No sooner did I post the blog with the photo of a galaxy in it, which looked to me like an eye (I think the name of the galaxy is “helix” and it came from the National Geographic website through a friend), than another friend advised me that I’d just posted a possible goatse. To get the real name, add an x, but not when you google or you might be inviting a hacker. If you’re bold and daring, you could try this link, it’s long but one link:
In the Seventies we knew this figure pretty well, especially radical feminists, who called it by the Irish name: Sheela na gig -- a woman holding open an immense vulva that was often a carved figure attached to the eaves and doorways of stone buildings in Ireland (Wikipedia has an entry with examples), sometimes alongside gargoyles holding open their mouths while their tongues stick way out (a popular Hard Rock grimace) or sometimes the closely related “Green Man” who has vines and leaves growing out of his eyes and mouth. They’re all supposed to have something to do with fertility, prosperity, and protective luck. (The episode of “Midsomer Murders” I watched last night was about “the green man.” A crazed tramp who lived in the forest with a fox.) They are related to goblins, leprechauns, and fools. They are meant to shock -- to be outside propriety, childlike. The gollum in The Hobbit is related. Probably so is the Blackfeet Napi and his extra-long “lariat,” the euphemism the anthropologists gave his penis.
Puritans destroyed all the figures like this that they could find, but over a hundred sheela na gigs remain in Ireland and close to fifty in England. In the Seventies those rascally and defiant feminists made them out of papier maché or ceramic and wore them as medallions. Once I rode a crowded bus where a very big woman wearing hers was pressed frontally against a terrified-looking smaller man facing her. If I had one, I’d send it to Rush Limbaugh.
The human orifices as windows stand for the mysteries within -- our hearts, our brains, our sex. In the Buddhist tradition there is a story about the child-Buddha opening his mouth for his mother to look in. What she saw was the infinite galaxies of the universe, which beats Walt Whitman’s boast of containing -- how many? Only thousands? So the best of these goatse’s show the ordinary mundane human in-and-out lips, while what’s seen through the opening portrays the Infinite and Mysterious.
A sub-genre is that of the horrified reaction of those who hadn’t realized such a figure exists. The idea is to surprise someone with the image and capture an image of their shocked faces. There’s another sub-genre that shows two hands on the sides of anything vaguely round but entirely innocent, like half a cantalope.
There are ancient Greek and Roman portrayals of fauns -- half-goat, half-human -- that are endowed with enormous penises, the reciprocal of the enormous vulvas which might instead be anuses. Thus the beginning of this trope as goat sex. The human drive for survival always means portrayals of sex so there will be plenty of children, but the great irony is that too many children might mean overpopulation that destroys the whole planet. We’re at the point of destroying many species now and have already threatened more. That’s pretty shocking if you think about it. Those who enforce censorship don’t want you to think about it, so they taboo the sheela na gigs, especially the anal ones which might or might not refer to a Sheila.
But many people are feeling the shock of a revelation more devastating than the plug-in facts of procreation. Facing the infinity that our little rockets and satellites have barely touched has made us realize how small we are, how helpless, how truly unknowing. So recently we had thought we were “some punkins” -- now we’re just collapsed Jack o’Lanterns held open by two hands, our little lights gone out. It’s not the flesh eyelids or labia or sphincters that alarm us but rather what we can see through their held-open apertures.
People wonder what a divinity school education teaches. Not all of them teach their students how to look through the human to the infinite. Not all the students are capable of maintaining their “gaze” as the French theorists might term it. But I think this is what the post-conventional thinkers are trying to get at -- this penetration through the familiar round sky into the transcendent and the ability to withstand that image. As Calvin remarks to Hobbs while they stand under a sky crammed with stars, “Let’s go back in the house. It’s scary out here.” Almost no ministers will pass on this educated eye to their congregations because of the prudery of the culture.
I’d like to see a goatse that portrays someone holding open the doors of a church so that inside one can see the Transcendent, which -- when it arises up through the ordinary sensory world of the surface of this planet -- is called “Immanent”. Or maybe “Emergent”, because the idea is not only to let the eye penetrate in, but also to let the newly created entity come out into our world that seems so ordinary but is so vulnerable to transformation. For a Christian, of course, the ultimate goatse is the Christmas birth.
These figures seem to be mostly northern European, the underlying Celtic and forest-dwelling metaphors of older times than the Pope’s empire. But sexual and excremental ideas are mostly suppressed in America, so maybe I just don’t know about them. My education is not complete: in fact, it is mostly a hunting license for thinking. No ultimates, no commandments -- though a person might find various versions of them.
Like any symbols, some will be accidental: an advertisement for luggage held open by two hands; or transgressive, Kermit the frog in action; or reversals, a girl taking a photo back atcha; real goats, looking innocent; a computer security company offering to fix “holes”; hurricanes and gaps in clouds held open by giant hands. It turns out that what’s in George Bush’s mouth is unremarkable. It used to be that in Portland the potters and confectioners turned out lots of ceramic and cookie versions. What happened to all that exuberance, that radical belligerence, that willingness to think the unthinkable? It’s still there. You just have to look for it. Maybe hold something open.