Saturday, September 09, 2006

Random Musings on a Saturday Evening On Lewd [Medieval?] Gnomes and Nip/Tuck After Inhaling Too Many Paint Fumes, or: Popular Medievalisms, Part II

Having recently bought a new house in downtown St. Louis, and having spent most of the past week painting the rooms in that new house, chalk up this post to the paint fumes, my addiction to probably the most tasteless show of all time on television, Nip/Tuck, and also to JJC's last post on his morose and waterlogged fez-wearing Shriner figurine [disclosure: my grandfather on my father's side was not only a Shriner, but also the "Grand Poobah"]. I would also like to point out that I am writing this post while sitting on Grand Avenue at a sidewalk table at my favorite wine bar in St. Louis, Erato. I am also filching the free wireless service from the Panera Bread Co. across the street. So, eros/erato, or something like that.

Item #1: For reasons I cannot fully comprehend, JJC's post about his Shriner figurine got me thinking about gnomes, and more specifically, garden gnomes. I think they're cute and secretly wish I had one, but am too embarrassed to actually purchase one. I have this idea that even if I did own one, it would have to be an "authentic" garden gnome, not a kitschy replica, and I don't even know where I would find it [I suppose, eBay, but I think I may be the only person in America who has never actually gone on eBay--shocking but true, and I plan to keep it that way]. What is the origin of the garden gnome, I started thinking, and what is its provenance, and is it in any way an example of medievalism [that same way that Tolkien-ish elves might be]? Wanting to browse images of so-called garden gnomes on Google, I was a little surprised to find that, for every page of images retrieved, at least one or two depicted garden gnomes in sexual or more generally lewd positions [and in various states of undress]. What is it about the ubiquitous garden gnome, I wondered, that elicits such sexual images and creatively obscene adaptations? It seems to me that the garden gmome comprises in its typical figuration two features that are somewhat opposed [but perhaps, also, mutually productive]: it is small [hence, "cute"] but also old [hence, "dirty"]. When you put "cute" and "dirty" together [see image above], the end result is . . . um, discomfiting. Something tells me that a book that might shed light on this subject is Susan Stewarts's On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection [Duke UP, 1993], which I believe JJC makes use of in his book Of Giants [my copy is still packed away in a box somewhere, so I can't check it at present]. In any case, I also wondered about the garden gnome's possibly medieval-ish associations: does the garden gnome [which, as a consumer product, has its origins in nineteenth-century Germany] supposedly hearken back to a medieval past, one filled with trolls, dwarves, and the like? [Thinking of the garden gnomes "cute" yet also "dirty" nature, keep in mind that in Middle English romantic literature, the dwarf is often a nasty fellow who accompanies knights of questionable character--he may be "cute," but he'll lash his whip across your face in an instant, as in Chretien's Yvain.]

It has to be stated, first, that in order to properly answer this question, we will have to wade through all of the existing pseudo-garden gnome histories, such as this one:
The international family of garden gnomes dates back to the era when the form of the globe consolidated out of Chaos, and the forces responsible for precious and base metals and precious stones implanted them beneath the surface of the earth. Unlike men, gnomes learn from the past and they also have the ability to predict and learn from the future. Their name derives from the Greek word gignosko, meaning 'to learn, understand', and the principal gnome characteristic is an acute understanding of every aspect of the Cosmos.
We could, I suppose, start with Wikipedia, whose entry on gnomes covers everything from Paraclesus's to Tolkien's to L. Frank Baum's accounts of gnomes, and also informs us that garden gnomes are banned at the annual Chelsea Flower Show, apparently because they are too "working class." And then we have the "crazies" like Edward St. Boniface, who has this to say in his online journal:
Sometimes my consciousness inverts and haemorrhages with terror at what my imagination can build out of such squamous components of degraded flesh. I see the medieval gnomes and flibbertigibbets dissolve and transmute fantastically into the genetically disrupted metallic semihumans of psychotic cyborganic technologies and centuries to come. I see hives and asylums of crawling prefoetal freaks croaking thunderously to each other in a mass of amplified insect-noise and radiophonic cackling; heirs both of the phobias of the demon-cursed Dark Ages and the sneering living gargoyles that deface the present.

I panic and rave within at these fears my perception of the future's ghouls plunge me into without hope of arising from them and purifying my soul of their invasive titillations. I feel defiled by my apprehensions of what is to come, based on the worst disfigured hellspawn that rob and ravage in a relentless slow burning everywhere.
Could Paraclesus's so-called "medieval gnome" be an example of what Richard Dawkins and others have called a cultural meme which has become a "meme complex"? Is it a dangerous meme or a benign one? Is it an example of "medievalism," and if so, how? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Item #2: Last night while watching episode 4 of Season 3 of Nip/Tuck--a show about plastic surgeons in Miami Beach that is so incredibly tasteless and obscene that even my most diehard TV-watching friends won't go near it--I experienced one of those "medieval studies really is sexy" moments. Sean McNamara, one of the two main plastic surgeon characters, was dallying with a college student in her dorm room, when he kind of realized he shouldn't be there and said to her, "I'm old enough to be your father," to which she replied, "My medieval studies professor told me age is just a state of mind . . . and I fucked him, too." I can't tell you what happened next, but suffice to say, I was kind of stunned: medieval studies professor?!!? First of all, why not philosophy professor? Aren't they the ones always saying those things, and shamelessly getting away with it? Secondly, why not "medieval literature" or "medieval history" professor? Medieval studies? How is it that a show on F/X Networks caught wind of our interdisciplinary hipness? Yes, I realize it's all just likely an absurd coincidence, but still . . . discuss amongst yourselves.


Karl Steel said...

I realize there's a very serious post below, but I'm trying to keep the smart parts of my mind on the tasks at hand.

But I love a fun post. Can you believe I found a copy of Anita Guerreau-Jalabert's Motif-Index of French Arthurian Verse Romances for free on table in the French Dept. a few weeks back? People who know my love of Tubach's Index Exemplorum know how happy this find made me.

The entry on 'dwarf' & 'dwarfs' in the Concordance has a McSweeney's-list poetry to it (here's something that still makes me laugh). Here you go, minus the internal cross-references:

Dwarf. Fountain guarded by dwarf, knight. Dwarf. Appearance of dwarf. Hunchback dwarf. Dwarf clad in green. Dwarf clad in black. Malevolent dwarf. Directions on question given by dwarf. Treacherous dwarf. Dwarf as prophet. Secret physicality discovered by barber /dwarf/. Feast interrupted by knight, giant, lady, dwarf offering challenge.

Dwarfs. - Dwarfs are ugly. Dwarfts are small. Dwarfs predict. Dwarfs are sensitive. Dwarfs timorous. Helpful Dwarfs. Dwarfs serve mortals. Dwarfs kidnap mortals. Dwarfs threaten mortals. Dwarfs possess treasure (jewels). Giants and dwarfs friendly.


Now, everyone knows that there were dwarfs, gnomes, elf-queens, and so forth aplenty in England before the friars came along placing little friars under every bush. The Wife of Bath said it; I believe it; that settles it.

Karl Steel said...

Can't resist, EJ. If you're willing to break your ebay resistence, you might want to click here.

My favorite bits? The squirrel's horn blowing, conjuring up what I don't wanna know & the relationship between the weight of a work of art and its quality ("He weighs 6 pounds and 14 ounces so he is a very solid well made piece of art. The craftsmanship is excellent and very detailed in all respects"), which means that this probably outranks that lightweight Goya en toto. Believe me: I've seen it. I've seen Goya. And that blueberry's not to be trifled with.

Back to work!

Anonymous said...

Sex and sleaze associated with the Middle Ages? Get right outta town.

Back in the day when Penthouse actually had a subscription base, I recall an article entitled "What did they do in the dark in the Dark Ages?" I might have xerox of that brilliant article around. Always wanted to work it into my footnotes.

Anonymous said...

That's cool that your profession was mentioned in a sleazy TV show. Don't you figure, though, that they tried to choose the stuffiest professorial profession they could think of to provide contrast, it couldn't be that, could it?

I took an anthropology course on ethnicity which was based on the professor's doctoral thesis about Norwegian American ethnicity. He showed us slide after slide of Norwegian-American gardens filled with Norwegian-American garden gnomes. Perhaps from that you can imagine what an exciting course it was.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

What a fun post. Provocative, too: who would have thought that garden variety gnomes were so perverse? Or that Anita Guerreau-Jalabert could transform dwarves into found poetry?

One of the most important books for widening the paramaters of my childhood imagination was Rien Poortvliet's fanciful yet seemingly factual encyclopedia Gnomes. The troll-like creature called the Snotgurgle (I think I am remembering that correctly!) gave me endless nightmares, intent as he was on grinding the feet off screaming gnomes in its bloody workshop.

I should add that one of my sisters, remembering my youthful obsession with the book, mailed me a resin Poortvliet Gnome that now sits on the front step of our house, holding a small lantern. Kid #2 considers it one of the lares et penates of the home, leaving him offerings of stones, leaves, and other objects that catch her eye (quite a mound has developed in front of him). Less reverently, Kid #2 uses his pointy hat as a convenient holder for his Aerobie Sprint Astonishing Flying Ring [really, a frisbee that looks like a donut].

Anonymous said...

As a former DJ of electronica, I would be remiss if I did point out that the Nip Tuck theme song, "Perfect Lie," has has been rather wonderfully remixed by Gabriel & Dresden.

Dr. Virago said...

This all reminds me of a coloring book that was passed around the record store where I used to work. (Yes, that's right, I said *record* store.) Anywho, the coloring book featured pornographic renderings of fairy tales, and to this day the image that haunts me most is the one of the 7 dwarves boinking (or waiting their turn to boink) Snow White.


And btw, I can believe that a medievalist in LA might have *actually* used that line on a student who then became a writer on Nip/Tuck.


Karl Steel said...


Norwegian American ethnicity

Huh. That'd be me. I suppose we're the outliers, as we were into trolls, not gnomes.

The 'Gnomes' book came out in '77, JJC, so I have to imagine you and I went about reading it in very different ways: I mostly liked the pictures, and Poortvliet inclusion of sketches, which reminded me of another favorite book of childhood: Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.

And my lares? A sticker bush--that's what I called it--in front of the home we had in the mid 70s. I gave it a hearty vale when we moved.

EB: huh (that's to your peculiar way of measuring time). I'm also a former DJ, although I did rocknroll (ashamed to say, I guess, that I started as an 80s DJ, but it was 1993, so the cliche, so far as I know, started with me).

DV: remind me to remind you to tell me who that was at Kzoo07. "Age is just a state of mind?" What medievalist, steeped in Maximian and De contemptu mundi, could ever say such a thing? I'm ashamed for our profession: we all know that the proper sin of the old is envy!

But it woulda been great to have squeezed this in:

We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype;
We hoppen aywey whil that the world wol pype.
For in oure wyl ther stiketh evere a nayl,
To have an hoor heed and a grene tayl,
As hath a leek; for thogh oure myght be goon,
Oure wyl desireth folie evere in oon.
For whan we may nat doon, than wol we speke...

Anonymous said...

Just for clarity's sake: the article to which I referred was in Penthouse. Yeah, I don't normally mark time by subscription statistics of major adult publications, but now that I think about it, it's not an altogether bad way to foreground the extent to which the temporal is always already libidinal. A critique of time is a critique of the libido. Lyotardian, that.

College radio, Karl? I had the privilege of djing for almost 4 years. The real excitement came when I moved to the big room, and started doing techno. Even did a set with Frankie Bones.

Karl Steel said...

I'll put on a hat, and take it off to you, for making critical hay outta my snark. Not college radio. Post college, at a club, for 4 years of Sundays. But all I did was play songs.

Oddly enough, I did some college radio afterwards, in grad school, because I'd always wanted a college show, but at my undergrad inst., the college radio was community radio, and lines to get a show went on for years.

Eileen Joy said...

This is too wierd. I *was* a college DJ [WVCW in Richmond, VA] and was given the late late late night shift for two years running. This was the early 1980s and new wave music was all the rage. Somehow, though, I distinguished myself by doing these these really terrible shows where I would play whole albums uninterrupted--albums, I might add, by groups that I had somehow deemed "the best ever," and which included [embarrasingly] Bad Company, Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson, and [not so embarrasingly] Patti Smith and the Jim Carroll Band. I think my main reason for playing whole albums was so that I could lie prostrate on the sound booth floor due to reasons I can't disclose here.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am not now and have never been a DJ. I do not now and have never possessed good taste in music. I am not now and will never be Paul Strohm.

Karl Steel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Karl Steel said...

JJC: you know it's too soon to tell on that.

EJ: prog rock's come back in with the kids (at least the kids on the rocknroll listserv I can't see cancelling), so there's no shame in King Crimson, Yes, or (Peter Gabriel) Genesis, or, for that matter, Hawkwind. Syd Barret (RIP) - era Pink Floyd's also very much in style. Strikes me as a natural progression from krautrock.

Bad Company's a bit peculiar, though: good for karaoke.


EB: As much as my rocknroll knowledge is fading, I know even less about techno or electronic music, so the Frankie Bones comment just slides past me. A rapprochement: In the past few months, I can say that I've enjoyed Marumari and Shuttle 358, and E-Rock, and Bit Shifter makes me laugh a bit. So suggestions are welcome on that front.

Good lord, which blog am I on?

PS: EJ, you were probably just sleepy.

Anonymous said...

I dig Supermogadon.

It was a pleasure having a radio show when I was teaching. In my new field, we call it "self care." I got to play lots of dark, danceable goth & industrial. I remixed some wicked stuff too.

In that vein, give the likes of Dismantled, Neikka RPM,, and Assemblage 23 a listen. Actually, all these bands are not ultra danceable, but's "Traummaschine" has real force, and Niekka's "Here's Your Revolution (Negative Format Mix)" is also way way good.

Eileen Joy said...

My favorite groups in this vein are Thievery Corporation, Moorcheeba, Lemon Jelly, Mylo, and Zero7 [and yes, Karl, which list-serv is this again?]. As to DJ-ing as "self-care," E.B., how about DJ-ing, also, as "cultural studies"? Do you know about Angela McRobbie? Check out this link:

[from Lego Theorists page at what is arguably the collest theory site]

Anonymous said...

I got tickets to Thievery Corporation for a show tomorrow night at Stubbs. I used to remix Thievery with Merzbow on my show.

Djing as cult studs, eh? I always thought of it as disability studies.

Anonymous said...

Dear ?

I just wanted to say I was flattered by you including an excerpt from my short story CRETINS (I believe it was published years ago in a small press magazine called BLACK TEARS my copy of which I have now lost) and an online phenonmenon called CIRCUIT TRACES. I am deeply interested in the macabre imagination and this story derived from actual experiences in a house I once occupied in London (UK) which was managed by a family I can only describe as cretins - dessicated both physically and spiritually so far as I could see. I have continued in this vein and a loathesome family making its appearance in the grim tenement, home of a character I have created in an irregular comicbook series called BRAINSICK are also based on them. This series is published by CHIMERA ARTS and their website is at: - watch out for those finangling flibbertigibbets!!