I wrote it with the pen of mirth and the ink of melancholy

The prologue to the the new Penguin translation of a book I’ve long meant to read, Machado de Assis’ The Posthumous Memoirs of  Brás Cubas.

That Stendhal should have confessed to writing one of his books for only a hundred readers is a source of surprise and consternation. What comes as no surprise, nor will likely provoke any consternation, is if this book fails to garner even Stendhal’s hundred readers, nor fifty, nor twenty, nor even ten, if that. Ten? Perhaps five. This is, it’s true, a diffuse work, in which I, Brás Cubas, if I have adopted the free form of a Sterne or a Xavier de Maistre, may have added a few grumbles of pessimism. That may well be. The work of a deceased man. I wrote it with the pen of mirth and the ink of melancholy, and it is not difficult to predict what may come of such a union. Add to which the fact that serious people will find in the book some likeness to an out-and-out novel, while frivolous people will not find their usual novel here; it will thus be deprived of the esteem of the serious and the love of the frivolous, which are the two chief pillars of public opinion.

But I still harbor hopes of winning the sympathies of that opinion, and the first remedy is to avoid a drawn-out, exhaustive prologue. The best prologues have the fewest things, or say them in an abrupt, obscure manner. Accordingly, I will refrain from relaying the extraordinary process that I employed in composing these Memoirs, crafted here in the otherworld. It would be of interest, but tediously lengthy, and superfluous to one’s understanding of the work. The work in itself is all: if it should please you, my fine reader, I am paid for my labors; if it should not please you, I will pay you with a flick of a finger, and farewell.

The Stendhal reference is to the second preface of De l’Amour (On Love). Sterne is of course Tristram Shandy. De Maistre is the still-underappreciated author of Voyage autour de ma chambre (A Journey Around My Room). Apparently one of the earlier editions of the novel included Charles Lamb in this list of major influences but he was later cut here (as he has been everywhere, sadly).

For you will undo the endlessly talking tongues of chattering men

From Diogenes Laertius (1.35), some precepts in verse of Thales (via Loeb’s Early Greek Philosophy v.2):

τῶν τε ᾀδομένων αὐτοῦ τάδε εἶναι·

οὔ τι τὰ πολλὰ ἔπη φρονίμην ἀπεφήνατο δόξαν·
ἕν τι μάτευε σοφόν,ἕν τι κεδνὸν αἱροῦ·
λύσεις γὰρ ἀνδρῶν κωτίλων
γλώσσας ἀπεραντολόγους.

Among his songs there are the following:

Many words do not manifest a sensible opinion.
Search for one thing: what is wise.
Choose one thing: what is good.
For you will undo the endlessly talking tongues
Of chattering men.

Diels opted for a different reading – δήσεις – which gives the sense ‘tie up, bind the endlessly talking tongues.’ I’ve not checked whether that’s a variant reading or a conjecture to avoid potential issues with λύω, which does allow the sense ‘undo’ but usually means ‘loosen’ (and there are instances in Euripides and Plato where it specifically is applied to loosening tongues, cited in the linked entry at 1B). I accidentally hear an anachronistic echo here of Benedict’s “To bind me or undo me, one of them” at the close of Much Ado.

ἀπεραντολόγος is a near unique compound adjective with an epic feel. At a glance – assuming these verses are Thales’ and not a later attribution – it feels a sideswipe at fellow early philosopher Anaximander’s pursuit of the apeiron (the boundless) as the origin of all things.

What do you expect wisdom to be?

Pindar Fragment 61 (but taken from v.2 of the Loeb Early Greek Philosophy set):

What do you expect wisdom to be, if it is only by a little
That one man possesses it more than another?
For it is impossible for him
To discover the gods’ plans with a human mind (phreni):
He was born of a mortal mother.

τί ἔλπεαι σοφίαν ἔμμεν, ἃν ὀλίγον τοι
ἀνὴρ ὑπὲρ ἀνδρὸς ἴσχει;
οὐ γὰρ ἔσθ᾽ ὅπως τὰ θεῶν
βουλεύματ’ ἐρευνάσει βροτέᾳ φρενί·
θνατᾶς δ᾽ἀπὸ ματρὸς ἔφυ.

Ea est odiorum Ilias

In time for the coming holidays, from Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus 740-743 (The Braggart Soldier), text and translation of the new Loeb edition:

no guest can put up at such a great friend’s place that he wouldn’t be a nuisance as soon as it’s been three days in a row; but when it’s ten days in a row, it’s a whole Iliad of hatred.

nam hospes nullus tam in amici hospitium deuorti potest
quin, ubi triduom continuom fuerit, iam odiosus siet;
uerum ubi dies decem continuos sit, ea est odiorum Ilias:

Plautus’ exact phrase (odiorum Ilias) is a weird one. The Greek version – κακῶν Ἰλιὰς – was enough of an ancient proverb that Erasmus covered it at Adagia 226 – Ilias Malorum, though he fails there to mention what seems the first (traceable) instance of the phrase itself – Demosthenes’ use in De Falsa Legatione (On the False Embassy).

καὶ κακῶν Ἰλιὰς περιειστήκει Θηβαίους.
and an Iliad of woes surrounded the Thebans.

What’s weird in Plautus is obvious from comparison with Erasmus’ Latin rendering – Ilias Malorum, which likely comes from Cicero’s use (Ad Atticum viii. 11) – Tanta malorum impendet Ilias (so great an Iliad of troubles hangs over us). κακόν as substantive carries the sense of ‘evils, ills’ – which is better matched in Latin by malus than odium. But maybe it’s an issue of Plautine usage since there is – according to Lewis and Short – a close transferred sense: “In gen., the object of hatred; hence, an offenceannoyancedisgust, said of persons or things.”

—of wondering why he was begot,—wishing himself dead;—sometimes worse

From Tristram Shandy, for those days wasted in war with bookcases and shelving:

My father, I say, had a way, when things went extremely wrong with him, especially upon the first sally of his impatience,—of wondering why he was begot,—wishing himself dead;—sometimes worse:——And when the provocation ran high, and grief touched his lips with more than ordinary powers—Sir, you scarce could have distinguished him from Socrates himself.——

The Folly’s greater to have none at all

From Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Bathurst (On the use of Riches) – lines 153-160 in the Twickenham edition:

“All this is madness,” cries a sober sage:
“But who, my friend, has Reason in his rage?
The ruling Passion, be it what it will,
The ruling Passion conquers Reason still.’
Less mad the wildest whimsy we can frame,
Than ev’n that Passion, if it has no aim;
For tho’ such motives Folly you may call,
The Folly’s greater to have none at all.

The last lines are reminiscent of Rochefoucauld’s Maxime CCIX:


Qui vit sans folie n’est pas si sage qu’il croit
He who lives without folly is not as wise as he believes

Folie, which I’ve rendered to be in accord with Pope, never makes the crossing intact. But in Rochefoucauld it generally carries a sense far closer to passion than to madness. One could almost say hobbyhorse.

I forgot to be unflagging, content to have my daily drink.

From The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien (Hightower translation – though there’s also a more recent and easily available one by David Hinton):


Trees in Bloom
In ‘Trees in Bloom’ I am mindful of approaching old age. Days and months prod one another along, and already now it is summertime. When I wore my hair as a child, I was instructed in the doctrines of Confucius. Today, white haired, I have accomplished nothing.

I.
Brightly shine the blooming trees,
They have taken root right here.
their blossoms radiant this morning
By night already they have died.
Human life is like a visit;
There comes a time of decrepitude.
In silence, very much I brood,
By this my inmost heart is grieved.

II.
Brightly shine the blooming trees
Right here where they have taken root.
This morning blossoms in profusion
No longer there, alas, this evening.
Steadfast or pliant depends on the man,
For fortune or trouble there is no gate.
On what rely, if not the Way?
For what to strive, if not the good?

III.
Ah, like a little child am I
So crude in manners, lacking polish.
The passing years have flowed away,
And nothing added to my stock.
I forgot to be unflagging,
Content to have my daily drink.
What I carry here inside
Is worry and an inner guilt.

IV.
The Former Teacher left the message,
One that I may not forget:
‘If he’s still unknown at forty
That’s no one you need respect.’
Grease my carriage wheel for me
Whip up my famous racing horses —
A thousand miles is far to go,
But how dare I not make the trip?

By Confucius’ tally I unfortunately have still over a handful of years left before I’m freed from needing to worry about anyone respecting me.

Is there no hope? Alas! –then bring the jowl

From Alexander Pope’s An Epistle to Cobham, 234-239 in the Twickenham edition:

A salmon’s belly, Helluo, was thy fate:
The doctor call’d, declares all help too late.
Mercy! cries Helluo, mercy on my soul!
Is there no hope? Alas! –then bring the jowl.

Helluo is a very rare Latin word for glutton. The image, whatever the possible contemporary target, has a real background source in a tale from Athenaeus (8.341) of a little known poet named Philoxenus:

The comic poet Macho (64–86 Gow) writes the following about the dithyrambic poet Philoxenus of Cythera:

They say that the dithyrambic poet
Philoxenus was an extraordinary
glutton. So once when he was in Syracuse,
he bought an octopus that was three feet long,
and prepared it and ate almost the entire thing
except for the head. He got a stomach-ache
and was in terrible shape. A doctor
came to visit him, saw that he was doing
very badly, and said: “If you’ve got
any business that needs to be taken care of, do it
right away,
Philoxenus; because you’ll be dead by mid-afternoon.”
He responded: “My affairs are all in order,
doctor,” he said, “and have been settled for a while
now.
With the gods’ help, the dithyrambs I’m leaving
behind
have all grown up and been awarded garlands,
and I’m entrusting them to the care of the Muses I
grew
up with. That Aphrodite and Dionysus are my
executors,
my will makes clear. But since
Timotheus’ Charon, the one from his Niobe,
is not allowing me to linger, but is shouting for me to
proceed to the ferry,
and my night-dark fate, which I must heed, is
calling—
so that I can run off to the Underworld with
everything that’s mine:
give me the rest of that octopus!”


Bateson, the editor, believes that Pope more likely got his inspiration from John Hales’ Golden Remains:

When Philoxenus the Epicure had fallen desperately sick upon glutting himself on a delicate and costly fish, perceiving he was to die, he calls for the remainder of his fish, and eats it up, and dies a true Martyr to his belly.”

He also – with some qualifying skepticism – offers La Fontaine’s Le Glouton as another possibility. That one feels closer to Pope’s choppy rhythm to me but either way here’s my hasty translation:

À son souper un glouton
Commande que l’on appreste
Pour luy seul un Esturgeon.
Sans en laisser que la teste,
Il soupe ; il creve, on y court :
On luy donne maints clisteres.
On luy dit, pour faire court,
Qu’il mette ordre à ses affaires.
Mes amis, dit le goulu,
M’y voila tout resolu ;
Et puis qu’il faut que le meure,
Sans faire tant de façon,
Qu’on m’apporte tout à l’heure
Le reste de mon poisson.

At his dinner a glutton
orders that there be readied
for himself alone a sturgeon.
Leaving aside only the head,
he dines; Now he’s bursting, help comes running:
They give him several enemas.
They tell him – to cut it short –
That he should put his affairs in order.
My friends, says the glutton,
I’m ready, fully resolute;
And since I must die
don’t make a deal of it
but have someone bring right away
the rest of my fish.

On human actions reason tho’ you can, it may be Reason, but it is not Man

From Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Cobham, lines 10-40 in vol 3, pt. 2 of the Twickenham edition, Epistles to Several Persons. The edition matters more than normal since maybe 1/4 of these lines will not appear in earlier printings:

Men may be read, as well as Books too much.
To Observations which ourselves we make,
We grow more partial for th’ observer’s sake;
To written Wisdom, as another’s, less:
Maxims are drawn from Notions, those from Guess.
There ’s some Peculiar in each leaf and grain,
Some unmark’d fibre, or some varying vein.
Shall only Men be taken in the gross?
Grant but as many sorts of Mind as Moss.*
That each from other differs, first confess;
Next, that he varies from himself no less:
And Nature’s, Custom’s, Reason’s, Passion’s strife,
And all Opinion’s colours cast on life.
Yet more; the diff’rence is as great between
The optics seeing, as the objects seen.
All Manners take a tincture from our own,
Or come discolour’d thro’ our Passions shown.
Or Fancy’s beam enlarges, multiplies,
Contracts, inverts, and gives ten thousand dyes.
Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds,
Quick whirls and shifting eddies of our minds?
Life’s stream for Observation will not stay,
It hurries all too fast to mark their way.
In vain sedate reflections we would make,
When half our knowledge we must snatch, not take.
On human actions reason tho’ you can,
It may be Reason, but it is not Man:
His Principle of action once explore,
That instant ’tis his Principle no more.
Like following life thro’ creatures you dissect,
You lose it in the moment you detect.

*The editor, Bateson, usefully points out via footnote that there are over 300 kinds of moss. I imagine that number has gone up since the edition’s first publication in 1954.

Since my youth I have loved books and have had a predilection for quiet

From The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien (translator Hightower, Oxford 1970 – though good luck finding a copy). For some reason while I mostly ignore the biographical traditions of the western classics, I’m always genuinely charmed by the sketches of eastern authors. First here is the autobiographical piece translated as The Gentleman of the Five Willow Trees:



I don’t know where this gentleman was born and I am not sure of his name, but beside his house were five willow trees, from which he took his nickname. He was of a placid disposition and rarely spoke. He had no envy of fame or fortune. He was fond of reading, without puzzling greatly over difficult passages. When he came across something to his liking he would be so delighted he would forget his meals. By nature he like wine, but being poor could not always come by it. Knowing the circumstances, his friends and relatives would invite him over when they had wine. He could not drink without emptying his cup, and always ended up drunk, after which he would retire, unconcerned about what might come. He lived alone in a bare little hut which gave no adequate shelter against rain and sun. His short coat was torn and patched, how cooking pots were frequently empty, but he was unperturbed. He used to write poems for his own amusement, and in them can be seen something of what he thought. He had no concern for worldly success, and so he ended his days.


And from his Testament to his sons:


Since my youth I have loved books and have had a predilection for quiet. When I opened a scroll and found something to my liking, I would be so delighted I would forget mealtime; and when I watched the trees weaving their shade and heard the birds changing their song with the season, I was filled with joy. Lying under the north window in the fifth or sixth month with an intermittent cool breeze coming through, it seemed to me that I was living in the time of the sage Emperor Fu-hsi.


From the preface to poem 62, here titled The Return:


Because of my poverty an uncle offered me a job in a small town, but he region was still unquiet and I trembled at the thought of going away from homme. However, P’eng-tse was only thirty miles from my native place, and the yield of the fields assigned the magistrate was sufficient to keep me in wine, so I applied for the office. Before many days had passed, I longed to give it up and go back home. Why, you may ask. Because my instinct is all for freedom, and will not brook discipline or restraint. Hunger and cold may be sharp, but this going against myself really sickens me. Whenever I have been involved in official life I was mortgaging myself to my mouth and belly, and the realization of this greatly upset me. I was deeply ashamed that I had so compromised my principles, but I was still going to wait out the year, after which I might pack up my clothes and slip away at night.