30 June, 2006


Just got back from a road-trip to Dorchester with my friend D. We drove around the town, stayed in a little country hotel where we played a comical tennis (it being 12 years since Conrad last picked up a racquet), sampled the local ales, took tea at the cheap Oak Room, strolled a neolithic henge, and resisted the temptation to buy second-hand books. Spotted:

1. Dali's obscure portrait of Pablo Picasso, made into a small toy sculpture, in the window of 'Change of Seen'.

2. The statuated and epitaphed tomb of local dialect poet, William Barnes, outside St. Peter's Church.
3. On the high street, an expressionistic memorial plaque for the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

4. A crop-spraying truck on the motorway: is there any machine quite so scary?

5. In the compound of the Dorchester post-depot, the words painted over an old archway: MONS SHAIBA. A go-ogle turns up nothing. Any idea what it means?

We also went down to Poundbury, Prince Charles' model village. It's a strange place; airy and empty for the most part, friendly and dandified, though quite bland, with an electricity cabin decked out as a classical temple and daubed all over in aggressive graffiti. We watched a builder at work in the Phase 2 developments; he was cladding a breezeblock wall in dry stone bricks, sanding and adjusting, at the greatest leisure. They wanted 319 grand for a 4-bedroom house. In the local supermarket, the Sport is on sale, but turned around to protect gentle eyes from bottom de stunneuse. Now the residents are protesting against the larger-scale projects in the expansion areas. Last week at the Tate Modern, Quinlan Terry (another of Charlie's pet architects) spouted predictable fogeyisms about the ugliness of 1960s architecture, sticking in another oar for his revivalist proposals. He would have been right at home here, among the reclaimed brickwork and mock-antique mosses, the bowed column-work of the town-hall, and the low-rise aridness of the residential blocks. What is it that makes Middle Englanders want to live in such a spectral utopia?

26 June, 2006


PHAEDRUS: I should like to know, Socrates, whether the place is not somewhere here at which Boreas is said to have carried off Orithyia from the banks of the Ilissus?

SOCRATES: Such is the tradition.

PHAEDRUS: And is this the exact spot? The little stream is delightfully clear and bright; I can fancy that there might be maidens playing near.
The making myth of a place is fundamental to us; it is, in fact, the making of place out of mere space. Ancient peoples gave meaning to their environment by investing it with signs and stories, and by orienting themselves around key natural monuments. A great deal is lost now; space has become dull, without shape, without significance. The myths and stories of London have become concreted over, and half-lost with the postwar renovations, with the estates, the chainstores, and with the scrabble for lebensraum.

Here, then, the second in a series of posts, a mythography of the city, the great palimpsest, and also a forging of new connections between its myriad symbols: an exegesis. Today I write about iron in the water. If you find it long, dear reader, read on nonetheless: it is a labour of love.


Iron was the worst of the metals for Plato, an emblem of the ignoble in man. But it has been widely celebrated and mythologised also; some philologists give the word an etymology of 'sky-metal'. Even by Homer's time iron was the most prized metal for its military uses; throughout history it has seen innumerable refinements, from cast iron to wrought iron, steel (an iron-carbon alloy), and in the late 19th century, stainless steel.

In the ancient world, a people of Asia Minor known as the Chalybes were famous for their skill at ironwork. Aeschylus calls the Chalybes ανημερος (savage), and according to Herodotus they were among the races conquered by Croesus of Lydia. Strabo, meanwhile, confuses the Chalybes with the Chaldaei (Babylonians), and this nutty site claims a Turkish etymology of the name as Kal-ýp, 'he who has remained (eternal)'. Their name became proverbial, as 'Toledo' would later. Euripides refers to 'Chalyb iron' [the Greek word for iron is σιδερος—and wack philologists will connect this to Latin sidera, following the 'sky-metal' origin of iron]; Vergil, following late Greek topoi in the Georgics, refers to the 'nudi Chalybes' as the providers of 'ferrum' (1.58). Milton in turn imitates Vergil; his Samson is so powerful as to make useless
the forgery
Of brazen shield and spear, the hammer'd Cuirass,
Chalybean temper'd steel, and frock of mail
Adamantean Proof
(Much later, Primo Levi refers implicitly to the Chalybes in a story ('Lead') from The Periodic Table (1975): 'they were crude folk and from their accounts it was hard to understand what metal they were referring to; also because not all spoke the same language and no one spoke mine, and there was a great confusion of terms. They said, for example, 'kalibe' and there was absolutely no way to figure out whether they meant iron, silver or bronze.')

With Milton passes the adjective into our language; or I should say, adjectives. For the OED lists not only 'Chalybean', but also 'chalybeous', the blue of case-hardened steel, and 'chalybeate', with which the significance of iron really becomes part of the language. King's American Dispensatory (1898) has this to say on chalybeate waters:
CHALYBEATE WATERS (Ferruginous Waters) contain iron (usually as a bicarbonate, occasionally as a sulphate) as their active principle, and in considerable proportion; they have a styptic taste, and become purplish-black with tannic or gallic acids. . . Chalybeate waters are divided into carbonated and sulphuretted; the former being brisk, sparkling, and acidulous, the latter containing hydrogen sulphide. To be of first quality these waters should contain considerable iron and but little of other mineral ingredients, and should be highly carbonated.
From the mid-17th century, such waters were considered highly salubrious, despite their nauseating taste. Thomas Sydenham, for instance, prescribed the waters for hysteria in 1693, and two centuries later Thomas Clouston prescribed them for neurosis. (This information from Jonathan Andrews, 'Letting Madness Range: Travel and Mental Disorder, c.1700-1900', in Wrigley and Revill, eds. Pathologies of Travel, online here; for further reading consult footnote 75.) Iron is indeed the stuff of life, bonding oxygen in the bloodstream; anaemia, the deficiency of iron in the body, causes pallor, fatigue, weakness, dyspnea, lack of appetite—a diminishment of life itself. It was an early-recognised condition, first called chlorosis, and treated with iron salts by the aforementioned Sydenham. Chalybeate wells are to be found all over the world: America (there exist towns of the name in Kentucky and Mississippi), Russia, Continental Europe, and Britain—countless early modern spas were founded on these sites, quackably advertising the restorative and vitalising power of the waters. By the 19th century, doubt had set in, although Victoria regularly drank at Tunbridge Wells. Samuel Hahnemann, propounding his own homoeopathic quackery, expressed scepticism about the waters in the Materia Medica Pura (1833):
It is mere charalatanry to call solutions of iron steel-drops, and chalybeate mineral waters steel-waters, steelbaths. By these expressions it is intended to convey the notion that they indubitably possess an absolute strengthening power in a high degree; for to steel is a metaphorical expression for to strengthen. But iron only becomes steel when its peculiar elasticity and hardness are developed. In its solution by acids the steel disappears; the solution then only contains a substratum of iron, and the oxyde (iron ochre) collected from chalybeate waters, when smelted, produces nothing but ordinary iron.

By Hahnemann's time the chalybeate well at Hampstead, London, was in decline. The well had been discovered at the end of the 17th century, and given over to the poor of Hampstead in 1698 by the newly-widowed Susanna Noel and her son, the Third Earl of Gainsborough. A stone, once a fountain, commemorates:

Drink Traveller and with Strength renewed
Let a kind Thought be given
To Her who has thy thirst subdued
Then render Thanks to Heaven

Hampstead water was hot property, as the Victoria County History volume on Middlesex makes clear:
In 1684 the Earl of Gainsborough received permission to pipe water from springs in his manor of Hampstead to the City and suburbs. The chalybeate spring given by his widow to the poor of Hampstead in 1698 was probably thought unsuitable for this purpose because of its salts. When, however, the mineral waters were exploited, the vestry retained control over the springhead north-west of the well and in 1700 ordered water from the springhead to be piped into the town, apparently to raise money to relieve the poor rate rather than to meet any scarcity of water.
The stone is to be found on Wells Walk, adjacent to Flask Walk. Simon Jenkins, in the Companion Guide to Outer London, explains the latter: 'This street takes its name from the flasks of well water which were bottled here to be sold in London 'at the Eagle and Child in Fleet Street every morning at 3 pence per flask; and conveyed to persons at their own homes for one penny per flask more. The flask to be returned daily'.' The quotation, irritatingly, is unattributed. These streets adjoin that part of the Heath known as the Vale of Health. As is so often the case, then, the local names record the history. But little else remains. According to Jenkins and others, the popularity of Hampstead Wells soon waned in favour of the less urbanised Bath and Tunbridge Wells; the pump room was converted into a chapel in 1732, with minimal revivals of interest later in the century. In contrast to this account, an 1868 gazetteer of Great Britain notes:
In various parts of the county are springs of mineral water, some of which have been in great repute for their medicinal properties, as Acton, Bagnigge and Sadler's Wells, Clerkenwell, Hampstead, Hoxton, Tottenham, and White Conduit House; but none of them are now much frequented, except perhaps Hampstead, which is strongly chalybeate.
Aside from the stone, two ornamental fountains can be found at the base of the hill: one at the bottom of the ravishing Fitzjohns Avenue, overlooking the statue of Freud outside the Tavistock Centre, and the other in South End Green, by the Royal Free Hospital. Health of the mind and the body. Both fountains are much later than the wells, but each conjures that magical image of waters bubbling up out of the ground, bringing life.

This fountain is built down the hill from the old site of the Shepherd's Well, commemorated on this plaque next to another fountain, now removed. The Victoria County History notes:
Belsize was supplied by tributaries of the Tyburn, one rising near Belsize House, which it supplied by way of a pond, another in Shepherd's Fields, northwest of Rosslyn House, where the public spring was conduited and known by 1829 as Shepherd's Well.
The present fountain was built in 1904, as its own plaque (with a lovely baroque-uncial typeface) explains. Both plaques, interestingly, like the inscription on the Wells Walk stone, emphasise that the waters are given over for the benefit of the public. We see here the tributary of bourgeois and aristocratic socialism that would flourish in the 19th century; the conviction that these medicinal waters are for the weal of all, not just for those with the means to pay. This is a legacy of Hampstead: the generosity of a classless earth, fertile and rejuvenating.

The second fountain is less secluded, in a hub of commerce and activity, frequently surrounded by drunks and drug-addicts fresh from the local A&E. It has recently been renovated, with hackneyed epigrams from classic authors newly lining the pavement; but the original neo-Gothic design remains, bearing the legend in handsome blackletter, 'Every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters'. These words are Isaiah 55.1, recalling also 12.3, 'Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.' Predictably, this language was associated by many exegetes with the imagery of St. John:
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (4.14)

He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (7.38)
Adam Clarke follows Zimchi's [Kimchi's?] reading of Isaiah's waters as the Torah, necessary to the sustenance of mankind. But John's waters are quite different, not external but internal, the well of faith in the human soul, the illapse of the Spirit through the message of Christ—a characteristic shift between the Testaments. Had John lived in early modern Europe, perhaps he might have spoken of the chalybeate waters, the fortifying power of dissolved iron, flowing rivers of living water into the belly.


I once wrote a 20-page poem named Chalybea. The name, playing off so many related words, had so much resonance for me that a whole world seemed to spill out of it. It evokes the currents of a water deeper than all men, a spring or an ocean of thought, and the iron rising out of it, the iron in the blood, the iron of the steel of our new architectures, with water hardened into glass, and also the chalybeous blue of case-hardened steel, the blue of the deep, of piano notes, and of watch-springs, of the hidden mechanisms of time, stopped. I imagined a city with rivers of liquid glass, where a shortage of steel forces men to strip their clocks and watches for the springs, stilling the movement of time. The poem's protagonist, an admiral named Conrad, stages revolution from the sea against the city, but achieves nothing. Chalybea to me was an object of love, a face half effaced peering out from a wall, a goddess presiding over the iron and the waters of time, and of the unfinished act—'Her who has thy thirst subdued'.
In my yard there's a pool, I used to angle there
on warm nights. I thought the mirrored constellations
a plenum of iron fish, an angel felled for each failed wish.
Often I'd play harpsichord, or a glass Steinway, well-tuned,
always adagio. She'd lie cocooned in song, Chalybea.
This is why I am so fascinated by the forgotten springs of my birthplace; the iron in the waters is as the vitality of my lifeblood, and of my mind. Hampstead is a place where swimming-pools are converted into porch-steps, where small families cycle by and ring their bells in musicbox harmony. To walk now in these labyrinthine alleys, among the stately churches and relentlessly elegant terraces, under all the trees, on the pavements over the soil over the deep-coursing waters, one experiences the pleasure of a lost memory. It is still a homestead, even if its streams are long gone.

25 June, 2006

1 year down. . .

On the occasion of our first wedding anniversary: just one year ago, Mrs. Roth and I step out from the reception, and find ourselves showered with rose-petals by our most beautiful friends. Who needs essays on love?

Here's to many more years, old comrade.

22 June, 2006

Time's best jewel

Moses B. Cotsworth, The Rational Almanac (1902).

Men have worried about time-cycles and chronology since the dawn of history. The Egyptians had a story about Thoth playing the moon at senet for five intercalendrical days, so that Isis could conceive Horus. Aristoxenus of Tarentum and Apollodorus of Athens recorded dates for the purpose of a chronological synthesis of Greek history; Eusebius of Caesarea, one of the early stars of the Christian Church, produced a monumental effort of comparative chronology, upon which a great deal of subsequent historiography was based. Anthony Grafton's own mammoth study on Joseph Scaliger demonstrates the huge interest in chronological studies following the discoveries of Copernicus, on which Gregory's 1582 calendar reform was founded. Then things died down a bit until the French Revolution and the temporary instauration of the metric Jacobin calendar—marvelous stuff, incidentally, with its five extra days marked off as feasts to Genius, Labour, Noble Actions, Awards and Opinion. After that was ushered in the Age of Reform, the reform 'from a general comprehensive view of the whole'. Webster, the first of many, pressed for spelling reform—my favourite reason being that his proposals 'would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth', and thus 'would save a page in eighteen', for an overall saving 'of an eighteenth in the expense of books'—Saint-Simon and Fourier pressed for utopian political reform—Bentham pressed for reform in political ethics—countless Victorians pressed for practical social reform—Ruskin and Morris for methodological reform in the arts—Zamenhof and others pressed for linguistic reform—August Comte, like the Jacobins, pressed for a reformed new 'positivist' calendar—and by the end of the century, the first wave of proto-Modernists were pressing for reform in artistic style.

In 1902, Moses B. Cotsworth would follow in Comte's footsteps, proposing his own Reformed Calendar in The Rational Almanac, an extremely rare volume which I purchased at a small store on Fossgate, York, for only 25 pounds, though abebooks lists copies for hundreds of dollars. It's an odd and beautiful volume, a tall octavo in gilt-tooled cloth with profuse illustration. Cotsworth, a local Yorkshireman, begins the work with his proposed calendar, dividing simply into a year of 13 months (the extra month between June and July, called 'Sol'), each with 4 weeks (28 days), for a total of 364 days; Christmas Day is an extra day, not corresponding to a day of the week, as is Leap Year Day. Easter and other moveable feasts on a lunar cycle are to be fixed by date. Cotsworth offers a chart showing the benefits of this system:

The second part of the book consists of a history of ancient time-keeping, covering Egyptian, Celtic and even American systems ('almanacs'). Cotsworth writes with a charmingly personal style:
When, therefore, my medical adviser ordered me abroad to the sunniest climate available, to get rid of serious throat illness, I promptly started for Egypt, though that meant a serious tax on my limited means.
The Great Pyramid, Cotsworth claims, is essentially a huge sundial, measuring year-cycles by variations in the length of its shadow; Cotsworth demonstrates exactly how this might have been done. Not until the pyramid was constructed (and he notes that similar structures exist all over the world, including most importantly the Tower of Babel) could men reckon time accurately by the year. Before that, he argues, men calculated in terms of months, five months, six months. This explains the outlandish longevity of the Biblical patriarchs—as the 'year' modulus became longer in the period between Noah and Moses, the patriarchs' apparent lifespans diminished accordingly.
I am convinced that the true length of the Year was never found out until after the Pyramids were built to solve that greatest problem early communities had to solve, for until that gave the measure of apparent yearly motions of the Stars it would be quite impossible for star observers to locate the Seasonal positions of the Stars, whilst obviously, as they saw that the Sun caused the Seasons, they could not be expected to seek out the solution of the Year apart from the Sun as its cause.
This is powerful material, rich in suggestion and conviction, despite its uncritical reliance on religious texts. The Rational Almanac is not just a summation of history and a plan for the future, but a history informing that plan, a reform which enters into the fabric of history and furthers its progress—the book is thus the encapsulation of an entire world-view. Cotsworth makes an impassioned plea for the reader's support of his scheme:
May I ask readers who favour these suggested Reforms, to fill up and return to to me the enclosed post card, notifying their support, and follow that up by kindly using their best efforts to enlighten public opinion by bringing this question before Members of Parliament, Public Authorities, and their friends, to ensure practical reform.
It is this utopian spirit which I have always enjoyed so much—and which moreover forces something sharp in my throat. It fills me with the hope that things might change, at the expense of my inner sneering sceptic. This is the appeal of all those Victorian movements which wanted to change everything all in one go, the comprehensive view of the whole. If only the measurement of time could be reasonable, we might ourselves become reasonable. Mankind, after all, is governed by its understanding of time, as we can see by the cultural evolution of ancient races with their slowly-advancing chronometric technologies. It's the same thought that governs the language-reformers, who thought they could make men reasonable by making their grammar fit to neat rules. The most recent example of that was the Basic English programme of Ogden and Richards, damned by Whorf and lampooned by Orwell as Newspeak, despite transition's translation of Finnegans Wake into the language. Now this stuff is old hat, a relic of late Enlightenment superstition. What next: decimalization?

19 June, 2006

Evaluation, translation and baseball

To go back to that Valve argument, again, I want to expand another aspect of what I was arguing for in that discussion, on the subject of evaluation. This is a topic that has come up a fair amount recently; Gawain and I, for instance, have floated it a couple of times over at his site. Therefore, I strongly invite comments to this post from Gawain, Richard, A Little Thought, and the rest of you. Here is the context of the debate:
Me: "Why should the fact that a book was Intelligently Designed (I use this to designate the product of a mind, rather than specifically of a good mind—that would be begging the question) affect your analysis of it?"

John Emerson, replying with a rhetorical question: "Why would our awareness that certain events in [baseball] count as "runs" and are attributed to "teams", and that one of the "teams" will win and the other lose—why should that affect our interpretation of the physical events on the field? Isn’t it ethnocentric and subjective to apply the normative framework of "baseball" to these events?"
Just to spell this out, John is drawing an analogy between baseball and literature. Baseball consists of concepts and rules (or, in Euclidean terms, definitions and axioms), which are agreed upon by convention. We could interpret a baseball game according to different concepts and rules, but we wouldn't have an accurate understanding of what was going on. Just as baseball is incomprehensible without an a priori knowledge of the concepts and rules, so literature is incomprehensible without an a priori knowledge of X. The content of X is never made entirely clear; but it seems that the intention of the author (analogous to the intentions of the batters and pitchers, which are in turn based on the concepts and rules of baseball) is part of it. For John, (part of) studying literature is assessing how well a given author achieved what he was trying to do, how well he realised his intention—just as part of studying baseball is assessing how well the players realised their intentions, strategies and so forth. In his own words, "our understanding of baseball events is enhanced by our understanding [of] what baseball players are trying to do. Similiarly [sic] for literature." This assessment is what we are calling 'evaluation', and it has a central place in literary studies.

This is a respectable argument, but I think that it is completely wrong; here's why. All participatory activities, I submit, have two aspects: the conventional and the creative. The former is a manipulation of 'concepts and rules', and is wholly formulable; the latter is a free, individualistic activity, and wholly non-formulable. Baseball is an excellent example of an activity which is entirely (or almost entirely) conventional. We judge the ability of a given player or team by how well they manipulate the concepts and rules of baseball: how well they perform according to fixed, objective standards, for instance scoring home-runs, which can be completely defined according to those concepts and rules.

Everyday language is an excellent example of a mixed activity. It is largely conventional, practised according to concepts (words) and rules (grammar) agreed upon a priori by those speaking. However, as Chomsky is now famous for noting, one of the fundamental characteristics of human language is that it is creative, able to generate an indefinite variety from a finite lexicon and grammar. Moreover, the creation of new conventions, primarily of words but also of grammar, can be seen constantly in fertile vernaculars and among specialists such as scientific communities. People both need to and like to coin new phrases, and to use language in new ways. Thus everyday language use is a mixed activity, at once conventional and creative, and not reducible to either.

Literature, on the other hand, is an activity which is predominantly creative. There are genre conventions, but these are not fixed, and no serious critic would evaluate a literary work by how closely it adhered to them; they are, in fact, more like expectations. Beyond such expectations, there are no 'rules and concepts' in literature, no 'fixed, objective standards' against which we can measure literary efforts. The best proposition for such a standard so far is 'the author's intention'. I refer the reader here to the standard demolition of the interest in literary intentions: Wimsatt and Beardsley's much-cited 1946 'The Intentional Fallacy'. Their argument is twofold: firstly, the intention is unavailable—we can never know what an author was trying to achieve, and even if he purports to tell us, as with the self-commentaries of Dante and the Dantophile Eliot, we can never be sure how trustworthy he is, and in any case his explanation is just more language of uncertain intention!—and secondly, and more importantly, there is no objective reason why we should base our evaluation on the author's intention, were we to know it.

In baseball, we base our evaluation of a player's performance on standards governed by the rules of the game because it gives that player's actions some objective content. But there is no objective content to be gleaned from basing our evaluation of, say, Ulysses, on Joyce's authorial intentions. It is true that we will get more references if we know about Joyce's life, but not true that our understanding of Ulysses will be altered by knowing Joyce's intentions. And if you say to me, 'I like Ulysses more because I know what Joyce was trying to achieve, and he was successful', I can reply, 'Well, why should I?' And you could not answer this. Ulysses is not made any less intelligible without such a criterion.

Compare translation, which I think makes an interesting analogy. Translations, it is generally agreed, can be either faithful or beautiful. If I am studying Plato and want to understand the whole of his thought, then I will want to read a faithful translation of his works. But if not—why shouldn't I read the most beautiful or brilliant translation, irrespective of its fidelity? In terms of pure aesthetics, shouldn't we evaluate the best finished product over the most accurate? But all literature is a translation: of the content of an author's head. Without Greek, Plato's original text is unavailable to me; but we are all without Greek when it comes to the author's intention, and ultimately, that intention can only be all Greek to us. Let us focus on the product.

I conclude by saying this. Literature is literary insofar as it emphasises the creative over the conventional. We evaluate works of literature subjectively, and on a case-by-case basis, because there are no rules and concepts, no fixed standards, against which we can read a work, except arbitrarily. In its purest form there really are no conventions at all—a work is the product of an individual spirit and nothing else. Given that there are no fixed standards, we cannot discuss how well the work has met those standards. We can express our reaction to the work, our evaluation of it, but (as philosophers put it) we can make no claims on another's evaluation of the work, in the same way that we can with baseball.

Therefore, such evaluation has no place in literary studies.

17 June, 2006

. . . erratic, erotic, erotetic, aretaic, oratoric

Not much has happened today, and yet things are still a little different. Mrs. Roth, for whom my love is at a zenith, told me of a long dream featuring the Tsar and Tsarina, a stately theatre, and the drowning of a bomb-wrapped pug. Old friends have been in touch. In the white noise of the fan I hear continually the indefinite roar of fans at the German stadia; they haunt me. There's no port left, and with the gas out I can't bathe, but at least there is still a little stilton to go in the tagliatelle. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.

I squabble with my elders that evaluation has no rôle in literary scholarship, and I get called a positivist. (I quote a line from a paper I wrote once, about how the Phaedrus might be described as 'Attic, erratic, erotic, erotetic, aretaic, and oratoric', which is probably the wittiest thing I'll ever come out with, and I get called 'clever in the perjorative sense'. It's not a bad description of life itself, though.) The core problem raised by the debate is: how to justify research, or even thought, in humanist subjects, ones which can't easily fit a criterion of falsifiability. John Emerson, one of those casual polymaths littering the internet, doesn't provide much in the way of argument, but you can smell the desperation in his writing. One can't help but sympathise for the poor sod. We're all in the same boat, passionately in love with culture, but deep down a little anxious, a little insecure, that it's all a waste of time and government money, perhaps even the idle luxury of an uncontributing bourgeoisie. Whatever. It's great fun!

No, we can do better. At the beginning of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant observed that in 2,000 years, despite all the advances in the natural sciences, metaphysics had barely moved an inch. There were no conclusions that everyone agreed on, because nobody was quite sure what kind of knowledge was valid. The same is true in literary studies. If we insist, as is so tempting, that the study of literature is a group effort directed towards the accumulation of knowledge—if we see scientific research as the paradigm of study—then, as John observes, we run the risk of making the humanities into a second-rate science. The fear of this outcome has led so many great critics (eg. Leavis, Frye) to scrabble desperately for some autonomy of literature in the world, some way in which literature isn't like other things. On the other hand, I prefer to see scholarship and study in the humanities not as the quest for a goal, but as a process, an aimless activity—an energeia, not an ergon, as Humboldt said of language—purely something with which to occupy oneself, a career for some, a hobby for others. It is the process of basking in the creativity of others as a means of staving off death. Thus we pray no conclusions or consensus will ever be reached, not even the glimpse of an agreement. Thank heaven for the Folio and Quarto, a deliciously insoluble and wavicular ambiguity! The activity of basking remains, as it stands, an activity like knocking footballs around in the park on a Sunday, or the activity of lovemaking, a pleasant adjunct to the daily routine. But the best we can do, I think, is to incorporate this study into the more general activity of life itself, to acquire a literature of our own. The study of creativity, with this in mind, becomes itself a creativity, a breathing and exhaling of words and of thought, sustaining light, even in the grey dark of an unremitting existence.

16 June, 2006

The number of God

Boris Vian, Calcul Numérique de Dieu par des Méthodes Simples et Fausses (105 EP).

This is one of the rarest of all the pieces in my collection, a pamphlet of unknown origin, number 258 of only 350; it contains various mathematical proofs showing the value of the number of God. Its author, Boris Vian, was a French avant-gardiste poet and jazz performer (a Wikipedia article here) who wrote a number of cult novels, including his most well-known, L'Ecume des Jours. He joined the Collège de 'Pataphysique in 1950, where he was appointed Ensign Promotor of the Order of the Grande Gidouille, Co-President of the Cocomission of Vestments, President of the Subcommission of Imaginary Solutions, and President of the Subcomission of Mathematics and the Exact Sciences. (Must have been fun, eh?) The Collège was an art collective formed on the principles outlined by the épateur Alfred Jarry in his seminal Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll at the end of the 19th century; a latter-day Surrealist movement, the Collège gave birth to the more famous OuLiPo in 1960, whence Perec, Calvino and the rest. (Incidentally, a former friend of mine, the faux-eccentric rakehell and burlesque performer David Piper, who I believe is still a member of the London Institute of Pataphysics headed by Alastair Brotchie, has just resurrected his mobile peep-show project, Wyndham's Wond'rous Wandering Woo-Woo Wagon, which if you're in London is good for a laugh.)

Notice the spear and raised sponge on the cover, as well as the spiral cornegidouille (translated by Stanley Chapman as hornstrumpot), a motif of Jarry's Père Ubu, and emblem of the 'Pataphysicians. Vian's essay on the number of God, written in 105 by the Pataphysical Calendar, is a bizarre motley of French wordplay and serious (if quite light) algebra. He gives more than one solution for the number, but my favourite is this, inspired specifically by the finale of Jarry's Faustroll:

Dieu = deux + i - x = 2 + i - x

Dieu + Dieu = Dieux = 2 + i

(2 + i - x) + (2 + i - x) = 2 + i
4 + 2i - 2x - 2 -i = 0
2 + i - 2x = 0

x = (2 + i)/2 = 1 + (i/2)

Dieu = 2 + i - 1 - (i/2) = 1 + (i/2)


Deux + Deux = 4

(Dieux - i) + (Dieux - i) = 4

Dieux + Dieux - 2i = 4

(mais Dieux et Dieux, ça fait toujours Dieux!)

Dieux - 2i = 4

Dieux = Deux + i = 2 + i

2 + i - 2i = 4
2 - 1 - 4 = 0
i = -2


Dieu = 1 + (-2/2)

Dieu = 0.

14 June, 2006

Monkey puzzle

Stephen Skinner, Etymologicon Linguae Anglicanae (1671, Olms reprint 1970).

Walter Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1879-82; my second edition from 1902).

Hensleigh Wedgwood, Contested Etymologies in the Dictionary of the Rev. W. W. Skeat (1882).

In honour of my favourite tree (right), I offer notes on the history of English etymology, taking as examples the words monkey and puzzle. The OED chickens out on both counts with 'Origin unknown', venturing timidly in the former case that it is a Low German corruption of a proto-Romance word.

Skinner's Etymologicon was the second serious etymological dictionary of the language, after John Minsheu's 1617 Guide into the Tongues, which Skinner frequently cites. The Etymologicon was written in Latin, as was still the custom with serious linguistic texts at the time, but the works of Skinner and Minsheu would still be cited by English scholars until the end of the 18th century, for instance in Horne Tooke's Diversions of Purley. Skinner is inclined to derive a majority of English words from classical and Continental sources. A particularly cute example is his tongue-in-cheek derivation of elf and goblin from Guelph and Ghibelline, 'quibus olim terribilissimis nominibus infantes territare solebant nutrices'—with which most terrible names nurses were once accustomed to scare children. We neglect here the fact that these names are in fact Italianisations of German words. This custom can also be seen in his entry for puzzle, although he rejects Minsheu's fanciful Greek etymology of monkey. I provide my own translations from the Latin, below.

Walter Skeat was the great philologist of Victorian England, a specialist in Old and Middle English, a contributor to the OED, and author of the most famous etymological dictionary in English history, used for instance by Joyce in the compilation of Finnegans Wake. The book is still easily available second-hand; I picked up mine for a mere 5 pounds at a small shop in Bristol. Skeat was the first, to my knowledge, to apply to English etymology the Continental practice of assigning each word its Indo-European roots, listed in a glossary at the back. The same practice can be seen today in Calvert Watkins' enjoyable appendix to the American Heritage Dictionary. Many of his derivations still hold up, and can be found in the OED itself; however, he has an alarming tendency to find Welsh origins, which are in fact almost non-existent in our language.

Hensleigh Wedgwood, another notable etymologist and grandson of the potter Josiah, picked up on this tendency a number of times in his gripping riposte to Skeat's Dictionary, the Contested Etymologies of 1882, which a reviewer for The Nation described as 'full of appetizing curiosities for amateurs'. The book is now, alas (or not), extremely rare. But it's all you want from such a work, really: no long-winded theorising, just a list of contentious words and the relevant philological information. Wedgwood's writing is careful and balanced, and respectful towards Skeat even while taking issue with his conclusions. He stands outside the mainstream tradition, and his derivations are probably less widely accepted than Skeat's; but he reasons from a wide knowledge of European languages, on sound historical and morphological grounds, often trying to find extra-Indo-European origins, or else imitative English ones. These attempts are illustrated by his assessments of monkey and puzzle.


Skinner. Monky, Tailed Ape. Minsheu derives the word from [Greek] Mimomai, to imitate, or mónos [alone], since it is not found in the place where you are living. Ridiculous; for it comes obviously enough from the ancient Mon for Man and the diminutive ending Kin, q. d. Monikin or Monkin, ie. homunculus, leaving off the final n for euphony: for nothing is more like man.

Skeat. M. Ital mona, monna, ‘an ape, a munkie, a munkie-face; also a nickname for women, as we say gammer, goodie;’ Florio. Monna is a familiar corruption of Madonna.

Wedgwood. As monna, for Madonna, was also used in the sense of mistress, Skeat regards the order of ideas as "mistress, dame, old woman, monkey, by that degradation of meaning so common in all languages." But the animal must have been known in Italy by some name before it acquired such a sobriquet as Mylady, and it is very unlikely that a nickname of this kind should have extinguished the genuine appellation of the animal in so wide a range of languages: Fr. monne, monnine (Cotgr.), Sp. mono, mona, Breton mouna, mounika, E. monkey, Illyrian muna, munica. The animal must have come from the East with a name of its own, and as the Arabic name is maymoun, it seems to me far more probable that the word has sprung from the docking of the latter name than from an Italian sobriquet.


Skinner. To Puzzle, q. d. to Posele, a verb, to Pose: to confound with a difficult question, or q. d. Imbecillare, ie. to make weak or feeble [imbecilic], or from Italian Pucello, virgin, and from the verb Puceler; not from the defiling of the virgin—as this would disturb the sense—but more simply from [the idea of] making virginal, ie. suffusing with redness; for the virgin copiously blushes. Pucelle itself comes from Pulcelle, from Latin Pulchella, which is a description of the virgin in flattering words. This is the derivation in which I have the most faith, and with which I generally agree.

Skeat. Orig. a sb. [substantive, ie. noun], and short for opposal, spelt both opposayle and apposayle in Lydgate, with the sense of question. These are from the verb oppose, like deni-al from deny.

Wedgwood. [Skeat's] derivation appears to me very improbable. Apposal was never a familiar word, and no traces are to be found of the docked form posal, which is supposed to have been the immediate parent of puzzle. Nor is apposal itself ever found in the sense of perplexity or confusion of mind. It would, moreover, be a violent change from the long o of posal to the short u of puzzle. . . The same degraded pronunciation which changed muddy and muddle to muzzy and muzzle, has given us puzzle parallel with puddle, in the sense of mental disturbance.

NB. Wikipedia, as if it were the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has this to say about the monkeypuzzle tree: 'As a practical exercise, a monkey trying to climb one would not be so much puzzled as injured by the razor-sharp leaf edges. However, as monkeys are not found in the species' native range, the question does not arise.' Brilliant!

12 June, 2006

Kensal Green: a photo essay

On vit tranquille aussi dans les cachots;
en est-ce assez pour s'y trouver bien?
Two hours last week in Kensal Green Cemetery, NW London—the intangible suspicion of a very religious experience indeed. I armoured myself with a long-sleeved floral shirt, even in the terrific heat, and despite the stares of daylabourers, so as to protect myself from the offered arms of this place. But my unconscious would have none of it, and so I let my feet go in nothing but a pair of terracotta sandals, and walked with my toes among the dead. The green was rife with the odour of fresh-cut grass, and as I explored, foolishly frixonaseless, my nares burned and formicated with allergies. At key moments, the sun broke his cover to illuminate the stones and the quiet blizzards of gossamer, everywhere. Even the waxy block in my right ear unstopped itself for the occasion. The cemetery crowded into me on all sides, as I would have it, or not.

A quiet surrealism

I've been discussing this project with Richard of Castrovalva, whom I've never met, but whose no-nonsense blog I very much enjoy, despite the disappointing infrequency of his updates. He's taken the guided tour, and posted his own observations, with historical notes, and some handsome pictures of the cemetery. He offers this helpful introduction:
As the population of nineteenth-century London increased and social conditions deteriorated, the demands on London's cemeteries rapidly exceeded the available space. High property prices and the crowded condition of London’s churchyards led to incidents of bodysnatching and of older graves being emptied to make way for the new. The solution, for the upper and middle classes at least, was to build seven new cemeteries at a remove from the city, of which Kensal Green was the first. Funerals promptly went into fashion and came to cost far more than weddings, with both the ceremony and the tomb having to be as grandiose as possible.
It was only in 1968 that cremations became more popular than burials at the Green, and now a sizeable proportion is given over to the Crematorium and its surroundings. The great majority, however, remains all tombs and bones.

Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter? When one enters a cemetery, one becomes suddenly attuned to the power of words and images; all things acquire a new resonance. The first name that came to mind was, naturally, Harrow Road, which suggests the tilling of the gravesoil, and the Harrowing of Hell. Once inside the gates, I think not of cemetery, the 'sleeping-chamber' (F—— J——— fell asleep on June 19, 1926), with its overtone of symmetry—but of necropolis, which in my mind is not just the city of the dead but the polis of the dead, the city-state. For this place has not only its own avenues, but moreover its own domain, its own customs and laws, almost as if gravity has been suspended. To my left is the Dissenters' Chapel, which irrevocably calls to mind, at least in such a place as this, disinterred. By the chapel there's a gate, and a sign that reads


and of course the thought that occurs immediately is—there is only one gate that leaves this cemetery, and it's a painful one. The phantasy sets to work at once. And then all the names of the buried. Last time I was here, at the tender age of 20, I wrote a long poem, and compiled a list of these names, a list which conjures nothing less than the entire world:
There are printed leaflets, and even regular guided tours. But somehow it seems best to arrive ignorant, to allow fully the mystery, to be permitted a why? And not to understand those strange alphabets, which I know or suspect really to be Ethiopic, but which I imagine nonetheless to be a coded outline of ancient magics. And occasionally the discomfortable flash of recognition.

The cemetery is dead entirely, not just under the earth. By the car-park I watch a fourbyfourful of blonde proles in faux-Chanel, there for a lunchtime's flowersetting, dead as could be. The gardeners seem to have been there for eternity, merrily pottering away, friendly for a good morning—though eyeing my shirt mistrustfully, as if with what a pansy! in mind, or envisioning in it another plot for their shovels—and quite content with life, having set aside a comfortable space for themselves among the lawns. Desperate for a drink, I am directed to the general taps in the gents' room, where I imagine the water running over the carcasses of Victorian aristocrats, and quite suddenly I taste, by the sheer power of suggestion, a little iron here, a spot of mud there, and the flavour of cholera. The gasometer a stone's throw from the wall is itself a skeletal relic of the past. Even the monarchs and myriad gay petals have no longer any vegetative capacity. It's all dead. (Praise be to the modulations of our language, to have that word for the clipped goneness of life, and this word, death, for the dry rasp of the impending grave, or the suspiration of a last gasp.)

Broken column as stem and stone

The stones themselves are more like molars in a great carious jaw, grey with age. There are fields and fields of them, most plain, or with a stock design (cross, draped urn, obelisk, guardian angel, broken column, etc.), some furnished with ornamental coffins, steeples, enclosures, or entire mausolea for the Italian famiglie in the Orthodox gardens. You can buy a plot here for 2 or 3 grand, according to one of the gardeners, and indeed, graves for Jamaicans and other West London cosmopolitans are springing up all the time, complete with bouquet-holders and little beds of ground glass. Richard notes the presence of modern Cyrillic, Hebrew and even Chinese among the new graves. As a whole, though, Kensal Green remains terrifically Victorian. Here lie Thomas Hood, I. K. Brunel, Thackeray and Babbage. (Resisting even the last century, the place offers mocking imitations of modernist heroes: I see an ancient Wyndham Lewis there, a JOYCE / JAMES here.)

I accept Kensal Green as a nation's face averted, retaining upon it all the idiosyncrasies of what once surrounded it. The Victorian ghosts are evident in their mania for colonial accumulation—the frequent Egyptian motifs, the neo-Gothic stonework, the Greek portico around the chapel, these Indian telamons (pictured right)—and in their endless capacity for simple poetic sentiment, a reaction, perhaps, to the pressures of the sprawling cityscape and all its new machines. In their ideals, too, what people would be remembered for—military success, Christian piety, humanitarian efforts for the poor, and an almost Roman devotion to the family. Are these the qualities and achievements praised on today's tombstones?

Richard notes, furthermore, the Victorian obsession with death, citing the huge literature of the period, from Little Nell to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights ("and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth"), the elegies of Tennyson and Arnold—we might add Browning, whose 'Epilogue' is quoted on this grave—as well as Bram Stoker, and E. A. Poe, who famously found the death of a beautiful woman to be the most fit subject for poetry, and whose House of Usher might have been the inspiration for this sign:


Death does inspire the most beautiful of proses. Richard makes the almost obligatory Thomas Browne reference, much loved in the 19th century for his meditations on mortality in Hydriotaphia and Letter to a Friend. And Browne inspired the greatest of the Romantic essayists, Charles Lamb, whose description of a faded, post-Bubble South-Sea House might frame Kensal Green itself:
I dare say thou hast often admired its magnificent portals ever gaping wide, and disclosing to view a grave court, with cloister and pillars, with few or no traces of goers-in or comers-out—a desolation something like Balclutha’s.
Less monumental, but more typical, is the work of Marie Corelli, the Queen's own favourite; here's the ending of The Mighty Atom:
Lionel’s grave was closed in, and a full-flowering stem of the white lilies of St. John lay upon it, like an angel’s sceptre. Another similar stem adorned the grave of Jessamine; and between the two little mounds of earth, beneath which two little innocent hearts were at rest for ever, a robin-redbreast sang its plaintive evening carol, while the sun flamed down into the west and the night fell.
Yes, the Victorians were fascinated by death, both as a medical phenomenon—Walter Whiter's 1819 Dissertation on the Disorder of Death ruminated on suspended animation and the possibility of resurrection, while numerous early science-fiction works would spin a plot out of the deferral of death—and as the locus for poetic sentiment. The latter goes back as far as the Graveyard Poets, and in particular Gray's seminal Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750):
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
The same mood would continue as late as Thomson's terrific City of Dreadful Night (1880), ballasted also with that dreaded wave of nihilist atheism surfacing in much Victorian thought and literature:
The open spaces yawn with gloom abysmal,
The sombre mansions loom immense and dismal.
Richard mentions the influence of the evangelical revival on this death-fixation, as well as the cult of tuberculosis and wasting-diseases, the draining of one's life-force. That life-force gripped them in the wake of Mesmer and Reichenbach, eager to snatch up something away from the scientists, and keen also for transcendence in the dearth of earlier magics. Charles Kingsley's Tom is not killed but transformed, and Lewis Carroll could hardly bear the thought of death spoiling the play of Sylvie and Bruno. It was sort of a grand naivety. But I wonder if there is more to it than that. Why, by the end of the century, had the same morbidity crept into the decadent and symbolist literatures of the French? The Continentals, naturally, were so much darker and more brutal about the subject. Compare these paintings:

Millais, 1852

Böcklin, 1880.


The graves and markers of children and infants catch my eye continually, almost always over-farced with toys and notes. I've heard it said that the Indians have a particular fear of the ghosts of children in their graveyards. The death of children was the great Victorian terror, infant mortality being preposterously high in the filthy cities of the 19th century; these plots, however, are very modern. There is a wealth of imagination to these, grief occasioning a florid externalising of the spirit.

This last in fact is in tribute to a father, set off with a bunch of graves in an enclosure high to the north. I presume he was a fruiterer, though there is only the suggestion of narrative here.


Richard's experience was that 'Kensal’s ugly brick walls do little to insulate it from the world of the living', due to the looming presence of the gasometer and Trellick Tower. But I found it quite secluded, and only too easy to get lost. Like Richard, I am 'enough of a Romantic to be fascinated by decay and ruin', a taste that goes back to the Quattrocento, when guidebooks to the Roman ruins were published by starry-eyed Italian humanists. The cemetery is full of tombs untended and wild with growth:

And of tombs in various stages of dis int eg rat i o n, stones falling to pieces in the weight of the quiet. This the first stage: a poetic sight, Peace decapitated, la femme sans tête, as if in some grim classical satire of the world:

And the second stage, the aphesis and extreme effacement of horse and seated owner, encrusted with mosses, and now wholly anonymous—the fall of the cavaliers. Nonetheless the great beast, I think, retains an uncanny power, dwarfing the faceless man by his front leg.

And finally the multiplication of arcs—arcs as in arks, arcae, even arcophagi—and the trituration of all former stones—not yet ashlar, but still the basis for a reconstruction of the entire cemetery.

It was a troubling afternoon, all told. Not for nothing, Richard reports, is it said 'that the Victorians treated death as simply another territory to be conquered'. Kensal Green resists comprehension, like the rest of the world; it is a territory which will not be conquered. There are questions I cannot even formulate, let alone answer. Broken narratives are strewn about the grounds in their thousands, microcosmically. It is an environment which speaks so much without words, and with words made fragmentary and gestural, formulaic, and in letters foreign and cryptographical, as to challenge the roots of a coherently linguistic world view. I want to go back, and yet there is nothing left to see, except the catacombs, which I had no chance to explore. Richard has reported on some of the lesser-known inhabitants of the cemetery in his own blog; I suggest you go read that, and Chris Miller on Graceland Cemetery, and all the rest of it, and forget all about this state of rapt incommunicacy.

10 June, 2006

Grammar 101

Conrad has been doing the unthinkable, dear readers: looking for temporary work in London for the summer. It's a humiliating process, I can tell you. One agency sent me an online exam to complete before they signed me up; the first section was a test of general literacy and grammar skills. I got two questions wrong. When I say 'wrong', what I mean is 'right, but marked wrong'. You see, the high pedants who insist that my use of relative pronouns and modal verbs is correct are themselves guilty of bloody stupidity.

Bernard is the man WHO / WHOM I think is best.

Everyone backs HIS / THEIR own man.

I answered 'who' and 'his'. The former, because Bernard is not the object of 'I think', but the subject of 'is best'; the latter, of course, because 'everyone' is singular, as in 'everyone likes a smack in the face'. The exam told me that 'whom' and 'their' were correct. The former, presumably in confusion with 'Bernard is the man whom I detest'; the latter, presumably in a move towards gender-unspecific sloppiness. How flaccid the language can become. Are we to inculcate falsity as well as pedantry?

Grammaire 102

Une autre preuve de tant de nonchalance? L'absence de la décision qu'aurait dû prendre l'Académie sur le genre des lettres de l'alphabet. Beaucoup d'esprits de bons sens, et plusieurs grammaires saines, soutiennent que les lettres sont des signes, sont des sons—et que toutes, sous leur apparence féminine, sont des êtres masculins; qu'on doit dire un A, un B, un T, un S.

Or l'Académie écrit dans sa Grammaire: (p. 5, 4e ligne) « une h aspirée »; (p. 21, 8e ligne) « une s au singulier », etc. Adopte-t-elle alors le féminin pour toutes les autres lettres? Pour lui plaire, doit-on dire: une B, une V, une Q? Non, puisqu'elle attribue le masculin à toutes les voyelles: un e muet… Etc. Alors admet-elle que l'alphabet français soit composé de petites filles et de petits garçons?

— Baudry de Saunier, Gaîtés et Tristesses de la Grammaire de l'Académie Française (1932).

09 June, 2006

On the history of ideas

Gawain and I, despite our mutual appreciation, are getting good at stoking each other's fires. Commenting on his last post, about taste and 'speciation', I had the temerity to defend Plato against Gawain's accusation of silliness. It turns out that our host is a Platophobe, or at least a denier of Plato, the son turning against the father. In his no-holds-barred opinion, 'Plato’s theories regarding beauty are either wrong or unimportant.' Harsh! But that's okay, of course. In a dispirited defense of Plato's importance I made the observation that he 'defined the entire subsequent course of Western philosophy'. To which M. du Lac quite reasonably replied that 'A case could be made to distinguish Plato's historical impact from his contribution to our understanding of our world.' In other words, reading Plato will not teach today's student anything about the universe (whether physical or spiritual) that couldn't be acquired better from another source. I'm willing to grant that, although personally I care considerably more about Plato's universe than our own, strange as that might sound. Gawain continues, his power waxing with the sun, like his mythical forebear:
I am not a great fan of genealogies of ideas. This practice, which derives all subsequent history from something T[h]ales of Miletus, say, has or has not said makes for great entertainment (much better than any sit-com, if you ask me) but as a search for understanding it isn't much use. It is really no more than a footnote (though I realize that great academic careers can be built upon footnotes, just as great academic careers were once built on demonology).
Which of course is an extremely contemptuous position, just the kind I like. As my readers will probably have gathered, I am indeed 'a fan of genealogies of ideas'. I don't think anyone these days would derive all subsequent knowledge from the handful of apocryphal remarks attributed to Thales. Or even from Plato himself, who provided the first fully worked-out philosophical system in the West, as deep as it is broad, nourished from a rich and genuine thought different in many ways from our own. This is really beside the point, though; at stake is something much more serious. Gawain has before expressed himself vehemently against historicism. Like Descartes, he seems to 'dismiss the study of old texts as nothing more than a form of virtual travel'—I quote that legendary genealogist of ideas, Anthony Grafton—although unlike Descartes, G. would no doubt generously allow such an activity as a humanist's solipsistic hobby.

This is why there are so few chairs of intellectual history, and why our Arthur Lovejoys are all but extinct. Grafton himself charts the decline of this field, and its supercession by social history, in a fascinating article in the most recent Journal of the History of Ideas.

I myself fear that such an occupation is mere parasitism, a cowardly inability to think for oneself. This is the anxiety of the intellectual historian. What does it matter that X thought Y before Z; what, indeed, does it matter what X thought at all, if Z's solution was better? Why not cast off the relics of the past like so much dead scurf? Why study history? There are some hackneyed answers—'to avoid repeating the mistakes of our ancestors', 'so that we don't lose touch with our past', and so forth. This turned out to be a key question of the Enlightenment, too; then were fought battles for the inchoate science of history, most famously by Vico and Herder, eager to carve out a place for the humanist at the cultural table increasingly dominated by Newtonian natural scientists. What they wanted to show was that the human world was incomprehensible without a prior knowledge of its history and development. I don't think that they managed this. If I find the world incomprehensible, it's because of my total failure with economics, politics, and demotic psychology.

It all depends on what you want out of the study. Gawain writes quite competently about the role of taste and beauty in evolutionary development. And he's about to write another post on why discussions of taste are worthwhile. He's really putting himself out there, in his typically casual, philosophical manner. He wants to know what the truth is, about taste and beauty. So why bother reading the wrong?

I think my first answer is that to make progress, at least in matters which are not strictly empirical, one must acquire a heavy criticism and scepticism of the self. One must know not only one's own ideas, but also the components and implications of those ideas. I mentioned in one comment to Gawain's post that however nominalist we remain about universals—however un-Platonic we are—we instinctively revert to abstracts, just to make ourselves understood: we say 'truth', 'taste', 'exegesis', even 'idea' itself. Yet they remain black boxes, and we retain no understanding of how the elements of our notions interrelate. The histories of the words are revealing, but not enough. Reading Plato, on the other hand, we see these abstracts in their first and most influential forms; we are thus better equipped to handle them in more developed and complex situations.

Ultimately I share with Hobbes and Vico the conviction that the only interesting knowledge is that pertaining to human beings, and with Vaihinger and Cassirer the belief that the history of scientific metaphor is more revealing than the history of scientific knowledge. Birds and cavemen be damned, until you can tell me about me and my taste, an object formed quite as much by Plato, and by the English language, as by any biological processes.

06 June, 2006

Green Pastures

Near ever'thing 'bout The Green Pastures is funny, yes suh, mighty funny. In short, it's a retelling of famous Bible stories with a cast of rural black Southerners from the 1930s. Written by a white New Yorker. How could that go wrong? Leaving aside its marvelously wayward theology, the film gives us, c. 2006, a renewed English vernacular. The language of po' Louisiana Negroes shines not only in the rich and varied music of the speaking voices, but also in the expressions themselves, offbeat but so natural, an echo of an era now all but forgotten. George Reed's Sunday-school teacher explains to his young charges about the emptiness of the Beginning:
There wasn't nobody in New Orleans,
on account there was no New Orleans.

There wasn't nothing on Earth;
on occasion [of the] reason there wasn't no Earth.

This boy Cain was a mean rascal,
on account of 'cause he killed his brother.
We can expand the first and third phrases to 'on account of the fact that', but the second is more peculiar—and a googling turns up no appropriate hits. A troublesome boy in the class is told by Reed, 'Content yourself!', which has since become a favourite with Mrs. Roth and myself. A more subtle exchange occurs between De Lawd and Gabriel after the flood, standing on the Ark and looking out over the ruined Earth:
Lawd (smiling): Well, it's dead.

Gabriel (impassive): So I see.

Lawd (taken aback): Don't seem to set you up much.

As with the Rastafarian vernacular, listening to this speech awakens something older, a harmonic in the body, as if hearing Hendrix play All Along the Watchtower for the first time, or catching Bing Crosby duet with Rosemary Clooney on the familiar Brazil. Here, again, is that creative spirit, the beating anew of words and phrases on the linguistic anvil. I wasn't around in 1930s Louisiana, so I have no idea how accurate this rendition is; but it doesn't matter. Fictitious or genuine, this is a joyous, even a religious, presentation of the English language.

05 June, 2006

Space as reality

Paolo Soleri, Quaderno #2: Space as Reality (2003).

Paolo Soleri, one of my great pleasures, has always been one voussoir short of a soffit; so when we visited Arcosanti last year, I couldn't resist picking up one of his latest philosophical booklets from the gift-shop. Space as Reality, another nonsense-masterpiece in the grand tradition, was well worth eight bucks; his argument, if one can call it that, is that reality consists entirely of modulations ('geometries') of a spatial fabric, time being only an illusion. (Incidentally, Soleri includes a list of titles for his other Quaderni, which include 'Pretzel Architecture and Stilitas', 'Via Dolorosa-Via Deliziosa' and 'Nudes'.) Soleri's style makes great use of two classical nonsense techniques: bathos and superpleonasm—similar to what Beckett once called the 'comedy of exhaustive enumeration' (Proust, p. 92). The former can be seen in an opening invocation:
Take away space and you haven't got any moons.
Take away space and you haven't got any chopsticks.
The latter, meanwhile, is well demonstrated by this fantastical riff on the word 'geometry', perhaps my favourite passage in the whole pamphlet:
The apple broadcasts its particles into the air; the particles are geometries specific to the apple. The apple is a coherent, working assemblage of geometries. A nose intercepts some of the apples' geometries floating in the air. Some of the geometries of the nose's olfactory mucus (a whole repository of diverse geometries) lock in the apple's geometries (key and lock binding) and an incipient odor geometry is generated. The geometry is incipient, because other geometries convey the will-be-odor to the hypercomplex geometries of the brain and among them, to the geometries that are willing receptors of the incipient odor. "Apple!" says the brain. A sequel of geometries conveys the odor message to the geometries of the vocal chords [sic] and voila, the geometry of the air is stimulated into sounds, which are very specific geometries themselves.
Both bathos and superpleonasm have a deadening effect: the first from its too-sudden fall of register, the second from its relentless repetition. And so Space as Reality is essentially the comedy of deadness, of a language articulated so clumsily as to become, suddenly and then relentlessly, itself an object of our thought—and our disorientation at Soleri's prose, like a sweater with arms in the wrong places, makes us laugh. But offered also is a comedy of the spirit, in the form of neologism. If Cusanus could whimsically put posse and est together in possest, the unity of power and being in God, surely Soleri can offer us these, among a series of philosophical definitions crowning his pamphlet:
esthequity. Where beauty makes itself into esthetics via the brain's filtering and somehow carries on the burden of life's self-creation with equity.

Howness. The what, the why, the how, and the where (the when is a game of words) is a wrong sequence. Becoming is mute in the absence of Howness. Howness does not need whats and whys to be operational; in fact, in the absence of Howness, intellection is absent. The how needs only space. The how is space's cavorting.
Did you read that? The word was, yes, 'cavorting'. This literature is the rapt play of a language only half real, without any self-awareness. I realise the difficulty of convincing my readers of the value of such perfect nonsense, but— there is a freedom of the soul here, a total joy. Soleri has erected his futuristic arcologies like ziggurats in the Arizona desert, quite the hunter before the Lord, and he has created his own mythology, steeped in the doomsaying of 1960s ecology and city-planning. This particular brand of nonsense, then, is the nonsense of a superurban manifesto, a latterday mystery initiation, comparable to Dianetics or the Little Red Book. It promises worlds.

Above: an unannounced nonsense-diagram from Space as Reality. Soleri's original masterpiece, The City in the Image of Man (1973), a visionary work resurrecting the glassy ideals of an Antonio Sant'Elia, and published by no less than the MIT Press, will be the work that lasts, but these pamphlets are delightful ephemera, the disjecta membra of a mind that thinks it can get away with anything, now in the process of steady dissolution.

[Bonus: can anyone identify the painting used in the 'historically fit behavior' bubble, above? My guess is Sienese trecento-early quattrocento, but beyond that I haven't a clue.]

Update 27/02/07: I return to Arcosanti. And subsequently discover a very nice chap from there has a blog.

04 June, 2006

Conrad's library

Hampstead, London, must be the most beautiful place on earth; it's good to be home again. We seem to get limited wireless access in our flat, so I should be able to keep writing during the summer. During my time here, I'm going to take the opportunity to write about some of the obscurer reaches of my book-collection, which remains in the city. Some of these volumes will be accessible via abebooks.com, or a good university library, others beyond the reaches of a general search. I will use this post, permalinked at the right of the page, to index alphabetically all the entries I write for this series. Enjoy!


George Calder, ed. Auraicept Na N-Éces
Henry Carey, Chrononhotonthologos
Moses B. Cotsworth, The Rational Almanac
Daniel Defoe, The Consolidator
Max Ernst, La Femme 100 Têtes and Norman Rubington, Moonglow
Fulcanelli, Le Mystère des Cathédrales
'Stephen N. Palaeologus', Michael Neo Palaeologus his Grammar
Paolo Soleri, Quaderno #2: Space as Reality
Joshua Steele, Prosodia Rationalis
Boris Vian, Calcul Numérique de Dieu
Various, English etymological dictionaries
20th Century, Summer 1964: 'Alone'

To come, perhaps, some time in the future:

Masayuki Amano, "Live Jewels": General Survey of Fancy Carp (1968)
André Breton, ed. This Quarter: Surrealist Number (September 1932)
John Amos Comenius, Panglottia (1640s?)
Walter Hampson, The Original Clock Almanac (1930)
Magnus Hirschfeld, Sexual Anomalies and Perversions (c. 1936)

01 June, 2006

Forgotten men


Thus, a billboard outside a Baptist church near Woodbridge, VA, demonstrates what can be done with an ablaut. Are we humanists, I wonder, among the lost, the last, or indeed, the least?

Today we leave America, though not for the last time, as we return in August. Fittingly then, the last DVDs we watch before the plane are genuine Americana classics from the 30s, The Green Pastures, and three Busby Berkeley gems of 1933. These latter efforts are entirely forgettable for their plots; we adore only those showstopping choreographies, and Dick Powell's face, so wholesomely lascivious. (Or, as Mrs. Roth suggests, lasciviously wholesome.) Who could fail to enjoy Berkeley's human patterns, like those old abstract-geometric animations set to swing melodies, but enfleshed with the finest blondes of Hollywood, and bursting with that joyful communalism of the New Deal? Pictured below, a syntaxis of stills from the films, each top-down on a troupe of dancers, captured by me, with painstaking jiggery-pokery, for the delight of my readers.

They remind me of cell diagrams, meiosis and mitosis and all that, or Kircher's volcanic earth. Who knew you could have such fun with a top-down camera? Note the soldiers-as-eagle, centre, firing their rifles on all angles.

This is incantatory stuff, sowing happy oblivion in the minds of the Depressed, and in our minds too. One can almost forget the dissociation of his ideals, immersed in such fantasia. Even so, the realities of the time are made now and then quite apparent—Warren William, the director/producer character of Gold Diggers of 1933, tells his cast he wants marching, marching, and a music that's wailing, wailing, the cry of the Forgotten Man of the Depression, the lost, the last and the least. Meanwhile, the oddly Stockard Channingesque Ruby Keeler seems game for anything, with a knowing grin on her face as she taps her heart out, dolled up as pussy-cat, heathen Chinee or girl-next-door. American movies, despite their smatterings of sirens and tit-counts, seem to have lost the sex-appeal so evident in these pieces. Massed baigneuses with bizarre Art Nouveau hairstyles, frolicking by a waterfall? Massed violonistes with neon instruments and gigantic skirts, twirling in geometric unison? Shanghai Lil? Petting in the park—bad girl! It is impossible to resist.

Sometimes we need not subtlety, but spectacle; and these spectacles are so serene, waltzing and lilting, with strings repeating over and over a simple melody, and all pretense of reality quite defenestrated.

I will not be too sad to leave the States. The heat was becoming unbearable, as was the wasteland of strip-malls and construction-work. Glad, too, to be back where I belong, in the city of freemasonry and good beer, with my own Shanghai Lil. I hope, in the coming months, to approach still closer my journeymanship of the guild of humanists—meiosis, mitosis and all that—to join the hallowed ranks of the lost, the last and the least.