If Rome was home…

July 14, 2010

This is a bit delayed, I suppose. But when your dissertation’s first chapter has a due date impending, you struggle to find every excuse to delay the prospect of reading and (slitting your wrists) writing. Well, it’s never really a struggle.

Back in April, I received an invite from the beautiful Sarah to join her in the beautiful Rome for a week-long stay. Meeting less than a month before, we became fast friends through a production in which we were jointly involved in York. To briefly summarize the “Croxton 1190” experience: persecuted Jews, curious Christians, a non-bloody bagel, one cigar, intense glares, and several bottles of champagne. Overall, an entirely rewarding production, providing a concise and pleasant end to spring term.

In any case, off to Rome I went for an excellent (necessary) holiday.

Barring the nasty volcanic blast and malevolent ash cloud that followed to dampen my contented holiday spirits, my temporary Roman holiday was a gorgeous time. Staying in the apartment of a friend, whom sometimes resides on the Italian peninsula, is a thing of beauty. And, wow, was Eliza’s flat spectacular indeed. Set in the ever-trendy Trastevere, Sarah and I were perfectly placed to access every site in (the sprawling) Eternal City. To somewhat drunkenly stumble onto the cobbled streets for an evening passeggiata and, as if by magic, come upon St. Peter’s Basilica or the Trevi Fountain…there are no words. The city empties, and we were left alone to explore on foot the age-old wonders. The city was ours.

Did I forget to mention the food and wine? Fantastic as ever, as you can imagine, and well consumed by yours truly.

Highlights of this trip:

  • Exploring all day produces a rather large appetite. As such, we would stop at a nearby Pizza place, order ridiculous amounts of food, and eat back at the flat while watching old movies and (hilarious) episodes of Flight of the Concords and Spooks. Seeing Roman Holiday was a particular treat.
  • The Trevi at night. And just us two in attendance to regard its beauty.
  • Food in cafes housed with porticoes and sunshine.

The chicken or the egg?: Are blondes born aggressive or did they have aggression thrust upon them?

Society’s worship of the all-powerful blonde bombshell seems to have manifested itself into a connected super-ego developed by all participants, blonde or bottle, throughout the world. In a study, which (honestly) doesn’t seem entirely conclusive or far-reaching, researchers found that women with fair hair color tended to display more hostility and a “warlike streak” when fighting battles to get their own way. Many believe that this bitchy type of behavior results from a feeling of deserving more, an expectation to be treated a certain way, leading some to argue that we place too great an emphasis on the beauty of blonde.

To me, what makes this study interesting is the conclusion that bottle-blondes assign themselves these expectations and behaviors as soon as they sear their scalp. When does the change occur? Is it an internal reflection of beauty and confidence or can the treatment of these women by others influence their perception of their outward looks and demeanor? I suspect that it is an impossibility to guess, though one wonders if roots reappearing somehow weakens a bottle-blondes warlike streak.

What is it about the blonde that so excites us?

Blonde or brunette?

In the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great saw fair-haired/skinned slave boys in the markets of Rome. When told they were Angles, he replied “They are not Angles, but angels.” Connecting this appearance to divinity and virginal cleanliness no doubt caused some of the peroxide adoration that was to follow. It is interesting to me how, at that time, blonde represented the exotic other.

Blonde as foreign has some genetic credence, too. It is a rare gift to be blessed by the flaxen fairy. Incredibly so, it would seem, leading German scientists (of course) to speculate that natural blonde hair will be extinct by the year 2202. The blonde gene is a recessive trait; thus, a child may only have blonde hair if the gene is present on “both sides of the  family in the grandparents’ generation.” And that is becoming tricky indeed.

But is that the appeal of the hair color: does the color’s rareness trigger our more primitive natures to network-mate-diversify and improve our genetic makeup? It sounds more like a Wall Street portfolio than natural processes. The blondes themselves have reason to feel empowered, then. They are the juiciest apples on the Darwinian tree.

But let me conclude with an interesting point. Reading up on Prader-Willi Syndrome, I find that PWS sufferers often have unusually blonde hair and blue eyes. The Syndrome itself, based on a chromosomal disorder, is noted for its insatiable obsessions with food and unpredictable rages. You see what my assumption is here, that a forceful compulsion to get what one wants may not be blamed on nurture and the way we view and treat blondes. Instead, I wonder what behaviors are really rooted in: genes or jeans?

Perhaps on the 10th anniversary of the sequencing of the first human genome, we can hope the science will reveal something enlightening and longer lasting than a semi-permanent dye.

Shall we ever be satisfied in our search for the Bard?

18,000+ results on Google were produced by my use of the exact phrase “real Shakespeare”. 18,000. While I recognize that the academic field of Elizabethan drama both is crowded and fraught, there are not that many bits of scholarship roaming around, begging to reexamine the author’s identity for, let’s be honest, a rather (wondrous, yet still very) small set of work. I suppose tracing these thousands of leads would be a revelation in comprehending the necessity of identification. But I have neither the patience nor the nerd-power required of such a task. Instead, and wisely I might add, I found that a great many of the source pages of these words (“real”/”Shakespeare”) shared a great deal in common. Ready for it?

Amazon.com; Half.com; Ebay.com. Authorial agency (or perhaps conspiracy would be better) is big business!

Coerced pen names, the scandal of noble obligations, the intriguing figures assigned authorship of the entirety of The Western (English) Canon. It has all the intrigue you’d expect of daytime soaps, sounding more like a lesbianic lovechild of Jackie Collins’ and Philippa Gregory’s novels than the conspicuously-coiffed image WE ALL KNOW TO BE THE TRUE BARD! [Those who know the field of Shakespeare portraiture I hope will appreciate that my carelessness in that last sentence is not out of malice or non-familiarity with them. To be clear, I am entranced thoroughly by the Cobbe, hate the Chandos, and have mixed feelings about the engraved Droeshout, in spite of Johnson’s claim that it looked about right.]

Who is the "real" Shakespeare?

Though it seems the Shakespeare we (actually do seem to) know wasn’t always so plain. That image-ideal we have stocked in our head has shifted since the turn of the 19th century, when perhaps the distinctions between the Bard and the bogus were slightly blurred. Smithsonian Magazine (which I have previously praised here heavily and will continue to do) has recently released a piece on a full-fledged Shakespeare hoax, which began in 1795. Quite an interesting story actually and one that I had never before heard. [Read the full article here].

Oddly enough, the story surrounding this centuries-old canard appears similarly soaked in soap-opera melodrama. Apparently, a young William-Henry Ireland, seeing his father’s obsession with the Bard’s masterpieces and history, set out to “discover” some previously undocumented pieces of Shakespeare memorabilia. In the playwright’s own hand. Let’s try to understand the thought process happening here with some examples.

  • His father, Samuel, reportedly possessed a “silver-trimmed goblet carved from the wood of a mulberry tree that Shakespeare was said to have planted in Stratford-upon-Avon.”
  • His father and his mistress, William-Henry’s mother, whom acted as a live-in housekeeper named Mrs. Freeman in the household, denied that William was their child.
  • William-Henry was not the sharpest quill in the drawer.

Hence the daddy-drama begins.

“In a burst of manic energy in 1795, the young law clerk produced a torrent of Shakespearean fabrications: letters, poetry, drawings and, most daring of all, a play longer than most of the Bard’s known works. The forgeries were hastily done and forensically implausible, but most of the people who inspected them were blind to their flaws. Francis Webb, secretary of the College of Heralds—an organization known for its expertise in old documents—declared that the newly discovered play was obviously the work of William Shakespeare. “It either comes from his pen,” he wrote, “or from Heaven.”

Aside from the scant physical evidence, what could convince these experts of the authenticity of the documents? A good discovery story, of course. “He said he had found the deed while rummaging in an old trunk belonging to a Mr. H., a wealthy gentleman friend who wished to remain anonymous. Mr. H., he added, had no interest in old documents and told him to keep whatever he fancied.” How, um, convincing, I think.

Compiling more and more documents in Shakespeare’s own hand was time consuming, so he ambitiously promised his father a new play never before seen but recently found in the trunk. So, naturally, he saved time:

“The young man wrote the play on ordinary paper in his own handwriting, explaining that it was a transcript of what Shakespeare had written. The supposed original document he produced later on, when he had time to inscribe it on antique paper in a flowery hand.”

Really, late 18th century antiquarians? Really? One man, whose theatre would eventually mount the newly rummaged play, wisely observed that no one could doubt the authenticity of the items when they looked so ancient, despite his doubts about the play’s writing style.

But, as in every story, the truth will out. The production of Shakespeare’s new play was a massive failure. And William-Henry was glad of it, so he could admit to his father that it was his imbecile of a son who had concocted the whole hoax. Expect a happy ending, do you? Well, not in this soap. Samuel Ireland never gave up belief that the items his son produced were authentic…or never to his son, at least. So W.H. moved out and sent his father a long letter, saying that if he thought the papers’ author were capable in any way of matching Shakespeare’s genius, “I Sir YOUR SON am that person.”  Gross.

You know, the combination of academia and pop-culture (think: Harold Bloom) is repulsive…unless it is the History & Discovery Channels, which I adore. I think this story functions more as the latter, thankfully.

Best Buds

I was browsing HuffingtonPost.com today and found a delicious link to a Washington Post report by Mary Jordan, “The Hillary Effect“. Of the 182 legitimate envoys to the US (meaning that we actually acknowledge their presence), twenty-five foreign ambassadors are female, five times more than were present in the late ’90s. [Is 25 of 182 something to be proud of?] Analysts attribute this increase to the visibility and favorable opinion much of the world holds for current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her very public battle with Bam for the Democratic Presidential nomination, her efforts on behalf of women rights as First Lady to hubby Bill and her all around sex appeal, helped to keep her in the world’s spotlight and provide a platform or starting point for consistent career achievement. And she does a damn fine job as Secretary, staying out of Washington’s cock fights while pulling the strings of other world powers to ensure Bam’s policies succeed.

Little credit is awarded to the other women who have filled her role previously, though: most recently (cuckoo) Condaleeza Rice and (the fantastic) Madeleine Albright, our first female Secretary of State and one of the world’s most brilliant minds. I realize the last decade passed quite fast, but to forget two of our most important political figures altogether. Why pretend that this time is a “game changer?”: this past decade of US diplomacy has given birth to today’s prominence of female envoys. Why would foreign countries now try to stay abreast of gender politics, especially when Hillary’s whole campaign meant to make gendered authority irrelevant? Things like this change over time (women’s suffrage only became legal in Liechtenstein in 1984), and go in cycles: women may not be in those same positions forever. Period.

But does the nomination of women to these ambassador positions signify real progress or rather mollification? Statements like this trouble me: “Some American diplomats said the appointment of a woman can be a visible way for a country to signal that is modernizing and in step with the United States.” Sure, allow child labor, support the punishment of rape victims and amass uranium stockpiles for use against our disliked neighbors. But remember to send that girl to Washington, then the Americans can pat us on the back for our adoption of Western-ideology.

NO!

If you do not believe that things can be so simple, look to the countries themselves that sent the female ambassadors.

“Eleven of the 25 female envoys in Washington are from Africa. Four are from Caribbean nations. The others are from Bahrain, the Netherlands, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Singapore, Oman, Colombia, India, Liechtenstein and Nauru, an eight-square-mile Pacific island with only 14,000 people.”

None of the biggies (though no less important). Where are these modernized countries already “in step with the United States?” Where is (papa bear) Britain? Where is (freedom fries) France? Wo ist (David Hasselhoff?) Deutschland? Even our own program of Foreign Service, which I would love love love to enter into, is out of step. While more than half of new recruits are female, only thirty percent are mission leaders. Only after State Department policy shifts in the 1970’s were women allowed to retain their jobs after getting married. One of the many benefits of the feminist movement.

This cracks me up...look at her face

Of the women ambassadors they interviewed, several seem to play into the system of token gendering. Because of (ludicrous Oxford-esque) “male-female seating patterns, [Ambassador Chan] often gets prime spots, including next to George W. Bush and Henry Kissinger.” Is that really something to brag about (not just the George Bush part, but the whole system that is attached with it)? Many women also feel that they bring lesser discussed issues to the fore, such as poverty, education, discrimination and female marginalization. But I think they are just playing another part, which probably contributes to their own marginalization.

Fight with the big dogs. Tackle any issue you care about. Smoke a cigar with the boys and then slap your secretary on the ass. Do what you have to do. Your role as an ambassador is to represent your country’s best interest and push them forward. Gender is irrelevant. You need not to say that your gender “opens doors” for you or that “[P]eople are curious to see [you].” This should be a non-issue.

The world needs a new (game-changing) feminism humanism. One that emphasizes our joint duty to protect the interests of one another. Not as males or females, but as people. Until we all stop playing the games of gender, fighting it or performing it, we can never go beyond it. Come on, people: man up androgynate yourself!

Threats to western embassies in Yemen, the collapse of national security policies, Iran resisting enforced outsourcing for uranium enrichment: 2010 will be a feather in the cap of shock-and-awe journalists, I suspect. Those other stories, my little non-abrasive gems, will likely get lost in the bombardment. Hey, when the world is facing Armageddon (for the fourth or fifth time this millennium at last count), there is little time for pansy stuff like history or culture. Fair-trade gems shine nicely enough, but have you ever seen a 32 carat blood diamond dazzle? Don’t let GQ fool you, Porsche pushing ponces, bigger is better. Shaw said, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” God knows what else the old cad wrote, but this quote fits my context. Thank goodness for short-attention-spanned journalism.

And then you find some wonderful link tucked away at the bottom of the BBC’s main news page on their website connected to a deserving, under-read ditty. Yes, I forgot: reports can be interesting and (seemingly) insignificant to our world’s political health. The categories are not mutually exclusive. In any case, I found one such link. That happened today when I discovered the article “Neanderthal ‘make-up’ containers discovered“. Calm down. What did you expect them to be armed with…pistol cartridges? chocolates? This is a late Paleolithic species, and Maybelline has been flogging their goods since back when homo first got erectus. Of course the Neanderthals had makeup.

I know you are giddy at the moment, but let us think through this story a bit and remain unbiased by time and our conception of the Neanderthal. [After all, carpet-kept Cleopatra used loads of  mascara (reportedly beneficial to their eyes when loaded with silt derivatives), the Picts only have their name because of their (unconfirmed) bodily markings and/or modifications, and the stars of True Blood are covered in gobs of (tacky) white makeup. Why should the Neanderthals have done differently?] Previously, evidence produced in Africa revealed that Neanderthals used a black pigment, manganese, as body paint. New artifacts from Spain indicate that additional pigments and powders were utilized also. Residual “lumps of a yellow pigment” and of “red powder mixed up with flecks of a reflective brilliant black mineral” were discovered on two shells, apparently the cases for such mixtures. Shells could also be worn as jewelery. It is unclear what purpose this makeup may have served, though scientists guess that it was likely related to ceremonial practices, not necessarily Friday night, let’s-go-out-and-get-laid decoration.

I take your point, though. A Neanderthal face painted in makeup to the point of obscuring the inevitably protruding bone structure would do little to tempt a bitch in heat no less than Candida. But the point that researchers are attempting to make is that the Neanderthal is not the barbarian of our forefathers. They are trying to rescue and reinterpret our cultural understanding of the species, the homo sapiens’ nearest cousin (though they share 99.5-99.9% of our genome, they are not our ancestor!).

An ancient relative of Cyrano?

These are not the Ice Age cave dwellers of Geico commercials. One study finds that Neanderthals possessed the FoxP2 gene, shared with modern humans but not chimpanzees, suggesting that they may have spoken exactly as we do. According to other reports, several Neanderthal specimens have been found to have the mutated gene responsible for red hair. Yes, ginger bison-beaters. Which may explain, if you believe another study, part of the reason the species died off, inexplicably. Research may suggest that Neanderthal extinction occurred in response to climactic changes. Despite surviving several ice ages, the destruction of forest woodlands seems to have killed this species that hated the cold. So they moved to Spain, the site of the latest known skeletal remains, to soak up some sun. These fair-skinned gingers not only suffered as a result of their inability to deal with the changing, colder climate but probably had major sunburn issues as a result.

It’s just funny to me how much we have in common with our older selves, the earliest homo sapiens. Reports indicate very little (if any) interbreeding with Neanderthals. [Homo sapien racism: if it looks different, smells different and eats big ass mammals, it’s subhuman.] And by cutting down the trees and finding better means of butchering animals, we turned the funny-looking hairy people into pariahs of the ancient world. Even ancient homo sapiens (the tree killers of the Paleolithic Age) contributed to global warming. Ah, trends…

Darwin would argue that, without the appropriate means of adapting to a changing environment, this is nature’s Dear John letter to Neanderthals. Nature itself becomes Hexxus, and the Neanderthal is a FernGully with no fairies (though giants, if you believe Geoffrey of Monmouth) and no happy endings. Going back to Methuselah, we may assume that Nature is our benign life force, testing out species by trial and error to find the perfection. Sorry, that doesn’t offer any comfort to you (secret, hiding) Neanderthals. And it does make you wonder whether we are a success or too-late-to-be-realized error. Damn.

In any case, Neanderthal articles cast off sticky situations with the Middle East and impending elections of 2010. I appreciate them all the more for it. And unless articles like this continue, a law must be enacted to force journalists to choose a new profession. Perhaps Mrs. Warren’s?

[Points if you managed to spot the four G.B.S. allusions.]