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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Bruegel's Proverbs

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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b3/Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/1024px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

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


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/32/NP-1.jpg


To even be able to tie the devil to a pillow

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4b/NP-2.jpg


To be a pillar-biter

File:NP-6.jpg

To bang one's head against a brick wall

File:NP-68.jpg

One foot shod, the other bare

File:NP-5.jpg


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

File:NP-15.jpg


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

File:NP-11.jpg


To sit between two stools in the ashes

File:NP-8.jpg


To be a hen feeler

File:NP-13.jpg


It depends on the fall of the cards

File:NP-14.jpg


The world is turned upside down

File:NP-12.jpg


Leave at least one egg in the nest

File:NP-21.jpg

To lead each other by the nose

File:NP-90.jpg


The die is cast

File:NP-22.jpg


To look through one's fingers

File:NP-26.jpg

To marry under the broomstick

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/NP-27.jpg

To have the roof tiled with tarts

File:NP-28.jpg

To shoot a second bolt to find the first

File:NP-103.jpg


The roof has lathes

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/NP-32.jpg


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

File:NP-30.jpg


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

File:NP-33.jpg


It grows out of the window

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/eb/NP-31.jpg


To play on the pillory

File:NP-40.jpg


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

File:NP-94.jpg


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

File:NP-42.jpg

To toss feathers in the wind

File:NP-38.jpg


To gaze at the stork

File:NP-43.jpg

To want to kill two flies with one stroke

File:NP-35.jpg


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

File:NP-36.jpg


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

File:NP-47.jpg


To fish behind the net

File:NP-48.jpg

Big fish eat little fish

File:NP-60.jpg

To be unable to see the sun shine on the water

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/NP-112.jpg


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

File:NP-61.jpg


To throw one's money into the water

File:NP-93.jpg

A wall with cracks will soon collapse

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/NP-44.jpg


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

File:NP-50.jpg

To drag the block

File:NP-49.jpg

Fear makes the old woman trot


File:NP-53.jpg

Horse droppings are not figs

File:NP-51.jpg


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

File:NP-52.jpg

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


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/NP-111.jpg

Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun

File:NP-54.jpg

To keep one's eye on the sail

File:NP-55.jpg

To crap on the gallows

File:NP-56.jpg

Who knows why geese go barefoot?

File:NP-57.jpg

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

File:NP-66.jpg


To throw one's cowl over the fence

File:NP-65.jpg


It is ill to swim against the stream

File:NP-67.jpg


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

File:NP-62.jpg

To catch an eel by the tail

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/NP-59.jpg

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

File:NP-63.jpg

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

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/NP-107.jpg


Love is on the side where the money bag hangs

File:NP-58.jpg


To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ

File:NP-84.jpg


To have to stoop to get on in the world

File:NP-79.jpg


To cast roses before swine

File:NP-75.jpg


To fill the well after the calf has already drowned

File:NP-101.jpg


To be as tame as a lamb

File:NP-76.jpg


She puts the blue cloak on her husband

File:NP-110.jpg


Watch out that a black dog does not come in between

File:NP-77.jpg

One winds on the distaff what the other spins

File:NP-78.jpg


To carry the day out in baskets

File:NP-80.jpg


To hold a candle to the Devil

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/NP-81.jpg


To confess to the Devil

File:NP-83.jpg


The pig is stabbed through the belly

File:NP-82.jpg


Two dogs over one bone seldom agree

File:NP-99.jpg


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

File:NP-87.jpg


The fox and the crane entertain each other

File:NP-114.jpg

To blow in the ear

File:NP-100.jpg


To be chalked up for someone

File:NP-116.jpg

The meat on the spit must be basted

File:NP-115.jpg


There is no turning the spit with him

File:NP-88.jpg

To sit on hot coals


File:NP-117.jpg

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)

5 comments:

STEPHEN RATCLIFFE said...

Tom,

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 . . .

3.11

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...

fascinating.

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.

Duh!

departuredelayed 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.