The Big Apple is in crisis, but fortunately Mayor Bill de Blasio is on the case.
He is responding, as a Times editorialist pointed out, with the vigor that an effective leader might bring to bear on an outbreak of Ebola. Good thing, too, for this enemy is more insidious yet.
Attractive and attractively painted young women are wandering topless and panchromatic, star-spangled indeed, through the pedestrian spaces of Times Square offering themselves as local color or background for visitors’ selfies — or is it nudies? For this service the desnudas — or nudistas, so they denominated themselves — hope to receive some small spondulics from the grateful and titillated turistas. The economic model is well established.
But the mayor is shocked. The corrupting power of the bared female breast is well known to historians, and the situation brings to my mind, in a somewhat circuitous fashion, the third greatest line in world literature.
I feel impelled to preface some of the remarks that will follow with the attestation that my family background at the grandparental level is mainly Irish. Furthermore I was much influenced in my youth by reading the works of important American writers such as James T. Farrell and Eugene O’Neill, who regarded their Irish-Americanness not as a funky or endearing ethnic distinction but more along the lines of a stigma or even a curse. My grandfather, Fleming — a native-born American, the high point of whose life was service as a recruiting sergeant in the Spanish War of 1898 — was full of lore about banshees and leprechauns that came to him from his parents, refugees from the potato famine.
My grandfather had many strange and to me romantic locutions, several of them monetary in theme. Something of no value was “not worth a pewter fourpence.” The lowest form of the low life, and this was a populous nation, was a man so depraved that “he would steal the coppers from a dead man’s eyes.” Apparently a penny or halfpenny was often used for cosmetic purposes as temporary weights to seal shut the eyelids of a corpse. There was even the cliché of the crock of gold that in a dire emergency had been hurriedly buried among the potato fields and then never found again.
“The Flemings,” he told me, “were kings in Ireland." Only much later did I learn the requirements for kingship in old Ireland — the king was the guy who owned two pigs.
Off-key and with a grating voice he would sometimes sing snatches of old ballads. I now wish I had had the intelligence or curiosity to listen more closely, to ask questions, to write something down. But caught up in “the fierce urgency of now” in its mainly trivial manifestations, I lost forever a fragile filament of linkage to that Old World that, eventually, I would spend most of my life studying. The one song I can recall was a version of “Barbara Allen,” among the most popular of the English border ballads — not Irish at all except possibly in his odd pronunciation of the girl’s name “Barbrey."
Only many years later, and then in an academic setting, would I pick up a smidgen of the traditional literature of Medieval Ireland. Not very much, but enough to appreciate the great Irish national epic.
Literary epics, of course, deal with great themes. Think of the vast wanderings of Ulysses, think of the fall of Troy and the foundation of the Roman Empire. Imagine with Tasso the siege of Jerusalem, or with Camões the first voyage of Vasco da Gama from Lisbon to India. The Old Irish epic, as befits a nation whose royalty is measured in terms of its livestock holdings, is called "Táin Bó Cúailnge" or as I might translate it, The Cattle-Rustling Raid at Cooley.
Don’t ask me what is in the (mostly prose) Táin because everything is in it. Its hero is the giant warrior Cuchulainn (kuh-HOO-lin), and he is not to be messed with. He is one of the notable berserkers of martial lore — warriors whose combative fury borders on or even attains madness. The classical prototype is the Hercules figure of "Hercules Furens" or "Orlando Furioso."
At a crucial stage of the non-stop action Cuchulainn goes berserk in a battle, rushing in circles around his massed enemies, smashing skulls and severing heads. The enemy queen comes up with a desperate plan. She prevails on some macromastic patriot girls to step out naked into Cuchulainn’s sightline, hoping that the full-frontal nudity will distract the champion. The cunning booby trap works, and Cuchulain slows down for a gawk. After being plunged into successive cauldrons of cold water, he cools off.
The women advance at the order, “Naked ladies to the front!" At least that was how I first read it in a mid-Victorian translation.
"Naked ladies to the front" is the third greatest line in world literature and one of the top ten military orders in world history, along with, "Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes" (1775), "England expects that every man will do his duty" (1805) and "Damn the torpedoes — full speed ahead" (1864).