Kári Tulinius (aka Kattullus) e-mailed me this link, calling the post by saxophonist Josh Rutner “one of the finest portrayals I have read of the joy of hunting down elusive quotes.” And so it is. The first part, after an encomium to Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave and a quote from it about words as living organisms, continues:

I remember a funny instance of being misled by those living word-organisms: I was reading Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, an intensely beautiful vision of Gustave Flaubert, revolving around a fight for authenticity between two stuffed parrots. Towards the end of the book, I found a phrase which Barnes takes from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which struck me as particularly poignant:

“Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

I knew I’d read that phrase before. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Madame Bovary, so it wasn’t that. It’s true that at the time I’d been listening incessantly to Randy Newman’s album Sail Away, and perhaps I’d imagined hearing that line within the song, Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear; but no such luck. I was convinced it’d been quoted in the book I’d just finished, Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman. I went through every page trying to locate this little quote. I was so convinced that after finding nary a bear reference in my first flip through, I re-read the book. Again. And again: no bear, no kettle; no stars.

Finally, I was distraught enough to imagine that I’d in fact read the quote earlier in the book. I began again at page one; hunting for bears. Turns out I had seen it earlier in the book—twice. In Barnes’ multifaceted look at Flaubert’s life and work, he used this same quote in three places, each as if for the first time. It had become lodged in my mind the first two times, and only the third time did it appear as a friend, waiting to be unveiled.

You can read the three citations of the quote at the link, and if you scroll down you can read a wonderful passage about investigating the history of the quote “God is a circle, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.” Great stuff; thanks, Kári!


  1. John Emerson says

    French authors of the 19th c. tended to identify with hippopotami, dancing bears and other ungainly creatures.

  2. John Emerson says

    I believe that Robert Merton traces the “circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” idea here.If not, it’s the same kind of thing that Rutner likes to do, on the idea “if I see farther, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants”.

  3. Googling for the phrase turned up a Wikipedia article about a YA novel called Tunes for Bears to Dance To.

  4. Madame Bovary is the only book I can think of just now that I found to be an artistic masterwork, successful in its aims, sophisticated in its craft, and yet also utterly, irredeemably boring. The irony Flaubert scholars rave about, the moral philosophy represented in the negative by Emma and all her desires… I dunno, I guess I could see that filling up a novella, but 500 pages? Maybe if I could read it in French the craft itself would be enough to entertain me (as is usually the case with writers I find that impressive but to whose interests I’m indifferent).
    How’s Flaubert’s Parrot?

  5. I read Madame Bovary in English in secondary school, and Thérèse Desqueyroux in French in college. Since then I have never been able to disentangle one from the other. So this year when I got my Kindle I downloaded Flaubert in French and English and started reading in parallel (the ease of switching is I think the greatest advantage of e-readers). By about one third of the way through, my memory had jogged so little I realised that, first time out, I must in fact have given up on Flaubert after only a few chapters. By about half way I was so impatient to read on that I stopped bothering with the English text. I finished yesterday morning; in the evening I watched Les Amants again, although the last time I watched that it was Jules et Jim.

  6. This is about the best I can find for a modern version:
    That’s a nice quotation, I’m recording it in hopes of finding a use for it.

  7. Looking up quotes from Flaubert on the Internet, there are a couple of nice ones:
    * To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.
    * Be regular and orderly in your life, that you may be violent and original in your work.
    * That man has missed something who has never left a brothel at sunrise feeling like throwing himself into the river out of pure disgust.
    And this one I dedicate to Hat:
    * The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.

  8. Unless he’s talking about constipation, how do you manage to be regular and orderly in your life while you’re losing yourself in literature as in a perpetual orgy? Maybe he wore one of those miner’s lamps to read in the dark.

  9. How’s Flaubert’s Parrot?
    I enjoyed it a great deal, though that was many years ago.

  10. John Emerson says

    That man has missed something who has never left a brothel at sunrise feeling like throwing himself into the river out of pure disgust.
    I’ve said this before, but after a number of months reading 19th c French lit and biographies of their authors, I ended up concluding that, rather than being wise, sophisticated and worldly about sex, the French were just as fucked up as the puritanical Americans of the day. My reading was studded with similar quotes.

  11. Perhaps he came across it in Edith Grossman’s 2005 essay “Translating Cervantes,” or in her later (2010) book _Why Translation Matters_, which includes an updated version of the essay. (Neither deals with the sentence in detail.)
    Of course, this is not solely Flaubert. It is the work of a translator. The translator should get credit.

    Rik Kabel

  12. … or as the handy little translation widget on my Mac puts it:
    “The human word is as a cracked cauldron where we beat melodies to be made dance the bears, when one would like to tenderize stars.”
    “Stars” obviously an error for “steaks”.

  13. “There are books that are at once excellent and boring. Those that at once leap to the mind are Thoreau’s Walden, Emerson’s Essays, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Landor’s Dialogues.”
         —Somerset Maugham

  14. Other renditions:
    The human word is like a cracked cauldron upon which we beat out melodies fit for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity.
    Human speech is a cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars.
    The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars.
    Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.
    From Google Translate (probably better than any of the above):
    Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

  15. Kári Tulinius says

    “My jaw went slack and then participated in one of the widest smiles the New York subway system has ever seen.”
    This is one of the finest evocations I have read of that feeling you get when finding the unexpected connection.

  16. probably better than any of the above
    They cheated. That’s Karl and Jenny’s daughter’s translation.

  17. “The human word is as a cracked cauldron where we beat melodies to be made dance the bears, when one would like to tenderize stars.”
    –but using MACHINE-TRANSLATION on Flaubert is JUST WRONG

  18. I predict that “To Tenderize Stars” will soon be a blog title.

  19. AJP: Unless he’s talking about constipation, how do you manage to be regular and orderly in your life …
    The French word régulier does not have the same connotations as English regular.
    I don’t have the French text handy, but I think that Flaubert’s wording must use the expression mener une vie régulière et ordonnée “to lead a rule-governed and orderly life”, eg have a daily schedule, eat meals consistently, don’t squander your money, don’t go carousing in bars or brothels, in other words lead a boring and predictable outward life in order to have the freedom to let loose and break all the rules in your imagination. All in all, the opposite of la vie de bohème as lived for instance by Baudelaire.

  20. Sneaky translator left out the ‘bourgeois’ bit.

  21. John Cowan says

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