“Adopt the attitude of the octopus*”


Πολύποδος νόον ϊσχε    Polypi mentem obtine

The Adages of Erasmus, ed. & tr. William Barker, Toronto, 2001, I i 93, pp.41-5.

Cephalopods are like chameleons, but more so. Not only can they match the color of the surface they’re seen against, but in order to blend into the background they can even match complex and rippling patterns of color and texture. For this reason Victor Hugo describes the octopus as a “hypocrite”, since it pretends to be something that it’s not. (Here, an octopus pretends to be a rock). Erasmus, drawing on classical Mediterranean sources, also notes this capacity, but he treats it much more favorably. Whether this difference is Northern vs. Southern, pagan vs. Christian, or post- vs. pre-Reformation I do not know, but it strikes me as something worth looking into. It may merely be that in the Mediterranean cephalopods are just more familiar and ordinary than they are in the North of France.

Erasmus’s treatment of this proverb is fuller and in general more favorable than those given to other similar proverbs dealing with changeability and disguise: the chameleon (III iv 1 pp.273-4 ), the fox (as opposed to the hedgehog: I v 18, pp. 87-9), and Proteus (II ii 74, pp. 167-8). In ascending order of dignity, the chameleon is said to represent a dissembler, or  one who is inconstant and adopts any appearance to suit the time. The fox, with his many tricks, is held to be inferior to the hedgehog with his single very effective trick. The versatility and resourcefulness of the divine shapeshifter Proteus (twisting and turning…. hard to pin down…. a cunning fellow and jack of all trades) are treated with a degree of respect, though he hardly seems like someone to rely on. In all of these cases, dissembling and transformation are regarded as defensive tricks primarily useful for someone trying to escape enemies or to keep from being brought under control or called to account.

In polypi mentem obtine , however, octopodal changeability, disguise, opportunism and (as Hugo would say) “hypocrisy” are treated favorably:

The proverb is taken from Theognis, whose couplet about the polyp [octopus] exists today:

Adopt the attitude of the many-colored polyp;

Moving toward a rock, it straightway takes its hue.

This advises us to suit ourselves to every contingency of life, acting the part of Proteus and changing ourselves into any form as the situation demands….On the contrary there is a sensible attitude which makes men comply on occasion with a different mode of conduct, to avoid being disliked or being able to be of use, or else for the sake of rescuing themselves or their households from great dangers. (more…)

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 2:08 pm  Comments (3)  

Gracias y Desgracias del Ojo del Culo, II

And perhaps the power of a fart reaches reaches so far as to be the proof of love, for until a couple have farted in bed, their cohabitation is not settled; and a fart furthermore proclaims trust, since gentlemen neither shit nor fart in the  company of anyone but household members and family.

Gracias y Desgracias del Ojo del Culo, Linkgua.com, Barcelona

Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 1:58 am  Comments (1)  

He must be either dead or teaching school

This is Antonio Machado, the author. Juan de Mairena is not real.

Juan de Mairena’s lucid explanation

Mairena was — notwithstanding his angelic appearance — basically rather ill-tempered. From time to time he would receive a visit from some paterfamilias  complaining, not about the fact that his son had been flunked, but about the casualness of Mairena’s examination process. An angry scene, albeit a brief one, would inevitably occur:

“Is it enough for you just to look at a boy in order to flunk him?” the visitor would ask, throwing his arms wide in feigned astonishment.

Mairena would answer, red-faced and banging the floor with his cane, “I don’t even have to do that much. I just have to look at his father!”

Antonio Machado   Juan de Mairena XVI


Aut mortuus est, aut docet litteras

Ή τέθνήκεν ή διδάσκει γράμματα

“He must be either dead or teaching school”. An iambic line current as a proverb, and used in the old days to convey that a man was in great misfortune, though it was not clear what the man was doing. This passed into common speech, as Zenodatus tells us, on the following occasion. The Athenians, under command of Nicias, had on one occasion fought and lost a battle against the Sicilians; they suffered heavy casualties, and many prisoners were taken and carried off to Sicily, where they were compelled to teach Sicilian children their elements. And so the few who escaped and returned to Athens, when asked what so-and-so was doing in Italy, used to reply with the line I have quoted above.

Desiderius Erasmus, The Adages of Erasmus, ed. Barker,  I X 59, p. 131, Toronto, 2001

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 3:05 am  Comments (4)  

Gracias y Desgracias del Ojo del Culo

Like Lord Byron, the author had a clubfoot, but didn't let that slow him down

Juan Lamas, El del Camison Cagado

Their expulsion is so important for health that to release them is to enjoy them. Thus, doctors order us not to suppress them, and for this reason the Roman emperor Claudius Caesar put forth an edict commanding that no one, on pain of death, and even if dining with the Emperor himself, should hold in his farts, given their importance for health. (Others say that this was done because of the special respect due that honorable gentleman, the asshole.)

Where would we be without our assholes? We can live without almost any other organ, but not this one. Yet it never gets the appreciation and gratitude  it deserves, but is scorned and abused  instead.

Gracias y Desgracias del Ojo del Culo, Linkgua.com, Barcelona

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 2:16 am  Leave a Comment  

What in Jesus’ name did Bruegel think he was doing, wasting his time with “Prudence”?


This is what he was good at:

Fall of the Rebel Angels

Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 5:08 pm  Comments (3)