Shades of Old Detroit

art, Cabinet of Wonders, history, moments in time, place

I just came across this while looking for something else in Google images: a project by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, called The Ruins of Detroit, a 5-year collaboration between 2005 and 2010.  This is part of what they have to say about the work:

“Detroit, industrial capital of the XXth Century, played a fundamental role shaping the modern world. The logic that created the city also destroyed it. Nowadays, unlike anywhere else, the city’s ruins are not isolated details in the urban environment. They have become a natural component of the landscape. Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire.”

My father grew up in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, worked in the auto factories during the summer, and went to the grand movie houses during the height of the movie era.  I have always wanted to visit the Detroit of his youth, and looking at these pictures is, in some ways, like looking at him: under the age are traces of a marvelous youth, a grace and power that still speak to us, despite the passage of time.  It’s both breathtaking and heartbreaking to see these remains of another era.  Particularly, I find the image of the theatre to be beautiful and sad.

Those Who Come While We Sleep

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, history, metaphor, perception, religion

I used to have these naps.  They were strange naps; I would lie in the sun in my apartment some afternoon when I’d been working really hard, and I would fall into a sleep so profound it was almost painful.  And then, when the first depth of it had passed, I would find myself lying there, unable to move, trapped in my nap.  It was like I was pinned to the couch or the floor — wherever I’d been lying — and the nap went on, and I couldn’t move, the sleep was so intense; and yet I wasn’t fully asleep.  It would go on for some indeterminate amount of time, and then I would be released.

Being the kind of person I was, I didn’t worry about these naps.  Sometimes I thought they were brought on by sugar, sometimes I thought they were a gift, a kind of ubernap that refreshed me more than usual.  Once or twice, though, I thought I saw something that really shouldn’t have been there: a small man sitting on the foot of my bed, a strange glittering shape in the corner of the room.  And I remember all the way back to being a baby, lying in my crib, terrified, unable to move while these shapes streamed at me from the ceiling.

These unmoving waking-dreams have a name, as it turns out; it’s called Sleep Paralysis.  Apparently, when the body is moving between sleep and wakefulness — at either end of the sleep cycle — the body can be in REM sleep while the mind is awake.  It’s related to lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and is able to gain some control of the dreaming experience, and to out-of-the-body experiences; in sleep paralysis, the sleeper tends to fixate on re-establishing control over their body, but in an out-of-body experience, the sleeper perceives themselves as being separate from their body.

The body naturally falls into a sort of paralysis when it is in REM sleep, called REM atonia, where muscles are kept from reacting to the dreams the sleeper is experiencing.  Think of cats or dogs twitching while they dream of hunting: most of the muscles are disabled, but the echo is there, the ghost of the movement. 

Then of course there is the sexual dimension:

“The release of certain neurotransmitters… is completely shut down during REM. This causes REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body’s muscles do not move. Lack of such REM atonia causes REM behavior disorder; sufferers act out the movements occurring in their dreams… Erections of the penis (nocturnal penile tumescence or NPT) normally accompany REM sleep… In females, erection of the clitoris causes enlargement, with accompanying vaginal blood flow and transudation (i.e. lubrication). During a normal night of sleep the penis and clitoris may be erect for a total time of from one hour to as long as three and a half hours during REM.” [wiki]

Which brings me to another point: sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, perceived loud noise, and sometimes an acute sense of danger.  So how does this work, if you feel that you are pinned to your bed, unable to move, feeling anxious, but at the same time you have a big stiffy under the covers?  What would your hallucination be?  Would it, perhaps, be that of a demonic lover, keeping you still by evil magic while taking advantage of your manly charms?  Conversely, imagine how confusing it would be if you were a staid Victorian lady who was pinned frighteningly to her bed while experiencing distinct stirrings in the night?

Enter the incubus, one of the oldest forms of supernatural creature, a male demon who lies with women at night — and its counterpart, the succubus.  Tales of these visitors can be found from South America to Africa to Eastern and Northern Europe.  One of the earliest mentions of an incubus “comes from Mesopotamia on the Sumerian King List, ca. 2400 BC, where the hero Gilgamesh’s father is listed as Lilu. It is said that Lilu disturbs and seduces women in their sleep, while Lilitu, a female demon, appears to men in their erotic dreams. [wiki]

There was a great deal of debate as to these creatures’ purpose in early Christianity, but the common debate was whether the demons had any reproductive capability, and were they using humans in order to reproduce (a la Rosemary’s Baby).  It became commonly accepted that incubi and succubi were the same demon, changing shape: by taking female form, they were able to collect male sperm and then turn around and impregnate a human woman using their male form — and the collected sperm.  The Malleus Maleficarum states:

“…to beget a child is the act of a living body, but devils cannot bestow life upon the bodies they assume; because life formally proceeds only from the soul, and the act of generation is the act of the physical organs which have bodily life… Yet it may be said that these devils assume a body not in order that they may bestow life upon it, but that they may by the means of this body preserve human semen, and pass the semen on to another body.”

Why the baby conceived in this way is not simply a normal baby, no one seems to know; but in the Christian tradition, a baby conceived this way (a cambion) is usually wickedly smart and able to get people to do their bidding.  Some texts hold that a cambion does not exhibit breathing or pulse, but appears to be alive — until they are seven years old, at which time they begin to appear more like normal people.  Caliban, from the Tempest, was supposedly a cambion, as was (according to some stories) Merlin.

When the experience is not sexual it has still been attributed to demons or other supernatural presences.  The word nightmare, for example: mare in nightmare does not stand for female horse, but for mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers’ chests, causing them to have bad dreams.  In Newfoundland, the sleep paralysis experience is referred to as the “Old Hag,” similar to the Night Mare: a creature who sits on the sleeper’s chest while they sleep, making them helpless.  Similar stories can be found in Sweden, Fiji, Turkey, Chile, and many other places; one of the interesting things about sleep paralysis is that it is completely cross-cultural — a product, simply, of being human.  Studies done in Canada, China, England, Japan and Nigeria found that 20% to 60% of individuals, across the board, reported having experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.  

Often, sleep paralysis is associated with narcolepsy, a disorder where emotional excitement makes the sufferer fall asleep.  More rare, but also associated with both sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, is cataplexy, a disorder that makes one lose control of muscles, either totally or partially, in muscle groups.  Thus, for example, one woman I know falls to the floor when she gets overstimulated — but is famous for being able to set her glass on the nearest surface on the way down.  Common cataplexy responses are buckling at the knees, weakness in the arms, and lolling of the jaw; but the effect is brought about the same way that REM sleep temporarily paralyzes the muscles.

This makes me wonder about myths such as Rip Van Winkle.  Was he, actually, asleep the whole time?  Or did he have some kind of waking dream — was anyone sitting on his chest, causing him to neglect his life and let his house and crops fall to overgrown ruin while he lay, unable to move?  (What about the guy in the song “Four Minutes of Two,” who fell asleep waiting for his girlfriend and woke up to gigantic metal bugs?)

And lastly, in the spirit of things falling to overgrown ruin, here is a quote about Lillith, the demon/goddess/early feminist (depending on your source) — whose origin can be found in Lilitu, the Babylonian demon described above.  The quote comes from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah 34:13–15, describing the desolation of Edom:

“Her [Edom’s] nobles shall be no more, nor shall kings be proclaimed there; all her princes are gone.  Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches.  Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.  There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate.  Look in the book of the Lord and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the Lord has ordered it, and his spirit shall gather them there.  It is he who casts the lot for them, and with his hands he marks off their shares of her; They shall possess her forever, and dwell there from generation to generation.”

This is supposed to be about an accursed place, and the passage, in Old Testament tradition, shows that accursedness by listing eight different “unclean” — possibly demonic — animals (including the Lillith, apparently).  However, from my contemporary perspective the beauty of the description gives me chills; it looks to me more like a blessing.  In fact, there are places I would like to invoke this curse in the here and now.  Wouldn’t it be amazing?

Other links:
– Narcoleptic dog on YouTube

– Windsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, my favorite book on dreaming: hilarious and true to life, and drawn in the early 20th century.   Pay no mind to the poor design of the modern cover (unlike the cover of my edition, below); the inside is what matters.

What Ever Happened to Dog Carts?

Cabinet of Wonders, history, neat stuff

I happened across this some time ago, at Terrierman’s Daily Dose.  He has a large number of old photos of dogcarts all around the world; mostly they are carts for milk delivery or other kinds of small delivery, pulled by one or more dogs.

An example of a milk cart, full of canisters.  The unhitched terrier is probably a guard dog.
 Dog cart mobile tea delivery, Brussels, with three dog team.
Dog cart postcard, Quebec.
There are lots more pictures on his blog; check it out.  He is a great believer in working dogs; in fact, the blog is connected with his website about working terriers: his hobby or possibly profession is hunting groundhogs, foxes, etc in their holes using terriers (often the prey are caught around farms and relocated to wilder areas).  

The Secret of Kells

animation, art, Cabinet of Wonders, culture, history

I just watched The Secret of Kells tonight.  I’ve had it on my list for a long time, and thing after thing has thrown itself in the way of my watching, but tonight I had a time limit.  And that was when I said, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to watch this for a long time.  C’mon, I’ve heard it’s good.”

I managed to overcome much grumbling from the other members of my household and force them to watch this instead of an already-seen Dr Who episode.  We sat back and prepared to be entertained.  And that’s when the color and complexity of Kells burst over our eyeballs and we sat, entranced, none of the usual trips to the bathroom or other interruptions for the full hour and a quarter of the movie.

The story is about a child named Brendan who is growing up in the Kells monastery in Ireland, run by his uncle, who is building a huge wall to keep the Northmen out.  They take in a refugee from Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Mull, in western Scotland, where the Northmen have attacked and left no one alive.  In his keeping is a book, the Book of Iona, whose pages are filled with the majesty of generations of work; but the book is unfinished.

The refugee, a monk with the gift of fine illumination, asks the boy to go into the forest to find some oak-berries (probably mistletoe) to make green ink with, so for the first time, Brendan leaves the safety of the monastery and goes among the trees.  There, he is saved from the wolves by a girl who tells him to get our of her forest.  He accuses her of being a fairy, and she does seem to have a magical quality, flitting through the trees and making flowers grow; she gives her name as Aisling, and she consents to help him find the berries if he will then leave the forest and not come back.

Of course, they end up becoming friends, and Brendan goes back to learn illumination, against his uncle’s will.  His uncle is obsessed with building a wall strong enough to keep the Northmen out, and does not see as his nephew begins to learn to create incredible illuminations, with the help of a magical glass which he wins from Crom Cruach, a pagan god whom St. Patrick is said to have overcome.

The extraordinary thing about the animation is the way in which you emerge at the end, feeling that you’ve just swum through the most marvelous illuminated manuscript.  The attention to detail, and the careful attention paid to Irish art in its execution, is overwhelming.  Apparently, the animators took a leaf from Mulan (which uses Chinese art as an inspiration) in its conception, and it works; the film is lovely, and very Celtic.

Throughout the film, too, are side-references and little references which, like the endlessly complex illuminary graphics of the film, thicken it into layers of meaning.   For example, the cat, Pangur Bán (whose name means White Fuller in Gaelic) comes from an Old Irish poem, written in the 9th century  by an Irish monk at Reichenau Abbey, in southern Germany:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translated by Robin Flower)

Which is excellent, because the movie begins: “I have seen the book which turns darkness into light.”  And, of course, a large part of the movie takes place in the Scriptorium, where the illuminations are created, and where, I suspect, our nameless Irish monk was when he wrote the poem.  It’s also possible that the author was from Iona, which was repeatedly sacked: a lot of the people fled, many to Ireland, but many of them went to the Continent to set up Columban monasteries.  So you see the references are circular, like an Irish knot, or a snake swallowing its tail, or a fine illumination.

Interestingly, there was a Saint Brendan, but he lived many years before Iona was even founded, so not all trails lead back round to the beginning.  But then, though art is about truth, it’s not always about having the facts straight.

And just to give you an idea what they’re talking about when they go on about the wonder of their book, here are some images from the real Book of Kells (its final name), which lives in the British Museum at Trinity College in Dublin:

Here is the page called the Chi Rho page, meaning the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek.

A detail from that same page, near the top.

And just to drive you crazy, here are two cats and their kittens worked into the bottom, in the reddish bit by the lowest part of the P shape.  Look carefully (try clicking on the image to see it in more detail).  See all that insane detail inside all the other bits?  The interwoven curlicues under the cats’ feet?  That is all miniscule work, which could not have been done without at magnifying glass (the crystal?  From the eye of Crom Cruach?); the Chi-Rho page in total is about the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper.  Imagine trying to do that with 8th or 9th century technology, quill pens and such.
This page, by the way, shows up in the movie, so watch out for it.  And watch out for all the pieces and parts of the page to appear all through the movie as part of the storyline.  It’s quite a work of art — the movie as well as the book.  
Good luck — you’re in for a treat.

Whose Ideal Was This, Anyway?

Cabinet of Wonders, culture, history, propaganda, weird fashion

As part of my day job I teach media literacy to children in 5th and 6th grade — just before they go off to junior high school, and hopefully just before they are inundated with the maximum number of messages about who they should be.

One of the things I did recently was to make two slide shows about the evolution of what is considered ideal in both male and female bodies. For the female progresssion, we start with the S-curve styles of the 1900’s, with the impossibly thin waist and the “monobosom” pouter-pigeon chest.

The thing I always debate with myself about this kind of image is this: is it better to rely on a piece of corsetry, torturing one’s body into shape through lacings and bonings which everyone uses? At least then, no one expects you look that way naturally. Or is it better to be natural, wearing flimsy knitted clothes that give away every lump and bump, and be expected to be perfect with no structural support at all? The former is painful, but the latter can be even more painful, because the only way to gain the correct shape is to starve yourself, exercise to death, and have plastic surgery — all invasive techniques that actually change your body and affect your overall lifetime health. And even then, after all that, they don’t often work.

Within about twenty years after this, however, the fashion changed so much that anyone with those kinds of curves is in big trouble — which means that all the curvy women who were considered beautiful before probably had daughters who inherited their shape and were now struggling with trying to flatten and narrow themselves so as to fit the new shape.

Within another twelve years, you have Mae West making that flat ideal look entirely silly.

And then come the forties, time of slim hips and shoulder pads, a more masculine look to go with wartime and the Rosie the Riveter ideal of womanhood.

But of course, men who are at war and dreaming of home think about girls like Betty Grable with longing: not so masculine looking here. Note, however, that there is no gap between her thighs. If she were a modern pinup, she would have much thinner legs, often so much so that there would be a space between the thighs.

By the fifties, things had changed back again from the shoulder pads and the narrow hips.

Then, in the sixties, a new phenomenon came to our attention: the new, “modern girl” look of Twiggy. Suddenly all those girls who looked like Marilyn Monroe were doomed. Thin was in (remind you of the twenties at all? Modernness and shapelessness?).

This is, I think, the beginning of our modern supermodel/Photoshop hell.

Curiously, though, this is where I started to notice a thing. It was a kind of big thing, and I’m not certain how I missed it before, except that with the proliferation of media, there are more examples for me to look at. What I noticed was a rift between the ideal woman for men and the ideal woman for women.

The thing is that while Twiggy was strutting her stuff to the women, we had Jane Fonda taking the male world by storm in her role as Barbarella.

So what is that about? When women try to emulate someone such as Twiggy, against the general desire to attract men, what are they doing? My guess is that it’s about women trying to impress other women. Which is an interesting phenomenon (Note: I am going to set aside gay, lesbian, bisexual and other preferences here because that is a huge discourse in itself; I’m making a choice to talk about the majority, in the services of a discussion of “popular culture,” which is, after all, what the media is serving up. I do think it could probably be said that few lesbians are particularly interested in the Twiggy look, either, but perhaps I’m going out on a limb, making sweeping statements like that).

Another thing I am fascinated by is the incredible strides we’ve made in the technology of beauty. These earlier examples didn’t have the benefits of plastic surgery, personal trainers, and Photoshop. True, the early catalogs are all drawings, so could be as fantastic as you want; and true, they had the soft-focus lens and some retouching in still photographs. But when Ursula Andress walked out of the waves on film, she had to hold it in, to carry herself well in order to look as fabulous as she did. When I compare the photos of her to the apparently effortless beauty of the photos of her modern counterpart, Halle Barry, two things come to mind: “Poor Ursula! She looks so self-conscious by comparison!” –and– “My word, but Halle looks disturbingly, almost supernaturally, flawless!” And, to be honest, it is supernatural: she has the benefits of all the modern technologies. Whereas Ursula was actually standing there, in the raw, being natural — no “super” about it.

The thing that disturbs me most about these two images is how our daughters must feel about themselves when they see them. The girls in 1962, seeing Ursula rising from the waves in Dr. No, knew that what they were seeing was a real woman, something they could aspire to (if that was what they wanted). Seeing Halle Barry, above, holds no such comforts, particularly when digital film has so much option for smoothing out those flaws. Such perfection is absolutely outside the realm of anyone who is honest with themselves. They might as well throw themselves against a brick wall, because you can’t live, and breathe, and be that perfect. It’s impossible, and our daughters know it.

And I won’t need to say much about the present Photoshop climate, and the overzealousness of Photoshop users that, while making fun of themselves to some extent, are also continuing to propagate the impossible image, one that makes it hard to judge what the real person looked like and so impossible to know what to compare oneself to.

Now, on the male front, there’s not a lot of change from 1910 to the 1970s. Maybe a little more muscle, but nothing strange. Male self-image, like male fashion, is one of conservatism and extremely subtle variation, particularly during the 20th century. Sure, there were the Ziggy Stardust exceptions, but very few men actually aspired to that kind of skinny and androgenous look — or to wearing shiny, colorful stretch body suits and platform heels on the street.

However, in the 1970s, not too long after Ziggy was blowing peoples’ minds, a man who everyone had thought rather extreme, crossed over from the bodybuilding subculture into the mainstream media, bringing with him a sea-change as he came.

It’s true that his first big role in film was one of extreme caracature, and many people laughed at its comic book qualities.

But the film, and his role in it, captured imaginations too. Arnold made his next appearance in another, more serious role, one in which his physical attributes are used in a much more believable way.

To overcome a comic-book image by portraying a truly frightening cyborg is an interesting entry into “normal” roles; but Terminator had a rippling effect of acceptance for his weird physique: how he looked went from being weird and scary:

…to being impossibly badass, and that, right there, is an entry into the imagination of the male populace. From there it was on to action movies, and before you know it, others were emulating the look. It became de rigeur for action movie heroes to have that pumped-up look; and a whole generation of boys grew up with the idea that it was the ultimate in masculinity.

Just look at GI Joe. In the 1960s he was a regular guy, modeled to look like a grownup version of the boys who played with him.

But by the 1990s, with G.I. Joe Extreme, whose biceps are nearly as big as his waist, it began to get out of control. Boys were being encouraged to play with role models that not only went beyond anything they could achieve with steroids, but would require actual muscle implants to achieve the proportions.

Curiously, women didn’t go along with this, just as the Twiggy thing never caught on with men. The Brad Pitt of Thelma and Louise, which appealed to so many women, is not the same one as the Brad Pitt of Fight ClubTroy, an action movie.

And yet, just look at Robert Pattinson, the male star from the recent Twilight movies, who is the romantic fantasy outlet of hundreds of thousands of girls across the world. A farther cry from the Arnie physique I can really not imagine.

I can’t save the children I teach from the poor information and misleading imagery they are fed every day, but I can try to make them aware of the visual diet they are ingesting. We work in Photoshop, and they learn to do retouching themselves, which gives them not only a technical tool but a deeper understanding of how these images are remade, so that when they see an image, they can look for the telltale clues.

Hopefully, they learn that there is really no way to make ourselves as perfect as the images we see — and, in fact, they may even question who we are trying to make ourselves perfect for? As Jean Kilbourne says in Killing Us Softly 3, “We learn from a very early age [from advertisers] that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and above all, money striving to achieve this ideal, and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail. And failure is inevitable.”


Watch Killing Us Softly 3 (from 1999); very interesting stuff

And here’s a nice article on the changing standards of body image for men.