“Sweetmeat Motto”

In Dead Souls Chapter VIII, our charlatan hero Chichikov, recently the intrigue & delight of the provincial capital, receives invitation to the Governor’s ball.

Everything extraneous was immediately dropped and dismissed from Chichikov’s mind, and all his energies were directed towards preparation for the ball… It may well be that ever since the very creation of the world never has so much time been expended on a toilette. An entire hour was devoted solely to an examination of his face in the mirror. He attempted to impart a multitude of different impression to it: now important and dignified, now deferential but with a faint smile, now simply deferential with no smile. Several bows were rendered to the mirror, accompanied by vague sounds that bore a slight resemblance to French, although Chichikov had absolutely no knowledge of French.

Once at the ball, flitting about the local gentry, flirting indiscriminately, Chichikov’s performance is no less comically ridiculous.

He exchanged easy and fluent pleasantries with some of the ladies, approached one or another in tiny tripping steps, or, as they say, with mincing gait, in the manner of those aged little fops known as ‘mouse-stallions’, who trot so briskly on high heels round the ladies.**

Love it. Anyway, onto our point! When Chichikov encounters the Governor, the reader encounters a strange word: “The Governor, who meanwhile was standing near the ladies, holding a sweetmeat motto in one hand and a lapdog in the other, on catching sight of Chichikov threw both motto and lapdog to the floor….”

Da funk is a “sweetmeat motto”? The translator tells us it’s a “slip of paper containing a line of poetry, inserted inside a fancy sweet-wrapper”. Sort of like a high society fortune cookie. The OED refers to this 19th century bon mot bon-bon as a “motto-kiss”. It is probably time to resurrect this practice. Would not the world be improved if Tristan attended parties armed with lavender origami paper rolled & pinched at each end like saltwater taffy that, unfurled, reveals a choice couplet from the Pied Piper of R&B?

It should be added that “sweetmeat” refers to confectionary treats, like dried/sugared fruits, cookies, or cakes. From the archaic form of “meat” which means any kind of foodstuff. We’re not talking about tangy teriyaki beef jerky here. A blueberry Slim Jim wrapped in a few lines of Dryden presumably would not produce the desired effect. Outside a Ren Faire tailgate party, that is.



** Further: “After mincing in rather adroit turns to the right and to the left, he scraped a foot, in the process describing a little tail or the semblance of a comma. The ladies were most gratified, and not only discovered a host of pleasant and amiable qualities in him, but even began to descry a majestic expression on his face, something even Mars-like and military, which, as is well known, is very pleasing to women.”

Ah yes, Chichikov’s investment in preparation has returned a most delicate yield!


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