Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tricksters and Devils

Recently my reading has focused on the evolution of the devil figure in mythic and folkloric narrative of the judeo-christian tradition. In order to understand how he came to be depicted in both the comical and moralizing verse in 20th century Brazil, I wanted to know how readers' or audiences' attitudes towards this figure evolved over time; what socio-cultural narratives may have contributed to the image of the devil found in modern cordel literature.

One of the devil's most important proxies is the Trickster. With the audacity to reveal our base human impulses, and with the wisdom to annunciate core philosophical realities of human experience, the Trickster is a near-ubiquitous character in folk narrative - from all over the world. There are striking similarities in the way in which the devil and the Trickster are portrayed. 

Although I am but a beginner in Trickster studies, Professor Harold Scheub is most certainly not. His book, Trickster and Hero (2012), provides a global perspective on the Trickster figure... Here are some excepts from his fantastic book, which I've been simply devouring. Accompanying his insights are some images of the Zanni tricksters of the Commedia Dell'arte repertoire. 

Jacques Callot (1592-1635) Engraving
"The profane or earth-bound trickster is, like the divine trickster, obscene, aggressive, selfish, amoral. In this, he is closest to the basest of humans. ... Yet, in a way, the profane trickster does retain an echo of the divine connection, if tenuously: he also creates in the sense that he creates a world of illusion; he imposes his own corrupt sense of order on the real world. An agent of chaos, he disrupts harmony; when he establishes harmony, it is according to his own whim, his own sense of order. Trickster combines horror and glee: his is the comedy of the grotesque." 

"The trickster through performance binds present and past. The tale is the moment in which past and present are blended in a performance." 

"Trickster would have no existence, would have no meaning, would make no sense whatsoever if we did not understand the frame in which he operates. He is forever theatrical. He creates theater in the world that we know, the real world. Without that frame, Trickster's antics are merely obscene and silly But within that frame, he becomes significant and eternal. Trickster makes the flawed moment eternal." 

"There are mighty forces, represented by God, Leopard, Lion. The weak cannot prevail over them, they have all the power. They create, they establish boundaries. But in the trickster tale, those boundaries are loosened, violated; the power of gods, of the great animals, is called into question, and chaos results." 

Who are your favorite tricksters? What are your favorite books about the history of the trickster or devil? 

Until next time - keep rustling!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Full Swing

Spring semester, now in full swing, has brought with it beautiful buds of new ideas and blossoms on some perennial ideas. My dissertation has taken a definitive shape, I'm applying for grants to do some travel this summer, and new projects and connections have been springing up unexpectedly. More posts to come on all of that!

Looking through my boots to stock yards below
In addition to the new semester, the sun here has been shining daily, with a renewed vigor, and the mountains are transforming from their white, snowy winter selves into bright green beacons of the fresh season.

Yesterday, my husband and I decided to take advantage of the lovely weather and enjoy a centuries-old Denver tradition: the National Western Stock Show. In 1899, Denver was host to growing numbers of stock shows and by 1905, the Denver Stock Yards were constructed on the South Platte River. We roamed through these same stockyards just yesterday, stopping to see yaks, longhorns, cattle, mules, and bison, horses, and the fluffiest, most adorable sheep.

When the first official annual Stock Show was held in 1906, an estimated 15,000 people attending, coming from as far as Chicago and the east coast. In 2011, despite harshly cold weather, 644, 818 people traveled to the Denver Stock Yards--not just to buy cattle anymore, but now to see professional Rodeo shows, buy and sell farm goods, and watch animals get groomed, primped, judged and awarded.

The stock show remains a place for people to discuss all kinds of issues around farming, like how big herds should be, best-practices in animal welfare, techniques and tricks of the trade, and how best to educate the next generation of farmers. This takes place at the same time many people, like my husband and I, come to enjoy the "finished product" (burgers) and take in the courageous and skillful rodeo performers.

Bareback Broc riding-- captured mid-toughbreak
Trained in the tradition of the slavic Cossacks, these young men did incredible tricks jumping on and off horses
and even made a 19-man pyramid on 10 running horses (see here). 
"C'mere you" - In this event, the cowboy had to rope the steer and bind its legs in under 9 seconds to be competitive.

Many of the photos of I took at the rodeo didn't turn out -- the bucking bulls, the barrel racers, the mutton-busting little ones, and the cattle roping events were filled with such fast movement that my camera just couldn't capture the excitement without being hopelessly blurred. I must say, however, that if you ever have the opportunity to go to a professional rodeo, I highly recommend it. It is a fascinating conglomeration of events, some with evident practical application for working cowboys and others that border on performance art. The modern expression of the cowboy narrative is being constructed at pro-rodeo events all across the country -- and especially at a national rodeo like this one.

Longhorns in this historic stockyard

Getting a haircut 
They can only come in on stagecoaches.

Detail from an vintage stagecoach
I've written several posts on the cowboy narrative on this blog - check them out:

Let 'Er Buck - historiography of the cowboy narrative
Ranch Women - review of a documentary on three generations of working cowgirls
The Reason Behind the Risk - history of Bullriding and a review of the documentary "Rank"
Cowpuncher Poets - historiography of American cowboy poets, and clips of them reciting their work
Unbranded - review of a project and forthcoming documentary on 4 men who rode last year from Mexico to Canada through all uninhabited country
Anágua is Portuguese for Petticoat  - photographs from photographer Luis Fabini, whose work depicts cowboys and their animals from all over the American continents

Until next time - keep rustling!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Devil on the Road Home

"Landscape with the Temptation of Christ," Pieter Bruegel the Elder; mid-18th century
Yesterday's post described the tumultuous public life of Antônio José da Silva, "The Jew," and offered a brief overview of his artistic production. This post will be dedicated to one of his works in particular: Obras do diabinho da mão furada, which can be roughly translated as: Tales of the devil with the pierced hand. Other versions of this story have surfaced in alternate re-copyings of the original manuscript under the title Obras do fradinho da mão furada which replaces the word "devil" with the word "friar."

Published in the early part of the 18th century, a time in which the Inquisition retained a strong and widespread presence throughout the Iberian peninsula and its colonies, da Silva's portrayal of the devil disguised as a friar both in the story and in the story's title was potentially quite risky -- especially given his already-tenuous relationship with the Holy Office. However, the devil dressed in a friar's robes was not without its precedent in Europe by the time da Silva wrote his tale.

In the German tradition, for instance, plays and pamphlets about Bruder Rausch ("Friar Rush") enjoyed several centuries of success. First appearing in the high middle ages, the story of this demonic trickster in holy garb was reworked and retold throughout Germany from the 15th-19th centuries, including a contribution from Stuttgart native, Wilhelm Hertz, who published a novel-length tale based on the Friar Rush lore in 1882.

Although it is difficult to say if these German tales were retold in Portugal, the devil-disguised-as-friar motif was undoubtedly widespread in Europe since as early as the 15th century. Manuscript marginalia produced by monastic scribes of the medieval period made healthy use of the motif. In her book on humor in the middle ages, Valarie Allen has written about a recurring image of a wolf in Dutch marginalia: a wolf in friar's robes preaching to a flock of sheep.

Da Silva's devil-disguised-as-friar narrative, in spite of these possible influences, is truly unique thanks to the devil's supporting lead character. André Peralta is a broke and weary soldier, trying to make his home to Lisbon after almost a decade of continuous battle in Flanders. The story opens in the midst of a terrible nighttime storm; Perlata is on the road, still far from Lisbon, and desperately he seeks some kind of refuge from the tempest.
"Soldiers in landscape," Pieter Bruegel the Younger; 16th century
Before long, he comes upon what appeared to be an unoccupied house. After warming himself by a fire and consuming the last of his food provisions, he drifts off to sleep, only to be awakened at midnight. Standing before him is a hideous old man, dressed as a friar, with cloven feet.

After only a few minutes of conversation, Peralta figures out who his new companion is, and he is appropriately wary and guarded, trying at the same time not to anger the "friar" nor coalesce with his plans entirely. During their first conversation, the devil tells Peralta that he will accompany him on the rest of his journey home. Peralta quickly declines this offer, whereupon the devil makes the rain pour inside the house, as a warning.

The devil explains that because Peralta has chosen to take refuge the devil's own house, he must show the devil some respect. The devil adds, however, that he feels compelled by some "causa secreta" ("secret cause") to help the poor soldier through to the end of his journey. This is a fairly transparent threat: the "secret cause" that inspires the devil to "help" Peralta is most likely the same impulse the devil has to meddle in anyone's life -- he wants to stir up mischief, hopefully leading to Peralta's downfall, and the devil will not be denied.

Without any other recourse, Peralta agrees, but makes it clear that he has made several promises to God that he will not break, considering the fact that it was God who helped him survive the hideous, endless battles. The pact is sealed. 

From here, a series of fantastical encounters unfold along way home, each one affecting Peralta more and more. The first night, the devil hosts a meeting of witches where he praises them for having sucked the lifeblood from unbaptized children. The next night, Peralta has a Dantesque dream (which may be also understood as "reality") in which his devil companion leads him through Hell.  

Unlike Dante's vision of Hell, there is no hierarchical organization -- things are quite chaotic and there is a lot of running around. Instead of orderly levels that descend into ultimate evil, Peralta seems to be making his way through a series of rooms or caves that have no particular order, a vision of Hell that recalls Spaniard Francisco de Quevedo's early 17th-century Sueños.

Many of the condemned quarrel with their demonic tortures, requesting an audience with Satan himself, arguing that their punishment should be forgiven because their sins helped the cause of Hell. After a while, Peralta approaches the most graphically and painfully tortured residents of Hell, those who do not even try to grapple with their torturers. These poor souls, the devil informs him, are those who in life "judged others" and "interfered with religion" -- an overt allusion to the Inquisition. 

I would argue, too, that an implicit critique of the Inquisition lies in the general chaotic nature of Hell itself. The self-righteous arguing of the condemned with their torturers, the requests to "see the boss," as if they'd be able to reach a deal if only they could talk to someone in charge -- all of these actions seem very, very like the way people (especially powerful people) interacted with the secular bureaucracy of the time. 

"A peasant brawl," Lucas Vorsterman I, circa 1620
When Peralta wakes up from this dream, the two continue their journey. Along the way, the soldier witnesses the way in which the devil sows mischief and anger everywhere he goes. He repeatedly insights townspeople to "jurar," or "swear," with popular expressions of exasperation: "Devil may take it," or "Devil take you!" As people utter these curses, the devil collects what has been commended to him. These scenes are more funny than cautionary, full of scatological and sexual anecdotes, along with a favorite source of humor during the day, a woman's wrath. 

In another folio, the devil shows Peralta a vision in a river that depicts palaces of the 7 deadly sins, personified allegorically as women, inviting sinners into their dwellings. The soldier is almost trapped permanently in this vision by Greed, who does not want to let him go. Her silent bodyguard, Midas, approaches Peralta with fingers outstretched, attempting to turn him into gold so his master can keep him forever. 
"The Allegory of Greed," Pieter Bruegel the Younger, early 16th century
What makes this scene particularly interesting, aside from the fact that da Silva has mixed medieval judeo-christian allegory with Greek mythology, is that in the first folio the devil helped Peralta dig up a forgotten chest of gold. Peralta sowed the coins into his clothes, so that the devil could not take them back. In a way, then, Peralta's physical person is already covered in "bedeviled" gold. This gold eventually serves to help Peralta escape his companion, when Peralta offers it all to a traveling priest's monastery if Peralta is allowed to take the cloth there.

In the end, Peralta succeeds in tricking the devil. He sneaks off one morning while the devil is settling a score with some boatmen (the devil had it in for the boatmen because he heard local people swearing that lot was worse than the devil, replacing their popular curses with "Boatman make take you!"). Peralta enters the monastery, thereby commending his own soul to God and the devil's gold to the service of Good. This ending reveals Peralta to be a more picaresque character than he initially appeared. The devil continues to wander in his friar's robes, recalling another classic trope, the Wandering Jew, as he travels from town to town, never settling, alway meddling.

I find this story fascinating not only because of the political risks it takes but also its mastery of popular style, humor and wisdom. Da Silva deftly interweaves a complex Good and a complex Bad, refusing paradoxically to allow the archetypal characters to occupy 2-dimensional roles. His idiosyncratic portrayal Hell and even the allegorical figures demonstrates his intense creativity and the high literary merit of his writing. Although his life was short, his writing has become immortal and echoes da Silva's criticisms, jokes... and ultimately, his deepest fears.

What are your favorite tales about the devil or other tricksters? How are they outwitted?

Until next time -- keep rustling!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Antônio José da Silva

One of the books on my Five For Fourteen list was the early 18th-century story attributed to Antônio José da Silva, "The Jew." The book, Obras do diabinho da mão furada (roughly: "Tales of the Devil with the Pierced Hand") is made up of a series of 5 folios written in dialogue-laden prose, interspersed with rhymed verse and popular refrains. The integration of these techniques gives rise to a text that maintains a comedic tone while simultaneously delivering a didactic narrative, full of popular wisdom. In fact, almost all of da Silva's work (the majority of which is theatrical) is considered part of the joco-séria genre (literally: "jocular-serious"). Like his writing, da Silva himself represented a fascinating combination of seemingly disparate phenomena: he was, in a way, both Brazilian and Portuguese, Christian and Jewish, Lawyer and Literati, Celebrity and Villain. This post will hopefully offer a very brief history of da Silva's life, by way of a broad overview of his artistic production.

Devil puppet, made for the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos' theater
production of one of da Silva's plays (Source

It is not entirely surprising that several of the characters in Obras are heard using epigrams in Spanish, rather than Portuguese. This could simply be a symptom of the ongoing cultural and linguistic exchange between Hispanic and Lusophone communities of the peninsula. But beyond casual interaction of neighboring cultures, I think it is possible to understand the pan-iberian linguistic references as evidence of da Silva's efforts to establish a cultural critique that extended beyond Portugal's borders. 

Antônio José da Silva, "The Jew"
By including refrains of both Portuguese and Spanish (and Brazilian?) origin, da Silva reinforces the "universality" of the devil, a character who can trick in any language. Thus it becomes possible through this devil character to appraise a broader set of cultural features in western Europe and colonial American, chief among being the Inquisition. The use of multicultural epigrams critiquing the Holy Office are da Silva's attempt to align his criticism with what appears to be more "universal" grievances among Europeans and colonial subjects. When taking into consideration some of the more salient biographical details of Antônio José da Silva, this critique, and the techniques he uses in his writing, acquire even more significance.  

In 1705, Antônio José da Silva was born--not in Portugal--but in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. During this time, Portuguese cultural, legal and theological institutions represented an enormously influential element of Brazilian society. (Brazil was officially a colony of Portugal until 1822, when it became an equal member of the Portuguese United Kingdom; Brazil remained a monarchy until 1889.) As a result of this influence, the Inquisition was capable of extraditing Brazilian residents back to Portugal to be tried for any allegations against them. 

Puppets of Teresa (left) and Sancho (right) Pança - from the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos' theater production of da Silva's play about Quixote (Source)  
Antônio José da Silva’s parents were unlucky enough to have experienced first-hand the far-reaching legal jurisdiction of the Portuguese Holy Office. When da Silva was a mere seven years old, his "converso" family (newly converted to Christianity) was required to travel back to Lisbon where they were brought before the Inquisition for allegations of heretical “Judaizing.” These proceedings resulted in a conviction and punishment, which most likely consisted of having goods and property seized by the State. This sudden lack of resources led the family to settle permanently in Lisbon, where da Silva came of age and eventually died. 

Dom Quixote puppet, created by the
Teatro Nacional de São Carlos
Da Silva's writing career began -- and quickly reached its apogee -- while he was completing his studies in law in his 20s. During this time, he began publishing theatrical works that included musical elements and which he called "óperas." These pieces were performed by puppets, rather than actors, in the Teatro do Bairro Alto. 

"The puppets used at the time, made of cork and wood," writes Argentinian researcher and stage director, Jacobo Kaufman, "were relatively tall, about one and a half meters in stature, hanging and manipulated on wires." The puppets were a key element of da Silva's theatrical productions, Kaufman says, because they were "allowed to use foul language and say things an actor or singer would not dare utter on stage." The use of puppets, therefore, provided a presumably safe distance from which da Silva could lambast the rich and powerful -- although this strategy did not always work, as evidenced by the fact that "The Jew" became da Silva's nickname after a lifetime of being persecuted by Inquisitors. Eventually, in fact, the Holy Office condemned Antônio José da Silva to a public death in an auto-da-fe when the young intellectual was only 34 years old. 

Da Silva had hoped that the use of puppets would successfully create a safe distance between the author and his critiques. And although that was ultimately not the case, it seems logical that the main character in Obras do diabinho da mão furada is the devil. The familiar trope of the devil can function in a way similar to the way the puppets function in da Silva's theater -- as a bulwark between the author and his chosen subject matter. The devil is, by his very nature, expected to refer to taboo subjects -- he is the father of bad behavior.

In this story, the devil does not disappoint, as he journeys alongside a hapless traveler, wreaking havoc on small Portuguese towns...and of course, getting all the most memorable lines!

Tomorrow's post will feature an in-depth discussion of the book that you won't want to miss!

Until then - keep rustling!

Monday, January 6, 2014

La Belle et la Bête

by Mercer Mayer
As a child, I was read Marianna Mayer's beautiful telling of the Beauty and the Beast story. Her husband, Mercer Mayer, illustrated the book with gorgeous paintings that greatly influenced the way I imagined the story in my mind ever-after.

by Mercer Mayer
As an adolescent, I watched the 1946 Jean Cocteau film version of this French tale, encountering a new set of visual vocabulary with which to understand and imagine it. In the film, the dark corners of Beast's enchanted castle throw black shadows across the pale youthful face of Beauty, engaging simultaneously the magical-myterious and the realistic-dangerous elements of coming-of-age. At 14 years-old, I felt deeply the struggle between acting upon instinct and acting out of obedience; the benefits and pitfalls of acting solely out of either instinct or obedience are exemplified by the main characters. 

I also watched Beauty attempt to establish a safe barrier between herself and her companion--a friend with whom she lived and who daily provoked the idea of marriage and thus physical union. As the Beast's voice grew more gentle to Beauty's ear, she found it increasingly more difficult to refuse experimenting with his touch and exploring the reaches of her love for him. Here is the scene from the film I think best attests to these feelings: 

I love how here we see Beast's ears and eyes become riveted instinctually upon a helpless doe, in the middle of conversation with Beauty. Although Beast struggles to tame his animal impulses and appear to Beauty as a "civilized" and gentle creature, he unwittingly reveals the continued influence of the impulses of a predator. Beauty, then, goes to the fountain and invites him to drink water from her hands, reestablishing his domesticity and allowing herself to feel the touch of his lips, even if only on her hands.

Yesterday, my husband and I came across the trailer for a brand new film version of the story. The costumes look fabulous, and the highly evolved CGI technology promises to bring to life a particularly interesting Beast...

The film is scheduled to debut on February 12, 2014 in France. Although I'm not sure when it is set to arrive in American cinemas, I look forward to seeing this latest iteration of the beautiful 18th century tale.

For more information on the history of Beauty and the Beast and its many literary renderings, please see Terri Windling's engaging article on the subject.

What are your favorite tales? What are the tales that have stayed with you through the years?

Until next time- keep rustling!

UPDATE: Just found a great post over at Once Upon a Blog on this film! She has some really nice screen grabs of the trailer as well as the video of the film's theme song. Check it out!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Nerd Jewelry and Cheeky Notebooks

Nerd jewelry, and cheeky notebooks. Feast your eyes...
Old Man and the Sea mini-book necklace
I must have some of the awesome Bunnyhell jewelry. You can now wear some of the thickest tomes in adorable miniature around your neck.
Dorian Gray
Also: I'll kind of some of these cheeky notebooks for the upcoming semester... Why not write in a notebook that looks like a slice of bread? Or better yet, how about a cookie notebook? Food does increases brain activity...

These notebooks actually look like the food they're pretending to be... see them in action: 

What are some of your favorite nerd-supplies? What kitsch must you have? Do special notebooks help you write?

Until next time-- keep rustling!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


Well hello there, New Year's Reveler. I hope you're getting some hot coffee and a big plate of bacon and eggs to ease the pain of last year's parting gift-- a hangover.

Once you've got your coffee and your fork, go ahead and start 2014 off right: by looking at old polariods of strangers that I found on pinterest, accompanied by the witty words of great authors and poets.

"New Years Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual." - Mark Twain

 "For last year's words belong to last year's language / And next year's words await another voice."

"What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning."

-both from the poem "Little Gidding"by T.S. Eliot (sections II and IV, respectively)

"I tasted -- careless -- then
I did not know the Wine
Came once a world -- did you?"

-from the poem "One Year Ago -- jots what?" by Emily Dickinson 
"Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born." 

-from the poem "New Year's Morning" by Helen Hunt Jackson 

"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man." -Benjamin Franklin 

Feliz año, este año, para ti, para todos
los hombres, y las tierras, Araucanía amada.
Entre tú y mi existencia hay esta noche nueva
que nos separa, y bosques y ríos y caminos.
Pero hacia ti, pequeña patria mía,
como un caballo oscuro mi corazón galopa:
entro por sus desiertos de pura geografía,
paso los valles verdes donde la uva acumula
sus verdes alcoholes, el mar de sus racimos.

Happy year to you, this year, to all
mankind and lands, beloved Araucania.
Between you and my existence a new night
separates us, an forests and rivers and roads.
But my heart gallops towards you
like a dark horse, my little land:
I enter deserts of pure geography,
pass green valleys where the grape accumulates
its green alcohols, the sea of its clusters. 

-from the poem "Feliz año a mi patria en tinieblas" ("Happy Year to my Country in Darkness") by Pablo Neruda; translation by Jack Schmitt 

"Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we will shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever." -Mark Twain