In the middle of Loren Eiseley’s essay “How Flowers Changed the World,” the freshman comp class snapped awake for a moment when a girl hit a startling assertion and uttered a pretty little scream.
“Flowers are sex organs?” she cried.
“What did you think they are?” I Socratically responded.
And then the girl ventured: “For decoration?”
The woman’s denim pants from South Korea are purses for an invisible currency. Their decorated pockets hold nothing but an object of imaginative speculation. Playfully, they deploy optical illusion to shape an idea of the body they coyly hide.
Playfully, too, they are labeled with nonsense words and an anachronistic image from a symbol system which still retains prestige in its provincial borderlands.
H. M. Regiment of Royal Korean Cowgirls.
The beggar is holding a sign which we can’t read at that angle.
“Beggar’s dog – Hoboken,” ca. 1910-1915
Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection
But we can be sure what it must say. Advancing on our sympathy behind the shield of his sign, the beggar is notionally selling pencils and shoelaces: things everybody needs, things with a value in any economic system. But in the trade zone behind the sign, what is transacted is only an exchange of money from one pocket to another. Except for that transfer, everything in this image is decoration. The beggar’s pencils are no more for writing with than a hedge funder’s bling watch is for telling time.
Making it playful, the beggar has alienated his tin cup from the transaction by hanging it around his dog’s neck. Accustomed to seeing pictures by the rules of narrative convention, we think of the dog as smiling. The dog is also wrapped in something gauzy. It may be something like a woman’s shawl; it may be a completely threadbare blanket. Presumably it is worn against the cold, but we are going to read it too as part of the game. Coming closer and closer to the outline of the dog’s body, it playfully beckons the decorative twists of the iron bars behind it into what might look like the final shape of a life.
That gauze, those iron helices, that dozing bald man, have become part of a pattern they can no longer outlive.