30 October, 2006

Wagner, gamelan, gozzuti

Listening to The Ring cycle, you feel walled in, held immobile by formalism on the grandest scale possible. My old mentor, who persuaded me of the joys of Wagner, and who would later play passages of the cycle at my wedding—soon-to-be Mrs. Roth walking the aisle as the gods crossed Bifrost—gave me a book once, Ernest Newman's Wagner Nights, which lists all the motives and their interrelations—I was amazed that one could build the Rhine out of an E-flat major; Valhalla, Nothung and the ring itself out of the Rheingold. It seemed like Vitruvius construing temples out of Pythagorean harmonics—music as modular architecture, or an ars combinatoria. What could be finer?
A confused mixture of a poet feeble in style, and a painter lazy of brush, with a Javanese 'gamelang' accompaniment buzzing in between.

— Max Nordau on Richard Wagner, 1892.
If you wanted a relief from Wagner's monumental melodic formalism, a good bet would be a gamelan record. Of course, all music has structure—otherwise it would be white noise. But with the possible exception of silly La Monte Young drones, gamelan is the most random music I've ever heard. I used to play in a small gamelan group—in fact I played in two, one in York, with the (apparently) great Neil Sorrell, and the other here in Tempe. These were Javanese gamelans, 20-piece orchestras on metallophones (saron, gender, demung, slenthem, peking), breast-shaped sitting gongs (bonang, kempul and kethuk), larger hanging gongs, two hand drums (gendhing and ciblon), and the rebab or fiddle—probably the saddest, reediest instrument you'll ever hear. Aside from drums and fiddle, these instruments are visual knockouts—hulking bronze forms set on carved and crimson-painted wooden frames. The groups would attract misfits—hippies, narcolepts, home-brewers, metalheads, activists, coasters, musicologists, piano-teachers—amateurs of every description. I would generally turn up and leave in silence, preferring not to mingle with them. What a pleasure to disappear into a group for two hours a week, forgetting my academic concerns in the lull and haze of an endless dissonance.

We would play 20-minute pieces consisting mainly of disconnected repetitions slowing and speeding up at the beck of the guide drum. When we played audiences, they clapped politely for the ethnic music, but really they thought it was horrible. (Mrs. Roth admitted as much, though as a former ballerina she enjoyed the professional Indonesian danseuse our group hired to accompany the music.) The music is horrible, like free jazz. But liberating and powerful, too. My favourite part was when, playing the saron, I got to break step with the other sarons and play the upcoming countermelody backwards and at double speed. That was about as great a challenge as my puny musical ability and manual dexterity could handle. We sang too, extremely badly:
Parabe sang mara bangun
Sepat domba kali Oya
Aja dolan lan wong priya
Gurameh nora prasaja.
As for listening, I prefer the Balinese kebyar gamelan, more dynamic, rhythmic, staccato, unpredictable. I can't imagine how anyone could even begin to play this stuff; Gawain, a frequent visitor to the Balinese Arts Festival, no doubt has no need of imagining, and could fascinate you silly with his encyclopaedic knowledge and connoisseurship. I'm listening to the standard compilation, Nonesuch's 1967 Music from the Morning of the World; several 'songs' give you the impression of being bludgeoned by professional assassins, then soothed for a moment, then bludgeoned again. The synchronism is remarkable. I have no idea how they even make some of those sounds.

There's one piece called the monkey kecak where assembled hordes do ape-impressions in perfect rhythm for 25 minutes—no, really! Actually, the Sigma Kappa boys in my apartment-block give an excellent rendition of it every night. I'd been wondering why they whooped incessantly—had my arch-enemies given them my whereabouts? Were they yawping in homage to Mr. Keating? Or just expressing existential ennui? They whoop, and they laugh, too, ad nauseam, like cretins. As Castiglione (Il Cortegiano, 1528) put it:
Cosí ancora quando vedete uno che guarda troppo intento con gli occhi stupidi a foggia d'insensato, o che rida cosí scioccamente come que' mutoli gozzuti delle montagne di Bergamo, avvenga che non parli o faccia altro, non lo tenete voi per un gran babuasso?
Thomas Hoby's 1561 translation:
So in like maner whan you see one gase earnestely with his eyes abashed, lyke one that had lytle witt: or that laugheth so fondly as do those dombe menne, with the great wennes in theyr throte, that dwell in the Mountaines of Bergamo, thoughe he neyther speake ne doe anye thinge elles, will you not counte him a verye foole?
Notice the translation of scioccamente ('foolishly') as fondly, which makes us think of Lear as a 'very foolish fond old man'. Hoby glosses the dombe menne as 'Gozzuti, men in the mountaines with great bottles of flesh under their chin, through the drinking of snow water'. A 1901 translator notes that these 'goitrous mutes. . . still abound near Bergamo'. This website transcribes an 1858 study of the gozzuti—the first cause being, with my translation:
Dalle acque calcari in eccesso che sono bevute da quei terrazzani, comecchè se una certa quantità di sali calcari sia necessaria per l'igiene, dannosa è ad ogni modo l'eccesso di saturazione, e i primi effetti si riscontrano nel sistema glandolare e più che altrove in quel delicato organo glandolare che è il tiroideo.

An excess of calcareous water is drunk from the roof-terraces; although a certain quantity of calcareous salts is necessary for good health, an excess saturation is always harmful, and its first effects are on the glandular system, and especially on the thyroid, that delicate glandular organ.
From Wikipedia, omitting a slew of juicy and much-recommended etymological speculation :
Cretinism is a condition of severely stunted physical and mental growth due to untreated congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism). . . Endemic cretinism was especially common in areas of southern Europe around the Alps and was described by Roman writers, and often depicted by medieval artists. Alpine cretinism was described from a medical perspective by several travellers and physicians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At that time the cause was not known and it was often attributed to "stagnant air" in mountain valleys or "bad water".
The great gamelan is sort of a gozzuto music, ugly and raucous, played by gymnasts and jesters for connoisseurs; it is, naturally, a lot of fun once you get used to it.

A round peg in a square hole?

One of the most fascinatingly elaborate ad hominem back-and-forths I've ever read, on. . . squaring the circle? Notice that all the substantive points were covered in the first 15 or so comments, by me among several others, though as usual I was completely ignored.
I really think that the intellectual world could do with much less comity. . . It’s just liberal arts bullshit anyway, and it will all come out in the wash.
John Emerson, at the above thread. My man!

29 October, 2006


επεων δε πολυς νομος ενθα και ενθα. . .
Iliad, 20.249.

Yesterday I had an hour to kill in the library, and decided to flick through some John McWhorter books. There was no real reason for this decision, other than that his name was in my head, and I knew the books would make light reading. John apparently writes for LanguageLog, though I can't recall ever seeing a post of his there. His books are full of defences of Black English as a respectable language in its own right, with its own rules, just as good as those of Standard English. Fair enough, of course—400 years ago it was white, middle-class Londoners at the forefront of the vernacular, now it's working-class blacks around the world. In the course of his arguments, McWhorter frequently attacks prescriptivist views of language—both the 'blacks talk bad' and the 'don't split your infinitives' varieties. There is, he argues, no better reason for the latter type of proscription than the arbitrary dicta of stuffy usageasters from 'the 1600s and 1700s'. That really should be 'the 1700s and 1800s', and frankly I'd much prefer 'the 18th and 19th centuries'—but he's essentially right. There's a detailed book about those usageasters, Sterling Leonard's The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage, 1700-1800.

LanguageLog, also, is full of critiques of prescriptivism. One popped up just yesterday, in fact. Mark Liberman, who seems to writes most of the site's content, was defending linguists from the claim that they regard prescriptivism is 'evil', rather than 'foolish' and 'futile':
Sometimes. . . prescription is based on mistaken [grammatical] analysis, false history or bad logic. This is foolish, but it's not evil.

In other cases, prescription is based on resistance to innovation. This is usually futile, but it's not evil.
This position is eminently reasonable, although I have one minor problem with the latter statement. Liberman argues, quite rightly, that language inevitably changes, and that trying to 'halt its decline' is pointless. Resistance to innovation is futile. Well, this is true, but for better or worse, resistance to linguistic innovation is just as inevitable as linguistic innovation itself. If resistance to innovation is futile, so is resistance to resistance to innovation.

All through history people have bemoaned falling standards—and language is quite naturally a token of morality. Even Homer makes the connection. Deborah Levine Gera (Ancient Greek Ideas on Speech, Language and Civilization) demonstrates that the barbarous morality of Polyphemus is represented by his incorrect use of language, and 'incorrect' here means 'not in accordance with the rules of Greek society'. They did it in the Renaissance, in the Enlightenment, in the Victorian era, and they're doing it today. They will always do it, just as there will always be linguistic innovators. The only difference is that now it has become somewhat de-institutionalised and de-intellectualised, if you will please to excuse those clunkers.

I do it too. I correct my wife (an excellent speaker) when she says 'less people', and when she pronounces 'flaccid' to rhyme with 'placid'. (She corrects me too, occasionally.) Am I aware that 'less' is by now an acceptable Standard English variant of 'fewer', with no increase in ambiguity? Do I know that 'flassid' is much more common than 'flaxid'? Of course I do! I've been aware of this logic since I was a child—when my father in his own curmudgeonly ways corrected my use of 'hopefully' (= 'with any luck') I would generally remind him that 'meaning is usage', which is a child's expression of descriptivism. So why do I bother to correct my wife? Well, not from any scientific or philosophical belief in the superiority of 'fewer' or 'flaxid', but rather out of a sense of etiquette. The rules and prescriptions of this etiquette, like those of most etiquettes, are completely arbitrary. Whatever the logical or historical basis for drinking red warm but white chilled, 99% of people who follow these rules do it purely from the tacit pleasure of adhering to social conventions. They particularly enjoy being able to upbraid those who drink red cold, or order white with steak—and the near-arbitrary character of such proscriptions is irrelevant, however upbraiders might pretend good reasons. (Serious gourmets, of course, do have good reasons.) Likewise, I enjoy upbraiding my wife's verbal slips. It betokens respect, not disrespect. When she has the chance to upbraid my slips, she derives ten times the pleasure: how could I refuse her such delight? I like hearing a man avoid split infinitives, even though I am fully aware of the rule's arbitrary 1834 origin. There is a sort of stiff, pedantic elegance in this avoidance, or in the use of 'with whom', or in the pronunciation 'flaxid', an elegance that no amount of grammatical or historical analysis could possibly diminish. It takes self-command to speak and write in this manner—a self-command I respect.

(This is, I stress, not to say that prescriptivism has any scientific or historical weight, nor that it should be professionally advocated by linguists, grammarians, philologians or lexicographers.)

It takes self-command and mental effort to adhere to arbitrary linguistic rules. But here the analogy to etiquette breaks down, for it takes more effort to innovate—to innovate oneself, rather than just following casually the innovations of others. For this reason, lexical and syntactic innovation is something I admire far more than adherence to outmoded (or near-outmoded) customs. And that's an excellent reason to uphold the value of local vernaculars and dialects, which always abound with such innovations.

26 October, 2006

Franz Bopp

A while ago, in response to a blather on some books I'd bought, Monsieur Une P'tite Pensée, valued longwhiles reader and occasional commentator, requested a post on Franz Bopp of all people. So I appease him, thus. Bopp is a difficult subject for a blog—dry and technical, the hero of a recondite and dusty subject (the history of comparative philology) and mostly irrelevant to modern concerns. Nonetheless, I attempt to make him interesting. Apologies to the 99% of my small readership for whom this attempt has inevitably failed. As if to shoot myself in the foot, not to mention put said foot into mouth, I refuse to write a biographical article. If you want that, Wikipedia does a serviceable job; or if you have access to a university library, decent accounts (both English and German) can be found in Thomas Sebeok, ed. Portraits of Linguists, volume 1, pp. 200-221. Rest assured, though, he didn't have a terribly interesting life, and his line of work was hardly the sort to be much influenced by it.

So who was Franz Bopp? In short, he was inevitable. Since the 1780s Germany had been vomiting intellectual titans in every discipline of the humanities: Goethe, Kant and Hegel, Schleiermacher and Strauss, Theodor Mommsen, Karl Lachmann, Jakob Grimm, Alexander von Humboldt, and so on. They lacked a great literary critic, having to wait for Auerbach, Curtius and Spitzer in the 20th century. But looking back on it, it would have been unthinkable for the Germans to have lacked the great linguist of the 19th century. Fortunately, they had four: Grimm, Wilhelm von Humboldt (Al's brother), Bopp, and later August Schleicher. Grimm did the folklore and lexicography (as well as discovering the most famous law in linguistics), Humboldt did the mystical philosophy, and Bopp and Schleicher did the grunt-work of comparative philology—piecing together the grammars of dozens of Indo-European languages in an attempt to discover their precise affinities. Bopp wanted to discover the Ursprache, the language which stood behind German, Latin, Sanskrit, Russian and so on; as Robins mentions (A Short History of Linguistics, 1967):
In a striking metaphor [Antoine] Meillet declared that in his quest for the original state of the Indo-european language Bopp was led to discover the principles of comparative grammar as Christopher Columbus discovered America in his search for a new route to India.
It was, in fact, left to Schleicher (1861) to produce a systematic account of the prehistoric language, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE), whose grammatical forms he laboriously reconstructed from extant languages. He even wrote a little story in the language—you can read it here. But Bopp's part was even greater: his 1833 Comparative Grammar was a milestone, a close-argued three-volume analysis and comparison of eight languages.

Sanskrit was the key, being the eldest sister of the family, its grammar better preserved in its antique complexity than Greek or Latin. Histories of linguistics commonly cite an address by William Jones (1786) as the first Western appreciation of the affinity between Greek and Sanskrit—but in fact Europeans had noticed the connection since the 16th century Jesuit missions to India (see here for a debunking of Jones' importance). What Bopp saw was the sheer elaborateness of the affinities. Previous accounts had compared single words (eg. Skt. piter, L. pater, Gk. pater, G. Vater; or Skt. panca, L. quinque, Gk. pente, G. funf), but Bopp was the first to examine the structure of the verb, noticing the correspondence of Skt. as-mi, as-i, as-ti (I am, you are, he is) to L. su-m, es, es-t, Gk. ei-mi (originally es-mi), e-i, es-ti. He went on to deconstruct the entire corpus of noun and verb inflexions in the three (then eight) languages. One of Bopp's principal ideas was that verbal inflexions are corrupted forms of the two verbal roots of 'to be'—es- and fu-—thus Latin ama-v-i, 'I loved', was originally ama-fu-i, and Greek lu-s-o, 'I will loose', was originally lu-es-o.

Bopp is generally painted as a technicalist with little interest in speculative philosophy. Pieter Verburg, author of the inhumanely-erudite Language and its Functions, offers a critical glance at Bopp's work in a 1950 essay:
In Bopp there was a lack of and an aversion to any kind of enthusiasm about feeling (Gefühl), instinct or imagination, a lack, also, of the propensity for the belief in the mystical rising of language from and living in the depths of the soul. He opposed the physical and the mechanical to the organic.
By 'feeling', 'mystical rising', and so on, Verburg is referring to the theories propounded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the introduction to a projected work on the Kawi language of Java, an introduction now available in a useful paperback simply titled On Language. Here Humboldt, the hero of Romantic linguistics, discusses language as a primal force, an organism with its own natural laws, an energy greater than words and grammar, an infinite capacity with finite materials (see Chomsky), an 'innere Sprachform' moulded outwardly by the Genius of every individual race (see Sapir-Whorf). It's a fun book, check it out. Bopp isn't much fun. But the two were great friends, and behind Bopp's dry scholarship is the same notion of language as an organism: it's there in his first paragraph—
Ich beabsichtige in diesem Buche eine vergleichende, alles Verwandte zusammenfassende Beschreibung des Organismus der auf dem Titel genannten Sprachen, eine Erforschung ihrer physischen und mechanischen Gesetze. . .
Eastwick, Bopp's translator, misses the point:
I contemplate in this work a description of the comparative organization of the languages enumerated in the title page, comprehending all the features of their relationship, and an inquiry into their physical and mechanical laws. . .
Better is 'a comparative description comprehending all the relations of the organism of the languages named in the title'. The physical and mechanical are not opposed to the organism, as Verburg had argued, but rather supplement it. Later Bopp writes:
Da in diesem Buche die Sprachen, worüber es sich verbreitet, ihrer selbst willen, d. h. als Gegenstand und nicht als Mittel der Erkenntniss behandelt werden, und mehr eine Physik oder Physiologie derselben zu geben versucht wird, als eine Anleitung sie praktisch zu handhaben. . .
Again, Eastwick elides:
As in this work the languages it embraces are treated for their own sakes, ie. as objects and not means of knowledge, and as I aim rather at giving a [physics or] physiology of them than an introduction to their practical use. . .
The metaphor of the mechanical or physical is compounded with that of the organic or physiological. It is a metaphor which would be compounded with Darwinist evolutionism in the work of Schleicher. It is a mistake, therefore, to contrast Humboldt and Bopp, although the two did produce radically different works. Cassirer realised as much (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. I): 'The new philosophical view of language demanded and made possible a new approach to linguistic science. Throughout his general survey of language, Bopp reverts to Humboldt.'

It was for his brutal rigour that Bopp was admired ever since: the science he brought to perfection still survives, though many of his conclusions have been revised. The sceptical Verburg admits the high regard of others:
Bopp is always cited as the model of objective, sober-minded matter-of-fact scholars. He was an industrious closet-scholar, a non-speculative investigator, who recognized only positive facts as valid, keeping aloof from any metaphysical prejudice. If ever there was a man who had attained very near to the ideal of an unbiased mind (Voraussetzungslosigkeit), Bopp seems to have been that man.
(Digression: Great word, no? It takes Twain's Aristophanean joke to beat it: 'Personaleinkommensteuerschatzungskommissionsmitgliedsreisekosten-rechnungserganzungsrevisionsfund'.)

Hans Aarsleff, another modern sceptic, is even more contemptuous ('Bréal vs. Schleicher'):
Both before and after the dominance of the Bopp tradition, the study of language has covered a much wider territory, a fact that cannot be ignored except by making a number of ad-hoc decisions, e.g. that only with Bopp did the study of language become 'scientific'—
Aarsleff, here as always, is banging the drum for his revisionist history, which puts Condillac in the Bopp role, rather ridiculously, and cites Michel Bréal as his great successor—
Among the sources of this distortion, the most prominent is respect for a historiographical tradition that was ideologically designed to celebrate the Bopp tradition and its institutional status; this respect is sustained by a positivist view of natural science that was cogently criticized even in the nineteenth century.
Indeed it was. George Marsh, the great American populariser, thought that the dry analytism of Bopp's linguistics had led to 'a melancholy heap of bleached ashes, marrowless bones, and empty oyster-shells.' (And one-night cheap hotels? Why don't they write like that any more?) Marsh's negative reaction is an aesthetic one, like that of Verburg. But there were more substantive criticisms as well. John Donaldson, the most brilliant British philologist of the 19th century after Skeat, and a great friend of Tennyson's at Trinity, now almost completely forgotten, would sneer at Bopp in his stunning New Cratylus (1839) and Varronianus (1844), two monumental works which did the most to bring the new science to England. Discussing the analysis of the Latin infinitive, which I mentioned earlier:
Bopp is of course ready with his agglutination theory, and explains ama-vi-sse as a compound of amavi and esse. But, as he must see, this presumes a derivation of fuisse from fui and esse, and of fuerum from fui and eram, so that amaveram = ama-fui-eram and amavisse = ama-fui-esse. It is only by remembering the great services, which Bopp has rendered to comparative philology, that we can reconcile such suggestions with any claim to a character for critical tact and acumen.
Donaldson thinks it ridiculous that amavisse could contain two forms of the 'to be' stem (fui and esse) compounded together. Indeed, he's right, and modern linguists have discountenanced this hypothesis as untenable. But many of Bopp's ideas and derivations are still used today; even Bréal, who went on to reform German linguistics with the invention of semantics, began his career with a French translation of Bopp, including a preface that extolled the scientific excellence of the scholar's achievement—
The philological movement which has continued apace ever since was making its first brilliant appearance: amidst this variety of work Professor Bopp's book was the central point to which most of the other writings referred or which they implicitly presupposed.
Bréal's fine preface, which can be found in a collected edition of his shorter writings (George Wolf, ed. and tr. The Beginnings of Semantics, 1991), also notes Bopp's great improvement on the vague speculations of Schlegel (still beholden to a symbolic, Hegelian understanding of language), and his dependence on the classical Indian grammarians, who had already dealt with verbal roots, ablauts and vowel-lengths.

The mingent maculation of Bopp's parade by Verburg and Aarsleff, unlike the comprehensive demolition awarded to Lachmann in Kenney's The Classical Text, seems a little churlish. Bopp, like Darwin, with whose work he had much in common, produced many specific results needing revision, and often he revised them himself. His method and his rigour, however, remain. It is telling that Verburg's paper was written in 1950, just before Chomsky's revolution, and the same year as Joseph Stalin's essay on linguistics. Stalin wrote:
It is said that thoughts arise in the mind of man prior to their being expressed in speech, that they arise without linguistic material, without linguistic integument, in, so to say, a naked form. But that is absolutely wrong.
Verburg, meanwhile, complained that Bopp 'subject[ed] language to the laws of mathematical-theoretical thought. Bopp's heteronomism is not yet dead to-day. It is fully alive wherever logistics pronounces its views on language.' The Whorfian tastes of Stalin and Verburg would be insignificant by the end of the decade, and the analytical tradition of Bopp vindicated, albeit in more speculative form.

24 October, 2006

A box of Rochs

Last week I became interested in my ancestors. For some reason, my mother wrote to tell me about her father's mother's father, ie. my great-great-grandfather, Arthur Rochs, who wrote a dissertation on mediaeval German romance at Halle, 1882—you can buy a copy of this work, Über den Veilchenroman und die Wanderung der Euriautsage, here, for a mere 110 kronor. His name summons great and legendary creatures: the bear, the aurochs, the roc (G. Roch)—so I cannot help but imagine him as a monumental figure. When my grandfather died, his son (my uncle) gave Rochs' papers to the San Antonio public library, where the family had settled. These papers apparently did not include the dissertation, but they did include a handwritten German journal, and intriguingly, a 'broadside handbill 1882 (in Latin)'. The papers are still there, cased, as smart as a box of Rochs.

I don't have many memories of my grandfather, primarily because I grew up across the Atlantic from him, secondarily because he didn't like me very much. Because my mother had me late, he was already pretty old when I was born. Still, he gave me lots of stuff: from his stint as a UN ambassador he plied me as a child with hundreds of bizarre coins from around the world, and ceremonial weaponry from West Africa, Nepal, Malaysia—after he died I received his signet ring, in black enamel and gold, which was mugged from me in a dark alley in Bristol with a knife by a heroinated lunatic, and an ivory box of ivory miniature dominos, which I can't find, and a saucy nutcracker:

My uncle entertains hopes of discovering the Halle thesis among his papers. Either way, some day I'd like to get a look at the manuscript poems in Rochs' journal, and translate them.

Update: my uncle has discovered volumes II-IV of Rochs' poetic notebooks, apparently not sent to San Antonio after all. He adds an anecdote: 'Someone in our family. . . has a framed photograph of him, taken about the time when an artist who saw him sitting in a café and asked to use him as a model for a religious painting due to his echte Peterskopf (a real irony for Dr Rochs, an atheist, who probably never considered his resemblance to St. Peter).' The photo has not yet been unearthed.

Update #2: I have begun translating some verses from these notebooks. Some introductory material is here, and individual poems can be found with Gedichte under the 'Poems and Translations' heading to the right of this page.

22 October, 2006

Michael Crow: anatomy of vanity

This weekend my cuñada handed me a copy of the latest ASU Magazine, suggesting that I write a post on its cover story, a hagiographical career-sketch of the university’s current president, Michael Crow. So I did.

Here is a man with a lot of swing in high places, apparently—and yet he never looks quite bien dans la peau, appearing rather nervous and ill at ease. He's hiding something. The article is remarkable: for one thing, its provenance is deliberately ambiguous, asserting only that 'Melissa Crytzer Fry contributed to the reporting of this story.' Fry (CV here) is of course a hired pen, the type of writer who has shilled propaganda for the great and terrible men of the past millennium.

Crow is painted as the ultimate all-rounder. Not only did he 'excel academically' as a child, he was also 'a high school heavyweight wrestler and a defensive nose-guard on the football team'; former classmate Mark Emmert explains that 'No matter how the game was going to work out, Mike was going to kill himself trying to win. Whatever he's going to do, he is going to do with great panache'. Notice, in this clunky prose, how the emphasis is on the future: things are not happening, but going to happen, as if inevitably. Of course, his childhood excellence—a very American word, which has now been tainted with sharp parody—flourished despite great hardship: his wife sighs proudly, 'Michael went to schools that I gather were fairly rough—a lot of drugs and alcohol—and I think he looked at all of that and basically decided he didn't want to be a part of it. It's one of those choices. You either get sucked in and destroyed by it, or you set yourself apart.'

Crow has an insatiable appetite for knowledge—each week he 'devours up to 25 different magazines' (my italics), and when confronted as a freshman with the riches of the Iowa State University library, he drank lustily:
He knew he couldn't read all the volumes in the collection, so he started in the back stack areas, and tried to read at least one book in each subject area. Methodically, he managed to tackle many of the sections of the library, and incredibly, the map room as well.
Therefore, if you need to know a very little bit about any particular subject, Crow's your man. He has become a fact machine, by his own humble admission: 'I can store facts in huge quantities all the way back, across lots of subjects, and I would use facts to win debates.' An excellent method, one might think—but Crow is one step ahead, for in his mature wisdom he has realised something even more valuable: 'Well, I've learned that the facts aren't always the important thing in the debate. Sometimes it's what people feel.' He is, one suspects, reciting this from a Wonder Years script.

In addition to his intellectual wisdom—or as 'Fry' puts it, 'the zest with which Crow consumes and creates intellectual concepts'—he is a great family-man. He goes hiking and biking with his family regularly, and most sweetly of all, he and his wife 'make a priority of scheduling family nights each week and rate 'family hugs' as one of their favorite activities'. See, Crow may be a genius, but he's not standing aloof on his pedestal—he's just like us folks, an 'all-American guy':
He has a soft spot for relish and mustard-smothered hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and baked beans. He enjoys action movies. He loves his wife and kids. He enjoys cooking on the grill, playing computer video games, road trips. He was a Scout Master for a Boy Scout troop.
Where does he find time for all this homey greatness? Well, 'he often sleeps less than four hours a night'. That's what he claims. The great mythographer Benito Mussolini claimed the same thing, chiding his citizens for their indolent eight-hour nights.

Far from overpowering others with his superior faculties, Crow is gracious enough to accept criticism, for instance from his kids: 'They can say to me whatever they think, they can react in any way, they can criticize me, they can critique me, they can argue with me.' What's more, 'Crow says he hopes to learn and evolve. "I do need to listen more," he agrees, citing a criticism he heard early in his presidency and one for which he takes full ownership.' That's a curious phrase, 'full ownership'—not even criticisms are exempt from triumphant conquest. Crow is master of all, even his own weaknesses—truly the mark of a sublime man.


It might be concluded from this summary that Crow is conceited and arrogant. But I can't help thinking of his pictures, well represented by the one above: his tie politically red, but not too red, his suit approachably navy, and hanging poorly at the right breast. His ugly, chubby attempt at a smile, wholly insincere, and betraying the same unease as that other icon of superficial jollity, Hals' magisterial Cavalier. Is it anxiety or contempt in those narrowed, distant eyes? Or perhaps both? The text is a constant buffet to the man's insecurity, a reassurance of the ego too thinly displaying its desperation. Is this what power does to a man, or has it been there from the start?

This, dear readers, is surely not intended as a character-assassination, despite appearances. I've never met the man, though cuñada has. I would be ready to believe that the massive upheavals he has instigated over the last three years have been largely beneficial to the university. And no doubt some of the claims made in Fry's article are true. No, it is not a comment on actual character, but a reading of text and image: a scepticism towards the structure of its narrative, and the limning of its persona. Crow, like any other human being, hardly benefits from such hagiography, though perhaps there are still a few who swallow this sort of thing.

19 October, 2006

Dean Swift's language experiment

Last month, Languagelog's Mark Liberman was all over gendered-language myths: that men and women speak (and think) all different, like. See here, for instance, or here, or here. Well, this week I came across a delightful forerunner to this stuff (the myths, that is, not the critique), from the pen of our own beloved satirist, Jonathan Swift. In his decidedly unsatirical Proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English tongue (1712), Swift spouts all the usual clichés about the men of harsh-climated Northern Europe grumbling in harsh consonantal clusters, and those of the warm Mediterranean chattering in languorous washes of warm vowels, but then he provides a spin I hadn't heard before—that this difference corresponds to the speech-patterns of English men and women. He deplores the male habit of eliding vowels and running together consonants, of saying, for instance, 'disturb'd', rather than 'disturbèd', and he notes that women more often elide their consonants, producing a childish babble of vowels. What comes next is most curious: Swift, a good British empiricist, records what must be one of the earliest modern linguistic experiments—not quite as bold as Psammetichus, but still:
more than once, where some of both Sexes were in Company, I have persuaded two or three of each, to take a Pen, and write down a number of Letters joyned together, just as it came into their Heads, and upon reading this Gibberish we have found that which the Men had writ, by the frequent encountring of rough Consonants, to sound like High-Dutch [German]; and the other by the Women, like Italian, abounding in Vowels and Liquids.
I wonder if Liberman would be interested. . .

18 October, 2006

London: four etymologies

But in those days, the Cities of the Brittains were not artificially built with Stone or Timber, but were only thick, and Troublesom Woods plashed together and intrenched round, like to those which the Irish at this day call Fastnesses; Some are of Opinion that whence London had her Fame, from thence she had also a Name, that is, from Ships, which the Brittains call Lough, and Dinan a Town, so that London is no other than Shipton, a Town of Ships; which Title no City hath more Right to assume than this, being scituated upon the gentle Ascent of an Hill, near a gallant Navigable River; which swelling at certain times with the Ocean Tides, she is able by her deep and safe Channel to entertain the greatest Ships, which can bring in all the richest Commodities the World can afford.

Some would have Llwndain the Welsh name of London, to be derived from Llhwn which signifies a fenced Town, made of Trees cast down and barricadoed together, as aforementioned, for so the Poet sings.

— Richard Burton, Historical remarques and observations of the ancient and present state of London and Westminster (1684).

King Luds reedifying Troinovant (first built by Brute) and thence leaving the name of Caer Lud afterward turned (as they say) into London is not unknowne, scarce to any that hath but lookt on Ludgates inner frontispice; and in old rimes thus I have it exprest:
Walls he lete make al aboute and thates up and doun
And after Lud that was is name he clupede it
Luds towne.
. . . Thereuore thut after him me clupeth it
The toun me clupeth that is wide couth
And now me clupeth it
London that is lighter in the mouth.
Judicious reformers of fabulous report I know have more serious derivations of the name: and, seeing conjecture is free, I could imagine, it might be cald at first Lhan Dien .i. the Temple of Diana. . . and so afterward by strangers turned into Londinium, and the like. For, that Diana and her brother Apollo (under name of Belin) were two great Deities among the Britons, what is read next before, Caesars testimony of the Gaules; and that she had her Temple there where Paules is, relation in Camden discloses to you.

— Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion (1619), illustrations to Song VIII.

17 October, 2006

A changeable thing, beauty

We had a power-cut last night, and I dreamt about scheming grocers cutting deals with electric companies, periodic outages forcing citizens to restock their refrigerators at planned intervals. It's not a great idea for a story, but probably better than the crap they're shilling now. Orhan Pamuk has just won the Nobel—I read his The New Life a while ago, and found it very dreary. And this week I glanced at a BBC review of the new Booker Prize winner, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, and thought it sounded contemptibly banal—matters not helped by the reviewer's pre-pubescent prose style:
There are lines though that are quite thought provoking, often included towards the end of a chapter, allowing the reader to pause and think about the statement before continuing.

"She sometimes thought herself pretty, but as she began to make a proper investigation, she found it was a changeable thing, beauty."

Some of the statements are so clever and deep, one may feel it necessary to jot it down and re-visit.

"Anyway, he said to himself, money wasn't everything. There was that simple happiness of looking after someone and having someone look after you."

It almost feels like Desai is trying to convey a message to the reader about the importance of things in life which perhaps she sees are often overlooked.

"Time should move. Don't go for a life where time doesn't pass."
Even Seneca isn't this bad. In my case, the bitter taste of such modern fiction was salved by the purchase of a much older fiction—namely, a facsimile reproduction of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Meanwhile, my cuñada writes about ants and tobacco, inspired by yours truly. The same cuñada told us the other day about 'oxytoxin', the orgasm hormone. For a while I wondered how I could rhyme it with 'foxy boxing' in a clerihew; then I googled it and discovered it was actually oxytocin. Shame.

14 October, 2006

Architecture, sculpture, and natural form

A few years ago I took a day-trip to Brighton with my friend M. The sky was glaucous and overcast, as is proper to that town, and as I imagine the sky to be at Balbec; the brute gulls seemed to fly without moving. We marvelled at the collapsed West Pier, and strolled the shingles at length, clutching newly-purchased books—I had admired a Dali-illustrated Don Quixote, but it was too dear, and I'd plumped instead for a copy of Zukofsky's "A". At that time M was reading Giedion's classic Space, Time and Architecture. We sat on the beach overlooking the Palace Pier, and watched a couple of sapphites toss pebbles into the irrefragable spume. He asked me, Which is the highest art-form? My reply was immediate: Literature, then architecture. I could not perfectly explain this answer—both of these art forms, I said, have something of the mysticable about them. I coined the word in the heat of the moment, and it still seems appropriate to me. They can be mysticated, made mystical. M smiled indulgently, perhaps sensing there was a germ of truth in my unusual language. For whatever reason, I also said that it was a mistake to confuse, as so many did, architecture with sculpture—that a work of architecture is something categorically more than a large, elaborate sculpture.

At the present moment I am in a better position to explain both points, and their interrelation. What distinguishes both literature and architecture from other art-forms is that they hold something back, that they do not present themselves to a man all at once. Painting and sculpture are clearly more immediate, in that they are taken in at one glance, or in a few glances in rapid succession. Music exists over time, and so does not present itself at once—but nonetheless, like painting and sculpture, it presents itself. The listener is acted upon, even if, like a good Kantian, he is busy finding patterns among the notes.

A text, on the other hand, does not present itself: it is self-contained, a whole, and to be appreciated it requires the brain to decipher huge numbers of symbols and to assimilate gradually a complete body. The text, in a real sense, resists the eye, and does not easily give up its riches. A building, too, holds back: to appreciate it one must not only glance at its façade, and not only walk around the sides and back, but enter into it, to explore its internal structure, and as with a text, to build up gradually a sense of the whole. In this sense, it is categorically different from a sculpture; one might say that its text-like properties—recurrent themes, relations of part to whole, and most importantly, a semantics—are emergent at a certain level of three-dimensional complexity. A building, like a text, requires a sort of participation.

My aesthetics are naturally geared towards the self-contained, the whole and the hidden. These are the constituents of the sublime and the mystical—by which I really mean, they are my substitute for a self-contained, whole and hidden God, an Ein Sof. Literature and architecture display these God-like qualities: and so they are for me the highest art-forms. They are not for enjoyment or entertainment, but for quasi-religious contemplation.


Attempts to make architecture like sculpture alarm me—they seem to stem from a deep metaphysical confusion. Chris Miller compared the two forms on these very pages, though of course I do not wish to scold him. Again, take this statement from Bernard Rudofsky's classic manifesto of 1964, Architecture Without Architects:
Great builders draw no line between sculpture and architecture. With them, sculpture is not "commissioned" as an afterthought or budgetary dole.
This is not a fair example, I concede: Rudofsky is talking about the sculpture which is integrated into a building, and so becomes part of its architecture. In fact, I would quite agree with him. But there are more worrying manifestations. Back in 2001, Peter Wollen wrote a rather impressionistic piece on Situationism for the New Left Review, in which he discussed the Danish artist Asger Jorn and his 1948 essay, 'What is Ornament?'. Jorn, a founding Situationist and also an appallingly sloppy painter, had a quaint view of art:
For Jorn, the pairing of European versus oriental ran together with other pairings, such as classical versus spontaneous, idealist versus materialist, Apollonian versus Dionysiac, with Jorn supporting the second term throughout—oriental, materialist, spontaneous, Dionysiac, and so on.
Further, for Jorn:
the nature of art is not to imitate the external forms of nature (naturalism) but to create natural art. Natural sculpture which is true to its material will be identical to nature’s forms without seeking to imitate.
Jorn thus compares a minaret to a horsetail, and a totem-pole to a chestnut branch; the non-Western forms are seen as more organic, more rooted in the natural world. But as Wollen observes, 'Architecture and sculpture. . . here seem to be treated as if they were more or less the same thing.' Later, in the context of Gaudi and King Ludwig, Wollen develops the thought: ’Perhaps the main point is that all these buildings seem to meld sculpture with architecture, and to be works of the untrammelled imagination rather than of controlling reason.' Again, this time of Constant Nieuwenhuis' New Babylon, 'The plastic models were also designed to be both architectural and sculptural, to work as aesthetic objects in their own right, as well as intimations of future constructions.'

Minaret and horsetail: similar?

There is the sense here that non-Western architecture is more like sculpture, and thus more like nature—the contrast is between a formal, Apollonian architecture and a free, Dionysian sculpture. The Situationist desire—not a thousand miles from Rudofsky here—was to return to these natural and harmonious, sculptural forms, to 'de-Westernize' architecture. The problem with this desire is that it presupposes that the only difference between architecture and sculpture is morphological, and one of degree—a view that I have argued against above.


Jorn's notions about natural forms are part of a strong Romantic heritage, going back to the nineteenth century. In 1856, Western appropriation of Oriental graphic forms crystallised in Owen Jones' monumental folio volume, The Grammar of Ornament. The preface to this work contains a series of universal precepts about the shape of ornamental designs. First is the clear subordination of ornament to architecture—decoration to structure:
The Decorative Arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, Architecture.
In line with this is the 5th proposition, that 'Construction should be decorated. Decoration should never be purposely constructed', to which the subtitle is a reiteration of Keats, 'That which is beautiful is true; that which is true must be beautiful'. Second is a classic statement of Hegelian historicism:
Architecture is the material expression of the wants, the faculties, and the sentiments, of the age in which it is created.
More interesting is Jones' conception of beauty, from the 6th proposition: 'Beauty of form is produced by lines growing out one from the other in gradual undulations'. This naturalistic conception is expanded in propositions 11-13:

Jones, like Jorn, sees 'Oriental practice' as being in accordance with 'Natural law'. Ruskin wrote about the Gothic, rather than the Oriental—the two were commonly associated in contrast to 'rationalist' classicism—but like Jones he thought in terms of natural forms. Kenneth Clark summarises Ruskin's view that 'beauty of form is revealed in organisms which have developed perfectly according to their laws of growth, and so give, in his own words, 'the appearance of felicitous fulfilment of function'.' One of Ruskin's seven 'lamps' or principles of architecture is Honesty, and he criticises vaults that look like leaves but carry stress differently—constant reference is made to the natural world and its objects as perfect expressions of function in form.

In Abstraktion und Einfühlung (1907), the historicism and naturalism of Jones would become further theoretised by Wilhelm Worringer, also under the influence of Nietzsche's revival of the distinction between 'Apollonian' and 'Dionysian' art, the West and the East. This essay contrasted Western classicism, with its calm Einfühlung (empathy) to the world, to Gothic and Oriental styles of architecture, which display a fearful and fluid abstraction of form—he notes, for instance, the transformation of the geometric classical column into the more curvilinear piers of a Gothic church. Worringer, developing his dichotomies of West/East, civilised/primitive, and formal/spontaneous, supported the second term of each balance just as much as the first, and in doing so provided some justification for the primitivising tendencies of Modernist art. Architectural forms in his work become sculptural forms—purely morphological expressions of emotion. This is the tradition acquired by Jorn, whose painting represents the last and worst throes of Modernist primitivism, Abstract Expressionism.


I repeat myself: if, like Jorn and his predecessors, we reduce our notion of architecture to mere sculpture, mere shape, we significantly limit the possibilities of its form. We need not be Corbusierian rationalists to disagree with Jorn, and to suggest that it can do more. Architecture, unlike sculpture, has function—Ruskin still understood this, Worringer less so, and Jorn not at all—and it has a narrative, albeit an open one. It is this function and narrative which provide its semantic dimension; we come to a building as to a text, not just the figuration of shape (as with sculpture), but the intimation of a God—self-contained, whole and hidden from immediate view.

13 October, 2006


I haven't quoted any juicy academic nonsense for a while, so here's a treat, a fishy sort of codswallop, from Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, 'The Mediterranean and "the New Thalassology"', American Historical Review, 111.3.
Peripheries become cores, and it is arguably one of the main attractions of the newly created or identified areas that they tend to be politically neutral. Apart from ignoring national boundaries, they subvert imperial hierarchies that privilege some powers' involvement in the areas in question. Thus, for instance, in the "new" Atlantic historiography, a "white," a "black," a "green" (Irish), and even a "red" (Marxist) Atlantic may coexist in equilibrium. Sea history also helps to expose the "myth of continents" and the precedence that historians have given to land over water as the support of social life.
Racism, sexism and orientalism have been long exposed in the scholarly world; but not until now has seaism been revealed for the sham it truly is. Shame on you, historians, with your fascist deference to land-dwellers! Meanwhile, this month's prize for Most Inappropriate Use of the Word 'Obviously' goes to David Marsh, in his essay 'Alberti's Momus: Sources and Contexts':
Obviously, the Hispanic predilection for outlining works for students antedates the pedagogical efforts of Spanish educators like Vives and Loyola. In the 1430s, Alonso García, bishop of Burgos, persuaded Pier Candido Decembrio to divide his translation of Plato's Republic into similar chapter and headings.

12 October, 2006

Three language books

I bought some books yesterday: John Wilkins' Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668), the Yale Samuel Johnson on the English Language, and a Kessinger reprint of Franz Bopp's Comparative Grammar (1833, translated 1845). I didn't think of it at the time, but in hindsight there is an attractive logic to this choice—each book encapsulates the linguistic work of its century. Wilkins' work is the pinnacle of the universal language movement of the 1650s and 60s, and will sit happily on my shelf beside similar texts by Cave Beck, Comenius and George Dalgarno, as well as Urquhart's genre parody in The Jewel. Johnson represents the 18th-century development of lexicography and gentlemanly scholarship, a bedfellow of James Harris, Monboddo, Pope, and later Horne Tooke—and, for his understanding of the language, a significant advance on Skinner, but still some way short of Skeat. Bopp's text is the first great monument of the scientific linguistics of the 19th century, and almost single-handedly laid the foundations of modern Indo-European philology. I've read summaries and abridgements of his work before, but this is the gold, and it will be a joy to have this and the other two books in my burgeoning collection of pre-Chomskyan linguistics. I'm particularly interested in 19th-century England, with its ambivalent attitude (in linguistics as in Biblical criticism) towards the new German science, and maybe, when all this Plutarch nonsense is over, I'll write a book on it.

10 October, 2006

Counsel / council

Subito consilium cepi ut ante quam luceret exirem, ne qui conspectus fieret aut sermo, lictoribus praesertim laureatis. De reliquo neque hercule quid agam neque quid acturus sim scio; ita sum perturbatus temeritate nostri amentissimi consili. Tibi vero quid suadeam, cuius ipse consilium exspecto? Gnaeus noster quid consili ceperit capiatve nescio adhuc, in oppidis coartatus et stupens. Omnino, si in Italia consistat, erimus una; sin cedet, consili res est.

— Cicero, Letter to Atticus VII.10.
Five consecutive sentences, all using the word consilium, but in different senses, corresponding to shades of the English words counsel and council: respectively, 'I took counsel', 'our most insane council', 'whose counsel I am waiting for', 'whose counsel he took', 'a matter for the council'. From the OED's entries on counsel and council:
E. counsel, from L. consilium consultation, plan decided on as the result of consultation, advice, counsel, advising faculty, prudence; a deliberating body, a council of state, war, etc.; a counsellor. . . con- together + *sal- a root found also in consul, consulto, and prob. cognate with Skr. sar- to go.

E. council, from L. concilium (f. con- together + cal- to call) a convocation, assembly, meeting, union, connexion, close conjunction; sometimes an assembly for consultation, in which sense it became confused with consilium an advisory body. . . In English, the two words were, from the beginning, completely confused: conseil was frequently spelt conceil; concile was spelt consile and conceil; and the two words were treated as one, under a variety of forms, of which counseil, later counsel, was the central type. In the 16th c. differentiation again began: councel, later council, was established for the ecclesiastical concilium, F. concile; and this spelling has been extended to all cases in which the word means a deliberative assembly or advisory body (where L. has consilium, Fr. conseil), leaving counsel to the action of counselling and kindred senses. The practical distinction thus established between council and counsel does not correspond to Latin or French usage.
I love this, the deepest level of etymology, where one comes to realise that a word can indeed have more than one root. It is almost to return to the earliest etymologists, who were quite happy to find a different origin for each aspect of a word's meaning. Robert Grosseteste, for instance—and admittedly a relatively late one—in book three of his 1230 Hexaemeron, offers three explanations of caelum, 'sky': 1. from caelatum, 'engraved', because it is engraved with stars, 2. from celare, 'to hide', because it is hidden at night, and 3. from the bastard Greek-Latin casa heliou, 'house of the sun'.

07 October, 2006

Panta rhei: a statement

Chris Miller recently complimented Gawain's website for 'searching for something like wisdom — and that’s what I miss most in the blogs of the other very-smart people on the internet.' I couldn't help but feel that he was referring partly to me. Elsewhere, he tried to account for our philosophical differences, referring to my title: 'I don't pursue that kind of experience'. I had often wondered what Chris meant by that, but I think it is clearer now: it is not that I am not religious—for Gawain is as atheist as I am—but that I am (he thinks) not searching for wisdom. Probably he mistakes my assuredness for certainty, and equally probably he takes my historical ruminations as an impersonal lecture or linguistic exercise, with the dissociated poetic sensibility described by Eliot. I would like them to amount to more than that—but perhaps this is wishful thinking. Most of the pieces I've written here are fragments of historical narrative, or tentative articulations of world-view. It is an unreligious world-view, but one that leaves room for wonder. There is so much to delight me in the world, most of it hidden from immediate view, and much of it, I'm sure, because it is hidden from immediate view. The principal challenge for me is scepticism: by which I mean—Yes, but what then? Like Chris, and Gawain, I overcome the sceptical problem by opening myself up to the beautiful; only this action is misinterpreted, for what I find beautiful so rarely correlates with others. Beautiful to me are words and ideas, not images or symphonies. And beautiful to me too is exegesis, the potencies and frailties of the interpretive faculty, as mediates from us everything, as if a text.

Things are changing. This weekend I turn 25, and I've finally decided on a thesis-topic—or rather, a ball-park for one—hence no longer 'desperately seeking', though still, I fear, ultimately 'unmoored'. I'll be writing on Plutarch, a man caught up in wonder, in the challenge of scepticism, and in the beauty of a linguistic or exegetic world-view. This is not the end of the Varieties, but possibly the beginning of the end.

05 October, 2006

Cohn's New House

The image below has been all round the internet and back—no surprise there, it's a sockdolager. But nobody, it seems, has bothered to find out anything much about it. Well, except me. Following, then, is a contextual discussion, and after that a translation, courtesy of Simon Holloway.

The image is an engraving from the Ma'aseh Tovviyah, a 1707 encyclopaedia first printed in Venice. The book was compiled by one Tobias Cohn—whose name, due to the vagaries of Hebrew translation and transliteration, is variously rendered Tobias Moses Kohen, Toby ha-Cohen, Tovviyah Katz, Tuvviyah or Tuviyah Kats, or any combination thereof. There's a Wikipedia article about him. According to David Ruderman, the world authority on Early Modern Jewish science, there have been many editions of the Ma'aseh since 1707: in fact, the work was allegedly reprinted in Cracow (1908), in Jerusalem (1967, 1978) and even in Brooklyn (1974). However, I have not been able to find any reference on the internet to these modern editions. Even the Library of Congress has only a first edition. Readers will be interested to discover that they can purchase a copy on Abebooks, should they wish, for a mere $7,000—or $12,500 for a first edition.

The Ma'aseh, written 'in a rich Hebrew style rather than in Yiddish', contains material on all the sciences of Cohn's day—theology, astronomy, hygiene, botany, cosmography, and medicine. It is notable for containing a staunch 'refutation' of Copernicus, damning him as the 'first born of Satan' for contradicting the Tanakh. Despite this, much of it is forward-thinking: its chapter on medicine, which is by far the most significant part, is quite modern in two of its endorsements: the circulation of the blood propounded by William Harvey (see N. Allan's article here), and the secular iatrochemistry which had grown out of Paracelsus. This latter science, practiced in Cohn's day by Sylvius de la Boe and Thomas Willis, was strongly empirical, eschewing the mysticism of other Paracelsians like Robert Fludd. (The Ma'aseh, apparently, does not mention by name the outspokenly anti-semitic Paracelsus.) Cohn also advocates treatment based on similarity between illness and remedy—think vaccine, or homeopathy—rather than on contraries of Galenic humours, as previous writers had done. Ruderman concludes his chapter on Cohn from Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe:
By aspiring to train Jewish minds to identify knowledge with the layout of words on the printed page, rather than the divine hieroglyphics of the mysterious natural world, Cohen fully identified himself with an emerging field of study, a chemistry to be studied, methodized, and employed for purely utilitarian purposes rather than one to be experienced or religiously celebrated.
But while he advances towards empiricism, Cohn retains traces of the symbolical. For instance, like all good early modern physicians, he accepts physiognomy, basing his treatment on Giambattista Della Porta, as would many bright sparks well into the 19th century. And the illustration above demonstrates a rather poetical turn of thought, comparing the different parts of a man's body to the chambers of a house. The engraving is, in fact, titled 'Dr. Cohn's New House'. According to Allan, the conceit was taken from period sources—Harvey makes some limited reference to it, and Donne mutters, 'When I looke into the larders and cellars and vaults into the vessels of our body for drink, for blood, for urine, they are pottles and gallons'. The Donne connection is that of a modern literary scholar, and should not be taken seriously, as Cohn had no English. The association of man and architecture, at least on a very general scale, was ancient; Vitruvius invokes the architecture of temples—
Hence no building can be said to be well-designed which wants symmetry and proportion. In truth they are as necessary to the beauty of a building as to that of a well formed human figure.
I am not familiar with the post-Biblical Jewish sources, although we might compare Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) on a man's old age and death (12.3 ff.), which is at least as close as Donne:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened. . . Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Adam Clarke provides the classic exegesis of these lines, reading the keepers as hands, the strong men as legs, the grinders as teeth, the windows as eyes, the silver cord as the medulla oblongata or spinal marrow, the golden bowl as the skull, the pitcher as the vena cava, and the wheel as the great aorta. Clarke notes, fantastically: 'It has been often remarked that the circulation of the blood, which has been deemed a modern discovery by our countryman Dr. Harvey, in 1616, was known to Solomon, or whoever was the author of this book: the fountains, cisterns, pitcher, and wheel, giving sufficient countenance to the conclusion'. Simon Holloway, who should know about such things, warns me however that this passage is not necessarily microcosmic, despite the apparent obviousness of that interpretation.

Cohn's image soon achieved popular currency, and would be copied again and again; here is a version from the 1721 edition—

And below is a later Ottoman version, taken from an old Wellcome Library catalogue of new acquisitions. According to a personal email from Dr. Nikolaj Serikoff at the Wellcome Library, who offers his first opinion of the still-uncatalogued manuscript, this is a modern imitation of the 'Cerrahiye-i Ilhaniye written by Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu'. I have not been able to find any pictures from that work.

Recyclings and copies of pedagogical medical images were common in the 17th century: the famous prints of Vesalius would be pirated all over Europe, in medical texts by Helkiah Crooke, Juan de Valverde and others, even cropping up as late as the Encyclopédie (1751-65) of Diderot and D'Alembert. William Cowper was embroiled in a public spat with Govard Bidloo after he copied the latter's fine plates without acknowledgement. Often this practice was accepted, and even admired—Valverde openly admitted his use of Vesalius:
Although it seemed to some of my friends that I should make new illustrations without using those of Vesalius, I did not do so, in order to avoid the confusion that could follow. . . and because his illustrations are so well done that it would like envy or malignity not to take advantage of them.
Diderot, likewise, explains that his use of Vesalius is purely pragmatic: 'M. Tarin, chargé de l'Anatomie, s'éstoit appliqué à chercher dans chaque auteur les figures reconnues pour les meilleures'. It's not a bad defence.


I leave the reader with this, a translation that I commissioned from the Hebrew scholar Simon Holloway. He produced this piece very efficiently, and if it is anything to go by then the linguistic work he's doing on the Tanakh for his masters thesis will no doubt be greatly enlightening. Simon offered many fascinating notes, which I have edited for readability, at the risk of over-simplification; those interested can see his own post for a full commentary.

A New House

1a א The roof of the house and the citadel of
1b wisdom, is the head.

This line and line 10a are the only ones to employ a single letter at the start rather than two. I assumed at first that he was only putting in two letters for paired items, but this turns out not to be the case. On an off chance, I considered that this may be for religious reasons. א is often used in kabbalistic literature to refer to the singularity of the divine, and י is often employed as an abbreviation of God's name (יהוה). According to Wikipedia, Tobias Cohn was a fierce antagonist of the kabbalistic tradition. If that is true, that would rule out any possibility of the letters א and י being singular for any spiritual reason.

2a בב The horns [or, protrusions] of the house
2b and the ears.
3a גג The windows of the house
3b and the eyes.
4a דד Sealed windows
4b and the nostrils.
5a הה The upper opening
5b and the mouth and lips.
6a וו The roof of the house
6b and the shoulders.
7a זז The lattice windows of the house
7b and the lungs.

The etymological root of the word for "lungs" is רוה which means to be moist, reflecting the Talmudic belief that the lungs were designed to absorb liquid.

8a חח An oven and stoves.
8b And that is the liver, and the container of
8c the bile.
9a טט The cookery
9b and the stomach.
10 י The storage room and the spleen.
11 לל Transporters of the waste-product.
12 ממ -?- of the urine.

I have thus far been unable to work out what the verb might be.

13 ננ The storage room of the water.
14a סס The pool and the tank
14b or the container of the urine.
15a עע The root of agony
15b or the stronghouse,
15c and the heart and all of its openings.
16a פפ The foundations of the house
16b and the legs.

Under the two images, the following is written:

17 פפ The foundations of the house—under the image of the house
Man is from dust, his foundation is פפ—under the image of the man.

03 October, 2006

Dali on Raphael

Who would have imagined it? M. Dali, who is after all only the Salvator of modern art, has succeeded in transforming a humble dauber of the Cinquecento, by name R. Sanzio (pictured, right, in a rather unflattering self-portrait), into one of the most majestic stars of the artistic firmament! M. Dali is well known to be the great critic of our times, for only he has the courage to say what others cannot, the audacity to place his pedicular appendage on the true path to wisdom, and the eyes to examine the fine and corpuscular inquisitorial activity of form upon matter. The mustachio'd conquistador exclaims in his priceless Fifty Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship (1948):
Ingres yearned to paint like Raphael and only painted like Ingres; Raphael yearned to paint like the Ancients and exceeded them.
And so we might equally say that Dali yearned to paint like Raphael and exceeded him. He has shown us the true futurism and eternal youth of that Florentine, 'angelic Raphael' (Cocus du Vieil Art Moderne, 1957), who is 'the most anti-academic, the most tenderly living and the most futuristic of all the aesthetic archetypes of all times', or as he remarks in his Fifty Secrets: 'there is a futurist painter, if by this one means that he will continue more and more to exert an active influence on the future!' It is apparent that M. Dali discovered his love for Raphael just before the Spanish Civil War; as he tells us in his 1942 Secret Life:
We were consumed with admiration over reproductions of Raphael. There one could find everything—everything that we surrealists have invented constituted in Raphael only a tiny fragment of his latent but conscious content of unsuspected, hidden and manifest things. But all this was so complete, so synthetic, so one, that for this very reason he eludes our contemporaries.
And he does not stop there, but is able by virtue of a precise Pythagorean-Euclidean calculus to quantify the painter's genius. In the Fifty Secrets he produces a Comparative Table of the Values After Dalinian Analysis Elaborated During Ten Years; here he rates artists from history according to a series of criteria: craftsmanship, inspiration, colour, design, genius, composition, originality, mystery, and authenticity. Each category has a maximum value of 20. Mondrian (whose given name, as Dali observes in the Cocus, is only one letter short of a fart, pet) scores especially poorly:

0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0.5, 0, 3.5

We are perhaps relieved that our hero chose not to include Turner, as elsewhere he has been kind enough to elucidate for us that 'the worst painter who ever lived was named Joseph Turner'. Dali himself scores respectably:

12, 17, 10, 17, 19, 18, 17, 19, 19

We note that Dali considers himself not sublime in the matter of colour, scoring only 10 points out of 20. And angelic Raphael himself?

19, 19, 18, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20

Raphael is in fact second to Vermeer, whom Dali once glorified in the form of a side-table, and to whom Dali awards maximum points in all categories except originality, where he picks up a mere 19. These two gods of the alchemical brush are considered more highly than all others, and along with Velazquez constitute an insurpassable triumvirate of classical painting, through whom one can discern the impalpable perfection of the suprasensible spheres.

Are there any Raphael canvases which Dali loves overmuch? The answer to this question must be in the affirmative. For the Spaniard more than once brings to his pen the incomparable Saint George of 1505, 'which has remained fresh as a rose!' (Cocus)—or as he puts it in the Fifty Secrets:
And while all around us modern painting ages spiritually and materially, becoming so quickly outmoded, turning yellow, darkening, breaking out in cracks and all the stigmata of decrepitude, a painting of Raphael, for example the Saint George slaying the dragon, grows younger day by day, not only spiritually, to the point of appearing today as philosophically the most up-to-date, but also materially.
Here we see the broken shafts of a lance arranged perspectivally upon the ground, recalling the San Romano, that great masterpiece of Uccello, 'who painted armor that looked like little ortolans and did this with a grace and mystery worthy of the true bird that he was and for which he was named' (Secret Life). Nevertheless George's horse is preposterously fat on its little legs, and the distressed damsel is poorly integrated into the composition.

We take it as dazzlingly obvious that the lesson to be learnt from this whole escapade is not the great value of Raphael, but rather the great value of holding up as the paragon of superlunary ability an antecedent or forebear, so as to constitute therein one's own Star of Bethlehem, and in fact to encourage self-identification thereto, or in plain words to be enriched hyperplenarily with the cornucopian wealth of genius afforded by phantasmagorical abasement at the knees of a fellow magus, a soft submersion of self.