30 September, 2006


A melancholy thing is an image, unexpected, of one's youth. Yet here, on Wikipedia, was discovered such an image—while browsing idly its content on the Westminster Greaze, a Shrove Tuesday ritual in which the school cook tosses a pancake over a high bar, and a hero from each house wrestles the others for the biggest piece—what should I find but a snapshot of the year that my own form competed:

Of course, I was not among the scufflers, not a wrestler by nature, and in any event being nigh-universally disprized by my peers. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I discern among these blurred pancratists and spectators the faces of young men I once feared: look, there's Levine, budding playwright and Russianist! And is that Jarman, African traveller and history buff? And facing away in the white and green t-shirt, Rajiv Somethingorother, whom one could never quite trust? Obscured is that year's winner, the impossibly wonderful Ell, the straight-A proto-engineer fencer and yachter who was dating the girl I wanted. Sitting down I think I see Pimlott, son of famed late historian Ben Pimlott and wearer of natty black suede boots. Behind him Mr. Hargreaves the history-teacher; Jonquieres, son of Guy de Jonquieres at the Financial Times; and McGregor, world rowing champion. There are some familiar faces at the back, too. What shits we all were! No doubt charmers all, now.

29 September, 2006

On faith and doubt

Plutarch's Pythian Dialogues (early second century) are, to my mind, one of the most sublime products of literary antiquity: they exist in that delicious limbo between literature, at least as it was understood then, and philosophy—a sort of classical version of Thomas Browne's miscellanies. There are three of them—'On the E at Delphi', 'On the Obsolescence of Oracles', and 'Why the Oracles are No Longer Delivered in Verse'—and they can be found in Volume 5 of the Loeb Moralia. The essays are delightful for their free associations and pleasant style, and also for their hesitation between rigour and dreamy mysticism, speculation and sceptical doubt.

Especially interesting in this regard is the 'Obsolescence'—a modern translation is online here, and Philemon Holland's delightful 1603 rendering here. It begins with an argument over methodology: can one infer the great from the small? It ends with a striking contrast: the narrator confronts scepticism about the oracle—that perhaps it is only an intoxicating exhalation from the earth—with a profession of faith, and an early statement of the Argument from Design. Between these poles, the gamut of belief and doubt is traversed again and again. Cleombrotus relates at length the elaborate cosmology of a prophet living by the Red Sea:
He said that the worlds are not infinite in number, nor one, nor five, but one hundred and eighty-three, arranged in the form of a triangle, each side of the triangle having sixty worlds; of the three left over each is placed at an angle, and those that are next to one other are in contact and revolve gently as in a dance. The inner area of the triangle is the common hearth of all, and is called the Plain of Truth, in which the accounts, the forms, and the patterns of all things [λογους και των ειδη και τα παραδειγματα] that have come to pass and of all that shall come to pass rest undisturbed; and round about them lies Eternity, whence Time, like an ever-flowing stream, is conveyed to the worlds. . . This is the tale I heard him recite quite as though it were in some rite of mystic initiation, but without any demonstration or proof of what he said.
Cleombrotus admits that there is absolutely no argument for this picture, and his interlocutors express further doubt. The narrator then reveals that the prophet was a phoney, for the fancy is not even original to him:
The number of his worlds convicts him [of stealing], since it is not Egyptian nor Indian, but Dorian and from Sicily, being the idea of a man of Himera named Petron. Petron’s own treatise I have never read nor am I sure that a copy is now extant; but Hippys of Rhegium, whom Phanias of Eresus mentions, records that this was the opinion and the account of it given by Petron.
Notice that the narrator admits his personal ignorance on the subject, being very careful to describe exactly how he knows of Petron—and that he values the written over the spoken word. Cleombrotus is in thrall to hearsay and folklore; he has earlier related a story told to him by 'Aemilian the rhetorician', about the mysterious death of Pan:
Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said "When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead."
Thamus does so, and is sent for by Tiberius. All is done through word of mouth, and this constitutes (in Cleombrotus' world-view) an acceptable criterion of truth. It is telling that among those present are witnesses who assent to the truth of the story, because they too have heard it from Aemilian. Faith in the spoken word is a key theme here, because this dialogue, like its companion-pieces, concerns the role and significance of speaking oracles in a decadent age.


The oracle is central to another Western classic: Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-53). The third book is about prophecies and how to interpret them—Panurge consistently misreading every form of divination he consults—and the fourth and fifth books involve the picaresque quest for the Oracle of the Holy Bottle (Dive Bouteille), whose final command is merely: Drink! Rabelais, like Plutarch, lived at a time when epistemological issues were absolutely paramount among religious communities—Calvin and Luther had sprung up, scholars had begun to interrogate the Greek New Testament, and steps had been taken (especially in medicine) towards the scientific revolution of the next century. Rabelais had been a doctor and a Franciscan monk: the conflicts of doubt and faith, the written and the spoken word, must have been foremost in his mind.

It is little surprise, then, that Rabelais refers to Plutarch's 'Obsolescence of Oracles' four times in Book Four of his novel. Two of these references are perfunctory: Chapter 27 mentions some fantastical numeric calculations in the Greek text, while Chapter 58 cites the ventriloquist spirits known as the Euricles. But there are more important fruits. Chapter 28 recounts the death of Pan almost verbatim from Plutarch's text, and Chapter 55 recalls Petron, the 'Pythagorean philosopher'. Both episodes are transformed. For Pantagruel remarks on the story of Pan:
For my part, I understand it of that great Saviour of the faithful who was shamefully put to death at Jerusalem by the envy and wickedness of the doctors, priests, and monks of the Mosaic law. And methinks my interpretation is not improper; for he may lawfully be said in the Greek tongue to be Pan, since he is our all. For all that we are, all that we live, all that we have, all that we hope, is him, by him, from him, and in him. He is the good Pan, the great shepherd, who, as the loving shepherd Corydon affirms, hath not only a tender love and affection for his sheep, but also for their shepherds. . . The time also concurs with this interpretation of mine; for this most good, most mighty Pan, our only Saviour, died near Jerusalem during the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
Pantagruel is echoing Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelia, 5.17:
So far Plutarch. But it is important to observe the time at which he says that the death of the daemon took place. For it was the time of Tiberius, in which our Saviour, making His sojourn among men, is recorded to have been ridding human life from daemons of every kind.
Thus Rabelais imports a pagan myth into a Christian context, and uses it for his own ends. What about Petron? Rabelais adduces the philosopher's story as one explanation of a bizarre phenomenon: Pantagruel's ship encounters words frozen in the air, and ringing in his men's ears. Referring to the Plain of Truth, the giant states that:
the words, ideas, copies, and images of all things past and to come resided there; round which was the age; and that with success of time part of them used to fall on mankind like rheums and mildews, just as the dew fell on Gideon's fleece, till the age was fulfilled.
Everything after the first 'age' has been added by Rabelais—the words falling upon mankind, and the age to be fulfilled. These are Christian additions: the falling words suggesting the word made flesh of John, and the fulfilment of the age evoking all manner of Christian chiliasms. In an age afraid that a knowledge of Greek would tear apart the Church, Rabelais revives the Greek Plutarch, and also the Greek Eusebius, to neutralise the threat: the old stories, far from casting doubt, serve only to underline the beliefs of a modern faith.

28 September, 2006

Goethe on art

In 1786, a 37 year-old Goethe left Carlsbad for a two-year journey through Italy. He was already a celebrity novelist, accomplished poet, minister of mines, roads and armies at Weimar, jurist, amateur geologist and anatomist; but Goethe had wanted to see the great ruins and monuments of Italy since childhood, and a glance at a translation of Juvenal's Satires had only inculcated this desire further. So he snuck out at dawn—or so he wrote in his diaries, which he kept and later reworked as the Italienische Reise (1817)—and wandered down through Italy to Rome and then Naples, before returning in 1788. He stayed with the artist Johann Tischbein at Rome, who painted him in 1787; you can see that rather odd canvas here. On his journey, Goethe took many notes on local people, climates, rocks, art and architecture. Most notably, he discovered a love of Vitruvius and Palladio. Among his jottings are observations on paintings he saw, many of which are named and admired. Below can be found these works, in the order seen, with his remarks and where he saw them; I have used Jim Reed's Oxford translation, the accuracy of which I have not bothered to check (sorry!). Only a couple of paintings mentioned were not found online. . . such is the wonder of the internet.


Titian, Gloria (1554): Verona Cathedral

The Titian is very blackened and apparently it's a picture taken from his least good period. I like the way he makes Mary, as she's taken up into heaven, look not upwards but downwards, in the direction of her friends.


Tintoretto, Paradise (1588): Verona, Casa Bevi l'Aqua

The coronation of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven in the presence of all the patriarchs, prophets, saints, angels etc., a senseless conception carried through with absolute genius. Such lightness of brush, spirit, and richness of expression that you would have to own the picture yourself to fully admire and enjoy it, for infinite artistry went into it. . . Eve is the handsomest woman in the whole picture and still in the old way a touch lascivious.


Tiepolo, Martyrdom of St. Agatha (1755): Padua, Observatorio

The face not sublime yet astoundingly true, physical pain and serenity in suffering beautifully expressed. If only martyrdoms didn't always have to drag with them a crew with those wretched hangdog expressions.


Paolo Veronese, Martyrdom of St. Justina (1573?): Padua, Observatorio

He has the flaw I already noticed in Vicenza of putting too many figures into the picture and making them too small. As they look down from such a high altar, they have no presence.


Jacopo Bassano, Descent from the Cross (mid 16th-century): Padua, Observatorio

Well done, and as nobly as it was possible to do such a subject.


Guercino, Cristo Risorto Appare alla Madre (1629): Cento, Chiesa dell SS. Nome di Dio

The risen Christ appearing to his mother. She kneels before him and looks at him with indescribable depth of feeling, she feels his body with her left hand, just beneath the miserable wound that ruins the whole picture. He's put his left hand around her neck and is bending his body back a little to see her close up. That gives the figure something, I won't say constrained, but at any rate alien. Nevertheless it's still infinitely pleasing. And the calm sad expression with which he looks at her, as if his noble mind were filled with the memory of his and her suffering, which isn't healed at once by resurrection. . . Of Guercino's brush I say nothing, it has a lightness and purity and perfection that are unbelievable. He chose particularly beautiful colours shading into brown for the garments.


Raphael, St. Cecilia (1501): Bologna

It is what I knew in advance but now saw with my own eyes. He simply did what others wanted to do. . . About the picture [let us talk] when we meet, for the only thing to say is that it's by him. A group of five saints, none of whom are of any concern to us, but whose existence is so perfect that one wishes the picture may last for ever, though content with one's own dissolution.


Are we to wonder that these tableaux inspired awe from the greatest polymath of his age? There are indeed some fine paintings here, and from masters I am normally indifferent to. I can even tolerate the Tiepolo, which is rare for me. Goethe's eye is immensely respectful, but never reverential, and his tone can bite with a gentle wit. He also notices details to which our internet-heavy eyes are perhaps insensible; and his commentaries are purely formal, never weighted with religious convictions—an atheism we expect. Together, these observations possess an elegant unity, I think, and one to which amateur critics might well aspire.

27 September, 2006

One, two, poetazzarorincouroac

Amazonian sesquipedalia:
Mr Dobbs, in his vocabulary of the Esquimaux language, has given us the word won-na-we-uck-tuck-luit, signifying much; and a word but a little shorter, signifying little, viz. mik-ke-u-awk-rook. But the language of a barbarous people that Mons. la Condamine met with upon the banks of the river Amazons, exceeds all others in length of sound, of which he gives a specimen in their word for the number three, viz. poetazzarorincouroac.
James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, Of the Origin and Progress of Language, volume 1 (1773).
Perhaps the best instances are found in Brazilian dialect, where ouatou means "stream" and ijipakijiou means "great." Hence the combination with lengthened vowels means river or ouatou-ijiipakiiijou while "ouatou-iijipakiijou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou" stands for ocean.
— Macdonald Critchley, The Language of Gesture (1971).


we do realize that there are... new items of vocabulary, e.g. video, skreeno, cyclotron, and commies.
Eugene Nida, Morphology (1949): well, the last item makes clear what side of the fence he's on, Mr. American Activities—but what the hell is a skreeno? The OED has nothing. Wikipedia has nothing. Google has what amounts to nothing.
A typical well-indoctrinated Thai Buddhist, who has had no previous acquaintance with the Christian religion, would be likely to interpret the traditional translation of John 3:16 as follows: "God so lusted after this material world that he sent his only Son so that anyone who was gullible enough to believe in him would have the misfortune of keeping on living forever and not dying."
— Eugene Nida, The Theory and Practice of Translation (2003), which also mentions a Latin American missionary who 'insisted on trying to introduce the passive voice of the verb into a language which had no such form'. Ah, the eternal evangel!

26 September, 2006

Anglo-Saxon medicine

During my MA year at York, I took a History of the Body class with one Mark Jenner, an early modernist boffin with a sharp mind but no group-teaching ability. (An academic, in other words.) He had singularly failed to get discussion going all semester, until on the last day he posited the question, Can we say that mediaeval people really were possessed by demons? In other words, is it possible that demonic possession is in fact a better model than, say, epilepsy, for what these people were experiencing? This proposition, rather predictably, got my goat, and we spent the rest of the seminar arguing about it. I objected on Popperian grounds to this misty-eyed cultural relativism—it all seemed like a rather sappy sophism to me.

Hence, I rather enjoyed this article—Barbara Brennessel, Michael Drout and Robyn Gravel, 'A reassessment of the efficacy of Anglo-Saxon medicine', Anglo-Saxon England 34. They discuss the effectiveness of mediaeval potions against the staphylococcus which causes eye-styes—in this case, cropleac and garleac (taken to be some combination of onion, garlic and leek), oxgall, wine and brass.
M. L. Cameron began publishing a set of articles on Anglo-Saxon medicine, culminating in his 1993 book on the subject, which argued that Anglo-Saxon medical texts, in particular Bald’s Leechbook, were careful compilations of Latin sources incorporating the medical knowledge of Greek, Roman, North African and Byzantine culture. . . he also argued that there was significant rational basis for a variety of Old English remedies: 'Did ancient and medieval physicians use ingredients and methods which were likely to have had beneficial effects on the patients whose ailments they treated? . . . Yes, and their prescriptions were about as good as anything prescribed before the mid-twentieth century.'
We compounded the [Anglo-Saxon] remedies and tested them in vitro against common disease-causing bacteria. Unfortunately for our hypothesis, Cameron’s argument and the Anglo-Saxon patients who were treated with these compounds, the remedies that we tested are not biologically effective against the infectious agents they are intended to combat. In fact, some of the Anglo-Saxon recipes take biologically efficacious ingredients and process them into ineffective mixtures.
Sorry, loves, but those mediaevals really were pretty backward.

23 September, 2006

Et in Arcadia ego

This space has of late acquired a complacence with its own axioms and reasons, the comfort born of uncontested familiarity with a stile. The space needs, it thinks me, a little baiting, ad hominem et ad materiam; and so I jetty forth on a sea of disprizion.

There is a site—let us term it The Valve, for want of a more fitting moniker—wherein the scholars of divers polytechnics shunt and shuffle about their wits as if at bezique or more royal disports. They vaunt themselves as peacocks yet their words are more convenient to parrots, and these barren nobcocks psittacize and pontificate all puff'd up with fancies not their own. I do confess to perusing when the mood takes me some of the maniere with which they sow this plot, but in truth, I find it too too oft compassed about with absurdities and trivialities. A late and peculiarly mephitic exhalation arose from a patch marked, Joseph Kugelmass, whom I take to be some sort of tropological monster tricked up in the guise of a young man. Hear him ope his maw:
My dissatisfaction with certain prevailing notions about literary criticism reached a boiling point at four in the morning, in a car on the way home from IHOP. It appears that even in a car, traveling at forty miles an hour, full of passengers who are themselves full of pancakes and imitation maple syrup, one is not protected against the following clichés:
What kind of ignobility must a man have in his own soul to produce such shameless blatter? Will he presume to tell us of his revelation, this superior literary man, as arriving in a carload of bobbies farced with ersatz confectionaries at the small hours of morning? Would we trust a philosopher to dine at plastic tables? But speak, Herr Roundmass, speak of your Profundities!
1. The value of Sigmund Freud’s work lies in his influence on certain modernist and post-modernist writers. Of no value in himself, Freud is nonetheless an important historical figure for literary critics.

2. Freud’s theories about the psyche have been thoroughly discredited by modern science, partly because of new data on how the brain works, and partly because of the high failure rate of Freudian therapies in psychiatric clinics. The fact that scholars in English departments continue to accept Freudian “truths” is a sad comment on the insular, pretentious nature of the field.
Blow a man down! One could not be insensible to these reasonings. See how he loads the die, readers—how this Pharaoh among men can punctuate a "truth" out of its worldly environs, and how he indicates with his little Gallicism, cliché, just how contemptible are these propositions to such a Hercules as himself!
I am inclined to go halfway with both statements. Whatever works best in a clinic ought to prevail there. Although, in my last post, I did link Freud to contemporary neurological theory, such continuities are few and far between.
He gestures, airily.
Furthermore, I am more comfortable using Freud in a paper on Invisible Man than I am applying him to Chaucer.
Another gesture, and a puff of smoke. The crowd gasps.
Nonetheless, the way many contemporary scholars have turned on Freud reveals a flawed ideology at work in their criticism, and also at work in his.
Wait, good sir, don't scoff just yet, for big things are afoot! Now, I must advert my reader that Kugelmass is not the most succinct of writers—he petties himself about with Freud and Dickens and Greenblatt and Marx and other such icons for a goodly number of words. The tenor of his argument appears to be that some entity which he terms "experience", and not some other entity which he terms "explanation", should be the telos or goal of the literary critic. (Thy pardon I humbly beg, I mean, "literary critic".) The method of a Freud or a Marx, thinks Herr Klugelmass, is "explanation", and by such method are all the fair melodies and gentle temperaments of the maiden Art despoiled. Hark!
Let us consider the proposition that all attempts to explain art take ideas to be art’s most important content.
It is an inconsiderable proposition, but nay, let us consider notwithstanding.
They become Platonic readings, contemptuous of the aesthetic. The aesthetic shows up as a detour that obscures the argumentative core of the work, or else as propagandistic embroidery.
A Platonic reading, sir? I take it you refer to some other "Plato", perhaps some Greek merchant or snub-nosed bank-teller? Surely you have not in mind that most noble of all philosophers, who let fall from his fingers flights of such sublimity as to make all the Muses weep in Arcadia? Surely not that Plato priz'd by all Antiquity as stylist incomparable, whose argument only prospered in the detour of its "aesthetic"—a Platonic mot that, psyche aisthetike—and in its "propagandistic embroidery"?

But stay, what our interlocutor wishes us to be cognizant of is a certain tendency to systematise, to boil one's literary legumes out of any flavour. Herr Freud (the most famed Platonist who ever did sit in our salons), our booby opines,
quickly reduces Cordelia to a symbol of Death, and makes the Platonic move from the concrete to the purer Idea. In my view, a better reading would preserve Lear’s ambivalent emotions towards a daughter whose very health and good sense are painful reminders of his own failing powers, even as they reflect back to him the best part of his legacy.
Yea in sooth, and a better reading again would preserve each and every part, trope and temper'd word of the Bard's quill—indeed a better reading would be only to rescribe the very Tragedie of King Lear itself. William Benzon, a conspirator in this Teuton's troupe, bedizens himself in a comment most uninvitingly with an alamode Borges, and pokes at the intentions of our poor Kugelmass, thus—
Borges’ Pierre Menard rewrote Quixote word-for-word, but the meaning changes because the context does. Are you saying the Quixote critic aspires to capture-invoke-create the very same Quixote-experience, but through different words (and at a different time and place)?
At the very least Mr. Benzon (for I recognise no other appointed title for the man) has seen through his colleague's intentions. Herr K accepts not the 'reductive interpretative [sic] style' of Freud, and worse, of the historicist, but only a new manner of 'treating art as experience'. But what could be intended by such an unlikely and infelicitous concatenation of vocables? Is he perhaps reminded of the vapid exercitations of Schleiermacher, who burbled of putting himself in the mind of the author or even Author by some Romantic mind-meld? K acknowledges not his compatriot, but he alerts us that his own notion
means accepting that art, like experience, is what it seems to be. Art is its surfaces: it is beautiful at one moment, symbolic the next, and political a moment after that. It is even the retrospective unity that might be achieved between these things.
Puff, thou sayst. Modernism. An idea as new as the hills. Trust thy instincts, cher lecteur.
The appearance of “depth” that is provided by psychoanalysis, Marxism, or historicism is real for the work in question, but cannot be taken to be definitive.
Puff, thou sighst. A softserve sort of Postmodernism, a disinclination towards 'grand narratives'.
The observer’s intuition of a beautiful moment, or of a timeless human essence, within the work, is neither conclusive nor epiphenomenal – the two poles to which causal explanations usually assign an artwork’s effects, in imitation of Plato. Nor are ideas the epiphenomenon, and dissymmetry the truth and guarantor of aesthetic quality, as is sometimes argued in critiques of Henry James or Thomas Mann.
Miserabile visu! This man, readers, is a graduate student. He has graduated—but from whence, the University of Clowderminds and Bumbleheads? See how lack-a-daisicly he juggles with philosophies, recalling us to our Papineaux with his talk of the epiphenomena, drizzling his salat with a sprig of token Plato, a soupçon of recycled modernist conceits—dissymmetry indeed, what barbarismos, can't speak English, man? And it being the truth and guarantor of any deuced thing in the world! It is a hoary thing and a knocklegged one that we entertain such hogswallop in the first place!
Artwork is anti-foundational because it is multiply founded.
O heavn'ly rapture! O archangels tolling from beyond the Empyrean! O winds and oceans churning in the Deep! Stop all clocks, friends, we have struck Gold. Herr K has freed us from our Nibelung fetters, unhappy toilers we on our anvils in the cave of Formalism!

Our prize pilicock wanders dazed and befuddied in similar circumambulations for a quireful of paraphs, groping for meaning, sick with indigestion after swallowing a cartload of the old makers of taste, and for this very reason affording more pleasure to the popcorn-chewer than to the seeker after truth (afflicted creature!). What could be the basis of any reductive meaning? he asks once and again, doling out the same fortuitous drubbing to a passing structuralist or New Historicist. Nevertheless Herr Strudelmass is reticent to offer an alternative in the eyes of those whom he perceives superior still to himself—and let us pray forget those miserably pancaked Marxists sharing automobile space. Neither the "intuition" nor the "ideas" are to be the epiphenomenon, and what next, what next?
There have been very few great artists who did not juxtapose force with closure, and reconciliation. There are moments in the work that reach for the whole, and so there must be a persistent form of criticism to succor those moments.
Which all appears a verily anfractuous way of informing us that these "great artists" possess both Genius and Rules, that the greatest revolutionary might also be dyed in the wole a reactionary. Take that, M. Derrida, o strait-laced rebel! As melancholy closure to his bulletin, Herr Fugelfuss takes us mincing round a Freudian garden prettied up in morals:
It would be highly irresponsible to write historical criticism using Freud, without owning up to our skepticism [sic] about him.
Irresponsible? Accursed goosecap with your foaming cant! Listen rather to your Kant, Er ist keinen Responsibilität im Kritik. Dost thou even profess this so-named "skepticism"?
Rather than asking, Does psychoanalysis cure schizophrenia?, we should be asking whether we want to continue to inhabit Freud’s world, with its pleasures and terrors, and its relentless quest for a victory over compulsion. I respect Deleuze and Guattari for rejecting that world out of a philosophically considered exuberance. I have not forsaken it yet.
Ah not! What a warm and affective admixture of sentiments! What if I still would fain inhabit the world of Ptolemy? or Milton? or Stephen Jay Gould? Quid tum? So bound by your little nest are you, little bird, and so self-aware! What wonders of autobiography hath this blog wrought? So after strutting about and puffing up your little parrot breast, you have sung not sweetly about that depucelated Muse of yours, Literature. Sooth you have sung of little but your own unsweet song, which malgré an alamode Novalis, is poor show in such a climate as yours. Know the Truth, ignoble Bugleboss—your precious books are but playthings to the noble amongst us, but trifles to those Giants with the wit to make grand reductive Schemata, with the mastery to subjoin and entrample the puny neck of Art with the yoke and the boot of Exegesis! They might be well advised to rub salt into the wounds of Romantic turtle-doves, for in fettering Art with their structures, be it Freud, be it Marx, be it the historicists of a latter age, they have set it free—even the feeblest of poets knew it!
We sing in our chains like the sea
These critics, o most unpoetic lad, these are the chaunters and the poets of our age, for they have made magic and wonder out of an idler like Shakespeare, and they teach us the theurgy that makes statues of men—and also the goety of words.

22 September, 2006

Oral Tradition

I got an email the other day informing me that the journal Oral Tradition is now online, and asking me to spread the word. Well, here it is—the word, I mean. Rather appropriate, don't you think, for a journal of that name? The latest issue includes an article entitled 'Carneades’ Quip: Orality, Philosophy, Wit, and the Poetics of Impromptu Quotation'—should be interesting. Let it not be said that Oral Tradition is not worth the paper it's printed on.

Every word is a word to conjure with. Whichever spirit calls—another such appears. — Novalis, 'Logological Fragment I.6' (1798)
During a session of the Great Chain Game, I once asked M, 'Words or things?' He replied 'words' almost immediately. Later in the day, when he came to ask me the same question, my response was identical. That's me in a nutshell—and not only in theory, neither. A friend of mine who cultivated pelargoniums had misspelt the word on her CV—I was able to correct the error, and even tell her the etymology of the word, observing that the Greek word pelargós, 'stork', was semantically related to the Greek géranos, 'crane', whence geranium. As she noted, however, I hadn't the foggiest clue what a pelargonium looks like. Words, you see, not things. I was reminded of this recently when Languagehat cited the etymology for deed poll:
In the case of deed poll, ['poll'] comes from the verb meaning to shave (the head). Since this type of change to a deed affects only one party—unlike a transfer of ownership—the document edges would be cut straight. For two-party documents, the cut would be jagged so the two halves could be matched.
Curious, somehow, that one can learn of the world and its history merely from the knowledge of words. It led me to wonder, as I have done before, how much of the world one could know purely from the OED. It is a related question to that of the encyclopaedic novel—I considered Finnegans Wake from this angle here. So, how much then? The descriptive sciences are fair game: the relevant aspects of anatomy, chemistry, particle physics, zoology, botany, geology, astronomy, and linguistics, for instance. Take the word cerebellum; the OED tells us that it is
The little or hinder brain; the mass of nervous matter forming the posterior part of the brain, situated behind and below the cerebrum, and above the medulla oblongata, and divided, like the cerebrum, into two ‘hemispheres’, one on each side.
Not being anatomists, we do not know what 'brain', 'nervous matter', 'cerebrum' or 'medulla oblongata' refer to. So we look these up, and of course find more unknown objects. After a while, we begin to build a coherent structure of words and meanings, an internal system—something akin to Gray's Anatomy, but without the pictures. To make the thought-experiment interesting, we have to make a number of assumptions:

1. The individual (let us call him C) has enough grammar and non-concrete vocabulary to understand the dictionary definitions.

2. C grasps Kantian basics such as time and space.

3. C not only memorises each definition, but reflects as far as possible on how each word (and concept) relates to the others.

4. C has an infinite amount of time and patience for such a project.

Eventually C would build up from the definitions a complete and systematised description of some aspects of the world. His mind would become microcosmic. But what would such a mind be like, nourished only on the dictionary—or an idealised version thereof? What would its limitations be?

21 September, 2006

Mathematician manqué?

Aaron Haspel has selected me as his Ideal Reader: 'a kindred spirit, not a doppelgänger'—this is because, apparently, I am 'literary but [have] mathematics as well, sympathetic but critical'. (Haspel remarks that he is 'too poor a linguist' to be my ideal reader, which is doubtless code for 'he finds all the language stuff boring'.) Well, my readers know all about the literary, but how about the maths, the 'tique? There's a good reason that I'm not a mathematician, despite my leanings in that direction during my teenage years. I was never first rank—it wasn't just that I didn't invent modular arithmetic at age 19—hell, I couldn't even calculate Euler's constant to 15 decimal places at age 17—it was that I made elementary errors at inopportune moments.

One such moment would prove decisive. I was sitting the M3 [third mechanics] final paper of my Further Maths A-Level, when I came across a problem of angular velocity and circular motion down a slope. It was basic stuff, and I'd seen similar problems dozens of times before: something like a snowball (taken as a non-elastic sphere) rolling down the top of an igloo.
I don't recall the specifics now. But it must have involved elementary formula-plugging and vector-resolution, always the dullest part of mathematical physics. Anyway, there is one thing that you must remember when working on circular motion—the direction of velocity is not the same as the direction of acceleration. In this case, the latter is just straight down with gravity (M), while the former is tangential to the plane of the igloo—here marked with a dotted line, the resolution of the gravitational force and the force of the surface against the ball.

I blanked on this.

So I got a C on the paper, and a B on the class—thus missing an A by about 3 points off 720. It may not sound like much, but when you're swimming with geniuses to whom this stuff is a piss in the park, it makes all the difference. I think it was this moment that ultimately led to me leaving mathematics (and hence physics) in school, and becoming the littérateur you read today. One doesn't have to be a Perec or a Pynchon, therefore, to see in the above figure an icon of my fall from mathematical grace. Words had always been good to me—ever since I was the only child in my class, age 8, to know that the opposite of 'transparent' was 'opaque'—thanks, MacPaint!—but numbers. . . well, I'm not afraid of them, but I could never really have been a contender.

20 September, 2006

Whitehall Court

One of my favourite buildings sits on the north bank of the Thames, rising up behind the Victoria Embankment Gardens. I had seen it many times on my frequent river strolls—a long neo-Gothic mansion with a restored right wing, like something one might see along the Rhine. But I knew not what it was—I had some vague sort of notion of it as Admiralty HQ, or a former War Office, or Banqueting House. Recently I decided to investigate, and discovered that it is none of these things. My mistake: a glance at the A-to-Z had been too cursory—

Having only considered the building from across the river, I had only an imperfect notion of its exact location. Given its apparent importance, I assumed that it was one of the buildings marked on the map (in purple). But it turns out to be the unmarked area that I have here indicated with a red spot. The Old War Office (which it is claimed to be by Dan Hyde, who took the second photo above from the London Eye) turns out to be this building, while Banqueting House looks like this. In fact, the mysterious Gothic edifice is the one outlined in red on the aerial photograph below:

So what is it? The answer is: Whitehall Court, which I had taken merely for a street name. But it serves no grand historical function: it is only a hotel and a block of flats. How disappointing! Still, Wikipedia has an article on it. It was designed in the 1880s by eminent Victorian architects, including Alfred Waterhouse, better known for the fabulous Natural History Museum. H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw lived there. And guess what? You can buy a 2-bedroom apartment there, albeit one facing away from the river, for 650 grand—which, given London house prices, is an astonishing bargain.

17 September, 2006

History of the Nod: Part III

Here therefore is the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter.

— Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605), 4.3
Thus far has been an account of the word nod in English. But what about nodding itself? Anthropology has traditionally been fascinated by gestures—but much less attention has been paid to the nod than to the myriad movements of the hand. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin provided a famous account of the nod's origin:
We give a vertical nod of approval with a smile to our children, when we approve of their conduct; and shake our heads laterally with a frown, when we disapprove. With infants, the first act of denial consists in refusing food; and I repeatedly noticed with my own infants, that they did so by withdrawing their heads laterally from the breast, or from anything offered them in a spoon. In accepting food and taking it into their mouths, they incline their heads forwards.
Darwin goes on to note the distinction between the assenting head pushed forward, and the refusing head 'thrown backwards'—Desmond Morris gives an extended account of the latter motion in Gestures, but alas, does not discuss the simple nod. It is evident, however, that the distinction is ancient. Alan Boegehold ('Antigone Nodding, Unbowed') discusses two lines in Sophocles' Antigone, in which the heroine is arraigned before Creon for burying her brother Polynices, an act the king has expressly forbidden. The lines are translated by Jebb:
Creon. Thou—thou whose face is bent to earth—dost thou avow, or disavow, this deed?

Antigone. I avow it; I make no denial.
As Boegehold asks, why is Antigone's face 'bent to earth' if she is defiant about the act? He concludes that it is not—rather it is nodding (κατανεύειν) in grave assent: 'The Greek verb ανανεύω means to move the head up and back, a gesture of the head that says No. The Greek verb κατανεύω, to nod down, means to affirm, to say Yes.' The nod, in this case, is a defiance of positive law turned tyranny—a defiance by the invocation of natural law:
It was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.
Antigone's nod is a defiant and political yes. Since ancient times, the nod has been more than simply yes—it has been a powerful political instrument.


The Will of a King—a return to words.

As a trio, Wynken, Blynken and Nod sang a lullaby together—but Wynken and Nod have their own history, and they go back a long time, thick as thieves. The OED cites Samuel Palmer's Moral Essays (1710): 'A nod and a wink are very often treacherous and false'. They're still at it, as the web attests, particularly in redoubled form:
A blatantly racist tacit understanding between people of Anglo-Saxon extraction? A nod, nod, wink, wink!

Wal-Mart chooses to nod and wink some more with an expanded nod-wink campaign called Corporate War-Room or PR or corporate spin.

The pat-on-the-back, nod nod wink wink old boy network that's making Dick and George's business pals even fatter and richer than they already were
The OED also lists 'on the nod', referring to something obtained for free, or without discussion—ie. by tacit agreement with another. The nod, it seems, with or without the wink, means more than assent: it can mean the conspiratorial assent to something 'which is not openly admitted or authorized'. And it has the ring of power: not just any assent, but the fiat, the command, the granting of privilege.
Blair gives nod to nuclear review

Independent voters give Bush the nod over Gore, 56% to 47%

Senate Gives Nod to Immigration Guest Workers
These two nuances—power and secrecy—are bound up not just with the word nod, but with the concept of nodding itself. It goes back to the Latin. The root-word for nodding in Latin is nuere, but this is never found in its native state. Its chief alloys are nutare, its frequentative form; innuere and annuere, to nod towards; nutus, a nod; and numen, a nodding or something that nods. Consider the sense-developments. The first word came to mean 'to waver, be unsteady' (whence nutation), but also 'to command by a nod'—nutat ne loquar, 'he commands me not to speak' (Plautus). The second, innuere, 'to nod at, imply, insinuate', would be used in mediaeval legal documents in the gerundive form innuendo, and pass from there into English. The third form, annuere, would mean 'To give assent or approval by nodding, to nod assent to, to approve, favor, allow, grant. promise to do'. It is found on the Great Seal and dollar bill, totem objects of the American people: ANNUIT COEPTIS.

As this page explains, the motto was cooked up by Charles Thomson in 1782, from a prayer in Vergil, audacibus annue coeptis, 'favour [our] bold undertakings'. ANNUIT COEPTIS, however, is indicative, meaning 'He favours our undertakings'. The verb has a hidden subject, generally taken to be 'God' or 'Providence'.
The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: the Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.
Thus is the secret power of God invoked, just as it is by those in authority in support of their actions—a dangerous appeal to the concealed unknown. If Creon usurped the natural law, Antigone has usurped the positive. And it is not Creon in charge now, but Antigone: the man who stands above a Constitution, above the laws of men, with a direct view of the divine. It is Antigone whose authority is acquired 'on the nod'.

There remains the fifth form of the Latin root, numen. In Vergil it has already completed its evolution: 'nodding, intention, will, divine will, divinity'—quo numine laeso, 'by the harm of whose will' (Aeneid 1.8), quisquam numen Iunonis adorat, 'whomever the divinity of Juno adores' (1.48). In English we have the numinous, originally meaning the quality of divinity; Nathaniel Ward (1647) writes 'The Will of a King is very numinous; it hath a kinde of vast universality in it.' Since Rudolf Otto the word has acquired a psychological status, meaning one's experience of the awesome divine—'the numinous [numinosum] is thus felt as objective and outside the self' (Das Heilige 2.6)—or we might say, of the God or Providence that favours one's undertakings with a nod and a wink.


'Adam and his race are a dream of mortal mind, because Cain went to live in the Land of Nod, the land of dreams and illusions'—so wrote Mary Baker Eddy, deliberately ignoring her Hebrew lessons. Not just Cain, not just Homer: we have all been cast out of Eden. We seem to have settled in a place called Nod, but in fact we wander without end, like Calvero, asleep with a quavering faith, on a misty sea, seeing the world as we make it and not, despite everything, as it is—que toda la vida es sueño / y los sueños, sueños son. The nod with which we defy and assert power, hungry for pap, is secretive and illusory: it is just the same, after all, as the nod by which we wander, and drowse, and assent to all forces greater than ourselves.

15 September, 2006

History of the Nod: Part II

Adam and his race are a dream of mortal mind, because Cain went to live in the Land of Nod, the land of dreams and illusions.

Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health (1875)
Calvert Watkins associates the word nod with a number of 'loosely-related Germanic words referring to pinching, closing the eyes'—these include nap (sleep), nip (bite), nibble and niggard. It is, of course, unrelated to the Hebrew: and yet, I wonder if we can see in its use the ghost of Nod, of the wandering Jew? In English its earliest sense is, as a verb, to gesture with an inclination of the head; thus Chaucer has 'And on the manciple he gan nodde faste / For lakke of speche' (The Manciple's Tale, 47). 150 years later it comes to mean a quick inclination of the head. Around this time—except for a lone citation in Lydgate—the word is first used in print to refer to the process of dropping off to sleep. In the seventeenth century, this sense develops the shade of 'To be momentarily inattentive or inaccurate; to make a slip or mistake' (OED)—or, we might add, 'to wander'.

Specifically, the word is associated with a famous phrase in Horace (Ars Poetica, line 359), that even the greatest poets made occasional errors: bonus dormitat Homerus, now conventionally rendered 'even [good] Homer nods'. The exact phrase first appears, to my knowledge, in an anonymous 1782 book titled Strict Thoughts on Education: 'Even Homer nods, said Horace long ago'. Homer's nod had long been proverbial. After all, a nameless 1665 translator of Horace had written 'I hear good Homer snore'; but when Wiliam Hughes (Man of Sin, 1677) remarked, 'We see a Jesuite may sometimes nod as well as Homer', every translator wanted in:
Homer himself hath been observ'd to nodd. (Roscommon, 1680)

But fret to find the mighty Homer dream,
Forget himself a-while, and lose his Theme:
Yet if the work be long, sleep may surprize,
And a short Nod creep o're the watchfull'st Eyes. (Creech, 1684)

When but a Trifle falls from Homer's Pen;
But where an Author swells into a Size,
Why should a Nod, or gentle Sleep surprize? (Ames, 1727)

Find I good Homer ever nodding yet. (anonymous, 1746)

To see ev'n Homer sometimes nod, or sleep. (Popple, 1753)

But fret whenever honest Homer nods. (Duncombe, 1757-59)
Homer, we can see, has firmly colonised the Land of Nod: in 1733, with Vico's 'discovery' of the true Homer, he left Eden, and has continued to wander ever since, with a mark set upon him, lest any finding him should kill him.


It was Swift who first formally introduced the word, nod, meaning drift off, back into the Biblical collocation 'Land of Nod'—which, with the belated triumph of the KJV, was by then a standard form. The use of the phrase to denote slumberland comes in a jocular passage from Swift's Compleat Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation of 1738, bracketed by equivalent expressions:

It's a pretty good pun, when you think about it, and by the 19th century it was a common one. But the Land of Nod is not a place for settling: it is a condition of wandering and restlessness, the currents of the mind beneath a surface calm. By 1889 the phrase had acquired decidedly childish connotations, and in this year it would be transformed again, by the Denver journalist Eugene Field and his children's poem Dutch Lullaby. Field was a celebrated columnist, an eccentric and a prankster (he infamously lampooned Oscar Wilde). He was also a natural wanderer, and according to his brother Roswell, 'No matter where he wandered, he speedily became imbued with the spirit of his surroundings, and his quickly and accurately gathered impressions found vent in his pen'.

In his 1896 Auto-Analysis, a wry pamphlet forestalling biographical speculation after his death, Field wrote 'I do not love all children. I have tried to analyze my feelings towards children, and I think I discover that I love them in so far as I can make pets of them'. Such a statement, potentially alarming, captures the whimsy of a piece as charming and sentimental as the Lullaby. Here are the poem's first and last verses—
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of misty light
Into a sea of dew.
"Where are you going, and what do you wish?"
The old moon asked the three.
"We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,"
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one's trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock on the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three,—
And Nod.
(It should have been 'close your eyes. . .', but still.) Like a good nursery rhyme, the poem runs in the sprung rhythm theoretised by G. M. Hopkins: the metric involves an alternation of four and three stressed beats to a line, with varying numbers of unstressed beats. It is a curious coincidence that in 1889, when this poem was written, Field was working on a series of Horace translations, including one into Chaucerian English—is it possible that he had in mind Homer's nod?

The 'misty sea' of the Lullaby had appeared in another of Field's pieces, The Wanderer (1883), which his biographer Slason Thompson refers to as a 'little bit of fugitive verse'. This poem, like Dover Beach, recapitulates the crisis of faith in an image of the ocean—it refers to the long-standing controversy over seashells found on mountain-tops, taken by some as proof of the Flood, and by others as proof of tectonic activity. Field writes of such a shell:
Strange, was it not? Far from its native deep,
One song it sang,—
Sang of the awful mysteries of the tide,
Sang of the misty sea, profound and wide,—
Ever with echoes of the ocean rang.
The 'misty sea' is turbid and full of secrets: it is the sea of faith, apparently calm, but troubled always with the eddies and currents of doubt—a Land of Nod. Is this the misty sea recalled in the Lullaby?
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock on the misty sea
Cradles are rocked, and so is faith. The three heroes go off to fish for herring, an image recalling the apostles on the sea of Galilee (John 21:3); 'all night long' they cast their nets, but is it never said that any herring are caught. Perhaps Field himself has nodded in the detail; perhaps the Lullaby expresses doubts, too.


Nonetheless, illustrators loved the piece, and it gave free rein to a gentle fantasy of the sea and moon:

Maxfield Parrish, 1905

Charles H. Sylvester, 1909

Parrish is a favourite with my wife; I find his colours garish and his composition flat, much preferring Sylvester's sinuous woodcut. In 1919, a sculptress by the name of Mabel Landrum Torrey made a statue-group of the three characters: first in marble for Washington Park, Denver, then two decades later a bronze copy for Wellsboro, PA, presented by the mayor of Denver, Fred Bailey, 'as a gesture of love for his late wife Elizabeth'. This webpage describes the scene:

It was a bright, sunny September afternoon in 1938 and 2,000 people gathered on the village green in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. Bands played and children laughed as they anticipated the unveiling of a gift to the community. The cord was pulled, revealing a bronze statue of Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing on its man-made sea and fountain.
It would be just as well to recall Field's remark in the Auto-Analysis: 'I do not care particularly for sculpture or for paintings'.

14 September, 2006

History of the Nod: Part I

When the mean rascal Kayin whacked his own brother Hevel, he was cursed by Don Jehovah to a lifetime of wandering—doh!—this occurs in Genesis 4:12:

ki ta'avod et-ha'adamah lo-tosef tet-kocha lach na vanad tihyeh va'arets
'When you work the ground, it will no longer give you of its strength. You will live as fugitive and wanderer on the earth.' The underlined syllable, nad, denotes wandering. Strong's Hebrew Bible dictionary gives the following list of senses for the basic root: 'to nod, i.e. waver; figuratively, to wander, flee, disappear; also (from shaking the head in sympathy), to console, deplore, or (from tossing the head in scorn) taunt:—bemoan, flee, get, mourn, make to move, take pity, remove, shake, skip for joy, be sorry, vagabond, way, wandering.' The word is echoed again in 4:16:
vayetse kayin milifney yahweh vayeshev be'erets-nod kid'mat-eden
'Kayin went out from the presence of the Lord, from the east of Eden, and dwelt as a wanderer on the earth'. Here nod is a cognate of nad. (See here for a recent post on the topic by the young Jewish scholar, Simon Holloway.) Jerome (405 AD) renders 4:16 as 'Egressusque Cain a facie Domini, habitavit profugus in terra ad orientalem plagam Eden.' The 1370s Vulgate translation supervised by the heretic John Wycliffe offers 'And Caym, passid out fro the face of the Lord, dwellide fer fugitif in the erthe, at the eest plage of of Eden.' Likewise, the standard Vulgate in English, translated as Catholic propaganda by Gregory Martin in 1609 and now known as the Douai-Rheims Bible, reads 'And Cain went forth from the face of our Lord, and dwelt as a fugitiue on the earth at the east side of Eden.'

But a different tradition had arisen even before Jerome. The Septuagint Greek translation, started around 300 BC, gives this version of 4:16:

Here, the word nod is rendered as a name: the Land of Naid (or Nod). When Tyndale produced his own heretical translation of the Bible in 1525—sources differ as to which version he used—he wrote 'And Cain went out from the face of the Lorde and dwelt in the lande Nod / on the east syde of Eden.' The 1611 King James, which follows Tyndale in most details, provides the now-canonical verse: 'And Cain went out from presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the East of Eden.'

Top to bottom: Tyndale's version (Antwerp, 1530), the 1609 Douai-Rheims, and the original 1611 blackletter King James. Of note: Tyndale's text predates the 1565 division of the Bible into verses, marked with crosses in the D-R; and also the KJV's moonlet paraph-mark, an early form of the ¶.


In his Old Testament commentary, the reformer John Wesley remarked: 'in the land of Nod—That is, of shaking or trembling, because of the continual restlessness of his spirit. Those that depart from God cannot find rest any where else'. The English word 'nod' has itself a primary sense akin to 'shaking', and etymologists had already suggested a Hebrew origin for it. John Minsheu (The Guide into Tongues, 1627) provides this entry:

to Nodde, or becke, ab Hebr. Nod, i. [intransitive] nutare [nod], vagari [wander].

the Noddle, or hinder part of the head, q. pars capitis nutans [nodding part of the head], à [Hebrew] Nod, i. nutare, vagari, hinc inde moueri [move to and fro].
Stephen Skinner (Etymologicon, 1678) follows Minsheu. I translate the relevant parts of his entries for Nod and Noddle:
Nod, from Latin Nutus [a nod of the head]. . . To become drowsy. The origin of the word may also be from German Neygen; see Noddle.

Noddle, Head, following Minsheu q. d. The nodding part of the head, from Hebrew Nod, to nod the head; see Nod.
I was disappointed to find that Robert Govett declines to make the connection in his own fantastical dictionary (1869) of English words derived from Hebrew; but thankfully he has a deliverer in Isaac Mozeson, a bright star in the Merrit Ruhlen school of linguistics. Mozeson's The Word (1995) provides an extensive entry for Hebrew NOD/ND, connecting it not only to English nod but to the Latin roots nuere, movere, and even natare (to swim). Sadly, a careful perusal of that meisterwerk of mass-comparison philology, Bomhard and Kerns' The Nostratic Macrofamily (1994), yielded no results.

The word's true affiliations and sense-development will be expounded in the second part of this history.

12 September, 2006


Chaplin's Limelight has got a pretty bad rep, for the same sort of reason, perhaps, as Sylvie and Bruno. Both Chaplin and Carroll produced iconic, cutting-edge works, and then at the end of their careers sludged out something perceived as over-ambitious and mired in sentimentality. The illimitably and inimitably inimical Pauline Kael, for one, slaughtered Chaplin for his narcissism in a review now apocryphally referred to as 'Slimelight'. It's a fair cop: Limelight is preachy, bombastic and pretentious κατ' εξοχήν, but its oddness somehow offsets such a demerit.

The intellectual and emotional core of the film is a two-scene sequence near the beginning: in the first, the heroine Terry adolescently laments the futility of existence, only to be reprimanded by Chaplin's character, Calvero, who insists on 'life, life, life!' In the second, Calvero is dreaming of a music-hall act with Terry as comic foil. These two scenes witness a constant hesitation, the movement towards a grandeur without irony, and then back towards farce and bathos. When asked why she can't go back to dancing, Terry sighs:
The utter futility of everything. I see it even in flowers, hear it in music. All life endless, without meaning.
This, of course, has not the ring of true speech—particularly revealing are the asyndeton of the latter two sentences, and the pronounced metric of the third, 'ăll lĭfe ēndlĕss / wĭthŏut mēanĭng'. This is Schopenhauer-lite. Calvero replies:
What do you want a meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning! Desire is the theme of all life.
I find this a very strange reply; it slides from an old-fashioned, commonsense 'stop bothering with silly ideas like that' response, into a gesture towards serious philosophy. Calvero's absurdist statement that 'life is not a meaning' sounds like Nietzsche-lite, or possibly Wittgenstein-lite, and his assertion that 'desire is the theme of all life' is rather Fourieresque, though one could trace it back to the Romantics. In fact, when he continues, 'It's what makes a rose want to be a rose, and want to grow like that. And a rock want to contain itself, and remain like that,' he is channelling the Aristotelian telos. But while spouting doctrine, he makes silly gestures imitating a rose and a rock—and later a Chinese tree, waving his arms and squinting, which sets Terry squealing with laughter. But it gets better—he continues:
The meaning of anything is merely other words for the same thing. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose.
The first statement is a classic statement of Wittgensteinian or structuralist nihilism—the second is a Gertrude Stein quote famous enough to have its own Wikipedia article! (Calvero adds, 'That's not bad, it should be quoted'.) Chaplin thus gropes for profundity, invoking the irrationale of Romantic poetry over any claim to a transcendent Meaning. Having just done an impression of a tree.


The second scene, a dream-sequence, pops a cap in the first scene's ass. Here Calvero relives his glory in music-hall routines: he begins with an asinine song about springtime lovers, and then Terry comes in for a bit of banter. There are some good lines too—Terry objects to a phrase in his sonnet on the worm:
Terry. A worm can't smile.

Calvero. How do you know, did you ever appeal to its sense of humour?
She doesn't like the notion that a worm could be in love; Calvero pulls a face and remarks 'Even a flea can be romantic'. (Fleas seem to be a recurrent feature of the musical interludes—from Calvero's 'flea circus' joke to his later ditty about reincarnation: 'But I don't want to be a tree, sticking in the ground, / I'd sooner be a flea'. Is this significant?) Calvero manages to work a Maeterlinck reference into a spot of cheery wordplay:
Surely you're read The Life of the Bee? The bee's behaviour in the beehive is unbelievable.
And after a host more bathetic two-liners, we get:
Calvero. At this moment I'm beginning to grasp the meaning of life. Oh, what a waste of energy! What is this urge that makes life go on and on and on?

Terry. You're right. What does it all mean? Where are we going?

Calvero. You're going South dear, your hand's in my pocket!
And finally:
Terry. Just think, all life motivated by love. How beautiful!

Calvero. By no means beautiful.

Terry. It certainly is!

Calvero. On the contrary, it's vile, wicked, awful. . . But it's wonderful.
Throughout the scene, grand sentiments are blown apart by cheap ironies, a casual savagery. It reminds me strongly of Beckett, the master of subverted romanticism. The forlorn clown, for whom the world has yielded to the solipsistic mechanics of a private wit—Calvero, whose name means skull: Beckett's everyman. And there is always a disconnect. Earlier on in the film, the maid tells him, 'Your wife won't eat', at which he quips, 'That's a blessing to a poor married man'. It takes her a couple of seconds to laugh, and then only uneasily. During his fantasy routines, the audience laughter is ghostly and stilted. Even during the final stage routine—this time for real—eerily hilarious, with a past-it Buster Keaton on piano—there is no laughter at all until the precise moment that Calvero falls into a drum, at which point it flows in torrents until the close. It is this hollow and artificial humour, puncturing sincerity, and its uncanny isolation, that permits the heavy pathos required by the film as a whole. 'The heart and the mind', Calvero says soberly: 'What an enigma'. But his last lines to the crowd are still Beckett:
This is a wonderful evening. I'd like to continue. But I'm stuck.

10 September, 2006


For the patriarch, père Roth, on the occasion of his 66th birthday.


It marks the good part of a man's life
being as old as you
and feeling neither those Arms nor the knife
at your back, as bold as you
staring down a man, any, even for looking
and that includes me, and Him too,
just wherevering all with that calm of yours, brooking
no quibble or at least making it all seem like foolishness to you.


You will not retire.

But you will tire old man
you will go deaf
and then go blind,
with all the poets.

O you will grow tired, old man.
You will grow to count, each year, and then ineff-
ably each month, with the slowing, of your mind.
Each day will come to be—you'll come to know its
shape—each day will come to be a man
bigger than yourself,
to stand over you
and make you fright.


— I know you never drink.

— I'll drink, son!

— But you don't drink.

— Damn it, I shall drink if it kills me!


— Drink, then.


— Do you know why I never dshrink? Sic! Not for the family, no. But because it spoils the, the slash of the mind. It ills the kintellect. Sic! Shtrue. I love the wine, you know, the noshe of it, so in a gesture of shubriety I indulge. . . not. I've learnt to shteel myself against all things. Plato wrote that, dinn'e? Unlike 'Arry Stottle, who was surly a daft sot for the bottle!

— Plato?

— Nah, petal, I'm joking. That'sh an old one. I don't trust all those spotty herberts with their nonsense philosophistry. Sic! I'm a plain blunt man. Blunt as shteel. Here, lision. D'ye know what my name means? There's more in my name alone than in all your whorl-eyed web or interlect page or what have you. It's German. I'll show you, on paper. Have a shufti. Here, ragin. It means a vice, sic! Advice. And here, mund. It means protector. . . God, thish drink is a bit of a norse isn't it? I mush go and take a blog, I'll be back—sic!


I was taught never to be wrong, never.
There's so much damn rightness in you,
so much of the small smile and the clever
no that others find in me.


The hours with pages and sky on a box
(disports of Britain made ritual with ritual knocks
for your pleasure) will dwindle. From a box in the sky
you'll watch the ages and measures of Britain die.
Talk with the dead, irony of the unbeliever, be locked
at words with Smith and Marx, or at badminton with Mars;
see your parents; look down and see your children, and see ours.

Drift not off into fancy, o father loved and mocked.

Like this: you will be tired and mired in all the fusses of the day.
It will be the case that there is increasingly little for you to say.
You come to count, in your head, while others speak.
Pauses between phrases are great; your voice is weak.
That thing in your skull remains inarticulate, unsaid.
You take it as token, totem that you are not quite dead.
You come to count, each syllable, tending towards, each gasp.
With the showing of your mind, my word with your last words you grasp.

Against the reasonable among men, secure me, father.

09 September, 2006

UPS Commercial

A 30-second television spot. Two continuous sequences are interspersed. In the first, OFFICE-MANAGER is having a bad day: minor irritations keep occurring, eg. he misses the train to work, he spills coffee on his shirt, the photocopier breaks down. He is waiting for an important package to be delivered at the end of the day, 5pm. So long as the package arrives, he'll be happy. Shots of the clock on the office wall, ticking closer and closer to 5.

The second sequence features UPS DELIVERY-MAN traversing the globe to get OFFICE-MANAGER his package on time: he races across deserts, barters with a Mongolian farmer for supplies, pilots a boat across a lake, drives breakneck through the city with the package under his arm. At 5 o'clock on the dot DELIVERY-MAN, exhausted, sets the package down on OFFICE-MANAGER's desk with a smile; OFFICE-MANAGER is overjoyed. (Possible additional shot: the camera reveals the banal contents of the package, for comic effect.) At the end of the spot comes the slogan:

08 September, 2006

All Greek to me?

Not a post, today, but a non-post, the space where a post should have been.

Three years ago I got around to reading Robert Fagles' lauded translation of the Iliad. It's okay, swift and energetic and all that, full of stock phrases, nothing all that special. In Book 3, Helen sits on the walls of Troy with Priam and tells him about the heroes—the scene is called the teichoscopy or 'looking from the walls'. Referring to Agamemnon, she says, in Fagles' translation, line 134 (underlining mine):
he used to be my kinsman, whore that I am!
There was a world. . . or was it all a dream?
The latter line immediately seemed false: it just didn't sound like the sort of thing Homer would 'write'. I checked the Greek and found nothing to correspond to the phrase. So I thought I'd email Fagles and ask him why the hell he'd put the phrase in; but I never got around to it. Recently I was thinking about the issue again, so I returned to Fagles' text, found the line, and went to check the Greek again. Sadly, I discovered that it was there after all, line 180:
δαηρ αυτ εμος εσκε κυνωπιδος ει ποτ εην γε
Samuel Butler renders the whole line: 'brother-in-law as surely as that he lives, to my abhorred and miserable self', while Walter Leaf renders it 'And he was my husband's brother to me, ah shameless me; if ever such an one there was'. So it turns out that 'ει ποτ εην γε' is Homeric; my instincts were just plain wrong. I do think the insertion of 'There was a world' remains a little heavy, though. In his 1900 Commentary on the Iliad, Leaf notes:
this phrase occurs in five other places, viz. 11.762, 24.426, Od. 15.268, Od. 19.315, Od. 24.289. It is always, except in Ô and ô, preceded by some form of einai ['to be']. It is commonly taken to mean ‘if indeed it is not all a dream,’ si unquam fuit quod non est amplius, i.e. si recte dici potest fuisse quod ita sui factum est dissimile ut fuisse nunquam credas, G. Hermann. The doubt would then be a rhetorical way of emphasizing the bitter contrast between the past and the present.

05 September, 2006

Peri Bathous: two notes

Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727), officially a joint production of the Scriblerus group, is now safely attributed to Alexander Pope. It's a pastiche of Longinus' Peri Hupsous (On the Sublime) as mock-eulogy of the heroic mediocrity of various contemporary poets, and it's very funny. As Pope writes in his introduction, 'While a plain and direct road is paved to their υψος, or sublime; no track has been yet chalked out to arrive at our βαθος, or profund'. Hence the word bathos, for which the OED cites this passage, with the definition 'Ludicrous descent from the elevated to the commonplace in writing or speech; anticlimax'. Which is all well and good, but something else obsessed my brain, upon finally reading the work—or rather, two things.

1. Some cute Augustan high-society vocabulary. Pope cites this fabricated passage as an example of overwrought language:
Lac'd in her Cosins new appear'd the Bride
A Bubble-boy and Tompion at her Side,
And with an Air Divine her Colmar ply'd. . .
Pope draws attention to four words here: cosins, bubble-boy, tompion and colmar, which he defines as 'stays, tweezercase, watch, fan'. We resort, again, to the OED. The four words, it notes, also appear in the Art of Politicks, by my fellow Old Wet, James Bramston. It also notes, in the entry for 'bubble-boy', that 'Warburton says the passage is quoted from one of Pope's own juvenile poems, in which case its date would be c 1704'. Where do the words come from? Well, the cosins was named after its maker, though the OED provides no more information. Tompion, likewise, was the name of a 'noted watchmaker in the reign of Queen Anne', and is found eponymously as late as Dickens. Colmar may be from the name of a town in Alsace, or 'perhaps of a different origin'. Bubble-boy, or bubble-bow, is certainly the most interesting:
[app. f. BUBBLE + BEAU as if 'beau-befooler': cf. quot. 1712.]

A lady's tweezer-case.

[1712 ARBUTHNOT John Bull (1755) 3 Charles Mather could not bubble a young beau better with a toy.] 1727 POPE, etc., Art Sinking 94 Lac'd in her Cosins new appear'd the Bride, A Bubble-bow and Tompion at her side. 1807 Month. Mag. XXIV. 550 Why was it called a bubble-boy? Probably the word is a misspelling for bauble-buoy, a support for baubles.

2. Some unusual typography. This page, on vulgarity in poetry:

First of all, the use of asterisks is rather curious: after 'the very Bathos of the human Body', the reader expects something like 'that is to say, *** and ****', representing (for instance) cock and cunt, if we allow a numerical discrepancy between asterisks and letters. But instead the text dissolves into a veritable sea of stars, the night-sky inverted, with only the phrase Hiatus magnus lachrymabilis: 'a great mournful hiatus', the last word a pseudo-Hellenic form of the correct Latin, lacrimabilis. Pope evokes a firmament of obscenity. Then there are the half-illegible Greek characters, which baffled me, until I looked up Edna Leake Steeves' erudite commentary in her 1952 critical edition. It turns out that the Greek words are Κιββερισμος and Ολφιελδισμος (the last character of each word is in fact an ο-σ ligature), or Kibberismos and Olphieldismos. Here's Edna:
Cibberism and Oldfieldism. A letter is dropped in Oldfield's name. Anne Oldfield (1683-1730) had played her first big role in 1704 as Lady Betty Modish in Cibber's Careless Husband, and was from then on associated with the group of actors about Cibber and the famous triumvirate at Drury Lane who are ironically apotheosized in the opening of Chapter XVI of Peri Bathous. . . Pope's reference here to Cibberism and Oldfieldism reflects upon the ribaldry and equivocality of the comedy roles in which Cibber and Mrs. Oldfield won applause.

03 September, 2006

Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me: for the Latin lover

. . . and then that last labiolingual basium might be read as a suavium if whoever the embracer then was wrote with a tongue in his (or perhaps her) cheek as the case may have been then. . .

Finnegans Wake, p. 122.

Problem and method

Okay, so this post is not exactly short: but it is, I think, plain and readable. Steve from Languagehat wrote to me the other day, asking if I had any insight into the oft-repeated factoid that the Romans had three different words for kissing. I replied that I had indeed heard of such a distinction—in fact I mentioned it here—but that I had little first-hand knowledge of its basis. Here's the general line, as peddled by old man Wikipedia:
The Romans distinguished three types of kiss: osculum, a friendship kiss on the cheek; basium, a kiss of affection on the lips; and suavium, a lovers' deep kiss.
Here's a similar account in Spanish:
Los romanos distinguían tres tipos: 'osculum' era el que se daba en la cara, entre amigos; 'basium', el que se daba en los labios, y 'suavium', el erótico, el que se daba durante una relación sexua.
And in Dutch, for good measure:
Drie soorten Kussen, zei ik. Volgens Rome. Osculum is de vriendschappelijke Kus, te geven op het gezicht. Dan is er basicum [sic], de Kus van genegenheid die op de lippen belandt. En in suavium vinden we de Kus die Geliefden elkaar geven.
Notice the classificatory confusion between morphological and semantic criteria: are the three kisses defined by the physical action, or by the social relationship between the participants? I began to wonder just how much basis in classical texts this distinction has, and to find out, I turned to that great online collection of classical texts, the Perseus Project. I simply did a search for 'kiss' among the English translations, and rooted out the Latin originals for comparison. Now, this is not a rigorous method, and I occasionally found Dryden switching an embrace for a kiss, or even inserting a kiss from nowhere—but I think the results offer a rough idea of the classical kiss.


By far the most hits for 'kiss' came from. . . guess who? Nope, not Ovid, but Plautus. In his Pseudolus, the protagonist promises his interlocutor 'a charming damsel, who shall give you kiss upon kiss': savia super savia (savium being an older form of suavium). In Truculentus, the same word is used, when the courtesan Phronesium complains to her returning lover that he will not give her a savium. In Amphitryon, however, Alcmene tells her husband that only the day before, she manum prehendi et osculum tetuli tibi: 'took his hand and gave him a kiss.' (Actually, it wasn't him, it was Jupiter in disguise.)

Plautus is the oldest of all the sources used here: next comes Cicero, Catullus, Lucretius, and then Vergil, Horace, Ovid, then Lucan and Phaedrus, then Tacitus, then Suetonius, and finally Jerome. From Lucretius to Jerome we find a universal reliance on osculum. In Book IV of De Rerum Natura—possibly my favourite poem of all time—Lucretius says that those in thrall to Venus' power 'clash with kisses', osculaque adfigunt. Vergil uses the word oscula when Jove kisses Venus, and later when various matrons superstitiously kiss thresholds to avert a storm. Horace in the Odes: fertur pudicae coniugis osculum, 'His wife's pure kiss he waved aside'. Ovid's Heroides: a wife while buckling her husband's armour multa tamen capies oscula, 'will however snatch many kisses'. In the Metamorphoses, Narcissus laments that he cannot reach his reflection: quotiens. . . porreximus oscula, 'how often I attempt a kiss'. The same word is always used in the Ars Amatoria.

Next the historians. Lucan in the Pharsalia describes a dying son seeking a kiss from his father: petit oscula. Tacitus mentions that a friendly meeting between a Roman captain and a Parthian prince 'ended with a kiss', osculo finitum. According to Suetonius, Domitian was so haughty that when Caenis, his father's concubine, 'offered him a kiss' (osculum), he merely extended his hand. St. Jerome renders Judas' traitor kiss (philema in the Greek) as osculum.

So what about Cicero, Phaedrus and Catullus? Well, Catullus, the erotic poet, universally uses basium. For instance, these examples from the Carmina (please excuse the foppish translations offered on Perseus):
me sinat usque basiare,
usque ad milia basiem trecenta

If any suffer me sans stint to buss,
I'd kiss of kisses hundred thousands three

nunquam iam posthac basia subripiam

After this never again kiss will I venture to snatch.
Catullus' Renaissance imitator, Johannes Secundus, similarly uses basium, and I translated one of his poems of that name here. The satirist Phaedrus describes a flute-player who facetiously blows kisses to a crowd, iactat basia. Which leaves Cicero. Like his successors, Cicero often uses osculum, and osculari, the verb: but he concludes one letter to his best friend Atticus with the injunction 'As Attica [Atticus' daughter] is inclined to be merry—the best sign in children—give her a kiss for me'. The word is suavium.


The most notable fact here is the overwhelming dominance of osculum, used for every kind of kiss, both in prose and poetry: superstitious (Vergil), mock-friendly (Jerome), chastely tender (Lucan), romantic (Ovid), erotic (Lucretius), official (Tacitus). The other two words are sufficiently unusual as to serve as a literary 'signature' in the earlier poets: savium in Plautus, and basium in Catullus, both of whom use the words in a sexual or romantic context. (According to the Wheelock's Latin website, Catullus 'introduced [basium] into the language from the north'). The real spanner, as far as I see it, is Cicero's use of suavium: how can he possibly have been asking his best friend, only four years older than himself, to give his daughter a 'lover's kiss'?

The distinction between these words cannot be primarily one of meaning (whether social or anatomical), but must rather be one of register. Perhaps the core sense of osculum—the kiss between friends—was replaced by a more euphemistic meaning, covering all varieties, particularly in poetry. (Here, too, the constraints of meter have a rôle.) I might have thought that basium had an anacreontic or 'low poetic' flavour, but for Phaedrus, whose facetious basia are not at all poetic. Similarly with suavium: Cicero's use of the word seems to dash the notion that it was essentially erotic in connotation, at least by the 1st century BC. The tone of Cicero's letter is familiar, but not bawdy.


Further, I was curious to know what became of the words after Jerome, so I checked the monumental dictionary of post-classical Latin compiled by Du Cange in the 17th century, still one of our best resources and online here. Interestingly, Du Cange has no entry for basium (or bassium, which Steve suggested as an alternative); but he does list savium—the mediaevals evidently resorted to the earlier form—as an 'osculum uxoriosum', a familiar (but not sexual) kiss. Osculum is still the basic word, however, with seven columns of definition, and its core sense remains a 'signum caritatis ac mutuae benevolentiae', a sign of affection and mutual well-wishing. The examples given are predominantly non-sexual.

The most interesting thing of all, as Steve noticed, is that the word picked up by the Romance languages was basium: bise or bisou in French, beso in Spanish, bacio in Italian. French, with its tendency to acquire diminutives (soliculum > soleil, rotula > roule, auriculum > oreille), might have produced something like ôcle. But instead, the one word not found in mediaeval Latin (according to Du Cange) was sufficiently present in the spoken argot to predominate in the Romance languages. I suppose that the growing rift in the spoken and written languages of Carolingian Europe, as noted by the 813 Council of Tours, may have unconsciously finalised the distinction between osculum and savium (written Latin) and basium (spoken vernacular).

Additional note: see the comments to Steve's link here, wherein is pointed out that the distinction is formally made in the Vergil commentary of Servius (c. 400 AD). Such a fact does not, however, invalidate the results of empirical research—yet another divergence between what was said about words, and what was done with them.