Lucus a non lucendo

Gyula Benczúr: Kálmán Mikszáth (1910)

Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910), one of the greatest 19th-century Hungarian novelists was also a keen politician, a respected parliamentary representative, a pleasant man of society and an extremely fertile journalist. The vibrant liveliness of the thousands of his feuilletons is greatly enhanced by the innumerable references taken from the most various contemporary sources, from daily political skirmishes (which in those times were no less disgusting than today) through well-informed gossips to advertisements: he wove the texture of his texts like the mayfly larva constructs its multicolored and unique house from the most heterogeneous materials to be found on the bottom of the lake. To contemporary readers these memes were just as comprehensible as King Juan Carlos’ “Why don’t you shut up?” or “the coffee of Zapatero” are to us. But nowadays for a complete understanding of that complex and vivid background we need a half page of footnotes to each line of Mikszáth. And such footnotes which restore to life a bygone world are often just as delightful as the lines they expose.

Here is for example the introduction of the 1885 article “Sasok” [Eagles]:

If one lives for about nine years in Pest, he begins to hear about the “eagles”. (If only for eight years then not yet.) First he believes they speak about the eagles in the zoo, but in nine years there will surely arrive a lazy moment when he might ask: well, what are those eagles? And then he will hear the following explanation:
– Well, the eagles, my lord, are a company ruling in the affairs of the city. They are the most powerful ones around. They all are good friends, twenty bodies with one soul, because they number at least twenty. (Jesus Mary! A twenty-headed eagle!) By the way, they are the bravest old gentlemen who still care for public affairs. Pál Királyi is their head.
– What, the old Pál Királyi? I would have never believed him to bear the nickname of “eagle”. “Lucus a non lucendo.” Where did they take this name from?
– From the Golden Eagle Hotel.
– Aha! That makes sense. But I have to confess that first I have thought of the zoo.
And if one lives for nine more years here, he will perfectly forget about this dialogue and about the eagles as well, because Budapest has this peculiarity that it is unable to assimilate you. You can live here from the age of ten to ninety, and yet you will always feel like a traveler in transit. This is an ill presage, gentlemen. I’m afraid it will never become a metropolis.

Let us now pass over the still today threatening prophecy of Mikszáth, and let us rather focus on the philological problems. Concerning the “eagles” and their connection with the Golden Eagle Hotel – as well as the whereabouts of the long forgotten Golden Eagle Hotel itself – it would not be difficult to write an exhaustive footnote on the basis of Balázs Draveczky’s article in the 1998 edition of the Tanulmányok Budapest múltjából (Studies from the past of Budapest).

The Golden Eagle – Arany Sas – Hotel was an illustrious inn of the old Pest before city planning in the 1890s, following the example of Hausmann’s Paris, cut a never healing wound in the romantic texture of the little medieval streets of the inner town with the sharp sword of modern Lajos Kossuth street – an act which in Budapest was euphemistically labeled “urbanism”, but in Rome, where the same happened  some years later, was much more frankly called “sventramento”, that is “disemboweling” of the city. The new street also swept away the Golden Eagle Hotel which until 1893 stood at the corner of the Neue-Welt-Gasse (marked on the 19th-century map as “gold. Adler”). On its place was built the National Casino which between 1945-1990 fuctioned as the Palace of Soviet Culture (running a fantastic Russian and Georgian restaurant – mmm…)


The street network of the inner city of Budapest in the 19th century and now. The building of the central avenue around 1900 has swept away the historical center of the city,
of which some photos are published here

The inn standing inside the old city walls (whose traces are still to be discovered in the inner courtyards of some of the houses along the old Land-Strasse or modern Múzeum körút), immediately at the gate, was the favorite hotel and restaurant of the countryside nobility visiting the capital as well as of the civil servants of the County Hall at the opposite side of the street. It was a small Hungarian island in the then overwhelmingly German core of Pest, regularly visited by the most renowned writers, poets and politicians of the age. Some since then typical plates of the Hungarian restaurant menu were invented here – like székelykáposzta, inspired by journalist and archivist József Székely, or palócleves which was composed precisely in honor of Mikszáth by János Gundel, the founder of one of the most renowned dynasties of chefs in Budapest. The Golden Eagle was also immortalized in several works of Gyula Krúdy, the unsurpassable chronicler of the cuisine of fin-de-siècle Budapest.

The Golden Eagle was also home of several illustrious table societies. The most eminent of them was that of the Eagles, founded in the 1870s and described in the 1930s by the renowned chef and cuisine author Elek Magyar as “the academy of all table societies in Pest”. Its members belonged to the parties of opposition, including several eminent figures of the anti-Hapsburg war of independence of 1848-49 like Pál Királyi, chief editor of the opposition journal Jelenkor. The society also included two important Mayors of Budapest, Károly Ráth, the founder of the society, and Károly Kamermayer, the great builder of fin-de-siècle Budapest who resigned of his position in the same year when the Golden Eagle was pulled down. Thus it was no wonder that the Eagles also had a considerable influence on the affairs of the city.

All right, the golden and other eagles have been checked off. But what about the idiom “Lucus a non lucendo”?

This phrase enriches the texture of Mikszáth’s text with one more layer of contemporary life, that of the adages collected during high school classical curriculum and frequently applied in everyday conversation. Its literal meaning is “forest from not shining”. But its real meaning will be clear only if we know that it was attributed to Quintilian who mocked the convoluted etymologies of his age by telling that these even derive ‘forest’ [lucus] from ‘shining’ [luceo], because the forest does not shine.

However, the precise locus of Quintilian sounds somewhat different. He formulates it like this in chapter 1.6.34 of his Institutio Oratoria:

etiamne a contrariis aliqua sinemus trahi, ut „lucus” quia umbra opacus parum luceat, et „ludus” quia sit longissime a lusu, et „Ditis” quia minime dives?

and sometimes we even accept the derivation of words from their contrary, like ‘forest’ [lucus] from the fact that its dense leaves do not let sunshine in [luceat], like ‘school’ [ludus] from the lack of playing [lusus], and the name of Dis [Pluto, the god of the nether world] from his not being rich [dives].

The formula lucus a non lucendo – as the excellent blog of classical etymologies Laudator Temporis Acti points it out – first occurred only in Virgil’s 4th-century commentator Servius, whose work became an essential reference work for the Middle Ages. Servius comments the name of the Parcae in Aeneis 1.22 in the following way:

et dictae sunt parcae kata antiphrasin, quod nulli parcant, sicut lucus a non lucendo, bellum a nulla re bella.

They are called parcae “kata antiphrasin” [in the contrary sense], as they have no mercy [parco], just like the name of ‘forest’ [lucus] comes from not shining [luceo], and that of ‘war’ [bellum] from the fact that it is absolutely not beautiful [bellus].

Servius’ authority proved stronger than Quintilian’s irony. As Henri de Lubac points it out in his monumental Exégèse médiévale: les quatre sens de l'Écriture, the method kata antiphrasin became an accepted etymological principle under the technical name aetymologia ex contrariis, thus paving the way to modern psychoanalysis where a symbol can also refer to the contrary of itself. Alanus ab Insulis for example explains in his De planctu naturae (PL 210.459d) written in the late 12th century:

Lucifer… qui cum totus sit tenebrosus, tamen per antiphrasin dictus est Lucifer, sicut lucus a non lucendo quia minime lucet.

Lucifer, who is completely dark, is called ‘light-bearer’ by the principle of contraries, just like lucus a non lucendo, that is the forest from being absolutely non-shining.

This much-traveled Latin phrase is also used in this sense in the above dialog by Mikszáth when he hears that Pál Királyi, the former officer of the war of independence, the chief editor of a journal of opposition and the president of the National Party is called an ‘eagle’. Lucus a non lucendo? And by telling this he refers, after the eagles in the zoo, the Golden Eagle, and the table society of the Eagles, to a fourth meaning of the word ‘eagle’, a meaning which is unspoken but is clear to everyone: the Doppeladler, the two-headed Hapsburg eagle.

“Magyarisches Golgotha”. Cartoon in the journal Musketen

8 comentarios:

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

This is so interesting. I love my computer and I love Poemas del rio Wang as a blog, but I would love also to have it in book form so that I could leaf through the entries and look at maps of Budapest. I was just reading in the Marshall Berman book "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air" that Language Hat was recently discussing, Berman's paradox that modernism in our culture is the opposite of modernist city planning (Ulysees wouldn't work in a modern housing block with no streets, nor would modern dance).

Studiolum dijo...

How strange, I usually have the opposite urge. Whenever I like a book I feel I would love to have it in electronic form. Perhaps because I almost have no more room for physical books.

It is strange that there exists no popular but intelligent book on the otherwise highly interesting history of the urban development of Budapest. There is a huge 5-volumes academic publication with almost no pictures and maps, but a very informative text, and there are lots of good articles scattered in various Hungarian journals as well as some good photo albums. If I were an architect (as all the males in my family back to the Middle Ages) or a historian of architecture, I would write one. But like this I only dare to write much more irresponsible blog posts on it. I will publish some more in the near future as well; perhaps they will stand together in a coherent collar.

Berman – whose book I have actually purchased under the stimulus of Language’s post in Spanish translation in a Basque second hand book shop – is perhaps right as to classical modernism. But interestingly in the Eastern block, where modernist city planning was pursued to the excess and has conquered large surfaces of the inhabited world, modernist literature and art has adapted to this built environment like some wild birds do, and there is an important literary/cinema production whose plot takes place exactly in and between these housing blocks.

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

Architects back to the Middle Ages! I think I'm the only one in my family. I thought of the Berman, obviously, because of what you said about Szabad sajto ut and Via della Conciliazione in Rome. Towards the end he's talking about Robert Moses, who ran an elevated expressway right through Berman's childhood neighbourhood in the Bronx and ruined it, perhaps intentionally. But then he talks about Jane Jacobs' book The Death & Life of Great American Cities--which was very influential with US architects, its description of the street life in her New York neighbourhood in particular--and it's there that he sees this paradox of modernism, with Joyce and dance and so on. However, there are some things he obviously doesn't understand about modern architecture; he falls into the classic trap of blaming Le Corbusier for everything, because of his Plan Voisin & la Ville Radieuse drawings of Paris. In fact, of course, Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation is a very sensitively-designed place, with apartments and landscaping and amenities that show few of the pitfalls of his earlier theoretical city planning and have nothing at all to do with the blocks of awful public housing in New York.

What is the important literary/cinema production you mentioned?

Studiolum dijo...

There are so many where the setting are modern housing blocks and it is such a natural scene here that it is difficult to mention any particular opus. Perhaps – and paradigmatically – Vera Chytilová's Panel story (1969), a great movie of the Czech New Wave which is entirely set in a yet unfinished modern housing estate. And yes, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is imagined in a destroyed one. Ádám Bodor’s Zone Sinistra, just to tell one which was surely translated. A recent one, Yuriy Andruhovich's Moskoviada, which runs for hundreds of pages within one single modern block of Moscow, without going out to the street.

When I studied art history, there was an excellent professor of modern architecture – not at our university, but at the Polytechnics, but whenever I could I went to his lessons. He used to start his lessons on modern housing estates by presenting Le Corbusier’s original and attractive ideas, and then to compare them with the depressing digest made of it by Socialist engineers.

As to my family, they are a dynasty of architects of Czech origin, invited to Hungary around 1740 to build the castle of the Austrian Viceroy Grassalkovich in Gödöllő, which later became the summer residence of Queen Sissy. As a beginning young art historian I worked for the Institute of the Protection of Monuments in the late 80s when the restoration of the castle started, and the great old mand of Hungarian restorers F. David made the extraordinary honor to take me as an assistant saying that I have to take part in the restoration of “my forefathers’ palace”. The family comes from the Western Bohemian Klatovy, where they are told to have worked together with the Parlers in the 1400s. The branch of the family that remained there moved to Prague some decades ago, but their Renaissance house, including a medieval brewery now called “Malibu Bar”, still stands on the main square.

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

I don't know Panel Story, I'll ask the library about it. Thanks.

I didn't know that Sissy is from Elisabeth; until recently, we has a parrot called Sissy. You must be very proud of your baroque ancestors, I know I would be. Gödöllő looks well-restored too. I like the exterior spaces: close to the house, the courtyard with the densely-packed trees enclosed by building on three sides.

Studiolum dijo...

I do not know whether Panel Story has any subtitled edition. I have the original Czech version and another one with Russian dubbing. If any of them are interesting to you, I will be glad to send it to you.

I have to confess that I am proud of my ancestors, although I know I have absolutely no reason of this. I have no merit in being born of them, just as I have no merit in being born in this or that community of the world. All the people living nowadays had ancestors in the 1700s and even in the 1400s, and they surely pursued some similarly honorable profession, from plodding to pillaging. Nevertheless, it is a good feeling to look back on this path leading back through generations to medieval Bohemia and knowing that its opposite direction leads to me.

Language dijo...

Thanks for the pointer to Laudator Temporis Acti, and for this excellent post in general (how I love old city maps and stories!). I knew Sissy = Elizabeth, but I didn't know Uncle Pachi = Franco, so I thank you for that as well (though I got it from following the "coffee of Zapatero" link rather than from the post itself).

Forget it, AJP, you'll never get me to like Le Corbusier.

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

That's very kind of you. First I'll try and get one with Norwegian subtitles.

I love knowing about my ancestors. The furthest I can go back with any certainty is about 1600, to a middle-class family of estate managers. It puts English history into a perspective where I can guess what my own opinion about an event might probably have been in those days.

Language, I can see I'm going to have to send you some Le Corbusier pictures.