Monthly Archives: February 2014

A rudimentary taxonomic vocabulary for hybrid creatures

 Gryllus detail from the bottom of the central panel of Bosch's Last Judgment in Vienna.

Detail from the bottom of the central panel of Bosch’s Last Judgment in Vienna.

In my previous post[1] I mistakenly claimed that bodyhead is the term for what we Dutch-language speakers call koppoter or kopvoeter.

In reality, the term bodyhead was coined by English artist Paul Rumsey in the late 20th and early 21st century as titles to his own Two Bodyheads. A quick search in Google Books confirms this.[2]

Paul pointed me to the gryllus, a creature similar to gastrocephalic creatures (belly faces), to blemmyae and to his own bodyheads.

Gryllus, a term new to me, appears to be an interesting word, leading me to the discovery of the rudimentary taxonomy of hybrid creatures of the title of this post.

How so, you ask?

Here we go:

Gryllus (plural grylli) means pig in Greek and cricket in Latin. (Marina Warner, Monsters of Our Own Making).

In Plutarch’s Moralia, Gryllus was one of Circe’s victims who preferred to stay a pig after his transformation. This episode is known as “Ulysses and Gryllus“. Innumerable writers have commented on this episode, see “reasoning beasts”.

Another ancient writer who mentions grylli is Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. His concern is visual, i.e. painting. He uses the word gryllus for a class of grotesque figures first used in painting by Antiphilus of Alexandria: “he painted a figure in a ridiculous costume, known jocosely as the Gryllus; and hence it is that pictures of this class are generally known as “Grylli.”

The history of the grylli has received its most in-depth study in Marina Warner’s Monsters of Our Own Making. Most sources agree that the current meaning of the gryllus derives from Le moyen âge fantastique (1955) by Jurgis Baltrusaitis.[3]

The book Images, Texts, and Marginalia in a “Vows of the Peacock” by Domenic Leo gives a taxonomic vocabulary of hybrids in which the gryllus is one element:

“I am using terminology proposed by Sandler, “Reflections on the Construction of Hybrids,” and Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Le moyen âge fantastique. The rudimentary taxonomic vocabulary for hybrids is as follows: bifurcated (head as center with two bodies), gryllus (body with no torso: head replaces genitals), pushmepullu (one body with a head emerging from each side), and composite (hybrids created from multiple parts).”

There is also this excellent Spanish-language page on grotesque grylli.[4].

Before the ocean and the earth appeared

Magnum Chaos (c. 1524 ) by Lorenzo Lotto

“Before the ocean and the earth appeared— before the skies had overspread them all— the face of Nature in a vast expanse was naught but Chaos uniformly waste. It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap.” (trans.Brookes More)

490 years ago Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto produced the image above. The design is a representation of chaos and is entitled Magnum Chaos. It is an intarsia made for a church choir in Bergamo, North Italy. It feels very modern today.

It’s a nice example of the eye as independent body part, the eye carried forth by two legs and two feet and in control of both arms and hands.

It is also an example of a what we in Dutch call a ‘kopvoeter’ (lit. headfooter) or a ‘koppoter’ (lit. headlegger), a style of drawing made by children from about age three in which people are drawn without a body and with arms emerging directly from the head. (see Child_art#Pre-symbolismbelly face and body image.)

They are called bodyheads in English. See update.

Apparently, Rudolf Steiner says something about child art and ‘bodyheads’ in Allgemeine Menschenkunde als Grundlage der Pädagogik, 1919, but I have been unable to find out what.

The Magnum Chaos reminds me of the André Masson acéphale illustrations.

And other grotesques of course.

The image shown above is upside down from the original at Bergamo.

Update 20/2/14: A possible English translation of kopvoeter and koppoter is bodyhead, a neologism coined by English artist Paul Rumsey and given as the title to a number of prints.

Man created God in his own image

Last summer I first stumbled upon the Greek philosopher Xenophanes who famously speculated more than 2,500 years ago that if animals had means to create art, they would depict their gods in their own image, in other words, as animals.

Yesterday, I researched “Man created God in his own image,” the dictum that reverses the biblical phrase “God created man in his own image”.

It goes back to Sigmund Freud and ultimately to Ludwig Feuerbach.

Feuerbach, whom I know via French Situationist Guy Debord, who quoted him in The Society of the Spectacle.

Freud, who saw the reverse dictum as exemplary in his psychological projection theory.

Connected terms are anthropology of religionImage of Godtheomorphismdepiction of God, and anthropotheism.

The illustration (above) is Michelangelo’s detail of Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of the Sun and Moon by which depicts God as an old man with a white beard.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Giordano Bruno and the one hundred twelfth thrust

It’s been a while since a piece of writing has given me so much pleasure.

The text that caused this merriment is Giordano Bruno‘s satire on divine providence in The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast(1584).

It had me sniggering all the way through.

Especially this excerpt:

“Ambrogio on the one hundred twelfth thrust shall finally have driven home his business with his wife, but shall not impregnate her this time, but rather another, using the sperm into which the cooked leek that he has just eaten with millet and wine sauce shall have been converted.”

But really, the whole passage is excellent in its power of imagination, in its ability to trivialize providence and omnipotence, in making it ridiculous by giving inane details, which seem like endless digressions à la Tristram Shandy. If you’re curious, you can read the rest of that passage here.

I wondered what the exact nature of the ‘triumphant beast’ of the title of the text was, and why, if so triumphant, it needed to be expelled. Some googling learnt that the beast is the the Pope or the Catholic Church.

Sadly, the wit in this text was fatal for Giordano. After a trial that lasted eight years, Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for his derision. He was barely 52.

PS. I came upon Giordano Bruno by studying De rerum natura, that breviary of atheism, which can be briefly summarized by reading the following three passages: 1)on the helplessness of the human infant, 2) on the inability to reach bodily satisfaction and 3) on the pleasure of standing on shore watching a shipwreck.

Image: Woodcut from ‘Articuli centum et sexaginta adversus huius tempestatis mathematicos atque philosophos’ by Giordano Bruno.

William Burroughs @100

William S. Burroughs would have celebrated his centennial tonight had he not died one summer day in 1997. I haven’t read all that much by Burroughs (I haven’t read all that much, actually), although over the summer I bought a second hand battered version of Queer in Turkey, which I enjoyed a lot and a couple of years ago in the Pyrenees I read Cities of the Red Night.

And of course I’ve seen Cronenberg’s film adaption of Naked Lunch.

There is one citation which nicely sums up his work. Burroughs is talking:

“‘Nihilism, unrelieved despair and negationmisanthropypessimism‘ – very much the same set of clichés that greeted Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, which to my mind is a very funny book, in a picaresque tradition stretching back to Petronius and to The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe. I have always seen my own work in the light of the picaresque – a series of adventures and misadventures, horrific and comic, encountered by an antihero.” 

 And then there is this hilarious film fragment he did with Antony BalchThe Cut-Ups, which surprise, surprise is still up on Youtube: