Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Naked Truth

So here's the deal. I try to post on my blog once a month at the very least. I shoot for twice, or three times (a lady?) where possible, but once a month is my lower limit. Unfortunately, this past month has been crazy busy for me as the majority of my writing brain has been dedicated to working on my thesis. Which I'm stoked about because it's awesome. But that leaves not much writing energy left for me to stand up on my soap box here at Yo Mama Llama, thus my lack of a post yet this month. It's been nagging at me, so tonight (in taking a break from revising the thesis) I've decided to post an essay that I wrote for my creative writing class last semester. I never really polished it so take it for what it is. It's about clothes and nakedness, but it's not scandalous so don't worry.

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” – Mark Twain

On Wednesday I wore a pair of dry-clean only brown slacks, a tan button-down shirt with a brown and blue paisley bow tie, and a pair of two-tone brown oxford shoes with my distressed leather messenger bag slung over my shoulder. I taught my freshman composition class, and then immediately afterward, while my grad student, faux-professorial juices were still flowing, I walked the halls of the humanities building for 25 minutes at a purposefully brisk rate,  counting how many professor types greeted me warmly and how many ignored me. 22 greetings, 3 ignores. The next day, Thursday, I wore a pair of faded blue jeans, a camo-green t shirt imprinted in black with the image of Charles Mingus and the stem of his upright bass, a pair of canvas sneakers and I had my red Camelbak backpack strapped to my back – complete with the chest strap buckled – and I walked the same halls for 25 minutes. 5 greetings, 14 ignores.

I’m gonna be honest here for a second and admit that I don’t really understand what Twain is saying in the epigraph I included here. It seemed like an appropriate quote for where I’m going with this, so I just went with it anyway. See, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes and how we are treated differently depending on what we’re wearing. The genesis here is that I’ve noticed that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – days during which I teach my freshman composition class and on which I dress in slacks and button-down shirts with a tie or a sport coat or a cardigan or vest of some sort – professors that I don’t know, from disciplines I’ve never studied, nod to me congenially and say hello, welcoming me to their hallways as one of their own. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I’m t shirt-and-jeaning it up, these same professors will glance at me, and then with supreme indifference ignore my presence entirely. So it would seem that, as Twain says to start off his quote, clothes may in fact make the man. 

But let’s take a minute here to consider that second half about naked people having little or no influence in society. See, it doesn’t sit well with me. I realize that, it being Mark Twain, he’s likely just shooting for sarcasm and wit, but all the same, embedded in Twain’s wit are often found nuggets of social commentary and keen observations of the world, even when he’s at his most sardonic. So is he saying that we ignore naked people? Maybe he’s saying that we don’t see naked people as having any real power to effect change? I don’t know really, but looking at each of those possible explanations of what Twain might mean makes me less inclined believe any of them.First off there’s the idea that we ignore naked people. That’s just plain not true. When was the last time you saw a naked person walking down the street? Now unless you are from or frequent the Portland area (which is somewhat renowned for embracing and celebrating the nakedness of mankind, such an occurrence is likely burned forever in your mind, and it would require the magickiest of erasers to scrub it away. I remember distinctly as a teenager hearing on the news that a woman somewhere up north of Salt Lake was charged by the police with lewd and indecent behavior for taking care of her lawn and garden in a rather skimpy bikini. There was much debate as to whether or not such a charge was warranted because 1) she was on her own private property and 2) she wasn’t naked, but rather in a swimming suit, skimpy though it may have been. I bring this up not to advocate one side or the other of this issue, but rather to show that we don’t even ignore nearly naked people, let alone those who are out and about flashing their *ahem* selves about town. So no, I don’t think we do ignore naked people.

Next let’s consider the proposition that naked people have no power to effect change in the world. This idea is a bit more complex. While I think we can say that if a government official were to stand before Congress naked while trying to get some point across, he would definitely be noticed (as we just established), but he would likely be ineffective in getting his point across due to his being forcibly removed from out of the chamber. Interestingly, though showing off the spectacle of his own skin would be well outside the bounds of propriety, if that congressman were to use pictures of naked people, preferably from poverty-stricken parts of the world, those images, as long as they’re not perceived as overly manipulative, would likely prove a boost to his argument, a boost that pictures clothed individuals could only dream of.  We’ve all seen those issues of National Geographic (a magazine that a friend of mine once called “the poor man’s Playboy”) that seem to be chock full of naked people living in jungles across the world. There’s a reason photographers take those pictures and editors choose to include them in their articles. Those images make the readers feel something. And when readers feel something they’re more likely to go out and do something as a result of what they feel. So maybe naked people themselves can’t effect change, per se, but clothed people can use naked people to effect change, and that’s kind of the same thing.

Either way, with each of these considerations it’s clear that naked people do in fact have some influence on society. So why would Mark Twain say what he did? I mean, he was a smart guy, right? Wouldn’t he have seen the holes in his own argument? This is a question that bothers me, so I decided to look into it a little bit further. From what I’ve found, I have to say that I’m not totally sure that Mark Twain actually said what I’ve attributed to him. From what I’ve found, the earliest instance of the quote above being attributed to Twain comes from Merle Johnson’s More Maxims of Mark published in 1927, 17 years after Twain’s death. Johnson wrote a careful bibliography of Mark Twain’s works and published it the year Twain died, but no where can I find documented proof in any of his letters notebooks or published works that Twain said the words, “Clothes make the man, naked people have little or no influence on society.” That said, he is documented as having said other things similar in their content to the quote in question. The closest I’ve found is a quote that comes from one of Mark Twain’s notebooks and was published by Twain’s biographer Albert B. Paine in the book Mark Twain’s Notebook. It reads, “Strip the human race, absolutely naked, and it would be a real democracy. But the introduction of even a rag of tiger skin, or a cowtail, could make a badge of distinction and be the beginning of a monarchy.” That hits on the “clothes make the man” bit, but not really the idea of the influence of naked people. Now that I’m finding that Mark Twain didn’t actually write the epigraph around which I’ve framed this whole essay, I’m starting to feel a little silly. It’s fun to argue with Mark Twain, but arguing with some nameless, faceless individual who was never of any consequence in the world just seems like a waste of time.

Then again, you could look at the situation and say that someone somewhere along the way decided that they had a cool turn of phrase about clothes and naked people and decided that in order for it to really gain traction among the populace they needed to clothe said phrase with Mark Twain’s name, thereby lending the phrase credibility that the originator’s own name couldn’t offer. So in that sense, the phrase, stripped naked, had no influence, but when clothed it did have influence in society, to the extent that I’m writing about it here today.

In talking about clothes and nakedness in the abstract I realize that I’ve been sitting here in my own clothes hypothesizing about these things, but there’s no authority like lived experience. So maybe what I really need to do now is strip down till I’m nekkers, as my Mark Twain-contemporary ancestors might have said, and go for a jaunt around the humanities building to see what kinds of reactions I stir among the professor types then. My guess is that there would be far fewer ignores. 

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