31 August, 2007


I warned my son—
I signed and sounded out
across the sky—
but the wind weaned him,
yes sung in his veins
the wind sang in his wings,
and his wings wandered
and wended their wanton way to the sun—
and the sun soon singed and sundered his wings,
the wind sprung in his veins had cindered his wings,
and his fall rescinded all vain winnings—
the sea swooned and scented his arms
and at last he settled his head,
surrendered, sound on the sand of the sea bed.

Dublin, Bloomsday, 2002.

28 August, 2007


Last week I wrote, anticipating our visit to rural Wales, 'There are no signs, no architectures, in the mountains'. How wrong I was! Naturally, you knew I was only being ironical. Now it is true, joygrantit, that the view from our bedroom window was merely beautiful:

And it is true that my wife and I were able to roam, clamber and totter on the rocks of the Elan Valley, scaring the local sheep, and peering long over the long dams, monumental and still, with no Welsh, nor any language at all; nothing to analyse, nothing to disturb the thoughtlessness. Briefly, I wondered if cwrw (beer) might be related to Latin cervisium. (It isn't.) But Wales is, as I should have admitted in the first place, full of signs and architectures—even datestones. The landscape, remarkable as it is, can only have been a fine chasing for richer treasures, things to see, things to ponder, and most of all, things to say.


In the evening we drove down to Llandrindod Wells, where the townsfolk, for reasons unknown to us, were engaged in the last and climactic day of a week-long Victorian festival—after mocked-up hymns cum commentibus at the bandstand, we all lit flaming torches and ambled through the streets to the hill overseeing the lake, where shadowy authorities with megaphones and good cheer sent fireworks thundering up into the night sky. I got a few bangs on film, the ash from the torches fluttered its way into my wools, the local children brandished laser-blue batons, and smoked, rebelliously, and Mrs. Roth remarked that despite all the excesses of today's cinematic spectacular, a display of fireworks retains its capacity to impress. And so it does.


We saw a handful of individuals dressed in some semblance of Victorian costume, but only, in the end, a handful. The overall significance of the festival seemed lost in the procession, and among the Disney-branded bouncy castles at the lake. I wanted to reject all of this. It is apparent that our time has given way to a moribund parasitism upon the past. We are no longer content to learn about history—we must now participate in it, or rather in some simulacrum thereof. In the Middle Ages, as is well known, classical figures were represented in mediaeval dress—ancient history thus existed in dialogue with the charismatic force of the mediaeval present. It was the same in the Renaissance, and even as late as the nineteenth century, when writers and artists of all stripes were Victorianizing the past. Now, rather, we Victorianize the present, but it is a half-hearted Victoriana, gleaming sterilely in amber. We have begun to lack identity. But since when? And whose fault is it?


Still more impressive than pyrotechnics was Portmeirion, a village-sized folly on the Welsh coast, forty-odd miles north of Aberystwyth, hidden without signs, and yet thronged with visitors, with whom we had commingled earlier in the day. The whole thing was masterminded by Clough Williams-Ellis, an eccentric old gent in knickerbockers and crocus-yellow socks, who began construction in 1926, and brought the project to a close in 1976, at the age of ninety. In the promotional video on continuous loop in a little hut at one edge of the village, his resurrected voice informs us that he wanted to share with others his taste for the elegance of the past, with a ‘home for fallen buildings’. And so Portmeirion is a junkyard of historical artefacts and architectures: a Walpole colonnade, two golden Sanskrit sculptures on high pedestals, a Gothicky portico, campanile and Italianate dome, wedding-cake façade, lilypond, jolly seated Buddha, walls painted in gay Mediterraneanesque pastels, Chinese lion, e cosa via.

All you need to know about Portmeirion, and of course more, can be found at the usual place. But you see that it is the same: the same creeping dependency on the beauties of the past, the same reluctance to shape anew, or even to talk to the past. Portmeirion is without time. It is an eternal pleasant present. When the silver band, full of pretty girls and handsome young lads, neatly bowtied, struck up a programme of light classics, I imagined that I was in Pepperland. Younger girls hitched up their summer frocks and plashed about in the fountains without getting wet, delighted by the eager and spritely rudeness of the playing. It was a grotesque—an intriguingly grotesque—sort of charm. And even if I reject that—is it any worse than mere beauty?

My wife and I left Wales even more in love than when we'd arrived.

23 August, 2007


Recently I have been writing about mysteries—but not solving them. Naturally, this is unsatisfying, as if I'd handed you a Fabergé egg glittering in its onyx and gold-plate cloisonné enamel, but without the clockwork trains inside—shell without yolk. Now I have another mystery for you—the last—and of a different calibre—one proffered me by Jonathan Goodwin, who asked my opinion on the matter. Five months ago. (I was flattered, but lazy. Thus it goes.) So to the best of my abilities, which is to say, not so far—


About nine years ago, soon after I had discovered the joys of the internet, I wrote a review of Finnegans Wake on amazon.com. (Five stars, of course.) Interestingly, this attracted all sorts of cranks. First I received an email from some group making waves for the 1999 Picador edition of B. S. Johnson’s experimental The Unfortunates, which delighted me, as I’d never heard of Johnson. Next I was contacted by a young Mexican writer living in China—I forget his name—and we struck up an intermittent correspondence for a year or two, exchanging and commenting upon each other’s ‘experimental’ teenage novel—both inspired by Joyce, but neither, I must confess, very inspired.

The third person to contact me styled himself ‘Latah Mugwump’, a moniker which, as I had just read Naked Lunch, posed little mystery to me. ‘Latah’ sent me an email claiming that every night, before he retired to bed, his thumb began to twitch uncontrollably. Deciding that this twitch was a message—it was never made clear from whom—my mysterious correspondent had tricked up some sort of machine to convert his twitches to electrical signals, which would then be ‘decoded’ into sentences in plain English. He resolved to send me the contents of these messages in nightly emails. I was now, apparently, on his list. As you might imagine, I was quite excited by this. What sublime and heavn’ly thoughts would his unconscious communicate to him and to me?

The first message came the following evening. It read,

Phinnegan serves a slice of pi at his wake.

Mr. Mugwump continued to send me emails, unanswered, for the next fortnight. Finally, he said, “They” were shutting him down. Apparently nobody else on the list would reply to him either, and “They” considered him a spammer. I wrote nothing—I was just a little scared. This was my first introduction to the world of internet nutnuts.


Internet nutnuts are not so different to regular nutnuts, as I was already aware at the time. On a brief stint of pointless work-experience for a pointless national newspaper, I had been offered, as a memento, an A4 envelope, previously intended by its recipients for the office wastepaper-basket, addressed to the Editor by some hapless loony, and containing inside various oddments fadged together in protest at Tony Blair and other evils. On the back of the packet were snippets of headlines: “Out with the old”, “The new way”, “arrival of new young master”, and finally, “A complete lack of Street cred”. Within were four sheets of paper. Here is an example:

Now, this bloke was a total amateur. If only he had been reading the Arizona Daily Wildcat for the past decade, he might have had some sense of the mediocrity of his own ambitions. For the ADW—the college newspaper of the University of Arizona (Tucson), arch-rival to Arizona State (Tempe), in whose environs I spent the last three years—harbours a secret. Every year since 1981, more than once a year, and almost always on May 1, the Wildcat has published a cryptic 'advertisement' from an unnamed source. These messages typically contain images, mathematical diagrams and formulae, quotations (literary, philosophical, religious, and commonly in the original language) and other fragments of text. Here's May 1, 1990:

Recently the ads have been a little simpler, eg. December 7, 2005:

These advertisements were noticed in 1995 by one Bryan Hance, and in 1997 he established a website to collect and analyse them. He referred to the affair as the May Day Mystery. There also exists now a MDM wiki. On Hance's site, the texts are arranged by date, with scanned images, and comments from various would-be exegetes, attempting to decode the individual piece and the overall pattern. For instance, the comments to the 1990 image provide translations and sources for the Biblical Greek and Latin, a gloss on 'Weavers Needle', a description of a circular slide rule, attempts at Biblecodesque wordcounting, references to particle physics and Lutheran theology, an identification of the musical passage, and so on and so on. These disjointed annotations remind me of nothing so much as the fragmentary insights heard around the table at a Finnegans Wake study group. One person notices that a word resembles the Irish for 'wind', another detects reference in the flow of a clause to a Victorian ballad, and another spots the letters H C E embedded in words running backwards through a line. But nobody has a damn clue why Joyce would have combined these elements (and many others) in the sentence—let alone what it all means. One thing is for sure: the comments on the MDM advertisements have become an integral part of the ongoing text as a whole.

The ads are allegedly produced by a secret society named the 'Orphanage', and it transpires that they are placed by a Tucson-based lawyer named Robert Truman Hungerford, who 'claims to be the legal counsel' for the society, and a middleman between them and the ADW. Many in fact suspect that Hungerford is solely responsible for the ads, and it seems plausible that he is also responsible for many of the comments on Hance's site, under various pseudonyms.

The question, then, is what the devil is the point of these things? Who is trying to communicate what to whom, and why?


In 2001 the Mystery surfaced on a Metafilter thread. One contributor named Costas remarked, 'I am sorry, but I cannot accept this as anything but a frat prank'. He suggests a list of alternative explanations, rejecting each in turn. It can't be a secret society, because a 'truly secret' society 'could use better means of communication'. These ads are too obviously 'a mystery'. Then there is the theory that the ads are placed by a bizarre society (the Orphanage) 'to recruit people smart enough to break the "code"'—but this is rejected because none of the messages have ever been cracked, which implies that they were never really meant to be cracked. (Similar arguments have been made about that enigma of enigmas, the Voynich manuscript.) The third alternative is that the whole thing is 'the work of a lone, disturbed individual'. However, assuming that the guy was at least twenty years old when he started posting the ads, he must now (in 2001) be at least forty, which is 'a long lifespan for someone disturbed enough to pursue this this maniacally'.

So, concludes Costas, the whole thing was perpetrated by an annual fraternity 'initation / treasure hunt' trying continually to outdo itself. It's not a bad theory, but the '40 years' argument is weak, and so I find the conclusion of "half-seraphim" more convincing:
I've looked at a few of these and they bear a great deal of resemblance in form, content, and structure to some disinfotainment projects that I have worked on myself. . . It doesn't take more than minor brilliance and a little dash of high weirdness to come up with stuff like this, especially if you grew up in an environment of mysticism and academia. And remember that when you're dealing with this kind of information, even semi-random samplings of quotations are likely to develop what seem like enticingly deliberate interconnectivity.
In 2004 the Mystery surfaced on another Metafilter thread. The comments now have little to add; however, one "mokujin" remarks, accurately—
People have pointed out that a great deal of money and time have been spent on producing these things and go on to suggest that this fact alone is some kind of proof that they are meaningful or that they refer to some real world group. I take issue with that. Plenty of obsessed people stand on street corners handing out pamphlets or shouting phrases that have meaning to them alone.
I have no doubt that these messages are the work of one man, or like good New Critics let us say one writer, one mind—let us call him Hungerford for the sake of argument, though I have little interest in formally identifying him. But my confidence in this assertion, I readily admit, says as much about me as about the texts. I am still a Romantic at heart. I still believe in Great Men, and I still think of genius as essentially degenerate, close to madness. In an interview Hungerford said, how seriously I do not know, 'It is in all likelihood that I am a disturbed, mentally ill person, and these writings are no doubt the ravings of a madman'. It is claimed by some that the texts are intended to fish for potential confederates—that their overall message is 'We communicate openly because the opposition is too stupid to catch us (alternatively, because appearing eccentric is a good way to be left alone). We welcome friends, but you have to prove yourself worthy.' Sort of an occult version of that famous recruitment ad for secretaries written in shorthand. But Costas' argument is sound: nobody has decoded the texts—and there would be much better methods for recruitment. I just can't believe that the ads have such a well-defined function. I'd prefer to read them as pure expressions of an aesthetic—similar to the cult Toynbee tiles, only much richer—with (perhaps) the vague aim of encouraging others, those fascinated by mysteries, and that's us, folks, to look up some of the references. Cue this rather touching comment on the 2001 Metafilter thread:
i have read just about everything on the site (low course load this semester), texts, correspondance, clues, etc. I have learned amazing amounts from this stuff. On more than one occasion i have spent the night in the library, crumpled printout in hand, prone on the floor between two towering bookcases poring over texts... just absorbing.
It's not a shameworthy response. When I read Foucault's Pendulum at the tender age of eighteen, it inspired me to quit my job, learn Hebrew and study alchemy, kabbalah and combinatorial logic. Needless to say, I soon veered in other directions. For one thing, the abjad is so bloody difficult!


But as any good Derridean, or any good Wimsattite, will tell you, intention doesn't count for shit these days. The meaning of texts is not dependent on what their creator had in mind—they speak for themselves. (And in this belief I am hardly a model Romantic.) So forget Hungerford, forget recruitment, forget suggestive pointers. What can we make of these scraps, and of their commentary? For the two are not clearly distinct.

The first thing that struck me, glancing at several in succession, was the focus on resurrection. May 1, 1990, above, contains the phrase ζωη εκ νεκρων, 'life from the dead', taken from Romans 11:15, which in its entirety reads 'For if the casting away of them [Gentiles, the chaff] be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?' The same Greek is reused in many other ads as well. On Feb 22, 1988, the commenter 'D. Thomasson' explains the apparently-innocuous figure '1143' (which isn't, in fact, really in the text) as a reference to John 11:43, about the resurrection of Lazarus, and the 'decoded' number 918 as a reference to Matthew 9:18, also about resurrection. Resurrection, anastasis, stands in here for general restoration and reconstitution. And so it connects to the repeated nods to the Reformation—Luther, Melanchthon—and to radical reformers like Cromwell, Thaddeus Stevens, Bacon ('There is no excellent beauty which does not have some strangeness in the proportions', quoted of course from Poe's Ligeia), Blake, Jonathan Edwards, etc. 'If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all', says Hamlet, over a cryptanalysis bibliography and a passage in Mon.

The true era of the May Day Mystery is the seventeenth century. Its heated apocalypticism and piecemeal obscurity has much in common with the occultist and polemical pamphlets that circled the radical factions of the English Civil War, or, for instance, the surreal, allusive, rebarbative verses of the 1662 collection Rump. Themes of reform, both Puritan and more leftfield, were almost obsessive in the period, and bore great fruit in pedagogical theory and scientific practice. Sermons and ephemeral publications were swollen with millenarian eschatology and resurrection-theology. In the Mystery, all this is filtered through a modernist cut-up aesthetic: BLAST and Pound's Cantos, reappropriated Burroughs and ransom letters. The quotes from the lyrics of popular songs remind me of the 'hey nonny nonny' filler in the old prophecy jingles. And the mathematical diagrams are just like the sleight-of-hand numerologies and arithmologies going back to Plato.

America is the epicentre of this sort of stuff now, the home of the lone voice crying in the wilderness. In 2000 I was on a road-trip through the Midwest, and just outside of Pratt, Kansas, we came across a field full of rusty metal junk-sculptures. They had been erected as an indictment of Bill Clinton, the lying, war-dodging, adultering liberal asshole, and other evils. Rows and rows of these effigies and similar objects, with short texts and legends in a slew of tongues, in a field, in the middle of not much anyplace, with the high wind whistling through. N stopped the car and we had a look around. As it happened, a man came pottering up to us on a tractor, and it turned out to be the artist himself. He gave me his card, but I don't know what happened to it. I wrote in my journal,
Just a wheeze, a quiet rust in the breeze,
the engine dust. And the odd glance from a passing car. Coward!
As if. . . deludedly empowered.
There was something so quiet about the whole affair. I did not take a picture. Quiet, too, are the annual rants of the Mystery, set in their cubbyhole in an obscure local college paper, smally taking part in ancient traditions, contributing, just a little; varieties of an experience, whether religious or not.


The city, despite itself, becomes, sometimes, a burden. All those signs, all those architectures! A profusion of babels. In the library, where the data lies in organised patterns, ready for systematic retrieval, there you feel free. Or else trapped. The Library resembles a brick prison, and its gates come to take on the aspect of bars. I sit and read and read, for hours if necessary, and then I yearn to run out and course over the streets of London, in the rain if necessary, looking perhaps for datestones.

Tomorrow I depart for the Welsh countryside, where I shall be, as they say, incommunicado, until Tuesday. There are no signs, no architectures, in the mountains. Without words and noise, I should have little interest in mystery, still less in history. I hope it will rain and lour glumly.

Update: Sometimes you just get lucky. Goodwin links, with his own magisterial exegesis of the texts, putting me to shame. Languagehat links. Aaron Haspel links (the Mystery 'makes Dr. Bronner's soap bottle and Dutch Schultz's last words look like models of lucidity'). John B. links, and very helpfully identifies the Kansas sculptures. Perhaps most surprisingly, Bryan Hance links. Cheers!

19 August, 2007

For the Birds

Today, a fun spin through the history of listening to birds.

Fulcanelli concludes this opening section of Le Mystère des Cathédrales:
Finally I would add that argot is one of the forms derived from the Language of the Birds, parent and doyen of all other languages—the one spoken by philosophers and diplomats.
In Les Demeures des Philosophes, Fulcanelli elaborates:
The language of the birds is a phonetic idiom solely based on assonance. Therefore, spelling, whose very rigour serves as a check for curious minds and which renders unacceptable any speculation realized outside the rules of grammar, is not taken into account.
(The latter statement closely resembles what I described as Walter Whiter's 'ghoti' reasoning.) Now, what is this 'language of the birds' all about? There is, of course, a Wiki article on it, though the page is rather haphazard and unreliable. Similarly, the internet is full of newage mama-djambo on the subject, much of it in French. We can do better.

The trope is found throughout classical literature, associated often but not always with the great Roman institution of augury, divination by birds. Thus the hopelessly unsceptical Aelian, On Animals I.48:
The Raven, they say, is a sacred bird and attends upon Apollo: that is why men agree that it is also of use in divination, and those who understand the positions of the birds, their cries [klaggas], and their flight whether on the left or on the right hand, are able to divine by its croaking.
Herodotus on the priestesses at Dodona:
I expect that these women were called 'doves' [peleiades] by the people of Dodona because they spoke a strange language, and the people thought it like the cries of birds.
The oaks at Dodona, and Apollo's laurels at Delphi, have symbolic links to augury. Before the development of sibyls, priests interpreted oracles from the rustling of leaves—a rarefied aerial music, like birdsong. Mediaeval scholia on the twin doves at Aeneid 6.190 make reference to the Dodonean peleiades, and Fulcanelli also raises the oaks in the context of his 'diplomatic language', which has 'a double meaning corresponding to a double science'. Meanwhile, Apollonius of Rhodes, from the Argonautica:
And above the golden head of Aeson's son there hovered a halcyon prophesying with shrill voice the ceasing of the stormy winds; and Mopsus [the sage] heard and understood the cry of the bird of the shore, fraught with good omen.
The Roman poet Pacuvius (whom we last met here), quoted in Cicero's sceptical dialogue On Divination, and again by Montaigne in his essay on prognostications (Essais I.9), here Englished wittily by Charles Cotton:
Who the Birds Language understand, and who
More from Brutes Livers than their own do know,
Are rather to be heard than hearkned to.
In Plutarch's dialogue De Sollertia Animalium, Aristotemus argues:
But as for starlings, magpies, and parrots, that learn to talk, and afford their teachers such a spirit of voice, so well tempered and so adapted for imitation, they seem to me to be patrons and advocates in behalf of other creatures, by their talent of learning what they are taught; and in some measure to teach us that those creatures also, as well as we, partake of vocal expression and articulate sound.
And then there are the sages, to whom the faculty for understanding the birds (and often the beasts) is ascribed. Apollodorus, The Library, 3.6.7, on Tiresias:
And when Chariclo asked her to restore his sight, she could not do so, but by cleansing his ears she caused him to understand every note of birds.
Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 1.20:
I must perforce dwell upon. . . the cleverness with which after the manner of the Arabs he managed to understand the language of the animals. For he learnt this on his way through these Arab tribes, who best understand and practice it. For it is quite common for the Arabs to listen to the birds prophesying like any oracles, but they acquire this faculty of understanding them by feeding themselves, so they say, either on the heart or liver of serpents.
An instance of Apollonius using this power is related in Life 4.3. Meanwhile this on Melampus, from Pliny's Natural History, 10.137, and quoted again in Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 10.12:
The person, however, who may think fit to believe in these tales, may probably not refuse to believe also that dragons licked the ears of Melampus, and bestowed upon him the power of understanding the language of birds [avium sermonis]; as also what Democritus says, when he gives the names of certain birds, by the mixture of whose blood a serpent is produced, the person who eats of which will be able to understand the language of birds.
Porphyry, in his pro-vegetarian treatise De Abstinentia 3.3, also mentions both Apollonius and Melampus in the course of his assertion that animals have reason and speech:
If, however, it is requisite to believe in the ancients, and also in those who have lived in our times, and the times of our fathers, there are some among these who are said to have heard and to have understood the speech of animals. Thus, for instance, this is narrated of Melampus and Tiresias, and others of the like kind; and the same thing, not much prior to our time, is related of Apollonius Tyanaeus.
Porphyry claims further that: 'an associate of mine informed me that he once had a boy for a servant, who understood the meaning of all the sounds of birds, and who said that all of them were prophetic, and declarative of what would shortly happen', and adds that 'perhaps, all men would understand the language of all animals, if a dragon were to lick their ears'.

In the utopian past or afterlife, the language of the birds need not be decoded by sage or augur, but can be understood by all. Thus this tale, related by a woman returning from the underworld, in Pherecrates, The Miners, quoted by Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae, 6.269) in the context of cockaignish paradises—
Roast thrushes, dressed for a rechauffé, flew round our mouths entreating us to swallow them as we lay stretched among the myrtles and anemones.
To comprehend the language of birds is to transcend the realm of culture for that of nature. The language of culture uses clumsy, confusible words; the language of nature moves with the rhythms of the world—it is beyond words, and more like music—birdsong. It is also, like everything natural, an expression of divine will; thus augury and prophecy. This yearning for the pre-cultural and the pre-verbal represents a sort of Rousseauvian streak in the classical world. It is related, I think, to this passage in Plutarch's De Signo Socratis:
Our recognition of one another's thoughts through the medium of the spoken word is like groping in the dark; whereas the thoughts of daemons are luminous and shed their light on the daemonic man. Their thoughts have no need of verbs or nouns, which men use as symbols in their intercourse, and thereby behold mere counterfeits and likenesses of what is present in thought, but are unaware of the originals except for those persons who are illuminated by some special and daemonic radiance.
In the Middle Ages came the 'parliament of fowls' genre, owing everything to Platonic mysticism and nothing to Aristophanes, and surfacing simultaneously in the Persian Mantiq at-Tayr (1177) and the Latin Speculum Stultorum of Nigellus Wireker (c. 1180). Biblical manuscripts, meanwhile, commonly portrayed doves twittering the Word of God into the ears of the evangelists. The loci classici on the sages quoted above were collected by the great arcanist Agrippa of Nettesheim in his 1531 De Occulta Philosophia, I.55—I quote from the 1651 translation, by one 'J. F.':
Most wonderful is that kind of Auguring of theirs, who hear, & understand the speeches of Animals, in which as amongst the Ancients, Melampus, and Tiresias, and Thales, and Apollonius the Tyanean, who as we read, excelled, and whom they report had excellent skill in the language of birds.

But Democritus himself declared this art, as saith Pliny, by naming the birds, of whose blood mixed together was produced a Serpent, of which whosoever did eat, should understand the voices of birds.
I do not know where 'Thales' comes from—not Diogenes Laertius, at any rate. Agrippa and his sources were well-known among European intellectuals of the later Renaissance, and Samuel Butler could count on his literate readers getting the joke when in Hudibras (1663) he describes the hero's squire Ralpho as:
As learn’d as the wild Irish are,
Or Sir AGRIPPA; for profound
And solid lying much renown’d. . .

He understood the speech of birds
As well as they themselves do words;
Cou’d tell what subtlest parrots mean,
That speak, and think contrary clean.
Fulcanelli evidently knew Agrippa, or at least one of his French plagiarists, for the list of sages in Mystère precisely parallels that found in the Occult Philosophy:
Mythology would have it that the famous soothsayer Tiresias had perfect knowledge of the Language of the Birds, which Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, revealed to him. He shared it, they say, with Thales of Miletus, Melampus and Appolonius [sic] of Tyana. . .
Grasset d'Orcet, according to Raminagrobis, had already used the expression in his esoteric analysis of Rabelais; I don't know if he was the first to talk in these terms. But his conceit, followed by Fulcanelli, is clear: by unlocking the mystical potential of the words with which they play, they are tapping into a deeper current than that of human language and grammar—they are, in other words, listening to the music of the birds, of the gods—listening to nature.


But wait—there's more! What about those who really did take bird-language seriously, not just as a myth or metaphor, but as something susceptible to rational analysis? Athanasius Kircher discusses birdsong in Book I of his 1650 Musurgia Universalis (some pictures here), transcribing a few melodies with notes and staves. He recounts various anecdotes, for instance about
Damian of Fonseca, Portugal, a man of great learning and authority, who has in his Museum a little caged bird, of the species Alauda, which they call 'Gallandra', trained by the said friar on his right hand, not only to pronounce the Holy Liturgy as if in a human voice, but also to chatter many other things, which can hardly be witnessed without admiration.
In his 'Appendix de Phonognomia', Canon 3, Kircher goes on to discuss the causes of animal language, concluding that 'from this a refined knowledge can be formed, by which we can understand the voice and language of the animals, as is written of Apollonius Thyaneus', before referring the reader to his own forthcoming Turris Babel (1679), in which 'we explain at greater length the language of these animals'. That work is online here, but sadly I cannot find the relevant passage, if indeed it exists.

Following on from the arguments of Plutarch and Porphyry about animal reason, the French Jesuit Guillaume-Hyacinthe Bougeant claimed (contra Descartes) that animals had a (limited) rationality; this is the subtext of his delightful book, A Philosophical Amusement upon the Language of Beasts and Birds (1739), which was translated anonymously the following year. The text is online (of course), thanks to Animal Rights History—hurrah for political correctness!
Birds do not Sing but speak. What we take for Singing is no more than their natural Language. Do the Magpy, the Jay, the Raven, the Owl, and the Duck Sing? What makes us believe that they Sing is their tuneful Voice. Thus the Hottentots in Africa seem to cluck like Turkey-cocks tho’ it be the natural Accent of their Language, and thus several Nations seem to us to sing, when they indeed speak. . .But in short, what do these Birds say? The Question should be proposed to Apollonius Tyanaeus, who boasted of understanding their Language. As for me, who am no Diviner, I can give you no more than probable Conjectures.
Bougeant makes an interesting admission at the end of his treatise:
I shall here make you a Confession, that will reduce the whole Language to almost nothing. I mean that you must absolutely retrench from it whatever is called Phrase or grammatical Construction, not excepting the most Contracted.
Although Bougeant wants us to appreciate the linguistic abilities of the birds and other beasts, he denies that animals are as intelligent as humans: they can only utter 'sentences' corresponding to very basic immediate sensations and needs. But compare this to Fulcanelli's stipulation that esoteric analysis of the 'language of the birds' should disregard human grammar and spelling.

We come to Michel Bréal, the founder of semantics, whose little essay 'On Bird Language' is included in George Wolf's collection of Bréal's shorter works. Bréal quotes a transcription of crow-calls made in an 1806 paper by Dupont de Nemours (a friend of Turgot and progenitor of the Duponts):
cra, cré, cro, crou, crouou.
grass, gress, gross, grouss, grououss.
craé, créé, croa, croua, grouass.
crao, créé, croé, croue, grouess.
craou, créo, croo, crouo, grouoss.
Bréal makes the point previously made by both Bougeant and Porphyry that 'the difference between animal and human organs makes hearing the details of animal language even more difficult'. He then goes on to discuss repetitions in bird-sounds (the nightingale: 'zquo, zquo'; the sparrow: 'tell, tell', etc.), insisting that they come about because 'the speech organ once in movement, less effort is required to let them continue than to bring them to rest'. Bréal compares bird-repetition to primitive human reduplication, including Kaffir njo njo, 'to break', as well as Latin me-min-i, 'I remember'. Bréal agrees with Dupont that there are dialects in bird-languages, although he concludes that 'Tiresias, who understood the language of all birds, knew more about it'.

This was in 1900; since then there has been plenty of scientific interest in bird communication. According to Jean Aitchison, birdsong is the closest thing to human speech, containing both innate cries and learnt patterns—a combination of meaningless notes carrying a given message. She also discusses dialects of birdsong. Last year an article on recursive 'grammar' in starlingsong caused a splash in certain sectors of the blogging community. I learnt of it mainly via Languagehat, who claims to have 'an admitted prejudice against the whole talking-animal thing'. I guess Steve won't have much interest in this post, then.

Update: material on Kircher's Musurgia has been added. Thanks to Michael for the pointer (see comments).

17 August, 2007

On Etymology, Part 3

Everybody is trying to demystify everything. We're trying to do the opposite, to mystify again. We're in a constant battle against medicine, science and religion. — Ed Clontz, editor of the Weekly World News.
The third and final part of our history rests with the mystics. It is hoped that readers who found Part Two a little colourless will find more to enjoy here. This post is intended less as a lecture, and more as a wandering, into the unknown, and perhaps—if we were to trust our subjects—into the unknowable.


Fulcanelli, Le Mystère des Cathédrales (1922)

I bought this book online, several years ago. I do not remember what possessed me to order it; but I do remember that it arrived in the post just before lunchtime, when my parents and I took off for a disappointing meal at Chutney Mary on the Kings Road—and that Fulcanelli was thus first perused as I walked to the restaurant—and that he lay dormantly beside me as I chowed down on overpriced Indian delicacies. The book is not beautiful—a cheap American paperback, with an unusual vellum-white cover and gilt titles, the card of the flaps glazed and grained:

As Michael, commentateur extraordinaire, remarks below, I should have invested in a French copy. After all, I can read French. But I did not—and so the Truth must remain at an even greater remove for me. Perhaps it is for the best. I notice that editions of occult books will magnify and mythify the authorial persona by paratext; accordingly, we find inside the present volume a hagiographical preface to the first edition by Eugene Canseliet, a preface to the second edition also by Canseliet, a bibliobolical preface to the American edition by Roy Thompson ('a unique and never-to-be-forgoten experience in the universe of word and letter'), a wide-eyed introduction by Walter Lang, and finally, at long last, the text itself, which begins with—dear God—an expository introduction by Fulcanelli himself.

Le Mystère des Cathédrales argues, or rather asserts, that the elaborate stoneworks of French cathedrals—Notre Dame de Paris, Amiens, Bourges—are coded representations of alchemy and apocalyptic prophecy, texts in stone for adepts of all eras to decipher. Its author, an unknown French occultist of the early twentieth century, goes by the name of Fulcanelli—and just as Epictetus had his Arrian, and Plotinus his Porphyry, so our author must have his own disciple, Eugene Canseliet, through whom his works are published.

Now, alchemy is one of the dullest subjects known to the historian. So what can the hunter of marvels find in the Mystère? Presently we are after the 'phonetic cabala', a 1920s sort of expression for Isidorean etymologics through an occult lens. In his second preface Canseliet distinguishes between cabala, which discovers the 'voice of nature' behind a screen of words, and the Jewish Kabbala, 'full of transpositions, inversions, substitutions and calculations, as arbitrary as there are abstruse'. The former word is derived by Canseliet from 'καδάλλης [sic] or the Latin caballus, a horse', recalling Giordano Bruno's play on the two words in his title, Cabala del Cavallo Pegaseo.

One might think that the phonetic cabala should be done in some ancient, mystical language, like Hebrew or Greek. But Fulcanelli disagrees—for French itself derives directly from Greek, even in its slang (argot); as he writes in his second book, Les Demeures des Philosophes, 'We resolutely assert, without denying the introduction of Latin elements into our idiom since the Roman conquest, that our language is Greek, that we are Hellenes, or more exactly, Pelagians'. He cites an impressive list of authorities for this view, none of whom I have come across before: J. L. Dartois, Granier de Cassagnac, J. Lefebvre.

So here is what the phonetic cabala looks like—and it should look familiar:
For me, gothic art (art gothique) is simply a corruption of the word argotique (cant), which sounds exactly the same. This is in conformity with the phonetic law, which governs the traditional cabala in every language and does not pay any attention to spelling. The cathedral is a work of art goth (gothic art) or of argot, cant or slang. Moreover, dictionaries define argot as 'a language peculiar to all individuals who wish to communicate their thoughts without being understood by outsiders'. Thus it is certainly a spoken cabala. The argotiers, those who use this language, are the hermetic descendants of the argonauts, who manned the ship Argo.
This passage is a very stylish example of the sort of etymologising we have seen from Isidore through to Tooke and Whiter. It plays variants on the same note, proteanesque, transforming Gothic architecture—the book's overt subject—into occult cant, and then into an allegorised Argo, searching for the Golden Fleece as a symbol of hermetic truth. Thus the themes of the work—the principles of the world—are bound together in an elegant linguistic arabesque.

But beyond Fulcanelli's introduction, we start to lose our self-satisfied command of the material. My role, therefore, cannot be that of a guide, let alone that of a seigneur, able to course around his domains in a carriage of books, with wheels of well-oiled and effortless erudition. I have become a tourist, like you, and a cynical one at that. Pococurante, I grow bored quickly. Thus I find Fulcanelli's disquisition on the 'Cyclic Cross at Hendaye', appended to the 1957 edition of the work (according to this website), to be greatly unsatisfying, especially in comparison to the passage quoted above. The church cross (above, in the photograph from the Mystère), contains this legend, transcribed by Fulcanelli:


'Certainly', writes Fulcanelli, 'it is easy to recognize the well-known phrase, O crux ave spes unica (Hail o cross, the only hope).' But our guide thinks that the shifting of the 'S' to the first line was no accident, for the workman must have 'traced [the letters] first in chalk or charcoal'. It is obvious to Fulcanelli that
The letter S, which takes on the curving shape of a snake, corresponds to the Greek khi (X) and takes over its esoteric meaning. It is the helicoidal track of the sun, having arrived at the zenith of its curve across space, at the time of the cyclic catastrophe.
The displacement of the letter is a clue that we are to read the inscription according to the esoteric phonetic cabala—and here Grasset d'Orcet's name is mentioned. The involves re-reading the apparent Latin in French, the 'language of the diplomats', 'by making use of the permutation of vowels'. Thus the new 'strange' sentence runs as follows: 'Il est écrit que la vie se réfugie en un seul éspace'—It is written that life takes refuge in a singe space.

Now, if you're thinking that this is utter bullshit, then, well, I'm with you. This announcement might surprise my readers, given the tenor of these posts in favour of the implausible but creative etymology. But the thing is this—in wordplay, as in all else, we have nothing if we have no standards of taste.

The stretch here is just too far. The exegesis has no elegance, is too random, too arbitrary. Can we see 'Il est écrit. . .' in the inscription? Well, if we change the vowels from OCRU to ECRI, and VE becomes VIE, and SPES becomes SPACE, then—oh, now we're stuck. Shouldn't it have been unique, rather than seul? And why should S correspond to chi? The whole thing lacks conviction. It lacks the sublimity of imagining art gothique as argotique. But you see that we are reduced to making bland pronouncements of taste. I cannot tell you anything of interest. I can only point. My analytical powers are lying dormant, and so, I suspect, are yours. This is not what we want from our texts. Fulcanelli's words have become like the walls of London, almost unable to speak. Or else Panurge's wall of contrapunctums ('Beware, in the name of the devils, and hold off'). It is a most upsetting state of affairs. Thus I take the old shortcut, out of weariness—I pray you will forgive me—and look towards context, history.


Intellectually, Fulcanelli could not have been more rooted in the currents of his time. With the rise of Bopp and his friends in the 1810s and 20s, etymological speculation of the Isidorean variety, uninformed by historical scholarship and phonological theory, could no longer be seen as a science, and so became instead the province of the arcanist. Whiter and Murray were the last throes of Isidoreanism in the English-speaking world; the locus of innovation shifted to France. The first great hero of this movement was Antoine Fabre d'Olivet, who published his masterpiece, The Hebraic Tongue Restored, in 1815, a year before Bopp's first foray into comparative philology.

I discovered the existence of HTR, of all places, in John Carroll's introduction to his edition of Benjamin Whorf's Language and Reality—in which Carroll notes Whorf's interest in the theories of Fabre d'Olivet and James Byrne (1820-1897), which is not too surprising, given Whorf's vaguely mystical proclivities. HTR is a really fun book, and weaves the sound-symbolism of de Brosses (via his successor Antoine Court de Gébelin) into a translation of, and commentary on, Genesis 1.1—9.29. The translation is prefaced with a Cratylean dictionary of Hebrew 'roots', ie. sound-clusters, with notes on Arabic; a typical example is—
אץ ATZ. Every idea of bounds, limits; of repressing force, term, end. The Arabic اص expresses in general, that which is closed and restricted; the central point of things. The Chaldaic אץ contains every idea of pressure and compression.
This reads very much like an early version of Pokorny or Watkins; the essential difference is revealed by the prefatory note, which admits that 'it is only in the third place and in an indirect manner that [the list of 'roots'] can be of use in establishing the etymologies of Greek or Latin, because these two tongues having received their first roots from the ancient Celtic, have with Hebrew only coincidental relations given them by the universal principle of speech'. In other words, Fabre d'Olivet still essentially believes, as did de Brosses, that the root sounds possess natural ('universal') symbolism. He notes at the beginning that he might easily have written on the other two Oriental tongues of significance, namely Chinese and Sanskrit—and I wonder if he is one of the earliest Western arcanists interested in, and knowledgeable about, Sanskrit. (No doubt Michael will have something to say on this subject.)

Fabre d'Olivet's translation, meanwhile, reads like a pastiche of Heidegger:
At-first-in-principle, he created, AElohim (he caused to be, he brought forth in principle, HE-the-Gods, the-Being-of-beings), the-selfsameness-of-heavens, and-the-selfsameness-of-earth.
In other words, 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth'. The idea is that each syllable in the original Hebrew, having a compressed mystical significance, is spelled out in its full range of meaning, producing something more like a gloss than a translation. Fabre d'Olivet engages in Isidorean analysis and etymological play, as well, such as this, from his footnote to Hebrew thebah, 'ark' (also the boat of rushes in which Moses was placed by his mother):
It has so many significations that it is difficult to assign a definite one. It is, on the one hand, the symbolic name given by the Egyptians to their sacred city, Theba, considered as the shelter, the refuge, the abode of the gods. . . The name of Paris, I say, is only the name of the Thebes of Egypt and of Greece, that of ancient Syparis, of the Babel of Assyria, translated into the tongue of the Celts. It is the vessel of Isis, (Bar-Isis) that mysterious ark, which, in one way or another, carries over the destinies of the world, of which it is the symbol.
(Note: the connection of Paris to Sybaris would be repeated in Hugo's 1862 Les Misérables: I do not know if he had it from Fabre d'Olivet, or from an intermediary source, or from a tradition antedating the arcanist, or if he simply arrived at it independently.)

Fabre d'Olivet's innovation, as far as I can tell, was to translate the Isidorean idiom into the burgeoning culture of arcanism. I am not aware of an earlier work, and certainly not in the modern world—with a growing knowledge of Oriental languages and their history—that so thoroughly applies a (spurious) analysis of etymological roots to the mystical study of a text. I am reminded somewhat of mediaeval commentaries on Vergil, but the etymologising in those texts (sibyllus from Greek sios (= 'theos') boulos, 'divine counsel') is still primitively Isidorean and piecemeal. Fabre d'Olivet is Chateaubriand bullshit.

And The Hebrew Tongue Revealed must have been a beacon for the arcanists of the later nineteenth century—for Grasset d'Orcet on Rabelais, for Henri Boudet on Celtic and Rennes-les-Bains, for Jean-Pierre Brisset on the origin of language, and for Fulcanelli on French cathedrals and alchemy. I own all these books (except Grasset d'Orcet), so I know whereof I speak when I say that it's all much the same, with variations. I regret to have led you thus far and offer you in the end only a melancholy aporia. But there it is. Fin de siècle.


In his Grasset d'Orcet piece, Raminagrobis writes:
Lacan was an inveterate punster in the best Rabelaisian tradition: consider his 'le nom du père'/'le non du père'/'les non-dupes errent'. Same thing. Grasset d’Orcet’s madness is not so far removed from the post-structuralist manias of the late twentieth century.
When I met Raminagrobis a fortnight ago—and I was stunned to discover that it is in fact his real name—I said, over drinks in a Cambridge pub, a fine bright day, and over my copy of Fulcanelli, which I had brought to read on the bus, that I thought one could make a bolder statement than 'not so far removed'. I speculated that there was a direct lineage from Grasset d'Orcet and Fulcanelli (and therefore from Fabre d'Olivet, de Brosses, and so on) to Lacan, Derrida and the postmoderns. Lacan, after all, was an affiliate of the Surrealists in the 1930s and 40s. He married Bataille's widow Sylvia in 1963—Bataille, who was a prime source of pseudo-arcanist punning among the Surrealists. Lacan knew Bréton, who knew Canseliet, and who had included Brisset in his Anthology of Black Humour. Duchamp was another link in the chain, as were Freud and Jung—the one fascinated by puns and antiphrasis, the other by arcanism. Many more such connections could easily be established. But we have lost our way—we are groping with black words in fields increasingly white, opaqued. Now and then we see a sign, comme dans un steppe de Russie, un feu de voyageurs abandonné sur la neige, and it is, perhaps, Theodore Thass-Thienemann's The Subconcious Language, which accompanies Freud and Jung into the wastelands, a shaman dowsing amid innumerable sastrugi.

Was it Lacan, first among equals, who carried the arcanist-Surrealist etymologics across the border, into the academy? For now I see it, all the time. The noble art of Plato, Varro, Isidore, of de Brosses, Whiter, Horne Tooke, of Fabre d'Olivet, Grasset d'Orcet, Fulcanelli—has become in the hands of academic zealots a coin debased, a joke worthy only of groans.

Perhaps you will rejoin: It has only ever been worthy of groans.

Ah, but not to me.

15 August, 2007

Astronomy domine

Funny how differently two historians can metaphorize the same discovery. Here's Christopher Hill, from The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution:
Copernicus's theory had 'democratized the universe' by shattering the hierarchical structure of the heavens, Harvey 'democratized' the human body by dethroning the heart.
While here, at greater length, is Jonathan Sawday, from The Body Emblazoned, discussing this image from the De Humani Corporis Fabrica of Vesalius:
The Fabrica appeared in 1543, the same year that Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium appeared: a remarkable coincidence in the history of discovery of both the macrocosm and the microcosm. But the Vesalian image is suggestive of something more than a coincidence. For in its concentric design Vesalius’ title-page seems to throw down a gauntlet to Copernicus. As Robert S. Westman has demonstrated, Copernican theory—the heliocentric construction of a mathematical universe—rested not only on observation and calculation, but on an aesthetic derived in part from Horatian ideas of decorum, and in part on Neoplatonic ideas of symmetry and order. . . It is not the sun, the title-page of the Fabrica insists, which lies at the centre of the known universe. The world is neither geocentric, nor heliocentric, but uterocentric: the womb is our point of origin, hence its central placement in the image.
Copernicus, representing (for Hill the Marxist) the fight against the Catholic orthodoxy embodied in the Ptolemaic universe, 'democratizes' the universe. Science is one of the heroes of Hill's book, and Harvey and Gilbert stand for the great age of English science, before the rise of the Royal Society. Throughout Hill's works we find an exaltation of everything and everyone associated with democracy—even symbolically. In truth, though, Copernicus cannot be said to have democratized anything—after all, he still propounded a concentric universe with the perfect and imperishable heavens at the periphery. He was still, after all, a decided Platonist.

What could be more different than Sawday's account? The latter compares Copernicus not to the 'democratizing' Harvey—a Royalist, incidentally—but to Vesalius, a committed hierarchist, whose title-page recreates the concentric ordering of the Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmologies. Sawday loves patterns, fragmentations, anatomies, maps, lists, blazons, and so he loves, too, the intricate formal orders that he sees both in the Vesalian page and in the 'Horatian' / 'Neoplatonic' aesthetics of the De Revolutionibus.

13 August, 2007

On Etymology, Part 2

The child likes to play, but he likes also to break his toys so as to see what is inside them. —Antoine Thomas, Coup d’œil sur l’histoire et la méthode de la science étymologique (1904).
Isidore stands in a tradition. Nutnut etymologies had been interrogated in Plato's Cratylus—a sceptical, beautiful, and very funny dialogue about the origin of language and the relation of word to world. In around 45 BC, Varro wrote a treatise on the Latin language, of whose 25 books we possess six, full to the 10/6 hatbrim of precarious etymologies, much like Isidore's. The early Fathers indulged in the same sort of thing. But Isidore was the limit. Where could one go after the Origines? No further on the same road, certainly. So Isidore's material would be subsumed into the whelm of mediaeval lore, surfacing when needed in the course of an argument.

For Howard Bloch, Isidore embodies the pre-modern attempt to establish place, firmness, solidity: 'Like Cicero’s notion of topos or Varro’s concept of locus, Isidore seeks the places where language comes to a standstill, where meaning becomes intrinsic'. Bloch is referring to this etymology in Varro: 'Loqui (to talk), comes from locus (place), because. . . he talks, who with understanding puts each word in its own place'. Isidore constructs a system of language around his 'uncompromising reverence for etymology', such that the explicatory words have no need of further explanation. Lucus needs to be analysed; lucere does not. (Isidore had evidently learnt nothing from the work of Jacques Derrida.) But the decision to stop at lucere is arbitrary, or at least there is no reason given for it. The foundation was not yet firm; and so it had been in Varro, and so it would remain through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.


It wasn't until the late eighteenth century that a new wave of Isidoreans appeared, announcing a firm foundation of 'first principles'—the start of a great age of etymology-cranks. Rather than just repeating Varro and Isidore, they had something new to offer. They all sought to reduce, in the way that science reduces the chaos of the world to a system of regular relations. The material in this post is urbane, rather than sublime; it may seem dry, but I hope that it will stand in contrast with what came before—Isidore—as well as with what follows.
The great object of the etymological art is not to give an account of the origin of all words without exception—and I daresay this would be a frivolous aim—rather, the art is principally valuable for the materials and observations with which it can furnish philosophy, so as to raise the great edifice of a general theory of Languages.
So writes (in my translation) the statesman Anne-Robert Turgot, in his article on etymology for the 1751 Encyclopédie. An attempt to explain all words without exception would be quixotic, for so many words are impossible to analyse, being arbitrary in origin, or having origins too far lost in the dusts of time. No etymological analysis should be an end in itself, as it had been for Isidore—who had begun anew with each word—but rather should contribute a single fragment towards the 'great edifice' of a linguistic theory. Turgot's article is thus a guide to the critical and cautious use of etymology as a philological tool, and it very much embodies the Lockean empiricism of its period:
It results from all that we have said in this article, that an etymology is a supposition; that it receives its character of truth and certitude only by comparison with the known facts; from the number of circumstances of these facts that it explains; from the probabilities of its results, as the critic appreciates them.
I first came across the first quotation used as an epigraph for The Diversions of Purley, an eccentric work on etymology written in two parts (1786, 1805) by the English politician John Horne Tooke. Only here it is attributed to one 'de Brosses'—ie. Charles de Brosses (1709-1777), a man with an oar in every pie, and well-known for various literary endeavours throughout the second half of the century. (Wikipedia is not bad on him.) De Brosses' masterpiece is his 1765 Traité de la formation méchanique des langues et des principes physiques de l'étymologie, which I read in its 1801 edition, its colophon dated 'An IX'.

This Traité, very much in the same tone as the 1751 Turgot article, and full of calm, rational thinking on the development of languages, is also the first great modern monument of bambashka etymology. This apparent disparity is due to a simple fact: while Turgot's strictures are very sensible, both for science in general and for etymology in particular, they are not enough. The sober etymologists of the next century demanded more than plausibility and coherence: they demanded evidence from the regularity of historically-determined laws of language evolution. De Brosses did not. Instead, he returned to the sort of quasi-empirical speculation found in the Cratylus. Near the end of that dialogue Socrates progs at the waspnest of sound-symbolism—the notion that each vowel and consonant has a basic significance, and that words are fadged up from clusters of these sound-meanings:
Now the letter rho [ρ], as I was saying, appeared to the imposer of names an excellent instrument for the expression of motion; and he frequently uses the letter for this purpose: for example, in the actual words ρειν [to flow] and ροη [torrent] he represents motion by rho.

Thus did the legislator, reducing all things into letters and syllables, and impressing on them names and signs, and out of them by imitation compounding other signs.
Plato's concept is a primitive version of what we now call the linguistic root; this latter notion, in a good approximation of its modern form, would be imported from classical Sanskrit grammars into Western linguistics in the 19th century. But de Brosses and his successors, like Plato, could only gesture towards this. De Brosses' hunt for the symbolism of sound was a hunt for fundamental causes. Where Isidore had been concerned merely with transforming the structure of the world into a structure of words, and with ascribing an aetiology to each word, de Brosses goes further: he wants to derive all words from a much smaller group of meanings embodied in discrete sounds. In this way his interests parallel the rise of atomism and naturalist classification in the science of his century. Physics had become explicitly empiricist, and so de Brosses advocates an empirical survey of language to determine the meanings of its underlying sounds. Early on in his book he claims
That the system of the first fabric of human language, and of the imposition of names on things, is therefore not arbitrary and conventional, as we have been accustomed to picture it, but rather a true system of necessity, determined by two causes. The first is the construction of the vocal organs, which can only produce certain sounds, analogous to their structure; the other is the nature and propriety of the real things that one would name—this obliges one to apply to their names the sounds that depict them, establishing between thing and word a connection by which the word can excite an idea of the thing.
Lockean epistemology is evident in the last sentence: if, as Locke had said, words exist so as to communicate the ideas of things between men, the linguist had to explain the mechanism by which a word 'excited' an idea. It was natural to assume some sort of actual similarity or homology between the idea and its verbal sound. Thus the root FR is said to denote breaking or cutting—Hebrew PHouR, Latin FRango and FRio, French BRiser and BRoyer, Latin FuRFuR, FaRina—'After the farine (wheat) is cooked in a FuRnace, the bread, necessary aliment, is the principal foodstuff with which one FuRnishes (fournir) one's house; but we have since generalised the word fournir'—FRustrum, FRaus, FRagmenta, FRuctus, FuRor, FRigo, French eFFRoyable, FeRveur, FoRt, and so on. It is hardly surprising that de Brosses would be praised by his 1801 editor for his 'facility for grasping the very real connections between objects that seemed the most opposed'.

But de Brosses goes further than sound-symbolism, and he is not averse to traditional Isidorean speculation: for example, this digression on the celestial origins of the words for many abstract concepts—
To admire is to observe the Sun; mirari, from Mihr, ie. sol. To contemplate is to observe the Sky; contempleri, from Templum, ie. coelum [sky], aether. To consider is to observe the stars, and to desire is to lose them from view; considerare, desiderare, from Sidera [stars]. Admonition is the view of the moon; Moneo, from moun, ie. Luna.
The corollary to this type of investigation is a pronounced scepticism towards the enquiry, so common in the previous century, into the first language among men, specifically that spoken at Babel before the confusion of tongues. (Most, naturally, had said Hebrew. Becanus, notoriously, had said Brabantic.) De Brosses argues, in almost a modern tone, that even the language at the origin of several modern languages could be 'a mixture derived from many even more ancient'—for no language 'is formed all in one go'.

The results of de Brosses' theories are not so different from the results of Isidore's, but their attitudes and aims are poles apart. De Brosses still 'seeks the places where language comes to a standstill', but he seeks this in pure sound, which in turn can be mapped onomatopoeically onto the sounds of natural phenomena. Language thus evolves directly out of the natural world. Isidore's text acts as a poetic exploration of the possibilities inherent in language, and as a mnemotechnic for humanists learning about their world. De Brosses, like Turgot, regards his own activity as scientific—as seeking first causes by empirical enquiry and rational abstraction. He unlike Isidore, is thus after the 'one true hidden meaning', only he sees the pursuit in terms not of hermeneutics, but rather of mechanics and physiognomy.


When Tooke quotes Turgot, it is entirely appropriate, for he too wants to use etymology as the means to a 'general theory of Language'. For Hans Aarsleff—the only scholar to have written seriously about English linguistics at the turn of the century—John Horne Tooke (1736-1812) is the man who ruined English linguistics at the turn of the century. (The Aarsleff story is that good linguistics left England when Condillac brought Lockeanism to France, stayed there until the Germans nabbed it, and finally came back to England with its tail between its legs.) Tooke's Diversions of Purley, a strange quasi-political treatise on the origin of English words, in the form of two long dialogues at a gentleman's country home, did not participate in the Lockean ideals still motivating the French linguists of the period.

Locke had argued that words come from ideas, which in turn come from things. Language was at the bottom of the hierarchy, neither fully public nor fully private, and the most susceptible of the three strata to confusion. For Tooke, on the contrary, words come directly from things, and thoughts from words. Language is thus an active process of the soul, shaping the mind as it evolves—a Romantic way of thinking, later revived by Heidegger and his postmodern epigones, as well as by Sapir-Whorf. The history of words, for Tooke, is the history of thought: and hence we can discover the true essence of a thought by learning the original meaning of its word. We are, of course, back with Isidore. And in the second volume of the Diversions, matters get distinctly political—Tooke, the progressive, wants to deny the natural or rational basis for English law, and so he remarks that law is only that which has been laid down by men, and that what is right (rectus) is that which is ordered.

Tooke's methods were considerably more elaborate than his predecessors, with an unusual use of historical English—he quotes Chaucer and Gower, and the great prototype etymological dictionaries of Minsheu (1627) and Skinner (1678)—as well as its supposed antecedents, notably Gothic, which he cites in Wulfila's alphabet, much to my amusement. But without scientific constraints, even the insufficient dicta of Turgot, Tooke's serious ideas and linguistic gymnastics produce fanciful results; and my readers will be aware that I use the word impejoratively. Tooke reduces the parts of speech to two—the noun and the verb—and proceeds to reveal a noun or a verb in all conjunctions and prepositions. If, for instance, is traced to give(n): 'if you go to town' is made equivalent to 'given that you go to town'.

Tooke's Diversions were hugely popular in England and America, and his imitators and followers were legion. (He also spawned a number of critics, one of whom went so far as to produce a book-length rebuttal, the Anti-Tooke, full of etymologies contradicting Tooke but no more plausible.) The most notable of these was Walter Whiter (1758-1832), the author of at least three literary curiosities: a dissertation on suspended animation, a fragment-commentary on Shakespeare's verbal free-associations, and a huge tome (in two versions) on etymological metaphysics. The first version of this last is the Etymologicon Magnum: or Universal Etymological Dictionary, on a new plan (1800); it was revised in 1822 as the Etymologicon Universale, with a subtitle of truly Elizabethan length. He writes in the 1822 introduction:
Among the Etymologists, no idea of submitting a race of words to a general law had ever been adopted. One word was supposed to be derived from another single word; not was there any attempt to discover an abstract or Universal Principle, to which these various separate instances might be referred, and by which they might all be connected with each other.
And this is Whiter's great plan, and great contribution to the science of nutty etymology. The structure of etymology is for him like the structure of a monist metaphysics: a search not just for first causes, but for the first cause—a construction of the manifold out of variations on one basic principle. Thus he starts by seeking the underlying unity of those linguistic elements that seem most diverse, which he identifies with those 'most familiarly employed' and therefore 'so perpetually liable to change from frequent use'. It is, we might now say, like looking for connections between asmi, sum, eimi, am. But Whiter's big idea is that every word in every language has an original sense relating to the earth—or as he prefers it, THE EARTH—and its cultivation. (Thoreau would be a keen reader, in fact.) His reasoning?
Where can we find, or where can we expect to find an agent sufficiently potent and predominating for a purpose like this, but in that great object, which is ever present with us, at all times, and on all occasions, on which all other objects, capable of being seen or felt, either actually exist, or exhibit their force and influence?
He adds, rather wishfully, that there is no one 'who will not instantly grant' the self-evidence of such a proposition. In the 1800 work, lacking the grand projet, he had already connected EARTH to g-EARTH or GARDEN, and to HARD, Latin DUR-us and TER-ra, Greek STER-eos [solid], ORCHARD, GUARD, WARD, YARD, Hebrew ARETZ [earth], and Greek ARATOS [plough]. Now, in 1822, he identifies soil, clod, chalk, slate, sludge, silex, calx, clay, heel, clear and clean (ie. that from which clay has been removed—the old antiphrasis again). He connects write with verto, which was originally 'to turn the earth'. And he goes further with patronyms: the Celts were originally 'workers in Clay', ie. those who made bricks; they are the 'illustrious nation, I had almost said, the only nation of the Globe', and their name is cognate with those of the Gaels, Gauls, Welsh, Waldenses, Belgae, Scoloti (Scythians), Scots, Goths, Chaldaeans, Galileans, Gaetuli, Atlantidae, Itali, Latins, Lusitanians, Cilicians, Kalmucks, Moguls, Sclavonians, Caledonians, Castilians, Catalonians, Andalusians, Angles, Lacones, Albanians and Albioni, Hellenes, Pelasgi, Philistines, Poles, Pehlevi and Volsci.

Whiter thought that 'consonants are alone to be regarded in discovering the affinities between words, and the vowels are to be wholly rejected', which puts us in mind of the famous bon mot ascribed to Voltaire, that 'etymology is a study in which consonants count for very little, and vowels for nothing at all'. (This discussion thinks not Voltaire, but at least Max Müller.) But Whiter's dictum of course made it very easy for him to spin etymologies as he pleases, and for that we are grateful. He also disregards spelling conventions, pointing out that Greek γγ corresponds to Latin ng, Greek σ to Latin ns, and so on—and therefore that the letter-groups can be substituted willy-nilly. It is a 'ghoti' logic.

Took up Plato's Cratylus. Full of comic and absurd etymologies of the kind that raged till about a century ago. But also half-conscious essays about semantics of a very interesting kind. The miracle is that soon after 400 B.C. there was a community with disinterested mental leisure to ponder over such nonutilitarian matters.

— Bernard Berenson's diary, 21 March, 1942.
I have, I confess, gone on too long. And I have not even mentioned the most bizarre of all the speculators—Alexander Murray, whose 1823 History of the European Languages begins with the assertion that all words in all languages derive from nine basic roots denoting movement (ag, bag, dwag, gwag, lag, mag, nag, rag, swag), and goes on to trace the development of these roots with the most fantastical elaboration over a thousand-odd pages. (This work, unlike the others mentioned here, can happily be bought in an Elibron reprint.) There are countless more.

The new Isidoreans had similar (albeit more sophisticated) results, different self-presentations, and ultimately the same overall goal as Isidore himself. All of them, to a man, were creating their world with words, as if the hierarchy were not thing—idea—word but idea—word—thing; as if language, guided by an overarching theory, were recreating the real world. But there was no mysticism among this group, as there would be for the occultists of the later nineteenth century; De Brosses, Tooke and Whiter were all staunch materialists, and all understood their own project to be a naturalist one—pure common sense—however silly, or however magical, it might seem to us.

10 August, 2007


We are as tense as a plum about to be crushed in the fingers. Mrs. Roth sprawls out over the whole bed before I join her at night. One might call it greedy. I call it Anschluss. My eyes are always the first part of my anatomy to tire, and by the time I reach the pillow I am exhausted with writing and reading. There is no problem of insomnia. When I close my eyes in the dark the plum is set down, and I am bathed in waves of images. I dream of London, but it is a London made strange—roads disclosing new spaces, old spaces new roads—a city made feverish with the realisation that what had once been there is now no longer. Perhaps I am being chased, or perhaps—

When I awake the sun, through the skylight, is breaking little sweats from me, and great crows are scuttling over the glass, casting intermittent shadow. This is around seven o'clock, unless we have closed the shutters in advance. And so we come forth by day.

We do not make the bed. Beds should not be made; beds look more beautiful when they are left unmade. When I return again at night I want to see something amorphous and inviting, a soft cave, unmade and thus unruinable. Still, Lily occasionally makes the bed, much to my chagrin.

The plum is picked up once again: I remember that I still have not heard about the funding for my doctorate. The good news is that I have discovered the books bought last summer, thought lost—volume five of Plutarch's Moralia, for instance, and Bede's De temporum ratione, and Otto of Freising's The Two Cities, and the catalogue from the Sotheby's manuscript auction last July, and Remy de Gourmont's Esthetiques de la Langue Française, and J. T. Waldman's comic-book Megillat Esther, to name a few. And I have been meeting all sorts of exciting people, who have collectively been making the loneliness intrinsic to London (Stefan Zweig: 'I was always forced to seek out with difficulty that which had overwhelmed me in Paris: sociability, comradeship, and joyousness') easier to withstand, at least a little.

07 August, 2007

On Etymology, Part 1

In this week's TLS, Emily Wilson reviews a new translation of Isidore of Seville's Origines, popularly called the Etymologiae. I was glad to learn about this, because I've been looking forward to the volume for almost two years now. Isidore, a Visigothic bishop of the seventh century, is the sort of writer snubbed by classicists (too late), mediaevalists (too early) and other scholars (too unreliable). And yet, as even Wikipedia attests, he is the first serious encyclopaedist after Pliny, and one of the few important lights of the early Middle Ages. In the Origines, Isidore compiled a summary of European knowledge in twenty books, organised according to a scheme of explanation by etymology—defined as 'origo vocabulorum, cum vis verbi vel nominis per interpretationem colligitur', or 'the origin of words, when the force of a verb or a noun is gathered by interpretation'. For Isidore, finding the etymon (truth) behind a word was paramount to understanding its significance:
Nam dum videris unde ortum est nomen, citius vim eius intellegis. Omnis enim rei inspectio etymologia cognita planior est.

For when you have seen whence a word comes, you will soon be able to understand its force. Indeed, the enquiry into anything is clearer when its etymology is known.
Wilson correctly remarks, 'This notion of the pedagogical value of etymologies guides Isidore’s magnum opus, the Etymologies, which offers an encyclopedic account of just about everything, from grammar to God, and from Nero to newts—all expounded through the underlying truth of the Latin language.' The problem with this, in Wilson's eyes, is that Isidore's etymological analysis is so deeply primitive:
Most of Isidore’s supposed etymologies are—by the standards of modern academic philology—complete twaddle. About a quarter of them are made up out of his own head. The Etymologies often reads like a series of bad puns: "Horses (equus) are so called because when they were yoked in a team of four they were balanced (aequare)". . .
We hear the same thing in Dot Wordsworth's Spectator review:
The problem with Isidore is that almost half his etymologies are incorrect, and his success rate is not helped by a compulsion to preserve ancient authorities even when he knows they must be awry.
Wordsworth agrees that true etymology is 'the work of the 19th century', and that even Johnson's 1755 propositions are 'hopeless'—an overstatement. As well as an indictment of Isidore's scholarship, this 'twaddle' makes translation difficult, and in Wilson's opinion the present edition plays it a little too safe, using bracketed Latin rather than converting Isidore's analysis into English:
Mostly this is fine, if unexciting, though there are inevitably moments when the committee nods. For instance, we are told that "health (salus) is thought to take its name from salt (sal), for nothing is better for us than salt (sal) and sun—in fact, we see that the bodies of sailors are well-hardened". It is pleasing to be reminded that people once thought that lying out in the UV rays and eating olives was a kind of health cure. But the translators miss a trick here, since the Latin word for sun—sol—also sounds similar to salt (sal) and health (salus). Isidore’s language puts all three together.
We might think that Wilson herself has missed a trick here: after all, the translators have introduced a play, converting Latin nautae into English sailors, which 'also sounds similar' to sal and salus. But notice also Wilson's sentence 'It is pleasing to be reminded. . .' Her tone is arch and dismissive: those delightful little fools. The tone is heard again here:
There are some wonderful comic moments, when the pure play of language results in extreme banality. It is somehow deeply comforting to be told that "A sheep (ovis) is a mild livestock animal, with wool, a defenceless body, and a peaceful temperament".
Wilson treats Isidore's text as something resolutely of the past—as a book of merely historical interest, like the crude daubings of savages in Lascaux. It is a volume to be 'dipped into', 'a perfect lavatory book'—sort of a quaint version of Buck's Dictionary of Selected Synonyms. For Wilson, the only benefit of Isidore is his 'pure play of language'—a very modernist (or postmodernist) idea—as if there were no bounds, rules, limits, or decorum to his analyses. When she comes to review, in the same article, a new book on Isidore, she says of the author's 'crazy' translations of certain etymologies that 'the little samples he offers are a helpful reminder of Isidore’s playfulness—even his jouissance'. Fashion creeps in. And when she writes, towards the end of her review, that 'Etymology can be a way of showing our debt to tradition: ancient cultures are preserved in the words we write', I hear not so much Isidore's project as the clarion call of today's academian multiculturalist.


Emily Wilson refers to Isidore's etymological analyses as 'truly silly'. I propose a moratorium on the use of this word, 'silly', to describe intellectual efforts of past ages. It betokens a mind closed to the difficulties of history—closed to those aspects of the past that are genuinely strange to us. As Wilson remarks, 'As the new translators remark, the Etymologies was "arguably the most influential book, after the Bible, in the learned world of the Latin West for nearly a thousand years".' If you are happy to call the contents of such a book 'silly', you're probably missing something. Wilson's concession to Isidore's seriousness and significance is this, after a mention of some loaded political etymologies at the end of her review:
As Isidore well knew, etymology is not a value-neutral science. The search for a "truth in words" is cultural, moral and philosophical, as well as philological. . . The writers of etymologies—from Isidore in the seventh century to politicians in modern times—choose how we should define our world.
This is absolutely correct; but in the context of this review the statement feels grudging, a grand proposition lacking in conviction and vitality. We need to take this idea more seriously, and not merely pay lip-service to it; we need, in other words, to take Isidore more seriously.

Wilson collapses the Isidorean etymology onto the pun: 'The Etymologies often reads like a series of bad puns', ' Isidore’s puns and wordplay may go beyond the strict boundaries of the etymological definition', ' Isidore’s cringe-inducing pun'. Isidore's analyses are not true etymologies—because a true etymology looks like the sort of thing in the OED, ie. 'modern academic philology'—so they must be mere puns, or else 'twaddle', or both. Why make the distinction?

Daniel Fried ('Of Boars, Rhapsodes, and the Uses of Culturalist Error' in Comparative Literature 57.4), thinks etymology more dangerous than the pun. He distinguishes between good and bad etymology, making explicit what remains implicit in Wilson's review:
Good etymology is correct and responsible etymology, and it tells us about language itself, its structures and developments; it is only a key to literary locks when employed with the utmost expertise. But bad etymology is worse than useless: it is the province of modern cranks and well-meaning ancients who were in way over their heads. Bad etymology is essentialist and polemical (in addition to being wrong): it asserts that the one true hidden meaning of a given word or name is disclosed by whatever word seems to make the closest phonic match.
(For David Dawson, by contrast, the ancient etymologists were not so much well-meaning as canny manipulators of textual authority: 'the etymologist could counter charges of hermeneutic willfulness with the claim to have uncovered the original foundation of meaning [of a word]'.)

But Fried's passage is a remarkable bit of moralising. Fried and Wilson have much in common—Fried's 'well-meaning ancients' might as well be Isidore, and both note that older etymologies are both polemical and factually wrong. Fried, like Wilson, is a multiculturalist, a Bakhtinian heteroglot, as is so common among the denizens of today's academy—and this is his agenda in attacking the 'essentialism' or absolutism of the 'bad etymology'. It is much the same as Popper's feelings towards Plato and Hegel. However,
Puns are more amenable to intelligent analysis because they are less grand in their claims. Puns, like etymology, are prestidigitations of the phoneme or grapheme, and a quick-switch assertion that this is that, a given word or usage is a stand-in for another. But the punster plays the game for low stakes. . . The punster does not discover meaning buried within words, but rather expropriates the serendipities of language and works them into an assertive creation of meaning.
The truth is that Fried's last sentence presents a false dichotomy. Isidore says that he is discovering meaning buried in words; but let us remove the word 'buried', and say that he is discovering meaning in words. Let us say that he has found a device for retrieving unsuspected meaning from words—a device that makes full use of the 'serendipities of language'. Is he not, then, creating meaning? Is the creation of meaning not at the heart of Isidore's project?

Fried is afraid of the totalising impulse, the totalitarian impulse—but it is the mark of a great character and intellect to impose its shape upon all the materials that it encounters. We value the coherence, scope and power of a man's vision: and to the extent that he can bend the meaning of words to his will, we can only admire him.

Beckett saw Joyce as a magician who could do anything with language: he could turn a word into its opposite, or discover its relation to any other, by altering a couple of letters. And so with Isidore—he can disclose the relation between a man (homo) and the dirt (humus) of which he is made. And he can turn a word into its opposite, too: in Origines I.29, on etymology itself, he mentions the class of etymologies 'ex contrariis [datae]', ie. those traditionally called 'antiphrastic'. The most famous of these analyses is the traditional 'lucus a non lucendo', which derives lucus (grove) from lucere (to shine), because groves are so dark that no light can shine through. As Isidore has it, ''lucus', quia umbra opacus parum luceat'. Although apparently ludicrous ('silly'), this type of etymology exhibits the logic of the negative, exploited by magical thinkers throughout history; compare, for instance, Freud on the 'antithetical meaning of primal words'.

The concept of 'lucus a non lucendo' had been the object of scepticism from the start—it is first mentioned by Quintilian who quotes it mockingly. It was later put into its canonical form by Servius, and recycled throughout the Middle Ages. (I once jotted an idea for a story called Lucas Anon Lucinda.) In the Renaissance, according to Dilwyn Knox (Ironia, 1989) came a reaction against mediaeval antiphrastic etymologies:
Now it was suggested instead that lucus derived from lux straight-forwardly: sacred groves were often illuminated by religious fires.
Knox goes on to discuss the even more recondite theory of Annius:
The Latin word lucus, he explained, was not derived per antiphrasin, but was a straightforward derivation from the Aramaic and hence Etruscan [!] word luca meaning 'old man' or 'council of elders'.
Similarly, in Sanctius' 1587 Minerva (I translate from my French edition):
For my part, I think lucus comes from an Etruscan word. In effect Varro, in the Origines [V.55], affirms that Luceres and Lucumones are Etruscan names. Furthermore, Luca, with the accent on the latter syllable, as the Talmudists pronounce it, is the same thing in Etruscan as senex or senator. And since antiquity the books of poets have been full of Luci and of rites religione parentum. . .
This new anti-antiphrastic movement, represented also by Agostino Dati and J. C. Scaliger, found its precursor in none other than Isidore of Seville. In Origines 14.8.30 he provides an alternative etymology for lucus:
Lucus est locus densis arboribus septus, solo lucem detrahens. Potest et a conlucendo crebris luminibus dici, quae ibi propter religionem gentilium cultumque fiebant.

The grove is a place set off with thick trees, keeping light away from the ground. The word could also derive from the resplendence of frequent lights, which occur there on account of the pagan religion and worship.
What's interesting is that Isidore gives both etymologies—hardly a 'one true hidden meaning', more a jouissance with the 'serendipities of language'—just what Wilson and Fried approve of. In fact Isidore is not the powerful force imposing his metaphysics on language—for these characters we have to wait for the nineteenth century, for Walter Whiter, James Byrne and John Horne Tooke—near-contemporary with the holy founders of scientific philology—and even successors to it, especially in France, as can be seen from Raminagrobis's excellent post on Grasset d'Orcet, and from my own post on Fulcanelli, coming soon. But if Isidore is not a great intellect, he may at least be a magician with words, not quite at Joyce's level, but like Joyce trying to forge his own world with language, discovering significance in unlikely connections, but never content to rest on a single interpretation. As a tool of explanation, Isidore's method is not closed, but an open work. Isidore invites in his student an apophenia—he encourages his reader to see behind every word new words, new thoughts. The Origines thus resembles the kabbalah, although it lacks the profound theology of that art. It is not full of puns. It is full of truths—but truths of a different order to those found in the OED.

Which is to say, 'The writers of etymologies. . . choose how we should define our world', and moreover to say it with conviction. I go further than Emily Wilson: I say it is a shame that we do not have our own origines.