September 02, 2005

The Great Tradition

Mark may well be right to suggest that Dryden was " the first poet to use the excretion of bodily wastes as a metaphor for the deprecated expression of ideas," but the association is implicit almost a century earlier in Montaigne's essay "De la vanité."

The essay begins:

Je ne puis tenir registre de ma vie, par mes actions : fortune les met trop bas : je le tiens par mes fantasies. Si ay-je veu un gentil-homme, qui ne communiquoit sa vie, que par les operations de son ventre : Vous voyiez chez luy, en montre, un ordre de bassins de sept ou huict jours : C'estoit son estude, ses discours : Tout autre propos luy puoit. Ce sont icy, un peu plus civilement, des excremens d'un vieil esprit : dur tantost, tantost lasche : et tousjours indigeste. Et quand seray-je à bout de representer une continuelle agitation et mutation de mes pensees, en quelque matiere qu'elles tombent, puisque Diomedes remplit six mille livres, du seul subject de la grammaire? Que doit produire le babil, puisque le begaiement et desnouement de la langue, estouffa le monde d'une si horrible charge de volumes? Tant de paroles, pour les paroles seules.

Here's the passage in Charles Cotton's rather stiff translation of 1877:

I can give no account of my life by my actions; fortune has placed them too low: I must do it by my fancies. And yet I have seen a gentleman who only communicated his life by the workings of his belly: you might see on his premises a show of a row of basins of seven or eight days' standing; it was his study, his discourse; all other talk stank in his nostrils. Here, but not so nauseous, are the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested. And when shall I have done representing the continual agitation and mutation of my thoughts, as they come into my head, seeing that Diomedes wrote six thousand books upon the sole subject of grammar? What, then, ought prating to produce, since prattling and the first beginning to speak, stuffed the world with such a horrible load of volumes? So many words for words only.

In other words, Montaigne seems to be saying, bullshit was the invention of grammarians.

(Note: A note in Cotton's translation explains that "It was not Diomedes, but Didymus the grammarian, who, as Seneca (Ep., 88) tells us, wrote four not six thousand books on questions of vain literature, which was the principal study of the ancient grammarian... But the number is probably exaggerated, and for books we should doubtless read pamphlets or essays.")

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at September 2, 2005 07:01 PM