Anastasia the Pharmakolytria, or deliverer from potions

I posted yesterday on the word ‘demonifuge’ – a substance or medicine used to exorcise a demon. Today I came across a note I made a couple of years ago that has some bearing on that.

St Athanasia of Sirmium is known as PHARMAKOLYTRIA, meaning ‘deliverer from potions’. The website Christian Iconography has this account of her:

St Anastasia

Byzantine icon from late 14C, now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Medieval lives of St. Anastasia, including the one in the Golden Legend, conflate elements from the stories of two different saints of the same name and same century. One is Anastasia of Sirmium, who was burned at the stake. The other is Anastasia of Rome, a disciple of St. Chrysogonus who was crucified and then beheaded. The conflated Anastasia in the Golden Legend and the Roman Martyrology is a Roman noblewoman who was both “tied to poles” and then burned at the stake, apparently an attempt to reconcile the different deaths in the two stories.

She acquired her name because of her practice of visiting Christians who’d been incarcerated for their faith during the persecutions of Diocletian, and using her medical knowledge to tend to their illnesses and wounds. Legend has it that she protects those who invoke her name from poisons and other harmful substances.

St Anastasia

From a Book of Hours, Liège, late 13C; the saint holds a book and palm of martyrdom

Later legends introduced hagiographical tropes such as the miraculous protection of her three Christian serving girls: when the pagan prefect locked them in a kitchen and tried to molest them sexually,

In his folly he thought he was grasping young women as he kissed and embraced the pots, pans, kettles, and the like. When he was sated, he left the room with his face all sooty and his clothes in tatters.

(the Golden Legend); Anastasia was herself protected from malicious sexual advances by her cruel pagan captor by his being struck blind; she survived 60 days of starvation in prison, was delivered miraculously from execution by drowning, etc. When her corpse was burned after execution finally succeeded, it remained unscathed.

Her relics are preserved at the cathedral named for her in Zadar, Croatia. She is commemorated in the Roman liturgy on December 25th (22nd in the Orthodox church) though her feast-day is January 15th.

St Anastasia

Fresco at the Gesù, Rome. Image from Christian Iconography site, which attributes the photo to Richard Stracke

The iconography site above states that she’s normally depicted holding a flame, either in a bowl, as in the image left, or in the palm of her hand (presumably an emblem of her mode of martyrdom in some legends).

Sirmium, the saint’s home town, was in the ancient Roman province of Pannonia, modern-day Serbia.

Compare the legend of the Holy Unmercenaries, Cosmas and Damian, another pair of Eastern saints associated with medical aid, about which I wrote a while ago HERE and HERE

Images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated.

Demonifuge

Asides

OED online sent me a while back this ‘word of the day’:

demonifuge, n.

Etymology: classical Latin daemōn demon n. + i- connective + -fuge comb. form used in nonce-words to signify ‘driving away’, from Latin fugere ‘flee (from)’ – a nice example of folk etymology paying scant heed to semantics. It means the opposite of ‘driving away’. Here’s the OED online definition:

A substance or medicine used to exorcize a demon; (also more generally) anything thought to give protection against evil spirits.

The citations that follow this definition include incense and holy water as examples.

Cf ‘demonagogue’: A medicine used to exorcize a demon (the entry adds).

Lamia

The daemon Lamia, as painted by Herbert Draper, 1909 (Wikipedia image)

Must try to slip this into conversation soon.

When I googled the word I discovered it’s also a name of a character in a lurid sequence of graphic novels, which seem in turn to be spin-offs of online ‘ultragothic’ games, set in the ‘Warhammer 40,000’ future world, in which the ‘Adepta Sororitas’ called splendidly Ephrael Stern, a sort of witchy superheroine, so far as I can tell, goes back to planet Parnis to rediscover her past, which she seems to have forgotten. She was once ‘a seraphim’, though I’d always thought that was a plural noun.

They’re a strange lot, these gamers. No stranger, I suppose, than football fanatics or people who watch dramas about the English (ie German-Greek) royal family, as in the newly released Netflix series (here in the UK) ‘The Crown’.

My wife will shoot me for this, but I hate this type of thing. Downton Abbey is in a similar category, for me: that soap-opera formula which encourages – invites –  a deferential reverence for the privileged classes among those of us from the proletariat. They’re just like us, really. Of course.

 

 

November pigs in calendars

Calendar pages for November

Those wonderful people at the British Library regularly feature on their ‘Medieval Manuscripts’ blog relevant ‘labours of the months’ and other beautiful materials from illuminated MS calendars in their collections, so here’s a flavour of some items for this month, November.

The London Rothschild Book of Hours (aka the Hours of Joanna I of Castile – a tenuous ownership connection; more detail at this link)

Rothschild Hours Nov

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is BL Add MS 35313, f. 6v: entry in Digitised Catalogue, with full apparatus on contents and links to images. Here’s their blog entry description of the scene:

Threshing and winnowing is taking place: in the background, a male figure wields a flail, beating wheat to separate the grains from the husks.  Two peasants in the foreground are beating flax to break down the stem fibres, while a woman to the right in the background is using a stick known as a ‘swingle’ to ‘scutch’ or dress the flax.  A woman is pouring swill out for the pigs, while doves and pigeons gather in the dovecote and on the thatched roofs of the barns waiting to feed on any loose grains. This month, marked by the Zodiac symbol of the centaur for Sagittarius, saw the celebration of several important festivals in the Christian calendar, each illustrated in the roundels to the left…

Here’s a link to a Jan. post on the BL blog which gives more background information on this MS and its provenance.

A comment on the blog post for Nov. finds a similar scene in this page (f. 12v, another calendar, made in Bruges c. 1515) from Morgan Library MS 399, which shows more clearly men working inside a ring of flax for beating, and behind them a woman engaged in the scutching process. In the village street behind, pigs and chickens feed – a seeming visual reference to the usual ‘pig-feeding’ image for this month.

The images on this site appear to be copyright, so I’ll simply provide a link here – but I’d urge you to take a look – there is clearly an iconographical pattern here which painters of illuminations for such scenes followed carefully – as did visual artists of hagiographical scenes – ie devotional images of the saints, many of which would be found in the relevant pages of calendars, as well as in stained glass windows, other devotional texts like legendaries, etc.

This image was tweeted today by @melibius, who kindly supplied the relevant link to the BL catalogue entry; it’s from BL Add MS 21114, the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (‘the Stammerer’) of Liège, 1255-65 (though he died 1177; its provenance is the Béguine house of S Christophe, which he founded). Interesting departure from the usual pig-feeding scene here; less fun for our porcine friends this time – one’s been slaughtered, and the outlook for the other doesn’t look too good.

bl-nov-cal-pg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image from the BL catalogue for the November page from the famous Bedford Hours also wouldn’t load when I tried it, so here’s a link to the BL blog dated today, in which this MS page is shown in full, with glorious marginal decorations, plus an enlarged detail of the pigs-with-acorns scene (and a centaur).

It follows the usual iconographic practice of showing a peasant knocking acorns from trees while pigs cheerfully snuffle them up under the branches. What the happy pigs don’t realise is that they’re being fattened up for slaughter in the winter. The borders are intricately and beautifully decorated with twining vines, with stylized leaves and flowers.

I’ve posted on previous months (links for October here

And April and May here)

In those posts I’ve shown the calendar pages from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. Here’s the November page, which also shows the traditional pig-feeding scene for that season:

Berry November scene

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The born-again flâneur, ambulant signmaking: Iain Sinclair lights out for the territory

Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (1997) is topped and tailed by epigraphs from Huckleberry Finn – the second of which provides the title of this loose collection of nine essays about wanderings in London:

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory…I been there before

Huck is in danger of becoming ‘sivilised’ again as he returns to sedentary, comfortable town life after his picaresque adventures with Jim, and he tramps off into unknown America – the ‘Injun Territory’ – to escape this terrible fate. These words close the novel.

This literary appropriation is typical of Iain Sinclair’s method. But his urban tramps through the streets of his adopted city of London (though he retains a bolt-hole in chi-chi St Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex) bear little resemblance in their purpose to shoeless fugitive Huck’s. Still, he’s unashamedly content to adopt the pose of the vagabond fleeing into the (urban) wilderness to liberate himself from modern life’s vulgar depredations. The horror. Unreal city.

I’m afraid it often descends into invertedly snobbish celebration of romanticised East End low-life and rapturous evocations of Elizabethan charlatan magus John Dee – who Sinclair prefers to the grim realities of Thatcherite-capitalist ‘redevelopment’ of 90s London.

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

Yes, it’s deplorable that decent working-class citizens have been ousted by gentrifying, speculator hipsters; but this is a process of change that’s existed in cities – not just London – for centuries. The silk weavers of Spitalfields and the dockers of Alf Garnett’s beloved West Ham are long gone. Sweet Thames, run softly. And the fictitious docker Garnett was a bigot – not one of the admirable Cockney-sparrer rascals Sinclair celebrates.

He writes a bizarre mash-up of Beat-poetry riffs and brusque, verbless Hemingwayesque bromides on urban decay, as he sees it, in the form of exploitative ‘regeneration’ schemes. One suspects he’d like to restore the rookeries and slums that Dickens described with such outraged horror; this might satisfy his misguided desire for Eastender authenticity. Heritage chic.

Let’s try to substantiate this claim. Essay 1, with his trademark punning playfulness, is called ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’. It has its own epigraph, name checking that esoteric magician, John Dee (who often crops up in the text):

the magus dee dreams of a stone island in force, dying in poverty, drunk on angelspeech…[etc.]

 A capital-free jive on the free Capital sets the tone for the essay. This guff by Richard Makin is presumably admired by Sinclair. His own style often stoops to such folly, seemingly not noticing its resemblance to the ill-advised excesses and self-indulgence of Dylan’s amphetamine-fuelled verbal doodlings on the sleevenotes of his early-period albums. There’s also too much Ginsberg, and Blake at his impenetrably weirdest, with a dash of dirty realism.

This first essay begins with a typically portentous mission statement:

The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking.

Meaning what, exactly? He goes on (with ever-increasingly pretentious alliteration) to plot a walk from Hackney, his home, to Greenwich Hill, back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, ‘recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasingly deranged populace’.

Not very complimentary to Londoners, is it? Maybe he means the despised gentrifying profiteers he despises, unconsciously mimicking their parasitic behaviour while jeering at them and their lego-block houses and grandiose skyscrapers. He’s against everything in the ‘culture of consumerism’ except the arcane and the archaic. He lights out as a King Lud-ite. Moorcock, Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, history, pentacles and Interzone Neoism. ‘The aesthetics of provocation.’ Slogans shouted by the apolitical, no perspective, no prospect.

His style is catching. Not fetching.

He mitigates this cultural-political hypocrisy by adducing the usual dodgy heroes. Apart from visionaries like Blake and druggy De Quincey, there’s a touch of Defoe’s plague journalising, Milton’s epic demons, cut with the situationist-surrealist reinterpretation of the flâneur posited (more subtly) by Benjamin via Baudelaire and Poe, and celebrated in works by expat London tourists from Apollinaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine to Céline, and crazed homegrown punk psychogeographers like Stewart Home and Tom Vague.

Sinclair’s ‘curious conceit’ is expressed in paragraph one:

The physical movements of the characters [he’s just cited his novel Radon Daughters] across their territory might well spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes, with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of their supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading – a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy. A sorcerer’s grimoire that would function as a curse or a blessing.

Not only does he seem to take this kind of ley-line mysticism seriously, he expects us, with that hippy-Gothic dog’s-dinner New-Age style, to admire him in the process of transcribing what he calls the ‘pictographs of venom that decorated our near-arbitrary route.’ (Simon and Garfield got there much earlier, and only slightly less embarrassingly, with their ‘words of the prophets’ written on the ‘subway walls, tenement halls’. I find graffiti difficult to admire, no matter how venomously done, how grimy the grimoire.)

Yes, there’s a creative energy here, and he turns some neat phrases – some excellent ones. But one has to endure paragraphs, pages, essays of pretentious tosh like this along with them. And his dislike of verbs renders his prose broken-backed, brandishing its ‘look at me, I’m avant-garde’ eccentricities that are so habitual they become mannerist clichés.

I sympathise with some aspects of his deranged scheme:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. [p. 4]

 

I too love to get to know a strange city on foot. But Sinclair can’t resist going verbally too far; he doesn’t just crave exploration of the city; he wants to ‘exploit’ it. He doesn’t mean this in a capitalist-developer sense: they are the real villains of the text. No, he means this approvingly. Only psychogeographers tuned in to the arcane-mystical ley-lines, the proverbial beach beneath the street (that the rest of us are too insensitively materialistic or addled to perceive) can fully appreciate this aspect of city walks.

He goes on, perhaps realising how he’s beginning to sound (pretentious):

To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything.

 And he’s off for another 9 small-print lines of prose, listing the random trivia/effluvia of the street detected by his superior sensory antennae and alchemised into gold by his visionary/literary caméra-stylo. He needed a judicious editor, because this flood of detritus ends up making for the very ‘poetic of entropy’ he’d decried earlier.

Any ‘underlying pattern’ that he claims to discern comes largely from his own febrile imagination. He portrays it in arabesques of prose that derive (as the dérive itself over the asphalted earth does, d’abord, from Debord) from the hallucinatory meanderings of De Quincey and Kerouac, with a pinch of Pynchon (sorry, it’s catching, this verbal gushing). Here’s the closing sentence of the paragraph I quoted from just now:

Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.

This is the loose, prose-poetry, adjective-heavy kind of outpouring derided by Capote in Kerouac as being not writing but typing. Why must every key word be replicated synonymously? Not just ‘walking’ but ‘moving’. How exactly does walking ‘stitch it all together’, and why (and how) would one even want to try to do so? Seeds sown in the sewer. In what ways is this metaphorically mixed, stitched cocktail ‘illicit’? The prose is itself a cocktail of heady, mismatched, intoxicated ingredients. A good drink spoiled.

What a shame. In many ways Sinclair is on to something. I’m not averse to a psychogeographic dérive: I wrote about one (in Berlin; I can name-drop, too) on the blog some time ago. But don’t blot the copy by expressing it in the kind of psychedelic agit-prop rhetoric that was embarrassing when I was a student in the 70s. Lay the ley-lines to rest (see? It’s still contagious.)

This makes for a dyspeptic reading experience. How else could he justify, on the next page, this vomitorium (in the misconceived sense) about his intended route, part inspired by the quixotic ‘temperature traverses’ across London in the late 50s described by TJ Chandler, which were, he says,

An apparently scientific excuse for a glorious clandestine folly, joyriding the tail of the cosmic serpent. As with alchemy, it’s never the result that matters; it’s the time spent on the process, the discipline of repetition. Enlightened boredom.

Too much boredom, for me, and insufficient enlightenment. Anyone who can cite ‘a sorceror’s grimoire’; a ‘preconscious text’ of graffiti that ‘wink like fossils among the ruins’ and that are like ‘Polaroid epiphanies’; cosmic serpents, ‘botched runes’ and alchemy — without irony, or celebrate the funeral of a psychopathic Kray twin gangster as if it were Gandhi’s, has lost the plot. This is a weird kind of pompous, distorted hipster nostalgia.

By dressing it all up with half-digested geomancy, necromancy, Tarot cartomancy-mysticism, occult paranoia and laudatory, bookish reference to the Dissenters’ cemetery at Bunhill Fields doesn’t lessen the disrespect for the kind of Londoner (they’re called workers) I feel Sinclair would run a mile from if he had to sit and have a drink with them in one of the pubs he professes to admire so much.

Oh dear, I’ve only got as far as Essay 1, and had better stop there for now. I’ll maybe return to this infuriating, intermittently wonderful but mostly dire book later this week, as I have time off work.

Or I might just go off on some purposeless drifts.

 

 

 

 

 

Daddy had a number of guns. Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River

Barbara Comyns, Sisters By a River First published 1947

Daddy had a number of guns, he kept them in the billiard-room, there was a revolver too, he was always threatening to shoot himself, his creditors or both with it, the big guns, some of them had double barrels to make it easy for bad shots and cross-eyed men, they were intended for shooting game, although quite often they were used on cats and people, towards the end of his life he got obsessed with the idea of shooting my red setter.

Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River: cover Recently I came upon a blog by ‘Heloise Merlin’, who writes enthusiastically about the weird mix of jauntiness in the narrative voice and the contrasting bleakness of the disturbing events this novel contains.

She rightly (in my view) sees the darkness beneath the ‘quirky humour’ and ‘affirmative attitude’ of that voice’s owner – just look at that opening quotation. I also like her identification of the idiosyncratic orthography [spelling mistakes, dodgy syntax] as that of a psychologically damaged adult, not the child it’s sometimes taken to represent. [The narrator gives several clear indications that she’s an adult, as we shall see – e.g. she reveals she’s married to one of the characters who appears fleetingly in the story].

So that makes sense: some of the lexical slips hint at underlying significances – though ‘Heloise’ doesn’t elaborate on this.

So here are some fairly random examples to illustrate/substantiate these points.

Mary was the eldist of the family, Mammy was only eighteen when she had her, and was awfully frit of her, but Daddy thought she was lovely and called her his little Microbe, I don’t know why, maybe microbes were just coming into fashion then like we have germs now. (p.6)

See what Heloise hinted at? The matter-of-fact ingenuousness of ‘had her’ for ‘gave birth’, the naive speculation about germs and microbes, non-standard spellings and colloquial ‘frit’ all indicate the quirkiness that’s Comyns’ signature tone. But that throwaway ‘Microbe’ reference, this early in the novel, foreshadows the parental viciousness, neglect and abuse that’s to come.

After she had had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more…Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression. Sometimes when she was showing visitors round the garden she would suddenly come upon us playing some wierd game, she would look quite startled as if she had never seen us before and say something like this ‘The children, grubby, playing dont you know, such a number of them, I married very young, quite a nice governess’ and hurry her guests away, which was just as well because we had rather abomonable manners…(13-14)

Now the ‘vague’ mother is shown as equally culpable in her neglectful, scornful, hands-off attitude to her children. Her possibly psychosomatic deafness shows that she too isn’t unscathed by her husband’s cruelty and volatility (maybe he hit her and caused her deafness – the narrator is too detached to dwell on this. Her bland aloofness masks the turmoil beneath the narrative surface – but by including these details she hopes we’ll join the dots in a way she can’t endure to).

The following passages I think speak for themselves:

When Beatrix and I were about four, we did a frightful thing, we tried to ride the tame rabbits with the most drastic results, we had seen pictures of children riding rabbits and thought we could do the same, bur we couldn’t and for years people said ‘these are the children who squashed the rabbits.

One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick. (87-88)

 

I hated dancing class so much and had a kind of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach before I went, I called it dancing class feeling, and still have it sometimes, when I’m applying for a job, or getting married and similar occasions. (92)

There’s the evidence of an adult narrator. The juxtaposition of job application with marrying and the dismissive ‘similar occasions’ is chilling. Beneath the jaunty humour there’s a traumatised voice suppressing its pain. The loose syntax – all those dangling commas – dramatically heightens the sense of the narrator’s incapacity or unwillingness to differentiate between experiences that were terrifying or unnatural from those that were perceived as ‘normal’.

[From a chapter called ‘Dampness and Illness’] When we had not got colds there were plenty of things like measles and chickenpox to have, there always seemed to be someone in the family with measles, the Grownups didn’t get ill very often, Daddy did once get a stroke and go stiff all down one side, but he came loose again quite soon, the parrot missed him so much while he was ill it died, and we had a funeral, the next parrot wasn’t very nice, it smelt, Kathleen was supposed to clean it but she didn’t (133-34)

Illness is dismissed with the same airiness as other visitations on the children’s vulnerable young lives. That all are treated with equal (apparent) insouciance suggests a narrator flinching from confrontation with a more ‘grownup’ gaze at these damaging events. By describing the father’s stroke with the same lightness as having common childhood ailments, Comyns shows the emotional numbness that this chaotic upbringing inflicted.

It’s a powerful, dark, bizarre novel. Don’t be taken in by that intrusive, superficial ‘quirkiness’; this is as disturbed and disturbing as any fictional autobiography you’re likely to read.

My piece on Comyns’ Woolworths is HERE

Link to Heloise Merlin’s post HERE

Tilling and sowing: the Très Riches Heures in October

It’s the first day of the month, and I intended writing about the last book I read: another Barbara Comyns novel – Sisters by a River. I wrote about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in a post in January. But I find I don’t have much to say about it right now. Might come back to it shortly, if I feel inspiration.

So as I did for April and May, I’m turning to the beautifully illuminated pages of the calendar in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted mostly by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s, although this page might be by a later artist who completed the work after the Limbourgs and their patron died (probably of the plague) in 1416.

A book of hours was a book of private prayers and devotions based on the church liturgical pattern. The kalendarium in medieval texts was originally a checklist of saints’ festivals for each month. Over time the tradition evolved so that illustrated versions included, by the 15C, scenes of the occupations associated with each month.

The Limbourgs painted landscapes from different scenes for most months – places owned by their noble patron, or which he’d visited, as here.

October in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

via Wikimedia Commons

In the background of the October sowing and tilling scene is the Louvre Palace, owned at that time by the Duc’s elder brother the king of France. Originally built in the 12C as a fortress, the Louvre was converted into the main royal residence late in the 16C. When Louis XIV made Versailles his main palace in 1782, the Louvre became largely a repository for the royal collection of artworks. This in turn was taken over as a public museum after the Revolution.

Its name perhaps derives from its origins as a wolf-hunting den (Latin ‘lupus’, wolf), according to Wikipedia, but this seems unlikely to me. OED cites a dance named in English from the French palace, but says the origin is obscure, and possibly derived from Latin and Icelandic terms for chimney.

Between the three towers on the palace’s outer wall are two bretèches (anglicised as ‘brattice’). These are small machicolated balconies. Machicolated? This means an opening between the projecting supports or corbels of a fortification’s wall through which missiles, boiling water or cooking oil, etc., could be dropped on to attackers beneath the walls. The word probably derives from OF ‘mâcher’, ‘crush’ + ‘col’, ‘neck’ (OED online).

On the terrace outside the palace walls can be seen people walking and chatting (presumably not peasants, and therefore they don’t have to labour in the fields). Several dogs prance and pose. At the bottom of riparian steps women appear to be doing their laundry in the water of the Seine, which flows in front of the palace. A boatman is embarking or arriving at a mooring.

It’s in the foreground that the main ‘labour of the month’ scene is depicted. A red-clad peasant whips on a horse pulling a harrow, weighted down with a rock to make the prongs dig deeper into the soil and thus bury the sown seeds. Nearer to us another lugubrious looking peasant sows seed by hand from a pouch. Behind him greedy crows and magpies gobble up what he’s sown.

The artist shows a nice eye for detail: we can see the footprints left in the freshly-turned earth by the sower.

The field behind has already been sown. It’s guarded by a scarecrow in the guise of a bowman, and a network of strings threaded with white feathers or rags.

Overhead there’s the usual solar chariot crossing the gorgeous blue of the arch of the starry heavens. There are the usual astrological and lunar cycle symbols around the outer arches.

Asides: words, spiders, etc.

It’s the day after the autumn equinox, and the weather is performing on cue – strong winds and grey skies. So here’s an eclectic post about words, mostly. Warning: spider image looming.

My subscription to OED’s ‘word of the day’ service turned up this beauty recently:

latebricole, adj.

[‘ Of an animal, esp. a spider: living concealed in a hole.’] OED online (source of all the lexical data here)

Etymology: <  French latébricole, adjective (1870 or earlier designating insects; also as noun denoting a group of spiders…<  classical Latin latebricola person who skulks in concealment <  latebra (see latebra n.)

Latebra?

[< classical Latin latebra hiding place, hidden place, recess < latēre to be hidden (see latent adj.) + -bra, feminine form corresponding to -brum, suffix forming instrumental nouns + -cola < classical Latin -cola inhabitant, < colere to inhabit (see cult n.)

A hiding place; a place of refuge or concealment. In natural history: a winter refuge, a hibernaculum, a pupal cell, etc. Now rare.

There follows this rather verbose citation for its use:

1652   J. Jones Lawyers Unmask’d 35:  The second Statute..granted a Capias to ferret out such Latitants out of such Latebras.

Now that’s just showing off your recondite vocabulary. Let’s look at some of it:

latitant, adj. (and n.)

That lies concealed or hid; lurking; latent; (of an animal) hibernating.

Citations include:

1646   Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica iii. xxi. 163   Lizards, Snails, and divers other insects latitant many moneths in the yeare. [Sir Thomas Browne was a great coiner of new words; he’s no. 71 in the league table of sources for citations in the OED, with 4155 in total, of which 776 represented the first evidence of the word. I wrote a piece about his Religio Medici and Urne-buriall a couple of years ago. He also popped up in my ‘Disiecta Membra’ post (also about words) the year before as the source for that useful term sarcophagy.]

Back to ‘latitant’:

One who is in hiding. (Cf. latitat n.)

Next from that Jones 1652 citation: capias

Latin capias ‘thou mayest take’.

Law.

A writ or process commanding the officer to take the body of the person named in it, that is, to arrest him; also called writ of capias.

The term Capias includes writs of various kinds; capias ad respondendum, to enforce attendance at court; capias ad satisfaciendum, after judgement, to imprison the defendant, until the plaintiff’s claim is satisfied; capias utlagatum, to arrest an outlawed person; capias in Withernam, to seize the cattle or goods of any one who has made an unlawful distraint

That last item, Withernam takes us to this entry in OED online:

  1. In an action of replevin, the reprisal of other goods in lieu of those taken by a first distress and eloigned; also, the writ (called capias in withernam) commanding the sheriff to take the reprisal.

Etymology: Law French (in Britton wythernam ), presumably < Old Norse viðrnám recorded only in the sense ‘resistance’ (but compare early Danish vedernam pledge)…The etymological meaning is ‘reprisal’.

  1. A process of distress (or arrest) for debt, formerly current in the Cinque Ports (and other towns).

This is like Russian dolls: each entry generates another search –

Replevin

The restoration to or recovery by a person of goods or chattels distrained or confiscated, upon giving a surety to have the matter tried in a court of justice and to return the goods if the case is lost. Now U.S. (chiefly hist.). Derived from Anglo-Norman legalese.

Back again to that show-offy Jones 1652 citation: there latebra is just a synonym for where we started: LATEBRICOLE – definition above. Citations include:

1912 N.E.D. at Theraphose, Of or pertaining to the Theraphosæ, a division of latebricole spiders, as the mygalids and trap-door spiders.

Note: mygalids include the bird-eating spider (American tarantula). Wouldn’t want one of those in the bathtub…Back to citations; I liked this one:

2009  W. Penn Love in Time of Flowers viii. 497 He was at no other place than the very one I deducted he’d be.., a lair within a hole though not as latebricole as a mole.

See the Phrontistery website, a repository of obscure words and meanings, for a list of more rarities beginning with L.

Phrontistery, btw, means ‘a thinking place’, from the Greek phrontisterion, from phrontistes, a thinker, from phroneein, to think.

California trapdoor spider

California trapdoor spider

This trapdoor spider image is a still from a 1-minute YouTube video by cinead 84; if you’re not arachnophobic it’s worth a look – a man and a woman try to coax the little critter out of his hole with endearments. Spider remains unimpressed.

 

PS this image of Sir Thomas Browne and his wife Dorothy (via Wikipedia) was painted by

Sir Thomas Browne and wifeJoan Carlile (around 1641-50). She was one of the first women to make a professional living as an artist. She and her husband, one of Charles I’s courtiers, lived at Petersham, on the edge of Richmond Park, SW of London.

Coincidentally I lodged for some months with the then vicar of Petersham when I was training to teach in Roehampton – didn’t know at the time that this illustrious painter (and husband) are buried in the churchyard beside the vicarage where I was living. Occasionally Desmond Tutu’s son Trevor, who was studying at Imperial College, London at the time, visited the vicar, a friend of his father’s. We had a beer together several times, and a rather strange party at which he cooked mussels. The vicar was away at the time.

A Google search turned up stories that suggest he’s had a troubled life since those heady student days in London in the 70s.

 

The demonic villain again in Galdós, Miau: post 3

That demonic villain Victor is an insidious operator. He seduces the two Villaamil sisters, Luisa and Abelarda, driving both to madness.

I’ll take just one passage in Ch. 20 where his cruel amorality is shown in technically interesting ways. Victor has managed to displace from Abelarda’s heart her insipid fiancé, Ponce, through a mixture of his dashing good looks and manners (he knows exactly how to attract an inexperienced, lonely, plain young woman), flattery and subtle alternations between fake passion and jealousy of the fiancé – all with honeyed clichés he’s picked up from trashy romantic fiction. Poor Abelarda is too innocent to recognise his falsehoods and duplicitous cunning.

She never much cared for Ponce anyway; she’s acquiescing to family pressure to marry him for the wealth he’ll inherit. She lacks the agency to resist either party.

After days, weeks of this callous campaign, in which Victor claims she’s breaking his heart by refusing him, he tells her he’s leaving the Villaamil house, so desperate is his love for her, and so hopeless his chances of winning her. He knows exactly how simultaneously to torture and lure the infatuated girl. It’s touch and go which gives him greater pleasure. The torture, in my view. He’s an emotional sadist (distant relative of Heathcliff, perhaps, who liked to see the worms writhe), an egotist, and emotionally void.

Abelarda is too smitten and naïve to ‘hide her distress’. This is Victor’s MO: he knows she’s incapable of hiding her true feelings. Her natural modesty has no chance against the passion he knows he has kindled in her love-starved soul. She has no ‘arms’ with which to ‘fight this monster of infinite resources and inexhaustible invention, who was used to trifling with deep and serious feelings.’

He’s like Milton’s Satan in his mastery of language to deceive and influence others, or at least, sufficiently so to impress ingenuous Abelarda. Readers are invited to see straight through his florid, clichéd declarations. He delights in evil for its own sake, hating innocence and goodness and trashing it simply because he can. Balzac’s Vautrin also comes to mind.

Abelarda is painfully vulnerable to his ‘brutal sarcasm’, which he deploys pitilessly, luring her deeper into his power.

So far we’re being guided by the omniscient narrator’s voice. When Abelarda can take no more and leaves the room, Victor is left alone, and the narrator takes us into his consciousness with chilling clarity. The prose style changes completely as the romantic mask drops, revealing the ‘monster’ beneath the smile (and smile, and be a villain: I’ve referred before to the Shakespearean notes).

And the minute after the disappearance of his victim, who…banged the door as if fleeing from a murderer, the wretch [Abelarda] went to bed. There, with a diabolical little smile on his lips, he indulged in the following bitter and cruel monologue. [my emphasis]

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the theatrical technique in the novel, and here again the passage works dramatically. It continues with Victor musing that his helpless victim will ‘unashamedly’ declare her love for him if he isn’t careful: he hasn’t the least flicker of sexual interest in her, as his contemptuous thoughts reveal, in terms that ironically and deliberately reflect Abelarda’s own words in the tortured and self-lacerating soliloquy that I wrote about last time – this is the verbal and structural patterning that Galdós does so well:

But what an unattractive girl she is! Utterly brainless and ordinary to the last degree. I could forgive her everything if she were pretty. Oh, Ponce, what a windfall you’ve got! A rotten apple, only fit to be thrown on the refuse heap.

Some of these interior (or spoken) monologues go on ‘endlessly’, as we saw with Abelarda’s, but here the brevity is brutal and devastating.

An afterthought:

I notice that later in the novel, when Villaamil is engaged in one of his frantic, increasingly obsessive visits to the Finance Ministry where he once worked, vainly trying to get himself employed again, one of the civil servants observes, in response to the ‘disturbed’ old man’s self-pitying diatribe about nepotism and corruption in the service:

‘You’ve got to be pretty shameless to serve this devil of a state.’ [my emphasis]

Miau shows up the capacity for devilish wickedness in individuals like Victor, as the language in my extracts above shows. He is also a kind of metonym of the state in which he flourishes while ‘honourable’ old Villaamil fails repeatedly and is destroyed in the process. The language and structure of the novel once again is carefully deployed and patterned to point up the thematic, symbolic parallels between Victor and the decadent state of Spain.

miau-cover

 

The Penguin Classics edition I’m reading was translated by J.M. Cohen. It’s a rescue book from a library that closed and jettisoned most of its books – I saved it from the skip. It seems to be a first edition from 1966, though the date of acquisition by the library is shown as 1972. It’s pretty battered, but intact.

 

 

 

 

A demonic villain: Pérez Galdós, Miau pt 2

In my previous piece on Pérez Galdós’ 1888 novel Miau I said the narrative consists largely of theatrical-style dialogue, complete with parenthetical ‘stage directions’ and asides by the narrator. I’d now like to look at some of the many interior monologues. OK, as I said before, some of these become excessively long, but at their best, they’re very good.

Villaamil’s daughter Abelarda is the younger sister of Luisa, little Luís’s mother who died when he was tiny. Neither was pretty, vivacious, accomplished or educated, but Luisa caught the eye of Victor Cadalso, a lowly, ambitious ‘aspirant’ clerk in the office of Villaamil when he was chief treasury official ‘in the capital of a third-class province…with a small but not very sparkling population…[a] sleepy little town.’ Cadalso turned up in this backwater ‘without a bean’. Handsome and endowed with ‘an attractive personality’ and ‘a lively and witty conversationalist’, he became a ‘shining star’ in his chief’s drawing-room. He rapidly excelled at ‘amusing the ladies and fascinating the girls.’

Unworldly, unimaginative Luisa fell passionately in love with this dangerous dandy. She was so infatuated she was ‘blind’ to the ‘grave defects in his character’. Despite family opposition – they’ve seen through his attractive veneer – they married. Soon after, Villaamil lost his post (he does so frequently) when there was a change of administration, and Victor was promoted to a post in Madrid. The family followed him there, now dependant on his income, and he had them in his power – where he wanted them.

Luisa was just a stepping-stone for ‘ungrateful’ Victor in his career: he used her, and when he’d got what he wanted, was serially unfaithful. Luisa’s infatuation and Victor’s cruel treatment of her caused her to go mad, and shortly before she died she attacked her baby son, Luís, with a knife. From that point her father dies inside, has ‘an inward collapse’ and becomes ‘like a mummy’. Victor has his revenge.

miau-coverAll of that happened nearly ten years before the main action of the novel. Tom in his Wuthering Expectations blog posts on Galdós’ novel Fortunata and Jacinta has drawn attention to its intricate structures and tightly woven, carefully planned patterns.

There’s some of that pleasing symmetry in Miau.

Victor returns to the Villaamil house after the patriarch has lost his post once again when political power changes hands, just two months short of qualifying for his pension. He rapidly ingratiates himself into the family that loathes him for the vicious, treacherous cad that he is, simply by buying his way into their favour. They’re broke, and need his money, as he knows.

He realises that Abelarda is easy pickings, as her sister was. Inexperienced as she too is, he’s able to use her for his own ends just as he did with Luisa. What ends, though? His civil service post  is under threat while his fraudulent, corrupt ways are investigated. He needs to find something else, and sees his opportunity in the Madrid Finance Ministry that his father-in-law haunts in the vain hope of being reinstated. By vilifying the old man behind his back, he’s able to secure the patronage of the very men whom Villaamil importunes for money and a position, at his host’s expense.

Sorry about the long preamble, but I wanted to provide context for the passages I want to discuss. Here’s Abelarda’s ‘disorderly and endless monologue’, as Galdós calls it, ironically acknowledging his prolixity, in Ch. 18. It’s prompted by her falling for the heartless, fiendish Victor; history is about to repeat itself.

‘How plain I am! Goodness me, I look like nothing at all. But I’m worse than plain. I’m stupid, a nobody. I haven’t a spark of intelligence…How can he possibly love me when there are so many beautiful women in the world, and he a man of special merits, a man with a future, handsome, smart, and with a great deal of intelligence…(Pause)’

The parallel with Luisa is exact. Both girls disparage their own charmlessness, yet secretly, romantically cherish the hope that Victor has seen through their bland exterior and responds to the passionate longing underneath. But the melodramatic, adolescent ambivalence with which Abelarda soliloquises here reveals to us, though not to herself, how fatally she’s deluding herself. Like her pessimistic father, who constantly insists he’ll never be reinstated as a civil servant while secretly hoping for the opposite, she’s reverse wishful thinking.

Her meandering thoughts continue, until she reaches the point of saying she has ‘no pride left:’

‘How stupid and unattractive I am! My sister Luisa was better, although, really and truly, there was nothing very special about her. My eyes have got no expression. The most they do is to show that I’m sad, but not what I’m sad about. No one would ever believe that behind these pupils there is…what there is. No one would ever believe that this narrow forehead and this frown conceal what they do conceal.’

Even as she tries to verbally scourge herself she disloyally denigrates her sister’s sexual allure, then veers into the hope that her mouth, ‘which isn’t too bad, especially when I’m smiling’ would perhaps look better if she painted her lips.

‘No, no! Victor would laugh at me. He might despise me. But he doesn’t find me absurd and repulsive. Heavens, can I be repulsive?…Once I believed I was repulsive, I should kill myself…I would be capable of committing a crime to make him love me. What crime? Any crime. All crimes. But he’ll never love me, and I shall stay with my crime unplanned, unhappy for ever.’

These madly polarised, ingenuous hopes and fears, with the frantic see-sawing rhythms, contradictions and wild antitheses, show that she’s headed the same way as her sister. They share the same fatal flaw: their infatuation with demonic, Byronic Victor leads them into his snare and they are lost, and lose all rational capacity. Like Luisa, when Abelarda is emotionally torn apart by his callous, calculating flirtation, she goes mad and tries to kill her nephew, Luís. The patterning of plot is precise, showing through the symmetry how the action has to move – with inevitable, tragic repetitions.

Victor’s cruel luring of the sisters into his sexual trap once more serves another purpose, apart from advancing his career, for at this point he’s more secure in his employment than Villaamil. When it comes to the crunch he doesn’t even seem to have much genuine sexual drive, and recoils from any sign of passion in either sister. Women are just useful tools to him. He cares nothing for anyone, male or female.

His real intention is to destroy the old man. He takes pleasure in destroying for its own sake. He wants to ruin Villaamil, who scorned him when he was his inferior, and tried to prevent his wooing the first daughter. Now he’s able to use a similar method to bring the father-in-law to his doom, while also ruining the second daughter’s chances of fulfilment, love or happiness.

This isn’t really an anti-bureacracy novel, despite its Kafkaesque depiction of the Spanish civil service. It’s a family (anti-)romance that approaches Shakespearean grandeur in its tragic symmetries and psychological rawness.

He’s one of the great villains of fiction. Like flies to wanton boys are these characters to Victor, who’s not godlike, but Satanic. I’ll explore his character further next time.

 

Honesty is another word for foolishness: Pérez Galdós, Miau

 

After a not entirely satisfactory encounter with 19C Spanish fiction as represented by La Regenta (I wrote about it here and here) I turned with some trepidation to an old Penguin Classics edition of Benito Pérez Galdós’s 1888 novel Miau. The experience was mixed once again.

miau-coverIt’s a sobering, depressing plot: Don Ramón Villaamil has become a ‘cesante’ – a functionary in the immense bureaucracy of the Finance Ministry of the Spanish Restoration period who has lost his post with the fall of the political administration which appointed him. After nearly 35 years of service he’s been made redundant, just two months short of the pension which would have sufficed to provide for himself and his family.

And what a family. His waspish wife, the ironically named Doña Pura, is a spendthrift, whose mania for showing off her fading finery in the Madrid opera houses eclipses any inclination to be a housewife. Her sister Milagros (ironic name!) abets her in her tyrannical control of this household. Their unattractive daughter Abelarda (another aptly ironical name) is too timid and retiring to exert any control over anyone or anything.

Only Villaamil’s grandson, ten-year-old Luís, brings him any consolation. But the little boy is a chip of this old block. The grandfather is described early on as ‘an old consumptive tiger’, now with none of its former beauty ‘except its bright skin’ – he’s still capable of grumpy growling and self-pitying sulking, but he’s toothless.

The rest of the novel relates his increasingly humiliating attempts to beg money from former colleagues by writing letters to them, or by going the rounds of his former Treasury offices, seeking to gain favour and a new position by flattering, importuning or just being seen by his former subordinates and superiors – most of whom despise and patronize him. Those who don’t, find him a pitiable, abject figure.

It’s no spoiler to say this all ends badly for him. Too passive and introspective to play the aggressive role needed to persuade the new administration to employ him, he retreats ever further into himself, slowly turning from reluctant but persistent in his efforts to re-establish himself in the bureaucracy, to obsessive and manic – in the end conceding that he has become what these corrupt, self-serving pen-pushers see him as: a figure of fun, a deluded madman.

The narrative is often painfully slow moving, and the scenes in which this plot are enacted are often far too long and drawn-out. Spoken exchanges and Interior monologues tend to ramble on for pages.

This weakness is balanced by some genuine strengths – the qualities which have brought Galdós to be compared to Balzac and Dickens. I’d suggest he foreshadows Kafka in his bleak depiction of a gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy whose main desire is to perpetuate its own lethargy and corruption, and which crushes anyone who fails to serve it in the manner it needs.

I’ll show some extracts, then, maybe more in another post, which represent him at his most compelling – but these moments are not frequent, there are many more longueurs.

In Ch. 3 Pura castigates her husband for not emulating his former subordinates, who by behaving like ‘scoundrels’ have gained promotions in the Ministry, while he has been ignominiously dropped.

She seizes upon the example of Cucúrbitas, a blundering incompetent:

He may be stupid, but he knows better than you how to push himself.

She despises the man, but admires his immorality: he takes bribes for settling accounts of the state’s clients. When the husband tries to quiet her, Pura continues, getting into her melodramatic stride:

‘How innocent you are! That’s why you are where you are, that’s why you’re poor and they pass you over. Because you haven’t a grain of foresight, and because you’ve been so careful about your blessed scruples. That isn’t honesty, let me tell you, it’s just obtuseness and stupidity.

She bitterly compares ‘honourable’ but unemployed Villaamil with this ‘dunderhead’ Cucúrbitas, concluding with the taunt that this fool will end up a director or minister – ‘And you’ll never be anything.’

She’s ‘warming to it’, our wry narrator informs us in a parenthesis like a stage direction (these dialogues are often punctuated like this, with long sequences of speeches given verbatim; Galdós was also a playwright, though more successful as a novelist). Why doesn’t Villaamil blackmail this administration by ‘coughing up’ scandal he knows about them and their ‘dirty work’, she says. She’d do it, and not care who got hurt. ‘Unmask all those scamps’, she exhorts, then he’d be found a post. But she knows he won’t, and castigates him for it.

Then she returns to more scornful abuse: he’s too full of ‘finicking and politeness’, politely deferring to these people. She moves in for the kill:

‘They just reckon you’re a nobody. But’ (raising her voice) ‘as sure as this light shines you ought to be a director by now. And why aren’t you? Because you’ve got no drive and no spirit, because you don’t count for anything, because you don’t know the way to go about things. Sighing and complaining won’t make them give you what you want.’

This tirade is relentless, her wrath like that of the ferocious sisters in King Lear, or Lady Macbeth’s when she tears into her husband when he shows reluctance to take decisive (ie murderous) action to fulfill their ambitions. Her final insults are vicious:

‘You’re harmless, you don’t bite, you don’t even bark, and they all laugh at you…It’s this honesty of yours that’s your undoing. Honesty is sometimes taken as just another word for foolishness….A man can preserve all the integrity in the world and still take care of himself and his family.’

Pura is blithely unaware of the illogical movement of her argument here, and it’s this showing of her pernicious nature that’s so effectively done: the narrator doesn’t have to explain or moralise – the author trusts us to see her as she truly is. Her hypocrisy and amorality are matched only by those of the bureaucrats she expects her husband to emulate – and yet she despises him for his refusal – or inability – to stoop to their kind of self-promotion.

There’s a grim humour in her preposterous, blistering assault on the submissive, ineffective ‘cesante’. He lacks the assertiveness and spirit that she is full of – he’s a worm that can’t turn.

That early description of the ‘old consumptive tiger’ is invoked in Pura’s diatribe. The message is clear: to get on in this corrupt world a man has to be ruthless. She fails to realise that she’s urging him to become the kind of bully who terrorises their little grandson in the opening chapter and elsewhere. Like Luís, Villaamil is too introspective and passive to fight back or stand up for himself against those who wrong him – yet he spends his time complaining about his fate.

This ambiguous dilemma and the way it’s dramatised in the novel are what redeems it somewhat from the tedious narrative sprawl. The modern world is complicated, and to swim with the sharks it’s necessary to become sharklike. Yet Villaamil isn’t portrayed as some Dostoevskian saintly innocent or idiot: he really is too passive for his own or his family’s good. There’s no redemption for the likes of him, and his loathsome, unfeeling son-in-law is his mirror image, a man who knows how to succeed, and has the morality of a snake. His name is, again, highly appropriate. He’s called Victor.