The Word Mumu.

I’ve been reading Victoria Somoff’s The Imperative of Reliability: Russian Prose on the Eve of the Novel, 1820s-1850s but got increasingly annoyed with it and have set it aside for the time being. I was excited about reading it because she’s discussing a period I’m very interested in and nobody talks about much, but it turns out she’s more interested in her theory than in the actual history — for one thing, she pretends there were no Russian novels before the 1850s, which is absurd, there were a bunch of them in the 18th century and some fine ones in the early 19th. And (to take a trivial but telling example) she consistently misdates one of the few texts she discusses in depth, Turgenev’s “Konets Chertopkhanova” [The End of Chertopkhanov], to 1874 rather than 1872. She has some interesting things to say, but she should have done more spadework, and frankly it should have been an article, not a book.

However, I found this bit on Turgenev’s story “Mumu” interesting enough to post here:

Kolotaev’s point that in effect Gerasim [the deaf-mute hero of the story, an illiterate serf] is a child uttering his first word is well taken. But, the possible associations evoked by “Mumu” aside, quite glaring in this situation is that in naming the dog, the otherwise mute Gerasim acquires the ability to pronounce a word; the animal sound he is able to produce becomes a human word. Gerasim’s long-standing “moo-moo,” it turns out, has a real-world application — it is the name of this particular dog; and when calling it, Gerasim, for the first time in his life, makes sense. […] Thus, by naming his dog Mumu, the only name he is capable of giving, Gerasim acquires speech, even if his language consists only of this one word.

With the death of Mumu, this language is lost. Mumu is thus a story not only of a serf’s unjust loss of his pet but also, somewhat paradoxically, of this deaf and mute hero’s loss of speech; which is not the same thing, I would stress, as falling back into muteness — a conclusion that would support the reading of the novella’s end, albeit in a manner other than that usually proposed, as Gerasim’s final defeat. It would be more accurate to suggest that although Gerasim loses his capacity for articulate speech with Mumu’s death, he does not so much relapse into muteness as fall silent. With Mumu gone, Gerasim literally has nothing more to say, is liberated from the very need to speak. Muteness strives to be resolved into words and, therefore, precedes speech, but silence comes after it, standing as the volitional transformation of muteness, the human choice, that is, not to make a sound.

And speaking of falling silent, Victor Hayden died on December 7. That name will be known to almost no one, but fans of Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) will recognize his nom de Beefheart, The Mascara Snake. You can hear his moment in the limelight, from the Captain’s masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica, here. Fast and bulbous!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Ah, even the fastest and most bulbous are eventually stilled by the remorseless passage of time. Вечная память!

  2. I had a feeling you would share my feelings about the passing of the Snake.

  3. Not exactly related, but still of interest, I guess:

    Parrot Genes Reveal Why the Birds Are So Clever, Long-Lived

    Researchers say the avian creatures are as genetically distant from other birds as humans are from other primates

  4. Say what? Humans are embedded in the primate tree. Our sibling species are chimps and bonobos, and our cousins are gorillas.

  5. Parrots date from 50 million years ago.

    Primates – 55 million years ago. Ancestors of humans diverged from other great apes 6 million years ago.

    Analogy between parrots and primates makes some good sense. But analogy with humans needs more narrow (and smarter) definition of parrots.

  6. Since primate species wound up being discussed here, this is where I’ll stick Jonathan Marks’ Critical Hominin Theory, which is an interesting take on the issues:

    The problem is not a new one. Reviewing mammalian systematics in 1945, G. G. Simpson was frustrated by the difference he encountered between paleontological and paleoanthropological taxonomy. Since human are mammals, it stands to reason that an expert on mammalian species should be able to make sense of extinct hominin species. Like any other biological taxonomic enterprise, there is a proper taxonomic scheme, reflecting a proper understanding of the fossil species in that particular evolutionary lineage. It’s simply a matter of finding it. Some people see too few species (lumpers), and some people see too many species (splitters), while a competent paleontologist should produce results that are as Goldilocks found the baby bear’s porridge: just right.

    The problem, however, is not simply that everybody fancies themselves to be the baby bear; but rather, lies more fundamentally in the assumption that the elementary units in paleoanthropology and the elementary units of paleontology are equivalent. I think it is time to call that assumption into question. The units of paleontology, and of biology more generally, are different from the units of paleoanthropology, in that the latter are units in a story of our ancestors, and the ancestors are invariably sacred.

  7. fascinating!

  8. Stephen J. Gould was a jackass personally, and (not coincidently, it seems) he also had some significant blind spots even in his comprehension of natural history. However, he was nonetheless a very smart guy, and when things did not run up against his preconceptions, he could provide quite thoughtful commentary. One thing he often pointed out (quite forcefully, in fact, since this was one area where those personal preconceptions were actually right) was that there were a lot of theories that were taken seriously in discussions of specifically human evolution but which would have been risible in any other area of paleontology. Because people want human origins to be special.

  9. Personally I would’ve put a link on hominin cladistics under Hominin/Hominid, but there are a lot of discussions here on the topic.

  10. Ah well, it’s here now. I confess I didn’t do a full-throttle search.

  11. David Marjanović says

    The units of paleontology, and of biology more generally, are different from the units of paleoanthropology, in that the latter are units in a story of our ancestors, and the ancestors are invariably sacred.

    Or, in short, “the closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”

Speak Your Mind