31 January, 2007

Before Paley's Watch

ID, as we all know, explains the complex by means of the even more complex, the unknown by the even more unknown, ignotum per ignotius. Or, if you're a Jesuit, ignotum per Ignatius. It's been with us a long time. Right now they're dredging up probability theory; I wrote about that here. Before that, the fashionable move was an appeal to the new science of mechanics. Machines were the big new thing in the 17th and 18th centuries—although it wasn't until Watt that they became really powerful. Descartes talked about the body as an automaton; John Wilkins wrote his 1648 epic Mathematical Magic about mechanics. Newton would revolutionize the subject. La Mettrie wrote a book in 1748 called L'Homme Machine, quite an enjoyable little bagatelle as it happens. And so on and so on. It was only natural that the pre-Watt IDers should invoke the single most elegant machine of them all—the clock or watch—as an analogy to creation. If something as complicated as the clock had to be made by an intelligent hand, then so did something as complicated as the universe. This would be the model chosen by William Paley in his 1802 Natural Theology—a book that became so fashionable that we still refer to Paley's Watch. But it was in the air a long time before that. Here's what the wiki article says:
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the watchmaker analogy was used (by Descartes and Boyle, for instance) as a device for explaining the structure of the universe and God's relationship to it. Later, the analogy played a prominent role in natural theology and the "argument from design," where it was used to support arguments for the existence of God and for the intelligent design of the universe.
The article goes on to cite Descartes's comparison of the body to a machine (a comparison to be developed in atheistical directions by La Mettrie). It cites Robert Boyle as the first user of the clock analogy in something approaching a Design Argument:
[The universe] is like a rare clock, such as may be that at Strasbourg, where all things are so skilfully contrived, that the engine being once set a-moving, all things proceed according to the artificer's first design. . .
It does not give an original source for this statement (in which the Design Argument is really only implicit), but as Boyle did not start publishing until 1660, we can confidently put it after this date. The earliest use of the watchmaker analogy, and moreover in a proper Design Argument, is in fact by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, brother of George Herbert, and father of Deism. Take this, from his De religione gentilium, published in 1663 but written as early as 1645:
Et quidem si horologium, per diem et noctem integram horas signanter indicans, viderit quispiam non mente captus, id consilio arteque summa factum judicaverit. Ecquis non plane demens, qui hanc mundi machinam non per 24 horas tantum, sed per tot saecula circuitus suos obeuntem animadverterit, non id omne sapientissimo utique potentissimoque alicui authori tribuat?

If you look at a clock (and you have not lost your wits), which shows the time exactly for 24 hours, you will conclude that it is the product of skill and work. So, how much more would someone who contemplates the machine of this world, which so regularly goes through its motions not just for 24 hours, but for so many ages, claim that it came from an all-wise and all-powerful Author?
In 1655 Isaac La Peyrère published his Prae-Adamitae, in which he argued that there were pagans created before Adam—a controversial thesis, as you might expect. According to Gabriel Naudé, according to Richard Popkin, Peyrère's work was finished by 1641. Here we find a Paleyesque passage as follows:
Quoties ergo animum meum subit haec cognitio, homines ad imaginem Dei creatoris, et ad imaginem prototypi optimi primo creatos, perfectos, rectos, et summe bonos; vitio illo, quod natura insevit, a perfectis ad imperfectos, a rectis in pravos, et a bonis in malos degeneravisse: Toties concipio Horologium ab eximio artifice novissime expolitum, dentatarum rotulatum partibus, secundum proportionem, curiose distinctum; nec non aequatis horarum momentis attemperate liberatum: cum pyxide vel imaginibus ad vivum expressis exquisite picta, vel emblemate vermiculato ingeniose composita; quantum auro et electro valuit artifex. Horologium quippe illud omnibus sui partibus absolutum, tamdiu perfectione sua stare putandum est, quamdiu non corrumpitur, vel natura materiae suae corruptibilis, vel incura Domini in cuius potestate est.
Prae-Adamitae was swiftly Englished in 1656 as Men Before Adam, and the above passage became this:
Therefore, so often as I think of this, That men being created according to the Image of God the Creator, and according to the Image of the first plat-form, perfect, right, and very good, by a fault in them, ingrafted by nature, did degenerate from righteousness to wickedness, from good to evil: So often I fancy a Watch newly finish'd, by an exquisite artificer curiously order'd, with all the parts of the jagged wheels, proportionably and exquisitely weighed for the just minutes of the hours, with a Case curiously enamelled with pictures set out to the life, or a purl'd lining curiously made, as much as in gold, or Amber, the Craftsman was able to perform: For that Watch will continue intire in all its parts, so long as it is not spoyl'd, either because of the corruptibility of the matter whereof it is made, or the carelessness of the Master that owes [ie. owns] it.
Here it is not the created universe, but the created man, who resembles the watch; the basic idea is the same. The wiki article also traces the Design Argument back to Cicero's De Natura Deorum, quoted via Daniel Dennett:
When you see a sundial or a water-clock (clepsydra), you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?
Curiously, however, in De Divinatione Cicero approvingly quotes Carneades, who had sneered at the Stoic Chrysippus for suggesting that the 'faces' found in rocks were realistic enough to be considered evidence for intelligent design. Plato nods at the Design Argument when he makes the distinction between an object's immediate material cause (the arrangement of its parts) and its ultimate divine cause—the former gives evidence of the latter. But the earliest actual Design Argument we have is by one Diogenes of Apollonia, around 400 BC, here in the translation of Jonathan Barnes:
For things could not have been parcelled out in this way without thought, so that there are measures of everything: of winter and of summer, of night and of day, of rains and of winds and of fine weather. And the other things, if one wishes to think about them, one would find to have been disposed in the finest way possible.

30 January, 2007

Saltbox and skimmington, marrowbone and cleavers

Seven etymologies for the word charivari:

A. From the Trésor:

1. Perhaps from Latin caribaria, attested in a translation from Oribasius, the Greek καρηβαρία, 'heaviness of the head', because a deafening charivari can cause headaches.

2. The hypothesis of a Semitic origin, Hebrew haverim, collective plural of haver, "person belonging to an Israelite community" (whose members celebrated certain occasions with a great tumult), needs more detail, especially from a historical point of view.

3. A connection to the French hunting-term harer, "to rouse dogs", has the difficulty that no form of the type *harivari is atttested; however, hari, a cry to get animals going, and hari-hari expressing mockery, could have helped to preserve the first i in charivari.

4. A purely onomatopoeic formation seems untenable, although the phonetic form of the word and the reduplication of its vowels could, again, explain the retention of the first i. A tautological composition is difficult to establish on account of the first element.

B. From Littré's Dictionnaire:

5. Scaliger derives the word from chalybaria, kettles.

6. Du Cange derives it from Vulgar Latin caria, nut, κάρυον, because nuts are thrown and a great din is kicked up on a wedding-day.

7. Diez wonders if the first element of the word represents calix, glass, pot, noise of glasses and pots.

More speculations at Languagehat.

Further hypotheses welcomed here also: the elaborater the better!

27 January, 2007

My fair lady

I had made up my mind not to be astonished at that immensity of London of which I had heard so much. But it happened to me as to the poor school-boy, who had made up his mind not to feel the whipping he was to receive.

— Heinrich Heine, 'London' (1828).
In my exile, the city has acquired an almost mythical, Ulyssean resonance. In occasional moments, plucked as sweet drupes in the forest of labours, I dream of its grey stones, of its graves, of its fountains—of the Heath, and of the river. The waters of the Thames are greater than the waters of the Liffey—too sluggish—of the Seine—too narrow—of the Hudson—too. . . American. How many empty bottles it bears! How many sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends, and other summernight testimonies are concealed in its depths! (No more red sails, sad to say, no more drifting logs, and few beating oars upon its surface, so green with the endless stirring up of silt from its bed.) And all the bridges! My favourite is Albert Bridge, which opened in 1872. It resembles a pontiform wedding-cake. In fact, I asked a friend of mine to make an Albert Bridge-shaped cake for my own wedding; despite his best efforts, he couldn't make it work. Now, allegedly, its timber is being rotted by the urine of dogs marched across in their droves to Battersea Park.

Most well-known and well-seen is Tower Bridge. But the bridge that defines London is, of course, London Bridge herself—my fair lady, though not quite so fair these days—whose dissimilar self sits ominously a few miles from here. She was the only bridge in London until 1750, when a second one was built just upstream at Westminster. As noted by Peter Jackson—no, not that one—'In a very real sense London exists because of London Bridge. . . Where the Bridge was built a settlement developed which was to become London.' Despite this, it isn't until the 16th century that we have any substantive mention of the bridge. At this time it was 905 feet long, and covered in houses—like the Ponte Vecchio today—thus the longest inhabited bridge ever built in Europe. In 1562, a visiting Italian merchant by the name of Alessandro Magno called the bridge 'a remarkable sight even among the beauties of London'. It looked like this:

This is a 1616 engraving by Claes Jansz Visscher. There are many pictures from the period, by John Norden, Van den Wyngaerde, Ralph Agas, Joris Hoefnagel and Claude de Jongh. Note the long boat-like objects at the base of each pier; these are called starlings. Patricia Pierce explains: 'Each pier was built on a platform which consisted of loose stone rubble enclosed in a ring of elm piles, across which were laid three oak beams. The whole was encircled by more piles for protection forming the 'starlings'.' Pierce also notes the presence of corn-grinding mills and waterwheels set up in 1581, and all the traitors' heads on poles (one traveller counted 34; Scaliger apparently noted whole corpses too). She tells us of a game:
'Shooting the bridge' was an irresistible challenge to the often fatally reckless, when at ebb tide the drop of the rapids could be as much as six feet. Occasionally, even the ceremonial water procession of an ambassador 'shott the bridge', presumably at 'still water'—even then a feat considered worth recording.
With the flowering of English letters, Londoners began to take some real pride and interest in their city, and in their river. Ben Jonson wrote urban comedies, and Thames boatmen became poets. In 1598 John Stow provided the founding document of the capital's historiography with his Suruay of London, Contayning the originall, antiquity, increase, moderne estate, and description of that citie. It is a remarkable work, full of odd anecdotes and superstitions ground up with precise details of the city's history and topography. Here's what he says about the bridge:
The originall foundation of London bridge, by report of Bartholomew Linsled, alias Fowle, last Prior of S. Marie Oueries, Church in Southwarke was this: a Ferrie being kept in place where now the Bridge is builded, at length the Ferriman and his wife deceasing, left the same Ferrie to their onely daughter, a maiden named Marie, which with the goods left by her Parents, as also with the profites rising of the said Ferrie, builded a house of Sisters in place where now standeth the east part of S. Marie Oueries church aboue the Quier, where she was buried, vnto the which house she gaue the ouersight and profites of the Ferrie, but afterwardes the saide house of Sisters being conuerted into a colledge of Priestes, the Priestes builded the Bridge (of Tymber) as all other the greate bridges of this Land were, and from time to time kept the same in good reparation, till at length considering the greate charges of repayring the same there was by aide of the Citizens of London and others a bridge builded of stone as shal be shewed.
Listen to the flow of that sentence—an Elizabethan sentence, casually long and riverine. Within 100 years this language would become obsolete; the torrent of words would dry up, like the Thames had done in 1114, and give way to the curt conversational style of the Royal Society. Browne and Urquhart would write the last monuments of the English baroque. Stow's sentence would be quoted (without citation) in 1657, just before the last embers of the style had died out, in James Howell's Londinopolis: an historicall discourse or perlustration of the city of London, the imperial chamber, and chief emporium of Great Britain:
At first there was but a Ferry kept in the place where now the Bridge is built, at length the Ferriman and his Wife deceasing, left the said Ferry to their only Daughter a Mayden, who with other goods, left her by her Parents, together with the profits arising from the said Ferry, did build a holy House for Nuns; in place whereof, the East part of St. Mary Overies stands now above the Quire, where she was buried: and unto that House of Nuns, she bequeathed the over-sight and benefit of the Ferry; But afterwards, that House of Nuns being converted into a House of Priests, the Priests did build a Bridge of Timber, and from time to time, kept the same in good reparation, till at length, considering the great charges which were bestowed in the frequent repair of the woodden Bridge, there was at last, by the Contributions of the Citizens, and others, a Bridge built of Stone.
The changes are small but significant. The language has taken a step towards what we know now—Howell uses built instead of builded, stands instead of standeth, who instead of which, and specifies Nuns as opposed to the more poetic Sisters—his spelling, meanwhile, is moving swiftly towards a standard. But more important is Howell's repunctuation: he introduces a semicolon pause after 'Nuns', expanding 'where' to 'whereof', so as to accommodate the new period. Similarly, he gives 'buried: and unto that House of Nuns' instead of 'buried, vnto the which house'. What Howell does throughout the passage is break up the syntax, giving the reader space to breathe by making very small adjustments. Within another twenty years, even Howell's style would be considered cluttered.


Howell was an ardent Londoner, and his Londinopolis is full of praise for the bridge. He calls it 'the Bridge of the world', and the Thames' 'greatest Bridge, which, if the stupendious Site, and structure thereof be well considered, may be said to be one of the Wonders of the World: though, as some think, it hath too many Arches; so that it may be said, If London Bridge had fewer eyes, it would see far better.' Howell provides this poem as a preface for his book:
When Neptune from his billows London spyde,
Brought proudly thither by a high Spring-Tyde;
As through a floating Wood He steer'd along,
And dancing Castles cluster'd in a throng;
When he beheld a mighty Bridg give law
Unto his Surges, and their fury awe;
When such a shelf of Cataracts did roar,
As if the Thames with Nile had changed her shoar
When he such massy Walls, such Towrs did eye,
Such Posts, such Irons upon his back to lye,
When such vast Arches he observ'd, that might
Nineteen Rialtos make for depth and height,
When the Cerulean God these things survayd,
He shook his Trident, and astonish'd said,
Let the whol Earth now all Her wonders count
This Bridg of Wonders is the Paramount.
Just to show off, he gives the same poem in Latin as well. The classical allusions and iambic pentameter in heroic couplets are standard for a dedicatory poem. To this we contrast something much more odd, and more interesting, with its own mythology:
Then Westminster the next great Tames doth entertaine;
That vaunts her Palace large, and her most sumptuous Fane:
The Lands tribunall seate that challengeth for hers,
The crowning of our Kings, their famous sepulchers.
Then goes he on along by that more beautious Strand,
Expressing both the wealth and bravery of the Land.
(So many sumptuous Bowres, within so little space,
The All-beholding Sun scarse sees in all his race.)
And on by London leads, which like a Crescent lies,
Whose windowes seem to mock the Star-befreckled skies;
Besides her rising Spyres, so thick themselves that show,
As doe the bristling reeds, within his Banks that growe.
There sees his crouded Wharfes, and people-pestred shores,
His Bosome over-spread, with shoales of labouring ores:
With that most costly Bridge, that doth him most renowne,
By which he cleerely puts all other Rivers downe.
This passage appears towards the end of Michael Drayton's epic Poly-Olbion, eighteen books of rhymed couplets on the landscape of England and Wales, composed between 1598 and 1622. The poem was not a great success; the poet lamented that his Elizabethan epic was unsuited to the conservative Jacobean tastes that it met on publication. But it is a magnificent stretch of verse, available now as part of an Elibron facsimile reprint of Drayton's collected works. Each book covers a different county, describing its topography and folklore, with particular attention to rivers.

In Book 15 we hear of the royal wedding of the Tame and his bride the Isis, and of their child the Tamesis (Thames), the 'King of all our Rivers'. Drayton's elaborate presentation can be contrasted, again, with Howell's prosaic account: 'From hence she goeth to Dorchester and so into Tame, where contracting friendship with a River of the like name, she loseth the name of Isis or Ouse. . . and from thence she assumes the name of Thamesis all along as she glides'. Drayton's verses, like the river itself, are heavy and slow, in watery melisma, onrushing relentlessly, its only breaks the books themselves, making time of space, making song of land and water, ancient as days. The Thames flows east, accepting the pleasures of the Colne (16.1-4):
The Brydall of our Tame and Princely Isis past:
And Tamesis their sonne, begot, and wexing fast,
Inviteth Crystall Colne his wealth on him to lay,
Whose beauties had intic't his Soveraine Tames to stay.
Finally it flows through Surrey, Hampton, Westminster and London in Book 17, quoted above (89-104), where the King of Rivers 'summarily sings the Kings of England, from Norman William to yesterdaies age'. London is painted briefly, as space allows, sketched with its crowds and wharfs—warehouses at the river-front, according to the folk derivation—with its spires and its ores/oars, and most of all with that most costly Bridge, that doth the river most renowne, / By which he cleerely puts all other Rivers downe.


The history of a bridge could be a history of disaster and renewal—of cadences, falling and rising, the edifice of a line as transport from bank to bank, from period to period. Stow tells us that the timber burnt down in 1136, was rebuilt, still timber, in 1163, and rebuilt again, now in stone, 1176-1209. But the tribulations of the bridge were far from over—'Aboute the yeare 1282. through a greate frost and deepe snow, 5. Arches of London bridge, were borne downe and carried away. In the yeare 1289. the bridge was so sore decayed, for want of reparations, that men were afraid to passe thereon'. No wonder the popular rhyme we know so well,
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.
But London Bridge—wood and clay, silver and gold, needles and pins, stone so strong—would prevail against all the elements and the vicissitudes of man. Drayton was not so lucky; nor was that Elizabethan river of language, green with the stirring of Saxon soil, for which he stood. In this light the writings of Richard F. Jones and Morris Croll, charting the purge of English prose during the Reformation, sound like laments, little unheard tragedies of the history of our language, a long undone bridge.

25 January, 2007

Ain't nothing but a. . .

In 1449, the Sienese engineer Mariano Taccola published his second book of devices and inventions, De Machinis. Here's one of those inventions:
De rocha relitta campanam cane sonante

Casus talis est ponatur quod in una turri sint duo custodes et unus eorum moritur evenit postea quod alter solus cogitur fame sive deficit sibi victualia dominus dicti custodis non providens sibi necessarium est quod ipse relinquat dictam turrem causa victus / ne sciatur ab hostibus turris totaliter derelicta / sic oportet quod faciat ut ligetur canis funi campane turris / et postea ponatur panis et aqua contra eum distantes nec adire posset / ipse canis propter famem et sitim conatur ad panem et aquam ire et dum trahit campanam et campana pulsatur. Et audientes campanam pulsantem credunt quod ibi sint custodes. Et sic deo dante dictus custos potest ire et redire fulcitus victualia ad dictam turrem.

I quote from the edition of Eberhard Knobloch, who despite his name is not affiliated with the adult entertainment industry. Notice the title, which is in a macaronic or Italianate Latin. The text itself is proper Latin, although it's a low-grade, mediaeval sort of Latin—notice the prepositional and paratactic syntax, the tendency towards SVO, the appearance of una as an indefinite article, and the juristic use of dictam, 'the aforesaid', or simply 'the', an idiom one can still see in the Renaissance vernaculars. Here's my translation:
On the abandoned fort, of which the bell is sounded by a dog

It is sometimes the case that there are two guards in a tower, and one of them dies; the other, now alone, is compelled by hunger, that is to say, by a scarcity of victuals—his superior not providing him with what he needs—to abandon the tower. Lest the enemy realise that the tower is completely abandoned, he must bind a dog with a rope to the tower's bell, and place bread and water beside it, just out of its reach. Hungry and thirsty, the dog strives for the bread and water, and meanwhile pulls the bell, and the bell is rung. Those who hear the ringing bell will believe that the guards are there. And thus, God willing, the guard can go out and return to the tower bearing victuals.

I think we see something of the junior academic in this poor dog. How he pants and tintinnabulates—melodious, and yet how minatory! It is fun to watch him up close, and we find much mirth in his efforts. But again, there is something noble and heroic in him. With his growling and straining after intellectual gold he sends up all manner of impressive cries, thus diverting the enemy from his lack of substance. And his master has given him a bell—let us call it Marx, or Derrida, or Dante, what you will—with which to sound out fearfully across the plains, Lasciate ogne speranza!

Twenty days ago a fire broke out at Fort Valve, endangering one of Kugelmass's ropes. It was stamped out by all present, though it continues to smoulder. I rather like that mischievous flamelet, but also I am growing fond of young Kugelmass, the jijifranko or dandy. I recognise much of myself in him. He is mature before his time, and quite set on tenure. We can all admire that dedication, I think, even if, by the very nature of the profession, it must remain beyond his reach for a few years. He is so smart and hungry—I do not sneer—and he has my best wishes.
Would not he who is fitted to be a guardian, besides the spirited nature, need to have the qualities of a philosopher?

I do not apprehend your meaning, Socrates.

The trait of which I am speaking, I replied, may be also seen in the dog, and is remarkable in the animal.

What trait?

Why, a dog, whenever he sees a stranger, is angry; when an acquaintance, he welcomes him, although the one has never done him any harm, nor the other any good. Did this never strike you as curious?

The matter never struck me before; but I quite recognise the truth of your remark.

And surely this instinct of the dog is very charming;—your dog is a true philosopher.
Soon I myself shall be a member of this guild, deo dante. For now, I remain the enemy, bitten with fear at the myriad names, terrified of those assessors unimpressed with historical curios and dilettante erudition. Are there guards within that ruined fort? Or merely a hound, barking? As I say, the collar beckons me also. I would be a Platonic sort of mutt, full of thumos and discernment. What I lack in dogmatism I make up in doggedness. It is too bad my nature is quite absent of loyalty.

23 January, 2007

Maestro di Color

My mood bobs and dips. The Greek is getting easier; Arizona is not. I tend, at least, to derive a vague intellectual pleasure from the books that swim past my eyes, some leaving a permanent trace, others vanishing into the aether. Not a pleasure in the reading, mind, but a pleasure after the fact. Now and then I am troubled by brief bursts of irrational anger, and moments of envy, as when I chance upon the works of the great erudites. Last week it was Leofranc Holford-Strevens—what a marvelously aristocratic name!—whose book on Aulus Gellius does not hesitate to cite untransliterated mediaeval Arabic. Even Frances Yates drew the line at Arabic! My friend J tells me that Holford-Strevens, a senior editor at OUP, 'has the (well-deserved) reputation of being far more learned than the scholars he edits, no matter what the field'. Reading this sort of stuff plays havoc with my competitive streak.

It doesn't help that I sleep from 8am to 5pm, thus missing the light of day, as if in Norway. I have my worries, too—I grow anxious for the glabrity of my pate, and for the porcinity of my belly—neither are serious yet, still, the one is inevitable, and the other shows few signs of abating in this land of cars and fatty food.

Neither does it help—though it is fun—to learn what my moods look like. This improbable service has been rendered me by the Theosophists Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater, courtesy of their terrific 1901 book Thought-Forms. The paintings in this book, by 'Mr. John Varley [1850-99, grandson of John Varley], Mr. Prince and Miss Macfarlane', represent the two authors' clairvoyant impressions of emotional states in other men and women.

I was disappointed that vague intellectual pleasure, above, is the dullest-looking of all emotions. I mean really, it's indefensibly boring, isn't it? Worth noting, however, that our theosophists' view of intellectual pleasure anticipates Eliot's arguments about poetic creation:
Such pure intellectual gratification shows itself in a yellow cloud; and the same effect may be produced by delight in musical ingenuity, or the subtleties of argument. A cloud of this nature betokens the entire absence of any personal emotion, for if that were present it would inevitably tinge the yellow with its own appropriate colour.

Luckily, anger and jealousy are a bit more interesting; here they are together. I like the snot-green literalism of jealousy in particular. 'It may be noted that here the jealousy is merely a vague cloud, though interspersed with very definite flashes of anger ready to strike at those by whom it fancies itself to be injured.' Besant and Leadbeater write with a rather amusing moral smugness, and with the stiff propriety that one expects from literature of this period. Our authors also show us the effects of a shipwreck on men of disparate sensibility:

The right-hand shapes demonstrate 'an eruption of the livid grey of fear, rising out of a basis of utter selfishness', a soul 'possessed with blind, frantic terror, and that the overpowering sense of personal danger', although the lower man is somewhat calmed by his 'religious feeling'. The left-hand shape, on the other hand, shows 'splendid strength and decision', 'a powerful, clear-cut and definite thought, obviously full of force and resolution'. The full text is online, although the pictures have been badly scanned, so I reproduce them here from the original book.


Now, we know that Kandinsky was into a bit of Theosophy. His 1912 book On the Spiritual in Art, to which I reacted here, shows the influence clearly. Like Besant and Leadbeater—and indeed like most of the mediaeval West—Kandinsky prizes blue as the colour of heaven. However, he associates yellow not with the intellect, but with superficiality and madness. Also, where Besant separates form and colour, Kandinsky associates the two: thus yellow is suited to triangles. There is an ample treatment of Kandinsky's work in John Gage's recent history of colour, Colour and Culture, which is a must-read. Gage also examines Besant's appreciation of musical synaesthesia, comparing her visual representations of Wagner and Gounod to the use by Kandinsky and Scriabin of light-effects in musical numbers.

But something else occurred to me. Kandinsky's abstract works really begin around 1909 or 1910; this book is almost a decade earlier. Are the paintings of Varley etc. the first completely abstract images in the West?

Were we to suggest this, we would have to discount pure ornament, with its long Western history, and also such works as Whistler's Nocturne or Turner's Light and Colour. Despite their obvious abstraction, the latter two pieces are depictions of the material world, and elements of reality can be glimpsed through the complex layers of paint. The images of Varley et al., on the other hand, have no reference whatsoever to the physical world. They lack, for the most part, the schematism of diagrams. And so in a real sense—in the sense of Rothko, or Barnett Newman—these crude daubs are the first fully abstract paintings in the Western tradition. Sixten Ringbom ('Art in 'The Epoch of the Great Spiritual': Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract Painting', 1966) agrees: 'these colour illustrations can be regarded as the first non-objective representations'.

So there you have it. Like I said, though, it doesn't make me feel any better.

Update: Bibliodyssey saw this first. I should have guessed.

21 January, 2007

Scattered remarks

At noon I'm due to meet T to read a bit of Greek. We've now eschewed John in favour of Ion, which is proving considerably more difficult, although it has been curious to discover a constant repetition of words and set phrases, just like in John, as well as frequent polyptotive wordplay. T calls me at half eleven: "Are we on for twelve?" I reply that we are. "So the rain isn't putting you off?" Pff, I snort, "I'm British."

The rain is indeed bucketing. Defiantly I go out in flipflops, adoring the wet beration as a too infrequent reminder of home. Still, I underestimate the winds, and so without hat I suffer the keen of the chill on my newshorn bonce. On Palm Walk two blacks cross my path; one of them is rapping. His skillz are, as they say, ill—although I am insufficiently familiar with the modern rap oeuvre to determine the man's originality.

The walk to campus is always a bit grim. How I long for a sense of place amid these ugly rubbles—they're building a light rail here, and sometimes it seems as though the level of union-sabotaged construction is reaching Bostonian proportions.

Ah, America.

Mrs. Roth found a man with a cart putting up star-spangled banners and U. S. Constitutions on faux-parchment all over the Art History department; it turns out that the school has only now gotten around to observing a state bill passed last July, requiring the presence of these objects in every classroom, school and college. No funding for this initiative was provided, and private benefactors have had to cough up the money. Now, apparently, a new bill has been passed requiring a framed portrait of G. W. Bush behind every lectern. Local councils are debating an addition to the morning ritual—I pledge allegiance to the Lord President our Savior—and Ira Fulton has moved to introduce Books of Mormon into the junior curriculum statewide, with weekly tests mandatory. Hail to the chief!

19 January, 2007

The Bat

I have said already that there is no member of the animal series with worse luck in its designation than the flying mammal; that people first gave it the generic name of Bald-Mouse [Fr. chauve-souris], an absurd name, seeing that the fabled animal that it apparently designates is neither a mouse nor bald; —and that science has succeeded no better with its latest label of chiroptera (winged hands), as the locomotive organs of the beast in question are neither hands nor wings. Vespertiliones and Anthropomorphs communicate no more or less about them.

I have said that although science wants at all costs to honour this anomaly with a Greek or a Latin name, she should create for it a composite substantive that corresponds to its natural qualities, something like bird-breast, for instance, or hairy bird, flying quadruped, mammiptera.

Choose, if you will, mammiptera, and let us agree, moreover, that of all the bizarreries of the last creation, the. . . bat. . . was without contradiction the most difficult to name; and that I would have feared to affright my young readerettes by restoring to him his true name.

For the bat is an emblem of death.

And a single name suits him, that of Bugbear or Satanist, which some passional1 zoologists have given to the Storm-Petrel.

Those little skilled in the art of divining nature's rebuses, those who know how difficult it is to make mutes speak, will take my word for it when I assert that I was forced to spend ten years in close contact with the Bat, with a great effort of insistence and perseverance, before I was able loosen its teeth and acquire a full confession of its turpitude. It spoke to me for a long time on this matter. And truly I do not know, given the nature of its confidences, if I would not do better to keep them to myself than to make them public. It is enough to give one gooseflesh, the very idea of the ill-fated consequences of indiscretion among the weak.

The question of the Bat is a question of the afterlife, a question that smacks of heresy [Fr. qui sent la fagot]. . .

All is mystery, darkness, and imposture in this transitional series, in all these moulds2 of the ambiguous, branded at the edge of the abnormal, the hideous and the fantastic.

Is it the black spirit of the abyss? Satan's ensign? The gaunt and livid phantom born of hell-terrors at the bedside of the moribund? The spectre with the frightful laugh, raised from tombs at dusk to return at dawn? The false skeletons, soaring in silent flight in the regions of Erebus? It is all these at once, and still another thing.

It is the image of death in limbic societies, the image of the dolorous transition, the nightmare of terrified imaginations.

The Bat, like the spectre, inhabits sombre caves, sombre caves and the trunks of dead trees, black caverns and the cracks in old walls, from which it departs at that hazy hour preceding night. Suspended from the vaults of sepulchral grottoes during the day, it imitates the utter immobility of the deceased in his coffin. The hairy membranes that sustain it in the air serve as a model for all the mortuary hangings that decorate the chambers of tombs.

Half bird, half quadruped, it is the transition from an inferior life to a superior life. But what sort of superior life? That is the question.3 Listen patiently as I explain all.

The Bat is one of those rare species to enjoy the privilege of inspiring mortal antipathies at first sight, and to effect swoons among those of a nervous disposition. It shares this sad ability with the Toad, emblem of the beggar; with the spider, emblem of the shopkeeper; and with the viper, emblem of perfidy. Now, remark well this observation: the Bat is an innocent beast!!! That is the word of the enigma.

The Bat is an innocent beast, and more than innocent, useful; it continues the service of the Swallow, whose work is interrupted by nightfall. The Bat wages war on all the insects and nocturnal vermins that afflict man and his fruit trees.

— But surely, although this hideous creature, which enjoys a supreme ugliness, and indeed a supreme faculty of repulsion, is but an innocent animal, and even a useful one—surely our fear of death, of that too too disquieting transition, is not merely an atrocious sort of joke?

— An atrocious joke, if you would call it that; a mystification prolonged infinitely too long, —by the aid of which miserable impostors have odiously exploited credulous men, profiting from their ignorance to frighten them, to affect their minds with the idea of a wicked God, to propagate the dogma of eternal pain, to practise the flight to Purgatory. Fortunately, all this is revealed in daylight (analogy). The Bat, with which the phoney obscurantists had collaborated in their tenebrous conspiracies, might not have betrayed them, but then another of their accomplices would have spilled the beans.

The Bat is a chimera, a monstrous being, impossible, symbolising only the chimera, a nocturnal sprite [Fr. farfadet] representing exclusively the phantoms of sick imaginations, the progeny of brains calcined by asceticism, by fasting and by solitary meditations. The Bat is imposture made beast, just as M. de Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, was imposture made man.

The character of universal anomaly4 and of monstrosity which is observed in the Bat's structure, in those bizarre sensory inversions by which the villainous beast listens with its nose and sees with its ears, can be explained as a corruption of ideas, and as the intellectual irregularities that this fantastic form is designed to symbolise. Moreover, it can be proven that the Bat has only ever represented a false death, by the fact that the true Death is noseless [Fr. camarde], whereas the Bat has an exaggerated nose that sometimes descends down to its breast, like an elephant's trunk.

The Bat openly admits its complicity in the work of Obscurantism; for sixty centuries it has been the devoutest auxiliary of Superstition, for the simple reason that its natural sympathies are for the friends of darkness, and that light offends it, and that it cannot see a lit candle without feeling the need to blow it out. In turn, I admit that I could not make a crime of the poor beast's sympathies. He who resembles himself, comes together. The Bat only lets itself crawl during the day; it neither flies nor walks; soldiers of this kind cannot serve in the regiment of progress.

But then, veritably, there is for the systematic obscurantism of the Bats, as for that of the Bear, no longer such an ardent friend of the light—there is an attenuating circumstance of extreme gravity.

To the ignorant I must explain that the childhood of the worlds was a good time for Bats, just as the childhood of a man is a good time for Werewolves and Boogiemen. The closer one is to the birth of the animal world, the higher the Bat's place on the scale of the world's animality.

It ruled the world that preceded ours; antediluvian history tells us that it was once one of the highest moulds of animality. From its high position in those distant times, the Bat has yet retained a glorious sign. It has its breast in the same place as the Sphinx; it is this that gives it an anthropomorphic quality, that is to say the build of a human figure. An anthropomorphic religion is one constructed by human hands, whose God naturally resembles he that made him: To objectivize the I and raise it to the absolute is the eternal marotte of human folly, red-white-hot with pride. As for the atheist, the atheist above all adores an anthropomorphic God in a single person, who has the name of Holback [sic], or Henri Heine.

It is proven, therefore, that in the fine days of the Creation before last, the domain of the air belonged in all sovereignty to two or three gigantic Bats, types of aerial ships whose membraneous sails measured ten or twelve metres across; and that these powerfully-built Bats—which today's savants call pterodactyls so as not to repeat the word chiroptera, which means exactly the same thing—shared with the Bear the benefits of an unchallenged tyranny. I let myself say that there were, among these hairy birds, these hideous vampires, those who hesitated not to draw from a poor Megatherium, or a poor sleepy Dinotherium, half a hectolitre of blood. If one would believe our explorers' tales, this habit of sucking a man's blood during his sleep has been carefully transmitted from the pterodactyls of yore to the chiroptera of today.

I am not an apologist for tyrants, nor for vampires; but I do have some sympathy for deposed powers; from those who have lost everything in a revolution, I do not require any affection for the new order of things. In all times and on all worlds, the pretenders, that is to say the deposed (the Bear and the Bat), have lent a hand to the obscurantists, or to put it bluntly, the Jesuits; in all times, pretenders and priests have banded together to halt progress. The pretenders' interest in this coalition is very clear; before moving a chariot retrograde, one must bring it to a halt. The tactics of the priest and royalist parties in our revolutions.

The question that smacks of heresy. . . 5

It is certain that it is the Bat who has helped most to ingrain, in the imagination of credulous mortals, the more or less fabulous myths of the Hippogriff, the Griffon, the Dragon, the Chimera; that it is the Bat who, in a word, has served as a model for all those birds of four feet and jaws, to whom the ancient world was accustomed to entrust its treasures. The Roc of Arabic legend is not an Eagle, but in fact a Bat. A bird which is only a bird, no matter how great, and which has only two feet and feathers, could never inspire the same terror as the most innocent Bat. The bugbear's physique demands imperiously the union of claws, wings and jaws. The Devil of Catholic legend, both apostolic and Roman, the Christian Devil, who has tampered so much with souls, and caused so much good land to be given by testament to the priests, the Christian Devil is himself only a very happy counterfeit of the Bat, and on his forehead can be seen the two horns of the ancient satyr, there only to disguise the plagiary. The Devil who crosses the backdrop of the Opéra during the third act of Robert has membraneous wings and toes adorned with claws like a Bat. All the invocations of the sorcerors of infernal dramas have as their first results the appearance upon the stage of frightful pterodactyls, who open their wings in time to the music. All the principal figures in that great epic of Callot, the Temptation of Saint Anthony, were copied from an original that one can admire in any cabinet of natural history, in the gallery of pictures of the Bat family. Show a painter the hairstyles of his most outlandish demons, their most eccentric ears and their most expansive noses, and I assert that the Rhinolophus, the Long-Eared Bat and the Flying Rat will still make him denounce the copyist's timidity. The tradition of the Vampire, who leaves his tomb during the night in order to suck the blood of young girls, is the tradition of the Bat. The Jesuit's tricorne, the Monk's cowl, these are the pieces of the Bat's uniform.

I know all the crimes of the Bat, and I forgive it them, because a fault confessed is a fault half-forgiven.

I forgive the Bat its crimes, by dint of this religious motive, that the fear of death is one of the fatal conditions of existence in limbic societies, and that God has had to square the terrors of death with the miseries of life. Superstition, which will soon cease altogether, has had its necessity, just like evil. If we had no fear of death, we should all desire to go down into the earth, when life pleased us no longer.

But just as the first rays of the Sun, hearth of light and love, chase the spirits of darkness, the Owl and the Bat, from the reawakened atmosphere. . . so False Morals and Superstition, the idea of a wicked God, and Fear and Imposture, will flee a man's brain with the first flickers of the dawn of Harmony6, and the fearful nightmare of Hell will cease to weigh upon our dreams!

Insensible are those who complain that God has refused to our age a revelation of the things of another life. . . clearly, they know not that it pains those who are aware of the delights of the aromal7 life to remain here below!

The Bat, who lost so much in the last creation, is destined to disappear entirely at the beginning of the next.



(A thank-you to the polytropic Siganus Sutor for helping me with a few difficult points in the French.)

1. This chapter makes more explicit references to the theories and jargon of Charles Fourier; these need a little explaining. For instance, passionelle is a key term, referring to Fourier's idea of natural attraction in the animal world, a version of Aristotle's final cause. The Trésor provides this definition: "Attraction passionnelle. Penchant par lequel chaque être est attiré vers les autres et vers le but de sa passion dominante, antérieurement à la réflexion. Charles Fourier se considérait comme un nouveau Newton, pour avoir conçu l'attraction passionnelle comme le ressort fondamental de la vie sociale." Ceri Crossley ('Anglophobia and anti-Semitism: the case of Alphonse Toussenel (1803-1885)', online here) writes that Toussenel "rejected conventional forms of taxonomy and employed Fourier’s theory of the passions as his principle of classification. He argued that the science of analogy revealed that the cosmos was a meaningful unity bound together by a network of correspondences. Plants, animals and humans were all secretly linked. Everything was symbolic." The neo-mediaevalism of this attitude, reflected in Toussenel's revival of the bestiary genre, is clear.

2. The word 'mould' [moule] is also technical; as Toussenel writes in his volume on birds, "Les animaux de tous les règnes sont, à l’instar des minéraux et des plantes, des moules particuliers de la passion humaine"—in other words, animals are 'particular forms or moulds' of human passion.

3. In English in the original text; the reference is obvious.

4. 'Anomaly' being the classical antithesis of 'analogy', the key structure in the Fourierian universe.

5. A particularly intricate design; viewing the larger image is highly recommended. The object clutched in the demon's right hand is a rosary; in its left hand is, I believe, an aspergill.

6. As Crossley puts it, Toussenel "looked forward to the future age of Harmony, to a time when humans would collaborate peacefully and work productively in a society that allowed for the full expression of the passions. In Harmony, humankind would at last be reconciled with nature. The creatures that embodied human vices would disappear and new harmonious animals would be born." Compare Fourier's infamous doctrine, half ironic, that in the next age the seas would turn to a bituminous substance tasting like lemonade.

7. Fr. aromale: the Trésor gives this definition—"Mot forgé par Charles Fourier (1772-1837), fondateur de l'école phalanstérienne, et appliqué au système de distribution des aromes qui régissent les relations des astres."

For more: Toussenel on the Mole-Rat, and on the Ermine.

17 January, 2007

On scholarly habits: an epigram

If every schoolboy were to know what 'every schoolboy knows',
The world would need its schools no more, and gladly would they close.

or perhaps—

The world would be a place less dim, but far more dull, I s'pose.

Variations invited. Go on, give it a shot!

16 January, 2007

The Ermine

The Ermine and Erminette, who only attack children and who wear the white robe, symbolise the hypocritical professors of false morals named M. Rodin, M. Tartufe [sic], Dom Basile [an early Carthusian, fl. 1170], who assume robes of chastity and innocence so as to weasel their way into families and pervert youth. The blackness of the ermine's schemes is betrayed by the colour of the brush of hair worn at the end of its tail. We note, finally, that law professors and most doctors of the civilised sciences, who are good only for the corruption of youth, show themselves to be very fond of ermine finery.


Stoat is generally preferred to ermine for the English name of the creature, but the latter is perfectly acceptable, and better matches the French. From the OED's extensive discussion of the word's etymology:
A different hypothesis (favoured by Littré, Paul Meyer, and others) is that the Romanic words represent L. Armenius Armenian. The mus Ponticus, 'Pontic rat', mentioned by Pliny as a fur-bearing animal, is commonly supposed, though without actual proof, to be the ermine; and as Pontus and Armenia were conterminous, it has been suggested that an alternative name for the animal may have been mus Armenius. That some animal was known by this designation in the second century is rendered probable by a passage in Julius Pollux (c A.D. 180), who (Onomast. VII. 60) gives μυωτός as the name of an Armenian garment, and, amongst other conjectures as to the origin of the word, suggests that this article of dress may have been so named because made of the skins of 'the mice (or rats) of that country'.
For more: Toussenel on the Mole-Rat, and on the Bat.

12 January, 2007

The Mole-Rat

Virgil has unwittingly defined the mole, thus:
Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, CUI LUMEN ADEMPTUM!
A hideous, shapeless, colossal monster, who cannot see at all.

A famished mole leapt one day to a young girl's throat.

The Mole is, in effect, the most monstrous of all created beings. It has the greatest muscular power of any quadruped; it is the most bloodthirsty of carnivores. It is the most complete of all of the mammals, not excepting man; it is the champion best armed for war, for labour, and for love.

I've heard a great deal of talk about the strength of the Elephant, who carries towers loaded with combatants upon his back. I myself have said much on the locomotive power of the Whale, who can encircle the globe in no more than fifteen days. The Bengal Tiger, finally, has been cited as a drinker of blood impossible to sate. But the prowess of the Elephant and the Whale are but trifles compared to the tours de force of the Mole—and the Creator has expent more mechanical ingenuity in the construction of the Mole's hand than in building all the skeletons of the giants of the earth and of the waters. Compared to the Mole, the Bengal Tiger is but a lizard in his sobriety, and but a lamb in his sweetness—for the Tiger has never turned his canines upon his own kind. Send two tigers in a box to a friend, and they will reach their destination without problem; put two moles in the same position, and they will have swallowed each other before the first stop.

The fine difficulty of moving along the surface of the ground like the Elephant or, like the Whale, in a fluid medium, which pushes one up and down by the degree of compression or dilatation in one's lungs! But put an Elephant or a Whale fifty feet under ground, in the same circumstances as the unfortunate Dufavel, and observe what the most desperate efforts of the cetacean or the proboscidian will achieve. Alas! Without picks to pierce the earth, and vigorous muscles to move themselves, even the gods would soon perish with the effort. Give the mole the tail of a Whale, or even that of an Elephant, and it will overturn the world!

It is obvious, moreover, that an animal destined to live in a medium like tufa should be armed with a means of locomotion more powerful than those creatures inhabiting an atmospheric or aquatic medium, the molecules of which can be displaced with the least opposition. The muscular superiority of the Mole over the Elephant is self-evident and cannot be disputed.

The Mole's jaw is armed with FORTY-FOUR redoubtable teeth. Its snout, the index of a stormy sensuality, has acquired such enormous proportions that it almost completely obstructs its sight (its sense of charity).

The Mole stirs its head, and the powdered soil spurts suddenly into the air, like the bitter wave from a Cachalot's spiracles.

Its stomach is an ever-burning furnace in which the most indigestible aliments instantly break apart, dissolve and disappear.

Its hunger is rabid, its love epileptic….

The existence of the Mole is a continual orgy of blood. Its stomach is seized by fits of rage three or four times a day. It will perish of starvation after ten hours of abstinence.

The Mole leaps upon its prey with a prodigious bound, seizes it under the belly, and plunges its long muzzle into the entrails, tearing open the wound with its hands so as to drown entirely in the blood of its victim, so as to delight through every pore. Every murder occasions a voluptuous ecstasy. A famished mole leapt one day to a young girl's throat and pierced her breast, before anybody had the chance to come to her aid.

Now, M. de Buffon has painted an edifying picture of the pastoral mores and virtues of the mole! And this virtuous beast has numerous friends in the agricultural press, for the current fashion is for the rehabilitation of ugliness. The canonisation of Saint Fabian has thrown all imaginations into delirium. Nothing is more beautiful than the ugly.

If the ancients had known of the Mole, it is more than likely that they would have consecrated it to Priapus…. god of the gardens. The Mole does not contradict that well-known dictum that love is blind.

With regards to blind love, there is something very painful to say to man, and above all excessively delicate to write in French. Today, for the first time, I admit my error in cursing the tenderness of my teachers, who condemned my childhood to a forced labour in Latin, instead of allowing it to develop freely in the great outdoors of vagabondage and of those perfumed hayricks so favourable to gymnastic exercise. I sincerely regret no longer possessing, as I once did, my Cornelius Nepos, so as to muddle through my explanation, in the manner of M. Dupin the spiritualist. I mean that if it is true, as science supposes, that an animal's place in the natural hierarchy is determined by the degree to which its organs each possess a unique function, then man must place himself upon a lower rung than that occupied by the Mole; in man there remain organs serving two functions, but in the Mole there are none. I shall not explain myself more clearly on this point, nor shall I examine the reasons for the desperate resistance offered by the virtue of the young moless to the brutal solicitations of her lovers.

M. Flourens the immortal, whose interesting studies of the colorisation of the duck's bones have opened to him the gates of the Academie Française, has made some curious observations on the history of the Mole. It turns out from the immortal's experiments that the Mole professes so sovereign a contempt for the vegetable diet that it prefers to let itself die than touch even the tastiest legumes with its teeth. I will boldly contradict this result, and, in the name of all-powerful analogy, I demand that the academician renew his experiment, taking care to substitute for the carrot a TRUFFLE, and I'd wager anything that the mole allows itself to be seduced by the truffle; for if this were not the case, the analogy of the snout would be faulty, and then what principle could we follow?

We understand, moreover, that a beast like the Mole cannot be the emblem of any individual human type. The Mole is not, in effect, the emblem of a single character, it is the emblem of an entire social period—the period of the birth of industry, the cyclopaean period, the darkest and most dolorous of all of those of the limbic phase. The Mole does not symbolise a single vice, it symbolises them all; it is the most complete allegorical expression of the absolute predominance of brute force over the intellect. It carries its dominant characteristical written in its snout—and see here the extent of the influence of the exaggerated development of a beast's olfactory apparatus. The Elephant, whom I naturally placed at the head of the proboscidians, is exclusively herbivorous, and with his frugality and reserve he willingly symbolises the innocent and chaste mores of the paradisiacal period. Meanwhile, because he carries a trunk, and is thus the parent of the Tapir and of the Mole, the Elephant is subject to the mood-swings which, on occasion, make his company so insufferable that you'll use a cannon to be rid of him. He is equally known to indulge in booze without trouble or remorse, and we know how far the unfortunate can be degraded by their passion for drunkenness.

The Mole is the receptacle of impurity mentioned in the Holy Scripture. If you take equal parts Bluebeard and Louis XV, Messalina and the Marquis de Sade, grind them all up in a mortar, heat, and distill, you will obtain the mole.

The Titan who heaps Pelion upon Ossa, the Enceladus whose convulsions give Etna such terrible nauseas, and who causes it to vomit torrents of fiery lava—that is the Mole, who also heaps mountain upon mountain, who stirs the entrails of the soil, and who multiplies eruptions of earth all over the prairies!

The Mole is the one-eyed Cyclops who labours the entrails of the earth, who digs subterranean tunnels, who feeds on human flesh, who crushes Galatea's lovers with fragments of rock; who thinks orgies without copious bloodflow quite bland. Where, except in the hideous cyclops, can we find the image of the Mole…. of the male Mole who possesses his female only after executing all his rivals…. who having killed them devours them, and, all soiled with blood, reeking of carnage, reclaims his beauty as the prize of his exploits?

For the long subterranean tunnels that your eyes follow along the prairie are not always those famous drainage-tunnels hollowed out by the mole to find the larvae and earthworms upon which it feasts. Just as often it will be an exit carved out by the female in retreat from the redoubtable obsessions of her persecutors. Love speaks loud to the sensuality of this species—and every female is subject to the claims of a crowd of suitors. The unlucky girl has only a brief respite, during the fierce duels in which her torturers indulge; she tries to profit from the conflict with an escape attempt. This might work for a day, or for however long the killing lasts; but barely is the struggle over when the victor, his vengeance satisfied, devotes himself to recapturing the fugitive. It is a siege, with all its rules—all the strategies of the miner are deployed—mines and counter-mines, boyaux circular at both ends, diagonal trenches, Cormontaigne and other stratagems. The resistance must nonetheless come to an end when the male succeeds in trapping his victim at an impasse. In effect, there remains no way for her to delay defeat, other than quickly to reach the surface; but daylight dazzles her, and her modesty is betrayed by spent efforts—the dolorous sacrifice is accomplit. To ensure her family's future, the mother henceforth uses all the talent used formerly by the virgin to defend her virtue.

We have seen examples of these tunnels of love as long as one kilometre; the hunting tunnels are no shorter. The hunting-tunnel is the route by which the Mole moves from his domicile to the feeding billet. The moler's art, invented in this century by the celebrated Henry Lecourt, tiller of Seine-et-Oise, is based almost entirely on knowledge of this passage. As the Mole is obliged by its voracity to make this journey many times a day, and especially in the morning and evening, it is very easy to trap him when one knows his route. The moler's art has made great progress for some years—but the extermination of the mole, like that of the cockchafers and of the caterpillars, can only be achieved by means of unified measures, based on the principles of association and solidarity, and practised on an immense scale. Some day, agriculture will gratefully erect statues to Henry Lecourt, having been delivered by him from the scourge of the Mole.

However, let us not forget to mention, before this event, one interesting particular of the mole's story. All creatures have their reasons for being here below, the Mole just as the cyclops. The Cyclopes forged ploughshares at the same time as swords. The Mole served agriculture as an instrument for drainage before that marvelous procedure was discovered. It cleans the prairie subsoil with salutary grooves, although it disfigures the surface with the deposits that it ceaselessly accumulates. But let us say no more on the subject; it would be wise to pray that the wicked beasts may exist no longer, to concede them the benefit of mitigating circumstances.

It was Henry Lecourt who measured the speed with which the mole moves through its subterranean tunnels. He planted along the entire length of one inhabited tunnel a certain quantity of haystraws ornamented with floating banderoles, and hermetically stopped up the mouth of the passage with a cornet pavilion. Then, when he saw by the agitation of the molehill that the enemy was close, he drew from the instrument an appalling note, which produced in the animal such an impression of terror that all the little flags along the line could suddenly be seen to turn over, like a batallion of misplaced dominos. By this curious experiment, repeated many times, he ascertained that the greatest speed of the Mole in its tunnel equalled that of the horse at great trot.

Let those who desire to know more about the mole investigate the writings of M. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the greatest scientific and zoological genius of this century, and the only savant who has understood the series, understanding thereby the principle of material analogy.

Many esteemed analogists, to whose opinion I would happily concede, do not entirely share my point of view on the mole. They are not at all convinced that Virgil had intended an allusion to this animal in the verse cited above. They say that this odious quadruped, prosperous, pot-bellied and greedy, is an emblem of the landlord. They find quite a marked resemblance between the mole, who turns the soil and drills subterranean communication-routes so as to pursue and capture everywhere the insects upon which it feeds—and the monopolists of the railroads and courier-services, who devour each other, who overturn all the commercial links of a country, and absorb all the transport-routes, so as to ransom travellers, their victims—who use their chemins de fers as electric telegraphs, and who ruin both the true traveller and the State by their agiotage [stock-jobbing]. These analogists add that the extreme nervous sensitivity of the Mole, which dreads the light and dies from the least scratch, admirably characterises the obstinate obscurantism of those monopolists of the bank and transport-systems, who dread the light likewise, because they know perfectly well that the first industrial reform, by killing the anarchic régime in which industry struggles, would kill them also. I have never denied the great truth in these similarities—nor that there is a little of the Mole in the railroad concessionaire, who makes a little good out of a great evil—but I believe the analogy of the Cyclops to be preferable.


The above is a chapter, 'La Taupe' or 'The Mole-Rat', translated from Alphonse Toussenel's 1847 L'Esprit des Bêtes. Toussenel is an incredibly obscure figure; until recently his Wikipedia article looked hilariously like this—
Alphonse Toussenel is a French writer born in Montreuil-Bellay, small meadows commune of Angers , in 1803 , and died in Paris in 1885 . Phalansterian eminent, it belongs more to the policy than with the pure literature. Its anticonformist imagination, not to say unslung, its surprising images, its unexpected bringings together, its excesses, its Utopias, its exaltations proc餥nt as much literary creation however very that political vision. Intransigent feminist, but also anti-English and notorious anti-semite - so much so that the editors, in their Foreword, disunite its opinions enemy of the Capital, misanthropist (" what there is best in the man, it is the dog ", quotes it forward), abolitionist, nourished Toussenel soil belongs to the species of the political and mystical literary men, pessimistic physiognomists and " 魡ncipateurs of the poor
Now it's been cleaned up a little. The only scholarly discussion of Toussenel concerns his rabid anti-semitism, except for Walter Benjamin's indomitable Arcades Project, wherein I first learnt of him. The two volumes of L'Esprit des Bêtes consist of descriptions of all types of creatures with a moral slant, in the tradition of Physiologus and the mediaeval bestiaries. The naturalist Louis-Pierre Gratiolet wrote that 'Nous connaissons mieux que Toussenel l'animal mort, mais aucun de nous ne connait comme lui l'animal vivant'. But although the genre is mediaeval, the aesthetic is very much of its time: Toussenel, like that other great fantasist Grandville, was an admirer of Charles Fourier, everyone's favourite socialist nutnut-genius. The subtitle of this work, Zoologie Passionelle, is in fact an explicit reference to Fourier's bizarre theories of natural attraction, and the repeated theme of 'analogy' in the text translated here derives from Fourier's obsessive delight in analogies between human and animal life. The emphasis on analogy as a guiding method—and indeed as a predictive one, as in the detail about the truffle—is typical of the whimsical but deadpan irony found in Toussenel's work, as in Fourier's. I find it hilariously funny! The chapter as a whole, however, stands out for its rather Poeian macabrism, which is why I chose it.

I own a copy of Toussenel's second volume, on birds, which Benjamin quotes liberally—there are marvelous passages on the symbolism of curves and arcs, among other delights. But the present translation is from the first volume, on land and sea creatures; this edition, printed by J. Hetzel in 1890 (I think), contains wonderful illustrations by Emile Bayard, best known for creating the poster-child of the musical Les Miserables. Bayard's designs for Toussenel are quite fascinating and unpredictable: alas, there is only one image for the chapter on the mole, but in another post I shall offer his fantastic designs for the whale.


I have endeavoured to reproduce Toussenel's orthographic eccentricities in my translation; he is inconsistent, for instance, in his capitalisation of animal-names. It has been frustrating that I could not track down all the references. I do not know who 'Dupin le spirituel' is—not, I think, Poe's famous detective, though it is historically possible—nor do I understand the reference to the military historian Cornelius Nepos. I do not grasp the significance of Saint Fabian—is Toussenel referring to the Saint Fabian, or satirising a contemporary? I can find no online reference to Henry Lecourt. I am not sure that 'M. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire' is Etienne, as I have linked above, as opposed to his son Isidore.

A couple of small notes: the Vergil quoted at the outset is Aeneid 3.658 on Polyphemus. The line was bawdily reused by Ausonius, see here. See also Baudelaire's Hymne à la Beauté, line 22, 'O Beauté! monstre énorme, effrayant, ingénu.' In the last paragraph I have used the French 'chemins de fers' [sic] to translate Toussenel's 'rails-ways' [sic]. Other words I have left in the French, where appropriate, such as 'boyaux', which survives as an obsolete technical term in English; from the OED—'A branch of a trench; a zig-zag; a trench in rear of a battery, forming a communication with the magazine; a small gallery of a mine'. The archaic 'characteristical' translates the archaic French 'caractérielle', not an exact match, but what the hell.

For more: Toussenel on the Ermine, and on the Bat.

09 January, 2007

Romanticism: connecting some dots

You know that feeling when you're sleeping away from home, and you wake up in the dark and grope around, but the walls are in the wrong place, and so you wind up completely disoriented? That's what reading the German Romantics is like to me. Naturally, I could hardly have paid them a greater compliment, either from their perspective, or from my own. A while ago I read the fragments of Novalis, and more recently the fragments of Schlegel. Why? Well, they're fun, for one thing—and even funny:
The critic is a reader who ruminates. Therefore he ought to have more than one stomach.

The function of criticism, people say, is to educate one's readers! Whoever wants to be educated, let him educate himself. This is rude; but it can't be helped.
Apothegms like these have that surreal and contemptuous wit found later in Nietzsche. But Schlegel is not just Nietzschean: he seems to contain the entire history of modern Western thought in his various snippets. I offer you, for instance, Duchamp (or Eliot): "In order to write well about something, one shouldn't be interested in it any longer. To express an idea with due circumspection, one must have relegated it wholly to one's past; one must be wholly preoccupied with it."

Empson: "If some mystical art lovers who think of every criticism as a dissection and every dissection as a destruction of pleasure were to think logially, then 'wow' would be the best criticism of the greatest work of art. To be sure, there are many critiques which say nothing more, but only take much longer to say it. / People always talk about how an analysis of the beauty of a work of art supposedly disturbs the pleasure of the art lover. Well, the real lover just won't let himself be disturbed!"

Bakhtin, Frye etc.: "Many of the very best novels are compendia, encyclopedias of the whole spiritual life of a brilliant individual."

Schopenhauer: "Every human being who is cultivated and who cultivates himself contains a novel within himself. Bt it isn't necessary for him to express it and write it out."

André Breton: "Many witty ideas are like the sudden meeting of two friendly thoughts after a long separation."

Even the Schlegelian idea of the complete man goes back to the Renaissance cult of elasticity—compare, in particular, Grafton's recent portrait of Alberti, which I read last week—"A really free and cultivated person ought to be able to attune himself at will to being philosophical or philological, critical or poetical, historical or rhetorical, ancient or modern: quite arbitrarily, just as one tunes an instrument at any time and to any degree."

And all this from a thinker accused of excessive mediaevalism!


Alberti's On Painting reconfigures the myth of Narcissus as an allegory about the origins of art, the beautiful soul attempting to capture the fleeting currents of the world on a watery canvas. Schlegel's writing, likewise, seems to capture one's own thoughts in a sudden flash—his words the reflection of anything already present. That flash is wit, which "gives an elasticity and electricity to a solid style". Novalis was into wit, too: "Every proposition must have independent character—must be a self-evident whole, the seedpod of a witty idea." It is for this reason that Schlegel introduces the notion of self-contradiction: "It is equally deadly to the spirit to have a system and not to have one. One must resolve to combine the two." (Pirsig said nothing more, but only took much longer to say it.) Wasn't it Emerson who said that self-contradiction is the mark of great genius, that only common minds are bound by consistency?

Because of this aesthetic, you can say almost anything about Schlegel. Frederick Beiser illuminates this point well—albeit unwittingly—in his book The Romantic Imperative. You can call Schlegel a progressive or a reactionary. You can see in Schlegel the historicising hermeneutics of Schleiermacher, or the text-based, kabbalistic formalism of Shklovsky. You can say that Schlegel found his romanticism in Schiller's cult of beauty and ancient/modern contrast, or you can say that Schiller only inculcated Schlegel's classicism. You can say that Schlegel is pro-system, or anti-system—that his philosophy is a reaction against the Enlightenment, or a resolution of its problems. You can say that he believes in absolute, transcendent knowledge—and that he denies the possibility of attaining it. You could compare that last contradiction to Kant—who posits the noumenon but denies direct perception of the same—or you could read Schlegel in a Kantless vacuum—Schlegel, after all, for whom Kant was already out of date, for whom Fichte was the real deal, at least until 1797 when even Fichte had become passé. This was the same Fichte who first achieved fame by being mistaken for Kant, back in 1791. It goes on and on.


Lovejoy vs. Spitzer.

This all-inclusive quality is one reason why Lovejoy wanted to abandon the word 'Romanticism' in favour of 'romanticisms'. He broke the concept down into smaller pieces, which he called unit-ideas. The unit-idea is the classic Lovejoy notion: you discover throughout intellectual history certain small, hard concepts that persist through time—and then you can write a history of these concepts, hence his masterpiece on the Great Chain of Being. The unit-ideas of German Romanticism, according to Lovejoy, are three—Ganzheit (holism), Streben (dynamism), and Eigentümlichkeit (diversification). Personally I would have left it at arcanism and irony, but then Lovejoy was a more brilliant man than me. In 1944 Lovejoy was taken to task by one Leo Spitzer—a sort of intellectual outsider sometimes lumped in with other literary philologists like Curtius and Auerbach—for what Spitzer perceived as an excessive analytism. By breaking Romanticism up into these parts, argued Spitzer, Lovejoy was destroying its organic totality, and thus failing to understand it as a complete entity. Understanding things as a complete entity is classically German: as a historical discipline it is called Geistesgeschichte.

(Gombrich, who moved the Warburg tradition away from its German roots towards the analytism of Karl Popper, criticised his predecessor Panofsky for practicing Geistesgeschichte—the mentality of the Renaissance, insisted Gombrich, could not be discovered in every brushstroke of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In this respect Gombrich had a deep kinship with Lovejoy, primarily interested in how discrete visual forms and techniques persist and change over time. In his Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor associates this formalist discipline with a conservative politics of stability and peaceful tradition.)

It is worth noting that the very notion of 'understanding something as a complete entity' is a central problem in Romanticism, particularly for Schleiermacher. For Schlegel, the unity behind the fragmented world can only be approached, never attained: this is why, like Empson, he mocks those who bewail the analysis of art. But Spitzer sees Lovejoy's position as tending towards nominalism: there are no universals of thought (like 'Romanticism'), only a series of particular unit-ideas. This, for Spitzer, is a misappropriation of the methods of natural science.

Lovejoy responded immediately. (Both attack and response can be found in the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 5, issue 2.) For Lovejoy, it was Spitzer's position that led to nominalism—for if organic wholes like Romanticism cannot be broken up into constituent parts, then there is no reason to believe that Lovejoy's idea of Romanticism bears any relation to Spitzer's. Instead of a history, or a series of histories, we would end up with a number of discrete wholes in the mind of each thinker. The Geist posited by Spitzer remains a solipsistic, unverifiable entity—a ghost.

For John Emerson, it all depends on how you look at it: one's conclusion is determined by one's prior perspective. But I think we can be bolder, and say that Lovejoy is right. Spitzer is still clouded by Plato, putting universals before particulars—as a result, Spitzerian Romanticism is delicate to the point of being completely uninteresting. In 1944, the Germans were on the point of defeat in more ways than one. The Hegelian fiction of the 19th century, that cultures are unified entities in which every part reflects organically the whole, was losing out to the ruthless analyses of Anglo-American philosophy. There were those who still talked in historicist terms, such as Spitzer and Cassirer, Whorf and Panofsky, but they were no longer, except for Panofsky, the mainstream. The weight of evidence just seemed, and still seems, too strongly against them.


Romanticism and the palato-alveolar sibilant.

Who were the great German philosophers before Kant? Leibniz, Thomasius, Wolff, Lessing, Mendelssohn, Hamann, Herder, Jacobi. Who were the great German philosophers after Kant? Fichte, Schiller, Schlegel, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. This sudden surfeit of sibilants is no coincidence. You know where you stand with a Kant—just listen to that name, solid and proper. But after Kant, everyone starts sitting around scratching their heads, trying to work out, What next? After Kant, everyone worth his salt is writing stuff like this, from Fichte:
The judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomenae [sic] exists in any rational or metaphysical—or at least epistemological—contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being, or 'to be', or 'to occur', in the thing itself or of the thing itself.
The sibilance of those names is the sound of certainty—of all that is solid—melting away, of architecture sinking in a bog. (It's a very German sound. Given its representation of the vague and mystical, we might spell it sibyllance.) Hegel evaded the problem by producing a sort of pimped-out version of Herderian historicism, but you can still hear in his name the still small voice of Schlegel! Speculative philosophy finally got back into the Kantian saddle with names like Heidegger and Gadamer, but it took more than a hundred years.


John Holbo, who turns up everywhere these days, is a fan of Romanticism. In fact, he thinks that postmodern literary philosophy—now generally referred to as Theory—can be 'helpfully regarded as a late repetition of German Romantic themes'. Back in December '05, John wrote:
Theory, I will argue, is a form of late romanticism. . . More specifically, Theory is the latest chapter in the history of the counter-Enlightenment. My tag to encapsulate this comes from Friedrich Schlegel: "It is equally deadly to the spirit to have a system and not to have one. One must resolve to combine the two." This contains the key to the puzzle of why so much eclecticism and, frankly, contradiction can cohabit under the roof of one term.
Despite this, it took him till last June to read Andrew Bowie's 1997 classic, From Romanticism to Critical Theory, which argues something similar:
The German philosophical traditions I shall be exploring [from Schlegel onwards] are the historical and theoretical 'condition of possibility' [that's a Kantian joke] of the new wave of theory which developed from the 1960s onwards in the work of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and others.
Now Holbo has two copies of Bowie's book, one for the bedside table, the other for loo-time. (He keeps the latter under a stack of Better Homes and Gardens, to be sure, but it's there.) He and Bowie like to bully up against poor old Beiser, who thinks that the postmodernists' claiming of the Romantics is 'one-sided and anachronistic'. In fact, Frühromantik, as Beiser labels Schlegel et al., was 'a unique historical phenomena'. Note that 'phenomena' has become feminine, just as it was for Fichte, quoted above, who pluralised it as 'phenomenae'. Lacan, no doubt, would have much to say about this feminization of the neuter. It all relates to the mirror stage, you see, and Narcissus, and the attempt to capture the self among the fleeting impressions of an infant's world.


In a recent post at the Valve, Holbo implies that the Romantic roots of the postmodern aesthetic can be seen in the use of the mixed style or genre, noting Schlegel's concept of Mischung. For Schlegel, modern literature was born out of the mixing of genres in the Middle Ages—a progressive, chaotic phenomenon unknown to the stable and cyclical symmetries of classical literature. The modern form is designated Romantisch. Schlegel seems to discern one classical anticipation of the modern state—"In Plato we find unmixed all the pure types of Greek prose in their classic individuality, and often incongruously juxtaposed"—but here the conflicting elements are only juxtaposed, not mixed. I am not sure what to make of this. The same general idea appears in Bakhtin's essay on dialogic discourse, which claims that the modern novel derives from the cross-pollinating currents of mediaeval romance:
The element of translation and remodelling appears in the case of the novel somewhat more rude and striking. One might say that European novelistic prose began and developed in a process of free (transformative) translation between one work and another.
Or again, "Every novel in its totality, from the point of view of language, and of the linguistic consciousness invested in it, is a hybrid." If modern or postmodern literature and thought is essentially mixed or mongrel, then there is a sense in which one work flows into the next, having no discrete boundaries. In this we see the genesis of the postmodern notion of intertextuality, of the Open Work. Hence the Romantic taste for Tristram Shandy.


Gawain recently wrote to me, as a critique of some of the material I've been peddling of late, "I don't care about theory this and theory that and how they relate, if I cannot somehow connect it to my life and I am not great at connecting dots; which just leaves me with the impression of dazzling technique and nothing to hold onto."

Damn. Go read some Schlegel, anyway. You'll have a good laugh.

04 January, 2007

Anniversary buchukchulukes

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the Varieties. Happy returns! It has been an interesting year, to be sure. Perhaps the biggest thrill has been the many generous compliments from bloggers I myself admire; but every comment in the box, even a pedantic correction, quickens my pulse. Chris Miller, one of my favourite sparring-partners, once wrote of me that
Bring him a box of fortune cookies, and he will take you on an amazing trip through the English dictionary and down the major roads (as well as the twisted cul-de-sacs) of European literature—and that’s why his blog is so much fun. You just never know where he’s going to take you.
Not only have I not forgotten this remark, but it has become a tacit manifesto of sorts for me. Since then I have made no attempt to stay on-topic in what I write, seeking instead the unpredictable digression. And you know, it's a more exciting way to write—I see the trait in some of my best peers. It is no surprise that Chris is referring to one of my earliest pieces, On the Antiquity of Fortune Cookies, which is still my own favourite, along with that most personal piece on the wells of London, Chalybea. Other posts have been much more popular. Easily the most viewed—found for the most part from prurient Googlesearches, somewhat predictably—was my rumination on enforced transvestism, though I suppose thrill-hunters may have been dismayed by the rather academic context of my remarks. Kiss-words in Latin got a great many hits too, so perhaps I have helped to bust that myth, just a little. More delights included Slate.com picking up my Apocalypto review, not a great piece, but no matter. Possibly the surprise of my blogging year was the discovery of a considerable Brazilian readership. Bem-vindo, amigos! But in celebration of year one, I have updated my very first post, and one appropriate to origins, on the Chicken and Egg—still rude in execution, but in some ways a template for what would come—with a bit about Plutarch, my new love.

Now, truly, I am glad I have not yet capitulated, as I have wanted to on occasion.


With all this in mind, it is good to see my own friends going strong. Chris is the flat-out winner of the Varieties Award for Blog Prolixity for his fascinating post on Lorado Taft on sculpture, thrashing Gawain with a whopping 8,889 words. Gawain boy has done good too, though—take for instance his classic recent speculation about beauty. He promises more pieces on taste for me to lock horns with soon. My sharp archaeological comrade Raminagrobis continues to frustrate me by not writing enough: still, I can relate to everything he does write. Languagehat, meanwhile, continues to be the ultimate problem-solver, as well as producing the snide fare we all enjoy—really, he could pen this stuff in his sleep, but it's no less fun. John of Blog Meridian scribbles with an infectious enthusiasm, and with no less infectious a feeling for place, and his latest post is a charmingly ramshackle agglomeration of ideas, full of hints. Hank Heatly breaks from painting place—in this John is his true comrade—to dissert on ancient timekeeping. (Have you read this, Hank?) Simon Holloway, finally, who brings out the philosemite in me, charms me with his Biblical geekdom, and would charm my wife with his Lord of the Rings geekdom.

My best new discovery is Imaginative Universal, especially as its proprietor, the mysterious Herr Ziffer, or Ashley as he signs himself elsewhere, has stopped writing about programming, and has started instead on phenomenology, occultism, jargon and other offbeat philosophical topics. It's serious stuff, but has none of the smugness and predictability that usually plagues blog-philosophy. Ziff has the rare talent of finding uses for abstract philosophy in discussing modern culture. This is how to do it, Kugelmass.