29 June, 2007

Kitap Mitap: a shaggy dog story

For the last month, I've set up camp in the Rare Books room of the British Library, where between reams of Sotheby's catalogues I entertain myself with the perusal of unusual volumes—Maupertuis's 1745 Vénus Physique, for instance, or Cato's De Re Rustica (aka. 101 Uses For Amurca), which, in the 1934 Loeb edition bound with Varro, reveals behind its spine a column of paper pasted in from another little Loeb, so tantalising in its final words:
in other languag
ly. The variety
Sotheby's turns up a Vulgate on uterine (foetal) vellum; a manuscript ascribed to 'Anicius, Manlius, Severinus et Boethius'; Abu Ishak's Pole Star of Pleasure from Wines; and Rules for Roman Catholic Criminals, whose contents are described by the auctioneer as 'ludicrous and amusing'. It also turns up a Wycliffe Bible from the 15th century, sold on July 28, 1863, for the sum of 850 350 pounds—an enormous amount of money. To put this in perspective, your average Vulgate manuscript was going for around 6-20 quid. Update: Arnold Hunt, Curator of Historical Manuscripts at the BL, has been so kind as to send me (unsolicited) the July 28 entry from the diary of Sir Frederic Madden (1801-73, palaeographer and BL keeper of manuscripts). Madden notes the £350 sale of the Wycliffe with three exclamation marks, and comments:
The first three lots were purchased by Parker & Stevens for America! It is remarkable, what madness exists at present in regard to the MSS of the Wycliffite Versions of the Bible. Yet the man who would give the absurd price of £350 for a MS of the New Testament, of no particular value in regard to the text, would grudge £4 to buy a copy of my edition of both Wycliffite versions of the entire Bible with the various readings of all the best MSS extant!
Many thanks to Dr. Hunt for this additional contemporary insight into the sale. Perhaps Mr. Stevens had been swayed by the rhetoric of the catalogue note:
The extraordinary rarity of Manuscripts containing Translations of any portion of the Holy Scriptures into English is too well known to require comment, but is not to be wondered at when we consider that the mere possession of such an article, if it became known to the Priests, would have probably brought its owner to the stake. The followers of Wyclif were persecuted to the utmost as heretics, and the Transcripts of his Version seized and rigidly destroyed. Hence the difficulty to Bible-Collectors of finding any specimen to enrich their collections.
The persecution of Wycliffe is still a totem of mediaeval Church evil. But as David Daniell remarks, in his already-classic 2003 The Bible in English, nobody had ever been persecuted for reading a vernacular Bible before 1401. That year was when Henry IV passed his law De haeretico comburendo. And in 1408 Thomas Arundel, recently voted 'Worst Briton of the 15th Century', established his quasi-legal Constitutions of Oxford, the 6th and 7th items of which attacked Wycliffe and his vernacular Bible:
VII. CONSTITUTION. That the text of the Holy Scriptures must not be translated into the English language.

It is a dangerous thing, as Saint Jerome attests [Letter 57 to Pammachius, written in 395], to translate the text of the Holy Scriptures from one idiom into another, for in translation it is not easy to retain the original in all its senses, just as Saint Jerome, even though he had been inspired, still acknowledges frequent error; therefore we state and ordain that henceforth, nobody may by his own authority translate the text of the Holy Scriptures into the English language or any other, whether into a book, a booklet or a treatise, nor may anyone read any book, booklet or treatise recently written by John Wycliff or his associates, or any about to be written, either in part or whole, in public or in secret, under threat of major excommunication, until the translation has been approved by the local bishop, or if necessary the provincial council; whoso acts against this will be punished as a promoter of heresy and like errors.
Strange, then, that according to Daniell, and contrary to the Sotheby's writer, 'About twenty surviving [Wycliffe] manuscripts of the 1380s are of the whole Bible, almost ninety of the whole New Testament. Over 250 manuscripts survive, a larger number of copies than for any other medieval English text.' The Canterbury Tales, by comparison, exists in 64 copies. I can only imagine that by 1863 the majority of Wycliffe texts were already in official collections—there are dozens in the British Library, and in the Bodleian. The next part of the Sotheby's description allowed me to trace the manuscript:
The present copy, written in the old orthography, appears to have been purchased in May, 1576, by "Robert Ardern of Barwicke" from "Mr. Englatt the Mr of the singyng chyldren in Chryste Churche in Norwich" for "twentye shillings."
Robert Ardern here should not be confused with Shakespeare's grandfather, Robert Ardern (or Arden) of Park Hall, who died in 1556. Englatt of Norwich, however, is the lead we want, and points us to this manuscript in the New York Public Library. Among the ownership notes are some verses:
By chaunce this Holy Booke came to my view,
It's worth the keeping, for it's very true.
I haue not seene it's fellow, and believe
Nor any man, that is this day aliue.
Giue God the praise for this his auncient Work
Who hath preseru'd it both from Pope & Turk
Both wch if they might haue had their desire
Would haue exposed it vnto the fire.
But God will alwaies keep from such bad men
His holy Writt: Giue glory to him then.

12 Nouembris 1661.

The aforesaid Mr John Booker casually seeing this booke as it came from the binding forthwith composed & writ the above verses being affected with this Antient Manuscript.
Sotheby's, in fact, quotes these last lines, but not the verses, and finally remarks that 'John Booker was one of the antagonists of Taylor the Water-Poet'. We can do better than that. Booker (1601-67) was a professional astrologer, and a successful one. In the mid-century, English astrologers were divided into Royalist and Parliamentarian factions; Booker, and the more famous William Lilly, were on the latter side. (Booker's anti-Royalism was also an anti-Catholicism, as he accuses Charles of popery—associated in the above verses with the suppression of Wycliffe.) Principal on the Royalist side was George Wharton, who published almanacs and prognostications from 1641 under the anagram 'Naworth'. Booker attacked Wharton—'No worth'—in his 1644 Mercurius Coelius (The Heavenly Herald), and Wharton immediately replied with Mercurio-Coelico-Mastix (Scourge of the Heavenly Herald). Booker's next salvo was A Rope for a Parret, published on March 6th, two days after the appearance of Mercurius Vapulans, also against Wharton, by the pseudonymous 'Timotheus Philo-Bookerus'.

It was at this point that the aforementioned John Taylor, the 'Water Poet', famous Royalist satirist and pamphleteer, stepped in on Wharton's behalf. Taylor's No Mercurius Aulicus, subtitled 'the breaking of BOOKER, the Asse-tronomical London Figure-flinger, his perfidious Prediction failing, and his great Conjunction of Saturne and Iupiter dislocated', was published on July 10th. (Mercurius Aulicus, incidentally, being an important proto-newspaper produced by the Royalist John Birkenhead.) Taylor accuses Booker of slander and disloyalty to the King, and concludes:
Thus (Master Bookerus) I have anatomized and skellitonized your railing Pamphlet and ridiculous Prediction: it is known too well, that the expectation of some mischievous events was the ladder on which your meditations mounted. You were believed amonst a company of catacoxcombrian Plebeians, as amongst the Heathen the Delphian Oracle;
Readily apparent is the stylistic imprint of that great pamphleteer Thomas Nashe, whose work Taylor so admired ('Tom Nash a witty pamphlet did endite / In praise of Herrings, both the red and write', from In Praise of Hempseed). The same fantastical coinages—especially 'catacoxcombrian'—are fully in evidence in Taylor's pamphlet.

But what of Booker? The astrologer ups the ante in his own reply, published on July 19th—No Mercurius Aquaticus, 'but a CABLE-ROPE Double-twisted for IOHN TAYLER, the Water-Poet, who escaping drowning in a Paper-Wherry-Voyage, is reserved for another day, as followeth'. (The reference is to Taylor's penchant for taking wacky trips on the Thames in a paper boat.)
And now thou Thames Otter, thou Malignant Dive-dapper, thou Jack Tayler, thou Motley, Sea-green, Ditch-water villain, that hast more Malignant flowings and ebbings in thy Waterish Brains, then the Thames hath Tides. . . I perceive that your language is as foggy and fulsome as your Ale, your conceits smell too much of the Malignant Onions and Garlick of Egypt, you have so much Irish and Spanish, that I cannot understand you with my Wits.
It gets even better!
I shall goe no father than Mahomet and his Alcoran, and there I finde the word, Thorny Ailo, the wise Anagram of thy Name, to be thus Anatomized and Skellumatized. Thorny in the Arabicke, signifies a villaine, and Ailo in the Syriack a Rook, otherwise called in the Greek Abaddon, which being Englished, is a destructive Villaine; or an Antichristian Prick louse, which tacks together all sorts of Fustian, as impudent lies, Slanders, and far-fetch'd Bumbast, in the behalfe of Popery. . .
Notice that 'skellitonized' has become 'Skellumatized', after 'skellum', meaning a villain or scoundrel (compare Pepys). Booker goes on to suggest another anagram for Taylor—'Joyn Halter is a most compleat Anagram, than which none could ever have framed a better to speak thy deservings'. Also of interest to language geeks is Booker's mockery of Taylor's spelling of his own name (with 'or' rather than 'er')—a very unusual sort of criticism at the time:
What is the reason Sir, that you spell false? Is it because your Skellumship would not have the world to thinke, that your Pedegree was derived from such a Lowsy, Snip snap Originall, as to have thy Ancestors thought to be Taylers?
True enough, John Taylor did not stay silent. His reply, still in 1644 but undated, was Iohn Taylor being yet unhanged sends greeting. It is more of the same relentless raillery and invective, and seems to have been the last of the exhange. Taylor scoffs at Booker's silly wordplay, while suggesting his own anagram ('O Harty Lion'), and insists that his rival has only the wits to go where he leads:
As when Christopher Columbus (an Italian) first discovered some small part of the (then unknown) America, Vespusius (a Spaniard) sailing the year after, with the Chart or Card, Compasse, Mappes, and Mariners, that formerly Columbus had used, the said Vespusius discovered more Land, as the golden Peru, and other vast Continents, and at his returne (being at dinner with Columbus and others) Vespusius bragged that he had onely found that new and rich World, at which words the Italian took an Egge in his hand, asking Vespusius, if he could make the Egge stand on one end upon the Table, to which he answered, he could not do it, then the other said that he could do it, and presently he put the Egges end into the Salt, and it stood upright; then the Spaniard said, that he could do that tricke as well as he, to which the Italian replied, so you could finde America when I have shewn you the way.

It is a much-repeated story, known as Columbus' Egg, and has its own Wiki page. Taylor's telling is unusual on two accounts—first, it involves Vespucci by name, and secondly, Columbus stands up the egg by putting it in salt, rather than by breaking the bottom on the table, as is commonly recounted. The story comes from Girolamo Benzoni's 1565 History of the New World, and was itself lifted from a tale told by Vasari of Brunelleschi; it was probably known to Taylor via the 1613 Pilgrimes of Samuel Purchas—
Euen the Spaniards themselues, not only by the tale of the Pilot before mentioned [ie. Columbus], but by light esteeme of his worth haue shewed a contemptible contempt of him: some of whom obiecting to himselfe the easinesse of this Discouerie, as he sate at Table, he prayed to make an Egge, which then he gaue them, to stand on end; which when they could not, hee bruising the shell, and making the end flat, made it to stand thereon: thereby insinuating, how easie it was for them to doe that which they had seene and learned of him.
Why the addition of Vespucci to Taylor's telling? Men in the 1640s—Peter Heylin, for instance—were still suggesting that America had been misnamed, and should rather be Columba, or Cabotia. Thus the name of Vespucci gave the anecdote a particular sapor, although I do not know why Taylor thought him Spanish. The sand, again, I cannot account for. Perhaps Taylor wanted to show that, unlike Vespucci, he did not need to follow others; his solution is, if anything, more elegant than that of his predecessors.

23 June, 2007

On Academia, Part Two

(Part One here.)

In 1578, Laurent Joubert, the Montpellier physician whom we last met here, published his book Popular Errors, in which he takes apart medical superstitions and subjects them to good hard sense. In the most enjoyable passage, he quotes two reports, by midwives in Béarn and Paris, each of whom had been sent to determine if a particular woman had lost her virginity. Here is what the three Béarn examiners report, in Gregory de Rocher's semi-translation:
Whence we the aforesaid sacristans examined and scrutinized all with three lit candles, touched with our hands, saw with our eyes, and probed with our fingers. And we found that the podads were not rent, nor was the halhon displaced, nor the barbolo beaten down, nor the entrepé wrinkled, nor the reffiron opened, nor the gingibert split, nor the pepillou flattened, nor the dame dau miech withdrawn, nor the tres out of place, nor the vilipendis scraped, nor the guillenar dilated, nor the barrevidau turned up, nor the os Bertrand broken, nor the bipendix chafed. The whole we the aforesaid matrons and sacristans thus state by our report and fit judgement.
While the Paris report runs:
And all having been seen and examined with the fingers and with the eyes, we find that she has the barres broken, the halerons displaced, the dame du milieu withdrawn, the pouuant rent, the toutons out of place, the enchemart turned up, the babolle beaten down, the entrepet wrinkled, the arrierefosse opened, the guilboquet split, the lippion flattened, the guilheuart dilated, the balunaus hanging down.
It is an extraordinary array of formulas. (Points will be awarded my readers for imaginative and/or convincing etymologies.) Joubert draws up a table of the terms, comparing the Béarn list to the Paris, and concluding that all but two words correlate. The concern is purely formalist—as if matching one child's nursery balbolect to another's. For he correctly observes that only the dame dau miech or dame du milieu—ie. the hymen—is of consequence in determining the loss of a maidenhead. He writes, 'Let us leave undiscussed the other signs put forth by the matrons, in terms that are proper and peculiar to them alone, which are like terms of the trade, or a jargon of their craft, understood by very few people'. Note that in both cases, the examiners insist that they have observed with their hands and eyes—one wonders then if the midwives are barefacedly lying, or if rather they are wholeheartedly imagining the myriad parts of the genital anatomy, suffused in a cloud of mythical language.

At this point the academic steps in. He (or she) says that the words, more like incantations, serve to transgress the boundaries imposed on women by the authority of 16th-century medicine—the authority of the patriarchy. Like any dialect or private code, they are integral to the self-fashioning of a community, and protect the few from the many; they are thus akin, perhaps, to rhyming slang or shelta. The system of understanding that they betray is no more a myth than the complex programme of modern science, and perhaps one better suited to its time. References are made to blazon and emblem literature, to the dissection and anatomization of the body in the sixteenth century. Ong and Sawday are quoted. The academic probably insinuates that Joubert is a misogynist, and above all is excited by the graphic, militaristic nature of the language used to describe the results of performative intercourse. He (or she), heir to Bataille and Bakhtin, and to all their epigones, delights in the rupture of bodily surfaces, as a sublime metaphor for—well, for all that fine Marxist blather we know so well. Bataille, incidentally, would have loved these passages; compare the entry for 'epornuflate' from the exquisite Encyclopaedia Da Costa, penned by his followers just after the war—
To seize a patient by the right emfle and emarcillate him in a fixed arstene while keeping the free end of his pelin a short distance from the emorfilator. The verb is also used in the sense of dispersing fallions with blows from a charn.
With a pastiche of scientific jargon, as jargon made meaningless, Costa reinvents science as a fantastical art. That was in 1947. But it is the humanities, now, that are threatened and fascinated by the limits of meaning in jargon: hence this. Even 'meaning' itself has become jargonistic, despite the best efforts of Ogden and Richards—at In the Middle, a well-meaning commenter describes me as 'into meaningfulness as mourning the death of meaning'. Now this is just the sort of thing one learns to expect from readers of Heidegger. So is the academic's response to Joubert an adequate or interesting one? Is the table of synonyms worth analysis, or only unfettered delight?


The Romanian philologist Lazare Sainéan (Lazar Shineanu), in his classic two-volume La Langue de Rabelais (1923)—a copy of which I purchased triumphantly from the second-hand department of the UCL Waterstone's, for only twenty pounds, about three years ago—devotes an entire chapter to 'erotica verba', in which he lists all the naughty expressions and metaphors used by Rabelais and his contemporaries, including Noël du Fail and Bonaventure des Periers, even suggesting etymologies where he can. One of Rabelais's favourites is callibistris, a word for the cunt which, according to Sainéan, is 'still living in the Norman dialect of Yères, where it is employed as a term of affection'. Sainéan derives it from caille (quail) and the dialectal bistri or bichtri, meaning 'a plug to stop up a hole in a cask'.

But Rabelais is more interested in cocks than cunts—the wordlist for the former is much the greater, including caiche (cf. Italian cazzo), cotal, vietdaze, pine, courtaut, bracquemart (a sabre), balletrou, dressuoir and pendilloche. Fucking, meanwhile, winds up as brimballer (literally to ring clock-bells), bubajaller, gimbretilletolleter, rataconniculer, sacsachezvezinemasser, and so on. Sainéan argues that 'the writers of the Renaissance exhaust the subject, so to speak: the following centuries added nothing essential'. Rabelais and his friends were writing in the humanist tradition, embodied in Erasmus' De Copia, of finding as many verbal variants for the same concept as possible, so as never to repeat oneself. It was, in fact, a key point of classical rhetoric, and Augustine had memorably toyed with it—'Christ's sacrifice was prefigured by many rites [in the Old Testament], just as many words are used to refer to one thing, to emphasize a point without inducing boredom' (City of God, 10.10). Rabelais merely took this sober precept to a delirious extreme.

Laurent Joubert lived in the generation between Rabelais and Montaigne, heir not just to the linguistic innovations of his bawdy forebears, but also to the spirit of wordplay itself. The Popular Errors is crammed so full of anecdotes and stories that it resembles that Menippean hodgepodge, Le Moyen de Parvenir (1610), as much as its own intellectual successor, Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646). Sainéan, in fact, cites Joubert, who like Rabelais uses the metaphor of the field to describe the womb—champ de nature in Joubert, larrys ('terrain en friche') in Rabelais. The passage of the examiners is a grisly inversion of classical copia: thirty odd words referring to one thing (the hymen), or else to nothing at all. It is a suffusion of language without reference, the ultimate humanist sin—and in his 1560 Treatise on Laughter, Joubert had written scornfully:
I find another laughter, called agriogele, of the jabberer and blabber-mouth, who amuses himself with nonsense and banter, laughing fearlessly, without keeping himself in countenance.
Such a suffusion is exactly what is celebrated by the irrationalists of our day, who swarm to give signifier (word) an equal footing with signified (thing). (And, they might well argue, the signifier has been a slave to the signified for so long that it too demands affirmative action, not to mention reparations.) What else is language but a sort of endless babbling of podads and gingibert?

18 June, 2007


On Salvador Dali, Hitler, and the limits of political ethics.
In a vacillating era people are shy of anything absolute and autonomous; for this very reason then, we no longer care to tolerate either genuine fun or genuine earnest, either genuine virtue or genuine malice. The character of the times is patched and pieced together like a fool's coat, and worst of all, the fool buttoned in it would like to appear serious.

The Night Watches of Bonaventura (c. 1805)
In 2002, to coincide with a major exhibition of surrealist art at the Tate Modern, BBC4 commissioned a one-hour film about Salvador Dali's engagement with the Surrealists during the early 1930s. Written by Matthew Broughton, the film is called Surrealissimo, and you can watch it in six parts on YouTube, starting here. It has no more than two real characters—Dali himself, played with camp panache by Ewen Bremner—and his nemesis André Breton, Surrealist ringleader, for whom Stephen Fry was an excellent choice. The other parts are mere clown-figures, an excuse for various cultish British comedians—Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, Mark Gatiss, Matt Lucas, Ben Miller, and even Vic Reeves in a brief turn as Paul Eluard—to play themselves playing Surrealists.

The film centres around a real event that occurred on the evening of February 5, 1934. André Breton, having accused Dali of untoward activities—supporting Hitler, making fun of the Surrealist hero Lenin (in this painting), and generally being a bit of a creep—summoned the Spaniard to a 'trial' in his apartment on the Rue Fontaine, Paris:
Order of the day: Dali having been guilty on several occasions of counter-revolutionary actions involving the glorification of Hitlerian fascism, the undersigned propose. . . that he be excluded from Surrealism as a fascist element and combated by all available means.
Most of the surrealists signed the bill: Ernst, Brauner, Jacques Herold, Georges Hugnet, Meret Oppenheim, Perét and Tanguy. Tristan Tzara, René Crevel and Eluard, who were off sunning themselves on the Riviera, had already refused to sign—Eluard, whose Russian wife Dali had just nabbed. Nice chap! The climax of the film runs as follows:
Breton. Adolf Hitler. Adolf. . . Hitler. The most detestable man on our planet. Would Dali agree with this statement?

Dali. All disaster are beautiful to the Surrealist. Earthquake, rail accident, fire. . .

Breton. Hitler is a mass murderer.

Dali. So was the Marquis de Sade. Both men push back the boundary of taste to a fantastical extreme.

Breton. Dali admires mass murder?

Dali. The Surrealist must create his own logic, then never be consistent with it.

Breton. Dali admires Hitler?

Dali. He is a magnificent icon.

Breton. Breton asked Dali a direct question.

Dali. Yes! Hitler is a Cecil B. DeMille of massacre and death. He is a Surrealist.
Hitler was not yet a mass murderer in 1934, but we won't be pedantic. In a moment of horror, the Spaniard begins to speak in a tone quiet and distant, half awake, his eyes unfocused, while Fry-Breton rests his head in his hands, almost forsaking the whole affair:
I often dream of Hitler. Sometime he's dressed as a woman; sometime he is a woman. Sometime he is a man with six foreskin, twelve balls. I see him as a guardian angel too, standing over a crevice, filled with the dying. I see Hitler is looking at these people, their bones already sticking out. He is a spectacular sight.
Breton is tired and horrified—'Salvador, please. . .'—but Dali is not interested; he plucks a pamphlet from his jacket, rapping Breton in contemptuous accolade
This is your first manifesto: "Surrealism is thought dictated in absence of all control by reason and outside all moral and aesthetic preoccupation", I know it by heart. Understand? I am the true embodiment of this faith, more than any of you.
Dali is quoting the definition of surrealism in Breton's First Manifesto (1924): 'Dictée de la pensée, en l'absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale'.



Broughton had done his homework; he evidently read at least three chief sources for the event. These sources are Georges Hugnet's 'Petite contribution à la vie secrète de Salvador Dali', from the 1954 Figaro littéraire; Marcel Jean's 1959 History of Surrealist Painting; and the account in Dali's own Unspeakable Confessions—this being his last book, fadged up from conversations with André Parinaud in 1973. The line about Cecil B. DeMille comes from Hugnet (the translation is my own):
Implacably logical, Dali advanced like a steamroller over a piece of meat, whose extra-soft superstructures and con-rods were his head and limbs, agitated by the shocks of absolute conviction. From deduction to deduction, he was drunk with delight in his own logic. He implored the surrealists to be reasonable with themselves, and presented to them a Hitler who became, in his apologia, sort of a genial director of abomination, a Cecil B. DeMille of massacre and killing.
By amusing contrast, Marcel Jean notes that Dali, 'to his eternal credit, succeeded in creating an atmosphere remarkably unconducive to any rational and logical argument'. Hitler's genitals are also from Jean's book:
At the point in his speech where he reached the phrase, 'But, in my view, Hitler has four balls and six foreskins. . .' Breton interrupted him brutally with: 'Do you intend to bore us much longer with this damn nonsense about Hitler?'
And female Hitler is from Dali himself:
Lenin and Hitler turned me on in the highest. In fact, Hitler even more than Lenin. His fat back, especially when I saw him appear in the uniform with Sam Browne belt and shoulder straps that tightly held in his flesh, aroused in me a delicious gustatory thrill originating in the mouth and affording me a Wagnerian ecstasy. I often dreamed of Hitler as a woman. His flesh, which I had imagined whiter than white, ravished me. . .
Hugnet, Jean and of course Dali were all eyewitnesses, and they agree on many details. All recall Breton in a green suit; green was apparently his favourite. All remember Dali's multiple sweaters, each stripped off in turn, and accumulating on the floor in a thick heap, upon which he knelt, bare-chested, to declare his allegiance to the Surrealist cause. And all note the presence in Breton's office of Dali's painting Gradiva:

But just as with the Wittgenstein's poker incident, the accounts of Dali's trial also differ. Dali insists that he had a fever, while Hugnet remembers a cold; Jean, the most cynical of the three, thinks Dali was faking the illness for disruptive effect. Moreover, Dali and Hugnet recall the event as a clear triumph for Dali, whereas Jean's Dali was a figure of general mockery. We note with interest a remark from Ian Gibson's impressive biography of the Spaniard:
No strictly contemporary account of the meeting on 5 February has come to light. Later ones, including Dali's, conflict, and in several cases seem to incorporate anecdotal material from previous gatherings.
With the incorporation of 'anecdotal material' we seem to be in the realm of Q and New Testament source-studies. One must ask, likewise, why Dali's account of the incident is found in the 1973 Confessions, but not in the autobiographical Secret Life of 1943. The three synoptic accounts may have been eyewitness, but in the course of decades the memories have been warped by common experience, by the talk and thought that comes to make human history human history, and not merely an enumeration of facts.


Breton vs. Dali.

Hugnet writes, 'We were suddenly witnessing the encounter of the two tendencies of Surrealism—of the confrontation of two men, Breton and Dali'. This captures, in a nutshell, our abiding interest in the scene. For the conflict is essentially a meeting of two intransigent ideologies—Breton the communist, bourgeois despite himself, flirting with the irrational and unconscious, even with the violent, but remaining humane and moderate in his beliefs—and Dali the faux-aristocratic jester, an embodiment of irony, full of scorn, his politics utterly subjugated to his aesthetics, and to his sense of humour. (In his Confessions he writes, 'Politics seemed to me a cancer on the body poetic', and 'The defense of my own intimate interests seemed as urgent, proper, and fundamental as that of the proletariat.' Thus also, Conrad versus the modern academy.)

For Hugnet, Breton was outmatched: 'For perhaps the first time, Breton had met a Surrealist who took the system to its limits'. Dali was 'implacably logical', while his adversary was left gasping and fumbling for words. We can understand this–Breton had defined Surrealism as thought in the absence of aesthetic and moral control, a doctrine incompatible with the engagé communism being urged on the group by Louis Aragon. Dali shocked Breton, and Breton liked neither the shock, nor the fact that he could be shocked. For he himself had admitted no boundaries of taste, and yet here were just such boundaries—religion, fascism, and shit. How bourgeois! Had Dali been betrayed by a failure of nerve?

Jean is more cynical—his Dali paints shit and Hitler not from faithfulness to his own unconscious, but merely for notoriety. His Dali is dogmatic in his adherence to the original code of Surrealism—to the 'absence of all control by reason'—a code which was obsolete, even in 1934. But was it obsolete? Breton does not disown the doctrine in his second manifesto of 1930. In that document are two principal notes: the bitter rejection of former companions—Soupault, Desnos, Masson, Artaud, Bataille—and a reiterance of the old revolutionary creed:
[Surrealism] was then, and still is today, a question of testing by any and all means, and of demonstrating at any price, the meretricious nature of the old antinomies hypocritically intended to prevent any unusual ferment on the part of man, were it only by giving him a vague idea of the means at his disposal, by challenging him to escape to some meaningful degree from his universal fetters. . .

One can understand why Surrealism was not afraid to make for itself a tenet of total revolt, complete insubordination, of sabotage according to rule, and why it still expects nothing save from violence.
Similar statements are made in Breton's semi-autobiographical novella, Nadja, published in 1928. As important as political (Communist) revolution was to Breton, it remained subservient to the holistic revolution of the individual spirit, which had always been the central motive of Surrealism. That Breton put Surrealism before Communism was demonstrated by his 1932 expulsion from the Party. So I cannot believe that 'pure psychic automatism' was in any way obsolete in 1934—and in consequence I must believe that Dali's adherence to the doctrine, as a true Surrealist, was impeccable. The genuity of his erotic Hitler fantasies—that is less important. Dali was undoubtedly an épateur; but he was not superficial, and his very real understanding of Breton's intellectual hypocrisy is well attested by this passage in the Confessions:
There was no reason for me to stop telling one and all that to me Hitler embodied the perfect image of the great masochist who would unleash a world war solely for the pleasure of losing and burying himself beneath the rubble of an empire: the gratuitous action par excellence that should indeed have warranted the admiration of the Surrealists, now that for once we had a truly modern hero!
Dali's erotic Hitler had been pure harmless outrage; these words, on the other hand, are actually dangerous, for they demonstrate the proximity of avant-garde ideals, still with us today, to the indiscutable but indisputable aesthetic appeal of totalitarianism. The key phrase in this passage is 'gratuitous action', translating 'acte gratuit'—André Gide's expression for the unmotivated and sublime action, extolled as a liberation from the constraints of engagé collective activity, and even from the prison of rationality itself—
The acte gratuit, which is detached from any ulterior or utilitarian motive, springs from a sense of intentional irresponsibility. . . Whatever its various aspects are, the acte gratuit is the contrary of engagement, in so far as it deliberately rejects responsibility—it is a caprice as Sartre calls it.
In his 1914 novel Les Caves du Vatican, Gide had explored murder as an acte gratuit: his hero Lafcadio pushes a stranger off a train, with no good reason—lacking even 'motiveless malignity'—and proceeds to listen with amusement as Gide himself, in the character of a novelist, Julius de Baraglioul, explains the idea in abstractu: 'I don't want a motive for the crime—all I want is an explanation of the criminal. Yes! I mean to lead him into committing a crime gratuitously—into wanting to commit a crime without any motive at all.' André Breton greatly admired Gide's idea, as witnessed by the most famous passage of the second Surrealist manifesto:
The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.
But Breton's heart isn't it; a few sentences later he admits that it is only an allegory for the universal rebellion against all strictures of family, religion and State—an expression of the 'element of human despair', which must be coupled with its contrary, an affirmation of the 'gleam of light that Surrealism seeks to detect deep within us'. Those who try to trap Breton in contradiction are thus dismissed as 'bourgeois'. It is easy to see how, for a Dali, Breton lacks the courage of his radical convictions. If casual murder and the pistol in the crowd, why not the Holocaust? Mussolini and Hitler, as charismatic fascists, posited themselves as men become divine, not bound by the prisons of reason and reasonableness, and thus resembling the ancient monarchs, or the popes—as men whose actions required no common motives. That was the glorious myth of their régimes. And the culmination of their magnetism was in warfare, as recognised by Benjamin at the conclusion of his essay on the Work of Art—fascism makes war and politics aesthetic, whereas communism makes art political (and polemical). Likewise, we can see that Dali makes art of politics, but Breton makes politics of art; the two impulses are irreconcilable.

By 1945, both Mussolini and Hitler seemed like grotesque failures—the former with his risible military aspirations, and the latter with his egomaniacal world-plans, come to nothing. It was left to Dali to imagine their failures as the result of a sublime masochism—how better to aestheticise the political? How better to turn such a catastrophe into a great marvel?


Breton was a revolutionary, bourgeois contra bourgeois. Dali, in turn, revolted against revolutionaries. He extolled Meissonier at a time that venerated Picasso and Cézanne; he praised the old Catholic monarchs at a time of socialism and anticlericalism. He claimed to find Hitler erotic, true—but it was Dali, alone among the artists of the early 30s, who understood the gravity of Hitler's threat—he wrote to Breton in 1929 that it was imperative for the Surrealists to take a stand on the matter, which would only become more serious. It was a threat that fascinated him.

Dali was a sell-out, the prototype of Warhol—later he would advertise cigarettes, appear on gameshows, design lollipop logos, collaborate with Disney, and sign blank canvases. But at the same time he exposed faddishness and hypocrisy with a brutal humour. Nietzsche had called for a morality beyond good and evil, the criteria of the resentful oppressed. By 1930 the criteria of resentful intellectuals had become rather authentic and fake. Breton continually calls for 'moral asepsis', for a commitment to ideals. He admits, 'What could those people who are still concerned about the position they occupy in the world expect from the Surrealist experiment?' Salvador Dali was beyond authentic and fake—such was the strength of his irony. 'The only difference between myself and a madman,' he famously wrote, 'is that I am not mad'.

We bourgeois have not transcended our criterion of authenticity, which is why Dali is still routinely castigated for his post-1940 work, as a fraud and a charlatan. But to me—the more he lied, the more he swaggered, the more he punctured those pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity—the more interesting, and the more hilarious, he became. Dali took Surrealism seriously, just as long as it took him to expose its pretentions and dishonesty, rendering it useless. In truth he refused to take anything seriously for long, himself least of all—and that is the mark of a man who understands the threat of anything taken seriously. It is a genuine and incomplacent response to the horror of the modern world—the horror, for instance, of Hitler. It is, as Lear's fool knew, a sign of wisdom.

[Update: Is Dali like Dick Cheney? Update 10/07/08: more arguments with Yusef on this subject in the comment-thread here.]

15 June, 2007


Memories of a near-silent picture I saw, alone, at the National Film Theatre in October 1997. The film was Marlen Khutsiev's 1991 Infinitas (Beskonechnost); its extreme obscurity makes any second viewing highly unlikely, and so I cling to these fading recollections, more and more precious in the passage of time.


It is evening. A man is at home; he contemplates the street from his window, and mutters some remarks on life, on things coming to an end, in the quiet style of which the Russians and the French are so fond. He is old but not elderly, perhaps 50 or thereabouts; he possesses a sort of sturdy vigour. His name is Vladimir. (What name says 'Russia' more?) He decides to walk in the park, and sits on a bench beside a path that emerges from an arbour. Upon the path materialises a young woman, a silhouette in the glow of a dull sunset. She is probably beautiful; certainly muselike. Does Vladimir interact with her, or only observe? There is also a young man, who will recur throughout the film–a man who is, we are told, unless it was only ever in my imagination, Vladimir's younger self. When at last our protagonist returns home, he finds at his door a queue of proletarians clamouring to take objects from his apartment. This does not appear to surprise him, although there is no indication that he had been expecting such an event. He allows them to dismantle his home and carry off his possessions into the grey unreality beyond the frame of the camera. Again, Vladimir leaves. He decides, if I am not mistaken, to return to the town in which he was born.

The film is in colour, but I remember it in black and white, and I remember it as if it were me walking in the park, and me encountering the rabble at my door, although my recollection of the scenes is indistinct and without focus, as if it were only the fact of the memory, and not the memory itself. Or again, it is like that sort of memory which is so old, and so ritualised in one's mind, that one is no longer sure if it is real, or only the echo of a dream.

The film is almost three and a half hours long, with an intermission, and virtually no dialogue. There is a protracted reminiscence, repetitive and monotonous, of the War, of soldiers marching and drilling endlessly, and this part of the film, I believe, was genuinely in black and white, as if composed of old footage. There are trains and platforms—I remember the whistles. And there is an evening scene, a soirée, with a Strauss waltz as accompaniment.

What I remember most vividly, but still without clarity, is the film's conclusion, a long moment of deadpan poetry. Vladimir is, let us say, stranded in a field, huge and dull. A great clamour has passed on, perhaps the War, leaving in its wake a terrible quiet. He sees his younger double, and something about the double's appearance tells us that this is the last time, and indeed, that the film is about to end. The two men walk together, along a train-track, abandoned—they are talking, but we do not hear their conversation, or else we hear a little, and the rest is inferred. Again it is evening, and the sky is luminous, suggesting that ambivalence of the human soul as it comes to rest, wanting nothing, empty of moment. I recall an almost overwhelming sensation of satiety, of a journey without purpose. Soon the two men, Vladimir and himself, stray from the track, and descend into a darkened area, perhaps wooded. They emerge at a stream. The youth immediately dashes across, extending his hand to the protagonist. Come over, he says, you can make it across. Vladimir shakes his head, and indicates that he will cross a little farther up, where the way is easier. So they walk side by side upstream, parted by a few feet only, glancing at each other, still able to converse; the older man gestures continually, nodding and pointing ahead. The youth, for his part, continues to beckon, with a wide nonchalant sweep of the arm. Ahead, up ahead, Vladimir points. The stream is widening in a gradual calculus, almost imperceptibly. The men begin to stride, with added urgency, and the camera follows them from above; its eye does not flinch, but rather is steady, or as I have just put it, deadpan. The measured calm of the camera, divine but without judgement, indicates the ineluctable—the immobility of two men, who are really one man, playing a set part, as if in a dream. The stream continues to widen. Small bushes separate the men, and yet they continue to talk; then thickets, until they can hardly see one another. Their talk is lost in the noise of the waters, for the stream is now a river. We follow the water, from above, leaving Vladimir behind, and his double also, and at last the camera pans upward, showing no longer a river—but now, rather, the sea itself.


This scene is doubtless an allegory for modern Russian history. I do not know any Russian history, and I am glad—for if I did, that sequence of river and sea could only have been less beautiful. On the way back home I crossed the Hungerford Bridge—the old iron one (now extinct), narrow with a frail railing, badly painted and unlit, and from which you could see beneath your feet the waters of the Thames, dirty old river, green and viscous—a young couple were canoodling passionally within view of St. Paul's, lit up in the distance, grey and bright in the plum dusk. Nobody at school was interested in silent Russian films.

12 June, 2007

A health to the company

Otia Imperialia, Book II, chapter 17:
It was Hengist's daughter who introduced the well-known custom of extending a solemn invitation to drink by saying, 'wes hāl', which means 'be merry'; to this the guest in turn replies: 'drink hāl', that is, 'drink merrily'. In the British tongue the corresponding words are cantinoch and boduit.
Nowadays we write, 'wassail' and 'drink hail'—and that's 'hail' as in hale, ie. whole or healthy, rather than merry. According to the OED, the words are not attested as toasts in either Old English or Old Norse, but were probably first used as such by the Danes in England; the earliest reference is from Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in English from Lawman's translation of Wace's Brut, itself based largely on Geoffrey. The first time I toasted a health with Mrs. Roth—it was a small glass of port, my favourite drink, which she was happy to essay, and relieved to enjoy, on the occasion of her 30th birthday, spent in the City of Love; we were not yet married, but on our way—I softly called 'wassail', and was disappointed not to receive the correct response. (You say I have unreasonable standards? This I expected purely because she counts herself a mediaevalist, and an Anglo-Saxonist to boot. Still, she knew for next time.)

Gervase's editors footnote thus:
Professor Patrick Sims-Williams and Dr Marged Haycock suggest that cantinoch could be Old Welsh (or Cornish or Breton) can(t) tin uch, meaning 'with bottom up', while boduit could be Old Welsh (or Breton) bod (d)it, meaning 'goodwill to you' or 'thanks to you', influenced by Middle Irish is buide duit, 'it is well for you', or else equivalent to Modern Welsh boddwyd, 'it/he has been drowned', which is used metaphorically to mean 'celebrate'. The word can is attested in Welsh from the beginning of the seventeenth century with the meaning 'tankard'; it is quite conceivable that this loanword from English can was in the language for centuries before its first attestation, in which case the phrase would mean 'tankard bottom up!'
I was surprised to discover that the OED reliably attests 'can' as far back as 1375, from John Barbour's The Bruce—surprised because I'd assumed the word to be an abbreviation of 'canister', which, however, only appears in English in the late 17th century, and then as a learned classicism. 'Canister', it turns out, has a Semitic root, by way of Greek, while the ulterior origins of 'can' are unknown.

I approve of toasts. Not enough are drunk these days; the joy of tradition has given way to a flaccidity of least resistance. I make it a point of honour to toast when drinking in company. I approve of the call-and-response, too—it seems especially appropriate for a toast, as a means of encouraging participation among drinkers, or more generally, as an impediment to carelessness. To drink with a man must be to test his credentials as a man. How delightful, then, that the toast prescribed by the Royal Navy for Saturdays should be:
To sweethearts and wives—
and that one's compotators should respond, whether audibly or not,
. . . pray they never meet!
In two weeks Gawain is coming to visit. He has promised to bring port—real port, bought in Portugal—and I shall insist, of course, on a toast. No doubt I shall learn a Polish tradition or two; but I trust, in the meantime, that when I say 'wassail' he will be able to respond with assurance.

09 June, 2007

On the marvellous

I'm sitting in our bright new flat in Cricklewood. The early June is quite cold. That I shall take with me—the American quite. Panama, lizardskin boots, bolo tie. Every other memory of Arizona is but a dream of an ancient and unreal past. The sun is setting dully over the suburban gardens, over the trampoline, the koi pond and overwrought fountain, and the brick shed with stained glass in the windows, in a vaguely art nouveau style, to match the front doors so common in northwest London. I can still taste my dinner—a little ham and mature cheddar, and tapas olives soaked in garlic and chili. On the table is a copy of Rabelais and his World, purchased today for a mere 4 quid from a shelf of books formerly belonging to Angela Carter. Sadly it lacks annotations. A thousand ideas clamour in me, ideas for posts, let us call them essays, some requests, from the likes of Mencius and Goodwin—the only Valver who, bless his heart, condescends to read the Varieties—requests which I have been admittedly impunctual in fulfilling, but which I have not forgotten.

You know this Seamus Heaney poem, don't you?
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'

The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
(No? Well, it's very famous.) The poem is part viii of his poem 'Lightenings', from the 1991 collection Seeing Things. You know it because Heaney chose to read it when he was given the Nobel Prize a decade or so ago. He evidently considers it very special. Others consider it special too. Apparently there's just something, well, marvellous about it.

The poem is based on traditional Irish materials from the late Middle Ages; the earliest hint of the story comes from the Annals of Ulster for 748. But compare another account of the legend, this one from a Briton in France—Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperialia, written for Otto IV around 1215, contains this splendid passage (book I, ch. 13):
A strange [supereminentiam] event in our own times, which is widely known but none the less a cause of wonder, provides proof of the existence of an upper sea overhead. It occurred on a feast day in Britain, while the people were struggling out of their parish church after hearing high mass. The day was very overcast and quite dark on account of the thick clouds. To the people's amazement, a ship's anchor was seen caught on a tombstone [lapido tumulo] within the churchyard walls, with its rope stretching up and hanging in the air. They were advancing various opinions on the matter to each other, when after a time they saw the rope move as if it were being worked to pull up the anchor. Since, being caught fast, it would not give way, a sound [uox] was heard in the humid air as of sailors struggling to recover the anchor they had cast down. Soon, when their efforts proved vain, the sailors sent one of their number down; using the same technique as our sailors here below, he gripped the anchor-rope and climbed down it, swinging one hand over the other. He had already pulled the anchor free, when he was seized by the bystanders. He then expired in the hands of his captors, suffocated by the humidity of our dense air as if he were drowning at sea. The sailors up above wasted an hour, but then, concluding that their companion had drowned, they cut the rope and sailed away, leaving the anchor behind. And so in memory of this event it was fittingly decided that that anchor should be used to make ironwork for the church door, and it is still there for all to see.
Now, whose story is more interesting? Heaney's ending is a damp squib—it lacks power, lacks guts. I was flicking through Seeing Things today, and found it consistently gutless. It is weak to explain the meaning of one's own wordplay, as Heaney does at the end of 'Lightenings'. And tone-poem haikus hardly seem impressive from so established a poet. Likewise, 'So / They did, the freed ship sailed' is pure bathos. There is no tension, in Heaney's poem, between the world of the celestial sailors and the world of men; there is a lack of ideas.

In Gervase's version the people of our world are far less benign. It is telling that the anchor catches not on 'altar rails' but on a tombstone or burial mound. The bystanders do not aid the celestial visitor, but seize and hinder him. Tension between heaven and earth is established by the fact of the sailor's death—suggested as a possibility by Heaney, but daringly actuated by Gervase. It is, for the mediaeval, a dumbshow retelling of the life of Christ himself. Heaney feels the need to make the metaphor obvious—'he can't bear our life here'—but Gervase is happy to remain at the level of the literal; that is the quiet strength of his tale.

Gervase tells the story for a reason. He is attempting to justify the mediaeval doctrine of the 'upper water', follwing Genesis 1.7: 'And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so'. The upper water was, one presumes, originally suggested by the phenomenon of rain. But ever since Augustine's commentary on Genesis, theologians had been hammering away at it. Bede, thinking of the Milky Way, postulated that the water was frozen, for the purpose of cooling the fire of the stars, appearing to us as a 'stretched hide'. William of Conches, writing around 1150, dismisses Bede's theory for the simple reason that fire melts ice; for William the Milky Way is a mere trick of the light, and the upper water is just vapour. Robert Grosseteste summarises more views about the two waters in Part One of his Hexaemeron (1230). But Gervase isn't so interested in the subtle disputations of his forebears; he prefers to tell fables, poetic articles of faith. The story of the celestial sailors is followed by an anecdote in which a seaman drops a knife overboard, and back home, halfway around the world, his wife sees the same knife fall through a skylight onto the kitchen table. This is the marvellous as Gervase knows it.
In huius itaque rei memoriam de ancora illa ferramenta ostii basilice illius prudenti consilio fabricata sunt, que et publico patent conspectui.
Stuck in the world is a remnant of the beyond, reused as 'ferramenta ostii basilice', ironwork for the church door, woven into the fabric of a spiritual architecture, as befits such a fragment. I like to imagine a triple play between ancora (anchor), ancorita (monk) and ancora (hanc horam: still, yet). In Gervase's world—in mine, I think—the sublime must leave a trace of itself, token and totem, in the realm of experience—else it would remain only a dream of an ancient and unreal past. Indeed, the world is itself as a continual accretion and fashioning of the shells of the marvellous, extinct embers of the most divine and most eternal fire. This, therefore, is what I want: a poetry of ideas.

Update: J. J. Cohen, professional academic and founding member of the mediaevalist blog In the Middle, links. Fancy, two posts on Gervase's sailor-mirabilium in the space of a week! Cohen writes: 'When "our" previously invisible air becomes weighty enough to function as someone else's sea, then "our" skies become the currents by which the medieval archipelago exuberantly connects difference to sameness in unanticipated ways.' I have no idea what this means, but it sounds grand, doesn't it?

Update #2: Ray Davis condescends too.

01 June, 2007


Steven Augustine recently interviewed, or rather intraviewed, the novelist and épateur Gerard Jones. I'd never heard of Jones, but Augustine is quite a fan of his first novel, Ginny Good. The exchange is fascinating as a record of weakness—at first, the weakness of backhand serves praying for aces, boringly deflected by Augustine's subject—then the weakness of a continuous rally trying desperately to bat the same ball—and finally, as Augustine makes a discovery and starts pinching the right nerves, the weakness of Jones' neurosis emerging in insistent repetition. Go read it.

I said to Steven that I've long wanted to interview someone for the Varieties, someone beyond the world of blogs, someone 'out there'—not necessarily eminent, but with whom at least I might make some timeworthy waves. The question is who. Any suggestions?

Back to London today. A good weekend to you all.