Summer reading

I’m reading Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules, his book in which he spends a year travelling around the Mediterranean.

He is in France now, derogating the French for banning all foreign words. You can almost hear him thinking: silly French people, banning all those foreign words, when they could be like those of us who speak English and who have a huge number of words available to us, most of which we stole from other languages. And then a few paragraphs later, he slips in a beautifully obscure word, as if to show those French how delightful it is to use words appropriated from other languages:

The dream of the Mediterranean is not the Albanian coast or the docks of Haifa or the drilling rigs at the edge of Libya. It is the dream of this part of France, the sweep of the Riviera as a brilliant sunlit lotophagous land….

lotophagous, a., rare Lotus-eating, resembling the Lotophagi. Hence lotophagously adv.
  1855 EMERSON in Corr. w. Carlyle II. 244. I have even fancied you did me a harm by the valued gift of Anthony Wood; which and the like of which I take a lotophagous pleasure in eating. 1882 PIDGEON Engineer’s Holiday I. 83. Thus lotophagously sailing, we landed one morning on a beautifully wooded point. [from the OED]

7 thoughts on “Summer reading

  1. Jean

    The roots of “lotophagus” go much deeper still. Remember the lotus-eaters in The Odyssey — Odysseus and his men find the people who ate the lotus plants and were sleepy, and apathetic. Two of Odysseus’s men eat the lotus plants and lose all desire to return home. Nice word choice indeed, with many layers. Here, thanks to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, is the passage from The Odyssey:

    “I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

  2. Dan

    Jean — You are ever the professor of writing! (Don’t forget Tennyson’s poem “The Lotus Eaters.”)

    But I kinda feel that the Emerson citation in the OED is probably most appropriate for Theroux — Theroux being a self-avowed New Englander (from what, Medford?), who has begun pronouncing his name so that it sounds like “Thoreau.” Yeesh. To paraphrase the Emerson citation, reading Theroux may be doing me harm, given the lotophagous pleasure I take in reading “Hercules Pillars.”

  3. Jean

    Ah, yes, but: there is also the sense, at least in the Odysseus story, that those who eat the lotus become lulled, happy, complacent and do not want to think of going “home.” Odysseus has to forcibly pry his men away from the lotus eaters so they will in fact go home. This nicely boomerangs back to the sense of the French who do not want to use language/vocabulary from any place but their own home. And perhaps that those who *visit* the “brilliant sunlit lotophagous” land are similarly afflicted.

    Then again, it could just be Paul Theroux showing off his wacky huge vocabulary for the hell of it.

    Oh, and, in a close reading of the text, the knowledge that Theroux is from Medford, pronounces his name Thoreau — this would be thumpedly disallowed cuz outside the text and not germain.

    But what do I know.

  4. Dan

    Jean — See, I’m doing Reader Response Theory mixed with post-Marxist critical theory, and you’re doing New Criticism — I’m critiquing Theroux for being a pompous elitist ass and therefore as a reader I have an ambivalent response to him because his travel books lull me into passively accepting the evils of late capitalism with their complacent snarkiness which is not at all revolutionary in spirit — whereas you’re doing a close reading of the text, and referring to other works only when the vocabulary (i.e., “lotophagous”) seem to warrant looking outside the text.

    Or something like that….

  5. Jean

    Right. Although I think what I’m really doing (because I prefer Marxist and structuralist as well as post-structuralist, approaches on balance, and have a distrust of the insular world of New Criticism although it’s not a bad place to start) is annoying my brother with endless posts on his blog about a piece of literature. Heh heh.

  6. Dan

    The really sad thing is that I’m not annoyed — I actually kind of like conversations like this. Probably because I was a philosophy major.

    It’s like mud-wrestling a pig — at a certain point, you realize that the pig is enjoying himself.

    [oink, oink]

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