Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)

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Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.

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But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…

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Book Review: Milan Kundera–the new and the old: The Festival of Insignificance and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Festival of Insignificance illustration 2015 by jpbohannon (recreation of book cover art)

The Festival of Insignificance
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon
(recreation of book cover art)

A few weeks back I read a review of Milan Kundera’s newest novel, The Festival of Insignificance.  The review was warm, discussing the narrative quirks and the philosophic resonances.  In the review, however, the critic spent much time on Kundera’s earlier work, particularly The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  It was the second time that week that that novel had come to my attention.

A friend on mine was in semi-seclusion and had begun reading the novel aloud to her cat. (Although, out of compassion, she did not read him the passages where Karenin the dog is in his final stages of cancer and must be euthanized.) The cat stayed attentive through all of it.

Kundera himself would love this story.

Having no immediate access to Kurenda’s latest, I pulled down from the shelf my worn copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and began reading it myself. It was the sixth or seventh time I had read it.

What draws the reader into the novel are the characters’ personalities, both heroic and damaged; the politics, both sexual and global; and the self-knowledge with which each of the three characters, Tomas, Teresa, and Sabina, work at achieving and which causes readers to reflect inward themselves. At least, that’s what happened to me.

And of course, there is the quirky, sometimes humorous interruptions by the narrator and the self-aware, redoubling rhythms of the narration.

During the course of my reading, I also had to attend a funeral. And at the luncheon that followed, I sat next to a woman who has always reminded me of the actress, Juliette Binoche, which of course reminded me of Binoche’s role in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  That my friend was from East Germany underscored the connection with this Eastern European novel.

Here is the trailer from the 1988 film:

And so, I finally got the newest, The Festival of Insignificance, out of the public library, and began reading it the moment I finished the earlier work. It is a slim volume, a mere 115 pages in the American edition, and it features much of what is admirable in Kundera:  Characters who “live examined lives” and are notable for their philosophic wonderings and reflective attitudes, a narrator who periodically pops into the story to discuss the workings of the novel itself, and a level of global political awareness that is not often present in American novels.

And there is Kundera’s wry humor.

The flap of the book jacket cites a passage from an earlier novel, Slowness, in which the wife of the main character tells her husband:

“You’ve often told me you meant to write a book one day that would have not a single serious word in it. … I warn you: watch out. Your enemies are lying in wait.”

The Festival of Insignificance purportedly is that book, and it begins with a discussion of the navel.  Or at least what one character, Alain, feels is the eroticization of the navel in the 21st century. This thought comes about as Alain walks down a street in Paris and notices the many cropped tops and low-hung jeans — and thus the navels — of so many young women. And, it is this immediate preoccupation with the navel that is the cord that binds the various stories of the novel together.

Through his musings about the navel’s surge in fashionable exposure, the middle-aged Alain remembers the last time he saw his mother, who had wanted him aborted and abandoned him when he was two and whom he last saw when he was six. This is paired with another friend whose mother is dying, which is then linked to Joseph Stalin who gave birth to an era of madness and horror in twentieth-century Europe.

In fact, Stalin appears throughout the novel, finally making an appearance in modern day Paris, at a children’s show in the Luxembourg Gardens, riding in a tiny children’s carriage.

As with all of Kundera, there are serious musings on European and human history, on disease and finality, on love and on sex. These are thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions which nest comfortably in the interior lives of his main characters.

Kundera’s thesis is that in the vastness of the universe, human life AND human history is relatively insignificant–that human history is merely a “festival of insignificance.” And while there is much that seems “insignificant” in Kundera’s novel, the reality is quite different.

Human significance might not have cosmic ramifications in the universe, at large. It is, however, greatly personal, and often has repercussions through the larger community. So in this novel, the spilled Armagnac, the little lie about one’s health, the lines of people at a Chagall exhibit, all play a “significant” role in the lives of a limited circle of acquaintances. Our lives, our acquaintances, our histories are all rather parochial, to be sure, but they are ours, and they are all that we have.

The Festival of Insignificance is at first look a slight and whimsical book. But it is much more than that. It is enjoyable and funny and thoughtful and wise.

And despite the cited desire of the writer in Kundera’s Slowness, there are more than a few serious words in it.

Quote 45: “The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition … .”

Sabina's Bowler illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

Sabina’s Bowler
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being