29 May, 2007

Art and the Festering Foot Fungus

Gawain writes, in a spot of 'collegial pugilisation' directed at me:
Alas, this sort of “art history of ideas” is usually no more than the writer’s flight of fancy, a kind of free association of ideas. All it does is link some work of art, or some fragment of style to something else—some kind of signifier in the author’s brain—like Plato’s forms, or socio-economic theories, or moral concepts, or psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, proceeding by this excellent method it is possible to relate everything to everything else—“Paintings and The Proletarian Struggle”, certainly, but how about—“Paintings and The Festering Foot Fungus”?
(Why 'unfortunately', I wonder?) My obvious response was Festering foot fungus? Now there's an idea, my dear alliterative Pole. It must have been the Stephen Potter in me. Thus, for my pugilisatory friend, and of course for the rest of you as well—


My readers may think the title quite a challenge. Not me. I knew immediately where first to turn: Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, painted around 1547 by one of Gawain's favourites, Bronzino. Most of us here have seen the image, a grand hieroglyph of the mannerist age, but how many know the latest soundings of its mysteries? It turns out that Bronzino's Folly (also called Pleasure) provides an exquisite example of Cinquecento piede d'atleta, athlete's foot, or to give the affliction its proper scientific name, tinea pedis. Here is Folly's right foot, after a recent restoration of the panel by the good people at the National Gallery:

We can clearly see the effects of unchecked trichophyta between and along the toes; compare, for reference, a modern photograph of the condition:

Bronzino was no doubt working from a model—probably a friend or associate with the condition. Representations of tinea pedis are rare in the Renaissance, and other sorts of foot-disease were painted more often. For instance, in Poussin's Bacchanalian Revel of 1632 (left) we find a sort of scabrous welting of the whole foot, while Peter's foot in Tintoretto's Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples (1565, right) seems to be experiencing the early stages of necrosis:

It would be appropriate, I wager, to conduct a full-length survey and analysis of the social history of foot disease in Renaissance painting; but this, of course, is beyond our present ambit, and so I offer merely a few remarks on the narrower subject of Bronzino's tinea in oils. Now, as I said, painted tineae are rare; the only other examples from this period that spring to mind—a Barocci Magdalene, and, if memory serves me aright, an allegorical leper by Scarsellino—are not to be found online; both of these, moreover, are at least a generation later than Bronzino's panel. So I know of no precedents in painting for this image, although I'm sure Gombrich could have pointed me in the right direction.

Contemporary medicine, on the other hand, provides a few clues. In 1546 a treatise was published in Venice by Girolamo Fracastoro entitled De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis. This was the first book to work out fully a theory of the contagion and transmission of disease: Fracastoro denied the Hippocratic-Galenic doctrine that all illness results from an imbalance of humours. Thus, while the mediaeval Galenists had taught that skin diseases (including the mycosis or morbus militis—our tinea) were caused by a drying-out of the body's bile or phlegm, Fracastoro instead posited that they were transferred from one body to another by offensive particles called seminaria. (The latter word is related to the atomic semina of Lucretius, although Fracastoro's theory has more in common with the Neoplatonic concept of species or immaterial emanation: for more details, see this pdf.)

Fracastoro further linked skin-diseases in general, and mycosis in particular, to syphilis. This should not surprise us. Fracastoro was the master of syphilis; he dined and slept with it, and was its confidant, its Boswell, even its Milton. In 1530 he'd written an epic poem on the subject, in three books, entitled Syphilis sive morbus gallicus, which in fact is the origin of our word. (A French epitome of the book is online here.) The poem was a hit, and went through 50 editions in Latin alone. It would not be too much to say that syphilis was responsible for Fracastoro's career, and by golly, he was determined to capitalise on it. The precise relation between the 'master disease' and mere mycosis is never spelled out in the De Contagione, but perhaps he perceived the latter as a milder, even inchoate form of the loathsome cankers assigned to syphilis in the previous epic:
Protinus informes totum per corpus achores
Rumpebant, faciem horrendam, et pectora foede

Shapeless scabs burst at once through the body
and the dread face, and foully disfigured the breast.
What is important for our present purposes is that, according to J. F. Conway's pathbreaking 1986 analysis, syphilis itself appears allegorically in Bronzino's famous painting:

Here syphilis, generating madness as it did for Nietzsche, is the gruesome result of the triumph of lust, symbolised by the principal action. Conway makes use of Fracastoro in his discussion of Bronzino; if we allow that the painter knew the Syphilis, we may go further and suggest that he also knew De Contagione, and thus date the Venus after 1546, possibly the following year. The cute cherub with the cutaneous mycosis joins the triumph of lust, scattering his poisonous petals upon the amorous couple—an incarnation of the seminaria that carry disease from one body to another. Bronzino was adding his small vote of support to Fracastoro's new theory, a bold move; but he hardly wanted to mar the fine, glossy surface of his ducal commission with something so ugly as a fungal infection, so he confined the disease to the boy's foot, a tiny detail, which indeed had been lost to dirt and varnish until the recent cleaning.

As so often, it is the smallest elements—for Morelli an ear or a hand, for me a tineatic foot—that yield the greatest interpretive riches. Gawain would not agree, but perhaps the rest of my readership will give the idea some credence.

27 May, 2007

Brotherly love

At the age of eight I accompanied my parents, and possibly my grandfather, who was then living in a retirement community in rural Pennsylvania, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a new experience for me, and this remains my earliest memory of any art gallery in the world. I fell in love with that old bastard Picasso around this time, but what really set me off, I think, was this, Chagall's 1911 Half Past Three (The Poet)

A green head—and upside down! It captured me. Such was the inexorable course I took towards a puberty-long love of modernist painting. I was soon to trick up a theory, too: while browsing the Musée Picasso, which was at that time my Mecca, I decided, apropos of not much, to found my own aesthetic calculus on three 'primary' qualities, each ranked out of 10: colour, weight (or solidity), and balance. The middle term charged me as something of a Berensonian, I realise now, though of course I had never heard of him. So for the next hour I scuttled around the gallery, rating each canvas out of 30. It satisfied me then. But a man changes, and I would not remain Clive Bell forever. Now Chagall bores me. Cooled, in fact, are my affections to a vast majority of the art that occupied the first ten years of my gallery-going life. But even now, as Chagalls go, this is better than average—perhaps you will agree.


Why the reminiscence? Yesterday I returned to the Philadelphia Museum with my wife: my first time since the first time. On this occasion we scorned the modernists, and clove solely to the pre-1500 masters on the second floor. Mrs. Roth admired the fragments of Gothic baukunst; I marvelled at the Van der Weyden Crucifixion, a primitive Navicella by Giovanni di Paolo, and some second-tier late Botticelli predellas. There was also this, unexpectedly, in a sea of orientalia to which I remained largely indifferent:

A combination-padlock securing a nineteenth-century Chinese chest, and far handsomer than its client. At six or so, as the sunlight intensified in the west, Jeff 'Tain' Watts and his band appeared for a scheduled performance in the gallery's atrium. The smart set sat on the grand stone steps; the smarter sat at tables, nibbling on salads and quaffing red—I watched with amusement from the balcony as a gourmand and his wife took turns fondling the lower back, not quite the bottom, of their young waitress as she bent over to clear the table, chastely uniformed—a little moment of voyeurage almost lost in the whobub of glasses and cutlery and Tain's frenzy on the skins.


With us were Paul Zenoli and his wife Marty, who had invited us, on the basis merely of the Varieties and subsequent correspondence, to spend a couple of days with them in and around Philadelphia. (Finally, an ulterior use for this thing!) They are, truth be told, a most splendid couple, whose hospitality during our short stay was impeccable—a Baucis and Philemon of our times, replete with cats and laughter, although being mere mortals ourselves we could not quite repay their generosity.

With the Zenolis we partook on foot a little of the city in its wafting glow. Through Rittenhouse Square we walked, and it thought me of Jane Jacobs, whose case study of the four Philadelphian squares is a beacon of attentiveness and crisp thinking. A graffitum opposite the fountains proclaimed, 'Life is more than just love'. But Marty was more interested in the prams and strollers, of which she spoke like an automobile enthusiast, full of love, and lovingly scornful of the overpriced and underdesigned models being jollied about under the trees by affluent bourgeoisettes in the latest summer-frocks. She seemed to know what she was talking about, and her cogent and unusual contempt was just the sort of thing to delight me.

When exploring a new city, the candescence of evening—or morning—is quite the ticket. (Though punishing rain has its merits too.) Being alone gives the experience its own thrill; having company, on the other hand, even unmet company, as we did, provides the new environment with a certain readymade familiarity. At times I was reminded of Manhattan; at times Berkeley, especially in the profusion of surface detail upon façades of brick and stone. On Thursday we took in the Mütter Museum, a latterday wonderkammer, taciturn and macabre, whose highlights included a Huttesque colon, a case of suicided skulls, and several drawerfuls of objects removed from foolish throats.

I enjoyed the Mütter; but to me the greater museum was the one outside, full of living specimens and huge, intricately-carved machines for living in. The city, for once, had just the right amount of life, neither crowded nor empty. When we emerged from the darkness, Paul's lost cap was discovered in the middle of the road, ground into the dirt by innumerable wheels in the space of an hour, yet quite intact. He wore it jauntily, undeterred.

For supper, by which time we'd all relaxed a bit with each other, Paul cooked up a polenta with onions, walnuts and bleu cheese, perfectly delicious. As I said at the time, I'm always impressed by culinary skills, so lacking am I in that department. The herbs and vegetables they had grown themselves—il faut cultiver le jardin—and all of us at that moment were feeling old, in a happy way: sated. We toasted, as was most natural, the internet, most revolutionary of modern innovations, for bringing together such an unlikely gang. And we were each just a little relieved that the others' online sanity had not, after all, concealed psychoses in the real world. All four heads were distinctly white, not green, and, thank goodness, on the right way around.

23 May, 2007

Roth's Law

When a man in conversation drops an obscure name—generally from distant history—and is called upon to explain himself, his first description of the figure in question will be that he is or was 'well-known', 'famous', or the like. The probability of this happening is directly proportional to the recondity of the explicandum. This trope, we note, serves to exculpate the careless erudition of the speaker, who could hardly have expected his interlocutor, or interlocutrix, to require clarification of so obvious a point of general knowledge.


George. The current crisis in the British educational system, so much anatomised and commented upon in the papers of late, rather reminds one of the remarks of Nathaniel Fairfax, does it not? 'Tis better to—

Cecil. Hang on there, buddy! Who's Nathaniel Fairfax?

George. Ah, my apologies. Fairfax was a very famous scholar of the seventeenth century. As I was saying, 'Tis better to question the. . .

22 May, 2007

Festina Lente

I concluded my last post with some rather compressed comments on humour; the laughter of Palaeologus, I wrote, 'is a laughter at that which breaks away from common sense, from judgement, from taste, and from the organic'. These items were not picked at random. They are, in fact, according to Gadamer, in his largely unreadable Truth and Method, the four central concepts of humanism. The humanist, as opposed to the scientist, is not concerned with method: instead he engages in a collective endeavour, guided by tradition and authority, taste and common sense. This post is about the relation of humanism, under this aspect, to the problem of humour, exemplified in the mocking of pedantry.


Humanism is the reaction to an intellectual life made mechanical, formal. This is not yet a definition, of course, but it is a start. Its kinship with humour is that laughter, too, is a reaction against the mechanical life. The great modern work on this theme is a slim and charming volume, Henri Bergson's On Laughter (online here), published in 1901. But first—Erasmus.

Between 1500 and 1533, the great humanist Erasmus compiled his Adagia, a collection of some 4,251 classical proverbs and commonplaces with a rich scholarly commentary—a truly astonishing achievement. One of his most well-known adages was 'Festina Lente' or hasten slowly. Aldus adopted it for a slogan, its visual counterpart being an emblem of dolphin and anchor, which he used as a printer's mark (see also here). Erasmus suggests a possible origin for the expression in a witty inversion of the Greek σπεύδε ταχέως, 'hasten hastily', found in Aristophanes' The Knights. It is most famous as the official motto of the Roman emperors Augustus and Titus; Erasmus thus dubs it the 'royal proverb', and remarks that it advocates 'a wise promptness together with moderation, tempered with both vigilance and gentleness, so that nothing is done rashly and then regretted, and nothing useful to the common weal omitted out of carelessness'. It represents, in short, the reining of passion by reason, Plato's ideal of statecraft—it is the paragon of proverbs.

Erasmus relates the adage to Aulus Gellius' discussion of the word maturus (ripe) in Noctes Atticae 10.11, and this turns out to be one of the most interesting chapters in the entire Noctes. The 'ripe' man, for Gellius, acts neither too soon nor too late: he is perfectly responsive to his environment. He embodies the ideal of 'elasticity of conduct', which we now associate with Machiavelli, and which was central to Renaissance virtue. Compare Auerbach, for instance, on the knavish Dindenault from Rabelais's Quart Livre
He is taken in and he perishes because he cannot adjust himself, cannot change himself, but instead, in his blind folly and vaingloriousness, runs straight forward, like Picrochole or the écolier limousin, his one-track mind incapable of registering his surroundings. . . Thick-headedness, inability to adjust, one-track arrogance which blinds a man to the complexity of the real situation, are vices to Rabelais.
The idea is not limited to the Renaissance: Goethe, arch-humanist, invokes the same principle when, in the prelude to Faust, the director tells the poet to 'wandelt mit bedächtger Schnelle', 'walk with thoughtful haste'. This classical-humanist virtue, without name but embodied in the proverb Festina lente, is a reaction to mechanical life. It bids us guard against rote, habit, unquestioned assumption, casual blindness—the 'inability to adjust' that is characteristic of unthinking method, of a clock or a machine. This is the stuff of death, of scholastic dialectic, and humanism is rather the exaltation of life.

Why should a sausage be an everlasting jest? If I tried to answer that, I should require, as M. Bergson did, a whole volume to show the world that I do not understand what laughter is.

— Stephen N. Palaeologus
Bergson has been called a 'philosopher of life' and a 'vitalist'; his concept of the élan vital was an attempt to extract the wonder of life from the analytical scalpels of cold science. In this respect, I think, he shares the orientation of Erasmus and Rabelais. On Laughter is a short book, crammed with beautiful insights, some of them true—Bergson's chief contention is that laughter is the response of a society towards anti-social behaviour. Ridicule is the sublimation of an instinct to destroy or ostracise; it is humane because it offers its target an opportunity to change. And society specifically targets those who are pedantic, absent-minded, and arrogant—those displaying the 'easy automatism of acquired habits'—which reveal 'the gravest inadaptability to social life'.

Bergson's example is that of a man striding down the street with airs and with his nose retroussée, quite failing in his gait to notice the stray banana-skin upon which he will proceed to tumble, so gracelessly, down. The man's 'obstinacy' prevents him from negotiating the pitfalls that life presents to him—he is very much like Rabelais's Dindenault. Bergson's key word is rigidity, which he equates with the 'mechanisation of the body'. In truth, he writes, 'a really living life should never repeat itself'—a statement which at once encapsulates Bergson's vitalist philosophy and his account of laughter. It also recapitulates, as far as I can tell, the old maxim: Festina lente.

What were they saying about laughter in Rabelais's day? I have here the very thing: Laurent Joubert's 1560 Treatise on Laughter. Joubert was a Montpellier physician, like Rabelais, only one generation later. He wrote a book on Popular Errors (I own the partial translation by Gregory de Rocher)—which would prove most instrumental to Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica—and also a Dialogue Sur La Cacographie Française. He still lacks a Wiki article. Joubert writes,
I am astonished that not one of those noble authors who have gone before us has undertaken the search for the causes which move us to laugh, considering that it is one of the most astounding actions of man, if one examines it closely.
Most of his treatise is taken up with the physiological origins of laughter, which do not here concern us. His psychology of laughter, on the other hand, is dull and commonplace: 'What we see that is ugly, deformed, improper, indecent, unfitting, and indecorous excites laughter in us, provided that we are not moved to compassion'. This is the Aristotelian notion, and it is perfectly pious. By the eighteenth century the piety was mostly intact, although as James Beattie (1764) observes, contra Aristotle, 'men laugh at that in which there is neither fault nor turpitude of any kind'. For Beattie, rather, 'certain forms of irregularity and unsuitableness raise within us that agreeable emotion whereof LAUGHTER is the outward sign'. It is still very bloodless. More interesting to us is Sterne:
I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.
For Bergson, as for Sterne, laughter is the stuff of Life—and it is an active process, a struggle, or an aspect thereof. Laughter is the product of common sense, which
represents the endeavor of a mind continually adapting itself anew and changing ideas when it changes objects. It is the mobility of the intelligence conforming exactly to the mobility of things. It is the moving continuity of our attention to life.
For Bergson—as for Erasmus and Gadamer—'common sense' is not yet a dirty word. (Two words, if you prefer.) It is not yet the sinister, coercive common sense defined by Einstein as 'the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen'. We see that Einstein's attitude is essentially the same as that of Plato to opinion, or of Bacon to authority. It is an anti-humanistic attitude, in that it scorns tradition, proclaiming instead a scepticism oriented around the individual—each man must learn the truth for himself, by direct ratiocination (Plato) or observation of nature (Bacon). Gadamer, on the other hand, uses the Latin form, sensus communis, which retains some of the freshness of the idea: the sense common to all. In my last post I wrote, 'what is the new old, or the old new, but humanism itself: liberty in culture, in tradition?' Humanism represents liberty in what is common and open—the great storehouse of the past, of history, which is of course not dead at all, but rather the animating force, the élan vital, of the present. This is why for Gadamer, humanism is that which makes sense of an object not by an analysis of its contents, but by a study of its origins.

And it is why the Bergsonian ridiculous is manifested in pedantry, defined as a pathological blindness to the limits imposed by tact, by experience in society: it is 'nothing else than art pretending to outdo nature'. The humanist's laughter is a rejection of the ahistorical—of that which has no past, and which therefore repeats itself as a machine, without vitality, unable to adapt—it is a rejection of the inhuman. I think we can all appreciate the value of such a laughter.

19 May, 2007

Palaeological grammar

What follows, as promised, is a discussion of a book you've never heard of. If after reading this you want to own it, there's a copy on abebooks for 10 dollars. The post is rather long, for two reasons: first, it's a fascinating book, and second, there is not yet any information about it online. This post is also in celebration of a culture, a tweeded and surrisive aristocracy of the intellect, now long dead. So savour this, in small doses if necessary, over cheese, and a glass of port.

Even if Mr. Conrad cannot agree with my grammar, I trust he will pardon my taking this liberty with his always daintily scrambled eggs.

— 'Stephen Palaeologus'
A few years ago—three and a half, I'd estimate—I was browsing in the second-hand department of the Gower Street Waterstones, where I invariably find things to buy, when I chanced upon a rather ugly, dun green hardback, the title of which caught my eye—Michael Neo Palaeologus His Grammar, by his Father Stephen N. Palaeologus. Wouldn't that catch your eye, reader? Within moments of perusing its pages, I had a purchase. As we sauntered down Gower Street, N, who accompanied me, and who was now on his mobile, enthusiastically told his interlocutor that Conrad had just bought a grammar-book with playing-cards for chapter titles. This was partially true. The Grammar, after all, does have playing-cards for chapter titles. But it is not a grammar. It is, in fact, one of the most bizarre works I have ever come across. And so, specially petitioned, I shall inaugurate my discussion of the book, thus—


On the title-page of most J. M. Dent books from the 1920s is the graphic of a tree—don't ask me which kind, I'm not that sort—with a pendent JMD monogram. On the title-page of the Grammar, and of a few choice others, such as the Works of Landor, is instead the image of a sundial:

Shadows we are, it says, and Like shadows depart. A quick spell on the net will reveal that this legend belongs to a sundial in Pump Court, part of the Middle Temple. As Henry Frederic Reddall puts it—in 'A Temple Pilgrimage' from an 1885 issue of Lippincott's Magazine—'In Pump Court, high up on the front of a house is a large, rectangular dial, with gilt figures and stile, bearing the inscription, "Shadows we are and like shadows depart." Over the dial is the traditional Temple lamb bearing a cross.' The sundial, dating from around 1686, was restored in 1902:

Later Dent would use the same image for Reginald Hine's Confessions of an Uncommon Attorney (1949). But why in this case, for a book ostensibly about grammar, bearing the pseudonym of a Byzantine monarch? Is there a logic to it? Chance or not, the mot casts its own spell over the book's contents.

The Milieu of Palaeologus.

The title-page emblem seems to tell us nothing about the nature of the Grammar; but we have better luck with the two names singled out for thanks in its front matter. The first is A. B. Walkley, a typical Edwardian critic of the Quiller-Couch variety—jolly, sardonic and learned. He frequently quotes Sterne, and in one essay ('My Uncle Toby Puzzled') pastiches him. In another 1921 essay, on Grock, he calls for a 'philosophy of clowns', remarking that 'that is where clowns may enjoy a secret, malign pleasure; they proudly confront a universe which delights in them but cannot describe them'. Palaeologus' dedication reads, 'Ickpling Gloffthrobb squutserumm blhiop mlashnalt zwin tnodbalkguffh slhiophad gurdlubh asht'. Literate readers will recognise this as a quotation from the third book of Gulliver's Travels:
I raised my self gently upon my Knees, and then striking my Forehead seven Times on the Ground, I pronounced the following Words, as they had been taught me the Night before, Ickpling Gloffthrobb Squutserumm Blhiop Mlashnalt Zwin Tnodbalkguffh Slhiophad Gurdlubh Asht. This is the Compliment established by the Laws of the Land for all Persons admitted to the King's Presence. It may be rendered into English thus: May your coelestial Majesty out-live the Sun, eleven Moons and an half.
Palaeologus thus pays Walkley a rather ironic and irreverent compliment, very much setting the tone for the rest of the book. The second name comes at the end of a list of picture credits: 'I cannot close this list of a few of my obligations without expressing my sincerest thanks to Dr. F. C. S. Schiller, of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, for much kindness'. Schiller is now forgotten, like all the other Oxbridge philosophers swept away by the positivists in the 1920s. He is especially significant to us, however, for two reasons.

The first is that Schiller, like Palaeologus, was a prankster. He published his first work, The Riddles of the Sphinx (1891), anonymously, and in 1901 he organised and edited a hilarious volume named Mind!, a group parody of the lucubrious philosophy periodical Mind. The central target of this collection was the neo-Hegelian Idealist F. H. Bradley, whose work Schiller described as 'inhuman, incompetent and impracticable intellectualism'. Like his pragmatist mentor James, and like the positivists, Schiller relentlessly attacks the idea of an Absolute. Mind! opens with this:

It is with the utmost satisfaction that we present to our readers an authentic Portrait of the Absolute, in full panoply, R-rayed in the parinfernalia of Its Office and X-rayed by the new and powerful Shamoscope which we have recently invented and patented and can warrant to see through everything. . . All who have seen It assure us that it is an excellent likeness.
The rest of the book consists of assorted satires and pseudo-philosophical meditations on laughter itself. Schiller's editorial explains:

The jocoscopic analysis of the light of the 'Nova Mentis, 1901,' shows a pretty continuous bright spectrum chiefly composed of the 'enhanced' lines due to the presence of large quantities of the more frivolous gases.

'F. H. Badly' contributes an article on 'The place of humour in the absolute', spoofing his namesake's turgid style:
It would be easy, if one took the trouble, to prove in another way that the Absolute must take in jokes, without being taken in itself—although we may be. We can not therefore regard the Absolute with levity, but must preserve our gravity in discussions of the sort. For if we lost it, where should we be? Not in the universe, assuredly; for gravitation is universal.
Likewise, there are specimens from the Critique of Pure Rot, and a translation by Lord Pilkington (of Milkington) of Vergil's lost Eclogues, featuring Damon and Pythias swapping limericks on the pre-Socratics. The best of these is:
When issuing NOUS! A---
Was asked: "Are you sage now, or wagorass?"
He replied: "Why of that,
'Tis as plain as my hat,
Man's the measure. I hold with P-----"
But these clunkers I reproduce for the pleasure of John Emerson:
The divinest philosopher, P---,
Proved comforting very to Cato;
But our wiseacres laugh,
Immortality chaff,
And think him the smallest potato.

An Asklepiad, great A----
Felt terribly tempted to throttle
Alexander, his pup;
But they asked him to sup,
So he buried his wrath in a bottle.
Mind! concludes with a commentary on The Hunting of the Snark, identifying the Snark with the Absolute itself. It's a gem.

But Schiller is doubly interesting to us; for he also participated in a debate of some historic importance, in the October 1920 issue of Mind, the same periodical he had skewered two decades previously. This symposium, on the philosophy and psychology of language, was entitled 'The Meaning of Meaning', and its other contributors were Bertrand Russell and H. H. Joachim. It was a perfect standoff, each man representing one of the three chief philosophical schools then in competition—Joachim for Bradley's idealism, then on its last legs, Schiller for pragmatism, and Russell for positivism. The debate itself is, truth be told, very boring, and quite the sort of thing that put me off my undergraduate degree. But it resulted in one of the most famous philosophy books of the decade, Ogden and Richards' 1923 The Meaning of Meaning.

Ogden and Richards were a curious duo. Ogden is known now for translating Wittgenstein and Vaihinger, and for developing Basic English. Richards wrote on Mencius, Romantic poetry and pedagogy, as well as tutoring Leavis and Empson and founding the New Criticism. What brought them together was the belief (found also in both Wittgenstein and and the neo-Kantian Vaihinger) that much of philosophy's traditional domain would be better analysed by a study of signification and symbolism. The Meaning of Meaning attempted to set out once and for all how meaning worked—it popularised the 'semiotic triangle' of Word, Idea and Thing, and concluded with a list of definitions of 'meaning', shown to be a most slippery and polysemous word. It scorned the quibbles and cavils of the Mind debaters: 'A study of the utterances of Philosophers suggests that they are not to be trusted in their dealings with Meaning'. Schiller, for his part, gave the book a rather sniffy review in Mind. But the book, and the preceding debate, are the true intellectual ancestors of Palaeologus' Grammar.

Palaeologus, then, thanks a Shandean critic and a philosopher with a penchant for satire; it is plain that these two represent the prominent modes of the text itself. In some ways this mirrors the partnership of philosophy (Ogden) and criticism (Richards) in The Meaning of Meaning. It is worth noting, finally, that both Walkley and Schiller were connected to Corpus Christi, Oxford. Could this be a coincidence? Out of curiosity I thumbed through the college's 1880-1974 register, but alas, found no obvious candidates for the Grammar's authorship.


The Grammar was published the year after The Meaning of Meaning, and at times Palaeologus echoes Ogden and Richards so closely that I'm sure he saw their book before its publication. The Grammar falls into two parts: 'What happens when we think?', and 'What happens when we say what we think?'—these, indeed, are the true subjects of the book. Palaeologus announces his themes with a parable of three lions: 'my chief object will be to show what an absurd, superfluous beast is the lion that calls himself a grammarian'. On this he elaborates as follows:
Now, even if I and the grammarian lion finally agree that we have parsed [a sentence] perfectly, I maintain that if we had spent our time catching sand-fleas or trimming our manes we should have had at least something to show for our pains. What earthly use is this parsing to me? What really interests me is to discover who said it.
This is a trumpet-call against the study of grammar, the epitome of the pointless pedantry; what a similar spirit to that of Mind!, which saw Bradleian Idealism in the same light. Palaeologus' sentiment was well shared by contemporaries, in whose hands the study of language moved essentially away from grammar and towards philosophy and psychology—until the eventual reintegration of these currents, thanks to You Know Who.

In fact, Palaeologus, with a wry panache, calls his new subject grammar, only it is no longer 'palaeological grammar'—it is now 'neo-palaeological grammar'. Language, instead of being treated as a pure abstraction, is treated as something chaotic, communicative, rhetorical, and ambiguous—as alive:

Language seen under the microscope of palaeological (left)
and neo-palaeological (right) grammar.
The term "neo-palaeo-logical" must be taken to stand for a less dogmatic, less confident attitude towards language; one that starts by assuming that all we can do is to use language, to understand what we mean to mean, and to understand what we think others to mean.
In all this the Grammar is quite in line with The Meaning of Meaning, only more entertaining. Its first few chapters outline a standard account of the psychology of signification, using cartoon language. The universe is 'fizzing' and 'patchy', it says: all patches are 'suispontaneous' (ie. they are things), but some patches are also 'homispontaneous' (ie. signs of other things). Human beings match the two sorts of patches (ie. they find words for things). Like a good Lockean, Palaeologus can write: 'By using the match SUN, I can produce a fizzle in you corresponding to the fizzle of a patch which may or may not be in your way at this (or any other) time'. A later chapter expands on the communicative process: the sender of a message (called a 'here-am-I', possibly parodying the Germans) creates a 'ding' (signal), which in turn produces in the receiver either a 'ting' (information) or a 'sting' (emotional response).

Why all this silly jargon? For two reasons. First, the book is supposed to be comic, and is allegedly being written for the author's son—at times the humour reminds one of The Water Babies. (There is something inherently odd, though, about writing a comic, Kingsleyesque tome on the philosophy of language.) Second, it is specifically making fun of The Meaning of Meaning, which found Richards casually coining the word 'ultraquistic' [or recoining 'utraquistic', see comments], among others, for no good reason.

The language of the Grammar is, in fact, utterly delightful, and possibly its chief selling-point. Benign mockery is everywhere. Victorian mores are the target when the author refers to trousers as 'whateveryouchoosetocallems'. Classical philology is ribbed when Aeschylus is ransacked for the term 'hippalectors', used here to refer to advertising-executive scum. Rabelais is invoked with the coinage 'circumpiccadilliously', and also with the sausage-themed 'allantopoleosophy' or study of bias. Elsewhere we find 'algebrahmin', 'oughthorities' and the Aristotelian 'tragelaphs'. Wocky-Bocky, the name of an Indian chief in a story by Artemus Ward, is resurrected to mean 'the general public'. But some of Palaeologus' greatest triumphs of wit are reserved for the footnotes. Here, for instance, he unwittingly anticipates Joycean rhythms:

Pity that the Vicar of Bray, who must have had a singularly acute sense of the various shades of "trew," never thought of leaving a record of his opinion as to the precise mixture of Norman French and Ultramarine Saxon and Snips and Snails and Canine Latinity and Laboratory Greek and Eurafricasian Snippets and Australamerican Snaillets that precipitates "trew Englishe".
And here he defends his coinage of 'idiotomatically':
It means three things all at the same time: (1) idiomatically, (2) idiotically; (3) automatically. If someone tells you there isn't such a word, laugh at him and show him that there is. It's here.
While here he explains his portmanteau of 'sneeze' and 'laugh':
We snaugh over a name like Trzepczynski; which is no more difficult than Winstnshurtshil, whilch instead of being spelled Winston Churchill, might have been Gwynscztntschrtschyghlll, and still be as easy to pronounce.
This jest is telling, too: 'It seems to me our words are getting rather long—a tendency emphatically to be deprecated, except when a political altercation requires dignified exposition in The Times'. (Charles Kingsley, who loved to poke fun at scientific jargon, had proposed a 'heavy tax on words over four syllables', and a 'prohibitory tax' on even longer words.)


The book is thus written, in traditional British style, by a man with no urgency, happy to digress and divagate endlessly, and indeed to let that be the very pleasure of it. And like Shandy, the Grammar is even lovely to look at. Here's one of my favourite pages:

It is no surprise when Palaeologus remarks towards the end that 'Michael has had the run of my library and could not help noticing that I keep Tristram Shandy within easy reach'. Sterne is a constant reference, in the same way that Rabelais is for Kingsley, and for Albert Jay Nock, whose entertaining memoirs Moldbug convinced me to read yesterday. But the book is full of unexpected literary allusions; in this respect it goes one better than The Meaning of Meaning, which quoted Baudelaire and Melmoth the Wanderer. Palaeologus quotes and alludes to Cicero and Lessing, Shakespeare and Johnson, Goethe and Hume—but also More to Tyndall on 'yea' and 'nay', Gassendi's Life of Peiresc, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, James Russell Lowell, Hubert Anthony Shands, and last week's newspapers. The scope of reference is frankly incredible.

It is impossible to summarise the Grammar, so 'fizzing' and multifarious are its contents. It has no overarching message, and its conclusion is inconclusive. But still, the book has many things to say. It has chapters on various matters linguistic and quasi-linguistic: deixis, tense, ambiguity, quotation-marks (as an ironizing device), rhetoric and advertising, averages, bias. One of its chief messages to young Michael is a piece of anarchism, individualism, disguised as a point of grammar. 'We', says Palaeologus, is not the plural of 'I':
And our grammars are apt to mislead us in this respect (as in so many others) by suggesting to us that "I" comes first and that "we" is the plural of "I," as if "I" and "we" were either first and fourth persons or else two forms of the same. This is moonshine.
For the author, the authority invoked so powerfully by the use of 'we' is shifting and insidious: 'even when an "I" flatters himself he is being most singular, "I" is often acting under the influence of some "We."' This is essentially a warning about the rhetoric of collectives—even of the State.

For me, Palaeologus' most interesting attitude, related to the last point, is a deep-rooted pessimism about the limits of communication. Ogden and Richards had been sceptical about the ambiguous use of the word 'meaning', and about the possible limits of meaning in a polysemous text, exemplified by Shakespeare, but they never doubted that meaning is found in the text itself. In the middle of the book, Palaeologus writes:
I prefer to consider the process of ding-tinging as a both-ways concern, like the meeting of two billiard balls. . . I don't believe, as many grammarians do, that it is possible to pocket U [the receiver of a message] if U makes up his mind not to be pocketed. U can always get into positions from which I can never get him into the pocket. . . If I ever gets U to sit down exactly at X, that is done by mutual consent and in spite of distractions.
Towards the end,
A book is not a container of meaning, but a patchwork concocted, with considerable effort and pains, by an author who has (presumably) come to the conclusion that that patchwork has such and such effects on him, and that, if any fellow mind (one of US) happens to see it, the effect on him will be similar.
Palaeologus has not quite reached the total nihilism of postmodernity, but he is sceptical: he talks in mechanical terms, of cause and effect, and is uncomfortable with metaphysical words like 'meaning', which smack of the Absolute. And as Wimsatt and Beardsley would argue 20 years later, Palaeologus concludes that 'far from being the Origin of Meaning, the author is only one of the readers'.


According to Dent, the correct motto for the Grammar is 'Shadows we are and like shadows depart'. The book is a parodic Mirror for Princes, written in a jumble of English, with an open heart and a smile for a style. It celebrates the human, in opposition to the pure and eternal; thus its emblem must be taken in the spirit of 'Eat, drink, and be merry—for tomorrow we die'. Palaeologus invites his son and his reader to cast off the shackles of grammaticaster pedantry—which are much akin to the very fetters of social authority itself—and to be distrustful, free-thinking, concerned with language as it is germane to our active life. The author advocates not neological grammar, but neo-palaeo-logical grammar, and he himself is Neo Palaeologus: the new old. And what is the new old, or the old new, but humanism itself: liberty in culture, in tradition? Threat comes from breaks with the past, from the radically new. Kugelmass lately explained why he is not a radical—but he is only working out for himself the most ancient of stances. He understands what Palaeologus knows, and what Nock knows—that the We is not to be trusted, for its authority is only assumed.

Laughter at pedantry is one of the oldest forms of laughter—it goes back, perhaps, to Plato's neglected Euthydemus, and enjoyed a particular vogue in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. It is a laughter at that which breaks away from common sense, from judgement, from taste, and from the organic—and I will have more to say about those four things, and about humour and humanism, in my next post. For now I will say only that the Palaeological Grammar, at once bizarre and utterly traditional, is, in its vision of language, as radiant and humane as any work—and that for this reason, although it will be read by none, it deserves to be read by all.

14 May, 2007


And finally, the wanderings of this boy in divers places, and his servile ministeries, together with the expiatory sacrifices and ceremonies about Tempe, move suspicion that there should be represented thereby some notorious outrage, and audacious fact perpetrated there in old time.
So remarks Plutarch, by way of Philemon Holland, in one of his treatises on the Delphic Oracle. And indeed, my wanderings in divers places, and my servile ministeries at the library, closeted in the cold in the hold under the ground, peering at all those pleonastic rows of reasonings—and the many other sacrifices and ceremonies I have undertaken in this arid sprawl named Tempe, Arizona—are now at an end. Has there been any notorious outrage? Any perpetration? A few, possibly. In old time.

We board our flight home on Tuesday, and will to the woods malls no more. One by one, all of our lamps have been given away. Books have been judiciously trashed, clothes and cookware, oversized martini-glasses with gold highlights, velvet hats once fashionable for a brief flicker in the mid-90s, and velvet gloves too, pseudo-oriental glass candybottles, anything and everything with a butterfly design, all my wife's, ruthlessly disseminated. And so, stripped down to a few boxes and four shouldersworth of baggage, we depart.


We will be in limbo for fifteen days, enjoying suburban Virginia. There will be things here for you to read during that time—things of all varieties—and with any luck, you'll like them better than my recent posts. I've been collecting material for a lengthy meditation on one of my favourite books, a book you may regret never having heard of, soon enough.

But not until June, back in the Old Wen, shall I be able, finally, to relax my lungs. I hope to write more about the city I love, and moreover to live as I write—with the contentedness, and the wholeness, that comes with being home.

10 May, 2007

The kids today, 1642-1942

In 1724, Alain-René Lesage published the second volume of his popular picaresque novel, Gil Blas de Santillane, begun in 1715. In the thirteenth chapter of the seventh book, which opens this volume, Gil Blas bumps into an old friend, Fabrice Nuñez, after many years. Fabrice, once a lowly servant in Valladolid, has since gone to Madrid and become a successful littérateur. The encounter is an opportunity for Lesage, as Gil, to poke fun at literary fashions. Fabrice says of his early adventures in Madrid:
Je connus bientôt Lope de Vega Carpio, Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra et les autres fameux auteurs; mais, préférablement à ces grands hommes, je choisis pour mon précepteur un jeune bachelier cordouan, l'incomparable don Luis de Gongora, le plus beau génie que l'Espagne ait jamais produit.
Lope de Vega died in 1635, Cervantes in 1616, and Gongora in 1627. Let us say, then, that the present conversation is taking place in the 1630s or 40s. Fabrice, it transpires, is a Culturanista. Gil, glancing at one of his friend's sonnets, admits that he cannot make head or tail of it—'malgré le charme de la lecture, je trouvai l'ouvrage si obscur que je n'y compris rien du tout'. Fabrice takes this reaction as a compliment, claiming obscurity for a literary virtue:
Les sonnets, les odes et les autres ouvrages qui veulent du sublime ne s'accommodent pas du simple et du naturel, C'est l'obscurité qui en fait tout le mérite, Il suffit que le poète croie s'entendre—
Gil, a good commonsensical sort of fellow, couldn't agree less: 'Il faut du bon sens et de la clarté dans toutes les poésies, de quelque nature qu'elles soient'. And a piece of prose written as a preface turns out to be even worse, full of 'expressions trop recherchées, des mots qui ne sont point marqués au coin du public, des phrases entortillées, pour ainsi dire. En un mot, ton style est singulier'. The worst that Gil can say of a style is that it is 'singular', which seems odd to us modernists. Again comes Fabrice's reply:
Pauvre ignorant! Tu ne sais pas que tout prosateur qui aspire aujourd'hui à la réputation d'une plume délicate affecte cette singularité de style, ces expressions détournées qui te choquent. Nous sommes cinq ou six novateurs hardis, qui avons entrepris de changer la langue du blanc au noir; et nous en viendrons à bout, s'il plaît à Dieu, en dépit de Lope de Vega, de Cervantes, et de tous les autres beaux esprits qui nous chicanent sur nos nouvelles façons de parler.
Gongorism (perhaps closer to its contemporaries Browne and Urquhart than to Euphuism, which was by then fifty years old) was the height of the overornate 'Asiatic' style in Early Modern Spain, and this is what Lesage is ostensibly satirising—the poets who value obscurity over all else, who want to tear up the linguistic and poetic traditions in favour of a radical new style.


On Monday, the 5th of August, 1850, the French critic Sainte-Beuve published in the French newspaper Constitutionnel, as part of a regular series of 'Causeries du Lundi', a little essay on the work of Lesage, and in particular on Gil Blas, which he greatly admired. He describes the author's instinctive hostility to the literary currents of his period: 'Le Sage semble avoir été peu favorable à ce qu'on appelle la grande et haute littérature de son temps, qu'il trouvait guindée [stuffy, contrived]'. Lesage, we are told, wrote around a hundred pieces that contain the germs of what by 1850 had become 'les vaudevilles, les opéras-comiques, nos pièces des Variétés et des Boulevards'. (Variétés, eh?—Bien!)

Sainte-Beuve thought that Lesage's 'literary theory' could be extracted from Gil's conversation with Fabrice, who 'lui expose la théorie moderne':
Sachons biens qu'en écrivant ces choses, Le Sage avait en vue Fontenelle, Montesquieu peut-être, certainement Voltaire, qu'il trouvait trop recherché et visant à renchérir sur la langue de Racine, de Corneille, et des illustres devanciers.
This surprises us. None of these authors wrote in a style that could be compared to Gongora. Voltaire, at least in 1724, when he was known for L'Oedipe—the most successful French play of that century—and for the Henriade—compared by Pierre Bayle to Homer and Tasso—seems to us the very model of unrevolutionary classicism. Sainte-Beuve, pressed for his own definition of a classic, praises the eighteenth century giants—Montesquieu and Voltaire, also Buffon and Rousseau, Goethe and Pope—but above all he prizes Molière. He concludes:
There comes a time in life when, all our journeys over, our experiences ended, there is no enjoyment more delightful than to study and thoroughly examine the things we know, to take pleasure in what we feel, and in seeing and seeing again the people we love: the pure joys of our maturity. Then it is that the word classic takes its true meaning, and is defined for every man of taste by an irresistible choice. . . We have neither more time for experiments, nor a desire to go forth in search of pastures new. We cling to our friends, to those proved by long intercourse.
If Lesage advocated literary conservatism, possibly preferring Racine to Voltaire, and certainly preferring Cervantes to Gongora, then so does Sainte-Beuve, although a century has given the comfort of 'classicism' to Fontenelle and Voltaire, as well as to Lesage himself.


In 1942, the art critic Bernard Berenson, known for the conservatism of his taste, was holed up in his villa in Florence as the war went on around him. Gone were the celebrity Florentine expatriates—Adolf von Hildebrand, Herbert Horne, Aby Warburg. Berenson contented himself with an endless list of books—from Plato's complete works to the 'Nazi Koran' Mein Kampf, which Berenson admired for its insight into governance and propaganda, while deploring its maniacal anti-Semitism—and, just for fun, he kept a log of his reading during that year. On the 16th of May, he was reading Sainte-Beuve's Causeries, and copied out this passage, quoted from Lesage's Gil Blas de Santillane:
Si ce sonnet n'est guère intelligible, tant mieux, mon Ami. Les sonnets, les odes, et les autres ouvrages qui veulent du sublime ne s'accomodent pas du simple et du naturel; c'est l'obscurité qui en fait tout le mérite, il suffit que le poète croit s'entendre. . . Nous sommes cinq ou six novateurs hardis qui avons entrepris de changer la langue du blanc ou noir; et nous en viendrons à bout s'il plait à Dieu, en dépit de Lope de Vega et de Cervantes—
He notes, 'How this parallels the efforts of T. S. Eliot, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, not to speak of others in literature. They will leave even less trace.'


Are they ever right?

08 May, 2007

On Sects

Like one of my cousins, Mencius Moldbug 'made a score in a recent dot-com boom', and now 'lives in San Francisco, where he is temporarily retired from the software industry'. He describes himself as a 'generalist without portfolio', which is of course my sort of generalist. Here's his manifesto, which was championed out of obscurity by the popular blogger Michael Blowhard a fortnight ago. Now, Mencius is rather fond of creating schemas, especially sociological ones: 'It's always fun to rethink the world by redefining our terminology'. Lately he's been propounding a caste-system of American society. He defines caste as 'a social group with its own internal status system', and lists five—the Brahmin (artists, scientists, scholars, doctors, lawyers, Ivy Leaguers), the Dalit (criminals), the Helot (Hispanic peasants), the Optimate (old money upper-class types), and the Vaisya (none of the above, or, Middle America).

This schema has had a mixed response from Moldbug's readership, which is already considerable, thanks partly to Blowhard. One commenter remarked,
Arbitrary and vague. Consider the following list of occupations which do not submit to any of the status systems as you define them:

* investment banker
* political lobbyist
* priest
* immigrant shopkeeper
* professional athlete
Mencius dealt patiently and convincingly with this objection, and its author concurred. Another commenter suggested a division more or less resembling the British class-structure:
Upper upper (old money)
Lower upper (new money)
Upper middle (doctors and lawyers)
Lower middle (bookkeepers and secretaries)
Upper lower (food service and manufacturing)
Lower lower (ghetto youth)
Still others sought to refine or develop Moldbug's classifications.


Anthropologists have always interpreted society in terms of hierarchies. The most popular model in the West, from Plato to Dumézil and beyond, has always been the three-caste system of worker, fighter and priest (or commoner, noble and clergy). This corresponds roughly to the Indian system of Sudra/Vaisya, Ksatriya and Brahmin. What's unusual about Moldbug's proposal, apart from his slightly odd reuse of the Dalit or untouchable caste, is that his groups are not ranked. He says so explicitly: 'I have ordered them alphabetically to avoid any implicit ranking'. In a fundamental way, therefore, he is deviating from the very notion of the caste.

In this respect his post reminds me of a scholarly curiosity, Kok and Boehls' 1887 Die Sozialsekten, finally translated in 1969. This book, written long before the important work of Weber and Troeltsch in the sociology of religion, is an attempt to define the social strata of the modern world according to the patterns of religious sects through history. And that's not caste but sect, which the authors take in the general sense of 'religious partisan group'. The various 'sects' of our society are groups with competing ideological and even epistemological claims, but they have no Rangordnung between them.

Kok and Boehls' schema is too elaborate to give here in full, and in any event I don't understand it in its entirety, so I'll just offer a few examples. In the Middle Ages, one of the chief religious distinctions was between the groups who would go out and mingle with the world—the Franciscan and Dominican friars—and those who were cloistered and removed from it—the Carthusians and Trappists. Similarly, one of the chief social divisions of the modern world is between those who mingle in communities—these form the majority—and those who prefer an isolated, contemplative life: this group includes some religious parties as well as loners, artistic geniuses, sociopaths and scholars. Kok and Boehls label the first group durchdrigenden, the latter undurchdrigenden; these have been translated as 'penetrative' and 'non-penetrative' sects.

Another pair of categories, overlapping the first, sorts those who work towards preserving the status quo from those who act destructively against it. Here the religious and scholarly, as well as the professionals and nationalists, fall into the first category—the einwilligenden or 'consensual' sects—while loners and organised criminals, activists, lobbyists and so forth, fall into the second class—the uneinwilligenden. This division, which reflects something of the ancient conflict of Sadducee and Pharisee, is the closest approximation in their scheme to our political categories of 'conservative' and 'progressive'.

Arthur Boehls, a Jew, was particularly disturbed by the rise of anti-Semitism occurring in Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century. He had, in fact, been personally attacked in print by the infamous Bernhard Forster. For this reason he takes the unusual step of giving the Jews their own class in German society, and acknowledging their multiplicity he labels them die fröhlichen Sekten, the 'gay sects'. Boehls digresses at some length in a defense and panegyric to the spirit of the Jewish people, who have survived and conquered hardship with a happy heart; his model is the intoxicated David, 'a man of good presence', and the joyful debates of the Talmud rabbis. To the Jews he contrasts (though not categorically) the anti-Semites, whose defining characteristic, transcending their religious and class differences, was their sinister and evangelistic zeal; he labels this group the missionarischen or 'missionary' sects. Kok, more interested in political than social issues, contributes the category of mündlichen or 'oral' sects, to describe the outspoken rhetors coming to define well-bred German politics in the 1880s.


All this categorization still feels quite strange to our ears—perhaps even distasteful—and we are hardly surprised to find that their bizarre model did not catch on. The work is riddled with confusions, and although undeniably rich in interpretive possibilities, it is never clear just what its authors meant to achieve by dividing society up in this manner. Unlike Moldbug, they say little about the communal goals or ideals of each sect, although they go into greater length about the dynamic of interrelations between the different sects, of which there are many more than I have listed.

But I suspect there isn't much point to any of this diagrammatic sort of thinking, sophisticated or not—it is what Hegel knew to be a 'castle in the air, having no existence except in the terror of a one-sided and empty formalism of thought'. And as Mencius himself admitted, 'I don't think any of this stuff makes any sense'. But surely we can excuse his theorising on the simple grounds that it is 'always fun to rethink the world by redefining our terminology'. And fun to read the results. After all, what more could I want from the Varieties itself?

05 May, 2007

The Basilisk

I once asked my friend M (not the usual M, mind, but rather a Californian girl whose dishevelled habiliments were a foil for her sardonism, generally à point) for her opinion—were I to emblazon upon a shirt a single word to express my being, my essence—which word should I choose? At that time we were strolling up the streets of Clifton towards the bridge, curiosity of mental and manual accomplishment, and further up, towards the camera obscura, that realm beyond the earth, one pound entrance, where distanted eyes, wreathed in darkness, in imitation of the very asteristic welkin, could observe the little terrestrial folk going bimbling about in absolute silence.

Her answer was swift: Aesthete, she said. (In retrospect I realise that what she said was Esthete—and the American audacity to spell the word without an a is clearly why their country is going to the dogs.) M spoked this softest of words with a mélange of affection and disparagation—the sort of mélange, incidentally, that I wholeheartedly encourage in all my acquaintances, offline and on. But what if it were true? What if I were an aesthete?


Come, let us say I am an aesthete. Why, then, should I be so insensible to the charms of beautiful things, and to the horrors of uglinesses? As I see it, Mr. Cole, who has had his fair share of affection and disparagation on these pages, is a prime cut of aesthete flesh, very tender, needs just a little flame on one side, couple of minutes and bobsyeruncle—you can be reading on that one all day. Mr. Cole shows us the beautiful, which is the quintessential function of the aesthete. Ah, he says—the wonders of the late Hamza El Din, whose 'virtuosity was incredible', or of the still-living Seamus Heaney, who writes poems 'in which the radiance of the universe is always peeking through, but also his equanimity'. And likewise, Mr. Cole fulfils his duty of railing against the bad—whether a Rush Limbaugh skit or Memoirs of a Geisha. And the good is the good and the bad is the bad. He has a trained eye: he can tell a real Veronese from a chodesh, lickety-split. It is obvious that all these things—art, and society, preferably both—are terribly important to him. He seems to respond with his whole being, as an aesthete should. He is, let us say, a satisfied aesthete, an aesthete engagé. That is why I find his work so humbling.

I, on the other hand. . .

What is it that draws me back? What is it that disinclines me to say, This is beautiful, but that—that is horrible? It is as if I can find pleasure only in the most mercurial of lines, never native, never concentrate, rather, only ever caught from out of the corner of my—barely by the tail, one might say, or—because truly I am not so nimblefooted as to achieve success in any pursuit hotfooted of beauty, which in my experience, you should know, has too too much of the basilisk about it, king of beasts—for I am afraid to expend all my resources towards its capture, and afraid even to look upon it, in case it makes a bloody column of me, rooted and inflexible, unable to recant or retract—

In any event I am unfortunate enough never to be satisfied, like a gourmand plied gently with the most exquisite of delicacies until he is suddenly costive and indigest. No mind, no hand can I adore. Shakespeare. . . bores me. I cannot tell Mozart from Beethoven, Tibullus from Propertius, Veronese from Titian—let alone Veronese from chodesh. My palate is alarmingly indiscriminate, and I have no sense of smell. Literature is a millstone to me, philosophy a yarn spun by the dull, and art merely a train of gewgaws or conveyor-belt of overpriced sushimi. I prefer to laugh than to learn—but I laugh at the serious, and before the comic I am able only to groan and tsk and roll my eyes about very expressively.

Philistinism makes me sick with loathing, and yet I take more pleasure in being a philistine than in being a connoisseur.


The central problem is that I find the heaviness of expectation insufferable. The pain of hearing a man complete a sentence, slowly, in exact accordance with my prediction, is almost physical. I wish, thus, that I could attain a state of complete naivety, that prediction and the force of expectation might be foreign to me. I wish, indeed, that all experiences might be foreign to me.
I will, then, tell of the life of old which I provided for mortals. First, there was peace over all, like water over the hands. The earth produced no terror and no disease; on the other hand, things needful came of their own accord. Every torrent flowed with wine, barley-cakes strove with wheat-loaves for men's lips, beseeching that they be swallowed if men loved the whitest. Fishes would come to the house and bake themselves, then serve themselves on the tables.

— Telecleides, in Athenaeus, 6. 269
In truth, I think, discovery is the only thing of beauty in the whole world.

02 May, 2007

Champion opening

I am loath to turn the Varieties into a stack of quotations, but this I could not resist. A while ago Steve Languagehat, citing a post at Crooked Timber, asked for readers' favourite openings to academic tomes. Nothing sprang to my mind at the time, but now. . . I have the indisputable champion. The following two sentences open Thomas Gilby's 1949 Barbara Celarent: A Description of Scholastic Dialectic
These pages were worked up in the Mediterranean between action stations in H. M. S. Renown, from rough notes all pulpy and partly indecipherable from the seas shipped when she was holed fighting but continuing to chase her two opposite numbers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in the Arctic Circle. In attempting this picture of the thomist dialectic it was not altogether a disadvantage that there was nothing else but a miniature Summa Theologica to consult and no fair certainty of ever going to press.
[Update 29/08/08: I come across this corker of snivelling modesty, opening W. R. Halliday's Greek Divination, 2nd ed. (1967): "To apologise too profoundly for the publication of a book is to insult the reader to whom it is offered, but at the same time I should like it to be clear, particularly as I have not hesitated to express my opinions with some downrightness, that no one is more conscious of the incompleteness and immaturities of this little essay than its author. The crudities which have been purged on reviewing it after two fallow years suggest the innumerable errors of judgment that may still remain."]


Friday, being now left to his liberty, pursued the flying wretches, with no weapon in his hand but his hatchet: and with that he despatched those three who as I said before, were wounded at first, and fallen, and all the rest he could come up with: and the Spaniard coming to me for a gun, I gave him one of the fowling-pieces, with which he pursued two of the savages, and wounded them both; but as he was not able to run, they both got from him into the wood, where Friday pursued them, and killed one of them, but the other was too nimble for him; and though he was wounded, yet had plunged himself into the sea, and swam with all his might off to those two who were left in the canoe; which three in the canoe, with one wounded, that we knew not whether he died or no, were all that escaped our hands of one-and-twenty. The account of the whole is as follows:

3 killed at our first shot from the tree;
2 killed at the next shot;
2 killed by Friday in the boat;
2 killed by Friday of those at first wounded;
1 killed by Friday in the wood;
3 killed by the Spaniard;
4 killed, being found dropped here and there, of the wounds, or killed by Friday in his chase of them;
4 escaped in the boat, whereof one wounded, if not dead—

21 in all.

Robinson Crusoe (1719), ch. 16.


Let us stop a moment to observe, how many Jews were exterminated by their own brothers, or by the order of God himself, from the time that they wandered in the desert, till the time that they had a king elected by drawing lots.

The Levites, after the adoration of the golden calf, cast in a mould by Moses' brother, massacred 23,000 Jews.

Destroyed by fire, at Korah's revolt: 250

Put to death for the same revolt: 14,700

Put to death for having correspondence with Midianite girls: 24,000

Slain at the ford of the Jordan, for not being able to pronounce the word Shibboleth: 42,000

Killed by the tribe of Benjamin, who were attacked: 40,000

Of the tribe of Benjamin, killed by the other tribes: 45,000

When the ark was taken by the Philistines, and God to punish them, having afflicted them with the hemorrhoids, they brought back the ark to Bethsames, they offered the Lord five golden anuses*, and five golden rats. The number of Bethsamites that were struck dead for looking at the ark was: 50,070

Total number: 239,020

Here are two hundred thirty-nine thousand and twenty Jews exterminated by the order of God himself, or by their civil wars, without reckoning those who perished in the Desert, or who died in the battles against the Canaanites, etc. If we were to judge of the Jews as of other nations, we could not conceive how the children of Jacob could have produced a race sufficiently numerous to sustain such a loss.

— Voltaire, Philosophy of History (1765, tr. 1766), ch. 41.

* Voltaire, a Catholic, was evidently using either the Vulgate or a French translation thereof, for that text (Regum I, 6:5) has 'quinque anos aureos'. (His source is also indicated by the Latinised form 'Bethsames'.) The KJV (1 Samuel 6:5) has 'five golden emerods', ie. haemorrhoids. It is difficult to imagine golden images of piles, which are rather shapeless objects—but this is the Bible, after all.