Camel Seduction

Seduction is a funny thing.  If you look up the etymology it will say something about the Latin se-ducere, where ducere is a nice, simple infinitive for the verb “to lead.”  That se-, though, is another matter.  Usually it is described as being equivalent to sed and as a prefix is attached to a word with some meaning like “away from,” or “outside.”

Using that as your basis, you get the nice clear idea that seduction is the act of leading someone away from something.  Their duty, perhaps, or maybe their spouse.

But, as I said, seduction is a funny thing.  And so is that Latin se-.  There is another use of those two letters in Latin: as a reflexive pronoun meaning “oneself.”  The very best kind of seduction, you see, is not when someone leads you away to do something.  It is much more clever and skillful if you are magically made to do the leading away yourself.

Which, of course, is a completely valid alternative reading of the Latin: se-ducere, to lead oneself.

All of which is a very long introduction to the story of how I was seduced by a camel.

Now, don’t panic.  This is not one of those stories.  (Although I wouldn’t try to tell it in a bar.  That bald introductory statement alone would probably get me thrown out.)

How to begin?  I suppose you could say that it all started with the Dutch ambassador.

You see, once upon a time, right after the Second World War, Holland appointed a man named Robert van Gulik as their ambassador to Japan.  An avid Chinese lute player, he was also a book and manuscript collector.  With all this and his ambassadorial duties, he still found himself a bit bored.  So he began to write a series of mystery novels set in the China of the Tang Dynasty, using a real historical figure, Judge Dee, as his detective.  Just for the exercise, he wrote them in English (!).

While I was in high school, I discovered these books in my local library.  I was immediately hooked (seduced?).  Direct and easy to read, they were written in the simple style of Chinese popular stories.  They threw one into a wondrously alien world of rigid Confucian social hierarchies, Daoist mysticism, and a draconian legal system where the Judge became something of a combination detective, prosecutor, and magistrate, all rolled into one.

Beyond a few visits to San Francisco’s Chinatown and a lot of Charlie Chan movies, my knowledge of China was just about nil.  Since China was Red China, all of its complexities and history were washed out in the American popular view.  Chinese Reds were communist, which made them essentially the same as Russia.  Period.

Reading some mysteries written by a Dutchman didn’t educate me about China, but it did give me a slight itch to learn more.  I say slight because I did absolutely nothing about it until I happened upon a book about Chinese art while I was in college.  Most any distraction from studying Physics (my major) being a good one, I took it home and began to discover (and be seduced by) the other-world beauty of Shang Dynasty bronzes.

How do I tell you about them?

For something like a millennium and a half, ending before the birth of Christ, Chinese metal workers had been casting bronze ritual items in odd shapes that were covered with incredibly complex designs of arcane abstract features and mystical writhing animals.  The sheer mastery of technique was as breathtaking as the layers of imagery were bewildering.

Three-legged, four-legged, no-legged.  Fat and slender.  Deeply incised or raised and polished.  Angular and sharp-edged or smooth and sensuous.  Darned near every variation you can imagine was there, visibly (even to this ignorant observer) embraced in a single multilayered spiritual milieu.

Pictures are great, of course, and I found these fascinating.  But to experience something brand new, especially something alien, you want more than just pictures.  I wanted to see the real things.  Right there, in front of me.

Lo and behold!  I looked at the picture credits in the books and a whole lot of them were listed as being from the Avery Brundage Collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

San Francisco.  As in that lovely city about sixty miles away from where I was at that very moment!  What serendipity!

Or was it?  At this point, I got a little nervous.  Here I was, half-enamored with a new love, whom I had only seen in pictures.  It might have been courting disappointment to go see the real thing.  Too often, I’m afraid, the reality fails to live up to the portrait.  Something you saw in a book turns out to be some tiny, miscolored thing.  Not at all what you imagined it would be.

So, with that mixed won’t-this-be-wonderful-don’t-get-your-hopes-up feeling, I hopped into the car and drove up there the next weekend.

At the time, the Asian Art Museum was in Golden Gate Park (at this moment it is in the process of moving to its new digs in the Civic Center Complex).  As I drove up they had a sign that said a whole wing was dedicated to the Avery Brundage Collection.  Well, at least they thought the Collection was wonderful.

And it was.

As you will have guessed by now, what I found was stunning.  It was so much better than I could possibly have hoped that I have had a consuming love for Chinese bronzes ever since.  In fact, in all those years since, I have never known an artistic experience quite like that first one.

First of all, there was the richness of it.  The exhibit had over three hundred priceless pieces on display.  It was beautifully laid out in chronological order so you could see the progression both of the technical aspects of the casting and of the artistic styles.  The cases allowed you to see all sides of each piece, with some having mirrors to show you the bottom or the insides.  Each had a neat little type-written card that told you what special features to look for.  By the end of it you really felt you could look at one of the bronzes and place it in time and in technology.

But all that wasn’t what I was going to talk about.

While I was there it occurred to me to have a look at the rest of the collection.  A little learning, they say, is a dangerous thing.  I had read a little on Chinese bronzes.  The rest of Chinese art I  approached with that special objectivity carried by complete ignorance.

I walked through several rooms of scrolls and ceramics with no particular excitement.  After all, I had seen those bronzes.  What could possibly move me after that?

Then I saw a room that said it had Tang Funerary Pieces.  While funerary pieces hardly sound like they will be a riot of fun, that word “Tang” set off a faint bell.  Now where had I heard that before?

I suddenly remembered van Gulik and his Judge Dee books.

Ah, yes.  The Tang Dynasty.  What did I remember about it?  Supposed to be the last dynasty that was confident and cosmopolitan and open to outside ideas.  Hmmm.  Chinese open to outside ideas.  Sounds like a contradiction in terms.

I suppose you can tell a lot about people from their funerary rites.  That was certainly true of the Tang.  Instead of gloom, I found rooms full of brightly colored ceramics with three colored glazes that had been splashed on with gay abandon.  There were figures of musicians that looked like they were genuinely having a good time.  There were grotesque monsters with terrific idiot grins.

Whatever else these people had been, they clearly were in love with life.  Good folks to invite to a party.

They I saw the camel.

It was ceramic and big, maybe four feet tall.  It, too, was wildly splashed with those green/yellow/caramel glazes.  But it wasn’t that.

It was the face.

Have you ever known a camel?  They are arrogant, nasty, noisy animals who will either bite you or spit on you to put you in your place.  They smell and they have a gait that only a truly desperate person would put up with.  When they are not doing something rude to you they like to bitch and complain.

And that was exactly what you saw in this camel’s face.  The artist had given the camel a mouth so wide you could almost hear him bray.  He looked crotchety and demanding and showed every bad quality the breed is known for.

But he was so much more than that.  The artist had also given him a tremendous, almost grinning, in-your-face flavor to his grimace.  What you could see was that this beast knew exactly what he was like.  He knew every particle of his own impossible character.

And he loved it.  That blasted animal was clearly reveling in his own insufferability.

I was seduced…instantly.  Maybe that camel took me and maybe I seduced myself, but the effect was immediate, complete, and permanent.

I can’t tell you how long I stared at that stupid, incredible beast.  I walked around it to see it from all sides.  I knelt down and looked at it eye to eye.  Being an obedient child, I didn’t actually touch it, but the temptation was almost overwhelming.

What more can I say?  It was a magical moment.  I have since seen other Tang camels and many have that same marvelous quality.  I still love each one and have learned to love other Chinese art because of them.  But especially and emphatically I still love the Tang Dynasty.

I look at those people and I am lost in wonder.  Anyone who could invest such spectacular joie-de-vivre into a gosh-darned camel and then use it to decorate their tombs knew more about life than I have ever learned.

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