Dialogue on the Threshold

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Friday, 19 December 2014

Love and Wheat / Wheat and Death

GRUSHENKO: To die . . . before the harvest. The crops, the grains, fields of rippling wheat. Wheat. All there is in life is wheat. . . . Oh, wheat! Lots of wheat! Fields of wheat! A tremendous amount of wheat. . . . Yellow wheat. Red wheat. Wheat with feathers. Cream of wheat.
SONJA: The last traces of the shimmering dusk are setting behind the quickly darkening evening, and it’s only noon. Soon we shall be covered by wheat.
NATASHA: Did you say . . . wheat?
GRUSHENKO: Wheat! I’m dead, they’re talking about wheat.
In its historical setting, plot, characters and atmosphere, Woody Allen’s feature film Love and Death (1975) parodies the nineteenth-century Russian novel in general and Tolstoy in particular. At the time of the film’s release, this would have been obvious to many viewers who had not necessarily read War and Peace from cover to cover: King Vidor’s spectacular big-screen adaptation of the novel, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda among other famous names, had been released less than two decades previously, in 1956. And by the mid-1970s, when Woody Allen shot his film in Hungary, there were more than a half a dozen cinematic versions of Anna Karenina in existence. Through the names of its characters, their morbid love lives, their frequent agonising over the existence of God, and in verbal allusions such as a madcap dialogue involving wordplay on the titles of Dostoevsky’s novels, Love and Death also makes reference to Russia’s other towering nineteenth-century literary figure. Nor were Hollywood versions of Dostoevsky’s novels lacking; they included a 1958 MGM production of The Brothers Karamazov, starring Yul Brynner as a bald Dmitri Karamazov.

In general, Love and Death employs comic versions of the types and situations one might expect to find in a classic Russian novel. Although they are obviously important as somehow a quintessentially Russian leitmotiv, the film’s allusions to wheat would seem harder to pin down, however. On the eve of his duel with aristocrat and marksman Anton Lebedekov (Harold Gould), the bumbling Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen), who since boyhood has had visions of a white-robed, scythe-wielding Death, waxes lyrical about fields of rippling wheat and dying before the harvest. At the end of the film, Grushenko, having been executed by firing squad for his botched attempt to assassinate Napoleon, is being led away by the aforementioned Grim Reaper when his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) and Natasha (Jessica Harper) fall into a trance and begin uttering the word “wheat” in a droning threnody. What Russian novel might these ecstatic evocations of wheat be alluding to?

In Love and Death, the wheat motif occurs at liminal moments, on the threshold of death, between this world and the next, when the characters’ gaze seems to be fixed on some plane beyond the visible. In Tolstoy, however, the references to wheat would seem to be firmly rooted in this world rather than the next. For Tolstoy’s characters, wheat has an economic and an agronomic sooner than a metaphysical meaning. For example, in War and Peace, after giving his wife a thrashing, Yakov Alpatych, Bolkonsky’s estate manager, takes tea with innkeeper and grain dealer Ferapontov, and they talk about the price of wheat and how the weather is likely to affect the harvest. In Anna Karenina, Levin takes pleasure in the “velvety” vistas of green wheat he sees when out riding on his estate. Although Tolstoy does not explicitly mention the fact, we may assume that the said velvety vistas of wheat ripple. But otherwise, Levin’s interest is pragmatic: the harvesting of the wheat, the delivery of the wheat, how much money the wheat is expected to fetch at market.

It is to Dostoevsky that we must turn if we are to glean hints as to the mystical meaning of wheat that is seemingly parodied in Grushenko’s ecstatic vision. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov is the parable of the grain of wheat from the Gospel according to St John: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Elder Zosima quotes the verse to Alexey Karamazov when he tells him of the terrifying fate he has foreseen looking in his brother Dmitri Karamazov’s eyes. Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov suggested a link between the name of the character Dmitri, who in the novel makes a spiritual descensus ad inferos, and Demeter, the goddess of the grain, whose daughter Persephone is abducted by Hades/Pluto and becomes queen of the underworld (i).
Notwithstanding the eschatological corn of wheat in The Brothers Karamazov, in Dostoevsky’s novels fields of wheat, rippling or otherwise, are wholly absent. Unlike landed aristocrat Count Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky “nearly never attempts to describe a rural landscape or the open country” (ii). The rural landscapes of boundless Russia do figure prominently in the novels of Ivan Turgenev, however. In Fathers and Sons, for example, the sight of rippling fields (a “waving sea”) of ripening wheat and whitening rye dispel Bazarov’s friend Arkadi’s melancholy thoughts. The natural world is part of the immanent reality within which Turgenev’s characters develop. But it is very much an eschatological wheat field that can be found in After Death (После Смерти, 1915), Yevgeny Bauer’s silent film adaptation of Turgenev’s short story “Clara Militch”. Yakov Aratov, a young, melancholy and rather reclusive man of twenty-five, a photography enthusiast who lives with his maiden aunt, rejects impetuous actress Clara Militch when she unexpectedly declares her love. She goes on to commit suicide by poison, dying on stage during a performance, and subsequently appears to Aratov in a dream, beckoning him to follow her. In Turgenev’s story, the landscape of the next world is barren, lifeless: Aratov dreams he is “on a bare steppe, strewn with big stones, under a lowering sky” (iii). But in Bauer’s film, the ghost of Clara Militch—wreathed with flowers, like Persephone when Hades snatches her down into the underworld—approaches Aratov through a field of ripe wheat.
Aratov becomes obsessed with Clara Militch, falling in love “with a dead woman, whom he had not even liked in her lifetime” (iv). In the story, she appears to him again in his sleep, this time at the end of a convoluted dream, which shifts from a sinister manor-house to a withered orchard and then to a lake, which symbolises the waters over which the dead cross to the other world. The dream (of the kind that Jung was to call the adumbratio) foreshadows Aratov’s death: he awakes to find the ghostly presence of Clara Militch in his room, he is enraptured and goes to her, they are united in a kiss, and he falls into a delirium, later dying with a rapturous smile on his lips. In the film, however, the scene of the second dream is the same wheat field as in the first vision. This time, Aratov is asleep in the corn; Clara Militch awakens him and they embrace, their eyes eerily fixed on some point above and beyond the frame, rather like Grushenko and Sonja in the scene in Love and Death where Woody Allen’s character, likewise on the threshold of death, is transported by his vision of fields of rippling wheat and cream of wheat.

One and a half decades after After Death, wheat fields were to be central to the imagery of a rather un-Chekhovian outburst appended to the text of Uncle Vanya in Jed Harris’s 1930 production of the play, whose cast included major silent film-era star Lillian Gish, in the rôle of Helena. The production had a twelve-week run at the Cort Theatre on Broadway and then toured Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago, before returning in triumph to New York. The Chekhovian awkward pause was deemed to be too subtle for American theatregoers, and so the play’s translator, Rose Caylor, padded out the silences with additional dialogue of her own invention. And nor were Chekhov’s ambiguous, muted endings to the taste of Americans accustomed to emotionally rousing Hollywood climaxes: Caylor expands and embellishes on Sonya’s final line, “We shall rest,” with the result that, as Laurence Senelick puts it in his history of Chekhov in performance, her words are “edulcorated into sentimental gush” (v):
We shall be happy because we shall have everything . . . The wheat fields will be there, and the blue cornflowers – And the woods in the spring! And Mother, and those we loved . . . and who loved us in return . . . And those who, in this existence, didn’t love us. She sobs suddenly. They’ll love us . . . They’ll want us . . . She weeps passionately, agonizedly. This is the suffering about which, in that future, she will speak to God. This, and not the other, is the truth. And so she weeps. (vi)
Sonja’s closing speech in Love and Death could almost be an indirect parody of Sonya’s effusion in Caylor’s sentimentalised version of Chekhov. A contemporary account of the Jed Harris production describes the “Chekhov spirit” as a “sad, amusing dream”; like the male cast of Love and Death, Astroff, Serebrakoff and Uncle Vanya are accoutred with the visual signifiers of nineteenth-century Russianness: “long whiskers” and “tall boots” (vii). The “wheat fields” are the culmination of this nostalgic vision of the pre-Soviet Russian spirit, one that can be found in almost every film and costume drama set in the period of the classic Russian novel.

Expressing vaguely mystical yearning, maudlin tragedy and premonition of death in an image that conjures up the boundless expanses of Mother Russia, the wheat motif in Love and Death ultimately alludes to and parodies not the Russian novel or drama but the reception of Russian literature in the western imagination and popular culture, a highly stylised and simplified version of nineteenth-century Russianness.

(i) Ksana Blank, Dostoevsky’s Dialectics and the Problem of Sin, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 2010, p. 41.
(ii) George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1967, p. 90.
(iii) Ivan Turgenev, Dream Tales and Prose Poems, translated by Constance Garnett, Macmillan and Co., New York, 1897, p. 54.
(iv) Ibid, p. 75.
(v) Laurence Senelick, The Chekhov Theatre. A Century of the Plays in Performance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p. 181.
(vi) Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, translated and adapted by Rose Caylor, Covici Friede Inc., New York, 1930. 
(vii) Arthur Bigelow Paine, Life and Lillian Gish, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1932, p. 276-277. 

Cartea de grâu, ed. Șerban Anghelescu, Cosmin Manolache, Lila Pasima, Editura Martor, Bucharest, 2014, pp. 37-41.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The venom of our age (2)

Nationalism is the venom of modern history. Nothing is more bestially absurd than the readiness of human beings to incinerate or slaughter one another in the name of nationhood and under the infantile spell of a flag. Citizenship is a bilateral arrangement that is, that ought always to be subject to critical examination and, if need be, abrogation. The death of Socrates outweighs the survival of Athens. Nothing dignifies French history more surely than the willingness of Frenchmen to go to the brink of communal collapse, to weaken the bonds of nationhood drastically (as they in fact did) over the Dreyfus case. (...) Dr Johnson (...) defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. It seems to me doubtful whether the human animal will manage to survive if it does not learn to do without frontiers and passports, if it cannot grasp that we are all guests of each other, as we are of this scarred and poisoned earth. 

George Steiner, "The Cleric of Treason," The New Yorker, 8 December 1980; George Steiner: A Reader, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1984, pp. 195-96.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Ego diurnus / ego nocturnus

Language of Dreams. [...] It is a language of Images and Sensations, the various dialects of which are far less different from each other, than the various Day-Languages of Nations. Proved even by the Dream Books of different Countries and ages. 2. The images either direct, as when a Letter reminds me of itself, or symbolic -- as Darkness for Calamity. Again, either anticipation or reminiscence. 3. These latter either grounded on some analogy, as to see a friend passing over a broad and deep water = Death, or seemingly arbitrary, as in the signification of Colors, different animals etc. 4. Frequently ironical: as if the fortunes of the Ego diurnus appeared exceedingly droll and ridiculous to the Ego nocturnus -- Dung = Gold etc. So in Nature, Man, Baboon, Horse, Ass. Cats' love and Rage--. 5. Probably a still deeper Dream, or Ὑπερόνειρος, of which there remains only an imageless but profound Presentiment or Boding [...] 6. The Prophets, and the Laws of Moses, the most majestic Instances.-- 7. Prophetic combinations, if there be such, = the instincts previous to the use and to the organ [...] 9. The Conscience -- the Unity of Day and Night [...] Are there two Consciences, the earthly and the Spiritual? -- 10. The sensuous Nature a Lexicon raisonné of Words, treating of, not being, spiritual things -- Our fall at once implied and produced a resistance, this a more or less confused Echo, and this a secondary Echo etc. -- And thus deeming the Echo to be the Words, the Words became Things -- Ἐιδολολατρεῖα. [...] 10. [...] The importance of the Gastric and especially the hepatic -- and the paramouncy of the Ganglionic over the Cerebral in Sleep. The Liver, and lower Abdomen -- the Engastrimuthi, and the prophetic power of diseased Life in the ancient Oracles, hard by Streams and Caverns of deleterious influences -- these numerous in early Paganism, then decreased and with them the Oracles.
Entry 4409, May 1818, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, Volume 3 (Text): 1808-1819, Bollingen Series 50, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The venom of our age

Nationalism is the venom of our age. It has brought Europe to the edge of ruin. It drives the new states of Asia and Africa like crazed lemmings. By proclaiming himself a Ghanaian, a Nicaraguan, a Maltese, a man spares himself vexation. He need not ravel out what he is, where his humanity lies. He becomes one of an armed, coherent pack. Every mob impulse in modern politics, every totalitarian design, feeds on nationalism, on the drug of hatred which makes human beings bare their teeth across a wall, across ten yards of waste ground.

George Steiner, "A Kind of Survivor", Language and Silence. Essays 1958-1966, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1969, pp. 132-33.

See also Husk and kernel.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Bellarmin (1) makes sweating and crowding one of the chief torments of Hell, which Lessius (2) (no doubt after an actual and careful survey,) affirms to be exactly a Dutch mile (about a league and a half English,), in diameter. But Ribera (3), grounding his map on deductions from the Apocalypse, makes it 200 Italian miles. Lessius, it may be presumed, was a Protestant, for whom, of course, a smaller Hell would suffice.
In the early part of the last century an enquiry was published by the Rev. Tobias Swinden, into the nature and place of Hell (4). The former, according to this Divine, had been accurately understood, burning being the punishment, and the duration without end; but as to the "local habitation" of the reprobate, all opinions had been erroneous. Drexelius (5) had estimated the sum total of the damned at one hundred thousand millions, all of whom, (like Lessius) he calculated might be contained within a square German mile, and not stowed closer than negroes in a Liverpool slave ship: but this appeared to the English Theologian "a poor, mean, and narrow conception both of the numbers of the damned, and of the dimensions of Hell"; for if their immateriality and compressibility were to be alleged, you might as well, he said, squeeze them at once into a common baker's oven. His ideas were upon a grander scale. There was not room enough, according to him, in the centre of the earth for "Eternal Tophet". Burnet's (6) absorpt sun he thought a much more noble idea of such a furnace of fire. But his own opinion was, that Tophet was our very Sun, which must be acknowledged by all to be capacious enough for the purpose. The time of the sun's creation is a strong reason for admitting the hypothesis, being just after the fall of the Devil and his angels. It is true that the sun is said to have been made on the fourth day; but light, and evening and morning, are mentioned as having previously existed; now these as proceeding from the sun, could not have been before it; making on the fourth day therefore can only mean putting it in motion. The darkness which is predicated of Tophet may at first, he admits, seem an objection, but it exists in the maculae, the spots of the sun, which may be deep caverns and dens, proper seats of the blackness of darkness. Upon this hypothesis, the reason why sun-worship has been found so widely extended becomes manifest; it would be as peculiarly acceptable to Satan, as serpent-worship is known to have been.
This was indeed making the souls of the wicked of some use, as Nero did the Christian when he rolled them up in tow, dipt them in pitch, and set fire to them, as torches to light up the streets of Rome. They were so many living wicks of Asbestos, fed with the inextinguishable oil of divine vengeance, that they might be burning and shining lights to the world. If Jonathan Edwards (7) had seen this book he might have adopted its hypothesis as a new proof of "the glory of God in the damnation of sinners".
With what feelings could this man have looked at the setting sun?

[Robert Southey and S. T. Coleridge], Omniana or Horae Otiosiores, Longman, 1812. No. 17 "Hell".

(1) Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino (1542-1621). Italian Jesuit and Cardinal, who played a rôle in the Galileo affair.
(2) Leonardus Lessius (1554-1623). Flemish Jesuit.
(3) Francisco Ribera (1537-1591). Spanish Jesuit, who, in 1585, published a commentary on the Apocalypse.
(4) Tobias Swinden, M. A. Late Rector of Caxton in Kent, An Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell. Shewing I. The Reasonableness of a Future State. II. The Punishments of the next Life. III. The several Opinions concerning the Place of Hell. IV. That the Fire of Hell is not metaphorical, but real. V. The improbability of that Fire's being in, or about the Center of the Earth. VI. The probability of the Sun's being the Local Hell, with Reasons for this Conjecture; and the Objections from Atheism, Philosophy, and the Holy Scriptures Answered. With a Supplement, wherein the Notions of Abp. Tillotson, Dr. Lupton, and Others, as to the Eternity of Hell Torments, are impartially represented. And the Rev. Mr. Wall's Sentiments of this learned Work. The Second Edition. London: Printed by H. P. for Tho. Astley, at the Dolphin and Crown in St. Paul's Church-Yard, 1727.
(5) Jeremias Drexel (1581-1638). Bavarian Jesuit. He calculates the volume of Hell in Infernus damnatorum carcerus et rogus (1623), the second part of his work on eternity, De aeternitate considerationes.
(6) Thomas Burnet (1635-1715). English theologian and cosmogonist.
(7) Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). American preacher and theologian. 

Monday, 1 September 2014

Een bleeke, weeke made

Ik ben de hazel-noot. - Een bleeke, weeke made
bewoont mijn kamer, en die blind is, en die knaagt.
Ik ben die van mijn zaad een duisternis verzade.
En ’k word een leêgt’, die klaagt noch vraagt.

’k Verlaat me-zelf; ’k lijd aan me-zelven ijle schade.
Ik ben ’t aanhoudend maal, in een gesloten kring,
van eene domme, duldelooze, ondankb’re made.
Maar raak’ de vinger van een kind me, dat me rade:
hij hoort mijn holte; ik luid; ik zing.

Karel van den Woestijne (1878-1929), Het bergmeer (1928)

I am the hazelnut. A maggot pale and soft
Tenants my chamber, and it is blind, and it gnaws.
I am the one who with his seed the darkness gluts.
A void am I, whence issues neither plaint nor plea.

I quit myself, endure my own hollow ruin.
Tightly encysted, I am the constant repast
Of a witless, insufferable, ingrate maggot.
But let a child’s divining finger tap me:
He hears my hollowness; I resound, I sing.

trans. Alistair Ian Blyth

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The great anti-babel of metaphysical Science

Preparatory to the great anti-babel of metaphysical Science all sorts of materials psychological and logical must be brought together/some fit, some unfit--and as even this takes ages even before the commencement of the building, the Fetchers and Carriers build Cots and Houses of them, each according to his own Fancy, with different cements--still however they are but orderly Cumuli of materials, that must surely be taken to pieces--some times 5 or 10 stones may be taken at once, unloosened--etc.

Entry 3254, Spring 1808, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, Volume 3 (Text): 1808-1819, Bollingen Series 50, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Âmes écrevisses

Il existe des âmes écrevisses reculant continuellement vers les ténèbres, rétrogradant dans la vie plutôt qu'elles n'y avancent, employant l'expérience à augmenter leur difformité, empirant sans cesse, et s'empreignant de plus en plus d'une noirceur croissante.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, I, iv, 2

There exist crab-like souls that continually retreat into the shadows, that retrogress in life rather than advancing, drawing on experience to augment their deformity, ceaselessly increasing in evil, and becoming more and more saturated with deepening darkness.

L'enfer c'est les autres

No matter how insipid a man might be, he is more terrifying than the most demonic character from Dostoevsky. (...) I would rather travel the length of Dante's Hell than the few dozen metres between here and the tobacconist's on the other side of the road.

Emil Brumaru, letter to Lucian Raicu, 10 December 1978,
Cerșetorul de cafea, 2nd edition, Iași: Polirom, 2014, p. 341.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The torments of beanismus

11. [...] Nam videmus eos qui vagantes, cantantes, cursitantes, vociferantes, balantes, bacchantes, clamitantes, vorantes, potantes, ingurgitantes, mendicantes, hiantes, boantes, in curta tunica saltantes, nullum angulum intactum relinquunt, hoc malo potissimum detineri, urgeri, torqueri. Sive contra, quia in claustris, carceribus, cellis, ergastulis, angulis, cameris scholasticis, tanquam pistrinis, mille repagulis, compedibus, vincti, catenati, ligati, servati, ob inopiam aëris purioris in hunc affectum prolabuntur, aut prolapsi confirmantur.
12. Somnus et hoc loco aliquid potest. Qui enim ex iis glires agunt, magis divexantur, ut noctu hiantes, ronchantes, sternutantes, furzantes, cachantes, schnarchantes, etc. Hiantibus praesertim magis periculi subest, noctu enim, animalcula, ut cimines, pulices, culices, tineae, vespertiliones os intrantes, irrepantes, permerdantes, et mentem perturbantes, divexantes, subtile serum exiccantes, et mala alia excientes, et dilaniant. Idem quoquo de vigilia esto judicium.

Cariollinus Tevetio Crufenas, Themata Medica, de Beanorum, Archibeanorum, Beanulorum et Cornutorum quorumque affectibus et curatione, Typographi Wolphgangi Blass ins Horn (ca. 1626), included in Nugae Venales, sive Thesaurus Ridendi et Jocandi. Ad Gravissimos Severissimos Viros, Patres Melancholicorum Conscriptos. Editio ultima auctior et correctior. Anno 1689. Prostant apud Neminem; sed tamen Ubique.
11. For, we see those who, roaming around, singing, running back and forth, crying aloud, bleating, revelling, shouting, guzzling, drinking, gorging, begging, gaping, yelling, jumping around in short under-garments, leave no nook untouched are above all held down, burdened, tortured by this illness. Or contrariwise, because they are cloistered, imprisoned, in cells, workhouses, crannies, schoolrooms, as if in pounding mills, behind a thousand bars, in fetters, bound, shackled, tied up, under guard, from a want of fresh air they sink into this malady, or having sunk into it they are reinforced in it. 
12. Sleep too has an effect on the matter. For, those who turn themselves into dormice are ravaged in a greater degree, since at night they gape, snore, sneeze, furzen, fret, schnarchen, etc. Danger lurks for the gapers in particular, for at night small animals such as bugs, fleas, gnats, moths, and bats, entering the mouth, creeping inside, shitting everywhere, and disturbing the mind, ravaging, drying out the saliva, and producing other injuries, wretchedly torture and dilacerate these wretched little asses. Let the same judgement also apply to when they are awake.

trans. Alistair Ian Blyth

Image from Orationes duae, De ritu et modo depositionis beanorum, Strasbourg: Dolhopff, 1680.  
Facsimile: University of Mannheim CAMENA - Lateinische Texte der Frühen Neuzeit, Corpus Automatum Multiplex Electorum Neolatinitatis Auctorum, DFG-project CAMENA, Heidelberg-Mannheim

Wednesday, 11 June 2014


Ships, and their Picturesqueness — / Have I noticed the approximation to Round and Rondure, in the Square and triangular Forms — and that pleasure which depends on the subtle Sense of Est quod non est? — Balance: Synthesis of Antithesis? — and secondly (and if I have not directly or by Implication anticipated it, of first-rate importance to me), that which in my last night’s Dose I called the Polyolbiosis of each appearance from the recollections of so many others subtly combining with it
The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, Volume 2 (1804-1808), Part 1, London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, entry 2061.

Polyolbiosis — compound dream word that coalesced during laudanum reverie, a hapax legomenon unique to Coleridge: "state of polyvalent beatitude" (ὄλβιος, ον happy, blessed, -ωσις suffix forming nouns of process or condition)

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The cockroach in Russian literature (6): Dostoevsky (3)

Один из двух мужчин, бывших в комнате, был еще очень молодой человек, лет двадцати пяти, тот самый Обноскин, о котором давеча упоминал дядя, восхваляя его ум и мораль. Этот господин мне чрезвычайно не понравился: всё в нем сбивалось на какой-то шик дурного тона; костюм его, несмотря на шик, был как-то потерт и скуден; в лице его было что-то как будто тоже потертое. Белобрысые, тонкие, тараканьи усы и неудавшаяся клочковатая бороденка, очевидно, предназначены были предъявлять человека независимого и, может быть, вольнодумца.

Федор Достоевский, Село Степанчиково и его обитатели. Из записок неизвестного (1859)

One of the two gentlemen in the room was a man still young, twenty-five years of age, the very same Obnoskin whom my uncle had mentioned that afternoon, praising his intellect and morals. This gentleman was not at all to my liking: everything about him somehow smacked of tasteless chic; his attire, despite being chic, was somewhat shabby and common; his face also betrayed something somehow threadbare. His thin, colourless, cockroach moustaches* and wispy failure of a goatee were evidently intended to display that he was an independent and, perhaps, free-thinking character. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants. From the Notes of an Anonymous Author (1859)

(translation: Alistair Ian Blyth)

* "Cockroach moustaches", cf. Mandelshtam's "Stalin Epigram" of November 1933:

Тараканьи смеются усища (l. 7)

His cockroach moustaches chortle

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The "Malbrough theme" (тема Мальбрука) (4)

On peut, à la cour, prendre pied de deux façons: dans les nuées, on est auguste ; dans la boue, on est puissant.

Dans le premier cas, on est de l'Olympe. Dans le second cas, on est de la garde-robe.

Qui est de l'Olympe n'a que la foudre ; qui est de la garde-robe a la police.

La garde-robe contient tous les instruments de règne, et parfois, car elle est traître, le châtiment. Héliogabale y vient mourir. Alors elle s'appelle les latrines.

Victor Hugo, L'Homme qui rit (1869), Deuxième partie: Par ordre du roi, Livre premier: Éternelle présence du passé: Les hommes reflètent l'homme, VIII. Inferi

At court one can gain a foothold in two ways: in the clouds, one is august; in the muck, one is powerful. 

In the first case, one belongs to Olympus. In the second case, one belongs to the closet.

He who belongs to Olympus has only thunder; he who belongs to the closet has policy.

The closet contains all the instruments of rule, and sometimes, for it is treacherous, punishment. Thither comes Heliogabalus to die. Then it is called the jakes.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Nations policées, pays incultes

Ne sortons point de notre continent, tant que la terre y est habitable. Les peuples barbares sont venus autrefois du Nord, inonder le Midi de l'Europe. Veut-on prévenir une seconde révolution aussi funeste? C'est aux nations éclairées et policées, d'apporter les arts de la civilisation dans les antres et les rochers soumis à la grande Ourse. Rendons ces bois, s'il est possible, dignes d'être habités. On ne les quittera plus, pour dévaster nos villes et nos guérêts. Étendons la lumiere jusqu'au Nord, avant que le Nord répande de nouveau ses ténébres sur nous. Une des raisons qui doivent engager toute l'Europe à contenir la Russie dans les limites que la fortune a données jusqu'à présent à cet Empire ; c'est que réduite à tourner ses efforts vers le Pôle, elle y soumettra de proche en proche, toutes les petites Nations que la Nature a semées comme par hazard dans les arides plaines qui bordent les mers glaciales. Ces Peuples grossiront, à la vérité, la masse de ce corps pesant et formidable ; mais ils ne pourront de long-temps se réunir pour une invasion. Le chef-d'œuvre de la politique Européenne seroit peut-être de diviser ces pays incultes, entre les trois Puissances du Nord, les plus voisines du Pôle. Après avoir rendu à la Pologne sa liberté, dont l'abus, qu'elle en fait, ne sera jamais funeste qu'à elle-même, il seroit à souhaiter qu'on pût étendre les limites de la Suede et du Danemarck, dans les régions infécondes de la Sibérie et de la Tartarie. Si ces trois corps se balançoient dans les progrès de leur domination, leur équilibre soutiendroit celui de l'Europe entière. C'est ici qu'on peut appliquer d'une manière utile aux Peuples, la maxime imaginée par la tyrannie, pour les fouler impunément ; divisez pour régner. Si les États de l'Europe veulent être libres, indépendans ; qu'ils ne laissent aucun Empire s'aggrandit au point d'en accabler un autre. L'oppression d'un seul entraîneroit la ruine de plusieurs, et bientôt le bouleversement de tous. La police et la culture, sont les deux moyens de prévenir une si grande révolution ; parce qu'elles enchaînent les hommes par leurs occupations, et les attachent tous à leur pays natal, pars les travaux que la Nature y exige.

Continuation de l'histoire générale des voyages, ou collection nouvelle 1°. Des relations de voyages par mer, découvertes, observations, descriptions, Omises dans celle de feu M. l'Abbé Prévost, ou publiées depuis cet Ouvrage. 2°. Des voyages par terre, faits dans toutes les parties du monde. Contenant. Ce qu'il y a de plus remarquable et de mieux avéré dans les Pays où les Voyageurs ont pénétré; touchant leur situation, leur étendue, leurs limites, leurs divisions, leur climats, leur terroir, leurs productions, leurs Lacs, leurs Rivières, leurs Montagnes, leurs Mines, leurs Habitations, leur principales Villes, leurs Ports, leurs Rades, et Avec l'Histoire, les Mœurs et les Usages des Habitans; leur Religion, leur Gouvernement, leurs Arts, leurs Sciences, leur Commerce, leurs Manufactures, etc. Tome XIX. Paris, Panckoucke, 1770.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

La géographie magique d'une planète inconnue

Aussi bien, c'est une impression douloureuse, à mesure qu'on va plus loin, de perdre, ville à ville et pays à pays, tout ce bel univers qu'on s'est créé jeune, par les lectures, par les tableaux et par les rêves. Le monde qui se compose ainsi dans la tête des enfants est si riche et si beau, qu'on ne sait s'il est le résultat exagéré d'idées apprises, ou si c'est un ressouvenir d'une existence antérieure et la géographie magique d'une planète inconnue. Si admirables que soient certains aspects et certaines contrées, il n'en est point dont l'imagination s'étonne complétement, et qui lui présentent quelque chose de stupéfiant et d'inouï. Je fais exception à l'égard des touristes anglais, qui semblant n'avoir jamais rien vu ni rien imaginé. 

Gérard de Nerval, Voyage en Orient

It is a painful impression indeed, the further one goes, to lose, town after town and country after country, that whole beautiful world that is created in childhood through reading books, through pictures and through dreams. The world that thus takes shape in children's heads is so rich and beautiful that you do not know whether it is the exaggerated result of ideas you have learned or whether it is a recollection of a previous existence and the magical geography of an unknown planet. No matter how remarkable certain sights and certain regions might be, there is none that completely surprises the imagination or that presents it with anything astounding or unheard of. I except English tourists, who seem never to have seen or imagined anything.