Wednesday, September 05, 2012


An Icelandic Proverb?

W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (New York: The Viking Press, 1970), p. 278:
Every man likes the smell of his own farts.
Auden says this is "an Icelandic proverb." The same assertion is found in W.H. Auden, Letters from Iceland (New York: Random House, 1937), p. 151, and in W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, The Faber Book of Aphorisms (London: Faber & Faber, 1962), p. 37. Proverb dictionaries repeat the assertion, but I haven't been able to find any source that gives the original Icelandic.

A Greek form of this proverb occurs in Apostolius 6.98. See E.L. von Leutsch, ed., Corpus Paroemiographorum Graecorum, T. II (Göttingen: Dieterich, 1851), p. 392, lines 5-6, my translation:
Everyone thinks his own fart is sweeter than an apple: A popular saying.

Ἕκαστος αὑτοῦ τὸ βδέμα μήλου γλύκιον ἡγεῖται: δημώδης.
On the fragrance of apples see e.g. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 3.10.5, Plutarch, Convivial Questions 8.1, etc.; Baucis and Philemon serve Jupiter and Mercury "redolentia mala" (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.675).

Erasmus, Adagia III iv 2, translated and annotated by Denis L. Drysdall, discusses the Greek proverb:
Suus cuique crepitus bene olet
Everyone thinks his own fart smells sweet

Ἕκαστος αὑτοῦ τὸ βδέμα μήλου γλύκιον ἡγεῖται. Everyone thinks his own fart smells as sweet as apples; there is no one, in other words, to whom his own faults do not seem to be his best qualities. In the Nicomachean Ethics book 9, Aristotle says: 'For most things are not reckoned at the same price by those who possess them and by those who wish to acquire them. For to everyone his own goods, and what he gives, seem to be of great value.'1 This passage was better suited to the proverb 'What is one's own is beautiful,'2 but that page has already passed out of our hands. I suspect that this proverb about the fart was drawn by Apostolius from the dregs of the common herd,3 for I have never yet heard of anyone to whom his own fart smelled sweet. It is true that men shrink from other men's excrement and farts more violently than from their own.

1 Aristotle Ethica Nicomachea 9.1.9 (1164b16)
2 Adagia I ii 15
3 Apostolius himself adds the word δημώδης 'popular.' For Erasmus' attitude to Apostolius see the notes to Adagia III iii 31 and 37. There are several other examples of this judgment in the following adages. The remark replaced a phrase that had stood here from 1508 'This is recounted by Apostolius and borrowed from the common people, as I guess,' to which was added from 1515 'for he seems to have included several things of this sort.'
Erasmus in the original:
Suus cuique crepitus bene olet

Ἕχαστος αὑτοῦ τὸ βδέμα μήλου γλύκιον ἡγεἶται, id est Unusquisque suum ipsius crepitum malo suaviorem existimat. Hoc est: Nemo est, cui sua mala non videantur vel optima. Aristoteles Moralium Nicomachiorum nono: Σὰ πολλὰ γὰρ οὐ τὸ ἴσον τιμῶσιν οἱ ἔχοντες καὶ οἱ βουλόμενοι λαβεἶν. Σὰ γὰρ οἰκεἶα καὶ ἃ διδόασιν ἑκάστοις φαίνεται πολλοῦ ἄξια, id est Pleraque enim non eodem pretio aestimantur ab his qui habent et ab his qui cupiunt accipere. Nam sua cuique et quae dat videntur esse multi pretii. Hic locus magis congruebat proverbio Suum cuique pulchrum, sed ea pagina jam exierat manus meas. Proverbium de crepitu suspicor ab Apostolio e vulgi fece haustum ; nondum enim quemquam reperi, cui suus crepitus bene oleret. Illud verum est homines vehementius abhorrere ab alienis excrementis et crepitu quam a suis.
Montaigne, Essais 3.8 (De l'art de conferer = Of the art of discussion, tr. Donald R. Frame), also mentions this proverb, in a slightly different form:
Not only the reproaches that we make to one another, but also our reasons and arguments in controversial matters can ordinarily be turned against ourselves; and we run ourselves through with our own weapons. Whereof antiquity has left me weighty examples enough. This was ingeniously well said, and much to the point, by the man who thought it up:
Every man likes the smell of his own dung.
Our eyes see nothing behind us. A hundred times a day we make fun of ourselves in the person of our neighbor and detest in others the defects that are more clearly in ourselves, and wonder at them with prodigious impudence and heedlessness.
Montaigne's French:
Non seulement les reproches, que nous faisons les uns aux autres, mais noz raisons aussi, et noz arguments et matieres controverses, sont ordinairement retorquables à nous: et nous enferrons de noz armes. Dequoy l'ancienneté m'a laisse assez de graves exemples. Ce fut ingenieusement dit et bien à propos, par celuy qui l'inventa:
Stercus cuique suum bene olet.
Noz yeux ne voyent rien en derriere. Cent fois le jour, nous nous moquons de nous sur le subject de nostre voysin, et detestons en d'autres, les defauts qui sont en nous plus clairement: et les admirons d'une merveilleuse impudence et inadvertence.


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