Friday, August 13, 2004

The Proctology of a Pessimist*

Arthur Schopenhauer was a foe of noise in all its forms, as one can see from his delightful essay, On Noise.
The “infernal cracking of whips” especially got on his nerves. (One wonders what he would say about the Beelzebubic booming of boom boxes.) One day, a cleaning lady made what he considered to be an excessive racket outside his rooms. He asked her to quiet down, which led to an argument. Push came to shove, and the lady ended up at the foot of the stairs. The local court ruled in favor of the Putzfrau, and Schopenhauer was ordered to pay her a monthly sum of money for the rest of her life. When at last she died, the philosopher opened his journal and penned what is arguably the greatest Latin pun of all time: Anus obit, onus abit.

What wit, what pith, what anagrammatical punsterism! All hail to Schopenhauer and his scowl of Minerva! Note first that the line is an anagram: there are two constructions, in this case two independent clauses, each of which represents a transposition of the letters of the other. A second example of an anagram: Democritus docet risum = Democritus teaches laughingly. The second thing to note is that ‘anus’ has two Latin meanings depending on whether the ‘a’ is short or long. Short, it means alte Frau, Greisin, old woman. (My Latin dictionary is Lateinisch-Deutsch.) Long, it means 1) Fussring, 2) (euphem.) After (= anus in the English sense). Schopenhauer’s aphorism in English: The old woman/anus is dead; the burden is lifted. So Schopenhauer was not necessarily being crude, though of course he was punning.
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*I borrow the phrase ‘Proctology of a Pessimist’ from Jeff Hodges of Korea University.