Stockfish: a mystery
Stockfish is dried, unsalted cod.
2. A list of essay titles — with stockfish
Among the Graham Balfour papers in the National Library of Scotland is his transcription of Stevenson’s outline (from late 1876 or early 1877) for a book of essays to be called ‘Life at Twenty Five’. Twelve numbered chapters are followed by a shorter unnumbered list, which may be for a second part of the same volume:
At first glance, these seem to be simple pleasures that any young bohemian might enjoy. The deleted ‘Religion’ might be have been a provocative idea about which he had second thoughts, but what on earth can that ‘Stockfish’ be? It is so bizarre that I thought it could be a mistake on Balfour’s part.
3. Notes — with stockfish
Then the other day, among the material made available by the Harry Ransom Center, I saw the following at the top of a page of notes, in a rebound series of leaves from a dismembered notebook, from the same 1876-77 period:
Stockfish. take posterity on our backs. Act straight for | today, and remember that your theory for posterity will be | wrong. Better a straw fire of popularity than t other thing.
Stockfish again. Something tells me Balfour didn’t make a mistake.
But there was more to come. You see that pencil line at the bottom left of the image above? It goes right down to the bottom of the page (by-passing a series of quotations and translations from Montaigne) and loops around the following:
One of these vices, which have “je ne sais quoi de | genereux. || stockfish. [with uncrossed -t]
[Added 15 Nov 2015: A reader has commented that the pencil example looks like’shellfish’, but looked at carefully the vertical line following the initial-s (which I take to be an uncrossed ‘t’) is clearly followed by ‘oc’; what looks like double-l, could indeed be that but in the context it must be ‘k’, which usually looks like ‘R’ and sometimes has a more-or-less vertical second part and looks like double-l, as in the word written a few lines above this fragment:
This, believe it or not, is ‘kinds’. In the ink example, this second part of the ‘k’ has been merged with the vertical line of the ‘f’. ]
The phrase ‘je ne sais quoi de généreux’ is another quotation from Montaigne: Book II. 2 (De Yvrongnerie, / On Drunkenness), in Cotton’s translation (with a bit more context), ‘Now, among the rest, drunkenness seems to me to be a gross and brutish vice. The soul has greater part in the rest, and there are some vices that have something, if a man may so say, of generous in them; there are vices wherein there is a mixture of knowledge, diligence, valor, prudence, dexterity and address; this one is totally corporeal and earthly.’ It is a quote he remembered and reused in ‘The Character of Dogs’ (1883): ‘The canine, like the human, gentleman demands in his misdemeanours Montaigne’s “je ne sais quoi de genereux.” ’
And this too is apparently connected with stockfish.
So at the top of the page we have ethical advice that could easily go in the ‘Life at Twenty Five’ volume. The meaning is not clear, but it could be something like, ‘you should not be conditioned by the idea of posterity: take posterity with you on your back like Æneas carrying his father out of burning Troy ; it’s better to enjoy brief popularity now than to have it after your death when you can’t enjoy it at all.’ (Æneas seems a better fit than Horace’s ‘black care’ which sits behind the rider (Odes III. 1).)
And at the bottom of the page, we have some more ethical advice, here not about the choice of conduct but about judging it: some vices are low and beastly, but others have ‘generous’ aspects (perhaps involving nobility and self respect).
And both of these have something to do with stockfish…
What has ethical advice got to do with stockfish? (By the way, don’t start thinking that I’m going to find the answer to that question.) Perhaps we can get some clues from other uses of the word.
4. Stevenson and stockfish
Stevenson rarely uses the word. In ‘The Wreath of Immortelles’ (1870) he says the talk of fishmongers runs ‘usually on stock-fish and haddocks’. Fair enough. And in Weir of Hermiston (1894), the older Kirstie gives her opinion of Gib the weaver: “He’s maybe no more stockfish than his neeghbours! He rade wi’ the rest o’ them and had a good stomach to the work, by a’ that I hear!” (ch. V ‘Winter on the Moors’, 1. ‘At Hermiston’). Here, ‘stockfish’ clearly means ‘a stiff, unemotional person’ , by analogy with dried cod (and maybe Kirstie means to say ‘stockish’ and says ‘stockfish’ by applying a kind of folk etymology).
Not much help here.
5. Connotations of stockfish
Across the centuries, the metaphorical connotations of ‘stockfish’ are all negative. Falstaff uses it to berate Prince Hall :
you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bulls-pizzle, you stockfish (1 Henry IV II. 5. 249)
In particular it is used as noun or adjective for a stiff, unimaginative person:
the stockfish-souled reader (B. S. Naylor, Time and Truth Reconciling the Moral and Religious World to Shakespeare (London, 1854), ch. 12, 168.
a sort of stock-fish though earnest expression’ (The Examiner 557 (30 Aug 1818), 555)
mute as a stock-fish (Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1841) ch. 46)
dead as a stock-fish (George Meredith, Richard Feverel (1859) III. 5)
Faces seen in street and countryside came thronging up before him—red, stock-fish faces; hard, dull faces; prim, dry faces […] How could he know what men who had such faces thought and did?’ (John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga Part III. 3 ‘Irene’)
6. So, what does it mean here?
Assuming that Stevenson is using ‘stockfish’ in this tradition, we can imagine he might be adopting it for a common target of his social criticism in the 1870s: conventional, respectable, ‘stuffed shirts’, people lacking in imagination, flexibility and tolerance.
In the list apparently of essays on simple pleasures (Tobacco, Walking Tours, Wine…), ‘Stockfish’ must be an odd thought for an essay, perhaps one summarizing his thoughts on respectable society.
In the page of notes in the Harry Ransom Center, the annotation ‘stockfish’ seems to be attached to conduct contrasted with the that of respectable society. All I can suggest is that these notes made him think of negative conduct and judgments to be dealt with in the ‘Stockfish’ section or chapter.
Hmm, not very satisfying as explanations. But can anyone think of anything better?