Mikhail Lermontov, ‘A Hero of Our Time’

Portrait by P. Zaborotsky 1837 Wiki commons source

Portrait by P. Zaborotsky 1837 Wiki commons source

I bought the New English Library (Mentor) paperback edition of A Hero of Our Time, translated by Philip Longworth, many years ago for 12 pence (I know this because the price has been scrawled on the front cover in black ballpoint), but only got round to reading it this summer.  This translation was first published in 1962, and was issued by Mentor in 1975.  The pages have yellowed and the cover is battered, but none of this detracts from the astonishing quality of the novel.

Born into a noble Moscow family Mikhail developed a love of the Caucasus region from the age of ten, when he was taken there by his grandmother for the sake of his health.  He entered military service after an abortive spell at the University of Moscow.  A Hero was published in 1840; that same year he was banished to the Caucasus (for the second time – a punishment he surely relished) after duelling with the son of the French Ambassador.  A year later he fought another duel with a fellow officer and was killed; he was only 27.

The novel is curiously modern in its fragmented structure: it can be seen as five loosely linked short stories and novellas, arranged out of the chronological order in which the events narrated took place.  The unifying feature is the central character, the Byronic young officer Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin.  He first appears in the opening story – ‘Bela’, a first-person narrative by an unnamed young travel writer (possibly Lermontov himself) in which a middle-aged ‘staff captain’ called Maxim Maximich recounts the tale of how some years earlier Pechorin, a recently arrived young officer at Maxim’s Caucasian fort, bribed a young Circassian chieftain’s son to help him abduct his sister in return for a horse.  He slowly wins princess Bela’s heart, then abandons her, and she dies, devastated by grief.  This is our first glimpse of the cynical attitude of Pechorin towards women.  There’s no apparent motive for his fickleness; he says Bela bores him, that this makes him ‘a fool and a knave’, but he feels more pity for himself than for her.  In the first of many Byronic self-portraits (Byron is mentioned several times in the novel) Pechorin says

I have a spirit that has been spoiled by the world, a disturbed imagination, and a heart that can’t be satisfied; everything means so little to me; I get used to sorrow as easily as I do to pleasure, and from day to day my life becomes emptier.

Made restless and deeply saddened, despite his pose of indifference, by this episode with Bela, he resolves to travel – to nowhere specific; ‘perhaps I shall die on the road somewhere’; he appears to have lost his will to live.  Maxim upbraids him for his nihilism and hints that Pechorin has caught the fashionable society malaise ‘disillusionment’; Pechorin simply jokes that it must have been the English who invented this ‘fashion of tedium’ – Maxim notes that some believed Byron was ‘nothing more than a drunkard’.

Pechorin is a compellingly conflicted, arrogant, melancholy character, and A Hero is one the earliest ‘superfluous man’ novels; it foreshadowed the existential, angst-ridden anti-heroes of the type that became popular from the 1940s with Sartre, Camus and then, in the USA, Kerouac and the Beats.

In the second story, ‘Maxim Maximich’, Pechorin reappears, and is described as evincing a sense of ‘nervous weakness’, with a ‘childlike’ smile and feminine demeanour.  His eyes suggest either an ‘evil temper’ or ‘constant melancholy’, and his glance is ‘indifferently calm’.  Maxim, who has awaited this meeting with expectant excitement, is brushed aside insouciantly by Pechorin, who says he can’t stop – he’s off to Persia, once again motivated solely by boredom.  Maxim is almost as heartbroken as the betrayed Bela; he sadly describes Pechorin as ‘a lightminded fellow’ on whom ‘one couldn’t rely’.  He bitterly hands Pechorin’s journal, lightly given over to his charge by its author, to the young narrator, and it forms the basis of the remaining three stories.  One now sees from where the excellent literary blog ‘Pechorin’s Journal’ derived its name!  The narrator, in an aside, insists on the ‘innocence’ and heroism of Pechorin, who, he says, ‘brought his own weaknesses and vices so mercilessly to light’.

‘Taman’ is the third story.  Here Pechorin relates how he is robbed and nearly murdered by a blind boy (whom he suspects is ‘not as blind as he appeared’) and a bewitching young Caucasian girl, both smugglers.

‘Princess Mary’ is the longest story, almost 100 pages.  In this novella Pechorin ruthlessly seduces the eponymous heroine, while continuing an affair with a former, infatuated lover, Vera, motivated like the libertines in Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons largely by a desire to besmirch a haughty, pure woman who initially resists him, but also to spite his foppish friend Grushnitski, whose dandyish ennui piques him because he recognises there a parody of himself.  In a plot of exciting suspense, treachery and deviousness Pechorin kills his rival in a malicious duel.

M. Vrubel's illustration of the duel with Grushnitski

M. Vrubel’s illustration of the duel with Grushnitski

‘The Fatalist’ is a strange coda to the collection.  Set at a time either shortly before or after the events in ‘Bela’, a crazed gambler bets on the date of his own death.  Having initially appeared to defy fate by surviving a bout of Russian roulette, he succumbs to a random act of insane violence.  Pechorin appears towards the end and risks his life to apprehend the assassin.

The futility of existence and of love seem to be the central features of Pechorin’s world-view.  In ‘Princess Mary’, the most complex and satisfying section of the novel, he spends a lot of time examining his nature and motives.  He knows that women find him irresistible, but this serves only to confirm his contempt for them and his puzzlement about himself and the world:

Why is this? – why is it that I have never really set much value on anything?…I must admit that I do not like women of character really: but that is their worry.

Vera seems to understand him, but is unable, like all the others, to resist; she is his ‘slave’ and knows he will be untrue.  This also causes him to question his motives in pursuing other women, like the Princess, when he knows Vera’s love is superior to anything Mary is capable of.  It’s not, he thinks, just the thrill of the conquest or the difficulty of the seduction; neither is it the ‘restless need for love’ of our youth or the gratification of frustrating a romantic rival:

I feel I have that insatiable hunger which will devour everything which crosses its path.  I see the joys and sufferings of others only in relation to myself, I see them as food to sustain my spiritual powers.

It’s a form of ‘lust for power’, he concludes.  ‘My chief satisfaction is to subject everything around me to my will…What is happiness but satiated pride?’

‘Can it be’, he reflects later on, ‘that my only purpose on earth is to destroy the hopes of others?’  His ‘miserable role’ in life, he concludes, has always been that of ‘executioner or betrayer’.  He toys with the notion that he has much in common with the Vampire.

A Hero of our Time is then that very modern type of novel: the self-analysis of the protagonist’s motives.  As William E. Harkins says in his Afterword to this edition, Pechorin is ‘narcissistic and neurotic’, unable to love, addicted to ‘empty posing’,  pettily manipulative, ‘opportunistic’ and ‘at times even vindictive’ in his treatment of women and men – the sad figure of Maxim is unforgettable when Pechorin spurns his friendship.  He might today be described as sadistic – like so many other flawed, anguished and alienated Romantic heroes, from Schiller’s The Robbers (1781) to Eugene Onegin and the proud, jaded heroes of Byron, and shortly afterwards, the Bronte sisters’ Heathcliff (who also liked to make ‘the worms suffer’) and Rochester, and Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin.  Harkins points out that Pechorin is full of contradictions: heroic and neurotic, sensitive to injustice and callously indifferent to the suffering of others, a worshipper of women’s beauty and a narcissistic self-adorer.  He is the forerunner of countless existential outsider heroes in later fiction, the nauseated figures disgusted by other people and by their own ennui, filled with indifference and hostile to the matching indifference of an irrational world.  This novel prepared the way for the more profound explorations of psychological depths of character portrayed in the masterpieces of Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.






























Zoris, woodpeckers and Carignan

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

In Denis Johnson’s epic novel Tree of Smoke (2007), a densely plotted existential Conradian thriller set in Vietnam and elsewhere in S.E. Asia from 1963 to the present day, a character with the wonderful name of Carignan goes to wash in a river in Mindanao in the Philippines:

‘wearing his zoris and underclothes’

I didn’t know what a zori was, so looked it up; this is what the OED entry says:

Japanese, < grass, (rice) straw + ri footwear, sole

With pl. concord. Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.

The first citation dates from 1823 (from a book about Japan); the most recent is from 1984 (a text from the British Judo Association’s Coaching Award Scheme: ‘Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events…’

Zori image

From J-Life website where we’re told that the pair illustrated are made from ‘real igusa grass’ and called Tatami/Zori…which led me to check out

Tatami.   OED:  1. A rush-covered straw mat which is the usual floor-covering in Japan and the size of which (approx. six feet by three feet) functions as a standard unit in room measurement.  (Citations begin 1614; the most recent is: ‘1981   G. MacBeth Kind of Treason ix. 92   He relaxed on the tatami and spoke with polite approval of the cousin’s tsuba.’

Tatami was originally a luxury mat used mostly by Japanese nobility.  As their aristocratic houses were mainly wooden, Tatami was highly prized as floor cover and for seating.  As the architectural style of homes developed, Tatami became more widely popular with the general public.  It’s valued for its texture, unique elasticity, and has excellent moisture absorbing and discharging functions, achieved by weaving in the natural rush grass, igusa.

‘A recent study has found that the scent of Igusa as an effect aromatherapy. We would like not only Japanese but people throughout the world to try our Tatami that has such excellent features. Igusa-mono was developed as a new stylish Tatami blended into overseas living spaces…’ (From the website igusa-mono.com)

If you’ve read anything else on this blog you’ll know I’m fascinated by words, so naturally I looked at unfamiliar words nearby in my Chambers dictionary; this is what I came across:

ZYGODACTYL/OUS: ‘with toes arranged in pairs, two facing forwards and two backwards…eg woodpeckers’ (adj.  and n.)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

A pair of GSWs often visits my birdfeeder in the garden: they’re very fond of peanuts.  Handsome birds, but very shy – they hide behind tree trunks if they think they’re being watched.

Lexicographers and cockneys


Title page of Blount's 'Glossographia' 1661 edition (BL website)

Title page of Blount’s ‘Glossographia’ 1661 edition (BL website)


Cockney or Cockneigh applyed onely to one born within the Bow-bell, that is within the City of London, which term came first (according to Minshew) out of this Tale; a Citizens Son riding with his Father out of London into the country, and being utterly ignorant how corn grew, or Cattel increased, asked, when he heard a horse neigh, what he did? his Father answered the horse doth neigh: riding farther, the Son heard a Cock crow, and said, doth the Cock neigh too? Hence by way of jeer he was called Cock-neigh.


A Cockney, according to some, is a child that sucks long: But Erasmus takes it for a child wantonly brought up, and calls it in Lat. Mammothreptus.


Cambden takes the Etymology of Cockney, from the River Thamesis, which runs by London , and was of old time called Cockney. Others say the little Brook which runs by Turnbole or Turnmill-Street, was anciently so called.’

(British Library: Learning – Culture and Knowledge)

From Thomas Blount (1618-79), a lexicographer (among other things) born in Worcestershire: Glossographia (first edition 1656; edition cited here is published by Tho. Newcomb for George Sawbridge, London, 1661).  It has entries for over 11,000 words:

derived from Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Saxon, Turkish, French and Spanish. He also explained specialist words – those used in fields such as mathematics, anatomy, war, music and architecture. In the preface to the dictionary, Blount explains how he had often stumbled over these words in books, without completely understanding them. He believed the ‘Glossographia’ would be ‘very useful for all such as desire to understand what they read. (BL )

J. Minsheu, 'Ductor in Linguas' title page, upenn.edu website

J. Minsheu, ‘Ductor in Linguas’ title page, upenn.edu website

John Minsheu (the usual spelling) was a London-born lexicographer and linguist, 1520-1627.  Now usually thought of as a plagiarist in his dictionary-making, this entry with its delightful speculation on the etymology of ‘Cockney’ is also cited in the online OED, with slightly variant spelling .

The BL page on Blount points out that he wrote about a number of words that had newly entered street English, mostly picked up in their trading trips abroad by merchants: coffee, chocolate, balcony, boot, drapery and omelette had begun to be used in public drinking houses, artisans’ shops and so on.

John Mulcaster, uncredited image

John Mulcaster, uncredited image

Portrait on Mulcasterfoundation.org website.

Glossographia was unusual for the complexity and detailed narrative definitions/etymologies of the entries, a task not attempted in earlier dictionaries, for example by the London schoolteacher Richard  Mulcaster (c. 1530-1611; the Elementarie of 1582 contains a list of 8,000 words without definitions, not all of them obscure – he is credited as making the first reference in print to ‘football’ in another work of his – in an attempt to redeem English as a legitimate language for scholarly use, and to attempt some standardisation in orthography).

Mulcaster's entry including 'flea' and 'flindermouse'

Mulcaster’s entry including ‘flea’ and ‘flindermouse’

What is a ‘flindermouse’?  A word for ‘bat’, from ‘flinder’ – moth; first OED citation is from Caxton’s 1481 edition of The History of Reynard the Fox; the latest citation is from 1875 in a glossary of Sussex dialect terms.

Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604) was the first single-language dictionary of English words published.  Some 3,000 words are listed and given definitions.  He was aware that the rise in the use of ‘inkhorn’ words of classical or contemporary foreign origin was causing confusion and consternation in some people; Cawdrey explained in the first edition, rather ungallantly, who he was targeting in this enterprise:

‘Ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may more easily and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.’ (BL website)

It should be said that at that time few girls would have undergone a formal education.  Like Mulcaster he made no attempt to provide etymologies or citations to indicate usage, and his definitions were simplistic and subjective:

Sodometrie: when one man lyeth filthily with another man

Solitarie, alone, or without company (from the third edition of 1613, reproduced on the BL site).

Cawdrey's title page, from BL website

Cawdrey’s title page, from BL website

To go back to cockney; OED gives the etymology as coken – ay: cocks’ egg, referring humorously to small or misshapen eggs; there’s an apparent parallel in the French ‘coco’, a child’s name for an egg, which became a term of endearment for children themselves (a ‘mother’s darling’, one who ‘suckled long’, as Minsheu suggested, or ‘a cockered child’ – cocker as a verb to mean ‘indulge’ or ‘pamper’ derives from the 15th century from the same lexical root), or derisively for men, hence ‘a squeamish or effeminate fellow’ or milksop.

From 1520 it could also mean ‘A derisive appellation for a townsman, as the type of effeminacy, in contrast to the hardier inhabitants of the country’.  From there it’s a small step to the now usual sense of native Londoner,  ‘more or less contemptuous or bantering, and particularly used to connote the characteristics in which the born Londoner was supposed to be inferior to other English people.’  OED’s first citation with this denotation is from 1600.

My mother was a cockney.





Dinky, Dimension D – review

Album cover, 'Dimension D' (from Blogcritics)

Album cover, ‘Dimension D’ (from Blogcritics)

Released by the innovative Visionquest on 25 June, Dimension D is Dinky’s fifth studio album, but her first venture into singer-songwriter territory. She sings and plays several different instruments on this atmospheric, melodic album, co-produced and mixed by her husband, Matthew Styles. Three years of polishing and refining went into the final product, and it shows – it’s an ethereal, other-worldly blend of elegant tunes, snappy beats and dramatic novels compressed into just a few minutes per track. Over the catchy tunes floats that lovely voice, at times sweet and lyrical, at others menacing and edgy.

Born in Santiago, Chile, Alejandra del Pilar Iglesias Rivera’s name was abbreviated to ‘Dinky’ by her sister. Since the early ’90s she’s been at the forefront of the minimalist techno music DJ scene based in Berlin. That’s what makes this album so adventurous for her.


She studied opera and jazz, trained as a singer and classical guitarist/pianist, but favours an extraordinary Moog guitar on most tracks here, which gives the songs a twangy sound redolent of the sea, big surf, nature and sunshine.  Chris Izaak seems to be an influence here; she says she’d been listening a lot to the Cocteau Twins, too – but the album is sui generis and highly original.


There’s darkness in some songs, too. ‘Falling Angel’ was, she says, inspired by a saintly person who had a secret, evil past; for the video she filmed her sister who sits blinking enigmatically in a Berlin cemetery, apparently enamoured of a tree. ‘Feel free to survive’, she urges in the chorus.


Many of the lyrics were improvised over the melodies, layered in with that inspirational guitar. ‘Measures’ has pensive, trippy elements textured with live drums, percussive clapping and an organic, bluesy synth sound that’s her trademark across the album. Again, that angelic voice cuts through strange lyrics: ‘I start climbing through the wall’, she sings happily. The title track turns house-y beats into a playful, transgressive anthem.


Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night refers to sweet music with a ‘dying fall’, and that’s what Dinky has perfected here. She favours trochaic metrical patterns, with gerunds prominent: ‘dying’, ‘falling’. The song ‘Witches’ consists of strings of these celestially harmonised rhythms, with their inherent sadness and introspection. In ‘La Noche’ she sings in her native Spanish, where the haunting, gentle words are whispered with fervour and delicate vehemence.


Dylan bemused trad folkies when he plugged in his electric guitar and told his band to play as loud as they could (or words to that effect); when the Beatles went trippy-psychedelic, their teen pop fans didn’t get it. This exciting new direction that Dinky has taken will no doubt puzzle her electro-clubby fanbase (though the minimalist Berlin sound is still there in the mix). But their loss is our gain. Dinky has produced a triumphantly eccentric and diverse set of songs that reward multiple plays. There’s a maturity, range and depth here that suggests she is going to continue to get just better and better.

Blind - the single

Blind – the single: picture from liaoliao website

Update: ‘Blind’ was released as a single on 3 August, with alternative mixes available – it’s a stormer! The video featuring members of her family has some haunting images, like the song.

A slightly shorter version of this review appeared at Blogcritics on 3 July


Spam poetry

S. Beckett (photo: Festival Paris Beckett)

S. Beckett (photo: Festival Paris Beckett)

I’ve just explored the spam filter on the dashboard of this blog for the first time; I’m amazed by some of the peculiar, poetic messages WordPress helpfully commit to the spam bin.  There’s this, for example:

Undeniably imagine that you said. Your favourite justification

seemed to be at the internet the easiest factor to be
aware of.  I say to you, I definitely get annoyed

 while other folks think about issues

 that they plainly do not recognize about.
You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest as smartly as defined out the whole
thing with no need side-effects , folks can take a signal.
Will likely be again to get more. Thank you

I’ve used this configuration because it seems to me a found poem.  I rather like ‘folks can take a signal’: sounds like something out of Richard Ford.

Richard Ford (photo: Guardian newspaper)

Richard Ford (photo: Guardian newspaper)

‘To hit the nail upon the highest’ mashes up the cliché and reinvents it as something that sounds biblical.   The fractured syntax is reminiscent of Beckett’s dramatic prose.  The website linked to the comment is for a spamming ‘make money online’ organisation, so I presume this message was generated by some automatic random algorithm – surely corresponds, therefore, to what Breton and the surrealists advocated in all creative writing…They’d have enjoyed the internet and its infinite capacities.

Here’s another found spam piece:

As that faculty uniforms rather monotonous, fail to replicate temperament, the provincial capital some middle school students began to wear shoes on the “rivalry”, like “your shoes are the generations”, turning into a hot topic once-school exchanges. Reporter 21, learned that some students the value of a combine of air max 90 shoes up to 5,00 zero yuan.

This appears (from the link given by WordPress) to be from a Chinese website promoting sports shoes; maybe it too is mechanically translated, but like the example above it has a weirdly pleasing resonance.

Another piece that looks to be translated by machine (I’ve modified punctuation slightly):

I’m at about 203-208lbs give or take what I ate. Sick weigh tomorrow and make it specified.  Nowadays is clear working day one for me.  I hope to be down 13lbs by may possibly fifth which happens to be 5 weeks.  Somewhat over 2lbs each week, but I believe I’m able to get it done.  I’m kickboxing and zi xiu tang bee pollen pillslifting. I want to be down to 160lbs from the middle of sept, 25weeks away.

This could be an interior monologue from any number of recent novels by writers in their twenties or thirties; there’s a Joycean neologism, ‘pillslifting’, which neatly links the registers of pharmacology and physical fitness, which is presumably what this spammer peddles.

Finally, here’s an extract from what looks like a site promoting expensive shoes for women (the ones with the shiny red soles – shoes, that is, not women):

particularly binaural beats become desirable among players, businesses, and those functioning to their personal development and/or religious brain express.

The plosives in the first phrase and the loose, paratactic syntax give a satisfying whiff of Ginsberg.  There’s a hint of the cut-up technique of William Burroughs here, too.

photo: the Allen Ginsberg Project blog

photo: the Allen Ginsberg Project blog

I love the internet.

Flaubert, Alcibiades, and Laelaps the dog

“Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim.” Shakespeare, King Lear (III.6)

ALCIBIADES – Famous on account of his dog’s tail. A kind of debauchee. Visited Aspasia. (Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas, Oneworld Classics edition, 2010, from the Alma Classics website).

Flaubert made the notes for this ironically banal spoof of the platitudinous mentality of the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire in the 1870s; it remained unpublished until 1913. 

The Jennings Dog (also known as The Duncombe Dog or The Dog of Alcibiades) is a Roman sculpture of a dog with a docked tail.  Named after its first modern owner, Henry Jennings, it is a 2nd-century AD Roman copy of a Hellenistic bronze original, probably of the 2nd century BC.

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

Jennings (1731-1819) saw it in a pile of rubble in a workshop in Rome between 1753 and 1756, bought it and took it back to Britain.  The sculpture became famous on its arrival in Britain, and its importer became known as ‘Dog Jennings’.  The sculpture was praised by Horace Walpole; copies proliferated and were said to make “a most noble appearance in a gentleman’s hall”, according to Dr Johnson.

A story in Plutarch’s life of Alcibiades tells of the Athenian statesman, orator and general owning a large, handsome dog; he cut off its tail so as to invoke pity from the Athenians and distract them from his worse deeds. The broken tail of his sculpture led Jennings to link it to this story, calling it “the dog of Alcibiades”.

Under this title a pair of copies were installed by Robert Adam at Newby Hall, Yorkshire, about 1780, and in the later 19th century a pair was set in the gardens at Basildon Park, Bedfordshire.

The Basildon Park dogs

For 150 years the sculpture stood guard in the entrance hall of Duncombe Park, the family mansion in Yorkshire of its next English owner.  It remained there until 1925, when the Duncombes rented out the hall to a girls’ school, whose pupils were rumoured to feed the dog unwanted sandwiches.  It was acquired by the British Museum in 2001, where it was identified as a Molossian guard dog, so it is assumed to have been associated with some civic monument in Epirus, and to have been brought to Rome.

The Molossian hound, according to Nicander (quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon, XXXIX) was a descendant of a dog (Laelaps, “Whirlwind” or “Tempest”) forged in bronze by Hephaestus and given to Zeus.

In Greek mythology the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen was a gigantic animal that was impossible to catch.  It was one of the offspring of Echidna, a draikana– a female dragon with the face and torso of a beautiful woman and the body of a snake. This fox was said to have been sent by the gods to punish the people of Thebes for some crime.  Creon, the ruler of Thebes, assigned Amphityron the impossible task of destroying this animal. He called upon the services of the magical dog Laelaps.

This prodigious hound was said to have been a gift from Zeus to Europa.  He was passed down to Europa’s son, King Minos of Crete, and then to Procris, whose husband, Cephalus, had been seduced by Eos the goddess of dawn while he was out hunting.  She handed him back to his wife after an interval of eight years because he was pining for her so much – but made disparaging comments about Procris’ lack of fidelity as she did so.  Once reunited with Procris, Cephalus tested her by returning from the hunt and seducing her while in disguise.  Procris fled in shame to the forest to hunt.  On her return, Procris brought two propitiatory magical gifts, a spear that never missed its target, and Laelaps, who never failed to catch his quarry.

Piero di Cosimo, Death of Procris, with Laelaps and faun

Piero di Cosimo, Death of Procris, with Laelaps and faun

Zeus, faced with a paradox in the mutually cancelling qualities of Laelaps and the fox, turned the two animals into stone so that the one might not catch the uncatchable and the other not escape the inescapable. The pair were petrified and cast into the heavens as stars.

The Molossus (Μολοσσὸς) is a breed of dog that is now extinct, but which gave its name to the modern group of dogs known as Molosser, solidly built, large dog breeds that all descend from the same common ancestor.

From the Encyclopedia Romana: “The Molossian is mentioned in the literature more often than any other breed…[including] Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae, 416), where it frightens off adulterers; Aristotle (The History of Animals, IX.1), where as a sheep-dog, it is considered superior to other breeds in size and courage; Plautus (Captivi, 86), where the parasite is like a greyhound (venaticus) when business is put aside and a Molossian when it recommences; Statius (Thebaid, III.203), where the maddened hounds do not recognize Actaeon, their master; Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, V.1063ff), where the dog growls and bays, fawns over its pups, howls when left alone, and whimpers when threatened with the whip; Horace (Satires, VI), where the country mouse has his fill of the city when the house resounds with the barking of Molossians. 

The Molossian hound may have similarities to the Alaunt, the dog of the Alans- a group of nomads of the first millennium AD.  The Alans were known as superb warriors, herdsmen, and breeders of horses and dogs.

The Ayran Flock Guardian or Sage Koochi Asian steppe breed was used to domesticate the horse and control and defend large livestock preceded these types. The steppe nomads, such as the Kurgan, introduced the use of the horse and chariot, as well as the Mastiff-Alaunt war dogs.

J. del Sallai, Alaunt sheep guard

J. del Sallai, Alaunt sheep guard

The Molossus reached Epirus in about 1200 BC.  They differed from the Mastiff prototype, having a long nose of a narrow type, and a long mane. Varro, however, described a herding dog of Epirus which was white and large headed, used to defend sheep and goats.  Molossis of Epirus is located in Southern Albania. It is most plausible the Alaunt gave rise to the fighting dogs of the Molossi, which were introduced to Britain by Roman Invasion in 55BC. The Alans provided cavalry for Rome and in 50AD, 5,500 Alans were sent to Britain to guard Hadrian’s Wall.  In this way the Alaunt  were probably the genetic ancestors of the British Pugnances, fighting dogs which English Mastiffs and Bulldogs descend from.

Mastiffs are often referred to as Molossus dogs or Molossers. It is one of the best-known ancient breeds; however, its physical characteristics and function are questionable. Though the Molossus breed no longer exists in its original form, it is noted as being instrumental in the development of modern breeds such as the St Bernard, Rottweiler, Great Dane and Newfoundland. (Some of this text is derived and adapted from Wikipedia).

Alma Classics edition of Flaubert's 'Dictionary of Received Ideas'

Alma Classics edition of Flaubert’s ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’




A Chamfort Florilegium

Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote

[Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote]

Florilegium, n. (OED)

…modern Latin, < flōrilegus   flower-culling, < flōr(i)-  , flōs   flower + legĕre   to gather; a literal rendering of Greek ἀνθολόγιον  anthology n., after the analogy of spīcilegium; spiciˈlegium   n.

b. A collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology.  First OED citation: 1647.

Spicilegium; † spicilegy   n.  [Latin spīcilegium] Obs. a gleaning; a collection or anthology.

1656   T. Blount Glossographia,   Spicilegy, gathering ears of corn, gleaning or leising corn.

Latin spīca ear of corn, spike n., occurring in a few words, as Mayne Expos. Lex. (1859) also gives spiciferous, spiciflorous, spicigerous as renderings of modern Latin formations.

David Crystal is our most eminent and readable linguist; his Words on Words is packed full of quotations of linguistic interest – a veritable spicilegium.  A random example sparked off today’s blog post:

I am tempted to say of metaphysicians what Scaliger used to say of the Basques: they are said to understand one another, but I don’t believe a word of it.

(Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort, 1796, Maximes et Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes, et petits Dialogues philosophiques, ch. 7.)

[Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609): French scholar born Agen, specialist in classics but spoke 13 languages.  A Calvinist, he was Professor at the University of Leiden and is said to have inspired Dutch scholarship.  This maxim is surely a little harsh on both metaphysicians and the linguistically challenging Basques.]

N. Sebastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-94): French writer, born illegitimately in the Auvergne; his wit, intelligence and charm took him to the upper heights of pre-Revolutionary France, and friendship with Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert and other eminent figures of the period; he caught the admiring attention of Louis XV and was elected to the French Academy – though he claimed, with typical contrariness, that he never attended its sessions. He also wrote tales and drama, as well as these maxims (published posthumously).  In a Guardian essay back in 2003 Julian Barnes * had this to say about him (all subsequent quotations are from his article):

Camus thought him the most instructive of moralists, and far greater than La Rochefoucauld; Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill revered him; Pushkin read him and allowed Eugene Onegin to do the same; he is an admired presence in the diaries of Stendhal and the Goncourts; Cyril Connolly, another melancholy epicurean with a taste for aphorism, quoted him at length in The Unquiet Grave. Yet Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-1794) remains virtually unknown in this country.

He began compiling his maxims in the mid-1780s, noting down on small pieces of paper his thoughts, epigrams and repartees on all manner of aspects of human existence, with ‘anecdotes, quotations and scraps of dialogue’, but after his death, before the first publication of his Maximes, some 2000 items were removed and lost.  What remains of this florilegium shows how he differs from La Rochefoucauld, who exempted himself from his own charge that mankind is motivated by self-interest; Chamfort’s  ‘condemnation of humanity includes himself, very specifically: “If I am anything to go by, man is a foolish animal.”’

His maxims often retain their resonance today: here he is on politics –

You imagine ministers and other high officials have principles because you’ve heard them say so. As a result, you avoid asking them to do anything that might cause them to break those principles. However, you soon discover you’ve been hoodwinked when you see ministers doing things which prove that they’re quite unprincipled: it’s nothing but a habit they’ve got into, an automatic reflex.

Chamfort has been criticised for airing misogynistic views, but he has this to say about love and women: “In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd.”

He’s capable, among these dicta, of self-deprecating wit, too: “Having lots of ideas doesn’t mean you’re clever, any more than having lots of soldiers means you’re a good general.”

When the Revolution broke out in 1789 he espoused the Jacobin cause, was among the first to storm the Bastille, spoke in public support of the revolutionaries, and coined slogans: “War upon the chateaux, peace upon the cottages”.  When, as often happens with those who are early supporters of insurrection (especially when they have circulated in the privileged circles of the overthrown regime), he was denounced and imprisoned, and made botched and messy attempts at suicide, succeeding only in blowing out an eye with his pistol, and losing pints of blood when he attempted to slash his wrists, throat and ankles.

Chamfort was ‘various, contradictory, but always stimulating, never one to flatter the reader’s complacency’.  Camus described the Maximes as ‘a kind of disorganised novel’, which leads me to think of them as an extreme precursor of what has recently been called the ‘polyphonic novel’ (Michael David Lukas, ‘A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel’ in The Millions, 15 Feb., 2013; Ted Gioia, ‘The Rise of the Fragmented Novel’, Fractious Fiction website, 17 July, 2013).  I intend to return to these two fascinating essays on modern narrative structure in another blog.

*Barnes was reviewing a new edition of selections from the Maximes: Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society, edited by Douglas Parmee, published in 2003 by Short Books, 224pp.

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

I see on the Amazon website there’s a ridiculously cheap 2012 Kindle edition of Complete Maxims and Thoughts (The Works of Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort) translated by Tim Siniscalchi.

English translation of 'Maximes', Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website

English translation of ‘Maximes’, Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website


I haven’t checked to see if this is indeed ‘complete’ –  Amazon state that this edition’s print length is 145 pages, which doesn’t sound long enough for completeness; they also have a Kindle edition in French which is free.

An English translation by Deke Dusinberre of Claude Arnaud’s biography (in French) was published in 1992 (second edition) by the University of Chicago press.  It was reviewed in an essay by P.N. Furbank in the New York Review of Books on 25 June, 1992 under the title ‘A Double Life’, who said of the Maximes‘ author that he was

a man fêted and pampered by the grand monde of the ancien régime—the very prototype of pensioned idleness and frivolous salon display—who all the time had been taking secret notes on this monde and bestowing drops of acid upon it. Here, moreover, was a parasite of the “great” who had welcomed the Revolution with open arms, with a euphoria as intense as his fate under it was to be horrific.

Another review, by Neil Ascherson, was published 5 November, 1992 in The London Review of Books; some interesting comments from readers (reproduced on the website) add nuance.

The blurb on the Amazon page for the English Kindle edition has this: “Chamfort”, wrote Balzac in a letter, “put whole volumes in a single biting phrase, while nowadays it’s a marvel to find a biting phrase in a volume” –  a neat chiasmus to end on.

Disiecta Membra

Something of a ‘disiecta membra’ about today’s post.  The expression, in case you’re not familiar with it, is from Horace’s Satire 1.4, in which he appears to be praising the poet Ennius; he says that even if the words in Ennius’s poems were rearranged it would still be possible to discern ‘the scattered limbs of a poet’ – ‘disjecti membra poetae’.  Nowadays the phrase tends to be used for any collection of scattered literary or artistic fragments.

While mulling over several blog projects (Renata Adler’s Speedboat review; Adalbert Stifter and Elizabeth von Arnim, among others) I thought I’d fill the hiatus while those pieces marinate with a few ‘fragments’ of linguistic or literary origin.  I’ll embolden the relevant words in the quotations that follow; all definitions and etymologies are from the OED, unless stated otherwise.

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Early in Laurence Sterne’s magnificently dotty shaggy dog story The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy the narrator refers to ‘literary histories’ of the past, and their ‘terrible battles, yclept logomachies’.  I rather like that cluster of nouns with the –omachy suffix (which signifies ‘fighting’ in Greek; logos of course is ‘word’).  The OED defines it as ‘a contention about words’, with the earliest instance of its use dated 1569.  I hope to write about the Centauromachy – the battle of the centaurs with the Lapiths at a wedding feast – another time.

On the following page Sterne writes of Tristram’s  Uncle Toby’s wound in the groin, sustained when he was in the army, and how he was eventually able to talk about this embarrassing badge of honour:

He was enabled, by the help of some marginal documents…together with Gobesius’ military architecture and pyroballogy, translated from the Flemish, to form his discourse.

The note in my Penguin edition glosses this as ‘the study of the art of casting fire’ – presumably in the military sense, as in artillery.  OED says this is from the Greek ballein, ‘to throw’, from which the word ‘ballistic’ derives, and defines the term as ‘The study of artillery; the art of using explosives to launch missiles’.  Only two citations are given, one from Sterne’s usage here (1760), the other from  1738 (although the earlier form, ‘pyrobology’ is dated 1728).

Another cluster of words I pondered a while ago started with looking up sarcoma: ‘A tumour composed of embryonic connective tissue. Now applied to almost any malignant tumour not derived from epithelial tissue…  Other classifications of cancers are the carcinomas, which arise in the epithelia; the leukemias and lymphomas arise in the blood-forming cells’. So naturally one then has to look up epithelium: ‘A non-vascular tissue forming the outer layer of the mucous membrane in animals.’

Sarcoma derives from Greek sarx or sark, ‘flesh’.   Cognates include sarcophagus, which originally signified ‘A kind of stone reputed among the Greeks to have the property of consuming the flesh of dead bodies deposited in it, and consequently used for coffins (attested from 1601-1750), and then  (from 1705) ‘A stone coffin, esp. one embellished with sculptures or bearing inscriptions, etc.’   Then there’s sarcophagy, ‘the practice of eating flesh’, first cited in Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1658); the only other OED citation is from HG Wells in 1901.

Pseudodoxia epidemica (image from Amazon website)

Pseudodoxia epidemica (image from Amazon website)

The –phagy element derives from the Greek phagein, ‘eat’.

Amazonomachy marble sarcophagus from Salonica, Archaeological Museum of Thessalonki (photo: Wikipedia)

Amazonomachy marble sarcophagus from Salonica, Archaeological Museum of Thessalonki (photo: Wikipedia)

And there we are: another -omachy: this one relates to the battles between the Amazons and the ancient Greeks.

I find these things lead me deeper into linguistic labyrinths, as happens when following hyperlinks on the internet.  So then I turned to sarcosaprophagous creatures (usually insects like the parasitoid wasps Hymenoptera) which feed on dead or decaying flesh.

The best known are Flesh Flies (Diptera – ie Flies: Sarcophagidae),  which are ‘ovoviviparous, which means that eggs are not deposited upon full development. Instead, the larvae hatch inside of their mother’s “uterus” and are held until a proper host is found. The term used to describe the release of the larvae onto the host is

larviposition… Female flesh flies deposit their 1st instar larvae directly on the host and the larvae commence feeding immediately. These larvae eat and develop rapidly. Approximately five days after larviposition, the larvae are already in their 3rd instar and are almost ready to pupate. When the larvae are ready to pupate, they leave the host and wander until they find a suitable location.  (University of Florida website)

I rather admire the notion of ‘wandering’ larvae, seeking a suitable place to pupate.

Dorsal view of adult male Sarcophaga crassipalpis Macquart, a flesh fly. Photograph by Lazaro A. Diaz, University of Florida.

Dorsal view of adult male Sarcophaga crassipalpis Macquart, a flesh fly. Photograph by Lazaro A. Diaz, University of Florida.

The word sarcosaprophagous comes from Greek sapros, rotten – compare ‘saprobe’: ‘Any organism that derives its nourishment from decaying organic matter’.

Maybe next time I’ll be able to return to more salubrious, literary matters.

‘In Treatment – Series 1’: DVD review

Dr Paul Weston

Dr Paul Weston

For some years HBO has been producing  the best TV drama in the English language.  Quintessentially American themes and settings are central in Boardwalk Empire, John Adams, The Sopranos, The Wire and Treme (and there’s a noticeable spanning of historical periods there, too), while the fluctuating fortunes of American service personnel in harrowing foreign conflicts are the basis of Band of Brothers and Generation Kill – where the action again spans two different periods of recent history.

In Treatment is set in the contemporary USA, but it’s an adaptation by Rodrigo Garcia of an Israeli TV series Be Tipul created by Hagai Levi, who became one of HBO’s executive producers for the programme, along with Garcia, Steve Levinson and Mark Wahlberg.  The themes are therefore universal:  what makes human beings behave the way we do, and how do we cope when our lives unravel?

So far I’ve only watched season 1 (there were three, which aired between 2008-2010).  An unusual feature when In Treatment originally aired on TV was that each nightly episode showed one patient’s session with Dr Paul Weston (played by the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, thankfully using his native accent, thus flouting the HBO tradition of employing actors from the British Isles to play American-accented characters), a psychotherapist in his early 50s practising successfully in Maryland, and there were five episodes per week, one per patient.  Unlike soap operas, where multiple storylines intertwine and develop separately in each episode, this enabled the writers and directors to concentrate on one storyline per night, and really probe deeply into the life of the patient and their dilemmas, while also developing Paul’s increasingly complicated reactions to the problems presented by his patients, and his growing inability to remain emotionally detached.

The pattern in Series 1 was that the four different patients featured Monday-Thursday for eight weeks, then in week nine, for various reasons, only two stories remained.  The fifth episode each week featured Paul’s own  sessions with his former therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest), in which he attempted to wrestle with his own conflicts arising from his interaction with his patients, and, in later episodes, accompanied by his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes), as his ailing marriage came under scrutiny .  There were thus 43 half-hour episodes in the series.

Gina, who supervises and counsels Paul

Gina, who supervises and counsels Paul

Some of the patient stories were more engaging than others – but isn’t this true of real life?  The outstanding story for me was that of the teenage gymnast and Olympic hopeful, Sophie (superbly played by Mia Wasikowska, who went on to play the eponymous ingenue heroine in Tim Burton’s 2010-11 Alice in Wonderland – a very different role from Sophie), who seems to have a death-wish resulting from the unbearable emotional pressures she experienced in childhood – her father was a photographer who specialised in female nudes and personal promiscuity; she idealizes him and deprecates her long-suffering, fraught and loyal mother.  As the weekly sessions develop under Paul’s gentle, caring gaze, and he gains Sophie’s trust and affection, subtly enabling her to see the cruelty and weakness of her selfish father, Sophie slowly discovers the truth of her parents’ natures, and learns how intolerable it was to have had the burden of a shared secret placed upon her by her philandering dad.

The other most successful patient story for me was that of the Navy pilot hero, Alex (Blair Underwood), who on a bombing mission in Iraq accidentally caused the deaths of children.  Brashly confident, even arrogant on the surface, Alex feels guilt and remorse underneath; this inner conflict resulted in his suffering a heart attack.  Although Alex believes he’s recovered physically, Paul faces the weighty problem of trying to convince him that his problems have not been resolved during their weeks of treatment, while Alex is determined to cajole Paul into giving him a clean bill of mental health so that he can return to combat duty.

Navy pilot Alex

Navy pilot Alex

Where the set-up became a little stagey and less convincing, I think, was in the most emotionally tangled storyline: a beautiful doctor in her late 20s, Laura (Melissa George) presents herself as someone who believes the only way she can induce men to relate to her is through sex.  Worse, she declares that she has fallen in love with Paul.  By the end of Series 1 Paul has had to confront his own feelings for Laura, and the possibility that he  drove his wife Kate into an affair with another man.  Paul’s weekly sessions with Gina become the most compelling in the series.  They show a different side of Paul’s character: he’s in denial, angry, vulnerable, and takes out his frustration on the always patient Gina.  There’s history between the two of them, and this back-story gradually emerges over the episodes.  It will clearly develop further and become clearer in Series 2 and 3.

The final storyline involves a passionate but fractious young married couple, Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), who have come to see Paul initially to resolve a clash of views about whether Amy should abort the child with which she is pregnant, but subsequently to deal with more complicated issues arising from their constant fighting.  Amy’s supercilious patronizing of her husband incenses him, yet she hates it when he starts treating her with more sensitivity.  Paul faces a difficult task in trying to prevent these two tearing each other, and their marriage, to pieces.

It has probably become apparent by now that the storylines aren’t selected in a random way: they all comment on and infiltrate into each other in the viewer’s mind (and Paul’s, and ultimately into the lives of his increasingly imperilled family).  As the ninth week finishes there are still unresolved issues and crises which in some cases are almost unbearably tense and emotionally draining for the participants and the viewer.

And that’s what makes this series such compelling viewing.  The situation is audaciously undramatic: most of each episode is set almost entirely in Paul’s consulting room.  We gradually become familiar with the objects with which he has filled it, and understand their symbolic significance: the numerous model sailboats, the perpetually swirling tube of blue liquid (a desktop toy) usually glimpsed in the background as his patients unwillingly, fearfully tap into the swirling emotions that have brought them to this room.  There is intense drama here, and it’s mostly conveyed through facial expressions and the struggles of the characters to suppress as well as explore emotional states, as well as through the inevitably lengthy dialogues between Paul and his patients.  We see and feel their pain, yet this is done without prurience or making us feel we’re intruding.  This is us up there on the couch.  All of us.

Byrne’s performance is what holds the whole thing together.  He dares to act quietly (until he’s in his sessions with Gina; then he’s transformed.)  Although the therapist’s role by definition requires a character who listens and watches, refrains from dramatic interventions or snap decisions, resists provocation from vulnerable patients who often lash out (or try to seduce), Byrne succeeds with masterful subtlety in convincing us that here is a man who is deeply caring and professional, committed to trying to help these people, and yet also deeply flawed.  His eyes show all this, and the way he holds his hands or tilts his head and regards the person opposite him, his face a mask of neutrality but with deep compassion and love shining through (but with Gina his less professional self is revealed – with her he shows that he lacks insight into himself.)  As the weeks pass by we are drip-fed tiny drops of information about his own emotionally traumatic past, his own conflicts, doubts and weaknesses.

The show has been criticised for exaggerating the ways in which the Byrne character enables the boundaries between therapist and patients to become blurred.  But come on, this is a TV series; no fatal flaw, no drama.  If Duncan had died peacefully in his bed we’d have no Macbeth.

I found In Therapy had weaknesses, but it’s still one of HBO’s most successful artistic and dramatic productions, because of its self-imposed constraint and restraint.  That takes nerve, but it works.  This show proves that we don’t need vampires or guns to create nerve-shredding tension and deeply moving insights into the human psyche, to show the ways it causes us to hurt each other in mystifyingly painful ways, how resilient we can be when those who love and help us refuse to give up on us, but also how fragile we are and prone to destructive self-hate and misguided, toxic guilt.  And it’s not always our parents’ fault, Dr Freud.

Can’t wait to watch series 2 and 3.

Dr Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia photo)

Dr Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia photo)

A version of this review appeared on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 at Blogcritics

Getting It

This is Pointless


‘He won’t be there.’

‘I’m still going.’

‘There’s no point: he won’t be there.’

‘You can’t know that.’

‘Are you calling me a liar?’

‘I’m just saying I’m going.  You can’t stop me.’

‘You always do this.  You’re wilful.’

‘Wilful?  Because I’m true to my convictions?’

‘That’s just your definition.’

‘You take my words and apply a tourniquet to them.  The blood supply is cut off and they just die.’

‘That’s simply a bloated metaphor.  A smokescreen.’

‘I see.  I use bloated metaphor.  What did you just do?’

‘That was an apt analogy.  To highlight the truth status of my point.  Besides: a tourniquet (and I don’t concede that’s what I do to your words) saves the threatened limb.’

‘You know that wasn’t my point in the metaphor.’

‘You had no point.’

‘And you say I’m wilful?’

‘Don’t be petty – it’s unbecoming.’

‘I’m still going.’

‘You don’t get it, do you?’

‘That’s what he says.’

‘Maybe you should listen to him, then.’

‘Listen to yourself.  You’re like one of those Escher pictures – apparently logical, but doomed to be impossible.  You’re a two-way mirror.’

‘Now you’re babbling.’

‘You can’t stand the truth.’

‘I can’t stand nonsense.’

‘My truth: your nonsense.’

‘I can’t stand this.  I’m going.’

‘He won’t be there.’