predecessors:

While Egyptian speakers learned Greek, it was rare that anyone ventured in the opposite direction.  To the punishing study of Egyptian however, Cleopatra applied herself.  She was allegedly the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled.  (35).

This last quote is worth emphasizing the most because, as is often forgotten it seems, Cleopatra was not actually Egyptian, she was Greek.  After Alexander the Great died, his generals broke his empire up into three pieces, his general Ptolemy taking the region that included Egypt where he established his base of operations and began a dynasty largely defined by endless incest.  The Ptolemaic dynasty was Greek in nature, but Cleopatra performed an incredible personal and political task by breaking from the tradition of her family and learning the language of the people she was ruling over.Cleopatra 7

I recognize that I hit my reader with three long quotes back-to-back-to-back in a short amount of time, but that’s only because I wanted to convey how much Schiff’s book effected me and my perception of Cleopatra.  By the end of Cleopatra: A Life the woman had become more than the soap-opera queen she had always been taught to me.  Instead the figure that emerged in this book was a charismatic, politically savy, and high educated woman of authority and power and I find that inspiring.  It might just be because I work for, and alongside, and a group of amazing women who are revolutionizing the public library I work for, but strong women are valuable in our society because they bring insight and new ideas for bettering our society.  And so Schiff argues in this book that the lasting image of Cleopatra should not be one solely defined by who she slept with.

Cleopatra: A Life is about revision, but it’s also a book about discovery.  By the end of this book the reader should hopefully have discovered the figure of Cleopatra VII beneath the mountains of scathing and scandalous documents which have attempted to hide her virtues and strengths in favor of painting her with a salacious sexual history that inspires endless steamy paperback novels and really uncomfortable history lectures in high school.  Cleopatra’s achievements were her own, but because she, if I can quote Blue from Overly Sarcastic Productions, “had boobs and did the sex sometimes” became so connected with the affairs of Rome, and the “great men” who were shaping that empire for their own ambitions she was ultimately reduced the figure of the Jezebel who b324c-julius_caesar“ruined everything.”

In this way I think Schiff’s book is a defense of Cleopatra, and, in effect, women throughout history who have been screwed by men’s fear of female sexuality.  Cleopatra did employ her sexuality for political purposes, but Schiff observes that even these choices were for the posterity of her kingdom rather than for personal ambition.  So even in the face of the cartoon-slut that Cleopatra can sometimes be there is an element of inspiration.  The reader who finishes Schiff’s biography will find a developed and interesting human being defined principally by her intelligence and charm rather than simply who was regularly visiting her vagina.

There is so much in Schiff’s book worth exploring but I’ve already written enough here, so much so my reader is probably hoping I’ll finish soon so that they can go watch Birdbox (I know what people like…sometimes), so I’ll end with a thought and hope my reader recognizes the importance of this work.woman-writing-a-book

The tradition of men writing histories and rhetorics about the downfall of great men and societies because of one beautiful seductress is a corrupt narrative and one that has been allowed over and over again.  It’s an incredible woman who’s willing to stand between the overwhelming tides of records and stand to defend the qualities of another Great woman who’s qualities were, like so many temples of the ancient world, lost to the harsh and unforgiving sands that wear the resolve of posterity.

It’s also a point to remember that Cleopatra was willing and able to learn nine different languages, and I can’t even get off my ass to spend 10 minutes a day on that damn Duolingo app I downloaded to my iPad.  Such is the measure of a brilliant mind, and an impressive woman.

Cleopatra

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes cited from Cleopatra: A Life were quoted from the paperback Back Bay Books edition.

 

Cleopatra SSch

**Writer’s Note**

I’ve provided links within the essay but I’ll post them here as well.  Here are the two videos I discussed before, both Blue’s review of Cleopatra:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eGPBX7gY44

As well as the Genealogy of the Ptolemaic Dynasty:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3vAKRa0f5I

 

***Writer’s Note***

While watching Blue’s review of Cleopatra, near the end he mentioned an archeologist who is currently digging for the tomb of Cleopatra.  In the description of the video he provides a link and so I thought I would also share it here since, let’s be real, discovering the tomb and body of Cleopatra would be like the coolest thing ever.  Feel free to nerd-out, care of National Geographic.  Enjoy:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2011/07/Cleopatra/

 

****Writer’s Note****

I’m also providing a few links to other reviews about Schiff’s biography.  I’m sure you respect. appreciate, and trust my learned (pronounced “learnd” according to Homer Simpson) opinion, but it’s always good to get as many different opinions as possible.  Hope you enjoy:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=131018363

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stacy-schiff/cleopatra-a-life/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/01/AR2010110105907.html?noredirect=on

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/22/cleopatra-life-stacy-schiff-review

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jan/22/cleopatra-life-stacy-schiff-review

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/8191028/Cleopatra-A-Life-by-Stacy-Schiff-review.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/books/review/Harrison-t.html

http://www.historybookreviews.com/book_reviews/cleopatra.html

 

*****Writer’s Note*****

In case the reader was curious, I included the “California Girls” Katy Perry image at the start of this essay instead of the one where’s she’s decked out like an Ancient Egyptian because Katy Perry ain’t Egyptian.  She’s a sweet white girl from the Midwest so I thought that if I absolutely had to include her I should do one that’s actually flattering and way less racist.

For example I have that image of her wearing red velvet and I didn’t use that…that…

Katy Perry

I’m just gonna hand in my Feminism gun and badge because clearly I have no self control. But at least I don’t have to worry about Plutarch writing mean histories about me being a slut at least.  Could you imagine how awful that would be?

 

******Writer’s Note******

I’ve actually recorded a podcast for Schiff’s book.  You can follow the link below to my SoundCloud channel, or you can go to the Jammer’s Podcasts link at the top of the page.

Laughter in Dark Places, Virtue out of Sight-Nabokov’s Dark Adultery

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vladimir-nabokov

I made my wife laugh terribly so that she almost fell over.  I was glad that my personal pain amused her so as it’s a sign that our marriage is healthy and whole and we will probably make it.  Then again if Jack Davenport gives up cigarettes and suddenly takes an interest in brown haired sarcastic women from East Texas I’m screwed.  But I’ll save adultery till after the lead-in.laughter

I suspect that laughter, in fact I know that laughter, is one of the most enjoyable and horrific experiences that a human being can experience in their life times.  Most of us live our lives desperate not to be laughed at, while many in their time do everything in their power to make sure those around them are doing nothing but.  Laughter as a mechanism is really nothing but a series of brief and controlled coughs that are, psychologically speaking, often a response to absurdity.  It’s a way to respond to the unnatural, the strange, the weird, or simply anything that deviates from the norm.

I tend to go to bed long after my wife because I like to read and write during my time off from work, and this night was no different from any other.  I brushed my teeth, took my benadryl and melatonin, locked up the house, counted the cats, and went to bed.  Once I was beneath the covers my usual struggle to fall asleep began and I tossed and turned, like I usually do, trying to just relax, get cozy, and drift off.  It was several minutes into this nightly struggle when my wife began to snore.  I tend to be the one who snores1502673715-david-lynch-head-2 because my sinuses are broken-down tractors and so I tend to make cacophonous roars at night, but tonight it was my wife’s turn.  I reached over, and gently shook her and she responded by laughing.  It was a soft albeit malevolent chuckle that was like something from a bad horror movie, but it froze me in place and scared the shit out of me.  I didn’t move until she rolled over onto her other side, but I had only a moment before she laughed again.

Sleep was not to take me that night, and I was left, in the dark, beside a laughing creature I couldn’t see.

I know she wouldn’t kill me, and that’s because I trust her.  Though that trust is something precious which leads me to infidelity and Nabokov.

Vladimir Nabokov is one of the few novelists whose work I’m still regularly reading and collecting.  Part of this is simply distance from graduate school and warming up to my new life and identity as a library employee.  I’m spending my days immersed in the Nabokov 1collected volumes of literature, and because of that I’ve been able to return to many of my true passions: comics, non fiction, Criterion films, and anything that has to do with sex between men.  Yet despite this shift of focus I’m still dedicated to reading literature voraciously and a few of the fiction writers I still spend my time and energy on tends to be Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov.  Each of these writers has their own charms and appeal, but Nabokov will always be one of the first I gravitate towards because there has always been something about the way the man writes.

Recently I completed his novel Laughter in the Dark (at this my reader goes “ahh” and sees what I did there) and looking at the introduction perhaps the reader will see something akin to what I see:

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus.  He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.writers-write

This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome.  (7).

I predict my reader’s reaction, or at least one of them, “dude that’s so meta.”  I haven’t decided yet if “meta,” which in this instance is short for “metafiction,” is meant to be an insult or not.  I think it is because usually if something is labeled as “meta” it is usually synonymous with the more condemnatory word “pretentious.”  Writers who try to make the reader aware that they are reading a story are usually hacks, or at least are perceived as such.  “Meta” as a narrative tool for writers and story tellers was something that really seemed to come to prominence during the 80s when Ferris Bueler and Goodfellas made it not just a unique trick, but a fundamental part of the story, but today’s audiences seem far more concerned with hearing an actual journey and escaping from the world rather than observing craft.cropped-Caravaggio_-_San_Gerolamo

Perhaps I’m being too harsh and too general, as there might be plenty of readers who enjoy “meta” narratives, or narratives that use meta as a tool.  But I don’t believe I’m wrong.

Nabokov as a writer was skilled and far too careful to be unaware of the effect such an opening would have on his reader and by the end of Laughter in the Dark they are sure to have observed that he’s very much correct in his early assessment.  Reading the novel myself I was often struck by the recurrent thought: “I’ve read this story before.”  It was both true, and untrue.  It was untrue in the fact that I hadn’t in fact read the story of Albinus, but it was true in the fact that I had read this narrative before.  The story of a middle aged man who has become inured or bored with his daily existence and so seeks to escape his boredom, and dim awareness of his coming mortality, in the arms of a younger woman isn’t anything new.  In fact the story of a middle aged man leaving his wife for a younger and more physically attractive mistress is so common it borders on nabokov_laughter in the darkcliche.

The reader may wonder then what is so impressive about a novel which explores so paltry a common theme?  Why should I read a book about a middle aged man leaving his wife for a younger woman when I could just watch an episode of Desperate Housewives or Cheaters?

The answer to the second question, is actually the same as the first: the quality of Laughter in the Dark is dramatically more impressive.

As is always the case, Nabaokov doesn’t just use words to tell a story, Nabaokov uses words to play while he tells a story.  Anyone who has bothered to read Lolita, Pnin, or Invitation to a Beheading is sure to remember that Nabokov manages to make even the most grotesque something beautiful and possibly even sublime.  And looking at Albinus’s first sexual encounter with his mistress Margot, the homeless model and aspiring actress, is able to observe the careful attention the man pays to his craft:

He was conscious of a dull discomfort.  He was hungry; he had neither shaved nor bathed; the touch of yesterday’s shirt against his skin was exasperating.  He felt the-art-of-masturbations-960x639utterly spent—and no wonder.  This had been the night of which he had dreamed for years.  The very way in which she had drawn her shoulder blades together and purred when he first kissed her downy back had told him that he would get exactly what he wanted, and what he wanted was not the chill of innocence.  As in his most reckless visions, everything was permissible, a puritan’s love, priggish reserve, was less known in this new free world than white bears in Honolulu.

Her nudity was as natural as though she had long been want to run along the shore rehost_2016_9_13_d02efd3e-fb44-46b9-b7ab-1a2e1dd9f7e3of his dreams.  There was something delightfully acrobatic about her bed manners.  And afterward she would skip out and prance up and down the room, swinging her girlish hips and gnawing at a dry roll left over from supper.  (83-4).

Nabokov is not the first writer who has managed to recreate human sexuality through writing, and he is not the first to observe that when two people, who have not spent years together, fuck they tend to do so with abandon.  What’s unique, or at least feels unique when I read this passage, is how Nabokov plays with the language.  Rather just describe which parts are rubbing or penetrating or getting sweaty as some writers might, Nabakov understands the capacity of words to affect mood and feeling.  I felt this sexuality while reading it, and loathe as I am to admit it, I understood and appreciated Albinus’s passion.  And that capacity to understand a man whom I find detestable is the make of a great writer.Secret Heart Lolita

Albinus is a man in yet another in a long line of Nabokovian narrators (I hope Nabokovian is a word and if it isn’t I’ve just invented it, dibs) obsessed with control.  He sees in his life some hole, or absence which disturbs and troubles him immensely and so rather than try to find personal satisfaction he attempts to control his existence by engaging in a sensuous relationship with a younger woman.  But like all Nabokovian narrators malevolently preoccupied with their lack of control, Albinus’s desires are ultimate his undoing as the woman he tried to control eventually leads the man to his downfall. 

Margot eventually meets a young painter and sadist named Rex who seduces her and convinces her to help him steal Albinus’s money.  The plan slowly works, until Albinus suffers a terrible car crash and is struck blind.

And here is where the predictable narrative began to change, because Albinus at this point differed from the numerous instances of Mid-life crises in literature, for while their demises usually amounted to cuckolding Albinus’s demise was far more complex with Margot and Rex setting up shop in a large house and having regular affairs while Albinus stumbled around in the dark.  And the eventual reveal leaves the man bitterly destroyed as Nabokov writes magnificently:style-dark_eye_1440x900

With extraordinary distinctness he pictured Margot and Rex—both quick and alert, with terrible, beaming, goggle eyes and long, lithe limbs—packing after his departure; Margot fawned, and caressed Rex among the open trunks and then they both went away—but where, where?  Not a light in the darkness.  But their sinuous path burned in him like a trace which a foul, crawling creature leaves on the skin.  (283-4).

Infidelity is a theme which leaves me rather troubled and it’s almost certainly because I have poor self image.  I recognize that my wife would never cheat on me, but I can never completely know that she wouldn’t.  In my more darker moments I have visited the possibility of discovering that she might have been cheating on me with another man, and because I also suffer from depression, and because I’m a writer with an overactive imagination, this thought is often accompanied with all manner of cruel and malicious images.  The emotion that such a betrayal would create in me is, at times, too monstrous to consider.

I’ve seen in the lives of family and friends what adultery and infidelity can do to someone firsthand, and so it needs be repeated that even if it’s a familiar narrative, Nabakov was keen to observe that some of the details are an important reminder of what is implied by the sin.

Adultery is often employed, effectively or piss-poorly, by a number of writers and naomi-watts-mulholland-drive-e1443731332788creators for the purpose of generated drama or character development and this is because the act creates real disruption in the universe.  The cheater violates the trust of their partner and that distrust can poison any relationship, twisting it into something corrupt and unhealthy.  The person who is cheated on is left permanently altered because they have to wonder why their partner strayed: was it something they did or didn’t do, was it because of a single action or was it multiple little things that just built, or perhaps, and even worse, did the other person never actually care for them?  All of these realities collect together, and many artists have explored it because infidelity is, unfortunately, just something that isn’t going away.

Nabokov doesn’t just write a story about infidelity however, because as the opening passage suggested, that’s a story that has been told ad nauseum.  It’s the details of the story that ultimately matter because that is where one can determine the quality of the story.  Laughter in the Dark isn’t just a predictable narrative about a middle aged man trying to escape his mid-life crisis, it’s the story of a man who attempted to control his reality to the point that he lost his entire being because he pursued a passion relentlessly to his ultimate ruin.Lost_man_by_MichelRajkovic

Reading of Rex and Margot laughing and fucking while Albinus was in the next room was something that bordered on horrific, not just because of its potential plausibility, but because by the end of the story, I wasn’t sure whether or not I didn’t feel Albinus didn’t deserve it. 

Laughter in the Dark is not the strongest novel that Nabokov has ever written, but much like his other works the man was able to push past the subtleties of everyday existence to create something unlike anything the reader has experienced.  What is a peacock feather to a blind man, and are it’s edges like the tongues of snails that leave such bitter trails of memory on men whose virtue was not so great that they deserved a second glance?

I don’t have a good answer, but I know that when Middle Age arrives I’ll just try to get into stamp collecting or model cars, because the alternative is far less pleasant.

7e6d899d49fd6f4f22276d5c573c625b--vladimir-nabokov-vintage-photographs

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes cited from Laughter in the Dark were quoted from the Vintage paperback edition.

 

**Writer’s Note**

I didn’t get a chance to include this quote in the essay, but I did want to have it somewhere so I’ll add it here in these little notes of mine.  This quote comes from his short book letters to a young contrarian.

Laughter can be the most unpleasant sound; it’s an essential element in mob conduct and is part of the background noise of taunting and jeering at lynching’s and executions.  Very often, crowds or audiences will laugh complicity or slavishly, just to show they “see” the joke and are all together.  […]  It’s therefore not true to say, as some optimists do, that humor is essentially subversive.  It can be an appeal to the familiar and clichéd a source of reassurance through shared hilarity.  (116).

 

***Writer’s Note***

I wanted to include some information below about infidelity for the reader in case they don’t realize how prevalent adultery is in our society.  At least 1 in 3 relationships can be expected to be damaged or completely destroyed by one partner cheating.  That is, to quote a friend of mine who I hold dearly to, one too many.

https://www.trustify.info/blog/infidelity-statistics-2017

https://www.npr.org/2015/07/26/426434619/sorting-through-the-numbers-on-infidelity

http://www.divorcestatistics.info/latest-infidelity-statistics-of-usa.html

https://www.businessinsider.com/science-of-cheating-2017-8#men-are-more-likely-to-cheat-when-they-have-a-milestone-birthday-coming-up-6

 

****Writer’s Note****

A final note on the images:

I usually try to include as many relevant images in these essays as I can.  This is because I write rather densly and so I try to give my reader a break with a few visuals that bear some general connection to the theme of the article.  However, since I work with the free package provided by WordPress, I only have so many free MB of space before I’ll eventually run out, and since I’v written about Nabakov at least three times now I thought I would save some space and use some old images.  I hope they haven’t appeared too odd to the reader who probably didn’t even notice it until I posted this charming and flattering image of Miley Cyrus.

miley-cyrus-tongue-obsession-continues-twitter

I guess if you squint hard enough her licking the mirror could be construed as a kind of commentary on Albinus’s egomania coupled with his compulsive need to satisfy his erotic longings and use Margot at the expense of his wife and daughter….But then again it’s probably just Miley Cyrus licking a mirror.

I’m not sure what just happened in this paragraph but it feels terribly revealing.

 

 

Trans/Love: Radical sex, Love, & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary

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Trans/Love: Radical sex, Love, & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary

2 October 2018

Dirty Pictures, Or the Enduring Allure of the Leather Clad Superman Kake: Tom of Finland’s Art (NSFW)

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preview-xl-tom-of-finland-16-0901081229-id-186401

There’s something about marines.  I really can’t explain it. It’s like how there’s something about men wearing denim.  Or men wearing leather.  Or men wearing lipstick.  Or men wearing cowboy hats.  Or men wearing police uniforms.  Or men wearing work boots.  Or men with long hair.  Or men with tattoos.  Or men shopping for vegetables.  Or men handling wood at hardware stores.  Or men…actually, you know there’s just something about men period.  Maybe that’s what lead me to Tom of Finland in the first place.420089507100d0939e292c100da10545--gay-men-sailors

Justifying book purchases is getting more and more difficult, and my regular reader probably knows this already if they’ve ever read my homage to Christopher Hitchens.  The space, or, really lack of it, is the primary concern, however there’s also now the issue of mortality.  As I am just a few months away from turning thirty, and becoming yet another in a long line of cliched individuals who realize that they’re youth is quickly becoming a thing of the past, my concern now with purchasing more books is the worry that I won’t actually have time to read them all.  This creates a compulsion towards priority.  DO I really want to read that Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Andrew Jackson when I can’t fucking stand Andrew Jackson, and do I really need to sit down and read Finnegan’s Wake when I realize now that I will never read Ulysses ever again?  There are some positives here, as I have realized more and more that there are books and topics that I legitimately want to read about.  Whether it’s books about Ancient Greece, the Ottoman Empire, anything having to do with Queer identity, and the entire collected works of Vladimir Nabokov these are books that I will read and will make an dirty pictureseffort to read. 

And so as I reevaluate my priorities I can honestly write that I felt neither fear nor guilt in purchasing a $50 book about the work of Tom of Finland titled Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality

I only feel guilty that, after the book arrived in the mail, I hopped into a couple volumes of the manga One Punch Man before actually reading it, but in my defense One Punch Man is freaking hysterical and I apologize for nothing.

I’ve written before about what Tom of Finland’s work has meant to me, as well as to the homosexual community.  It’s not just that the man was able to help establish an unashamed model of gay porn for queer men to use and gravitate towards, it’s the fact that this pornography and art was able to validate the viewers with men who were attractive and quite visibly happy to be gay.  No matter what Tom’s men were doing (sucking, fucking, sexually harassing postal workers) they always managed to find something to enjoy about being sexual with one another, or, to put it another way, they were having fun being gay. 

This happiness helped establish Tom, real name Touko Valio Laaksonen, as one of the most important gay pornographers and artists, but this happiness, coupled with the fact that the men he Touko-Laaksonen-1959drew were typically butch and traditionally masculine, did more for the queer male community who often had been regulated to the “fairy” and “queen” identity.  Tom created a new model of masculinity for queer men, one they were happy to embrace.

Ramakers notes this as he observes the emergence of an unapologetic gay culture:

In the seventies, gay subcultural reality in the United States began to bear an even closer resemblance to Tom of Finland’s images of gay sexuality.  According to sociologist Martin Levine, in that decade there was a noticeable growth in anonymous erotic activity.  Gay meeting places were decorated with Western, leather, or high tech styles and sported “masculine” names such as The Eagle, Badlands, Ambush, Anvil and so on.  In many bars, sparsely lit or darkened rooms were designated for cruising and tricking (spontaneous sex).  Crusing and tricking became the sexual norm.  default_tom_compl_works_04_0707021130_id_62735Sexual techniques were rough and phallocentric and consisted mainly of “deep-throating” (blow job with the entire penis thrust down the throat), hard fucking (jamming entire penis into anus while spanking hard), and heavy tit work (robust sucking, pinching, or biting of nipples).  (106-7).

Before I address this quote I really need to observe that the adjective “robust” always sounds gay to me.  I don’t know what it is.  Just saying the word “robust” it sounds like something a fairy (such as yours truly) would say while describing the repairman who showed up to fix his plumping.  And then maybe, while he was working and trying to keep his long hair out of his face, his shirt would get wet and he’d have to take it off revealing a mess of thick black chest hair that would curl while light would reflect in the small beads of water clinging to…

Jammer 3

Oh, I’m sorry, I got distracted.  Anyway, “robust” always just sounds super-gay to me for personal reasons.

Ramakers quote is important though because it reveals where queer men of the04AIDS2-jumbo seventies were at sexually as well as personally.  It’s easy to forget in an age of Grindr and Scruff and Tindr, but free and casual sex between men was actually quite would have to use codes to find one another, and even then men could find themselves accidentally exposing themselves to straight men who might not always be so happy to discover another man’s hand on their leg.  Compounding this is the fact that, before the seventies, and even some-time after that, being open about one’s queerness could wind one up in a mental institution where there are all manner of nightmare stories. 63af78865fa6a36b01c52af1d06da614

The ability to suck and fuck, and be sucked and fucked, without fear of social reprisal was not only liberating it was revolutionary.  And in this new erotic atmosphere men began to look for a new character to embody.

Ramakers points his reader to Martin P. Levine, who’s work I’ve reviewed in the past, but then tries to show that the push towards a more traditionally “masculine” culture was an effort by queer men to become something new.  Rather than continue to the idea of the “invert,” or the feminine “fairy,” guys wanted to act and behave more like straight men, only with a lot more sex.  And in this new desire for a masculine ideal, Tom’s work was a great boon.  If the reader has never seen any of Tom’s work the first thing they will observe is, obviously, that it’s pretty gay.  But after this observation what becomes obvious is the fact that his men incredibly masculine.  Ramakers notes this earlier in his book when he observes:

Tom’s men are paper constructions of the ideal body, less a reflection of a particular reality than a representation of a social ideal or mental vision.  Tom’s male bodies are reminiscent enough of reality to be credible, but just far enough beyond that reality to form a nigh unattainable ideal. (72).1 A TOMOF FINLAND KAKE HP 22 CCC

Now Ramakers observes that body-building culture impacted this but then later on he observes how Tom accounted for this:

In the later years of his career, Tom attempted to retain idealization, by exaggerating his men’s muscles even further […].  Because of this tendency, however, Tom’s man increasingly became a caricature: “when people criticized him for that, he would tell them, ‘I’m not trying for realism.  I want to express our fantasies.’” (73).

Tom’s work was never, and has never truly been about capturing some kind of realism.  While erotic art and pornography as an institution can at times create and capture the beauty of real and accurate sex, the fundamental purpose of the medium has always been to celebrate and enjoy sexuality, and in this action there is often a great desire for hyperbole.  Looking through some of the many drawings Tom did over the course of his life (the man was amazingly prolific given the fact he began this art at a time where it could have cost him dearly) there is often a great amount of play in his drawings. 

Breasts and shoulders tend to be well defined while hips and legs tend to be slimmer, although the buttocks can often be large and round.  The men, regardless of race or nationality, tend to have similar bone structure in the face, becoming more or less the same copy over and over again.  And, of course, the penises range from simply large to ridiculously gargantuan.

tom-of-finland-4

Not that I’m complaining but at some point one has to wonder how these men don’t throw out their back.

At this point the reader may question the immediate relevance of Ramaker’s book.  So what?  Why should I care about the analysis of pornography?  There isn’t any redeeming value in smut, it’s just dudes banging each other so other dudes can jerk off.  How could any of this be considered art?

As always my contester has some excellent points.  It is important to recognize that Tom of Finland’s work was and still is considered pornography by a significant portion of the population, and because the work is homoerotic in nature his appeal is going to be largely limited to a number of queer men, some women, and then a few art critics bold enough to make a serious assessment of the man and his work.  And, to be fair, the typical aesthetic goal of any erotic material is to inspire sexual arousal in the viewer, a sensation which is largely considered base and temporary in most people’s minds.  Looking at this then, Tom’s drawings does not seem to have a great amount of relevance to many people.Tom_of_Finland

But if I can make a solid enough case, this criticism reveals a larger truth about the perception of sexuality in our culture.  Sex is often, at least as far as the United States is concerned, portrayed in the media in a dichotomy.  While there is near constant reference to human sexuality, the lingering Puritanic trend in most Americans ensures that this sexuality is portrayed as obscene, disgusting, or even grotesque thus leading to “abstinence only” environments which have been demonstrated time and time again not to actually work.  The conversation about sexuality is almost non-existent at the same time it is ever-present.

Tom of Finland entered my life entirely by accident, and since he did I’ve been able to explore a facet of my sexuality that feels not only true but liberating.  In Tom’s leather-clad supermen I found my sexuality and discovered that while at time it could be a serious, all-consuming drive, it could also be something funny and enjoyable.  Rather tumblr_ninyvrL0re1s05p4to1_500than feeling my desires as something grotesque or morally wrong, my sexuality, my attraction to women and men, was a chance to play and appreciate an idealized world where men could have sex freely without fear.  And while there are probably few straight men that would gravitate to the man’s artwork, the spirit of the work is something that is, at least in my estimation, universal. 

Sex is supposed to be fun, and Tom’s men are often smeared with the word pornography, they seem to find even in this distinction something to revel in.

And on the note of fear, Ramakers observes something incredibly powerful in Tom’s work:

Tom’s work is dedicated to the glorification of the male body, in all its vulnerability: RF - ToF 013his bodies are constantly being penetrated in every possible way and through every orifice.  (165).

Soon or later every essay about gay sex leads to the anus, and those people who enjoy having their’s penetrated or stimulated.  For the record I tried getting the previous sentence put on a t-shirt but the printers told me that they could move the shirts but there wouldn’t be enough room for the little cartoon anus I illustrated so I decided to scrap it.  If I’m going to make t-shirts about anal penetration you can bet there’s going to be a cute cartoon anus on them.  Integrity matters damn it.

I’ve written before about how the “problem” of penetration in gay sexuality has been discussed by writers and theorists and so I won’t bother my reader with long academic quotes that totally kill the vibe.  The simple matter is often the practice of anal sex between men, and the frequent use of the “top/bottom” dynamic within the community, has lead to this perception that gay sex is simply about which partner acts “like the girl” during sex.  What’s important about Tom’s work is that this dynamic is not only not apparent, it simply doesn’t exist.e533925986dc3dfdcaef3b94c4b35fff

Whether it’s construction workers, cops, sailors, soldiers, business men, or the leather-clad Kake himself, Tom’s men love to suck and fuck, and be sucked and fucked.  And so while some readers used to the concept of a pure top/bottom dynamic may at first be bothered by Tom’s presentations, there is actually a real and powerful disruption in the man’s work.  Tom’s men simply enjoy sex, and so rather than constructing identities where sexuality is limited to one action or one sexual organ, his men simply embrace the concept that they are sexual objects and beings and so they are willing to simply play with their sexuality.

Ramakers observes the power of this presentation:

Straight porn is for the most part based on the possession of the penis, which is used as a weapon against those who no not possess I.  In Tom of Finland’s work it is precisely the penis that is possessed by both—or all—parties, thus unhinging that basic tenet  from its supposed immutable position.  This allows the power to fluctuate between partners, none of whom can lay claim to “natural” prerogatives on the basis of possession of the penis. (219).Tom-of-Finland-artwork-5-865x577

Or to put it another way, nobody is the “girl” in Tom’s work because there aren’t any girls period.  The matter of women being the weaker creature in pornography is well documented and in fact is its own essay.  For now I simply wanted to focus on Tom’s work because, as I’ve written before in another essay about Tom’s work, the mode of sexuality presented is something I appreciate and respect.

Whether we like it or not, pornography is a staple of the culture, and more and more children will experience pornography as they develop into adults.  In such an environment the importance of sexual education is important, but so is sexual 53 Leather guys by Tom of Finlandrepresentation.  Whether it be gay or not, Tom of Finland’s work is an incredible presentation of sexual activity because it does not attempt to present sex as a power-play.  Even at it’s most shocking and potentially violent, Tom’s men are not participating in a corrupt or revolting sexual display, they are simply trying to enjoy sex, thus crafting an image of masculinity and humanity that is liberating rather than constricting.

As a queer man, I don’t apologize for enjoying and consuming pornography because it’s an art which has allowed my exploration of self to take place.  And I consider it a point of pride that I blame of Tom of Finland for most of my gay sexual development.  In the pages of his work I found and fell in love with men who were strong (and “robust”) in a physical as well as personal way.  And that in turn was a source of inspiration.  My sexuality is something to celebrate rather than fear.tom-of-finlands-obsession-with-a-male-ideal-is-not-unlike-that-of-earlier-artists-in-history.-look-at-david

Dirty Pictures is a serious look at a genre of art that is often denied to the possibility for serious reflection and analysis, and as Tom of Finland’s work and life is recognized more and more by the culture such a book is a vital resource.  Ramaker’s book is an inspiration for those of us who found solace in Tom’s work, and an inspiration to continue the legacy of the man long after he has died.  In this way this review wasn’t just a chance to talk about gay sexuality, it was a chance to thank Ramakers for his book, as well as to thank Tom for his art.

Somewhere on the road there’s a leather-clad superman wearing a winged cock on his hat, and a smile on his face.  And it’s because of Tom’s work that a generation of men made it possible for at least the latter to be not so shocking to us.  Though as I write this I realize it might also just be because Terry Spots is doing another photo shoot in which case I’ll probably have to stop writing so I can disappear into Instagram for a few wonderful hours.

terry spots

 

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes cited from Dirty Pictures: Tom of fInland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality were quoted from the first edition hardback St. Martin’s Press edition.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/love-sex/tom-of-finland-who-is-the-gay-icon-a7319911.html

**Writer’s Note**

I included this in a previous essay about Tom of Finland, but I’ll put it here again.  This website totally and completely supports the work of tOm of Finland and those who try to maintain the legacy of the man’s art.  In fact, one such organization is the Tom of Finland Foundation, a sort of museum, archives, community center which maintains the legacy of Tom of Finland, houses most of his work, and actually supports the work of other erotic artists working today.  I mention this organization not just because I love Tom of FInland, but also because I’m a member of the Foundation and considered it one of the proudest moments of my life when I received my membership card in the mail.

If you love Tom of FInland, or at least would be more interested in learning more about the man’s work, I’ve included a link below to the FOundation’s website where you can contact them directly as well as see some of the various artists who have contributed to their organization.

https://www.tomoffinlandfoundation.org/foundation/N_Home.html

I would also recomend, if you get the chance, visiting the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago.  While their work is not dedicated solely to Tom of Finland, it was partly because of his art that the leather-scene took off in the United States and became not just an aesthetic but an entire lifestyle.  Their museum and website is dedicated to collecting and preserving leather-culture and the various arts and artists and peoples who have helped establish the community.  you can see their site by following the link below:

https://leatherarchives.org

***Writer’s Note***

If the reader is at all interested I found a few articles and pages about the lasting significance of Tom of Finland and have included them below.  Some of them have to deal with the new biopic film about Tom of Finland himself (which I do intend to watch and review at some point)  Enjoy:

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/love-sex/tom-of-finland-who-is-the-gay-icon-a7319911.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_of_Finland

http://www.worldoftomoffinland.com/xToF_home.php

https://www.npr.org/2017/10/12/555652264/the-man-behind-all-those-behinds-tom-of-finland

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/10/tom-of-finland-review-biopic-gay-artist

And finally, if you would be interested in reading (really seeing and owning) Tom’s work for yourself, I’ve provided a link to TAschen’s website where you can purchase some of the beautiful collections of Tom’s work.  I would ABSOLUTELY recommend it:

https://www.taschen.com/pages/en/search/tom-of-finland

 

****Writer’s NOTE****

Okay, seriously this time. THIS is the last thing I’ll say.  Tom’s work was largely responsible for creating a “working-class” model of homosexuality thus shattering the illusion that queer men could only be upper-class-fairy-limp-wriested-fops.  Not that there was anything wrong with being an effeminate queen (lord knows I am), but Tom essentialy gave queer men more room to find themselves, and this perception that anybody could be gay has allowed for some beautiful moments in art.

Case and point my all time favorite scene from The Simpsons.  Homer thinks Bart is gay and so he takes him around to see several examples of burly-straight-men all of which turn out to be gay until it culminates in this moment of pure comedic genius.

Born in Dixie: The History of Smith County Vol.1 by James Smallwood

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Born in Dixie: The History of Smith County Vol.1 by James Smallwood

4 February 2019