Monday, May 02, 2005
Perhaps my title overstates the case.
But I am proud that an apparent side-effect of my frequent enthusings about Empson has been a few folks hauling off and reading him. This is an excellent thing to do in Empson’s case. So we get letters. Well, one. But it’s long. Before I get to that, A.Cephalous is just a prince among commenters. And you should visit his fine blog. Read, especially, his lavish praise of “Valve Culture, Valve Life”. But do not fail to read his series on How To Open An Academic Essay; part II; part II, part II. He has all the sauce and vinegar of a young Adam Kotsko.
As I was saying: letter, we get letter.
From nnyhav, another prince among commenters. His notes, in effect. (At first I deleted the email as pharmaceutical spam, due to the Bim Bom subject line, then I realized it was not.) First, he quotes a bit he likes from Some Versions of Pastoral, chapter 1. It’s a bit I like, too, so I’ll quote it to you:
Chapter 1, Proletarian Literature (paragraph 3):
Gray’s Elegy is an odd case of poetry with latent political ideas:
“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
What this means, as the context makes clear, is that 18th century England had no scholarship system or carriere ouverte aux talents. This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it. [...] By comparing the social arrangement to Nature he makes it seem inevitable, which it is not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. Furthermore, a gem does not mind being in a cave and a flower prefers not to be picked; we feel that the man is like the flower, as short-lived, natural, and valuable, and this tricks us into feeling that he is better off without opportunities. [...]
Then he gets to the funny bit:
Chapter 2, Double Plots (paragraph 4):
This [tragic king/comic populace mirror] in itself can hardly be kept from irony, and the comic part, once licensed, has an obvious subject for its jokes. Usually it provides a sort of parody or parallel in low life to the serious part; Faustus’ servant gets dangerously mixed up with the devils like his master. This gives an impression of dealing with life completely, so that critics sometimes say that Henry IV deals with the whole of English life at some date, either Shakespeare’s or Henry’s; this is palpable nonsense, but what the device wants to make you feel. Also the play can thus anticipate the parody a hearer might have in mind without losing its dignity, which again has a sort of completeness. It is hard to feel that Mac’s wife was meant to do this, but she is only the less conscious end of the scale, and perhaps no example occupies only one point of it. A remark by Middleton on clowns seems a comment on this process:
“There’s nothing in a play to a clown, if he
Have but the grace to hit on’t; that’s the thing needed:
The king shows well, but he sets off the king.
The idea of foil to a jewel and soil from which a flower grows give the two different views of such a character, and with a long ‘s’ the words are almost indistinguishable; it may be significant that the first edition of Tamburlane’s Beauty speech reads soil for the accepted ‘foil,’ a variant I have never seen listed, but the line is at some distance from intepreting either word. A clear case of ‘foil’ is given by the play of heroic swashbucklers, which has a comic cowardly swashbuckler (Parolles), not at all to parody the heroes but to stop you from doing so: ‘If you want to laugh at this sort of thing laugh now and get it over.’ I believe the Soviet Government in its early days paid two clowns, Bim and Bom, to say as jokes the things everybody else would have been shot for saying.
Bim and Bom I’d seen not long ago, in context of translation of names in Beckett’s What Where (where or what in I don’t recall), though they originally appear as character names in Murphy (’57); Tyrus Miller’s Late Modernism (UCPress, ‘99) makes the Bolshevik connection (net info on this or these clowns appended below), but a bit’o’googlin’ turned up J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet (1898), which concerns smugglers, trying to cheat an heir out of a diamond. [And sure enough a simple ‘empson bim bom’ google search gets you there.]
Empson makes his sole appearance offstage in chapter 1:
‘Ay, ‘twas a cruel, cruel thing to fire on so young a lad,’ Ratsey said, as he stepped back a pace to study the effect of a flag that he was chiselling on the Revenue schooner, ‘and trouble is likely to come to the other poor fellows taken, for Lawyer Empson says three of them will surely hang at next Assize.’
But chapter 3 introduces a distinctive ring, echoing once and only once later:
Soon I wished I had not come at all, considering that the diamond had vanished into air, and it was a sad thing to be cabined with so many dead men. It moved me, too, to see pieces of banners and funeral shields, and even shreds of wreaths that dear hearts had put there a century ago, now all ruined and rotten--some still clinging, water-sodden, to the coffins, and some trampled in the sand of the floor. I had spent some time in this bootless search, and was resolved to give up further inquiry and foot it home, when the clock in the tower struck midnight. Surely never was ghostly hour sounded in more ghostly place. Moonfleet peal was known over half the county, and the finest part of it was the clock bell. ‘Twas said that in times past (when, perhaps, the chimes were rung more often than now) the voice of this bell had led safe home boats that were lost in the fog; and this night its clangour, mellow and profound, reached even to the vault. Bim-bom it went, bim-bom, twelve heavy thuds that shook the walls, twelve resonant echoes that followed, and then a purring and vibration of the air, so that the ear could not tell when it ended.
I was wrought up, perhaps, by the strangeness of the hour and place, and my hearing quicker than at other times, but before the tremor of the bell was quite passed away I knew there was some other sound in the air, and that the awful stillness of the vault was broken. At first I could not tell what this new sound was, nor whence it came, and now it seemed a little noise close by, and now a great noise in the distance. And then it grew nearer and more defined, and in a moment I knew it was the sound of voices talking. They must have been a long way off at first, and for a minute, that seemed as an age, they came no nearer. What a minute was that to me! Even now, so many years after, I can recall the anguish of it, and how I stood with ears pricked up, eyes starting, and a clammy sweat upon my face, waiting for those speakers to come. It was the anguish of the rabbit at the end of his burrow, with the ferret’s eyes gleaming in the dark, and gun and lurcher waiting at the mouth of the hole. I was caught in a trap, and knew beside that contraband-men had a way of sealing prying eyes and stilling babbling tongues; and I remembered poor Cracky Jones found dead in the churchyard, and how men _said_ he had met Blackbeard in the night.
Chapter 8, with our hero lowered into a well-shaft in search of secreted treasure:
I heard them talking together, but could not make out what they said, for the bim-bom and echo in the well, till Elzevir shouted again, ‘They say this floor has been raised; you must try lower.’
Then the bucket began to move lower, slowly, and I crouched down in it again, not wishing to look too much into the unfathomable, dark abyss below. And all the while there rose groanings and moanings from eddies in the bottom of the well, as if the spirits that kept watch over me jewel were yammering together that one should be so near it; and clear above them all I heard Grace’s voice, sweet and grave, ‘Have a care, have a care how you touch the treasure; it was evilly come by, and will bring a curse with it.’
But I had set foot on this way now, and must go through with it, so when the bucket stopped some six feet lower down, I fell again to diligently examining the walls. They were still built of the shallow bricks, and scanning them course by course as before, I could at first see nothing, but as I moved my eyes downward they were brought up by a mark scratched on a brick, close to the hanging plummet-line.
Now, however lightly a man may glance through a book, yet if his own name, or even only one nice it, should be printed on the page, his eyes will instantly be stopped by it; so too, if his name be mentioned by others in their speech, though it should be whispered never so low, his ears will catch it. Thus it was with this mark, for though it was very slight, so that I think not one in a thousand would ever have noticed it at all, yet it stopped my eyes and brought up my thoughts suddenly, because I knew by instinct that it had something to do with me and what I sought.
And here my casual research ends for the moment (though I should note that Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children also prompted, with Saleem the Bom-of-Bombay ...)
Bim Bom backgrounding:
Dennis Casey, Lawful Terror: The Cheka (Air Intelligence Agency, Lackland AFB) confuses the joke:
When the Cheka opened for business in Moscow, their list of candidates to receive brutal treatment was extensive. Heading the list was the celebrated circus clown Bim Bom. His repertoire included jokes about the Bolsheviks in particular and Communists in general.
When Cheka agents attempted to arrest the irreverent clown during one of his performances, the audience thought the antics were part of the act. Bim Bom fled from the ring with the agents firing at him. His escape was made possible when the audience in panic bolted for the exits. As one amused bystander so aptly put it, the clowns were chasing the clown.
Time, Courtiers B. & K., April 30, 1956 (coverstory? Russia’s Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev visit Britain—subhead: Jeweled Cuff Links. The Soviet story in the past three years is largely the story of Nikita Khrushchev’s effort to wear the mantle of Stalin’s leadership. googlecached):
Home from his foreign exploits, Khrushchev began preparing for his major triumph as First Secretary: dominating his first party congress. His 47,000-word speech was loaded with tables of production, learned quotes from Lenin, and exhortations to efficiency and greater production. It sounded like (and might easily have been) a rehash of one of Stalin’s old speeches. In Stalin’s mighty fashion, Khrushchev took lofty cracks at top party comrades, referred to Malenkov as an “incorrigible braggart,” and told how it had been “necessary to correct” Molotov on an important ideological point.
It was the attitude of a man who undoubtedly considered himself Stalin’s legitimate heir. But crafty little Anastas Mikoyan, the Armenian trader, had been chosen to deliver a speech (obviously approved by others in the leadership) which snatched the rug out from under Nikita’s big feet. Mikoyan attacked Stalin’s Short Course of the History of the Party, for years the ideological basis of all such Communists as Khrushchev. He dismissed Stalin’s phony account of the civil war and talked of “party leaders of that time who were wrongly declared to have been enemies of the people.” Adding insult to injury, Mikoyan named Khrushchev’s liquidated predecessor Kossior as one such and asserted, to the sound of laughter, that “Ukrainian historians will be found who will write a history of the emergence and development of the Ukrainian socialist state better than some Moscow historians.” The speech, opening up the whole case against Stalin, and by indirection the complicity of his associates, was a sensation.
For two days it was withheld from print. Then, as the 20th congress ended, Khrushchev called his famous secret meeting in which he tearfully blabbed the whole story of Stalin’s mass murders, torturings and evil motives. Nikita’s reasons could be deduced: if the party was going to open that one up, he was going to be chief opener. If they intended to pin a guilt label to him, he would show that they were all equally guilty. By twice indicating in his speech that Georgy Malenkov was Stalin’s most trusted collaborator, he wanted to make certain that Malenkov (whom Muscovites now somewhat affectionately call Georgy NeudachnikGeorgy the Unsuccessful) came in for his share of guilt.
Leaked to the world press and foreign diplomats at a French embassy party (attended by Mikoyan), the story exploded on the foreign Communist Parties and rebounded in the Soviet Union with atomic force. In Soviet newspapers it was the signal for an intense campaign against “the cult of personality.” Ostensibly the campaign was directed against the dead Stalin, and busts of the dictator began falling all over the land. But it was also a warning to Khrushchev. The subsequent acknowledgment of Stalin’s anti-Semitism was also a reminder of Khrushchev’s work in the Ukraine. As the Central Committee began rehabilitating liquidated Red army officers, Nikita’s chosen partner Bulganin suffered a severe loss of prestige. Marshal Zhukov, who had been downgraded (and all but liquidated) by top military commissar Bulganin at the high point of his great wartime victories, had an old score to settle.
In Moscow, where people are quick to catch the political drift, anyone can get a laugh today by starting out in high-pitched Russian, “Ya i moi droog . . .” a phrase which appears often in Khrushchev’s speeches, meaning “I and my friend . . .” i.e., Bulganin. Jokes about Bim and Bom, famed Russian circus clowns, have suddenly found a new popularity in Moscow.
Boo & Chant. In Britain last week Bim and Bom (or B. & K.) doggedly labored at their act, even though their audiences were cool. At Oxford some 5,000 people, mostly students, broke police lines to crowd around them booing and chanting: “Poor old Joe, poor old Joe!” (to the tune of Stephen Foster’s Old Black Joe). Bulganin stood up smiling and raising his arms like a boxer acknowledging applause, signed autographs and patted student cheeks. In New College quadrangle, students set off a huge firecracker which made B. & K. jump, led Bulganin to quip: “Are they making an atomic bomb?"
Now doesn’t that make you want to read more Empson?
I am sometimes also compared to a young Adam Kotsko.
I winced as I recognized the “father killing” instinct in myself.
Adam: No wincing! Kill the dragon! Taste the blood! Learn the speech of birds!
Just a suggestion.
Kibitzer, not commenter! One further scrap:
The Carlyle-ists should adopt, as a motto, the inscription on the old bell from whose metal was cast the Great Tom, of Oxford: — “In Thomæ laude resono ‘Bim! Bom!’ sine fraude:” — and “Bim! Bom,” in such case, would be a marvellous “echo of sound to sense.”
-- Edgar Poe, “Marginalia,” Southern Literary Messenger, June 1849.
Would it be possible to have the name of the commenter appear on the e-mail comment updates?
Adam, I am looking into your request. If you wouldn’t mind, could you clarify where you think the commenter’s name should appear? In the subject line? In the message itself? In the interest of keeping the technical conversation from gobbling up this comment thread, please feel email me at as you see fit.
This is just a test of the comment notification functionality.
This is one further test. I apologize for the inconvenience.