Friday, July 27, 2007

From the Department of Almost But Not Quite

1 In recent weeks, Ed and his readers at the Dizzies have been discussing the persistence in literature of the ouroboros, the ancient symbol of the snake that eats its own tail, a metaphor for circularity and infinity. I remembered that discussion late Wednesday night as I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and came across the following scene, which finds Luna Lovegood leading Harry into Ravenclaw's common room:
[Luna] knocked once [on the eagle-shaped door knocker], and in the silence it sounded to Harry like a cannon blast. At once the beak of the eagle opened, but instead of a bird's call, a soft, musical voice said, "Which came first, the phoenix or the flame?"

"Hmm . . . What do you think, Harry?" said Luna, looking thoughtful.

"What? Isn't there just a password?"

"Oh no, you've got to answer a question," said Luna.

"What if you get it wrong?"

"Well, you have to wait for somebody who gets it right," said Luna. "That way you learn, you see?"

"Yeah . . .Trouble is, we can't really afford to wait for anyone else, Luna."

"No, I see what you mean," said Luna seriously. "Well then, I think the answer is that a circle has no beginning."

"Well reasoned," said the voice, and the door swung open.

The phoenix or the flame? The head or the tail of the snake? An ouroboros in Harry Potter, almost . . . but not quite.

2 On the train and around the city the past week, I've seen dozens and dozen of people reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But I've also seen, just today, people reading Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Colleen McCullough's Fortune's Favorites, Anna Karenina, Walden, Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer, Gregory Maguire's Wicked, The Turn of the Screw, and, as seems to be the case any time I get on the train, The Kite Runner.

So almost everyone's reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . . . but not quite.

3 In the introduction to his fascinating City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (2006), Vic Gatrell writes about a gentlewoman named Lady Worsley:
In 1782, nearly a dozen prints circulated in fashionable London that were not at all designed to trump her high standing and connections. Costing a shilling plain or two shillings coloured and exhibited in printshop windows, they were bought by the great if not the good in malice and delight.

In one, by the up-and-coming caricaturist, James Gillray, entitled Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, Exposing his Wifes Bottom--O Fye!, a man hoists another man on to his shoulders to allow the latter to peep through a bathhouse window at the naked Lady Worsley as she washes herself demurely. In bluff military fashion, the peeping man remarks to the other below: 'Charming view of the back settlements, Sr Richard.' 'Good lack! my lady,' her attending maid exclaims in alarm, 'the captn will see all for nothing.'

The print illustrated a scene that had been revealed during a suit Sir Richard Worsley filed against the captain referred to in the print, Captain Bissett, for "criminal conversation" with Lady Worsley. According to Gatrell:
The court heard that while Worsley was quartered in the military camp at Cox's Heath, Lady Worsley had often used the nearby bathhouse at Maidstone. On one occasion her husband had tapped on the bathhouse door, saying 'Bissett is going to get up to look at you.' Hoist Bissett up to the window Worsley duly did, for him to gaze on her nakedness.
Perhaps needless to say, given this revelation the court found Worsley's suit less than convincing and awarded him only a single shilling in damages for the adultery.

The story is similar to the famous tale told by Herodotus about Candaules, King of Lydia, and his friend Gyges:
Now this Candaules became enamoured of his own wife and therefore thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. One of the members of his personal guard, Gyges the son of Dascylus, was an especial favourite of his, and Candaules use to discuss his most important concerns with him; in particular, he used to keep praising his wife's appearance, because he thought she was so beautiful. Candaules was destined to come to a bad end, and so after a while he said to Gyges, 'Gyges, I don't think you believe what I tell you about my wife's looks--and it's true that people trust their ears less than their eyes--so I want you to find a way to see her naked.'
The proposal made Gyges extremely uncomfortable, but Candaules was his king, so he allowed Candaules to hide him in the queen's bedroom. A painting of the scene, below, features in Anthony Powell's Temporary Kings; his characters encounter the painting in Venice, which allows Powell to use the tale to highlight a pair of his favorite topics, sex and power.

{"Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed" by William Etty}

The queen discovered Gyges in her chambers and, ashamed, told him,
Gyges, there are now two paths before you: I can leave it up to you which one you choose to take. Either you can kill Candaules and have me and the kingdom of Lydia for your own, or you must die yourself right now, so that you will never again do exactly what Candaules wants you to do and see what you should not see. Yes, either her or you must die--either the one whose idea this was or the one who saw me naked when he had no right to do so.
Gyges was horrified, but he realized he was trapped. He opted for killing Candaules (for which the queen already had a suspiciously well-developed plan), took the throne, and reigned as King of Lydia for thirty-eight years.

The result of the revelation of Sir Richard and Lady Worsley's immodesty, on the other hand, was of much less consequence: public embarrassment, the creation and sale of a variety of satirical prints that they surely knew were hidden in the sideboards and bedsteads of their supposed friends, and the revelation, according to Horace Walpole, that Lady Worsley had "enjoyed the favours of thirty-four young men of the first quality."

The story of the Worsleys is almost an analogue for the story of Candaules and Gyges . . . but not quite.

4 I'll end with a passage I read on the train on the way home today, from Tolstoy's Hadji Murat, in which Tolstoy is writing about Tsar Nikolai I.

{Portrait by Franz Kruger of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, 1852}
The constant, clear, vile blatancy of the flattery of those around him had brought him to the point where he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer adapted his actions and words to reality, logic, or even to simple good sense, but was absolutely certain that all his instructions, no matter how senseless, unjust and mutually incompatible, became entirely sensible, just and mutually compatible simply because it was he that gave them.

I have to confess that it's only wishful thinking that lands this passage in the Department of Almost But Not Quite.

Sadly, there's no not quite about it: put that passage in one of Ron Suskind's books about the Bush administration and you'd never think it the slightest bit out of place.

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