Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Proverbial Paucity

One of the special pleasures of living in an academic community is that the most ordinary of daily experiences often become informal seminars.  Last week I benefited from an amusing conversational seminar with my friend Ron Surtz.   In his day job Ron is a distinguished scholar of early Spanish literature and the prolific author of numerous important scholarly studies.   And if you think Oliver Sachs’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is interesting, and it is, you really ought to dip into Ron’s The Guitar of God, which is about a nun who mistook herself for a musical instrument.  But before the day properly begins Ron shows up for a workout at the gym, where he not infrequently crosses paths with Joan around the machines in the Torture Chamber and later with me around the shower room.  One day last week Joan was late in showing up, and in explaining her absence I passed on the excuse she had peddled to me.  “By mistake I put the alarm ‘off’ instead of ‘on’.”

            “Not that one,” said Ron.  “That’s one that undergraduates use.  As they say in Spain, you’ll have to find another dog to toss that bone to.”    When I asked him if they really say that in Spain, he quoted it for me in Spanish: A otro perro con ese hueso.  I love old folk saws, and here was a terrific new one.  In terms of canine proverbs its seems roughly comparable to, though better than, our own American That dog won’t hunt.  I believe it was LBJ who mainstreamed that particular bit of wisdom from the bayous and the boskies.

            The episode made me aware of a previously unappreciated poverty in my life: the fading of the old world of proverbs that I knew as a kid.  Proverbs were on every lip in Baxter County, where absence made the heart grow fonder but then again out of sight was out of mind.  Many hands made light work even if too many cooks spoiled the broth.  I could devote two or three essays to my father’s folk wisdom concerning pigs alone.  We all aspired to live high off the hog and to be as happy as a hog on ice.  You should never buy a pig in a poke.  When he told somebody off, he told them right where the hog ate the cabbages.  When he was absolutely determined to do a certain thing, he was going to do it “even if it costs Pa a pig”.

            The gradual disappearance of the proverbial in everyday speech would seem to be an aspect of the general waning of the folkloristic, and I regard it as a cause for lament.  Our old poets are full of proverbs, often moralizing ones.  Chaucer’s good parson tells us that “a man can sin with his own wife, even as he can cut himself with his own knife”—a rhyming saw that has disappeared with the gloomy moral theology which saw its birth.  Shakespeare’s Polonius is a geyser of popular and proverbial sententiousness so approved by my own elders that it was only when I got to graduate school that I was allowed to recognize the large portion of windbag in the old guy’s personality.  Still his punishment was extreme.  Nobody deserves to be stabbed in the arras. 

            Most of my forebears were Irish, but there was one tenuous English branch to the family.  My paternal grandmother’s name was Harrington (Herrington), and her own immediate ancestors, despite being nonconformists, had been English Tories who in the 1780s fled the American Reds for the loyal haven of Windsor, Ontario.  She had some distinctive expressions, one of which was “Don’t try to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs.”  The general meaning of this was clear—do not presume to instruct people in an art of which they are already masters—but its effect was strengthened by the fact that she actually was my grandmother, and the thought of her actually sucking an egg preposterous.  I never heard anybody outside the immediate family use the expression, but I was delighted many years later to see it turn up in Fielding’s Tom Jones.

            She had one very mysterious expression, also pig-related, to which I hope one day to devote a learned article.  Her husband and their adult children were world-class bickerers, and when exasperated by their squabbling she would express her fervent desire for what sounded like “a bite of done more bacon”—meaning, so far as I could tell, some peace and quiet.  In Chaucer’s prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale (lines 217-218) there is allusion to “the bacon…that some men han in Essex at Dunmowe”.  The reference is to a quaint and delightful medieval custom long practiced in the village of Little Dunmow.  “It was that any person going to Dunmow, in Essex, and humbly kneeling on two sharp stones at the church door, might claim a gammon of bacon if he could swear that for twelve months and a day he had never had a household brawl or wished himself unmarried.”

            My grandmother was no Chaucer reader, but I learn from the indispensable reference tool from which I have just cited a passage (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) that “Allusions to the custom are frequent in 17th- and 18th-century literature, and the custom was revived again in the second half of the 19th century.”  General family bickering is not exactly the same thing as marital strife, and “done more” is not exactly the same thing as Dunmowe.  Nonetheless, I think the case is open-and-shut.  You may think I’d better look for a different dog.

The old public house in Little Dunmow, Essex