30 November, 2006

The Unknown Object: Part II

. . . as I was saying, the pampered bourgeois like myself, with our overcostly educations and the guilt of privilege, have been separated from the processes of man and nature. This is why I admire a cultured man of the earth like Hank Heatly—with his keen interest in Linnaeus and Pliny the Elder—who can engage my attention on the subject of, say, tomatoes, despite my total lack of interest in tomatoes. He probably knows a lot already about winnowing; but perhaps he knows less about Homer. Either way, let us engage in some hypothetical dialogue.

The Winnowing-Fan.

The poet sang, as we have seen, that 'another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder'. The mystery of this passage was longwhiles augmented for me by my utter ignorance in the matter of winnowing-fans. What is a winnowing-fan? It took me a surprisingly long time to find out. The Greek word is αθηρηλοιγον (athereloigon)—an oracular periphrasis, literally meaning 'consumer of chaff', and attested only here. Later commentators unanimously identified the athereloigon as a ptuon, with the normal sense of 'shovel'. So now we turn to two exquisite articles by the great Jane Ellen Harrison (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1903 and 1904), in which are discussed, at great but untedious length, ancient methods of winnowing crops. This is one of the most well-known devices, still used today:

It is what the Greeks called a liknon, the Romans a vannum, the French a van, and the English a van, or later, fan. It is, in fact, the origin of our common 'fan'. It looks nothing like what we think of as a fan—but the connection is that both are used to create currents of air. The farmer puts the unsorted grain and chaff into the basket, and shakes it until the lighter chaff is propelled over the fan's lip, while the heavier grain remains inside. In a footnote, Harrison notes with relief that this process has not been lost to time:
Such fans are still in use to-day in Cambridge as baskets and are regularly imported. Mr. [Francis] Darwin's gardener. . . states that the 'fans' were in use for winnowing when he was a boy, but the art of winnowing with them is now only known to a few old men.

Darwin's gardener winnowing with a fan

Here we see the pampered bourgeois intellectuals of a century past, like us, fascinated with the lower orders as 'folk', innocent bearers of ancient truths and customs. There is a melancholy in Harrison's words—and a desperation to preserve, against the encroaching clarinets of modernity, and indeed modernism, the wisdom of Europe's rural past. For her the fan is a little fetish of this past, an object surviving all change and history, unknown, but promising knowledge, yet—an object to be a little worshipped. 'The word 'fan'', she writes, 'is a beautiful word of almost magical associations'. Nonetheless, she will fetishise the object further by re-christening it as a 'winnow-corb', so as to distinguish it from a modern fan. The OED only barely attests corb, listing it as an error for corf, meaning 'basket' in various specialised senses:
(WEBSTER 1828, followed by other Dictionaries, has Corb, either a misprint for Corf (omitted in W.), or perh. a local form in U.S. It is unknown in England.)
The OED does not cite Harrison—though perhaps we should contribute the reference. If American, it seems odd that Harrison would produce corb merely as an 'archaism'; we find the word used later in a 1922 article by the eminent Bostonian archaeologist Harriet Boyd-Hawes, clearly alluding to Harrison.

Harrison enshrines the object with its own obscure term, smelling of history; but more tellingly, her articles chiefly concern the mystical significance of the fan, conflated with a sacred cradle, as an emblem of Bacchus. (On this see also The Golden Bough, ch. 43.) And to develop on Harrison's theme we might throw stones into the Middle Ages, where the vannus would be called a capisterium, and attributed to St. Benedict as the symbol of a childhood miracle. You can see a rather crude carving of Benedict's fan on a mediaeval capital (taken from Pamela Z. Blum, 'The Saint Benedict Cycle on the Capitals of the Crypt at Saint-Denis', Gesta 1981):

The fan reappears, in a thoroughly secular form burlesquing the deus ex machina, in a story (#29) from Marguerite de Navarre's 1558 Heptameron, in which a near-caught lover is quickly stashed in a ceiling-loft, covered with a winnowing-fan (van). An 1894 illustration portrays the fan exactly in its modern form.


You've noticed something, haven't you? At the beginning of this post I noted that Homer's winnowing-fan, the athereloigon, which is really what you're interested in, was identified with the ptuon or shovel, whereas all this time I've been going on about the liknon or basket. Well spotted! But don't worry, we're getting there: Homer's fan will become more known yet.

Harrison discusses the ptuon as well. In fact, she provides more information about it than you could possibly want to know. Trust me. But she concludes, in the second of her two articles, that the ptuon looked a bit like this:

It doesn't work in the same way as the basket—the farmer strikes the mixed crops up into the air with the shovel, usually on a windy hill, and lets the wind separate the two substances for him, the chaff being blown farther away than the grain. It is this type of fan favoured by the Biblical writers of both testaments. Jeremiah 15.7: 'And I will fan them with a fan in the gates of the land', using a typically archaic reduplication—the Hebrew word is mizreh, which also appears in Isaiah 30.24, and derives from the root zrh, 'to scatter'. (Thanks to Simon, here.) The verb-form appears in Isaiah 41.16: 'Thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall carry them away'. It is obviously the ptuon that is meant here. The Greek, sadly, is not very helpful here—the LXX renders Jer 15.7, for instance, as 'diaspero autous en diaspora', 'I will scatter them in a scattering', preserving the reduplication but losing the physical object represented by mizreh. Jerome's Latin is excellent, however, rendering the object as ventilabrum ('wind-lip'), which is the usual translation of—you guessed it!—ptuon. We know this because ventilabrum is used to render ptuon in parallel passages of the New Testament, Mark 3.12 and Luke 3.17:
ου το πτύον εν τη χειρι αυτου

Cuius ventilabrum in manu sua

Whose fan is in his hand
The sense is that the wicked will be scattered in perdition like chaff blown away by the winnowing wind. From thence the winnowing-fan became a popular Christian motif, denoting the discernment of the good from the evil, a holy form of the two paths of the Pythagorical upsilon.

What of Homer, then? For Harrison, 'the prescribed planting of the oar in honour of Poseidon was a ritual replica of the planting of Demeter's shovel-fan', which can be gleaned from a passage in Theocritus:
. . . of her [Demeter], upon whose cornheap I pray I may yet again plant the great winnowing-fan [mega ptuon] while she stands smiling by with wheatsheaves and poppies in either hand.
A. D. Ure ('Boeotian Haloa', Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1949) provides a visual example of Dionysius with a ptuon instead of a liknon, from the fifth century BC:

The image is a little difficult to make out, but the god's implement can be seen extending diagonally downward from his right hand, terminating just below the pig's head to the right of the scene. Ure notes proudly that his fan is 'more oarlike' than any of the classical images in Harrison's article. A modern sculptor, Conrad Shawross, visualises the transformation in his own way:

Michael Glover, in a review for the Independent, called this piece 'perfectly delightful, perfectly useless—just as art should be'. How far we have come from Homer's world! Such a vacuous aestheticism would have been impossible, when the beauty of oar and fan derived from the harmony of form and function, and when the monumental beauty of the athereloigon derived from its sublime play with that harmony. Still, Homer's object has become increasingly less unknown to us, as we have unravelled its history.

But less unknown it shall become still. For Harrison notes another use for the ptuon—'with a very long handle it is employed for lifting bread out of an oven'—and here she footnotes—'the long-handled oven-shovel is known in English and Scotch dialect as a peel'. She remarks further that a modern folk-telling of the Odysseus story transforms the oar not into a fan but into a peel: 'the shift from the country to the town implement is very natural'. Today we best know the peel for its use in pizzerias, though only the best still use proper ovens. The object has been continually metamorphosed, thus, from the sea to the countryside to the town, remaining invariant in form—a homotopy. The ancient is present, atavistically, in the modern.

This is how we learn to cope with the unutterable and terrifying gulf of time extending ever backwards—how we make sense of a past increasingly remote, and increasingly unknown. With our objects we preserve some fragile sense that such a past was, after all, much the same as our familiar present, only rearranged a little, like our words, and like the atoms of our bodies. We retain, at the same time, the hope that we will not be lost to the future: that whatever progress the world might make, the forms of our objects and ourselves will always prevail.

Update: Hank responds, flattered and flattering. The post is well worth reading. Update #2: Languagehat links, kindly, as does Clusterflock, and John B. responds to both myself and Hank, elegantly bringing together several threads. I am honoured to have had such an impact.

Final thoughts on the unknown object here.

29 November, 2006


An intermission from The Unknown Object—the winnowing-fan next time, I promise!—as I thought this was worth writing about. I attended a preview screening of Mel 'I want his intestines on a stick' Gibson's latest offering, Apocalypto; with me was the Mesoamericanist Pretzel Bender and some members of her department. The film, with its goofy Greek title ('I reveal'), is Gibson's take on the culture of the Late Postclassic Mayans in the Yucatán Peninsula, just before the Spanish invaded (presumably set some time between 1510-1520). The dialogue is completely in Yukatek Maya—so I'm told, though it could be in Swahili for all I know.

At the beginning of the film, instead of the title, Mel quotes pop uber-historian Will Durant that 'A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within'. In other words, the Mayans were goners even before Hernández de Córdoba got there in 1517. The subtext, one suspects, is even less subtle: Goddamn, those barbarous heathens needed Christianity! And barbarous they are: Apocalypto is even more graphically brutal than The Passion. Over the course of 2 hours, various characters are stabbed, shot with an arrow through the mouth, phlebotomised, decapitated, raped, sacrificed, mauled by jaguar, slashed, dashed against rocks, poisoned, near-drowned in quicksand, stung by hornets, clubbed, axed and self-mutilated. One of my party, deeply horrified, described it as 'another snuff flick'. I liked it!

Spoiler warning: Plot details follow.

Basic narrative: peaceful village (of savage animal-hunters) is captured and taken to Chichen Itza to be sacrificed à l'Aztec—think cityfuls of extras baying for heads, jabbering drugged priests, lavish costumes and monumental sets—all completely incorrect, as the academic sneerers next to me proudly pointed out—taciturn hero escapes à la Tintin, and spends the rest of the film running from bloodhungry maniacs à la The Naked Prey.

Spoilers end here.

I know nothing about the history, of course, so its accuracy is unknown to me, and in any event irrelevant. My comrades were doubtful; I couldn't find the Yukatek woman to ask her if the language was authentic. It could hardly be denied, however, that it all seems very real—there's a real flair in the small details and facial expressions, and so much texture. The camera never shies away from the visceral, the sadistic Catholic gaze carried over from The Passion—the hero sheathed in mud, or live ants stuffed in an open wound, or the innumerable piercings and other grotesque ornaments on every face. The chief slaver has human jawbones for epaulettes, a cute touch. It is this unflinching quality, so absent from the usual pussy-hearted blockbusters, that transfixes and enthralls.

Apocalypto is an odd mixture: still firmly rooted in the heroes-and-villains gothicism of his early action-flicks, it also aims at High Art, with a Message. That message, however, is anyone's guess. Near the beginning of the film the village bard tells the assembled throng a fable of man's unconquerable greed, which will one day ruin the earth—this obviously describes the cynical greed of the sacrifice-hunters, but also suggests an anti-American comment, or even an anti-Semitic one, given Mel's notorious outbursts. The Jews, naturally, have always been lucre-mad usurers among men. Apparently Gibson has compared the Mayan practice of human sacrifice to 'sending guys off to Iraq for no reason', which is patently idiotic. So the (urban) Mayans are the evil Americans, right?

But wait. Remember Durant—the Mayans, a corrupt society, have set themselves up for a fall. A fall from the conquering Spaniards, that is. The idea is straight out of Flaubert's Salammbo, a novel about the baroque decadence and internal strife of the Carthaginians in the years before Roman conquest. Flaubert's language, itself proto-Decadent, with its thick description and sensuous metaphor, is something akin to the spectacular spectacular of Apocalypto—and his hindsight view of barbarians priming themselves for a fall is very close to Durant's statement. The problem is this: if we wanted to apply Gibson's picture of 1515 to the present day, what does it most closely resemble? Surely, the Americans invading the Middle East, a mess of violent insurgents. Which puts the Americans in the (positive) role of the Spaniards—God's men bringing salvation to the barbarians. This is brought out in the film's conclusion, which I won't spoil. Another historical analogy might be to the corrupt First Temple Jews carried off into Babylonian captivity—the stepped pyramids of Chichen Itza even suggesting the ziggurats of Babylon. But what sort of comment would that make? The whole thing is a mess, if indeed it is trying to make a Statement at all; it certainly sounds like it is.

Anyway, philosophical qualms aside, it's as good a mainstream picture as you're going to see these days, and if you can stomach copious quantities of graphic violence, I recommend it.

27 November, 2006

The Unknown Object: Part I

And there nigh is the Foss of Mennon that is all round; and it is one hundred cubits of largeness, and it is all full of gravel, shining bright, of the which men make fair verres and clear. . . And there is evermore great wind in that foss, that stirreth evermore the gravel, and maketh it trouble. And if any man do therein any manner metal, it turneth anon to glass. And the glass, that is made of that gravel, if it be done again into the gravel, it turneth anon into gravel as it was first. And therefore some men say, that it is a swallow of the gravelly sea.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1357-1371).
Anyone who has read Wolfgang Pehnt's textbook on Expressionist Architecture should understand that of all materials, glass is truly the most sublime. Long did I daydream upon that text of high aspect. It inspired me to purchase books by Bruno Taut and Paul Scheerbart, and to compose fragmentary epics. It is also the reason why, on a digression with D in rural Wales, bleak and brittle, I insisted that we visit the local glassworks at Rhayader. This was in the summer of 2002. At the time I was living in Bristol, which is renowned for its distinctive cobalt-blue glassware, and yet I'd never seen the inside of such a place, except the mecca of Murano, whose titivated confections have never said much to me. My father once brought me from some factory a small cylinder of perfect glass, flawlessly clear—a scytale, which with its drab perfection has captured my imagination more than a thousand particoloured glass reindeer or polyhedra. The sublimity of glass, I think, is a sublimity of the amorphous or polymorphous—of possibility. It is the sublimity of the sea of glass like unto crystal, and of that glass, verre, which we call poetry, vers. Such glass has a beauty of meaning. Too often is it wrought, as at Murano, into gaudy gewgaws and bibelots without function; thus is the beauty of meaning ruined for a prettiness of surfaces.


When we entered the establishment nobody was about. It was lunchtime, and this being the boondocks, security was hardly needed. We marched through the visitors' reception, into the works itself. What struck me first were all the strange tools. Strewn on the workspaces were objects of all shapes—puntils, shears, saws and blades, tagliols, jacks, blowpipes—not to mention the myriad machines and furnaces. I picked up a puntil, then still an unknown object, and examined it idly. D told me to put it back.

Soon the workers arrived back from lunch. They were very friendly, and all too keen to show us what they did. Unfortunately they had only started heating the main furnace, and it would be several days before they could demonstrate any actual glassblowing. Still, they readily offered up their tools for us to see. We talked about etymology as well: the gaffer explained to me that marver (the surface on which many operations are performed) has an Arabic derivation—in fact it is merely the French marbre, the surface originally being marble—and that the moil (OED sense 5, excess glass from a blown piece) derives from the Hebrew mohel, meaning the foreskin circumscribed from a nipper's todger in a bris. Of course, this is nonsense, and in any event the mohel is the chopper not the chopped, but there you have a striking spot of folk-etymology in the wild.


To an urbanised bourgeois like myself, all this is rather exotic. The objects that come into my world are fully made: they are, quite literally, fetishesfacticii. They are mostly complex and unintuitive. It is, I fear, one of the great blights of my social milieu that we have been shielded from the raw processes of man and nature, industry and agriculture. Civilised men of all ages have lamented the oppressive weight of civilisation, divisive and analytical—hence, I think, the perennial emotional appeal of Marxism—and I have no wish to participate naïvely in this tradition. Nonetheless I am fascinated at how one object might be mistaken for another, as a token of division among men.

My favourite image from the Odyssey, one of the few serious books I read as a child, has always been the prophecy of Teiresias, Book 11, lines 119-130 (repeated 23.270-275), here in Lang's translation:
But when thou hast slain the wooers in thy halls, whether by guile or openly with the sharp sword, then do thou go forth, taking a shapely oar, until thou comest to men that know naught of the sea and eat not of food mingled with salt, aye, and they know naught of ships with purple cheeks, or of shapely oars that are as wings unto ships. And I will tell thee a sign right manifest, which will not escape thee. When another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon.
Odysseus, the man of the sea, is to journey inland until he meets a man so ignorant of the sea that he confuses the hero's oar for a 'winnowing-fan'. The 3rd-century scholar Porphyry, who understood the Odyssey as an allegory for the progress of the soul from the material world toward unification with God, and who identified the sea with the Heraclitean flux of sensory objects, understood the prophecy, paradoxically, to concern Odysseus himself, who 'will not be freed from his labours until he has become completely free of the sea and wiped away his very experience of the sea and of matter, so that he thinks that an oar is a winnowing-fan in utter ignorance of the business of seafaring'. In other words, a man will not attain wisdom until he has utterly cast off all knowledge of the deceptive material world—what the Hindu would call maya.

What fascinated me was the symbolic substitution of one object for another, a beautiful trope. It is the pun, Joyce replacing crops with cropse to suggest the fertilisation of the dead; it is Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit, or swans reflecting as elephants. But more specifically, it meant a bringing of the sea into the land, as if shellbound wavespeech, the all-conquering march of the ocean. Odysseus is also requested by the ghost of his dead comrade Elpenor to give his body a proper burial, and to mark his grave with an oar of his ship. These are the oars that 'are as wings to ships'—a standard association, made by Vergil in reverse when he wrote of the remigium alarum, the 'oarage of the wings' of Daedalus. In this aspect, the oar appears not just as a marker, but as a communion of the sea with the land. Compare the sconce from which Thor was bade to drink by the magician Utgard-Loke:
When you drank from the horn, and thought that it diminished so little, then, by my troth, it was a great wonder, which I never could have deemed possible. One end of the horn stood in the sea, but that you did not see.
Thus appears the sea always, compressed into perfect images, chaotic and mischievous, always of two faces, amorphous, or polymorphous—the cleer Hyaline, the Glassie Sea / like unto crystal—an object endlessly unknown, but promising knowledge, yet.

Next time: on the 'winnowing-fan'.

24 November, 2006


In my inbox are urgent messages from Pellegrino Bixby, Hippocrates Sink, Elma Triplett and Melchor Prendergast—I soon realise that Thomas Pynchon has been spamming me again. In the streets the trees are smelling of semen, and the green fields are stinking of long-sown dung. I learn the word griggles, which the OED defines as 'Small apples left on the tree by the gatherer'—what a wealth of metaphoric possibility! I play online boggle, late into the night, and still, after so many weeks, have yet to find a better word than aubade, though I have found longer. Aaron Haspel writes a terrific post outlining a series of logic problems and the heuristics of George Polya. Meanwhile, Pretzel Bender forwards me an article from Science on mass data-collection. It turns out that a Finnish physicist, using data from 7 million telephone-calls, has been able to analyse social networking with unprecedented sophistication:
Van der Leij calls this the first large-scale, empirical confirmation of a theory, first proposed in 1973 by Mark Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford University in California, that "for keeping society connected, acquaintances are more important than close friends".
I staunchly have refused to maintain acquaintances, except where necessary, as in the workplace. Such an attitude is aided, in my case, by having a large number of close friends; still, perhaps Conrad is not 'doing his bit' for Society? The Finnish study showed that without the 'weakest links' in a community, 'the system shatters into islands'. Islands, I might suggest, like the Varieties—the vain dissemination of irrelevancies, among an élite joined only by a common love of the arcane and the recondite.

23 November, 2006

De Bry: Ypsilon

This post is a little addendum to Tuesday's post on the Pythagorean Y, mainly for completion's sake. Mr. H. of Giornale Nuovo was kind enough to supply me with the verses in German and Latin that accompany De Bry's illustration; I have reproduced and translated these below. My German is not great, and especially not my Early Modern German, but I've done my best. Credit to Raminagrobis for helping me a bit with the penultimate line of the Latin.

YPSILON ein Merckzeichen was /
___Deß weisen Manns Pythagoras.
Zweer Weg es zeigt / darauff die Jugendt /
___Stracks einher geht / der ein die Tugendt /
Der ander zeigt die Laster an /
___Hütt sich darfür ein jedermann.
Unnd lencke sich zur rechten Handt /
___So wirdt er weit unnd breit bekandt.

The Ypsilon was a symbol of the wise man Pythagoras. It shows a double path; after adolescence one path goes straight on, that of Virtue; the other leads to Vice, which everyone should therefore avoid. And one should keep to the right-hand path, as he knows it becomes wide and broad.

YPSILON humanae speciem depingere vitae
Creditur, ad dextram virtutis semita ducit,
Leua sed in vitium deflectit, & vltima meta
Praecipitat captos, tu dextrum corripe cornu,
Desidiam luxumque fuge, tibi certa paratur
Gloria nec turpis, nec inops exegeris aeuum,
Nam via virtutis licet illa angusta teratur,
Summa tamen conuexa, aditumque affectat olympo.

The Ypsilon is believed to depict a scheme of human life; the path of virtue leads to the right, but the left bends away in vice, and at the end hurls down the trapped traveller; you must seize the right horn, and flee idleness and excess—then, certainly, you will be rewarded with glory, and spend your life neither poor nor ugly, for although the way of virtue forms a narrow path, nevertheless the top is rounded, and aims at the entrance to heaven.
There are some curious conclusions to be made from these verses. The Latin is clearly heavily based on the pseudo-Vergilian epigram, although it has been rewritten. The last line, I think, deliberately recalls Vergil's Georgics, 4.562, on Augustus, 'viamque adfectat Olympo'. But more interestingly, the verses suggest that the De Bry image shown in the last post is backwards, like the Bade sketch. The central, straight ('Stracks') path should be on the right—the arms are the arms of valour, and the putto at the top is pointing upward to heaven; this path is also 'rounded' at the top. The other branch, which I think should be on the left, 'bends away' from the 'straight and narrow', and its putto is idly whiling away his time. The parrot seems to have little significance; as Mr. H. observes, 'there must be at least a dozen parrots scattered throughout [De Bry's] alphabet.'

21 November, 2006

The Garden of Forking Paths

This post takes as its genesis an epigram falsely attributed to Vergil through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Our earliest source for the poem is an eleventh-century manuscript, although the version I quote is taken from a modern edition of the Anthologia Latina:
Littera Pythagorae, discrimine secta bicorni,
Humanae vitae speciem praeferre videtur.
Nam via virtutis dextrum petit ardua callem
Difficilemque aditum primo spectantibus offert,
Sed requiem praebet fessis in vertice summo.
Molle ostentat iter via laeva, sed ultima meta
Praecipitat captos volvitque per aspera saxa.
Quisquis enim duros casus virtutis amore
Vicerit, ille sibi laudemque decusque parabit.
At qui desidiam luxumque sequetur inertem,
Dum fugit oppositos incauta mente labores,
Turpis inopsque simul miserabile transiget aevum.

A prose translation of a prosaic verse: The Pythagorean letter, divided into two horns, seems to present an image of human life. For the steep way of virtue, to the right, offers the viewer a difficult approach up a mountainside, but at the top it provides the weary with rest. The left way shows a pleasant journey, but at the end it hurls down the trapped traveller among rough rocks. For whoever has conquered hardship from his love of virtue will be rewarded with praise and honour. But he who follows a life of idle decadence, thoughtlessly skiving, will spend eternity [or, 'a lifetime'] poor, ugly and miserable.
This piece is about that very littera Pythagorae, the 'Pythagorean letter'.


Classical ethics has as its foundation the concept of free will, liber arbitrium; the quintessence of free will is an individual's choice between right and wrong. One of the key tasks of a moral teacher was to persuade his student that virtue, though difficult, was in the student's best interest in the long term. One finds this in Plato, for instance, all the time. Thus the path of virtue was portrayed as harsh or steep, and the primrose path of vice as easy and gentle.

The dualism of this choice, between vice and virtue, was traditionally symbolised by the left and right hands. The right hand, with which one fought and wrote, has always been positive in connotation; its counterpart the left, weak hand. If one surveys the words for 'left' and 'right' in European languages, one finds that the latter are groups of cognates—dexios, dexter, destra and diritto, dereche, direita, droit, rechte, right, deis—and the former mostly unrelated—laios, sinister, lasciato, izquierdo, linke, gauche, left, clé. This is because words for 'left', with their negative connotations, have undergone taboo-substitution from foreign sources; izquierdo, for instance, is Basque. To call someone gauche or sinister is to insult him—whereas to call him adroit or dextrous is high praise. It is no coincidence that right should have its two primary meanings, nor that left should come from a root meaning 'lame'. The moral dualism of the hands is not left linguistically implicit among the Greeks, but explicitly formulated; a passage in Aristotle (Metaphysics, I.5.985) describes a Pythagorean table of opposites (the formatting is mine)—
A different party in this same school says that the first principles are ten, named according to the following table:

finite and infinite,
even and odd,
one and many,
right and left,
male and female,
rest and motion,
straight and crooked,
light and darkness,
good and bad,
square and oblong.
At some point in Greek history, it was noticed that the capital upsilon—Y—looked like a path branching left and right. The comparison, like so much traditional material, was ascribed to the Pythagoreans, in accordance with the dualism just mentioned; our earliest source for it, however, is as late as the Roman poet Persius (Satires, 3.56). It is perhaps not surprising that the image would have more resonance among the Romans than among the Greeks. Symbols and sigla, and even entire texts, have a greater magic as they grow opaque—hence the preservation of a Greek mass among Latin-speakers, and a Latin mass among vernacular-speakers, hence even the deliberate archaism of the English Bible. The Y, imported into the Roman alphabet in the first century, was always an alien letter, used only to render Greek names. The Y is still called the 'Greek I' in the Romance languages, retaining its alterity in the modern alphabet, a symbol of something earlier, almost occult. Thus its efficacy as a moral totem: the less it is a letter, the more it is a symbol. (Compare the defamiliarisation of Roman letters to yield opaque modern symbols—&, £, ∫.)

Throughout late antiquity, the Y was an accepted symbol of pagan ethics, of the choice between the hard path of virtue (right) and the easy path of vice (left). Lactantius, for instance, criticises the Y, cited as standard idiom, for its implication that the rewards or punishments for a man's actions occur during his lifetime, and not after his death.


Two paths diverged in a yellow wood.

Servius' commentary on the Aeneid, written around 400 AD, finds the Y in the Golden Bough (a favourite motif of mine, see here and here):
novimus Pythagoram Samium vitam humanam divisisse in modum Y litterae, scilicet quod prima aetas incerta sit, quippe quae adhuc se nec vitiis nec virtutibus dedit; bivium autem Y litterae a iuventute incipere, quo tempore homines aut vitia, id est partem sinistram, aut virtutes, id est dexteram partem sequuntur.

We know that Pythagoras of Samos divided human life according to the letter Y, that is, because the first age is uncertain, as it is not yet given over either to vices or to virtues; however, the fork of the letter Y signifies the beginning of manhood, at which time men follow either vice (the left path) or virtue (the right path).

Servius' commentary on Aeneid 6.129-143, in a 1492 edition

This seems a rather far-fetched conflation—what on earth has the Bough to do with the littera Pythagorae? Perhaps it is not as outlandish as it first appears. Throughout the sixth book of the Aeneid, which contains the Bough, the theme of the Y is implicitly present. At lines 540-543, Aeneas finds his paths diverging in the underworld, left towards Dis and right towards Elysium, and it is at the entrance to the latter (line 636) that Aeneas plants the Bough. The goddess Hecate is present in the Bough's grove, in her Roman incarnation as Trivia—literally, 'she of three roads'—three roads that form an intersection looking much like the Y. But the Y as bough? We turn to Alfred Kallir's 1961 classic, Sign and Design: The Psychogenetic Source of the Alphabet. Kallir interprets the Y as a grander, more antique form of the V, a symbol of the outstretched arms and open vagina. (Incidentally, Pynchon's first novel, V., derives most of its symbolic content from Kallir.) The Y, furthermore, is a tree-symbol related to the Christian cross and the letter T:
Tree designs are subjected to gradual simplification. The roots, invisible in nature, disappear also in script; and to achieve greater expediency in writing, more and more lines which secured realistic representation vanish; eventually Y remains, on first sight, much more acceptable as replica of the arboreal prototype than the symmetrized cruciform Semitic character of our own letter T.
Meanwhile, Xensen and Curtis have observed (see comments) that the classical Roman Y has a curved form, much closer to the schematic tree. Below left is a calligraphic Y from a Quattrocento manuscript (by Bartolomeo Sanvito, according to Curtis), and, right, a modern typographical imitation of the monumental Roman Y, courtesy of Xensen:

Finally, the tree as a metaphor for division is a common enough trope, from the Tree of Porphyry to the tree-diagrams of modern linguistics. So in purely formal terms, Servius' reading of Vergil is not so bizarre after all. It was, furthermore, enormously influential: the reading would be repeated by Bernard Silvestris (c. 1150), Cristoforo Landino (1473), Josse Bade (1500), Jacobus Pontanus (1599) and John Boys (1660). Boys, a Royalist propagandist from York who composed the first English Aeneid commentary, expressed the Servian reading in these terms:

Boys was also the first Aeneid commentator to cite the pseudo-Vergilian epigram I quoted earlier—as he puts it, Vergil 'is the best expositor of his own sense'. He therefore quotes the first seven lines (his text is slightly different), and provides a doggerel translation:
Pythagoras his forked letter does
Of humane life a scheme to us propose;
For virtues path on the right hand doth lye,
An hard ascent presenting to the eye;
But on the top with rest the wearied are
Refresh'd : the broad way easier doth appear;
But from its summit the deluded fall
And (dash'd 'mongst rocks) finde there a funerall.

A. Are there any graphic representations of the littera?

M. There are. It was in the Renaissance that the cultural capital of the ancient world was fully revivified, both in text and in image. Raminagrobis tells me that a (reversed) woodcut of the Y crops up in Josse Bade's Sylvae Morales, and he's provided a photograph of a sketch of Bade's Y here. (Plato would have been none too happy about relying on an image of an image of an image of an image of an image of an image of an image of an image—but what the hell.) This, curiously, as well as having the branches reversed, is a lowercase letter (see comments, below). The next image I can locate is from Geoffroy Tory's 1529 Champ Fleury, a treatise on divine proportion and typography, on classical mythography and the mystical arts of language. It is a most arresting work, full of unexpected wealths: Rabelais would find in the work his escholier Limousin, l'escorcheur de Latin. A bibliophile's edition was produced in 1927 by the Grolier Club, designed by the legendary Bruce Rogers. You'll pay hundreds of dollars for a copy. In my possession is a Dover facsimile of it, though even that is rare. Tory treats each of the letters in turn, and the Y grec is penultimate. It is to be constructed thus: 'as broad at the head as it is high, & the foot is of the exact breadth of the foot of the said I [ie. its trunk]'. The letter was invented by Pythagoras, to represent the broad path of Pleasure, and the narrow path of Virtue. 'Vergil's' epigram is quoted. Then he offers an image of the Y, suggesting that the reader meditate upon it, as a buckler against evil:

From the left branch of the Y hang scimitar, scourge, rods, gibbet and fire—instruments of torture—from the right hang laurel wreath, palms, sceptre and crown. The moral paths are reproduced in typographic form, the left branch broad, the right branch narrow. Thus, with allegory, Tory generates the shape of the classic Roman serifed Y. Compare modern renderings, all of which have a narrow right branch:

Times New Roman, Palatino Linotype, Georgia

One might expect the Y to be a common image in the emblem-books so beloved of the age. A cursory perusal of the most important of these, Alciati's Emblemata, turned up many trees but no Y. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if there were no material here, and perhaps Mr. H. of Giornale Nuovo will come to our aid. In the meantime, this rather skewed and rococo version from the Giornale, by Theodor de Bry (1595):

The armaments of the left branch seem to symbolise military valour more than vice, while the meanings of parrot, fish and lobster remain obscure to me. Update: my further conclusions on this image here.


We find in the Pythagorean Y two things: an aesthetic delight in binaries or complementaries, and an ethical attempt to associate virtue with hardship—and it is only by making virtue difficult that the professional moralist asserts his central value in society. If it were acceptable to follow the road of delights and pleasure, what need would a man have for authority?

Modern structuralism, with its rage for order, embraces the dualisms embodied in the Y; post-structuralism, with its love of playful chaos, seeks to expose or invent the instability implicit in such images. Thus the structuralist focuses on aesthetic delight, the post-structuralist on the manipulation of authority. These systems of thought, like the Y itself, diverge irrevocably; but which among us are headed for vice, and which for virtue? Myself, I am left-handed. Our age has quieted its superstition on the matter. Riddled with half-digested Eastern tropes and characters, we are inclined to speak of truth as a harmony of opposites: of left and right, odd and even, finite and infinite, light and darkness. We talk of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Has the three conquered the two? Or is the three truly the one, duality resolved in unity? Have we come to understand the Y as turned on its head—wisdom and virtue not as discernment, as the sorting of wheat from chaff, but as a holism, a confluence of diverse paths?

[Update 15/02/09: For those who read Turkish—not me, I'm afraid—C. Cengiz Çevik has a post on the Pythagorean Y on his own blog.]

17 November, 2006

Going. . . going. . .

As a contribution to the Library of Saint Victor (Pantagruel, ch. 7), or else to the Musæum Clausum of Sir Thomas Browne—two genuine items discovered in 19th-century auction catalogues, by me, as part of my professional bibliographic work.

1. Sermones eximii doctoris Dunckelspückel (MS, c. 1350).

2. Al Bistami ('Abd Ar Rahman). Al Fawa'ih ul miskiyya fi 'l fawatihi l Makkiyya. The Shedding of Musky Odours on the Meccan Gates. A Mystico-Religious Work (Constantinople, 1584).

15 November, 2006

The filthy Eucharist

Humbert. . . may well have felt that both the Greeks and Berengar could be countered once and for all by a clear, bold and strongly worded insistence on the real, physical presence of the risen Lord in the Eucharist.

. . . Berengar threw the logical conclusions of Humbert's statement in his opponent's faces. Are we to believe, Berengar smirked, that "little chunks" of Christ's Body would be spread about on all the altars in Europe to be savaged by the faithful? Does this mean a little more Jesus is made each day as thousands of Masses are being said?

. . . Guitmund agreed that the verb, attero, to crush, can mean just to touch, or to press, really hard. Since both Thomas and the holy women touched the risen Lord, albeit lightly, surely there is no indignation involved in Humbert's assertion that the Body of Christ is touched very hard by the teeth of the faithful. Besides, teeth are cleaner than hands. Just think, Guitmund mused, of all the filthy things you touch with your hands that you would not dare to put in your mouth. Even Guitmund must have sensed that this line of thought was becoming (literally and figuratively) a bit messy, so he then asserted that even if the Body of Christ were divided by teeth or hands, no indignity would result.

— Gary Macy, 'The Theological Fate of Berengar's Oath of 1059: Interpreting a Blunder Become Tradition' (1983)

A second teaching associated with Berengar early on in the dispute concerning the Eucharist was stercoranism, that is, the belief that the Body and Blood of the Lord are eaten, descend into the stomach and are subject to digestion, and finally, as the name of the teaching suggests, undergo defecation.

. . . Guitmund also accused Berengar of teaching that the Body and Blood of the Lord descend into the stomachs of mice or other animals. Guitmund went on to respond as well to those who claimed to have seen animals eat the consecrated species, and then later to have found the remains in their bodies. . . The question of what the church mouse eats if it gets its little paws on the reserved species would remain a bedeviling and fascinating question for medieval theologians.

— Gary Macy, 'Berengar's Legacy as Heresiarch' (1990)

The officiating priest was required to swallow the remaining contents of the chalice, flies and all if need be, and to ensure that not a crumb of the consecrated wafer was left behind. . . Medieval stories relate how the Host was profanely employed to put out fires, to cure swine fever, to fertilise the fields, and to encourage bees to make honey.

— Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971)

13 November, 2006

Eumpina translata

I came across this poem by Ausonius while hunting through a 1674 Anthologia Latina for a pseudo-Vergilian epigram on the Pythagorean Y—it turned out to be absent from this edition, though I eventually found it. Still, this silly little fable was a good discovery, I think. I'm going to give you my translation of it at the end of this post—if you're not interested in all the preparatory material, feel free to skip it.

Ausonius (310-395) was from Bordeaux—he wrote much of local interest, such as poems about the Moselle, and about the local grammarians. His verse, like much verse of his century, was rather baroque, and a bit odd. For instance, one of his poems ends every line on a monosyllable—a somewhat Oulipian feat in Latin. In another of his works, he stitches Vergilian hemistichs into a naughty epithalamion—Raminagrobis translates a bit of it here. (This bizarre technique, known as the cento, was popular in the fourth century; Faltonia produced a Life of Christ by the same method, turning the Golden Bough into the Tree of Knowledge.) Anyway, the present epigram (no. 10) is more straightforward; it has been labelled above 'On the poison-crafting adulteress', but elsewhere 'On the adulteress Eumpina', or for Scaliger 'Eunapia', and it is about a cuckolding wife who poisons her husband. The Latin text:
Toxica Zelotypo dedit uxor moecha marito:
Nec satis ad mortem credidit esse datum:
Miscuit argenti lethalia pondera vivi,
Cogeret ut celerem vis geminata necem.
Dividat haec siquis, faciunt discreta venenum:
Antidotum sumet, qui sociata bibet.
Ergo inter sese dum noxia pocula certant,
Cessit lethalis noxa salutiferae.
Protinus & vacuos alvi petiere recessus,
Lubrica dejectis qua via nota cibis.
Quam pia cura Deum! prodest crudelior uxor,
Est quam fata volunt, bina venena juvant.
The poem actually functions as a syllogism in Barbara: the minor premise is given first—the wife poisons her husband twice—then the major premise, which is that two poisons always neutralise each other—then the conclusion, marked by the word ergo. Some difficulties with the Latin: that irritating Vergilian petiere for petierunt, which always throws me, and the genitive plural Deorum contracted as Deum. The spelling lethalis is not classical, and should be letalis. There are some nice plays, however; for instance, the mercury or 'living silver' (to give the true meaning of 'quick' in quicksilver) turns out to be that which brings life, and the lethal division of the two substances seems to mirror the social division of the married couple. I haven't read a German translation of this poem, but they have the excellent opportunity to play on datum, as Gift in their language means 'poison'.

The poem seems to have been popular during the Renaissance. Henry Peacham included it in his 1638 Valley of Varietie to illustrate the argument that every cloud has [thanks to God] a silver lining:

Thus, he concludes, 'one poison expels and prevailes against another'. Peacham's text, we note, is slightly different. Leaving aside the ligatured cessit, and the rewired punctuation (especially in the penultimate line), he 1. substitutes congerat for cogeret—the two words mean much the same—2. et for est, and 3. cum for quam. The modern recension, incidentally, from which I translate, prefers the Anthology's cogeret and Peacham's et and cum. In addition to Peacham, Robert Burton (Anatomy, cites the epigram for its (supposed) moral, and Dryden cites it in defence of a plot-device. We should hardly be surprised, therefore, that it was translated in this most Ausonian of centuries, by the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace. Here's his version:
Her jealous husband an adultresse gave
Cold poysons, too weak she thought for's grave;
A fatal dose of quicksilver then she
Mingles to hast his double destinie;
Now whilst within themselves they are at strife,
The deadly potion yields to that of life,
And straight from th' hollow stomack both retreat
To th' slippery pipes known to digested meat.
Strange care o' th' gods the murth'resse doth avail!
So, when fates please, ev'n double poysons heal.
Lovelace omits lines 5-6 here; otherwise the rendering is pretty literal, and in fact quite good, although the penultimate line is a bit weak. So, you want my attempt? Well, here goes:
A wife, promiscuous, gives her spouse—the jealous type—
a venom she later fears not strong enough to kill.
Then she ponders, and mixes quicksilver, so lively
lethal, as one to quicken death, to dumb him, and to still.
While separate, each potion as poison keeps its oath—
he has himself an antidote, a cure, who drinks them both.
And ergo, as the noxious pottles wrestle in his gut,
the lethal turns salubrious, the venom is outshut,
and both are valved and voided, from his bowels receding
to those lubricious chutes well-worn with well-digested feeding.

How mindful the gods, that make boon of so cruel a wife—
since the fates intend that venoms, twinned, comprise not death, but life.

09 November, 2006

The Modern Word

2006 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for literature—first Gilbert Sorrentino died, now Pynchon is coming out with his first novel in 10 years.

Pynchon's hermetic mystique is not what it once was, with his two Simpsons cameos and the various blurbs he's shilled—liner-notes for indie-rock bands, the preface for a glossy new 1984, and now his rather silly summary of the forthcoming blockbuster. But of course, people are still talking excitedly about Against the Day. You'd think the Beatles were releasing new material.

I've been flipping through some old Pynchon novels of late, trying to get myself back into the mood. They were a natural progression for me when I got into Joyce as a teenager, and easy to appreciate. But, perhaps, unlike Joyce, difficult to love. The connection is readily apparent, I think—even the bibliobole on the Penguin Gravity's Rainbow calls it 'a work as exhaustively significant to the second half of the twentieth century as Joyce's Ulysses was to the first'. But then, there's no cause for surprise: much of the 'high' American fiction of the last 50 years has been in conscious competition with the old bastard. Alexander Theroux's dazzling Darconville's Cat was of the old school, classicist, with a Trappist education in place of a Jesuit one. Mailer put his oar in with the mediocre Ancient Evenings—though his much greater success was with the gonzo / beatish Why Are We In Vietnam? Bellow strung out the picaresque strain in Ulysses with Augie March, though again, his masterpiece was Henderson, its magnificence unborrowed. Pynchon's aemulatio was more of its period—the period of Catch-22, Vonnegut, Burroughs, Barth, Gaddis, Gass. You can smell Joyce all over Pynchon: the ballads, the syntax, the high brought low, the totemic symbolism, the elaborate names, the lists, the compressed surrealism (compare 'Circe')—even the band-pass filter diagram from V. is obviously inspired by the Wake's use of Euclid 1.1. But he's his own writer, too, 1960s America thru and thru, with a private vocabulary of reference, the clamoring of jazz and movies and street slang and the Navy and engineerspeak and a history that starts pointedly after Joyce's death with the Second World War. That's why Pynchon is so admired, beyond his obvious talent—in him Americans have a native Joyce, not just a borrowed one.


Three years ago I was in Cape Cod with my bellamy D; we were staying in the Red Mill Motel, out on the highway, miles from anywhere. It was a wet and desolate September. The only restaurant nearby was a family-owned joint with delicious seafood and the sort of waitresses you get in nowheresville, where pretty local girls have nothing better to do. It was there that I first heard the word quahog. One evening we walked along the shingle beach in the cold rain, all the way to the end; there, beyond all the helmet crabshells, capless bottles and kelp, was an observation deck looking out into the Atlantic. The wind was mordant, and a sign prohibited climbing. Naturally, we climbed anyway. Nobody was about, except the gulls. The hole in the platform was barely big enough to squeeze through, and the steel was gelid—the gales rushing into the ocean constantly threatened to push us over—but it had to be done, and we were fortified by the shared recklessness, both in ourselves, and between each other. You feel the clutch of a human faith in such circumstances.


Pynchon's first effort, V., was a dry run for his historical imagination. I don't see it as my job to tell you what the book's like on this blog; there's plenty of internet opportunity for that sort of thing. But to put it briefly, V. isn't bad, and shows occasional glimpses of that perfect prose Pynchon would hone a decade later. The first revelation is early: he begins to relieve himself of his signatures, such as the adverbial adjective—
watching snow-shrouds flap silent against the big windows
I have a fondness for this device, which tends towards the static and the heavy; it is also common in Latin. Then there's the suppressed question-mark, as far as I know a Pynchonian peculiarity:
"What are you shivering for. It's warm enough in here."
And the associative vocabulary, here warm being suggested by worn:
she shivered, a discreet foot of worn bench between them
Note also in this sentence a very loose semantic connection between the two cola, a modernist trait, although its genesis is as early as the anti-Ciceronian seventeenth century. A stylistic ambivalence is evident also in a sentence such as:
The engine thumped and labored down below, they could feel it through their buttocks, but neither could think of anything to say.
The first and second cola are in a loose, Attic, asyndetic relation—they could be separate sentences—whereas the second and third have a formal, periodic relation introduced by the connective but. These are flashes, but then Pynchon gives us a flawless paragraph, the entire world in four sentences, unequal but balanced, consummately:
Snow falling lazy on the water made 11 P.M. look like twilight or an eclipse. Overhead every few seconds a horn sounded off to warn away anything on collision course. But yet as if there were nothing in this roads after all but ships, untenanted, inanimate, making noises at each other which meant nothing more than the turbulence of the screws or the snow-hiss on the water. And Profane all alone in it.
There's the adverbial adjective in the first sentence, and the formal ambivalence in the third, taken to a perfection of subtlety. There is so much going on in that third sentence! It is a perversion of form: the 'original' being something like this, a line of verse—
As if there were nothing in this roads but ships
making noises at each other.
At the sentence's heart is a double caesura, both negatives—and 'inanimate' is one of Pynchon's favourite words, here echoing 'untenanted' both in sound and sense, but a little softer. Note also the ungrammatical 'this roads', which recalls an earlier conflation of many streets into 'one Street'. How many would dare to ruin a line of poetry with such a glaring but pregnant solecism? But Pynchon has also allowed the line to be prose: to this end he has employed a vernacular American copia, inserting 'But yet' and 'after all', and running on the last clause without punctuation for a further 17 words. And that's only the music of the sentence, to say nothing of its content. There is no main verb here—you expect, 'as if X, Y', but there is no Y, only a series of nested subclauses. This again repeats the 'broken-sentence' paradigm of Ulysses, and see also my remarks on Amanda Ros.

There is an Aggadic tradition from around the 4th century that Isaac, at the moment Abraham was about to sacrifice him on Moriah, saw the antechambers of the Throne. For the working mystic, having the vision and passing through the chambers one by one, is terrible and complex. The angels at the doorways will try to con you, threaten you, play all manner of cruel practical jokes, to turn you aside.

Gravity's Rainbow (1975)
There is something alchemical in Pynchon's ability to incorporate this heterogeneous material in a narrative voice at once Protean and reassuringly of a piece. The digression on Isaac is one voussoir in the soffit of the book's covenantal theme. Here he is brought into alignment with another theme, that of devotional mysticism—Jacob's ladder, for instance, or the sefirot. The 'angels' confronted by the mystic are also the temptations of Christ—typed either by Abraham's surrogate ram, or in a perverse sort of way by Isaac himself, who carries his own deathwood up Golgotha—and the demon assessors of the Book of the Dead, against whom spells are to be continually recited. The angels are also Pynchon himself, who stands at the doorways of his own text, against the reader passing through the chambers of each chapter, trying to con him with all manner of cruel practical jokes.


I think that Pynchon is something of a ladder to be climbed, up onto an observation deck overlooking the wild Atlantic. To lose oneself in his chambers is not comforting, not enriching, not warm—there is the nausea and vertigo of great height, a fortifying climate of recklessness. There is never any Platonic sort of truth to be had—an idea satirised in the image of Byron the immortal lightbulb discovered in one delicious subplot—only the loneliness of endless expanse.

I'll read Against the Day, and perhaps even blog about it. I'll read it backwards, I think, paragraph by paragraph, labouring up Golgotha, so as to remain confused, and to remain also in awe.

07 November, 2006

The problem of Magritte

Le Dormeur Téméraire, 1928

Above is, nominally, a painting. It certainly consists of coloured pigments applied to a canvas. But, really, it is a painting for people who don't like art. What is marginally curious about it is that it amounts to a collection of bland Freudian symbols painted blandly, symbols that have meaning only in context, removed from context—it is both ugly and defiantly meaningless. It is painting as text—a very dull text, without Magritte's usual puns. Why would anyone paint an image like that? A smile is brought to my lips, for the very fact of the question.

L'Assassin Menacé, 1926

Now this one is just as ugly, but much more interesting. Its ugliness, which is quite typical of the artist's work, is here transformed into a reflective surface, a contempt for 'painterliness'. You can read on the internet myriad accounts of the narrative represented here, taken from one of the Fantômas films, but there's not much point doing so. Its implication of narrative, I think, benefits from the complete implausibility, and even meaninglessness, of that narrative. There is simultaneously a realism—no floating bowlers or giant tubas—and an unrealism, a vacuity of detail or roughness, a purely stereotyped figuration. The blank rebuttal of this image I find almost heartbreaking. Go on, it says—interpret me. See? You can't. But you could reduce the image to a description, an ekphrasis, pretty well. Tom Stoppard, my old nemesis, did a play of it.


Absorbingly inhuman is the desire to paint such meticulous anti-paintings as these. I do not derive a scintilla of pleasure from them. The minute I saw L'Assassin I wanted to write an epic, as if there were some sort of potency lurking in the recesses of its cold blandness. I ended up with a fragmentary epyllion. These paintings will have to take the place of my first exposure to art, aged 8—one of Chagall's green fiddlers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—which I have forgotten, nevertheless the episode lives on in the family memory.

It may be an awakening to the algidity of this material that prompted my drift away from modernist art—towards the warmer climes of the Renaissance, so intricately real, and so sumptuously unreal. Those were paintings as paintings, not paintings as statements. Did the avant-garde ruin art, make it something else? Since 1872, or whenever you would have it, painting became a quest, a progress towards, an ecdysis of constraints. It became a game of permutations; the above are two such permutations, the passage of a form into obscurity. In those paintings are an early legitimation of Warhol, of the architecture of a modern university campus—the mystery of surfaces.

I fear something has been lost in the hunt for freedom. Perhaps this is why these deadened tableaux, a reckless sleeper and an assassin threatened, continue to fascinate me, as symptoms, or omens, complacent and threatening, of what has since come to pass.

05 November, 2006

On Affliction and Reading

I have a confession to make—I hate reading.

Now, I know my readers will balk at this. They will think it a joke, or worse, a pose. Sadly not. I can assure you in all sincerity that I have indeed been doomed to a lifetime of doing what I loathe. There are two questions, then: first, why do I hate reading? And second, why, if I hate reading, do I read?

I dislike reading because it is an immense effort, and ultimately quite boring. It takes a long time: even at a rate of a page per minute, which is my normal upper limit, a good-sized book will take 3 or 4 hours of solid attention. Unlike so many lovers of literature, I resolutely fail to 'lose myself in a story'—I just can't do it. I am too easily distracted by the surface of words—a postmodern malaise, if you want to put it that way. A word or a phrase, a collocation, will set my mind turning tangentially to the narrative or argument, managing or imagining an anagram, disliking the syntax, hearing the genesis of a poem, and so on. So, why do I read? Well, I like books; I like having read. My analogy is to the Pyramids: great monuments, sure, very impressive and all—but a bugger to build. Reading may be a terrible bore, but the result is worth it.

For these reasons, I find little in common with professional accounts of reading practices, which are quite fashionable now. Academic reading stems from the scholarly humanist habits of the Quattrocento, while the reading of literature in one's spare time dates back (in England) to the types of books written in 1580 or so, the first such lay classic being John Lyly's Euphues (1579). My approach to reading, however, is more mediaeval in character. Consider this passage on the Benedictine Rule, from Southern's Making of the Middle Ages:
The Rule laid down how the reading was to be done: the monk was to read the whole book and read it straight through—there was to be no 'skipping', no laying ot it aside and taking up something else, nothing light-hearted about it. It was part of a discipline, an exercise in a penitential life. The part of the Rule which regulates the monastic reading comes, significantly, in the chapter on manual labour: the reading envisaged by the Rule was a painful business—it was meant to be.
Southern is referring to Rule 48, 'Of Daily Work', which adds:
Above all, let one or two of the seniors be appointed to go about the monastery during the time that the brethren devote to reading and take notice, lest perhaps a slothful brother be found who giveth himself up to idleness or vain talk, and doth not attend to his reading, and is unprofitable, not only to himself, but disturbeth also others.
Similarly, Peter of Celle could write an essay titled 'On Affliction and Reading' (circa 1160, I think). He compares the monk's chamber (and there is a wordplay here between cella, chamber, and Celle) to 'a market where the butcher sells small and large amounts of his flesh to God who comes as a customer'. Just as the bodily affliction sacrifices real flesh, so reading sacrifices spiritual flesh, the life of the mind. For Peter, reading is a hard monastic devotion—but it is also a consolation:
I consider a room without reading to be a hell without consolation, a gibbet without relief, a prison without light, a tomb without a vent, a ditch swarming with worms, a suffocating trap. A room without reading is the empty house of which the gospel speaks, where the nocturnal and noonday devils assault the idle hermit with as many thrusts of useless and harmful thoughts as there are hours and moments in the day and night.
Reading is also an argumentative weapon, a training in martial arts: 'Take projectiles from your bookcase so that when you are struck you may strike back at the one who struck you and force him to speak'. I can empathise with this as well: perhaps a better analogy than the Pyramids is the rigorous physical training of a professional soldier. In fact, the soldier metaphor was common in the Middle Ages—compare the statement of Cassiodorus (551 AD) that 'Every word of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan'.

However you phrase it, the notion of reading as discipline and labour is far more congenial to me than that of reading as a leisure activity, or as Romantic escapism. The greatest satisfaction I derive from reading is that sense of accomplishment—of having overcome terrible hardship.

03 November, 2006

Sharp objects

The most recondite words in the lexicon, just for the indolent hell of it, three pointy comfits from the OED:

[f. Algonkin wigwas birch-bark (canoe) + -ING.]
The spearing of eels or fish from a canoe by torchlight.

[ad. It. spadone large sword.]
An imperfectly developed feather taken from a young ostrich in its first year.

[F. (1690 in Furetière), diminutive of tringle]
A pointed stick used to open the cames or grooved leaden bars which hold the panes in fretwork or diamond-paned windows (Knight Dict. Mech. 1877). (In Fr. also, the piece of glass in such a pane, Littré.)

Why blog, sinners?

Well, it's official—or rather, as official as anything can be now under the auspices of that hyper-atomised post-Catholic ecclesiastical maelstrom granted us 500 years ago—which is to say, not very—and that's, yes, blogging is evil. One of the newer particles of this increasingly decrepit religion calls itself the Restored Church of God, somewhat ironically. Their homepage proclaims with a fantastic self-assurance, 'You have reached the only website on earth that explains the truth of virtually every biblical doctrine—and in extraordinary detail. Thus, it is immense.' Isn't that a marvelous 'thus'? One of their pages outlines an anti-blogging manifesto penned by a Mr. Kevin D. Denee (De Née='born yesterday'?):
The Internet—and more specifically blogs—has enabled everyone to have a voice on any matter. Now everyone’s thoughts are “published” for all to see. Whether or not it is effective, as soon as something is posted the person has a larger voice. It often makes the blogger feel good or makes him feel as if his opinion counts—when it is mostly mindless blather!
I am cut to the quick. How well Mr. Denee knows me! Until this moment I had indeed suspected that my mindless blather 'counts'. Well, no more!
Also, whether or not you admit it, having a blog with your name, your picture and your opinions strokes the human ego—it lifts you up. It essentially advertises the self!
Lord be praised, my picture is buried deep within the recesses of this blog; perhaps I would do well to scourge and rase it entirely.
If you blog, are you sure you do not partially enjoy it because your carnal nature is inclined toward vanity?
It is, it is!
Idle words can make you appear foolish. How do you think God feels about the mindless blogging that is occurring? Do you believe His Word? Notice how God cares about the words He wrote: “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times” (Psa. 12:6).
To think, I only purify my words four or five times at the most, such are the attentive limits of my editorial eye.
Most blogs can be summed up as people talking about almost anything, but really nothing. There is no purpose to much of the contents—no direction.
Too, too true. Vivian Mercier once summed up my predicament when he labelled the Varieties 'a blog on which nothing happens. Twice'. He was a gentle soul, God rest his weary bones, with a real critical eye. Indeed, my original pitch was for a 'blog about nothing', and the producers just ran with it. Well, I know that I have accrued a small and loyal readership, who seem to enjoy the nothing; now you understand, I'm sure, that the Varieties only reflect the void at the bottom of your own sinful hearts. Repent!

[Via Right Reading]