Walter Benjamin, flâneurs, the historical shudder, lorettes and Paul Gavarni

Flânerie again: I turned again today to the opening section of Benjamin’s Convolute M in The Arcades Project, ‘The Flâneur’, a concept which has featured several times here on the blog (dérives in Paris and elsewhere, for example). That’s it in my picture below.

From p. 416 of The Arcades Project

From p. 416 of The Arcades Project










It’s a helpful introduction to the notion of the flâneur as Benjamin sees it. He’s scornful of that usage which is found too often nowadays, too: the ‘idler’ or ‘tourist’, wandering ‘capriciously’ as Henry James put it, through the urban streets. His is a more charged sense, a key term in his kaleidoscopic presentation of the significance of the city of Paris and its inhabitants in the 19C.

Notre Dame de Lorette, Paris

Bizet and Monet were baptised in this church: 1840 and 1841 respectively. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

I was unfamiliar with the church of ND de Lorette, mentioned there. After a bit of digging online, this is what I came up with:

It’s a church (building started in 1823) on the edge of the 9th arrondissement of Paris, near Pigalle and just south of Montmartre. That is, the red light district. Ah ha.

So I looked up ‘lorette‘ in the OED online (that superb free resource, thanks to Cornwall Library Service):

 A courtesan of a class which at one time had its headquarters in the vicinity of the Church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris.

Google took me to this website: France in the Age of Les Misérables. Here I found the following quotations:

“The middle ground between street prostitute and grand dame of commercial sex, the courtesan, lorette became an umbrella term for the kept women set up discreetly in a private apartment by a businessman, professional, or wealthy student… Always elegantly dressed, the lorette peeps out coyly from a theatre box, engages in double entendre with male admirers at a masked ball, displays herself while enjoying the view from her apartment window… the lorette slid imperceptibly across the boundaries of acceptability and social stigma.”

The lorette was bound in many ways by the codes of polite society and yet, was not embraced as a part of that same society. “On the boulevards, she was virtually indistinguishable in costume and appearance from the more fashionable among her lover’s female relations. And in a sense, for men she was quintessentially public property – to be discussed, admired, acquired… In other words there was a radical mismatch between the social and moral codes marking out the lorette within ‘respectable’ society and the way she gained public representation in the spectacle of the metropolis.” (The lorette was essentially a decoration for her lovers, something to be admired and used as needed, but not something for everyday inclusion into society.)

(Nicholas Green, The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and bourgeois culture in 19th century France by Nicholas Green, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1990.

She would be, in Benjamin’s view, a perfect example of the exploitation of the urban poor. Here’s what he says at p. 446:

“We know,” says Marx, “that the value of each commodity is determined by the quantity of labor materialized in its use value, by the working-time socially necessary for its production.”

This would apply as much for the journalist as the courtesan or lorette.

Also mentioned in that opening section in my picture at the start is [Paul] Gavarni. This was the nom de plume of Sulpice Chevalier, a Parisian artist-illustrator (1804-66), noted for his magazine images of characters and scenes of Parisian life. He also illustrated the first collected edition in 1850 of Balzac’s works. So Benjamin’s words resonate at many levels.

Here’s Gavarni’s drawing of a dandy – another central figure in Benjamin, close relation to the flâneur:

[Attribution: By Pline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

In April last year I wrote more on The Arcades Project

This section of the book begins with a number of epigraphs, including this by Mallarmé:

‘A landscape haunts, intense as opium’

Below is my picture of the title page, which gives bibliographical details.

Arcades Project title page




Umbrella words and Buridan’s Ass: a bibliomantic foray

I began drafting a piece the other day on Alfred Hayes’ excellent novel My Face for the World to See, but my wife has taken my copy away with her on a working trip, so I can’t continue with it. Instead I’ve done one of my occasional bibliomantic forays into old notebooks.

Back in August 2012 I was reading Will Self’s neo-modernist Umbrella. I enjoyed it immensely; its sequel published last year, Shark, has been sitting on my TBR shelf (which doesn’t actually exist, it’s just randomly shelved with books read and unread) looking accusingly at me whenever I catch sight of it.

It’s so long since I read Umbrella, however, that I feel ill-equipped to review it here: I’d need to re-read it, and don’t have time to do so. I’ve already got the recently-purchased Patrick Modiano ‘Occupation’ trilogy lined up for my next read. Instead here’s what I was noting about the novel in my notebook back then: samples of Mr Self’s notoriously arcane vocabulary that I had to look up. Many of them reflect the novel’s location in what was then, early in the twentieth century, called a lunatic asylum, and its central theme of the treatment of people with mental health problems.


KYPHOTIC The OED online prefers the spelling cyphosis-cyphotic. It signifies the medical condition in which spinal curving causes the sufferer to bend over severely. It derives from the Greek for ‘hunchbacked’. First recorded 1847.

TACHYPNOEA The first element of the word derives from the Greek for ‘rapid’, the last from ‘to breathe’; it means unusually rapid respiration. From 1898.

VERBIGERATE To repeat the same words or phrases obsessively, often as a symptom of mental disease. First recorded in Blount’s Glossographia (1656) meaning ‘to speak, to talk, to noise abroad’; its clinical sense was first recorded in D. Hack Tuke (splendid name), A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine (1892). In my notebook I see I’d written this as ‘vergiberate’ – a slip of the pen (or eye – if the eye can legitimately be said to slip) that was perhaps a result of an unconscious association of the word with ‘gibber’.

[I’ll omit here opisthotonos and hypotonic]

APHERISIS Its medical meaning is either ‘amputation’ or, as Self seems to use it, the removal of a quantity of blood, eg to extract specific useful or undesirable components before returning it to the donor (which sense originates from 1880). It derives from the Greek for ‘take’ or ‘snatch’ (from which ‘heresy’ also, oddly, derives). In linguistics it means the loss of an unstressed syllable at the start of a word, as in ‘round’ for ‘around’. It was first glossed as such in 1550 with the Latin equivalent term ‘ablatio’. The introduction of an additional first syllable is called ‘prosthesis’ (hence prosthetic limbs). Omitting the final syllable(s) of a word is ‘apocope’.

BURGOO was a thick gruel or porridge served to soldiers in WWI; sailors called it ‘loblolly’ (first recorded 1750) – Capt. Marryat referred to it in Peter Simple (1834). It derives from Arabic ‘burgul’ which in turn was ‘bulgur’ in Turkish, hence bulgur wheat.

I initially searched for this word in my Encarta dictionary. It wasn’t there, but I found this lovely entry instead:

BURIDAN’S ASS: a situation used to demonstrate the impracticality of making choices

Buridan's ass

Political cartoon c.1900 depicting the US Congress in terms of this paradox, with the 2 piles of hay version, hesitating between a Panama route and a Nicaragua route for an Atlantic-Pacific canal – via Wikipedia

according to a formal system of reasoning (after Jean Buridan, 1300-1358, a French philosopher). Wikipedia defines it as an illustration of a paradox in the conception of free will:

 It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water [or in some versions two piles of hay]. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.

 There are plenty more Selfian terms, including: ‘hebephrenic’, ‘anhedonia’ (lack of pleasure) and this one, which I thought I knew but didn’t –

CRAPULENT The adj. from ‘crapulence’: sickness or indisposition arising from excessive drinking or eating. It’s found in Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1727, and Dr Johnson’s of 1755. In Greek the word signified a drunken nauseous headache; the Romans adopted it (‘crapula’, a word first used in English c. 1687) to mean ‘excessive drinking’ as well as ‘intoxication’.

And that’s probably enough verbigeration for one post. Keep hitting the dictionary, Mr Self.






Hypocorism revisited: aptronyms, euonyms and caconyms

February was a busy month for me at work; my intended post on Alfred Döblin is still on its way.

Last week I visited friends in London and thoroughly enjoyed the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I took particular pleasure in seeing his painting of Henry James that I used in a recent post on his story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’.

Back in Nov. 2013 I posted on ‘hypocorism’ – people’s names as diminutive or pet forms like Billy for William. I went on to consider mononyms, anthroponyms, endonyms, exonyms, and so on.

Just now I encountered a tweet from the OED with a similar term that I’d not previously known: APTRONYM: A name regarded as (humorously) appropriate to a person’s profession or personal characteristics. It can also be spelled (or spelt!) APTONYM.

Among the citations in the OED online are these:

1986   Los Angeles Times 16 Feb. vi. 1/1   According to the American Name Society, they’re called aptonyms, that is, surnames which..have turned out to be incredibly apt. A brief search for local aptonyms produced Tommy Trotter, the new director of racing at Hollywood Park.
2002   Winnipeg Free Press 19 Jan. a14/2   He began collecting aptronyms 30 years ago, when he saw an ad in his local paper for a flower shop operated by Flora Gardner.
There’s a long list of aptronym surnames at Wikipedia, such as a German professor of psychiatry who specialises in anxiety, and is called Jules Angst; there’s a gardener called Bob Flowerdew who regularly appears on BBC Radio 4 shows about the subject; Lord Judge is the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; Arsène Wenger is the manager of Arsenal football club, the London Premier League side.
I knew a kid at school with the unusual family name Soldier. His parents, with more wit than sympathy, named him Roman. As in Polanski – which is itself a kind of aptronym; here’s the etymology of the surname at the website Ancestry
Polish (Polanski): ethnic name for a Pole, or more specifically for a descendant of the Polanie, one of the original Polish tribes.Polish, Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic), Ukrainian, and Belorussian: topographic name for someone who lived in a clearing, from polana ‘glade’, ‘clearing’ (a derivative of pole ‘field’), or a habitational name for someone from placed called Polana, Polanka, Polany, or any of various other places named with polana.
The OED compares aptronym with EUONYM – also new to me: it derives from the Greek element ‘eu-‘ meaning ‘good’ or ‘well’. OED online defines it as  ‘An appropriate or well-chosen name; (formerly in technical use) a name that conforms to the requirements of a particular system of nomenclature.The term was popularized by its appearance as the winning word in the 1997 U.S. National Spelling Bee competition.’
Its first citation is from 1889, which states that it’s the opposite of CACONYM (‘An example of bad nomenclature or terminology, esp. in biology and botany.’), in which the prefix derives from the Greek for, not surprisingly, ‘bad, evil’. Hence ‘cacophony’ (opposite of ‘euphony’). I rather like OED’s most recent citation:
1956   Nat. Cactus & Succulent Jrnl. 2 3/1   A name may qualify as a caconym in different ways. First, from sheer length… Second, from the clash of consonants making it difficult (for a European at least) to articulate.
Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Which reminded me of the plant EUONYMUS, defined by OED online thus:

A genus of shrubs (family Celastraceæ), of which many species are now cultivated as ornamental plants. The only British species is the Spindle-tree, otherwise known as the peg-, prick-, skewerwood from the uses to which its wood is applied.

Etymology:  < Latin euōnymos (Pliny xiii. xxxviii. §118), subst. use of Greek εὐώνυμος   of good name, lucky, < εὐ-   (see eu- comb. form) + ὄνομα, in Aeolic ὄνυμα name.

Pliny says that the flowering of the euonymus was a presage of pestilence; hence it seems probable that the name ‘lucky’ was given with euphemistic intention.


I love the way one word leads to another. A linguistic dérive…