I made your destiny a destiny of kingship, but I did not make it a destiny of eternal life

The Sumerian Death of Bilgames (Gilgamesh), as Bilgames on his deathbed learns his fate in a god-sent dream (Andrew George’s Penguin edition, pg 200-201).  Bilgames’ end is of course highly privileged but the overall feel of the Netherworld here is more cheerful than in Enkidu’s from the later standard Babylonian Gilgamesh – though much (to most) of that cheer can be undercut by the earlier question and answer session on the fates of various types of people:

[Great Mountain Enlil, the father of the gods,]
[conversed in the dream with the lord Bilgames:]
[‘O Bilgames, I made your destiny a destiny of kingship, but I did
not make it a destiny of eternal life. ]
[For mankind, whatever life it has, be not sick at heart,]
[be not in despair, be not heart-stricken!]
[The bane of mankind is thus come, I have told you,]
[what (was fixed) when your navel-cord was cut is thus come, I have told you.]
[The darkest day of mortal man has caught up with you,]
[the solitary place of mortal man has caught up with you,]
[the flood-wave that cannot be breasted has caught up with you,]
[the battle that cannot be fled has caught up with you,]
[the combat that cannot be matched has caught up with you,]
[the fight that shows no pity has caught up with you!]
[But do not go down to the Great City with heart knotted (in anger) ,]
[let it be undone before Utu,]
[let it be unravelled like palm-fibre and peeled like an onion!]
Go ahead, [when the great] Anunna [gods sit down] to the funerary banquet,
to the place where the en-priests lie, where the [lagar-priests lie,]
to where the lumak-priests and nindingir-priestesses lie,
to where the nindingir-priestesses lie, where the ‘true one’ lies,
to where the guda-priests lie, where the linen-clad priests lie,
the place where your father is, and your grandfathers,
your mother, your sisters, your siblings,
your precious friend, your little brother,
your friend Enkidu, the young man your companion!
[(There) in the Great City, dwell] governors and kings,
there chiefs of armies [lie,]
[there captains of troops lie.]
[When in the Great City Aralli a man … ,]
[the man …… will not … ]
[From the sister’s house the sister will come to you,]
[from the sibling’s] house [the sibling will come to you,]
your own [will come to you, your precious one will come to you,]
the elders of your city will come to you!
Be not in despair, be not heart-stricken,
for now you will number among the Anunna gods,
you will be accounted one of the lesser gods,
you will act as the governor of the Netherworld,
you will pass judgement, you will render verdicts,
what [you say] will be as weighty [as the word of Ningishzida and] Dumuzi.’
Then the young [lord,] the lord Bilgames,
arose, it had been a [dream,] he shuddered, [it had been a deep
[He rubbed] his eyes with his hands, there was desolate [silence.]

La Rochefoucauld on resolutions

A run of Réflexions morales that feel seasonally appropriate


La santé de l’âme n’est pas plus assurée que celle du corps; et quoique l’on paraisse éloigné des passions, on n’est pas moins en danger de s’y laisser emporter que de tomber malade quand on se porte bien.

The health of the soul is no more assured than that of the body; and even though you appear removed from passions, you are no less in danger of being carried away by them than of falling sick when in good health.


Il semble que la nature ait prescrit à chaque homme dès sa naissance des bornes pour les vertus et pour les vices.

It seems that nature has stipulated for each man from his birth the limits for his virtues and for his vices.


On peut dire que les vices nous attendent dans le cours de la vie comme des hôtes chez qui il faut successivement loger; et je doute que l’expérience nous les fît éviter s’il nous était permis de faire deux fois le même chemin.

We can say that vices await us in the course of life like hosts with whom we must successively lodge; and I doubt that experience would make us avoid them if it were permitted us to travel twice the same path.


Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.

When vices leave us, we flatter ourselves with the belief that it is we who have left them.


Il y a des rechutes dans les maladies de l’âme, comme dans celles du corps. Ce que nous prenons pour notre guérison n’est le plus souvent qu’un relâche ou un changement de mal.

There are relapses in the illnesses of the soul, just as in those of the body.  What we take for our healing is most often only a break or a changing of disease.


Les défauts de l’âme sont comme les blessures du corps: quelque soin qu’on prenne de les guérir, la cicatrice paraît toujours, et elles sont à tout moment en danger de se rouvrir.

The defects of the souls are like the wounds of the body; whatever care one takes to heal them, the scarring always shows, and they are at every moment in danger of being opened.


Ce qui nous empêche souvent de nous abandonner à un seul vice est que nous en avons plusieurs.

What often prevents us from abandoning ourselves to a single vice is that we have many of them.

Where soil is their sustenance and clay their food

From Tablet VII of Gilgamesh in the Andrew George translation.  Enkidu has learned of his coming death and recounts his dream vision of the underworld awaiting him.  The text unfortunately breaks off in the middle of the scene but we still get what must be literature’s first version of the Danse Macabre motif.

[As for Enkidu], his mind was troubled,
he lay on his own and [began to ponder.]
What was on his mind he told to his friend:
‘My friend, in the course of the night I had such a dream!

‘The heavens thundered, the earth gave echo,
and there was I, standing between them.
A man there was, grim his expression,
just like a Thunderbird his features were frightening.
‘His hands were a lion’s paws, his claws an eagle’s talons,
he seized me by the hair, he overpowered me.
I struck him, but back he sprang like a skipping rope,
he struck me, and like a raft capsized me.
‘Underfoot [he] crushed me, like a mighty wild bull,
[drenching] my body with poisonous slaver.
“Save me, my friend! …… ”
You were afraid of him, but you ….. .

‘[He struck me and] turned me into a dove.
‘[He bound] my arms like the wings of a bird,
to lead me captive to the house of darkness, seat of Irkalla:
to the house which none who enters ever leaves,
on the path that allows no journey back,
‘to the house whose residents are deprived of light,
where soil is their sustenance and clay their food,
where they are clad like birds in coats of feathers,
and see no light, but dwell in darkness.
‘On door [and bolt the dust lay thick,]
on the House [of Dust was poured a deathly quiet.]
In the House of Dust that I entered,
‘I looked around me, saw the “crowns” in a throng,
there were the crowned [heads] who’d ruled the land since days
of yore,
who’d served the roast [at the] tables of Anu and Enlil,
who’d proffered baked bread, and poured them cool water from
‘In the House of Dust that I entered,
there were the en-priests and lagar-priests,
there were lustration-priests and lumahhu-priests,
there were the great gods’ gudapsu-priests,
‘there was Etana, there was Shakkan,
[there was] the queen of the Netherworld, the goddess
Before her sat [Belet]-~eri, the scribe of the Netherworld,
holding [ a tablet], reading aloud in her presence.
‘[She raised] her head and she saw me:
“[Who was] it fetched this man here?
[Who was it] brought here [this fellow?]” ,

At that moment they conceived the notion of putting those adventures into practice

From Marcel Schwob’s Petronius: Novelist in his Imaginary Lives (the translation is not mine and is not the best but I’m not typing this up). I will always find Paolo Uccello the most ambitious and richest of Schwob’s lives but I like Petronius, love Don Quixote, and appreciate this recasting of the former through the latter.

When [Petronius] arrived at the age of adolescence he did up his beard in an ornate sheath and began to look about him. Then a slave named Syrus, who had served in the arenas, showed him some things he had never seen before. Not of noble race, Petronius was a swarthy little squint-eyed fellow with the hands of an artisan and cultivated tastes. It pleased him to fashion words together and to write them down, though they resembled nothing the old poets had imagined, for they strove only to imitate the things Petronius found around him. Later he developed a grievous ambition for making verses.
Through Syrus he came to know barbarian gladiators, braggarts of the street corners, shifty-looking men of the market-places, curly-headed boys on whom the senators leaned during their promenades, curbstone orators, pimps with their upstart girls, fruit vendors, tavern landlords, shabby poets, pilfering servants, unauthorized priestesses and vagabond soldiers. With his squint eyes he saw them all, catching the precise manner of them and their ways. Syrus took him down to see the slaves in their baths, to the dens of the prostitutes and through those underground cells where the circus gladiators practiced with wooden swords. Sitting by the tombs beyond the city gates, he heard tales of men who change their skins – tales and stories passed from mouth to mouth by blacks and Syrians and innkeepers and guardians who carried out the crucifixions. Absorbed in these vivid contrasts which his free life allowed him to examine, he began, when about thirty, to write the story of those errant slaves and debauchees he knew. In the luxurious society of the city he recognized their morals, though transformed, and he found their ideas and their language among the polite conversations at high ceremonies. Alone, bent over his parchment at a table of odorous cedar, with the sharp point of his calm detachment he pictured the adventures of an ignored people. Under the painted ebony wainscoting, by the light of his tall windows, he imagined smoky torch lit taverns, absurd nocturnal struggles, the twisted candelabras of carved wood, the locks suddenly forced by the axes of police slaves, and the harsh commands of slave drivers shrill above the shuffling rush of miserable people clad in torn curtains and filthy rags.
When his six books were finished Petronius read them to Syrus. And the slave is said to have howled his laughter aloud and clapped his hands for glee. At that moment they conceived the notion of putting those adventures into practice. Tacitus has falsely written that Petronius was present at Nero’s court, telling how his death was brought about by the jealousy of Tigillinus. But Petronius did not vanish murmuring lewd little verses as he stepped delicately into a marble bath. He ran away with Syrus to end his life on the roads.

Ainsi Pétrone vécut mollement, pensant que l’air même qu’il aspirait fût parfumé pour son usage. Quand il fut parvenu à l’adolescence, après avoir enfermé sa première barbe dans un coffret orné, il commença de regarder autour de lui. Un esclave du nom de Syrus, qui avait servi dans l’arène, lui montra les choses inconnues. Pétrone était petit, noir, et louchait d’un œil. Il n’était point de race noble. Il avait des mains d’artisan et un esprit cultivé. De là vint qu’il prit plaisir à façonner les paroles et à les inscrire. Elles ne ressemblèrent à rien de ce que les poètes anciens avaient imaginé. Car elles s’efforçaient d’imiter tout ce qui entourait Pétrone. Et ce ne fut que plus tard qu’il eut la fâcheuse ambition de composer des vers.

Il connut donc des gladiateurs barbares et des hâbleurs de carrefour, des hommes aux regards obliques qui semblent épier les légumes et décrochent les pièces de viande, des enfants frisés que promenaient des sénateurs, de vieux babillards qui discouraient des affaires de la cité aux coins des rues, des valets lascifs et des filles parvenues, des marchandes de fruits et des patrons d’auberges, des poètes minables et des servantes friponnes, des prêtresses interlopes et des soldats errants. Il tenait sur eux son œil louche et saisissait exactement leurs manières et leurs intrigues. Syrus le conduisit dans les bains d’esclaves, les cellules de prostituées et les réduits souterrains où les figurants de cirque s’exerçaient avec leurs épées de bois. Aux portes de la ville, entre les tombes, il lui raconta les histoires des hommes qui changent de peau, que les noirs, les Syriens, les taverniers et les soldats gardiens des croix de supplice se repassaient de bouche en bouche.

Vers la trentième année, Pétrone, avide de cette liberté diverse, commença d’écrire l’histoire d’esclaves errants et débauchés. Il reconnut leurs mœurs parmi les transformations du luxe; il reconnut leurs idées et leur langage parmi les conversations polies des festins. Seul, devant son parchemin, appuyé sur une table odorante en bois de cèdre, il dessina à la pointe de son calame les aventures d’une populace ignorée. A la lumière de ses hautes fenêtres, sous les peintures des lambris, il s’imagina les torches fumeuses des hôtelleries, et de ridicules combats nocturnes, des moulinets de candélabres de bois, des serrures forcées à coups de hache par des esclaves de justice, des sangles grasses parcourues de punaises, et des objurgations de procurateurs d’ilot au milieu d’attroupements de pauvres gens vêtus de rideaux déchirés et de torchons sales.

On dit que lorsqu’il eut achevé les seize livres de son invention, il fit venir Syrus pour les lui lire, et que l’esclave riait et criait à haute voix en frappant dans ses mains. Dans ce moment, ils formèrent le projet de mettre à exécution les aventures composées par Pétrone. Tacite rapporte faussement qu’il fut arbitre des élégances à la cour de Néron, et que Tigellin, jaloux, lui fit envoyer l’ordre de mort. Pétrone ne s’évanouit pas délicatement dans une baignoire de marbre, en murmurant de, petits vers lascifs. Il s’enfuit avec Syrus et termina sa vie en parcourant les routes.

Forced to become pygmies in order to find room in Pandemonium

From Chamfort’s Maximes et Pensees, number 65 in my edition. I’ll first give W.S. Merwin’s rendering even though I very much feel he improves the thought by mistranslation:

Men becomes little as they become alike. They are Milton’s devils, forced to become pygmies in order to find room in Pandemonium.

Les hommes deviennent petits en se rassemblant ; ce sont les diables de Milton, obligés de se rendre pygmées, pour entrer dans le Pandémonium.

I can find no dictionary entry for ‘rassembler’ as resemble, which is where Merwin’s ‘become alike’ has to have originated. Unless there is an alternate reading of ‘ressembler’ not given in my Folio Classique edition.  More accurate to my text but less well phrased would be:

Men become small as they are gathered together – they are Milton’s devils, forced to make themselves pygmies in order to enter Pandemonium.

The distinction I’m making is that Merwin’s version is rosier than the original. By his rendering, reduction of personhood/character/etc. is a product of assimilation, not of the act of gathering together. This would seem to leave open the possibility that one could exist in a social context without being reduced by it (provided you didn’t ‘become like’ your peers). But Chamfort – as I read him at least – makes that reduction an automatic byproduct of all existence in a social context – that we in our totalities and potentialities are necessarily diminished by being crammed against one another.

this one pleasoure haue I – Of bokes to haue grete plenty

From Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, translated by Alexander Barclay


I am the firste fole of all the hole nauy
To kepe the pompe, the helme and eke the sayle
For this is my mynde, this one pleasoure haue I
Of bokes to haue grete plenty and aparayle
I take no wysdome by them: nor yet auayle
Nor them preceyue nat: And then I them despyse
Thus am I a foole and all that sewe that guyse

Blessed rage for order

Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.

The water never formed to mind or voice,

Like a body wholly body, fluttering

Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion

Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,

That was not ours although we understood,

Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.

The song and water were not medleyed sound

Even if what she sang was what she heard.

Since what she sang was uttered word by word.

It may be that in all her phrases stirred

The grinding water and the gasping wind;

But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea

Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.

Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew

It was the spirit that we sought and knew

That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea

That rose, or even colored by many waves;

If it was only the outer voice of sky

And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,

However clear, it would have been deep air,

The heaving speech of air, a summer sound

Repeated in a summer without end

And sound alone. But it was more than that,

More even than her voice, and ours, among

The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,

Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped

On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres

Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.

She measured to the hour its solitude.

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,

Why, when the singing ended and we turned

Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,

The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,

As night descended, tilting in the air,

Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,

Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,

Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,

The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,

And of ourselves and of our origins,

In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Christmas book haul

Because I maintain a childlike materialism for books here are my new acquisitions, in no coherent order:

Paul Metcalf’s collected works, volume 1

New German edition of Musil, volume 2

Antal Szerb’s The Queen’s Necklace

Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower

Red Pine’s translation of Stonehouse

Sankara’s Upadesasahasri, 2 volumes

The new annotated edition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, volume 1

Monaldo Leopardi’s Autobiografia – which no library anywhere was willing to loan me

Robert Merton’s On The Shoulders of Giants (OTSOG)

Poggio Bracciolini’s Epistulae – volumes 3 and 4 of the Bottega d’Erasmo facsimile edition of his works. I can’t find the first two to purchase and am amazed these came up anywhere.

Library of America complete works of W.S. Merwin, 2 volumes

Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines

Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works 

Charles Lamb’s Selected Prose

Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library edition of Carmina Burana, volume 1

I Tatti edition of Angelo Poliziano’s Letters, volume 1 (and I fear there will be no completing volume released)

Keiichi Tahara’s 30 pound Taschen Architecture Fin-de-Siècle, 3 volumes

Pleiade edition of Maupassant’s Contes et Nouvelles, 2 volumes

Marcel Conche’s PUF edition of Heraclitus

An eternally orbiting monument to the early days of planetary exploration

From Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

“For the last time, Discovery’s main drive released its energies. For the last time, the incandescent fury of dying atoms blazed among the moons of Saturn. To David Bowman, the far-off whisper and rising thrust of the jets brought a sense of pride – and of sadness. The superb engines had done their duty with flawless efficiency. They had brought the ship from Earth to Jupiter to Saturn; now this was the very last time that they would ever operate. When Discovery had emptied her propellant tanks, she would be as helpless and inert as any comet or asteroid, a powerless prisoner of gravitation. Even when the rescue ship arrived a few years hence, it would not be an economical proposition to refuel her, so that she could fight her way back to Earth. She would be an eternally orbiting monument to the early days of planetary exploration”

This gives me an idea – several angles of an idea – for a story about future historic monuments in space – a future sort of national register. Maybe their upkeep – someone charged with maintaining them in shape and in orbit. Maybe tourism – a pilgrimage trail of mankind’s progress in exploration. There feels some just-ungraspable richness to this idea.

My failing, and the frailty of wayward flesh

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (beinning ~2430) in the W.S. Merwin translation – which I much preferred to the Armitage I read last year.

“But your belt,” Gawain said, “God reward you for it!
I will be glad to wear it, not for the gold on it,
Nor the sash itself, nor the silk, nor the pendants around it,
Nor its value, nor the honor in it, nor the glorious workmanship,
But I shall look at it often to remind me of my wrongdoing.
When I ride in triumph remorse will recall to me
My failing, and the frailty of wayward flesh,
How easily it is splashed with stains that defile it.
And so when pride from prowess at arms stirs me,
The sight of this love token will humble my heart.

‘Bot your gordel’, quoþ Gawayn, ‘God yow forзelde!
þat wyl I welde wyth guod wylle, not for þe wynne golde,
Ne þe saynt, ne þe sylk, ne þe syde pendaundes,
For wele ne for worchyp, ne for þe wlonk werkkez,
Bot in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte,
When I ride in renoun, remorde to myseluen
þe faut and þe fayntyse of þe flesche crabbed,
How tender hit is to entyse teches of fylþe;
And þus, quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,
þe loke to þis luf-lace schal leþe my hert.