Sunday, September 23, 2012

I've Got Your Nose

By Drew Martin
I love the game parents and siblings play with young kids in which they act like they steal the youngster's nose and then claim to possess it as a wriggling thumb sandwiched between their own fingers. It is an absurd gimmick and the fake dismembering leads to a deepening of the farce such as eating the nose or throwing it out the window.

I never paid much attention to John Baldessari's work but I have been thinking about his isolation of the nose, as he does in God Nose from 1965 (top image) and Noses & Ears, Etc.: Head (with Nose) from 2006 (bottom image). I typically try to find out the motivation behind a work but I feel like Baldessari is about something different; that it is on me to bring the details to his images. So I thought about the childish nose-stealing game, and the gold and silver fake nose that the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe wore after losing his real nose in a duel. It would come off when he sneezed and he took it off at 16th-century parties to get laughs. I thought about noses that snorted snuff and cocaine through the ages, and I remembered back to high school when classmates were given nose-jobs as presents from their parents.

To bring more meaning to Baldessari's noses, I rewatched Sleeper yesterday morning. Woody Allen plays Miles Monroe, who is cryogenically frozen in 1973 and defrosted 200 years later. The movie winds down with a comic scene of Allen and Keaton who pose as doctors in order to thwart a regime. They are supposed to clone a totalitarian leader from all that remains of him, his nose. Instead, they steal the nose, escape from a locked-down facility with a fake gun pointed at it and assassinate the remains of the leader by throwing the nose under a steamroller.

Last night I reread Nikolai Gogol's short story, The Nose, which he wrote in the mid 1830's and is a precursor of magical realism. In the first chapter, a Russian barber finds a client's nose in his breakfast roll. In the second chapter, the client, Major Kovalyov, awakes without his nose and spends some time tracking it down and confronting it, after it has taken on a life of its own. A policeman eventually returns the nose but Kovalyov is unable to attach it.  In the third and final chapter, Kovalyov awakes with his nose affixed and promenades around St. Petersburg to show it off.

The word for nose in Russian is Нос, spelled backwards it is Сон, which means "dream." There is a version of the story in which nose is substituted with a blank, so reader can interpret the dismemberment as an implied castration, which actually makes the story much more entertaining and more plausible since the character is emasculated by the loss. This also sheds light on an exchange of letters in the second chapter between Kovalyov and the mother of a woman she wants him to marry. He accuses her of stealing his body part but her response informs him that she is innocent.

Odd as it may sound, if you substitute nose with penis in this story, it becomes more believable, or at least easier to visualize. I have a harder time picturing a nose in Kovalyov's descriptions, such as his first encounter with the detached organ:

After two minutes or so, the nose emerged from the house. He wore a gold-braided, brightly colored uniform, buckskin breeches, a three-cornered hat, and a saber. The plumes on his hat indicated the rank of a state councilor. From everything else it could be inferred that he was setting off on some sort of official visit. He looked left, then right, called out to the coachman to bring the carriage up to the very door, got in and was off.