News, nihil obstatrics, and gynecommodity

In the gossip-driven feeding frenzy that keeps alive the tawdry tale of rising and declining wannabe John Edwards (now with video), the New York Daily News wins quip of the day :

Hunter had been hired by the Edwards campaign to videotape the candidate’s movements, but this one is said to have shown him taking positions that weren’t on his official platform.

The commodification of sexual scandal is nothing new, of course, and in times like these more than ever the media are motivated to regard as "news" whatever will maximize sales.  Thus, there's a regrettable tendency to spew rather than eschew.

What's cheapened in yellowing press, beyond the players' tattered reputations, is a factor arguably worth conserving: the vitality of sexual allusion as a literary device.

For some of their puissance, these worthy tropes depend on indirection– a wink, a nod, a knowing glance.  But in a cultural milieu where everyone seems to say entirely too much altogether, and where even the king is in the altogether, it's hard for prose to play allusively without seeming turgid.

So it goes, too, with visual and spatial art.  Around 1920, that brash jokester Duchamp tagged a mustachioed Mona with a vulgar schoolyard pun.

Marcel Duchamp, ca. 1919 and then on and on
Marcel Duchamp, ca. 1919 and then on and on

(For the Gallically disinclined: reading the letters aloud in French makes one say "Elle a chaud au cul" — an observation unsuited to polite company.  French lends itself to this sort of pun, as a legion of Speak-and-Spell-wielding youth will testify.)

On a mission to shock the bourgeoisie, Duchamp kicked off a new wave in the longtime cheapening of time-honored bawd.  Just prior to this, but almost entirely without force in Duchamp's proto-postmodern context, was the sexual allusiveness of Degas:

Degas, Dancers at the Bar, 1900, Phillips Collection
Degas, Dancers at the Bar, 1900, Phillips Collection

So frequent were his graphical forays into the world of dance that a representation by Degas of some ballerina stretching thus, or adjusting her slipper, or otherwise assuming a complex or lyrical stance seems straightforwardly representational.  Similarly simple seem the shiny statuettes (by the seashore):

Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, ca. 1900, Metropolitan Museum
Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, ca. 1900, Metropolitan Museum

We're in territory not far from Duchamp but several steps removed from the schoolyard.  In French, the expression "prendre son pied" (to take one's foot) means "to experience pleasure" and has the specifically sexual connotation of orgasm.  This erotic idiom is often used figuratively nowadays to express with hyperbole any sort of pleasure at all– Q: "Did you like the new Star Trek movie?"  A: "Ah oui, j'ai pris mon pied!".  (This is similar to the cavalier way English speakers toss around the suffix "-gasm", as in "Geekgasm".)

By way of this idiom, Degas invests some, and therefore all, of his graphical and plastic dancers with another layer of allusion to intensify the already erotic connotations of classical dance.  The indirection is not subtle, but it is somewhat less obvious and grating than "LHOOQ" since the foot-touching gesture makes literal sense on its own terms within the theatrical context: sometimes, a touching of the foot is just a touching of the foot.

This brings us, of course, to pirates.  How did it come to pass that "to take one's foot" became an idiom for orgasm?  Prior to the Revolution, and therefore prior to the metric system, the French used measurements akin to the imperial system.  When corsairs went to divide their spoils after a stint of rapine, each would naturally demand his portion of the whole.  The allotted part, by convention, was a foot-high mound of booty.  No, really.

Taking his foot of gold was the pirate's pleasure.  Since not everything that happens in Tortuga stays in Tortuga, taking the foot gradually became anyone's pleasure in anything, and eventually ended up a punchline in Amélie.  And just as a noble, sexy, piraty bit of bawd has by now been stripped bare by its broad overuse in French, so too has the vitality of allusiveness in our mother tongue suffered under the weight of too popular a press.  We've seen enough; it's time to close your eyes and think of English.

So let's insist that the media fanning the torrid flames of political passion and self-immolation avert their gaze from gossip.  Let's demand actual journalistic attention to news worthy of the name, even if the purveyors of parley have to trim their sales.

Eventually, you have to put your foot down.

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