Our recent reflections on the La Fonda bar stool by Charles and Ray Eames, and also our recent reflections on Goethe’s Donkey, Goethe’s chair “just high enough that one can sit half-standing”, got us very naturally thinking a lot about stools of all types, the various and varied places one meets stools, the various and varied manners via which stools interact with and contribute to our daily lives, the (hi)story and development of the stool, in particular in context of the (hi)stories and developments of global societies; and also the cultural and social relevance of the stool, and the stool figurative, the stool metaphoric……
The stool is, inarguably, the oldest man-made sitting solution; early proto-stools being, one presumes, we weren’t there, but we presume, naturally occurring, sightly raised, objects such as, for example, a rock or a fallen tree or a diplodocus thigh bone, if one will Pre-Surrealist seating solutions, before an anonymous human, in some unrecorded century past, not only considered the possibility of joining lengths of wood together to create a raised sitting platform, but actually did.
And that, one presumes, in more than one location, more or less simultaneously: for the global ubiquity of the stool makes it, we’d argue, highly improbable that the idea travelled far, highly improbable that it was transported from one original location to all corners of the globe by a champion or missionaries. Much more likely, in our argument, is that innumerable local, vernacular, interpretations of the idea of the stool arose; to employ a Platonic understanding of the intangible ideal archetype of which all physical objects are but imitations. And a theory, a position, of which the stool is, we’d argue, a very good fit and very good circumstantial evidence in support of. Certainly better than the bed Plato concentrates on.
An ideal archetype that over the centuries since that, those, first incarnation(s) has become innumerable imitations and re-imaginings as it has moved from its, one again presumes, earliest role as the seat of a ruler, a ceremonial seat of power, to become a ubiquitous object.
A ubiquitous and all too often overlooked and unconsidered object.
An unfairly overlooked and unconsidered object. For for all that today the stool is often seen as the poor relative of the chair, the stool is the, a, forbearer of the chair, more precisely the side chair: in centuries past the head of a household would, if the household could afford it, sit on a chair with arms, everyone else would sit on stools or benches; benches being, if one is honest, but elongated stools. And then in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries contemporary social customs and conventions and positions saw stools increasingly receive backs, become so-called Back-stools, and over time chairs in their own right. Side chairs as counterparts to armchairs.
While the stool remained indefatigably, proudly, backless. And armless.
Whereby there appears to be an actual etymological link between poo stools and sitting stools: the meaning of stool as in poo, being, by all accounts, derived from the use in centuries past of, so-called, close-stools, essentially a box on which you sat and did your business, a forerunner of the contemporary toilet. And of the contemporary port-a-loo, which is also a box for doing your business, a box in which rather than on which you sit. The question of whether or not that represents progress is one for another day.
Yet important and interesting as poo is we’ll ignore that definition of stool and concentrate here on the furniture definition, the stool as the practical, universal, and highly figurative seating solution…….
The original stool pigeon, the original understanding of a stool pigeon, was an actual pigeon tied to an object, such as a stool, by hunters by way of attracting other birds: a decoy, something that isn’t what it appears to be, a dangerous decoy whose danger isn’t initially apparent and often only becomes so when its far, far too late.
A dangerous, disingenuous decoy that quickly entered popular parlance for a police informer, an understanding documented by Kid Creole and his Coconuts where the Stool Pigeon of the title is an “an old ex-con that’s been away” and while he was away, in prison, he squealed, he did a deal with the FBI, a deal which means that now he’s back, “no one’s safe”. Much as no bird was safe from the hunter’s stool pigeon of yore. The important, decisive, difference being that whereas the original, avian, stool pigeon not only had no choice, but arguably didn’t want to be part of the whole charade, it’s human namesake is actively and deliberately deceiving others: Creole’s Stool Pigeon undertaking “a walk with his crooked friends”, in the course of which “they joked about the good old days”, like good old friends, all in it together……. except the Stool was wired up with a hidden microphone and thereby “recorded it on a reel of tape”, thus ensnaring his good old friends as securely and as mercilessly as hunters once caught their pray with the tethered rather than the wired stool pigeon. And services rendered to the FBI which meant that while his good old friends were sent to prison, the Stool Pigeon “got a spankin’ new identity. And a condo’ down in Miami. He bought a plane, a boat and jewellery”. And all for nothing more than selling out his friends.
And while, yes, there is without question a most convincing argument to be made that through recruiting criminals to help ensnare criminals and break up gangs one can help make our world a safer, fairer, place, the problem is that stool pigeons aren’t solely found in criminal milieus; rather disingenuous decoys can exist everywhere, and invariably do wherever a dominant group seeks to maintain their dominance. And also have along (hi)story in private and professional relationships, for all where dominance and power are sought or sought to be maintained. And in all contexts the dishonest, scheming, double-dealing that defines the stool pigeon’s relationship with society, the deliberate playing of sections of a society against each other for your singular benefit, is of the sort that over time can but be harmful for communities, erodes the core of the community and leads to its slow disintegration. Societies based on openness and honesty are much more durable, viable and sustainable. And satisfying for all. If much much harder to establish and maintain. Much as hunting by stealth and with patience in an open confrontation with your prey is much harder than tying a poor pigeon to a stool.
There is a regularly advanced argument that the Back-stools of yore were developed in the 16th/17th century to allow ladies wearing the highly fashionable, and equally highly impractical, Farthingale hooped skirts of the period to sit in elegance and comfort. They probably weren’t. It was in all probability a happy coincidence that was gratefully exploited by all. And in any case, we’d argue, would a stool not be the more practical seating solution for the thus attired individual? As they could sit without the back of their skirts being squashed. And could sit without anyone seeing on what they were sitting, which may also have been useful in the 16th and 17th centuries as we can’t imagine women in the polite society of those days would have been permitted to sit on stools: social convention, and men, has/have long dictated not only what women could wear, what jobs they could do and what they could learn, but also how women were to sit and be seated.
And not just in the 16th and 17th centuries would stools have been deemed unsuitable for females; rather, and admittedly without having done the necessary research in order to make the following claim, it is hard to imagine that until relatively recently it would have been considered appropriate for females to sit on a stool. Certainly not a raised stool. For all the apparent democracy embodied by the stool, it is, and as with all democracies, a hard fought and exceedingly fragile luxury.
Arguably it was first through the needs of late 19th century industrialisation and the increasing employment of women in factories, coupled to an ever growing and better networked women’s rights movement in the early 20th century, that saw females allowed to, empowered to, sit on raised stools. Alongside men. Even alongside married men. Including on the bar stool, which must, arguably, when one considers the (hi)stories of bars and women and societies and stools, have been one of the last stools that was fully opened to, fully accessible to, females.
Including the bar stools in the Silver Dollar, a (stereo)typical nowhere bar in a nowhere town in nowhere America and where the Queen “arrives in all her splendour Each night at nine o’clock”, her arrival heralded every evening by “the old piano minstrel” who “plays her tune as she walks in” and where, having arrived, she takes up her throne: a bar stool.
And while there is an unquestionable sadness and tragedy and emptiness inherent in the domain over which the nameless Queen rules, and an unquestionable disquiet in the unquestioningly accepted and understood sexual foundation, and administration, of her power, her ruling from a bar stool is a very nice and very satisfying link back to the origins of the stool as a seat of ceremonial and absolute power, as the proto-throne. And also allows for differentiated reflections on female power in traditional male dominated societies and communities. Including the question of why men kept women from positions of power for so long, and why men kept women off stools for so long…….?
According to the Chinese philosopher Laozi a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; other journeys start with a single beer. Then another beer, another, another, a whisky, or two, or three….. Such or similar is one feels very much the journey undertaken by Kris Kristofferson’s narrator on his way to the bottom, a journey he is not the first to take, a journey he probably won’t be the last to take. And a journey undertaken, as he informs us, (bar) stool by (bar) stool, and thus a journey very much akin to Dante and Virgil’s downward journey through the nine circles of Hell. If one so will a journey from a stool named Limbo to a stool named Treachery via the stools of Lust, Greed, Wrath et al.
Kristofferson’s narrator’s final circle, his own private Zona of the frozen lake Cocytus, being a place where “all my time’s my own and I got nothin’ left but sleepin’ time to lose” and where he finds himself “living like I wanted to. And doing things I wanna do”, yet where “nothing means a thing to me at all”. And that because his beloved is no longer by his side; that anonymous ex-partner who gave “a tinker’s damn” if he didn’t call. A situation that only now, far too late, he has comprehended and understood to appreciate. The eternal remorse of the emotionally treacherous.
And a beloved ex-partner who, we all assume, inadvertently mocks him with the question if he’s happy? “If happiness is empty rooms. And drinkin’ in the afternoon. Well I suppose I’m happy as a clown”. At least he’s not lost his humour. Or is it naked cynicism…….?
Yet despite the depths to which he has sunk, one hears, unmistakably, through the despair the faint ring of hope. The narrator very clearly understands not only their predicament but the why it arose and thus there is a chance for salvation; a chance that, as with Dante and Virgil, they will find that path out of Hell and onwards, upwards, through Purgatorio to Paradiso. Where there are, presumably, no bar stools. Counter-intuitive as that may sound to many.
While admittedly no stool is actually mentioned in the lyrics, Suzanne Vega’s narrator does inform us that “I am sitting. In the morning. At the diner. On the corner”, and more specifically, “I am waiting. At the counter”, which we’ll argue means that one can assume they are sat at the counter on a stool. Yes, it may have a backrest, but let’s assume it doesn’t. Not just to enable us to crowbar it into this playlist, although that is helpful; but, because the earliest diner counter seats were invariably backrest-less stools, if for no other reason than stools are quicker and cheaper to supply than backed chairs. And don’t need a swivel action for use as raised counter seating. Only later as diners became established in American society, and thereby reflectors and influencers of contemporary American society, did, we’d argue, the raised diner chair become an actual thing.
And that establishment of the diner happened relatively quickly; the first diners, as such, arising in the late-19th/early 20th century, yet by the middle of that century the diner had become a firmly established feature of not just American communities but of both the American self-image and understandings of America amongst non-Americans, institutions that everyone one could believe had always been there, although just a generation or so previous they were largely unknown. An elevated position in understandings of America tending to be underscored by Edward Hopper’s 1942 work Nighthawks, a work that even if you’ve never actually seen an actual American diner you can instinctively read. And which features raised stools. Not raised chairs.
A relevance in American society, and position in the American self-image, in Americans understandings of America, that can also be understood in the role of the diner in the civil rights movement: throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, across America, primarily in the southern States, black men and women took their place on raised diner stools, or more specifically raised lunch counter stools, reserved for whites only. And often accepted the violence that was dished out rather than the lunch whites received. And black men and women who kept taking their place on lunch counter stools until their right to do so was established in law. The simple unobtrusive diner stool as a place of defiance and rebellion, the simple unobtrusive diner stool as a political symbol, as a proxy for more fundamental discussions and debates, the simple unobtrusive diner stool as a social battleground. As noted above, for all the apparent inherent democracy of the stool, it is a hard fought democracy. A democracy whose persistence is anything but self-evident.
And while, arguably, since the latter decades of the 20th century diners have found their place, their relevance, their symbolism increasingly taken on by the fast food restaurants which in many regards arose from the diner but are also very much the antithesis of the diner, diners remain as unmistakable elements of an idealised, and ideal, America.
Thus the diner stool is a very apposite place to sit and observe and reflect upon the banal anonymity of late 20th century urban American society and community. On the rituals and relationships and structures of late 20th century urban America. And to bemoan your half-filled coffee cup. If that is you get the chance.
By all accounts one of the earliest uses of the idiom of two stools was by Matthew Prior in his early 18th century poem, Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind, in which the Alma of the title, the Soul, finds herself/itself caught between its traditional understanding as formulated by Aristotle and embraced by the Christianity and those contemporary, scientific, positions, as represented by the likes of, for example, a Pierre Gassendi, “Now which were Wise? and which were Fools?” asks the narrator, who should we believe, with whom should Alma side? “Poor Alma sits between two Stools”.
Which is a very nice rhyme. Fools and Stools. And also a very nice encapsulation of the debate between church and science in the Europe of the period, a very neat elucidation of there being two mutually exclusive positions, from which you must by necessity choose one. And reject for ever the other. Without fully understanding how to choose, having no basis for your decision.
A necessity to choose between two incompatible options without any reliable aids or guides to assist you that, as we all know, occurs far, far, too often in life.
As in the life of Headshrinkers’ subject. A soul, an Alma, very clearly caught between that life which convention and tradition demand of them, and the life they feel bubbling away within them. The classic drama of youth, and a drama that although long existent has, in many regards, become ever more acute in recent decades through the increasing complexity of life and society, and, and to paraphrase Matthew Prior, the increasing perplexity engendered by contemporary comment on and interpretation of the existing, of accepted convention.
If a choice that Headshrinkers’ narrator is very clear about, Headshrinkers’s narrator is very clear which stool they believe the subject should choose. Are very much the opinion that the subject should “illustrate contempt towards antiquated fashions” and allow their “oddity” to flow freely forth. “How can a world be civil if it lacks in balance?” they ask, and thus, one presumes, alluding to a need for contradicting approaches to life, of society only existing in a meaningful manner as an equilibrium between opposites. Of the tension between two stools as a necessity for maintaining social balance, cohesion and function. Of the tension between science and religion as a necessity. Of the tension between old and young as a necessity. Of the tension between tradition and reform as a necessity. Of the tension between Capulet and Montague as a necessity. Of the tension between Rougon and Macquart as a necessity. Of the tension between yin and yang as a necessity. Etc. Etc. Etc.
A position that would tend to imply that when Prior’s narrator opines, “if we could reconcile, Old Aristotle with Gassendus; How many would admire our Toil”. Are they maybe misunderstanding the situation, would not many greatly regret their toil, is the incompatibility of Aristotle and Gassendus not perhaps important, fundamental, for global society?
And while that may or may not be true, and an argument can certainly be made that all functioning systems are based on tension and opposing forces, is the stool the narrator advises the subject to select the correct one? Or is it advice disproportionately influenced by an inexperienced, underdeveloped, emotional view of the world? By a narrator who, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, is much older now than they one day will be? Will the narrator look back in decades to come and regret their advice. Will the subject regret following it? Regret not sticking to the straight and narrow that stretches banally but securely out before them?
Which stool is the correct stool?
Is there a correct stool?
And when and how do we know if there is or isn’t?
And is that not what makes being caught between them so intelorable?
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