Saturday, January 22, 2022

Reading Matter

Henry Mayhew:
I may mention that in the course of my inquiry into the condition of the fancy cabinet-makers of the metropolis, one elderly and very intelligent man, a first-rate artisan in skill, told me he had been so reduced in the world by the underselling of slop-masters (called "butchers" or "slaughterers," by the workmen in the trade), that though in his youth he could take in the News and Examiner papers (each he believed 9d. at that time, but was not certain), he could afford, and enjoyed, no reading when I saw him last autumn, beyond the book-leaves in which he received his quarter of cheese, his small piece of bacon or fresh meat, or his saveloys; and his wife schemed to go to the shops who "wrapped up their things from books," in order that he might have something to read after his day's work.

London Labour and the London Poor

Friday, January 21, 2022

Urban legend

Henry Mayhew, the great chronicler of 19th-century London's working poor, collected the following tale in the course of an interview with a lively street "patterer" who specialized in hawking printed broadsides containing accounts of notorious murders:
Then there's the Liverpool Tragedy - that's very attractive. It's a mother murdering her own son, through gold. He had come from the East Indies, and married a rich planter's daughter. He came back to England to see his parents after an absence of thirty years. They kept a lodging-house in Liverpool for sailors; the son went there to lodge, and meant to tell his parents who he was in the morning. His mother saw the gold he had got in his boxes, and cut his throat - severed his head from his body; the old man, upwards of seventy years of age holding the candle. They had put a washing-tub under the bed to catch his blood. The morning after the murder the old man's daughter calls and inquires for a young man. The old man denies that they have had any such person in the house. She says he had a mole on his arm in the shape of a strawberry. The old couple go upstairs to examine the corpse, and find they have murdered their own son, and then they both put an end to their existence.
I recognized the outlines of the tale immediately: it's more or less the plot of Albert Camus's 1943 drama Le malentendu, usually translated as The Misunderstanding. Camus shifts the action to Czechoslovakia, replaces the homicidal father with a sister, and changes the machinery of the eventual revelation scene, but it's clearly the same basic story.

Camus had come across the incident in an article published by the Hearst Universal Service, which described it as having taken place in Yugoslavia; he included a brief reference to it in The Stranger before developing it into the play. But it was a shopworn tale even in Mayhew's day. Folklorist Veronique Campion-Vincent, in a 1998 article in the Nordic Yearbook of Folklore (PDF here) traces it back to several versions dating from 1618; within three years versions of the tale had variously located the supposed events in London, Languedoc, Ulm (in what is now Germany), and Poland. Clearly it was too good a yarn not to pass on. (Elements of it — the failure to recognize a long-lost family member — arguably date back to Oedipus Tyrannus and the Odyssey.)

Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, incidentally, is a revelation in itself. A contemporary and acquaintance of Dickens, he combined statistical analysis (mostly omitted in the abridged Oxford University Press edition shown above) with oral history to provide a kind of non-fiction counterpart to the work of the great novelist. He keeps the moralizing to a minimum and allows individuals who would have been long forgotten by now to speak in their own voices. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst aptly calls his four-volume work "the greatest Victorian novel never written."

Monday, January 17, 2022

John the Bear

The above illustration by the late French artist Jean-Claude Pertuzé is from a version of a folktale known in French as "Jean de l'ours," that is, John of the Bear or John the Bear. The story of a hero, born to a human mother and an ursine father, who is kept in a cave until he is old enough to roll away the stone that encloses it, and who later descends into the underworld to rescue three princesses, the tale was found throughout Europe and has been carried into the Americas. The German philologist Friedrich Panzer traced a series of parallels between the folktale and the saga of Beowulf, whose name may mean "Bee-wolf," that is, "bear."

The classicist Rhys Carpenter went further, connecting the story, by arguments too intricate to describe here, with the Odyssey, and suggesting a common legendary tradition ultimately deriving from memories of a Eurasian bear-cult. The bear, an animal that immures itself and passes the winter in death-like torpor, has often been conceived of as a messenger to the Other World (as among the Ainu), perhaps as their lord himself. Carpenter mentions the case of the bear-like Thracian hero-god Salmoxis, who, according to Herodotus, built a great hall and regaled his guests with promises of eternal life, before disappearing, apparently dead, into an underground chamber for three years, only to return. In Strabo the same figure becomes co-regent of the underworld.

Is it too much to find here an echo in the New Testament, where the stone is rolled away from the tomb of the risen Jesus after the harrowing of Hell?

Saturday, January 15, 2022


Let some traveller, on seeing Hermes of Commagene, aged sixteen years, sheltered in the tomb by fate, call out: I give you my greetings, lad, though mortal the path of life you slowly tread, for swiftly have you winged your way to the land of the Cimmerian folk. Nor will your words be false, for the lad is good, and you will do him a good service.
The Hermes in this third-century Greek inscription isn't the winged messenger of the Greek gods but a teenager who died and was memorialized on what is now known as the Brough Stone, preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. (Original Greek text and details here.) He had done some travelling of his own before he met his end in Roman Britain; Commagene, where he was born, was a small kingdom in what is now eastern Turkey. The Cimmerians, to whose land he flies after death, were a barbarian people known, if hazily, to the Classical world, but in the Odyssey Homer locates their country in the dark regions of the far north, just this side of Hades.

Curiously, Robert Fitzgerald doesn't use the word "Cimmerian" (the Greek is Κιμμερίων) in his translation of Book XI, line 14, but refers instead to "the realm and region of the Men of Winter." It's in Pound's Cantos, though:
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Whales of the Dead

Stepan Krasheninnikov:
The Kamchadals regard Mount Kamchatka as the dwelling place of the dead; they say that when it emits flames, it means the dead are heating up their yurts. According to them, the dead live on whale blubber, trap whales in a subterranean sea, and burn whale oil for light. They use whale bones instead of wood to heat their homes. To support their belief, they say that some of their countrymen have gone into the interior of this mountain, where they saw the habitations of their forebears. Steller says that they consider this mountain the home of spirits. When anyone questions them, he adds, about what goes on in this spirit world, they reply that the spirits cook whales. If they are asked where the spirits got the whales, they reply that the whales came from the sea, that the spirits leave the mountains at night and take so many whales that some bring back as many as five or even ten, one on each of their fingers. If they are asked who told them all these things, they reply: Our fathers told us this. As proof they offer the whale bones, which actually are found in large numbers on all the volcanoes.

Explorations of Kamchatka 1735-1741, translation by E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan (Oregon Historical Society, 1972). I have modernized the spelling of one word.
Stepan Krasheninnikov was a member of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, led by Vitus Bering and sponsored by the Russian government, which aimed to survey the resources of Russia's possessions in its far northeast, including parts of what is now Alaska, at a time when those regions were all but unknown to science. The Steller mentioned above was the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, another notable participant in the expedition (and namesake of the extinct Steller's sea cow).

Krasheninnikov's account probably should be better known; he was a pioneering geographer and a capable and relatively unprejudiced anthropologist. Though he was sometimes wrong, as in firmly declaring that whales were fish, there is much of value in his account, which is out of print but not that hard to find. The Oregon Historical Society edition (the only complete English-language version) could have used more explanatory notes but is otherwise a noble undertaking.

Image Credit: "The Volcano of Awatcha (Avacha) in Kamchatka, Siberia." Etching with engraving, from the Wellcome Collection. A different engraving of the same image is reproduced in Explorations of Kamchatka.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Buffon's Ounce, the lonza leggera, and The Long Walk

Slawomir Rawicz was a Polish military officer in World War II who in the 1950s dictated to a ghost-writer a stirring account of how he and several companions engineered their escape from a Siberian prison camp, crossed the Gobi Desert, and then trekked over the Himalayas to safety in British India. Among the incidents he related was a close encounter with two Abominable Snowmen. Just by itself that latter claim might have raised eyebrows, and in fact the consensus now is that Rawicz's account, which was published in 1956 as The Long Walk, celebrated for decades as both an adventure yarn and an anti-Soviet testimony, and eventually filmed (as The Way Back) by Peter Weir, is essentially fictional. Still, at least it makes a good story.

I'm not the only one who has noted the likely influence of Rawicz's book on Harry Mathews's novel Tlooth, which came out in book form in 1966 after having been serialized in the Paris Review. Tlooth, like The Long Walk, describes a clever escape from Siberia and a southward journey over the Himalayas. (It differs from the earlier book in involving, among other things, dental malpractice, obscure religious denominations, and an exploding baseball.) There are no yetis in Mathews's book, but there is a cryptic if not cryptozoological sighting in a chapter entitled "Buffon's Ounce." The narrator and his companions reach a high pass:
There, in midafternoon, a shout stopped us.

"Look!" Beverley pointed uphill.

I saw a pale spotted creature clamber catfashion over snows into the rocks.

Robin remarked, "Una lonza leggiera e presta molto."
That's the last we hear of the animal. The Italian line is from the first canto of the Inferno, where Dante is brought up short by three beasts, the third of which is "a lithe and very swift leopard" — except that what Dante actually meant by lonza has been long debated. Which brings us to the meaning, otherwise unexplained, of the title of the chapter. "Buffon" is Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist known, among other things, for disparaging the animals of the New World as being inferior to those of the Old (to the fury of Jefferson*), and "ounce" (or in French, "once") is an obsolete word for a large wild feline, based on an etymological misunderstanding of a derivitive of the Latin word "lynx." (A form like "lonza" was misinterpreted as "l'onza.) What Buffon described — he was the first Westerner to do so — was in fact the snow leopard, shown above in an 18th-century engraving based on his work.

But there's one more weird twist to this convoluted story. Tlooth was published, as I said, in the Paris Review. Its author jokingly claimed that he was often mistakenly assumed to have been in the CIA, and even wrote a novel (My Life in CIA) based on that premise. One reason that Mathews might have plausibly been assumed to have been in the CIA was his connection with the Paris Review, one of whose co-founders, the writer Peter Matthiessen, later admitted that he had used the magazine as cover for his CIA work. In 1979 Matthiessen would win the National Book Award for a book about his travels in the Himalayas. Its title was The Snow Leopard.

* And thus a tale for another time: Jefferson's obsession with the remains of the extinct American mastodon, Charles Willson Peale's excavation of a specimen of the same, Peale's painting of his excavation, an album called Kew. Rhone inspired by the painting, a book, celebrating the album, that includes a contribution by Harry Mathews...

Wednesday, December 08, 2021


I'm walking in the woods at night in the company of Willie McTell. I see three deer standing a few yards away; somehow, in spite of his blindness, McTell is aware of their presence and able to describe them to me. What he doesn't realize is that a half-grown mountain lion has stepped out from among them and begun to approach us.

We climb a series of concrete steps that ascend to an unseen waterfall somewhere ahead. Far below, on the right, is a broad expanse of seething whitewater. The cat is hard on our heels now, drawn by the smell of the sausages I'm carrying wrapped up in deli paper. McTell knows he's there but doesn't seem overly alarmed, and refers to him, jokingly, as "Kitty." Behind us, silently, the mountain lion's parents have begun to follow.

As we climb, the cats press closer and closer to us, bumping us and sniffing at our hands. One opens its mouth tentatively, but for now doesn't bite down. In desperation I unwrap the sausages and drop one on the steps behind us; it rolls off and into the torrent below. The adult male instantly leaps the railing and lands safely on a rock. We leave it behind and continue to climb. I drop the sausages one by one until we're alone. I know that McTell will be disappointed later about losing the sausages, but he'll understand when I explain.