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.


John Emerson said...

"Ultraquist" is a common misspelling of "utraquist", the name of the more conciliatory faction of Hussites. Whether Rchards had that in mind I don't know.

More later.

John Cowan said...

Oh, splak me! You meant that the chapter titles are the names of playing cards. I thought they were, like, actual playing cards. Or printed representatives thereof. But what am I saying? See the palette paradox....

I myself, I, actually own an actual copy of Mind!. Inherited from my father. Who among you can say that, eh, sweeties?

And who can mention Ogden and Richards and limericks in a single post and leave out this gem?

Two experts, to explicate Meaning,
Wrote a book called The Meaning of Meaning.
     The world still perplexed,
     Three experts wrote next
The Meaning of "Meaning of Meaning".

Conrad H. Roth said...

Emerson: thanks, you must be right. This pdf gives 'utraquistic' for Richards, and the etymology makes more sense. (It also seems to be an obsolete psychological term, and Richards was fun of re-using those, see also 'overdetermination'.) Perhaps it was a typo in some editions and not in others.

Cowan: Well, yes, although the image of the relevant card does appear at the head of each chapter. Mind! would be a nice little thing to own; I assume you have an original copy, and not the 1960s reprint?

John Emerson said...

I personally support the Taborites and frequent defenestration, if there's any doubt about that.

Language said...

Lucubrious? Lucubratory? Lugubrious?

Localized lexical confusion aside, a fascinating entry about a book I would have suspected you of inventing if not for the scanned images. (And upon investigation I find Amazon.com has a copy on offer for the princely sum of $95.13.) I very much look forward to further posts on Neo Palaeologus; my main reservation about this sort of learned japery is that, as you say, it will be read by none. Surely "laughter at that which breaks away from common sense, from judgement, from taste, and from the organic" is a trifle bitter if shared only with one or two persons a decade? (And for that matter, how on earth did Dent arrive at the decision to publish such a book?) Aristophanes, after all, laughed the same laughter, but managed to do so in a way that captivated the entire population of his polis. I know, I know, caviare to the general. But I do sometimes wonder about the psychology of self-selected recondity.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ack. Trust an urban slang dictionary to ruin a perfectly good portmanteau.

I don't think 'bitter' is quite the right word. Maybe 'poignant'. Also I have no idea about the book's contemporary popularity; maybe all the Mind fellows were chuckling over it. Presumably they knew who wrote it. The mood is certainly of its time, and would persist in the mainstream until the 60s or so. (Compare the first quotation from Bates' Intertraffic on my Joyce translations post.) How many once-popular books are now long out-of-print and forgotten? And what else, after all, is the Varieties for?

Language said...

And what else, after all, is the Varieties for?

Indeed, and I trust you didn't think I was in any way either deprecating or depreciating the post!

And surely if one combed the memoirs and correspondence of those chuckling chaps one could piece together enough clues to nail down the identity of the perpetrator.

Say, know anything about Geoffrey of Vinsauf?

Conrad H. Roth said...

"combed the memoirs"

Yes, it's possible. I hunted through the 'Meaning of Meaning' symposium, and the Corpus Christi register, but couldn't find anything. Originally I thought Schiller himself was a pretty good candidate--and one of Schiller's diagrams from the Mind symposium is reused in the Grammar, but Palaeologus alludes to his British schooldays, and Schiller was an immigrant.

As for Geoffey, I've read his Poetria Nova, but don't know much more than that. Pourquoi?

Amanda J. Sisk said...

I am amused by the illustrations and would like to know if there were any depictions of...a Snark!

Language said...


Oh, I just ran across him in the process of googling around that your post inspired, and he seemed like the sort of obscure writer who would be of interest to you. Since you've actually read one of his books, I congratulate myself for my perspicacity.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Amanda: No, sadly not!

LH: Yes, congratulations! Suggestions of this sort are, of course, always appreciated.

Dead Hippo said...

As the "special petitioner" who asked for your views on Michael Palaeologus His Grammar, I would like to express my appreciation of your extensive commentary, which I only discovered today while again searching the web for references to this strange and wonderful book. While reading the Grammar for the first time, my response varied between puzzlement, intrigue, and bafflement, even as an undercurrent of high amusement remained throughout. Was it serious, or a spoof, a satire, or in code? Apparently, all of the above. While I still do not claim to understand what it is all about, this is obviously a book that demands to be read and re-read again and again over the coming years. Many, many thanks for your helpful analysis. If you should ever stumble upon the identity of the author, please do post it, and I promise to leave a comment on this blog if I discover any related clues. Meanwhile, I am pleased to note that my mint-condition, five-quid copy is worth at least 100 pounds on the internet. Not that I would sell it, but I can fully identify with your feelings on holding it in my hand for the first time (at Greyfriars second-hand bookshop in Inverness...): "Within moments of perusing its pages, I had a purchase." This is one I am especially proud of having bagged.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah yes, always good to meet a fellow Palaeologian. Sadly, Mencius Moldbug snagged the last cheap copy on abebooks. Thank for your comment.