I overheard a guy going on to his friend about how long Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson was. “I get it!” he said with exasperation. “It’s about numbers.”
I read a review of a dance performance choreographed aleatorically. “‘Signals’ was a dance built entirely out of implications. Just as Mr. Cunningham loves the beauty of abstract designs, surely he also is aware that, in real life, whether they are aware of it or not, people are constantly sending out emotional signals, signals that may be ambiguous as well as clear. In ‘Signals,’ people sitting on chairs watched other people dance. Some of the people who danced side by side were so oblivious to their companions that they might as well have been far apart. Then they gradually appeared to grow aware of one another.”
I looked at a book on the abstract art of Mark Rothko. “It is, finally, through this conjunction of inversion and scale, and the direct relationship of these two things to a problematic of real and perceived gravity, that we can claim close conceptual proximity for Rothko to Morris’s phenomenology of making and the generation of 1960.”
I wrote (almost half a life ago) a dissertation on an experimental theatre director. “To begin with: the core of Richard Schechner’s world view, the center of his ideology, is existentialist. This is not to say that he has ever written a pointedly existentialist ontology, nor that he deliberately adheres to a set of existentialist beliefs as propounded by one of the major thinkers of that tradition, nor that he is an epigone of, say, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, nor even that he calls himself an existentialist. It is simply that, when we examine the fundamental a prioris and governing schemata which are to be found behind and throughout the various writings of Richard Schechner, we find that they are, in a word, existentialist.”
There are many people who seem to believe (and sometimes even state openly) that you can’t understand an artistic work – painting, music, dance, what have you – unless and until you can describe it and analyze it verbally. A picture is worth a thousand words at least; a performance might be worth a long-form essay or even a book. This thing you saw and/or heard means this, and means that, and means all these other words too.
Schmetterlingsaufspiessers. All of them.
I am not opposed to writing about artistic works. But a picture is not worth a thousand words. There is no exchange rate. Writing about artworks is not translating the art to the page; it is creating your own work on the inspiration of the art. Writing about art is like dancing about novels, or painting about music. Of course you can do it. But it’s not a translation, not any more than a park or a pizza can be a translation of a symphony or a sarabande. And it certainly doesn’t encapsulate the meaning. Words are not the final arbiter of meaning, the be-all and end-all, the yardstick, the micrometer. They’re one way to convey things. I’m very fond of them, but I know their limits.
Thinking you can understand a dance piece or artwork by analyzing it verbally is sort of like thinking you can understand a butterfly by pinning it to a board. Sure, you can see its colours there, and look at the segments of its body. But you don’t see anything about how it flies and where it goes and what it’s like to watch one outside your window.
Which is where schmetterlingsaufspiesser comes in. The Germans have a long word for everything, and why shouldn’t they have a long word to skewer people who think that words of any length can pin down works of art? Schmetterlingsaufspiesser means just that – well, literally, ‘butterfly-pinner’.
Let’s take it apart into bits for a moment to see how it works. (We can do that; it’s a word, these are words.) Schmetterling, which is pronounced just the way you’d think, means ‘butterfly’. In English we may think butterflies have something to do with butter, but in German they think they have something to do with cream – Austrian cream in particular. The usual German word for ‘cream’ is Rahm, but Austrian German has Schmetten as well, which it got from the Czech word for ‘cream’, smetana, which you may also know as the surname of the cream of Czech composers.
And what is the word for pinning, as in skewering a butterfly onto a corkboard? Aufspießen. (That ß is a German character equivalent to ss, as you may know.) That’s from auf ‘on, to’ (said like “owf”) plus spießen, ‘skewer’ (“shpee-sen”), a verb from the noun Spieß, ‘skewer’, which comes from the same source as English spit (the kind you roast things on). (Amusingly, there is also a noun Spießer meaning ‘philistine, bourgeois, square’ – the kind of thing that schmetterlingsaufspiessers strain not to seem to be. It’s a shortened form of Spießbürger, which could be translated as ‘Piketowner’ and means a narrow-minded provincial person.)
So you stick Schmetterling together with aufspießen with a gluing s (said like “z”) in the middle and switch the infinitive en to the agentive er. Boom. Skewered. With a spit of a word that spits back at the word-spitters.
But while all of the etymological facts I’ve just given you are true (including about Spießbürger), I must own up to having made up schmetterlingsaufspiesser and its German original Schmetterlingsaufspießer myself. It’s a new old word. For an old old thing.