March 1, 2018

A brief history of literary violence


This week, while international headlines have been preoccupied with exhaustive coverage of the man with red sauce on his face who has been charged with meatball theft, a more literary—and even more sinister—story made the rounds from Dublin — of forty-year-old John Paul Mulready, charged with stabbing and biting his neighbor, one Dermot Byrne, “because of ‘poetry recited incessantly’ from upstairs.”

In fact, a quick historical review reveals literary violence as a phenomenon that has long plagued humanity. Just a few years ago, we wrote about two friends whose argument over whether poetry or prose was better escalated to the point of murder. Ernest Hemingway’s occasional fisticuffs were the stuff of legend (just ask Andy Rooney). And of course, as we’ve also written beforeVerlaine shot Rimbaud (’cause he loved him so).

There are other examples, too. In Names of the Lion, his translation of a tenth-century Arabic list of euphemisms for lions, poet and translator David Larsen tells the story of a fight between the list’s compiler, Persian grammarian Ibn Khalawayh, and the poet Abu ’l-Tayyib al-Mutanabbī. After arguing about a fine point of Arabic grammar, Mutanabbī told Ibn Khalawayh, “Watch it. You’re no Arab.” Whereupon Ibn Khalawayh stabbed him in the fucking face with an iron key.

The earliest known lit crime was the public conflict in the Roman Forum between Marcus Pedicabus and Lucius Irrumabus. Reportedly, the two were exchanging quotations from Sappho, when a stray olive pit spit out by a wandering centurion struck Pedicabus in the forearm, inciting his legendary temper. “Dinkus maximus!” the patrician is said to have exclaimed. “I just had this toga washed.” Whereupon it seems that Irrumabus stomped his sandal and bellowed, “You recite hendecasyllables like a cursed Syracusan!” Both men were condemned to the Colosseum, though Tacitus would later write in vindication of Pedicabus, praising his “legendary shade.”

The Royal Court’s original decision.

Notorious to centuries of English jurists is the fourteenth-century case of Unferth v. Manciple, in which a rowdy coppersmith in the hillside town of Flopshamshire “outraged the good character, and made attacks upon the barrels, of a fellow townsman,” causing “a pestilential humor to flower in his person, and the spilling of ale to a quantity of two-thirds of a barrel.” The two men had apparently been arguing over “which Canterbury tale ruleth moste hard,” when tempers got the better of them. Today, law students read it for its articulation of the well-known Four Pig Principle, by which a convict could resolve any criminal charge against them by bringing four pigs to the home of the local magistrate.

Finally, let us consider the case of the nineteenth-century poet Secundo Strozzapreti, who got into an argument with his court rival, Cosimo Mafaldine, over whether the Tuscan or Neopolitan dialect was more perfectly “that sweet lyre of earthly music plucked by the poet’s tongue.” Local gendarmes were forced to ply both men with several tankards of wine, simply to keep the party pleasant.

There are countless instances of more general literary criminality, too — there’s the case of Ivan Prestupnetz and Vladimir Nakazan, who were jailed in 1862 for attempting to secure a loan in Nikolai Gogol’s name. There’s François Villanelle, the poet who spent weeks in a Parisian jail for shaving the moustache off his rival, Jean-Jacques Rondeau, while he slept. The Norwegian novelist Kjell Uendeliggrå was at some point revealed to have been behind a string of late-night maritime arsons, to which he apparently responded, “Eh, there’s not much to do up here.”

We can only wonder what the future holds for the world of literary wrongdoing.

And with that, we return you to the developing story of Manwithredsauceonfacegate, already in progress.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.