The July issue of Esquire debuts a new culture column by Stephen Marche—a Ph.D.-possessing smart guy, former college professor, and Toronto-based novelist who apparently loves The Hills as much as he loves early modern drama. In zany Esquire fashion, the column’s laid out as if it were thought up on a typewriter and pasted into the mag ‘zine-style, with little clippings of relevant pictures interspersed with the text. (The column is not online yet.)
The subject of this inaugural column? Skulls.
Apparently they’re everywhere—in the new Indiana Jones movie, on the back of Manhattan madam Kristin Davis’ jacket and maybe even on Gwyneth Paltrow’s scarf! Mr. Marche writes:
If you were a man in the nineties, a skull on your T-shirt was the perfect complement to bad teeth, split ends, and musical taste that led to early tinnitus. It was the kind of look that said, Sure, I like to key a beer or twelve at a bush party, but I’ll chill with a doobie and a Poison power ballad, too. Today, the guy with a skull T-shirt is waiting at the bar for Amy Winehouse in “You Know I’m No Good,” and he’s probably just come from snorting coke off an Olsen twin’s tits.
More evidence of the skull craze? There’s the "diamond-encrusted platinum skull" that British artist Damien Hirst sold for $100 million in 2007. And a few months ago, a street artist called Skullphone paid to have his logo posted on Clear Channel screens throughout L.A.
So what does it all mean? Well, the scholarly Mr. Marche offers some historical context. Back in medieval Europe, skulls were often fashioned into "gorgeous little trinkets," supposedly "out of a desire to recognize mortality and the ephemeral nature of the material world." Take the burial place of Rome’s Capuchin monks, "where whole skeletons of dead monks have become decorations."
Mr. Marche posits that it all comes down to vanity. And if we’re following him correctly, our medieval forefathers saw vanity as "a call to recognize a reality deeper than the physical world." But us? We’re all just, Fuck it!
We stare into the face of death and ask ourselves, Can I get it in pink? It’s spiritual daredevilry: How materialistic can we go? Look, it says, I know that wealth is ephemeral, and I know that all flesh is grass, but I still choose ephemeral wealth. I choose the flesh that I know is going to rot off my face. You don’t have to go to the movies if you want to see the kingdom of the crystal skull. It’s called Western capitalism right now.
Makes sense to you? Sort of? Don’t worry: We’re not sure if it does, either. But then again, he’s the one with the Ph.D.