A Reading in Odessa.

I’ve gotten to the part in Трава забвения (The Grass of Oblivion) where Kataev describes a funny and awful evening during Bunin’s time in Odessa (1918-20). His friends decided to help him financially by arranging a public reading of his new story «Сны Чанга» (The Dreams of Chang — Chang is a dog remembering the life of his master). Bunin kept refusing, saying nobody would be interested, nobody knew him, nobody would show up, and nobody would want to spend an evening listening to a single story; he finally gave in, but insisted on getting an agreed-on sum no matter what the receipts were, saying he wasn’t rich enough to disgrace himself in public for free [“Я не настолько богат, господа, чтобы публично срамиться, да еще и бесплатно”]. Sure enough, hardly anybody came (Bunin said “It’s a little awkward, there’s only one and a half people here” [Даже как-то неловко, в зале полтора человека]); Kataev says that if Igor Severyanin, Leonid Andreyev, or the popular cabaret singer/actor Vertinsky had been featured, not to mention Gorky, the hall would have been packed, but what can you do — those were rulers of men’s minds [“Ничего не поделаешь – властители дум!”], while only true lovers of literature appreciated Bunin.

There followed an awkward period waiting for more arrivals, during which the following incident occurs:

– Да уж вы меня не утешайте, – решительно сказал Бунин и поднес к глазам афишку, где ему сразу же бросилась в глаза глупейшая, чисто провинциальная опечатка: вместо «Сны Чанга» были жирным шрифтом напечатаны бессмысленные слова «Сны Чашка».

“Don’t try to comfort me,” said Bunin decisively and raised his eyes to a poster [advertising the evening], where a stupid, purely provincial misprint caught the eye: instead of «Сны Чанга» [Sny Changa, Dreams of Chang] were printed in bold lettering the meaningless words «Сны Чашка» [Sny Chashka, Dreams Cup].

Bunin attacked Blok’s wildly popular revolutionary poem Двенадцать (The Twelve), saying “Russian literature has never seen such a falling-off” [До такого падения еще никогда не доходила русская литература], which gives Kataev an opportunity to tell the reader how much he loved the poem and go on an embarrassing paean to the revolution which goes on for pages and was presumably the kind of thing you had to do in 1967 to get a book published featuring a notorious exile and anticommunist like Bunin. Then the reading finally takes place, and what audience there is is mesmerized, only briefly distracted by machine-gun fire in the street outside.

Afterwards, Kataev walks with Bunin through the quiet city, and wanting to distract him, he says “You must have been translated into a lot of languages.” This sets Bunin off:

– Боже мой!… – раздраженно ответил он. – Ну, посудите сами: у меня, например, один рассказ начинается такой фразой: «На Фоминой неделе в ясный, чуть розовый вечер, в ту прелестную пору, когда…» Попробуйте-ка это сказать по-английски или по-французски, сохранить музыку русского языка, тонкость пейзажа… «В ту прелестную пору, когда…» Невозможно! А что я стою без этого? Нет, меня очень мало знают за границей… как, впрочем, и у нас в России, – с горечью прибавил он.

“My God!” he answered in irritation. “Well, judge for yourself. For example, one of my stories starts this way: ‘In Thomas week [the first week after Easter], on a clear, barely pink evening, at that lovely time when…’ Try to say that in English or French, keeping the music of the Russian language, the subtlety of the landscape… ‘At that lovely time when…’ Impossible! And what is my value without that? No, they have very little knowledge of me abroad — and, for that matter, here in Russia,” he added bitterly.

I love that; with most writers, if they started going on about how great their writing was you’d roll your eyes, but Bunin was that great — in my opinion, he’s the all-time master of Russian prose — and it must have been very hard not to be recognized to the extent he knew he deserved (I hope he got appropriate satisfaction from winning the Nobel in 1933). And he is that hard to translate; as I said in presenting my own attempt in 2009, his style “shows a mastery of Russian prose that is impossible to adequately render.”


  1. AJP Crown says

    «В ту прелестную пору, когда…»
    What’s great about this?

    His early prose works had one common leitmotif: that of nature’s beauty and wisdom bitterly contrasting with humanity’s ugly shallowness.[Mikhaylov, Commentaries]
    That sounds about right. I suppose nowadays it’s only interesting for being prescient.

  2. David Marjanović says

    What’s great about this?

    Perhaps the rhythm and the spacing of [u]. Such things seem to be a lot more important in Russian literature than in literatures elsewhere.

  3. AJP Crown says

    Btw The Dreams of Chang is 326 pages, and yet it sounds as if he was reading the whole thing in one performance. In that case, it would have been a long evening.

    Turning to boring old English for a sec, in today’s LRB series of free lockdown articles there’s one from 1980 by the great Penelope Fitzgerald. It includes this, on plots:

    [After an incident in Mexico with her son] I know that in any case I could never make it respectable (by which I mean probable) enough to be believed as a novel. Reality has proved treacherous. ‘Unfortunate are the adventures which are never narrated.’ And I am sorry to let it go, because of what seemed to me the natural energy of the plot.

    Watching a good plot is like watching something alive, or if it is adroit and sinuous enough, something struggling for life. Between the once-born and the twice-born plot (which makes the reader, even if he is reading it for the twentieth time, want to interfere at every stage), the difference, of course, is great. But I am easily satisfied in this respect. The test lies in the plot’s independence of characters, and even of names: only relationships are necessary, as in rhythm without music. I would place very high – irrespective of whether they were borrowed or not – the plots of Chaucer’s ‘Clerk’s Tale’, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Galdos’s Miau, W.W. Jacobs’s short story ‘Head of the Family’, and Somerset Maugham’s still shorter one, the servant who went to Samarra. Thinking of these, I can remember how I became an addict.

    Not to compare Fitzgerald’s & Bunin’s writing, but I find her voice always familiar and to me it’s attractive, so I’m interested in what she’s got to say. Perhaps as well as the rhymes and allusions & whatnot, a consistent familiar voice is part of what’s untranslatable in Bunin’s Russian.

  4. AJP Crown says

    (That was @ David, partly.)

  5. SFReader says

    326 pages is the the whole book. The eponymous story itself is only 22 pages (pp 9-33).

    I note that Bunin got from Fedorov a passion for travel and he went on several sea cruises, visiting Mediterranean, Africa, India, China, Japan, etc.

    So, say, description of the ship crossing the Red Sea (or China for that matter) in the story of Chang is based on Bunin’s personal impressions.

  6. AJP Crown says

    only 22 pages (pp 9-33)

    Oh! Thanks, SF.

  7. What’s great about this?

    You’re proving his point.

    I suppose nowadays it’s only interesting for being prescient.

    Literature isn’t about ideas, for chrissake. At least good literature isn’t. Bunin often wrote stories that involve nothing but standing there looking at the sea, or driving through a village at night, and those are just as good as the ones about Important Things.

  8. I note that Bunin got from Fedorov a passion for travel

    He had a passion for travel before he ever met the guy; I’m pretty sure the only thing he got from Fedorov was part of a dacha.

  9. AJP Crown says

    You’re proving his point.

    Yeah. I’m not arguing with his point, ffs. I want to know what’s the difference: «В ту прелестную пору, когда…» or ‘at this lovely time when…’ It sounds unremarkable to me. There are millions of synonyms for ‘lovely’; if it’s that, then use another adj. It doesn’t rhyme but neither does the original. Double meanings, that kind of thing? He might find it impossible to articulate but there’s a CHANCE there may be clues to what’s so great, as there are with lines of, say Shakespeare, so I asked.

  10. Sorry, I thought you were being dismissive rather than curious. I don’t know what to say; it’s like with one of Pushkin’s most famous poems, “Я вас любил” — in Russian it’s magical (it’s one of those poems you pretty much automatically memorize as soon as you read it), but in English it just sounds banal: “I loved you, and maybe love hasn’t entirely gone out of my soul…” Good writing takes advantage of all the sound/meaning/allusion resources of the language, and it’s hard to analyze as well as to translate. It just works.

  11. Your reports from Kataev have been of great interest. I hope more are coming.

  12. You betcha!

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    @hat, ajp
    While appreciation of an author’s style is a matter of taste, for poetry and prose meant to be read aloud, a “serious” or “excellent” writer usually shares characteristics related to “better” choice of words and “better” design (e.g., in prose division into and placement of words in phrases, sentences or paragraphs). Formerly “peasants” retained large oral or manuscript stores of Gaelic poetry. When one such “peasant” was asked why he thought one poet (Ó Bruadair?) was better than another, he replied to the effect that it was like comparing two drystone walls by different craftsmen.

  14. Excellent comparison!

  15. AJP Crown says

    A great comparison that gives a strong immediate image, but I disagree. In a nutshell and allowing for very many quibbles, craft is about doing a job well whereas art (poetry in your Gælic example) is about the intellect and the expression of feelings & ideas. But the discussion of this relationship (art to craft) in Modernism has been going literally for centuries now without resolution. It swings one way and then back a bit the other and it’s very useful to think about in, for example, architecture and in gardening, the two forms of art & craft I’m most preoccupied with.

  16. AJP Crown says

    I forgot to say: of course being a good word craftsman is an important part of being a poet, but there’s way more to poetry than that.

  17. By the way, LH, have you heard of Alexander Nemirovsky, the Russian historian and polyglot? (He blogs as wyradhe at livejournal.com.) He’s a great fan of Kataev and his work, including ТЗ, and has written a lot on that.

    One more thing: for some reason, you keep skipping the next-to-last letter in the З-word – I’m not even sure if it should be и or ь, but one of these two has to be there.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    I agree that craft is not everything. The best of these poets used their craft to create cringeworthily sycophantic and hyperbolic occasional poems to praise patrons, tracing their noble lineage to and comparing their military prowess, wisdom, learning, etc. with such figures as Alexander the Great, Solomon or Cu-Chulainn with special mention of their generosity towards the grateful poet.

  19. By the way, LH, have you heard of Alexander Nemirovsky, the Russian historian and polyglot? (He blogs as wyradhe at livejournal.com.) He’s a great fan of Kataev and his work, including ТЗ, and has written a lot on that.

    No, I haven’t, and I’ll have to investigate him; thanks! (I’ve never heard of some of his favorite poets.)

    One more thing: for some reason, you keep skipping the next-to-last letter in the З-word – I’m not even sure if it should be и or ь, but one of these two has to be there.

    Damn! Obviously I accidentally deleted it in revising a post, didn’t notice, and then copied the mutilated version from one post to another. I’ve fixed the two I saw, and will keep an eye out for it.

  20. SFReader says

    I’ve never heard of some of his favorite poets

    Me too. But he got good taste – put Georgy Ivanov on 2nd place.

    Russia is happiness. Russia is light.
    And maybe Russia doesn’t exist.

    And sunset didn’t burn out over the Neva,
    And Pushkin didn’t die in the snow,

    And there is no St. Petersburg nor the Kremlin –
    Only snow, snow and fields, fields …

    Snow, snow, snow … And the night is long,
    And the snow never melts.

    Snow, snow, snow … And the night is dark,
    And it never ends.

    Russia is silence. Russia is ashes.
    And maybe Russia is only fear.

    Rope, bullet, icy darkness
    And music which makes go crazy.

    Rope, bullet, hard labor sunrise
    Over the land with no name in this world.

  21. SFReader says

    I can’t stop. Georgy Ivanov is that good. One more

    It’s good that there is no Tsar.
    It’s good that there is no Russia.
    It’s good that there is no God.

    Only yellow dawn
    Only icy stars
    Only millions of years.

    It’s good that there is no one
    It’s good that there is nothing,
    So black and so dead.

    It can’t be more dead
    And it won’t get more dark
    No one will help us
    And no need too.

  22. AJP Crown says

    Yeah, there’s a lot of that all over. I’m unsure whether Spike Milligan would count as a Gælic poet (he ended life with an Irish passport). If so, he might be the exception.

    Mind you, I’d gladly give all the poetry I’ve ever read in exchange for the ability to lay a dry stone wall properly. Good examples are crucial: despite all the available stone I haven’t seen any good ones in Norway so there’s no continuity.

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    This is not the Danish style of dry stone wall, which I guess is the same as in Norway, but I’m fascinated by the instructor’s British enunciation. (The video is from the US).

    Rules for churchyard enclosing walls are pretty strict in Denmark, only natural and split boulders allowed, so of course there are specialist firms. (Don’t bother with their Youtube channel, though, they don’t show their work).

  24. AJP Crown says

    Thank you for that, Lars. He’s a very ernest, rosy cheeked & well-bred Englishman, but rather that than the usual matey, repetitive fluff you get in d-i-y videos. And I learnt a lot. It looks quite good exercise and I might try it.

    I watched this video a few weeks ago. An American builder standing in front of some allium outside Roskilde domkirche and talking about its red-brick wall. I’ve thought about it often since; I thoroughly agree with his views about construction methods (you have to bear with him while he locates Denmark, “this area, here” on his map).

  25. Lars Mathiesen says

    The cathedral was rebuilt after a fire in 1282, so the interior details are indeed 700 years old. I’m not sure about the wall he starts with, though — the chapter has always been able to afford proper work, even after the reformation where the monastery grounds were probably sold off and new walls needed. But the granite “water table” blocks do look hand made, though not as old as the sample at 6:20 where they aren’t squared.

  26. AJP Crown says

    I’ve never heard that usage for water table. I’m sure you’re right about its age. There’s a 17thC. long red-brick wall close to my mother’s house that’s much more weathered and so looks older. During the summer there’s always a very long line of ants on a ledge half-way up, marching somewhere. God knows what they’re up to.

  27. Lars Mathiesen says

    Eddyshaw, what are you up to? (I haven’t seen God commenting here lately).

    But as the man said: if your bricks are hard fired enough, it’s simple to maintain the mortar. Just send someone around every 25 years and so to scrape out the weathered stuff and add new. The Ham House one looks as if they put in less mortar than in Roskilde, maybe that makes maintenance harder.

  28. AJP Crown says

    That’s possible. The bricks are awfully weathered around the corner, though. Rammed earth is the material of the future; there’s no mortar to maintain. It’s been researched quite a lot in Denmark and seems popular there (my Norwegian house is rammed-earth, from 1923).

  29. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish building codes need to get off their concrete fixation first, I think. (F.L.Smidth & Co. has a lot to do with that). There is so much landfill generated from house repairs because you can basically only tear the things down and pour new concrete, and it’s a huge percentage of our carbon dioxide output. (First you burn fossil fuel to turn limestone into cement and then it gives off more when it sets, but you know that).

    And even if there’s wood, it’s chemically treated and can’t even be burned safely. (Winters here are too moist for untreated wood structures, not like stavkirker in Norway that only fall down in earthquakes). But TIL you can at least burn old railway sleepers in cement kilns (new ones are of course … concrete).

  30. David Marjanović says

    First you burn fossil fuel to turn limestone into cement and then it gives off more when it sets

    The fossil fuels account for 40% of the CO₂ output, the desired reaction of limestone (calcium carbonate) into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide for 60%, says Wikipedia. This is partially and slowly reversed during hardening as calcium hydroxide turns into calcium carbonate again, but far from entirely, because some (most?) of the calcium oxide has formed new calcium silicates. The details are unclear to me and apparently to Wikipedia as well.

  31. AJP Crown says

    Old railway sleepers usually contain creosote so they had to stop selling them at garden centres (children’s sandpits). I still have them as garden steps and I’m not dead yet.

    A professor I know told me, when a new dean was appointed at Columbia’s arch. school, in 2014, that she was going to be pushing environmental stuff in design courses, no doubt at the cost of History/Theory, and what a shame that was (she succeeded in every sense). In the past couple of years global warming & issues like recycling material have become the only significant design theme at top architecture schools (I know this partly through my daughter, who’s about to start her final Master’s year at the AA). So, no concrete, lots of wooden skyscrapers. Everyone thought it was boring until now, but it turns out that the students & young faculty are bursting with new ideas.

  32. Lars Mathiesen says

    I think the point is that creosote does have carcinogenic organic compounds, but a cement kiln — unlike your home fireplace — is so hot for so long that the stuff decomposes to non-toxic gases. So old sleepers are OK there, but the green stuff you get at the DIY store has copper salts and is biotoxic waste no matter what you do.

    (Creosote is distilled from crude oil anyway, so your cement works will handle any remaining sulphur or similar compounds just as well — or badly — as it handles the ones from the main fossil fuel).

  33. Trond Engen says

    Xi et al.: Substantial global carbon uptake by cement carbonation, Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 880–883 (2016):

    Calcination of carbonate rocks during the manufacture of cement produced 5% of global CO2 emissions from all industrial process and fossil-fuel combustion in 2013. Considerable attention has been paid to quantifying these industrial process emissions from cement production, but the natural reversal of the process—carbonation—has received little attention in carbon cycle studies. Here, we use new and existing data on cement materials during cement service life, demolition, and secondary use of concrete waste to estimate regional and global CO2 uptake between 1930 and 2013 using an analytical model describing carbonation chemistry. We find that carbonation of cement materials over their life cycle represents a large and growing net sink of CO2, increasing from 0.10 GtC yr−1 in 1998 to 0.25 GtC yr−1 in 2013. In total, we estimate that a cumulative amount of 4.5 GtC has been sequestered in carbonating cement materials from 1930 to 2013, offsetting 43% of the CO2 emissions from production of cement over the same period, not including emissions associated with fossil use during cement production. We conclude that carbonation of cement products represents a substantial carbon sink that is not currently considered in emissions inventories

  34. David Marjanović says

    Nice, thanks!

  35. Trond Engen says

    That would seem to mean that 43% of cement produced since 1930 had been returned to calcium carbonate in 2013. Some of this is old concrete that has reached its potential, some is recently produced and has hardly been carbonated at all. A Norwegian scientist (quoted in the article that led me to the paper) compared the paper’s estimate of 15% residual carbonation of existing structures with his own estimate of 16%. But I don’t know the premises of either of those estimates. As old concrete is worn down to dust by demolition and erosion, I would think that eventually all (or all but some equilibrium amount) would carbonate.

    We could also look at it as a carbon cycle. How long does it take before carbon released from calcium carbonate is recarbonated? It’s obviously much shorter than the fossil fuel cycle, but it may still be far too long for the atmosphere.

  36. It raises an interesting question of whether it makes sense, in terms of carbon balance, to pulverize waste concrete to increase its rate of carbon re-uptake.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Of course it does, if the power used for that is sustainable…

    The idea has been floated to quarry, crush and scatter large amounts of olivine and other silicates to speed up the geochemical carbon cycle.

  38. @David Marjanović: But it’s not practically possible to use entirely renewable power sources for that kind of job. The concrete either needs to be broken up on site, which means using machinery that burns fossil fuels; or it has to be transported to an industrial facility, where the actually breakup could be done by machines running on renewable electric power. However, the transportation stage is necessarily going to entail addition fossil fuel usage.

  39. Trond Engen says

    Pulverize it and reintroduce it to the sea. But there are a great number of concrete admixtures that would also have to be taken into consideration.

    Here’s an open access paper that goes into some of the environmental issues:
    Kim et al.: Analysis of Environmental Impact for Concrete Using LCA by Varying the Recycling Components, the Compressive Strength and the Admixture Material Mixing, Sustainability 2016, 8(4), 389

    Concrete is a type of construction material in which cement, aggregate, and admixture materials are mixed. When cement is produced, large amounts of substances that impact the environment are emitted during limestone extraction and clinker manufacturing. Additionally, the extraction of natural aggregate causes soil erosion and ecosystem destruction. Furthermore, in the process of transporting raw materials such as cement and aggregate to a concrete production company, and producing concrete in a batch plant, substances with an environmental impact are emitted into the air and water system due to energy use. Considering the fact that the process of producing concrete causes various environmental impacts, an assessment of various environmental impact categories is needed. This study used a life cycle assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impacts of concrete in terms of its global warming potential, acidification potential, eutrophication potential, ozone depletion potential, photochemical ozone creation potential, and abiotic depletion potential (GWP, AP, EP, ODP, POCP, ADP). The tendency was that the higher the strength of concrete, the higher the GWP, POCP, and ADP indices became, whereas the AP and EP indices became slightly lower. As the admixture mixing ratio of concrete increased, the GWP, AP, ODP, ADP, and POCP decreased, but EP index showed a tendency to increase slightly. Moreover, as the recycled aggregate mixing ratio of concrete increased, the AP, EP, ODP, and ADP decreased, while GWP and POCP increased. The GWP and POCP per unit compressed strength (1 MPa) of high strength concrete were found to be about 13% lower than that for its normal strength concrete counterpart. Furthermore, in the case of AP, EP, ODP, and ADP per unit compressed strength (1 MPa), high-strength concrete was found to be about 10%~25% lower than its normal strength counterpart. Among all the environmental impact categories, ordinary cement was found to have the greatest impact on GWP, POCP, and ADP, while aggregate had the most impact on AP, EP, and ODP.

    Note that the study only handles service life, i.e. “cradle to gate”, so the end of life impact we discuss here is not assessed.

    The poisonous effects of admixtures would mostly be handled under the POCP lable, which is measured in PE equivalents. In this study increased use of admixtures has a mostly beneficial effect, even on that measure, by reducing the total volume of concrete, but the study seems to have looked at only a couple of the more common admixtures, notably fly ash, and not e.g. synthetic polymers used as super-plasticizers.

    Finally, it may be better to recycle demolished concrete as aggregate in new concrete, but this is a difficult trade-off between CO2 emissions, which (surprisingly to me) are higher, and repletion of resources.

    Edit: The CO2 impact of energy use for crushing and reuse as aggregate also applies to pulverizing the concrete. It’s probably possible to find an ideal level of pulverization for maximum effect.

  40. David Marjanović says

    not practically possible

    Not right now, no.

    And so, this was the globally warmest May ever measured.

  41. Trond Engen says

    Embarrassing brainfart: Of course, recycled aggregate is mostly aggregate (sand, crushed rock), not cement, so it should be possible to improve the environmental impact of recycled aggregate significantly by taking the enhanced end-of-life impact of the cement into consideration.

  42. Man, when I started this blog I had no idea I’d be learning about the geochemical carbon cycle.

  43. Owlmirror says

    and Somerset Maugham’s still shorter one, the servant who went to Samarra.

    The story of the servant who fled Death only to find that his place of refuge was where Death was supposed to take him long predates Maugham.

  44. Man, when I started this blog I had no idea I’d be learning about the geochemical carbon cycle.

    I was going to quip the presence of scientific knowledge on the blog is unsurprising because language is the dross of knowledge (a phrase I came across once), but then I realized I didn’t know what “dross” meant. Even after looking up the definition, I’m still not sure what “dross of knowledge” means; my inclination (and initial impression) is that it means language is the medium through which knowledge is expressed. Apparently, the phrase only occurs in a letter to Thomas Young, and that must be where I encountered it.

  45. David Marjanović says

    The geochemical carbon cycle. I added the link to the article about reverse weathering at the end.

  46. PlasticPaddy says

    Samuel Johnson has “language is the dress of thought”.is it clear that “dress” is not meant in the quote from the letter?

  47. Owlmirror says

    Huh. When I searched on “language is the dross”, there were no hits, and the suggestion offered was, as PlasticPaddy says, “language is the dress of thought”.

    Yet what came to my mind was the idea that the author was being Mystical/Gnostic/Alchemical, having the idea of True Knowledge as being this Purified and Transcendent and Ineffable thing, which could be only conveyed properly by a True Communion and Commingling of Souls [blah blah blah], and lacking that, there is only the mere dross of language; these imperfect and easily misunderstood noises produced by gurgling our throats and flapping our mouthparts, or else by scribbling and scrawling barely comprehensible marks to be read with our weak and easily confused eyes, etc, etc blah blah.

    I know nothing of Thomas Young’s correspondent, though. And perhaps a mistake turned dress into dross, indeed.

  48. AJP Crown says

    Samuel Johnson has “language is the dress of thought”. Is it clear that “dress” is not meant in the quote from the letter?

    He [the correspondent, Young’s great uncle Richard Brocklesby] was warmly attached to Dr. Samuel Johnson, to whom about 1784 he offered an annuity of £100 for life, and whom he attended on his deathbed […]

  49. I found a scan of the book (as opposed to a transcription), and it says “your facility of acquiring language, which is no more than the dross of knowledge,” so it’s not an OCR error.

    Samuel Johnson has “language is the dress of thought”.is it clear that “dress” is not meant in the quote from the letter?

    That does make a lot more sense, so I think the author probably misremembered the phrase. (I initially suspected it could be a mistake for “dress”, but searching “dress of knowledge” didn’t give me any useful results, so I gave up.)

  50. AJP Crown says

    Brocklesby’s letter is here:

    Fancua, I think the author probably misremembered the phrase
    You couldn’t misremember dress as dross. Surely Brocklesby’s handwriting was misread by whoever transcribed his letter. Too bad we can’t see the original.

  51. AJP Crown says

    (The letter was written on 13 Oct 1789, coincidentally a week after the Women’s March on Versailles.)

  52. Owlmirror says

    You couldn’t misremember dress as dross.

    Yet a written or (mis)printed dress might be read as dross. Or “dress”, spoken in a certain way, might be misheard as “dross”. I don’t suppose there’s anything out there about Samuel Johnson’s accent or diction. . .

    Surely Brocklesby’s handwriting was misread

    I think the use of “which is no more than the” strongly suggests that “dross” was intentional. Brocklesby was disparaging Young’s language learning.

  53. I think “dress” works just as well there.

  54. Trond Engen says

    If English were a hitherto unattested Germanic language and I were to guess at an etymology of dross that also may give meaning in context, I would connect it to Norw. drass “unnecessary baggage, dead weight”, implying that young Young’s language learning was of the purely learned type, with no conversational use.

    Drass and the verb drasse “pull (heavily and hopelessly)” are related to Eng. draw, but they sound more like recent-ish formations from the shortened form dra than draga, but a verb dragsast “drag on one’s feet, walk slovenly around, be weigthed down by something” is attested already in ON.

    Does this mean anything for English? Could a form draws “dead weight” have survived in some cot-caught mergered dialect?

  55. Lars Mathiesen says

    ODS sv dros = ‘dregs’ (obsolete): cf Nw drose = ‘pile of uncleaned grain, flock’.

  56. Trond Engen says

    Considering law < ON lög, *draw(s) might be < ON drögur fpl.”something that is pulled, timber pulled by a horse”.

  57. Owlmirror says

    Since I am again given to curiosity about context, I looked up where Johnson wrote the line “language is the dress of thought” (and not, I note, knowledge), which is to say, a criticism of the poet Abraham Cowley (pg 45, near the bottom, continuing to the next page, and a couple more paragraphs in a similar vein).

    His diction was in his own time censured as negligent. He seems not to have known, or not to have considered, that words being arbitrary must owe their power to association, and have the influence, and that only, which custom has given them. Language is the dress of thought: and as the noblest mien, or most graceful action, would be degraded and obscured by a garb appropriated to the gross employments of rustics or mechanics ; so the most heroic sentiments will lose their efficacy, and the most splendid ideas drop their magnificence, if they are conveyed by words used commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications.

    It seems clear to me that Johnson is using the word “language” in the sense of “register” and/or “style” within the English language; word choice for the poetic expression of greater elegance and aesthetic. The “dress” is of critical importance.

    Whereas Brocklesby does not seem to have poetics or expression in mind at all; “language”, as he uses it, means the basic system of communication used by different peoples, and as I wrote, he is denigrating what he refers to. I don’t think he had Johnson’s words in mind at all, at least consciously (or else, he was completely unaware of the context in which Johnson used the phrase). So I am more confident that he meant “dross” rather than “dress”.

  58. Makes sense.

  59. Owlmirror says

    Some incidental additions that caught my eye:

    Is language the dress of thought? — a complaint about jargon and lack of comprehensibility in medical communication.

    Johnson adds (pg 47 in the same book I linked to) another criticism of Cowley:

    The words do and did, which so much degrade in present estimation the line that admits them, were, in the time of Cowley, little censured or avoided : how often he used them, and with how bad an effect, at least to our ears, will appear by a passage in which every reader will lament to see just and noble thoughts defrauded of their praise by inelegance of language :

    Where honour or where conscience does not bind,
      No other law shall shackle me;
      Slave to myself I ne’er will be ;
    Nor shall my future actions be confin’d
      By my own present mind.
    Who by resolves and vows engag’d does stand,
      For days that yet belong to fate,
    Does, like an unthrift, mortgage his estate
      Before it falls into his hand ;
      The bondman of the cloister so,
    All that he does receive does always owe.
    And still as time comes in, it goes away,
      Not to enjoy but debts to pay!
      Unhappy slave, and pupil to a bell!
    Which his hour’s work as well as hours does tell :
    Unhappy till the last, the kind releasing knell.

  60. How taste changes over time… I find that the do’s give the poem a certain grandeur. (Or maybe my taste is base and vulgar.)

  61. Owlmirror says

    When I was researching the phrase “Language is the dress of thought”, I found that there were those who suggested that Johnson was influenced by or echoing an earlier work.

    One such earlier work that Johnson was almost certainly influenced by was The Letters of The Earl of Chesterfield to his Son, which has several variations on the theme:

    LONDON, November 24, O. S. 1749.

    Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage, and be as ill received as your person, though ever so well proportioned, would, if dressed in rags, dirt, and tatters.

    LONDON, January 25, O. S. 1750

    To be heard with success, you must be heard with pleasure: words are the dress of thoughts; which should no more be presented in rags, tatters, and dirt, than your person should.

    LONDON, January 21, O. S.. 1751

    Read Lord Bolingbroke’s with great attention, as well to the style as to the matter. I wish you could form yourself such a style in every language. Style is the dress of thoughts; and a well-dressed thought, like a well-dressed man, appears to great advantage.

    LONDON, November 20, 1753

    Words, which are the dress of thoughts, deserve surely more care than clothes, which are only the dress of the person, and which, however, ought to have their share of attention. If you attend to your style in any one language, it will give you a habit of attending to it in every other; and if once you speak either French or German very elegantly, you will afterward speak much the better English for it.

    Now, Chesterfield and Johnson has a certain amount of drama between them. Chesterfield was supposed to be a patron for Johnson’s dictionary, Johnson was disappointed in the patronage and wrote an unhappy letter to Chesterfield; in turn, Chesterfield wrote in one of his letters (see the above link) about:

    There is a man, whose moral character, deep learning, and superior parts, I acknowledge, admire, and respect; but whom it is so impossible for me to love, that I am almost in a fever whenever I am in his company. His figure (without being deformed) seems made to disgrace or ridicule the common structure of the human body. His legs and arms are never in the position which, according to the situation of his body, they ought to be in, but constantly employed in committing acts of hostility upon the Graces. He throws anywhere, but down his throat, whatever he means to drink, and only mangles what he means to carve. Inattentive to all the regards of social life, he mistimes or misplaces everything. He disputes with heat, and indiscriminately, mindless of the rank, character, and situation of those with whom he disputes; absolutely ignorant of the several gradations of familiarity or respect, he is exactly the same to his superiors, his equals, and his inferiors; and therefore, by a necessary consequence, absurd to two of the three. Is it possible to love such a man? No. The utmost I can do for him, is to consider him as a respectable Hottentot. [This mot was aimed at Dr. Johnson in retaliation for his famous letter.]

    (the bracketed sentence is an editorial comment in the source I used)

    And Samuel Johnson (per Boswell) said, in turn again, about Chesterfield’s letters: “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master”.

    [to be continued . . .]

  62. Owlmirror says

    Now, someone claims that Samuel Johnson’s “Language is the dress of thought” was only translating the words of Quintilian [Marcus Fabius Quintilianus]). While it is true that there is a translation where book 8, ch 3, verse 11 says: “What is of more importance to be observed, is, that the graceful dress of our thoughts is still more becoming when varied with the nature of the subject.”, I am not sure that this is correct.

    Chesterfield recommends Quintilian to his son, but does not cite him as the source when writing about style/words being the dress of thoughts. Chesterfield could not have been using the above translation, since it was from the 1856 English translation of the Rev. John Selby Watson. Indeed, no English translation existed before 1755 (Guthrie) — a couple of years after Chesterfield wrote his letters, and this translation does not use “dress of thoughts” in 8.3 (I am not sure if verse 11 is even there: “Guthrie takes some liberties with the text, including idiosyncrasies of translation and a tendency to omit whole passages without notice to the reader.” (Murphy, James J. Appendix: Editions and Translations of the Institutio Oratoria. Quintilian on the Teaching of Speaking and Writing. Second edition. ed. Southern Illinois University Press, 2015.)

    Chesterfield may have been offering his own loose paraphrase of the above sentiment, but I am not sure that it follows naturally from the original. The H. W. Bulter original and translation of 8.3.11, from 1921 reads: “Illud observatione dignius, quod hic ipse honestus ornatus materiae genere debebit variatus.”, and translates it as: “It is more important to note that such seemly ornament must be varied to suit the nature of the material to which it is applied.”. There’s a footnote about “debebit” versus “decidit”, although I am not sure what it means – something about different source manuscripts having different wording.

    Perhaps this helps: There is a work called Problems in Quintilian, by Michael Winterbottom, which points out problems, and possible solutions, with the text. There are many pages of this stuff, but the verse in question is here as well:

    8.3.11 Illud obseruatione dignius, quod hic ipse honestus ornatus materiae genere † decidit uariatus †

    Gertz’s decebit uariatus is immeasurably superior to deciens uariatur as written by Radermacher; and for the participle we may compare 9.4.117 “figura laboranti compositioni uariata saepe succurrit”. The clausula in either case is unpleasing, and one would have expected something like postulante uariatur (cf. 6.2.2): the ornatus is varied as the material demands. This would also relieve the awkwardness of the ablative genere (note Regius’ ⟨pro⟩ materiae genere).

    The most recent translation is the Harvard University Press edition by Donald Russell, 2001. This is claimed to also use “dress of thoughts”, in the source linked to by the first link above, but I strongly suspect that the author actually used the Watson translation of that line. Russell’s Latin for 8.3.11 reads “illud observatione dignius, quod hic ipse honestus ornatus materiae genere variatus decebit.”, and the translation reads: “What is more worth noting is that this honourable Ornament will itself acquire appropriateness by being varied in accordance with the type of subject.”

    So I think now, pending additional information, that Chesterfield is the ultimate source of the sentiment of the phrase “style is/words are the dress of thoughts”, despite Johnson receiving credit for his wording “language is the dress of thought”. Watson, perhaps from one or the other, or perhaps independently, loosely translated Quintilian 8.3.11 using the phrase “dress of thoughts”.

  63. Owlmirror says

    Did Akismet send my post to the bit bucket, or to moderation? I thought 5 links was the max. No non-Latin characters, this time.

  64. David Marjanović says

    One comment ending in “[to be continued . . .]” is there, with three links in it.

    Sometimes the software takes a second or two to actually show you your comment.

  65. Lars Mathiesen says

    When a post goes through, WordPress reloads the page and sends you to an ‘anchor’ on the new comment. Most browsers seem to do nothing for a while, at least on long pages, until they actually receive that anchor. In fact if the page reloads very quickly, it’s often because your comment was rejected.

    EDIT: Can I have that struck from the record, your honor? I think the point is that when the comment is accepted, it takes a while for the database to be updated, and the system does not even start to send the version including the new comment before that happens. If it’s rejected, there is no database update and you just see the page reload but you stay at the top. (It actually gets an anchor to go to, but it won’t exist so no scroll happens).

    Hat, maybe Songdog could check your DB performance, this is not actually a delay that should be noticeable.

  66. AJP Crown says

    Quintilian speaks extensively on language as clothing.

    The earliest recorded follower of Language Hat.

  67. The comment went into moderation, and I have freed it.

  68. Lars Mathiesen says

    And you need to be aware that when Hat liberates a comment, it still has its original timestamp and place in the order, so in very active threads you might not even have the freed (freeed? fred?) comment in view when you refresh.

    Also I think it fools John’s “Commented-On” script so it will bump the post when the comment is sequestered (and other people will go there and see nothing) but not when it’s freed (so they won’t be notified again).

  69. Quite so. Sometimes when a lot of comments have passed under the bridge since the comment went into moderation, I’ll mention it in the thread (“See X’s comment above, which was in moderation overnight”).

  70. Owlmirror says

    Other WordPress-based sites I comment on will show the moderated comment along with a notice about the comment awaiting moderation. I can see it on the thread, although (obviously) if I change IP addresses by whatever means and load the page, I don’t see the comment.

    Languagehat is one of those where moderated comments and spam-binned comments and dev-nulled comments all act the same from my perspective: they disappear. Usually, as in this case, I simply need to be patient, but having had comments disappear into the ether makes it worth posting a follow-up, just to be safe.

    It would be nice if the current behavior could be changed (to showing the comment as awaiting moderation), but I understand that WordPress administration can be dark magic.

  71. And I am completely incompetent in such matters; normally I depend on Songdog to work the needed magic, but in these difficult times he’s preoccupied enough with job, family, and suchlike that I hate to pester him.

  72. David Marjanović says

    freed (freeed? fred?)



  73. John Cowan says

    He disputes with heat, and indiscriminately, mindless of the rank, character, and situation of those with whom he disputes; absolutely ignorant of the several gradations of familiarity or respect, he is exactly the same to his superiors, his equals, and his inferiors; and therefore, by a necessary consequence, absurd to two of the three.

    Hurrah for Johnson; so much the worse for his disputants; and the devil fly away with Lord C.

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