From parts unknown

In yesterday’s (3/20) Wayno / Piraro Bizarro, a cowboy — call him FM —  bellies up to the bar in a saloon in the fabled Old West:

(#1) Though he’s wearing jeans and  a handsome Western dress shirt, FM’s greenish pallor, eccentric hair, and neck bolt mark him as an outsider, not from these parts, not from around here; meanwhile, FM is a composite being, cobbled together from random parts — bodyparts — by Victor Frankenstein (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page)

So there’s parts and there’s parts. And FM’s from parts unknown  is a parts ‘bodyparts’ pun on the model of parts ‘places’ in what is now a rather formal and poetical expression from parts unknown ‘coming from an unknown place’. The Frankenstein world superimposed, absurdly, on the Gunslinger world.

Parts and parts. The two relevant senses, from OED3 (June 2005) on the noun part:

— I. Senses related to a portion or division of a whole. … 4. A portion of a human or animal body. Frequently in plural. [for example: 1903 Jack London Call of the Wild Every part, brain and body, .. was keyed to the most exquisite pitch; and between all the parts there was a perfect equilibrium or adjustment.]

— III. Senses relating to a side, locality, or region. … 18. a. A portion of a country or territory, or of the world; a country, region, or area. Frequently in plural (often with collective rather than plural sense). [cites of in foreign parts, you are not from these parts, in these parts; and then: 1879 National Police Gazette (U.S.) He obtained the money, pocketed it and struck out for parts unknown.]

The ambiguity between anatomical parts and locational parts was beautifully exploited in the title and subject-matter of this television show:

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is an American travel and food show on CNN [2013 – 2018]. In the show, Anthony Bourdain travels the world uncovering lesser-known places and exploring their cultures and cuisine. (Wikipedia link)

(#2) Bourdain at table in Shanghai

With infectious gusto, Bourdain traveled pretty much anywhere — to parts unknown — in order to eat pretty much anything — bodyparts unknown.

Note on the syntax and stylistics of parts unknown. In English, single modifying adjectives normally precede the noun they modify: an enormous hound, NOT a hound enormous. But in earlier English (as, not accidentally, in French), postmodification was the norm — so this week those of us in the northern hemisphere look forward to the high springtime of April as in the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote …

[word for word] when that April with its showers sweet,
the drought of March has pierced to the root …

‘when April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, …’

At the time, the word order in his shoures soote was entirely normal, though occurring here in a piece of poetry. I could still get away with writing about, say,  “April’s showers sweet falling on the blossoms of spring”, but that would be seen as notably “poetic”, as belonging to a highly marked style / register. (In actual fact, I am now experiencing the latest cold surly downpour in a long series during this winter / spring, so I’m unlikely to effuse about April’s sweet showers. I’m mostly just thankful I don’t live on or just below a hillside or in a flood zone.)

The dual life of the Frankenstein story. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel — Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus — was written as a horror story about VF, a scientist who creates life and is then horrified at what he’d done. An entertainment, but also deeply serious. And, as a tale about VF’s creation, FM, a profoundly sad story.

But the sensational narrative captured the popular imagination, as I sketched in my 1/20/23 posting “Adventures in cartoon understanding: Victor alignment”, about this Bizarro cartoon:


The cartoon’s set in a garage — Frankenstein Tire & Auto Service, whose name makes explicit some connection to Mary Shelley’s novel or to one of the two canonical films derived from it (James Whale’s 1931 drama, Mel Brooks’s 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein) — with an outrageous pun in It’s aligned! connecting the work of a tire and auto service — wheel alignment being one of its major services– to the films, via Victor Frankenstein’s crying out It’s alive! in deranged joy in the films.

The cultural resonance of the Frankenstein story. Connecting the Frankenstein story with wheel alignment is something of a task, but I’d expect everyone who looks at the cartoon … to immediately recognize the Frankenstein name and the skeleton of the Frankenstein story; it’s part of common modern Western (popular) culture. It has a lot of resonance, a lot of cultural power.

On this resonance, see my 5/29/18 posting “It’s alive!”, about a Cantor Arts Center (at Stanford) exhibition “Betray the Secret: Humanity in the Age of “Frankenstein””, with four subsections all dealing with the question: how do we differentiate between the boundaries of life and death when machines intervene with natural bodies?  I wrote back then:

I was especially impressed by the Philosophers & Monsters section, which tracked the growing sense of Nature, not as a balancing, benevolent force, but as a repository of mysteries — dangerous, possibly demonic.

It’s alive!

Wayno’s title for the cartoon in #1: The Composite Kid. Which takes us off in yet another direction; I took the title to be a play on  The Cisco Kid, with a side reference to FM’s being a composite creature. But the allusion could (just imaginably) be to The Cowboy Kid (with the same side reference); as it turns out, that possibility will take us into a delicious detour, so I’ll pursue both the Cisco and the Cowboy leads.

The Cisco Kid. In my 7/31/16 posting “Cisco in the morning”, extended musings on the Cisco Kid, the heroic Mexican of American movies, radio, television, and comic books. Here’s Duncan Renaldo as Cisco on tv (1950-56), where I first encountered him:

(#4) Though Renaldo’s acting career was largely playing Mexican roles, he wasn’t even remotely Mexican — usually identified as Romanian, but his life history was strange and complex; see his Wikipedia article

Digression on Western dress shirts. Note the gorgeous example in #4, and go back and look at the fine example cooked up by Wayno in #1. From Wikipedia on Western wear:

A Western shirt is a traditional item of Western wear characterized by a stylized yoke on the front and on the back. It is generally constructed of chambray, denim or tartan fabric with long sleeves, and in modern form is sometimes seen with snap pockets, patches made from bandana fabric, and fringe.

… A Western dress shirt is often elaborately decorated with piping, embroidered roses and a contrasting yoke. In the 1950s these were frequently worn by movie cowboys like Roy Rogers or Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger.

The Cowboy Kid. Ok, it’s a long shot, surely not what Wayno had in mind, but it’s fun to play with: from Wikipedia:

The Cowboy Kid is a 1928 American silent Western film directed by Clyde Carruth and written by James J. Tynan. The film stars Rex Bell, Mary Jane Temple, Brooks Benedict, Alice Belcher, Joseph De Grasse and Syd Crossley.

You can find theatrical posters for the film, but what caught my eye was this dreamboat p.r. photo of the film’s star, Rex Bell:


And then, from Wikipedia:

Rex Bell (born George Francis Beldam; October 16, 1903 – July 4, 1962) was an American actor and politician. Bell primarily appeared in Western films during his career. He also appeared in the 1930 movie True to the Navy, starring Clara Bow; Bell and Bow married the following year.

Bell later became involved in politics with the Nevada Republican Party and was the 21st lieutenant governor of Nevada from 1955 until his death in 1962.

Oh my, Dreamboat married It Girl! From Wikipedia:

(#6) Clara Bow in 1932

Clara Gordon Bow (July 29, 1905 – September 27, 1965) was an American actress who rose to stardom during the silent film era of the 1920s and successfully made the transition to “talkies” in 1929. Her appearance as a plucky shopgirl in the film It brought her global fame and the nickname “The It Girl”. Bow came to personify the Roaring Twenties and is described as its leading sex symbol.

… Two years after marrying actor Rex Bell in 1931, Bow retired from acting and became a rancher in Nevada.

So what started in a desert saloon with FM ends on a desert ranch with Rex and Clara.

2 Responses to “From parts unknown”

  1. Geoffrey Nathan Says:

    Do you know the John Denver song ‘Saturday NIght in Toledo Ohio?’. There’s a verse:

    “Just two lonely truckers from Great Falls, Montana
    And a salesman from places unknown…
    Oh add all together in downtown Toledo
    To spend their big night all alone”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I had to go back and check out the full lyrics, to see if they were as inscrutable as I recalled, and they are. But it does have “from places unknown”.

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