A question of cubic capacity

From Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Brought to mind during a doctor’s appointment today where we learned our baby daughter is 50th percentile for weight, 70th for height, and 98th for head size.

“But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered felt?”

“I can see nothing,” said I, handing it back to my friend.

“On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences.”

“Then, pray tell me what it is that you can infer from this hat?”

He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him. “It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been,” he remarked, “and yet there are a few inferences which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it….

“I have no doubt that I am very stupid, but I must confess that I am unable to follow you. For example, how did you deduce that this man was intellectual?”

For answer Holmes clapped the hat upon his head. It came right over the forehead and settled upon the bridge of his nose. “It is a question of cubic capacity,” said he; “a man with so large a brain must have something in it.”

She may

From Richard III 1.3.90-102

By Him that raised me to this careful height
From that contented hap which I enjoy’d,
I never did incense his majesty
Against the Duke of Clarence, but have been
An earnest advocate to plead for him.
My lord, you do me shameful injury,
Falsely to draw me in these vile suspects.
You may deny that you were not the cause
Of my Lord Hastings’ late imprisonment.
She may, my lord, for–
She may, Lord Rivers! why, who knows not so?
She may do more, sir, than denying that:
She may help you to many fair preferments,
And then deny her aiding hand therein,
And lay those honours on your high deserts.
What may she not? She may, yea, marry, may she–
What, marry, may she?
What, marry, may she! marry with a king,
A bachelor, a handsome stripling too:
I wis your grandam had a worser match.

And some exuberant commentary from Russ McDonald’s ‘Richard III and the Tropes of Treachery‘ (Phil. Quart 68.4):

Richard’s virtuoso performance is a function of his aural gifts, his awareness of sonic variation and, above all, of amphibology. To begin with, the extravagant repetition creates a musical effect that first teases the ear with the most fundamental sort of rhyme and then becomes so insistent as to be disorienting: “she may” or its inversion “may she” is heard nine times in nine lines. More than that, his lines are so charged with the effects of anaphora, internal rhyme, consonance, and other sonic amusements that soon it hardly matters what is being contested, for sound has come to overwhelm sense. Characteristically, Richard toys with his opponents, making delightful measures out of their feeble attempts at resistance, and this trouncing exposes the vulnerability of the linguistically innocent: whereas Rivers earnestly looks past the signifier towards the signified, Richard knowingly capers on the slick surface of language.

Peter Sellers’ A Hard Day’s Night

I was trying to find whether the Laurence Olivier Richard III cut or just cut down a certain early exchange and the Youtube algorithm blessed me with something far better – Peter Sellers monologuing A Hard Day’s Night as Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. The video is from a TV special called The Music of Lennon & McCartney. According to this nice history of Sellers’ relationship with The Beatles, he apparently also released this rendition as a single and made it to 14 on the charts in December 1965.

And for a refresher of what he’s parodying, here’s Laurence Olivier’s opening monologue:

And they took to calling him Pan, because he delighted them all

The Homeric Hymn to Pan in its entirety. This one is always overlooked in favor of the major hymns but is a small masterpiece of the atmosphere and perfect simplicity of early Greek literature.

About Hermes’ dear child tell me, Muse, the goat-footed, two-horned rowdy, who roams about the wooded fields together with the dance-merry nymphs: along the precipitous crag they tread the summits, calling on Pan, god of the pastures with splendor of rough hair, who has been assigned every snowy hill, the mountain peaks, and the rocky tracks. This way and that he roams through the thick brush, sometimes drawn to the gentle streams, sometimes again passing among the towering crags as he climbs up to the highest peak to survey the flocks; often he runs through the long white mountains, and often he drives the wild creatures through the glens, killing them, keen-sighted. Towards evening his solitary sound is heard as he returns from the hunt, playing sweet music from his reed pipes; his melodies would not be surpassed by that bird that in flowery spring among the leaves pours forth her lament in honey-voiced song.

With him then the clear-singing mountain nymphs, tripping nimbly by a dark spring, dance and sing; the echo moans round the mountaintop, while the god, moving from side to side of the dance rings, or again in the middle, cuts a nimble caper, a brown lynx hide over his back, delighting in the silvery singing—all in a soft meadow, where crocus and fragrant hyacinth spring up inextricably mingled with the grass. They celebrate the blessed gods and long Olympus; and they tell of one god above all, Hermes the courser, how he is the swift messenger for all the gods, and how he came to Arcadia with its many springs, the mother of flocks; it is there that he has his precinct as Cyllenian Hermes. There, though a god, he pastured dirt-crusted flocks beside a mortal man, because a surging desire had come upon him to unite in love with Dryops’ lovely-tressed girl. He accomplished the fruitful coupling; and she bore Hermes a dear son in the house, at once a prodigy to behold, goat-footed, two-horned rowdy, merry laugher. She jumped up and ran away, nurse abandoning child, for she was frightened when she saw his unprepossessing face with its full beard. But Hermes the courser quickly took him and laid him in his arm, and the god’s mind was exceedingly glad. He went rapidly to the abodes of the immortals, wrapping the child closely in skins of mountain hare, and sat down beside Zeus and the other gods and displayed his son. All the immortals were delighted, especially Bacchic Dionysus; and they took to calling him Pan, because he delighted them all (pantes).

So I salute you, lord; I seek your favor with my song. And I will take heed both for you and for other singing.

Ἀμφί μοι Ἑρμείαο φίλον γόνον ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα,
αἰγοπόδην δικέρωτα φιλόκροτον, ὅς τ᾿ ἀνὰ πίση
δενδρήεντ᾿ ἄμυδις φοιτᾶι χορο<γ>ηθέσι νύμφαις,
αἵ τε κατ᾿ αἰγίλιπος πέτρης στείβουσι κάρηνα
Πᾶν᾿ ἀνακεκλόμεναι, νόμιον θεὸν ἀγλαέθειρον
αὐχμήενθ᾿, ὃς πάντα λόφον νιφόεντα λέλογχεν
καὶ κορυφὰς ὀρέων καὶ πετρήεντα κέλευθα.
φοιτᾶι δ᾿ ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα διὰ ῥωπήϊα πυκνά,
ἄλλοτε μὲν ῥείθροισιν ἐφελκόμενος μαλακοῖσιν,
ἄλλοτε δ᾿ αὖ πέτρηισιν ἐν ἠλιβάτοισι διοιχνεῖ,
ἀκροτάτην κορυφὴν μηλοσκόπον εἰσαναβαίνων.
πολλάκι δ᾿ ἀργινόεντα διέδραμεν οὔρεα μακρά,
πολλάκι δ᾿ ἐν κνημοῖσι διήλασε θῆρας ἐναίρων,
ὀξέα δερκόμενος· ποτὶ δ᾿ ἕσπερον ἔκλαγεν οἶος
ἄγρης ἐξανιών, δονάκων ὕπο μοῦσαν ἀθύρων
νήδυμον· οὐκ ἂν τόν γε παραδράμοι ἐν μελέεσσιν
ὄρνις, ἥ τ᾿ ἔαρος πολυανθέος ἐν πετάλοισιν
θρῆνον ἐπιπροχέουσα χέει μελίγηρυν ἀοιδήν.
σὺν δέ σφιν τότε νύμφαι ὀρεστιάδες λιγύμολποι
φοιτῶσαι πύκα ποσσὶν ἐπὶ κρήνηι μελανύδρωι
μέλπονται—κορυφὴν δὲ περιστένει οὔρεος ἠχώ·
δαίμων δ᾿ ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα χορῶν, τοτὲ <δ᾿> ἐς μέσον ἕρπων
πυκνὰ ποσὶν διέπει, λαῖφος δ᾿ ἐπὶ νῶτα δαφοινόν
λυγκὸς ἔχει, λιγυρῆισιν ἀγαλλόμενος φρένα μολπαῖς—
ἐν μαλακῶι λειμῶνι, τόθι κρόκος ἠδ᾿ ὑάκινθος
εὐώδης θαλέθων καταμίσγεται ἄκριτα ποίηι.
ὑμνέουσιν δὲ θεοὺς μάκαρας καὶ μακρὸν Ὄλυμπον·
οἶόν θ᾿ Ἑρμείην ἐριούνιον ἔξοχον ἄλλων
ἔννεπον, ὡς ὅ γ᾿ ἅπασι θεοῖς θοὸς ἄγγελός ἐστιν,
καί ῥ᾿ ὅ γ᾿ ἐς Ἀρκαδίην πολυπίδακα, μητέρα μήλων,
ἐξίκετ᾿· ἔνθα δέ οἱ τέμενος Κυλληνίου ἐστίν.
ἔνθ᾿ ὅ γε καὶ θεὸς ὢν ψαφαρότριχα μῆλ᾿ ἐνόμευεν
ἀνδρὶ πάρα θνητῶι· θάλε γὰρ πόθος ὑγρὸς ἐπελθών
νύμφηι ἐϋπλοκάμωι Δρύοπος φιλότητι μιγῆναι.
ἐκ δ᾿ ἐτέλεσσε γάμον θαλερόν, τέκε δ᾿ ἐν μεγάροισιν
Ἑρμείηι φίλον υἱὸν ἄφαρ τερατωπὸν ἰδέσθαι,
αἰγοπόδην δικέρωτα πολύκροτον ἡδυγέλωτα.
φεῦγε δ᾿ ἀναΐξασα, λίπεν δ᾿ ἄρα παῖδα τιθήνη·
δεῖσε γάρ, ὡς ἴδεν ὄψιν ἀμείλιχον ἠϋγένειον.
τὸν δ᾿ αἶψ᾿ Ἑρμείας ἐριούνιος ἐς χέρα θῆκεν
δεξάμενος, χαῖρεν δὲ νόωι περιώσια δαίμων·
ῥίμφα δ᾿ ἐς ἀθανάτων ἕδρας κίε παῖδα καλύψας
δέρμασιν ἐν πυκινοῖσιν ὀρεσκώιοιο λαγωοῦ·
πὰρ δὲ Ζηνὶ καθῖζε καὶ ἄλλοις ἀθανάτοισιν,
δεῖξε δὲ κοῦρον ἑόν· πάντες δ᾿ ἄρα θυμὸν ἔτερφθεν
ἀθάνατοι, περίαλλα δ᾿ ὁ Βάκχειος Διόνυσος·
Πᾶνα δέ μιν καλέεσκον, ὅτι φρένα πᾶσιν ἔτερψεν.
καὶ σὺ μὲν οὕτω χαῖρε, ἄναξ, ἵλαμαι δέ σ᾿ ἀοιδῆι·
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ καὶ σεῖο καὶ ἄλλης μνήσομ᾿ ἀοιδῆς.

On Crystallography

From Ernst Jünger’s The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios (a translation of his Das Abenteuerliche Herz, Zweite Fassung). There may well be some transcription irregularities in the German – I had to use text recognition since I’m too lazy to change keyboard layouts to type it out.

On Crystallography

I seem to have learned a thing or two over the last years in regard to a literary device that illuminates the word and renders it transparent. Above all I find it useful for resolving a dichotomy that often takes a powerful hold on us – the dichotomy that exists between the surface of life and its depths. It often appears to us that the purpose of the depths is to generate the surface, that rainbow-colored skin of the world whose sight so intensely moves us. In other moments, this colorful pattern appears to be composed only of signs and letters by which the depths speak to us of their secrets, Consequently, whether we live within or without, we are gripped by the anguish of one who is always turning away from wonderful riches in whichever direction he goes. Anxiety seizes us during the austere enjoyment of solitude, just as at the festively decorated table of the world.

A transparent structure is one in which the depths and the surfaces are simultaneously apparent to the eye. It can be studied in a crystal which could be described as an entity able to both generate inner surfaces and turn its depths outward. I now pose the question if the world, large and small, is itself not also constructed on the pattern of the crystal -but in such a manner that our eye only seldom penetrates into this aspect of it? Certain signs suggest this is the case: everyone has at least once felt how people and things have been illuminated in certain significant moments, perhaps to such a degree that dizziness or even a shudder overcame them. This is true in the presence of death, but all significant powers, beauty for instance, elicit this effect – and we can ascribe it to truth in particular. An arbitrary example: the apprehension of the protoplant is nothing other than the perception of its actual crystalline nature in a favorable moment. Our voices become transparent in the same way during discussions on matters that touch us to the core; we understand the other in a different and decisive sense, through and beyond the agreement in the words. In addition, it can be assumed that places exist where this kind of insight is not mediated by a state of exceptional elevation but where it belongs rather to the capital of a marvelous life.

In regard to the use of words in this sense, it is handy that language also possesses depths and surfaces. We have countless expressions at our disposal in which a plain meaning coexists with a deeply concealed one, and what is transparency to the eye is here secret consonance. There is also much in literary figures, particularly in similes, that bridges the deception of the opposites. Yet the process must be flexible – if we use a polished lens to observe the beauty of lower animals, we should not shy from threading a worm onto the hook in order to pursue the wonderful life living in the dark waters. It has always been required of an author that things not appear to him in isolation, not impulsively or randomly – the word is bestowed on him that it may be directed to the one and the all.

Zur Kristallographie

Es scheint mir, daß ich während der letzten Jahre gerade in bezug auf jenen Kunstgriff der Sprache, der das Wort erhellt und durchsichtig macht, manches gelernt habe. Ihn vor allem halte ich für geeignet, einen Zwiespalt zu lösen, der uns oft” heftig ergreift – den Zwiespalt, der zwischen der Oberflä- che und der Tiefe des Lebens besteht. Oft scheint uns der Sinn der Tiefe darin zu liegen, die Oberfläche zu erzeugen, die regenbogenfarbige Haut der Welt, deren Anblick uns brennend bewegt. Dann wiederum scheint dieses bunte Mu- ster uns nur aus Zeichen und Buchstaben gefügt, durch wel- che die Tiefe zu uns von ihren Geheimnissen spricht. So packt uns, ob wir draußen oder drinnen leben, der Schmerz dessen an, der, wohin er sich wende, sich von herrlichen Gü- tern abwendet. Unruhe befällt uns während der strengen Genüsse der Einsamkeit wie an den festlich gedeckten Ta- feln der Welt.

Die durchsichtige Bildung ist die, an der unserem Blick Tiefe und Oberfläche zugleich einleuchten. Sie ist am Kristall zu studieren, den man als ein Wesen bezeichnen könnte, das sowohl innere Oberfläche zu bilden als seine Tiefe nach au- ßen zu kehren vermag. Ich möchte nun die Frage stellen, ob nicht die Welt im großen und kleinen überhaupt nach dem Muster der Kristalle gebildet sei – doch so, daß unser Auge sie nur selten in dieser Eigenschaft durchdringt? Es gibt Zei- chen, die darauf hinweisen: wohl jeder hat einmal gespürt, wie in bedeutenden Augenblicken Menschen und Dinge sich aufhellten, und das vielleicht in einem Maße, daß ihn ein Ge- fühl des Schwindels, ja des Schauderns ergriff. Das ist in der Gegenwart des Todes der Fall, aber auch jede andere bedeu- tende Macht, wie etwa die Schönheit, bringt solche Wirkung hervor – im besonderen schreibt man sie der Wahrheit zu. So ist, um ein beliebiges Beispiel zu nennen, die Erfassung der Urpflanze nichts anderes als die Wahrnehmung des ei- gentlich kristallischen Charakters im günstigen Augenblick. Ebenso werden in einem Gespräch über Dinge, die uns im Innersten berühren, die Stimmen durchsichtig; wir begreifen unseren Partner durch die Übereinkunft der Worte hindurch in einem anderen, entscheidenden Sinn. Darüber hinaus dür- fen wir Punkte vermuten, an denen diese Art der Einsicht nicht durch Zustände der ungewöhnlichen Erhebung vermit- telt wird, sondern zum Bestand eines herrlichen Lebens ge- hört.

Was nun die Verwendung des Wortes in diesem Sinne be- trifft, so kommt ihr zustatten, daß auch die Sprache Tiefe und Oberfläche besitzt. Wir verfügen über zahllose Wendungen, denen sowohl eine handgreifliche als auch eine sehr verbor- gene Bedeutung innewohnt, und was in der Welt des Auges die Durchsichtigkeit, das ist hier die geheime Konsonanz. Auch in den Figuren, vor allem im Vergleich, liegt viel, was den Trug der Gegensätze überbrückt. Doch muß das Verfah- ren beweglich sein – wenn man hier ein geschliffenes Glas verwendet, um die Schönheit der niederen Tiere zu erspähen, so darf man sich dort nicht scheuen, einen Wurm auf den Ha- ken zu ziehen, wenn man dem wunderbaren Leben nachzu- stellen gedenkt, das die dunkleren Gewässer bewohnt. Aber immer ist vom Autor zu verlangen, daß ihm die Dinge nicht vereinzelt erscheinen, nicht treibend und zufällig – ihm ist das Wort verliehen, damit es an das Ein und Alles gerichtet wird.

θαυματὰ ἔργα

From the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus (lines 34-53) – would-be kidnapping pirates coming to regret their choices.

But suddenly they began to see miraculous apparitions. First of all, wine gushed out over the dark swift ship, sweet-tasting and fragrant, and there rose a smell ambrosial, and the sailors were all seized with astonishment as they saw it. Then along the top of the sail there spread a vine in both directions, hung with many grape clusters. About the mast dark ivy was winding, all flowering, and pretty berries were out on it; and all the tholes were decorated with garlands. When they saw this, then they did start calling on the helmsman to take the ship to land. But the god became a lion in the ship, a terrible lion in the bows, and he roared loud; and amidships he made a shaggy-maned bear, to signal his power. Up it reared in fury, while the lion at the top of the deck stood glaring fearsomely. They fled to the stern, and about the prudent-hearted helmsman they halted in terror. Without warning the lion sprang forward and seized the captain. The others all leapt out into the sea when they saw it, to avoid an ill doom, and they turned into dolphins

τάχα δέ σφιν ἐφαίνετο θαυματὰ ἔργα·
οἶνος μὲν πρώτιστα θοὴν ἀνὰ νῆα μέλαιναν
ἡδύποτος κελάρυξ᾿ εὐώδης, ὤρνυτο δ᾿ ὀδμή
ἀμβροσίη· ναύτας δὲ τάφος λάβε πάντας ἰδόντας·
αὐτίκα δ᾿ ἀκρότατον παρὰ ἱστίον ἐξετανύσθη
ἄμπελος ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα, κατεκρμνῶντο δὲ πολλοί
βότρυες· ἀμφ᾿ ἱστὸν δὲ μέλας εἱλίσσετο κισσός
ἄνθεσι τηλεθάων, χαρίεις δ᾿ ἐπὶ καρπὸς ὀρώρει·
πάντες δὲ σκαλμοὶ στεφάνους ἔχον. οἳ δὲ ἰδόντες
νῆ᾿ ἤδη τότ᾿ ἔπειτα κυβερνήτην ἐκέλευον
γῆι πελάαν· ὃ δ᾿ ἄρα σφι λέων γένετ᾿ ἔνδοθι νηός
δεινὸς ἐπ᾿ ἀκροτάτης, μέγα δ᾿ ἔβραχεν· ἐν δ᾿ ἄρα μέσσηι
ἄρκτον ἐποίησεν λασιαύχενα, σήματα φαίνων·
ἂν δ᾿ ἔστη μεμαυῖα, λέων δ᾿ ἐπὶ σέλματος ἄκρου
δεινὸν ὑπόδρα ἰδών· οἳ δ᾿ ἐς πρύμνην ἐφόβηθεν,
ἀμφὶ κυβερνήτην δὲ σαόφρονα θυμὸν ἔχοντα
ἔσταν ἄρ᾿ ἐκπληγέντες. ὃ δ᾿ ἐξαπίνης ἐπορούσας
ἀρχὸν ἕλ᾿· οἳ δὲ θύραζε κακὸν μόρον ἐξαλύοντες
πάντες ὁμῶς πήδησαν, ἐπεὶ ἴδον, εἰς ἅλα δῖαν,
δελφῖνες δ᾿ ἐγένοντο.

A son resourceful and cunning, a robber, a rustler of cattle, a bringer of dreams, a night watcher, a gate-lurker

From the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (lines 13-19), birth and initial character sketch of Hermes.

And she gave birth to a son resourceful and cunning, a robber, a rustler of cattle, a bringer of dreams, a night watcher, a gate-lurker, who was soon to display deeds of renown among the immortal gods: born in the morning, by midday he was playing the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollo—on the fourth of the month, the day the lady Maia bore him.

καὶ τότ᾿ ἐγείνατο παῖδα πολύτροπον, αἱμυλομήτην,
ληϊστῆρ᾿, ἐλατῆρα βοῶν, ἡγήτορ᾿ ὀνείρων,
νυκτὸς ὀπωπητῆρα, πυληδόκον, ὃς τάχ᾿ ἔμελλεν
ἀμφανέειν κλυτὰ ἔργα μετ᾿ ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσιν·
ἠῶιος γεγονὼς μέσωι ἤματι ἐγκιθάριζεν,
ἑσπέριος βοῦς κλέψεν ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος,
τετράδι τῆι προτέρηι, τῆι μιν τέκε πότνια Μαῖα.

In English the picture from the final three lines (‘born in the morning…’) is probably the more memorable element, but in Greek the specific descriptors are at least equally attention catching.

  • πολύτροπον is famously the opening modifier of Odysseus in The Odyssey but where most accept that it there carries an intentional ambiguity – hitting both ‘much-turned/much-wandering’ and ‘turning many ways/wily’ – the sense here, given what follows, seems to tilt toward the second, more negative meaning.
  • αἱμυλομήτην is a compound of αἱμύλος – ‘wily, wheedling’ and used mostly of words (see Hesiod Works and Days 374) – and a form of μητίω – ‘have in mind, think on.’ This is the word’s only appearance, but it is close in form and sense to the more common ἀγκυλομήτης (‘of crooked counsel’) used in Homer of Kronos and in Hesiod of Prometheus.
  • ληϊστήρ is ‘robber’ or (because it appears in the Odyssey in a seafaring context) ‘pirate’. But in every other use I can think of (Od. 3.73 and a series of echoes in later books) it’s employed as part of a question from one character to another (‘are you a pirate?’) and always elicits a denial of some kind. This is the only Homeric instance I can remember where it’s used as a flat, unquestioned description by the narrating voice.
  • ἡγήτωρ ὀνείρων – rendered here as ‘bringer of dreams’ – is built on ἡγήτωρ, a frequent Homeric word meaning ‘leader’ and elsewhere used in a martial context. ‘Bringer’ comes closer to the etymology of the based verb but might lose a background image of Hermes as not just bringing but marshalling dreams.
  • νυκτὸς ὀπωπητῆρα – ‘a night watcher’ – ὀπωπητήρ appears only here but is generally taken as equivalent to equally rare ὀπτήρ – ‘spy, scout’.
  • πυληδόκον – another word that only appears here, a compound of πύλη – ‘gate’ – and δοκεύω – ‘watch closely’. It would seem obviously connected to a thieving function but there could also be a hint of Hermes’ roles in passing to/from the underworld, πύλη also possibly invoking the frequent periphrasis πύλαι Ἀΐδαο – ‘gates of Hades’.

A matter of business

From Maupassant’s Le Diable (The Devil – French online here, English here). I sat down to read La Horla for Halloween and rediscovered how rich the rest of the collection is – Clochette especially is surprisingly close in feel to his mentor Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple (A Simple Heart). This one is very different – a small masterpiece of the old peasant farce, something that could equally well be the basis of a Boccaccio tale but never pulled off with the same verve.

A woman employed to watch over the dying has agreed with a farmer to accept a lump sum instead of her normal daily wage, each party thereby hoping to steal a bargain on the other. Finding that the farmer’s mother isn’t dying as quickly as hoped, she improvises.

She came at daybreak, and found Honore eating his soup, which he had made himself before going to work, and the sick-nurse asked him: “Well, is your mother dead?” “She is rather better, on the contrary,” he replied, with a sly look out of the corner of his eyes. And he went out.

La Rapet, seized with anxiety, went up to the dying woman, who remained in the same state, lethargic and impassive, with her eyes open and her hands clutching the counterpane. The nurse perceived that this might go on thus for two days, four days, eight days, and her avaricious mind was seized with fear, while she was furious at the sly fellow who had tricked her, and at the woman who would not die.

Nevertheless, she began to work, and waited, looking intently at the wrinkled face of Mother Bontemps. When Honore returned to breakfast he seemed quite satisfied and even in a bantering humor. He was decidedly getting in his wheat under very favorable circumstances.

La Rapet was becoming exasperated; every minute now seemed to her so much time and money stolen from her. She felt a mad inclination to take this old woman, this, headstrong old fool, this obstinate old wretch, and to stop that short, rapid breath, which was robbing her of her time and money, by squeezing her throat a little. But then she reflected on the danger of doing so, and other thoughts came into her head; so she went up to the bed and said: “Have you ever seen the Devil?” Mother Bontemps murmured: “No.”

Then the sick-nurse began to talk and to tell her tales which were likely to terrify the weak mind of the dying woman. Some minutes before one dies the Devil appears, she said, to all who are in the death throes. He has a broom in his hand, a saucepan on his head, and he utters loud cries. When anybody sees him, all is over, and that person has only a few moments longer to live. She then enumerated all those to whom the Devil had appeared that year: Josephine Loisel, Eulalie Ratier, Sophie Padaknau, Seraphine Grospied.

Mother Bontemps, who had at last become disturbed in mind, moved about, wrung her hands, and tried to turn her head to look toward the end of the room. Suddenly La Rapet disappeared at the foot of the bed. She took a sheet out of the cupboard and wrapped herself up in it; she put the iron saucepan on her head, so that its three short bent feet rose up like horns, and she took a broom in her right hand and a tin pail in her left, which she threw up suddenly, so that it might fall to the ground noisily.

When it came down, it certainly made a terrible noise. Then, climbing upon a chair, the nurse lifted up the curtain which hung at the bottom of the bed, and showed herself, gesticulating and uttering shrill cries into the iron saucepan which covered her face, while she menaced the old peasant woman, who was nearly dead, with her broom.

Terrified, with an insane expression on her face, the dying woman made a superhuman effort to get up and escape; she even got her shoulders and chest out of bed; then she fell back with a deep sigh. All was over, and La Rapet calmly put everything back into its place; the broom into the corner by the cupboard the sheet inside it, the saucepan on the hearth, the pail on the floor, and the chair against the wall. Then, with professional movements, she closed the dead woman’s large eyes, put a plate on the bed and poured some holy water into it, placing in it the twig of boxwood that had been nailed to the chest of drawers, and kneeling down, she fervently repeated the prayers for the dead, which she knew by heart, as a matter of business.

Elle arriva, en effet, au jour levant.

Honoré, avant de se rendre aux terres, mangeait sa soupe, qu’il avait faite lui-même.

La garde demanda :

— Eh ben, vot’mé a-t-all’ passé ?

Il répondit, avec un pli malin au coin des yeux :

— All’va plutôt mieux.

Et il s’en alla.

La Rapet, saisie d’inquiétude, s’approcha de l’agonisante, qui demeurait dans le même état, oppressée et impassible, l’œil ouvert et les mains crispées sur sa couverture.

Et la garde comprit que cela pouvait durer deux jours, quatre jours, huit jours ainsi ; et une épouvante étreignit son cœur d’avare, tandis qu’une colère furieuse la soulevait contre ce finaud qui l’avait jouée et contre cette femme qui ne mourait pas.

Elle se mit au travail néanmoins et attendit, le regard fixé sur la face ridée de la mère Bontemps.

Honoré revint pour déjeuner ; il semblait content, presque goguenard ; puis il repartit. Il rentrait son blé, décidément, dans des conditions excellentes.

La Rapet s’exaspérait ; chaque minute écoulée lui semblait, maintenant, du temps volé, de l’argent volé. Elle avait envie, une envie folle de prendre par le cou cette vieille bourrique, cette vieille têtue, cette vieille obstinée, et d’arrêter, en serrant un peu, ce petit souffle rapide qui lui volait son temps et son argent.

Puis elle réfléchit au danger ; et, d’autres idées lui passant par la tête, elle se rapprocha du lit.

Elle demanda :

— Vos avez-t-il déjà vu l’Diable ?

La mère Bontemps murmura :

— Non.

Alors la garde se mit à causer, à lui conter des histoires pour terroriser son âme débile de mourante.

Quelques minutes avant qu’on expirât, le Diable apparaissait, disait-elle, à tous les agonisants. Il avait un balai à la main, une marmite sur la tête, et il poussait de grands cris. Quand on l’avait vu, c’était fini, on n’en avait plus que pour peu d’instants. Et elle énumérait tous ceux à qui le Diable était apparu devant elle, cette année-là : Joséphin Loisel, Eulalie Ratier, Sophie Padagnau, Séraphine Grospied.

La mère Bontemps, émue enfin, s’agitait, remuait les mains, essayait de tourner la tête pour regarder au fond de la chambre.

Soudain la Rapet disparut au pied du lit. Dans l’armoire, elle prit un drap et s’enveloppa dedans ; elle se coiffa de la marmite, dont les trois pieds courts et courbés se dressaient ainsi que trois cornes ; elle saisit un balai de sa main droite, et, de la main gauche, un seau de fer-blanc, qu’elle jeta brusquement en l’air pour qu’il retombât avec bruit.

Il fit, en heurtant le sol, un fracas épouvantable ; alors, grimpée sur une chaise, la garde souleva le rideau qui pendait au bout du lit, et elle apparut, gesticulant, poussant des clameurs aiguës au fond du pot de fer qui lui cachait la face, et menaçant de son balai, comme un diable de guignol, la vieille paysanne à bout de vie.

Éperdue, le regard fou, la mourante fit un effort surhumain pour se soulever et s’enfuir ; elle sortit même de sa couche ses épaules et sa poitrine ; puis elle retomba avec un grand soupir. C’était fini.

Et la Rapet, tranquillement, remit en place tous les objets, le balai au coin de l’armoire, le drap dedans, la marmite sur le foyer, le seau sur la planche et la chaise contre le mur. Puis, avec les gestes professionnels, elle ferma les yeux énormes de la morte, posa sur le lit une assiette, versa dedans l’eau du bénitier, y trempa le buis cloué sur la commode et, s’agenouillant, se mit à réciter avec ferveur les prières des trépassés qu’elle savait par cœur, par métier.

The Power of Words

The Power of Words, a greatly underappreciated tale of Edgar Allan Poe’s that spreads more to speculative philosophy and proto-speculative fiction than what you’d expect from the author (and maybe even hits post-apocalyptic given the glancing mention of ‘shortly before the final overthrow of the earth’). The surface background would seem John 1:1 (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God) but there are more interesting curiosities throughout like a proposed paradox of omniscience, a theory on the infinite traceability of cause, and recurring hints of gnosticism.

OINOS. Pardon, Agathos, the weakness of a spirit new-fledged with immortality!

AGATHOS. You have spoken nothing, my Oinos, for which pardon is to be demanded. Not even here is knowledge thing of intuition. For wisdom, ask of the angels freely, that it may be given!

OINOS. But in this existence, I dreamed that I should be at once cognizant of all things, and thus at once be happy in being cognizant of all.

AGATHOS. Ah, not in knowledge is happiness, but in the acquisition of knowledge! In for ever knowing, we are for ever blessed; but to know all were the curse of a fiend.

OINOS. But does not The Most High know all?

AGATHOS. That (since he is The Most Happy) must be still the one thing unknown even to Him.

OINOS. But, since we grow hourly in knowledge, must not at last all things be known?

AGATHOS. Look down into the abysmal distances!—attempt to force the gaze down the multitudinous vistas of the stars, as we sweep slowly through them thus—and thus—and thus! Even the spiritual vision, is it not at all points arrested by the continuous golden walls of the universe?—the walls of the myriads of the shining bodies that mere number has appeared to blend into unity?

OINOS. I clearly perceive that the infinity of matter is no dream.

AGATHOS. There are no dreams in Aidenn—but it is here whispered that, of this infinity of matter, the sole purpose is to afford infinite springs, at which the soul may allay the thirst to know, which is for ever unquenchable within it—since to quench it, would be to extinguish the soul’s self. Question me then, my Oinos, freely and without fear. Come! we will leave to the left the loud harmony of the Pleiades, and swoop outward from the throne into the starry meadows beyond Orion, where, for pansies and violets, and heart’s—ease, are the beds of the triplicate and triple—tinted suns.

OINOS. And now, Agathos, as we proceed, instruct me!—speak to me in the earth’s familiar tones. I understand not what you hinted to me, just now, of the modes or of the method of what, during mortality, we were accustomed to call Creation. Do you mean to say that the Creator is not God?

AGATHOS. I mean to say that the Deity does not create.

OINOS. Explain.

AGATHOS. In the beginning only, he created. The seeming creatures which are now, throughout the universe, so perpetually springing into being, can only be considered as the mediate or indirect, not as the direct or immediate results of the Divine creative power.

OINOS. Among men, my Agathos, this idea would be considered heretical in the extreme.

AGATHOS. Among angels, my Oinos, it is seen to be simply true.

OINOS. I can comprehend you thus far—that certain operations of what we term Nature, or the natural laws, will, under certain conditions, give rise to that which has all the appearance of creation. Shortly before the final overthrow of the earth, there were, I well remember, many very successful experiments in what some philosophers were weak enough to denominate the creation of animalculae.

AGATHOS. The cases of which you speak were, in fact, instances of the secondary creation—and of the only species of creation which has ever been, since the first word spoke into existence the first law.

OINOS. Are not the starry worlds that, from the abyss of nonentity, burst hourly forth into the heavens—are not these stars, Agathos, the immediate handiwork of the King?

AGATHOS. Let me endeavor, my Oinos, to lead you, step by step, to the conception I intend. You are well aware that, as no thought can perish, so no act is without infinite result. We moved our hands, for example, when we were dwellers on the earth, and, in so doing, gave vibration to the atmosphere which engirdled it. This vibration was indefinitely extended, till it gave impulse to every particle of the earth’s air, which thenceforward, and for ever, was actuated by the one movement of the hand. This fact the mathematicians of our globe well knew. They made the special effects, indeed, wrought in the fluid by special impulses, the subject of exact calculation—so that it became easy to determine in what precise period an impulse of given extent would engirdle the orb, and impress (for ever) every atom of the atmosphere circumambient. Retrograding, they found no difficulty, from a given effect, under given conditions, in determining the value of the original impulse. Now the mathematicians who saw that the results of any given impulse were absolutely endless—and who saw that a portion of these results were accurately traceable through the agency of algebraic analysis—who saw, too, the facility of the retrogradation—these men saw, at the same time, that this species of analysis itself, had within itself a capacity for indefinite progress—that there were no bounds conceivable to its advancement and applicability, except within the intellect of him who advanced or applied it. But at this point our mathematicians paused.

OINOS. And why, Agathos, should they have proceeded?

AGATHOS. Because there were some considerations of deep interest beyond. It was deducible from what they knew, that to a being of infinite understanding—one to whom the perfection of the algebraic analysis lay unfolded—there could be no difficulty in tracing every impulse given the air—and the ether through the air—to the remotest consequences at any even infinitely remote epoch of time. It is indeed demonstrable that every such impulse given the air, must, in the end, impress every individual thing that exists within the universe;—and the being of infinite understanding—the being whom we have imagined—might trace the remote undulations of the impulse—trace them upward and onward in their influences upon all particles of an matter—upward and onward for ever in their modifications of old forms—or, in other words, in their creation of new—until he found them reflected—unimpressive at last—back from the throne of the Godhead. And not only could such a thing do this, but at any epoch, should a given result be afforded him—should one of these numberless comets, for example, be presented to his inspection—he could have no difficulty in determining, by the analytic retrogradation, to what original impulse it was due. This power of retrogradation in its absolute fulness and perfection—this faculty of referring at all epochs, all effects to all causes—is of course the prerogative of the Deity alone—but in every variety of degree, short of the absolute perfection, is the power itself exercised by the whole host of the Angelic intelligences.

OINOS. But you speak merely of impulses upon the air.

AGATHOS. In speaking of the air, I referred only to the earth; but the general proposition has reference to impulses upon the ether—which, since it pervades, and alone pervades all space, is thus the great medium of creation.

OINOS. Then all motion, of whatever nature, creates?

AGATHOS. It must: but a true philosophy has long taught that the source of all motion is thought—and the source of all thought is—


AGATHOS. I have spoken to you, Oinos, as to a child of the fair Earth which lately perished—of impulses upon the atmosphere of the Earth.

OINOS. You did.

AGATHOS. And while I thus spoke, did there not cross your mind some thought of the physical power of words? Is not every word an impulse on the air?

OINOS. But why, Agathos, do you weep—and why, oh why do your wings droop as we hover above this fair star—which is the greenest and yet most terrible of all we have encountered in our flight? Its brilliant flowers look like a fairy dream—but its fierce volcanoes like the passions of a turbulent heart.

AGATHOS. They are!—they are! This wild star—it is now three centuries since, with clasped hands, and with streaming eyes, at the feet of my beloved—I spoke it—with a few passionate sentences—into birth. Its brilliant flowers are the dearest of all unfulfilled dreams, and its raging volcanoes are the passions of the most turbulent and unhallowed of hearts.

Marginalia on Casanova

From Miklos Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova, the first of ten volumes in his St. Orpheus Breviary . v. 2 is also available in English as Black Renaissance. The French have made it further and released up through v.4 (v.3 as Escorial and v.4 as Europa Minor). Since Szentkuthy likely needs a lead-in for English readers, here first is the somewhat puffed up introductory overview:

Basically, this opus can be read as a long mythos of the marginal. From his room-library with some twenty-five thousand volumes, Szentkuthy annotates and revisits history. Mixing with ease and joy hagiography, literary study, fiction, narrative, the lyric poem and the aphorism, this roman-cathedrale, whose denomination “breviary” must not mislead, with the humor of his antiphrasis, offers an unprecedented recrossing as unheard-of as much as it is ironical of all literary and artistic forms cultivated by the West, from early times to the twentieth century, with major milestones: Rome, Byzantium, Venice, the Italian Renaissance & the Spanish Baroque. As archivist buffoon, Szentkuthy feeds the extravagant theater with his rigorous bulimia of a thousand networks of burgeoning stories, palimpsests in abysses and apocryphal pitfalls. Appropriating countless masks, pacing the epochs, this emotional athlete has no other aim than to break time until it stills the whirlwind of history into one continuous present.

Lord of illusions or exhibitor of shadows, there is something of the devourer in this man, who cannot bear to live cramped in one body, one life, one language. He prefers to cultivate double replicas of being, invest all fates — saints, libertines, popes, musicians, emperors, writers, eunuchs, painters or biblical girls. “I always wanted to see everything,” he confessed, “read everything, think everything, dream everything, swallow everything.”

From whence the art and manner of travelling across languages and playing the Argonauts of Planetary Writing (is it a coincidence that Szentkuthy was the translator of both Ulysses and Gulliver?). In truth, this stubborn survivor of the Enlightenment seems motivated entirely by a furious encyclopedic desire. A simple glance at the table of contents of the Breviary suffices to show the profligacy of this inner odyssey, where a few characters who were never in search of an author marched pell-mell: Casanova, Mozart, Adonis, Toscanini, Turner, Rubens, Brunelleschi, Keats, Herodotus, El Greco, Pythagoras, Voltaire, Puccini, Ariosto, Tintoretto, Shelley, Abelard, Monteverdi, Tacitus, Messalina, Theodora, Akbar, Lao Tzu, Palladio, Mary Tudor, Donatello, Philip II, Buddha, etc.

As many roles as Szentkuthy assumes in the manner of a comedian or an absolute dreamer, writing thus a sumptuous catalogus amoris. Here truly resides the infinite song of an Orpheus with Apollonian harmonies, god of metamorphosis, “being whose role it is to celebrate,” in the words of Rilke.

In an age where anyone — even under the sign of the worst conformism — prides oneself on marginality, Szentkuthy appears, all in all, as the writer of the absolute margin. Throughout his life, he continued to write in the margins of his books, covering and recovering — maniacally, scrupulously — volumes, newspapers, journals, and other documents. An infinite mosaic of notes, footnotes, keywords and various doodles, continuous shuffling between reading and writing — one without the other is here inconceivable — interminable bubbling of the library-universe in the heart of the Opus Magnum. Borges reminds us: “Another superstition of those ages has come to us: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf of some hexagon, we reasoned, there must exist a book which is the key and summary of all the others; there is a librarian who has read this book and who is like a god.”{2} If there is a writer who is a Man of the Book, according to the wish of the Argentinean master, it is Szentkuthy, in relentless pursuit of a magnum opus that would contain and even restore all creation.

Such was his passion, and his method as well. A process inaugurated in the first book of the Breviary, precisely titled Marginalia on Casanova. Strangely — but can we talk of strangeness when discussing a man who claimed to “work in co-production with chance”? — the structure of this founding volume owes much to theology. In 1938, Szentkuthy read the Römerbrief of the famous Protestant exegete Karl Barth, a commentary that is based on an analysis, phrase by phrase, even word by word, of the Epistle to the Romans. Literally enchanted by the effectiveness of this method — “where, in his words, every epithet puts imagination in motion” — he decided to apply it on the spot to Casanova, whose memoirs (a German edition in six large volumes) he had just annotated with gusto.

Simultaneity of all epochs, anachronistic audacity, chaos erected into a system (“the order of the random,” as defined by the same author) — was what this flamboyant opus quietly gave to read. The reception? Actually, there was none, since as soon as it was published — and even though Szentkuthy dutifully went to the church to “give thanks to all competent authorities of Catholic Heaven” to have authorized this iconoclast publication — the Royal Hungarian Court condemned Marginalia on Casanova for blasphemous profanity and assault on decency. Enjoying the protection of a prosecutor of the crown, the accused barely escaped trial — but all copies of the work were immediately confiscated. Thus was inaugurated the series of “Orpheuses”

And here are two relatively early chapters of the first volume (10 and 11). Halfway through the volume and I’m far from knowing what to do with it but these passages – the second especially – feel as good a representation of the author’s style as any.

“Ging ich in Maske aus” [I set out masked]— that is the logical culmination of civilization as an affirmation of self-contradictions. That culture: a mask culture, the reality of the 18th century, the reality of the mask. ‘Psychology’ here is a mistake arising from the mask, games of quid pro quo; sensuality only becomes truly great through the secret of the mask. Behind the mask lurks nihilism — a mask is almost as much a possibility of tragedy as Venice is simply by virtue of being Venice.

Neither Sophocles nor Shakespeare wrote a sentence as tragic as Casanova’s: “Ich ging in Maske aus.” A colored mask? A black one? With a long, corkscrew freak’s nose or just a simple covering for the forehead? Life is only tolerable in a mask — in this daring gesture civilization makes use of all game of games, a paradox from which it follows, but at the same time its nostalgia for non-civilization is quite tremendous.

A masked head is a death mask. In this disguise are preluded the two or three adventurous Venetian midnights which play a part in Casanova: when he has his revenge on an adversary; when a senator faints in a gondola; when marble tables are thrown together on resounding stone and he drunkenly tolls the bells with his musician companions.

As a small baby abate Casanova delivers a sermon in church. What is important above all else is that there is a world in which such a thing is possible, historically speaking. A world in which no one gives a damn about whether a person wearing a priest’s garb is a priest; a world in which a young boy can make a debut like a little ballerina. If that is the milieu then a thousand other things are self-evident. Yet Casanova’s entire intellectual mission (because he has none other in life) hangs on this: that a milieu can be one such or another, but there are only situations, the dramatis personae are not so much negligible as nothings.

Love is not a human death game or erotic game of patience, it is not a soul, not a body, not a marriage, not an adventure — love is: a ‘situation’; a constellation of objects, people, and times, one in which every object or time or even human component counts equally, irrespective of any ranking. Every Catholic child has been through that sweetly confusing age of twinges of conscience when budding sexual fantasies and equally budding religious notions chase each other around: we said our prayers with Greuze tears in our eyes and felt that God would excuse us for the female portrait, the one carried around in one’s pocketbook. Anyone who did not experience those partly uneasy, partly idyllic self-apologies knows little about love. Casanova’s sincere sermon and sincere adolescent boy’s eroticism fit alongside one another in his soul — that is what makes him childish. At this point moral insanity and Loyolan furor hover in balance — perhaps the finest sentimental and moral moment. One continually has the feeling that Casanova has a right to preach; something completely logical and completely free of hypocrisy is going on here. God wishes that the sermon should not be delivered by a bearded St. John in the wilderness but by a love-stricken Venetian young rascal in a periwig and without genuine faith: the whole religion is thereby cozier, more human, truer. After making his sermon, Casanova got a bagful of love-letters from female admirers; they straightaway smuggle into the sacristy.

Why should it be impossible and out of the question to label this as: frivolousness? How do we dare to say that the gondolaing settecento was religious, maybe because there is greater morality in this post-carnival ease? That it is all “I’ll go to confession and have done with it!” because everything is in Pauline contrition-versus-ecstasy? Because man is somehow so incestuously warm, somehow in an intimately fait accompli position with God: that God seeks to fall into the gossip net of human life, and this is where it happened. A Calvinist holding God at arm’s length and a baroque-Roman palling-up to God are probably equally bad extremes, but my theological heart mooches around the latter with unquenchable nostalgia.

The scene itself is unforgettable: a church next to the water like a swimming box of relics, the steps meeting the green paludial liquid like coins which have slipped just a nuance further out from an overturned stack of money; prows jammed together, gondolas lurch in one place around the gate like miff-necked black swans around an invisible morsel — the church is small, the whole thing no more than a boudoir, the women, in their balloon silks, thrown on each other — the lagoon’s marsh reek, an oily fish smell billowing out from the eating-houses, many perfumes and stifling hard fumes of incense concentrated into a single Catholic dogma: that’s Casanova’s world. This is the image added to which I always imagine Miracoli. When one first sees it: from behind. Thank goodness, we have such an entirely cost-free key to the reality-nature of reality: one must glimpse such magnificent edifices for the first time from the back, the ‘bad’ perspective. This is Santa Maria dei Miracoli: at one moment a powder-box at the edge of a green washbasin, the next moment (with its Byzantine artichoke cupolas) the new St. Mark’s church, a celestial Constantinople.

In cupolated buildings like this the high, smooth walls almost outgrow the height of the cupolas, with the green Orthodox cones falling between the shoulders. They are always falling; the five or six cupolas hurriedly shrink as if Orthodoxy were doubling the perspective, were hastening them to double. Casanova’s childhood sermon has grown together with this in my memory, and that too is symbolical: just like the miracle boudoir and Constantinople, so even Casanova’s young days of the intensification of sweetest intimacy with the world right up till the fateful journey (“ich muss… ich muss…”) to Byzantium.