From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (34)—Mustachioed

Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party
George's Friend        Jerry's Haircut          Face Paint             Mustachioed       Smoking              East River
Pool Man                   Dunkin' Joe              Life Lessons          Reckoning          Dog Medicine      Shower Heads
Looking Busy            George Tips             Kramer's Job          Empty Tank
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific 
Picking right up from our last Seinfeld Ethnography post, we will spend a little time today exploring the cosmetic and social implications of facial hair. In their comfortable booth at Monk's restaurant, George and Jerry discuss northern European ethnicity while sporting distinctive above-the-upper-lip hair styles. George wonders about the nature of identity and employment (wondering aloud about his appearance). Jerry would rather have gone on a real vacation than this "vacation from ourselves" that lands them in the corner diner, reading newspapers, and scratching their noses. Take a look.
"Then who are the Dutch?" asks George with some urgency. How much does he want to know about a certain East India Company in an increasingly globalized world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Battles for supremacy on "Formosa"? Smuggling? Bankruptcy ending the company's influence?

[b] The Works RF
Not much at all, as it turns out. George wants a vacation from himself, and he takes Jerry along for his (Dutch) company. It turns out that they both will need a little more—or less—hair if they want to escape from themselves. Mutton chops? Buzz cuts? Maybe a job?
***  ***
My question for today is about facial hair and identity. Beards are one thing—storied appendages framed by culture and history. Whole gendered groupings of adults (often called "males") in many periods of human history have been distinguished by beards. Tightly groomed or flowing in hirsute profusion, the beard is as much a cultural marker as a sign (probably well understood by our Paleolithic ancestors) that the instruments of close grooming were unavailable.

The mustache is different. It is hard for me to imagine even the most debonair mastodon hunter outlined by a finely honed pencil mustache as he sharpens his spear over the morning fire. By the Neolithic, it was possible to scrape facial hair (and a few gobs of skin) from a hardy face, but the technology was little match for the concomitant, embodied pain.

It doesn't take many hours spent watching, say, NFL football broadcasts to see that obsession with facial hair technology is perhaps second only to beer in financial focus among American men. Scratching, bleeding, scraping, and general dermatological misery (along with the occasional cool, bracing recovery) is the order of our time. With beards—whether today or while enjoying a roasted leg of mammoth—the equation is simple: keep 'em trimmed...if you can.

The mustache is different; it is all about trimming. Indeed, there is no mustache without powerful distinctions between a naked face and a small copse of stubble. Mix technology, artistry, daring, and a little testosterone—voici, we have a mustachioed face. It is that simple...and complex.

We will complete today's cultural and historical lesson with a look at hair in three prominent locations in time and space. Because I am not near my personal library this week, I will have to make a departure from the usual philosophical and anthropological texts that conclude our weekly Seinfeld Ethnography posts. Don't worry, though. In a week or so, I plan to examine the role of facial hair in the history of anthropology. You have no idea how interesting this might be. Look for that in early January.

[c] Über RF
In the meantime, I have chosen three diverse texts, all of which deal in one way or another with facial hair. Interestingly enough, none of them deals with mustaches. I find this fascinating. Beards have power (and so does hair, as Samson, Delilah, and the Monkey King could attest); mustaches are, well, something else. We'll return to them in future Round and Square posts. 

Our first text gives a brief picture of the Norse über God Thor and his fiery beard. The second is a snippet from the classic Chinese narrative Journey to the West, which details the travels of a strange band of travelers in seventh century China who journey through untold perils to find the sacred (Buddhist) scriptures in the shadowy and magical lands of "China's" westland.  Hair is magical here. 

Finally, we conclude with the twelfth sonnet from Shakespeare's admirable collection of structured lyrics. I have always enjoyed memorizing, thinking about, and discussing The Sonnets, but today's search through them might have been the strangest I have ever undertaken. If you have never read through great verse in pursuit of references to facial hair, well, your literary studies are unfinished.

Myths of the Norsemen
Helene Guerber (1909)
[d] Thornder RF
As he was god of thunder, Thor alone was never allowed to pass over the wonderful bridge Bifröst, lest he should set it aflame by the heat of his presence; and when he wished to join his fellow gods by the Urdar fountain, under the shade of the sacred tree Yggdrasil, he was forced to make his way thither on foot, wading through the rivers Kormt and Ormt, and the two streams Kerlaug, to the trysting place.

Thor, who was honored as the highest god in Norway, came second in the trilogy of all the other countries, and was called "old Thor," because he is supposed by some mythologists to have belonged to an older dynasty of gods, and not on account of his actual age, for he was represented and described as a man in his prime, tall and well formed, with muscular limbs and bristling red hair and beard, from which, in moments of anger, the sparks flew in showers.
                    First, Thor with bent brow,
                    In red beard muttering low,
                    Darting fierce lightnings from eyeballs that glow,
                    Comes, while each chariot wheel 
                    Echoes in thunder peal,
                    As his dread hammer shock
                    Makes Earth and Heaven rock,
                    Clouds rifting above, while Earth quakes below.
                                                                    —Valhalla, J.C. Jones[1]

Journey to the West
Wu Cheng'en (Sixteenth Century)
Arthur Waley (Translated 1943) 
[e] Monkeyjourney RF
The combat began at dawn and lasted till the sun sank behind the western hills. The One Horned Ogre and all the kings of the seventy-two caves were captured and carried away. Only the four generals and the monkeys escaped and hid in the far recesses of the cave. But Monkey all alone, cudgel in hand, held back the kings of the Four Quarters, Vaisravana and Natha, warring with them half way up the sky. At last, seeing that dusk was at hand, he plucked a handful of his hairs, tossed them out, crying 'Change!' Whereupon they changed into thousands of monkeys each armed with a metal-plated cudgel. They drove back Vaisravana, Natha, and the four kings. Then Monkey, at last victorious, withdrew the hairs and returned to his cave. At the Iron Bridge, he was met by the four generals and all the host of monkeys. On seeing him they wailed three times, and laughed, hee-hee, ho-ho, three times. 'What made you wail three times and laugh three times when you saw me?' asked Monkey. 'We wailed,' they said, 'because the One Horned Ogre and the seventy-two kings were defeated and captured, and because we had to fly for our lives. We laughed with joy because you have come back victorious and unharmed.'[2]

The Sonnets—12
[f] Shakestache RF
William Shakespeare (1609)
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night,
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from head did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard:
Then of thy beauty do I question make
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake 
And die as fast they they see others grow,
     And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
     Save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence.[3] 

[1] Helene A. Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2006), 67-68.
[2] Arthur Waley, translator, Monkey (New York: Grove Press, 1970), 61.
[3] Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 96. 

Guerber, Helene A. Myths of the Norsemen. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2006.
Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Waley, Arthur, translator. Monkey. New York: Grove Press, 1970. 

Wednesday, January 4th
Smoking Kramer
Kramer makes his apartment into a smoking lounge. The rest is history (and culture)...and litigation.


  1. This is a bit late, but I just recently ran across this passage (re)reading Umberto Eco's masterful work, "Foucault's Pendulum". Beards and (Italian) history and culture come together, and I remembered this post.

    Foucault's Pendulum
    Umberto Eco (1988; English translation by William Weaver in 1989)

    That evening Pilade's was the image of the golden age. One of those evenings when you feel that not only will there definitely be a revolution, but that the Association of Manufacturers will foot the bill for it. Where but at Pilade's could you watch the bearded owner of a cotton mill, wearing a parka, play hearts with a future fugitive from justice dressed in a double-breasted jacket and tie? This was the dawn of great changes in style. Until the beginnings of the sixties, beards were fascist, and you had to trim them, and shave your cheeks, in the style of Italo Balbo; but by '68 beards meant protest, and now they were becoming neutral, universal, a matter of personal preference. Beards have always been masks (you wear a fake beard to keep from being recognized), but in those years, the early seventies, a real beard was also a disguise. You could lie while telling the truth--or, rather, by making the truth elusive and enigmatic. A man's politics could no longer be guessed from his beard. That evening, beards seemed to hover on clean-shaven faces whose very lack of hair suggested defiance.

    Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum (Secker & Warburg, 1989), electronic edition.

  2. This hits close to home for me. Since well before I could even grow facial hair, its presence certainly signified something much more than a mere fashion choice to me (as I'm sure it does to other men). Even given the fact that I am an urban American living very much in the 21st century, I find myself constantly torn between the desire on the one hand to be trimmed and kempt for the sake of social acceptability and aesthetic appeal, and on the other, to grow my considerable beard long and thick, as has in many societies classically befitted men of learning (one of which I have always aspired to be).
    Considering the seeming increase in facial hair popularity nowadays, especially in hipster culture, it would be interesting to study the transition of the beard/mustache from deviance to norm.
    "I did it before it was cool."

  3. Indeed you did, Nick. I am always reminded of the relationship between maleness, as it were, and facial hair when I read French novels from the nineteenth century. Beards are ubiquitous. By the way, those French novels are the key, I think, to understanding the full development of social theory from Comte to Durkheim (or, as I like to put it, from Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss).

    There is another "hair post" to come in about a week (it was posted in early January 2012).