I Think Knot
As a child, I took great delight in string. My mother, who patiently taught me how to tie bows, used to tell people, “Give him a piece of string, and he’ll be happy.” True enough, I could spend hours just tying and untying knots. I was never a Boy Scout, and never “learned the ropes” of sailing. I did, however, enjoy such games as tying up my younger sister – until I became a little too glad to bind her to a chair and just leave her sitting there.
But it was my father who taught me the string game that requires two people co-operating. It is called Cat’s Cradle and it involves creating a pattern with string stretched between one person’s hands, and then transferring the string to the other person’s hands – and in doing so, creating a different pattern. This process can go on repeatedly, with something new emerging every time.
Strings and ropes of different kinds still have special meaning for young people – from ropes, for skipping and jumping, to yo-yo’s, for whatever yo-yo’s can do. And we mustn’t overlook Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tale, which begins:
“The chief defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of string,”
– and ends with the “wretched” child’s consequent demise.
(But seniors can also get into the act. I read somewhere that the heirs of a certain lady, known for her frugality, found among her possessions a bag labeled “Pieces of string too short to use.”)
But for me, things changed when I reached the age when I had to learn how to tie a necktie. Such a tie, striped with our school colors of red and blue, was a part of the required uniform when I went to school in England. This male fashion of tying something ornamental around the neck is said to have originated in France in the seventeenth century. Louis XIV recruited a corps of mercenaries who came from Croatia in the Balkans. Their distinctive neckwear impressed the always-fashion-conscious French, who soon began imitating the style, which at first was called a “Croat” – then became a “Cravat” – a term we still use for a certain type of tie.
Incidentally, any reference to “the old school tie” still has a certain resonance in England, especially among whatever are left of the “Upper Classes,” where having gone to the same school together has traditionally signified some lifelong bond.
I hardly ever wear a tie anymore, and I have only ever known one way to tie it, which I think is called a Windsor knot. When the need to attend a wedding or Bar-Mitzvah brings it off the hook, I still find something of a challenge in making the ends come out evenly. But who cares, if it’s covered by a sweater or jacket?
A tie used to be the traditional gift to Dad on Father’s Day, even in California – but the tie business must have suffered recently as much as the buggy-whip business did earlier. If any type of tie is still popular with younger Dads, I suppose it is some sort of electronic tie.
But the symbolic meaning of the knot still has significance in most world cultures. “Tying the Knot” continues to be the most common metaphor for getting married. For better or worse, there is no corresponding metaphor that I know of for getting divorced. Theoretically at least, the knot is always tied for life.
One knot that didn’t stand up so well was, according to legend, confronted by Alexander the Great, on his way east, through Phrygia, in the town of Gordium. This “Gordian Knot” was famous as being so complex that some oracle had prophesied that, whoever could untie it would become the ruler of all Asia. Alexander was brought to see this puzzle – and, after studying it for a while, his solution was very simple:
He took out his (no doubt very sharp) sword, and, with one sweep, cut the Knot straight down the middle. I personally have always considered this to have been out-and-out cheating, but apparently it won everybody’s admiration at the time, and, after all, he was Alexander the Great, which I guess enabled him to get away with such chicanery. In any case, he did eventually fulfill the prophesy by conquering Asia. In addition, this audacious act has given our culture another enduring metaphor, enabling us to speak learnedly of any quick, bold, if unconventional, solution of a difficult problem as “cutting the Gordian Knot.”