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entrepé wrinkled, nor the reffiron opened, nor the gingibert split, nor the pepillou flattened, nor the dame dau miech withdrawn, nor the tres out of place, nor the vilipendis scraped, nor the guillenar dilated, nor the barrevidau turned up, nor the os Bertrand broken, nor the bipendix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with the fingers and with the eyes, we find that she has the barres broken, the halerons displaced, the dame du milieu withdrawn, the pouuant rent, the toutons out of place, the enchemart turned up, the babolle beaten down, the entrepet wrinkled, the arrierefosse opened, the guilboquet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?


MMcM said...

Scan of Joubert's table online here.

Discussion of the list in this article, including some etymologies.

John Cowan said...

I think I may be suffering from farfalonis of the blowhole.

Phanero Noemikon said...

physiognomy compounds physiognomy,
and the slooshing and birthing of words, palabradobecobraham must in
the end be "par is" [for fun],
for the map is knotting the territory, physiognomy compounds compounded by physiognomy to be a compound physiognomy..

pharming the pluroma
(or perhaps just watering it
abit like Gargantua)

the mental / mentula
and the wyf were porte

it was another hard day
as a singularity vector

gorg-ant-ewer in

caliban's bistro

like Jesus we must all
eat at the Y
or be eaten by it's

firking frigging &

there is complexity,
complex stupidity,
stupid complexity,

and the salve of ontolgy
which renders it all

"brill cream"

like the quantum foam
it's neither wet nor dry
hence fulfilling some
riddle or another

some quilled g.ill[h[eart[h]]

the absolute instrumentality
of its instrumentulabia..

[or not!]

Languagehat said...

The system of understanding that they betray is no less a myth than the complex programme of modern science

Shouldn't that be "no more a myth"? Or am I missing your point?

Conrad H. Roth said...

LH: Ugh! Rookie mistake. Ah well, that's what happens when I rush something out. Fixed now.

MMcM: yes, thanks. I wasn't aware of the site. Good job!

Phan: Of course...

Raminagrobis said...

If there's a better word for shagging than 'gimbretilletolleter', I've yet to hear it.

Sorry this comment's not more substantial: suffice it to say I really enjoyed reading this and I'm intrigued to see where you'll go next with it.