Thursday, December 17, 2015

On a Beginning




The world is indifferent to the meanings that writers impose upon it. There is an enormous inertia in the silence, or, more accurately the confused babble of voices and sounds, that precedes the spoken word aspiring to meaning. Utterance defies the white noise emitted by world. This white noise is the equivalent of the blank page on which the writer inscribes his words. The first problem that the artist faces is how to rouse himself from the torpor of existence, the dull, inconsequential inertia of meaninglessness.

Franz Xavier Schoenwerth (1810 - 1886) was a Bavarian civil servant, private secretary to King Maxmillian II. (King Maximillian was the father of Ludwig, the Mad King of Bavaria, Wagner’s patron and the great castle-builder). Schoenwerth, who was made a Knight of the Realm for his services, was a typical German polymath, a type ubiquitous in the 19th century. He knew all modern European languages as well as Gothic, Latin, and Greek. Near the end of his life, Schoenwerth was close to mastering Babylonian cuneiform and Sanskrit. Most importantly, Schoenwerth was a great collector of folktales, proverbs, and customs in the Upper Palatine region of Bavaria. In this regard, Schoenwerth followed the lead of the Grimm brothers. Indeed, Jacob Grimm told King Maximillian that if there was "anyone who could replace me (with respect to the collection of folklore), it would be Schoenwerth." His magnum opus is Aus der Oberpfalz– Sitten und Sagen (From the Oberpfalz – Customs and Legends), a three-volume compendium of Palatine folklore published between 1857 and 1859 that was lavishly praised by Jacob Grimm.

When Schoenwerth died, 46 fascicles of handwritten notes were left in the possession of his wife Maria. At her death, this Nachlass was transferred to the historical society for Oberpfalz and Regensburg where it was duly catalogued, filed, and forgotten. In the mid-1980's, the formidable Erika Eichenseer, a folklore specialist in Regensburg, discovered Schoenwerth’s notebooks, a cache of materials that contained more than 500 unpublished Maerchen (or fairy-tales). (Frau Eichenseer is a robust white-haired woman often photographed in a traditional Dirndl; she has flaming red lipstick and startlingly blue eyes.) Eichenseer published 136 of these stories from Schoenwerth’s trove in 2010 in a book entitled Prinz Rosszwifl und andere Maerchen (Prince Dungbeetle and other Fairy Tales). The book was immediately hailed as an important addition to the Maerchen literature, translated into many languages (a Penguin edition in English is forthcoming), and, already, the source of several new operas and children’s theater plays based on the tales.

One of the stories collected by Schoenwerth from a place called Neuenhammer, a small town in Bavaria, is called "The Enchanted Crow". Here is how that story begins:

In a meadow, a knight sat on a horse and slept. Then, a crow came and pecked at the horse so that it kicked with its hooves, awakening the knight. "Why are you troubling my horse?" the knight cried. "So that you’ll wake up again," the crow said, "since you have been sleeping now for three years." The knight noticed that his beard was a yard long and that what the crow said was true. He said to the crow: "Tell me how I can thank you." "By giving me one of your three sisters for my wife," the crow said. "Here is my picture," he added.
After this extraordinary introduction, the rest of the fairy tale is fairly conventional. The knight has three sisters – the two older girls reject the crow’s advances with horror, but the youngest sister receives the crow (who is, of course, a handsome, bewitched prince) as her suitor. The crow sends his fiancee to the nearby village, dressed in rags and assigned menial tasks, an ordeal that the girl must undergo in order to reverse the evil spell enchanting the prince. The crow offers the girl a magic feather, plucked from his breast, to use as a quill. Anything that the girl writes with this quill immediately happens. And, so, armed with the magic quill, the maiden resists several attempts at seduction inflicted on her by a gardener, a huntsman, and a Taubennarr ("the fool who cares for the doves in the dovecote"). Predictably, the story ends with the crow’s arrival as a handsome young prince who sweeps up in his arms the bedraggled girl, working as a cook in the king’s kitchen, departing with her to his own palace.

But what fascinates me about this story is its opening, the narrator’s understanding that something extraordinary is required to rouse the listener from an indifference and torpor that is the equivalent of sleep. This introduction embodies for me the magic gesture that initiates a narrative, the decision to rouse the world from its slumber. And, I think, it is significant that the story is about writing – the vehicle of the heroine’s salvation is, in fact, a magic quill that makes what is written come true. Certainly, it is the wish of any writer to be vested with a magic writing instrument of this kind, a quill that can inscribe words to rouse the world to action.

There is a wonderful and tiny poem I know by heart. The poem is my talisman and I recite it to myself once a day. The little verse is by the German Romantic poet and novelist Josef von Eichendorff.

Schlaeft ein Lied in aller Dingen

Die da traeumen fort und fort

Und die Welt hebt an zu singen

Treffst du nur das Zauberwort.
This poem is called Wuenschelsrute ("The Divining Rod") and the German may be translated

A song sleeps in all things

Dreaming on and on,

And the world begins to sing

If you find the magic word.
This quatrain seems prefatory to me. It is the introduction to all work of art. Everything is sleeping, inert and silent, until the artist finds the magical phrase or expression to revive the world and give it voice.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

On the Fardos of Paracas




Paracas names a peninsula in the northern Atacama desert. I have seen this place: the landscape is unearthly, a featureless beige desert absolutely without life edged by the icy, blue-green surf of the Pacific Ocean. Winds have abraded the desert to rounded knolls and hillocks, porpoise-smooth mountains that dip down to the sea. The water of the ocean is not life-giving but rather seems toxic because the slopes above the coast are made of grey-brown pebbles devoid of anything green as if the sea exuded poisonous mists. In some place, the slumps between the hills are filled with inert-looking glaciers of sand. The sea and sky are vivid, but the earth remains a blur – you can’t focus your eyes because there is nothing on which to fix them.

No one has ever been able to live on the Paracas peninsula. Two-thousand years ago, seasonal fishing villages, more like encampments than villages, may have sometimes occupied the barren coves on the coast. Middens mark these sites and, at one place, someone has inscribed three great tree-shaped glyphs into the side of beige mountain of sand – this is the Paracas "Candelabra," an emblem that is 595 feet tall and visible 12 miles out at sea. The Candelabra is aimed like an arrow toward the sky that is always as dry as a bone. Perhaps, the glyph points the way to some place inland, on the other side of massive hump of desert sand, or, maybe, the mark suggests that mariners continue down the coast line. Either the glyph was made by ancient people who left pottery that is 1800 years old in the two-foot deep groove incised in the sand or it was constructed by Freemasons to signify the arrival of the enlightenment in South America or it marks a pirate treasure or a landing pad for alien space vessels or represents the World-Tree or, most likely, means nothing at all.

Two vaguely breast-shaped hillocks overlook the dead grey slope rolling down to the vacant and monstrous sea. This is the Cerro Colorado. Two cemeteries occupy a terrace overlooking the sea below the crest of the gently rounded peaks. These are the necropolises of Wari Kaya and Paracas Cavernas. Wari Kaya is a series of small, cell-like huts half-submerged in the sand pockmarking the side of the hill – mummy bundles were found in the little mud-brick huts of an abandoned ceremonial center. Paracas Cavernas, a thousand meters away, is a roughly jointed stone retaining wall with the lintel of low door visible in its base. The door opens into several small underground rooms that were also crammed with mummy bundles.

These mortuary complexes were discovered by a local vaquero and excavated with scrupulous technique by Julio Tello, the father of Peruvian archaeology. Tello was a remarkable figure, a poor Quechua-speaking "mountain Indian" from the Andes who rose from poverty to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard. In 1915, Tello, who was then studying the practice of trepanation among the Nazca, acquired several superbly woven textiles at Pisco, a resort town a bit like Palm Springs in the Atacama desert. (Trepanation was a form of primitive neuro-surgery that involved chipping away a portion of the skull to expose the brain – no one knows why the Nazca performed this procedure, although many skulls excavated from their cemeteries show evidence of this surgery.) Tello investigated the source of these textiles, met the cowboy who had stumbled onto the Cerro Colorado burial sites, and, ultimately, extracted 429 of the huge mummy bundles from the graves. The mummy bundles were transported by truck to Lima where about 150 of them were painstakingly unwrapped to document their contents.

Julio Tello understood the significance of the discovery, but tragically was not able to protect the site. In 1930, political developments resulted in the archeologist’s ouster from the state anthropological museum at Lima. No one was appointed to act as custodian of the two cemeteries on Cerro Colorado with the result that local peasants looted the graveyards. Many of the bundles were ripped to pieces in situ by looters looking for jewelry, pots, and other artifacts wrapped in the textiles. Witnesses speak of shreds of richly covered cloth lying among the smashed shards of pots on the terraces overlooking the ocean. Over a hundred, mostly intact textiles made their way to Gothenberg, Sweden – these artifacts were the subject of contentious reparation litigation about five years ago in 2010. (Sweden returned most of the Paracas textiles although expressing doubt that the Peruvian government had resources adequate to care for the ancient cloth.) One fully intact mummy bundle is on display in Hildesheim, Germany.

The mummy bundles are impressive artifacts with an intense and charismatic aura. Many of them are very large – at first sight, the bundles seem to be wrapping the corpses of giants, colossal men and women. Most of the bundles are vaguely anthropomorphic in their unwrapped condition – they look like huge slumped figures and rise to conical protuberances shaped like enigmatic and massive burkha-clad heads. Some archaeologists imagine the bundles to simulate gigantic seeds – the corpses seem to have been set in the earth with the notion that they would somehow sprout or grow up out of the barren, pebbly desert.

A corpse occupies the core of each large bundle. The body is naturally mummified by the dry climate, seated upright with knees bound tightly against the chest by rope wrapped around the naked cadaver. The textile shell erected around the corpse consists of as many as four-hundred layers of cloth, all of them woven in the form of some kind of garment. The types of garments comprising the mummy bundle include wrap-around dresses, loin-cloths, ponchos, cloaks, and shawls. Remarkably, each mummy bundle includes garments in a variety of sizes – some of them are perfect miniatures, the size of a handkerchief and made as if dolls; other shawls and ponchos have been designed for giants – one of them is 35 feet wide and 9 feet tall. The garments do not appear to have been worn. Indeed, many of the textiles are too small to be worn – some of the loin cloths for instance are too tiny to fit around the hips of any human being, even a new born baby. Some of head-shaped protuberances on the bundles are densely packed knobs of cloth, tied with headbands or embroidered with images of mask-like eyes and feline creatures. The "shoulders" of the huge mummy bundles are sometimes clad with fox-pelt stoles or great fan-shaped bouquets of condor feathers.

The Paracas textiles are made of colorfully dyed wool or cotton fabric. (The wool is camelid, combed from vicunas, alpaca, and llamas.) The intricately patterned textiles show exquisite craftsmanship – indeed, some of the single-needle triple-loop weaving is without parallel, as fine as the finest textiles produced anywhere in the world. The garments are so carefully made that there is no distinction between the front and back side of the weave – both surfaces are crafted to an equal degree of perfection. Some of the garments are extraordinarily complex in their design and patterning. An example is a 2 x 4 foot mantle in the Brooklyn museum – the center of the shawl is geometric pattern, very finely woven and colorful, a repetitive motif that seems to illustrate some kind of supernatural being although stylized into merely eyes and mouth, that is ovals and a curved maw within a grid, perhaps representing legs or waves on the sea. An unbelievably complex fringe makes an edge to the mantle – the fringe consists of ninety figures, tiny monsters and animals arranged in a bas-relief procession encircling the garment. The figures are worked in low relief and so have three-dimensions and they are intricately fused together – the colors are dense blacks, reds, blues, greens and yellows.

Considered as a whole the fardos, or mummy bundles, constitute a cultural achievement on the order of the Sistine Chapel, or William Blake’s illuminated books – these textiles made between 800 BC and 100 AD are among the greatest of accomplishments in the history of human art. (Fardo is the Spanish word for "mummy" – the word is alive in the urban lexicon; in some Latin contexts, a fardo is a dull person, a man or woman who can’t dance, a wallflower at the edges of an otherwise lively party.) The millions and millions of precise needlepoint strokes necessary to weave these objects signifies an investment of human capital on the order of the creation of the pyramids. By any measure, the Paracas textiles are remarkable. And, yet, they are also inexplicably weird, alien, and bizarre. Many of the textiles are decorated with an unearthly apparition that archaeologists have dubbed the "backbent figure." This creature is intrinsically sinister and disturbing – I am unable to look at representations of the "backbent" personage without being transfixed by an uneasy chill. The image induces in me a vertiginous mixture in which revulsion blurs into fascination, a disquieting sensation that increases with more precise observation of these figures.

"Backbent" figures are generally arrayed in a kind of macabre procession. At first, the eye grasps them as a kind of blocky abstraction, a matrix of interlocking Lego blocks, as it were, very brightly colored and distributed with a thudding rhythm across the cloth. On more close inspection, the little marching monsters are revealed as human beings, sometimes wearing skirts across their loins, figures that have their backs bent into a right angle in the region of their cervical spine. This 90 degree crook at the top of the body results in the figures’ heads, generally trailing comet-like locks of hair, being rotated into an upside down orientation. The "backbent" figures are portrayed in a dizzying rotation that combines aspects of silhouette and full frontal representation – you can’t identify whether you are seeing the figures from the side or gazing at them frontally. This ambiguity in perception causes the figures to inhabit a space that is subtly different from ours. The dangling heads of the "backbent" marchers look vaguely like archaic Gorgons displayed on prehistoric Greek shields –two staring eyes gaze from the D-shaped heads beneath the twin slits of a de-fleshed and skeletal nose; at the top of the inverted head, teeth are displayed in taut grimace. The "backbent" figures are most certainly dead – indeed, it is hard to imagine anything "deader" than these little contorted corpse-dancers. In some instances, a little triangular goatee juts from their upraised chin – this is a representation of an amputated cervical vertebrate exposed at the place where an incision has cut through the "backbent" figure’s lower throat. (The "backbent" posture is that of a body splayed across an altar to be sliced open as part of a sacrifice, the chest upthrust so that the beating heart can be more readily removed.) Within this general pattern, these revenants show considerable, indeed, immense variation – some of the ghost-dancers brandish feathers or spondylos shells; others hold crescent-shaped knives with which they seem to be mutilating themselves. Many of them hold their own hearts in their stringy tentacular arms, gouged places in their torsos shedding fountains of blood that erupt into tendrils of trees or serpents at the distal ends. The creatures’ eyes are wide open and glaring and some of them are singing, or, perhaps, merely spewing blood from their bony jaws – red scrolls blossom there with oval involutions like stylized waves or the petals of flowers. Theorists of the disgust observe that this emotion arises when categories that we ordinarily separate are forced into such close proximity that delineating boundaries are blurred and indistinct. The "bentback" figures are shown in profile and full-frontally, they seem to be androgynous, neither clearly female nor male, and are both dead and alive – the scrolls of bodily fluids that they eject are either semen or excretions or blood and it is impossible to determine which. Even more uncanny, the "backbent" figures are designed to be viewed as vertically reversible – this is a characteristic of a pattern woven into a garment: it is anticipated that persons using the textile will see the image from different angles. The "backbent" figures are intrinsically unstable in their vertical dimension – since the heads are dangling at right angles or, even, upside-down and parallel to the upright torsos, the images can be interpreted spatially in two ways – either the heads are upright with their long hair standing erect as if with horripiliation and trailing schematized bodies at a right angle or the bodies are vertical pillars with the heads wagging upside-down below. Some of the figures equipped with elaborate fan-shaped feather headdresses can be interpreted as either macabre dancers or monstrous sharks with gaping jaws – the images have the quality that they can be made cohere either right-side-up or completely inverted; indeed, this kind of anatropic figure makes mockery of the notion of "up" and "down" – the figure can not be rotated into an "upside down" orientation without displaying another aspect, another form legible in the picture like engravings of hideous hags that when reversed reveal the profile of beautiful young woman. In this respect, the negative spaces in the image as viewed in one orientation turn into positive spaces when the picture is inverted. Thus, a "backbent" figure with an elaborate panoply of feathers, earrings, gorgets, and other personal adornments when rotated becomes a lethal-looking shark about to devour a drowning human body.

The weird unearthly geometries of the anatropic figures are mirrored in other scenes of transformation. Rows of "backbent" figures gradually recline into feline creatures, man-cougars with bristling fur and fangs. Other figures are modified in successive iterations in which blood-scrolls gradually become feathers which, in turn, slowly morph as if in iterated animation cells, into condor’s wings. Jaguars feed on "backbent" figures; sharks devour marching corpses and other ghost-dancers turn into uncanny masks suspended on flowering trees. No one knows what any of this means. In the context of pre-literate Peruvian cultures, tribes and city-states that had been extinct for fifteen-hundred years before the conquistadors arrived, all analysis is a kind of dream interpretation, the reconstruction of a theology and world-view so utterly vanished that no traces remained at all when the first Europeans reached these desolate shores. The cosmopolitan and theocratic Inca, then, the administrators of a great empire, didn’t themselves know of the existence of the strange mortuary complexes and vast mud pyramids in the howling wilderness of Peru’s northern coast. Thus, we have no basis of any kind to reliably determine what the ancient people who lived inland from the inhospitable and lunar Paracas peninsula believed or what they meant when they wove the awe-inspiring tapestries in which they draped their dead. All that we can say is that they viewed the kingdom of the dead as a place of transformation, that the seeds of corpses might either grow or shrink in all dimensions and that a dead body might turn into a mannikin or, unpredictably, assume the dimensions of a giant – the dead had to be clad in any event and so it was best to wrap them in garments of varying dimensions: tiny loin-cloths for the seed-corpses thrust into the earth and vast shawls and cloaks for the colossal dead. An ancestor might become a shark or the Master of Fishes or a mountain cougar. If an ancestor became a condor, then, perhaps, that dead person might visit the mountain tops and bring the rain clouds from those places, bearing the lifegiving water on vast grey and brown wings. To be dead, it seems, was to be more fully and vibrantly alive then mere mortals, more prone to change, more ephemeral with respect to fundamental identity – to be dead was to enter an ancestral place where all shapes and forms were fluid, where bodies spilled into one another like water mixing with water so that an insect might be a fish and a ferocious mountain-lion and a condor all at the same time.

Peruvian archaeology, like the study of Mayan and Aztec and Oaxacan antiquity, is the most fascinating and inexhaustible subject that I know. At Caral, 90 miles north of Lima, vast stepped pyramids rise above the desert. The pyramids are five-thousand years old, built by people described as the Norte Chico culture. Although armies of workers were required to build the vast clay terraces constructed around cores of packed boulders, these people were pre-ceramic – they had not pottery and cooked their food by dropping hot stones into water-filled pits excavated into the desert. Without pottery, these people also seem to have lived in a world without pictures – there is no evidence that they made representations of their world, no sculptures, no paintings, no geometric patterns on walls, only great, austere and towering mounds of densely packed earth. It was, some now argue, a wholly peaceful culture – among the graves there is no evidence of any death by violence. Perhaps, war is somehow related to the principle of representation, the idea that one thing can stand for another, a faculty that these people may not have possessed. In the highlands, a grass grew that could be woven into strands of rope and this material was made into loose nets that were used to transport the rocks and boulders quarried to make the pyramids. We can imagine long columns of workers carrying mesh nets each containing a half-dozen skull-sized boulders. Quipu, or computational knots, have been found on the site, suggesting that communication over distance involved interpretation of arrays of knots – if your only technology consists of earthmoving and strings, it would seem that certain distinct limitations would exist on what you could make. But this didn’t preclude the Norte Chico people from erecting enormous pyramids that still tower over the deserts of northern Peru.

And, of course, there is the sacrificial site at the Huaca de Luna, a Moche site also on the Peruvian northern coast. The structures at this place pre-date the Inca empire by a thousand years, but are three-thousand years after the peaceful Norte Chico culture. Huaca de Luna is a hillside plaza lined with mud-brick buildings occupying a terrace at the base of a perfectly conical mountain, the Cerro Blanco. At one end of the great plaza, floored with mud-brick tiles, outcroppings of natural stone thrust themselves up through the gravel of the desert. At this place, the Moche buried a dozen children, most of them slightly deformed, and, then, seem to have slaughtered war-captives above these tombs. The presence of pupa casings show that the corpses, about twelve or fifteen men, were left to rot on the edge of the plaza among the boulders and ribs of shattered stone extruded above the desert sand. Apparently, the shattered skeletons, half buried in mud washed down from the heights in storms remained a fixture of the complex for several hundred years. Curiously, the victims seem to have been clubbed and hacked to death during a torrential rainstorm in a kind of muddy pool among the out-thrust boulders. When el Nino disrupts the Pacific currents, cold mists sometimes wander like specters among the craters and stony ridges of the coastal desert. Where the mists meet the escarpments, sometimes layers of moss grow on those barren height, thin bands of green suspended like ribbons over the waterless basins and seaside mountains where neither tree nor shrub nor grass has ever taken root. These banners of green on the stony hillsides signify the coming of catastrophe, turbulent seas in which the great sea lions that live on the rock islands dotting the coast become agitated and warlike. The sea lions can not find their ordinary prey when el Nino afflicts the coast and so they take to the water and hunt close to shore, tearing apart the nets that the Moche people used to snare fish. Moche ceramics show fearsome priests with great cudgels doing battle with long-toothed walruses and sea-lions. Attendants play flutes and cornets made from human femurs. The massacre in the children’s graveyard at Huaca de Luna may have been construed as a battle in the war with the marauding sea lions caused by the el Nino – the sacrificial victims were, perhaps, butchered in lieu of the great aquatic mammals shredding the nets on which the people relied for much of their food. In a violent downpour, with lightning flashing on the wasteland of gravel mountains, priests cut apart their victims while the people stood in the rain, thousands of them in the plaza between the big ziggurats decorated with murals showing the Spider God and the Decapitator, an animate flint blade with eyes and a tongue like a dragon.

Human civilization begins when a man says that this stands for that and another man, or men, understands him. This is the fundamental basis for all culture, the principle of sacrifice arising in the context of symbolic substitution. Peruvian and Meso-American archaeology is fascinating because it shows us the inception of meaning, the beginnings of a semantics of representation, and the grammar of sacrifice – this is the beginning of culture, but it is, most remarkably, not our culture, but another, a different culture and, therefore, a radically different way of being human.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

On Pagliaccio



Pagliacci is an Italian opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo. The opera’s name may be translated in the plural as "clowns." In the show, a jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity and stabs her to death on stage during a commedia dell’arte performance. The opera, an example of the verismo style pioneered by Puccini, embodies esthetic problems involving realism and the representation of the truth in art. The climactic series of killings occurs as a result of confusion between reality and the representation of reality by an artwork – in this case, the harlequin play stages a comedy of infidelity that turns out tragic when actually enacted.

A single clown is pagliaccio. However, in my imagination, Pagliaccio is the name of a character, the protagonist of an anecdote that I seem to have known since early childhood. In the story, an unnamed man goes to see a priest, complaining that he is terribly depressed and tempted to commit suicde. The priest tells the man to go to the circus where a famous clown named Pagliaccio performs nightly. "He is the merriest fellow in the world," the priest says. "Watching him will raise your spirits and make you happy." The man is distressed by this advice but says nothing. The next day, he goes to a brothel and tells one of the whores that he has lost his desire to live and that the world has become a grey, cold, and merciless place to him. The whore says that she went to the circus recently and saw a great clown, Pagliaccio. "I have had a hard life," the whore says, " but watching him perform, I forgot all my miseries and was happy for, at least, a time." The man shrugs his shoulders and seems to be disappointed by her advice. A day later, the man goes to his doctor, a psychiatrist, and unburdens himself: "I am oppressed by terrible fear and anxiety," the man says. "I need something to distract my mind from my sorrows. Do you have a medicine that I can take?" "Laughter is the best medicine," the doctor says. Then, he tells his patient to buy a ticket to the circus. "The funniest man in the world is performing in the circus," the doctor says, "the incomparable Pagliaccio. When you see him, you will forget all of your sorrows and laugh like a child." At this advice, the patient bursts into tears and cries: "But doctor, I am Pagliaccio."

My father told me this tale when I was very young. Perhaps, he acted it out. In high school, my father had won some distinction in the theater and I recall that he declaimed the final lines of the story with great passion. Perhaps, he was sad at the time he told me the story. For some reason, I have always thought that the anecdote disguised a certain melancholy afflicting my father, although this is purely speculation on my part. In the version of the story that my father told me, there is only one consultation between the patient and the psychiatrist. The whore and the priest are my innovations, my contribution to a tale that undoubtedly dates back to the Romans or before.

It would be interesting to know who first told this story. Internet sources suggest that the anecdote may have been true with respect to a certain George L. Fox, a famous comedian on Broadway in the years following the Civil War. Fox was a small, sinewy man who appeared in stark white-face. A photograph from the era shows a sinister-looking clown with something of the appearance of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films. Fox had fought with distinction in the Civil War. After he broke his nose in an accident on stage in 1875, his behavior became increasingly erratic – it was thought that the accident had affected his optic nerve. He died in that year at age 52. I find no accounts, however, linking him to the anecdote that my father told.

Another candidate for the original of the mournful clown is said to be Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi was famous for performing the role of Harlequin in pantomimes at Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and Sadlers Wells in London. A contemporary print shows Grimaldi in white-face with great scarlet wings painted over his cheeks. He was so famous that for many years that "Joe" or "Joey" (derived from his surname) was another term for a clown who performed the role of the jealous, and cuckolded lover, Harlequin, in pantomime comedies. Grimaldi, who died in the 1830's, suffered from depression and punning on his name once said: "I am not happy, no, very grim-am-I." But, although Grimaldi undoubtedly influenced the American clown, George L. Fox, I can find no account suggesting that the Pagliaccio story was ever told about him.

In modern times, depression dogged many great comedians: one need only consider the lives of Robin Williams and Jonathon Winters. Someone once remarked that Groucho Marx’ sadness was incurable because he had "no Groucho Marx to cheer him up with funny stories." The idea of the inconsolable clown appears in Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. In Watchmen, the anecdote that my father told me appears as a tale recounted by a character called the Comedian to someone bearing the sinister name Rorschach. In that comic book account, the sorrowful clown is called "Pagliacci". I have read Watchmen and this may be the source of my calling the protagonist of the anecdote "Pagliaccio". However, I also believe that my father used that name when he told me the story, probably sometime in the sixties.

This anecdote has a curious gender identity. I have found several accounts of fathers telling this story to their sons. But I find no narrative of a mother ever recounting this anecdote to her son. Similarly, I find no account of a father telling the story to his daughter or daughters. Try this thought-experiment: can you readily imagine a woman telling this anecdote to her son or daughter? I believe that you will find this concept highly implausible, if not, exactly, unthinkable. Why should this be so? I think it is because men and women have a very different relationship to artistic creativity. All women are, at least, potentially biologically creative. Men, often, make the mistake of imagining that the creative impulse is born of rage or sexual frustration – that is, men regard artistic creativity as arising from the frustration of other more fundamental impulses. Great masculine art arises from suffering. The art produced by great female writers is, often, not considered in this way. (In my generation, of course, there was an exception granted for poetesses – both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were regarded as producing their art from suffering and, therefore, considered in the lineage of the great Emily Dickinson.) No one is likely to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein arising from the author’s personal suffering; similarly, I have never heard anyone argue that Jane Austen created her novels out of personal misery. The entire linkage between unrequited passion, suffering, and art is questionable in my view. But the anecdote of poor Pagliaccio implies that the great clown’s brilliance may have been rooted, somehow, in his agony – an idea that appeals to male hysterics.