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On bananas, cucumbers, tomatos and piano legs: an aside

[ by Charles Cameron, h/t Mike Few — bananas, cucumbers, tomatos and piano legs as sexual objects, reading the world as a book, Iraq recently, Shakespeare a while back, Robert Hooke ]

Louis XV grand piano legs, hard maple. Image credit: http://www.balaams-ass.com/grandlegs.htm

MikeF in a comment on my post, Let me put my banana in your fruitbasket, pointed us to his Small Wars Journal article The Break Point: AQIZ Establishes the ISI in Zaganiayh, in which he reports that the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Iraq passed out propaganda pamphlets providing “instruction on the proper actions of good Muslims” in preparation for the establishment of an Islamic State of Iraq. One example of “proper actions” given was as follows:

One cannot eat tomatoes and cucumbers together because one is male and the other is female. This action is immoral. Failure to comply will result in death.

Think long and hard on that one!


By way of light relief:

Frederick Marryat‘s 1839 book A Diary in America, in which he describes (as his title stipulates) American, not British, customs, seems to be the source of the idea that the (British, the urban legend having undergone a transatlantic metamorphosis here) Victorians covered the Legs (think: ankles, see diagram above) of their pianos for modesty’s sake.

Marryat, a credulous fellow as Matthew Sweet describes him in his Inventing the Victorians (p. xiii.), may well have been being teased when told this tale by his American friends. In any case, he reported that in an American girl’s school he visited, the head mistress “to preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge” had “dressed all four limbs” of the school piano “in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!”

“Was this practice ever pursued, even in America?” Sweet asks sweetly, and answers himself: “Probably not.” And further, “whatever the case, the synecdochic relationship that now exists between Victorian sensibilities and the clothed piano leg is wholly fraudulent.”

Sweet is marvelous on this whole business, going on about it for pages. Most useful for my own purposes is his quotation from Richard Sennett‘s (1986) The Fall of Public Man, which argues:

that cultural change, leading to the covering of the piano legs, has its roots in the very notion that all phenomena speak, that human meanings are immanent in all phenomena.


And a tad more seriously…

Interestingly enough, that very notion is indeed to be found in Islam, where the Qur’an asserts that nature is to be read like a scripture. In the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr:

The Quran refers constantly to the world of nature as well as to the human order. The sky and the mountains, the trees and animals in a sense participate in the Islamic revelation, through which the sacred quality of the cosmos and the natural order is reaffirmed. The sacred scripture of Islam refers to the phenomena of nature as ayat (“signs” or “portents”), the same term used for its verses and the signs that appear within the soul of human beings according to the famous verse: “We shall show our portents (ayat) upon the horizons and within themselves, until it be manifest unto them that it is the Truth” (41:53). Natural phenomena are not only phenomena in the current understanding of the term. They are signs that reveal a meaning beyond themselves. Nature is a book whose ayat are to be read like the ayat of the Quran; in fact, they can only be read thanks to the latter, for only revelation can unveil for fallen man the inner meaning of the cosmic text. Certain Muslim thinkers have referred to the cosmos as the “Quran of creation” or the “cosmic Quran” (al-Qur’an al-takwini), whereas the Quran that is read every day by Muslims is called the “recorded Quran” (al-Qur’an al-tadwini). The cosmos is the primordial revelation whose message is still written on the face of every mountain and tree leaf and is reflected through the light that shines from the sun, the moon, and the stars. But as far as Muslims are concerned, this message can only be read by virtue of the message revealed by “the recorded Quran.”


This view is not solely an Islamic one: Duke Senior, exiled to the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare‘s As You Like It (Act II Scene 1) declares:

And this our life: exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

And if Shakespeare be considered too worldly a source, here is Hugh of St. Victor (twelfth century):

For this whole visible world is a book written by the finger of God, that is, created by divine power … But just as some illiterate man who sees an open book looks at the figures but does not recognize the letters: just so the foolish natural man who does not perceive the things of God outwardly in these visible creatures the appearances but does not inwardly understand the reason. But he who is spiritual and can judge all things, while he considers outwardly the beauty of the work inwardly conceives how marvellous is the wisdom of the Creator.

More recently and less theologically, the scientist Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703), friend of Robert Boyle and discoverer of Hooke’s Law, wrote that in the interests of science it was:

much to be wisht for and indeavored that there might be made and kept in some Repository as full and compleat a Collection of all varieties of Natural Bodies as could be obtain’d, where an Inquirer might be able to have recourse, where he might peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature, and observe the Orthography, Etymologia, Syntaxis, and Prosodia of Natures Grammar, and by which, as with a Dictionary, he might readily turn to and find the true Figures, Composition, Derivation, and Use of the Characters, Words, Phrases and Sentences of nature written with indelible, and most exact, and most expressive Letters, without which Books it will be very difficult to be thoroughly a Literatus in the Language and Sense of Nature.


All of which is to say that it may be unwise to read spiritual texts in too literal a manner.

4 Responses to “On bananas, cucumbers, tomatos and piano legs: an aside”

  1. MikeF Says:

    Of note, as some of my friends back in the Middle East are angry about this today, moderate Iraqis and Muslims  get frustrated by the Fundamentalists who read the Koran literally just as Christians get outraged by those who invoke cherry-picked Old Testament scriptures to support their political agendas.  In the Break Point, I compared al Qaida in Iraq to the snake-handling Pentecostals of Appalachia.  Today, Westborough Baptist Church would be a more apt comparison 

  2. MikeF Says:

    Also, and I brought this up to several leading experts in the field but it was dismissed at the time (perhaps now we can relook it), EVERY operative that I dealt with involved in making bombs, conducting suicide attacks, training others to do suicide attacks had strange sexual fetishes.  During tactical interrogation or sensitive site exploitation, we would often find evidence of bestiality, incest, rape, and pedophilia. 

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Mike,
    Ick. Though, that’s not the first time I have heard of this phenomenon. Disturbed and marginal personalities can gravitate to extremist movements, criminal organizations and terrorist groups. Ir used to be that the old school, Marxist, hierarchical insurgencies and terrorists weeded out the true nutcases for reasons of their own operational security but that began to fade with Baader-Meinhoff and is now passe with open-source movements and lone wolf self-radicalizing off of the internet.
    Even in the old days, the NKVD and SS/Nazi Party and organized crime attracted individuals who in apolitical contexts might have been serial killers, lacking a “legitimate” channel for their violent impulses. Here’s one example from the last category:

    Mad Sam DeStefano http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_sam_destefano
    The grisly narcocultas in Mexico that Dr. Bunker has been writing about may be a factor of the narco-war diminishing cartel quality control and a desire for an IO edge over the susperstitious, barrio/rural population from which gang members and recruits are drawn ( La Familia, Knights Templar)

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Again, Mike, you’re nudging me into a whole new post.
    Mark, I believe this piece on “natural killers” and the works by Marshall and Grossman to which it refers may be relevant as “background reading” here.

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