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.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.
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.
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.