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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Bruegel's Proverbs


Netherlandish Proverbs: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

From the proverb speaks a noli me tangere of experience.

With this, it proclaims its ability to transform experience into tradition. Proverbs cannot be applied to situations. Instead, they have a kind of magical character: they transform the situation. It is scarcely within the powers of the individual to purify the lessons of his life completely by purging them of his particular experience. But the proverb can do this by taking possession of them.

It turns the lesson that has been experienced into a wave in the living chain of innumerable lessons that flow down from eternity.

Jean Paulhan: Expérience du proverbe.

Walter Benjamin,
On Proverbs, c. 1932, translated by Rodney Livingstone in Selected Writings, vol. 2, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 1999

In fact, one might go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman's relationship -- whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way. It is a kind of procedure which may perhaps most adequately be exemplified by the proverb, if one thinks of this as an ideogram of a story. A proverb, one might say, is a ruin which stands on the site of an old story and in which a moral twines about a happening like ivy around a wall.

Walter Benjamin: The Storyteller, first published in Orient and Occident, October 1936, translated by Harry Zohn in Selected Writings, vol. 3, eds. Michael W. Jennings and Howard Eiland, 2002

The point of view might be phrased in this way: Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations. In so far as situations are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and strategies for handling them. Another name for strategies might be attitudes.

A work like
Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary.

Art forms like ‘tragedy’ or ‘comedy’ or ‘satire’ would be treated as
equipments for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes.

Kenneth Burke, Literature as Equipment for Living, 1938 in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 1941

Netherlandish Proverbs (detail): Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

(left) To pull to get the longest end
(center) Love is on the side where the money bag hangs
(lower left) He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again
(right) To barely be able to reach from one loaf to the other
(on table) A hoe without a handle
(under table) To look for the hatchet / Here he is with his lantern

To even be able to tie the devil to a pillow

To be a pillar-biter


To bang one's head against a brick wall


One foot shod, the other bare


To bell the cat / To be armed to the teeth / To put your armor on


To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe / To get the lid on the head


To sit between two stools in the ashes


To be a hen feeler


It depends on the fall of the cards


The world is turned upside down


Leave at least one egg in the nest


To lead each other by the nose


The die is cast


To look through one's fingers


To marry under the broomstick

To have the roof tiled with tarts


To shoot a second bolt to find the first


The roof has lathes

To have a toothache behind the ears / To be pissing against the moon / Here hangs the pot


To shave the fool without lather / Two fools under one hood


It grows out of the window

To play on the pillory


Where the gate is open the pigs will run into the corn / Where the corn decreases the pig increases


To run like one's backside is on fire / He who eats fire craps sparks


To toss feathers in the wind


To gaze at the stork


To want to kill two flies with one stroke


To fall from the ox onto the rear end of the ass


To kiss the ring of the door / To wipe one's backside on the door


To fish behind the net


Big fish eat little fish


To be unable to see the sun shine on the water

It hangs like a privy over a ditch / They both crap in the same hole


To throw one's money into the water


A wall with cracks will soon collapse

To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze


To drag the block


Fear makes the old woman trot


Horse droppings are not figs


If the blind lead the blind both will fall into the ditch


The journey is not yet over when one can discern the church and the steeple

Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun


To keep one's eye on the sail


To crap on the gallows


Who knows why geese go barefoot?


To see bears dancing / Wild bears prefer each other's company


To throw one's cowl over the fence


It is ill to swim against the stream


The pitcher goes to the water until it finally breaks / The broadest straps are cut from someone else's leather


To catch an eel by the tail

To fall through the basket / To be suspended between heaven and earth


To take the hen's egg and let the goose's egg go

Love is on the side where the money bag hangs


To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ


To have to stoop to get on in the world


To cast roses before swine


To fill the well after the calf has already drowned


To be as tame as a lamb


She puts the blue cloak on her husband


Watch out that a black dog does not come in between


One winds on the distaff what the other spins


To carry the day out in baskets


To hold a candle to the Devil

To confess to the Devil


The pig is stabbed through the belly


Two dogs over one bone seldom agree


What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it?


The fox and the crane entertain each other


To blow in the ear


To be chalked up for someone


The meat on the spit must be basted


There is no turning the spit with him


To sit on hot coals


To catch fish without a net

Netherlandish Proverbs (detail): Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

Netherlandish Proverbs (detail): Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

Netherlandish Proverbs (detail): Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)




Such a compendium of "situations" here in Breughel's painting, these translations of them into "proverbs" -- thanks on a morning in which daylight has been saved . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, golden-crowned sparrow on feeder
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

object, recognized in which
visible was not “left”

one that from this which is,
found, had been there

silver of low sun reflected in channel,
whiteness of gull gliding toward ridge

gamefaced said...


vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Thanks for this fascinating in-depth look at what's underneath Brueghel's painting--I'm going to jettison his "Icarus" and make this my desktop background.

TC said...

One returns to Bruegel's ingenious study of human stupidity armed with centuries of reiterated supporting proof: human folly is inexhaustible.

Historical developments merely compound the evidence.

We're reminded of a contemporary proverb: the devil is in the details.

Here, indeed, he is situated smack dab in the middle of the wonderfully superabundant detail, comfortably ensconced in his gazebo/confessional.

The blank expressions on the faces of the players in this comedy of the absurd help us recall that the relationship of the individual to society in a Flemish village is perhaps not so unlike that which pertains in our own world of alienated monads after all.


Anonymous said...

Having spent many a summer day in Bree (the Belgian town some think Bruegel was born, I can attest to the accuracy of his vision. Things haven't changed much. Fortunately, there is ice cream.