3 Interesting Things about History, Entertainment, and Class I’m Pondering

Three things have been striking my mind as interesting. One interesting thing about modernity is that the strangest things are inverted. In terms of their roles in historical traditional society, modernity inverts certain forms and patterns. Take one example; contrary to the idea that only women adorn themselves, except a few simpering metrosexuals, when we actually look at history often men have adorned themselves. This is true both east and west, in the global north and south – with some exceptions I admit. In some cases this adornment has been even more than women, and much of it for the purpose of attracting mates.

I find that interesting. Historically Peacocking was a bit of a norm then.

Another thing. Whatever we think today about the harem and polygamous societies (polygynous anyway) and the excessive female seclusion of many past eastern cultures, both Muslim and non-Muslim, something to ponder is that the concept of Harem is more nuanced than usually considered. The word itself – Harem – literally means sacred or hallowed. Hence the three temple complexes of great sanctity in Islam, the Kaaba in Mecca, The Prophetic Mosque in Madina, and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, are all known as the Harems. And the Kaaba itself is draped and veiled in black. It’s also little remembered in contemporary Islam, or in the West, that female veiling was originally a prerogative of elite women.

Free women went veiled, upper status free women typically observed the hijab or purdah, seclusion in the family harem, slave girls could go unveiled and at times even bare breasted. Something very similar was the case in early Rome and Greece for upper class women, in particular the early Romans. This, interestingly enough, was not the case for non-Mediterranean Europeans like Celts and Germans.

I draw no conclusions from any of this but musing over the history is interesting.

A third thing that I find interesting, is that entertainment, particularly Singing, was often admired in the pre-modern world but was typically also lower in status. In particularly singing girls. This was the case for popular entertainers not just in the East, but also in Western Christendom, and pre-Christian Rome. Actors Singers Mimes, all were typically of low status or actually slaves.

In the early modern world, actors and actresses in early Modern England were often not just prostitutes rising up from the poor, but in many ways a successful stage career was – for all intents and purposes – actually a modality of upper strata Prostitution. Put differently, a successful acting career put one in front of the nobility and the actress then had access to sexually service the nobility. Some very successful actresses engaged in general public whoring as well as elite private courtesan work. This was most blatant in the reign of Charles II but it was a constant in Post-Elizabethan modern England until well into the 19th century.

In our modern era, in the origins of Hollywood, this still held true to some degree, for both male and female actors drawn from poor or humble backgrounds, I have no idea what to make of this but I find it, and the origins of modern celebrity culture, very very interesting. In Black America, musical entertainment was one of the very few avenues open to talented Blacks during Jim Crow. The Jazz era created a demimonde in which Blacks were still suppressed and occupying a very low social status but paradoxically gained social access, albeit on a patronizing and highly circumscribed level, to upper class whites and could in many ways benefit their families even with the crushing oppression of a Jim Crow social order in the South, and the more diffuse social racism of the North.

I can think of one major exception – literary entertainment, and in particular poetry. Literary entertainers were often drawn from elite strata, or at least middle social strata. In Christian Europe, and in the Islamic East, likewise in the non-Islamic East, like Confucian and Buddhist China, and Hindu India. Added to this the musical arts most associated with literary expression and performance, or with the Court. This is where we get our Western Classical music. When not performed by higher class artists it at least gave access to the higher classes and the opportunity to move into an ambiguous and highly respective middle strata. Troubadours for example were of noble birth, and certain Filie and Bards in the older Celtic order were of higher rank origins. Those performers who were not initially of higher class could gain intimate access to aristocrats and thus their fortunes and status would rise.

This was the case with very, very, good British actresses between the late 1600’s and early 1800’s as well, and also pay writers and poets of common birth.

Somewhere in all of this are some interesting puzzles to figuring some aspects of our present day class system in America and Britain, I think. It’s at least something I’m finding interesting to think about.

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Novels, Romance, and Romans, oh my !

I’ve long kicked around the idea of writing a novel in Iambic Pentameter, the idea isn’t as nutty as it sounds. For one a few contemporary writers have written verse novels, like the late David Rakoff, whose “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is mostly in anapestic tetrameter, or Vikram Seth, whose novels are infused heavily with verse. His “The Golden Gate” is in iambic pentameter.

The idea seems funny, aren’t poetry and novels supposed to be separate?
Well, ask yourself, why?
Where does this assumption come from? Doubtless, few people in today’s world feel like wading through, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost but at one time verse, and poetry, were the queens of the literary world, both high and low. Broadsheet Ballads were the original English news papers, decades or perhaps even a century before the true rise of gazettes and journals.

Let’s consider this. The prose novel, as we know it today, is a rather new thing.
This is why, in fact, it’s called a novel in english, for it was a new and novel thing. They were also called Romances, a word that only survives today in Bodice and Panty Rippers churned out like candy, and devoured eagerly by educated and accomplished women all around the English speaking world as a naughty or guilty pleasure.

Originally all novels were Romances; or rather I should say and the Romance didn’t just deal with love, it dealt with war, adventures, all sorts of things. This notion survived on a bit even up until the 1960’s and early 70’s. Frank Yerby’s Gothic Romances were very much Male books. They could be read by women, and often were eagerly read by women, but the perspective of the central character was Male. The adventures were rugged, and he didn’t get one girl, rather he typically got two or more, of whom one would either survive (literally, death counts were a bit ghastly in some of these pulp paperback Romances) or be left as the one true love and right choice in the end.

The Romance in English is the Roman in French. The French prose Roman did inspire the first generation of English novelists, along with the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights, which in many ways more or less prefigured and inspired the Fantasy, Weird and Supernatural Tale (Lovecraft, and before him Poe, and even Lord Byron and others going before him were fascinated and heavily influenced by the 1001 Nights..)

Now the original Roman was in verse, they were poems, going back to the Roman de Rou and the Roman de Brut, in the earliest dim echos of Anglo-Norman literature. It is the Roman de Brut, which heavily borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histria Regnum Britannia, which was responsible for popularizing the legend of King Author both among the French and English at the close of the Dark Ages and dawn of the High Middle Ages in the West.

All Romans at that time were poetry, often in an octosyllable meter, though sometimes in Alexandrines, at times rhyming, that new poetic device borrowed from Arab poetry, whose cultural influence gradually wafted North from Andalusia during the time of Muslim rule in Spain. But sometimes eschewing rhyme, Romans were crafted in a sort of blank verse.

A novel in Iambic Pentameter, in a way, is a return back to it’s origins. Or let’s say that stories, rather, narratives, when told in verse, are a return back to the origins of literary storytelling.

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