WHO’S ON FIRST?

One doesn’t think of Dostoevsky as laugh-out-loud funny, but this passage from Notes from the Dead House (see here and here) had me doing just that (Russian below the cut). A policeman has caught some tramps trying to rob a house and is questioning them:

- Who are you?
- Cut-and-run, your honor.
- That’s your name? [Or: "That's what they call you?" Same thing in Russian.]
- That’s it, your honor.
- OK, fine, you’re Cut-and-run. And you?
- I’m after him, your honor.
- But what do they call you?
- That’s what they call me, your honor: “I’m after him.”
- And who calls you that, you rascal?
- Good people have called me that, your honor. This world is not lacking in good people, your honor, it’s a known fact.
- So who are these good people?
- Well, that’s slipped my mind a bit, your honor, begging your noble forgiveness.
- You’ve forgotten them all?
- I’ve forgotten them all, your honor.
- But you must have had a father and a mother, right? You remember them at least, don’t you?
- You have to assume I had them, your honor, but you know what, they’ve slipped my mind a bit too; I may very well have had them, your honor.
- So where have you been living until now?
- In the woods, your honor.
- The whole time in the woods?
- The whole time in the woods.
- How about in winter?
- I haven’t seen any winter, your honor.
- All right, how about you, what’s your name?
- Hatchet, your honor.
- And you?
- Sharpen-and-be-quick, your honor.
- And you?
- Sharpen-for-sure, your honor.
- None of you remember a thing?
- We don’t remember a thing, your honor.

At this point everyone has a good laugh, though the convict telling the story points out that on another day the policeman might have given him one in the teeth instead.


The original:

– Ты кто?
- Махни-драло, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Это так тебя и зовут Махни-драло?
- Так и зовут, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Ну, хорошо, ты Махни-драло, а ты? – к третьему, значит.
- А я за ним, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Да прозываешься-то ты как?
- Так и прозываюсь: “А я за ним”, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Да кто ж тебя, подлеца, так назвал?
- Добрые люди так назвали, ваше высокоблагородие. На свете не без добрых людей, ваше высокоблагородие, известно.
- А кто такие эти добрые люди?
- А я запамятовал маленько, ваше высокоблагородие, уж извольте простить великодушно.
- Всех позабыл?
- Всех позабыл, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Да ведь были ж у тебя тоже отец и мать?.. Их-то хоть помнишь ли?
- Надо так полагать, что были, ваше высокоблагородие, а впрочем, тоже маненько запамятовал; может, и были, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Да где ж ты жил до сих пор?
- В лесу, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Все в лесу?
- Все в лесу.
- Ну, а зимой?
- Зимы не видал, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Ну, а ты, тебя как зовут?
- Топором, ваше высокоблагородие.
- А тебя?
- Точи не зевай, ваше высокоблагородие.
- А тебя?
- Потачивай небось, ваше высокоблагородие.
- Все ничего не помните?
- Ничего не помним, ваше высокоблагородие.

Comments

  1. No, one does (click my name for the evidence).

  2. John Emerson says:

    A remarkable resemblance to “The Good Soldier Svejk”. Hasek can also be Mark-Twain-esque, something first noticed by one of his HS teachers (who was a linguist of some not, as I remember).

  3. click my name for the evidence
    I recommend the experience; some nice quotes from The Double there.

  4. It’s a pity to have to translate ваше высокоблагородие as “your honor”—”your highwellbornness” is so much funnier, especially as it’s repeated over and over.

  5. michael farris says:

    I’m not sure how well-conceived this post is. I have no doubt that the original is funny (since I have my own experiences with untranslatable Slavic humor), but I suspect that no translation will be able to make it really funny in English.

  6. John Emerson says:

    I think that we’re pretty resourceful readers here. I read it by associating it with similar authors I’ve read who I know are funny (Twain and Hasek). Now that you mention it, after “Sharpen-and-be-quick” it’s tedious.
    Every Latin or Greek humorist I’ve met has been unfunny, starting with Aristophanes. I think I’d like Lucian if I could read him, but the translations I’ve seen are utterly flat. Footnoting punchlines doesn’t work.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    “your highwellbornness”

    Ah, must come from the German adjective hochwohlgeboren, which however lacks an associated noun.

  8. Humor might not always, or even often, immigrate comfortably, but I think it’s usually recognizable from a translated distance and so, in a milder way than ‘originally’, funny.
    It’s a matter of achieving a smile rather than a guffaw, the diaphragm’s participation being a sign of shared nativity. That foreign elbow in the ribs somehow hatches the egg of a HA less explosively.

    I wonder if the Slavicists could tell me: in Demons, Piotr Verkhoevensky is insisting to Stavrogin that there’s a unifying similar uncommonness between them, and Piotr calls himself “a Columbus without an America”. Is this phrase a ‘vaudeville’ joke, an unfunny punchline that Fyododo’s readers would have laughed aloud at? The line is, to me, mysterious and swells with meaning as it lingers (to me, anyway) in the story’s final third or so. (I don’t have a copy of the book and hope that I remember this scene properly.)

  9. Well, a quick trip to the google archive shows that I do remember the phrase’s context pretty accurately (Pt. II, Ch. 8 (Ivan the Tsarevitch)). In the first Part (Ch. 3, The sins of Others), Lizaveta Nikolaevna had told the narrator (as she effuses over Stepan V.) that Stepan (Piotr’s father) had helped her in an adolescent convalescence, and she still remembered how he told the story of Columbus discovering America: “‘Land! Land!’” In the third Part (Ch. 6, A Busy Night), Piotr snarls at a mocking Kirilov that, ‘I’m a mouse and you are Columbus.’ So “Columbus” is threaded through the novel (in a small way).
    Was this a 19th-century Russian joke? -something like the way we might use the name “Einstein”; ‘smooth move, Einstein’.

  10. If I’m interpreting the sidebar correctly, Amateur Reader is reading six books simultaneously. I wonder how common it is for people to do that and how it is accomplished.

  11. Bill Walderman says:

    “Every Latin or Greek humorist I’ve met has been unfunny, starting with Aristophanes.”
    For me, Ovid can be laugh-out-loud funny–the catalogue of Actaeon’s dogs, the two big battle scenes in the Metamorphoses, which are fights that break out at weddings and are developed at great length as Homeric/Vergilian parodies, the contest between Arachne and Minerva . . .
    And I think there’s a lot of humor in Dostoevsky–for example, the way Fyodor Karamazov punctures the pretensions of those around him, the relationship between Stepan Trofimovich and Mme. Stavrogina . . .

  12. I don’t know specifically about Columbus, but America loomed large for Russians in the 19th century (and later, too, in a different way). It was an exotic, outrageous, distant place. Russians still say “like discovering America” — usually ironically when someone says something obvious. America and American were nearly synonymous with “wild” or “outrageous” or “hillarious.”
    Hat, the problem with “your highwellbornness” for âûñîêîáëàãîðîäèå is that the Russian is a real word and what you called certain ranks (although the joke is that you’d not use it on a beat cop), and “highwellbornness” isn’t a real form of address. It would add something not in the text. (Lowbrow cow that I am, I think of Han Solo calling Princess Leia “your worshipfulness”….) I can’t think of an English form of address that is as exalted and fawning. Help?

  13. Using ‘your honour’ in the English translation is actually clever, because it conveys not only the legalesque, but also the humourous effect created by the criminals’ use of an exaggeratedly exalted way of addressing the policeman. At school I learnt that the proper way of addressing a policeman in Britain is ‘officer’. Recently, when I did address a Manchester cop as ‘officer’ he gave me a strange look. Vysokoblagorodie was ranks’ required form of addressing higher ranking officers and blagorodie was for addressing junior officers. Your honour, translated back into Russian, would make it vasha chest’, i.e. addressing a judge. The difficulty here is that there is no equivalent in British/American armies. Down-top Sir or rank is used, top-down – rank or surname. Blagorodie came perhaps through German officers who (along with Scots) trained the ‘new order’ army in Russia at the end of 17th century.
    This passage is also wonderful because it shows a major shift in Russian literature from upper class perspective to middle classes around 1860s-1870s. Count Tolstoy couldn’t have written this, Chekhov’s humourous stories from 1870s-1880s are written in a very similar style.

  14. michael farris says:

    Given the disparity between the address systems, maybe a cheat is in order?
    What about a fictitious title that sounds like an English speaker might come up with by accident (or on purpose) but which is inappropriate?
    I’m thinking of something like Mr. Your Honor Sir,

  15. Jörg Wenck says:

    @David:
    “the German adjective hochwohlgeboren, which however lacks an associated noun.”
    How so? Just capitalize the first letter and you get: Euer Hochwohlgeboren! Which is, of course, somewhat restricted in terms of its range of possible contexts – possibly to the one I just suggested, i.e., a formal address at the beginning of a letter. And isn’t that address what people call you (at least occasionally)?
    German Wikipedia confirms this: “Hochwohlgeboren war eine Anrede für ein Mitglied des niedrigen Adelsstandes.Gebührte die ursprüngliche Titulation Hoch- und Wohlgeboren zunächst allein Freiherren und Baronen (sofern sie nicht dem Uradel entstammten), so wurde die Anrede „Euer Hochwohlgeboren“ allmählich auch für Angehörige des übrigen niederen Adels (Ritter und Edle) üblich. Seit dem Spätmittelalter führten gleichfalls (bürgerliche) Doktoren der Rechte die Anrede, da sie nach Reichsgesetz mit den Rittern rangierten. Mit der Anrede war das Recht verbunden, sein Familienwappen zu vererben und eigene Ländereien frei zu verwalten.Hochgeboren war zunächst das Adelsprädikat der Herzöge, die im 17. Jahrhunderts zu Durchlaucht, regierende Herzöge seit 1844 auch zu Hoheit wechselten; Hochgeboren blieb dann die Anrede für nichtregierende Grafen (regierend: Erlaucht) sowie für Freiherren oder Barone aus dem Uradel.
    Wohlgeboren war indes die Anrede für bürgerliche Honoratioren, die im 19. Jahrhunderts jedoch zunehmend auf der Anrede „Hochwohlgeboren“ bestanden.
    So Dostoievskij just tells it like it is. Some words get ennobled over the course of time, others turn into shadows of their former selves.

  16. Jörg Wenck says:

    And the text I just quoted from German Wikipedia is also available in English: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hochwohlgeboren
    The added bonus there is the information that a certain Dr. Freud was addressed thusly.

  17. @Sashura. I see your point, but to me “your honor” isn’t quite florid enough. If there isn’t anything else, I’d be tempted to go with a cheat, as MF suggests.

  18. Hat, the problem with “your highwellbornness” … is that the Russian is a real word and what you called certain ranks … and “highwellbornness” isn’t a real form of address.
    Well, duh, that’s why I said “It’s a pity to have to translate ваше высокоблагородие as ‘your honor.’” If “your highwellbornness” had been a real phrase, I wouldn’t have had to! I guess it would have been clearer if I’d written “‘your highwellbornness’ would be so much funnier.”

  19. And yes, the Russian term is calqued directly from the German, as are almost all Russian official titles of the period (not to mention much of the imperial family).

  20. Then there’s “milud”. Not the right answer to the translation challenge, but fun to say.

  21. John Emerson says:

    “Your Excellency”?

  22. John Emerson says:

    “Your Excellency”?

  23. Paul aka Canehan says:

    Nijma: I usually have two or three books on the go at once. Six is stretching it a bit, but not too much in my opinion. If one gets tedious for some reason, you have something else to pick up that you are already into.

  24. Paul aka Canehan says:

    Nijma: I usually have two or three books on the go at once. Six is stretching it a bit, but not too much in my opinion. If one gets tedious for some reason, you have something else to pick up that you are already into.

  25. ‘Your Worship’ is one (non-sex specific) way to address a mayor in England, though it may be out of date. I’m not clear what it means, who is being worshipped. In BBC Radio’s Toytown in the fifties Larry the Lamb and Dennis the Dachshund (who was German) used to talk about ‘His Worship the Mayor’, but addressed him as ‘Mr Mayor, Sir’. Magistrates are also ‘Your Worship’.
    Nij, I read several books simultaneously. They are all over the house. I’m not always in the mood for the same book and some books don’t even bear reading all in one go, they improve if you take breaks. For example the book on Glaswegian dialect that Language recommended a little while ago is not something I want to read to find out what happens on the last page. It’s not that unusual, I’d guess, and no different from watching several tv programmes in one night.

  26. Paul aka Canehan, you ought to write your blog URL, not your email address.

  27. Jörg Wenck says:

    Apparently there were at least two people in the past who thought “highwellbornness” could be put in print: one Nevill Forbes, author of a “Russian Grammar” published by Oxford University Press in 1916, and C. H. H. Parry, writer of a book entitled “Johann Sebastian Bach” (1909). Apart from these places, though, I haven’t ever encountered any highwellbornness, your Hatness – neither in winter nor even in the whole time in the woods. Also, what’s with the -ness-mess these two guys indulged in? I hold them responsible for lexical infanticide! Maybe if they had just gone for “highwellborn”, the phrase might have caught on? Such surgical treatment easily yields an additional handful of hits, after all!
    I will, however, acknowledge that this world is not lacking in better words, your honor. It’s a known fact.

  28. your excellency -
    good one, this,
    but it’s for the rank of general or equivalent, ambassadors for example.
    And back into Russian it’s a different word:
    превосходительство, literally superiorness (no such word in English?)
    I, too, like the cheat Mr Your Honor Sir. Trouble is it introduces Mr and Sir – both too un-Russian which would damage the natural flow in dialogue, methinks.

  29. @Dr. Mrs.
    “I’m not clear what it means, who is being worshipped.”
    Originally it’s worthship. No issues there, I suppose. Which doesn’t appear to hold true when you search for the modern form. A maelstrom will engoogle you: “Stuff Christians Like: #269 Understanding how metrosexual your worship leader is. (A handy guide)”
    Now that’s a far cry from the wholesome content of “Your Worship: the lives of eight of Canada’s most unforgettable mayors”, I’d claim. Wouldn’t you rather learn about the exploits of Tom “Terrific” Campbell of Vancouver and “Fighting” Joe Clarke of Edmonton? (Actually they are not covered in the book, but their names sound like they should have been.) “They each gave their city a character”. Nothing to sneeze at, eh?

  30. It has been done before:
    My dreaded awful sire:
    Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
    ]
    Sir Francis Bacon

  31. Worthship, that’s interesting Jörg, thanks. If only I had a proper dictionary.

  32. Worthship, that’s interesting Jörg, thanks. If only I had a proper dictionary.

  33. I believe I’ve seen “højvelbåren” used in translations of Dorothy L. Parker. His Wimsey, though, is only “velbåren” as I recall it.

  34. Sorry, Hat; misunderstood your post! It was morning and I was groggy.
    I think I’d prefer Your Worhip or Your Excellency. “Your honor” is in the US what you call a judge, which is just several steps over a cop, while the Russian word is used for a much higher ranking person.
    Nijma: I also read a bunch of books at the same time. I have a bizarre and probably highly neurotic notion that some books must be read at a desk, some in a chair, some sitting upright on a couch and some in bed, reclining. A few books migrate, but not many.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    “Your/His/Her Worship” is indeed used in Canada for mayors. The lieutenant-governor of each province is “Your/His/Her Honour”, like a judge: honour is apparently higher ranking than worship (i was going to mention the “worthship” origin but Jörg beat me to it).
    I know very little Russian, but for an equivalent of “your highwellbornness” there is also “Your Lordship”, which suggests nobility, as with a peasant talking to his lord, which is not quite the right context for the Russian exchange. So I agree with John Emerson’s suggestion of “Your Ecellency” (perhaps followed by “Sir”) which implies a person of great importance without being too specific as to the exact nature of the position: it is not as culturally restricted as “Your Honour” or “Your Worship” which many English-speaking readers would be familiar with, and even though it does not translate the Russian word exactly, it works in the same way as a ridiculously inflated term of address to use to a policeman. .

  36. mab: a bizarre and probably highly neurotic notion
    This sounds very sensible and I may try it.

  37. mab: a bizarre and probably highly neurotic notion
    This sounds very sensible and I may try it.

  38. If I’m interpreting the sidebar correctly, Amateur Reader is reading six books simultaneously. I wonder how common it is for people to do that and how it is accomplished.
    I’m always reading at least six books simultaneously; in fact, it would be impossible to pin down the exact number, since I leave books unfinished for months or years at a time. (I think my record was Proust, but as regular readers know, I finally finished it last year.) At the moment, I’m actively reading Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt, Notes from the Dead House of course, James’s The American (to my wife at night), Metternich’s Europe (ed. Mark Walker), and The Structure of Russian History (ed. Michael Cherniavsky); I’m also in the middle of George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word, Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance and A People’s Tragedy, Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches… well, I could extend the list indefinitely, and it’s entirely unpredictable when I’ll decide to pick up one of the long-languishing items and finish it… or start something entirely new.

  39. Also, I think “Your Excellency” does work better than “Your Honor.”

  40. Right Honorable Sir.
    Exalted Sir.
    Dear Leader.

  41. John Emerson says:

    In a relatively friendly encounter with street people I’ve been called “Sarge”. Obviously I didn’t rate the full schmooze.

  42. BTW: I’m utterly clueless about the post title. While I have a sneaking suspicion that most native English speakers aboard here know the reference, I can imagine that some among the rest are in the same position I am in. In exchange for an explanation, I would even spare you my little theory about how this passage from Dostojevskij prefigures not only Jaroslav Hasek, but Joseph Heller to boot. Deal?

  43. Sorry, that was thoughtlessly Americacentric of me. It’s a classic vaudeville routine associated with Abbott and Costello: Wikipedia, YouTube, transcript.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    In a relatively friendly encounter with street people I’ve been called “Sarge”. Obviously I didn’t rate the full schmooze.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    Sorry, the last sentence was not meant to be in italics.

  46. I accept your apology, Marie-Lucie.
    JE: I’ve been called “Sarge”
    This reminds me that the janitor at my school in England was called ‘the Sergeant’. Was this just my school or was it common, and what’s the origin?

  47. I accept your apology, Marie-Lucie.
    JE: I’ve been called “Sarge”
    This reminds me that the janitor at my school in England was called ‘the Sergeant’. Was this just my school or was it common, and what’s the origin?

  48. Holy-moly, languagehat, thanks for explaining the Who’s on first? reference. You made my day!
    And it lives on of course in Bush’s Hu’s on first?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SbKfGVcNrI&feature=PlayList&p=DF3E0262D1B7008B&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=11
    You may enjoy Arkady Raikin’s sketch ‘Avas the Student’, based on the same technique and equally famous throughout russophonie. It’s also called “Тупой доцент”(The Thick Prof):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCWVdW9pKJU
    PS: I don’t see the insert hyperlink option on these pages, so pasting whole YouTube addresses, sorry.

  49. marie-lucie says:

    the janitor at my school in England was called ‘the Sergeant’.
    Perhaps because he had been a sergeant in the army and was proud of the fact. The adults would know, but not the children.
    Who/Hu is on first?
    I had heard the A&C sketch on the radio, but seeing the actors makes a difference. The Hu sketch – done with the actual people – was new to me and really made me laugh.

  50. You may enjoy Arkady Raikin’s sketch ‘Avas the Student’
    I did indeed—many thanks! (Here‘s the direct link; to link URLs you need to use HTML, thus: <a href=”URL”>link</a>.) Do you know how old it is?
    I had no idea where that sketch was going, and when it got there it reminded me of Sorokin’s technique of suddenly veering off into nonsense (Кисет being the locus classicus).

  51. But there was also an ‘Under-Sergeant’, his assistant. I don’t think it was an army rank.

  52. But there was also an ‘Under-Sergeant’, his assistant. I don’t think it was an army rank.

  53. “a vu!.. a ya ne znal no somnevalsya..” the AR clip is riot, i think i remember it tak smutno
    once i was called by a boy around 10-12 yo on the street, what’s the time, ahaa(brother)?
    i was all, what?!?!! coz consider myself pretty feminine by all like the standards

  54. Raikin first produced it in 1969 (Zhvanetsky’s dialogues). Raikin’s partner in the sketch Kartsev later, when Raikin died, performed the sketch with Ilchenko. Kartsev also beautifully played Shvonder in the 80s film adaptation of Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog. Zhvanetsky flourished both as a writer and a stand-up performer all through the 80-s.
    Raikin was immensely popular. Hes satire goes beyond social criticism. I am pasting here his
    ‘Deficit’ (shortage) sketch.
    Deficit is pronounced in a mockingly southern, ‘caucasian’ way dyu:ff-seet. Dyufseet and ‘we are both respectable people’ have long become a Russian cultural reference point. What is brilliant here, is how Raikin pushes a satirical take on shortages of consumer goods beyond just that and to a more philosophical level. So, he says, one day everybody will have everything, but how do we cope with human longing to have something that nobody else does?
    Thanks for helping me with hyperlinks. I am with Blogger and after Google bought them they switched everything to wysiwyg where you don’t have to use html.

  55. “Deamons” are very funny, and a short story about Selo Stepanchikovo is also sometimes funny. I wish Dostoevsky wrote more humorous books, he was very good at it when he tried.
    In regard to “a Columbus without an America”, in Russian it sounds much shorter – just 3 words – the word Columbus is also shorter by 2 letters, so the whole phrase is much snappier than in English. It’s just a vivid way to say – “unfulfilled”. Aside from that, Columbus is more often mentioned in casual speech in Russia than he is in the US. The reason may be that he discovered it for Spain, and obviously there was some animosity between Spain and Britain/colonies; Americans are also aware that Columbus did not go anywhere close to the US territory, there were other people who explored North America. For Russians, both Americas are equally distant and exotic and it’s simpler and easier to say that Columbus discovered the whole thing and be done with it.

  56. many thanks, S! all is so great, ‘vkus -specifshicheskii…ya sam bul ogon…u nikogo net…mu ego ne lyubim, on toje poshel” etc
    and his so great ‘specificheskii gruzinsky’ dialect, i wish my English was as smoothly understandable as his “Georgian” Russian sounds

  57. Sorokin’s technique
    Thanks for this – I enjoyed it, but too much for my liking, I’m afraid. A.Vvedensky is as far as I can go.
    Marie-Lucie:
    Who/Hu is on first?
    I am glad you liked it.
    In fact I think jokes connect people more than literature or films. I remember what a revelation to me it was when I spent an evening with an American co-worker telling me jokes about Little Johnny the Bad Mouth and Kovalsky, and me re-telling back to him the same jokes about Vovochka (Little Vladimir) translated back from Russian.

  58. Thanks, rainy.
    Yes, in the US, many people who might refer by synecdoche to Columbus understand him to be a) a harbinger of genocide, slavery, and so on, and b) not a ‘discoverer’ of the US of America or, indeed, of anywhere. Rather, he’s a brave and tough but problematic ‘hero’ and a bad geographer.
    Using “Columbus” to mean ‘first explorer’ or ‘explorers and exploration itself’ is perfectly intelligible in America, but the term must have resounded more mysteriously among Dostoevsky’s first readers.
    And, yes, “unfulfilled”, and ‘already having shown great promise’, by which implication Piotr is embarrassing himself all the more comically.

  59. “Yes, in the US, many people who might refer by synecdoche to Columbus understand him to be a) a harbinger of genocide, slavery, and so on, and b) not a ‘discoverer’ of the US of America or, indeed, of anywhere. Rather, he’s a brave and tough but problematic ‘hero’ and a bad geographer.”
    Really????

  60. Well, it depends on which circles you move in, obviously. I suspect the understandings you quote are far more common in academic circles than elsewhere. I’m pretty sure the average American still thinks of Columbus as the guy who discovered America.

  61. marie-lucie says:

    a harbinger of genocide, slavery, and so on,
    Pre-Columbian societies are often thought of as paradigms of sweetness and light, living in egalitarian harmony with benign nature, but war in some form existed almost everywhere, and slavery was prevalent in many areas where natural resources allowed a surplus of food and consequent divisions in society. The same thing was true on the larger Polynesian islands. Only harsh conditions where everyone needs to struggle for existence bring people together (as with the Eskimos), abundance and ease seem to breed distinctions.

  62. I think so, mab.
    In 1992, that is, the quincentenary of the first Columbian voyage and the, or his, ‘discovery of America’, there was plenty of contest over how to remember the feat. People focused on post-colonialism and ‘ethnic studies’ emphasized the disasters that followed ’1492′ for then-indigenous New-Worlders (to limit this mention of the ‘age of discovery’ to the ‘New World’). Cultural ‘conservatives’ preferred to look at how materially comfortable middle class people all over the world are and used “Columbus” as a symbol of the spread and triumph of that ‘western’ lifestyle and its rationalizations.
    I believe this culture clash, which of course pre-dates and is much larger than arguing about the symbol and legacy of “Columbus”!, obtains today.
    I also think that, while language hat’s “average American”‘s association of Columbus with ‘discovery of America’ is accurate as far as it goes– indeed, as far as I said it goes when I asserted the ‘intelligibility’ of “Columbus” as a sign of “exploration”– language hat is underestimating how qualified that symbolism is among “average American[s]“.
    If you’re interested enough, you can look up (in libraries or on line) issues of popular magazines from October, 1992 (Columbus Day: Oct. 12). Try Time, Newsweek, U. S. News and World Report, and Rolling Stone. (NOT recommending any of these fishwraps for the general quality of their journalism, just for a picture of popular sentiment and conversation about the meaning of “Columbus”.)
    This is not to say that Columbus has been completely unmasked as a unique doer-of-evil or anything like that, but rather to indicate that European expansion (what “Columbus” is largely taken to suggest or disclose) is understood, even in popular culture, in a pretty complicated way- I’m guessing, much more many-sidedly so than it was taken to have been 150 years ago.

  63. Yes, marie-lucie, “harbinger” is too strong.
    But, even given slavery in ‘Mexico’ and ‘Peru’ in 1492, and contemporaneous no-quarter warfare all over the Western Hemisphere, surely the instituting of “slavery” and “genocide” on the scale and with the success they were pursued by Europeans and their descendants is different enough in degree as to be justly perceived as different in kind.
    How about ‘harbingers of technologically- and ideologically-aided genocide and slavery, unprecedentedly successful, in the hemisphere, and in ethnic terms, at both concentrating accumulation of resources and political power and at killing people’?

    “Pre-Columbian societies are often thought of as paradigms of sweetness and light[.]”
    Is there some particular sentimentalization you’re responding to?

  64. marie-lucie says:

    deadgod, I agree with you in general. In addition to Mexico and Peru there was also slavery at least on the Northwest Coast and in Polynesia, among societies which were not particularly large. That does not mean that they were more benign than what was to follow. But European technology made a big difference in scale, eventually causing a difference in kind (racially-based slavery was such a difference, which did not exist in the slave societies of the ancient world).
    By “paradigms of sweetness and light” I am exaggerating a particularly sentimental view which does exist, about both non-European societies and also prehistoric European ones. I can’t quote references about it though.

  65. By “paradigms of sweetness and light” I am exaggerating a particularly sentimental view which does exist, about both non-European societies and also prehistoric European ones. I can’t quote references about it though.
    Noble savage?

  66. m-l: abundance and ease seem to breed distinctions.
    It’s not about distinctions, but I’m reading Amélie Nothomb’s Biographie de la faim in which she discusses (with amused pleasure) Vanuatu as a place of abundance and ease that nobody is interested in. We derive comfort from the paradox that what we strive for is not all it’s cracked up to be.

  67. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, yes, Noble Savage is part of it, so are references to a peaceful Old European “Goddess culture”.
    AJP: I don’t know much about Vanuatu, but from reading Wikipedia it does not seem that there is that much “abundance and ease” there, in spite of what some study is reputed to have said. The Wiki article does not give much information about the traditional culture though. Besides, it is difficult to generalize about a place where colonialism and modernization are affecting traditional culture and the mixed population has not yet forged a new, distinctive culture, something which takes a long time.

  68. No, it’s not a study; more of a novel, really. She’s well known, I got her name from Grumbly. She’s Belgian and grew up in the Far East. She’s more interested in hunger than in Vanuatu. I oughtn’t to have linked to the Wikipedia article; I’m sorry if you spent ages reading it. i do recommend Amélie Nothomb, though. She’s very smart.

  69. No, it’s not a study; more of a novel, really. She’s well known, I got her name from Grumbly. She’s Belgian and grew up in the Far East. She’s more interested in hunger than in Vanuatu. I oughtn’t to have linked to the Wikipedia article; I’m sorry if you spent ages reading it. i do recommend Amélie Nothomb, though. She’s very smart.

  70. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, when I mentioned “a study” I was not referring to Amélie Nothomb, since I have not read her work, but to a study cited in the Wikipedia article on Vanuatu (which did not take that long to read). That study apparently listed Vanuatu as the best place to live, but there seems to be many ecological problems there. And again, there was very little mention of the indigenous culture.

  71. I agree, marie-lucie, that the Amerindians have been considerably sentimentalized, and often enough at the cost of paying much useful attention to their current achievements and the problems their communities suffer. (I might have being a LITTLE defensive.)
    One place the romanticization of Amerindians can be referred to is people’s skin: Amerindian-themed tattoos are popular and, often, displayed.
    Many people who get these tattoos are probably interested enough to learn a fair amount about what they’re having inked on themselves.
    But surely this sub-fad includes lots of posers who want simply to advertise their nobility with an image that says: “I’m virtuous.” Like with that ubiquitous Cliche Guevara image one sees on tote bags, cigarette lighters, coffee cups, etc. etc.

  72. The Tobacco Pouch story by Sorokin, it’s been nagging me for days. I knew I’ve read something very similar. I’ve just remembered: it’s HG Wells’ short story The Purple Pileus. A man’s life changes for the better after he consumes a few mushrooms. Wonderful story, but, unfortunately, no one would be allowed to praise it anymore because of its anti-feminist message. In Sorokin’s story the clue is the lily-of-the-valley (ландыш). The poisonous plant is not used to twist the plot, however, but to disintegrate it. A lovely showcase of pre- and post-modernism.

  73. Very nice comparison!

  74. The Wells story is online here.

  75. ah, sorry, the links. If you want to compare English text with Russian it is here Красный гриб
    I was re-reading delightful Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome and noticed that he uses Your Excellency throughout – the majority choice in this discussion. The Last Englishman, a new biography of Ransome, claims, far-fetchedly, I think, that he was a Soviet agent.

  76. I agree it sounded far-fetched; though I didn’t read the book, only a review or two. Didn’t he share a flat with Lenin, or something funny? Aside from Swallows & Amazons, the children’s books are quite hard going these days I found when I read them to my daughter.

  77. I don’t know about the flat, but he knew closely both Lenin and Trotsky. He married Trotsky’s private secretary, a Russian, and took her to England. Yes, children’s books are not easy to choose. We’re lucky to have Rowling and Pullman around though. When mine were younger I usually stuck to old favourites, Just So Stories and Baron Munchausen’s adventures.

  78. At last I got round to fishing out my Dostoyevsky with academic comments and cross-references. The dialogue from Notes from the Dead House is semi-documentary. Is it clear to English readers that the criminals are blatantly fooling the interviewing policeman?
    While still in prison/exile Dostoyevsky started a less known Siberian Notebook (Сибирская тетрадь) where he noted stories, dialogues, proverbs and jokes. The original manuscript survived and shows numerous marks D. made later, after he was released. Researshers showed that he used this material not only for Notes, but also in Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov and in several other novels.
    Siberian Notebook was highly regarded by later folklorists and students of criminal slang. Many of Dostoyevsky’s records of words and meanings, expressions and jokes are simply unique – nobody ever recorded anything similar, not before, not after. Take for example столёвочная часть (burglary) discussed in a previous post.
    In a way he was the first Russian collector of raw folklore, preceding Dahl and others.

  79. Fascinating—thanks, Sashura!

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