According to a professor I once had, our modern conception of the word "cool" comes from a West African concept. The climate metaphor was aesthetic and philosophical, pointing to a godlike aloofness, and a kind of simplicity-through-sophistication.
The theory being: to the Dan and likewise-situated folk, accustomed to a brushy, vegetal, detailed, and, of course, hot, world, the smoothness and cold geometry that more northern people might associate with winter and ice was something achieved, rather than (as in Plato) a natural starting point, or (as in Asian philosophy) something found (Buddhists tend to talk a lot about walking--especially up hills). In West Africa, you took a tree, which was a live, ragged, growing thing that stretched in every direction, and you cut and polished it until it became a sleek mask. Until it became definitely-not-natural. Or at least definitely not the standard product of nature. As alien to the surrounding textures as the smooth skins of women and men.
The Dan word for "cool" was used to describe, originally, finely made things, things which had shed the heaving, fecund irregularity of the ordinary world. The simplicity of the Buddha's face is childlike--the simplicity of the Dan mask is adult and athletic--achieved. What modern westerners see as a jarring, almost undead, contrast of these masks, when worn, against the reedy, unprocessed cowrie-shell-and-raffia look of the surrounding ornament is totally intentional. Western aesthetics see simplicity as rustic and uncivilized, our idea of "Asian" design traditionally looks for a simplicity-and-unity-with-nature. This is a sort of simplicity-despite-nature.
Aimee Cesaire, a Carribean poet, hits this note:
I inhabit the ice jam I inhabit the ice melting I inhabit the face of a great disaster
Or that, anyway, is what the prof suggested.
It seemed very plausible and useful idea.
As everywhere else, the gods are wise and refined kings, it is merely the signifiers of their wisdom that change. The nature of their power is: they do not care, but they might be convinced to care. It is merely the style of their indifference that changes. Modern popular gods do not care because you'll get your reward or punishment after you're dead, Norse gods didn't care because they were busy fighting, Greek ones didn't care because they were busy fucking--the Dan gods fucked and fought too, of course (naturally: they're cool), but that wasn't why they didn't care.
In any culture, whether the boss is a king or a pope or a tax collector or a god, the boss's job, aesthetically, is to impress the rubes. This is done by simple contrast: the landscape is one thing, and what the king has is the other. As much the other as possible. While the boss's architects and artisans have only this landscape and their own imaginations to draw on to figure out what it should all look like, they do their best.
In the myths of the West Africa, every animal has a passion and a scheme--cool indifference in the face of these creatures and their 24-hour seething fuckmurderfest might indeed have seemed truly artful, artificial and magical.
And we must agree, because now we're totally willing to call everything good "cool".
Julius Moessel (1871 - 1957)
4 months ago