Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Christ's middle finger

Back in graduate school, I took a three-hour philosophy seminar on Wednesday afternoons one semester. There was always a break after two hours or so, and one afternoon, my friend David and I went to the bathroom. We stood next to each other at the urinals, and then David said, "Look up." I looked up. And he said, "Now you're pissing on your shoes." I looked down. I wasn't pissing on my shoes. I turned to David, and he pointed at the wall, where someone had written "Look up" with an arrow pointing up, and up there it said the bit about the shoes.

I would probably have forgotten the whole thing, but soon after (and I like to think it was the next day), David and I sat next to each other at a lecture on Ulysses, in the middle of which the lecturer referred to the scene in which Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom step out into the night to take a pee. When the lecturer mentioned how they both looked up at the stars, David leaned over to me and said, "Now they're pissing on their shoes." We struggled to contain ourselves, and after the lecture and the Q&A, we explained to the lecturer why we had been choking back laughter during his talk. He said that he would probably never read the passage the same way again!

A few weeks ago, then, I went to the Kunstmuseum in Basel with a visiting friend, and I showed him Holbein's Christ, one of the major paintings here:
I had seen the painting quite a few times (I often show it to visitors to Basel), but I had never noticed Christ's middle finger before: look closely, yes, he is giving you the finger.

Just as that lecturer can't read the passage of Ulysses anymore without thinking of "pissing on their shoes," I will never be able to look at this painting again without a pleasant anachronistic chuckle.


Michael Listening said...

Jesus does not wear any shoes, too. Maybe his father needed him to be ready to 'look up' and have a little talk all the time. Because, you know, "evil is alive and well"..

Donald Brown said...

The only problem with the piss on shoes analogy in Ulysses is that Stephen and Bloom are not pissing downward into urinals; Joyce has already described the different arcs of their piss as they flow outward. Also, Bloom and Stephen look up at the stars when they emerge from Bloom's kitchen (recalling your man Virgil and Dante emerging at the end of the "Inferno"); when they're pissing, Bloom directs Stephen's attention up to his bedroom window, lighted by Molly's lamp.