Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Hammaid's Tail

The riverpath in Watertown emerges from the woods, crosses a bridge, and re-enters the woods on the opposite shore a block or so downstream. The little slice of civilization that this detour traverses contains the usual elements of blighted suburbia -- car dealership, carwash, rehabbed brick factory and a little convenience store plastered with garish ads for Marlboro and Camel cigarettes. Affixed to the convenience store is a catering business with a disturbing sign. The name of the business includes the words "gourmet" and "healthy," and the sign includes this image:

For what tone is this sign aiming ? One's first impression is pornographic: the vacuous, wall-eyed face sports the open-mouthed, appetitive, inviting grin of a cheap, badly-painted blow-up sex doll. And yet, curiously enough, the mermaid's breasts are covered by her hair. Negating, perhaps, any suggestion of the maternal.

And why, for that matter,have they chosen a mermaid ? It's not a sushi bar or a fish store. Why chose a legless and thus hobbled woman as purveyor of one's healthy, gourmet wares ? For that matter, what does the image of a mermaid suggest about gender ? Other than the gaping mouth, she has no receptive orifice. Is this to promote eating over mating ? To equate eating with mating ? And what is the meaning, then, of the tail ? The shape is clearly phallic; yet the function is more propulsive than penetrative, unless one construes it as penetrating the water. Then is she a hermaphrodite ? Androgynous ? Transvestitual ? Transpecious ? Does the sign wish to call into question the whole notion of gender ? Admirable, but what does that have to do with catering ? Why juxtapose the liberal value of "healthy eating" with right-wing sexism ? Why posit this strangely hobbled, ambiguous wait-person ? Unless, of course, her intended clientele is also a swimmingly underwater clientele, drowned, say, by the bestial depths of their appetites. But why would you want to let on that you think your clients are swinish ? Healthy gourmands or, worse, healthy gluttons ?

From an Eliotan point of view, this mermaid is indeed singing to me, to us. She is singing a song of ham. Ham ! The idea of ham as health food is, to say the least, novel: it turns the notion of health upside down. Bouleversee, as the French would say. What sort of health does a salty, smoked, saturated-fat laden meat induce ? An odd hypertensive, cancerous and heart-diseased sort of health. Could this be a metaphor ? A covert summons to the high-pressured, self-consuming, romantically-disenchanted and bottomlessly ravenous citizenry ? A fatalistic call to continue heedless overconsumption as the only reply to a Godless, meaningless universe ?

The image of an underwater and thus pescatological creature promoting the terrestrial foodstuff,ham, is jarring and contradictory. Surreal, not in a particularly good way. Could the fact that she is not serving the more iconically consistent fish be construed as a mermaid's pointed abstension from eating a fellow oceanic creature ? A xenophobic morality, at best, reifying and fetishizing the exotic "Other" as food. Like those self-promoting semi-demi-hemi-quasi-vegetarians who "only eat fish" ? (And maybe a little chicken.) The christological symbolology that a fish would entrain is directly affronted by the actual ham that rests on her platter: pig meat is the quintessential religiously-interdicted food. Demons, for goodness sakes, are cast into (or was that out of?) swine !

And what vestiges of appetite could possible remain after one has fully deconstructed the iconography of the sign ?

I rest my case.

Beyond the shops are a few small houses, then the entrance to the path. The last house before the path has a pretty garden terrace on the downslope to the river, a splendid cherry tree in the front yard, and this graceful, weathered Madonna:

And thus, in less than a half a block, one moves from hammaid to handmaiden --

My soul doth
magnify the Lord.
For He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth
all generations shall
call me blessed.

having viewed a serendipetously collaborative installation worthy of the MOMA, or, at least, the MOBA.

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