Gratuitous sour milk symbols

In “Milk Bottles” Sherwood Anderson, possibly writing on an unbearably hot summer night in Chicago, speaks in the voice of a writer much like Anderson. (Many of Anderson’s main characters are writers, often described by non-writers).   Writing on an unbearably hot summer night in Chicago, Anderson’s narrator, “goes off his head”. He quits writing to take a walk, and on his walk meets another writer — an advertising man who wants to be a serious writer. (As an advertising man this second writer is even more like Anderson, though in other ways he might be a bit more like the ex-realist romance writer Hamlin Garland). The second writer reads him what he himself thought was a great piece about Chicago writer that he had just written, but it’s really just wishful, dreamy romantic boosterism, though the narrator doesn’t tell him so.

It turns out, however, that before he had written the crappy piece, the second writer had written a much better piece about Chicago, bitter and realistic, but that since he had attributed its negative tone to the transient bad mood induced a day spent writing advertising copy (a successful day businesswise , but a horrible day otherwise), he had discarded the piece.

This advertising copy for condensed milk. We do not see the piece that had been thrown away, but we do know sour milk played a part in it. And all through Anderson’s own story sour milk keeps showing up — four times in nine pages. This is not unrealistic — on hot afternoons in Chicago before the coming of refrigeration, sour is what milk did — but four times is a lot.

But why is gratuitous sour milk symbolism so universally condemned? Why should authors try to fool readers by slipping the symbols in artfully? Why not just slam them in there and dare the readers to do something about it? Anderson’s narrator starts off by admitting to having gone almost nuts. Maybe the gratuitous symbolism is just a part of that, part of the characterization. The way the story is written we can’t even really be sure which of the three authors is responsible — the narrator, the author he tells about, or Anderson himself. By the end none of the three seemed really capable of keeping track of things and probably none of them could remember who was who.

Many of Anderson’s first person narrators are inarticulate, and there’s reason to believe that Anderson was bit inarticulate too. Faced with an inarticulate passage, we can never be sure whether Anderson had brilliantly succeeded in portraying the character’s inarticulation, the way Nabokov would, or whether the symbiosis between his own inarticulation and the character’s inarticulation allowed Anderson to find optimal inarticulation the ideal place where the two curves crossed — the very opposite of Flaubert’s cogent and perspicacious presentation of the confusion and incomprehension of his hapless, dumfounded subjects.

Anderson was poorly educated and not well read. His secret was that he had no censor, and while one thing this meant was that like Freudians and liberationists he wrote a lot about sex, it wasn’t the same thing at all. Freudians and liberationists still have the censor — they just adjust its settings and produce genteel, depressing smut. Anderson wrote about awkward and embarrassing things of all kinds, not just sex, and he didn’t write about dramatic maudit awkwardness but about boring, ordinary awkward people. Like Schnitzler, perhaps, Anderson was writing about Freud’s raw data, but without putting a Freudian analysis on it.

Anderson was much like the people he wrote about. At least since Henry James people in the biz have been assuring us that authenticity and sincerity are irrelevant to literary merit, but are they actually a detriment? It seems to me that when Flaubert or the Goncourts or Zola studied up on like zoo animals in order to write about ehm, people with whom they would never dream of socializing, regardless of how masterfully they wrote, something important was lost.

Anderson is generally regarded as proto-: proto-Hemingway, proto-Faulkner, proto- Southern Gothic. He could just as well be regarded as proto-Holden Caulfield or proto-noir or proto-absurdist, but why not take him for what he is? The Hemingway comparison is especially unjust, because one of Anderson’s great accomplishments was to succeed in writing non-edifying fiction, not merely because Hemingway was shitty to Anderson, but because what Hemingway ended up doing was write a new kind of edifying fiction, less genteel than the previous version but still glorifying his tragic, nobly damaged protagonists.

In real life, Anderson didn’t believe in the American Dream, but he lived three versions of it. First the rags-to-riches story when he became a paint manufacturer after a white trash upbringing, second the forget-about-success-and-throw-it-all-way escape-from-conventionality story when he left everything and never looked back, and finally the still-active advertising-man-writes-serious-literature story. Everyone since has just been replaying these cliches.


Here’s a weirdness sample, from a different book. The married narrator is thinking of his fantasy girl, Natalie. He is fully aware that he is being absurd, but the censor is off:

Down in the office he had thought of her body as a house within which she lived. Why could not more than one person live within such a house?….There was the thought about Natalie being a house kept clean and sweet for living, a house into which one might go gladly and joyfully.

Could he, a washing machine manufacturer of a Wisconsin town, stop on the street a college professor and say, “I want to know, Mr. College Professor, if your house is clean and sweet for living so that people may come and live in it and, if it is so, I want you to tell me how you went about it to cleanse your house”.

The notion was absurd. It made one laugh to even think of any such thing. There would have to be new figures of speech, a new way of looking at things. For one thing people would have to be more truly aware of themselves than they had ever been before.”

Published in: on September 11, 2015 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

History of the Caucasian Albanians

The History of the Caucasian Albanians by Movses Dasxuranci (a.k.a. Moses Kałankatuaçi; tr. C.J.F. Dowsett,Oxford, 1961)

Written in Armenian around 1000 A.D., this book relates the history from about 600 A.D. of a vanished people who spoke an exotic and now-extinct language. It’s not quite as exotic as that, however — the Albanians were very closely associated with the Armenians, and the book is basically a version of early Armenian history.

This isn’t the most obscure book I’ve ever looked at. That would probably be Cosmas Indicopleustes’ Cosmography, a sixth-century Greek work which purports to show that the Earth is oblong rather than spherical.1 Neither book is a lot of  fun in the strict sense of the word, but if you poke around Movses’ book, you will be transported to post-Roman, pre-Muslim world which is Christian but neither Western nor exotically Eastern – a world in which almost everything seems to have been put into the wrong pigeonhole.

So “Albania” in this book does not mean the Albania of today, but instead the present-day Azerbaijan.  The Romans were careless about names, putting Albanias, Iberias (once the name of Caucasian Georgia), Galicias, and Gauls here, there and everywhere — Galicias and Gauls were located in in Turkey, France, Wales, Poland, Belgium and Spain.

But history did take its revenge. For Movses the “Romans” are the Byzantine Greeks in Constantinople — despised Chalcedonian heretics like today’s Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians. It’s the Albanians, Armenians and (up to a certain point) Georgians who are “Orthodox” — meaning Monophysite.2  The Western Europe of the Dark Ages, and the Pope, are not even factors here – Movses’ chronicle begins two centuries before Charlemagne, at a time when many  Franks were still pagan and the pagan Anglo-Saxons were just getting settled in Britain. (But while there are no Catholics as we know them in this book, there is a Catholikos – a high-ranking Monophysite churchman).

Because of their enmity to the Romans (Greeks), at the beginning of the book the Albanians and Armenians are usually allied to the Persians, who were still Zoroastrian or “Magians”.  Soon enough, however, the Persians were overwhelmed by the Arab Muslims, who are called Tajiks — a word which now refers to Central Asians of Persian language and culture, notably (but not only) in Tajikistan.  (The word “Arab”, in turn, almost always refers to nomad bandits or Bedouins in Gibbs’ translation of Ibn Battuta.  Ibn Battuta himself was a Berber, though he wrote in Arabic, but this is probably not the reason he used the term thie way he did — only recently, under the influence of Western nationalism,  have the Arabic-speaking peoples begun to call themselves “Arabs”, rather than simply identifying themselves by religion and place of birth or residence.)

Foreign cultures appear in Movses’ book in a marvelously garbled form.  Muhammed was a “diabolical and ferocious archer who dwelt in the desert.  One day Satan, assuming the shape of a wild deer, led him to meet a false Arian hermit by the name of Bahira….. Bahira began to teach him from the Old and New Testaments after the manner of Arius, who held that the Son of God was a created thing, and commanded him to tell the barbarous Tajiks what he had learned from him, his foul teacher…. The gullible and erring Tajik tribe summoned a great assembly, went into the arid, demon-haunted desert, and welcomed the diabolically inspired Muhammed into their midst.” Muhammed is also revealed to be an adulterous lecher, a very old trope indeed.

Elsewhere Movses tells a garbled story merging the Iliad and the Aeneid: there are 2,000 Trojan horses instead of one, and the story ends with the founding of Rome by descendants of returning Greeks who had been  blown off-course to Italy, and stranded there when the captive Trojan women burned their ships. (Movses also seems to accept the Iliad as a holy book of the Christian Romans / Greeks, on a par with the Bible.)

The most interesting parts of this book are probably the tactful descriptions of the pagans – the devil-worshiping “thumb-cutters” and the Turkish Khazars.  The Khazars: “bestial, gold-loving tribes of hairy men…. an ugly, insolent, broadfaced, eyelashless mob in the shape of women with flowing hair….demented in their satanically deluded  tree-worshipping errors in accordance with their northern dull-witted stupidity, addicted to their fictitious and deceptive religion….There we observed them on their couches like rows of heavily laden camels.  Each had a bowl full of the flesh of unclean animals, and dishes containing salt water into which they dipped their food, and brimming silver cups and beakers chased with gold which had been taken from the plunder from Tiflis.  They also had drinking horns and gourd-shaped utensils from which they lapped their broth and similar greasy, congealed, unwashed abominations. Two or three of them to one cup, they greedily and bestially poured neat wine into their insatiable bellies which had the appearance of bloated goatskins….. Possessing completely anarchical minds, they stumble into every sort of error, beating drums and whistling over corpses, inflicting bloody sabre and dagger cuts on their cheeks and limbs, and engaging naked in sword fights – oh hellish sight! – at the graves, man against man and troop against troop, all stripped for battle….. They danced their dances with obscene acts, sunk in benighted filth and deprived of the sight of the light of the creator…. They were also incontinent sexually, and in accordance with their heathen, barbarous customs they married their father’s wife, shared one wife between two brothers, and married several women.”

In defiance of the retreating Khazar qagan, at one point  the Georgians “fetched a huge pumpkin upon which they drew an image of the king of the Honk’, a cubit broad and a cubit long.  In place of his eyelashes which no one could see they drew a jot; the region of his beard they left ignominiously naked, and they made the nostrils a span wide with a number of hairs under them in the form of a mustache so that all might recognize him. This they brought and placed upon the wall opposite them, and showing it to the armies, they called out ‘Behold the Emperor, your King! Turn and worship him for it is Jebu Qagan!'” (But this terrible insult only made the Huns’ revenge that much fiercer in the following year.)

As for the thumb-cutters (seemingly an indigenous Caucasian pagan cult): “The devil appears in human form and orders three ceremonies to be held, each one comprising three men; these are not to be wounded or slain, but while still alive are to have the skin and thumb of the right hand removed and drawn with the skin over the chest to the little finger of the left hand; the little finger is then to be cut and broken off inside the skin. The same is to be done with the feet while the victim is still alive, and then he is to be slain and flayed, arranged and placed in a basket.  When the time for the wicked service arrives, a folding iron chair is set up, the feet of which  are in the shape of human feet, and which many of us saw brought here.  A valuable garment is placed on this chair, and when the devil comes, he dons this garment, sits in the chair, and taking a weapon, he examines the skin of the man together with the fingers….. A saddled and harnessed horse is held ready, and mounting the horse, he gallops it to a standstill; then he becomes invisible and disappears.  This he repeats every year.”

Eventually, the Khazars (also called Huns, or “Honk'” in Armenian) were converted to Christianity.  The thumb-cutters were killed after an unsuccessful attempt at reforming them.  Later still the Khazars were to make quite a stir by converting again, to Judaism this time.3 

Those who have enjoyed the stories of the thumb-cutters and the Khazars will probably also enjoy Ibn Fadlan’s ninth-century description of a Rus’ human sacrifice and orgy among the Volga Bulgars.  The Rus’ were ancestors of the Russians but were probably mostly Scandinavian at the time when Ibn Fadlan observed them. (Marius Canard,  Miscellanea Orientalia, Variorum, 1973, XI: “La relation de la voyage d’Ibn Fadlan chez les Bulgares de la Volga.”)


1 “The Deity accordingly having founded the earth, which is oblong, upon its own stability, bound together the extremities of the heaven with the extremities of the earth, making the nether extremities of the heaven rest upon the four extremities of the earth, while on high he formed it into a most lofty vault overspanning the length of the earth. Along the breadth again of the earth he built a wall from the nethermost extremities of the heaven upwards to the summit, and having enclosed the place, made a house, as one might call it, of enormous size, like an oblong vaulted vapour-bath. For, saith the Prophet Isaiah (xlix, 22): He who established heaven as a vault. With regard, moreover, to the glueing together of the heaven and the earth, we find this written in Job: He has inclined heaven to earth, and it has been poured out as the dust of the earth. I have welded it as a square block of stone.”

Contemporary Bible literalists have enormous problems with the firmament which separates the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth. Evolution isn’t the only thing they have to worry about.

2 The “Rom” or “Rum” have variously been Greeks, Turks, Crusaders, Romanians, and Gypsies over the centuries, and as the capital of the Empire or as the center of Christendom, “Rome” has minimally been sited at Ravenna, Constantinople, Aachen/Aix, Salerno, Avignon, Moscow, Paris, and Vienna. During the modern colonial period “India” was also found everywhere: in India, Ethiopia, the Caribbean Americas, and Southeast Asia. (Guinea / Ghana / Guiana is another wandering colonial place name.)

The bird we call the “turkey” is often given a foreign geographical designation, being called “dinde” (or some equivalent meaning “bird of India”) in many languages (including Turkish); “peru” in Brazil (and in India, from the Portuguese); “bird of  Egypt” in Macedonian; “Dutch bird” in Malaysia; some derivative of “bird from Calicut” (India) in Dutch and in the Scandinavian languages; and “bird of India”, “bird of Ethiopia” or “bird of Rum” in Arabic dialects .  (Note that Rome shows up again: “Rum” = “Rome” = “Turkey”).

And there is another turkey-like bird called a “Guinea fowl” which was occasionally mistaken for the turkey during the early days.

The list of words in the modern Romanian language derived from the word  “Rome” is quite a motley one. (Note that “Rumanian” and “Romanian” have entirely different meanings):

“Rom”: Gypsy; rum.
“Roman”: Roman; novel , novellette, serialized story.
“Romanşă”: Romansch (Swiss dialect).
“Român”: Romanian (n, adj) .
“Română”: Romanian (language).
“Rumân”: Serf, villein, peasant.
“Rumânie”: Serfdom, villeinage, peasant dependency.

(Andrei Bantaş. Dicţionar Român-Englez, Teora, Bucareşti, 1995.)

3 Frankly, I’m not really sure that the Khazars and the Huns are the same people in this work, though they certainly seem to be in what I’ve read so far.

On the Jewish Khazars, see:
Dunlop, D. M., History of the Jewish Khazars, Princeton, 1964;
Golden, Peter, Khazaria and Judaism, Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevii, vol. 3, 1983, 127-156;
Pritsak, Omeljan, “The Khazar King’s Conversion to Judaism”, Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 2, 1978, pp. 261—281.

Published in: on September 1, 2015 at 7:39 pm  Comments (1)