30 July, 2006

Illius me paenitet dux

Conrad and his friends went to the Great London Duck Race today, the first of a proposed annual event, where 20 or 30 thousand unsuspecting rubber ducks are released onto the currents of the Thames at Battersea. We stood around for 90 minutes in the mild swelter, sucking ice-lollies and listening to a torturous cocktail of anatine children's songs—I will leave the exact choices to the reader's fertile imagination—before the master of ceremonies, a Scotsman in an impalpably garish novelty-suit, announced that due to setting-up problems, the race would not start for another half hour. Most of the assembled punters—one walking a spry and noble greyhound, perfectly attenuated—got up and left, and we followed, exasperated, but jovial enough to entertain ourselves by imagining tomorrow's tabloid headlines: 'DUCKING AWFUL' was my first suggestion.

It was soon decided that tonight's dinner should be roast duck, preferably bloody. We had it and all, with shredded cucumbers and delicious hoisin sauce.

28 July, 2006

On the notation of speech

Joshua Steele, Prosodia Rationalis (1779, Olms reprint 1971).

George: You want me to roar?

Mossop: Well, of course we wish you to roar. All the great orators roar before commencing with their speeches. It is the way of things. Ah, Mr. Keanrick, from your Hamlet, please.

Keanrick: Hh-hm. (orates) OOOOoooohhhhh. . . To be or not to be.

Mossop: From your Julius Caesar.

Keanrick: OoooHHHHOOOOHHH. . . Friends, Romans, countrymen.

Rousseau was pretty influential when he claimed a musical origin for human speech in his essay on the topic, composed in the early 1760s. It is the ultimate Romantic fantasy, that man's logos was first forged in the fire of a heroic song of the passions.

Steele's Prosodia Rationalis was an oddity, turning the period English interest in prosody—metrical scansion, associated with textual criticism and the great dramatic tradition—towards the notation of music, towards the notion of speech as song. Steele discovered the sonic complexity of spoken language; where his opponent, Lord Monboddo (addressed not by name, but only as the author of The Origin and Progress of Language) sees only 'motion', Steele distinguishes sound (acute or grave), cadence (arsis or thesis, light or heavy), quantity (long or short), and quality (loud or soft) in each syllable. One of the subtlest aspects of Steele's book is his observation that speech does not exactly follow the 'chromatico-diatonic' scale of sung syllables, which land on distinct tones between grave (low) and acute (high). As he puts it, 'the melody of speech moves rapidly up or down by slides, wherein no graduated distinction of tones or semitones can be measured by the ear: nor does the voice (in our language) ever dwell distinctly, for any perceptible space of time, on any certain level or uniform tone, except the last tone on which the speaker ends or makes a pause.' An explanation of Steele's experimental method, for which he used a bass viol, can be found in Hunter Hatfield's introductory article on the text, written from the perspective of modern phonology.

As well as articulating the various phonic elements in a spoken syllable, Steele aims to transcribe these elements by analogy with musical staves: as Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffrey put it (Imagining Language, 1998—highly recommended for all lovers of unusual linguistics), 'a detailed visual system of notation designed to facilitate a poem’s accurate, aural realization in musical form'. Here we see an expanded representation of a line from Pope's Essay on Man:

The curved lines represent the accent or sliding pitch of the voice articulating each syllable, while the tails are variants on the standard symbols for semi-breve, minim and crotchet, denoting quantity. The tittles and bars by the tails stand for pauses and elongations of the note. The jagged lines at the bottom, finally, denote variations in quality, crescendi e smorzandi through the line. The one factor omitted from this diagram is cadence, and in fact Steele uses cadence instead of quality throughout the rest of the book, as more accurate, and more useful to denote emphasis in prose and verse. Here are two versions of what was already the most famous speech in the language:

Here the triangle denotes a stressed syllable (or pause in lieu of one), three dots a light or unstressed syllable, and two dots 'the lightest' syllable. The reader will also notice that Steele has simplified his elaborate arcs in favour of short strokes for accent. The second version here was inspired by watching a performance by David Garrick, who 'delivered [the soliloquy] with little or no distinction of piano and forte, but nearly uniform; something below the ordinary force, or, as a musician would say, sotto voce, or sempre poco piano'. One can easily reconstruct the sound of the voice from this notation, fitting together each aspect of the vocal timbre into a whole—and this was just Steele's intention, that 'the types of modern elocution may be transmitted to posterity as accurately as we have received the musical compositions of Corelli'. Several other passages are notated likewise, including the opening of Paradise Lost, and extracts from the Iliad and Butler's Hudibras.


Steele is largely forgotten now, of course. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907-21) is quite snide:
By what logic it can be contended that a system which leads to such “monstrosities” (the word is that of an admirer of Steele) as this is “masterly,” some readers, at any rate, will find it difficult to imagine. Either Steele’s scansions are justified by his principles or they are not. If they are, these principles are self-condemned; if they are not, the perpetrator of the scansions must have been a man of so loose a way of thinking that he cannot be taken into serious consideration. In either case, he cannot have had an ear; and a prosodist without an ear may surely be asked to “stand down.”
Míâòw! Rasula/McCaffrey and Hatfield are more complimentary, the former labelling the Prosodia Rationalis as 'the most ambitious attempt of its time', the latter concluding that 'Steele’s descriptions of intonation and notations are essentially accurate and functional', although ultimately 'a musical notation inherently suggests a certain structure to the tonal space of speech, which just does not seem to be present'. For Richard Bradford ('The Visual Poem in the Eighteenth Century', Visible Language 23.1), Steele points towards a very Modernist aesthetic of language as pure sound:
Steele’s concept of musical form in language has been drawn out beyond its status as an analogy, to the extent that the substance, the material, of language can present us with a sphere of appreciation quite separate from its meaning—wordless music.
Despite its neglect, Steele's example stuck, and his book is the first (and almost the most complex) of many descriptions of speech in terms of tones and music. George Saintsbury obsessively scanned classical English prose by arcane metrical feet in his 1912 History of English Prose Rhythm; Joyce used it in the composition of the 'Oxen of the Sun' chapter from Ulysses. I don't have a copy of that book to hand, but this mini-critique, a footnote in F. L. Lucas' 1955 Style, should give the reader some idea of the original:

John Millard's 1926 Grammar of Elocution explains to neophytes how to use rising or falling inflections (much the same as Steele's 'slides') to indicate emotion, for instance in the word 'yes':

Meanwhile, Lewis and Marguerite Shalett Herman's delightful 1943 Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors and Writers notates speech-patterns from around the world using musical notes, thus regressing from Steele's insight. Here's a Cockney:

The only phonic representation more complex than Steele that I've seen comes from David Crystal and Derek Davy's byzantinely dull 1969 Investigating English Style. Here they notate taped conversations, legal documents and television commercials using symbols for emphasis (the 'nuclear syllable' of each word, as well as stress-patterns between words), tone-type, pitch-range and pause-lengths, with marginal annotations for loudness, speed, tension and other paralinguistic effects—I rather enjoyed this passage, made macabre by visual dissection:


There is not, at the end of the day, a great deal of point in measuring the variables of spoken language, let alone in compiling a visual system for their notation. As the presidential debates of the last election demonstrated, we no longer live in an age where the orator is king. The spoken word no longer carries so much weight. And so we no longer dream of formulating on the page that intonation best able to persuade—the persuaders of today use psychology and sophisticated demographic calculations.

But reading Steele again reminds us how important speech once was, as a tool and as a token. It is a Romantic work, seeking the music in speech, but even more a pre-Romantic work, seeking in prosody what was sought so widely during that century, the rational. While the textual scholars tried to restore the perfect voice behind ancient texts—Steele attempted to preserve the sounds already on his lips. But where the Jews had preserved only orally the ruach informing their mysterious consonants, Steele was a man of his age, swiftly coming to value the written over the oral as more authentic, more secure, and so he was compelled to devise his system in ink, much to our benefit.

27 July, 2006

Middle Ages

I had a wander round the gallery of treasures at the British Library today, soaking the place with drool. I was at the Library because a wealthy American collector and philanthropist—a charming man, with a charming wife—is paying me to hunt through old auction catalogues for obscure manuscripts, as part of a general project to locate and catalogue every pre-1600 MS in the Western world. It's repetitive work, but at least I can daydream about buying ex-Ambrosian Bibles on finely miniatured vellum for 1l 10s 6d. A few weeks ago, he took me to an auction at Sotheby's—my first—where he was shifting units, and by units I mean lavish 1450s Histoires Universelles worth a quarter of a million apiece. It was an odd experience.


Gawain, my new old sparring partner, has been writing about middle age, a theme carefully interwoven with his frequent and generously illustrated discourses on Balinese dance. He wants to know, Why can't we adults stop being so serious and just fuck about occasionally? If youth is about war and competition, the agon in all seriousness, Gawain's middle age is relaxed and playful, contemplative and insouciant. I would like to think that even at my age, I can be all of these things. I use irony for the purpose.

My friend O taught me to see all things with contempt—the contempt of the devil's advocate, only half real, never accepting entirely, retaining instead a healthy sense of flippancy. It is a richer emotion than the contempt of youth for last season's fashions, almost a game of sincerities between interlocutors—akin to the Holmes/Moriarty problem—to what extent is one serious, or facetious? There is a great moral importance in this dismissive irony, greater than mere scepticism, for it allows one to be tragic and grandiose at the same time ("I bard myself with the vestments of maturity, so as to inure myself to the deadening crassness of youth"). It's a British trait, essentially, though it has lost currency now among so many Britons. Unlike American apathy or French ennui, our British flippancy helps to relieve the stifled anger which afflicts the young. O would sometimes be serious, and I learnt to reply, with irrefragable vehemence, You don't really believe any of that shit, do you? He would laugh delightedly. We both felt so free.


M expressed the fear tonight that he likes old books purely for the sake of their being old. He was comparing Browne's effervescent Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a roasting of the Plinian superstitions still prevalent in 1646, with a book owned by his brother on the wacky stuff modern Americans believe, you know, like engrams, or alien abductions, or Jews dying on crosses for our sins, that kind of thing. He favoured the former, but dismissed as trivial the latter; still he worried that his criterion was no more sophisticated than time-period. Put an idea into elaborate Renaissance prose, write it in a period typeface on yellowing paper, or even just take it back in time tout court, and it's automatically interesting. Would Chrononhotonthologos amuse to the extent that it does, were it written last year? Probably not. Why should a Histoire Universelle of the late Middle Ages appeal to me? The illuminations are cute, after all, but hardly Leonardo, and there are a zillion similar texts, written in similar hands, on similar paper. It's just old. M and I, at least in this respect, are still in thrall to a fetish of the aged, a secular remnant of the belief that the first men had immediate experience of the divine.

25 July, 2006

Astronomy 101

The Reflection of the Atmosphere does not seem to be the only Cause of the Twilight; but there is an Aetherial Air, or Atmosphere, likewise round the Sun, which shines after the Body of the Sun is set: This Orb of the Sun's Atmosphere rising sooner, and setting later than the Sun itself, shines out at Mornings and Nights in a circular Figure, it being a Segment of the Sun's Atmosphere cut by the Horizon; and its Light is quite of another Sort, than that which is made by the Reflection of our Atmosphere.

— John Keill, An Introduction to the True Astronomy: or, Astronomical Lectures Read in the Astronomical School of the University of Oxford (1769).

24 July, 2006

Why I love fashion

Minimalism, maximalism, shorts, ruffles, braces, cropped jackets — the trends for this spring are a nightmare. Not only are there more of them than ever, they all contradict each other. Just what, exactly, are we supposed to wear? The answer this time around is: whatever you want. Never has fashion been more about personal style, about what appeals to you.
— Tiffanie Darke, Sunday Times Style section, March 19, 2006.

How kind! On a more relevant note, posts at Language Log here and here, and at 2Blowhards, about prose style, Strunk and White, German intellectuals and architecture. Fascinating stuff. . .

21 July, 2006

Signs of Approaching Foul Weather

The hollow winds begin to blow;
The clouds look black, the glass is low;
The soot falls down, the spaniels sleep;
And spiders from their cobwebs peep.
Last night the sun went pale to bed;
The Moon in halos hid her head.
The boding shepherd heaves a sigh,
For, see, a rainbow spans the sky.
The walls are damp, the ditches smell,
Clos'd is the pink-ey'd pimpernell.
Hark! how the chairs and tables crack,
Old Betty's joints are on the rack:
Her corns with shooting pains torment her,
And to her bed untimely sent her.
Loud quack the ducks, the sea fowl cry,
The distant hills are looking nigh.
How restless are the snorting swine!
The busy flys disturb the kine.
Low o'er the grass the swallow wings,
The cricket too, how sharp he sings!
Puss on the hearth, with velvet paws,
Sits wiping o'er her whisker'd jaws.
The smoke from chimneys right ascends;
Then spreading, back to earth it bends,
The wind unsteady veers around,
Or settling in the South is found.
Through the clear stream the fishes rise,
And nimbly catch the incautious flies.
The glow worms num'rous, clear, and bright,
Illum'd the dewy hill last night.
At dusk the squalid toad was seen,
Like quadruped, stalk o'er the green.
The whirling wind the dust obeys,
And in the rapid eddy plays.
The frog has changed his yellow vest.
And in a russet coat is drest.
The sky is green, the air is still,
The mellow blackbird's noise is shrill.
The dog, so alter'd is his taste,
Quits mutton-bones, on grass to feast.
Behold the Rooks, how odd their flight,
They imitate the gliding kite,
And seem precipitate to fall,
As if they felt the piercing ball.
The tender colts on back do lie,
Nor heed the traveller passing by.
In fiery red the sun doth rise,
Then wades through clouds to mount the skies.
'Twill surely rain, we see't with sorrow,
No working in the fields to-morrow.

I found this poem scrawled in a leisurely copperplate on a sheet of Victorian notepaper, facing a page of meteorological observations. I bought the paper on the internet over a year ago, but I only got around to transcribing the verse in the last few days; it wasn't the greatest palaeographic task, although it did offer a few small challenges. I thought I had a genuine and unread piece of period folk doggerel on my hands, until a googling put my illusions in shatters. The poem turns out to have been written by Erasmus Darwin (who turned up in this old post of mine), and to have been already transcribed on the internet no fewer than three times, albeit from different sources. So much for the unique.

The verse seems to have been popular in Victorian 'everyday books'—printed collections of folk wisdom and information about the historical significance of each day of the year. Darwin's verse appears on the January 13 entry of William Hone's 1826 book, and on the March 13 entry of Robert Chambers' 1869 Book of Days, attributed to Edward Jenner (the website has 'Amer' as a misprint).

On a literary level, Darwin's verse is banal: merely a montage of rural images, rendered in a clunky doggerel peppered with awkward phrasings. It is an amphibious piece, bristling with half-hearted literary pretensions, yet hardly concealing its real nature as a collection of folk sayings. Its status as a repository of early modern wisdom literature explains its popularity. There is a limited and sceptical discussion of rural weather superstitions in Chambers' entry, and see also here; on this site, however, are many parallels to Darwin's verse (I edit to reduce confusion):
The halo sometimes seen round the moon is called the 'bor' or the 'burr', and when it is near the moon the rain is far—'Near bur. Far rain.'

When oxen low and midges bite
We all do know ‘twill rain to-night.

When dogs eat grass there will be rain.

When cattle lie much rain is expected.

When the smoke rises straight up from the chimney, it will be fine, but when smoke donks it will rain.

A coming storm your shooting corns presage
And aches will throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Carl Van Vechten's The Tiger in the House (1922), online here, explicitly compares Darwin's line about cats to passages from John Swan and Robert Herrick. As Vechten remarks, 'Cats in many quarters of the globe are held responsible for the weather; they are actually said to make it good or bad.' Darwin's verse is a composite of these sayings and epigrams. But being a composite, it loses the quality which defines the epigram: brevity, symmetry and balance. It is written in an iambic tetrameter, which lends itself to short lines with a heavy caesura, just like an epigrammatic couplet, such as this one by Goldsmith:
For he who fights / and runs away
May live to fight / another day.
The first line balances the second in sense, rhythm and rhyme, and the first and second halves (hemistichs) of each line also balance each other across the caesura: this gives the epigram its characteristic solidity, a self-completing whole. (In this case, as it happens, another couplet provides an additional layer of symmetry.) But in a longer verse like Darwin's, the metre flags and plods as a series of disjointed couplets, each balanced internally, but none overtly relating to the other:
The sky is green, / the air is still,
The mellow blackbird's / noise is shrill.
The dog, / so alter'd is his taste,
Quits mutton-bones, / on grass to feast.
There is a fluency neither of rhythm, nor of meaning—it is a paratactic, as opposed to a hypotactic style. Only twice (lines 12 and 42) is a couplet continuous in sense with the next, and each time divided by a strong pause. The images have no temporal relation with one another, except for an occasional reference to 'last night'. In fact, there seems no definite time-frame at all, as 'the sun doth rise' follows 'a rainbow spans the sky', as if the latter were at night; again, Betty's corns 'torment' her in the present tense, but 'sent' her to bed in the past tense, if only for the sake of a rhyme. It is a deadened style, evoking not the life of nature, but rather a series of views, without context, unable to progress or develop. What we are offered, in effect, is the same thing presented over and over again, using different metaphoric images, like a man struggling in vain to communicate.

That thing, overtly, is 'foul weather'. But in stitching together trite maxims into a poem, into a work of literary art, however clumsy, Darwin has opened his words to a new level of interpretation—one which works with symbol, metaphor, objective correlative. Darwin's foul weather, unlike that of the Lancashire proverbs, but like so many Victorian subjects, is a figure of death.

Taken as a whole, the poem's images are relentlessly morbid: hollow winds, black clouds, falling soot, the pale sun and the hidden moon, the sickly damp and the closed flower, arthritic 'Old Betty'—the word untimely going well with death—the swarm of flies, whiskered jaws, toad, dust, bones, rooks, the 'piercing ball' or bullet, the colts on their backs as if dead. According to the Bardo Thodol, smoke and glow-worms (fireflies, representing sparks) are two visions experienced at the moment of death. Here the glow-worms illuminate the dewy hill, perhaps one of those dark and distant hills that mercilessly 'look nigh' as the fowl kick up a fuss in the foreground. The smoke ascends and falls diffusely to the ground, like man returning to the earth. Like man, too, and like the manlike dust, the smoke is steered by the unsteady winds: compare the wrack of Odysseus' ship after his men release the three winds from his bag, or Ecclesiastes:
And this also is a sore evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind?
In fact, the behaviour of wind in this poem is pretty strange. Contrast:
1 / The hollow winds begin to blow
25 / The wind unsteady veers around
33 / The whirling wind the dust obeys
37 / The sky is green, the air is still
Line 37 seems contradictory, but it comes at the turn of the poem, well hidden, occupying lines 35-40. In this passage, everything is topsy-turvy: the frog changes colour, the sky is green (ever seen a green sky?), the air is suddenly still, the blackbird is mellow but his song shrill, and oddest of all, the dog stops chewing on his bones and begins eating grass—unnatural, and likely to lead to the mutt's malnourished demise. After the turn are two images in succession of animals feigning death. 'Signs of Foul Weather', then, describes the superstition and foreknowledge of approaching death; but not the fear of death. The rainbow and the rising red sun (triumphant over the night) are ancient symbols of regeneration and promise. The last note, however, is melancholic, with impending rain—the tears of the bereaved—and a solemn realisation that there will be 'no working in the fields to-morrow': nobody, that is, to work.

What we read into a passage, whether of prose or verse, cannot be dependent on an empty notion of authorial intention. It is dependent, rather, on axiom and instinct. The key principle of classical exegesis is to interrogate points of superficial ambiguity or conflict: here, the conflict between the epigram or proverb and longer verse, and the conflict between folk wisdom and 'high' literature. These tensions suggest that the objects left over from the old couplets have been invested, consciously or not, with a significance more appropriate to great poetry.

20 July, 2006


Apologies to my readers; Conrad has been on holiday in Bruges, Flanders, with his beloved wife. Not much to tell: it's a dull town for the most part. I enjoyed the excellent beer—the bruin house-draught at Cambrinus being my favourite—the linguistic oddity of Dutch (being the only European language not to call an orange an orange? No, apparently the Scandinavians also call it a Chinese apple), the odd art-installations and confession-box turned computer-station at one random church in the back streets, and the iconographic continuity of the chaliced serpent and standard-bearing lamb—Johns Evangelist and Baptist respectively—found throughout the paintings of the mediaeval Oud Sint-Jan Hospital, and constituting the logo of the new Sint-Jan Hospital.

Normal posting resumes tomorrow.

09 July, 2006

So as to prevent the scarf of liberty

Max Ernst, La Femme 100 Têtes (1929)
Norman Rubington, aka 'Akbar del Piombo', Moonglow (1969)

Like most modern artforms, collage was invented by Picasso in the early years of his century; but it was perhaps better suited, at least on a philosophical level, to the Surrealist vision—the sewing machine and umbrella together on the operating table, to use the old cliché, or the yoking together by violence of heterogeneous ideas, to use the still older cliché, or the mulier formosa superne, desinans in piscem, to use the oldest cliché of all. A short time after Picasso had finished glueing daily ephemera onto his canvases, Gertrude Stein began fricketing around with a collage of words in Tender Buttons, published in 1914, on the eve of the Collage to End All Collages. Thus was born, before the modernist aesthetic had a chance to breathe, the aesthetic of the postmodern—the celebration of the fragment and the fragmentary. Ultimately, Henry Miller's Black Spring, and Burroughs' Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine.

Black Spring was published by Jack Kahane's great avant-garde engine, the Obelisk Press, which also let filth by Anaïs Nin and Lawrence Durrell loose on the general public. Kahane's son, Maurice Girodias, founded an even more infamous press in 1953, the Olympia, notorious for publishing the first editions of Lolita and Naked Lunch. Its 'Travellers' Companion' series, with its distinctive forest-green covers, is a fount of surreal delights: my collection includes Paul Ableman's I Hear Voices, William Talsman's The Gaudy Image, J. Hume Parkinson's Sextet and Jett Sage's Crazy Wild Breaks Loose. In his introduction to the Olympia Reader, Girodias recalls that one of his closer cohorts was an American painter living in Paris—Norman Rubington—who translated Queneau's Zazie dans le Metro, as well as producing a riot of his own material. Girodias suggested the pen-name Akbar del Piombo for Rubington's several collage graphic-novels, including Fuzz Against Junk (1959—some illustrations here) and Moonglow (1969). (The credits for the latter in fact read, 'by OSP, ex-military computer (Orthophonic Syntax Pullulator) decoded by Akbar del Piombo with collages by Rubington.')

He took the style from an earlier series of works by Max Ernst, executed in the 20s, of which La Femme 100 Têtes was the first full example. Giornale Nuovo has two posts on the work. Like Picasso, Ernst was a restless innovator: not only did he do radical things with the collage technique, he also perfected the decalcomania of his friend Oscar Dominguez, and even preempted Pollock's drips in the mid-40s. He had been dabbling with single-image collages right from the start, but in La Femme and its more famous sequel, Une Semaine de Bonté, he ripped steel-engravings from Victorian texts and arranged them into disorienting fantasy tableaux. I own a German edition from 1962, square, white and plain, in a card slipcase.

her fiery smile will fall down from the hillsides
as black frost and white rust

and the butterflies begin to sing

accompanied by immaculate parasites, Santa Claus allows
himself to be controlled from afar by means of lateral appendages

the dovecote stands open to the slashed child

There is little obvious connection between the images. The hundred-headed woman of the title, really more of a cipher, is variously called Wirrwarr and Germinal. The other cipher-figure is Ernst's totem bird Loplop, in my edition called 'Der Vogelobre Hornebom'. Although the original is French, I prefer the German, its music harsher, more alien, a better fit for his images. Stuck in my mind for a long time is a bit of Germanic dada from Ernst's collage-painting The Hat Makes the Man (1920):
bedecktsamiger Stapel
mensch nacktsamiger wasserformer
("edelformer") Kleidsame nervatur
The thread and narrative of the sequence is in fact a series of motifs, from birds to various roundels to falling timbers to skeletons and popes. The more famous La Semaine, of which a Dover reprint is easily available, is divided into days corresponding to physical elements and visual motifs; its structure is simpler and less intuitive than La Femme, which in turn is more surprising and inventive. They correspond, in their own way, to the two automatic texts produced by Brèton and Soupault, Les Champs Magnétiques and La Conception Immaculée, the first being freeform and anarchic, the second segmented and systematised. I prefer the former in each case.

Moonglow is a much rougher work, clearly the product of an anti-authoritarian, youthful and narcotic 1960s, an effluvium of the Beat culture. The images tend to be less beautifully arranged than those in La Femme, and are often isolated on a white page, as the first two below. There is a loose story, utterly nonsensical, set in a nuclear fallout after WW3 has sent mankind underground, about a boy named Harry Moonglow whose body begins to change without end: 'on his twentieth birthday Harry graduated with honors, starred in high school production of '100 days in Sodom' . . acting was in his blood . . But something else was in it as well . . as Harry discovered one day in the bathroom. The face staring back in the mirror was not his own. Every time a muscle twitched, a new apparition occured [sic]. He saw in quick succession, Herbert Hoover, Al Capone, Groucho Marx, Batman, etc.' He is recruited as a spy by the CIA, but by the end of the book WW4 has broken out and a flood has covered the earth.

08 July, 2006

Strange Garden

He pretends to be clumsy and knocks the chess pieces over with the hem of his coat. He looks up at DEATH.

KNIGHT: I've forgotten how the pieces stood.

DEATH (laughs contentedly): But I have not forgotten. You can't get away that easily.

DEATH leans over the board and rearranges the pieces.
On October 16, 1987, in the small hours of the morning, a young Conrad Roth, barely turned six, was woken up with a start when his large world-map came off his bedroom wall with a crash. His world was, quite metaphorically, coming down. The panes were rattling and outside the trees were heaving ferociously. It turned out to be the Great Storm, the worst winds in British history. I don't have many memories of that time. But Hampstead Heath remembers: the Heath is like the mind for Freud, that never forgets, leaving always the sigils and markers of trauma, or the Dianetic engram, 'a mental image picture which is a recording of a time of physical pain and unconsciousness. It must by definition have impact or injury as part of its content'.

On October 16, 1987, Hampstead Heath acquired character, place made out of mere space: 54 trees were hurled to the ground, the woods devastated, as this plaque explains. Those who like the Heath, such as the Heath and Hampstead Society, praise its variety of flora and fauna, its lakes, its family accessibility, good airs, fine views, and the lavish estate of Kenwood. None of these much interests me. When I was 18 I would stay up all night writing, and go for a walk on the Heath at 6 AM to see the sun rise over the wooded glades at its heart. There would be only the joggers and the canambulists, and perhaps cottagers hiding invisibly just over the brow. I felt myself in myself, walled against the world, alone in the wilderness. It took me a long time to realise what I liked about the Heath. But now I understand that it is the trees, the ones standing, as in that copsed tumulus, barrow of Boadicea, and the ones fallen. To me they are the figures populating the wild, mostly blending in amongst themselves, but now and then isolated and gigantesque. (It is instinctive to find the erect figure of man in the tree. William of Conches (Dragmaticon Philosophiae 6.23.4) wrote that 'homo quasi arbor inversa. . . qui caput, quasi radicem, in aere, cuius spiritu vivit, exserit'—'man is like an inverted tree. . . who puts out his head, as if a root, into the air, by which he breathes'.) This post is a portrait of the fallen, of two who remain monuments without faces: overturned by the winds, and righted as if by the perfect memory and precise hand of Death at chess. The Heath is now structured by them, by 'the decay / Of that colossal wreck', like the structuring of one's memory as rooms in a mansion.

This tree is the most elegant of all, the tomb of a hamadryad—see her long dress, its taper and flounced hem—so statuesque, her back arched, as if in quiet nightmare, felled by a gale of passion and of unrequited love. I took Mrs. Roth, who back then was plain old Miss Phylax, to sit with me here, to watch the dawn come up, the first time I had shared my spot with another at such a time, and it was immeasurably romantic.

This tree is not the most elegant, but it is the most monumental, the splayed limbs and ligaments of an ettin, revealing underneath the sands of the Bagshot River. He retains his sword in his hand, but now he is rendered harmless, and children frolic on him. I imagine this tree also as Tyr's hand, bitten off in the jaws of Fenrir. The hamadryad has retained her posture, but this ettin is shorn and bruised, uprooted, one might even say unmoored. I too am without foundation on the earth ('Fidh, wood, is from. . . the word fundamentum, ie. foundation'), not yet part of the general hyle. I cannot remember the Storm, but I have these keepsakes that will not be subsumed into the clay and the sand, at least, not yet. They offer me hope that when I am buffeted down by the gales of age, I might leave my own marker, that will not be subsumed into the clay and the sand.

NB. This sign at the entrance to the hospital gardens at the Royal Free.

07 July, 2006

Ni ansa

George Calder, ed. Auraicept Na N-Éces (1917).

The history of grammar is probably most people's idea of Dullsville, PA. But it's one of those random byways I happen to find quite interesting, and know a little bit about—specifically, the history of grammars of Indo-European languages. The earliest extant work of this kind is a Sanskrit grammar dating back to about 500 BC, composed by the Indian scholar Panini, whose name now evokes little more than a popular Continental snack. There was a flurry of grammatical activity in the research centres of Alexandria and Byzantium around the third and second centuries BC, but little survives from this period. The earliest piece we have is a scrappy Greek grammar attributed to Dionysius of Thrace, which is available online here, and has been translated by Alan Kemp (Historiographica Linguistica 13.2/3 (1986), pp. 343-363). The two great Latin grammars, which would continue to be used throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were by Aelius Donatus (c. 350 AD, the teacher of Jerome) and Priscian (c. 500 AD at Constantinople). The former work was one of the very first texts printed by Gutenberg, while the latter, considerably more sophisticated, introduced the discussion of syntax for the first time. Vernacular grammars were a long time coming. The heroic Alberti produced a rough Italian piece in 1443, while Nebrija trotted out a Spanish one in 1503, and William Bullokar got around to the English in 1586.

Long before Alberti, however, was this bizarre treatise. The Auraicept, known in English as The Scholars' Primer, is a grammar of Middle Irish as well as a guide to the secret Ogham characters in use at the time—that time being an indefinite date between 650 and 1100 AD. (The always reliable Language Hat quoted me Hermann Moisl that it is 'early eighth to the eleventh century'; George Calder, however, notes its close dependence on 7th-century materials like Isidore and Maro Grammaticus, which admittedly doesn't prove very much.). The Wikipedia article attributes the work to a Longarad, though I've no idea where it gets this name from. George Calder lists four (semi-pseudonymous) authors: Cenn Faelad (d. 679), Ferchertne, Amergen and Fenius.

In many respects the Auraicept follows the Donatian tradition. It starts with letters, then goes onto words, gender and declension, parts of speech, and the accent. It is written in a catechistic style, with a question, followed by a retortive 'Not hard' (ni ansa), and then the answer.
To what is this a beginning? Not hard. To the selection that was selected in Gaelic since this is the beginning which was invented by Fenius after the coming of the school with languages from abroad, every obscure sound that existed in every speech and in every language was put into Gaelic so that for this reason it is more comprehensive than any language.
Notice Calder's wonderfully stiff translation, almost mediaeval in its rigidity; it faces the original Irish text. Also here is the striking assertion that Irish (Gaelic) is the perfect language because it incorporates the totality of other languages. Later it is said that Irish contains the best of each language, carefully distilled by Fenius at the time of the Tower of Babel—a precursor to the Enlightenment notion of the 'perfect language', and specifically to the experiments of Esperanto et al. This strand of Celtic linguistic mysticism would have a brief revival with the insane scribblings of Rowland Jones and L. D. Nelme in the 18th century. The Auraicept blossoms into a hierarchical symbolism of Babel around the number 72—which, as twice 36, already had significance in the sexagesimal post-Chaldaean numerological tradition, often abbreviated to 70, as for instance with the Septuagint, or the disciples sent forth by Christ (Luke 10.1)—and the number 72 was long associated with the number of races and languages on earth, for which see Hermann Weigand, ‘The Two and Seventy Languages of the World’, Germanic Review 17 (1942)—so we get this:
Query, what are the definite numbers of Nimrod's Tower? Not hard. Eight of them, to wit, 72 counsellors, 72 pupils, 72 races of men, 72 languages, the languages in his school, 72 peoples whose were those languages, and the races, 72 artificers to work at it, 72 building materials including lime, bitumen, earth, and cement in equal layers, 72 paces in width. . .
Languages become part of the edifice, like bricks in a whole. This is why the Auraicept goes onto say that according to different accounts, 'only nine materials were in the Tower, to wit, clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, acacias, flax thread, and bitumen', which correspond to 'noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition and interjection'. Which is only eight. Oops. I imagine clay and water to be the noun and the verb, solid and liquid, the two primary components; blood for the personal pronoun, flax thread for the conjunction and fiery bitumen the interjection. I don't know about the others. You'll notice that 'participle' is listed as one of the parts of speech; this follows the classical notion (see Varro 6.36) that words can be divided binomially according to whether they possess time (verbs), case (nouns, adjectives), both (participles) or neither (everything else—commonly divided into adverb, conjunction or preposition, and sometimes interjection).

Leaving aside the technicalities, there's a wonderfully romantic quality to this writing—the anchoring of the abstract in the concrete. The letter itself becomes a concrete quantity, thanks to a fanciful etymology from Priscian:
the letter [litera, expanded to legitera] is as a road for reading [legendi iter] inasmuch as it prepares a way for the reading:
Then a Gaelic equivalent is attempted, the word for 'letter' being gutta:
voice foundation [guth fotha], ie. foundation of the voice is that: or voice sent [guth fuiti], in respect that voices are sent through them: or voice ways [guth seta], in respect that they are ways of voices. . . or a voice place [guth aite], ie., they make a voice in place: or they vocalise [guthetait], ie. in respect that voice comes through them alone.
The process of etymologising here is not to find the true root (etymon) of the word, but as a sort of magic with words, a temurah, the notion being that all products of the same sounds are ultimately equivalent. And language is wood, too, for the Ogham is the Bethe Luis Nin, the tree alphabet, letters carved into bark. As Cassiodorus delights in reminding his reader, liber (book) is from liber, free, as the bark (liber) from the tree. And 'Fidh, wood, is from the word funo [φωνέω], I sound, or from the word fundamentum, ie. foundation. . . Now, as to fid, wood, good law is as its meaning, both artificial and natural'. Taebomnai or consonants are the sides of oaks, 'from the fact that material for the words is cut out of them'. Wood was the stuff of the universe for the Greeks, first xyle then hyle. I always wondered about that fact. The connection was made for me also by George Guess, who concocted a syllabary for the Cherokees in the 1810s, and who gave his native name to the Sequoyah tree. I wrote a poem about it once.
This general shaman tells heavens to the earth,
his red wood pricking the elements;
in his girth, in his height, in his signed barks,
in the light that sparks on his moss-lined trunk,
in his xylems and fluid phloetry, in ants patterning him,
in the galed twittering of branches,
most of all in pulp, paper—read wood—
this tree whispers encoded heavens to the earth.
The Irish literature of the early mediaeval period is a goldmine, full of strange linguistic adventures, such as the Hisperica Famina poems, written in bizarre macaronic Latin. The Auraicept is a product of that sensibility, overflowing with ideas, words, stories, a light in the dark, grammatic fantasy, a memory of religion and language made into new systems, and a fertile tributary in the river watering the immense gardens of Finnegans Wake.

Links and more further reading about the Auraicept here.

04 July, 2006

Sleep of Reason

Henry Carey, Chrononhotonthologos: the Most Tragical Tragedy That ever was Tragediz'd by any Company of Tragedians (1734) in Dramatick Works (1743, Olms reprint 1982).

I don't like drama. I like literature which is self-contained, complete, microcosmic. This is why my favourites are Joyce and Rabelais—the 'anatomies' described by Frye. I think of literature as private and intimate, even solipsistic. It's therefore understandable that drama should upset me: the writing is only ever half the work. The idea of performance as interpretation is blissfully exciting to some; horrific to me.

There are exceptions, though. Some drama, Beckett being the obvious example, tends towards solipsism, and this I generally find more palatable. I'll accept some Shakespeare, just because. Closet-drama, again, or plays for voices (eg. Under Milk Wood), have their merits. Finally, I enjoy burlesque farce, which brings the artifice of dramatic form close to the brink of meaninglessness. This is to be distinguished from bedroom farce, which is always excruciating, and also from satire, which is often disastered by its own sanctimony. While satire and bedroom farce are ancient, burlesque is principally a modernist (because nihilist) invention: I'm thinking of Jarry's Ubu plays, or Picasso's Desire Caught by the Tail. But the 18th century, for many the bête noire of English literature, saw some stones thrown in that direction. A masterpiece is William Blake's almost forgotten An Island in the Moon (1784), which contained the memorable verse:

Lo! the Bat with leathern wing,
Winking and blinking,
Winking and blinking,
Winking and blinking,
Like Dr Johnson.

High burlesque was in the prose of Sterne and Smollett (Historie and Adventures of an Atom, a work of condensed genius), but it had reached the theatre even before that. Fielding's farcical Tom Thumb, whose hero is swallowed by a cow at the finale, was a big hit in 1731, despite being not very good. Much better is Henry 'God Save the King' Carey's Chrononhotonthologos, produced in 1734 and reprinted for his Dramatick Works 11 years later. I discovered this work through a footnote in a Thomas Love Peacock's Melincourt—from which I also unearthed the intriguing Lord Monboddo, parodied as Sir Oran Haut-Ton—and have since discovered references to the play in Edward Lear and, er, Terry Pratchett.

There is a satirical element to Chrononhotonthologos, as the excellent Wikipedia article explains; but in the main it's an operoarious burlesque of post-Shakespearean dramatic bombast, with silly names and overwrought heroic couplets. The play's linguistic energy is most appealing; it has a brilliant first line:

Where left you Chrononhotonthologos?

Carey also has frequent fun with polyptoton, or the variation of word-forms:

Let the singing Singers
With vocal Voices, most vociferous,
In sweet Vociferation, out Vociferize
E'vn Sound itself.

Some Joycean nonce-portmanteau:

. . . all the magic Motion
Of Scene Deceptiovisive and Sublime.

The physiological comedy of Rabelais:

King. What ails the Queen?

Aldi. A sudden Diarrhaea's rapid Force,
So stimulates the Peristaltic Motion,
That she by far out-does her late Out-doing
And all conclude her Royal Life in Danger.

Scriblerian Bathos:

Day's Curtain's drawn, the Morn begins to rise,
And waking Nature rubs her sleepy Eyes:
The pretty little fleecy bleating Flocks,
In Baa's harmonious warble thro' the Rocks

There is even some yummy period slang:

Say she has got the Thorough-go-Nimble.

Whole Magazines of galli-potted Nostrums

Pity that you, who've served so long, so well,
Shou'd die a Virgin, and lead Apes in Hell.

Mrs. Roth and I have discussed staging it in Arizona; that'll almost certainly never happen. People just don't enjoy this kind of humour any more. But for me, the silliest works achieve maximum impact when read with the most seriousness; so I'll conclude this article with Carey's self-parodying verses on sleep and slumber. Aldiborontiphoscophornio says of his master, Chrononhotonthologos:

He sleeps supine amidst the Din of War:
And yet 'tis not definitively Sleep;
Rather a kind of Doze, a waking Slumber,
That sheds a Stupefaction o'er his Senses;
For now he nods and snores; anon he starts;
Then nods and snores again: If this be Sleep,
Tell me, ye Gods! what mortal Man's awake!

(Rigdum-Funnidos, another courtier, replies to such hifalution with his usual prosy humour: 'I say he sleeps Dog-Sleep'—for which see Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898): 'A pretended sleep. Dogs seem to sleep with 'one eye open'.') Is the king perhaps suffering from some sort of mild hypersomnia? However jocular, the courtier is asserting that all men suffer this condition, albeit metaphorically. For slumber, surely, is more sweet than toil. Is the play itself the fantastic nightmare of a half-awake king, just as Finnegans Wake reconstructs the dream of a publican?

¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La Vida es Sueňo

Carey reconstructs the classical Sleep as Mr. Somnus, with his 'sable plumes', the brother of Mors, children of Chaos and Erebus, and related also to Night, who 'gathers up her shades in sable shrouds'. But this is only for show: the sleep of Chrononhotonthologos is a modern sleep, a sleep of reason, as would be imminently illustrated by Goya. The king goes on to outlaw slumber, just as his courtier had given orders to fill the soldiers' baths with coffee:

Henceforth let no Man sleep, on Pain of Death:
Instead of Sleep, let pompous Pageantry
Keep all Mankind eternally awake.

As with the Lotophagi, so poetically described by Tennyson, sleep is intoxicating and dangerous, a sweet threat to the established order: order among men, order in drama, order of language and reason itself.

03 July, 2006


A typically long and lavish post from Gawain on the Bali Arts Festival. The geologist Jonathan Wonham on catastrophism and uniformitarianism in linguistics. John Emerson on Hans Reichenbach and the nature of time. An old post by the Eudaemonist on Rose Macaulay and literalism. Two excellent posts at Babelstone about the rules for long s and 18th-century slang. The Athanasius Kircher Society on the Collier classification of very small objects. Joe Kissel on aircraft-carriers made of ice, aka. Project Habakkuk. John Holbo at the Valve on Stephen Potter and Derrida.

01 July, 2006

The beast, the fog

20th Century, Summer 1964: 'Alone'.

A once-popular sociology journal (founded in 1877) with middlebrow academic pretensions; I found this issue in Henry Pordes' basement for only 3 quid. I bought it mainly for the cover, pictured below. But reading it on the bus back home made me quite glad I'd shelled out for it. I first noticed the ads. Even in the 60s, advertising editorial was a different world. The TLS assures prospective readers that its standards are high:
This does not—repeat not—mean that the Lit. Supp. will not on occasion censure a book, or even damn it, with all the critical fervour and talent at its command (which is considerable); but of this much you can be certain—it was well worth damning.
Meanwhile, Barclays Bank quotes Browning and uses language like 'the colour of dangers and alarums' and 'We cannot, alas, scatter these facilities with a fine, careless rapture'. How quaint! As for the articles, they just pile up, one after the other, about the bleak loneliness of modern life, some scientific, others emotional, with some charmingly trite poetry too ('I do not want to be consoled / because this grief is all I hold'), literary quotations, and cartoons without punchlines. The most interesting thing in the book is a piece by the Chicago journalist and scriptwriter Clancy Sigal about alienation among intellectuals.

Sigal's primary argument is that sensitive intellectual types, for whom he expresses the clearest contempt, shy away from human warmth and emotional interaction: 'He reacts with violence and repugnance, customarily in the form of amused indifference, to anybody who attempts in any but the most meaninglessly general terms to touch upon this nerve.' Sigal then lists possible reactions to personal vulnerability: "What's he on about? Looking for sympathy?" and so forth. The 'American response', as he terms it, is to seek generalised explanation for the individual's lament. He damns these reactions because in his view, intellectuals are the ones responsible for analysing the ills of themselves and of society as a whole; the intellectual is the 'doctor' to society, who is 'to help supply the general population — Them — with the mental arithmetic for mounting life-saving counter-attacks against the beast, the fog, the whatever-it-is that surrounds, envelops, and breaks us'. Sigal goes on to speak in rhetorical terms of what Joyce called the 'paralysis' of the civilised world, and particularly of those who count themselves radical: careerism, specialization, 'survivormanship', even the adoption of the language 'of the oppressors'. This, remember, is 1964, before the riots, but just after the Beats and their countercultural ilk, and in the wake of Leavis' critique of the situation in the academic humanities, which were moving, as they are today, towards intellectual ossification, directionless and underfunded in favour of the sciences. C. P. Snow (whom Leavis attacked without mercy) had famously decried the 'Two Cultures' in 1959: 'Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative.' All, it seems, were complaining of 'coldness'.

All this reflects that old debate about how humanistic studies can be justified in scientific terms; that uneasy and anti-romantic feeling that a scientific standard of value is the only valid one. Why, then, talk about emotions? Let's get on with the business at hand of finding truth. My dear friend M., a passionate and literate intellectual, gave up on the humanities in disgust; he felt that literary criticism was nothing but a mess of glorified value-judgements. What was the point of it? He has no interest in the emotional either, though he is open about his own feelings.

But is the intellectual really the 'doctor to society'? I think Sigal knows the heritage of that idea: all of the Greek philosophers considered their occupation essentially curative or therapeutic, from Plato through to Sextus Empiricus. Mens sana in corpore sano, as Juvenal put it. As for myself, though I try to make my family and my friends happy, I feel no responsibility for their happiness. And I labour under no delusions that my professional work will remotely aid the public weal. Sigal has in mind that ancient concept of a society in which all members play their part towards the whole. This might be true in economic terms, but has no longer any psychological or sociological meaning. Just as the printing press encouraged a dispersed readership over a clustered listenership, so the internet has made us alone in our unity. The 1960s saw the destruction of the street as a social unit, as friends and family were scattered in high-rise apartments; now I know neither the names nor the faces of my immediate neighbours. We have become, perhaps irrevocably, atomised.