Worse still, as a youngster, I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable: knock on our door and you would fine a handsome women, wearing her red plaid flannel work shirt atop a pair of well-worn jeans, a pencil behind her ear, and the remains of paint and printers ink lodged under her nails. If that wasn’t enough! Just consider what was, perhaps, my most embarrassing moment, when I brought a school friend home for lunch, only to find my mother “cooking” her etchings on the kitchen stove.
I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable.Â
Given my mother’s interest in art, one can understand why, as children, we spent a lot of time in museums, as well as browsing through the numerous art books that my mother collected. Whereas most parents spend a lot of time reading to their children, my mother spent much of our quality time sharing her thoughts about paintings and art.
One of these paintings is still vivid in my mind–The World Turned Upside Down, painted by the Dutch Master Jan Steen sometime around 1669. Relating it to my own family life, and envisioning my world falling apart, I was horrified by it, so much so that the painting is still engraved in my memory. Of course, I now know thatÂ I needn’t have worried. As with most of Steen’s works, this painting not only characterized daily life in Holland; as importantly, it employed humor and allusions to proverbs, symbols, and myths so as to depict a moral parable. In fact, this particular painting became a trope in Dutch life, as burgers came to describe aÂ lively, untidy home–such as the one I had been raised in–as a “Jan Steen Household.” Â Still very young at the time, I was too innocent to appreciate the duality in Steen’s painting: I saw the chaos, but I failed to see the spirited activities that gave rise to it.Revived during times of trial, this schematic of the world teetering on the edge of chaos has endured for centuries. Not surprisingly, it accompanied the revolutionary era, appearing first in England and then in the United States. (See Chris Hill, The World Turned Upside Down; radial ideas during the english revolution, Penguin Books 1991.) In 1643, for example, a broadside first published the English ballad The World Turned Upside Down, whereafter it was sung as a protest against Parliamentary policies, which sought to outlaw traditional Christmas Celebrations. Rumor has it, moreover, that American troops also played this tune during the American Revolution, when General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781. Most recently, the author/journalist Melanie Phillips has borrowed on this theme, attributing todays absurdities–such as climate change, the war in Iraq, fraud, bank failures, etc.–to a world run amok. According to her, science has been overturned by ideology.
Having become far more cosmopolitan over the years, I can now see the world in complex terms. What to earlier generations was considered a world upside down, now looks to me like a phase transition. Fortunately, for me, growing up in a bohemian household has helped me to deal with ambiguity, such as is depicted in the paintings and tropes I have mentioned. Better still–although there is no paint or printers ink under my nails–the way of life I learned from my mother has prepared me to follow in her footsteps, and enjoy complexity to the fullest.