Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Traditional story about Cuvier

I had half an eye on the third part of the BBC programme The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion last night. The third part of the series, 'How Did We Get Here?', dealt with the rise of scientific assessments of biodiversity. Along the way, presenter Michael Mosley (left) looked at the contribution of the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). Mosley told this story about Cuvier (pictured below). I've transcribed the story from the broadcast programme:
There's a story about Cuvier which I like, which I think really sums up the man. It's late at night, and Cuvier has gone to bed, when one of his students, dressed in a devil's costume, bursts into his room and cries 'Cuvier! Cuvier! I have come to eat you!' Cuvier opened one eye, calmly looked the student up and down, and said 'All animals that have hooves and horns are herbivores. You cannot eat me'.
I've always liked this story, too, and it seems to have had an oral circulation. Augustus Hare recalled being told the story in Suffolk in 1894. Hare's version concerns 'some young men ... determined to frighten the famous naturalist'. His version doesn't change tense, as Mosley's does, but this might be because it was written down. Hare's punchline is a bit pithier than Mosley's rather classroom description, too:
Cuvier looked at him. 'Carnivorous! horns - hoofs - impossible! Good-night;' and he turned over and went to sleep. (1)
It's always a pleasure to hear a tale with some kind of traditional life being told orally, and it's a delight to hear them crop up on television.
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1) reprinted in The Penguin Book of English Folktales, ed. Neil Philip (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 394

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Dorson, Hospital, and Folklore Lived

I've been thinking a lot lately about Richard M. Dorson (1916-1981). Dorson was one of the key American folklorists after the Second World War, responsible for cementing the reputation of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University. Anyone interested in the early development of folklore in Britain should read his book The British Folklorists: A History (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), and the two-volume anthology he edited to accompany it, Peasant Customs and Savage Myths: Selections from the British Folklorists (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968).
Dorson fought, above all, to establish Folklore as an academic discipline. He saw a university basis for the discipline as the way to ensure the training of new generations of folklorists. He was fierce in attacking 'fakelore', a word he coined to summarise 'the pseudo-scholar creating folklore for the mass culture', as he once put it. There's lots to argue with, to dispute, and to disagree with, in his conclusions, as well as in the positions he advanced in defending them, but his writings still burn as a passionate and reasoned championing of a marginal discipline that should be valued.
I was delighted to find that a couple of ghost traditions had attached to him. One is very funny (his ghost appearing in a dream to Henry Glassie to give him some important advice), the other is a deeply touching account of Nancy C. McEntire seeing his apparition. The stories are in Elizabeth Tucker, Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), pp. 51-53.
He'd already been on my mind, though. He was a clever fieldworker, and able to turn his clarity of vision onto his own situation. In 1972 he was hospitalised with arteriosclerosis, and underwent by-pass surgery. On his recovery he wrote 'Heart Disease and Folklore', about the procedures he saw in the hospital, and the folk medicine preventing such heart conditions. (It's reprinted in Readings in American Folklore, ed. Jan Harold Brunvand (New York: Norton, 1979), pp. 124-137).
I thought about that article a lot during a recent stay in hospital. I did observe a little of the changed folklore of nursing, but mostly I just lay there. I don't remember anything of the accident that laid me out, so I've renewed respect for Dorson's attentiveness on the ward. When he came out of hospital, he investigated folkloric mechanisms for managing stress and maintaining 'emotional equilibrium'. I wasn't in hospital because of any heart condition, but I was delighted with the concluding hypothesis of Dorson's essay. It's been a bit of an effort writing this, but now that I'm out again I'm happy to embrace Dorson's hypothesis fully: 'folklore lived, not studied, is the surest preventive of heart disease'.