26 January, 2006

Sylvie and Bruno: tangent III

Language, then. Readers have always been somewhat disturbed, even disgusted by Carroll's twisting-up of Bruno's speech-patterns with silly infantilisms: oo, he says, instead of you, and welly for very, wiss for wish, comfable for comfortable, and so forth. Wordplay is omnipresent; common is the trope of amphibology, where a metaphor or figurative expression is mistaken for a literal proposition. As with Joyce, the wordplay in its ubiquity acquires a heightened emotivity; there is less linguistic joy here than in, say, Finnegans Wake, but rather a mournful quality, a desperation—that word again!—at the limits of language, the pathos of childish wit. It is one more manifestation of Carroll's frustrated fantasy of innocence, an attempt to reach and delight the young, doomed to failure.

There is also Carroll's dog-language, of which are given 18 different words. Raymond Queneau, the French novelist and essayist who wrote several pieces about what he called les fous littéraires, also penned an article in the Carroll journal Jabberwocky, issue 29 (1977), about the grammar of Sylvie's canine talk, comparing its syllabic composition to what he claimed were the utterances of real dogs:
What are the relationships between this imaginary dog language and real dog language? That is the question, and a very delicate one. We are short of serious data for resolving this problem, but we can establish a comparison on one precise point: the proportion of monosyllabic, disyllabic and longer words. Francois Rostand ('Development of barking in a young dog, methods of study and preliminary results', Journal of Normal and Pathological Psychology April-June 1957) established that by its seventh month, a puppy makes use of

37% monosyllables
35% disyllables
27% trisyllables
1% tetrasyllables.

In Lewis Carroll we find

44.44% monosyllables
44.44% disyllables
11.11% trisyllables
0% tetrasyllables

The divergances [sic] which can be noted may be explained either by the fact that Lewis Carroll's subjects are all adults, or by the 'Britishness' of one lot and the 'Frenchness' of the other.
Queneau is, like any good avant-gardiste, only ever half-serious. He also remarks on the fact that the language possesses the word 'not to be', Wooh, distinct from 'to be', Hah. But what else can we deduce about the language? Here are the given sentences:

1. "Oobooh, hooh boohooyah! Woobah yahwah oobooh! Bow wahbah woobooyah? Bow wow?"

"Humans, I verily believe! A couple of stray Humans! What Dog do you belong to? What do you want?"

2. "Bah wooh wahyah hoobah Oobooh, hah bah?"

"She's not such a bad-looking Human, is she?"

3. "Hooyah wah!"

"Come in!"

4. "Yah! Hooh hahwooh!"

"Well! I never!"

We can deduce for certain the following words:

Oobooh: human (and it sounds like a nursery-pronunciation, or, to a Queneau, like Ubu)
hooh: I
boohooyah: 'verily believe'
bow: what
wow: want
bah: she
wooh: is not (probably)
hah: is
yah!: Well!
hahwooh: never (related to 'wooh', no doubt)

There seems to be little inflection in the language, like Chinese, and like Bruno's own speech (he confuses were for was, am for are, do for does), being merely an isolating mixture of nouns/pronouns and simple verbs; the syntax appears to follow nursery English. We even recognise traditional nursery formulae such as 'bow wow', which, we now understand, means 'What do you want?' And why is this interesting? Well, it demonstrates that the dogspeak is merely another reflection of Carroll's preoccupation with the cadences and idiosyncrasies of childspeak: and with the cadences and idiosyncrasies of childthink. Everywhere we look we come again across that reflected image of innocence which pervades the book.

It's easy to see why Joyce picked up on all of this. A glance at the relevant chapter of Atherton's widely-read introduction to the Books at the Wake will make clear some rather obvious parallels between Sylvie and Bruno and Joyce's late opus: the punning [Dodgson, dogs, gods, Sons, and dodging all favourites in Joyce], the use of dream, the cut-and-paste composition (for which see Carroll's remarkable preface), the nostalgia, the scene-switching (I noted earlier Carroll's trope of starting mid-sentence, most famous in the Wake), and keenest of all, the incestuous sexuality. It was almost a foregone conclusion that Joyce would weave Isa Bowman, who modelled Sylvie and whose name is acrostiched in Sylvie's opening doggerel, into the fabric of his recurring Issy / Isolde cipher, particularly given the preoccupation with split personality in both works (Sylvie reflects Lady Muriel, and Issy becomes Is-Is / Isis). Not only do the names match, but the fetishization of Issy by her father (realised in constant taboo-deformation of his dream-speech) replies to the prurient voyeurism of Carroll for his young female cohorts. The same quasi-sexual obsession of man for daughter-figure, sublimated in denial, haunts both works.


These four posts have been leading somewhere. Fairies, photography, drawing-room science, and renditions of language: all these bespeak the most awful lament in English literature. Sylvie's personality is at once the core of the work, and its least-defined element. She defines herself primarily by an eternal love for the world: her magic locket reads 'Sylvie will love all'. Apart from this, her only emotion is an amused impatience with her mischievous brother. She is a fairy, but Furniss was instructed to draw her without wings, and with the barest attire permitted by Victorian decency (Carroll would have wanted her naked, ideally). Unlike Bruno, and unlike Alice, Sylvie—by name a creature of the woods—is not sullied with character. Like Issy, therefore, she functions as a cipher. At the heart of this rich tapestry is a blank, a turning-away, a denial of things as they are. Hence fairies, hence genteel thought-experiments and pleasant Anglican parlour-rhetoric, hence stylised, simplistic fantasy language, not so much signifying as performing an innocence. These are the products of a mathematician: a man whose professional thought tended always away from that 'horrid' world, towards whimsy and the abstraction of pure number.

25 January, 2006

Sylvie and Bruno: tangent II

"They run their railway-trains without any engines—nothing is needed but machinery but machinery to stop them with. Is that wonderful enough, Miladi?"

Mein Herr turned quickly round, to look at the new speaker. Then he took off his spectacles, and polished them, and looked at me again, in evident bewilderment. I could see he was thinking—as indeed I was also—that we must have met before.

"They use the force of gravity," he said. "It is a force known also in your country, I believe?"

"But that would need a railway going down-hill," the Earl remarked. "You ca'n't have all your railways going down-hill?"

"They all do," said Mein Herr.

"Not from both ends?"

"From both ends."

"Then I give it up!" said the Earl. "Can you explain the process?" said Lady Muriel. "Without using that language, that I ca'n't speak fluently?"

"Easily," said Mein Herr." Each railway is in a long tunnel, perfectly straight: so of course the middle of it is nearer the centre of the globe than the two ends: so every train runs half-way down-hill, and that gives it force enough to run the other half up-hill."
There are plenty of unusual technological conceits in Sylvie and Bruno. Carroll must have been fascinated, like many other Victorians, with steam and the possibilities of power. The problem of gravity caught his imagination, too: another conversation in the book features a Galilean thought-experiment involving a falling house which, some have argued, anticipates Einstein. The present quotation is a variant on that parlour-conundrum popular throughout the ages: what would happen if we fell into a straight shaft which extended right through the earth's diameter? A mathematical description of the rather obvious answer can be found here, from where this diagram is taken:

An annotation to Alice's rabbit-hole fall by Martin Gardner directed me to a 1909 article by Camille Flammarion, the popular astronomer who piqued scholarly controversy with an image known as the Flammarion Woodcut. The article offers a picturesque reconstruction of the earth-shaft problem, as well as calculating the time-spans involved:
The entire journey from one side of the earth to the other, going and coming, would last eighty-four minutes, allowing twenty-one minutes to arrive at the centre, twenty-one minutes more to arrive at the antipodes, and forty-two minutes more to return to the starting point.

If this shaft had its starting-point on one of the mountain plateaux of South America at an elevation of seven thousand feet, and if it issued at the sea-level at the other side, a man who had fallen into the shaft would arrive at the antipodes still travelling at such a speed that the spectators would see this strange projectile shot to a height of seven thousand feet into the air. If, on the other hand, both sides of the shaft started on the level with the sea, it would be possible to shake hands with the traveller on his arrival at the surface, as for a moment he would be stationary in space, before falling again into the surface.

Such a shaft, of course, is beyond the bounds of possibilities.

— Camille Flammarion, 'A Hole Through the Earth', in The Strand Magazine, Vol. 38 (1909), p. 355.
The last line quoted here carries, "of course," the faint trace of mockery. This article, like his fantastical engravings and Theosophist fiction, evidences Flammarion's delight in quasi-scientific fancy. For today's reader, a brush with the heady technological enthusiasm of this period is thoroughly enjoyable. We see it not only in the quiet charm of Sylvie and Bruno, but also in the burgeoning science-fiction literature of the period—Jules Verne, J.-H. Rosny, H. G. Wells—the Decadent narratives of Lautréamont and Alfred Jarry; The Education of Henry Adams, Freud's steam-pressure metaphors, Duchamp, the Futurist Manifesto (1909), and other such artefacts.

But in Carroll, still, there is that all-pervading innocence, completely missing in the Continental celebration of energy. Trains are pleasant devices for conveying gentlemen through the English countryside. Physical power is manifested in eccentric inventions and thought-experiments of the drawing-room. Fashionable science appears in offhand references to the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, in this case twisted into a very typical Victorian parody of misunderstood academic jargonspeak:
"Talking of Herbert Spencer," he began, "do you really find no logical difficulty in regarding Nature as a process of involution, passing from definite coherent homogeneity to indefinite incoherent heterogeneity?"

Amused as I was at the ingenious jumble he had made of Spencer's words, I kept as grave a face as I could.
It is in fact this phenomenon which interests me, far more than the typical avant-garde techno-worship mentioned above; I would read it in parallel to that emotional stance described in yesterday's post, keenly ambivalent to encroaching modernism. Technology is not, as might have been expected, an aggressor excluded from the pastoral idyll of the novel's setting; rather, Carroll has constructed a world which is friendly to progress, but which also reduces it to a condition of inoffensive amiability.

24 January, 2006

Sylvie and Bruno: tangent I

"Always, in this wood," she began after a pause (silence seemed natural in this dim solitude), "I begin thinking of Fairies! May I ask you a question?" she added hesitatingly. "Do you believe in Fairies?"

The momentary impulse was so strong to tell her of my experiences in this very wood, that I had to make a real effort to keep back the words that rushed to my lips. "If you mean, by 'believe', 'believe in their possible existence,' I say 'Yes.' For their actual existence, of course, one would need evidence."

"You were saying, the other day," she went on, "that you would accept anything, on good evidence, that was not a priori impossible. And I think you named Ghosts as an instance of a provable phenomenon. Would Fairies be another instance?"

"Yes, I think so." And again it was hard to check the wish to say more: but I was not yet sure of a sympathetic listener.
27 years after these words were published, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes, received copies of the now-infamous Cottingley Fairies photographs, and after some hesitation declared them authentic. Two little girls, Elsie and Frances, really had caught a troupe of fairies on camera near Cottingley, Yorkshire, in 1917. The two cousins would wait for over 50 years after Conan Doyle's death in 1930 to reveal the obvious truth: that the pictures were phoney.

The prints remain, nonetheless, beautiful. Despite the First World War, the spirit of Sylvie and Bruno has lingered on in the Old Britain of the 1920s. There is something very powerful at work here, something revelatory. It seems that scepticism, epistemology, the emotion of belief have become unexpected themes of this website; and these currents are present here most of all. In the quotation above, faith is operating in the context of a period scepticism, the kind that uses words like 'evidence' and 'provable'. Faith, in fact, is operating in tension with this scepticism. It is easy enough to sneer at old Conan Doyle, of course; easy enough, likewise, to sneer at C. L. Dodgson, Oxford mathematics professor, author of textbooks on symbolic logic and Euclidean geometry, happily promoting his magical dreamland of fairies, the tenets of his Christian belief patterned by a calculus of joy and melancholy. Both men wanted something which their age was beginning to deny them, or at least beginning to make difficult for them. And today the charge of sentimentality is the greatest anathema to bourgeois taste: hardly anything could be worse. Even our most resolutely conventional minds have become infected with a delight in the cold and analytical, a symptom of modernism before the postmodern.

This, then, is what Sylvie and Bruno offers us, as an antidote to our lugubrious game, of which we all secretly are tiring: the pure, the chaste, without irony. A reason guided by a simple heart. Faith in fairies.

And. . . the love of beautiful little girls. This is something we cannot know: how a grown man, wise enough in his cogitations, and as cynical as any, can see an image of innocence—whether Elsie Wright (above) or Alice Liddell (below, rather more Sylvie than Alice)—and give himself utterly up to her. The eroticism of both pictures is so evident as to inspire Freudian thoughts with dangerous ease.

Even in Conan Doyle's day, Freudian thoughts were becoming de rigueur. But in the land of Dodgson such thoughts are of no use; they hasten death. Reading his book requires a great suspension, not only of disbelief, but of that faculty unreasonably valorised with the word taste. Carroll, like Conan Doyle, shows us something more than mere scepticism, more than the superiority of spirit that springs from Scientific Progress. He shows us a humanity, at its most unpalatable, and thus in its most valuable form.

23 January, 2006

Sylvie and Bruno

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
'A fact so dread,' he faintly said,
'Extinguishes all hope!'
I've just finished Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno (1889-93), the first novel I've read for the first time in about two years. Everyone knows Alice in Wonderland—but how many have come across the work that Carroll considered his masterpiece? It was panned by contemporary critics and saw little 20th-century interest, although it contains many of the same elements as Alice: nonsense poetry, hallucinogenic realities, wordplay and logicplay, an idealized heroine. . . even Harry Furniss' illustrations resemble Tenniel's work for Alice.

The reason for its unpopularity, I suspect, is its uneasy position between the first soupçons of Modernism and the vestiges of high Victorian sentimentalism. And it is revoltingly sentimental; in one scene, the eponymous heroine stumbles on a dead hare:
"Come, my child," I said, trying to lead her away. "Wish good-bye to the poor hare, and come and look for blackberries."

"Good-bye, poor hare!" Sylvie obediently repeated, looking over her shoulder at it as we turned away. And then, all in a moment, her self-command gave way. Pulling her hand out of mine, she ran back to where the dead hare was lying, and flung herself down at its side in such an agony of grief as I could hardly have believed possible in so young a child.

"Oh, my darling, my darling!" she moaned, over and over again. "And GOD meant your life to be so beautiful!"

Sometimes, but always keeping her face hidden on the ground, she would reach out one little hand, to stroke the poor dead thing, and then once more bury her face in her hands, and sob as if her heart would break.
A modern, cynical reader such as myself is transfixed by such a passage: we might as well be watching sub-Saharan mating-rituals, so alien is this type of writing to today's mind. In fact, the entire book serves as a safari of late Victorian mores and anxieties: a fixation upon the innocence of children, a morbid obsession with death, the encroachment of scientific atheism on the Anglican Church, the niceties of formal etiquette, a Christian faith centred around charity and love, mockery of pompous academics, theological doubt, the post-Romantic fascination with the English countryside (itself a yearning for Edenic paradise and second childhood, thus related to the first item here), a fierce ethical conflict between stoicism and florid emotionality, socialism among the bourgeois, deep curiosity about the human mind, the light wit of genteel society, and a delight in petty magics and folk-belief. It is no coincidence that contemporary works included The Time Machine, Flatland, The Golden Bough, A Picture of Dorian Gray, William James' Principles of Psychology, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Three Men in a Boat, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Uprose that Pig and rushed, full whack,
Against the ruined Pump:
Rolled over like an empty sack,
And settled down upon his back,
While all his bones at once went "Crack!"
It was a fatal jump.
The nonsense-poems are among the darker parts of the book, very often treating death, bitter japery and failures of communication, stylised often to the point of apparent meaninglessness. These elements cut across the book's narrative rhythms, subverting its ponderous pace with all the charm of its titular sprites. The plot weaves back and forth between a mocked England and a world of pure fantasy, between antimacassar melodrama and dream-sequences, cutting rather suddenly and without warning—the very first line, in fact, begins in mid-sentence, anticipating Finnegans Wake.

And yet the novel is filled with the most powerful sense of desperation: its human characters are saved from misery, anxiety and death only by the intervention, the grace, of its heroes, the fairy-children Sylvie and Bruno, whose abiding love for mankind provides the sole impetus for the light which pervades the climax of each half. But this spiritual and physical light never quite drowns out the mortal darkness that encompasses the rest of the narrator's world. The spectre of Atheism is only half snuffed-out by the end; doubt has been irrevocably established.

Further pieces—on nymphets and taste, thought-experiments, and nonsense-language in Sylvie and Bruno.

Meanwhile, John Anderson aka. "Goofy" comments, favourably.

22 January, 2006


Especially, moreover, must we restrain impudent youths from handling books—those youths who, when they have learned to draw the shapes of letters, soon begin, if opportunity be granted them, to be uncouth scribblers on the best volumes and, where they see some larger margin about the text, make a show with monstrous letters: and if any other triviality whatsoever occurs to their imagination, their unchastened pen hastens at once to draw it out.

— Richard de Bury, Philobiblon (1345).
And now those trivialities are priceless marginalia. Who knows what men 700 years hence will make of today's cursive jottings and highlighter illuminations? Incidentally, the most amusing undergraduate annotations I've seen were in a collection of Samuel Johnson's observations on Shakespeare. Two consecutive passages scorning the Bard's penchant for wordplay were each marked by some freshman hand with a defensive "Wrong!"; and after the third, the defiant pronouncement, "Fuck you Mr. J". And they say Shakespeare isn't still relevant!

21 January, 2006

Silence: a fable

A few days ago I offered a picture of my immediate surroundings: far from London indeed, the expanse north of our apartment is a wilderness of grasses and mountains, a pair of skeletal factory-stacks and some roads in the foreground.

And it has grown quiet, too. No longer that mysterious distant roar which swelled up in the small hours of the morning; no more the engine revving outside for half an hour at dawn. The whistles of the freight-trains crossing Rural have ceased too, or at least, perhaps, I no longer notice them. The jovial cries of our Asian neighbours splashing about in the pool downstairs have stopped for the winter. And rarely is there bird-sound out here in the half-desert. We still hear each evening the klaxon of an itinerant Mexican vendor passing by, honking doggedly, and now and then the sweet and drunken mariachi of a tequila party down the street. But mostly the place is quited, quieted.

A tetter or morphew is encroaching upon me also, sheathing the flesh of my arms with hives, blotches, welts, petechiae, infernally itchy. Still, I refuse to see a doctor.

This weekend I prepare an attempt to improve my German by Englishing Der Prozess, page by page. Last semester I had a go at Leibniz's De arte combinatoria, written at only 19, purely because I wanted so badly to read the untranslated opuscule, but alas! I gave up after the first paragraph. So much is lost in the movement of words. The Byzantine pharmacologist Nicolaus Myrepsus compiled from Muslim sources a handbook of natural remedies, translating the Arabic darsini, which means cinnamon, as 'arsenic'; for centuries it was thus believed in the West that arsenic had medicinal properties. So it goes.

20 January, 2006


Many denizens of our grand green glebe claim that they 'love words'. Be distrustful, gentle readers. If you should encounter one such denizen, ask yourself first, preferably before genial acquaintance, Is he the type to purchase popular etymologicons? Scan his bookshelves for works by Ivor Brown, Ernest Weekley, Gyles Brandreth, John Buchanan-Brown, Jeffrey Kacirk, etc. Should that be impossible, ask him his favourite word. If it is a pseudo-classical nonce-word like 'absquatulate' or 'ostrobogulous', a useless colonialism like 'zarf', a quainte archaism like 'scandaroon', or, worst of all, some medical or quasi-medical jargon-word for a sex-funny, like 'osphyalgia' or 'paraphimosis'—if any of these, then hang your head in disappointment, please.

Too often, I fear, self-confessed logophiles (an ugly epithet itself) adore the obscure and fanciful particles of our language, at the expense of more workaday members. True, there is a definite value to the 'borborygmus', the 'acnestis', the 'serab' and 'breloque', just as we admire the Taj Mahal, Westminster Cathedral, the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Chrysler Building. But the man with a refined taste in architecture takes pleasure also in what he calls the 'vernacular', whether the stately facades of Georgian London, or the mock-classical colonial styles of San Francisco. Let us, too, enjoy more conventional words. My favourite, for instance, or at least one of my favourites, is 'slovenly'. Listen to that! Dare you not enjoy its inescapable music, its suggestion of slumber, of slim sloth and lovenly lovening? Of young women like my wife, eyes half-closed, all bedraggled and somnolent, but radiant with ineffable grandeur. . . it cannot be uttered quickly. The word defies authority: dissident children produce a 'slovenly handwriting'. And so the word is nothing less than a gesture of intimacy, two pupils fixed directly upon you, a bouquet of tresses caring not for opinion, a genteel and gentle slowness, an erotism undimmed by mere beauty. . . an assent.

19 January, 2006

On sceptical method

The pen is mightier than the sword you claim. Very well, get out your pens essay writers and prepare to have your logic tested by steel.
— Simon Munnery

A more serious post this morning, despite the epigraph.

The sceptic today is often armed with little more than a raised eyebrow and a "you don't believe everything you read, do you?" He approaches certain topics (alternative medicine, right-wing rhetoric) with extreme distrust, and others (the products of 'scholarly' or 'scientific' enquiry, left-wing rhetoric) with rather more naïveté. He refuses steadfastly to be sucked into the threatening and seductive vortex of 'nihilism', for fear of being thought intellectually irresponsible. Most of all, his sceptical eye (and indeed, eyebrow) is set firmly on the results of reasoning, rather than on its process.

I want to outline two milestones in the history of scepticism which had a great impact on my intellectual development. These two ideas clarify scepticism not as a series of beliefs (which, I think, many unconsciously feel it to be) but as an attitude—and not a political attitude, but an epistemological and an emotional one. The first describes a method of responding to problems, and the second captures the paradox underlying all radical scepticism. The first is the young man's decisive, derisive attack, that of Pyrrho and Abelard; the second is its ironic converse, the reflection of an old man, even a Hume already old at 37. And so taken together, these two ideas constitute the Gevurah and Chesed of the sceptic's being, the complement of rejection and acceptance, of hard dialectic and receptive humanity. It is this tension of thesis and antithesis which forms the core of a true sceptical outlook.

1. Equipollence.
Scepticism is an ability, or mental attitude, which opposes appearances to judgements in any way whatsoever, with the result that, owing to the equipollence of the objects and reasons thus opposed, we are brought firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to a state of "unperturbedness" or quietude.
Thus writes Sextus Empiricus, our single best source on ancient scepticism, in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism (ca. 200 AD). For the Pyrrhonian sceptic, philosophy is not a process of acquiring belief about the world. All judgement is to be suspended: he does not argue that knowledge is unattainable, merely that it unattained. The dialectical aporia which concludes many of Plato's early works is developed by the sceptic into a welcome assault upon equipoise. Thus, for every argument on a proposition, he responds with a counter-argument; all statements are to be refuted. This process demands a feverish rate of invention, and a permanent state of mental readiness. The continuous discovery of arguments for either side ideally maintains a perfect balance, referred to as an 'equipollence', an equal power of pro and contra. This in turn gives the philosopher an ataraxia, or peace of mind: a rather Zen-like state.

The value of equipollence to today's sceptical makebate is immense. Too many raised eyebrows are content to rest on their destructive laurels, content with the defeat of an implausible proposition. How many of us are prepared to challenge our own principles: to subject our firmest beliefs to the condition of supreme doubt? With the principle of equipollence we desert the common man, the unthinking. With this principle we refuse, we deny, and in doing so we prize the sabre of dialectic above the dogma of levied opinion. We come to speak always with certain uncertainty, always with two meanings, in an aphoristic style, proud and haughty. And in this we achieve a curative transcendence; in our youth we remain anxious, as we must remain still to be young, our mind evergreen.

2. The whimsical condition.
And though a PYRRHONIAN may throw himself or others into a momentary amazement and confusion by his profound reasonings; the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point of action and speculation, with the philosophers of every other sect, or with those who never concerned themselves in any philosophical researches. When he awakes from his dream, he will be the first to join in the laugh against himself, and to confess, that all his objections are mere amusement, and can have no other tendency than to show the whimsical condition of mankind, who must act and reason and believe; though they are not able, by their most diligent enquiry, to satisfy themselves concerning the foundation of these operations, or to remove the objections, which may be raised against them.
So (almost) concludes David Hume's 1748 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. These are melancholy words. Hume, one of history's great sceptics, admits that despite being unable to support many of our deepest beliefs by deductive reasoning, we are nonetheless compelled to hold them by our own Nature (the latter a concept which characterises the Enlightenment). As he puts it, 'Nature is always too strong for principle'. We witness here a fundamental and irrevocable schism between our reasoning and our actions; logic has given way, as it must, to human feeling. If equipollence, the condition of doubt, is the first and most powerful principle of scepticism, then the 'whimsical condition' is its wisest conclusion.

Every devout Pyrrhonian perceives the nihil at the end of his sabre, the eternal No, the perfect loneliness of cold truth. But this nihilism, which satisfies our head but not our heart, can triumph only intermittently as the flash of moonlight upon our blade: we catch sight of it, and it vanishes. Hume's words chill the marrow, but also they provide comfort, for in them we recognise a philosopher, a fellow sufferer even, who understands the value of our predicament. . . one which we can never solve, but which, at least, we have discovered.

18 January, 2006

The unmustachio'd Kiss

MISS D. That—that being kissed [with a rush] by a man who didn't wax his moustache was—like eating an egg without salt.

— Rudyard Kipling, Soldiers Three (1888)

The book had been written in the age when long black stockings and long black gloves had been the height of pornographic fashion, when "kissing a man without a moustache was like eating an egg without salt." The seductive and priapic major's moustaches had been long, curly, and waxed.

— Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (1928)

Above all no profane comparisons he said. Perhaps he was thinking of the kiss without a moustache or beef without mustard.

— Samuel Beckett, Molloy (1951)

Un baiser sans moustache, disait-on alors, c'est comme un oeuf sans sel: j'ajoute: et comme le Bien sans Mal, comme ma vie entre 1905 et 1914.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots (1964)

You know what the Victorians said? I read it in the Daily Mail. They said kissing a man without a moustache is like eating an egg without salt!

— Philip Pullman, The Broken Bridge (1990)

. . . Well, ladies?

17 January, 2006

A long way from London now, Conrad

A view from our balcony, at about five in the afternoon yesterday. Notice the mountains, and the odd factory-stacks on the horizon to the far right. I feel the cables lend the composition a rather pleasing 'banded' pattern.

Yesterday I read Clanchy's seminal but dull From Memory to Written Record, which got me thinking about the Domesday Book census commissioned by William I (completed 1086). I wonder how the officials and subjects involved in the great count conceived it in relation to David's 'numbering of the people', narrated in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21:
And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. (1 Chr 21.1)

And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly. (2 Sam 24.10)
I can't help imagining that this precedent cast census-taking in a bad light, but nobody seems to mention it. Incidentally, it's not terribly clear why David's census is sinful; I've read a number of modern explanations, but they all seem a little tenuous. I suppose hubris is the most likely reason, but as so often in the Tanakh narrative, the causae rerum are not readily available. Moses' life is a patchwork of such inexplicable occurrences: see his circumcision (Ex 4:24-26), the 'hardening of Pharaoh's heart' against him (Ex 7:13), and his own transgression at Meribah (Num 20:7-12). I mentioned earlier the irreducibly irrational character of the Book of Job, but in truth the entire Tanakh is full of such singularities.

16 January, 2006

On the antiquity of fortune-cookies

This morning I offer conclusive proof that fortune-cookies were not, as some believe, invented in Los Angeles in the early 20th century. I had never paid great attention to the trite messages found in these confections, despite enjoying a Cantonese dinner as much as the next man. But last night I found three fortune-cookies on my kitchen-table, left over from a takeout we ordered a week ago, and I decided to read my fortunes: it was then that I began to make my earth-shattering discoveries! The first which I opened, a semi-sweet, lemony sort of affair, provided the following message:
Kindness is the only investment that never fails
I had read that before, and from a greater pen! Or, almost that, for Thoreau's Walden (1854) contains this statement:
Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
Thoreau has been called the 'most Chinese of all American authors in his entire view of life'; I must confess a total ignorance concerning classical Chinese literature, but the present instance I think good evidence for Thoreau's thorough familiarity with the wisdom of fortune-cookies. The next cookie I opened, a more tasteless creation, offered this:
A person who studies revenge keeps their own wounds open
My eyes widened in astonishment. Here, clearly, was proof of an even more venerable lineage for fortune-cookie wisdom; for does not our founding-father of scientific method, Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, express his Thoughts in this self-same Manner? Thus, in his essay 'On Revenge', from the 1597 Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral:
This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.
This was a period of growing interest in Chinese culture; having absorbed from that great civilization the printing-press, the compass and gunpowder, three inventions much admired by Bacon, the scientists of the day were busy interrogating the bizarre characters of the Chinese alphabet reported by Jesuit missionaries like Matteo Ricci. Kircher would later produce his lavish China Illustrata, the first Western book on the culture, in 1667. I'd had no idea, however, that men like Bacon were interested in the secrets of fortune-cookie sagesse. My greatest surprise was yet to come. The third cookie, pungent, with a hint of vanilla, contained this insight:
Love only what fate has spun for you
I might have fallen off my chair, dear reader! I cast my mind back. . . where was it? And at last I remembered that it was the famous Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Chapter 7, Paragraph 58:
Μόνως φιλεϊν το εαυτώ συμβαϊνον και συγκλωθόμενον
I must beg my reader's indulgence, as the diacritics will not reproduce perfectly. For those illiterate few without Greek, I offer Long's rather florid translation: "Love that only which happens to thee and is spun with the thread of thy destiny." There, then, is conclusive proof of the antiquity of fortune-cookies; the great Roman composed his work in the 170s, after his embassy to China in 166. That clinches it. These cookies and their messages have been circulating in Western culture at least since the middle of the second century AD, and I suspect longer. Perhaps they even originated in Rome, brought to China by that very embassy of Marcus Aurelius!

The moral of the story is: banal sentiment is as old as civilization itself.

15 January, 2006

Alcuin on forensic rhetoric

The judge is in possession of the domain of justice, the witnesses, the domain of truth. The plaintiff uses overstatement for the purpose of amplifying the subject, and the defendant understatement in order to minimize it, unless perchance the dispute concerns praise or a demand for reward, in which case the order is reversed, and understatement is used by the plaintiff, overstatement by the defendant. . . The judge must be armed with the sceptre of justice, the plaintiff with the dagger of ill-will, the defendant with the shield of piety, and the witnesses with the trumpet of truth.
A curious excerpt from Alcuin's Disputatio de rhetorica et de virtutibus, probably composed around 794 AD for his king (and student) Charlemagne. Most of the work, a handbook of forensic rhetoric, is a poor mishmash of Cicero and Julius Victor, but these three statements are strikingly original. The first abstracts two bodies in the courtroom, the judge and the witnesses, to two fundamental Forms, which do not necessarily overlap. Alcuin may be thinking of the classical distinction between fas (divine law), with truth and justice coextensive, and ius (human law), with truth and justice in apposition. The second statement introduces the two pleaders as mediators, intentionally falsifying, between these ideal spaces of truth and justice. The important irony in this proposition is that the truth resides in neither case: both, rather, are characterised by rhetorical presentations of the given subject, and it is emphasised that each account distorts the facts. This categorical separation of, and contrast between, truth and discourse suggests to the modern reader the speech-act theory of J. L. Austin which so interested Derrida and others. The third sentence symbolically reiterates this picture, syntactically posing plaintiff and defendant between judge and witnesses, and its iconography is martial: the sceptre pertains to the king, the trumpets to his messengers, with two soldiers competing in battle.

Alcuin's point is that it is the function of rhetoric to guide the court's motion from the stable Form of Truth (the witnesses) to that of Justice (the judge); or, to put it differently, to align the domain of justice with that of truth. The balance of pro and contra afforded by the two orators, neither 'true', is related to the Sceptical idea of equipollence, although in the courtroom, of course, a final decision must be reached.

14 January, 2006

Why blog?

Do I write out of love to men? No, I write because I want to procure for my thoughts an existence in the world. . . I sing because—I am a singer. But I use you for it because I—need ears.

— Max Stirner, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844).
I am still wrestling with this phenomenon of blogging, not least because the word is so ungainly. It is a very conceited activity: why should anyone be interested in my thoughts? I have not contributed anything of lasting value to human knowledge. . . not yet. . . and so. . . the process leaves me uneasy. With every word I feel more vain, but then I find the act of writing so much comfort. To articulate oneself, to have complete control, and the leisure to speak relaxedly, with due measure, is a delight. And furthermore, Stirner reminds us that egoism is an acceptable, even unavoidable, basis for producing language: writing here is a means not of communication (an insidious idea!) but of asserting power. The reader is only a necessary tool.

Thus I unburden myself of these meaningless words, connections, ratiocinations, fancies, emotions, and so on, purely for egoistic reasons. It is a therapeutic activity, too. If only more people wrote, here where they can be ignored, rather than speaking, foisting their banal opinions on whomever is nearest, the world would be a more contented place. I don't yet know how best to present myself here, or which tones and subjects to employ; as with any new mode of communication, whether telegram, telephone, or email, a man needs time to adjust to it, to find an appropriate voice. But orating regularly, even into a digital vacuum, keeps the mind sharp, focused, and it forces me to refresh and develop a personal style. Moreover, I still cherish the naïve hope that some likeminded people might find all this interesting, that I might expand my range of fellows and feel like. . . part of the world. How silly!

13 January, 2006


I spotted her across a smoky dormitory kitchen filled with twittering idiots. When I first approached the woman who would become my wife, my natural impulse was of course to draw out her interests and engage with her on them: a social gambit that had worked much less well in the past than might have been expected. I don't remember how we broached the topic of Victorian book-illustration, but we did, and I soon managed to impress her by dropping a few names: Dulac, Russell Flint, Tenniel, Doré, and so forth. I wanted to show her two treasures in my room, namely a beloved Navarre Society edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel, illustrated by Heath Robinson, and even better, still the most beautiful illustrated book in my collection, a near-fine, full-colour reprint, in quarter-leather with marbled boards and slipcase, of J. J. Grandville's 1844 Un Autre Monde. She was never as taken as I with this volume; in fact I've never really convinced anyone of its zenzizenzizenzic wealth.

And perhaps it's hard fully to love Grandville's engravings and fabular vignettes without having discovered them through Walter Benjamin's Passagenwerk, which by context invests his images so pregnantly with meaning and feeling—rich, urbane, authentic bourgeois feeling—as to make them irresistible to the eye and to the heart.

Grandville, like all the best illustrators, retains an ideal detachment from his subject; his line, hard and precise, anticipates Tenniel's Alice. He lacks the floridly erotic curve of Beardsley, Rackham's mastery of colour (indeed when Grandville hues, the results are pallid and awkward), the grandes thèmes of Doré and the banality of late Symbolist sentiment; he has, rather, a Surrealist unheimlich, the cartoonist's touch, constantly between gaiety and irony, and most of all, he always knows which elements to sketch, and which to develop.

My friend M. is against book-illustration; he regards the relationship between the words and the images as superfluous, and prefers the diagram, especially when fleshed out by the likes of Kircher and Fludd. I share his taste for fine diagrams, but illustration has its own pleasures. It lends a richness of spirit to the unutterable chore of reading even fiction; it stimulates the eye, fatigued by rows of monotonous letters; far from obviating the imagination, a well-drawn image tells us the disposition, the mood, the aesthetic sensibility of another mind, and licenses our own phantasy to create and develop at will. Grandville's Eclipse, above, the smooch of a male sun and his consort moon, still talks to me of the joy, insouciant, serene, always irrefragably intimate, but always a little strange also, of the love and company of my dear wife.

12 January, 2006


In an earlier post I lamented the slowed invention afflicting the English language of late, and the transformation of its finer sesquipedalia into museum-pieces. Well, here is the ultimate museum-piece: 'zenzizenzizenzic', which means 'a number raised to the eighth power'. As some of my faster readers might wonder, 'zenzic' indeed means a square number, and 'zenzizenzic' a squared square. Thus, 9 is a zenzic number, 81 zenzizenzic, and 6561 zenzizenzizenzic. Also, as 27 is a cubic, we can say that 729 is a zenzicubic, 531441 is a zenzizenzicubic, 387420489 is a zenzicubicubic, etc. A simple googlement will demonstrate the common fetishization of this word, and words like it: it has become stuffed or ossified, removed from the language. In this case, however, I suspect the word always had this status. From the beginning the term must have had a ring of alterity, with its occult, incantatory spoken music, and its bastard Arabic-Latin-German-Latin-Italian etymology.

Nonetheless, I recommend fighting its incarceration behind glass screens: let's give it currency! While we may not often speak of large numbers, we often speak of great degrees. A plea, then: why not check and replace your next 'big' with a 'zenzic'? Your next 'fantastic' with a 'zenzizenzic'? Your next 'humungous' or 'gargantuan' with a 'zenzizenzizenzic'? Some examples:

A: "My, that lady's breasts are perfectly zenzic."
B: "Dear me yes! In fact they're zenzi-zenzic!"


A: "Oh James, I love you excessively...!"
B: "And I also, Lily, I love you zenzizenzizenzically!"

Think on 't.

11 January, 2006

An anarchy of atoms

But if this "provisionality" of "prose literacy" can thus become an overly convenient political alibi for the privileged aestheticist writer or the more irresponsibly pomo kind of reader, it may nonetheless really and not just alibiquitously constitute a soporific global textual containment of once grounded persons, positions, interests, and utterances which even now continue to demand—against all canonically prosaic hushing-up, including the late capitalist reaccommodation to the schizanalytical inevitability of the videoprosaic—continue, you textually lobotomized fuck, to cry out to be read as militating against such prosaic indifference at however pathetic and "purely aesthetic" a local level.
Following the positive response to 'Shakespeare and Asia', I felt my readers would welcome another helping of academic nonsense. The sentence above is taken from James Nielson's Unread Herrings, a 1993 doctoral thesis about Thomas Nashe which never should have seen publication—although I'm glad it did. As the title and present sentence (as well as his website) demonstrate, Nielson is monstrously pleased with himself; he puns constantly and badly—very badly—never hesitating to cite and reiterate the grungiest excesses of modern French theory. Fully aware of his own pomposity, which he assures us is mere playfulness, he apparently wants to be seen as a lovable scamp, hiding an important message behind the spectacle. As far as I could gather, having discovered the book while researching my own MA thesis on Nashe's style, there is no such important message. Jonathan Crewe and Ann Rosalind Jones made a respectable stab at the grunt-work of retrofitting Nashe's texts with fashionable theory: Derrida, Bakhtin, Kristeva. Nielson, on the other hand, seems too up-to-his-ears in fly-by-night pseudolinguistics to do that job properly.

Rather, it should be obvious that the sentence quoted above is a brilliant pastiche of the French style born from Derrida's love affair with Finnegans Wake. Nielson claims that one of his examiners viewed the work as the 'first Joycean dissertation', and his prose might superficially resemble the Wake if it weren't so vulgar, or, if I might claim a little vulgarity for myself, such a load of bollocks. The sentence quoted here in fact bears a closer resemblance to the aggressive, hurried, anti-Ciceronian farrago of inkhorn and vernacular which typifies the prose of Nashe himself—and Joyce's own debt to Nashe had already been asserted in Wyndham Lewis' influential Time and Western Man.

So how does it work? As before, I'll start with the words themselves. Ah, what words! Look at those perfectly cromulent portmanteaux: 'alibiquitously', 'schizanalytical', 'videoprosaic'! And at these nebbishes, quite gelded and vapid: 'provisionality', 'aestheticist', 'soporific', 'containment', 'canonically' (remember Shakespeare?), 'capitalist', 'reaccommodation'. Not one of these has any meaning, of course, but our author has at least left our earse stinging. Far more than with Bharucha, the jargon-words here strike out of the syntax, becoming part of the very fabric of Nielson's nonsense. The technique brings to mind a lament in Nietzsche's Der Fall Wagner:
What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole—the whole is no longer a whole.
Nielson's book, his chapters, his sentences, to borrow a subsequent phrase from this passage, are 'anarchies of atoms'. But in the present example they are also set into a structure which offers the reader continual surprise. We can divide the sentence into three parts. The first is based on a standard periodic structure, "But if X, nonetheless Y", farced beyond all recognition with lexical atrocities; its apodosis is careful to subvert the conventional syntactic balance of "really and not just apparently". Notice the absurd adjectivalism: 'alibi' has 3 predicates, 'writer' has 2, 'kind of reader' has 2, 'containment' has 3. . . although Nielson also inverts this by giving the predicate 'grounded' no fewer than 4 subjects (!), the last spewing out yet another clause. Nielson might as well be speaking in tongues, or reciting Lucky's monologue. The second part, enclosed by a pair of em-dashes—which, as Bharucha previously demonstrated, are a favourite of bullshitters—springs a new compound clause out of the word 'demand', with an even greater rate of nonsense.

It is the third part that most interests me: at this point our hero breaks away from his demented academese and turns to face himself, barking "continue", which, oddly enough, he was already doing admirably, and proceeding to assault himself with the rudest of billingsgates, still meaningless, replete with italics indicating speaker-emphasis.

What he wants from this temporary divestiture of style is to urge us, his readers, out of our complacency—these glazed eyes scanning the lines and lines of dry or senseless prose, mechanically—what Nielson wants, and what I think he achieves, is a brief epiphany which condemns, but never quite transcends, the stylistic nonsense which absorbs us. In the end he advocates explicitly the 'local level', the 'purely aesthetic', the words which 'cry out to be read': in other words, the 'anarchy of atoms' which Nietzsche found in literary decadence, and which Nielson no doubt discovers in Nashe. The intriguing result is not so much nonsense as process, as with Bharucha, but nonsense as chaos, as anti-process.

09 January, 2006

Intelligent Design and probability

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
— Genesis 1:1

Never get so attached to a poem
you forget truth that lacks lyricism
Joanna Newsom

A long post this morning. For those uninterested in the topics, I highly recommend forwarding to the * for a nihilist giggle.

I hesitate to dip my toes into the turbid puddle of today's religion / science contretemps; but alas, it has become difficult to browse or prowl the web without turning up prosy brawls over Intelligent Design. Furthermore, after perusing a copy of the Skeptic magazine lying around my in-laws' Fairfax residence, I came fascinatedly to realise the extent to which Creationists will go in defence of their tenets. Some of the pseudo-statistical claptrap put forward by Bill Dembski, for instance, is rather engaging.

But unlike the liberal humanist brigades and free-thought societies, I am not disgusted by the very fact of this debate's existence. Evolutionary biology is taken on faith by most atheists (myself included) who haven't the time or the interest to get to the bottom of the hard theory and empirical data involved in the science. As at so many times in history, the conflict of old and new ideologies has brought fresh ideas to both sides, and an awareness more acute of the relevant materials by the general populace—which can only be beneficial to genuine free thought and thus to the education of our youth. Dogmatism, even dogmatism about the scientific endeavour, is a poor attitude for anyone: it is the reasoning process, not its result, which is most important to teach. Added to which, debates over ID have disseminated interesting arguments in a number of fields, including epistemology and probability theory.

Probability is a subject which has always intrigued me. I recall asking one of my A-Level maths teachers how there could be a 50% chance each of head and tail, when there were so many things a coin could (theoretically) do other than yield either result: any number of finitely-improbable events involving bizarre atomic motions consistent with the laws of physics. The lesson from this conundrum, which I confess that I don't fully understand, is that probability has no a priori, objective existence: it is merely constructed subjectively by humans to model real problems.

Where does that leave those who argue for ID from the relative probabilities of Design and Chance as explanations for what we see around us? This rude mechanical has heaped up quotations by famous scientists—including Richard Dawkins!—to show that it isn't just religious nutnuts who see intentional design behind the 'incredible' unlikeliness of Life. But was the probability of that first spark of life, and of its subsequent evolutions, really so small? Careful articles by Sober and Ikeda / Jefferys have addressed the subtleties of this and other questions of probability which are raised by Intelligent Design.

As Sober's article points out, there are several ID arguments from probability. The one which most caught my eye claims Design as the only possible (or probable) explanation of the fact that the physical constants of the universe, such as the strength of fundamental forces, are exactly right ('fine-tuned') for the existence of life. Man, in other words, has a privileged place in existence, and thus it is more probable that the universe was designed, and designed for man, than that it came about by chance. Such a teleological argument is immediately odd. First of all, what makes life (at least as we know it, Jim) special or noteworthy as a phenomenon? Although any religious value-system will privilege living over non-living entities, there is nothing objective about such a stance—no scientific reason to regard life as cosmologically important. Second, if there is an infinite amount of time, whether in many universes or in one, any event, no matter how unlikely, is bound to occur. We are accustomed to think of time in human terms, as a duration over which we wait for a given event; but we cannot conceive pre-human time in this way, as it has no determinable beginning or end. In fairness, I should mention that Sober rejects a similar argument, though I am not entirely convinced by his refutation. Third, any particular permutation of values in a set of independent variables is equally probable: if we flip a coin twenty times,


is just as probable as


The first seems to be a coincidence, the second merely a random incidence of coins; but the Markovian nature of coin-flipping ensures that both specific outcomes have the same probability, namely 0.00000095367431640625 (0.520). There can be no privileging by blind chance of systems which look chaotic (2) over those which look ordered (1). Similarly, an arrangement of particles, forces and constants which produces life (such as this one) is no less likely than any other given arrangement. As Ikeda / Jefferys put it, 'Most actual outcomes are, in fact, highly improbable, but it does not follow that the hypotheses that they are conditioned upon [ie. the undesigned origin of the universe] are themselves highly improbable'.

Fourth, and most importantly, the ID reasoning is backwards. It has made claims about the probability of what we know to be the case, without taking into account the (weak) anthropic principle, namely the fact of our existence—an epistemic frame which skews our ability to make probability-claims on the subject. Sober treats this at length, invoking Eddington's principle of the OSE (observational selection effect). Naturally, his article is much more sophisticated than what I can offer here, but his basic argument is as follows:

X: The constants of the laws of physics are exactly right for life.
D: The universe is the product of intelligent design.
C: The universe is the product of blind chance.
A: We exist, and if we exist the constants must be right (the anthropic principle).

The ID-theorist seeks to assert

(1): P(X • D) > P(X • C)

The probability of X given D is greater than the probability of X given C.

But since A, the fact of our existence, must be taken into account, (1) is true but not explanatory, ie. not a valuable model. Instead we propose

(2): P(X • D & A) = P(X • C & A) = 1

The probability of X given both D and A is the same as the probability of X given both C and A, both being equal to one. Both scenarios yield (and must yield) what we know to be the case, namely that we exist. We have no basis, on this argument, for deciding between D and C, between design and chance. Ikeda / Jefferys argue along similar lines; according to their paper, the ID-theorist has moved from the assertion (taken to be true) that 'P(X • C) is small' to the false assertion that 'P(C • X) is small', ie. that the probability of an undesigned universe, given the exactness of its physical constants, is small. As the authors observe, this move is an 'elementary blunder in probability theory'.


Finally, an entertaining argument against Intelligent Design, which also happens to be the saddest joke ever told. It is an anecdote recounted in Samuel Beckett's Endgame:

An Englishman, needing a pair of striped trousers in a hurry for the New Year festivities, goes to his tailor who takes his measurements. "That's the lot, come back in four days, I'll have it ready." Good.

Four days later. "So sorry, come back in a week, I've made a mess of the seat." Good, that's all right, a neat seat can be very ticklish.

A week later. "Frightfully sorry, come back in ten days, I've made a hash of the crotch." Good, can't be helped, a snug crotch is always a teaser.

Ten days later. "Dreadfully sorry, come back in a fortnight, I've made a balls of the fly." Good, at a pinch, a smart fly is a stiff proposition.

(I never told it worse. . . I tell this story worse and worse.)

Well, to make it short, the bluebells are blowing and he ballockses the buttonholes. "God damn you to hell, Sir, no, it's indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months!"

"But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—

—at the world—

—and look—

—at my TROUSERS!"

08 January, 2006

On Dr. Caligari

I watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari last night; it is fantastic. This opinion was a foregone conclusion. Just as when my wife reads the latest (and last, in this case) Dorothy Sayers novel, I know that when I see a 1919 psycho-horror movie with Expressionist sensibilities, my reaction will be generally positive. The older fantasies, in the broader sense of the word, are far superior: Metropolis, King Kong, Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or, Intolerance, Modern Times, The Wizard of Oz. The excellent Eraserhead, though much later, is also in the Expressionist tradition. There's a certain darkness in the design, animation, effects, and a certain powerful quiet, that is missing in today's slick CGI extravaganzas; the world is never entirely real, and never attempts to be real, but rather holds itself apart from the viewer as some kind of uncanny otherworld, where the makeup is thick, the sets are stylised, the monsters are jerky, and oftentimes our view is grainy and obscure. The crucifixion scene in Intolerance is just like that—a dim, nebulous morass of tiny figures on a red-tinted pane, the only clue to the scene being a tiny Christ-figure in the upper-left.

I didn't like everything about Caligari. The dialogue-screens, with their jagged shapes and 'Expressionist' typography, seem more 1987 than 1919, and too much of the story-background is given away before the final twist. But the sets and acting are sublime. My father-in-law once remarked, in a discussion of Hoffmann's 'The Forest Warden', that Italy seems to represent mystery and magic to the Germans (personally I suspect it's a Romantic obsession with the cloak-and-dagger intrigue and occult traditions of the High Renaissance)—and the same applies to this film, which is very Hoffmannesque. Macabre and quiet: Arvo Pärt should write a score for it.

07 January, 2006

A Ghanaian proverb

If the truth happens to lie in the most private part of your own mother's anatomy, it is no sin to extract it with your corresponding organ.

06 January, 2006

A new rendering of Aeneid 6.204

The feebleness of translators' efforts continues to irritate me. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, translators made full use of the English vocabulary, coining and reviving words, and turning new and unusual phrases to fit their purposes; the most famous example of this is the King James Bible. It was their willingness to experiment that provided so many of our memorable expressions, as well as radically increasing the richness and prestige of our beloved language. Now we are content to draw on existing materials. . . it is no wonder our lexicon is becoming impoverished, no wonder long, jewelled words are becoming mere museum-pieces. One example of this contemporary flatness was revealed to me at the end of last year, when I was writing an essay on Vergil and his medieval commentators for a non-degree Latin class here at Arizona State. The Aeneid, Book 6, line 204, when Aeneas first sights the famous Golden Bough:

discolor unde auri per ramos aura refulsit

There are two important factors here. Firstly, the play between 'auri' (gold) and 'aura' (breath, wind, spirit, gleam), which indicates the kinship between the matter and the sensory appearance of the Bough. And secondly, that difficult word 'discolor', which indicates that the gold stands out from its green setting as a strikingly different shade. Here are some English renderings of this compact, elegant line, taken almost at random from the huge multitude:

Dryden: Thro' the green Leafs the glitt'ring Shadows glow
Mandelbaum: The gleam of gold was different, flickering / across the boughs
McCrorie: a second color, gold brilliance, shone through the branches
Lind: Where the glitter of gold flashed distinctly along the branches
Humphries: where the off-color / Of gold was gleaming golden through the branches
Fitzgerald: the two-hued tree / Where glitter of gold filtered between green boughs

Come on chaps, this is poor stuff! Concession to poetry seems limited entirely to alliteration on gold, gleaming, glittering. At least Humphries has provided a slight lurch between 'gold' and 'golden', but I'm clutching at straws. There is no sense of the scope of 'aura', which is reduced to the sense of a 'gleam'; 'discolor', meanwhile, has become limply bowdlerized as 'second color', 'off color', 'two-hued', and worst of all 'distinctly'—which has the unfortunate ring of Edwardian conversational emphasis: "I must confess, his expression was distinctly underwhelming."

I present here an alternative. Why not render the Latin 'discolor' with the English. . . 'discolor'? It is (or was) an authentic adjective, used in Victorian biology textbooks: check the OED, sense b: "Of a different colour from some other (adjacent) part or organ". Why not make good use of it? It has the additional effect of giving the Bough some semblance of naturalistic life. I too have not resisted the temptation to alliterate, although I wanted to carry it a step further. 'Gleamed' and 'glittered' are cheap, idle words; 'glowed', on the other hand, picks up the whole force of 'gold' and carries it forward. 'Discolor' has been placed afterwards as an attributive adjective with almost nominal force; replace the word in my line with 'green' or 'blue' to perceive fully the intended effect. Anyway, here it is:

from which a breath of gold glowed discolor through the boughs

Nothing earth-shattering: just one line in one ancient poem. Who cares? I hope that the principles at least are worth attention. The language should be kept different, alien, resistant. The unsettling effect of the original Latin 'discolor', written about by Robert Brooks, I hope finds its parallel in my own choice to retain it. Sure, it's more difficult, harder to read—but aren't there people out there who actually want that from a work of literature?

05 January, 2006

The Wiener Werkstätte?

I had occasion this morning to recall a fond memory. On the plane coming back from Fairfax, Virginia (where my wife and I were staying for Christmas / New Year with her parents, a (mostly) fine time was had by all) I was reading Peter Blake's The Master Builders, which I'd just picked up in a cheap second-hand store. Despite being highly rated, incidentally, the book is a little too hagiographical for my taste—by p. 100, I was sick of hearing just how brilliant Le Corbusier (referred to, irritatingly, as "Corbu") really was. Anyway, Blake mentions (p. 7) "a highly sophisticated offspring of the Art Nouveau movement", the Wiener Werkstätte. The name struck a chord in me, and given my total unfamiliarity and lack of interest in design, avant-garde or otherwise, this was somewhat surprising. It soon occurred to me (wrongly, as I have since found out) that the Wiener Werkstätte were the hosts of a party I crashed with my good friend Dan in New York, around September 20, 2003. It was an odd event: we stumbled rather randomly into a lighted doorway somewhere near Times Square, only to find ourselves hobnobbing with societyfolk done up in Armani and fur, being served rather bad wheat-beer, champagne and chi-chi nibbles, and listening to a string-quartet between über-slick presentations by an Austrian design company, hawking its wares, kitsch and laughably dear, to begabbling Big Apple socialites. When we left we were given goody-bags with promotional material and . . . I don't remember: candy?

According to Wikipedia, the Wiener Werkstätte closed in 1932. So I was wrong to make the connection. But no amount of Googling has revealed to me which design-company we beheld in their rhetorical glory. Perhaps it was, in fact, the old WW, in ghost form, reliving a promotion of 80 years ago; perhaps if my friend and I return to the site we'll find nothing but a heap of rubble. The mystery continues. . .

03 January, 2006

Shakespeare and Asia

This essay is an attempt to decanonize two monolithic entities—Asia and Shakespeare—in their ideational and performative contexts, through an examination of their potentially conflictual relationships: Asia in Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Asia, Asia without Shakespeare, and Shakespeare without Shakespeare, among other permutations and combinations of a complex cultural dynamic.
These are the first words of an article by Rustom Bharucha entitled 'Foreign Asia / Foreign Shakespeare', in a recent-ish edition of Theatre Journal. I came across this article in the course of my job, which involves reading articles like this and summarising their contents. I found the rest of the piece somewhat impenetrable: something about the staging and adaptation of Shakespeare's drama in Southeast Asia. (Matters were not aided, of course, by my total lack of interest in Asia, and my almost total lack of interest in Shakespeare.) This sentence, however, made me laugh out loud when I first read it, and it continues to fascinate me.

Fine nonsense is an art, and at its best can be highly entertaining. Most fine nonsense derives its appeal from a zealous imagination: one thinks of Paolo Soleri, L. Ron Hubbard, and the supreme master, Salvador Dali. This academic example, however, is not imaginative, but exerts its power in a subtler, probably less intentional manner.

Most obvious here is the jargon: 'decanonize', 'monolithic', 'ideational' [pertaining to an abstract notion or concept], 'performative', 'complex cultural dynamic'. It is a dense array, but nothing untypical—that said, 'ideational' is a particularly fine tool in the bullshitter's arsenal, though perhaps lacking the general applicability of a 'hermeneutic' or a 'textual strategy'. Acutely, the jargon works against itself: after the first comma, the reader is already asking whether a 'monolithic entity' can in fact be canonised, or decanonised for that matter. How can anything be decanonised? Three words later we ask whether Shakespeare and / or Asia really are 'monolithic entities', whatever the phrase might mean, and six words further we wonder how either Shakespeare or Asia might have either performative or ideational contexts. The words here, clinging tenuously to sense even before usage, rapidly lose their meaning in the flow of the sentence, becoming mere sound. I've rarely seen such an efficient example of this technique.

But the marvels of the sentence are yet to come. After 'Asia and Shakespeare' have been drawn outside the period with em-dashes, presumably so as to heighten their 'monolithic' natures, we find the rhythm of the period heightening as it approaches the colon. What happens next is very special. The measured, gently-nonsensical syntagma of the first half, with its balanced prepositional clauses ("in..., through...") suddenly breaks into a flurry of paradigmatic permutations, reminding me rather of structures from Beckett's Watt. The colon here has an ostensive effect: look at the possible relationships!

These permutations constitute the raison d'être of the present post. They begin to effect a logical structure: first Asia in Shakespeare, then its counter, Shakespeare in Asia. Bharucha then turns the tables with 'Asia without Shakespeare', and, just as the reader is expecting 'Shakespeare without Asia', hands us the far more nonsensical 'Shakespeare without Shakespeare'. If 'Asia without Shakespeare' is meaningless, 'Shakespeare without Shakespeare' is freakishly illogical, and the musical punchline of the progression. Note, importantly, that both 'Shakespeare' and 'Asia' are trochees, in addition to their alliteration and assonance: this lends the repetition a blunt, bracing belligerence. By now, the reader is listening only to the jangle of nouns, clinking against each other, without signification. The poet and the continent have been long forgotten: it is the words, not the things, which have become 'monolithic'. After this, the final comma can only be anticlimactic.

What makes this sentence such fine nonsense—what makes it poetic, having lost any ability to communicate—is its pacing. Bharucha draws the reader in, he lulls him, and then suddenly points him down a path of permutations, leading to an absurdist dead-end. In this respect, his period shows careful craft: nonsense as process. Let us, then, encourage our academics, at home and abroad, or at least those with nothing to say, to pursue similarly intricate structures in their nonsensical sentences.

Dickens and prose style

Phenomenon almost incredible though distinctly seen, what did he then behold but his own metallurgical Louisa, peeping with all her might through a hole in a deal board, and his own mathematical Thomas abasing himself on the ground to catch but a hoof of the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act!
This, as some of my friends already know, is one of my favourite sentences. The phrasing is modernist: it could easily be mistaken, I think, for a sentence from Ulysses. But in fact it is from Charles Dickens' Hard Times. So what makes this sentence so great?

It is partly a question of register. Hugh Kenner once commented on the first sentence of Joyce's story 'The Dead', from his collection Dubliners: "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally rushed off her feet." The point about this statement is that Lily is of course not literally rushed off her feet, but rather metaphorically. The reason Joyce uses the word 'literally' is because Lily herself would have used it, had she been asked: in other words, Joyce reconstructs her method of thinking while retaining the illusion of the 'omniscient narrator'. It is a subtler technique, in this respect, that the strict 'stream of consciousness' style which Joyce took from Edouard Dujardin. One critic (Joseph Frank, on whose famous essay see also here) traced this technique of suggesting the internal through the external view to the fair scene in Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857).

And yet, here it is in Hard Times, first published in its entirety in 1854, after having been serialised in Household Words. Despite the 3rd-person narration, we have in this sentence an alternation between an expression of Gradgrind's thought-process (compact and exaggeratedly technical, "Phenomenon almost incredible") and a spry evocation of youthful vigour ("peeping with all her might through a hole in a deal board", "to catch but a hoof").

To reflect the cuts between interior and exterior, the rhythm of the sentence lumbers and flits accordingly. It is impossible to read the first comma quickly, and equally impossible to read the third slowly. The word 'but' in "to catch but a hoof" propels the voice through the phrase, which then runs into the fine quicksand of "the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act", where the voice is brought sluggishly to a stop.

Beyond this, the sentence achieves beauty through richness of detail: in addition to the general oddness of its idiom, each comma seems unrelated to the last, suggesting a continual renewal of subject; the formation of its protagonists as 'metallurgical' and 'mathematical' seems less preachy than surreal; the strict parallel of Louisa and Thomas, whose actions reflect their attitude upon apprehension by Gradgrind in the following paragraphs.

I like opaque language. This is a perfect example of a sentence which resists transparency: re-reading is required to get the sense, and the phrasing draws the reader's attention to its surface, rather than its subject. To me, this is what literary writing is about: the use of distorted or unnatural idiom (ostranie, perhaps) to resist easy motion through the words, so as to focus the eye on the process of articulation itself.

02 January, 2006

Chicken or egg?

I've been asked about the historical sources of the question, 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' While this might seem something of a sophistical query, it has in fact engaged some eminent men of the past. William Harvey, for instance, most famous for discovering the circulation of blood in the body in 1616, also published a treatise on reproductive biology (De Generatione Animalium) in 1651. Here is his rather poetic formulation of the chicken-egg question:
The egg is the terminus from which all fowls, male and female, have sprung, and to which all their lives tend—it is the result which nature has proposed to herself in their being. And thus it comes that individuals in procreating their like for the sake of their species, endure for ever. The egg, I say, is a period or portion of this eternity; for it were hard to say whether an egg exists for the sake of the chick that it engenders, or the pullet exists for the sake of the egg which it is to engender. Which of these was the prior, whether with reference to time or nature—the egg or the pullet? (Exercise 26)
His answer is a little bit too involved to quote in full. But essentially he regards the egg as the 'vital spirit' and 'efficient cause' (an Aristotelian term) of all animals, even going so far as to dissect mammals in the hopes of finding eggs too. So the egg came first: he was pretty much right! Going back a bit further, we find the same question discussed in a different context by Macrobius (c. 400 AD) in the Saturnalia; instead of a scientific treatise we are given a humanistic dialogue in the Ciceronian manner.
At this point Evangelus [the villain of the piece], who grudged the Greeks any credit, mockingly interrupted and said: Enough of this exchange of arguments. You two are only trying to show off your wealth of words. No! If your learning amounts to anything, tell me which came first—the egg or the hen? . . .

[Disarius:] If we admit that everything that exists has, at some time or another, had a beginning, it will be right to suppose that nature made the egg first. For at its beginning a thing is always as yet imperfect and shapeless, and it is only by the additions which come with increasing skill and the passage of time that it reaches to perfection. To fashion a bird, then, nature, beginning with something shapeless and rudimentary, made the egg, in which as yet there is no resemblance to the living creature; and it is from the egg that the complete bird, as we see it, as come—the product of a gradual process of development. . . [after some mystical speculations on the shape of the egg:] Now let him come forward who holds that the hen came first, and let him proceed to make his case, as follows. An egg, he will say, is neither the end nor the beginning of the creature to which it belongs. For the beginning is the seed and the end, the fully-formed bird itself, the egg being but the seed in process of development. Since, then, the seed comes from the living creature and the egg from the seed, it follows that the egg cannot have existed before the living creature, any more than the process of digesting food can take place before there is someone to do the eating. To say that the egg was made before the hen is like saying that the womb was made before the woman; and to ask how the hen could have come into existence without the egg is like asking how men were made before the existence of the organs of generation to which they owe their creation. . .
Disarius continues in this vein for a while, and tells Evangelus to make his own mind up. But the latter replies: 'Your inordinate volubility leads you to take seriously what was meant to be a joke.' (Book Six, Chapter 16).

Already in the Birthday Book of Censorinus, a jeu d'esprit written for the author's friend Caerellius in 238 AD, we find the riddle mentioned in relation to the greater problem of whether human beings had always existed or not: 'Are birds or eggs created first, since an egg cannot be created without a bird and a bird cannot be created without an egg?' But the debate can be pressed back still further to Plutarch's Quaestiones Conviviales (Table Talk), Book Two, Question 3 (found in the Loeb Moralia, volume 8, p. 145 ff.). When the question is broached, and broached as a typical sort of jokey symposium-topic, it is first ridiculed by two interlocutors. Then Firmus says:
Well then lend me your atoms for the moment, for if small things must be assumed to be the elements and the beginnings of large, it is likely that the egg existed first before the hen, for among sensible things the egg is indeed simple while the hen is a more intricate and complex organism. And, speaking generally, the initial cause comes first, and the seed is an initial cause; the egg is greater than the seed on the one hand, on the other less than the creature. Indeed, as development admittedly exists between innate merit and perfected virtue, so the intermediate development in nature's passage from the seed to the living creature is the egg.
Firmus is then contradicted by Sosius Senecio, a real friend of Plutarch's, and of the younger Pliny's too, whose position you will find somewhat familiar:
The world in fact pre-exists everything, for it is the most complete of all things, and it stands to reason that the complete is naturally earlier than the incomplete, as the perfect pre-exists the defective and the whole the part. For it is not reasonable to hold that the part exists if that of which it is a part does not. Thus nobody says that the man is a part of the seed or that the hen is part of the egg; rather we say that the egg is a part of the hen and the seed a part of the man, for egg and seed come into being after hen and man respectively and have their birth in them. . . he who raises the question how fowl came into being when the egg did not exist is in no way different from him who asks how men and women came into being before genitals and womb existed.
In the arguments of Firmus and Senecio we see the genesis of Disarius' first and second positions. The problem is one of classical metaphysics: the part is either seen as a stage in the development of the whole, or as something subsequent and inferior to the whole, something 'defective'. (We see the same slightly odd reasoning in a modern theorist: Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, about whom more another time, argues in his 1946 The Origin of Speech that just as 'mummy' is a nursery corruption of 'mother', so formal, beautified speech precedes casual or informal speech.) Plato solves this one, sort of, at least in abstract terms, by separating the perfect and imperfect into two realms—thus the imperfect world is created by the demiurge with the idea in mind of the perfect world, just as an architect has his ideal house in mind before constructing the actual house. There is no problem about the temporal priority of the perfect, because the perfect is eternal. Senecio, on the other hand, does not claim that the perfect creature is eternal, just that it came forth from the earth fully-formed, like Athena, and subsequently degenerated, a sort of evolution in reverse.

It is a worldview consonant with the philologists—for whom the perfect text (of Homer, say) was corrupted with each copy—and with the arcanists, for whom the Truth, revealed perfect to some prior philosopher, perhaps Pythagoras, or Trismegistus, or Adam, has since fragmented and must be pieced together by the contemplative intellectual.

So there are a few of the extant sources; I suspect that the debate goes back at least to inextant Aristotle, a thinker particularly interested both in animal reproduction and in the metaphysics of cause and effect. But lest our reader's ears are nodding, we here end our own 'inordinate volubility'.

Update 3/3/07: I couldn't resist adding this passage from More's Utopia: "The farm workers breed an enormous number of chickens by a most marvellous method. Men, not hens, hatch the eggs by keeping them in a warm place at an even temperature. As soon as they come out of the shell, the chicks recognise the men, follow them around, and are devoted to them instead of to their real mothers."