A Blast (of Steam) from the Past.

One of the books I’m reading very slowly, a bit at a time (usually at bedtime), is Yuri Fedosyuk’s Что непонятно у классиков, или Энциклопедия русского быта XIX века [What we don't understand in the classics, or An encyclopedia of Russian daily life in the nineteenth century] (see LH posts from 2004 and 2013), and I’m now on the section (towards the end of Ch. 12) dealing with train travel and the associated vocabulary. Fedosyuk writes (Russian at the end):

The locomotive was originally called a parokhod [which now means 'steamship']. This circumstance still confuses people who listen to Glinka’s well-known “Travel(ing) Song,” written to the lyrics of N.V. Kukolnik:

A column of smoke boils up, the parokhod smokes…

And further on:

And faster, quicker than the will
The train races along in the open field.

The song was written in 1840, when the short railway line between Saint Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo was already in operation.

Eventually I was able to marvel at the early date of the song (and chuckle at the fact that whoever translated the lyrics here actually renders пароход as “steamship”!), but my first reaction was much like Proust’s when his palate encountered the soaked bit of madeleine: I was plunged into the dark backward and abysm of time.

At the tail end of the ’70s, between the hell of my last years of grad school (borrowing money for a PhD I was never to get and guiltily avoiding my dissertation advisor) and the hell of my first years in New York (whither I followed a woman who immediately dumped me, leaving me alone, bitter, and broke in a cubicle in a basement in Jamaica, Queens, sharing a bathroom with half a dozen Chinese students and forced to stand in the snow on the street to make job-hunting calls from a pay phone), I had a heavenly couple of years living alone in a $25-a-week apartment on Bradley Street in New Haven, working minimum-wage jobs in bookstores and movie theaters and spending all night talking poetry or arguing politics. My dearest friend in those days was a wonderful artist named Lisa Gillham (who hailed from Covington, Kentucky, to which she has long since returned — she recently got a River Cities Historic Preservation Award for the work she’s been doing in her neighborhood of Latonia, and you should all run out and buy her book if you like old pictures of historic towns); we loved a lot of the same music, and she was particularly fond of a record of mine that collected a bunch of songs sung by the Red Army Chorus (it must have been one of these, but after all these years I have no idea which). It had “Polyushko-polye” (YouTube) and “Oi ty rozh’” (YouTube) and “V put’” (YouTube), all of which I sing in the shower to this day, and a bunch of others that have receded into dark corners of my long-term memory, including the Glinka. Suddenly, seeing those tongue-twisting words (it takes a bit of work to get “shibche voli poezd mchitsya v chistom pole” right) I was back in New Haven, listening with my friend to the record I eventually gave her because she loved it so much. Ah, youth! Ah, Alexandrov Ensemble!

Fedosyuk’s original Russian:

Паровоз поначалу назывался… пароходом. Это обстоятельство до сих пор смущает слушателей знаменитой «Попутной песни» М.И. Глинки, написанной на слова Н.В. Кукольника:

Дым столбом – кипит, дымится
Пароход…

А далее:

И быстрее, шибче воли,
Поезд мчится в чистом поле.

Песня сочинена в 1840 году, когда уже действовала короткая железнодорожная линия между Петербургом и Царским Селом.

Comments

  1. “V Put’” is a 1954 song??? Life to learn. When we drilled to it, it sure felt as old-fshioned as a Czarist relique.

    a bit of work to get “shibche voli poezd mchitsya v chistom pole” right

    :) to keep onomatopoeia one might just replace these variegated “yst”, “shi”, “che”, “chi”, “tsya”, “chi” again, and “sto” with the more familiar “Choo!” “Choo!”…

  2. “V Put’” is a 1954 song???

    I was surprised by that too.

    to keep onomatopoeia one might just replace these variegated “yst”, “shi”, “che”, “chi”, “tsya”, “chi” again, and “sto” with the more familiar “Choo!” “Choo!”

    Yes, when I quoted that bit to my wife she immediately pointed out the onomatopoeia (which I’m not sure I’d ever noticed).

  3. What a lovely story!
    I just had a quick look at Fedosyuk to see if he has the answer to your old question about the meaning of коверная (carpet room?) in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but it looks like he doesn’t.

  4. Hat: could Что непонятно у классиков also be rendered as “What the classics don’t explain” ? I ask this because there is a significant difference between a novel that doesn’t (as part of the novel) explain to the reader the things that crop up in it, and a novel that does. Both kinds of novel can be understood by the appropriately equipped reader.

    For certain people it is not true that they won’t “understand the classics” – if they read them after reading this very Энциклопедия русского быта XIX века, say, or because they are familiar with 19C practices and mentalities from other sources.

    The point of these remarks: reading about the origin and effects of writing systems thousands of years ago, I always encounter the claim that texts originally had to explicitly provide information that, in an oral communication between speakers, is part of the “implicit context”, or can be obtained from that speaker-hearer context – by immediately asking the speaker what he meant. If the texts did not do that, the number of people who could understand them was relatively restricted.

    In some circumstances understanding was intended to be restricted – say to priests when religious secrets were being communicated between them. That was a later development, however. According to the state of knowledge today as I know it, writing systems were not from the start conceived as ways to continue oral communication by other means. They originated as notation systems for administrative purposes such as keeping inventory.

  5. Hat: could Что непонятно у классиков also be rendered as “What the classics don’t explain” ?

    Not really, no. The adverb непонятно means ‘incomprehensible’; Мне непонятно, как он мог это сделать is “I can’t understand how he could do it.” The focus is on the reader’s comprehension, not the text’s provision of information.

  6. But the reader’s comprehension depends either on the information he already has, independently of the text, or on the information the text explicitly provides. I don’t see how one can focus on comprehension without focussing on information.

  7. Anyway, I merely suggested a way of comprehending what непонятно means in the context of the book, in the light of the information I provided about how texts work (or don’t).

  8. I don’t see how one can focus on comprehension without focussing on information.

    You are (as usual) talking philosophy; I am (as usual) talking language. You can interpret it however you like, but I’m telling you what the title means.

  9. I have read quite a few English novels that explain, as part of the novel, many of the things that crop up in it. I can’t name them at this moment, but I think that this type of novel is a feature of the 18C-19C. Trollope is such a novelist, as I remember.

  10. You are (as usual) talking philosophy; I am (as usual) talking language.

    There’s nothing philosophical about the simple language of: “I don’t see how one can focus on comprehension without focussing on information”. On the other hand, what you call talking language is remarkably in line with a certain traditional philosophical position on speech and reality, aka “I means what I says”.

  11. there is a significant difference between a novel that doesn’t (as part of the novel) explain to the reader the things that crop up in it, and a novel that does

    I think this is a gradient rather than a binary distinction. A novel that explains nothing is either one that lacks narrative entirely (for example, because it consists only of unattributed dialogue) or that cannot be understood by anybody (because it is written in the author’s private language); both of these are boundary cases for the notion of “novel”. And no communication, written or oral, can explain everything: there is no such thing as not needing any context.

    I always encounter the claim that texts originally had to explicitly provide information that, in an oral communication between speakers, is part of the “implicit context”

    That’s of course nonsense. If anything, the global tendency is toward increased explicitness in texts. There is an obvious tradeoff between ease of writing and ease of reading, and different writing systems pick the balance point differently. Arabic script descends from a cursive form of Aramaic, and natively represents consonants and long vowels only. At an early stage, some of the letters became so similar as to be indistinguishable, and so dots and other mandatory diacritics had to be added in order to discriminate them. At a later stage, optional diacritics for short vowels were added to the system. Linear B and Buginese both fail to represent syllable-final consonants at all, which makes them easier to write but harder to read.

  12. John: That’s of course nonsense. If anything, the global tendency is toward increased explicitness in texts.

    What I wrote was: “texts originally had to explicitly provide information that, in an oral communication between speakers, is part of the ‘implicit context’”. So your global tendency does not contradict what I wrote, but confirms it.

  13. Or rather, not “confirms it”, but “intensifies measures taken to satisfy the original, inherent need for explicitness, in contrast with oral communication”.

  14. I think what confused me was the ambiguity of “had to explicitly provide”, which I read as meaning “were required to and therefore did” whereas you meant something like “would need to but did not”. No writing system provides all the information available even on the surface of spoken communication, never mind what is available only contextually even when speaking. On the other hand, writing systems can communicate information that cannot be communicated in speech, because of its complexity or what not. Algebra in written words without symbols would be hard enough: doing it entirely by vocal communication is, I think, impossible.

  15. whereas you meant something like “would need to but did not”

    Yes: did not per se do that, which they otherwise would if “from the start conceived as ways to continue oral communication by other means”.

    Text is not a speaker in a conversation. As a hearer, when you don’t understand something you can ask the speaker for extra explanation (and, in general, expect that he will provide it on request). A text cannot provide extra explanation in response to a request to do so, because it cannot even be adressed with such a request.

    Text, when it has mutated from an inventory-keeping notation system to a general vehicle of communication, becomes a kind of memory or monument. It provides time in which to study and reconsider it, and then perhaps reject it. The time to think things over and reject them is not available in the same way and to the same extent in a conversation. Speech is an “intrinsic persuader” (Parsons), a conversation does not thrive when hearers, when their turn to speak comes, reject what has just been said. Text is not touchy.

    Algebra is, I think, a case of text building on previous texts, or on previous familiarity with the subject. An algebra text resembles a monologue on material that is assumed to be familiar to those who hear it (or read the text). The context is assumed rather than explicitly provided – just as in a conversation !

  16. Breffni says:

    John, I don’t know about the cognitive practicalities of actually doing algebraic operations without visual support, but blind people can certainly accomplish a great deal using screen-readers. I have a blind acquaintance who has prospered in technical subjects – e.g., lab phonetics, databases and SQL – using a screen reader, sometimes with the help of underlying LaTeX codes. That’s just conventional screen-readers; then there’s this attempt to translate information structure encoded in spatial lay-out into an aural format, using voice quality and pitch. It’s conceivable that a human might be able to reproduce something like this with training.

  17. “Adressed” instead of “addressed”: I often trip over the spelling nowadays because of the German adressieren, adressiert.

  18. The differences between the practices required to deal with speech and text are considerable. I remember that, when I first encountered such a claim in my reading, I didn’t understand what was being said and dismissed it as exaggerated or implausible. That was in the context of the origins and historical development of writing systems.

    One might think that the claim makes sense when made of speech and text in their current form in literate societies. Not everybody can read, and not everybody can speak. But this is usually regarded as a matter of individual disabilities and conditions which can be rectified by learning and therapy. The historical claim about oral communications vs. writing systems is not about individual disabilities and conditions, but something completely different.

  19. J. W. Brewer says:

    Philosophizing aside, can we have more hat nostalgia from that interim between hells? Was that a preposterously cheap rent for the time or did things get pricier in the early 80′s more rapidly than I would have supposed despite the city’s general aura of non-prosperity? (As of summer ’85 I think I paid around $180/month for a quarter of a four-bedroom a fairly short walk from Bradley Street.) Where did you work other than (gleaned from a previous thread) Book Haven? (Maximum points for working at the 24-hour bookstore owned by occultists on Chapel St. near the Hotel Duncan.) Did you see any punk rock shows at the legendary Ron’s Place (which got shut down by the authorities somewhere between your departure from town and my arrival)? Etc.

  20. Was that a preposterously cheap rent for the time

    It was indeed. I rented from a delightful, dotty old lady, Mrs. Babson, who didn’t seem to notice it wasn’t still the ’50s and had a weakness for Yale students (I may have allowed her to think I was still affiliated with the university). I didn’t work at the bookstore owned by occultists (really?), but I worked at Atticus and somewhere else whose name I forget as well as Book Haven. I was not into punk then (I learned to love punk and rap, and even really good disco, after moving to NYC), and I couldn’t afford to see live music anyway.

  21. J. W. Brewer says:

    Really. As in, if you had a hankering to buy a limited edition specialty-press reprint of one of Alistair Crowley’s more obscure works at 3:30 am, they were there for you.

  22. You know, that rings a faint bell.

  23. J. W. Brewer says:

    Only a block up Chapel from Atticus but on the other side of the street (a few doors past the hideous A&A Building). Was alas replaced by a deli at the tail end of the ’80′s or maybe very early in the ’90′s.

  24. That’s probably the all-night bookstore where I used to play Jeopardy and argue politics and scour the poetry shelves; I had no idea it was owned by occultists. The people who worked there were great, smart as whips and good at argumentation (and Jeopardy).

Speak Your Mind

*