Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We are all descended from grandfathers

Not least among the mysterious laws of nature is the principle that if you had a past life, you must be descended from a pharaoh or priestess; either the street sweepers and outhouse collectors didn't reincarnate or the rest of us are new creations. Whatever the reason, I can never get enough of the historical recreation reality shows, in which modern people from various backgrounds and occupations are placed in historically accurate settings and required to live for 3 months or more as they might have lived in 1900, 1867, and so on. Participants generally find that they can eventually adjust to cold baths and shampoo improvised from egg yolks; what often breaks them and sometimes causes angry defections is the requirement to treat anyone else besides one's own inner child with deference.

All these tendencies are on full display in the series I've been watching this week, Regency House Party, filmed 5 years ago for British TV. The program places 10 eligible singles in an English country house and asks them to engage in the social rituals, including the quest for a suitable mate, that would have been their most important business in 1811. It may be true that in our day, dating has gone the way of the minuet and been replaced by hookups, but in 1811, such behavior was social suicide, and physical contact between the sexes is confined mostly to furtive hand squeezing during formal dances. As was true of that time, the men find plenty to do, what with shooting matches, athletic contests of various sorts, and heavy drinking, flavored with indiscreet references to their female housemates, while the ladies must content themselves, for the most part, with embroidery and occasional outside walks, carefully guarded by parasols against the sun. Interestingly, the first defection is by a man from a working-class background in modern life; assigned to portray a British Army Captain from the minor aristocracy of that day, he balks at learning the bearing, walk, and manners of a gentleman and, declaring that he wants to be a "regular bloke," packs and leaves early on.

Naturally, modern entertainment devices are nowhere to be seen (indeed, a high point of technological progress comes when the assembled guests witness the lighting of an early gas lamp, enabling them to see each other more clearly than by candlelight), so they must resort to the diversions of that day. Among the amusements on display is the armonica, an instrument in which shallow glass dishes are suspended on a wooden spindle that runs through their centers like an axle; the whole assembly is suspended, in turn, in an open cabinet-like structure. It is played by lightly wetting one's fingers and then stroking the edges of the glass dishes, which make eerie tones sounding rather like the calls of whales or dolphins. The reverberations last so long that you can't play anything very fast on it; it seems designed to play the likes of the Pachelbel Canon except that there would be too much overlap the moment the second round began, and it would all melt into a meaningless shimmering mixture.

What surprised me in a series so well researched (e.g., it turns out that meals in the Regency Era were not served in courses, as was customary later, but in balanced groups of sweet and spicy dishes, following the lead of George IV's French chef), is that they never mention that the armonica was the invention of our great American polymath, Ben Franklin. Perhaps the omission can't be charged exclusively to the state of modern scholarship; in Franklin's own day, Wedgwood sold figurines of Franklin sometimes labeled "Country Gent." or even "Geo. Washington" (I actually saw a copy with the Washington label on it in a house in Charleston some years ago).

One ought to follow the path of learning wherever it leads, but what I could have done without in the Regency series was the introduction among the visitors of controversial Professor Gunther von Hagens, who practices plastination of the dead for public display. Yes, I know Michael Jackson tried to purchase the skeleton of the Elephant Man in 1987, that Jeremy Bentham's skeleton presided over board meetings of a London Hospital for 92 years, and that deceased Spanish royalty were deposited for centuries in the "rotting room" of the Escorial, but the public display of plastinated human bodies in various states of dissection, arranged in artistic poses, is obscene if the word means anything at all. In one scene of the series, von Hagens comments at dinner(!) that when he dissected a close friend, who had died young, he felt the friend was communicating with him more than ever in a special way; I can only hope the poor fellow meant to say something like, "If I could get up off this table, I would tear your balls off." It's something of a relief when an heiress comments later, "I could see him wanting my body, but for all the wrong reasons."

I suspect that if von Hagens had encountered the feisty seventh President of the United States, Old Hickory would have horsewhipped him and then run him through with his sword cane for good measure. My children thoughtfully gave me Jon Meacham's new biography of Jackson, American Lion, for Christmas, so I think I'll get my mind off plastic cadavers and get started on that instructive book. Meacham's photos always give me the impression that he is about to weep under the intensity of a self-awareness of his own enlightenment and the pleasurable feelings resulting therefrom, but he does write well, so I have high hopes.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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