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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

a parable from Potocki

Consider this a parable.

Consider, too, that where there are parables, there is wisdom. For the parable is the preferred genre of the wise.

And finally, consider the status of the parable in a world in which the wise have become as extinct as the dodo or the passenger pigeon. Shouldn’t the parable follow?

In 1797, the ever mysterious Jan Potocki set off from Moscow on a journey that would supposedly take him to China. On the 27th of May, he passed from Europe into Asia, although the two continents are not clearly demarcated by any particular geographic feature. At this point, he was in the territory of the Kalmucks. He had become part of this expedition as a scholar, researching the pre-history of the Slavs. He was thus continually reminded of his reading of the ancient historians and geographers, Herodotus and Strabo.

“My dog created a great sensation among them. I was told, in reference to this subject, that they attached to this animal ideas of metempsychosis, and that for this reason they held it a great honor, after their deaths, to be devoured by their dogs, who always in fact did them this honor. For, in spite of the great respect given to them by the Kalmucks, they hardly ever fed them, since they were too miserly with their dairy products to give them any; as for their dead animals, the Kalmucks ate them too, without any fuss. So much was this so that the dogs, when they hadn’t had any Kalmucks to devour, were reduced to living as they could by hunting sousliks. …

A citizen of Sarapta, who had long followed the hordes, told me that it was a horrible spectacle to see the dogs in frenzied attack on a corpse, of which they then left pieces throughout the steppe. Yet all this is quite gentle compared with the Scythian practice of yore. Strabo, speaking of the customs of the Scythian nomads, which were conserved among the Sogdiens and the Bactrians, says: In the capital of the Bactrians dogs were raised up to whom were given a particular name, which, would mean, in our tongue, the undertakers. These dogs are charged with devouring all those who have begun to become feeble, by reason of age and or disease. For this reason, the outskirts of the capital offer no views of any funereal monuments. But inside the walls there are plenty of ossuaries. It is said that Alexander abolished this custom.”

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