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Antiquitas saeculi, juventus mundi

Man möchte sagen: Dieser und dieser Vorgang hat stattgefunden; lach', wenn Du kannst.
-Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s The Golden Bough

Amie, in her comment on a post a couple of days ago, wanted another post on Ricdin-Ricdon. Her wish is my command. Although... well, we will see about wishes.

algré le séjour du village et les faibles lumières de mon éducation, je me trouvai des sentiments et des inclinations beaucoup au-dessus de ma naissance, dont la bassesse me désespérait. Les traits de mon visage seuls étaient capables de m'en consoler; ils me donnèrent de bonne heure de flatteuses espérances pour ma fortune; et je n'avais pas encore douze ans que déjà je ne trouvais point de fontaine ni de ruisseau par qui je n'aimasse à me faire redire que je ne resterais pas assurément sous une chaumière.

“In spite of village life and the feeble rays of my education, I found in myself sentiments and inclinations that were above my birth. The features of my face alone were capable of consoling me; they gave me a pleasant hour of flattering hopes for my fortune; and already, by the time I was twelve years old, I never passed by a fountain or a stream without loving to retell myself that assuredly, I would not remain under a thatched roof.”

Such is Rosanie’s story, told to a strange man she finds on the path in the park of the queen she served as a “spinner,” Queen Laborious. This being, this “unknown man”, as Rosanie calls him, is a character out of Jean Baptiste Della Porta’s Natural Magic – which compendium contains everything from instructions for engines to how a woman can “narrow her matrix” after giving birth, and so please her husband. He holds a wonderworking “baguette”, made out of some unknown wood, with an unknown jewel set in it. This wand, he claims, can spin the finest cloth and even make tapistries at a touch, without the mistress of the wand having to make the slightest effort. The deal is this:

Je vous prêterai, poursuivit-il, cette merveilleuse baguette pour trois mois, pourvu que vous demeuriez d'accord de ce que je vais vous dire. Si d'aujourd'hui en trois mois, jour pour jour, lorsque je reviendrai quérir ma baguette, vous me dites, en me la rendant: "Tenez, Ricdin-Ricdon, voilà votre baguette", je reprendrai ma baguette sans que vous soyez engagée à nulle obligation envers moi ; mais si, au jour marqué, vous ne pouvez retrouver mon nom, et que vous me disiez simplement: "Tenez, voilà votre baguette", je serai maître de votre destinée: je vous mènerai partout où il me plaira, et vous serez obligée de me suivre.

“I will loan you, he continued, this marvellous wand for three months, as long as you agree to what I am going to say. If three months from today, to the day, when I return to retrieve my wand, you tell me, in giving it to me: Here Ricdin-Ricdon, here is your wand” – I’ll take the wand back without you being engaged to me in any fashion. But if, on the day so marked, you cannot rediscover my name, and you say simply: Here is your wand, I will be the master of your destiny. I will lead you wherever I please, and you will be obliged to follow me.”

- We will get back to this, the moment on which the entire plot turns, in a second. Wishes are the contract at the heart of the fairy tale – wish making and wish granting. LI would like the wish to be distinguished from desire qua desire – wishes being one form of desire with the major formal characteristic, in fairy tales, that it can be granted – that there are wish granters. But that wishes and wish granters exist, meet, contract, points to another feature of the fairy tale world in its relation to the real social world – that the social world is not closed. There are moments, coincidences, intersignes, encounters, which the social world does not govern, and these are the moments in which magic has a chance – in which the wish and the granting of the wish can occur. These are moments in which hierarchy is, apparently, suspended. ...

- But here, LI wants to drive us to a coincidence, an encounter, an intersigne between the fairy tale and the modern. The meeting, obviously, is in Perrault, the most ardent and loquacious defender of the modern, while at the same time the most famous writer of fairy tales.

We claim this was no coincidence. We claim that this was quite a coincidence.

What is this coincidence about?

When Perrault was writing his defense of the modern, the works of Bacon were circulating in France, and even quoted by partisans on either side of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. Bacon produced the trope that became the guiding metaphor of the moderns. And – surprisingly/unsurprisingly (in the woods, we encounter the wolf with shock, but without surprise) the trope involves the rhetoric of ilinx. This is what he wrote in the New Organon:

“As for antiquity, the opinion touching it which men entertain is quite a negligent one and scarcely consonant with the word itself. For the old age of the world is to be accounted the true antiquity; and this is the attribute of our own times, not of that earlier age of the world in which the ancients lived, and which, though in respect of us it was the elder, yet in respect of the world it was the younger. And truly as we look for greater knowledge of human things and a riper judgment in the old man than in the young, because of his experience and of the number and variety of the things which he has seen and heard and thought of, so in like manner from our age, if it but knew its own strength and chose to essay and exert it, much more might fairly be expected than from the ancient times, inasmuch as it is a more advanced age of the world, and stored and stocked with infinite experiments and observations.”

The moment of ilinx, of course, occurs because the usual way of thinking of the relationship between antiquity and modernity is here reversed. Rather than antiquity connoting all the old graybeards, all the sages, the lawgivers, the Moseses and the Solons, around whose work we, their children, crawl – they become the children, their laws and speculations become a work of child’s play, and we become the men of riper judgment. We are older than they are. The paradox of the modern is not simply an inversion of perspective – it takes the whole social order, founded on the ancient pedigree of blood, and turns it upside down. And while this might be a collateral and accidental effect of a scholarly imbroglio, that it can happen, that the possibility exists for it to happen – that the moment opens up, the hierarchies are suspended, the wind dies in the forest, we see, as though in slow motion or a freeze frame, the drop of slobber fall from the wolf’s muzzle and we look slowly upwards and our gaze takes in the wolf’s eyes, what big and incalculable eyes, staring at us – is parallel to the moment in which the wish can happen.

For how do wishes happen? There is a Grimm’s tale that, in a way, is a fairy tale about the limits of the fairy tale. Of The Fisherman and his Wife was sent to the Brothers G. by the romantic painter, Phillip Otto Runge, who also contributed the Juniper Tree – which contains my favorite song in all the Maerchen:

y mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

Although in Runge’s dialect German, it is actually “My Mother she butchered me”.

In this story, a flounder – a Butte – is caught by a fisherman. It turns out the fish can talk. It claims to be an enchanted prince, and begs for its life. The fisherman tells it that it needn’t beg for its life. It is a talking fish, for God’s sake. Do you think the fisherman goes around killing the talking? The story comes out of Pommeria – out of Gunter Grass’s homeland. It is only when the fisherman goes home that his wife points out that the fisherman had chanced into a moment in which he could wish, and the wish could be granted. How did she know? What was the intersigne? Well, because the fish talked. Yet if the fish could really grant wishes, why would it be in the vulnerable position, in the first place, of being an enchanted prince, a prince in fish form, caught by a fisherman? Yet this is how it is in the wish moment. The wish granter, far from being powerful, is at his or her most vulnerable.

The story is, in a sense, about the difference between desire and the wish. The woman, the wife, is filled with desires. The desire for a better hut, and then a palace, and then a kingship, then an emperorship, then a popeship, and finally the desire to be god. Each time, the fisherman (our good male) goes out and sings a song to the sea, to the flounder. He goes out and takes revenge on his wife in a little song. The song goes: »Manntje, Manntje, Timpe Te/ Buttje, Buttje in der See/myne Fru, de Ilsebill/will nich so, as ik wol will.« “... my wife Elsebill/ doesn’t want what I will”. (And so there is complicity between the fish and the man. There is something they share. A little joke. A little joke about the old woman. The insatiable little woman. The little woman who married a fisherman and lives in the stink and dirt of a pot. And the song, as though the fisherman were serenading the fish. The enchanted prince/fish grants the wish, but the wishing then goes on. The greed of women. Their insatiability. The little joke in the song. And the sky changes. And the sea. The sky changes and the sea becomes choppy as the wishes mount up. There came a wind over the land, and the clouds fled before it, it became as dark as evening, the leaves blew from the trees and the water foamed as though it were boiling and struck the shore, and farther out he saw ships giving distress signals, dancing and jumping on the waves. The elbows of the woman in the fisherman’s side. Her voice at night in the dark, both of them in bed. The little songs of the little fisherman. A friendship between them, at least on the fisherman’s side, but in the end, the fish is an enchanted prince, and the fisherman is a putz, a nobody. The fisherman is a man who had an opportunity, but it was too big for him. That kind of guy. Forever.)

According to Paul Sebillot, there is a version told in Languedoc in which the fish is a sardine. The fish left a little line of blood behind it when the man let it go the first time. And then of course there’s the last wish, the wish to be God almighty, and the fisherman and his wife return to their first state. In the Languedoc version, it is the fisherman’s fault. Rich from all that unearned capital, he insults a beggar. The beggar is the sardine-fée.

The story touches on what can be wished for, as opposed to what can be simply desired – and the limits of the wish – wish granting contract. There are always limits. They inhere in the contract, but they are mysterious at the same time. Such, at least, is the mystery in the contract – the potential debt – of Rosanie and Ricdin-Ricdon.

LI started out with the proposition that, to understand the happiness culture, we have to understand how the relatively frozen positional economy, which left little room for upward movement save by war, was opened up by commerce, and then, finally, by the market based industrial system. Obviously this all too broad thesis, even if true, gives us the conditions for the shift in passional customs, and doesn’t explain the particular pattern of them. In particular, we’ve not said much about women. However, in the fairy tales, we do have, in the wish-wish granting contract, information about the positional economy as it was viewed at least by some in the seventeenth century. And we notice that there is, for every move up to a new position, something taken from nature, some power used and depleted.

One of the great bourgeois discoveries was how untrue, how deeply untrue this is.

A coincidence is just a coincidence.
There are no coincidences.


northanger said…






Roger Gathmann said…
Happy fourth, light of my life!
Ha! I know you've been wrapped in Blakean visions of NASA expeditions as of late. Zarathustra's 6000 feet above sealevel is nothing compared to Northhanger's 6 million miles above sealevel.
Anonymous said…
LI, thanks for further posts re L'Héritier, which have had me reading some amazing texts, though the idea of my wishes somehow becoming commands does make me shudder, there are enough problems in the world as it is.
I'm pretty stuck by the connection you draw to Perrault and the quarrel of the ancients and moderns, among other connections.
But alas, this is going to be a rather ungrateful comment in response, as I only have a few questions about the Ricdin Ricdon tale. And they might well be completely off-track and unimportant. They concern the passage in the tale where Rosanie encounters the stranger, which like you I think is essential to the tale.
At this point of the tale, Rosanie is thinking that she has no place, neither in the court nor in the village, and all she can do is to kill herself. Or as the French idiom goes, "se donner la mort." [ elle se dit qu'il n'y avait plus d'autre parti à prendre pour elle que celui de se donner la mort.] In the "positional economy" she is in no-mans land or rather no-womans land. On her way to suicide her steps are slow, as she does have, as the text says, a love of life and a secret sense of beauty. Then she encounters the stranger, tells him her tale and he offers her a gift and a pact.
A gift of "une petite baguette" . Zipes refers to it as a "phallus". Soit. Does he elaborate on that, describe what this phallus is or does? Because the text might also pose the question of what a phallus is or does. Reading the text, it's hard to know if the gift - the little phallus - is entirely natural or technical, ancient or modern, or what to name it. It is a little piece of wood with a jewel, but neither have a name. It does however replace - substitute - the laborious instrument of weaving - la quenoille - that Rosanie found it torture to use. This particular gift is such is that all it needs is to touch the cloth and in an instant one has the best robes and tapestries. It is technically superior, can do it all in no time at all.
Now, one would figure if this is the gift or the deal being offered, Rosanie would accept right away, but she hesitates. Why? It is not because she is afraid or mistrusts the stranger. She has a supplementary wish, which doesn't have to do with weaving tapestries or clothes for others to wear and admire in the court but with well weaving herself, her own clothes and hair, something which is as necessary as eating. Si vous pouvez encore enrichir cette baguette, déjà si utile, d'un don aussi nécessaire aux belles que la nourriture, notre traité est tout fait. Could this supplementary wish be more important than the first wish?
The stranger grants this wish as well, adds supplementary value to the la petite baguette. And Rosanie accepts his contract. Or rather she takes a oath, swears to it with "the most inviolable oaths". The uneducated peasant Rosanie is illiterate, doesn't know how to read or write. But isn't this scene and this contract involving gift , promise, debt one of "primitive" writing? And when Rosanie swears to it she is inscribed in writing, and when she gives her word she is signing, which is to say, writing? And remember she is signing (for) her life.
In her "transports of joy" Rosanie forgets the name she should not forget. But she is untroubled. Not only because she thinks the will be able to recall the name when the time comes. Not only because she looks forward to profiting from the gifts of la baguette. But because for her the three months before the stranger returns are what a half-century is for other people. trois mois, qu'elle se voyait devant elle pour profiter tranquillement de tous les dons de la baguette, lui paraissaient un temps aussi long qu'un demi-siècle paraît à telle autre personne.

LI, I have to admit this remark about three months appearing as half a century sets me dreaming. It is as if La Belle Fileuse has discovered the gift of time, of weaving and stretching it out, discovered the secret of living in the instant, the immensity of the instant. What is it with time in these tales. Cinderella forgetting what time it is, the girl in Bluebeard begging for just one more minute before she is killed. Perhaps when one lives in the instant, time and texts and contracts catch fire? Even death sentences, even if for an instant. Even the Sun King lives under a death sentence, as Rochefoucauld would have reminded him. Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement.
Perhaps L'Héritier, in her own way, is reminding the Court of this as well?

Hey, sorry this got all long and is still sadly unclear and telegraphic. So here is a "supplement".

Roger Gathmann said…
Sadly unclear???? Hey, you just opened up what I just wrote, thinking I'd post it like a smart ass tomorrow, concerning gifts, oubli, and a little passage from Jacques D.'s Donner le temps. Damn, you are whisking ahead of me! I do humbly want to call your attention to the "unknotting" of the plot, however, via a Ring of Truth - another gift, this time to Roi Prudhomme, who, in defiance of his name, seems truly stuck on Rosanie, a veritable Don Quixote. And to the oddity that a name that is forgotten, a name with a diabolical power, happens to be the name of the whole tale. If a character within a story forgets a name which is the name of the story, this put the reader in an odd position - as a receiver of the story.