Looking Glass

            So, once upon a time, somebody came up with these discs of glass which could be used to focus the sun’s rays into a burning point.  THEN someone realized they could be used to make small things look bigger, and, over the years, loupes and telescopes and microscopes and binoculars came to be.  Somewhere at the beginning of that period, along about 1250 or thereabouts, people started making pairs of them and perching them on their noses.

     But eyesight is not a perfectly balanced system, and some people had such a wild difference between the vision in their eyes that a few of them began wearing just one lens, which could be mounted in one half of a pair of spectacles, or just set into the eye socket ahead of the eyeball.  These could be easily held in with the muscles of the face, but for those with more active lifestyles, a string or wire was extended from the lens to the wearer’s clothes, to keep the lens from hitting the ground.

     And a new comic cliché was born.

     The Interwebs informs me that the monocle, as this style of eyewear is named, was high fashion in 1805 or thereabouts, and a common joke by 1840.  Since no one can buy a monopoly on good eyesight, both rich and poor wore monocles.  But somehow, they became associated with the rich and pompous: Regency dandies, German officers, and the haughty businessman of the 1890s, whose top hat, morning coat, and monocle guaranteed the viewer something funny was going to happen soon.

     This pop culture cliché was not overlooked by our postcard cartoonists, who knew the monocle indicated a dandy, a rich sissy, a faker.  In a world where monocles were becoming rare (they experienced a revival, especially in Germany, in the 1930s, when a woman wearing a monocle was advertising that she was dangerous) this cliché lived on for years.  Charlie McCarthy, the famous dummy, always wore one.  Batman started running into a monocled villain who called himself the Penguin in the 1940s.  Eustace Tilley, the mascot of The New Yorker, actually flaunts his, as he studies a butterfly.

     Thanks to the German military monocle (the monocle apparently originated in Germany and traveled to England in the late eighteenth century), picked up by autocratic movie directors, a monocle may be assumed to be in the arsenal of any good villainous, or villainous-looking, character with an accent.  Hence, say, Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, James Bond’s Ernest Stavro Blofeld, and, on Sesame Street, The Count.   

     Monocles even come with their own set of cliches.  In a comedy, if the person wearing a monocle does not see something surprising and let the thing pop free, the director is not making full use of his medium.  (This is another one of those jokes which is POSSIBLE in day-to-day life but far more common on film.)

     Monocles ARE still available for non-Halloween costume use: a nice one with a solid gold rim sells for one or two hundred dollars.  And some people DO wear one against all comic intent.  Mr. Peanut wouldn’t look the same without his.  Lord Peter Wimsey used a serious monocle, first as a disguised high-powered magnifying glass for examining clues and second to make people think he was too silly to worry about, as Hercule Poirot used his occasionally fractured English.  A villain with a monocle (I see that Captain Picard, in his Borg form, is considered a monocle-wearer) may do a great deal of serious damage.

     Still, the monocle is still primarily used as a comic signal.  Either the wearer is ridiculous, or something ridiculous is about to happen to him.

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