John Emerson’s least hits

(This page, which will eventually  stand humbly beside a Greatest Hits page, consists of brief posts cobbled together from scavenged tidbits — some of them entirely trivial,  others less so, but most of them amusing.)

The Root of the Problem

Natalya, however , remembers Yezhov with love. She has said in an interview “He spent a lot of time with me, more even than my mother did. He made tennis rackets for me. He made skates and skis. He made everything for me himself.” And the authors of the first English-language biography of Yezhov write, “At the dacha, Yezhov taught her to play tennis, skate, and ride a bicycle. He is remembered as a gentle, loving father showering her with presents and plying with her in the evenings after returning from the Lubyanka.

Robert Chandler, “Appendix” to Vasily Grossman, The Road. Yezhov was the head of NKVD and presided over the Stalinist terror during 1937 and 1938; after being replaced by Beria in 1939, he was shot in 1940. He was responsible for the deaths of as many as a million people, including much of the Russian intelligentsia.

Yezhov was nice to his daughter. Stalin was nice to his daughter. Adolf Eichmann was nice to his kids. Hitler was nice to children and dogs.

People! Quit being nice to children! That’s where it all starts!

Sexual customs of the Icelanders

Blefkenius (a sixteenth century explorer) reported that young Icelandic women (“very beautiful but poorly dressed”) offered travelers sexual hospitality much like the Babylonian temple prostitution reported by Herodotus. Marco Polo reports the same custom in two places he visited –  a city in what is now Xinjiang, and a place which he calls Tibet. (Blefkarius’s report was stoutly denied by Arngrimus Jonas, a coadjutor to the bishop of Iceland who, Bayle informs us, married a young woman when he was in his late 80s and lived well into his 90s.) In The Fate of Shechem Pitt Rivers discusses customs of this type, notably the Biblical sexual hospitality (also discussed by Bayle) that Abraham and Isaac offered to the Pharoah and Abimelech respectively. However, Pitt-Rivers emphasizes the nomadism of the early Hebrews, which was not a factor in the Icelandic and Asian cases.

Blefkenius also reported that it was forbidden to leave the table during Icelandic drinking bouts, so that young girls would bring chamber pots and hold them under the tables for the celebrants relieve themselves into. Marco Polo reported a similar custom among the Rus, who during this period were not as different from Scandinavians as they would later become. Kepler attributed Tycho Brahe’s death a few centuries later to an exploded bladdercaused by Brahe’s “courtesy”:  “even though he felt the tension in his bladder increasing …. he put politeness before his health”. Knowing what we do about Brahe, however, it seems more likely that it was a contest, and that Brahe died because his competitiveness did not allow him to leave the table first.

What are we to make of this? Were Blefkenius’s two stories plagiarized from Marco Polo? If they were, Bayle didn’t say so when he relayed the stories — perhaps he hadn’t read Polo, a non-classical author. The sexual hospitality story may just be a version of the timeless joke about the travelling salesman and the farmer’s daughter; perhaps a certain kind of man (Blefkarius, Polo, Herodotus,  Abimelech) makes sure he finds this custom wherever he goes, whether it was already there or not.

We should also note that during this era blonde people were not necessarily “white”. Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Battuta, and Marco Polo all describe the pale northern peoples like the Russians and the black Africans alike as lewd, filthy, superhumanly strong barbarians.

Marco Polo: Pelliot-Moule tr., pp. 269-270, 476; Tycho (per Kepler): Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, p. 311; Blefkenius: Pierre Bayle (tr. Popkin), Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, pp. 104-106.

Dolores Haze was normal, poor Dora was sick.

He then came back, and, instead of going out by the open door, suddenly clasped the girl to him and pressed a kiss upon her lips. This was surely a situation to call up a distinct feeling of sexual excitement in  a girl of fourteen who had never been approached. But Dora had at that moment a violent feeling of disgust…. In this scene,…. the behavior of this child of fourteen was already entirely and completely hysterical. I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion of sexual excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable

Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Collier, 1963, pp. 43-44).

A letter of a kind I am happy never to have received

London, May 16, 1751 My Dear Friend, In about three months from this day, we shall probably meet. I look upon that moment as a young woman does upon her bridal night; I expect the greatest pleasure, and yet cannot help fearing some admixture of pain.….

This is Lord Chesterfield writing to his son. Where are the Freudians when you need them? I am very glad that my own father never wrote anything like this to me.

Lord Chesterfield constantly nagged his bastard about not being shallow, frivolous, and artificial enough. He recommended that he take two mistresses, one of them a high society lady to teach him the airs and graces, and the other a girl of convenience. His son was touring Europe, and while he was there Lord Chesterfield continually pimped fine ladies on him, many of whom sent back reports ((most of them negative). By the evidence of Chesterfield’s letters the bastard was a serious-minded, scholarly sort — your kids always disappoint you. He resisted as best he could, but what response could anyone possibly make to a letter like this one?

Blogging Glob’s Bog People Bog

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

For years now, without having read it, I’ve been citing this bog (the Danish word for book) just for the euphony, but now a can finally actually review it. 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 extremely 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.

Besides his archaeological work, Glob (who died in 1985) was was affiliated with the Situationist International and was a founder of the Scandinavian Institute for Creative Vandalism .

Before Ayn Rand and Nietzsche was La Païva

At table she expounded a frightening theory of will-power, saying that everything was the result of an effort of the will, that there were no such things as fortuitous circumstances, that one created one’s own circumstances, and that unfortunate people were so only because they did not want to stop being unfortunate….She spoke of a woman who, in order to attain some unspecified aim, shut herself up for three years, completely cut off from the world, scarcely eating anything and often forgetting about food, walled up within herself and entirely given over to the plan she was developing. And then she concluded: “I was that woman”.

Goncourt Journals, January 3, 1868 (p. 134)

La Païva (Esther Pauline Thérèse Lachmann, Mme Villoing, Mme la Marquise de Païva, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck) was one of the most famous courtesans of decadent Second Empire France — famous for bleeding her lovers dry. In those days marriages were expected to be loveless and there was no such thing as a relationship, and men who had the wherewithal satisfied their needs for sex, romance, fantasy, ego-gratification, etc. through a variety of more or less openly commercial arrangements. A few of the courtesans became the objects of bidding wars and were able do very well for themselves, and La Païva married several aristocrats and spent the last years of her life in her final husband’s castle.

When La Païva declared her metaphysic of the will in the passage above, Nietzsche was only 24 and had published nothing, so the direction of influence could only have been in the other direction. However, it seems unlikely that, impecunious and inept as he was, Nietzsche ever met La Païva in the flesh, so we must conclude that the influence was transmitted through some intermediary. As it happens, between 1842 and 1846, when she was living with the pianist Herz,  La Païva had become friends with the composers von Bülow and Wagner  (Rounding, p. 82) who later would successively marry Liszt’s daughter Cosima (in 1857 and 1870 respectively). By 1868, when La Païva was stating her philosophy to the Goncourt circle, Cosima was still married to von Bülow but involved with Wagner and flirting with Nietzsche.  Thus, Cosima was the most likely channel by which the Païvist principle reached Nietzsche.

As for Ayn Rand, given Nietzsche’s notable lack of worldly success, La Païva would seem to be a much more likely teacher and role model  for her than Nietzsche. Like La Païva, Ayn Rand was an unobservant exiled Jew who reinvented herself very successfully in a hostile foreign environment, and Rand’s first book (in Russian) was a biography of the Polish vamp and femme fatale Pola Negri,another self-made woman who triumphed in a strange land.

La Païva’s influence on 19th century thought is too often neglected, perhaps because of her unrespectable occupation.

Grandes Horizontales, Virginia Rounding, Bloomsbury, 2003).
Pages from the Goncourt Journals, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, tr. Baldick, 2007.


19th century marital studies

I was seated between Delacroix and Comte Gilbert de Voisins, who arrived when we were already at the table. His first question was “Who is that schoolmistress next to Morny?” I was not exactly worried that I would upset him by replying “That’s your wife”. He searched far back in his memory before answering “Well, that is possible”…….. After dinner Gilbert de Voisins, who was afraid of nothing, not even his wife, had the impertinence of having himself presented to her. She took it well. “It seems to me, monsieur, that I had the honor of being presented to you around 1832.”

Houssaye, Arsène, Man About Paris, Wm. Morrow & Co., 1970, p. 287.

Did 19th century Frenchmen have sex with their wives? My researches so far have not turned up any evidence that they did. They seem to have preferred house servants, tubercular working girls, prostitutes, courtesans, opera singers, actresses, other men’s wives, and 17 year old virgins. It may be, of course, that the Frenchman of that era did occasionally have sex with their wives, but either were ashamed to admit it, or else thought that marital sex is not a suitable topic for decent conversation, much less for literature.

Another reason to dislike Flaubert

C’était une de ces coiffures d’ordre composite, où l’on retrouve les éléments du bonnet à poil, du chapska, du chapeau rond, de la casquette de loutre et du bonnet de coton, une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’expression comme le visage d’un imbécile. Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulaires; puis s’alternaient, séparés par une bande rouge, des losanges de velours et de poils de lapin; venait ensuite une façon de sac qui se terminait par un polygone cartonné, couvert d’une broderie en soutache compliquée, et d’où pendait, au bout d’un long cordon trop mince, un petit croisillon de fils d’or, en manière de gland. Elle était neuve; la visière brillait.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

In order to read a single goddamn paragraph about Charles Bovary’s goddamn hat I had to look up “casquette”,  “bonnet à poil”,  “chapska”, “chapeau rond”, “casquette de loutre”,  “bonnet de coton”, “boudins circulaires”, “polygone cartonné”, “broderie en soutache”, “croisillon”, and “gland”,  and half the dictionary definitions and English translations were useless. “Otter hat”? “Polish hat?” — I still couldn’t visualize the stupid thing. But for Flaubert, it was, in short, “one of those shabby things whose silent ugliness was as revealing as the blank stare of an idiot. The hat pretty much clinched the case against poor Charles, now doomed for all eternity. All those guys — Realists, Naturalists, Parnassians, Decadents, the whole boatload — devoutly believed that the accumulation of visual detail, plus mysterious intuition, gives you direct  access to deep reality. That was what Charles’ hat was all about. But really it’s just the Faubert’s literary projection of his social prejudices with a lot of extra-credit vocabulary words thrown in as a bonus.

Germinie Lacerteux, by the Goncourt brothers

Mais pourquoi, me dira-t-on, choisir ces milieux?….Peut-être parce que je suis un littérateur bien-né et que le peuple, la camaille, si vous voulez, a pour moi l’attrait de populations inconnues et non découvertes, quelque chose de l’ “exotique” que les voyageurs vont chercher avec mille souffrances dans les pays lointains.

Edmond and Jules Goncourt, cited by Hubert Juin in his introduction to Germinie Lacerteaux.

The peculiar thing here is that their own household was one of the exotic milieux about which the Goncourts were writing. Germinie Lacerteux in the novel was modeled on the Goncourts’ real-life servant Rose Malingre, who had been with them for decades and had cared for them as children. Upon her death in 1865 it was found that she had been stealing from them for years, using the money to buy absinthe and cavort with her brutish gigolo. (Rose’s name literally means something like “sickly rose” — cf. William Blake — and while this fits in perfectly with the Goncourt’s theory of hereditary medical decay, the Malingres were a rather old family which was dying out very slowly, if at all).

Theft, absinthe and sex — that sounds like one of the Goncourts’ bohemian acquaintances. But she was a girl, and it was their money, and girls and servants were not supposed to do that kind of thing. They took their revenge by writing a novel in which Rose / Germinie dies a horrible death, even worse than Rose’s actual death. (French realists seem to have specialized in the death scenes of lewd women: Zola’s Nana, and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary are other examples). Flaubert’s later story Un coeur simple, was also about a devoted servant, but this one remained saintly and self-sacrificing to the end. This story was the only work in which Flaubert portrayed an admirable character, and we must assume that it was his little smirk toward at the Goncourts.

By choosing a devoted servant for his positive character, Flaubert really tips his hand. He was famous for despising almost everyone, but when he decided to write about someone who was neither contemptible nor exotic, he came up with a little homily which could have been written by an ancien régime Catholic. In this he resembles Céline: the admirable characters in Voyage a la bout de la nuit include a devout crippled orphan girl, the saintly noncom uncle who supports her without ever having seen her, and a prostitute with a heart of gold.

Those people were crazy, I tell you

As a young man, away from home for the first time, Flaubert was “imperiously possessed” of the idea of castrating himself.

Geoffrey Wall, “Introduction” to Gustave Flaubert, Three Tales.


Dark, narrow corridor”, “yellowish, worn stones”, “acrid dampness”, “black with grime”, “dirty panes”, “lurks miserably”, “foul winter days”, “slimy paving”, “mean, soiled shadows”, “dank air of cellars”, “grey with dust”, “strange greenish reflections”, “shops full of darkness”, “gloomy holes”, “weird figures”. That’s more than 10% of the first half page. Some say that Thérèse Raquin was doomed by heredity, some say it was environment, but I say that it was Zola’s prose that killed her.

Heredia, “Les trophées”

For a realistic picture of the life of the centaur you can’t beat the sequence Hercule et les Centaures in Heredia’s Les trophées. He gets down to the nitty-gritty — the seating arrangements for the various sorts of inlaws at centaur weddings, for example, or the stresses put on the centaur marriage by husbands who are continually sneaking off to score blonde chicks, and by wives in heat galloping off to run with the thoroughbreds.

For the father, breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

Fur den Vater war das Fruhstuch die wichtigste Mahlzeit des Tages.

Franz Kafka Die Verwandlung

Herr Samsa’s 1915 statement of this principle is he earliest I have been able to find. All things considered, I do not regard him as a reliable guide on the topic.

Marco Polo and Diversity

Marco Polo not only discovered Asia (for Europe), he discovered diversity. And he told us so:

Toutes gens que volés savoir les deverses jenerasions des homes et les deversités des deverse region dou monde, si prennés cestui livre et le feites lire. Et qui trovererés toutes les grandismes mervoilles et the grant diversités de la grande Harminie et de Persie et des Tartars et de Inde….

“Everyone who wants to know the diverse nations of men and the diversities of the diverse regions of the world, take this book and read it. And here you will find all of the greatest marvels and the great diversities of Greater Armenia and of Persia and of the Tartars and of India…”

Marco Polo, Chapter One

This is from the Franco-Italian version of Marco Polo, written in a non-standard mixed dialect at a time when even Court French wasn’t really very standardized: “Old French doesn’t have rules, but only tendencies” (Kibler, Introduction to Old French. Note that Polo spells the word “deversités” two different ways.) There are about seven texts of Marco Polo which are regarded as in some way “original”; all are early versions of a series of texts which many have been lost.

The Franco-Italian text is thought to be closest to the original, and it’s noticeably badly written. This is unsurprising, since vernacular literature in French was only a little more than a century old, Marco Polo was not a writer at all, and his co-author Rustichello was an Italian trying to write French. The dialect used was a compromise language related to the lingua franca of the crusaders and Mediterranean sailors, adapted as much as possible to the language of the literary romances. (Besides translating, Marco Polo’s translators also cleaned up the writing a bit — the Tuscan version uses the word “diverse”, in some form, only three times instead of four, and the Court French translation uses it only twice.)

Serious literature during that period was written in Latin, whereas vernacular literature of that period was secular, profane, and often rather trashy. (though Polo’s contemporaries Dante and Cavalcanti were already working to change this, unfortunately,  by producing tiresome, high-tone vernacular work.)  Marco Polo’s book fits loosely into the era’s “Wonders of the East” genre, and Rusticello folded in as much heroic romance as he could. While these genres may seem naive, folkish, and low class to us today, they were intended for the nobility, the high bourgeoisie and their hangers-on. I can’t think of another book in world history where the form-content imbalance was as great as it is in this one.

Three entomologists;  three in corduroy

Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly-collecting activities are well known, but not everyone knows that the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and the Franco-Belgian poet Henri Michaux were also entomologists, albeit amateurs compared to Nabokov. Erik Satie, Henry David Thoreau, and George Sand were all known for wearing corduroy, but in Satie’s case it was called velours côtelé and he was not blamed.  (No, “velvet gentleman” isn’t right. And “corduroy” isn’t the word in French, though the English word comes from French.) But Americans of that era regarded corduroy as Irish, and ladies were not supposed to wear corduroy or smoke cigars, so the other two did not get off so easily

He must be either dead or teaching school

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

Juan de Mairena, Antonio Machado’s fictitious alter ego, had been condemned to schoolteaching rather than to death, and he did not take it well:|

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

Renaissance primitivism

They were simple people who gave way to their feelings. We repress ours…. (p. 100)

Here, too, was the “underdevelopment of sight”.  He was content to “feel” — like his whole age (p. 454).

The Problem of Unbelief in the 16th Century,
Lucien Febvre, 1942.

Who was Febvre talking about? Martin Luther, and with him, the entire Renaissance: Erasmus, More, Montaigne, Pico, Rabelais, the whole shebang. This is the Annales school’s famous histoire des mentalités. Where did it come from?

A while ago our teacher Lévy-Bruhl investigated how and why primitives reasoned differently from civilized men. Yet a good part of the latter remained primitives for a long time (p. 6).

But Levi-Bruhl was refuted by Lévi-Strauss, and there’s no such thing as “la mentalité primitive” any more.  And anyway, you’re not supposed to talk about white people that way — Luther and Erasmus were not wogs!

During the first half of the 20th century French rationalism and scientism were fierce and savage. Febvre was diligently refuting an even more rationalistic earlier book by Abel Lefranc which had claimed that Rabelais himself was a pure rationalist and centuries ahead of his time.


Heinrich von Kleist on the Wurzburg culture of 1800

Nowhere do we more readily receive an idea of the cultural level of a city and its prevailing tastes than in its reading libraries. Listen to what I encountered there, and I will say no more about the intellectual level of Würzburg:

We would like to have a couple of good things to read.”
“The collection is at your disposal.
“Something of Wieland?
“I rather doubt it.”
“Or Schiller, or Goethe?”
“They would be hard to find.”
“What! Are all of their books loaned out? Are the people here such readers?”
“Hardly that.”
“Who are the most avid readers here?” “Lawyers, merchants, and married ladies.”
“And the unmarried ones?”
“They may not borrow books.”
“And the students?”
“We have been instructed not to give them any.”
“Well, then, please tell us, if so little reading is done here, where in the world are the works of Goethe and Schiller?”
“By your leave, sir, such things are never read here.”
“You mean, you do not have them here in your library?”
“They are not allowed”.
What sort of books are all these on the shelves, then?”
“Chivalric romances. Nothing but chivalric romances. On the right, chivalric romances with ghosts; on the left, chivalric romances without ghosts, as you prefer.”
“Ah, I see.”

Heinrich von Kleist, tr. Miller, An Abyss Deep Enough, p. 61: letter to Willhelmine von Zenge from Würzburg, Sept 13-18, 1800.

We should never sneer at the romance novel, the most durable of all literary forms. Romance novels have been written and read continuously since God knows when. St. Augustine complained about them, Dante complained about them, Cervantes complained about them, Kleist complained about them, but the romance novel is invulnerable and laughs at the whiny literati. Most of Hamlin Garland’s works were romance novels. Sinclair Lewis began his career writing romance novels. Realism is just a fad, whereas romance novels will still be around when New York , London, and Paris are crumbling wastelands inhabited only by the wind).


 To encourage the authors

Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. Samuel Johnson

Dans ce pay-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres — Voltaire

People are always saying that the arts don’t do well under censorship, but art and literature flourished under the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and under the Czars. Even under Russian Communism literature did very well — my friends who read Russian are always discovering great new Russian twentieth-century Russian authors. By contrast, under conditions of freedom most American literature is crap. The obvious solution would be to kill an American author every once in awhile. I have a few names in mind. (No, I’m not volunteering. Famous authors only).

The μακελοσ Queen

Susanna Akerman, Queen Christina of Sweden and Her Circle, Brill, 1991.

Queen Christina of Sweden was a very serious coin collector, and she also commissioned a series of 118 coins commemorating her life, which she called her “histoire metallique”, though only 8 of them were actually struck before her abdication.

One of them is a recognizable image of Christina wearing the helmet of Athena, the Athenian virgin goddess of wisdom. The logo on the reverse side, μακελοσ, puzzled classicists until they realized that it was the Swedish word “makelos”, which means “peerless or unmatched”, “unmarried”, and perhaps (by a stretch) “undefeated”.

This word is seen in Middle English in the form of “makeles”, and is an epithet of the Virgin Mary :

I synge of a mayden
That is makeles:
Kyng of alle kynges
To hir son she ches.

Christina was without false modesty or, it would seem, any other kind.

NOTE: In German makellos means “unblemished”, “without stain”, “immaculate”, meanings I cannot find in English (OED) or  Anglo-Saxon. Etymologically it is a completely different word, from the Latin macula. But the Virgin Mary was also immaculate, , though the Immaculate Conception is a fairly recent dogma.

The Czarist regime in two anecdotes

St. Petersburg, Solomon Volkov

The impresario Diaghilev, who played an enormous role in the development of early 20th c. music and ballet, was a talentless, unscrupulous charlatan.How do we know this? When he was 24 Diaghilev wrote the following to his stepmother, with whom he was very close:

I am, first of all, a great charlatan, although brilliant, and secondly, a great charmer, and thirdly, very brazen, and fourthly, a man with a great amount of logic and a small amount of principles, and fifthly, I believe, without talent; however, if you like, I believe I have found my real calling – patronage of the arts. For that, I ha ve everything except money, but that will show up.

Of course, maybe he was just another “unreliable narrator” (or perhaps a Cretan liar).


In 1881 Czar Alexander II was killed by nihilist assassins. Czar Alexander III knew he needed to do something to restore Russia’s confidence, so for 15,000 rubles he commissioned the world’s first Fabergé egg and gave it to the Czarina on Easter. Imperial Russia wasn’t into pragmatism and efficiency. Assassination is a poor way of achieving political goals, and nihilists basically believe that nothing is possible anyway. And Fabergé eggs are likewise an ineffective response to social unrest.

A happy ending which only The Buddha could bring

She rained tears and made prostrations day and night without ceasing. Three days later, during her worship, she saw an image of the Buddha, who announced to her “Your bridegroom’s lifespan is coming to an end. You need only continue your ardent practice without harboring sorrowful thoughts.” The next day her bridegroom was gored to death by an ox.

Lives of the Nuns, tr. Katherine Ann Tsai, Hawai’i, 1994, pp. 49-50 (cited by Mark Edward Lewis on p. 193 of China Between Empires(Harvard, 2009).

Three passages from Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler on Rat-traps

Dunkett found that all of his traps failed one after another, and was in such despair at the way the corn got eaten that he resolved to invent a rat-trap. He began by putting himself as nearly as possible in the rat’s place.

‘Is there anything’, he asked himself, ‘in which, if I were a rat, I would have such complete confidence that I could not suspect it without suspecting everything in the world and being unable henceforth to move fearlessly in any direction?’

He pondered for awhile and had no answer, till one night the room seemed to become full of light, and he heard a voice from Heaven saying ‘Drain-pipes’.

Then he saw his way. To suspect a common drain-pipe would be to cease to be a rat.

Samuel Butler explains relationships

As soon as Jove sees Juno, armed as she for the moment was with all the attractions of Venus, he falls desperately in love with her, and says that she is the only goddess he ever really loved. True there had been the wife of Ixion, and Danae, and Europa and Semele, and Alcmena, and Latona, not to mention herself in days gone by, but he had never loved any of them as he now loved her, in spite of his having been married to her for so many years. What then does she want?

Samuel Butler’s Notebooks, Dutton, 1951, p. 158

Wordsworth’s Pretty Polly

If Lucy was the kind of person portrayed in the poem; if Wordsworth murdered her, either by cutting her throat or smothering her, in concert, perhaps, with his friends Southey and Coleridge; and if he had thus found himself released from an engagement which had become irksome to him, or possibly from the threat of an action for breach of contract, there is not a syllable in the poem with which he crowns his crime which is not alive with meaning. On any other supposition, to the general reader it is unintelligible.

Samuel Butler, Selected Essays, 1927.

Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron


“Marry a Jew or a Chinaman or a Swede, it’s all fine if you’re prompted by any motive, including money, save that of guilt”. (Milton Loftis on p. 74 of William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness”.)

I entirely agree. May none of you ever marry a Swede from motives of guilt.



1. When William Styron has Peyton Loftis say of her relationship to her father Milton “I think we have a Freudian attachment”, is Styron

a.) telegraphing his punch,
b.) belaboring the obvious, or
c.) going postmodern and meta ahead of the rest?

2. When Styron keeps talking about Peyton’s hips, isn’t the interest he’s taking in his fictional character’s ass as unhealthy, in its way, as Milton Loftis’s Oedipal fixation on his daughter — pretty much regardless of how lovely Peyton’s fictional ass really was?

3. They seem to be finally making a movie out of the book. In her prime, wouldn’t Brooke Shields have made a great Peyton Loftis?

4. Helen Peyton Loftis thought that her daughter Peyton Loftis was irredeemably evil by nature, whereas William Styron thought that it was Helen who was irredeemably evil. Might not the entire Peyton line have been an evil spawn cursed by God, so that both were right?

Wodehouse Quiz

Wooster and Jeeves represent which two social types?

a. Jeeves represents the working class; Wooster represents the idle rentier class.
b. Wooster represents the parasitical aristocracy; Jeeves represents their also-parasitical lackeys.
c. Wooster represents the powerless and silly Mikado or Caliph whose power is purely symbolic; Jeeves represents the businesslike Shogun or Sultan who holds all real power.
d. The ignorant Wooster represents the dominant property-owning moiety of the dominant class; the well-read Jeeves represents the dominated moiety; Wodehouse’s portrait of the relationship is the wishful projection of the dominated intelligentsia.

Who Wrote This?


Is it true that you’re going away?”
“Yes, in a few minutes”.
She repeated:
“In a few minutes?… and for good?… Shall we never see you again?”
Sobs choked her.
“Good -bye!  Good-bye!  Kiss me, please.”
And she clasped him fiercely in her arms.

a. Danielle Steele, To Love Again
b. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind.
c.  Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education.
d. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre.


They embraced each other, her small body was burning in his hands; they rolled a few paces in an unconscious state from which he repeatedly but vainly tried to rescue himself, bumped dully against the door, and then lay in the small puddles of beer and other rubbish with which the floor was covered. Hours passed there, hours breathing together with a single heartbeat, hours in which he felt he was lost or had  wandered farther in foreign lands than any human being before him….

a. Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side.
b. Franz Kafka,
The Castle.
c. Norman Mailer,
The Naked and the Dead.
d. Grace Metalious,
Peyton Place

Madame Nui’s Toad

Department chiefs  from the Industrial Bank of Japan’s headquarters would take the bullet train down from Tokyo to Osaka in order to attend a weekly ceremony presided over by the toad. On arriving at Nui’s house, the IBJ bankers would join the elite stockbrokers from Yamaichi Securities and other trading houses in a midnight vigil. First they would pat the head of the toad. Then they would recite prayers in front of a set of Buddhist statues in Nui’s garder. Finally Madame Nui would seat herself in front of the toad, go into a trance, and deliver the oracle — which stocks to buy and which to sell. The financial markets in Tokyo trembled at the verdict. At his peak in 1990, the toad controlled more than $10 billion in financial investments, making its owner the world’s largest individual stock investor.

Alex Kerr, Dogs and Demons,
Hill and Wang, 2001, p. 78

The Radish of Emperor Wu Zhao

Perhaps the most interesting of her many auspicious omens was a radish of prodigious size, more than three feet in diameter, unearthed in the fields on the outskirts of Loyang and presented to her.”

Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor,
N. Harry Rothschild, Longman, 2008

Bottle and Potato Traced to the Source

Awhile back someone cited two lines of doggerel by Michael Hamburger:

To Einstein as to Plato,
Time was a hot potato.

For English majors of a certain age, this calls to mind “Survey of Literature”, a late-Twenties jingle by the once-respected John Crowe Ransom:

In all the good Greek of Plato I lack my roast beef and potato.
A better man was Aristotle, Pulling steady on the bottle.

This in turn evokes Monty Python’s more recent “Bruce” sketch:

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle….

(It is said that in Cockney rhyming slang “Aristotle” supposedly means “arse: “ass” –> “glass” –> “bottle” –> “Aristotle”; it was then shortened to “aris”,  which is close enough to “arse” to make the whole story seem a little fishy).

No one remembers who Owen Wister (1888-1938) was anymore, but his version almost certainly  predates Ransom’s:

Said Aristotle unto Plato,
“Have another sweet potato?
“Said Plato unto Aristotle,
“Thank you, I prefer the bottle.”

This Gilbert and Sullivan couplet from Patience (1881) is, in turn, earlier than Wister’s squib, but it misses the Aristotle / bottle rhyme:

Then a sentimental passion–of a vegetable fashion–must excite your languid spleen–
An attachment a la Plato–for a bashful young potato, or a not too French French bean!

To my knowledge the locus classicus of these rhymes is here, from one of England’s most-renowned poets:

I’ll call the work “Longinus o’er a Bottle,
Or, Every Poet his own Aristotle.”….

By Swift, by Machiavel, by Rochefoucault, By Fénélon, by Luther, and by Plato;
By Tillotson, and Wesley, and Rousseau, Who knew this life was not worth a potato…..

Lord Byron, Don Juan Canto I, #204; Canto VII, #4.

The New Republic: not funded with fascist money

A rumor has been circulating that the money Martin Peretz used to fund The New Republic was inherited by his wife Anne Labouisse Farnsworth from a fascist gold bug grandfather who tried to overthrow the U.S. government with the 1933 “Business Plot” against FDR.  This is incorrect; the fascist in question was Peretz’s wife’s great uncle Robert Sterling Clark, and as far as we know at this time, the grandfather from whom she inherited the money was not an active fascist.

It has also been rumored that the money inherited traces back to the inventor of the sewing machine, Isaac Merritt Singer. While the money does trace back to the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Isaac M. Singer did not invent the sewing machine, and Peretz’s uxorial nest egg traces back to Edward Clark, Singer’s patent lawyer, who was granted a full partnership in return for wresting the sewing machine patent away from the actual inventor, Elias Howe. It is also not true that Peretz is a grandson of the Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer. The Yiddish author of whom Peretz is the grandson was Isaac Leib Peretz. No Isaac Singer of any description has been implicated in Peretz’s operation.

Peretz and his wife are now separated, and Peretz has sold TNR. It is not known whether Peretz dumped his wife when the money ran out, or whether his wife dumped Peretz when the money ran out. If you run into Martin, I’m sure he’d appreciate it if you bought him a meal and lent him a couple of  bucks.

How to tell a genuine liberal

You probably have always wanted to know what a genuine liberal is. In The Authooritarian Personality Adorno contrasts the genuine liberal to such less-desirable liberals as  rigid non-racists (= Communists), protesting non-racists (= neurotic and frigid women) impulsive non-racists (= Lesbians), and easygoing non-racists (= mellow airhead guys). To sum it up, the true liberal is the girl every normal guy dreams of:

The illustration we give is a girl whose character of a “genuine liberal” stands out more clearly, since, according to the interviewer, “she is politically naive like the majority of our college women”…. F515 is a 21 year old college student. She is a handsome brunette with dark, flashing eyes who exudes temperament and vitality. She has none of the pretty-pretty femininity so frequently seen in [racist] subjects, and would probably scorn the feminine wiles and schemes practiced by such women….. one senses in her a very passionate nature and so strong a desire to give intensely of herself in all her relationships that she must experience difficulty in restraining herself within the bounds of conventionality

The Authoritarian Personality, abridged ed., Norton, 1982, pp. 383-4. (To be clear, the description of the lovely F515 is not in Adorno’s own words, but this is the case history he chose to cite.)

The difference between Leopold Bloom and Fiorello LaGuardia is that LaGuardia wasn’t Catholic.

When James Joyce arrived in Austrian-controlled Trieste in 1904 at the age of 22, the American consul thereabouts was the future NYC mayor (and airport namesake) Fiorello LaGuardia, who was also 22 and who remained at that post for another couple of years. Like Leopold Bloom, LaGuardia was of Hungarian Jewish descent (on his mother’s side).

Unlike Leopold Bloom, LaGuardia was raised as an Episcopalian in Arizona. But Leopold Bloom was raised as an Episcopalian of sorts: has father had been converted to Christianity by the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews,  an Anglican evangelical group, and the Church he joined had been the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland,  just as the church LaGuardia’s father joined in order to marry LaGuardia’s mother had been the Anglican-affiliated American Episcopal Church.

But when it came time to marry, the adult leopold Bloom left the Church of Ireland to become a Catholic, which is something that LaGuardia (the son of an Italian atheist) never would do.

Bunburying in the Caucasus


And there had been the unfortunate case of a would-be poet who visited him, and was invited to recite his verses, while Lermontov ate half his hamper of freshly salted cucumbers — always a treat — and then scampered away in mid-recitation with the other half stuffed in his pockets.

Lawrence Kelly,Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus, 1983, pp. 73-4.


[Jack puts out his hand to take a sandwich. Algernon at once interferes.]

Algernon:  Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches. They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.

[Takes one and eats it.]

Jack: Well, you have been eating them all the time.

Algernon. That is quite a different matter. She is my aunt.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act I Scene 2.

Deadly Ernest

As we know, Europe during the 19th century was infested with a toxic seriousness from which there could have been no peaceful escape. Bourgeois ambition, bourgeois respectability, respect for the law, rigid notions of chastity and purity, exquisite refinements of class distinctions and of the cruelties of class, devout adherence to ideals (religious, secular, and erotic), love of country, an ethic of self-sacrifice, a booming but ruthlessly competitive economy, sound fiscal policies, miraculous new technology, and efficient public administration ultimately led to two bloody and pointless (but well-organized and efficient) wars, and in 1914 we entered the world of blood and iron.

The name Ernst / Ernest can be used as a marker of this horrible seriousness. This name, which is derived from the Old High German eornest (“grimly serious, sworn to fight to the death”) spread from Germany to England along with the Hanoverian dynasty (Georges I-II-III-IV) and I think that it is fair to conclude that the seriousness did too; with due reservations this can be called The German Seriousness.

Earnest, it turns out, is an entirely different English word derived from Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Greek, and ultimately Semitic words meaning”pledge”, as in “earnest money”, but in British usage this word merged with “Ernest”. And 19th and 20th-century earnestness indeed could mean bloodthirsty military eornest-ness:  “Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”

French and British decadents and bohemians fought The German Seriousness as best they could, but there was no hope. Despite heroic offensives like Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest and Samuel Butler’s satirical The Way of All Flesh (whose the main character is a dreadfully serious preacher’s son named Ernest), the cause of unseriousness was doomed from the start. In 1871 seriousness definitively gained the day in France when more than ten thousand frivolous Communards were murdered, and in 1895, when Wilde was sent to jail — a blow from which he never recovered. (One of the late victims of this plague was Ernest Hemingway, who blew his head off  in 1960).

For obvious reasons the name Ernst disappeared from American life after 1917 or so, and Ernest and Earnest have been declining since the 50s and probably will fall out of the top thousand soon enough. How much we will gain from this is uncertain; the “life’s a joke” approach to the world characteristic of our present wise leaders  appears to be only marginally less horrible.

Published on January 18, 2014 at 12:47 am  Leave a Comment  

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