Toxic shock

Near the end of the first volume of the David Hawkes translation of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone the hero, Bao-yu, is wandering about his family’s private park and runs across his nephew Jia Lan, who is clutching a tiny bow with which he is hunting deer.

“I’ve got no reading to do today,” said Jia Lan, “and I don’t like to hang about doing nothing, so I thought I’d practise my archery and equitation.”

“Goodness! You’d better not waste time jawing, then,” said Bao-yu, and left the young toxophilite to his pursuits.

While the Rong-guo family are a well-educated elite, Hawkes doesn’t spice his translation with a lot of fancy or archaic vocabulary. Nevertheless there were two words in this brief passage that I was unfamiliar with. In both cases the meaning was clear, but I went to the dictionary to see if I was missing anything.

I had a good idea what “equitation” referred to, and to be fair it is a word that, while not commonly known, is frequently used by people involved in equestrian sports. It just refers to the art of horse riding (or, more technically, a rider’s position while mounted) and I think what confused me was the fact that Jia Lan is not riding a horse while out hunting.

“Toxophilite,” on the other hand, really threw me. It’s another word where knowledge of Greek would have helped, as the Greek “toxon” means a bow, while “philia” is love or affection. So Jia Lan, who is carrying a bow, is a student or lover of archery. The actual English word is a relatively modern coinage, invented by Roger Ascham in a 16th-century book on longbow archery (the first printed book in English on archery, as it happens) titled Toxophilus. It was later adopted by an18th-century English archery society but never seems to have caught on. Archery itself wasn’t really mainstream in the modern era.

Anyway, from the context the meaning was clear and I really didn’t need to look it up, but I’m glad I did. One trivia sidebar I found online gave more background:

Today, toxophilite is a rarely used word but often occurs in vocabulary games and puzzles and in spelling bees. A more ubiquitous descendant of toxon is “toxic.” Toxic is an Anglicization of Latin’s word for “poison,” toxicum, which originally meant “poison for arrows” and is a borrowing from Greek toxikon, meaning “arrow.”

I thought this was interesting. It seems the line gets blurry between poison and bows when doling out the prefixes. Toxo- can be used to refer to poisons in some English words, though the preference seems to be for toxico-. An expert in poisons is a toxicologist, so presumably an expert archer would be a toxologist, though that word doesn’t seem to exist. “Toxology” for “archery” is listed by dictionaries as very rare, and is usually assumed by spell-check programs to be a misspelling of “toxicology.”

Leapin’ lethiferous looters!

In Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs he describes Napoleon entering a Moscow abandoned and on fire: “Only a few French tutors, actresses and lethiferous bands of looters haunted the streets as Moscow burned for six days.” If you know Latin, or if you’re just good at guessing based on cognates, you’d figure (correctly) that “lethiferous” means “deadly” or “lethal.” Still, it’s an obsolete word I don’t recall seeing used before. Another one for the word bank!

Re-reading Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus

(1) There was no Titus Andronicus. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does. Of course there was no Prospero. There probably was no King Lear (or Leir). But in Lear’s case you can at least place the character in a historical context (pre-Roman Britain) and give the story a source (Holinshed’s Chronicles). And Shakespeare’s other Roman plays are all about real historical figures and draw on sources like Plutarch. But Titus Andronicus is a made-up figure living in a fantasy world. The presumed source dates the events to the reign of the Emperor Theodosius, but that’s nothing more than a wave of the hand. In many ways this is a more primitive Rome than that of Coriolanus, which is set half a millennium earlier.

Like I say, this shouldn’t matter. Shakespeare’s Rome, like his England in the history plays, is a fictional place. And yet it’s always made me uncomfortable. Perhaps I just don’t like fantasy, or fantasy that plays fast and loose with history. It’s the same sort of feeling I get from the Nibelungenlied, which has its germ in actual historical events but really can’t be thought of in those terms. Burgundy might as well be Middle Earth. What you’re getting isn’t an interpretation or mythic re-imagining of history but something entirely other. And by breaking that link it seems to me that you end up with a play that loses some of its connection to the present as well.

(2) When Marcus discovers Lavinia after she has been raped and mutilated, he exclaims

Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopped,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.

This is very well observed. Physically, Lavinia is incapable of speaking her sorrow because her tongue has been cut out, but we can see her silence as metaphorical as well. One response to rape is shame, and when the victim doesn’t speak out her rage often does turn inward, expressing itself later through other emotional disorders. With no outlet, the victim’s anger is directed back upon itself. The heart consumes itself in silence, but it does burn.

(3) Titus makes Lear’s mistake of giving up power. He could have been emperor but he turns the job down. Richard II is another example of a Shakespearean king who flubs the same test, effectively deposing himself. This was an important lesson in leadership for pre-modern rulers: If you’re the king you have to be a king. But I wonder if such a message resonates as much today, when institutions take precedence over individuals.

I think it is still relevant, though perhaps not in the way it is most often taken: to do unto others before they do unto you. In Shakespeare such situations lead to more than just a passing of the guard; they toss the whole world into chaos, and begin cycles of violence with long tails. That’s a pattern we should be familiar with today, though twenty-first century blowback is less of a family matter.

I don’t think they misunderstood anything

From The Invention of Russia (2015) by Arkady Ostrovsky:

The new class of businessmen that emerged from the rubble of the Soviet economy thought of themselves as the champions of capitalism as they understood it. In some ways they were the victims of Soviet propaganda that portrayed capitalism as a cutthroat, cynical system where craftiness and ruthlessness were more important than integrity, where everyone screws each other and money is the only arbiter of success.

Russian capitalism was far removed from the concept of honest competition and fair play or Weber’s Protestant ethics. It was not built on a centuries-long tradition of private property, feudal honor and dignity. In fact, it hardly had any foundations at all, other than the Marxist-Leninist conception of private property as theft. Since Russia’s new businessmen favored property, they did not mind theft. The words conscience, morality and integrity were tainted by ideology and belonged to a different language — one that was used by their fathers’ generation. “For us these were swear-words which the Soviet system professed in its slogans while killing and depriving people,” Vladimir Yakovlev said.

The tenets of socialism were removed only to reveal a vacuum of morals — in itself the result of the Soviet experiment in breeding a new being. The transition from Soviet to post-Soviet society was accompanied by a change in perception of what makes one succeed in life. In 1988, 45 percent of the country felt it was “diligence and hard work.” In 1992 only 31 percent felt these would get you anywhere. The factors that gained importance were “good connections,” “dexterity” and “being a good wheeler-dealer.” The first Russian businessmen had all those qualities and boasted about them.

The happy nine-fingered shepherds of pastoral

From Deliverance (1970) by James Dickey:

There is always something wrong about people in the country, I thought. In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis. The work with the hands must be fantastically dangerous, in all that fresh air and sunshine, I thought: the catching of an arm in a tractor part somewhere off in the middle of a field where nothing happened but the sun blazed back more fiercely down the open mouth of one’s screams. And so many snakebites deep in the woods as one stepped over a rotting log, so many domestic animals suddenly turning and crushing one against the splintering side of a barn stall. I wanted none of it, and I didn’t want to be around when it happened either. But I was there, and there was no way for me to escape, except by water, from the country of nine-fingered people.

Marginalia

My review of Jeff Bursey’s collection of essays and reviews, Centring the Margins, is up now at the Canadian Notes & Queries website. My own tastes in literature are rather different than Bursey’s but I think voices like his are essential. We need more such critics if any culture of value is going to survive this profoundly anti-critical age. For various reasons, I’m afraid we’re not going to get them.