30 December, 2006

Gedichte: II

The internet's a great place, isn't it? According to Wikipedia, Saddam is currently 'most likely on his way to hell', though that won't be there by the time you read it. But the web is full of nice chaps, ready to offer their expertise. Steve Languagehat and I have traded advice now and then, and Stuart Heath, Simon Holloway and others have been kind enough to lend me their wisdom on more than one occasion. Now another fellow has come to my aid, handsome young Irishman Aidan Kehoe, who keeps a delightful blog—how can you dislike a man who writes a post in German on morsecode mnemonics, and lists "the French as a people" as his sole "disenchantment"? (Myself, I think the French are underrated, but then so are the British, not to mention the Americans.) Mr. Kehoe, in fact, has considerable fluency in German, and at my request he agreed to assist me in my translation of Herr Rochs' poetry, my previous attempt at which, with mixed results, can be found here. This is the second installment; the German original was written just four days after the first one.

Und menge ich von Nichts, als Lieb'
Und nie von andern Dingen,
Jedennoch stets genug nur blieb'
Mein Leben lang zu singen.

Ich brauche meinem Liebchen fein
Nur tief ins Aug zu sehn
Damit die Lieder gross und klein
Zu ihrem Lob entstehn.

Und bringe ich sie dann ihr dar
So Lohnt mich suess ihr Kuss
Und eine neue Liederschaar
Bringt ihr dann neuen Gruss.

5. Nov. 1876

My effort at comprehending this was poor, but Aidan came to my rescue, though Rochs' apparent archaism stretched even his powers. The second word menge, which normally means 'mix', is the chief sticking-point—here's what Aidan had to say on the matter:
It could be that menge was intended to convey the obsolete form of the verbal counterpart of Mangel 'lack [of something]'. The current verb is mangeln, but the Grimms list mengan as appearing in Hochdeutsch in that meaning long before Mangel itself.
Well, I take his ingenious word for it, as it's the only way I have of making sense of the first verse. Perhaps Herr Wokan will have other things to say. Aidan notes further, delightfully apoint, that such an explanation 'would require that your great-great-grandfather had both the desire and the education to be ridiculously archaic, though! All the same, such a combination was relatively fashionable in 1875'. It certainly was. Aidan's help is implicit throughout the first two verses here. There's one more thing to say, which is that I have taken a different stylistic tack for this version. With my last effort I was still writing in a Conradian style, whereas here I have kept to a strict accentual metre, in imitation of the original, which is in ballad metre, and in return allowed myself more freedom in sense. This isn't entirely comfortable to me, but as an experiment I don't think it is a failure. The last line is really mine—for a closer rendering, feel free to substitute 'My darling should readily greet'. The translation is for my wife, to whom kittle and bejaune are known terms of endearment.

And I've wanted for nothing but Love—
No, ne'er for a single damn thing—
But I've had enough push come to shove
That for livelihood lifelong I sing.

And I need only glance at my kittle,
And to look her so deep in the eyes,
For songs in her praise great and little
To swiftly materialise.

So I offer her these as a token
For one of her kisses so sweet,
Till a new flock of sonnets well spoken
Should knock my bejaune off her feet.

27 December, 2006

San Francisco: another photo essay

The consonants are a church of
hands interlocking, stops
and measures of fingerings
that confine the spirit to
articulations of space and time.
In the Church of the Holy Name, near Ocean Beach, a caretaker asked me, Are you Catolic, den? I was hoping this wouldn't come up. I lied through my teeth, No, my mother's a Catholic. I came here for her sake. I'm an agnostic. He said, So you don't b'lieve in notting? I replied, No, I'm not sure, I don't know if God exists. The man said, When you gonna know? Good question, I replied, and both of us laughed, he in sincerity. But being in a place like this—I gestured around at the airy 1964 interior, the high glass dome—makes you feel a bit spiritual, doesn't it? Yeah, yeah, he said, smiling. It's de house of de Lord.

Well, I suppose there's an unreligious sort of experience for you.

Most men, as you know, stand up to pee. Me, I prefer to sit, like a lady. I just think that micturating, like defecating, should be a leisurely, relaxed sort of affair. It's the same with washing. I learnt to shower during my graduate days, but really I'm a bath man. It's so much more gentlemanly to wash yourself while reclining back in a tub, than standing in a vigorous blast of steam and water. Some say it's less hygienic, as you're sitting in your own dirt. Those people don't understand how soap works. Thus, I prefer to sit and relax while washing and excreting. But when I'm out walking, I prefer a bit of physical resistance, which is why I'm not averse to a four-hour trek in the pouring rain now and then. Within five minutes my shoes had filled up with water, and my hair was dangling in loose wet curls into my eyes. There was no question of an umbrella. Mrs. Roth, inexplicably, again declined to join me. The trick is to stick it out till that point where you can't get any colder or wetter, and just lose yourself in looking and thinking, that way the discomfort ceases to bother you. I actually made the mistake of stopping for a hot muffin, which afforded a few minutes of pleasure, but only accentuated my condition when I returned to the road.

My second journey in San Francisco, west from the edge of Haight-Ashbury to the ocean and back, was quite different to the first. In my last post I showed you a bright and well-known stretch of the city; in this one I show you an overcast sky hanging over the west side towards the ocean, a quiet area full of orientals rather than beatniks and Italians. On Irving, a block or two south of Golden Gate Park, there are over a thousand nail-salons, vying for space with the markets and discounteries, the used bookstores, the Chinese restaurants, and the occasional boutique. Another block south and it's almost all houses, but what houses! In terms purely of vernacular local architecture, this town is easily the best I've seen in America, and even ranks with the finest parts of London. There's an extraordinary variety, each house on a street different from its neighbors, and so many colors, forms and textures.

This stuff was easily enough to keep me entertained. But I enjoyed the more monumental buildings too, such as this one, a great period piece of American modernism:

Naturally I explored a couple of bookstores in the area, though they weren't much cop. Black Oak on Irving had a two-volume edition of Roger Bacon's Opus Maius, which might have tempted me, only I'm not buying books now. Anyway, I've already read it, and it wasn't as great as I wanted it to be. I was hoping for something more magical, maybe even an elaborated version of his earlier De Secretis Operibus Naturae (1252), which rattles off in a Leonardesque way about Greek fire, the quadrature of the circle, telescopes and microscopes, the concealment of secrets, artificial flying machines, incantations, anagrams, menstruation, counterbalances and so on. In fact the Opus, presented to Pope Clement IV in 1267, turned out to be a systematic exposition of Bacon's reading in natural philosophy during the preceding decades. As such, it's not terribly exciting, though it does have moments of undeniable methodological interest. Bacon was a tireless collector of manuscripts, and was particularly lusty in his hunt for Seneca's epistles, which make up the dull bulk of Bacon's writing on moral philosophy. But at some point he joined the Franciscans and gained access to the personal library of his great predecessor, Robert Grosseteste; this reading, combined with his knowledge of Arabic sources, contributed to substantial chapters on optics, astronomy, and empirical method. The latter, which Bacon claims is wholly unknown among his contemporaries, consists of three things: investigation by observation and experiment, an open mind and rational use of experimental data, and better results than 'speculative science'. Ah, better results! Here we have some enjoyable inventions, at last—a stone which will put an army to flight, perpetual lamps, bituminous 'Malta' to eat through armour, magnets and gunpowders. . . great stuff.

(Bacon is a bit confused about language, though—he claims that Latin is derived from Greek and Hebrew, bless him, listing the following loanwords, many correct: domus, scyphus, clericus, laicus, diabolus, Sathanas, ego, pater, mater, ambo, leo, bos, ager, malum.)

The vowels are physical
corridors of the imagination
emitting passionately
breaths of flame. In a poem
the vowels appear like
the flutterings of an owl
caught in a web and give
aweful intimations of
eternal life.
My movement through San Francisco, as best it could have done, proceeded by observation and experiment. I walked where my eyes took me. Bacon, for whom all science was merely the handmaiden to theology, would have approved of the myriad churches—including Korean and Assyrian—on my route. Here was the first impressive example, St. Anne's, on Judah:

The second big church was the Holy Name, miles further west, and south towards Lawton. Where St. Anne's is eclectic, drawing on Gothic and Moorish styles and somewhat Italian in feel (and colour), the Holy Name is decidedly modern, with a slightly pagodesque roof and rounded 60s lines inside. It had some tasteful, abstract stained glass, and some rather dull sculpture, but the most interesting object for me was the ambry (or almery, Latin armarium), containing the holy oils:

I cannot, incidentally, identify the round black solids in the jars, nor could the caretaker. (Are you Catolic, den?, etc.) Outside you could already smell the salt smell of the sea. Lily's aunt teaches at a school near here. The winds were up and in my face, though it had stopped raining by this point. My shoes and socks, sodden through, squelched mercilessly as I trudged down to the shore. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. There were hot green and red grasses lining the road that separates the streets from the beach, burning violently, longly as the cars rushed past in the gathering gloom:

And then the roar and break of the ocean, grey and silver and white, brutal.

I first saw it through two dunes over the road from Lawton. I was miles away. The strand was ochre and wet, deserted, save for a few crusties and lonesome men—four gulls darted dark against the crashing surf and for a moment I thought they were horses or dogs, cantering in the distant sea. I couldn't have been further from the green and gentle waters of the Fisherman's Wharf. The winds were really galing at this point, and sands were coursing over the shore, blue and brown, with the roar in my ears, and the plovers all gadding about in tiny multitudes. Being in a place like this made me feel a bit. . . spiritual. Or romantic at least. I've been reading some of the German romantics lately, the philosophy and criticism. You feel they really wanted to be outside, here, not stuck indoors waving their arms to evoke the sublime in Hamlet. If the monumental churches had led me from 3rd to 48th, zigzagging to the north and south, then here was my telos, the closest approximation to a religious experience I could have had.

The walk home did not contain much to stir my heart, and in my condition I found it rather tiring. The dusk descended dully as I walked east along Lincoln, gazing occasionally into the park as the trees bent in the gales. I was not in the same city I had walked so pleasantly on Friday. I had no ridiculous poetry to mock here; the overcast west is a prosaic sector. The glamour and variety of downtown and North Beach had been replaced by a grey continuity, overlooked but full of small surprises. But then, theology is not a thing of glamour and variety. It is more of a grey continuity, full of small surprises, tending toward revelation. San Francisco is eating away at me, and part of me wants to put up and stay, London be damned.

Nature does nothing in vain. Roger Bacon wrote that, a good Aristotelian—but it will serve as well for the romantics, and for their modern heirs, the beats, to whom this city has long been home.

25 December, 2006

San Francisco: a photo essay

Do any of my readers live in San Francisco? What a wonderful city you have! A couple of days ago I took my first trip down there, from up here in the Berkeley hills, where we're staying. Berkeley itself is a heaven of chi-chi bohemianism, a mobbed cheeseshop with playing-cards for queue-tickets, a guy playing piano next door, the sort of broken jazz you might hear in a Woody Allen movie, and it was raining outside, and slim beauties with rosy cheeks and vague traces of ethnicity, wrapped up in wools and fashionably-distressed denim.

But San Francisco, well, that's something else. I took the BART down to Embarcadero, where I pottered about towards the Ferry Building smelling money wherever I walked. I took pictures of buildings, that's easy, but what I really wanted was to snap people, and throughout the day I saw dozens of people I wanted to snap—a black gentleman with a peacock feather in his hat getting his brown shoes shined, a Chinese waiter with his collar up adjusting his bow-tie for a shift, an old guy in a tux sweeping the butts off the street outside Hustler's, a Patrick Bateman with a comb dancing in his fingertips, the most beautiful six year-old I've ever seen playing with her daddy in Pioneer Park, gaggles of dirty intellectuals up in North Beach—but I couldn't muster the courage to ask, and hey, I wasn't about to just snap them without asking either.


After admiring the lavish takeaways of the Ferry Building I headed up Montgomery and turned on Columbus at the Pyramid and the Transamerica Scientology building, which did not have these pretty windows:

Past all the hunan restaurants I stopped for an hour at City Lights. The bookstore used to be twinned with Compendium Books in Camden Town, round the corner from where I once lived, but then Compendium closed five years ago. So I came to see what all the fuss was about, here where it all started. In fact before I came I'd been reading some classic San Franciscan poetry, you know, the 60s stuff. I was using the famous anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. God, this shit stinks! It reads like a bunch of hippies brought up on Whitman and high modernism and having precious little of anything to say for itself, other than Screw the establishment and Gee, isn't nature, like, amazing? Rule no. 1 for poets: never use the words 'poem', 'poet' or especially 'poetry'. Rule no. 2: we've all read Joyce and Eliot, some of us like them, you don't need to allude to them. Look, recycling of Finnegans Wake from Robert Duncan's 'The Dance':
I'll slip away before they're up
and see the dew shining
And some original but incompetent Joyceifying from his 'A poem beginning with a line by Pindar':
damerging a nuve. A nerb.
The present dented of the U
nighted stayd. States.
And look, recycling of The Waste Land from Jack Spicer's 'Imaginary Elegy II':
Tarot cards
Make love to other Tarot cards. Here agony
Is just imagination's sister bitch.
This is where the sun tormented castle which
Reflects the sun. Da dada da.
The castle sings.
Da. I don't remember what I lost. Dada.
The song. Da. The hippogriffs were singing.
Da dada. The boy. His horns
Were wet with song. Dada.
I don't remember. Da. Forgotten.
Da. Dada. Hell. Old butterface
Who always eats her lovers.
This is cringeworthy! But it's not just direct quotation, the whole idea of poetry made up of a bunch of banal images and little else is taken straight from the haiku crap being peddled in the 1910s. Duncan's 'The Question':
Have you a gold cup
dedicated to thought
that is like clear water
held in a flower?

or sheen of the gold
burnishd on wood
to furnish fire-glow,
a burning in sight only?
(Sorry, man—Shakespeare already did 'burnish' and 'burn'.) But you noticed that 'burnishd', right? That's no accident. Here's an academic to decode this strange typo for us: 'Dropping a silent e can signify action against authority; but at times distorted orthography signifies moral dysfunction.' That's Bob Perelman's article 'Write the Power' from the 1994 American Literary History. Write the power, huh? Look, he's one of them, all over that wordplay game. So here's some more of Spicer's stupid Elegy, which unfortunately for us is far from imaginary, this time channeling that insufferable faux-naivety of Gertrude Stein:
God must have a big eye to see everything
That we have lost or forgotten. Men used to say
That all lost objects stay upon the moon
Untouched by any other eye but God's.
The moon is God's big yellow eye remembering
What we have lost or never thought.
Then there is a tasteless balladesque scribble by Helen Adam called 'I Love my Love', full of gold and purple and hair and embraces and that sort of girl stuff. But like it or not all this electric drivel was bouncing round in my head as I walked up Columbus, and not only that, but also the library books I'd picked up by Alan Watts, the Bay Area's most famous philosopher. Tim Leary gives some good bibliobole for Watts' Joyous Cosmology, calling it 'a brilliant arrangement of words describing experiences for which are language has no vocabulary'. That's irony, I'd recognise it anyday. Watts is into Hesse, of course. Hesse is a godsend for me. Whenever I'm depressed at how goddamn serious and brilliant those Germans were, I think of Hesse, who singlehandedly proved they could be as dumb and blunt as us anglophones. I'm not sure which is the worst of his books, maybe Steppenwolf. It's generally a bad sign, I think, when there's a rock band named after your book. Anyway, Watts is absolutely thrilled with the schtick Hesse was peddling in the Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi or whatever you want to call it, and describes the set-up—
From such elements as the design of a Chinese house, a Scarlatti sonata, a topological formula, and a verse from the Upanishads, the players will elucidate a common theme and develop its application in numerous directions. No two games are the same, for not only do the elements differ, but also there is no thought of attempting to force a static and uniform order upon the world. The universal language facilitates the perception of relationships but does not fix them, and is founded upon a "musical" conception of the world in which order is as dynamic and changing as the patterns of sound in a fugue.
This is the Leibniz fantasy, that all manifestations of human art and culture have something in common, and probably something mathematical like a topological formula. The arts all speak a 'universal language', that dream of the 17th century. Prescriptive aesthetics is banished as an authoritarian political force, a 'static and uniform order'. And in true German fashion the highest artform is music, which is probably the same as math, and the archetype here is naturally the Bach fugue, which math types of the Hofstadter variety are well known to love. I don't know, all this gump makes me want to play an Irving Babbitt role, damn the romantics. Here's some more Watts, from the 1974 Essence of Alan Watts:
Only there's an arrangement to pretend that you ought to be somewhere else, so the place where you are is the place where you are always pretending you ought to be somewhere else—
Wow, that's jazz, ain't it!
—This is the nature of life, this is the pulse. I ought to be somewhere else. If you discover that that's the trick you're playing on yourself, you become serene and you don't entirely give up the game because you've seen through it. You say, "Hmm, it really might be fun to go on playing."
Cool, man. In the margin some guy's written 'prosaic, commonplace, dull'. So anyways, City Lights has a mini-wall in the entranceway full of Atlas Press and other surrealist books, which I liked. I got sidetracked downstairs flicking through Slavoj Žižek and other postmodern ruffians, but this quickly bored me so I went upstairs to ask what I could get there and nowhere else. The girl pointed me to a wall at the back stuffed with countercultural fanzines and other local productions, so I spent a while leafing through these rants, psychedelic comix and dharma-bum verses of the Duncan variety. I had to buy something of course, but it was small, a copy of the latest Mineshaft Magazine, which OK isn't local, but a California and City Lights type of affair at any rate. There are some amusing R. Crumb drawings in it at least. I mean, what's the point of going to City Lights and buying a book by Slavoj Žižek?


I was caught by the white façade of Peter and Paul gleaming real bright in the Bay sun. That was in Washington Square Park. They've done a good job with the medieval look, don't you think?

Around the front is an inscription, it says LA GLORIA DI COLUI CHE TUTTO MUOVE PER L'UNIVERSO PENETRA E RISPLENDE, that's from the Paradiso. (Hey, it says so right there.) I had lunch in a little Italian on the corner, it was a fat cheeseburger with fried onions and chipped potatoes, delicious. What's Going On? was playing on the stereo, and the sun was burning down on me, so I had to take off my gloves and hat and jacket. The waitress winked at me, like Italians are supposed to. I felt a perfect contentment at that moment, the kind of thing that can never last. I saw Coit Tower to the east, though I didn't know what it was yet, and resolved to explore it later. After lunch I walked down one of those profound hills towards the docks. The docks were full of tourist crap, with the worst waxwork museum I've ever seen, and a pier for California sealions that sit and laze about fatly for visitors to snap. I don't want to disappoint you.

A guy was playing bongos badly on the waterfront, when I came back he was gone and there were four japanese kids banging various drums and gongs mostly in time, that was more fun. There were human statues, mostly blacks, just the sort I'm familiar with from Covent Garden. I caught these beautiful birds outside the fryhouses:

The best thing there was a museum of automata, mostly old musicboxes and arcade games from the centuries gone. There was this mechanical horse too:

Dusk was wafting in. The tourists were still bustling about the docks in their droves, I was missing my wife, who'd declined the steep hillwalking involved in any trip to the city, but I wasn't quite ready to go home yet. So I climbed back up the hill towards Pioneer Park and Coit Tower—cars were crawling up the slopes but on foot I quickly mounted—young families were playing in the eventide, and the peachy glow came down all over the bay. I didn't feel like paying five bucks for the elevator to the top, so I just admired the murals and headed back down Kearney towards Union Square.

There was an old celestial gentleman stopped on the stairs cut into the roadside, it reminded me of Saint Michael's Hill in Bristol, gazing out into the city. I sat behind him and caught my breath. There were white statues of women on the top of a nearby building, and next to it the Zoetrope with its elegant verdigris and where 'so many movie ideas were hatched' according to the sign outside.

You feel lofty up there, San Francisco makes you feel lofty. The old gentleman just sat there, minding his business. I wanted to snap him, but as I said before I couldn't. So I went on down the hill into the thick of things. Down there you feel good and dirty, and there are bluehouses and stripjoints next to the eateries, just like a real American city. Normally putting pictures in b/w is sort of an artsy pretence but in this case I had to do it, because it reminded me too much of a book I've got at home, from the 60s, beautiful silvery photographs of Philadelphia teeming with life. So the b/w here reminds me of the rough 60s feel of the place.

I wound up in Union Square, watching a Jewish family with woolly hats and thick gloves and scarves talking about Hanukkah, the little girl had golden blonde hair and was hopping up and down with excitement for the big tree and all the coloured lights and her dad was telling her earnestly not to walk off the sidewalk because only grown-ups can do that, it's dangerous. It was a very romantic place, even with the guy next to me on the bench working on his laptop, with a copy of The Language Instinct next to him. I wish Mrs. Roth could have been there with me, but it wasn't to be. San Francisco is a place full of such rapid ambiences, you can be in the glass canyons one minute and out in a small seaside town the next, with every shade in between. If there are any San Franciscans reading this I'd love to hear from you, such is the season for open arms and a sense of wellbeing, I'm all the more glad to walk arm in arm with my fellow man. Merry Christmas!

19 December, 2006

Poetics and the Curse of Irony

Hayden White, Metahistory (1973)
Douglas Robinson, The Translator's Turn (1992)

The similarity between these two books is not immediately evident—the one a critique of nineteenth-century historiography, the other a translator's manifesto. Both, however, have their roots in the tradition of American literary criticism represented by Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye—brilliant outsiders who have remained hugely influential without becoming part of the mainstream, a position analogous to that of, say, de Chirico in modern art. White and Robinson, like Burke and Frye, aspire to philosophical system: they create grand structures into which they fit their analyses. And like Burke and Frye, White and Robinson see language—tropes, plots, speech-acts—as the basis of their systems. They are therefore sceptical about language, interrogating it, suspicious of its tactics and subtleties. They are, in another word, ironists, which is to say they are members of that vast crowd of postmoderns avant la lettre.

In The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), Burke describes religion as the arbitrary canonization of a single principle, a rhetoric confused for a metaphysics. For Burke, religion is ultimately poetic, and so just as a poem can have a guiding metaphor, so can a faith; he calls this guiding metaphor a 'master-trope' or 'god-term'. Frye, in his late and lesser-known The Critical Path (1968), compares Marxism and Christianity as examples of 'myths of concerns', patterns of rhetorical language designed only to convince:
The real enemies of such movements are not those who oppose but those who are indifferent: the opposite of faith is not doubt, but the inability to see what all the fuss is about.
Both Burke and Frye deny to religion what they deny to literature—that which structuralists call 'positive truth', the notion that a claim has any validity beyond the confines of its own contextual system. There is only a circular 'relative truth', created by sophisticated structures of linguistic tropes. These tropes go back to Aristotle—metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony. They are, in essence, ideals of the relations possibly existing between two objects: metaphor is the relation by similarity, metonymy the relation by contiguity, synecdoche the relation of part to whole, and irony the relation by inversion. (Individuals will quibble about the exact definitions.) And by this extreme analysis, complex ideologies and patterns of thought are reduced to their conceptual atoms. Without objective validity, these units form not a science but what both Burke and Frye, following Aristotle again, call a poetics, a structure of contingent associations, a vocabulary of parts and aesthetic networks.


Burke and Frye, then, turned religion and literary criticism into poetics; in the same manner, White turns historiography into a poetics—'I have attempted to establish the ineluctably poetic nature of the historical work'—and Robinson does the same for translation studies. White will use the four poetic tropes to classify modes of writing history, and Robinson will use them to classify methods of translating.

The debts are explicit—White makes copious reference to Frye, and Robinson to Burke. In his masterpiece, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye recycled and developed Aristotle's fourfold classification of drama as epic (romance), tragedy, comedy and satire, and found these archetypes in the entire run of Western literature, from Homer to Joyce. White, likewise, recycles Frye's expanded categories to classify historiographical writing of the 19th century—Michelet writes romance, Ranke writes comedy, Tocqueville tragedy, and Burckhardt satire. These words have become loosed from their conventional meanings, but not completely—satire, for instance, is revealed not as the moralistic surrision of Pope and Swift, but as the monstrous absurdity of Jarry and Beckett, and is shown to deny all comprehension of man's struggle among his own and with the natural world. Burckhardt, with his aestheticism and his distrust of objective historical accuracy, becomes a sort of gloomy fantasist, painting the Quattrocento as he would have dreamt it, as a moment of perfect light and liberty, between the ecclesiastical repression of the Middle Ages and the political conformism of modern times. Satire, in its turn, corresponds to the trope of Irony, which subverts the connection between a word and its referent.

There's a lot more to White's system—he adds more fourfolds, such as (radical, anarchist, liberal, conservative) and (mechanist, organicist, contextualist, formist)—and much of it is convincing. At times, however, the patterning wears a little thin. Frankly, it is difficult for me to keep in mind the image of Burckhardt as a nihilist jester, abandoning the narrative plots of Michelet and Ranke for an impressionist pointillisme of his subject. The abstract here comes too forcefully before the particular.

But irony is what interests White the most. It would not be too great an exaggeration to say that he perceives irony to be his bugbear, his nemesis. Such a perception is the hallmark of the postmodern condition. White diagnoses twentieth-century historiography as a largely unsuccessful attempt to escape the grip of irony—a mood which distrusts the grand narratives of historicism, preferring the simple and mythical, the direct and fragmentary—and which leads to a stifling scepticism towards intellectual endeavour. Yet White fully admits the irony of his own work:
It may not go unnoticed that this book is itself cast in an Ironic mode. But the Irony which informs it is a conscious one, and it therefore represents a turning of the Ironic consciousness against Irony itself.
Unfortunately, Irony is a stronger foe than White credits, and indeed a stronger combatant than White himself. Umberto Eco, in a rare moment of lucidity, put the postmodern condition, the condition of irony, like this:
A man who loves a very sophisticated woman knows that he cannot say to her, "I love you madly," because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say this, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, 'I love you madly'." At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence.
I find something unpalatably, uproariously true in these words. And so they come irrefragably to mind when I discover White caught—unintentionally—in the same state, writing about two key metaphors in the work of Benedetto Croce:
I shall forgo the temptation to interpret them in a Freudian manner as phallus and womb, not because Croce condemned every effort at psychoanalytical historiography, calling it "valet's history" and deriding its practitioners as pseudo scholars seeking a cheap interpretation without the work required by true historical comprehension; but because, in accordance with this prejudice, Croce refused to reveal enough about his private life to permit muster of the kind of detailed evidence that alone can render a psychoanalytical interpretation convincing.
In 'forgoing' this temptation, of course, White has succumbed to it—he has no need of spelling out the Freudian interpretation, only of suggesting it. The ironic condition manifests itself as insecurity, the need to defend oneself against all possible charges of omission. This process reached its nadir in Sorrentino's fascinatingly awful novel Mulligan Stew (1979), which opens with a series of arch replies to editorial rejection letters, in this case richly deserved. In academic terms, the condition was strongly developed by writers like Frye and Burke, who removed the objective foundations of criticism, and who wrote in a polemic and defensive mode to compensate. I try to conquer this insecurity in my own writing, but not with complete success, as this very sentence attests. And so the great and terrible monster Irony consumes me, just as it consumes White—Irony cannot be turned against Irony, as the only thing that can defeat Irony is ignorance, which is impossible to achieve except by senility, lobotomy, or a nasty fall. Once you eat from the tree of knowledge, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And you shall know that you are naked, and hide yourself. There will be no going back.


Hayden White's Metahistory is designed to prove that what we consider good historiography is only one possibility of several, all equally valid. Douglas Robinson's The Translator's Turn is designed to prove that what we consider a good methodology of translation is only one possibility of several, all equally valid. His particular aim is to debunk the hegemony of 'sense-for-sense' translation, something for which I've always felt some distaste. As a reader who likes surfaces, I find sense-for-sense translation over-conservative and stifling. Robinson clearly feels some kinship not only with Burke and Frye (both of whom critique the valuation of content over style) but also with Barthes and Derrida, whose pompous projects are really no more than attempts to recover the value of the signifier over the signified, style over content, or in Derrida's terms, writing over speech. It is the latter allegiance which causes Robinson to reproduce in a later book some terrible Sokalian piffle, Derrida on 'iterability':
Because the possibility of reuse (and thus what may in some new use need to be defined as a misuse) is present in every "original" or "ordinary" context, a wedding in which the minister says "I now pronounce you husband and wife" is never simply "one" context which, subtracted in a philosophical discussion, would yield the "null context." It is always a fraction between one and zero, a fractal between binary poles, a fractured context or contextuality.
This is Robinson, lacking any real command of language, at his worst. But there is fruit to be salvaged from his project. In the earlier book, he posits a series of methodologies under the rubrics of rhetorical tropes (just as White had done for historiography), which Robinson calls (following Burke) 'master tropes'. Since irony has been a theme of this post, let's look at what Robinson thinks an ironic translation is:
The ironic translator wants to succeed this way too [ie. to overcome the impossibility of translating perfectly], but not by seeking equivalence—rather, by denying its possibility.

There are a number of ironic translation stances. One says, "The SL [source language] text is too brilliant, I can't translate this, I'm not a good enough translator, maybe nobody is." A second says, "This isn't the original, this is just a translation, don't start thinking you're reading the real thing, here." A third says, "Look how bad the SL text was, I'm just rendering it faithfully, don't kill the messenger."
Here we see the same anxiety, and the same attempt to forestall criticism, as we encountered above with White, Sorrentino, and myself. Robinson mounts a stirring polemic defence of the translator's art: he is desperate to show that the translator is not inferior to the original writer, and that he should not show obeisance or humility towards the text with which he is working. In other words, Robinson advocates an ironic attitude for the translator—and his various other tropes amount to the same consciousness via a different route. It explains Robinson's more outlandish propositions, for instance, that the translator should make shit up, especially when rendering functional reports:
The meteorological translator [ie. of weather reports] who feels bored can begin to vary his or her translations, experiment with variety, staying at first within the bounds of acceptability—referring to groundhogs or bunions, livening up his or her discourse with sportswriter-type verbal creativity—then carefully pushing past those bounds, testing the water. This means risking his or her job, of course; but then, surrendering to the boredom means risking his or her sanity, and one has to set one's priorities in this sort of thing. . . it is arguably better to quit after six months of subversive delight than after six months of mind- and body-numbing boredom.
Who can fail to admire this sort of brio? Naturally, Robinson's anti-authoritarian (though irritatingly PC, as evidenced by the relentless 'or hers') aesthetic leads him to delight in Zukofsky's Catullus, an example of the 'homophonic translation' covered at Languagehat here. There's an amusing passage where he gives a literal paraphrase of 'Minister wet to lee, pour the Falernian', etc. The result is total nonsense, of course. Robinson attempts an innovative translation of Jorge Guillén's poem 'Desnudo', admitting, with a modesty false but nonetheless warranted, that 'I am no poet'. The irony is that someone full of ideas, and with a keen insight into the wretched clichés and prejudices of translation studies, should turn out to be completely incompetent at translating. Robinson is gorged on the theories of others—Burke, Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, later Grice and Austin, even the cutting-edge neuroscience that would beget Damasio's Descartes' Error in 1995—and yet he dismisses theory, or rather advocates theory as a way of transcending theory, in favour of practice. But in practice, Robinson has no feel for the English language. With Robinson, as with White, we see the triumph of the abstract over the particular, theory over practice. Their formal systems are full of valuable observations, and yet amount, for all their sophistication, to symptoms of the same ironic condition that afflicts us all.

16 December, 2006

Latin: an alternate history

I never trust a language without palato-alveolar sibilants. But this could just be the Jew and Teuton in me. You need a thickness in a tongue, a roughness, and the closest Latin comes is a labiodental fricative, although the voiced variety would arrive only in the first century AD, when the Latin V started becoming consonantal. The sibilant deficiency gives the language a cold, precise quality, a mood augmented by its elaborate inflectional system, and (in contrast to Greek) by its syntactic brevity—a rhetor like Demosthenes could deploy a full panoply of articles and particles, lacking in Latin, to organise and embellish his thoughts.

What I most dislike about Latin, however, is its lexical conservatism, a resistance to fancy quite alien to our (my) sensibilities. Homer could roll out elaborate compounds like the rhododaktulos and koruthaiolos with which we're familiar; Pacuvius, Ennius' nephew, tried to do the same in Latin, as in a line preserved by Quintiliannerei repandirostrum incurvicervicum pecus, 'The flock of Nereus snoutuplifted, neckinarched'—but it didn't catch on. Indeed, Quintilian sneers at Pacuvius for such an attempt, calling the effect 'harsh' [dure]. The orator then offers a classification of different compounds—the sort of thing we have Sanskrit names for now, delightfully—listing those built from different languages, of two or three elements, etc. He concludes:
But compounds are better suited to Greek than to Latin, though I do not think that this is due to the nature of our language: the reason rather is that we have a preference for foreign goods, and therefore receive κυρταύχην with applause, whereas we can scarce defend incurvicervicus from derisive laughter.
Interestingly, Quintilian denies that compounding is not suited to the nature of Latin; but the history of the language suggests otherwise. One can talk about the nature of a language not in any existential, Hegelian terms, but just insofar as Quintilian himself discussed consuetudo, ie. that which the speakers of the language are accustomed to doing. True, there are compounds, even some in verse, where metrical difficulties apply—such as Vergil's auricomos, 'golden-tressed', applied to the Bough—but it is not the norm. L. J. D. Richardson's essay, 'Virgil and the Homeric Epithet', Greece and Rome 1943, examines some of the issues involved.

The mainstream history of Latin through the Middle Ages and Renaissance is a history of dogged adherence to classical models, falling away, and then again reviving, an adherence which reached its peak with the cult of Ciceronianism in the 16th century. Erasmus makes fun of these classical pedants in his dialogue Ciceronianus (1528), whose stock fool Nosoponus has compiled an alphabetical lexicon of all the words and phrases used in Cicero's works, a lexicon to which he limits himself in his own writing. It was not so far-fetched—the real-life humanist Nizolius had already compiled his Thesaurus Ciceronianus for the same purpose. (An old tutor once accused me of being a 'Nizolian engrosser of blotted pie-dish linings', an insult which for some reason has lingered with me.) Within 100 years, Justus Lipsius and Joseph Hall would be channelling Seneca in Cicero's place, terse instead of fully periodic.


But there have been at least two attempts to make Latin interesting—the first in seventh-century Ireland, the second in High Renaissance Italy. By 600 classical Latin had definitively given way to mediaeval—Gregory of Tours is sometimes taken as the first 'bad Latinist'—and in the British Isles the language remained a somewhat alien commodity. It was here, after all, that scribes began adding spaces between words to aid reading, something unknown on the Continent. It is quite possible that Adrian of Canterbury introduced to Britain the North African tradition of decadent Latin found notably in Apuleius. Graves notes in the preface to his tight-arsed Golden Ass:
In my translation I have made no attempt to bring out the oddness of the Latin by writing in a style, say, somewhere between Lyly's Euphues and Amanda Ros's Irene Iddesleigh [Graves is obviously thinking of this essay]; paradoxically, the effect of oddness is best achieved in convulsed times like the present by writing in as easy and sedate an English as possible.
These words were written in 1947, eight years after Finnegans Wake, in the dusk of High Modernism, by a snivelling reactionary. But Apuleius, with his rhyming alliterations and occasional unusual forms ('famigerabilis') is quite tame compared to the verbal bestiaries of the seventh century Isles. I've already written about that bizarre Irish grammar of this period (or a little later), the Auraicept. The body of Hiberno-Latin poetry known as the Hisperica Famina, available in a modern edition with translation by Michael Herren, preserves many such oddities:
Uelut innumera apium concauis discurrunt examina apiastris
melchillentaque sorbillant fluenta alueariis,
ac solidos scemicant rostris fauos.

Titaneus olimphiam inflamat arotus tabulatum,
thalasicum illustrat uapore flustrum
flammiuomo secat polum corusco supernum,
almi scandit camaram firmamenti.
Or glaucicomantes cellium, 'bluemantled hills'. Apparently there's some Hebrew loaning in here too, but I don't remember where. From these roots, historically speaking, grew the literary tradition in England—most scholars read Aldhelm, the first great English writer (of Latin), as a writer in the 'hisperic' tradition, though this is disputed.

Still more interesting is the work of the mysterious Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, a grammarian of sorts from 7th-century Britain or Ireland. His treatises, the Epitomae and Epistolae, are full of odd collocations and deliberate perversions and obfuscations. He has been commonly taken as a parodist, though Vivien Law reads him rather as an arcanist. Words in his text are like gnostic spellwords, little observing Latin morphology—at one point he lists Twelve 'Latins', his jargon spewing out in a torrent of letters: assena, semedia, numeria (nim, dun, tor, quir, quan, ses, sen, onx, amin, ple), metrofia (dicantabat, bora, gcno, sade, teer, rfoph, brops, rihph, gal, fkal, clitps, mrmos, fann, ulioa, gabpal, blaqth, merc, pal, gatrb, biun, spadx), lumbrosa, sincolla, belsavia, presina, militana, spela, polema. H. A. Strong, better known as the translator of Hermann Paul, wrote a marvelously speculative 1903 article on these words, which if you have access to JSTOR is available here. Elsewhere Virgilius deliberates about the declension of ego, and specifically about its vocative case (how do you say "O I"?). He writes of word-scrambling, scinderatio fonorum—as if from Greek φωνη—
Scinderatio autem litterarum superflua est, sed tamen a glifosis sensuque subtilibus recipitur; unde et fona breuia scindi magis commodius est quam longa, ut Cicero dicit: RRR SS PP MM N T EE OO A V I, quod sic soluendum est: Spes Romanorum perit.
With these examples, Latin is played with by outsiders. In humanist Italy it would be played with again. The relationship of Latin to Italian—specifically, to Tuscan, unquestionably the queen of Italian dialects—had been of great interest since Dante's De volgare eloquentia (1305). In 1435 a debate was held at the Papal Chancellery in Florence. All the greats were present—Flavio Biondo, Poggio Bracciolini, Leonardo Bruni, and so on. Bruni argued that Tuscan had evolved out of the vernacular Latin spoken by the ancients; Biondo, on the other hand, argued that Tuscan had arisen from the clash of Latin with the tongues of barbarian (Lombard) invaders in the early Dark Ages. The debate was politically charged, of course—Bruni the Florentine, whose earlier work had established Florence as heir to the Roman Republic, and Biondo, based at Rome, the man who had coined the 'Middle Ages', desperate to restore classical Latin free from impurity. Biondo was right, in any event.

The debate was still going with Machiavelli in the next century. So when works started being written in the 'Macaronic style', mixing Latin and Tuscan in the same sentence, it must have been a rude shock. As the humanists were gaining a historical consciousness of their language and culture, so the Macaronic poets would dissolve history in their linguistic conflations. The first great monument of the style is the legendary 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii:
Peritissimamente quivi la dulciloqua Logistica fece alquanta narratione: physiculabonda laudava la praestante factione et la nobilitate della materia et arte et inveto (quale non se trovarebbe in Muriano) et vituperando la sua natura, et dixe. . .
A first edition of this work is still available on abebooks for $185,000; alas, I could only afford the modern translation. Like Graves, Joscelyn Godwin admits in his introduction to having made no effort to reproduce the book's style in English, only his reason is laziness, not pointed stylistic conservatism.

The canonical writer in the genre, however, is Teofilo Folengo, aka. Merlin Coccaius, a favourite of Rabelais's. When I was last in Florence I walked into an Einaudi, and my eye alighted on a copy of Folengo's great epic, Baldus. It was a beautiful edition, with a facing-page translation into modern Italian, and illustrated with contemporary paintings in full colour. The clerk was amazed that I wanted to buy it, especially as my Italian was only barely adequate to make the purchase. Later I spent an entire evening in my hotel-room, deciphering the first page with a bad Italian dictionary. It was fun!
Magna bachiocheries hominis, ratione dobati,
et cui soletto fazza levata datur,
velle per has tenebras orbum seguitare mulazzum.

Grande è la coglioneria dell'uomo, pur di ragion vestito, se pur lui solo in su la faccia rivolge al cielo, quando per le tenebre si mette a inormar le peste di un mulaccio cieco.
This is a typical excerpt, three lines from Folengo's lyrics Zanitonella, XVIII, with an Italian prose gloss. We see here, as in the Hypnerotomachia, the conflation of Italian (fazza, seguitare) and Latin (ratione, datur) forms, the combined form (mulazzum) as well as the plain weird (bachiocheries).

Of course, this material is all immensely difficult, and at the last count beyond my meagre capabilities. It pleases me, however, to know it exists, and some day I'd be interested to explore further. Why were these two places, the early mediaeval British Isles and flourishing humanist Italy, so diametrically opposite in culture, the twin loci for such verbal experimentation? Was it the heightened conflict, at each time, of elite Latin with the thriving vernacular? The degree and direction of cultural appropriation is difficult to discern in both cases. None of the above writers has given Latin palato-alveolar sibilants (although by this time Ecclesiastical Latin had provided a tch for the hard classical c); nor have they diminished its inflections, nor increased its verbosity. But they have provided a new rhythm, allowed not just new words but new ways of forming words, and put the slangiest of speech into written letters, just as Rabelais would allegedly comb the French shores for unrecorded billingsgate.

I leave you with this modern hispericum, C. A. Carruthers' Latin rendering of Lewis Carroll:
Est briligum: tovi slimici
In vabo tererotitant;
Brogovi sunt macresculi,
Momi rati strugitant.
Update: Languagehat links; further discussion of the vocative I, unexpectedly, at Jabal al-Lughat, which cites a reference to Virgilius from Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Update 12/08/07: "zmjezhd", née Uncle Jazzbeau, links, with more to say on macaronism.

13 December, 2006

Two compositions

Insomnia is a terrible thing. I feel trapped in the apartment, with the wife asleep, and only the company of my thoughts. It can be too asphyxiating to read, or at least read seriously, and yet there is little else to do. I work on some German, or on some auction catalogues. I listen to Ys for the fiftieth time.

When morning comes the world is of course irreproachable. Dawn has become cold even here, and from my balcony the fraicheur, and the vague forms of the distant mountains—so unlike what I have grown up with—and the exoskeletal plant stacks, with whose forms I find myself almost obsessed—all are caught up in the nets of cables overhead. The landscape of Tempe, in all its stripsprawling lowrise aridity, is dominated by verticals—palms, lights, beams, and the nearby presence of 'A' Mountain.

So walking home at night, past the playing-fields, the attenuated verticals come to assume the solemnity of men. In a pictorial frame, narrative is unconsciously created by imbalance. I have never crossed the two low guards on this path, nor will I. For to do so would make what lies beyond all the less mysterious.

11 December, 2006

Gedichte: I

Wenn du an meinem Herzen liegst,
So eng und weich und warm,
An meine Brust dein Kaeppchen schmiegst,
Vergeht mir Leid und Harm.—

Durchs Fenster scheint des Mondes Strahl,
Der laechelt mild herein;
Weisst noch? Als uns zum ersten Mal
Vereinigt sah sein Schein?

Und wenn ich ihn seitdem erblick'
Gruess' ich ihn still vertraut;
Er war's, der unser junges Glueck
Zu allererst geschaut!—

When upon my heart you rest
So close and soft and warm,
Nestle ridinghood against my breast,
Shrug off all bale and harm.

From the window comes the shine
Of moonrays mildly smiling and sublime—
Remember, how his gaze, benign,
United saw us, once upon a time?

And when I've seen him since, in tryst,
I greet him trusting, quiet in thought—
It was his glance, his light, that caught
Us first so young, in love, in bliss!

1 November 76


This is my first effort, an untitled lyric in a fairly legible hand. The original is not wonderful, and neither is my translation, but it's a start. I don't dislike the poem at all: the verse is calm and formal, romantic but not overdone. More interesting is the poem's tension between its gentle mood and the presence of the moon as a third party, almost voyeuristic—the moonlight 'saw' (sah) and 'looked upon' (geschaut) the lovers. [The following sentences, while false—see the comments—are still to be taken as if true. It's better that way, really.] The hint of darkness is compounded by the lover's Käppchen, which means a cap, and specifically the Catholic skull-cap also called a zucchetto or pileolus—but here it suggests something else, namely the story of Rotkäppchen or Red Riding Hood, hence my translation. The word vertraut, which connotes familiarity and trustedness, begins to suggest the trust of Rotkäppchen for her 'grandmother'. What big eyes you have! All the better to see you with.

10 December, 2006


I never set eyes on the single most significant clan ancestor in my life: Dr. Arthur Rochs, my mother’s father. He took on a mythic quality in my mind. Other cultures might well have said that his soul had entered my body. It did in fact, if you accept my idea of a secular soul. My mother was the most important influence on me and he was the most important on her; the continuity is clear. It didn’t hurt that when I was a small boy all the people would exclaim that I looked just like Doktor Rochs – to the extent that my first, and by no means worst, pun on record is saying that even the chickens said "doc, doc, doctor Rochs." (In the guttural German it sounds much more like chickens: "duk, duk, dukter ruks.")
So wrote my grandfather's brother, Walter Goldschmidt, in his recent memoirs. He's an eminent anthropologist based in California; when as an inquisitive teen I read The Teachings of Don Juan, I was taken aback to discover that he had written the preface.

My great-great-grandfather, Arthur Rochs, took his doctorate in philology at Halle in 1880, writing his dissertation on mediaeval romance. It must have been an exciting time to be there; in 1817 Halle was merged with the ancient University of Wittenberg—where Hamlet had studied—and since the 18th century it had been home to such lupine titans as Christian Wolff and F. A. Wolf, an epicentre of the Enlightenment. Between 1873 and 1876, just before Rochs arrived, the great linguist Hugo Schuchardt was teaching Romance Philology there. The tradition remained alive.

At the time Rochs was still living in Erfurt, home of iconic mediaevals, like the scholastic grammarian Thomas, and the mystic Meister Eckhart. Rochs quotes Eckhart, a man of particular local significance, for an epigraph to his poem Wermud—"Die wollust der creaturen ist gemenges mit bitterkeit", the lust of created beings is mixed with bitterness. This poem was written when Rochs was 19—which goes to show how much more erudite was teenage angst back then. It is from the fourth volume of a set of poetic notebooks written in Erfurt, 1875-1877; as I noted here, these notebooks were sent me by my uncle, who had been in possession of them since boyhood. Reading them is a great challenge: the two barriers are my limited German, and Rochs' ornate but compressed hand. Still, I'm going to transcribe and translate a few verses from these volumes, one at a time, for your curiosity and delight. That's what humanists are supposed to do, after all. I'll start with the shortest, clearest pieces, and work my way up—this will be an ongoing series, and I hope to produce the first tomorrow.

07 December, 2006

A man for one season

This piece takes as its genesis an argument I made recently at Heaven Tree. In his post 'A Man For All Seasons', Gawain posted a photograph of a statue of Scipio Africanus (presumably this one) from the Uffizi, apparently taken on the sly; his justification for this, and our subsequent debate, went as follows, edited slightly:


GAWAIN. The Uffizi, like most museums, won’t let us photograph; but they will not photograph for us, for money, either. Ergo, you may wonder, what is, exactly, the point? The policy certainly does not make the Uffizi any money. (And, besides, as a public service, should they even be allowed to make money from reproductions of works of art the taxpayers paid to acquire?) The policy really amounts to nothing more than taking things off the market and hiding them from he rest of us. So, Africanus is here partly as a protest.

CONRAD. As for the Uffizi—well, I am sympathetic to them. After all, the world has become so homogenised now—you can have a strawberry at any time of year, and see things from around the world without leaving your desk. Isn't there some value in retaining a mystery about a place—in withholding the beautiful from the casual eyes of the dilettante? Perhaps this will encourage the Goethes of the world to make the pelerinage to Florence, or wherever. The best things in life, like the best men, pace Thomas More, are not For All Seasons, but only for one.

GAWAIN. Conrad, my man, your sentiments re: museum's penchant for acquiring works of art and hiding them are endearing coming from you, but as defense of their policies from their mouths, not acceptable. (Which is why they say nothing and pretend it is not an issue.) (And even your defense does not work in cases where they by something and then lock it up in their vaults.)

CONRAD. My defense does work in such cases. . . for the true connoisseur must not only be in the right place, but there at the right time, and/or in the right capacity. . . !

AMANDA SISK, AKA "JOY IN LIFE". It's a bit like a flash of ankle or elegant wrist (Hugo's Les Miserables has an excellent example of this, wherein the fellow viewing the feminine grace is incensed that casual eyes may follow his to this glimpse, and for a gender reversal, try a wonderfully charged moment in the film The Winslow Boy). . . what matter if the rest is obscured? This does not define a future condemned to one view.


My argument was both specific and general. Specifically, one of the best things about artworks is that they are unique—modern sculptures, yes, are reproducible, as I discovered when I saw Max Ernst's Capricorn for the fifth time, and then there are lithographs, but leave that aside—and that they require an investment of time and money just to see. The art-world is inherently an elitist institution. Chris Miller thinks—if I do not burlesque his opinions—that this is terrible. I do not. This is because, quite simply, I am an elitist, and proud of it.

Gawain's point that the museum itself does not make the argument is fair, but naïve. There is no way that the Uffizi could officially make such an argument—explicit elitism is not tolerated, even though it is implicitly accepted and enforced at all times.

Elitism is frowned upon because it is equated with 'class elitism', and thus with 'looking down your nose at blacks and Cockneys'. People don't like this sort of behaviour, for obvious reasons. But this isn't really the essence of elitism, just a common manifestation of it, and not one I personally endorse. For me, elitism is simply the general notion that things are better when fewer people have them, and that the few (whether groups of one member or 500) should be (and are) hostile—snobbish—to the many. There are, of course, an infinity of fews. Everyone belongs to several. And the pleasure of belonging to a few—especially if that few is just oneself—is derived from the fact that it is not a many. Such a pleasure is concurrent with the pain felt by those outside the few who want in; nevertheless, our pleasure outweighs their pain, and I see no reason to deny ourselves the satisfaction. Everyone benefits in the long view.

A corollary of this argument is that everyone is on the outside of most elites. I don't mind the threat of scorn from, say, boffins, fraternity boys, quantum physicists, erudite classicists, professional musicians, the working class, the aristocracy, connoisseurs—from anyone better than me, which is to say, everyone. But elites are not just stable social and professional groups—they are also accidents of time and place. This is where Gawain's post comes in: I am quite happy not to have access to some of the Uffizi's treasures. Those who do get access to these treasures would, I hope, derive all the more pleasure from them. As visitors, they constitute a temporal and temporary elite—and the connoisseurs who have access to the vaults are an even greater, more distinguished elite. When I was last in Siena I visited the Pinacoteca Nazionale, which contains a wealth of Sienese Trecento, one of my favourite periods. I got to see a painting I'd only heard about, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's tiny City on the Sea—truly exquisite. No postcards were available of it, and at the time it was not on the web—it is now, though I won't point you to it, and it's a pretty crappy reproduction anyway. So, my enjoyment of it then, as something that would not last, was all the sweeter, as is my present memory of the occasion.


Gawain's post, naturally, has only created another elite. His readers will delight that they have had a rare glimpse of an obscure masterpiece, its aura of greatness only increased by the fact that it is unavailable elsewhere on the web. If everything truly were available online—a situation slowly approaching us—then, I am afraid, Gawain's show-and-tell might just be out of business. His leisurely digressions and gentlemanly philosophy, thankfully, would not.

Update: Aaron Haspel, bless his anti-Conradian soul, rules in Gawain's favour. 'Tis pity, but there you have it.

05 December, 2006


I was delighted last week to discover that French has a word for 'nth', as in 'to the nth degree'—énième. I don't know why this should have surprised me, but it did. I was also overjoyed to learn the word bugonia, not in the OED but attested in scholarly literature, and referring to the supposed generation of bees from an ox-carcase.

Then seek they from the herd a steer, whose horns
With two years' growth are curling, and stop fast,
Plunge madly as he may, the panting mouth
And nostrils twain, and done with blows to death,
Batter his flesh to pulp i' the hide yet whole,
And shut the doors, and leave him there to lie.
But 'neath his ribs they scatter broken boughs,
With thyme and fresh-pulled cassias: this is done
When first the west winds bid the waters flow,
Ere flush the meadows with new tints, and ere
The twittering swallow buildeth from the beams.
Meanwhile the juice within his softened bones
Heats and ferments, and things of wondrous birth,
Footless at first, anon with feet and wings,
Swarm there and buzz, a marvel to behold;

. . .

But sudden, strange to tell
A portent they espy: through the oxen's flesh,
Waxed soft in dissolution, hark! there hum
Bees from the belly; the rent ribs overboil
In endless clouds they spread them, till at last
On yon tree-top together fused they cling,
And drop their cluster from the bending boughs.

— Vergil's Georgics IV.
Meanwhile, I want to coin a new word. We already have the word risible, for something worthy of laughter (ridere, 'to laugh'). But how about those things less risible than the risible, worthy not quite of laughter, but only of smiling? I propose surrisible (sub-ridere, 'to smile', whence the nonce-words subride and subrident—but surrisible is more natural English, following surrogate (sub-rogare), surreptitious (sub-repticius), etc.). We can all think of examples of surrisible things. If I absentmindedly confused shaving-foam for deodorant in a blearyeyed morning, Mrs. Roth would think it risible, but to you, it would probably be only surrisible. Likewise, we find surrisible a freshman paper marked by my wife, casually claiming that the man behind the bar in Manet's Folies-Bergère (right) is in fact Jack the Ripper. We had no idea what would lead someone to such a conclusion: the date's almost right (painting—1882, Jack's spree–1888), but the country is off and in any event it's completely nonsensical. We now know, it turns out, what Jack looked like: he has a harder, squarer physiognomy than Manet's man, though he wears the same moustache. A google search turned up the obvious reason for the nincompoopery, a paragraph in a piece by Jonathan Jones tossed off a few years ago for the culture snobs at the Grauniad:

And who are you? The top-hatted stranger, of course, the Jack the Ripper whose ghostly reflection approaches her with such menace in the mirror. Manet captures the coolness, cruelty and glamour of modern life. This is one of the keystones of modern art.
Perhaps this, also, played a part:

Like Jack the Ripper zonked on laudanum and champagne sitting at a table with Toulouse Lautrec at the Folies Bergere, waiting for the girls to get off work.
Thus the perils of not properly reading what you find online. Idly browsing the Wikipedia article on Jack, however, it struck me that another identification was more plausible. Take another look at Manet's man—and then cast your glance at George Lusk (right), head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee that patrolled the streets at night in search of Jack, in vain. They are obviously the same man! I sincerely hope that this discovery will aid more than one future undergraduate paper on the subject. As for surrisible, I suggest you all go out and use it in a sentence (spoken or blogged) today—let's make this word a dictionary reality!

03 December, 2006

The Unknown Object: suite et fin

These are the natures which have false opinion; for when they see or hear or think of anything, they are slow in assigning the right objects to the right impressions—in their stupidity they confuse them, and are apt to see and hear and think amiss—and such men are said to be deceived in their knowledge of objects, and ignorant.
The unknown object is one of the central problems of Plato's Theaetetus, a late dialogue. It takes many forms: rational and sensory objects, elements and compounds, unmet and unrecalled. The dialogue was not an early favourite, like the Symposium, or the Timaeus; its concerns were not really reawakened until Descartes, who made the unknown object one of the criteria of doubt in his first Meditation. Since that time, the knowing and unknowing of things—now called epistemology—has replaced metaphysics at the heart of philosophical discourse. And to the philosophers the world has grown increasingly unknown, hazier and hazier behind a gauze of language. They are less likely to claim knowledge of the liknon, concealed and mythical not only as fan, but as van, corb, basket, creel and shaul, to mention only its English names.

Jane Harrison was still a primitive. We might study her mind now as something lucid, limpid, uncluttered with scepticism, a mind, as I have said, in love with the objects and truths of the past, straining to reconstruct an ancient world. Now we struggle even to reconstruct the present world. Do you see the same object as me? How might we even discover the answer? Odysseus to us is wily, panourgios—he is a beggar, and nobody—oudeis, but also me tis, wisdom—and we cast about as if blinded with a stake.

The fan was an easy problem to solve, if indeed it has been solved. And we were all delighted to discover a problem with such a ready and satisfying solution—and one which exposed so great a wealth of nerves and networks through our shared cultural history. Let this, then, be our final irony—that the fan, far from being an unknown object, is the most known of objects. We return to the land, from where we came, and no pleasure seems so rapturous as to know something whole. The land, for which yearn the Harrisons and Marxes among us, and within us, this is where things are known, clearly, without pomp or pretense. There is no need for obscurist philology when you have in your hand a winnowing-fan.

At these times I cannot help but feel that it is not only the processes of man and nature that have been kept from me, in my city, and in my urbanity—it is also the truth, and the sense of its possession. What vanity, we! I dare confess that I have succumbed, after all, to that naïve lament of the civilised, so seductive. But perhaps you will not begrudge my eyes a little mist, just a little.

30 November, 2006

The Unknown Object: Part II

. . . as I was saying, the pampered bourgeois like myself, with our overcostly educations and the guilt of privilege, have been separated from the processes of man and nature. This is why I admire a cultured man of the earth like Hank Heatly—with his keen interest in Linnaeus and Pliny the Elder—who can engage my attention on the subject of, say, tomatoes, despite my total lack of interest in tomatoes. He probably knows a lot already about winnowing; but perhaps he knows less about Homer. Either way, let us engage in some hypothetical dialogue.

The Winnowing-Fan.

The poet sang, as we have seen, that 'another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder'. The mystery of this passage was longwhiles augmented for me by my utter ignorance in the matter of winnowing-fans. What is a winnowing-fan? It took me a surprisingly long time to find out. The Greek word is αθηρηλοιγον (athereloigon)—an oracular periphrasis, literally meaning 'consumer of chaff', and attested only here. Later commentators unanimously identified the athereloigon as a ptuon, with the normal sense of 'shovel'. So now we turn to two exquisite articles by the great Jane Ellen Harrison (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1903 and 1904), in which are discussed, at great but untedious length, ancient methods of winnowing crops. This is one of the most well-known devices, still used today:

It is what the Greeks called a liknon, the Romans a vannum, the French a van, and the English a van, or later, fan. It is, in fact, the origin of our common 'fan'. It looks nothing like what we think of as a fan—but the connection is that both are used to create currents of air. The farmer puts the unsorted grain and chaff into the basket, and shakes it until the lighter chaff is propelled over the fan's lip, while the heavier grain remains inside. In a footnote, Harrison notes with relief that this process has not been lost to time:
Such fans are still in use to-day in Cambridge as baskets and are regularly imported. Mr. [Francis] Darwin's gardener. . . states that the 'fans' were in use for winnowing when he was a boy, but the art of winnowing with them is now only known to a few old men.

Darwin's gardener winnowing with a fan

Here we see the pampered bourgeois intellectuals of a century past, like us, fascinated with the lower orders as 'folk', innocent bearers of ancient truths and customs. There is a melancholy in Harrison's words—and a desperation to preserve, against the encroaching clarinets of modernity, and indeed modernism, the wisdom of Europe's rural past. For her the fan is a little fetish of this past, an object surviving all change and history, unknown, but promising knowledge, yet—an object to be a little worshipped. 'The word 'fan'', she writes, 'is a beautiful word of almost magical associations'. Nonetheless, she will fetishise the object further by re-christening it as a 'winnow-corb', so as to distinguish it from a modern fan. The OED only barely attests corb, listing it as an error for corf, meaning 'basket' in various specialised senses:
(WEBSTER 1828, followed by other Dictionaries, has Corb, either a misprint for Corf (omitted in W.), or perh. a local form in U.S. It is unknown in England.)
The OED does not cite Harrison—though perhaps we should contribute the reference. If American, it seems odd that Harrison would produce corb merely as an 'archaism'; we find the word used later in a 1922 article by the eminent Bostonian archaeologist Harriet Boyd-Hawes, clearly alluding to Harrison.

Harrison enshrines the object with its own obscure term, smelling of history; but more tellingly, her articles chiefly concern the mystical significance of the fan, conflated with a sacred cradle, as an emblem of Bacchus. (On this see also The Golden Bough, ch. 43.) And to develop on Harrison's theme we might throw stones into the Middle Ages, where the vannus would be called a capisterium, and attributed to St. Benedict as the symbol of a childhood miracle. You can see a rather crude carving of Benedict's fan on a mediaeval capital (taken from Pamela Z. Blum, 'The Saint Benedict Cycle on the Capitals of the Crypt at Saint-Denis', Gesta 1981):

The fan reappears, in a thoroughly secular form burlesquing the deus ex machina, in a story (#29) from Marguerite de Navarre's 1558 Heptameron, in which a near-caught lover is quickly stashed in a ceiling-loft, covered with a winnowing-fan (van). An 1894 illustration portrays the fan exactly in its modern form.


You've noticed something, haven't you? At the beginning of this post I noted that Homer's winnowing-fan, the athereloigon, which is really what you're interested in, was identified with the ptuon or shovel, whereas all this time I've been going on about the liknon or basket. Well spotted! But don't worry, we're getting there: Homer's fan will become more known yet.

Harrison discusses the ptuon as well. In fact, she provides more information about it than you could possibly want to know. Trust me. But she concludes, in the second of her two articles, that the ptuon looked a bit like this:

It doesn't work in the same way as the basket—the farmer strikes the mixed crops up into the air with the shovel, usually on a windy hill, and lets the wind separate the two substances for him, the chaff being blown farther away than the grain. It is this type of fan favoured by the Biblical writers of both testaments. Jeremiah 15.7: 'And I will fan them with a fan in the gates of the land', using a typically archaic reduplication—the Hebrew word is mizreh, which also appears in Isaiah 30.24, and derives from the root zrh, 'to scatter'. (Thanks to Simon, here.) The verb-form appears in Isaiah 41.16: 'Thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall carry them away'. It is obviously the ptuon that is meant here. The Greek, sadly, is not very helpful here—the LXX renders Jer 15.7, for instance, as 'diaspero autous en diaspora', 'I will scatter them in a scattering', preserving the reduplication but losing the physical object represented by mizreh. Jerome's Latin is excellent, however, rendering the object as ventilabrum ('wind-lip'), which is the usual translation of—you guessed it!—ptuon. We know this because ventilabrum is used to render ptuon in parallel passages of the New Testament, Mark 3.12 and Luke 3.17:
ου το πτύον εν τη χειρι αυτου

Cuius ventilabrum in manu sua

Whose fan is in his hand
The sense is that the wicked will be scattered in perdition like chaff blown away by the winnowing wind. From thence the winnowing-fan became a popular Christian motif, denoting the discernment of the good from the evil, a holy form of the two paths of the Pythagorical upsilon.

What of Homer, then? For Harrison, 'the prescribed planting of the oar in honour of Poseidon was a ritual replica of the planting of Demeter's shovel-fan', which can be gleaned from a passage in Theocritus:
. . . of her [Demeter], upon whose cornheap I pray I may yet again plant the great winnowing-fan [mega ptuon] while she stands smiling by with wheatsheaves and poppies in either hand.
A. D. Ure ('Boeotian Haloa', Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1949) provides a visual example of Dionysius with a ptuon instead of a liknon, from the fifth century BC:

The image is a little difficult to make out, but the god's implement can be seen extending diagonally downward from his right hand, terminating just below the pig's head to the right of the scene. Ure notes proudly that his fan is 'more oarlike' than any of the classical images in Harrison's article. A modern sculptor, Conrad Shawross, visualises the transformation in his own way:

Michael Glover, in a review for the Independent, called this piece 'perfectly delightful, perfectly useless—just as art should be'. How far we have come from Homer's world! Such a vacuous aestheticism would have been impossible, when the beauty of oar and fan derived from the harmony of form and function, and when the monumental beauty of the athereloigon derived from its sublime play with that harmony. Still, Homer's object has become increasingly less unknown to us, as we have unravelled its history.

But less unknown it shall become still. For Harrison notes another use for the ptuon—'with a very long handle it is employed for lifting bread out of an oven'—and here she footnotes—'the long-handled oven-shovel is known in English and Scotch dialect as a peel'. She remarks further that a modern folk-telling of the Odysseus story transforms the oar not into a fan but into a peel: 'the shift from the country to the town implement is very natural'. Today we best know the peel for its use in pizzerias, though only the best still use proper ovens. The object has been continually metamorphosed, thus, from the sea to the countryside to the town, remaining invariant in form—a homotopy. The ancient is present, atavistically, in the modern.

This is how we learn to cope with the unutterable and terrifying gulf of time extending ever backwards—how we make sense of a past increasingly remote, and increasingly unknown. With our objects we preserve some fragile sense that such a past was, after all, much the same as our familiar present, only rearranged a little, like our words, and like the atoms of our bodies. We retain, at the same time, the hope that we will not be lost to the future: that whatever progress the world might make, the forms of our objects and ourselves will always prevail.

Update: Hank responds, flattered and flattering. The post is well worth reading. Update #2: Languagehat links, kindly, as does Clusterflock, and John B. responds to both myself and Hank, elegantly bringing together several threads. I am honoured to have had such an impact.

Final thoughts on the unknown object here.

29 November, 2006


An intermission from The Unknown Object—the winnowing-fan next time, I promise!—as I thought this was worth writing about. I attended a preview screening of Mel 'I want his intestines on a stick' Gibson's latest offering, Apocalypto; with me was the Mesoamericanist Pretzel Bender and some members of her department. The film, with its goofy Greek title ('I reveal'), is Gibson's take on the culture of the Late Postclassic Mayans in the Yucatán Peninsula, just before the Spanish invaded (presumably set some time between 1510-1520). The dialogue is completely in Yukatek Maya—so I'm told, though it could be in Swahili for all I know.

At the beginning of the film, instead of the title, Mel quotes pop uber-historian Will Durant that 'A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within'. In other words, the Mayans were goners even before Hernández de Córdoba got there in 1517. The subtext, one suspects, is even less subtle: Goddamn, those barbarous heathens needed Christianity! And barbarous they are: Apocalypto is even more graphically brutal than The Passion. Over the course of 2 hours, various characters are stabbed, shot with an arrow through the mouth, phlebotomised, decapitated, raped, sacrificed, mauled by jaguar, slashed, dashed against rocks, poisoned, near-drowned in quicksand, stung by hornets, clubbed, axed and self-mutilated. One of my party, deeply horrified, described it as 'another snuff flick'. I liked it!

Spoiler warning: Plot details follow.

Basic narrative: peaceful village (of savage animal-hunters) is captured and taken to Chichen Itza to be sacrificed à l'Aztec—think cityfuls of extras baying for heads, jabbering drugged priests, lavish costumes and monumental sets—all completely incorrect, as the academic sneerers next to me proudly pointed out—taciturn hero escapes à la Tintin, and spends the rest of the film running from bloodhungry maniacs à la The Naked Prey.

Spoilers end here.

I know nothing about the history, of course, so its accuracy is unknown to me, and in any event irrelevant. My comrades were doubtful; I couldn't find the Yukatek woman to ask her if the language was authentic. It could hardly be denied, however, that it all seems very real—there's a real flair in the small details and facial expressions, and so much texture. The camera never shies away from the visceral, the sadistic Catholic gaze carried over from The Passion—the hero sheathed in mud, or live ants stuffed in an open wound, or the innumerable piercings and other grotesque ornaments on every face. The chief slaver has human jawbones for epaulettes, a cute touch. It is this unflinching quality, so absent from the usual pussy-hearted blockbusters, that transfixes and enthralls.

Apocalypto is an odd mixture: still firmly rooted in the heroes-and-villains gothicism of his early action-flicks, it also aims at High Art, with a Message. That message, however, is anyone's guess. Near the beginning of the film the village bard tells the assembled throng a fable of man's unconquerable greed, which will one day ruin the earth—this obviously describes the cynical greed of the sacrifice-hunters, but also suggests an anti-American comment, or even an anti-Semitic one, given Mel's notorious outbursts. The Jews, naturally, have always been lucre-mad usurers among men. Apparently Gibson has compared the Mayan practice of human sacrifice to 'sending guys off to Iraq for no reason', which is patently idiotic. So the (urban) Mayans are the evil Americans, right?

But wait. Remember Durant—the Mayans, a corrupt society, have set themselves up for a fall. A fall from the conquering Spaniards, that is. The idea is straight out of Flaubert's Salammbo, a novel about the baroque decadence and internal strife of the Carthaginians in the years before Roman conquest. Flaubert's language, itself proto-Decadent, with its thick description and sensuous metaphor, is something akin to the spectacular spectacular of Apocalypto—and his hindsight view of barbarians priming themselves for a fall is very close to Durant's statement. The problem is this: if we wanted to apply Gibson's picture of 1515 to the present day, what does it most closely resemble? Surely, the Americans invading the Middle East, a mess of violent insurgents. Which puts the Americans in the (positive) role of the Spaniards—God's men bringing salvation to the barbarians. This is brought out in the film's conclusion, which I won't spoil. Another historical analogy might be to the corrupt First Temple Jews carried off into Babylonian captivity—the stepped pyramids of Chichen Itza even suggesting the ziggurats of Babylon. But what sort of comment would that make? The whole thing is a mess, if indeed it is trying to make a Statement at all; it certainly sounds like it is.

Anyway, philosophical qualms aside, it's as good a mainstream picture as you're going to see these days, and if you can stomach copious quantities of graphic violence, I recommend it.