NOTHING ACCIDENTAL.

Thanks to jamessal’s prodding, I’ve been working to free myself of my compulsion to read every single piece in the periodicals I subscribe to, and with judicious skimming and skipping (a ten-page essay on the privatization of the NHS? No thanks!) I’ve managed to get the backlog of TLSs and NYRBs down to a reasonable two each (one being read, one on deck). This frees me to devote my full attention to those articles that remind me why I subscribe, like Denis Feeney’s LRB review of Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic by Peter White. Feeney starts off with Petrarch’s discovery in 1345 of a manuscript of Cicero’s letters, which “enraptured” him, “providing him with a moment of first contact not unlike that of Howard Carter peering through the hole into Tutankhamun’s tomb and murmuring that he could see ‘wonderful things’.” He then corrects that naive impression:

As Peter White demonstrates, however, in his characteristically incisive and learned book, Cicero’s letters do not provide a window into his soul, any more than the numerous letters from his many correspondents provide a window into theirs (some of them seem to have lacked souls altogether). The letters are more unfamiliar than they appear at first, and less like the unguardedly candid outpourings that Petrarch thought they were. We don’t ‘hear’ Cicero speaking as we read; the letters require patient interpretation before we can understand the kind of artefact they are and the kind of environment from which they arose…
The letters as we have them may well have been arranged in order to shape our sense of Cicero’s persona and significance, but we also have to allow systematically for what White calls ‘the letter-writing habits of a particular Roman milieu’. Those represented in the collection are almost exclusively the great beasts of the Roman political jungle, men for whom every aspect of every interaction had potential political resonance. These people lived in a goldfish bowl, always on view, always being assessed, and our partitions between the public and the private worlds are not ones that mean very much in this environment. White deploys his encyclopedic knowledge of the collection and its personnel to re-create a world in which letters had a crucial role to play in keeping the gears of political interaction oiled and smoothly connecting. What look like confiding moments regularly turn out to be quasi-formulaic techniques for mutual status grooming; the references to contemporary literature, for example, are not the random leavings of a well-stocked literary mind but part of a system of relationship management.

I still had that eye-opening last sentence in my mind when I turned to another chunk of reading material, Late Soviet Culture from Perestroika to Novostroika, edited by Thomas Lahusen and Gene Kuperman, a heterogeneous collection of essays, mainly written for a 1990 colloquium; I was in the middle of Evgeny Dobrenko’s “The Literature of the Zhdanov Era: Mentality, Mythology, Lexicon,” in which the author manfully grapples with the dreadful pseudoliterature of the late ’40s and early ’50s, which he freely admits that no normal person would choose to read but which he thinks it the duty of literary historians to analyze. After pointing out that any real criticism had been ruled out of bounds by the demands of politics, he writes that “It must always be remembered that in the criticism of these years there was nothing accidental — ‘private’ opinions were practically absent here.” I thought that was a remarkable confluence of ideas concerning two very different eras and situations.


Incidentally, the essay (translated from Russian) has the worst equivalent of the (admittedly difficult) word конъюнктура—something like ‘state of affairs, juncture,’ with overtones of the political requirements of the moment—I’ve ever seen. For reasons best known to the translator, it’s rendered “marketability.”

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    Many in the generation of English-language Chinese-poetry scholars now passing dedicated themselves to showing the political contexts of the great Chinese poets, almost all of who had a court connection (for better or worse). Some of the classic commentaries pushed the finding of political allegories in poetry to the extreme, but many of the later poets took the classic commentaries seriously.

  2. JE, thanks for posting that! Classical Chinese poetry crossed my mind when I read this post but I wasn’t sure I could add a meaningful comment. But you are perfectly right. Classical Chinese poetry looks romantic and ethereal (or hackneyed and repetitive, depending on your point of view), but potentially conceals all kinds of less poetic references that naive Westerners are totally oblivious to.
    I just found the following verse by a Qing dynasty scholar, Xu Jun (徐骏), on a scurrilous anti-Manchu website:
    明月有情还顾我,
    清风无意不留人。
    清风不识字,
    何必乱翻书!
    My clumsy attempt at rendering some sort of meaning:
    The bright moon has feeling, still watches over me
    The cool breeze does not care, it does not let me stay
    The cool breeze cannot read
    Why does it idly flip the pages?
    The guy was executed for writing this. Which is not surprising when it has the following subtext:
    The Ming moon has feeling, still watches over me
    The Qing breeze does not care, it does not let me stay
    The Qing breeze cannot read
    Why does it idly flip the pages?

  3. Great example, Bathrobe!

  4. Regarding “конъюнктура”: I mostly remember seeing it (in context of the period you’re talking about) used in an adjective form (e.g. “конъюнктурное произведение” – “a work written on currently [politically] fashionable topic”, i.e. written to be acceptable/marketable to publishers), or in a derived noun, “конъюнктурщик” (“an author adept at choosing such topics”). At least in these derived forms, the accent is definitively on creating works whose content, and the way of thinking expressed in them, made them “marketable” to Soviet book or magazine publishers.
    In a somewhat later period, a quintessential “конъюнктурщик” would be one who’d travel around as a “people’s ambassador” during the Détente of the 1970s, publish such a delightful “travelogue” as “The Face of Hatred” during the Chernenko years (well, months), ( http://books.google.com/books?id=Q3hvBm1s-FQC&pg=PA110 ), and keep going as one of the chief denunciators of the evil Communist past during the Perestroika.

  5. At least in these derived forms, the accent is definitively on creating works whose content, and the way of thinking expressed in them, made them “marketable” to Soviet book or magazine publishers.
    True, and that must be what the translator had in mind, but in English “marketable” implies a market involving money, and thus is quite misleading.
    a quintessential “конъюнктурщик” would be one who’d travel around as a “people’s ambassador” during the Détente of the 1970s, publish such a delightful “travelogue” as “The Face of Hatred” during the Chernenko years (well, months), and keep going as one of the chief denunciators of the evil Communist past during the Perestroika.
    Ah, a Russian Vicar of Bray!

  6. …a market involving money – the literary market was of course very much influenced by politics, but it was involving money nonetheless. (Mind, you by its own definition the USSR was a socialist state, not a [lower-case-c] communist one!)
    The economics of the publishing industry in the USSR may be a subject for an interesting study, but in any event authors were paid by publishers – and those whose works were deemed to be worthy of wide circulation (and a 100,000+ print run was not unusual for a novel or a collection of stories or essays) could be paid pretty handsomely. In fact, being a commercially successful author was one of the very few legal ways for a Soviet citizen to become significantly better off than an average wage worker or salaried professional.

  7. Good point. Amazing how hard it is to compare the details of the two systems (in regard to something like the position of writers), given how much they had in common (you write a book and submit it to a publisher, it undergoes the editorial process, it gets published and sells, you make money accordingly).

  8. a 100,000+ print run
    these days 5,000 is considered a respectable figure.
    конъюнктура
    the closest I can think of, and often used in modern English, is, I think, opportunism, opportunistic writing, and конъюнктурщик an opportunist.
    a Russian Vicar of Bray!
    I lived in Bray Village (the only village in the world with three five-star restaurants) and loved the story, the church is still there with a memorial plaque with the poem.

  9. Is there an equivalent Russian figure, someone whose name is synonymous with trimming?

  10. rootlesscosmo says:

    It strikes me that Grub Street–to someone familiar with 18th century London publishing–might capture some of the meaning of конъюнктурное произведение.

  11. “Grub Street: the name of a street in London, much inhavited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called Grub Street.” –Johnson’s Dictionary

  12. BRAY: The parish church of St Michael…is best known to brass rubbers for housing the superb memorial brass of 1378 to Sir John Foxley
    Brass RUBBERS? Oh, BRASS rubbers.

  13. Croon: That’s even funnier in AmE, where the picture of prophylactics made of brass is quite irresistible.

  14. Ttrond Engen says:

    For those who prefer messing around.

  15. Crown: And I thought I was making it all up. Now with extra added goat attractions.

  16. A more readable account. Neither brass nor any other metal seems to be involved, although I see that the trumpeter swan belongs to the genus Olor.
    Trond, I sense that you are making a pun and that it is falling on barren ground.
    The BBC piece says something about “kidding”, but nothing about “messing around”.

  17. Send Britain’s brass rubbers to Kenya! It was the metal prophylactics I had a mental image of. I found the quote in Wikipedia’s Bray entry, of course – I should have said.
    Ø, Trond’s pun is on Messing, brass in Norwegian and German.

  18. Ah, no doubt I could have worked that out if I had tried a little online searching. Anyway, my pleasure in Trond’s comment is now unalloyed.
    I’d have taken messing for a woody word, but I can get used it as a lovely name for the metallic part of an orchestra.

  19. Huh, apparently it derives from the name of Xenophon’s Μοσσύνοικοι (Mossynoikoi).

  20. Erasers made of brass seem to be common on pencils these days after the real erasers get used up. Shocking bad hats, is all I can say.

  21. Trond Engen says:

    Brass for rubber is OK as long as I don’t have to have a brass band around my drawing rolls.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    “конъюнктура”: After reading some of the comments by Russian speakers, I wonder if this word was used originally with the French meaning of conjoncture (which is not quite the same as English “juncture”. In French political discourse you often hear or read the phrase la conjoncture actuelle ‘the current [political] state of affairs,’ which includes or depends on a number of intertwined or converging factors. I can see that in the Russian context the meaning could have evolved from ‘complex state of affairs obtaining at a certain time’ to ‘state of affairs to be brought about through manipulating influential factors’ (eg the press, the writers and artists, etc) to ‘ability to align oneself with such manipulations’ in order to advance one’s own interests.

  23. Yes, I think that must be right.

  24. John Emerson says:

    I wonder if this word was used originally with the French meaning of conjoncture (which is not quite the same as English “juncture”. In French political discourse you often hear or read the phrase la conjoncture actuelle ‘the current [political] state of affairs,’ which includes or depends on a number of intertwined or converging factors.
    This term is fairly common in English in Marxist circles.

  25. Roads That We Choose
    I see that Nothing Accidental II is closed for comments. Without arguing with the general point made, I’d like to note that that particular title comes from O.Henry’s short story Roads We Take from the 1910 Wirligigs collection.
    The title itself and the key phrase in the story – ‘Bolivar cannot take double’ (Боливар не вынесет двоих) is still in wide use (Putin quoted it recently), thanks to the immensely popular 1963 film by Leonid Gayday (includes three O.Henry novellas, there is a separate Russian wiki article on ‘Roads We Take’ with a portrait of Bolivar, ‘the most famous Russian horse’). The ‘Roads’ video is here.
    The phrase is said by one S.Dodson.

  26. Sorry, it’s The Roads We Take (link to story in English).

  27. Marie-Lucie,
    the French origin is quite possible, except that a hard ‘n’ followed by ‘yu’ sounds very Germanic to me – ju. Russian dictionaries give the origin as Latin (conjunctura), but it was probably via German die Konjunktur. Feminine German lead to the addition of the more usually feminine -a ending in Russian.

  28. Is there an equivalent Russian figure, someone whose name is synonymous with trimming?
    One name that instanty pops up is Sergei Mikhalkov, the author of the three versions of the Soviet/Russian anthem: Lenin/Stalin in the 30s, no Stalin in 70s, no Soviet Union in 2000s. He got prizes and medals for each, the last one from Putin.
    I am not sure if Mikhalkov’s name is as eponymous as the vicar of Bray though.

  29. I see that Nothing Accidental II is closed for comments.
    I hated to do it, but for some reason it attracted spam comments literally by the score—every time I reopened it, I’d have to do a massive cleanout of spam, and it wasn’t getting any new real comments, so I gave up (figuring that anyone who wanted to discuss it could do so here).
    that particular title comes from O.Henry’s short story Roads We Take
    I was amused/appalled to see that the Russian translation begins: “В двадцати милях к западу от Таксона…” Somebody didn’t know that Tucson is pronounced /’tusan/!
    The phrase is said by one S.Dodson.
    I never realized I was an O. Henry character.

  30. didn’t know that Tucson is pronounced /’tusan/
    that was before ‘Get Back’!

  31. marie-lucie says:

    JE: I didn’t know about the use of conjuncture in English-speaking Marxist circles, but it is not too surprising: the word was used in both French and German, which I assume produced more Marxist literature than English, so that English Marxists would have encountered the word in translations from those languages, but the general English-speaking population would not have been much exposed to it.
    Sashura: the French origin is quite possible, except that a hard ‘n’ followed by ‘yu’ sounds very Germanic to me – ju. Russian dictionaries give the origin as Latin (conjunctura), but it was probably via German die Konjunktur.
    These theories are not incompatible: Latin conjunctura adapted as French la conjoncture, itself adapted as German die Konjunktur, hence the Russian form.
    The French word (a direct adaptation from Latin with minimal change to adapt it to French) dates from the 14th century. I don’t know about the date for the German word, but German borrowed a large number of French words in the 18th century, and could have respelled the word to agree with the Latin original, especially since the sound spelled by the letter j in French does not exist in German. The 18th century is also a time when Latin was receding as the language of intellectual exchange but many words adapted from Latin or made up on a Latin basis became international, so that it is often difficult to determine in what language they were first used.

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