Monday, July 16, 2018

'Fortune Did Him the Kindness'

Quoting Montaigne often means simultaneously quoting at least one other writer. This suggests the extent of his erudition but also his fascination with everything human. He saw human continuity between himself and his contemporaries, and the ancients. Here is the opening paragraph of his essay “Not to Counterfeit Being Sick,” in the Charles Cotton translation:

“There is an epigram in Martial, and one of the very good ones—for he has of all sorts—where he pleasantly tells the story of Caelius, who, to avoid making his court to some great men of Rome, to wait their rising, and to attend them abroad, pretended to have the gout; and the better to color this anointed his legs, and had them lapped up in a great many swathings, and perfectly counterfeited both the gesture and countenance of a gouty person; till in the end, Fortune did him the kindness to make him one indeed.”

Go here to read the pertinent epigram by Martial, as translated by James Michie. Montaigne understood that humans, given sufficient time and motivation, are endlessly inventive in their behavior. Nothing should surprise us. Novelty is a myth. It’s all been done before. Martial’s story, by way of Montaigne, is a variation on what Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) calls the scaldrum dodge. When a friend in 1975 introduced me to Mayhew’s four-volume masterpiece, I regretted having devoted so much of my life to reading one of his imitators, Charles Dickens. With encyclopedic rigor, Mayhew chronicled the folkways of London when it was the most populous city in the world. He anatomized the scams of beggars. The scaldrum dodge he places in the “bodily afflicted” category. Mayhew tells us the Mendicity Society (which I first spelled “Mendacity”) determined that “the great majority of those who exhibit sores were unmitigated impostors.” The idea was to feign or exaggerate injury or disease in order to elicit sympathy and cash from the charitable or soft-hearted:

“A few had lacerated their flesh in reality; but the majority had resorted to the less painful operation known as the ‘Scaldrum Dodge.’ This consists in covering a portion of the leg or arm with soap to the thickness of a plaister, and then saturating the whole with vinegar. The vinegar causes the soap to blister and assume a festering appearance, and thus the passer-by is led to believe that the beggar is suffering from a real sore. So well does this simple device simulate a sore that the deception is not to be detected even by close inspection.”

A dodge, the OED tells us, is “a shifty trick, an artifice to elude or cheat.” No doubt its best-known practitioner is the Artful Dodger. The OED does not include scaldrum but other sources suggest it derives from scald, as in burn. A more severe (and, presumably, more convincing ) variation of the dodge was to burn the skin with acids or gunpowder to simulate scars and sores.

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