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What's the Word

Symposium preview: The Netherlandish Proverbs


Published March 31, 2004 at 4:28 p.m.

Bring out the broom, folks! The roofs aren't exactly covered in tarts these days. Nothing's been the same since Meg Ryan hung a blue cloak on her husband. Martha Stewart could tie the devil on top of a cushion in her day, but now her herring won't grill. And how about those pillar-licking politicians? When it comes to the tough issues, most of them are sitting on the cinders between two chairs. Watching the news, it's enough to make you think we all live under the sign of the chamber pot.

Confused? Don't worry. If there's one thing I learned at "The Netherlandish Proverbs," an international symposium hosted by the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum this past weekend, it's that proverbs sprout like crabgrass through the cracks of ordinary language. Maybe you don't understand the eight proverbial expressions in the paragraph above -- each of which is illustrated, along with 85-odd others, in Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 1559 painting "The Netherlandish Proverbs." But then, there's a good chance a Dutch peasant from the 1500s would draw a blank on "Life's a bitch" or "I've got a great bullshit detector." While some proverbs feel as age-old to us as they did to Brueghel -- think "pearls before swine" or "swimming against the tide" -- others are as catchy and culture-specific as the jokes on Conan.

Today, we tend to dismiss proverbs as truisms or mock them as cliches. But when it came to their conventional wisdom, people in the Brueghels' time were dead serious. Mark Meadow, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, noted in his Saturday lecture that during the Renaissance, "Proverbs had legal status in courts of law." Margaret A. Sullivan, an independent scholar from Norwich, Vermont, told the audience that 16th-century scholars touted proverb collecting as a wholesome hobby -- one "free of the ravages caused by other passions," such as women and wine.

But, Sullivan went on to explain, Renaissance proverb hounds had little interest in the oral culture that bred and fed proverbs. What the collectors sought were universal truths -- "the wisdom of the ancients," not of the common people.

Are modern academics any different? The very existence of the symposium poses intriguing questions, such as: What is a gray-templed Ph.D in a conservative suit going to say about such expressions as "He pisses against the moon" or "Those two are shitting out of the same hole"?

The answer is: quite a lot. On a balmy Friday afternoon, those of us who came too late to get seats at the jam-packed keynote address found ourselves upstairs in the Fleming's library. On a closed-circuit TV, venerable Berkeley professor Alan Dundes was proposing that Brueghel's painting is all about, well, shit. "Is there evidence of playing with feces in 'The Netherlandish Proverbs?'" he asked with rhetorical aplomb.

The thesis may sound a little loony, but consider this. Renaissance art and literature are rife with images that might make even the creators of There's Something About Mary blush. "There was much less shame about bodily functions in Brueghel's culture than in our own," said Dundes. The tradition of anal-themed proverbs continues today in popular expressions like "brownnosing" and "kissing ass" -- images that would be right at home in Brueghel's masterpiece.

But if he was on indisputable ground talking about old-time scatology, Dundes went out on a Freudian limb when he analyzed the "unconscious motives" of the two Brueghels. Pieter Brueghel the Elder, you see, painted "The Netherlandish Proverbs" in 1559. The work we're poring over in the Fleming is actually one of several copies from the atelier of his enterprising son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

Did Junior struggle with his Oedipus complex as he recreated the works of his father? You betcha, said Dundes. Feces is an early object of the rivalry between parent and child, and the artistic impulse arguably finds its first expression in playing with excrement. Hence the "anal eroticism" of the painting; its "fascination with the digestive process"; its predominant use of the color brown. Maybe you had to be a Freudian to appreciate this argument.

The talks on Saturday, while informative, failed to match the jaw-drop factor of the "poo lecture" (as my companion dubbed it). After a few presentations, the endless procession of slides began to blur. The speakers chased their theses through long strings of comparisons between "The Netherlandish Proverbs" and other paintings, engravings, chapbooks and sermons. While I couldn't always follow these trails, I did pick up a number of tidbits for use in future cocktail-party conversation.

From Yoko Mori, a sweet-voiced professor from Meiji University in Japan, I learned that a Renaissance Dutch woman who "puts the blue cloak" on her husband is actually cheating on him. Malcolm Jones, an urbane Brit from the University of Sheffield, expounded on the fact that "the fox's tail had decidedly erotic connotations in the late-medieval/early modern period."

Never mind that no foxtails appear in "The Netherlandish Proverbs" -- it was a tangent worth taking. By the end of the professor's exhaustive slide-show of engravings in which lusty friars lashed bare-bottomed nuns with foxtails, I was ready to agree that "stroking the foxtail" was the "spanking the monkey" of its day.

The afternoon had its political moments. David Kunzle, a red-T-shirted art historian from UCLA, quoted the old saw "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword," and ad-libbed, "Listen to this, Mr. Bush." While this Bush-bashing may have been preaching to the academic choir, it wasn't entirely out of place, since the theme of the "world upside down," prominent in Brueghel's painting, was a staple of Renaissance political satire.

Kunzle explained that the Dutch civilians of Brueghel's time were fiercely hostile to soldiers and warmongering. This bit of history shed a new light on two armored male figures appearing in the foreground of "The Netherlandish Proverbs." One bangs his head against a wall -- a metaphor we still recognize today. The other hangs a belled collar round the neck of a docile-looking cat, an image that was proverbial for a risky undertaking. (It all makes sense when you view it from the mice's perspective.) Kunzle told us that 16th-century war profiteers were derided as "fiddlers on a jawbone at the pillory." Take that, Halli-burton.

The symposium was brought to a close by its organizer, UVM German professor Wolfgang Mieder, a tireless chaser after proverbs old and new. Mieder brought us up to date by discussing the fate of "The Nether-landish Proverbs" -- and proverbs generally -- in the 20th century. Searching for modern descendants of Brueghel, he surveyed everything from Norman Rockwell's Poor Richard's Almanac illustrations to New Yorker cartoons to a collection of saucy "anti-proverbs" that appeared in Playboy ("Early to bed, early to rise, make sure you get out before her husband arrives.")

My only regret is that Professor Mieder left out "The Simpsons," surely our generation's best collection of proverbial wisdom in iconographic form. Perhaps proverb scholars of the future will have to explain to their rapt audiences that a "Flanders" is an annoying neighbor, and that the true cultural significance of "Mmm, doughnuts" is "A fool is easily tempted into becoming part of the obesity epidemic."

Perhaps not. But I found it impossible to attend the symposium without becoming more conscious of the proverbial expressions I hear and use every day, from the preachy lingo of self-help ("Today is the first day of the rest of your life") to the irreverence of Internet slang ("Dean's campaign jumped the shark"). Some scholars warn that proverbs are declining in our culture, along with overall literacy. But Mieder isn't having any of it. The urge to create proverbs, he said, is as universal as the desire to improve other people's behavior -- or to rationalize one's own. Why else would proverbial wisdom so often contradict itself? "If the proverb fits, use it," was Mieder's own parting wisdom, "or else choose another one.

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