Of mountains, molehills, and water glasses: learning to control runaway thoughts

Pablo J. Davis

Enlace para espanol/Link here for Spanish

Like a seed lying dormant in the ground, that germinates and finally penetrates through the soil, a parent’s words and lessons can take years, even decades, for the child—now a grown woman or man—to consciously remember, to grasp their meaning and apply them to living.

“Nothing is eaten as hot as it’s cooked”: a father’s distant words remembered, his version of a French saying learned in post-World War II Europe: Rien ne se mange aussi chaud comme il est cuit. An unexpected vision of my father at age 20—a photograph of him in his Army uniform, young and happy, received from my cousin yesterday, on Veteran’s Day—somehow led me to that long-ago saying of his.

(The poet Samuel Hazo’s unforgettable verses from “The Torch of Blood” echo in the mind’s ear: “Before or after Abraham,/what is the resurrection and the life/except a father’s word/remembered in his son?”)

“Nothing is eaten as hot…”: he would say it when his son was worried the night before a difficult test, or over a bigger classmate’s challenge to a fistfight, or being in trouble with a teacher. What we dread, he was saying in his way, is almost never as terrible as we imagine.

“Hold on a minute, thought! Let me see who you are, what you are about. Let me examine you….” The words of the philosopher Epictetus help us calm our anxieties and control runaway thoughts. Photograph ©2021, Pablo J. Davis. All rights reserved.

English has no close equivalent. True, there’s “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill”—the “molehill” some unpleasant incident, the “mountain” an overly angry or dramatic reaction. The phrase looks back at what has happened, though it could probably also apply, like Rien ne se mange, to the anticipation of pain.

The phrase “to talk someone down” may refer to that “mountain” of overreaction.

Sp. No te ahogues en un vaso de agua, literally “Don’t drown in a glass of water” is likewise about proportionality. The very ridiculousness of the image makes for a vividly effective mind-picture of (and caution against) overreaction.

Our fears are not ridiculous, though. The precious human faculty of imagination is not only creative and inspiring—it also has the  power to terrify us. Two thousand years ago, that unparalleled teacher, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, urged his disciples to learn to calm fear and control runaway thoughts: “Don’t let the intensity of your thoughts sweep you away. Instead, say: ‘Hold on a minute, thought! Let me see who you are, what you are about. Let me examine you and put you to the test.’” (Discourses II.18.24–25). Rien ne se mange….

A version of this essay is scheduled for publication in La Prensa Latina https://www.laprensalatina.com on November 21, 2021.

No ahogarse en un vaso de agua: cómo frenar los pensamientos desbocados

Pablo J. Davis

Link here for English/Enlace para inglés

Como una semilla que yace latente un tiempo en la tierra, para luego germinar y penetrar la superficie del suelo, los dichos, enseñanzas y consejos de los padres, pueden llevar años, hasta décadas, en ser recordados, comprendidos y asumidos por los hijos, ahora hombres y mujeres.

“Nada se come tan caliente como se cocina.” Las lejanas palabras de un padre. En realidad, la frase la había aprendido en francés, en la Europa de la segunda pos-guerra: Rien ne se mange aussi chaud comme il est cuit. Un inesperado vistazo de él a los 20 años—una foto donde aparece en su uniforme del Ejército, joven y feliz, enviada ayer por una prima, en el Día del Veterano en EEUU—me trajo el recuerdo de aquel dicho suyo de antaño.

(Suena el eco de los inolvidables versos del poeta Samuel Hazo de su poema “The Torch of Blood” [Antorcha de sangre]: “Before or after Abraham,/what is the resurrection and the life/except a father’s word/remembered in his son?” [Antes de Abraham o después, ¿qué pueden ser la resurrección y la vida, sino la palabra del padre, recordada en su hijo?])

“Espérate un poco, pensamiento. Déjame ver qué y cómo eres. Déjame examinarte….” Las palabras del filosofo Epicteto nos sirven para aprender a calmar la ansiedad y frenar los pensamientos desbocados. Foto ©2021, Pablo J. Davis. Todos los derechos reservados.

“Nada se come tan caliente…”: el viejo solía decirlo cuando el hijo se preocupaba la noche antes de un examen difícil, o ante el reto de un compañero más grandote a una pelea a puñetazos, o por algún apuro con un maestro. Lo que tememos, decía a su modo, rara vez resulta tan terrible como imaginamos.

En inglés no hay equivalente cercano. Eso sí: Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill “No hacer una montaña de un grano de arena”. El grano de arena sería un acontecimiento desagradable, la montaña una reacción ante él fuera de toda proporción racional. La frase mira hacia atrás, a algo que ya ocurrió, aunque se supone que, como Rien ne se mange, también podría aplicarse al temor por algo futuro.

“No te ahogues en un vaso de agua” también pasa por la desproporción entre realidad y reacción. Esta  vívida metáfora, por su misma ridiculez, nos pinta una brillante imagen de lo que es la sobrerreacción—y una advertencia contra ella.

Pero nuestros temores no son ridículos. La poderosa facultad humana de la imaginación, que nos inspira, también nos puede aterrar. Hace dos mil años, el filósofo estóico Epícteto instaba a sus discípulos a aprender a frenar los temores, gobernar los pensamientos desbocados: “No dejen que la intensidad de sus pensamientos los abrume. Más bien digan: ‘Espérate un poco, pensamiento. Déjame ver qué y cómo eres. Déjame examinarte, y ponerte a prueba.’” (Discursos II.18.24-25). Rien ne se mange….

Una versión de este ensayo está programada para su publicación en La Prensa Latina https://www.laprensalatina.com el día 21 de noviembre 2021.

Why Día de Muertos is Not a ‘Mexican Halloween’: Reflecting on a Key Theme of Latin American Culture

Pablo J. Davis

The differences between Halloween and Día de Muertos, beneath superficial similarities, illuminate a key theme in Mexican, Latin American, and Hispanic/Latino/Latinx cultures: acceptance of death as part of life, and the high value placed on remembering and staying emotionally connected with our departed loved ones. These sensibilities, very different from those surrounding Halloween, have begun to influence the dominant culture as Día de Muertos celebrations grow more widespread across the US.

As the days grow cooler and shorter in the Northern Hemisphere and October draws to a close, Halloween (Oct. 31) draws near… with El Día de los Muertos (or Día de Muertos, for short) (Nov. 1-2) right behind. Many in the US perceive Día de Muertos [Day of the Dead] as a ‘Mexican Halloween’. But is it, really? The two holidays have elements in common – both relate broadly to death, most notably – but are profoundly different. And the differences tell us something important about the cultures of Mexico, Latin America broadly, and Hispanic/Latino/Latinx communities in the US.

The classic image associated with Día de Muertos: ‘La Catrina Calavera’ (c. 1910) by Mexican lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Wikimedia Commons photograph (public domain).

Translating Cultures (Not Just Words)

The ways in which ‘Halloween’ is not equivalent to ‘Día de Muertos’ remind us of the linguistic concept of ‘false friends.’ Take the Spanish/English word pair argumento/‘argument’: seemingly synonyms, they can fool the unwary. For argumento means ‘plot,’ as of a story; an ‘argument,’ in Spanish, would be discusión.

A subtler situation involves words that really do mutually translate, but refer to cultural, social, or other realities that don’t map onto one another so neatly. Though the term is not generally applied in this way, instances like these can be thought of as an even trickier variant of the ‘false friends’ phenomenon.

Case in point: Engl. ‘friend’ appears in every English-Spanish dictionary as Sp. amigo/a, and vice-versa. Yet in the US, at least, ‘friend’ is often applied to relationships that are not particularly close, where native Spanish speakers tend to use less intimate terms like conocido/a (‘acquaintance’) or companero/a (‘classmate’ or, in a work setting, ‘colleague’). Differences like these can cause confusion, misunderstanding, even hurt; they can take years of experience (for example, through immigration) to fully grasp.

Halloween and Día de Muertos

The differences between Halloween and Día de Muertos are, in some ways, even more subtle than cases like amigo/‘friend.’ Sharing the same time of year, similar subject matter, and some of the same symbolism and imagery, the two holidays seem close equivalents if not downright interchangeable. But they map quite differently onto their respective cultures.

Halloween is largely about defying and even mocking death, about neutralizing its terrors by rendering them theatrical.  There is a kind of daring psychological play involved, a dancing around the macabre. It might even make sense to think of Halloween as reframing ‘horror,’ as genre and aesthetic, as a form of ‘comedy.’ (Of course, Halloween has multiple meanings; another important one is as an occasion for the wearing of masks and disguises generally in a spirit of playful mockery, which makes it akin to Carnival in the typology of celebrations.)

Día de los Muertos, in Mexican culture (along with its equivalents elsewhere in Latin America, a few of which are noted below), is something else entirely. Within its logic, there is no terror in death, and nothing morbid in the skulls and skeletons of the dead. One remembers, celebrates, honors one’s deceased parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, other loved ones – people often say‘mi muertito’ or ‘mi muertita’ [my darling dead one].

Over the centuries that unfolded after Contact and Conquest, Ancient, pre-Columbian and pre-Christian traditions of ancestor worship and love intertwined with the Christian calendar and rites to create something new: a case of what scholars refer to as religious ‘syncretism.’ (The word’s Greek roots mean ‘union’ and ‘communities.’) This joining together of different beliefs and practices is something Catholicism in particular has readily lent itself to over the centuries – if not officially, then certainly in popular practice. Cuban santeria and Haitian vodun ‘voodoo’ are two particularly well known examples.

Thus the celebration of the Día de Muertos came to coincide with All Souls Day, or the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, on the Christian calendar. Elaborate ramifications of rituals and practices have evolved. They include the baking of cakes in the form of skulls and skeletons, the making of skeletal figurines often fully dressed and adorned with hats and other accessories, the fashioning of altars bearing photographs of beloved dead and containing offerings to them, the creation of satiric verses, and a rich graphic tradition of death-related iconography (most famously in the work of José Guadalupe Posada, whose ‘La Catrina’ is shown above), and others.

Baked treats are particularly important to the holiday: one’s dear departed are understood to return from the grave on Día de Muertos to enjoy the sweet bread known as ‘pan de muertos,’ cakes, and other confections set out for them. Think how heavily reuniting with deceased loved ones figures in popular ideas of Heaven; inviting one’s muertitas and muertitos to savor baked treats springs from the same emotional logic. This communing with dead kin also takes place through cleaning, decorating, and spending time at their graves during the holiday.

A Key to Latin American Culture

Día de Muertos is not unique to Mexico (though its intensity and cultural centrality there are probably unparalleled). Across Latin America, kindred cultural-religious practices abound. One example is Brazil’s Dia de Finados [Day of the Dead], a loving tribute to the dead, though generally more solemn and less festive than its Mexican counterpart. Another is Bolivia’s Día de las Ñatitas, celebrated on November 8, revolving around reverent decoration of little skulls (ñato/ñata literally means ‘snub-nosed’ and is often used to refer to small children; ñatita is an affectionate feminine diminutive referring to the skulls), symbolizing ancestors and considered to have protective powers toward the living. The cult of San La Muerte [Saint Death], a folk saint personifying death, is deeply rooted among the people of northern Argentina, southern Brazil, and Paraguay – the Guaraní culture zone – is deeply rooted in popular culture, though not officially recognized by the Catholic Church.

The unblinking acceptance of our mortality, the inseparability of death as part of life, and the imperative of staying connected with our departed loved ones – the emotional core of Día de Muertos – thus form a thread that runs through much of Latin America’s cultural map. Argentina’s Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908-1992) movingly expressed the heart of this idea. In his anthem of a half-century ago, ‘Los hermanos’ [My Brothers and Sisters], the immortal composer, guitarist, and folklorist penned (and this writer translates) the verses:

Yo tengo tantos hermanos [I have so many brothers and sisters,
que no los puedo contar.  [I cannot count them all.
En el valle, la montaña, [In the valleys and the mountains,
en la pampa y en el mar.  [On the pampas and at sea.

Cada cual con sus trabajos, [Each one with his work,
con sus sueños, cada cual. [with her dreams each one.
Con la esperanza adelante, [With hope up ahead,
con los recuerdos detrás. [with our memories behind.

. . .

Y así, seguimos andando [And so we journey on,
curtidos de soledad. [Hardened by loneliness.
Y en nosotros nuestros muertos [And inside us, we carry our dead
pa’ que nadie quede atrás. [So that no one’s left behind

Yo tengo tantos hermanos [I have so many brothers and sisters,
que no los puedo contar . . . [I cannot count them all . . .

It would be a serious mistake, though, to think of this acceptance of death as part of life as entirely missing from US culture. It is not. Faith communities have it, and it tends to be stronger (generalizing pretty broadly) in the South than the North, among working class people than highly educated professionals, and among African Americans than Whites. Where this sensibility is largely absent is from the dominant middle-class culture, which gives death a very wide berth, treating it as something uncomfortable and preferably not talked about – the ‘great unmentionable.’

As Día de Muertos celebrations grow more and more widespread in the US, through both immigration and the gradual adoption of the festivity beyond the holiday’s original ethnic boundaries, the enactment of this very different view of life and death is influencing the dominant culture. This is what has always happened when large groups of people find themselves in sustained contact with each other, and the US has always been a particularly intense arena for these interactions and influences. It is not far-fetched to imagine Halloween and Día de Muertos evolving over time into complementary, paired holidays, each with its contrasting emphasis, joined together in something not unlike the mutual linking of the very different sensibilities of Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Further Reading

Copyright ©2021 by Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved.
The author, an attorney, holds graduate degrees in History from The Johns Hopkins University (M.A. and Ph.D.) and Columbia University (M.A.); he has taught Latin American History and Culture, and Comparative History of the Americas, at Franklin & Marshall College, The University of Virginia, The University of Memphis, among other institutions. He is also an experienced professional translator, mainly between English and Spanish. An earlier version of this essay appeared at https://interfluency.wordpress.com in October 2011.

Tonight, sometime around midnight, will mark the 300th anniversary of… well… how shall I put it?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Tonight marks an extraordinary anniversary… of an extremely ordinary event, one that occurs millions of times a day around the world. The kind of event that has never (as far as I know) been commemorated in a public way. So I seriously doubt you will hear of this anniversary anywhere else besides this page. And I happened to learn about it by sheer accident last night, 24 hours ahead of the big day.

When Laurence Sterne’s hilarious, bawdy, and yet (why “yet”?!!) philosophical novel Tristram Shandy first came out in 1759, it was like an earthquake through the English literary world, and ultimately shook literature around the globe. Even today, the book is unclassifiable, still a challenge to readers, and still an adventure to read–much as it must have been for Sterne to write.

Tristram Shandy coverThe key to the novel might well be the phrase “That reminds me…”  Among other things, and perhaps underlying all of its other qualities, Tristram Shandy is a meditation on the human mind’s penchant for associations. Looked at in a certain light, the novel is one long series of interruptions to the telling of a story… a ceaseless chain of digressions.

Last night I happened to sit down and re-read the first few pages of the book. In it, “Shandy,” the narrator, recounts how orderly his father was in his habits. Among the regularities the old man followed scrupulously was winding a clock: He “had made it a rule for many years of his life,–on the first Sunday night of every month throughout the whole year,–as certain as ever the Sunday night came,–to wind up a large house-clock which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands.”

And, it seems, Shandy’s father had over time also “gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.” And, as a result of this habit of his father’s, Shandy tells us that his “poor mother could never hear the said clock wound up,–but the thoughts of some other things unavoidably popped into her head…”

One of those “little family concernments” of the old man’s turned out to be of great import to Shandy. For, you see, he tells us: “I was begot in the night, betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighteen.” Shandy then goes on to tell us readers how it is that he knows for certain that that was, indeed, the night.

So there you have it: a major literary anniversary. A three hundredth anniversary! Not Sterne’s birthday (that was Nov. 24, 1713); not the anniversary of the book’s publication; not even the birthday of the character, Tristram Shandy.

But rather, the date on which little Tristram was conceived.

And that, dear readers, reminds me of a story… Which will have to wait till another time.

To read Tristram Shandy free online, visit the Project Gutenberg page for the book at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1079.




Drinking a unique toast

Enlace para español/ Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

In this season, many a glass is raised and “toasts” offered. The word seems to come from an old custom of using spiced toast to flavor wine; by extension it meant the person whose health was saluted.

Kroyer Peder Severin 'Hip Hip Hurrah!' 1888

Peder Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hoorah! (1888).

In Spanish it’s brindis, one of that language’s rare Germanic (as opposed to Latin) roots. From Ich bring dir “I bring you”—i.e., good wishes. (The verb brindar is “to offer, provide”.)

“To your health!” or variants thereof may well be the world’s most popular toast; Span. ¡Por su salud! or simply ¡Salud! and Fr. A votre santé! are close equivalents.

Toasts can be intricate, as in the legendary old Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm on your face, the rains fall soft on your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

But where drinking and poetry intersect, it’s hard to beat William Oldys’s 18th century “anacreontic” (poetic term for a drinking song), “The Fly”:

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine
Hastening quick to their decline:
Thine’s a summer, mine’s no more,
Though repeated to threescore.
Threescore summers, when they’re gone,
Will appear as short as one!

The empathy and fraternity with a tiny fellow mortal: how moving, how gently expressed! And likely inspired by a real fly on the edge of the poet’s glass.

¡Buenas palabras!


Pablo J. Davis is an attorney, translator, and historian. A version of this essay was originally published in the Dec. 24-30, 2017 issue of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, USA) as No. 262 of the weekly, bilingual column “Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” [Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción].

Un brindis único

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés

Querida lectora o lector,

Es época de levantar copas y ofrecer brindis. En inglés: toast, lo que significa principalmente “tostada”. En su acepción de “brindis” parece proceder de la antigua costumbre de saborizar el vino con tostadas de especias, y también podía referirse a la persona por cuya salud se brindaba.

Kroyer Peder Severin 'Hip Hip Hurrah!' 1888
Peder Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hoorah! (1888).

La voz “brindis” es una de las muy pocas en español de origen germánico, en vez de latín. Viene de Ich bring dir, “Yo te traigo”.

“¡Por su salud!” o “¡Salud!” probablemente sea el brindis más popular del mundo. En inglés, To your health! y en francés, A votre santé!

Los brindis pueden ser muy elaborados, como esta legendaria bendición irlandesa: “Que el camino se allane a su encuentro. Que el viento siempre le sople por la espalda. Que el sol le acaricie el rostro, la lluvia caiga suavemente sobre sus campos… y hasta la próxima, que el Señor lo mantenga en la palma de su mano.”

Pero es difícil sobrepasar el “anacreóntico” (canción de taberna) de William Oldys, del siglo XVIII inglés—la traducción al español a cargo de este servidor:

Mosca sedienta y audaz
Bebe, sírvete en paz
A mi copa, bienvenida
Toma todo lo que quieras
Aprovecha el momento
Que la vida es breve y fugaz.

Tu vida cual la mía igual
Corre hacia su final
La tuya un verano dura
La mía, sesenta con holgura.
Mas sesenta años cuando se hayan ido
Cual uno solo parecerán.

Hermosas, la compasión y hermandad que derraman estos versos hacia un pequeño compañero en la mortalidad. Seguro que inspiradas en una mosca real posada en el borde de la copa del poeta.

Good words!

Pablo J. Davis es abogado, traductor e historiador. Una versión de este ensayo se publicó originalmente en la edición del 24 al 30 de diciembre 2017 de La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, EEUU) como la entrega nro. 262 de la columna bilingüe semanal “Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción” [Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation].

The violent alienation of “ajeno”

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Recently your faithful servant stumbled across a recording of a song he had heard from time to time, but has now had a chance to listen to closely. It is a jewel. Beautiful… but painful. Composed by César Calvo, sung in the bell-like tones of Susana Baca, leading exponent of Peru’s Afro musical traditions: “María Landó” is a hypnotic chant evoking the back-breaking, mind-numbing, and most of all soul-deadening work that is the title character’s lot in life. And still that of most of our kind, humankind.

After singing of dawn breaking with its wings of light over the city… and noon with its golden bell of water… and night with its long goblet lifted to the moon… the lyric turns to María “who has no time to lift her eyes, her eyes wracked by lack of sleep, by sorrows… María who has no dawn, no noon or night… For María there is only labor, only labor and more labor… y su trabajo es ajeno: her labor is not her own.”

What power, what violence, what understanding of the world is compressed into that single word ajeno “belonging to another or others, alien, foreign, unfamiliar.” Its root, Lat. alienus, also yields Engl. “alien.” (Think of how the latter word is applied to immigrants.)

Argentina’s incomparable troubador Atahualpa Yupanqui sang of the exhausted herdsman driving cattle in the hills: “Las penas y las vaquitas/ se van por la misma senda./ Las penas son de nosotros,/ las vaquitas son ajenas” (Sorrows and cattle/ moving along the same trail/ The sorrows are our own,/ the cattle belong to another).

The Roman playwright Terence gave us this moving expression of compassion, of solidarity with all our fellow mortals: Homo sum, nihil humani me alienum est—I am human, and nothing that is human is alien to me.

¡Buenas palabras!


Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, J.D., is a historian, translator, and attorney. The essay above was originally published in La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) in the Nov. 20-26, 2017 issue, as No. 257 of the weekly, bilingual column “Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” [Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción].

“Ajeno” y su violencia

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés 

Querida lectora o lector,

No hace mucho este servidor se topó con una grabación musical que había oído de cuando en cuando, pero que en estos días ha podido escuchar detenidamente. Es una joya, hermosa pero dolorosa. Composición de César Calvo, en la voz franca y pasional de Susana Baca, titana del canto afro-peruano: un cántico hipnótico, evocación del trabajo incesante, agotador y embrutecedor al que se ve condenada por las circunstancias una tal María—“María Landó”. Destino aún de la mayoría de la humanidad.

Tras el lirismo de la primera estrofa, que canta a la madrugada con sus “alas que se dispersan por la ciudad”, el mediodía con su “campana de agua de oro” que ahuyenta la soledad y la noche que “levanta su copa larga” a la luna—volcamos la mirada hacia María que “no tiene tiempo de alzar los ojos rotos de sueño”, para quien no hay ni madrugada ni mediodía ni noche sino tan sólo trabajo, incesantemente trabajo y más trabajo: “María de andar sufriendo/ sólo trabaja/ María sólo trabaja/y su trabajo es ajeno…”

¡Cuánto poder, cuánta violencia, cuánta comprensión del mundo, encierra esa sola palabra “ajeno”…! El inglés no logra decir lo mismo con locuciones como belonging to another “que pertenece a otro”. (Y no olvidar las duras connotaciones de “alien” por “inmigrante”.)

El gran trovador argentino Atahualpa Yupanqui una vez cantó: “Las penas y las vaquitas/ se van por la misma senda/ Las penas son de nosotros,/ las vaquitas son ajenas”.

El dramaturgo romano Terencio nos legó esta conmovedora expresión de la compasión, de la solidaridad para con nuestros prójimos: Homo sum, nihil humani a me alienum est: Soy humano, y nada de lo humano me es ajeno.

Good words!


Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, J.D., es historiador, traductor y abogado. Este ensayo se publicó originalmente en La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, EEUU) en la edición del 20 al 26 de noviembre 2017, como la entrega nro. 257 de la columna bilingüe semanal “Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción” [Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation].

No “mere drudge” or slinger of words: Our teacher and friend, Samuel Johnson

johnson_1740s_joshua_reynoldsOn this date, 308 years ago, was born to a struggling, lower-middle class household–the father a bookseller–in Lichfield, England, an infant son who would become a large, clumsy boy, a lover of books, and then, as a man,  one of the giants of the literature and cultural life of the English-speaking world.

His name was Samuel, “Dr. Johnson” as he became known in his later life and ever since. For over two centuries, the world has thought it knew him because a young Scotsman who idolized him, James Boswell, brought him alive in quite likely the most famous biography ever written in English. Boswell’s Johnson was a cantankerous old Tory who growled out his prejudices with an acid wit.

In large part due to Boswell, the world has tended to see Johnson as a conservative, as a man of the political Right, and many of that persuasion have claimed him as a kind of secular patron saint.

Ah, but there was much so much more to the man than the labels “Conservative” or “Tory” suggest.  This, quite apart from the general unadvisability of trusting such labels, particularly when we are separated from an era by several centuries.

Johnson was indeed reverential of traditions and hierarchies, both religious and political–in his words, “I am a friend to subordination”–he believed respect was due to legitimate monarchs, yet he also scorned aristocracy when it was weak of character and mean-spirited.

Author of some of the most moving works of moral and religious guidance ever penned in this tongue, and a deeply pious man, yet he never counted himself anything but an abject sinner whose everlasting soul was ever in danger.

Casting himself as a Tory in a Whig-dominated age, in what might today be called a “contrarian” spirit, he was in truth not a man of hardened doctrine. But throughout his life, Johnson hated and wrote passionately against militarism and war, against empires, against racism and slavery. He famously wondered, during the Revolutionary crisis in Britain’s American colonies, “Why is it that the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?”–that is, from slaveowners and slave traders.

Johnson despised war; he thought poorly of its glorification and even more poorly of those who sought it out.  He called it “one of the heaviest of national evils, a calamity in which every species of misery is involved; as it sets the general safety to hazard, suspends commerce, and desolates the country; as it exposes great numbers to hardships, dangers, captivity, and death; no man, who desires publick prosperity, will inflame general resentment by aggravating minute injuries, or enforcing disputable rights of little importance.”

He loved the writer’s study, and was capable of colossal feats of concentration stretching out over many days, weeks, even months. Yet he also loved the pub, lively company, and the good conversation of women no less than men.

Johnson was born in humble circumstances and never forgot the poor, the struggling, the underdog. He was a scholarship boy at Pembroke College, Oxford who once angrily rejected an anonymous donation of a pair of shoes, left one night outside his college lodgings to replace his own, shabby pair. When his money ran out, he left Oxford after just one year. (Decades later, he would be awarded the doctorate from that institution in honor of his literary achievements.)

Once an acquaintance scolded him for giving alms to a beggar who surely “would lay it out on gin and tobacco”.  Johnson’s memorable, moving retort:  “And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence… ? It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure” in the midst of the bitterness of their lives.

Above all, Johnson wrote. Constantly guilt-ridden at (he believed) his sloth and procrastination, he produced an astonishing body of work, including The Lives of the Poets, the path-breaking Dictionary of the English Language, a complete annotated edition of Shakespeare, Rasselas, a marvelous parable of the fundamental unity and equality of all mankind, several astonishing runs of essays of cultural observation and moral uplift (including the Idler series), a substantial body of sermons, and much, much more.

Johnson has much to say to us, if we just know how to listen. Even accounting for the three centuries, an ocean, and the very different eras of the English language that separate us from him, Johnson’s gruff common sense, self-examination, and compassion are there for the taking. Almost any page of his work–particularly the essays–offers the good counsel of a wise, caring old uncle, sternly delivered perhaps but with a warm heart not far beneath the hard exterior.  Frank Lynch’s wonderful online archive (see below) gives any reader instant access to a treasury of useful self-help.

One of the areas where Johnson gave the best and most memorable advice–no doubt because he was conscience-haunted about his own conduct in this regard–was that of time and that parasitic devourer of it, procrastination. Here is Johnson, trying to stir us (and himself) out of that self-defeating torpor that has us (to use another Johnsonian phrase) “harassed by our own impatience”:  “A very small part of the year is spent by choice; scarcely any thing is done when it is intended, or obtained when it is desired. Life is continually ravaged by invaders; one steals away an hour, and another a day; once conceals the robbery by hurrying us into business, another by lulling us with amusement; the depredation is continued through a thousand vicissitudes of tumult and tranquillity till, having lost all, we can lose no more.” (Idler, No. 14, July 15, 1758)

And here is Johnson on friendship: “When I came to Lichfield, I found my old friend Harry Jackson dead. It was a loss, and a loss not to be repaired, as he was one of the companions of my childhood. I hope we may long continue to gain friends, but the friends which merit or usefulness can procure us, are not able to supply the place of old acquaintance, with whom the days of youth may be retraced, and those images revived which gave the earliest delight.” (Letter to Boswell)

The complex humanity, intellect, and morality of the man shine through in this passage from the Vinerian Lectures on Law, written c. 1766 for Robert Chambers:  “No man has a right to any good without partaking of the evil by which that good is necesarily produced; no man has a right to security by another’s danger, nor to plenty by another’s labour, but as he gives something of his own which he who meets the danger or undergoes the labor considers as equivalent. No man has a right to the security of government without bearing his share of its inconveniences.”

Pablo J. Davis

* * *

An earlier version of this essay was written and published online on Sep. 18, 2009, the 300th anniversary of Johnson’s birth.  It has been edited only slightly, both to bring the year up to date, and in a few places for clarity’s sake.

Some wonderful Johnson resources:

“A Monument More Durable Than Brass”: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, at Harvard University.

Samuel Johnson Tercentenary
Includes much material on the reenactment of Johnson’s walk from Lichfield to London with his friend David Garrick, who would become a giant of the Shakespearian stage

The Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page
Frank Lynch’s outstanding archive of nearly 2,000 Johnson quotations, classified by topic.

The handmade magic of “Cartonera” books: a feast for the eyes, a lift for the soul!

Memphis Cartonera: Cooperative Publishing, Art & Action
Exhibit at Rhodes College, Clough-Hanson Gallery
Opens Fri., Jan. 27, 2017 (5-7pm), through Mar. 18.
Artist-in-Residence: Nelson Gutiérrez

An extravaganza of color, lettering, images, and textures, these books want you to judge them by their covers. On a base of the plainest possible material—corrugated cardboard, repurposed from boxes and packaging—a delightful festival of creativity leaps out at the viewer.

Cartonera 8 tapas de libros 2017-01-26.png

What’s inside those covers? Some of the stories are original. Some are classics in the public domain. Some brim with illustrations, some are for coloring. The variations are endless. But the covers are all made of recycled cardboard, with hand-painted titles and artwork. Each one’s a personal statement—a true original.

Introducing the “Cartonera” (from the Spanish word for cardboard) phenomenon! This truly grassroots movement was born in Argentina during the early 2000’s economic crisis. Cartoneras are cooperative, neighborhood-based publishing ventures. They’ve spread throughout Latin America.

Now the movement has caught on here with the founding of “Memphis Cartonera” by Rhodes College students and local nonprofits. Dr. Elizabeth Pettinaroli, a Spanish literature and language professor at Rhodes who conducted field research on cartoneras in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay, has coordinated these efforts and led the mobilization of community partners.

These partners have included Centro Cultural (Cartonera comics), Cazateatro Bilingual Theater (Cartonera for adults/kids), Danza Azteca Quetzalcoatl (Spanish/Nahua poetry workshop), Refugee Empowerment Program (kids afterschool program), Latino Memphis/Abriendo Puertas (high-schoolers workshop), Caritas Village (Cartonera photo books for afterschool reading program).

It’s about rethinking art and literature’s place in our lives, fostering creativity, literacy, and sustainability.

A chance to learn more, talk with participants, and enjoy viewing some of the creations so far will be at the opening of a two-month-long exhibit Fri., Jan. 27 (5-7pm) at Rhodes College’s Clough-Hanson Gallery.  Nelson Gutiérrez will be the artist-in-residence throughout the exhibit. For more about the opening and a series of other activities, including workshops and talks by artist Gutiérrez, an info session on zines, and other events, please visit https://www.facebook.com/events/754637584693600/

Further info: Dr. Elizabeth Pettinaroli, 901-843-3828, pettinarolie@rhodes.edu. Sponsored by Rhodes College.


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