MANDELSTEIN.

Having finished the Ronen book, I’m trying to get through Nancy Pollak’s Mandelstam the Reader before Wednesday, when I have to return them both; it’s hard, because I keep investigating the detours she sends me off on (she studied with Ronen and has the same densely packed style of investigating webs of lexical reminiscences). I just ran across a coincidence that pleases me, and must have pleased Mandelstam much more; Pollak has been talking about the importance of the eighteenth-century German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, who did his most important work in Russia, for Mandelstam’s writing of the 1930s (I’m quoting from pp. 20-21):

In the “autobiographical confession” of Conversation about Dante, where he admits to having “consulted” with stones in conceiving that prose, Mandelstam identifies the conjunction of spheres, taking stone, which chronicles atmospheric change, as an analogue to Dante’s revolutionary construction of time. The mineral form he calls a “diary of the weather,” disclosing the “synchronism of events sundered by the ages,” is another version of the layers of time turned up by the plow of poetry. Mandelstam represents Dante’s “union of what cannot be united” in terms of quartz: “The interior of quartz, the Aladdin’s space [prostranstvo] concealed in it, the luminescence, the incandescence, the chandelier’s suspension of the fish rooms heaped in it — is the best of keys to the comprehension of the Comedy’s coloration.”…
The stone discovered is substantially like the subject who finds it. In his Russian Travels, Pallas refers to mineral formations resembling the one Mandelstam describes as the traveler’s find in “Around the Naturalists” and consults in Conversation about Dante: he observes “globular pieces [of sandstone] of various sizes, which, on breaking them, were partly hollow, and contained sand not unlike regular geodites”; elsewhere he mentions “amygdalite” formations. The mineralogist A. E. Fersman, another source Mandelstam would have consulted, identifies similar formations in his comprehensive catalogue of stones found in Russia, calling them by various names: zheoda, mindal’nye porody, mindal’nyi kamen’, mindalina, mandel’stein. Brokgauz-Efron has an entry for mindal’nyi kamen’, alternatively mandel’shtein:
Porous varieties of ancient rocks in which the pores are filled with new mineral formations. These fillings of pores and empty places often have the form of almonds [mindalin] (and also of spheres, cylinders), whence their name. They appear especially often in the family of agate porphyries and melaphyres.

The geode, like the eye that discovers it, functions metonymically, its unprepossessing shell containing a crystalline treasure. It is one of Mandelstam’s “oxymoronic images of inner wealth and outer poverty.” As mindalina, which has the second meaning “almond,” the geode is linked to a fruit of which the antithetical varieties (bitter and sweet, hard-shelled and soft-shelled) originate in a single species (cf. Mandelstam’s treatment of the oxymoronic almond in the drafts to the fifth chapter of Journey to Armenia). Discovered by Mandelstam, who takes Pallas’s cat‘s eye (the eye of Felis manul) as the prototypical organ of vision, mandel’shtein is the poet’s name, his first word, and thus, as Mandelstam suggests in discussing the naturalist’s eye, itself an organ of vision: the poet’s way of cognizing and describing the universe.

For a poet named Mandelstam, ‘almond tree,’ who since the beginning of his career has used the stone as an important image for his poetry (his first collection was called Kamen’, ‘stone’) and who has lately been immersed in natural history and the geological record as an encoding of time, to have discovered that one of the “varieties of ancient rocks in which the pores are filled with new mineral formations” (an analogue of what he thought literary creation should be like) was called mandel’shtein ‘almond stone’ must have been tremendous.


Incidentally, the word almond has a twisty etymology: the OED summarizes it as “Gr. ἀμυγδάλη, L. amygdala = ă’migdălă, ă’mingdălă; early Rom. ă’mendǝlă (thence Pg. ă’mendŏă); splitting up into ‘mendǝlă (thence It. ‘mandŏla), al-’mend(ǝ)lă (thence Sp. al’mendră), and al-ă’mendǝlă, al-ă’mandǝla, whence OFr. alĕ’mandlĕ, alĕ’mandrĕ; OFr. and E. alĕ’mandĕ, al’mandĕ; E. al’maund, ‘almaund, ‘almŏnd, ‘āmǝnd.”
And if you’re wondering about the etymology of manul, the first edition of the OED simply had “Said by Pallas to be a Kirghiz word”: fortunately, the entry was revised just last September, and the new etymology is more enlightening (and will please commenter read, involving as it does her native Mongolian):
[< scientific Latin Manul (1776, in P. S. Pallas, Reise durch Verschiedene Provinzen des Russischen Reichs III. Anhang. 692) < Mongolian manūl (Pallas notes: ‘Tataris et Mongolis Manul’; distinct from Mongolian manūl, formerly ‘watchman’, now ‘bird-scarer’) probably < a form in a Turkic language, e.g. Tuvan manɪ wild cat, Uigur manu (in a list of predatory animals).]

Comments

  1. Interesting that this should have led you to Pallas. I’ve recently been led to him (and people like him, such as Blyth, Swinhoe, Temminck, etc.) through an article by a Chinese gentleman who is opposed to the idea that these people, often colonial administrators and explorers from the era of European empire-building, should be commemorated forever in the names of birds with which they only had a passing connection (often with dead specimens) at a particular stage of history. There seems to have been an ethos at the time that if you could get out there and discover lots of species for science, you could get to name them after yourself or some favoured beauty in a European court. I’m sure Pallas is entirely innocent, but the hangover of this particular era of empire building is really still quite apparent if you look at the Wikipedia article and see how many birds and animals have been graced with his name. (Even when these gentlemen had the decency to use local names they sometimes got it wrong. The scientific name of the komadori or Japanese Robin is Luscinia akahige, and that of the akahige or Ryuku Robin is Luscinia komadori because old Temminck got them mixed up. The official French names still have the two reversed.)

  2. Thank you for mentioning the geode passage from the Pollak book, Languagehat. When I was in grad school Nancy Pollak taught a course that included Mandel’shtam, and I remember the geodes. She was tremendous fun to study with. I’ll have to look for her book if I ever finish with the horseshoe poem!

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Mongolian manūl, formerly ‘watchman’, now ‘bird-scarer’
    I had never seen or heard “bird-scarer”. Wouldn’t “scarecrow” be the idiomatic word? or is this manūl such a specific type of object in Mongolian culture that “scarecrow” would be misleading?

  4. It does sound odd, doesn’t it? I looked it up in the OED and decided to make a new post of it.

  5. To be exact, Bird scarer is manuukhai, manul is the guarding one, b/c it’ very difficult to get closer to them, the guard is called manaa, manaach

  6. Thanks for the clarification!

  7. i meant a scarecrow – manuukhai, all the words have a common root mana, which means to guard, manai means ours (like the guarded thing perhaps, though maybe it’s unrelated, about the pronoun i’m not sure
    tanai means yours, tana, tanakh means to border something, mostly though clothes in sewing, tanadakh, tagnakh means to spy, could be all are related words, but i’m not a linguist)

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Even when these gentlemen had the decency to use local names they sometimes got it wrong.

    Yeah. Next time I have time and think of it, I’ll look up the mess that are aguti, paca and pacarana. And I have no idea what the marvelous animal Captorhinus aguti is actually named after (…probably that’s not even mentioned in the original description).

  9. marie-lucie says:

    read: i meant a scarecrow – manuukhai, all the words have a common root mana, which means to guard, manai means ours (like the guarded thing perhaps, though maybe it’s unrelated, about the pronoun i’m not sure
    tanai means yours, tana, tanakh means to border something, mostly though clothes in sewing, tanadakh, tagnakh means to spy, could be all are related words, but i’m not a linguist)

    Here is the point of view of a linguist:
    manuukhal “scarecrow” and mana “to guard are probably related, as a scarecrow is “guarding” a field against birds.
    tana, tanakh “to border” (= to sew a border) is most probably NOT related to tanadakh, tagnakh “to spy”.
    manai “ours” and tanai “yours” are probably related to each other, but in a different way: I would guess that words for I or my (or we and our) probably start with m and those for you or your probably start with t. This is very common in the languages of Eurasia, for instance in French moi “me” and toi “you” (in the singular). Typically, the first consonant is different (m or t) but the rest of the word is the same.

  10. In Dutch “je” apparently means “you”, probably like obsolete English “ye”. There must be Franco-Dutch jokes about this, even though it’s only evident in writing.

  11. In Dutch “je” apparently means “you”, probably like obsolete English “ye”. There must be Franco-Dutch jokes about this, even though it’s only evident in writing.

  12. Don’t you think the Captorhinus / Ectocynodon / Pariotichus aguti is just named after the agouti, which is presumably a Guarani name for the rodent? It was in de Léry and Cavia aguti Linn.

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