A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Baby Eating

I'm internally debating right now about which one society hates more: Nazis or Cannibals.  Both are viewed as pretty loathsome, but I think we would all agree that the idea of "baby eaters" pushes cannibals over the line from villains to abominations.  People love babies.  They represent everything innocent and helpless in the world, so we tend to create narratives in which our most hated foes or the most monstrous folk kill or eat babies.

Here's a picture of the Kindlifresser in Bern, Switzerland.  Slate recently ran a brief story on the five hundred year-old work of art, wondering why the hell it was built.  It could be possible that the fountain may be anti-Semitic in nature or that it could represent a cautionary fairy tale.

Historically, Jews have been the subjects of many, many European and Middle Eastern character assassinations.  As hip, young, post-racial Earthlings, I hope most of us have a hard time understanding this idea.  But once upon a time, people didn't think it was so crazy for Jews to kidnap and eat children.  It was called blood libel.  They thought that Jews would sneak into good Christian houses, take a kid, and use its blood in their "demented Jewish rituals" or to make bread (seriously...bread...).

These fictitious actions placed Jews well in the realm of European folk monsters, like ogres and trolls.  Trolls were known to steal human infants in the night and replace them with troll children called changelings.  Meanwhile, the ogres were less maternal.  They just liked the taste of babies.  Think about that next time you watch Shrek.

And I have to admit that people still find baby eating to be a very real, very horrible thing that villainous "others" do.  Not too long ago, images appeared of people in China eating what looked like a human fetus.  To this day, some people still believe that the Chinese eat babies or fetuses, despite the fact that the pictures were part of an exhibition by the artist Zhu Yu.

Cannibalism in general has always been extremely rare, and eating children is even rarer, but there's this certain creativity in the human imagination, a fear really, that makes it easy to accept outsiders or the ever present unknown as monstrous.  So we assume those bumps in the night or the band of strangers wandering into town might be dangerous.  And they're not just dangerous for us, they're dangerous for our families, which are often times more important to us than ourselves.  We tell our children to beware the woods at night or the ogres will gobble you up!

That's actually a perfectly reasonable response considering how at points in time humans have had to legitimately worry about things sneaking into the home and eating their children.  Unfortunately, that problem didn't only get assigned to real world animals and fictional monsters.  Other people, innocent people, were occasional targets of blame when the only things they really were were outsiders.

In contrast, probably the most truly monumental work of art in the last five thousand years could be termed "the reverse" of mankind's obsessive fear with baby-eaters.  That would be Gustav Vigeland's "Man Attacked by Babies" sculpture in Oslo.  Look at it... it's beautiful...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Trapped in Holiday Word Association

Tomorrow is the American Independence Day, a day traditionally celebrated with fireworks, cookouts, and people waving American flags...

...stand beside her and guide her, through the night with a light from above...

It's strange how one can sum up a holiday with only a sentence.  Even if the name kind of gives it away, I didn't have to say what the holiday was actually about.  I just described the objects and events most clearly related to it.  These are the typical traditions that I grew up recognizing as important aspects of the Fourth of July.  The Fourth of July is what I think of when I see fireworks and little American flags.

By the way, word association games are so much fun!  Person A says a word and Person B says the first thing that comes to mind.  Person A might say, "Dog" and Person B could reply "Cat" or maybe "Log" and we learn a little bit about how their mind works.  Cat is our assumed opposite of dog.  Log is a natural compliment of dog; they rhyme!  Holidays are like very boring, very obvious word associations.  Most people in a culture celebrate them "similarly," so we all gain a collective description, sometimes slightly different, but usually along the same lines.

Let's look at other American holidays for examples.  What words can be vomited randomly into a sentence to explain each of these?... Let's take the words in abstract and guess the holiday.

Kisses, Countdown, Firework.
Hearts, Candy, Gifts.
Punxsutawney Phil.
Parade, Turkey, Pilgrims.
Shopping, Sales, Mass Hysteria.
Cross, Eggs, Rabbits.
Jack-o-Lanterns, Costumes.
Trees, Mistletoe, Stars.

One of those isn't even technically holiday, though it does have its own certain rituals and traditions.  One of those holidays can easily be described to most Americans (presumably) with a single proper name that doesn't even belong to a human being.

These things are almost codes.  They can't be described to everyone everywhere and get the same comprehending nods.  You say, "ya know, parades, pilgrims, turkey" to someone far, far away from the United States and you'll get a blank stare (raised eyebrow at best).  But that person should have their own easily described traditions and celebrations.  The obvious universal terms for many holidays are likely "food, family."  Then people begin to understand Thanksgiving as the American Chuseok, or Chuseok as the Korean Thanksgiving, no matter how different in the other rituals they may be.

I imagine we could take these one step farther, if we really wanted to... like if we made a conscious decision to define each one of holidays by a single symbol to differentiate it from the rest, perhaps a shape, color, or animal.  Halloween could be represented by a bat, the color orange, or the outline of a pumpkin... Christ, it already is...  Well, how about New Years?  We could symbolize New Years with a circle or a phoenix or a a real animal...butterfly?  No, that wouldn't do... What animal represents change and renewal but sticks around for winter... tough...

It would take a committee.  And I demand a congressional one to figure this out!