29 April, 2007

Rilib and Kaelib

In July 1896, a German naval captain called Winkler—first name unknown—was stationed on the Jaluit atoll, a district of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific. Jaluit was the administrative centre and main trading-station of the Islands, which had come under German control in 1885. Winkler was unusually interested in the local customs, and especially in a variety of 'sea-chart' presented to him by the land-inspector, Dr. Irmer. These charts consisted, in his words, of 'a number of sticks lashed together in a rude latticework, and on this at various points were tied small shells'. Irmer could not make head or tail of them. It turns out that Westerners had been puzzled by these devices for some time; the first certain reference to them can be found in a report by the Hawaiian missionary Luther Halsey Gulick in 1862.

While stationed there, Winkler made a systematic study of these charts, and in 1898 he published a report in the Marine-Rundschau, which in 1901 was translated into English for the Smithsonian Institute Report (51, 487-508, online as a scanned PDF here). Since then there has been a huge flurry of interest in the charts, especially after the US took control of the islands in 1947; a 1992 bibliography lists 44 relevant items. I've looked at a few of these items, and none of them adds much to Winkler's account. The clearest exposition can be found in a 1960 article by William Davenport, online here. But there is also a Wikipedia article, and various other internet sites that say much the same. All of these accounts abstract the data from Winkler's article—but when we return to his piece, we discover something different—of human, not just cartographic interest. It would be ripe for some post-colonial deconstruction, but as for myself, I'd rather use my own eyes.


Winkler, not being an academic, knew how to tell a good story. He presents his research of the charts as a quest for hidden treasure, and as a narrative it is better than fiction. The note of adventure is sounded in his opening paragraph:
Dr. Irmer confessed that he was unable to explain the meaning and function of the charts, for great secrecy was preserved among the islanders on this score, and only a few of the old chiefs, indeed, were in possession of the secret.
Thus Winkler is given the mission to decode the charts by Irmer. The first person to whom they turn is the local chief and master-pilot, Lojak, whose interpretation is to be translated by Irmer's servant Ladjur:
One forenoon an impressive scene was enacted in Dr. Irmer's quarters, when Lojak, with the greatest secrecy, first closed all the windows, in spite of the 34° C. heat, having threatened Ladjur with death if he divulged the tabooed mystery; but the result of the long sweat bath was a complete negative.
It is a game of looking—Winkler is offered a window into the secret, and he in turn offers us a window—but the shades are drawn, for we have no idea what happened. (One of my correspondents has eloquently written, 'If I admire the plunderers it is only for their sensational prose. As when Howard Carter notes the distractions of Valley work, translating graffitos scrawled by Greek historians. When John Lloyd Stephens reads at night, in the ruins of a Maya castle, by the light of bird-size fireflies. Articles of conquest I like for what they preserve of subjugated cultures.' Surely this is what he means.)

Winkler then discovers something substantive: that the shells represent islands, and the sticks represent wave-currents. Marshallese navigators, he is told, use the charts by looking over their canoes at the wave-currents and plotting accordingly; he is sceptical that this is possible. Winkler spends the next year enquiring about the charts in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Sea, but learns nothing further. The explorer Benedict Friedlander personally implores Winkler to find out more, and so on his return visit to Jaluit in 1897, he renews his efforts. He befriends his fellow captain Kessler, who is 'in fraternal relations' with a local chief named Nelu:
Then began a strenuous, monotonous, and patient research. Chief Nelu, who did not wish to conceal aught from his brother Kessler, was first pumped. He told us all that he knew, and gave us pleasure with his willingness, but when, in the evening I collected all that had been heard and noted down and tried to put it into form I found so many contradictions that pretty much all that had been written had to be crossed out.
Winkler decides that Nelu, 'through incessant drinking of beer, which furnished his sole nourishment, had become too stupid to be able to render a clear explanation'. The melancholy is overwhelming: even the chief, supposedly a man of power and knowledge, but in fact a drunkard, has no idea what the charts mean. These venerable objects, the stick-charts, have become opaque and illegible, despite preserving their mysterious aura, like the Delphic E.

They return to Lojak, who is less reluctant to divulge now that Nelu has spilt the beans. Winkler calls what results 'hour-long sessions and squeezings'. Still, he comes up against the contempt of the old chief: 'Once Lojak told me with seeming frankness that I was the dumbest churl he had ever seen.' Lojak, like Nelu, likes a good tipple; but his preferred drink is sack, which makes him friendly again. Thus the locals are corrupted into divulging their secrets by booze—but also by thirst for status, represented by a beautiful jacket: 'As an extreme measure, I had hanging in my cabin a showy uniform coat which I promised Lojak if he would answer all my questions'. What could be a better symbol of colonialism, as a twin process of military and economic conquest? This is how the White Man, lean and cunning, overcomes the greedy Savage.

But even Lojak turns out to be incompetent, and Winkler draughts in a 'half-breed' Portuguese named Jochem de Brun, and the native assistant navigator Laumanuan, who together are able to correct Lojak's errors: 'At last, in this way, we succeeded in clearing up the greater part of the doubtful points'. Further investigations among the natives—interviews with Muridjil, Burido, Litokwa and Launa—prove useless. Nobody, it seems, really has a grasp of what these charts mean. Winkler turns to some notes by a merchant named Capelle: 'Misfortune had overtaken him in business'. As the old world passes away, with barely a drunken whimper, the gloom, passing, deepens; and yet something—something—is salvaged from the wreckage.

The so-called charts do not deserve the name in our sense, but they merely serve to bring to view the water condition, as well for the instruction of the chief's sons, who have to be initiated into the secrets of navigation, as for the settling of differences between chiefs piloting a boat when the water indications are not plain and varying interpretations have been made.
This is Winkler's summary of the charts; later he adds, 'they are made by chiefs for their individual use as reminders of the various things which they have to attend to in sailing, as well as for rendering clear the noteworthy signs in the tuition of the uninitiated'. David Lewis puts the matter in similar terms in his classic study, We Are the Navigators:
The stick charts are not charts in the Western sense, but are instructional and mnemonic devices concerned with swell patterns. Nor are they essential navigational tools, de Brun, for instance, never having used one.
Davenport had argued in 1960 that the charts 'are used to teach navigators and possibly to store knowledge against memory loss. They are most assuredly not used to lay out courses, plot positions and bearings, or as aids in recognizing land forms as the European navigator uses his chart. Nor are they mnemonic devices to be taken along on a voyage for consultation.' Davenport also remarks that visual observation of the water is coupled with tactile observation:
[The navigator] learns to lie on his back in the bottom of the canoe and to interpret the wave pattern by noting the rise and fall, yawing, and slapping of sea against the hull.
Kjell Akerblom, in his 1968 Astronomy and Navigation in Polynesia and Micronesia, repeats Davenport's conclusions almost verbatim, also noting that the distribution of the charts (of which many have now been collected, for instance by Schück in 1902) is not even within the archipelago: 'If they had been of real value in navigation one might have expected the opposite'.

All later sources parrot the explanations of the charts given by Winkler: that the sticks (identified by Davenport as 'palm ribs bound by coconut fiber') represent nothing geographical, but rather the patterns of wave-swells between islands in the archipelago. Here is the secret—the navigators of the Marshall Islands locate island-masses by calculating the refraction and reflection of wave-fronts around and against the island shores. This is a technique specific to the geography of an island nation, and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Every article on the subject, including the Wiki piece, explains the method to some degree, showing how a wave-swell reacts when it hits an island—curving around at an angle, and interfering with itself and with swells coming from other directions. The patterns of interference coalesce into long lines of 'nodes', stretching out to sea—the navigator can follows these nodes to the island. Winkler even provides the local terminology, which has been duly repeated for a century. The wave-swells are called dunung; the species that comes from the east is a rilib, and that from the west a kaelib. The node produced by swell-interference is a bot (or boot), while the line of bots is an okar. A photograph of a chart can be seen here, while a particularly elaborate diagram (taken from the Winkler article) looks like this:

Here the rilibs are the curved lines to the right, the kaelibs are the curved lines to the left, the dots (shells) represent islands, and the transverse lines indicate lines of sight—ie. boundaries at which the islands at the top and bottom can be seen with varying levels of clarity. Many more drawings, some resembling the geometric art of 1920s Russia, can be found in Winkler's article. Here, however, sloppy copying has made his very words wavelike:


As I said, all the sources will tell you this same basic information, and more that I have here omitted. But few convey to the reader the process of obtaining the information; few articulate the beauty and significance of this precious data. Winkler remarks,
The interpretation of the charts is. . . always difficult, if one has not the maker of the chart himself as explainer; another, even an entirely competent navigator, can not under any circumstance read the deliverances of a chart which he himself has not made. Hence the repeated false and apparently wild information from the sticks.
Akerblom picks this up: 'the charts are an expression of the personal knowledge and experience of the different navigators, which are kept strictly secret and not circulated outside the immediate family'. Doug Aberley, introducing a book on 'bio-regional mapping', writes wistfully:
In all of us is some remnant of an ability to understand relationships of physical space to survival and the evolution of stable community life. In admiring the mapping of aboriginal cultures, the goal is not to copy others, but to rediscover in ourselves a genetic memory of ancient skills.
Aberley thinks that we have lost something in our progress. But more different than our methods of seafaring—and navigation by wave-refractions is certainly novel to a Western mind!—are our attitudes towards knowledge. For the Marshallese, there is still something religious about these maps; the secrets are guarded with more than a political fervour. They have that opaque, mysterious aura, that 'taboo', that I compared to the Delphic E. But it is the open society, as Popper recognised, that advances in its knowledge. We see in Winkler's article a closed society starting to fall apart. Davenport, 6o years later, notes that 'for over fifty years now writers have reported that wave navigation and chart making were rapidly falling into disuse, and that compasses, hydrographic charts, and even sextants and chronometers were about to replace them'—but cheerfully adds that the Marshallese navigators have also continued to use their own system, now publicly disseminated, alongside the modern techniques. He attributes this to 'the fact that the coveted skills of the navigtor are no longer politically valuable to the contending chiefs'. But perhaps, also, it is a sign that with the increased presence of the West, a little magic has gone out of the world of the Marshallese navigators.

Update: More information collected by the Nonist.

28 April, 2007

Sought in vain

When I saw that the fearful Jesuit Copleston had written a book on Nietzsche, the clown prince of atheism, I knew I had to read it. Which meeting of minds could be less appropriate? Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture, first published in 1942, has two aims: to defend its subject against popular association with the Nazi party, and to introduce the main themes of Nietzsche's thought to Christian readers. It is thus simultaneously an apologia and an outright attack.

Despite Copleston's claim to wrestle with the difficulties of Nietzschean thought, we find our hero's atheist stances, in all their subtlety, met with calm, blunt rejection. After outlining Nietzsche's arguments against God, and for the subjection of the common man to the Übermensch, the 'flower of humanity', Copleston remarks: 'Indeed, when looked at in relation to God Himself, human differences tend to pale into insignificance'. Later, he suggests that real Supermen have existed—St. Paul, St. Francis, and of course, Ignatius of Loyola. Nietzsche speaks, and Copleston nods along, but he is not really listening. How could he? His axioms are starkly incompatible. Best of all, he is inclined to regard Nietzsche as a Christian despite himself. The pious Lutheran upbringing is duly noted; his mental problems and 1889 breakdown are attributed to guilt and self-doubt regarding his own rejection of the faith. Deep down, the poor boy knew that there was a God after all. In a moment of sublime pathos, sage and fatherly, Copleston concludes the biographical chapter of his book:
The tragic and lonely spirit of Friedrich Nietzsche had gone forth to its Maker, whom it had denied: who will be prepared to affirm that He who searches the hearts of all, may not have given him at the last the grace to seek for mercy where it is never sought in vain?
I am still chuckling at that.

26 April, 2007


"First I sits myself down. Then I work myself up. Then I throw in my darks. Then I pulls out my lights."

"If the picturesqueness of objects be increased in proportion to their roughness of surface and intricacy of motion, two spiders, such as the avicularia, not to descend to too diminutive a scale, caressing or attacking each other, must, in point of picturesqueness, have greatly the advantage over every athletic or amorous symplegma left by the ancients."

"With regard to ourselves, the barbarous though then perhaps useful rage of image-breakers in the seventeenth century seems much too gratuitously propagated as a principle in an age much more likely to suffer from irreligion than superstition. A public body inflamed by superstition suffers, but it suffers from the ebullitions of radical heat, and may return to a state of health and life; whilst a public body plunged into irreligion is in a state of palsied apathy, the cadaverous symptom of approaching dissolution."

(No googling!)

22 April, 2007

Against the Eye

In 1880, an unknown Russian art connoisseur named Ivan Lermolieff published a landmark study entitled Italian Painters: Critical Studies of their Works. The book opens with a preface, 'Principles and Method', which takes the form of a dialogue between the author, currently a tourist in Florence, and an eccentric Italian art-lover—the latter is never named, but is in fact a transparent portrait of the book's real author, the physician and amateur critic Giovanni Morelli. In conversation, the arch and assured Italian convinces his Russian interlocutor that the common method of identifying paintings—by an uncritical use of documentary sources—is flawed, and must be replaced by his own technique of minute formal analysis. The Italian is dismissive of art history as an academic discipline, insisting that 'art must be seen, if we are to derive either instruction or pleasure from it'. The narrator, eager to agree, replies:
A very different view is taken in Germany, my dear sir; there people will only read, and art must be brought to public notice, not through the medium of brush or chisel, but through that of the printing press.
Discounting the irony of this sentiment's appearance in a printed textbook, the argument, especially as presented here in such a one-sided manner, might seem a closed case—for who could possibly argue that art is better to read about than to see? Who would want art history, art criticism, before art itself?

Perhaps some of my readers have an inkling of the answer.


Morelli's position, and his vehemence, remind me of the attitudes of my long-time comrade on this site, Chris Miller, who has lately been showcasing Inuit sculpture on his own blog. Chris is a sculptor himself. He is, in fact, one of three sculptors I have met while blogging. (I have, on the other hand, only met one painter.) The other two are the eccentric Dorset gentleman Robert Mileham, and Amanda Sisk, who now teaches at the Florence Academy of Art—both of whom have blessed us with their comments. All are remarkably accomplished; figure sculpture, a medium necessarily stable and traditional, clearly demonstrates the technical abilities at their disposal.

Chris and I once argued about the visual psychology of sculpture. He wrote:
I don't think that the views of a sculpture have anything to do with each other—and they are usually of different qualities—with, hopefully, at least one that is memorable, with the rest being acceptable.
He cited the influential theories of Adolf von Hildebrand to support his views. I found the whole idea rather hard to understand. To me, the power of a sculpture came from the fact that it is a unified body, something beyond a group of views. Even better than a single sculpture—I argued—is the figure-group, where one's spatial relation to the group determines one's degree of involvement in its drama. Different views are not better or worse, merely different: each has its own pathetic resonance. My example was the stunning Compianto di Cristo of Niccolo dell' Arca. Chris retorted, dismissing my argument,
My guess is that as a 6-piece ensemble, this Dell' Arca piece probably offers no more than one good view—the one shown in your photograph above—but each of the individual sculptures probably offers several views—including lots of good close-ups.
I forgot to respond to Chris's comment that time. Well, lately my reading has taken me back to the fertile fields of art psychology, and its history. Let's see if we can have another go at addressing the issue. Perhaps in doing so, I'll manage as well to answer the first question posed by this post.


Seeing and Touching.

F. David Martin's 1981 book, Sculpture and Enlivened Space, opens with an overview of historical opinions of sculpture. He notes the salient fact that it has almost always been considered inferior to painting—the Renaissance, for instance, looked down on sculpture as manual labour, not befitting the nobility of the artist. In the Treatise on Painting, fadged up from Leonardo's notebooks after his death, can be found a series of arguments for the superiority of painting—less physically tiring, more intellectually taxing, and so on. Martin remarks that 'It never occurred to anyone in the Age of Enlightenment. . . to defend the autonomy of sculpture'. Criticism, he thinks, is dominated by the tradition that sculpture is an art for the eye, and one inferior to painting—he refers constantly to the 'eminence of the eye'.
The tradition has been so dominated by the eminence of the eye that it never occurred to anyone before Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi in the twentieth century even to raise the question whether a blind person was able to perceive sculpture.
He attributes this tradition partly to the fact that most critical knowledge of sculpture has come through engravings and now photographs—a medium which reproduces painting well, for obvious reasons, but sculpture badly. For Martin, as for Morelli before him, a true art criticism must be experiential, and so when he inevitably goes on to argue for the sculptural primacy of touch over sight, he opens with an account of an actual encounter with art—a painting by Rembrandt and a sculpture by Hans Arp:
I found myself reaching toward the statue rather than keeping my distance. . . Whereas my perceptual relationship to the Rembrandt required my getting to and setting in the privileged position, similar to choosing what I consider to be the best seat in a theater, my perceptual relationship to the Arp was much more mobile and flexible. I wanted to touch and caress the shining bronze. . . The smooth rounded shapes with their swelling volumes moved gently out into space, turning my body around the figure and controlling the rhythm of my walking. . . the Arp seemed not only three-dimensional but four-dimensional, because it brought in the element of time so discernibly—a cumulative drama, a temporal gestalt. . . each aspect was incomplete, enticing me on to the next for fulfillment.
For Martin, no one view of the Arp can be privileged—'each aspect was incomplete'—rather, its power comes from the interplay of an infinity of views and aspects. In this he agrees with Naum Gabo, whom he quotes: 'To think about sculpture as a succession of two-dimensional images would mean to think about something else, but not sculpture'. Martin feels the sculpture, rather, as a spatial and even temporal body.

(Are tactile sensations limited to sculpture? Berenson would have disagreed: for him, the Florentine genius was for generating just such responses in painting—'I must have the illusion of varying muscular sensations inside my palm and fingers corresponding to the various projections of this figure'.)

Martin is arguing that the two-dimensional images produced by a sculpture are less important than the sense of 'whole' that it engenders in us. In trying to articulate this 'whole' he is forced back on the inarticulate jargon of the French philosophaster Merleau-Ponty: 'Sculpture reveals our physical "withness" with things'. This is a shame, because I think that Martin's insights would be better realised by turning away from phenomenology, and towards Platonism.


Seeing, Touching and Knowing.

We all know that Plato pried sight apart from its etymological cousin, knowledge—idein, 'to see', from oida, 'to know', and eidon, 'Idea' or 'Form'. For Plato, seeing is believing but certainly not knowing:
SOCRATES: Then knowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them; in that only, and not in the mere impression, truth and being can be attained?

Plato was distrustful of images. He did not have much to say about sculpture; but one of his intellectual descendants did. For when Martin writes that 'It never occurred to anyone in the Age of Enlightenment. . . to defend the autonomy of sculpture', he is completely wrong. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Johann Gottfried Herder—
As soon as a single rooted viewpoint takes precedence, the living sculpture becomes a mere canvas and the beautiful rounded form is dismembered into a pitiful polygon. . . Sculpture creates one living thing, an animate work that stands there and endures. . . sculpture is truth, whereas painting is a dream.
The Varieties is already a friend of Herder's; we much prefer his imaginative cultural nonsense to the obstreperous metaphysik of his inheritor Hegel. I wrote about his views on history here. Herder's treatise on sculpture, substantially written in 1771 but published only in 1778, is fascinating in so many ways. Like modern writers on psychology (eg. Jakobson, Damasio) he analyses the mind by reference to defects and abnormalities—the synaesthete, the congenitally blind, and so on. He develops the argument of Lessing's Laocoon (discussed here), and anticipates the Romantic revival of Plato. He engages with the perception-theory which was of such interest to 18th-century philosophers; his argument, for instance, is implicitly conditioned on Berkeley's proposition that touch, not sight, conditions spatial awareness:
An ophthalmite [eye-stalk] with a thousand eyes but without a hand to touch would remain his entire life in Plato's cave and would never have any concept of the properties of a physical body.
In 1764, Thomas Reid had poked fun at these debates, imagining a race of 'Idomenians' who have one eye and no sense of touch; the race has no concept of depth, believing that two objects occupy the same space when one passes under the other, and its philosophers have descended into fruitless squabbling.

For Herder, likewise, mere visual sensation is inadequate to an understanding of space, and therefore of Being: 'sight is but an abbreviated form of touch. The rounded form becomes a mere figure, the statue a flat engraving. Sight gives us dreams, touch gives us truth'. Sculpture is greater than painting because it is not confined, as painting is, to the image, to the eye—in Platonic terms, its subject is truth, not dreams or impressions. It cannot be reduced to a series of views, 'dismembered into a pitiful polygon'. Where the painter merely depicts, the sculptor, like God fashioning Adam, creates. The spiritual power of sculpture, as Herder explains towards the end of his treatise, is witnessed by primitive idol-worship; the ancients were aware, he thinks, that the statue must always be an image of the soul, of the world of Forms, bodied forth.


Where does that leave us? If we are going to accept the philosophical dogmas of a fin-de-siècle aesthete such as Hildebrand, who asserted that art is valid only insofar as it progresses beyond the limitations of nature, then we ought to be equally receptive to the Platonic aesthetics of Herder and Martin. In Herder's case, this outlook tends towards an appreciation of classical sculpture; in Martin's case, towards a taste for Arp and other abstracts. For me, it finds expression in my delight in the unfinished, fragmentary and deliquescent, for instance these Nubian lips:

Or Donatello:

Or Rodin:

Or even our friend, Amanda Sisk (more images here), whose shapes have barely emerged from the primordial ooze:

Why? Because in being (or appearing) incomplete, these sculptures call into question the primacy of the eye. If visual beauty arises from perfect form, these works decline such standards; rather they invite the mind to complete them—what Gombrich called the 'beholder's share'. The intellect, not the eye, is entertained. And this intellectual sculpture, this 'virtual' sculpture, cannot be considered in terms of views or images, not even three-dimensional ones. It cannot even be visualised—to do so is to compromise, to break the spell, just for a moment. It is, in fact, very much like another sort of intellectual construction: the castle of words, which must, again, remain ever incomplete.

Is it any surprise, then, that I, who prize the intellectual above the visual, the unseen above the seen—I, who greedily want my share of the work—should prefer the history of art to art itself? For me, art is always something remote, which I can do no more than admire, like a woman, silent and beautiful, but not for me. How I should like to walk in the world of Gentile's Adoration, or Uccello's Hunt, or Seurat's Grand Jatte! But I cannot: they are separated from me by the accursed plane of their surfaces. Art history, on the other hand—the history of ideas—is like a fluid that percolates coldly in my body. It plays with me, and lets itself be played with, always open and receptive to my touch. Thinking, truly, is the aesthetic experience.

Update: John B. offers his further thoughts here.

20 April, 2007


God would never have created a man, let alone an angel, in the foreknowledge of his future evil state, if he had not known at the same time how he would put such creatures to good use, and thus enrich the course of the world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem. — City of God, 11.18.
Read that again: for it is one of the most sublime sentiments ever expressed. Beauty in all its forms comes from antithesis, from chiaroscuro—or as I might have had it (following Hogarth), from Variety. That which seems dark and noxious—'destructive', or even 'petty'—must have its place in the whole; perhaps its function will be to cast the light into greater relief. Then again, perhaps the reverse is true. In Arizona, the brightness of day is blinding; on the bare concrete it is merely hot, not warm. We have, on the other hand, the most golden and bracing sunfalls.


In 1894, Berenson concluded his essay on Venetian painting, 'We, too, are possessed of boundless curiosity. We, too, have an almost intoxicating sense of human capacity. We, too, believe in a great future for humanity, and nothing has yet happened to check our delight in discovery or our faith in life. . .' In a 1930 edition of this essay, the author added a footnote: '(N. B. Written in 1894!)'. How different Europe seemed now. . . In hindsight we can be so foolish.

18 April, 2007


What does our prose say about us?

Clemency Burton-Hill, who has penned a variety of articles for the British press, is young, blonde, attractive but not striking; she is the daughter of the renowned music maven Humphrey Burton, and has a double-barrelled surname. She speaks in moneyed tones. Thus she represents the core of the cultured bourgeois London élite, the intelligentsia, and to prove it she has a double-first in English from Cambridge, and a scholarship at Harvard. Not only a journalist, she is also a professional violinist, and an actress—from a string of embarrassing cashinhands like Until Death and Dungeons and Dragons she has lately graduated to prominent television rôles. All this can be gleaned from her crowning achievement to date—a Wikipedia article. So, how does she write?

I begin with an older piece, from the Telegraph a couple of years ago:
I turned 23 recently and very frightening it was, too. Apparently I'm now certifiably an Adult and supposed to behave accordingly; to be both Big and Clever at all times.
Here, Clemency is feigning childishness. This is obviously not how a woman with a double-first from Cambridge thinks. It is an ironic pose, struck so as to bond with her reader. Note that odd comma: 'was, too'. She is using an oral phrase, but she has not considered clearly how to transcribe its rhythm; she has introduced a pause before 'too' so as to disguise the slangy nature of the expression. Her use of 'supposed to behave accordingly' has the humorous suggestion of mumsy disapproval. The words 'adult', 'big' and 'clever' are capitalised for added ironic effect. The piece goes on to describe Clemency's infatuation with older men, such as Michael Ignatieff:
[T]here I was at Hay last month, tongue practically hanging out of my mouth, barely registering what he was saying about the democratic imperative of open adversarial review, so entranced was I by those blue, blue eyes. All rather embarrassing, really – and Ignatieff must be, what, in his forties at least?
The rhythm of her prose, as before, is hackneyed enough. The key point here is that Clemency is both trying to be funny, and vaunting her own urbanity. Not only does she slip in the fact that she attended Hay Festival with her cultural peers, but she abbreviates it to 'Hay', demonstrating her cosy familiarity with the literary event and its climate. Similarly, although 'democratic imperative of open adversarial review' is contrasted to the teenagerish 'blue, blue eyes' for comic effect, we are left in no doubt that Clemency fully understands the democratic imperative of open adversarial review. How else could she have remembered the phrase? The rest of her tone is gossipy: 'there I was' and 'All rather embarrassing, really' both reek of the garden fence. The 'what' inserted into the last sentence conjures an off-the-cuff oral estimate.

A final example from this article, in which Clemency meets one of her idols, Tom Stoppard—the living embodiment of middle-class British artistic ideals:
Nevertheless, before excusing himself, he squeezed my hands one more time, looked deep in my eyes, and said, with what can be described only as a flirtatious twinkle: "I think you'd be perfect for the part [in Arcadia], I hope you get it."
Ah—the excitement of being approved by Stoppard himself! Clemency swoons.

Another article, a meditation from last year on political conflicts in Kenya, opens in a different key, that of ekphrastic description—
The sun is rising lazily over Soysambu, a private estate which yawns across 100,000 acres of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Out of the corner of my eye I watch a gazelle lollop towards the horizon, where Lake Elementaita shimmers against the dramatic backdrop of the Mau escarpment. In front of 'Delamere’s Nose' — a squat peak so named because of its resemblance to a supine male profile — a herd of waterbuck graze on the acacia xanthophloea bush alongside plentiful buffalo, eland, zebra and giraffe. Apart from the agreeable cooing of cape turtle doves overhead, the silence and sense of peace is absolute.

Peace, however, is not quite the mot juste for this ravishing land.
Clemency's prose has been rising lazily over the reader, who was yawning across 100 words of boilerplate African exquisitries—complete with the pointedly technical xanthophloea, a word so ugly on the page but so beautiful to hear, darling—when all of a sudden the inevitable presaging note is wrung from her bow. The problem is that Clemency's heart isn't in it: she wants to move from the beauty of the landscape to the strife of its people, she wants to say, 'Peace, however, is not quite the mot juste for this troubled land'—but what she really must emphasise is how lovely it is. (Peace, of course, cannot be a mot juste; only 'peace'. But let's not be pedantic.) This is not an authentic voice.

Neither is it authentic when she writes, in an earlier review of Maile Maloy's Liars and Saints:
As she has previously demonstrated with her short stories, she is a keen observer of human emotion, but here she diffuses any potential melodrama by both understatement — ‘Henry had thought he understood grief, but nothing had ever shaken him like Abby’s death’ — and use of objective correlatives.
I leave aside the clichés ('keen observer') and the fact that the quoted line is quite the opposite of understatement, and focus instead on the expression 'objective correlatives'. In a flash it betrays Clemency's double-first in English, and her need to bring specialist knowledge, embodied in antique jargon, to bear on her appreciation of cultural phenomena. She uses the expression with no confidence, with no grasp of the irony of language; rather, she is still an undergraduate marvelling at the greatness of T. S. Eliot.

Similar examples could be multiplied endlessly.


Now my readers will wonder why I have chosen to pick apart the slapdash prose of a woman in her mid-twenties—a woman who, despite her expensive education, her brains and her cultural upbringing, has no reason to be a good writer. After all—she's also an actress and a violinist, and a political analyst, and a model and everything else. Isn't all this a bit churlish?

I cannot entirely absolve myself of this charge; on the other hand, my motives are greater than mere whimsical caddishness. You see, I'm a believer, with Buffon, that le style, c'est l'homme même—or in this case, la femme même. I think Clemency's style reveals a lot about who she is. And this is particularly interesting to me because who she is is related to who I am. I shared a class with Clemency, or Clemmie as she was universally known then, back in school, eight years ago. We barely knew each other, although given the nature of our respective positions in the social hierarchy, I knew more of her than she did of me. She was always perfectly friendly to me, and quite likeable, which is more than I was at that age. We'd share a walk to the Tube, or chat idly for a few minutes, and that was the extent of it. So I bear her no ill will, and yet she continues to intrigue me as a successful product of the schooling we shared.

Clemmie's journalism exists to propagate a certain set of cultural values—she loves to travel, she loves the performing arts—Bach and Chekhov—and she loves 'breakfasting at the Wolseley'. She's passionate about politics, and concerned about the plight of the Third World. She fancies older and especially elder men. This is the ideal envisioned by today's public schools. This is, in short, who I was supposed to be—except for the 'fancying older men' part, of course. Recently she wrote,
Having steadfastly refused to settle into any one profession since graduating a few years ago, I’m used to the identity crisis that comes with juggling careers. . .
Again, she is overtly telling us, 'having lots of careers is not so great', but she is really saying, 'I have had lots of careers—isn't that marvelous?' There is no identity crisis. I just don't believe it. I've no doubt she has as many problems as the rest of us, but not this one. For of all people, Clemmie has her place in society, and is celebrated for it. I am deeply jealous.

And her prose demonstrates, with utter transparency, the tensions of a woman who has been corralled into playing a set part. It possesses the irony of the lesser, of the courtier—the irony of 'certifiably an Adult'. It tells us that she knows, but pretends at the same time that she does not; thus she conceals her superiority as she reveals it. She shows herself to be intelligent, astute, well-read, cultured, talented, warm, hard-working, ambitious, confident—and reassuringly average. This is the conclusion we wanted to reach, isn't it? Even Clemmie would take it as a compliment, or at least part of her would. That part, not yet swallowed up by ambition, would be relieved to think that for all her accomplishments, she still 'has two feet on the ground', that she has not 'disappeared up her own arse', as she would likely say herself. Like the rest of us privileged brats, Clemmie has learnt to be ashamed of her education, and especially of her intelligence. This is why she plays the ditz with Ignatieff and Stoppard—or at least why she tells us she does—and why she makes goo-goo noises at her 23rd birthday. She is far more comfortable in this chatty, dissimulative style than she is in the idiom of serious criticism, or of political reportage. She has surrendered herself.

'Clemency', it seems, was a name well chosen.

17 April, 2007


I discover a mistake in the binding of Paul Barolsky's rather effete Walter Pater's Renaissance: a quire has been inverted, pp. 27-42. At the bottom of p. 26, and continuing upside down at the top of p. 27 (facing p. 43), we read, 'But Pater's is also, antithetically, a romantic architecture analogous to that of Renaissance France, where one "often finds a true poetry, as in those strangely twisted staircases of the châteaux of the / country of the Loire, as if it were intended that among their odd turnings the actors in a theatrical mode of life might pass each other unseen."'

From the inverted bottom of p. 42, righting himself again on p. 43, Barolsky remarks, following Pater, 'At the outset of this journey of the mind, consciousness first manifests itself / as Abelard. He lives in "dreamy tranquility," in "a world something like shadows"—an "uncertain twilight."'

Can this Escheresque transposition possibly have been intentional?

12 April, 2007

Quattrocento treasures

The image above is a detail from Lorenzo Monaco's 1404 Pietà. It is typical of its period—indebted to Giotto and to Sienese Gothic, it hints at perspective, although this remains rudimentary. The faces are still stock Giotto, and the hair rigid and stylized, although the bodies show reasonable modelling. This work is not typical of Lorenzo's oeuvre, but represents an experimentation with older idioms.

What interests us here is Lorenzo's approach to narrative. Although his chief subject is a Pietà—and not the representation we are used to—he has included in his work the suggestions of earlier events in the Gospels: the slicing of Malchus' ear, the payment of Judas, and so on, as well as presenting the objects of Christ's torture, such as the three nails and the pair of flails or cat-o'-sixtails. The various stories are reduced to symbols and laid out on a plane, like in a Wunderkammer. Fleeting occurrences are thus transformed into timeless types existing in space, easily recalled and devotional—an ars memoria in paint. And there is a real dryness about these objects; compare, for instance, Magritte's Sleeper. These hands are not beautiful; nor are they individuated, as Christ's hands are and must be. They are utilitarian, like punctuation, or like this pointer from a London street-sign.

This is a metaphysical approach to painting. It wants to speak, but it is not interested in the dictates of physical form, nor in problems of representation. How different is this idiom in mid-century hands, sweetened by the first spring of the Florentine Renaissance—

This is a detail from the Mocking of Christ, one of the many splendid frescoes at the convent of San Marco, painted by Lorenzo's pupil Fra Angelico in 1445, although some have attributed this and other paintings to Angelico's lively student Benozzo Gozzoli, better known for his 1460 Medici Adoration. Here we have bodiless hands assailing the Saviour, and a bodiless head to expectorate, unexpectedly. Notice the ironic rhyme between the cudgel taken to Christ's head and the articulated staff with which He rules heaven and earth; Angelico shows us a wit entirely missing in Lorenzo. There is a freshness in his colours—pea-green, white and crimson—and a softness in the rendering, nothing like the unnatural angularity of Lorenzo's Pietà. Where Lorenzo's hands were systematic and semiotic, Angelico's are impressionistic, with a freedom of movement in their space. As Berenson observes of the painter, 'The sources of his feeling are in the Middle Ages, but he enjoys his feelings in a way which is almost modern, and almost modern also are his means of expression'. What a difference 40 years and a Masaccio make!


Since Vasari, the art of the Quattrocento has been almost uniformly presented as a continual progress from the vestiges of the Gothic to the supreme perfection of Leonardo and Michelangelo. This narrative has been so inculcated that it is difficult to see these works unencumbered by historical prejudice. Berenson provided the classic statement of this image: in his early Florentine Painters (1896) he argues that from Giotto to Leonardo, painting is sort of an epiphenomenon arising out of the cavalcade of individual geniuses, effortlessly solving problems as they went. In this work he is still under the spell of Burckhardt and Nietzsche; in his much later collection of essays, Aesthetics and History (1948), he calls for an history of art without artists, consisting merely of problems and how they were solved. An odd call, one might think, from a man whose professional reputation was built on his ability to sort genuine Old Masters from fakes. For Berenson, Michelangelo sounds the first note of tragedy in Florence; the prior generation still savoured the fruits of Paradise.

The universal presence of this progress-narrative is the only reason one should bother reading Clive Bell's 1913 essay Art, a manifesto for the post-Impressionists, Matisse, Cézanne and Gauguin. This work is the most singularly vapid and vacuous book about art I've ever read, consisting of little more than pronouncements of taste tricked up to look like a theory; but its virtue is that Bell's history of art is the mirror image of Berenson's. For Bell, Giotto marked the beginning of the end; incomparably poorer than the Byzantine madonnas of the 12th century, nevertheless his work starts the process of decline that leads to the scientific, merely-representational nadir of Leonardo: 'From Giotto to Leonardo is a long and, at times, almost imperceptible fall'. It is only with Cézanne et al that art has once more cast off the shackles of realist form. All this is very odd, and strangely liberating, like an art-historical version of the literary opinions offered by Aaron Haspel's favourite critic, Yvor Winters.

Reading Bell reminds us that Lorenzo Monaco is not a primitive, in the negative sense of that word. Angelico did not progress from Lorenzo; we may prefer him, or not, but there is no absolute criterion for his superiority. For some reason this lesson, so easily accepted elsewhere in the arts, appears particularly difficult to learn when looking at Renaissance painting. And there is something in Lorenzo's roughness, in his eagerness, in his semiotic inelegance, that appeals to me more than the wit of Angelico, or even the perfect finish of the later century. Perhaps it is that my aesthetic is at heart a linguistic, not a visual one; and certainly not an emotional one, which is why I find it impossible to enjoy Masaccio, the historian's hero.


An interlude. Mantegna is the most cerebral of the painters before Leonardo, possibly excluding Uccello. His was a humanist milieu; just as Fra Angelico studied Greek with Ambrogio Traversari, and had Hebrew written into his paintings by Giannozzo Manetti, so Mantegna hobnobbed with Cristoforo Landino, Alberti and other mid-century scholars. His circle was suffused with abstruse philosophy and coterie references; we should not, then, be too surprised by this, a coded inscription at the bottom of a donor's portrait, from a 1453 illuminated manuscript now in Paris, commonly attributed to Mantegna or an assistant:

In these two lines are the whole humour of the humanist Renaissance! It is the humour of the hermetic, of the Platonic Silenus, of cracking open an egg for its golden joke. In this inscription are confounded Roman and Greek letters, including an archaic qoppa (Ϙ), Arabic numerals and other miscellaneous symbols, including a thorn-like character (þ). It turns out to be a simple substitution cipher—all the rage in mid-century Italy, Alberti inventing the polyalphabetic cipher in 1467—and has been decoded as following:
One commentator takes Cossa as a name—specifically, the general of René of Anjou, the manuscript's addressee—and renders this, 'If my hope does not lie, you, Cossa, will not make my country ungrateful'. Another takes 'cossa' as things or activities, translating, 'You, my fatherland, will not do an unwelcome thing'. A little mystery goes a long way.


Thirty years later, the Florentine generation of Botticelli, Verrocchio and Leonardo was in full bloom. Painting was now as far from Lorenzo Monaco as could be: artists had mastered anatomy, spatial composition and perspective, individuation and facial expression, tonal colour, linear rhythm and the sort of narrative structure that Alberti had called istoria. (You see how far I have digested Berenson's narrative.) For a Piccolomini wedding in 1492, the following painting (among others) was commissioned from a Sienese artist known to us only as the Griselda Master:

Depicted is Artemisia II of Caria, wife of Mausolus, whose legendary tomb is shown being built in the distance to her left. Artemisia is shown with her husband's ashes, which she is said to have consumed in her drink, like an ancient and much prettier Keith Richards, as a mark of marital devotion. Her pose is similar to a Magdalene from the 1498 San Agostino Altarpiece of Luca Signorella, an inferior artist to whom the Griselda Master is often compared; here the urn becomes Mary's traditional attribute of an ointment-box.

One writer calls the Piccolomini commission 'one of the most distinguished and admirable examples of Tuscan figurative art from this period'. I show you this work because it makes me drool; its delicacy and beauty ranks with Botticelli and Leonardo. The figure seems to predict the distortions of Mannerism: her body is distended, and her head disproportionately small, like the entasis of a classical column. But it is very much of the late Quattrocento, nonetheless; not yet preoccupied, as the next generation would be, with the heroic and with literal form. The rendition of Artemisia's white gauze, her hands charged with gentle energy, the miniature perspective-study of the urn, the soft pink of her face against the silver sky, the Babelesque Mausoleum—all display that painterly tenderness which was at its most perfect in the two decades before 1500. It is the sort of achievement that, just for a moment, dispels my fascination with mysteries and symbols, which is to say with words, and pushes me only to look, and keep looking.

What is the relation, I wonder, of the history of taste to the history of knowledge?

09 April, 2007

The rhythm of response

God. Abraham!

Abraham. Here I am. . . The night is filled with thy voice. Here am I. What dost thou demand of me?

God. Thy son. Thy only son.

Abraham. What sayst thou?

God. Take now thy son, thy only son, Isaac, whom thou lovest, and go into the mountains where I shall show thee, and offer him there for a burnt offering.

Abraham. Wouldst thou I do even as the Canaanites, who lay their firstborn on fires before idols? Art thou truly the Lord my God?

God. Thou knowest.

Abraham. No! NO!

Abraham marches up the hillside, cursing and shrieking. He rests on a large rock.

Abraham. Thou wilt not ask this thing of me. . .
This dialogue is from John Huston's 1966 film The Bible, which would be more accurately titled Genesis 1:1-22:19, and which stars George C. Scott as Abraham, alongside such luminaries as Peter O. Toole, Richard Harris and Ava Gardner. You'll notice that this passage, like much of the film, is written (when it is not merely quoting) in a decent pastiche of KJVese; 'even as the Canaanites', especially, has a plausible ring to it. But how unlike the telling of this story in Genesis (22:1-3)—
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah: and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
The prose style of this passage has acquired a particular fame since Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, in which he contrasts it to a paragraph from the Odyssey. The Biblical epic style, he argues, is spare, shadowy, and psychological, where the Greek epic style is descriptive, bright, and essentially superficial. An equally illuminating contrast can now be drawn between the Biblical passage and its cinematic translation.


Huston presents his scene as a conflict of forces—in other words, as a drama. This is an obvious point, but it needs nonetheless to be stated, because our notion of narrative as drama is so deeply rooted that it tends towards the status of an unrecognised assumption. When stories from the Bible are retold, they are always told as dramas. But the Bible itself is virtually without drama.

At first, this statement seems flagrantly false. Isn't the entire Old Testament full of drama? From Adam's expulsion and Abel's murder to Job and the moral conflicts of Kings—the scripture narrates one conflict after another. But each scene, examined closely, turns out to be fundamentally undramatic. Take God's rebuke of Cain, for example—instead of a conflict of forces, we read this (Gen. 4:9-10):
And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
God does not answer Cain's question, but rather asks another of his own; both are rhetorical, not directed towards one another, but rather revealing inner states. God knows what has happened—for he hears the voice of Abel's blood—before asking Cain where his brother is. There is no meeting of forces, because in reality there is only one force—that of God. Cain is merely a foil, a dummy. Or take another example: the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:17-39). Here, again, Elijah stands in for the divine force; his success over Ahab's minions is so well anticipated that Elijah can nonchalantly flood his altar with water, and taunt the struggling villains:
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god, either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.
The prophets, like Cain, are a dummy, essentially one character although enumerated at 450. And what about that dramatic tour de force, the grandest and most heartfelt book of the entire Bible, not to mention the most beautiful—the Book of Job? In the Middle Ages the book was called a syllogism; but I find this account completely false. There is nothing reasonable in its resolution; the setup, in which Satan wagers God, has been forgotten by the end, and the arguments of Job's interlocutors have no role in its conclusion. Their claim that Job must have sinned is rebuffed without humility. Job is in this respect a Nietzschean hero, refusing to accept the arguments of a 'holier than thou' ressentiment. Here, perhaps alone in the Bible, there is some semblance of drama, although Job's outpourings are at right-angles to the speeches of his four visitors. God's final discourse offers no justification, and therefore no engagement with Job's plight—it asserts instead that God's majesty renders all human debate impossible. (We note, as with Cain, the introduction of this speech with a rhetorical question, 38:2: 'Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?') In dramatic terms, this is a cop-out; in the terms of the Old Testament, it is utterly sublime.


The story of Isaac's sacrifice, especially, is without drama. The narrative reads to us like a clockwork mechanism, with each participant contentedly playing his part in the whole. Abraham offers no resistance to God's command. And one of the insights of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (1843) is that if Abraham had offered resistance—if, in other words, there had been real drama—then he would not have been a paragon of religious faith. Kierkegaard opens his book with several retellings of the story, introducing into each a dramatic aspect, however slight. In one version, Abraham decides to convince his son that he is a monster, lest Isaac think ill of God; in another, Isaac looks up to see 'that Abraham's left hand was clenched in despair, that a shudder went through his body'. These stories show by contrast that the moral perfection of the real Abraham lies in his unquestioning obedience. This is why George C. Scott can only be a modern hero, conventionally pious, without obtaining the existentialist heights of the Biblical Abraham. It is why the Bible can never be filmed.

It is important to reiterate, however, that the Genesis narrative never states that Abraham is unquestioningly obedient; this is not an aspect played up in the text. The events just happen. Those who know the Bible stories well, but do not know the Bible itself, will be repeatedly impressed by this aspect of the scriptures. It is an aspect impossible to render on the silver screen; this is because cinema, like theatre, has moral drama—the conflict of wills—at its core. George C. Scott cannot merely do as God says, because that would not make any sense to us. He must protest; he must explicitly demonstrate the enormity of his charge. This is a question of rhythm—thesis, antithesis—a rhythm that we need to make meaning of narrative, as a reassurance.


If the Bible does not use the dramatic thesis-antithesis rhythm, what sort of narrative rhythm does it use? Perhaps many: but for the purposes of this post I am interested in the rhythm of 'call and response', where the response echoes the call, and makes it manifest. This rhythm is often achieved by perfect (or near-perfect) verbal repetition. It is established at the very beginning—'And God said, Let there be light: and there was light'—and carried to extraordinary lengths in Exodus 25:1-39:31, where God's elaborate designs for the ark and priestly vestments are executed to the letter, his imperative words transposed almost verbatim to a narrative voice, for pages on end:
And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. (25:10)

And Bezaleel made the ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half was the length of it, and a cubit and a half the breadth of it, and a cubit and a half the height of it. (37:1)
The same rhythm can be clearly seen in the Isaac-sacrifice passage (Gen. 22:1-3) quoted above: God tells Abraham what to do, and Abraham does it. It can even be seen in miniature within the first verse—God calls out for Abraham, and the patriarch replies, 'Here I am'. As Auerbach acknowledges, the latter's words really mean, I await your command: 'a most touching gesture expressive of obedience and readiness is suggested'.

Whereas the dramatic rhythm is dynamic, the rhythm of response is static. It underlines the relationship between God and man: God speaks, and man (if he is good) does. It also gives the Biblical narrative a timeless or eternal quality: when God and man are in accord, there is no change, because change is seen as deviation from an ideal, as in the archetype of Eden. It is characteristic that Milton uses this same rhythm in a key passage of Paradise Lost. Adam has come to understand his sin, and now repents—he assumes a voice of leadership, and action exactly follows intention. At the end of Book 10 (in the original 12-book edition):
What better can we do, than, to the place
Repairing where he judged us, prostrate fall
Before him reverent; and there confess
Humbly our faults, and pardon beg; with tears
Watering the ground, and with our sighs the air
Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeigned, and humiliation meek.
And at the beginning of Book 11:
. . . they, forthwith to the place
Repairing where he judged them, prostrate fell
Before him reverent; and both confessed
Humbly their faults, and pardon begged; with tears
Watering the ground, and with their sighs the air
Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeigned, and humiliation meek.
To make better sense of this I turn to a wonderful little book, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy's The Origin of Speech, written during the Second World War but only published in 1964. Nothing in this slim volume is true. . . but sometimes we need a religious man to tell us about language, and not a linguist or a historian. For ERH, modern communication is based excessively on indicative statements, and especially on abstract, 'reflective' statements of universal truth. This he regards as a negative deviation from an earlier and more 'authentic' mode of communication. (The narrative of decline is typical of religious writing.) In authentic discourse, statements of fact can only be understood in the context of other sorts of speech—imperatives, subjunctives, optatives, and questions. An order is given, and ratified by its execution; the execution in turn is ratified by the order which instigated it. As ERH puts it, '"Break" is said because "broken" will be said. And "broken" makes sense because "break" preceded it'. He invokes a curious fact well-worn by linguistic investigators—that in many languages, the imperative is morphologically the simplest form of the verb (for instance fac from fac-ere)—concluding from this that the imperative is also the earliest and most fundamental form of the verb, and therefore the most 'authentic'. In valorising the command-execution relationship, or in other words the rhythm of response, ERH insists on the necessity of a hierarchical separation between speaker and actor, for to remove this hierarchy would be to create a mob—an ochlocracy. Language is inseparably linked to politics and society, the ills of the latter being results of linguistic shortcomings. Anarchy, he argues, is the disease of speaking when one should be listening, as to God.

Can you imagine thinking like that, dear reader? No? Perhaps, then, that is why you are reading a blog about unreligious experiences.

06 April, 2007

Mah Nishtanah

The Wide-Eyed Man, a sensitive and atheistical soul for whom I have the highest respect, has recently written,
I am the defective one. An ordered relationship to myth is the natural state of humans. Even in our bodies there are rhythms, there is day and night. Our cells know hours and years. Without Eid-el-Fitri or Lent or Pesach, without Ganesh Chaturthi or Egungun, I am adrift. I cannot believe, but I am not freed of the longing for order that belief sates. My soul tires from marking three-hundred and sixty-five holy days in a row.
I protest! There is nothing natural about this man of myth and rhythms. He has succumbed to a dishonest lie; he has become less a man than a clock, and I shall have more to say, a lot more, about the clocklike man, very soon. It is best for man to be polyrhythmic, or even a chaos without rhythm. For him to say, 'I am the defective one'—why, is this not the very marrow of cultured hypocrisy? And when he refers so casually to that 'continuous ecstasy of wonder and pain' that is his life—quid tum? And this 'longing', this rage to order? It is bad faith, a disingenuity. Sometimes, says the Wide-Eyed Man, he looks 'enviously at those who have long stretches of "ordinary" days, for whom life isn't always a raging and signifying fire'. Behold, my friend—envy me. My sublimity, I do confess, is finite. He remarks, 'My soul tires from marking three-hundred and sixty-five holy days in a row'. Might I suggest waiting for—a leap year?


Man cannot live by bread alone, but must also partake of the meat of good lambs, of which I have two. These should be slaughtered quickly and prepared tastily with sage.

Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part Four, 'The Last Supper'.
The finest joke in the German language. As for me? This week I shall eat leavened and unleavened bread, and all kinds of herbs, undipped; I shall sit straight, and also reclining. Nonetheless, Seder having passed, and empty seats since filled, I trust that my friends Mr. Midshipman Easy and Simon the Apostate will at least raise a glass for me next Monday, as Pesach draws to a close. Le'chayim!

Die Peitsche

Or, 'Would Schopenhauer have appreciated the Varieties?' A parable:


I had a dream. I was a youth once more: my hair was flaxen, and my heart full of yearning. The Pessimist was my lover, and often I would see him strolling the market and town streets. I plucked geeseblooms with my fingers, singing to myself the liebeslieder he had taught me. The Grillen, who were once men, but now chirred their seed into the ground, were humming volubly overhead. I sang:
For true culture in the humanities it is absolutely necessary that a man be many-sided and take large views; for a man of learning in the higher sense of the word, an extensive acquaintance with history is essential. He, however, who wishes to be a complete philosopher, must gather into his head the remotest ends of human knowledge: for where else could they ever come together?
He loves me. I beamed, and the sun flowered me with kisses.
A man should not read too much, lest his mind become accustomed to the substitute and thereby forget the reality. Least of all should a man withdraw his gaze from reality for the mere sake of reading; as the impulse and the temper which prompt thought of one's own come far oftener from the real world than from that of books. . . The man of books lets it be seen that everything he has is second-hand; that his ideas are like the lumber and trash of an old furniture-shop, collected together from all quarters. Mentally, he is dull and pointless—a copy of a copy.
He loves me not. At this I let fall silver tears, swiftly becoming a brook, in which I saw reflected my own verlorn countenance. The Pessimist awoke me from my dream. I consider this ironical, as he is known in these parts for his exaltation of slumber, and still carries on his person that enchanted chalice with which men are led so often to dream. The Pessimist was agitated—he swatted about himself, as if covered with flies. 'Whatever is the matter?' I asked him. 'It is all the noise that bothers me so,' he said, and—
I must denounce as the most inexcusable and scandalous noise the truly infernal cracking of whips in the narrow resounding streets of towns; for it robs life of all peace and pensiveness. Nothing gives so clear an idea of the apathy, stupidity, and thoughtlessness of men as their toleration of this whip-cracking. The short sharp crack that paralyses the brain, tears and rends the thread of reflection, and murders all thoughts, must pain anyone who carries in his head anything resembling an idea.
Just then the Pessimist's truant son danced by, splashing in a marble fountain with a young flirt garlanded in exotic scents. Overhearing his father's words, he called out to his tanzliebchen: 'You shall dance and also scream to my whip-crack's brisk tempo! I did not forget the whip, did I?—No!'

The pretty girl, whose name was Life, chided him—'Please don't crack your whip so terribly! For well you know: noise murders thoughts'. What a terrible turn of events, I remarked to myself—that Life should agree with the Pessimist! Down the street, just at that very moment, a landsknecht was seen flogging his horse—and the truant son, no longer laughing but now in anguish, raced towards the beast, flinging his arms around its neck with a sob. He, too, could not bear the noise. Was it only I—I wondered—who not only could bear the noise of the whip, but—enjoyed it? Do I not, after all, take a whip to my mistress on a frequent basis? How she craves its schnalzing crack! She grows more loyal daily, and now and then she returns my blow with a comment or two. Is it true, then, that all lumber and trash is dull and pointless, a copy of a copy?

03 April, 2007


In 1889, there rose a situation that showed in what threatening depths the American genius [for neologism] was floundering. Notes & Queries, in May 11, appealed to its readers: "A New Word Wanted.—Correspondents of American Notes and Queries are requested to send suggestions for a word that shall express execution by electricity." The appeal was accepted as a linguistic challenge not only by the somewhat scholarly readers of Notes & Queries, who began juggling classical roots, but also by others whose response shows a deliberate departure from traditional spontaneity. The North American Review, plunging with zest into the etymological pool, suggested electrolethe. The Saginaw Evening News introduced electricide. The Century Magazine, noting some use of electricution, termed it "recent and colloquial." In the Congressional Record of August 9, 1890, reference was made to electrical execution as the Kemmler process, dubiously honoring not its inventor but the first criminal to experience its final solution. . . Electrocute, a hybrid of Greek electro- plus Latin –cute, eventually won out. But the folk had the last word. Before long, criminals were simply sent to the chair; and everyone, in the American way, got the picture.

— Mary Helen Dohan, The Making of the American Language. Incidentally, American Notes & Queries is still operating, although it has since shortened its name to ANQ and become much more boring. More here on pain and language, surely an underdiscussed topic, anon.

01 April, 2007

Miching Mallecho

In 1979, a previously-unknown manuscript was unearthed in the library of Winchester College, one of the top-performing public schools in Britain. The school's valuable library had not been catalogued since the nineteenth century, and even then the job had been done incompetently, by Ronald Busby (a descendant of Westminster's famous headmaster), an elderly Anglican master more interested in undressed adolescent bottoms than in the serious business of putting a historic collection to order.

It was therefore left to Peter Hithersay, a jobbing Moberly's boy under the supervision of the Under Master, to discover the text one afternoon—a printed pamphlet inserted into a 1714 Works of Shakespeare (ed. Rowe), containing what appeared to be a parody or burlesque of The Merchant of Venice. The text was close to the 1600 Quarto, and yet certain passages had been transpos'd, words replac'd with bawdier equivalents, and the whole abridg'd by almost thirtie per Cent. One of the most hilarious and disturbing aspects of this version was its author's suggestion that Shylock could barely contain his sexual desire for his daughter Jessica. The most controversial passage—and the one which no doubt got Hithersay his reputation among the other lads—is the following, from Act 2 Scene 5 (I reproduce from ECCO, which to its credit finally uploaded the pamphlet last year, though it remains hard to find):

It must have been thought particularly ribald in 1714 to give Shylock over to the excesses of Yiddish! The plot, however, thickened—for the renowned scholar E. A. J. Honigmann would notice, just two years later, the similarity of this bizarre text, never found in any previous edition, to the scrappy marginalia on an edition of the Quarto, now at the British Library, in a hand he identified with the 'Hand D' of the famous MS Harley 7368 of Sir Thomas More—a hand widely attributed since 1923 to the Bard himself. The connection was quite apparent; for instance, beside the final word ('girl') in the original of the sixth line quoted here was scrawled a list of 'alternatives'—goose, coun, bitch, hare. . . and piece, which Eric Partridge (Shakespeare's Bawdy) gives as a Shakespearean abbreviation for 'piece of flesh', used pejoratively of a young woman. The marginalia also experimented with Yiddishisms, although this particular example is not among them. So what, we might ask, was the significance of this scribbled jesting?

Honigmann conjectured that the printed 1714 text was the unique surviving copy of a closet libertine publication from the late 17th century, deriving originally from humorous notes that Shakespeare and his company added to one member's Quarto. The evidence supported Honigmann's disbelief in the common conception of Shakespeare as a playwright uninterested in the printed texts of his plays. The Bard, he argued, was sufficiently concerned with the reception of his written words to circulate a coterie publication of his 'obscene' Merchant. Naturally, the established Shakespeare authorities rubbished Hithersay's discovery as a forgery, and dismissed Honigmann's conclusions, with the same contempt doled out to Don Foster for his attribution of the infamous 'Funeral Elegy'. A racy account of the controversy is, in fact, one of the many amusing anecdotes in Ron Rosenbaum's recent bestseller, The Shakespeare Wars.

But in his 2004 book, Shakespeare as a Literary Dramatist, Lukas Erne, who follows Honigmann in regarding Shakespeare as a canny manipulator of the printed page, provides further evidence for the history. In 1597, a year before the first performance of Merchant, Philip Henslowe recorded seeing a comedy about a pederastic Jew filled with 'straunge canting Dutch termes'. Erne speculates that in late 1599, when Merchant no longer had any staging value, it was submitted for publication; Shakespeare recalled the comedy that Henslowe had witnessed, and which had comprised a minor source for his own play, and revised his own copy as a dirty joke for his theatrical associates. Thanks to the undercurrent of Restoration humour that produced John Wilmot and Thomas Urquhart, the joke retained its currency—not an aspect of the Bard's personality that had much mainstream popularity in the centuries to follow. But as Peter Hithersay proved so recently, Charles Dodd was more right than even he knew, when in 1752 he wrote of Shakespeare that 'all humours, ages, and inclinations, jointly proclaim their approbation and esteem of him.'