The Prague Manuscript, part I: Leather buttons

The late-afternoon sunlight filtered through the tall, waist to ten-foot-ceiling windows of the Dwinelle Hall [“Byzantine Dwinelle Hall” to campus newspaper feature writers] seminar room, where  in 1969/70 the Czech historian J. V. Poliˆsensky — bald head gleaming in the gloaming — taught seventeenth-century European history to University of California at Berkeley graduate students.

He was the first guy I knew who pointed out that the traffic from the mouth of the Vistula, through the Danish Sound, made the boom times of the Great Port at Amsterdam possible.  Polish wheat funded the Golden Age.  You know, Rembrandt?

So while I was violating the recent order prohibiting Your Intrepid Reporter from entering any building or grounds within the boundary of Pore tland State University, namely I was browsing in the some dead librarian’s named library’s  collection of Russian history, I was quite taken aback when I came across the Prague Manuscript.

In 1964, half a decade prior to his descent into the maelstroem of Berkeley garduate-school seminars, J. V. Polishensky edited the Prague Manuscript of M. V. Lomonosov’s estimate of Peter the Great on behalf of Voltaire, newly discovered and edited in the original French by Vatslav Cherny, Professor, University of Prague.

I was allowed to borrow it, by special indulgence of the woman in charge of the collection, but a hold was placed on my account and I was unable to renew the book.

Hey, it may not be the way things are run in Your World.  I, Dear Reader, am a zek.

A memory of the [White Sea] Canal is also preserved in the Russian language, in the words “zeka”, “zek, z/k” for “inmate”. In Russian, “inmate”, “incarcerated” is заключённый (zakliuchyonnyi), usually abbreviated to “з/к” in paperwork, and pronounced as “зэка” (IPA: [zɨˈka], “zeh-KA”), which gradually transformed into “зэк” and “зек”, zek (both pronounced as IPA: [ˈzɛk]). The word is still in colloquial use. Originally the abbreviation stood for zaklyuchyonny kanaloarmeyets (Russian: заключённый каналоармеец), literally “incarcerated canal-army-man”. The latter term coined in an analogy with the words “krasnoarmeyets” meaning “member of the Red Army” or trudarmeyets (member of a labor army). The history of the term, attributed to Lazar Kogan, is described as follows. In 1932, when Anastas Mikoyan visited Belomorstroy (construction of the White Sea Baltic Canal) Kogan told him “Comrade Mikoyan, what shall we call them? (…) I thought up the word: ‘kanaloarmeyets’. What do you think?” Mikoyan approved it.[32]

I forebear reproducing Footnote Thirty-two which follows the Mikoyan anecdote.

I am an insane round-peg-in-suare-hole Misfit on Existential Terms.  I take seriously the right to discuss politics in a natural forum for meeting and greeting, the coffee house. To be general, the London coffeehouse was the beginning, says the German existential philosopher Jürgen Habermas, of the so-called “public sphere.” To be specific, the Starbucks across the street.

But I digress.  The reason Lomonosov‘s considered opinion on Peter (reigned 1682-1725) the Great’s [the founder of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences of which M. Lomonosov (1711-1765) was the most renowned Russian-born scientist of the entire century — an equivalent, if you will allow cross-cultural comparison, of Benjamin Franklin on the Western coast of the North Atlantic, across the water from Saint Petersburg.  Who founded, the latter, the Philadelphia Academy of Science.  And did quite a lot of things.  As did Monsieur Lomonossov, as the French-language sources choose to denote the gentleman. And the Prague manuscript is, avant tout, a French-language source.] the reason one would find L’s opinion of P’s effect on the history of Russia, in historical perspective, to be most interesting would be what L. has to say about scientific endeavor.  At least that’s what floats the boat of Your Intrepid Reporter, discussing his own research.

The first Letter begins with an extended, leave-no-stone-unturned (or maybe uninterred) comparison between Alexander the Great and Peter the Great.

An obvious question arises about the effect of this prominent invocation of Alexander-worship had on the naming of — and on the expectations of the generation of right-thinking Classically-educated elders around — the Heir Apparent during Catherine (reigned 1762-1796) the Great’s lifetime [a young man {named Alexander} whose initial announcement as regent made prominent mention of the promise to reign like his grandmother].

If we carry out the Alexander to Peter I Romonov comparison, then we need a figure to go where Aristotle stood in the work of Alexander the Great to reformulate the entire Ancient World.

From a Lynn Thorndike point of view an element of magic comes into the manuscript with the passage, following a reasonable physical description of the pleasant bodily shape of His Majesty, and his tireless activity,

Il méprisoit le luxe et la parure, ne portant jamais qu’un habit simple et uni, et le reste de son équipage répondait.

[He disliked luxury and embellishment, wearing simple, workmanlike clothing, a habit which his followers copied in their turn.]

It’s not that Lomonossov, again this guy really did quite a lot and my critical remarks following are not in any way meant to diminish the scale between my self and him, did not know better.  The above rhetorically just does not belong.  What, Peter was great ‘cuz he had great taste in clothes?  Does the gentleman require a checklist of topics to cover, and the next after his appearance was his taste in drapes?  Is his footgear next?  And (dear Readers, you know you need to know) did he have any tattoos?

No, no, Lomonossov was too careful in his own rhetoric, too much of a poet, to put the harmony of the Great One’s outfits on the first page of his discussion — unless, you see, Lomonossov just couldn’t resist the dig at his own day, and so did not see the blemish.

Ainsi son habillement ordinaire n’étoit que du gros draps avec des grands boutons de cuivre doré.
[Thus, his habitual daily dress was of rough weave with large gilded leather buttons.]

Does the choice of gilded leather buttons really belong here?  — well, No.  It doesn’t.  We are looking at a prejudice at work, where the German- and French-speaking fops at the St. Petersburg Academy so bothered the (take my word for it) great man Lomonossov, that he begins a letter, expecting it to be taken as publishable at least with regard to it s content, with what I regard as a solecism.

Maybe you think Peter’s choice of simple draping fabrics and leather buttons humanizes the account, and all my huffing and puffing is purest speculation.  Well, maybe.

The very next sentence as it were takes off; reaches a so to speak liftoff.

Mais malgré cette simplicité il avoit je ne sai quelle vertu secrète qui produisoit partout cet effet qu’on ne pouvoit le regarder sans vénération et sans crainte, que toute la magnificence des plus grands et plus pusissans monarques de l’univers ne sauroit imposer de plus à ceux qui les approche.

I dunno what it was, I never met the guy, but he was one sent from Heaven, and we recognized him as one of the Masters of the Universe.  It was his I don’t know what secret quality, what did it.  Sheesh.  As my teenaged sons say, in cynical relation to their subject-matter.  More tolerantly toward the boundaries of science, I think we can say we are looking at an invocation of an inexplicable gift from the Beyond.

And if you Dear Reader grant that, then you are forced to admit yet once again the mis-emphasis being placed on leather buttons, and gilded ones at that.  Humanizing the subject is exactly, precisely, the opposite of what our narrator of the greatness of Pierre le Grand is doing, what with the Emperor of China being approached by a delegation of forehead-drubbing Central Asian merchants, not quite the rival of the awe which just flowed from Peter’s person to all who knew him.

That’s why, sorry, the buttons do not belong.  Lomonossov happened to wish to score a point against overdressed Academicians of the 1750s.   If anything it detracts from the flow of his letter, kind of creating an eddy.  It does warn us of the narrator’s tendency to over-emphasisze his present.



About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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