17 August, 2007

On Etymology, Part 3

Everybody is trying to demystify everything. We're trying to do the opposite, to mystify again. We're in a constant battle against medicine, science and religion. — Ed Clontz, editor of the Weekly World News.
The third and final part of our history rests with the mystics. It is hoped that readers who found Part Two a little colourless will find more to enjoy here. This post is intended less as a lecture, and more as a wandering, into the unknown, and perhaps—if we were to trust our subjects—into the unknowable.


Fulcanelli, Le Mystère des Cathédrales (1922)

I bought this book online, several years ago. I do not remember what possessed me to order it; but I do remember that it arrived in the post just before lunchtime, when my parents and I took off for a disappointing meal at Chutney Mary on the Kings Road—and that Fulcanelli was thus first perused as I walked to the restaurant—and that he lay dormantly beside me as I chowed down on overpriced Indian delicacies. The book is not beautiful—a cheap American paperback, with an unusual vellum-white cover and gilt titles, the card of the flaps glazed and grained:

As Michael, commentateur extraordinaire, remarks below, I should have invested in a French copy. After all, I can read French. But I did not—and so the Truth must remain at an even greater remove for me. Perhaps it is for the best. I notice that editions of occult books will magnify and mythify the authorial persona by paratext; accordingly, we find inside the present volume a hagiographical preface to the first edition by Eugene Canseliet, a preface to the second edition also by Canseliet, a bibliobolical preface to the American edition by Roy Thompson ('a unique and never-to-be-forgoten experience in the universe of word and letter'), a wide-eyed introduction by Walter Lang, and finally, at long last, the text itself, which begins with—dear God—an expository introduction by Fulcanelli himself.

Le Mystère des Cathédrales argues, or rather asserts, that the elaborate stoneworks of French cathedrals—Notre Dame de Paris, Amiens, Bourges—are coded representations of alchemy and apocalyptic prophecy, texts in stone for adepts of all eras to decipher. Its author, an unknown French occultist of the early twentieth century, goes by the name of Fulcanelli—and just as Epictetus had his Arrian, and Plotinus his Porphyry, so our author must have his own disciple, Eugene Canseliet, through whom his works are published.

Now, alchemy is one of the dullest subjects known to the historian. So what can the hunter of marvels find in the Mystère? Presently we are after the 'phonetic cabala', a 1920s sort of expression for Isidorean etymologics through an occult lens. In his second preface Canseliet distinguishes between cabala, which discovers the 'voice of nature' behind a screen of words, and the Jewish Kabbala, 'full of transpositions, inversions, substitutions and calculations, as arbitrary as there are abstruse'. The former word is derived by Canseliet from 'καδάλλης [sic] or the Latin caballus, a horse', recalling Giordano Bruno's play on the two words in his title, Cabala del Cavallo Pegaseo.

One might think that the phonetic cabala should be done in some ancient, mystical language, like Hebrew or Greek. But Fulcanelli disagrees—for French itself derives directly from Greek, even in its slang (argot); as he writes in his second book, Les Demeures des Philosophes, 'We resolutely assert, without denying the introduction of Latin elements into our idiom since the Roman conquest, that our language is Greek, that we are Hellenes, or more exactly, Pelagians'. He cites an impressive list of authorities for this view, none of whom I have come across before: J. L. Dartois, Granier de Cassagnac, J. Lefebvre.

So here is what the phonetic cabala looks like—and it should look familiar:
For me, gothic art (art gothique) is simply a corruption of the word argotique (cant), which sounds exactly the same. This is in conformity with the phonetic law, which governs the traditional cabala in every language and does not pay any attention to spelling. The cathedral is a work of art goth (gothic art) or of argot, cant or slang. Moreover, dictionaries define argot as 'a language peculiar to all individuals who wish to communicate their thoughts without being understood by outsiders'. Thus it is certainly a spoken cabala. The argotiers, those who use this language, are the hermetic descendants of the argonauts, who manned the ship Argo.
This passage is a very stylish example of the sort of etymologising we have seen from Isidore through to Tooke and Whiter. It plays variants on the same note, proteanesque, transforming Gothic architecture—the book's overt subject—into occult cant, and then into an allegorised Argo, searching for the Golden Fleece as a symbol of hermetic truth. Thus the themes of the work—the principles of the world—are bound together in an elegant linguistic arabesque.

But beyond Fulcanelli's introduction, we start to lose our self-satisfied command of the material. My role, therefore, cannot be that of a guide, let alone that of a seigneur, able to course around his domains in a carriage of books, with wheels of well-oiled and effortless erudition. I have become a tourist, like you, and a cynical one at that. Pococurante, I grow bored quickly. Thus I find Fulcanelli's disquisition on the 'Cyclic Cross at Hendaye', appended to the 1957 edition of the work (according to this website), to be greatly unsatisfying, especially in comparison to the passage quoted above. The church cross (above, in the photograph from the Mystère), contains this legend, transcribed by Fulcanelli:


'Certainly', writes Fulcanelli, 'it is easy to recognize the well-known phrase, O crux ave spes unica (Hail o cross, the only hope).' But our guide thinks that the shifting of the 'S' to the first line was no accident, for the workman must have 'traced [the letters] first in chalk or charcoal'. It is obvious to Fulcanelli that
The letter S, which takes on the curving shape of a snake, corresponds to the Greek khi (X) and takes over its esoteric meaning. It is the helicoidal track of the sun, having arrived at the zenith of its curve across space, at the time of the cyclic catastrophe.
The displacement of the letter is a clue that we are to read the inscription according to the esoteric phonetic cabala—and here Grasset d'Orcet's name is mentioned. The involves re-reading the apparent Latin in French, the 'language of the diplomats', 'by making use of the permutation of vowels'. Thus the new 'strange' sentence runs as follows: 'Il est écrit que la vie se réfugie en un seul éspace'—It is written that life takes refuge in a singe space.

Now, if you're thinking that this is utter bullshit, then, well, I'm with you. This announcement might surprise my readers, given the tenor of these posts in favour of the implausible but creative etymology. But the thing is this—in wordplay, as in all else, we have nothing if we have no standards of taste.

The stretch here is just too far. The exegesis has no elegance, is too random, too arbitrary. Can we see 'Il est écrit. . .' in the inscription? Well, if we change the vowels from OCRU to ECRI, and VE becomes VIE, and SPES becomes SPACE, then—oh, now we're stuck. Shouldn't it have been unique, rather than seul? And why should S correspond to chi? The whole thing lacks conviction. It lacks the sublimity of imagining art gothique as argotique. But you see that we are reduced to making bland pronouncements of taste. I cannot tell you anything of interest. I can only point. My analytical powers are lying dormant, and so, I suspect, are yours. This is not what we want from our texts. Fulcanelli's words have become like the walls of London, almost unable to speak. Or else Panurge's wall of contrapunctums ('Beware, in the name of the devils, and hold off'). It is a most upsetting state of affairs. Thus I take the old shortcut, out of weariness—I pray you will forgive me—and look towards context, history.


Intellectually, Fulcanelli could not have been more rooted in the currents of his time. With the rise of Bopp and his friends in the 1810s and 20s, etymological speculation of the Isidorean variety, uninformed by historical scholarship and phonological theory, could no longer be seen as a science, and so became instead the province of the arcanist. Whiter and Murray were the last throes of Isidoreanism in the English-speaking world; the locus of innovation shifted to France. The first great hero of this movement was Antoine Fabre d'Olivet, who published his masterpiece, The Hebraic Tongue Restored, in 1815, a year before Bopp's first foray into comparative philology.

I discovered the existence of HTR, of all places, in John Carroll's introduction to his edition of Benjamin Whorf's Language and Reality—in which Carroll notes Whorf's interest in the theories of Fabre d'Olivet and James Byrne (1820-1897), which is not too surprising, given Whorf's vaguely mystical proclivities. HTR is a really fun book, and weaves the sound-symbolism of de Brosses (via his successor Antoine Court de Gébelin) into a translation of, and commentary on, Genesis 1.1—9.29. The translation is prefaced with a Cratylean dictionary of Hebrew 'roots', ie. sound-clusters, with notes on Arabic; a typical example is—
אץ ATZ. Every idea of bounds, limits; of repressing force, term, end. The Arabic اص expresses in general, that which is closed and restricted; the central point of things. The Chaldaic אץ contains every idea of pressure and compression.
This reads very much like an early version of Pokorny or Watkins; the essential difference is revealed by the prefatory note, which admits that 'it is only in the third place and in an indirect manner that [the list of 'roots'] can be of use in establishing the etymologies of Greek or Latin, because these two tongues having received their first roots from the ancient Celtic, have with Hebrew only coincidental relations given them by the universal principle of speech'. In other words, Fabre d'Olivet still essentially believes, as did de Brosses, that the root sounds possess natural ('universal') symbolism. He notes at the beginning that he might easily have written on the other two Oriental tongues of significance, namely Chinese and Sanskrit—and I wonder if he is one of the earliest Western arcanists interested in, and knowledgeable about, Sanskrit. (No doubt Michael will have something to say on this subject.)

Fabre d'Olivet's translation, meanwhile, reads like a pastiche of Heidegger:
At-first-in-principle, he created, AElohim (he caused to be, he brought forth in principle, HE-the-Gods, the-Being-of-beings), the-selfsameness-of-heavens, and-the-selfsameness-of-earth.
In other words, 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth'. The idea is that each syllable in the original Hebrew, having a compressed mystical significance, is spelled out in its full range of meaning, producing something more like a gloss than a translation. Fabre d'Olivet engages in Isidorean analysis and etymological play, as well, such as this, from his footnote to Hebrew thebah, 'ark' (also the boat of rushes in which Moses was placed by his mother):
It has so many significations that it is difficult to assign a definite one. It is, on the one hand, the symbolic name given by the Egyptians to their sacred city, Theba, considered as the shelter, the refuge, the abode of the gods. . . The name of Paris, I say, is only the name of the Thebes of Egypt and of Greece, that of ancient Syparis, of the Babel of Assyria, translated into the tongue of the Celts. It is the vessel of Isis, (Bar-Isis) that mysterious ark, which, in one way or another, carries over the destinies of the world, of which it is the symbol.
(Note: the connection of Paris to Sybaris would be repeated in Hugo's 1862 Les Misérables: I do not know if he had it from Fabre d'Olivet, or from an intermediary source, or from a tradition antedating the arcanist, or if he simply arrived at it independently.)

Fabre d'Olivet's innovation, as far as I can tell, was to translate the Isidorean idiom into the burgeoning culture of arcanism. I am not aware of an earlier work, and certainly not in the modern world—with a growing knowledge of Oriental languages and their history—that so thoroughly applies a (spurious) analysis of etymological roots to the mystical study of a text. I am reminded somewhat of mediaeval commentaries on Vergil, but the etymologising in those texts (sibyllus from Greek sios (= 'theos') boulos, 'divine counsel') is still primitively Isidorean and piecemeal. Fabre d'Olivet is Chateaubriand bullshit.

And The Hebrew Tongue Revealed must have been a beacon for the arcanists of the later nineteenth century—for Grasset d'Orcet on Rabelais, for Henri Boudet on Celtic and Rennes-les-Bains, for Jean-Pierre Brisset on the origin of language, and for Fulcanelli on French cathedrals and alchemy. I own all these books (except Grasset d'Orcet), so I know whereof I speak when I say that it's all much the same, with variations. I regret to have led you thus far and offer you in the end only a melancholy aporia. But there it is. Fin de siècle.


In his Grasset d'Orcet piece, Raminagrobis writes:
Lacan was an inveterate punster in the best Rabelaisian tradition: consider his 'le nom du père'/'le non du père'/'les non-dupes errent'. Same thing. Grasset d’Orcet’s madness is not so far removed from the post-structuralist manias of the late twentieth century.
When I met Raminagrobis a fortnight ago—and I was stunned to discover that it is in fact his real name—I said, over drinks in a Cambridge pub, a fine bright day, and over my copy of Fulcanelli, which I had brought to read on the bus, that I thought one could make a bolder statement than 'not so far removed'. I speculated that there was a direct lineage from Grasset d'Orcet and Fulcanelli (and therefore from Fabre d'Olivet, de Brosses, and so on) to Lacan, Derrida and the postmoderns. Lacan, after all, was an affiliate of the Surrealists in the 1930s and 40s. He married Bataille's widow Sylvia in 1963—Bataille, who was a prime source of pseudo-arcanist punning among the Surrealists. Lacan knew Bréton, who knew Canseliet, and who had included Brisset in his Anthology of Black Humour. Duchamp was another link in the chain, as were Freud and Jung—the one fascinated by puns and antiphrasis, the other by arcanism. Many more such connections could easily be established. But we have lost our way—we are groping with black words in fields increasingly white, opaqued. Now and then we see a sign, comme dans un steppe de Russie, un feu de voyageurs abandonné sur la neige, and it is, perhaps, Theodore Thass-Thienemann's The Subconcious Language, which accompanies Freud and Jung into the wastelands, a shaman dowsing amid innumerable sastrugi.

Was it Lacan, first among equals, who carried the arcanist-Surrealist etymologics across the border, into the academy? For now I see it, all the time. The noble art of Plato, Varro, Isidore, of de Brosses, Whiter, Horne Tooke, of Fabre d'Olivet, Grasset d'Orcet, Fulcanelli—has become in the hands of academic zealots a coin debased, a joke worthy only of groans.

Perhaps you will rejoin: It has only ever been worthy of groans.

Ah, but not to me.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame you had to buy that sorry English translation of Fulcanelli and not the Pauvert edition of 1964, which was elegantly printed, at least.

20th.-century alchemy is pretty dismal, but the real thing - that of the 17th. century, particularly in the Sendivogian tradition - is fascinating. Sendivogius knew about oxygen long before Lavosier, and more accurately described it as a vivifying nitro-aerial spirit. All of this is true; it is vivifying, it is contained in nitre, and is aerial. You mentioned Harvey in your previous post, but his observation of the circulation of blood was only half the discovery. The other half belonged to Mayow, who noted that the returned venous blood is exposed to the vivifying nitro-aerial spirit as it passes through the lungs, there regaining its redness and bringing its life-giving virtue to the extremities as it is pumped out to them through the arteries.

The importance of the vivifying nitro-aerial spirit to respiration was previously observed by the Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel, who knew Sendivogius at the court of Rudolph II. Drebbel knew how to generate the spirit, and employed a technique for so doing in 1621 when, in the presence of James I/VI and his court, he sailed a wooden submarine, powered by twelve oarsmen, under the waters of the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich. When the air grew stale during the voyage, he opened a vessel, the contents of which refreshed the atmosphere. The Honble. Robert Boyle was curious enough about this to investigate these events fifty years later, though without finding how Drebbel did it. All this knowledge was lost because of the obscurity of those who knew about it, and not rediscovered for a century and a half.

Drebbel also knew about barometric pressure well before Torricelli, and devised a clock, which he presented to the emperor Rudolph, the mainspring of which was constantly rewound by changes in barometric pressure. The LeCoultre "Atmos" clock still made is a variant of Drebbel's design.

Lavoisier's name for the vivifying nitro-aerial spirit was not descriptive, but based on his theory that the element was required to make an acid; hence oxygen, from oxus, acid, and genesthai, to give birth. Although it has long been disproven, we still honor this erroneous theory by using Lavoisier's name for the element.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah yes, I remember old Drebbel from Burton's Anatomy, where the name stuck out at me:

"Cornelius Drible [hath made] a perpetual motion, inextinguishable lights, linum non ardens, with many such feats; see his book de natura elementorum, besides hail, wind, snow, thunder, lightning, &c., those strange fireworks, devilish petards, and such like warlike machinations derived hence, of which read Tartalea and others."

He is also mentioned in Jonson's News from the New World:

"1 Herald. Sir, you are lost, I assure you; for ours came to you neither by the way of Cornelius Agrippa nor Cornelius Drible."

Still, are there any books you can recommend on this stuff?

Conrad H. Roth said...

And when I said that alchemy was dull, I was referring to this sort of thing:

"If you know not this Salt, you know nothing of the true Chymistry: This Salt doth decrease in the decrease of the Moon, and increaseth at the full-Moon, and one Grain will Purge very softly all Podagrous, Venemous and Hydropical Humors with two Grains of your Praecipioli prepared."

-- Jan Baptista Van Helmont.

Not to mention all the red lions and green ladies, all the pseudo-poetic drivel found in Ashmole's 1652 Theatrum. I'm more of a Jonson kinda guy.

John Cowan said...

On the Latin:

"O cross-birds, only foot." Plain and simple.

On Raminagrobis:

"Lant", Shoogar explained wearily, "the act of saying 'my real name is' is a naming spell."

Conrad H. Roth said...

"O cross-birds, only foot."

Yes, that's what I was thinking!

Raminagrobis said...

So the ‘phonetic cabala’ is so much horse-play. Like it.

for French itself derives directly from Greek

The idea that French was derived from Greek or at least that it shared a particular affinity or ‘conformity’ with Ancient Greek especially at the level of grammar, was current in the sixteenth century (see Henri Estienne’s Conformité du françois avec le grec, 1565 – online here). There were all sorts of attempts to give the French language a noble ancestry, or even to make it (in its ‘pure’ form) itself the ancestor of Latin, Greek, you name it. Even better than the idea that the Franks descended from the Trojans via Francus, was the notion (in Jean Lemaire de Belges) that the ancient Gauls were themselves ancestors of the Trojans – and of the Romans. Tying a lot of this together is the figure of the ‘Gallic Hercules’ (taken from Lucian), who was supposed to have fathered the Gauls and the Trojans, and who, because he was identified with Eloquence, was used by many authors to argue for the pre-eminence of the French tongue.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"So the ‘phonetic cabala’ is so much horse-play."

Yes, and actually in the Demeures, Fulcanelli identifies the cabala, rather whimsically, with the language Lemuel Gulliver spoke among the Houyhnhms. Horses for courses, I suppose.

As for the Estienne, thanks; I have come across this before, but not read it, and am glad to know it is online. (Everything is, apparently--see the comments to "Etymology #2".) Likewise, I own a copy of the Lemaire de Belges (among those recently retrouvé) but haven't read it yet.

Anonymous said...

On Sendivogius, Drebbel, etc., see Zbigniew Szydlo's "Water Which Does Not Wet Hands: The Alchemy of Michael Sendivogius" (Warsaw, 1994: Polish Academy of Sciences). I don't think you can find this on Amazon; I got my copy from Thornton, 11 Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AR.

On the court of Rudolph II, see R.J.W. Evans, "Rudolf II and His World," which mentions Drebbel's barometric-pressure clock (this is the perpetual motion machine referred to by Burton). Some of Drebbel's military inventions are described by S.J. von Romocki, "Geschichte der Explosivstoffe," (Berlin, 1895) including torpedoes primed with fulminating gold used at the siege of La Rochelle, some 180 years before the Rev'd Alexander Forsyth of Belhelvie patented percussion priming in England.

Lawrence Principe has written an excellent biography of Boyle, "The Aspiring Adept," and in collaboration with William Newman, "Alchemy Tried in the Fire." Newman's "Gehennical Fire" is a biography of George Starkey (Eirenaeus Philalethes) who was, as he makes clear, Boyle's primary instructor in chemistry. Starkey is another unusual character; he was born in the West Indies, moved to Massachusetts, became a graduate of Harvard, where he studied under Michael Wigglesworth (author of "The Day of Doom") among others, and eventually ended up in London where he practised medicine.

The green lion, doves of diana, etc., are decknamen, used to conceal from the prophane what is evident to the initiated; they refer to perfectly ordinary chemicals. Newman and Principe have also edited the laboratory notebooks of George Starkey and make clear what is meant by these names. However, the decknamen have confused many distinguished writers including C.G. Jung and Kenneth Rexroth. Principe points out one particular howler of the latter's, in which Rexroth mistakes some conventional Sendivogian terminology used by Thomas Vaughan in describing a laboratory operation for a reference to some sort of tantric sexual ritual.

There is a fascinating history here, and it relates to the question you raised in your previous post on etymology, about why certain ideas catch on at certain times, and what are the conditions necessary for the paradigm shifts described by Kuhn. I have no answer for this, other than to quote that great philosopher of science, Charles Fort: "It steam-engines when it is steam-engine time," and to agree with Pasteur's observation that serendipity favors the prepared.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Great, thanks. I will add these to my impossibly-long list, somewhere near the front. (As regards procurement, it helps to have daily access to the world's greatest library.)

"The green lion, doves of diana, etc., are decknamen, used to conceal from the prophane what is evident to the initiated."

Yes, clearly. But it is awfully dull to read the endless permutations of recipes and ingredients, with token mystical phrases thrown in. I draw the line after the Monas Hieroglyphica, in fact. Still, that's what one needs a scholarly synthesis for, and no doubt your references will provide that work.

Languagehat said...

Every idea of hounds


Conrad H. Roth said...

Whoops! Barking up the wrong tree there.

John Cowan said...

The Isadorean tradition continues to rule in http://www.matthewhunt.com/cunt/etymology.html and other loon sites all over the Net.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, although I disproved that set of etymologies in this post.

Anonymous said...

If there are any chemists here, I am sure they would agree how much more fun Org Chem 2 would have been with names like Green Lion and White Dragon instead of the usual oxy-docy-gamma-soup.

Anonymous said...

'καδάλλης [sic] or the Latin caballus

Your Greek says Kadallehs...you want. Καβάλλα - on horseback, astride...

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Your Greek says Kadallehs"

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the term 'sic'.

Hephælios said...

You're right...thanks for filling me in on that one. Perhaps you're unfamiliar with the reason it is called cabala. This ones on me...


Matthew Hunt said...

Reply to John Cowan:

please explain why matthewhunt.com/cunt is a "loon site".

John Cowan said...

Because, my dear Mr. Hunt, you are a loon; you do not know the difference between free association and evidence: in short, lucus a non lucendo.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I look forward to a searing riposte in the early months of 2011...

Matthew Hunt said...

So it took you over a year to come up with that reply? Were you typing very, very slowly?

Conrad H. Roth said...

I fear the great "cunt" debate is getting sidetracked...

Matthew Hunt said...

No, a debate is impossible, because "the great cunt" takes too long to respond.

Conrad H. Roth said...

And, perhaps, because the "little cunt" hasn't responded ad argumentum but only ad hominem.

John Cowan said...

A debate is indeed impossible, because one does not engage in battle (of wits or otherwise) with the unarmed.