Blind organ-grinder and dog drowned in the Meuse/Maas at Liège/Luik, Belgium

Floodwaters took his barrel-organ, he held onto his only source of income, Fido was on a string.

String of sausages or string of pearls? Organ-grinders may not have been taken seriously in novels before Madame Bovary, or in theatre before Woyzeck, but the provincial press is full of them: fighting, drinking, singing scurrilous libels, dying miserable deaths. There’s some great stuff, particularly in German publications, as, somewhat later, welfarism takes hold in order to prevent this kind of thing.

Unlucky organ-grinder-ballad-singers

Kasper Lutz in German (occasionally), nameless in French and English?

Abraham Moses Tendlau’s German-Jewish proverb collection, Sprichwörter und Redensarten deutsch-jüdischer Vorzeit (1860) evokes Kasper Lutz, a hurdy-gurdy man who, with his barrel organ, 1 visited the great Frankfurt fair with a repertoire of songs of woe:

1030. Nix als Kasper Lutz!
Nichts als Unglück, z. B. “Mer hört jetzt nix als Kasper Lutz! -” (Vergl. 749 [Nix als Schlimm-Massel!]) “Der waaß das ganze Jahr nix zu erzählen als K. L.”, hat seine Freude daran, Unannehmlichkeiten zu berichten. Kasper Lutz war nämlich ein Leyermann, der mit seiner Drehorgel die Frankfurter Messe besuchte und stets nur Unglücksgeschichten absang.

But in the proverbs our singer of schadenfreudes of beasts and beastliness is both messenger and message: like certain rugby referees, and like the anonymous organ-grinder in Madame Bovary, he brings and he also is bad news. Modern partial postmen, smirking black cats for the Inquisition’s flames: the smiling short-seller, the catastrophe communist, and yes, the sadistic postman (a genre you may not wish to google at work, or anywhere)…

Any proverbial candidates comprehensible to an English-speaking audience? I’m not sure that Cassandra works – she may not be much fun, but neither is she having fun – there is no profit motive in her misery:

Woe, woe, woe! O Apollo, O Apollo! … Apollo, Apollo! God of the Ways, my destroyer! Ah, what way is this that you have brought me! To what a house! … a god-hating house, a house that knows many a horrible butchery of kin, a slaughter-house of men and a floor swimming with blood… Behold those babies bewailing their own butchery and their roasted flesh eaten by their father!

And no one apart from you has heard of her anyway. And she hadn’t got a barrel organ.


  1. Sic: form is similar, but function has changed, and cranked musical boxes are confused with one another across Europe.

Monkeys here, monkeys there, monkeys everywhere

Victor Hugo puts on his black cap.

Last night, extracting bits from mainly 19th century barrel organ observation and invention, one lost one’s mind to metaphorical mirage: cylinders (circular tragedies framed by the appearance of organ grinders), pins (all the world’s a barrel organ), and, above all, (demonic) monkeys. Here’s J.L. van der Vliet in 1845 in a piece of that most Dutch genre, Gothic humour, which covers inter alia the vendors and performers of murder ballads:

Victor Hugo says somewhere that while the public prosecutor is writing his closing speech for the judges, the executioner sits in a basket under the table and now and then tugs on his legs, so that each time His Inclemency has to kick the basket and cry to him, “Quiet man! Thou also shalt have something!”

Victor Hugo zegt ergens, dat terwijl de procureur-generaal zijne pleitrede voor de regters schrijft, de beul in een mand onder de tafel zit, en hem nu en dan bij de beenen trekt, zoo dat de hoog-gestrenge dan telkens tegen de mand moet schoppen, en hem toeroepen: «Stil kerel! Gij zult ook wel wat hebben!»

I haven’t looked for the Hugo source, but I imagine the Biblical tint is there too. Thomas Marshall (1842) translates the honorific “Hoog-Gestrenge” as “Most Honorable” or “Most Just”, which is inadequate here; however, though while one suspects that Calvin and Zwingli had a weakness for strong-armed whipsters, we are not yet in the punishment cellar.

How many monkeys would have to be deployed with Ian Horswill’s Punch and Judy AI Playset for how long in order to generate Madame Bovary?