The Crying Man

Further Reflections on the Mnemotechnics of Writing

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“Бурдук отун тöбöтö мäliliннäҕiнä бурдук буолар.” —Öс хöсöнö

“Grain becomes flour, when it is milled.” —A Sakha proverb


When I left you nearly two weeks ago I was reflecting on the opposition in the history of literature between the communal and mythical on the one hand, and the singular and “real” on the other. I took Françoise, in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, to be an example of the former, as a repository of communal and national knowledge that binds her as much to the medieval saints as to her own childhood; and I took my own Grandma Bertie, with her late-life recollection of a country boy who scored a chicken leg in Arkansas in 1936, and indeed also Proust himself, as examples of the latter, as storytellers who take for granted that the task of the storyteller is to dredge up and share their own life-memories.

Only on further reflection did it come to seem to me that this distinction shadows a more important one still, between what has often, and often controversially, been called “oral literature”, and what we less controversially think of today, without further specification, as “literature”: books and the like filled with pages of text, and sometimes accompanying pictures.


You might recall my discussion some time ago of the German-Russian linguist and philologist Otto von Böhtlingk (1815-1904), who may or may not have impressed upon the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev certain schematisms from Pāṇini’s ancient Sanskrit grammar, the Aṣṭādhyāyī. The chemist may or may not have then adapted and deployed these in the construction of his own highly schematic periodic table of the elements. Interesting, but I did not address at that time the principal contribution for which von Böhtlingk interests me — not for his significant achievements in Sanskrit studies or their possible impact on the history of chemistry, but for his pioneering 1851 work, Über die Sprache der Jakuten (On the Language of the Yakuts). Von Böhtlingk had interrupted his career as an Indo-Europeanist to spend a year or so working through some materials that unexpectedly fell into his hands when Alexander von Middendorff (1815-1894) returned from an 1843-45 expedition of the Russian Academy of Sciences to the far northeast of the empire, bearing significant materials pertaining to the grammar and vocabulary of the Sakha or Yakut language. Von Böhtlingk seems to have acquired a reading knowledge of the language in under seven months (it’s taken me about seven times that to attain what is likely an inferior, if still passable, competency), and went on to produce the 1851 work that still remains a milestone not just of Yakutology, but of comparative Turkic linguistics as a whole.

Sakha is a curious language, both geographically and lexically an outlier within the Turkic family (though still not as linguistically distant from all the others as Chuvash). It has marks of significant influence across the centuries from both Mongolic and from the Tungusic languages of Arctic and sub-Arctic North Asia. Like Turkish, Sakha adheres very strictly to the rules of so-called vowel harmony —rudely violated only by the great number of borrowings from Russian in today’s language—, so that for example you will never have an a and an i in the same word, or an e and an o in the same word. Unlike Turkish, Sakha is not terribly agglutinative, so that the rules of vowel harmony tend to reach only over at most five or six syllables before a new word starts and a new class of vowels is able to return.

The ethnogenesis of the Sakha seems to have resulted from a splintering of the Mongolised Turkic clans around Lake Baikal at the time of the Mongol Empire’s ascendancy. The people who would become the Sakha appear to have fled to the north, into the Lena river basin previously occupied mostly by Tungusic Ėven people, in order to escape political subjugation to the Mongols. They are thus not properly speaking an Indigenous people —the legal framework of the Russian Federation for protecting Indigenous rights does not recognise them as such, while it does recognise the Ėvens—, but rather a people first forged out of the centrifugal dynamics of a vast and relatively “modern” state structure (e.g., the Mongols had a postal system, the “yam”, which the Russians would take over in North Asia). There are words for “camel” (тэбиэн/tebien) and “lion” (хахай/khakhaï) in Sakha, even though manifestly these species have no place in North Asian ecological reality, and can only have come from an earlier history in a different reality. Genghis Khan occupies an important place in Sakha oral literature, not however as a historical figure, but as a deity. In fact though the distinction is not so clear — history itself, as preserved in oral literature, is primarily an account of how the world got to its present state, from the actions, which are both prior and timeless at once, of deities.

I had some time ago read and admired the grammatical expositions in von Böhtlingk’s work. What I had not previously appreciated was the particular richness of the primary source material that von Middendorff brought back, from which alone von Böhtlingk managed to acquire his knowledge of the Sakha language as a whole. Von Middendorff was a naturalist, who knew plenty of plants but little of languages. He seems to have been asked by someone prior to his departure for Northeast Asia (likely not by von Böhtlingk himself, who saw his work on Sakha more as an obligation to a fellow Academician), to obtain a letter from a native Sakha-speaker addressed to von Böhtlingk with any sort of content the letter-writer felt inclined to provide, so long as it was rich enough to give a full picture of the grammar of the language.

This letter was written, as it happens, by a certain Afanasiï Yakovlevich Uvarovskiï (Убарыскаi in Sakha), an ethnic Russian born in 1800 in the far-northern Ėven settlement of Zhaginsk, and raised from a young age in the settlement of Killėm (Киллэм in contemporary Sakha/Кiллäм in Uvarovskiï’s spelling), close to the capital of Yakutsk and inhabited primarily by ethnic Yakuts. Uvarovskiï was for much of his life a low-ranking clerk, doing his small part to keep this far corner of the empire looped into the tsarist administrative state. Yakutia had been compelled to pay tribute to the Russians since the seventeenth century, in the form of the so-called “yasak” or fur tribute previously imposed by the Mongols on the “Forest People” to the north. From the 1620s the Yakuts put up several decades of resistance, but eventually were broken.

Fleeing to the margins of the Mongol Empire, within a few centuries they were swallowed up within the Russian. The demand for yasak was extreme; in many reported cases, once the forests had been mostly depleted of small mammals, Yakuts sold all of their earthly possessions in exchange for a few furs, in order to pay in turn what was demanded of them by the Russians and so to avoid torture or execution. This system, along with Christianity and the nearly total imposition of Russian proper names, largely broke up the form of life that had prevailed along the Lena from the thirteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth — clanic social structure, horse husbandry, metallurgy, a form of pan-Turkic “Tengriist” religion crucially involving horse sacrifice and a summer solstice festival centered on the rite of drinking fermented mare’s milk.

By the eighteenth century a transformation had also occurred among the Russians, who had begun to show a significant degree of what in Canada would be called “métissage”. An entirely new ethnic group formed on the Taïmyr Peninsula to the northwest, the Dolgans, out of the encounter of Russian, Tungusic, and Sakha groups, speaking a dialect of the Sakha language, often with Northern European hair and facial features, but no historical memory of a European homeland. Whether he was himself a “métis” or was rather “without a cross” (as the protagonist of James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans boasted of himself), and although he would become a functionary of the Russian state, it is clear that Uvarovskiï was himself not simply an ethnic Russian who spoke Sakha as a second language, but was indeed to a high degree Yakutised.

The reality of North Asia as he knew it was also one in which already for some centuries Cossacks were swarming, in search of yasak and other spoils taken by force. Uvarovskiï often uses the compound phrase “soldiers and Cossacks” (“саллаттар хасактар”) —as for example in his account of the arrest and execution of the band of Koryak boys who escaped from an orphanage in the Pacific coastal town of Okhotsk and went on a spree of robbing and raiding in Zhaginsk—, which might confuse those readers who imagined Cossacks themselves to be a variety of soldiers. In truth, extending back into prehistory, the Eurasian steppe seems to have been peopled by groups that lie somewhere on a spectrum between military orders and ethnicities, or perhaps that are both at once. Some of these quasi-ethnicities would by the fifteenth century come to be called “Cossacks” out of the Slavicised Tatar populations of the Black Sea region (the term itself, “qazaq”, meaning “free”, is of Tatar-Turkic origin, and also gives us the ethnonym “Kazakh”), and by the seventeenth will have reached all the way to the Pacific, and have reunited with their distantly related Mongolised Yakut relatives along the way.

In sum the encounter of Russians with North Asians is both a colonial encounter like that of the French and British in the Americas, and it is also the continuation of an ongoing, millennia-old condition of constant intermixing that defines Eurasia. Uvarovskiï, in this light, is both a colonist and a native of Yakutia.


But the particular reason I am introducing you to Uvarovskiï is this: he was, evidently, not just a scribe, but a writer. Von Middendorff had, again, requested of him that he produce any text at all, on any topic, simply in order to yield a usable linguistic sample. What he came up with was a work called АхтыыларMemories.

This is the first work of literature in the Sakha language, indeed virtually the first text of any sort in that language. There had previously been portions of the Gospels translated from Russian, and as early as Nicolaas Witsen’s 1692 Noord en Oost Tartarye (The North and East of Tartary) there is some trace of an effort to record a handful of Sakha words. Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt produced a fairly comprehensive word-list in 1724, and, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, in a 1730 work, Das Nord- und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia (The Northern and Eastern Part of Europe and Asia), Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg includes Yakut, alongside Chuvash and “Siberian Tatar”, as part of his magnificent “Polyglot Table of the Harmony of Languages” (the echo here of Leibnizianism is intentional and explicit on von Strahlenberg’s part).

But these are fragmentary efforts, whereas what Uvarovskiï produces is full, complete, mature; it is nearly impossible to imagine how he produced this written language with so little precedent to guide him. It is also something of a small miracle that the task of producing such a work was given to a man such as he: good, sentimental, histrionic even, and above all committed to the irreducible cosmic significance —even if only within the cosmos of his own singular being— of memory.

Like Anton Chekhov in his remarkable Sakhalin Island, written in 1893-95, Uvarovskiï manages to discharge the official task of providing a summary report on a distant colony, while at the same time indulging his literary sensibilities (Chekhov had been sent to Sakhalin to collect statistical data relating to public health; at the time the Pacific island was still significantly inhabited by Tungusic and “Palaeo-Siberian” peoples). But again, unlike Chekhov, Uvarovskiï was not sent anywhere, he is writing about the only thing he knows, which in his case is, first of all, a certain cultural-geographical zone, and, second of all, the state of his own soul as an inhabitant of that zone.

Nearly his first words are of climate, and regret:

The snow falls as high as a house; the wind blows so hard that one cannot stay standing on one’s feet; the cold takes one’s breath away; the sun shows itself to the human eye throughout two months of winter essentially never. This is all. To tell the unvarnished truth, if it were up to me I never would have chosen Zhaginsk as my birthplace.

But he doesn’t hate it entirely, as with the Spring comes the hunt, and the parade of animals: wild reindeer, black foxes, red foxes, squirrels, black bears, white bears, wolverines. Alongside the animals, he mentions “precious animal horn, from which combs are made”, by which of course he means the tusks of woolly mammoths —said by the Finno-Ugric Khanty people to the west to belong to animals that burrow underground, boring enormous tunnels with their ivory appendages—, as if this vestige of the Ice Age were “hunted” no differently than a living reindeer.

Women —Russian, Ėven, Yakut— populate Uvarovskiï’s childhood as so many repositories, like Françoise, of archaic knowledge and history, using their knowledge variously for good or evil. Thus:

In the middle of the past century there lived in Zhaginsk a Russian woman, Agrippina by name. My grandmother knew her by her face. This woman was held to be a great magician: whomever she liked was said to be fortunate; whomever she hated was unfortunate… Any word spoken by her was heeded as if it were spoken by God. After she had gained the confidence of the people in this way, in her mature age she built a little house 4 Kös away from Zhaginsk and lived there by herself. No one dared to pass by it without calling on her, asking for her blessing, and bringing her a gift. She destroyed those who went by and neglected to do this, by turning herself into a black raven, whipping up a heavy whirlwind, and hurling various of their possessions into the water, robbing them of their reason and driving them insane.

This old Russian woman is practicing specific forms of magic that are evident as well in Sakha oral literature — whipping up whirlwinds, in particular, is the work of the абаасы/abaasy, or spirits of the Underworld. In Sakha culture one does not typically name “shamans” by profession, as if they occupied a social role comparable to that of, say, an Anglican pastor. It’s better left unsaid. It is significant however that while various North Asian languages, including wholly unrelated ones, share the same word for “shamaness” (in Sakha, удаҕан/udağan, in Mongolian удган/udgan), the words for a male shaman tend to be different (ойуун/oïuun in Sakha) in different languages, strongly suggesting the ancient diffusion of a form of religion centered around a distinctly female connection to the spiritual realm. This is a form into which a woman like Agrippina, no doubt born of Christian ancestors, was easily able to blend in the distinct cultural geography of eighteenth-century Yakutia.

Uvarovskiï’s mother for her part is not a witch, exactly, but she does know things differently, and in a way that he considers necessary to relate in accounting for both himself and for the place from which he emerges:

My mother could not read or write, though she was very clever in her understanding. The power of her memory was without rival: she remembered everything from her fourth year on; whatever happened from this time until the end of her seventies, she never forgot; without struggling to recall, she could say on what day of the week every holiday fell; she recounted without error who the governor of the region was 100 years ago, and for how long he lived; with just a bit of effort she could tell you without any mistake the result of any operation of addition or division of any equally large amount of money. Thus did people come to her who had forgotten some circumstance of the old times, so that she might ease their path back to it. She knew popular tales, fables, songs, riddles, everything; women’s ways with threads, the sewing of the clothes that the men wore in olden times — these did not escape her hand or lie beyond her art.

There is a great deal of crying in Uvarovskiï’s life, both by him and those around him. His father dies when he falls in a ditch; his mother cries. He meets an Ėven while voyaging in the snow and ice; the Ėven’s beloved hunting dog has just been killed by wolves, and he is crying. The most memorable threnody in Memories, which seems to me to be the work’s “madeleine moment”, or the “chicken-leg moment” if you wish, the vivid memory from childhood that the author cannot escape or fully comprehend, comes early in the book, when Uvarovskiï, as a little boy, meets a group of merchant men travelling from far away:

I remember, as if it were yesterday, when the leader [of the group], a Georgian by nationality, a man of exceeding great stature, who had all sorts of weapons hanging from him, dressed in red pants lined with silver at the seam, held me in his lap and, as he plied me with sweets, sat there himself, and cried. It seemed as if he were remembering some past [маiгыта туох äрä āспыты ахтан].

Imagine: around 1805, a Georgian man in red pants with a silver seam held a little boy on his lap just within the Arctic Circle, fed him sweets, and cried like a baby, thinking of the past, of “some past”, of a past unknown to the boy but known to him. Some decades later in St. Petersburg the Imperial Academy of Sciences was seeking samples of the languages of the empire, for the purposes of science and power (“glottoprospecting”, we might say, on analogy to Londa Schiebinger’s notion of “bioprospecting” in the colonial world). The prospectors encountered the man who had been the boy who sat on the man’s lap, and asked him to give them some language. This is what he gave them, handing that sad Georgian man down to von Middendorff, and eventually to von Böhtlingk at the Academy, and eventually to me, and now to you, dear reader. Sorry, I know I didn’t ask permission to do this, but he lives on in you now. He’s yours.


The Georgian man lives on, that is, as a singular person, a mortal, and not, at least for now, barring any unexpected apotheosis, as a god. It’s because he’s mortal that the scene Uvarovskiï paints of him is so affecting, I think. What strikes me now is how this singularity, this task of traducing singular individuals from memory, seems to come in a package together with the rise of writing as the primary vehicle of storytelling. In the case of Uvarovskiï we have a nearly perfect, laboratory-like illustration of this shift. Called upon to write in a language effectively for the first time in history, Uvarovskiï wracks his brain, and comes up with singular memories of singular people, and with a sort of attestation of his own having lived. This is what he takes writing to be.

The scattered runic inscriptions of both the Scandinavia of the European middle ages (derived ultimately from the Latin alphabet, no matter what the know-nothing white supremacists and scattered mystics claim), and of the Central Asian Orkhon Turkic people of the sixth to tenth centuries, often tell you little more than who owned the object on which the inscription is found. Thus a wooden spade from tenth-century Iceland, on display at the National Museum in Reykjavík, is decorated with the following runic text: 

boalliatmik inkialtr kaerþi 

Páll had me [made]; Ingjaldur made [me].

This is fairly typical, as far as runes go. Along with incantatory language, spells and the like, what people have often found most fitting to write down is simply that they were here, perhaps that they possessed this or that object, that they accomplished this or that with a tool. From the time of Páll to the time of Kilroy at the World War II shipyards and beyond, writing has largely been what is called in the world of graffiti art “tagging”. And certainly when we see proud declarations on Twitter from young writers about to have their first “pub day”, it is hard not to think of Páll and Ingjaldur and all the others who wrote not to say: “Take this, it will build you up”, but: “Please don’t forget me; I was mortal, but I was here.”

I am not at all deriding this form of expression, neither on Twitter nor on wooden spades. I think it is fundamental to what we are as mortal human beings. What I find most remarkable is that sometimes by-standers get trapped in another person’s inscriptions, as when the crying Georgian man gets passed down to us via another man’s hippocampus. The Georgian man didn’t even ask for it, but he’s yours now. The blubbering country boy is yours, my grandma’s yours.

I’m yours too; at least I’m hoping to be. Of course I got in there the desperate way. Rather than allowing my crying to be captured incidentally by someone else, I got in there in the manner of the mortals who can’t help but mark up the stones themselves with some variation on “I was here”. These are the mortals who have, in the modern period, come to be called “writers”, even as their literature often has next to nothing in common with the literature of oral cultures, which confer a sort of immortality not through individuality and freezing-in-time, but through community and continuity.


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And don’t forget to listen to the most recent episode of my podcast, “What Is X?”, where I have the most fascinating conversation with the sui-generis thinker Matthew Spellberg about Dreams, and what they are. Check back in at the beginning of each month for a new episode. Coming up in early October: Jeff Dolven on Poetry, and what it is.