Monday, June 14, 2004

400. Integumentary Systems

"The arming of a man began at the feet and as far as possible each piece subsequently put on overlapped that beneath it. The arming of a man, therefore, was carried out in the following order; sollerets or sabatons, jambs, knee-cops, cuisses, skirt of mail, gorget, breast and back plates, brassards, pauldrons, gauntlets and, finally, the helmet."

Just finished reading William Boyd's Armadillo, a very funny and very insightful book about the nature of identity, of disguise and of the conforming instinct, as well as much more besides. Characters lose and regain their names, are in turn fragile and secure, exposed and powerful. Milomre Blocj becomes Lorimer Black, who in turn shifts his appearance minutely from page to page. A collector of armour, he is at one point imprisoned in a £40,000 medieval helmet. At the hospital, it is sliced through as if it were stiff leather. At the book's close the text which surrounds this paragraph appears:

"Every living organism is seperated from its environment by a covering or integument, that delimits its body. It seems to me that the process of adding an extra integument is unique to our species and easily understandable - we all want extra protection for our soft and vulnerable bodies. But is it unique to our species? What other creature exhibits this same sense of precaution and seeks out this protective armour? Molluscs, barnacles, mussels, oysters, tortoises, hedgehogs, armadillos, porcupines, rhinos all grow their own. Only the hermit crab, as far as I can recall, searches for empty shells, of whelks or periwinkles, or indeed any other hollow object and crawls inside, to serve as shelter and protection of the body. Homo sapiens and Euparagus bernhardus - perhaps we are more closely related that we think. The hermit crab finds its suit of armour and keeps it on, but, as the crab grows, it periodically is obliged to leave its shell and travel the sandy undulations of the ocean floor, unprotected for a while, soft and vulnerable, until it finds a larger shell and crawls inside again."

There's lots of stuff on name-changing, which I find fascinating. I've gone through phases of hating my name (or rather, hating it's shortened versions) and have cycled through the alternatives; Jon, Jonny, Jonathan; for several years at secondary school I was Jo without an E, a name I no longer recognise if I hear it in the street (or rather, don't recognise it as my own). Having the luxury to make a decision in this sense is valuable, as valuable as putting on a piece of armour - an action which in turn can manifest itself in a posture, a pretence, a myth of our own making. Milomre Blocj, in Armadillo, adopts these poses because he wants his position in society, in life, to be secure and without humiliation. But there are problems.

"The armoured man had proved that his suit of tempered steel could withstand the most powerful weapons in use, but in so doing he had discovered that the increase in the heaviness of the metal in which he clad his body produced a weight that became burdonsome in the extreme and, finally, insupportable."

So I'm plain Jonathan now, and even when I pick the armour up I recognise that before long I'll outgrow it and have to find something else - or take my chances without - like the hermit crab.

Armadillo. 1577 [-sp. armadillo, dim of armado armed man, so lit. 'little armed man' :- L. armatus, pa. pple. of armare ARM v.]

No comments: