Monday, 20 January 2020

Harlequin’s tunic of patches

Harlequin’s tunic of patches

This is a note on something which interested or agitated me some 30 years ago, and which I have something worth posting, even if I never got to where I wanted to get to with it.
The website of theWeltmuseum Wien discusses one of their holdings, a hirqa:

>>In the twenty-first century a Sufi wears completely normal daily clothing and is, therefore, not externally distinguishable from his surroundings. Once upon a time, an individual who wanted to lead the life of a mystic and had renounced the world donned a robe of rough wool and was identified as a Sufi, derived from the Arabic word for wool, ṣūf. Admission into a brotherhood took place by means of a particular ceremony, at the end of which the novice was dressed in the clothing of a dervish, the hirqa; these are differentiated by colour and style from brotherhood to brotherhood. Often this garment was stitched together out of numerous patches. And it is also related that such patched robes were preferably sewn out of rags that the Sufis had torn out of their garments in ecstasy. The tattered clothing of the Sufis expresses poverty. Yet it is somehow also reminiscent of the colourful costume of a harlequin, with his vivid lozenge-shaped stripes. It seems as if the rambling fool of God in the Commedia dell'arte had slipped into the role of the half-clownish, half-demonic prankster, in order to expose the structures and mechanisms of society, attracting ridicule and disdain upon himself. Spirituality and humour are not mutually exclusive. Both can be understood as effective attempts to reveal the complex and paradox situations of which real life is so full. <<

Everyone agrees that the harlequin costume is a stylised version of a robe of patches, evidently deriving from clothes which have disintegrated, and that this is the start even though actual stage costumes were robust, specially made and not at all likely to fall apart in mid-performance. The interesting question is whether the harlequin costume was directly borrowed from Islam, referring to the Eastern links of Venice and Genoa and of course to the Ottoman culture, bringing the East right to the borders or shores of Italy. The Viennese ethnographic museum does not make this claim, and the likely extent of borrowing is the costume; dervishes might dance, but they were not stage figures and did not “become” Harlequin.

More light is shed on this by Geo Widengren, Harlekintracht und Monchskütte. Clownhut and Derwischmütze(1953; in: Orientalia Suecana). In this cross-cultural essay, the Swedish scholar records a Syrian book on saints’ lives which records religious rebels going around the country wearing clothes of rags. The book was by John of Ephesus and was written around 550 AD. It is in Syriac. It seems likely that this practice inspired the Sufis. I don’t have detailed references on radical Christian groups in the Near East which would be closer in time to Sufism. It seems likely that this practice inspired the Sufis, at least if it was continued over later centuries. I don’t have detailed references on radical Christian groups in the Near East which would be closer in time to Sufism.;“It is likely that Sufiism, as it developed from the ninth century onwards, itself owed much to certain Christian mystical sects in the East.”- Norman O. Cohn.robe of patches is a convenient garb which refers back to the “rags” without actually being rags. Widengren clouds the picture by describing a robe of rags called a centunculus worn by mimunculi, a kind of stage performer of the (early Byzantine) time. The Syrian ascetic was certainly referring back to this familiar figure and was in fact going round the villages preaching while dressed as a clown. Saint Afrem, the most revered figure of the Syrian Church, is recorded as having a worn a “coat of many colours”, made of rags, and acted like a madman in pursuit of humility. (known as Ephraim the Syrian in English texts)

At the time, I wanted to associate Widengren with a story from Central Asia, that shamans would wear a robe inherited from a deceased teacher, so that they would go around in several layers of old and worn clothes, looking like a patchwork. This was probably irrelevant.The holy vagrants whom John of Ephesus describes were a girl dressed as a prostitute and a young man dressed as a clown. That is, they were hippies. Widengren couldn't know this in 1953, but that kind of dropping out, idealism, setting aside of social codes on dress and display, etc., was going to become very big after 1965. As he pointed out, wearing these clothes was a form of asceticism, making yourself ridiculous and abandoning prestige were acts resembling going without food or sleep. He describes the regulations of the wandering monks of Syria, limiting their consumption and requiring them to wear contemptible clothes. This is at a date considerably before the invention of friars in Europe. They were not allowed a home, slept by preference in barns or sheepcotes, etc. They deliberately feigned ignorance and stupidity in order to avoid the honour and respect afforded by other humans to someone who speaks wisely and in an educated way. They became closer to clowns, and so the adoption of clowns’ dress was consistent and not crazy.

Widengren rejects an earlier view by which the mimunculi directly passed on their distinctive stage costume to the harlequins. This view relies on a thousand-year gap during which no evidence has been preserved. (He quotes Sacheverell Sitwell rejecting this theory of continuity.) However, at p.109 he quotes Bieber’s history of Greek and Roman theatre approvingly, suggesting that learned men were also involved in theatre, and could have re-created the centunculus working from Latin texts like Apuleius, and that this could have been copied by the popular theatre and also Commedia dell’Arte. He does not, in the end, say that the diamond tatters of Harlequin are borrowed from the Sufis. I do not know of a serious writer describing how this could have come about. In contrast, he seems quite interested in how the original of the “mesnie Hellequin” could have been processions of young men impersonating Odin’s Wild Hunt, appearing especially on Shrove Tuesday (Fastnacht), and evolving through ribaldry into pure comedy, in which beatings and theft are simply elements of farce.
Widengren’s paper is now available on the internet, a bootleg I suppose, but this is actually one of the most interesting academic papers ever published. His interest in Dumezil’s theories seems to have led him astray, the pursuit of dumezilian patterns in his paper takes him far away from the main idea and is not convincing in the end.
At the time, I wanted to associate the “ragged coat” idea with a story from Central Asia, that shamans would wear a robe inherited from a deceased teacher, so that they would go around in several layers of old and worn clothes, looking like a patchwork. This was probably irrelevant.
When I was a student, I read that Ephraim the Syrian had invented rhyme. I was very excited by this. My attempts to find out about Eastern Christianity in the college library were not very energetic. However, sources I stumbled on more recently state convincingly that this is not the case. Hebrew songs called piyyut are earlier and anyway his hymns don’t rhyme with any consistency. Wikipedia:
>>Rhyme became a permanent - even obligatory - feature of poetry in Hebrew language, around the 4th century CE. It is found in the Jewish liturgical poetry written in the Byzantine empire era. This was realized by scholars only recently, thanks to the thousands of piyyuts that have been discovered in the Cairo Geniza. It is assumed that the principle of rhyme was transferred from Hebrew liturgical poetry to the poetry of the Syriac Christianity (written in Aramaic), and through this mediation introduced into Latin poetry and then into all other languages of Europe.<<
Most of my favourite facts when I was an undergraduate weren’t actually facts.

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