You can’t tell the players without a program

France around 1830 was rich in factions and tendencies, and you can’t read about the French literature of the first half of the 19th century without running into a large number of competing groups — political, literary, or simply social. So I have compiled a list.

France changed its form of government four times between 1787 and 1830 (plus another couple of changes during the revolutionary period), and in 1830 partisans of most of the past regimes were still around. The main political factions were the ultra-royalists, the Girondin republicans, the Jacobin republicans, the American-style republicans, the Bonapartists, and the moderate semi-liberal royalists who took power with the July Revolution. Besides these there were utopian socialist followers of Fourier or Saint-Simon, but while they got their ideas out, they didn’t really have a political role, and whatever groups the bottom 70% of the population had were regarded with fear and disdain.

The only faction that was probably lacking was one supporting the overthrown Restoration government. The Bourbons had been imposed on France by England and Germany after Napoleon’s defeat, and while they weren’t royalist enough for the ultras, they were too royalist for everyone else. This set a pattern for France — the moderate royalist regime established in 1830 didn’t make anyone happy either, and examples could be multiplied.

In the literary world, the big split was between the romantics just coming onstage, and everyone else:  the classicists, philosophes, and republicans. To begin with, the romantics were led by Charles Nodier of l’Arsenal (a library), but around 1830 Victor Hugo seized power for his Cénacle, and a little after 1830 Théophile Gautier and Petrus Borel established the Petit Cénacle, which included younger writers. (Nodier, Hugo, and Gautier became famous for praising the writing of anyone who ever brought them a manuscript.) The first two groups were just salons, but many of the members of the Petit Cénacle were housemates, and they threw rowdy parties of a type which should be familiar to many readers.

Most of the factional activity took place among the romantics. The romantic factions were Les Meditateurs, Les Frénétiques, Les Larmoyants, Les Illuminés, Le Petit Cénacle, Les Jeunes-France, Les Buveurs d’Eau, the literary Bousingots, the political Bousingots, Les Badouillards, Les  Muscardins (dormice), Les Dandys and Les Bohème.*  (more…)

Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 1:42 am  Comments (6)  

What is Urianismo?

Vinicius de Moraes, Obra Poetica, Jose Aguilar, 1968

Vinicius de Moraes, Gedichte und Lieder, Piper,1989

Poema desentranhado da história dos particípios

(Do urianismo dos verbos ter e haver)

A partir do século XVI
Os verbos ter e haver esvaziaram-se de sentido
Para se tornarem exclusivamente auxiliares
E os particípios passados
Adquirindo em conseqüência um sentido ativo
Imobilizaram-se para sempre em sua forma indeclinável.

–Vinicius de Moraes


Poem deciphered from the history of participles

(On the urianism of the verbs ter and haver)

Starting from the 16th century
The verbs ter and haver were emptied of meaning
To become exclusively auxiliaries
And the past participles
Acquired consequently an active sense
Immobile for ever in their undeclinable forms.

(Translation by Dylan in the comments, correcting mine) (more…)

Published in: on April 24, 2010 at 1:00 am  Comments (12)  

I have no idea how I could possibly have missed Courbet up till now

I feel this way a lot of the time.


Gustave Courbet

Published in: on April 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm  Comments (2)  

Sonnet on the Final Hour

Vinicius de Moraes Saravá,
Gedichte und Lieder,
Serie Piper, 1989

It will be like this, dear friend — one day
we’ll be watching the sunset
when we suddenly feel on our faces
a light kiss of cold air.

You’ll look at me silently
and I’ll do the same,  remembering….
then dazzled with poetry, we’ll pass through
the door open before us, to the darkness.

Crossing the border of the Secret
I will softly say, “Don’t be afraid”
And you will say, “Be strong”.

And like two ancient lovers
mournfully entwined in the night
together we’ll enter the gardens of death.


Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 8:59 pm  Comments (2)  

Edward Schafer, Part I: Mixed feelings

Edward Schafer, Mirages on the Seas of Time, California, 1985

Kenneth Rexroth, “Review of Science and Civilization in China“,  The Nation, November 10, 1956; collected in Assays, New Directions, 1961.

Peter A. Boodberg (Alvin P. Cohen,  ed.), Selected Works of Peter A. Boodberg, University of California Press 1979; reviewed here.

A few days ago on Leanne Ogasawara’s Facebook page Ifound myself defending Edward Schafer’s translation principles against several translators and Asian scholars. This was very odd, because for a decade or two now I’ve been cursing Edward Schafer. How did this happen?

Schafer’s translation theory is hard-core and heavy-duty. For Schafer, poems exist only in the language in which they are written, and translations can only be cribs serving to elucidate the original. He takes the old slogan “Poetry is what’s lost in translation” and makes it into an imperative: when translating poetry,  your goal is to lose the poetry.  He expresses himself with admirable bluntness:

I have little automatic reverence of “masterpieces”, and regard my translations as nothing more than aspects of explication — instruments which may help wise men to detect masterpieces. I am certainly not trying to write English poetry — to make pleasing constructs in lieu of hidden Chinese originals — a task to which I am ill suited…. I regard almost all approved translations of T’ang poetry as malignant growths(Mirages on the Sea of Time, pp. 26-7).

Kenneth Rexroth, a Bay Area contemporary of Schafer’s, was on the other side of the line:  he was one of the finest of the poetic translators of Chinese poetry into English. Something he wrote in 1956 was, in a sense, a pre-response to Schafer:

For more than twenty years American Sinology has been dominated by individuals and traditions from the old Tsarist academy, where Far Eastern studies were essentially part of the curriculum of military policy, with the resultant narrowness, formularization and bigotry. (more…)

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 8:58 pm  Comments (12)  

My Fossil Railroad

(Update Below: June 1, 2010)

During my bicycle-barhopping expeditions in the Wobegon area I keep running into the Soo Line, often in little country towns that barely exist (Miltona + Carlos +  Forada, combined population 805, 5 or 6 taverns). This freight line, which kept chugging  along when the famous passenger railroads dwindled and almost died*, was founded by a Minneapolis milling group in 1883, during the era when the milling and railroad monopolies were competing to screw the farmers and each other. Its original purpose was to bypass Chicago and ship flour from Sault St. Marie to the East by boat. (“Soo” comes from “Sault”.) (more…)

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 9:05 pm  Comments (6)  

Blogging Glob’s “Bog People” bog

He is not dead, but sleeping

P.V. Glob, tr. Bruce-Mitford, The Bog People, 1965/1969.

Without having read it, I’ve been citing this bog (“book” = “bog” in Danish) for years now just for the euphony, and now I can trump that.

Even without the snappy title the book would be intrinsically worth reading, if only for the 64 pages of well-done black and white pictures of ~ 2,000 years old human sacrifices and other relics. Ideal bog conditions (not every bog will do) have preserved many bodies so well that they’re often thought to be recent murder victims, and one body was successfully fingerprinted. Such finds are common in Denmark, neighboring areas of Germany and the Netherlands, and parts of the British Isles (but not Sweden or Norway).

Glob’s archaeology is presumably out of date (too much mutterrecht, for one thing), but his history of how these discoveries have been handled in Denmark over the centuries is interesting.  In every era the police have usually been called first, with the local priest called next during  the earliest period, either to give the bodies a Christian burial or to exorcise them. During the 19th century bodies were sometimes treated as curiosities and could become circus exhibits,  but nowadays everything is routinely handled by scientists.

In 1950s a tabloid newspaper claimed that the recently-discovered  Tollund Man was a recent murder victim, but that hooplah died down once the radiocarbon dating came in.  In one instance the railway freight agent rather unreasonably insisted on charging the high fresh-cadaver price for the shipment of a bog body, even though it was encased in a much larger quantity of peat, which ships much more cheaply. (This will remind some Americans of an old humor piece, “Pigs is pigs”, in which a railway agent charges the per-hog price for shipping guinea pigs.)

Sinister bogs figure in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Hamsun’s Mysteries, and presumably many other Scandinavian literary works. And since Christ’s death on the cross was an atonement and substitute for this kind of spring sacrifice, my post is timely.


Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 7:17 pm  Comments (6)  

Blindfold test: the author function &c*

At some point I will translate his powem about the bad boy and the crocodile.

As gold breeds misery
Misery breeds light
That makes the stones glare
for the pauper’s delight.

Light is but the pauper’s gold
Stones are but rocks
That pave the way where run
God’s miserable flocks.

The world has many rocks
God has many flocks
God’s a shepherd, I was told
God is made of gold.

Probably a naive author — a child who can be expected to grow out of it, or a populist with a rhyming dictionary. (But maybe this is a trick question, maybe it’s  Blake or Dickinson or D.H. Lawrence or Stephen Crane or someone undiscovered sort of  like them. Don’t jump too soon. How important is authorship anyway? And who’s that guy in the photo?)

(Answer below the fold)


Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 2:39 pm  Comments (2)  

More on Enid Starkie vs. Petrus Borel

(A further development of the previous post. At some point I will join the two posts into one.)

Starkie’s disapproval of Borel reveals itself in sharp passing comments scattered through the book.  Borel’s grandiose attitudes, irregular way of life, and lack of shrewdness and worldly wisdom are all blamed for his ultimate defeat, which she interprets as weakness. As far as I know Starkie gets the facts right, with one possible and rather large exception, but  she treats Borel’s misfortunes as, in effect,  judgments — things that wouldn’t have happened to a better man.

Starkie’s attitude toward her subject does not have to be teased out with the help of sophisticated hermeneutics:

Indeed nothing sound could be expected from the collaboration of two such madmen as Gerard de Nerval and Petrus Borel (p.148)

Neither he nor Nerval had been able to acclimatise themselves to ordinary everyday life (p. 191)

Champfleury describes him as a shabby middle-aged man…. talking solemnly and grandiloquently in archaic language. He still thought of himself as a leader, still tried to assert his ascendancy over others …. only Baudelaire, with his sympathy and understanding for failures, recognized something noble and fine in this tragic wreck….Life however broke Borel as it was never to break Baudelaire (p. 149)

[This is a repeated theme; Gautier was also “a survivor”. Baudelaire, the greatest poet of the age unless it was Hugo, in fact admired Borel and learned from him, which suggests that Borel was, in fact, a leader.]

Petrus Borel was the kind of meteoric personality who is thrown up by violent revolution, whose light burns brightly for a short space, as long as the fashion for destruction prevails, and finally, because he cannot adapt himself to the conditions of a stable society, splutters out into obscurity.  (p. 193) (more…)

Published in: on April 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm  Comments (4)  

An iron law of literary history

In early 19th century France, drinking from human skulls was regarded as eccentric

Petrus Borel the Lycanthrope

Enid Starkie, Petrus Borel, New Directions, 1954

The pioneer French avant-gardeist Petrus Borel (fl. 1830-1840) was noted for his extravagant attitudes and behavior and his violently republican political beliefs. His bitter, cynical fiction sold poorly, and before he abandoned writing he lived for a considerable time in real poverty.  By and large his writings have been forgotten, and he is generally regarded as having been important as a personage, and perhaps as an influence, but not as a writer.  (On this more later;  I have some books on order and wonder whether Borel might not be due for a revival.)

Enid Starkie, by contrast, is an Anglo-Irishwoman* of good family who spent her life going from success to success and who played a major role in introducing such authors as Rimbaud to English-language readers. Her biography of Borel is good for what it is, and it also can serve as a literary history of the time. She does not have the carefulness of contemporary biographers and occasionally takes stories too much at face value, but that’s more than made up for by the good anecdotes she passes along as a consequence of that.

The problem with Starkie is this: like every other biographer of a starving artist I’ve ever read, from time to time Starkie feels compelled to kibitz , or to wonder why Borel did the things he did, or to suggest maybe he was partly at fault for his difficulties, or to suggest other ways he could have gone at things. Borel is not the best case to make my point, since the value of his work is uncertain, but I have also seen similar attitudes taken toward artists like Musorgsky, Satie, and Nerval whose merit is unquestioned.

Subject to correction, I would like to generalize this into a law. There are no starving or avant-garde biographers. The biographers of starving artists will always have more common sense and be much more comfortably situated than their biographees, and in every case some degree of condescension must slip into their work. Readers are invited to suggest counterexamples.

As a corrective principle I’d like to propose that if the person you’re writing the biography of has been dead for a century or more, they should (except for idiot kings, mass murderers, etc.) be assumed to deserve a considerable degree of respect; whereas the same is not necessarily true of biographers.

* Along with Joanna Richardson’s The Bohemians and Pamela Pilbeam’s The 1830 Revolution in France, Starkie’s book has also led me to suspect that well-born Englishwomen, however hyphenated, are not the best choices for writing about Frenchpersons of any description.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 1:51 am  Comments (7)