Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On Urological Symptoms




Professor S–, emeritus at the University of Minnesota, is eloquent and speaks with the precise and expressively allusive diction of a literature scholar. Although his specialty is modern American novelists, writers like Robert Stone and Norman Mailer, Professor S– is widely read and flavors his discourse with quotations from Dostoevsky, Kafka, and, of course, Shakespeare.

The business of adorning one’s conversation with allusions is tricky, a balancing act. If the citation is too familiar, the allusion risks condemnation as a cliche or a mere truism. Alternatively, one who cites to a text that is too abstruse runs the risk of seeming to speak nonsense. An unattributed reference to a barren and obscure verse from Spenser or the Lotus Sut ra may simply mystify listeners and cast doubt on the sanity or good faith of the speaker. Some literary works such as Hamlet or certain poems by Keats or Robert Frost or Edgar Alan Poe are so well-known that they furnish quotations to their cognoscenti only from those textual pitches and declivities less frequently traversed by readers. It was a quote of this latter kind that caught my attention during my recent lunch with Professor S–.

The esteemed scholar was indexing for my dismay a variety of physical ailments from which had suffered during the interim between our luncheons – distance and scheduling prevents me from seeing this gentleman more than every three months or so. We were seated in a pizza place near the intersection of two thoroughfares famous in the city, a quiet place where familiar drunks sat on their familiar barstools as the morning turned the corner into a gloomy afternoon, a dark day a week or so before Christmas. Professor S– explained to me certain urological afflictions that filled me with dismay and nauseous horror – I have an intense terror of blood, particular swampy clotted blood, and hematuria induces such vertiginous disquiet that I am apt to swoon. Fortunately, I had ordered a tall beer and could sip on that beverage while Professor S– spoke, taking some solace in the slight blurry warmth that the alcohol produced – it was if a tiny discontinuity had opened between Professor S–‘s words and my audition of those words, a little fissure that was sufficient to keeping his horrific tale at the slight, but significant, distance.

Professor S– could not be faulted for his narrative. I had asked him directly how he was feeling and, further, made inquiries as to his health and he was merely providing me an answer to these questions. Furthermore, Professor S– had warned me that I might find his account disquieting. Here is what he had said:

"If I were tell the whole story it would make your hairs stand on end like quills upon the fearful porpentine."

The expression "quills upon the fearful propentine" baffled me. "What is a propentine?" I asked, thinking that he was referring to some kind of aquatic animal, perhaps a hybrid between a terrapin and a porpoise. "Porpentine?" he said. "It means ‘porcupine’ – it’s from Hamlet." I told him that I thought the quote was very wonderful.

When I returned home, that phrase involving the "porpentine" had dissolved a little in my mind, become as slippery as a stepping stone a half-inch under the swift-flowing waters of a mountain stream. "If I tell you what happened," I said to my wife,"your will be as shocked as the fretted propentine." The adjective "fearful" had dropped from my imagination and I now pronounced the "porpentine" to be "fretted". The notion of a "fretted porpentine" seemed to wonderfully apt that I used the phrase a number of times to amuse myself and those with whom I was speaking.

A few weeks later, I read Hamlet and tracked the quotation to its source. In Act I, scene V, Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost and has a colloquy with that spirit. The ghost tells Hamlet that he is enduring the torments of purgatory, a fate so awful that

To tell the secrets of my prison house

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.

"Porpentine", I see, is an old word for "porcupine" – derived from Latin "porcu," meaning, of course, "pig". "Spine" seems to be a translation from the Greek "acantha" into Latin as "spina" or Old French "espina", meaning "thorny" or "spiny." Hence, "porpentine" means "spiny pig."

But how I had substituted "fretted" for "fearful"? Perhaps, I had made no substitution at all. Several definitions for "porpentine" cited Hamlet at Act I, scene V, and those quotations glossed the usage of the word with the phrase "propentine." Indeed, all other editions of Hamlet that I consulted seemed to prefer the reading "fretful" porpentine for " fearful" porpentine.

"Fret" is a word derived from various old English and Germanic terms for eating ravenously or like an animal. "Fressen" in German means, in effect, to devour one’s food like an animal – descriptions of humans eating use the word "essen"; cows and dogs at their victuals are subject to forms of "fressen". Thus, "fretting" had come to mean being "eaten away" by something. The "eating away" can be literal as in the "fretwork" stone ornamentation around a Gothic arch – the "fretwork" is a arabesque pattern, vaguely floral and symmetrical cut into (or ‘eaten out of") the stone above an medieval Cathedral window. Metaphorically, to "fret" is to be devoured by ravenous and uncontrollable fears or worries. Hence, describing a porpentine as "fretful" makes perfectly logical sense: first, the little creature is worried and fearful, thus inducing its prickly noli me tengare reaction, the erection of a portcullis of quills around the rodent; second, the erect sphere of quills englobing the animal is like "fretwork", that is, an elaborate spiky pattern replete with sharp and rebarbative edges. Not surprisingly, therefore, most sources attribute the quality of "fretful" to the porpentine imaged by the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Shakespeare’s imagination operates associatively. If he happens upon a word or metaphor that is particularly apt to the concerns of his play, Shakespeare reiterates that expression, playing variations on the theme with an obsessive intensity. Clearly, something is fretting, or worrying, the body politic in Denmark. Hamlet’s brooding is a species of fretting. And, as a consequence, variants on the word "fret" appeas twice in the play – in addition, to the phantom adjective that I imagined modifying propentine (a place in the text where the word doesn’t appear).

In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet notes that he is melancholy and "has lost all mirth (and) forgone all custom of exercises" – that is, abandoned his normal routine. Hamlet says that the world has lost its savor and seems a "sterile promontory," a "congregation" of "foul and pestilential vapors". He asserts this perception notwithstanding the fact that earth is objectively beautiful, its "brave o’erhanging firmament...a majestical roof fretted with golden fire." In this application, "fretted" means adorned – although an adornment that is a form of ulceration: the firmament is pierced with openings through which the fire of the empyrean shines. Later in the same act, Hamlet reproaches Guildenstern for manipulatively interrogating him:

"S’blood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe. Call me what instrument you will, although you fret me, you can not play upon me."

Here the word "fret" has a double meaning – that is, "harass" or "annoy" and, also, to play an instrument by putting fingers on its "frets" (that is, ridges to guide fingering on a stringed instrument.)

The shadow of these words falls across our "propentine". As a consequence, I imagine the quills of the animal standing upright to signify that the beast, like Hamlet, is "fretful."

In my mind, the word "porcupine" is Native American, even, perhaps, derived from the Lakota. I know this is untrue but the idea persists because of certain of my enthusiasms. One of the pleasures of driving across South Dakota is tuning your radio to KILI, 90.3 FM, the voice of the Lakota nation. KILI was founded by Russell Means, the Lakota activist in 1983, and the station broadcasts from its transmitter tower at Porcupine, South Dakota, a tiny hamlet on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The signal is powerful and you can track it from the Missouri breaks at Chamberlain all the way past the Badlands and to Rapid City. KILI’s broadcasts are peculiarly endearing: the station frequently plays requests, mostly a combination of head-banger heavy metal and classic blues interrupted occasionally by traditional drum-circle songs. Since many Indians are war veterans, the announcer often dedicates his tunes to the "brothers" in the VA hospital in Sturgis, old warrior alcoholics watched over by the sacred mountain, Bear Butte. There’s a lot of dead air on KILI, long intervals of silence when, it seems, that the DJ has left the room, and, even, perhaps, the station. Between halting, incoherent interviews, KILI plays public service announcements – advisories about fetal alcohol syndrome or pot lucks at local churches or "honor rides": on the reservation, it seems, that people are always gathering in processions to ride on horseback (or, sometimes, on motorcycles) across the beautiful and barren land – the reddish serrated teeth of badlands always on the horizon – to commemorate something or other. The announcers giggle and make inside jokes: on KILI’s website today there is an effusive article about the installation of new air conditioner in the studio at Porcupine. Most of all, I like the way that the on-air disc jockeys pronounce "porcupine." At KILI, the fretful "porcupine" is a "porky-pine".

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