I am listening to a Chopin nocturne here in my attic, as the rain falls on the city. It is evening and it is autumn. Tomorrow I am going into hospital where someone will poke around in my liver with a sharp instrument. This combination of factors could make for quite a melancholy mood, but instead I am reasonably jolly because I have just confirmed a longstanding suspicion: according to my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word ‘cretin’ is derived from the French Alpine dialect crétin meaning a ‘kind of dwarfed and deformed idiot . . . from Latin christianus CHRISTIAN.’ It goes on to inform me that ‘In many Romance languages the equivalents of Christian have the general meaning of human being, but as a euphemism carry the sense of poor fellow. A parallel sense of development is found in French benêt simpleton, from Old French benoit blessed . . .’
I was also interested to discover there is a French video game called Les Lapins Crétins (the cretinous rabbits), surely one of the more outstanding Gallic contributions to world culture.
The Argentinian poet Jorge Fondebrider, playing with the familiar writerly notion that worldly success is almost entirely a matter of luck, has a poem on the subject, which I reproduce below, as a spin-off from my reflections on cretinism, followed by another of Jorge’s pensées on literary matters.
While translating a biography of Gershwin
and reading again of his successes,
the many testimonies of his contemporaries,
I realise that I too know illustrious people
and a few who are genuinely talented,
who bear the load of the world’s debts and bitterness.
But later I go back to work.
What I really want to say is that talent is not enough,
is never sufficient
that you have to be born in the right place, at the right time,
you have to be lucky and be noticed.
And whoever claims otherwise is a cretin.
Like Plato, chuck them out,
send them packing with a kick in the arse.
Worse still are novelists who don’t read poetry.
Translations from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 47 No 1, Summer 2011.
i remember you reading the cretin poem at hay and my feeling accused
it is a great poem as I feel so accused on reading it now having heard it then
Very strange, though maybe not so. I’d be interested to know precisely what you feel accused of!
Oh, one of my favourite words! Great to see that poem again – it is on my wall at work (after i pinched it from you at Hay Jamboree)
Thank you for unraveling the true side of cretin… most interesting.
Good luck tomorrow!