Friday, 8 January 2010

A Footnote to Faust

"All art is a footnote to Faust. I have no idea what I mean by that." Woody Allen.1

1. Noel Coward said that "coming across a footnote is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while in the midst of making love." Sometimes this is true, particularly in a narrative where the building of tension is paramount, as in the ghost story. However the footnote can be a fascinating device, and has been put to good po-mo effect particularly by Nabokov in Pale Fire and David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest. Equally, it can evoke an enchanting past, as in Susannah Clarke's Regency pastiche Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, where the footnote is used to temper the fantastic with many tedious references to arcane books and historical events, almost all of which are Clarke's invention.

Particularly intriguing is the novel by Luis d'Antin van Rooten, Mots d'heures: Gousses, Rames (homophone for Mother Goose Rhymes) in which the footnotes "helpfully" gloss the nonsensical 18th century French poems, which are in fact clever imitations of several English Nursery Rhymes - or N'Heures souris rames as the later writer Ormonde de Kay has it. Voila a podcast about it. Voila aussi his version of Humpty Dumpty:
Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu'importe un petit d'un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.
Sometimes footnotes can contain their own fascinating little tales, as exemplified by Michael Cox's magisterial edition of M. R. James' Ghost Stories.

This one, from Count Magnus, I find more chilling than the tale itself. It is taken from the Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature, vol X, no  (Feb, 1815) which incidentally is now going on my reading list.

The late King of Sweden has published a very curious address. He says, he has received the Grand Seignior's permission to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land: in consequence, he invites ten persons to accompany him, one from each of the nations of Europe: they are to wear black robes, to let their beards grow, take the style and title of the Black Brethren, and are each to be attended by a servant in black and grey livery... the Black Brethren are to assemble at Trieste, on the 24th of June.
I can't imagine the psychopaths who answered this advert, but I want to know more about them. (Also, I like the idea of a Black Bredren made up of the ten countries of Europe - I reckon I'm half-way there.) Some say the trip was linked to the supposedly evil town of Mohra in Sweden, which is superstitiously associated with the legendary city of Chorazin, where the antichrist is supposed to be born. (See A History of the Archdiocese of Upsala. James himself mentions Upsala, which he visited in 1901, in a letter to his parents. Apparently he saw "two contracts with the devil written (and signed in blood) by Daniel Salthenius who was condemned to death for writing them. He escaped that & died professor of Divinity at Konigsberg.")

Recently, though, I have been much more interested in Victorian footnotes; particularly as a way of sneaking delicious bits of information disguised as academic apparatus. My favourite is the Victorian voyager, fencer, hypnotist, translator, sexologist, poet, spy and all-round Orimentalist Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: the translator of The Arabian Nights and of the Kama Sutra.

(From the film Zero Patience, dir. John Greyson)

The translation of the Arabian Nights is itself an incredible feat, with Burton fashioning a strange hodge-podge of poetic language, drawn from all over the place. One archetypal sentence runs "He fair to the sight, a well shaped wight, with eloquence dight; his forehead was flower-white, his cheek rosy-bright, and a mole on his cheek-breadth like an ambergris-mite; even as the poet doth indite:-" after which follows a homoerotic poem which Burton bizarrely explains away in a footnote, saying "He speaks of his wife, but euphemistically in the masculine." What kind of euphemism is more scandalous than the thing it is supposed to conceal?

Elsewhere, this enormous mass of footnotes might seem to be a digression, with their own curious little stories, but in the Nights, they are entirely apt. Just as Shahrazad attempts to delay her execution by telling the King her thousand and one stories, Burton distracts and delights the reader with many strange diversions: mainly to do with sex, and almost all misogynistic.

For example, in one footnote, Burton glosses the affair between the Queen and her black slave:
Debauched women prefer negroes on account of the size of their parts. I measured one man in Somali-land who, when quiescent, numbered nearly six inches [...] Moreover these imposing parts do not increase proportionally during erection; consequently, the "deed of kind" takes a much longer time and adds greatly to the women's enjoyment. In my time no honest Hindi Moslem would take his women-folk to Zanzibar on account of the huge attractions and enormous temptations there and thereby offered to them. Upon the subject of Imsák = retention of semen and prolongation of pleasure, I shall find it necessary to say more.
No thanks. 

Burton does not really approve of women. Commenting upon the slaughter of the Queen and the Royal Harem for infidelity, he writes "one can hardly pity women who are fools enough to run such risks." He later remarks that "learned and clever young ladies are very dangerous in the East." On the subject of menstruation he is typically frank:
Orientals are aware that the period of especial feminine devilry is between the first menstruation and twenty when, according to some, every girl is a "possible murderess". So they wisely marry and get rid of what is called the "lump of grief", never hear the abominable egotism and cruelty of the English mother, who disappoints her daughter's womanly cravings in order to keep her at home for her own comfort: and an "old maid" in the house, especially a stout, plum old maid, is not considered "respectable". The ancient virgin is known by being lean and scraggy, and perhaps this diagnosis is correct.
In another aside, he is more sympathetic:
We have all known women who sacrificed everything despite themselves, as it were, for the most worthless of men. The world stares and scoffs and blames and understands nothing. [...] The famous Wilkes said only a half-truth when he back himself, with an hour's start, against the handsomest man in England; his uncommon and remarkable ugliness (he was, as the Italians say, un bel brutto) was the highest recommendation in the eyes of very beautiful women.
Some female aspects intrigue him:
The "high-bosomed" damsel, with breasts firm as a cube, is a favourite with Arab tale-tellers. Fanno baruffa is the Italian term for hard breasts pointing outwards.
And some references to women are simply bizarre:
"Nothing follows all this palming work"; in Europe the orgy would end very differently. These "nuns of Theleme" are physically pure: their debauchery is of the mind, not the body. Galland [the first English translator of the Nights] makes them five, including the two doggesses.
Burton not only interests when speaking of the Medieval East, but also in his frequent comparisons with his own time, and therefore perhaps revealing much about his view of contemporary Victorian society. When one character says "there is no woman but who cuckoldeth her husband", Burton adds "The very same words were lately spoken in England proving the eternal truth of The Nights which the ignorant call "downright lies". It might seem odd that the Nights should prove so popular with the Victorians - many of whom were scandalised by them - but perhaps this curious mix of conservative and liberal morality appealed to their own blend of prurience and prudery.

This is also exemplified by Burton's treatment of gayery. He seems to disapprove of the Persians - "Persians have bequeathed to the outer world worse things than bad language, eg. heresy and sodomy" - and warns the reader that
Mohammed was an Arab (not a Persian, a born pederast) and he was too fond of women to be charged with love of boys: even Tristram Shandy knew that the two tastes are incompatibles. But this and other passages in the Koran have given the Chevaliers de la Pallie a hint that the use of boys, like that of wine, here forbidden, will be permitted in Paradise.
Here the footnote functions as a Shuttered Palace of illicit information; an Eastern Bazaar hiding just behind the facade of Victorian scholarship and respectability,  and which only those readers foolish or adventurous enough to go looking for them will find.

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