Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Espèce de bayadère de carnaval!

My dear friend Olivier in Paris sent me for my birthday a compilation of Captain Haddock's "jurons," or insults, with accompanying explicatory texts. For those of you unfamiliar with Captain Haddock, he is the salty foul-mouthed foul-tempered alcoholic sea captain who accompanies junior reporter Tintin on various adventures. My father faithfully read this serial when he was a child and made sure to acquaint me with this essential part of French culture in turn (I can't imagine having to wait for each installment like he did--some parts were so unbearably thrilling). Such a pairing would never happen nowadays--Captain Haddock would be a most unsuitable companion for a young lad today (despite all the money he inherited from his ancestor, Francois de Hadoque).

Anyway, so this morning first thing upon waking I'm flipping through the list of Haddock's infamous insults (one example, roughly translated: "Brutes! Filibusters! Mussels with fries! Autodidacts!) when I stumble upon a word I was trying to research for an essay on John Ashbery's And the Stars Were Shining, recently published in Conjunctions as part of their homage to M. Ashbery (or Jonas Berry, the pseudonym he used to translate French murder mysteries because it was how the French pronounced his name). That word was bayadère.

Here's the original excerpt from my essay:

…the razor, lying at an angle
to the erect toothbrush, like an alligator stalking
a bayadère; the singular effect of all things
being themselves, that is, stark mad

(from “Ghost Riders of the Moon”)

Who hasn’t found their razor lying at an angle to their toothbrush (and beware,
teeth!), but what is a bayadère and why is it/she/he being stalked by an
alligator? Bayadère is missing from my more contemporary French-English
dictionaries, but according to an older one, it is defined as an “Indian dancing
girl.” The Internet reveals that La Bayadère was a ballet choreographed by
Marius Petipa that premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1877.
(Actually, it’s not clear whether Petipa choreographed or produced the ballet.)
In any case, the music was composed by Ludwig Minkus. However, none of the plot
synopses mention the chasing of a bayadère by an alligator. Even more
problematic, there are no alligators in India (in which the ballet is set), only
crocodiles. But Ashbery nimbly excuses himself from the situation he’s gotten
himself into: After all, things—crocodiles, alligators, bayadères, toothbrushes,
razors—being themselves, are stark mad, and “alligator” sounds nicer paired with
“stalking” anyhow.
Obviously, I was having some trouble tracking down a satisfactory definition of bayadère, and here it is in all its glory in L'Intègrale des jurons du Capitaine Haddock. Not only do I discover that bayadères ordained Hindu temples and sang in processions, but that it was one of the very rare Haddockian insults addressed to a woman (the others can be counted on the fingers of one hand: péronnelle, perruche bavarde, tigresse, diablesse).

I don't know why I didn't start my research with Tintin in the first place. Lesson learned!

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