I say, there are background assumptions that we operate with. I say, there are routines, there are moral sanctions that fade into the background. How does something “fade”? Here no doubt I could produce a story of use, or repetition, of the wearing away of novelty. Like the metaphors that become metaphysical concepts in one, materialist reduction of metaphysics, like the natural events that become Gods, in one early anthropological account of the gods, the everyday moral synthesis – say, operating on the binary naked/clothed to let us sort through the situations in which nakedness is allowed and the situations in which it is sanctioned – becomes a matter not of our election so much as of our imitation. It is the powerful weight of what other’s do that determines, for the most part, what we do. And how do the others decide? Well, we could tell a number of stories here.
This is the naïve sociological view. It is the view of, for instance, Hume, when he attributes to custom what he takes away from the metaphysical foundations of cause. And in fact we can find other customary treatments of cause, which would seem to lend some credence to Hume.
The problem with this story is that we can watch in our own lifetimes and see routines fade, and then intensify. We can, for instance, see that the binary of naked/clothed operates not just one unity upon the other, but each interpenetrates each. We measure, for instance, how much clothes show. We have a sense of what we are showing and what we aren’t. At the same time, we have a numbness or a sensitivity to what ornament negates the naked. A belly button ring, a tattoo are not on the side of the clothed – but aren’t on the side of the naked, either. A man or woman takes off a wedding ring and says, I feel naked, but they don’t quite mean completely unclothed.
And of course, the naked and the clothed are caught up in our collective erogenous zones. They are continually “coming alive” as differently disposed binaries, defined by different notions of modesty, for instance, different notions of officialness, different ways of looking at all the not quite paraphilia of the body, hair, fingernails, teeth. Within this semantic space – that in which the naked and the clothed operates – we find these potential differences that make us want to account for the different notions, want to give histories of what changes over time. Almost certainly, in the eighteenth century up to quite recently, the change from the naked to the clothed was interpreted as a clear progress. The biblical account of the fall, of course, implied that there was no clear progress in God’s eyes – there was a double meaning in the fact that Adam and Eve assumed clothing, since it was a reminder of sin, and it was a necessary condition for the social.
These then are the codes. These then are the breaks. And then there is a system of myth in which the need to explain the naked/clothed binary seemed missing. Or at least different.
In Peacock’s Crotchet Castle (1823), Mr. Crotchet, the Scots/Jewish businessman who, in his retirement, has provided himself with a big house and the enlightened company of people with all kinds of views –– reads in the paper that there was “an order that
no plaster-of-Paris Venus should appear in the streets without petticoats.”
“Mr. Crotchet, on reading this order in the eveningpaper, which, by the postman's early arrival, was always laid onhis breakfast-table, determined to fill his house with Venuses of all sizes and kinds. In pursuance of this resolution, came packages by water-carriage, containing an infinite variety of Venuses. There were the Medicean Venus, and the Bathing Venus; the Uranian Venus, and the Pandemian Venus; the Crouching Venus, and
the Sleeping Venus; the Venus rising from the sea, the Venus with the apple of Paris, and the Venus with the armour of Mars.” In the course of the book, the vicar, the Reverend Doctor Folliott, who is usually seen praising and quoting the Greeks to his baffled companions, is “much astonished at this unexpected display. Disposed, as he was, to hold, that whatever had been in Greece, was right; he was more than doubtful of the propriety of throwing open the classical adytum to the illiterate profane.” In consequence, the two engage in one of Peacock’s whimsical dialogues, in the course of which Crotchet, who is less classically educated than an old fashioned, eighteenth century type, tells the vicar the following:
“MR. CROTCHET. Sir, the Lacedaemonian virgins wrestled naked with
young men; and they grew up, as the wise Lycurgus had foreseen,
into the most modest of women, and the most exemplary of wives and
REV. DR. FOLLIOTT. Very likely, sir; but the Athenian virgins did
no such thing, and they grew up into wives who stayed at home--
stayed at home, sir; and looked after their husbands' dinner--his
dinner, sir, you will please to observe.
MR. CROTCHET. And what was the consequence of that, sir? that they
were such very insipid persons that the husband would not go home
to eat his dinner, but preferred the company of some Aspasia, or
After Folliott’s objection, Crotchet goes so far as to blast modern cant:
“MR. CROTCHET. Well, sir, that was not the taste of the Athenians.
They preferred the society of women who would not have made any
scruple about sitting as models to Praxiteles; as you know, sir,
very modest women in Italy did to Canova; one of whom, an Italian
countess, being asked by an English lady, "how she could bear it?"
answered, "Very well; there was a good fire in the room."
REV. DR. FOLLIOTT. Sir, the English lady should have asked how the
Italian lady's husband could bear it. The phials of my wrath would
overflow if poor dear Mrs. Folliott -: sir, in return for your
story, I will tell you a story of my ancestor, Gilbert Folliott.
The devil haunted him, as he did Saint Francis, in the likeness of
a beautiful damsel; but all he could get from the exemplary Gilbert
was an admonition to wear a stomacher and longer petticoats.”
Mr. Crotchett, however, holds to his wrestling Lacedaemonian virgins
In 1823, however, this was definitely the losing side.
But in 1799?
“For David, the nude signified art because it signified antiquity. In his "Note on the Nudity of My Heroes," the painter described the nude as a greater artistic achievement than the clothed figure and offered a classical pedigree for the ideal form. He explicitly stated that his goal was to paint a work that the Greeks and Romans would not have found foreign to their customs. Significantly, the artist presumed that authenticity, even transparency, to the classical world would be valued in modern France. To speak to the ancients was to speak to Frenchmen, but the signs of that veracity (male nudity) required an exegesis, even a defense, ap- pended to the brochure that addressed his fellow country- men. David's goal, that the ancients would not find his painting foreign to their customs, admitted the possibility of disparate cultural boundaries, but his unexamined assump- tion that Frenchmen would respect and understand the language of the ancients refused to acknowledge such funda- mental difference. The painter's profound faith in the socio- political efficacy and relevance of classicism could not fully control the paradox between universalist and relativist models of culture. David would never know whether the ancients found his tableau foreign to their customs, but he certainly discovered that many of his countrymen considered it alien to their own.”