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GROOVES, CAMOUFLAGE, AND THE CONSPIRACY OF WHITENESSgrooves by m.g. smout

by Barbara F. Lefcowitz

(1)

Like all slang, the words "groovy" or "in the groove" have been relegated to a retirement center, recognized only by those old enough to acknowledge others who share their plight. Yet grooves themselves, whether in the ground--when they’re usually called furrows;--or incorporated into a marble or silver band--when they’re more accurately called gadroons or flutings;--or cut into a tree and called cracks or slits, have not ceased to fascinate most people. They relate closely to the need for expression, for making one’s mark.

Erasing or excising grooves relates closely to the art of camouflage. Not so much the camouflage of the tiger or hunter who wishes to blend with his environment, or the camouflage of a plover’s eggs which are speckled to resemble stones and thus ward off predators, but the camouflage that grows from a compulsive preference for the smoothe, the bland, the ironed as opposed to the wrinkled. How come we admire the grooves of nature, the fissures, the striations, the folds, the spirals of lace on a cantaloupe’s rind, but recoil from similar configurations in the human skin, particularly the aging female face, as if they resulted from some evil conspiracy between birthdays and the body?

Wallace Stevens lamented that at 10:00 in the evening the houses he walked past "were haunted by white nightgowns." White refers here not to ghosts or to innocence but to blankness, the absence of color, absence of imagination and passion. Yet even today in western countries--when the virginal bride is rare as a black daisy--most women insist on wearing a white wedding outfit. Is this a subconscious comment on the link between marriage and tedium? Or even marriage and death?

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(2)

Though all camouflage is aimed at disguise (and all disguise is protective, whether for adaptive or deceptive ends ), the methods vary widely. On the one hand, we have camouflage achieved by human artifice, often conspiratorial in nature and closely linked with technology: the counterfeiting of money, of passports, of identity cards; the manufacturing of wigs, the false mustaches, cosmetics, and dark shades so spies and other criminals can conceal or eradicate the markings of their distinctive identity; the manufacturing of information to spread rumors about one’s enemies or the distortion of information in order to discredit same.

Then there’s the artifice of nature. Some creatures can ward off predators by assuming a particular smell: rattlesnakes trick rodents by taking on the smell of a rotting cucumber; sparrows protect themselves against bird dogs by taking on the smell of other birds. To attract rather than repel, not only do flowers exude nectar, but orchids can actually disguise themselves as flies, wasps, and spiders; the ophyrus can disguise itself in bumble-bee drag.

Certainly we cannot say that facial folds and wrinkles repel because, unlike the ripples in a sandbank or the flutings of shells, they are unnatural. Indeed, some decidedly unnatural analogues of grooves are rated highly for their attractiveness: the pleats sewn into a skirt; the wales of corduroy; the incised lines of an etching or engraving; flutings of a Greek temple column.

In most of Asia, white is the color of mourning. Brides traditionally wear red, even brides taking part in arranged marriages where passion is not the issue, or at least not initially so. But like Coca-Cola and KFC, the western style wedding gown, white lace, veil, train, the whole shmeer, is gradually taking over. A pity.

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(3)

Notches, winding lines, spirals, crescents, glyphs representing various plants and animals: at least 30,000 years ago, people literally marked time by incising bones, including animal tusks, making grooves in clay tablets, or--as in Egypt, Meso-America, and Ireland-- carving in high relief the most impressive stones they could see and haul.

Sometimes the inscriptions on "lunar bones," which scholars interpret as recordings of the moon’s cycles, resemble the seemingly random grooves on the bark of trees. Created perhaps by ice or flames, the scar of a fallen branch, the teeth of starving animals--but more often from vital inner needs, e.g.the patches of loosely packed surface cells, or lenticels,which permit air to penetrate such vital underlying tissues as the phloem, conductor of sap from roots and leaves in order to nourish the tree. Some bark is deeply fissured, some merely cracked, some scaly, even studded with cone-shaped prickles.

Always the patterns on birch bark have reminded me of musical notations, whole scores that might have produced astonishing melodies if inserted into some primitive version of the player-piano. And I remember one summer when I had to resist the temptation to slice a cambium-layered tree stump into thin discs that I could then try to play on my phonograph. The reason for my resistance was not fear of punishment but of disappointment, lest the wooden grooves release no music at all.

Is the obsession with smootheness related to a desire for silence, perhaps even an affinity with the materiel of death--i.e. shrouds, embalming fluids that render dead skin free from wrinkles at last, as if that skin were a stiffly starched shirt? In political terms, is the obsession related to the need to eliminate dissent--i.e. any furrows, cracks, or grooves in an authoritarian agenda meant to be rigid as a white marble tombstone?

We are all, of course, familiar with white noise, a sound that might as well be silence, an innocuous sound we can easily ignore, like the light surf of traffic on a late night suburban street. Sometimes those who live in the hearts of cities can transmute even the loudest sounds to white noise: ambulance sirens, the angry honking of horns, clatter of stray cans rolling from unlidded garbage pails, gunshot, fire crackers, screams, the raucous laughter of strangers. Suppression of the disturbing, along with a selective attention to the comforting, is the essence of white noise.

On another level, suppression of disturbing thoughts can create emotional white noise, a particular mental trick played, for instance, by those who wish to forget someone they might have hurt. Every time a memory of the hurt person appears unbidden--in a dream, in response to a bit of chance music--the person must be reduced to white noise, especially if his or her brief appearance threatens to recreate a melody that long ago might have been haunting, even hummed in unison. Likewise, censorship can create and sustain a political white noise--though in such situations there is not only a suppression of threatening information but annihilation of the "informers" as well.

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(4)

Who in the world invented ironing? Probably the war against creases and wrinkles goes back to the Stone Age,when after being beaten clean on the best available rocks, trousers and tunics were pressed or rolled between heavy slabs. Or perhaps people stomped on them with their bare feet.

No one has expressed the terror of whiteness more eloquently than Herman Melville: ". . .there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights blood." Among others: the terror invoked by the white shark, the albatross, the "spectral" White Sea, and--most dramatically--"the repulsive and shocking" whiteness of Albinos. A few, very few, white things are admirable: the white forked flame worshipped by ancient Persians; the sacred white dog of the Iroquois. But mostly whiteness is the pallor and fixed "trance" of the dead; the void that inspires atheism--as if our eyes must perceive color in order to believe. Had they been discovered in his day, doubtless Melville would have added to his catalogue the white dwarf, remnant core of a star that has completed fusion.

Yet the Russian painter Kasimir Malevich--after many years of painting in the exuberant colors of the Expressionists--found white to be the perfect, indeed the only, "color" that fit into his Suprematist program of a totally transcendent art, free from contamination by any objects except pure geometrical forms, free from contamination by the "impure" wavelengths of colors. Even so, his famous "White on White" (1919) suggests more the whiteness of snow, with all its subtle shifts of intensity and tone.

Franz Kline found the juxtaposition of black against white considerably more exciting. Indeed, Kline’s dramatic strokes of black against a white field actually intensify the whiteness, like the black silhouettes of winter trees intensify the starkness of newly fallen snow--or the slightest crack draws our attention to the smootheness of the rest of, say, a white porcelain cup. As Auden once said in reference to the poetry of Rilke, "the crack in the teacup opens a lane to the land of the dead."

Indeed, that crack can be more fascinating than the rest of the cup, especially if we keep in mind the striking similarity of the cracks in a mud flat after drought, the veins in a grape leaf, and the reticules of a grasshopper’s wing.

Not only dry mud but the earth itself is marked by all types of grooves, both natural and man-made. Consider the channel, the trench, the ditch, the ravine, the trough. If the earth were smoothe and bald as a ping-pong ball, it would be not only inhospitable to growth but also a deadly bore.. Likewise if all bark were free from the least crackle: not only would its epidermis do a poor job of protecting the essential phloem, including the fibers that strengthen its ducts, but we would have to do without tannin, jute, and cork, cinnamon, the original sources of aspirin and quinine. . .

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5.

True, some of nature’s camouflage may create striking effects, such as the tigers’ and zebras’ stripes, stone-like speckled eggs, wily orchids. But let’s leave the camouflage of human deception to the designers of military uniforms and hunting apparel, to drug lords and celebrities who wish to be unrecognized at airports, to illegal immigrants, frantic newsmongers in the various media, adulterers, private detectives, and especially to the victims of the cosmetic industry’s worldwide conspiracy of hollow promises.

Whiteness we can leave to the snow, the albatross, vanilla ice cream, packaged breads that taste like soggy cotton; leave it, somewhat more regretfully, to the glaciers and ice floes of Antarctica as pictured in the glossy travel brochure we have sent away for just in case one day we discover there are no more places to conquer. . .

And let us honor grooves and fissures of all sorts: streaks, chamfers, seams, flutings; the sulcus or vallecula that delineates one area of the brain from another; the ribbed, the striated, even the rutted and the rimiform, the dappled and brindled; the voices of those who dare express viewpoints that call into question orthodox assumptions of any sort as well as the opinions of the majority in any given society.

Salud! Let’s celebrate by drinking from a cracked white cup, at least until the crack expands and the cup’s hot tea spills onto our laps--creating a jagged stain that must be washed and, of course, ironed. Even if at the time we happen to be wearing a navy blue cocktail dress or a suit of the same color, never mind its potential usefulness lest there be accusations of political conspiracy, no matter from what side of the spectrum. . .

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1999 Barbara F. Lefcowitz                                         

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Author bio:

Barbara F. Lefcowitz has published six books of poetry, a novel, and individual poems, stories, and essays in over 350 journals. She has won writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. Also a visual artist, she currently lives in Bethesda, Maryland. The essay published here is part of a series of "Triads," in which the author juxtaposes three seemingly disparate objects or ideas and tries to work out their interconnections....

E-mail: BLefcowitz@aol.com

navigation:                                          barcelona review #13   mid-june to mid-august 1999
-Fiction Murder by G.K. Wuori
Madness by G.K. Wuori
Slide Show by Matt Marinovich
Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision by Jason DeBoer
My Father...The Train by Donna Lee
When Interviewing Characters by Roger Aplon
-Poetry Steve Aylett
-Essay

Grooves, Camouflage, and the Conspiracy of Whiteness
by Barbara F. Lefcowitz

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