Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pro Noun

by Drew Martin

If you ask me what a noun is, the young school boy in me will eagerly tell you it is a person, place or thing. Those options are offered by "or" and they set our minds wandering: Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Katmandu, fire hydrant. Swap that "or" with "and" and the definition becomes encapsulated: Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Warsaw-Paris, Radon-Polonium. Maybe this is a good way to think of names. I had the privilege to name my three children and always considered the "and" factor.

My oldest child, Olympia, has a lot of name references to the arts and literature, most obviously Greek mythology. She went on a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week. Upon returning, I asked her what her favorite thing was and she said Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Canova. It was one of those moments of relief, pride, joy in parenthood. My wife has read her hours of Greek mythology so she knew the story well and even questioned why he is looking at her head, but maybe that is a play on the marble stone of the sculpture itself, which I had never thought about until then. It also made me think a lot about "place" and placement. I wonder if Olympia would have considered it as much if Perseus had been in his original location, up above the entrance lobby of the Met.

Coincidentally, I had watched a documentary of the Met only a few days prior, which was about Philippe de Montebello's enduring role as the Museum's director. The piece included Montebello's explanation of the move of Perseus from the entrance lobby to the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court. In the original place, Perseus was highlighted but decorative but in the sculpture court it regained its presence as a stand-alone masterful sculpture.

This reminded me of Jerome Klapka Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel (1900), a hilarious and fresh story of a bicycle trip with his friends through Germany's Black Forest. In one part, he is actually in Prague and he describes a very peculiar event.

If you have been to Prague, you will know that the grandest street is Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square). At the top, is the Wenceslas Monument with a bronze statue of the mounted saint by the Czech sculptor Josef Václav Myslbek. The piece took Myslbek over twenty years to complete and is one of the most popular symbols of Prague, as well as one of its most common default meeting places. Jerome passed through Prague during a time when several full-size wooden mock-ups of the monument were made and placed around the city so the artist, commissioners and citizens could decide where it fit best.

One note on the word bummel. When asked by one of the characters to translate the word, Jerome as narrator replies:

"A 'Bummel'," I explained, "I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when it's over."