23 December, 2008

Macaronic Frühneuhochdeutsch, anyone?

One passage of many such, from the 1883 Weimar Luther, volume 34 of 127; in this instance, from the 'text' of a sermon delivered on the evening of 11 April, Easter Tuesday 1531.
Audivimus de poenitencia et remissione peccatorum. Das hab ich umb der kurtz wyllen uberlauffen et tamen clare, expresse. Das wyr aber das fest bschlissen, wollen wyr ein stuck odder ii vor uns nhemen. Der Her hat uns vorgemalet, was er vor eyn geberde furet unter seynen jungern, quod in medio illorum progrediatur et salutet illos ita, ut terreantur discipuli. Die selbige erschreckung wyl er nicht leyden, quia non vult estimari spiritus, qui non habet carnem et ossa. Er bekennet, das die geyster alßo erscheinen, tum non habentes carnem et ossa. Diß ist eyn sonderlich bylde pro impiis conscienciis. Der teuffel hat auch die arth, das er offentlich zw uns durchs worth odder heymlich durch gedancken zw uns kumme, uff das er hoc malum, das man heist ein falschen Christum. Satan hat auch die art, quod venit ad nos offentlich und heimlich, 1. per praedicationem, 2. per cogitationes potest etiam dicere: 'bonus dies' et 2. conscientiam terrere et sic hominem irr machen, ut nesciat homo, Christus sit necne, semper vult simia esse dei.
A translation of which would look something like this:
We have heard about repentance and the remission of sins. I wanted to run over that briefly and yet clearly, expressly. To conclude the feast, let's have a look at one or two passages. The Lord has shown us what gesture he makes among his disciples, for he goes among them and greets them thus, as the disciples are frightened. He does not want to suffer the same fearfulness, for he would not be thought a spirit without flesh and bones. He acknowledges that the spirits appear thus, not having flesh and bones. This is a peculiar image for impious consciences. The Devil is of like disposition, that he comes to us openly through words, or secretly through thoughts, such that, on account of this evil, one calls him a false Christ. Satan is of like disposition, that he comes to us openly and familiarly, 1. by spoken words (or, more specifically, 'by preaching, prophesying'), and 2. can also say 'good day' by thoughts alone, and 2. can frighten the conscience and thus make a man mad, so as not to know if Christ exists or not; always would he be the ape of God.
Luther is alluding to the narrative in Luke 24.36-39, where Christ appears to his disciples after the resurrection. In the Vulgate: 'Iesus stetit in medio eorum et dicit eis pax vobis ego sum nolite timere / conturbati vero et conterriti existimabant se spiritum videre / et dixit eis quid turbati estis et cogitationes ascendunt in corda vestra / videte manus meas et pedes quia ipse ego sum palpate et videte quia spiritus carnem et ossa non habet sicut me videtis habere.' And in the KJV: 'Jesus himself stood in the midst of [the disciples], and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. / But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. / And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? / Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.'

The function of Satan is always to burlesque God, that is, to imitate him in reverse; he is found as the 'ape of God' (simia dei, Gottes Affe) throughout Luther's sermons and commentaries. (Alfred Adam traces the motif to the Cistercian hagiographer Caesar of Heisterbach.) Like Christ, Satan strikes awe into the soul, but where Christ makes his presence manifest, Satan makes a man forget whether Christ exists.

So that's the theology taken care of. But what's going on with the languages? It seems highly unlikely that Luther should have delivered a sermon in hybrid German-Latin, even to a small circle of intellectuals. Some of the Latin fragments play on the Vulgate, but they are not direct quotations, and others have no obvious provenance. Malcolm Parkes writes:
The evidence indicates that the scribes [in Luther's circle] translated the essentials of what they had heard in German immediately into Latin, and then set down the discourse in Latin in order to use the customary methods of abbreviation in that language, which enabled them to record spoken discourse more quickly. Only when the process of instantaneous translation was too difficult, or when the German phrases were particularly striking, did the scribes write down Luther's own words. Subsequently the "reportator" translated the text back into the original language, expanding both the simplified forms and abbreviated thought in such a way as to make the record more readable.
Did the scribes omit to re-translate, in this instance? Or was the Weimar editor using an odd source-text? In any event, the German and Latin seem to play against each other, the one sometimes half-repeating the other, or elaborating upon it, like the interaction between a God and his Ape.

19 December, 2008

Two Plays in One Fitts

In 1955, Dudley Fitts published a translation of Aristophanes' Frogs for Harcourt & Brace; in 1957, of the Birds. The two versions were issued separately by Faber in London, and, in 1959, paired in a new edition for the Heritage Press; the matching pale red and pale blue original Faber octavos have graced my shelf for years now. I bought the one on the basis of the other, and the other—the Frogs—on the basis of a single verse:
Ah the logotomy! Verb breasting adverb, the cristate nouns
plunging 'gainst pavid pronouns. Let the bull stylistic
(husband of cows) rise up and whirl his whiskers!
Ah the lambent raiding of verse, the (my God!) tripsis
of boant anapests leaping in lucent line
against the skiaphagous luculent ululant
phalanges of the foe!
At the time I had been sipping Nashe and books on Joyce; you will readily understand the flash of recognition here. (Fitts himself compares Frogs to Joyce: it 'is almost as rich as Finnegans Wake in literary allusion and rhetorical parody—indeed, it is a haunted text'.) Fitts' passage bears little resemblance to the original:
estai d'ippolophōn te logōn koruthaiola neikē
skhindalamōn te paraxonia smileumata t' ergōn,
phōtos amunomenou phrenotektonos andros
rhēmath' ippobamona.
phrixas d' autokomou lophias lasiauxena khaitan,
deinon episkunion xunagōn brukhōmenos hēsei
rhemata gomphopagē pinakēdon apospōngēgenei phusēmati.
The mock-Homeric grandeur of which, in some dull sense, is better captured by the clunking hyphenese of Matthew Dillon's translation at Perseus:
There will be the helmet-blazing strife of horse-crested phrases;
Axle-splinterings as the chisel-working fellow defends himself
against the horse-galloping utterances of the mind-building man.
Bristling the shaggy-necked mane of his natural-hair crest,
Knitting his terrible brow, bellowing, he will launch
bolt-fastened utterances, ripping them apart board by board
with gigantic blast of breath.
To depart so radically from the original takes balls. But Fitts knew what he was doing. This was a gold still moment in the self-realisation of late (American) modernism, a full ripening on the tree, before the pecking sparrows and necrosis of postmodernism. Nothing new arrived between 1955 and 1960; but the dust settled. When Fitts and his friends turned to criticism, they could write with an air of authority, of a Matthew Arnold, only their accepted truths were now those of formalism and the New Critics. The mood was erudite, philological, good-humoured, word-oriented, and concerned, most of all, with the nature of poetic authenticity. In his little bookling, The Poetic Nuance (1958), Fitts dismisses Nabokov's violently-annotated prose translation of Eugene Onegin—a popular bugbear of the time, at least among poets:
A tireless writer of footnotes, I find this concept endearing; but I am not sure that it is anything more. The trouble is that such a translation, though it might give the prose "sense" of the original together with an explanation of whatever goes to lift the prose sense above itself and transmute it into a form of art, might also provide no evidence beyond the saying so that the art was art in the first place. . . We need something at once less ambitious and more audacious: another poem. Not a representation, in any formal sense, but a comparable experience.
How Nabokov would have sneered at such cant! Fitts is merely reproducing Cleanth Brooks on the 'heresy of paraphrase' [NB: please to observe the Wikipediast's literalistic wit, bottom]. Like a good on-message poet (or critic) of his age, Fitts assumes that poetry is irreducible, that a poem without the Poem is nothing, or, worse, a betrayal. Like so much modern dogma, this is essentially a romantic absolutism. The same thinking leads him to equally conventional remarks on the translation of jokes, conceived as the most difficult of idioms:
A joke can be a nuisance. Nothing is more inert than a witticism that has to be explained. Topicality, the recondite allusion, special jargon—these are matters that can not be handled even in Nabokovian footnote without inviting the embrace of death.
To illustrate this point, Fitts discusses one of his own choices, from his Frogs of three years past. The cowardly Dionysus is being taunted by his servant Xanthias, on the existence of the hellish monster Empusa, before the latter winds down his prank, assuring his master that the beast is gone: 'As Hegelochos would say, ek kumaōn gar authis au galēn horō.' The Greek means, literally, 'After the storm I see again the polecat.' Here comes the Nabokovian death-embrace: Aristophanes is alluding to a line of Orestes, mispronounced by the actor Hegelochos: the word galēn, depending on stress, can mean either 'calm at sea' (from galēnē) or 'polecat' (from galeē). The translator is therefore faced with a classic untranslateable pun: what to do?

The dread hand of Nabokov would translate, 'After the storm I see again the polecat', and spend half a page in 9-point explaining the allusion. Such, precisely, was the pre-Romantic approach. Thus a 1785 version by the cleric Charles Dunster offers: 'I see a weasel rising from the storm', and, true to form, clarifies the joke in a footnote. By the time we reach Benjamin Rogers' 1914 Frogs, Romanticism has already set in, and the pun is not preserved but re-imagined: 'Out of the storm there comes a new fine wether.' The only problem is that 'wether' cannot be a mis-pronunciation of 'weather': as a satire on Hegelochos' delivery, it fails. Fitts, at any rate, offers a similar solution: 'After the storm I see the clam again'. (Dillon, straining, has 'calm-ari'.) He justifies his decision thus:
It is a hoary one, certainly, but only a cad would object to it. . . there are still customers who will suspect the whole thing of being an enigma or a typographical error, and these people must be led through some such process as the one we have just traversed.
And so we get, if we look in the back, unprompted by any little digits, an explanatory note. A Fittsian modernism is therefore a softened and saleable doctrine. He would preserve the art qua art, and gloss it still, so as to reassure the sceptic that it is, after all, art. Proust had written 'une oeuvre où il y a des theories est comme un objet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix', a literary work with theories is like an object with the price-tag still attached. He had written this, a bit of theory, in his great literary work, the Recherche, thus contradicting himself even as he wrote. But this dictum remained the essence of High Modernism, whether or not it reflected practice. A poem should not mean, but be. By the time of Fitts there is some forgiveness.


Fitts dedicates his Frogs to his younger friend John Ciardi, the great translator of Dante. Ciardi was a card-carrying New Critic, editing an annotated anthology of verse in 1959 with the almost cartoon-formalist title, How Does a Poem Mean? In the introduction he insists, smelling of Empson, against a 'high-minded appreciator', that poetry is to be understood as a feat of engineering and formal invention. The ultimate modernist-romantic, he asserts, 'The pretty, by a first law of art, is never the beautiful. The two cannot coexist. . . all greeting cards are pretty and therefore no greeting card is beautiful.' For his dedication, appositely, Fitts chooses a sliver of Dante, the conclusion of Inferno VI:
Ed egli a me: 'Ritorna a tua scienza,
Che vuol, quanto la cosa è più perfetta,
Più senta il bene, e così la doglienza,

Tuttochè questa gente maledetta
In vera perfezion giammai non vada,
Di là, più che di qua, essere aspetta.'

Noi aggirammo a tondo quella strada,
Parlando più assai ch'io non ridico:
Venimmo al punto dove si digrada:
Quivi trovammo Pluto il gran nimico.
Ciardi himself has this, in his 1954 Inferno, on which Fitts remarked, 'This is our Dante. . . a shining event in a bad age':
And he to me: "Look to your science again
where it is written: the more a thing is perfect
the more it feels of pleasure and of pain.

As for these souls, though they can never soar
to true perfection, still in the new time
they will be nearer it than they were before."

And so we walked the rim of the great ledge
speaking of pain and joy, and of much more
that I will not repeat, and reached the edge

where the descend begins. There, suddenly,
we came on Plutus, the great enemy.
The context is this: Dante and Vergil are discussing the judgement of the damned at the Second Coming. Dante wonders if those in Hell be better or worse off after this point: 'When the great clarion fades / into the voice of thundering Omniscience, / what of these agonies?' His master replies that since they will recover their flesh and bodies, they will, secundum Aristotelem, be more perfect, and so they will feel more pain.

For the dedication of his Birds to his disciple and collaborator, Robert Fitzgerald, more famous for his Aeneid, Fitts chooses a morsel not of Vergil, but of Erasmus, from the Lucianic colloquy 'Charon':
Alastor. Sed quid opus est triremi? Charon. Nihil, si velim in media palude rursus naufragium facere. Al. Ob multitudinem? Ch. Scilicet. Al. Atqui umbras vehis, non corpora. Quantulum autem ponderis habent umbrae? Ch. Sint tipulae, tamen tipularum tanta vis esse potest, ut onerent cymbam. Tum scis, et cymbam umbratilem esse.
To translate:
Al. But what use is the trireme? Ch. Nothing, if I want to wind up shipwrecked in the middle of the swamp again. Al. On account of the throng? Ch. Naturally. Al. But you transport shades, not bodies. And how little must the shades weigh? Ch. They are only crane-flies (tipulae), but crane-flies can have enough weight to sink a skiff. You know, too, that the skiff itself is shadowy.
In neither instance is explanation given: the reference is hermetic, like in the good old days of Pound and Stevens. One might reasonably suspect, given the chthonic setting of both passages, that Ciardi and Fitzgerald were dead. But both were in the prime of health, dying within a year of each other, just under thirty years later. In each case we have a dialogue, a guide and a pilgrim. Surely Fitts claimed for himself the role of the cicerone in hell, a role at the core of the modernist worldview. Pound had begun his masterpiece by translating a translation of Odysseus's katabasis; Williams booted his own career with a work entitled Kora in Hell; Eliot guided his reader not through hell but through the Wasteland, its fertility latent but real; Leo Bloom is given a whole chapter for his own nekuia, and H. C. E. an entire book; and before them all, the forefather of modernism, James Frazer, had turned his own opus on a symbol representing safe passage through the underworld. The poet is the acknowledged legislator: the trireme weighed with the tipulary souls of men, not only the true dead, but those still feeling of pleasure and pain. Fitts, conservative 'in a bad age', explicitly shares the pain of a conservative Aristophanes, who, in the Frogs, 'now regards the War, desperate as it is, as only another symptom of the disease of his time'. This from a man who, according to David Slavitt, rated student papers 'PB (pretty bad), NTB (not too bad), NB (not bad), and NAAB (not at all bad)'. Only a very few, the last generation of American modernist-humanists, were eligible to walk with Fitts himself.

[Update: Dave Haan, on a forum thread on translation, links. A respondent calls my post, bizarrely, a 'paean to etymology': no wonder he finds it unpersuasive! Said respondent also seems to believe that I argue that 'one person or group has a monopoly' on knowledge, and that I have something against Nabokov's Onegin, or even Nabokov in general. I do not, I do not, I do not.]

04 December, 2008

Schällen der Leidenschaft

As a student of history, of sorts, I know only too well that all ages, almost all, have seen their own as an age of cultural decline. Even Homer was longing for the good old days, even Plato, in his golden aura of genius, never to be rivalled, wistfully looked to Sparta, Egypt, the Age of Kronos. Coming to understand the universality of this sentiment cannot help but challenge one's own innate sense that fine culture has gone to the dogs. And yet, one goes to the gallery, the theatre, the bookshop or poetry recital, and one cannot shake that sense. This, I think, is truly the most poignant break in the historian's psyche.

I go to a recital. (I open a book of verse. I flick through the New Yorker. Somewhere, other than in my own Documents folder, there must be some good poems. If only by the law of averages. Repeatedly is my search frustrated. Usually on a low simmer, my loathing of modern poetry comes to full boil now and then, when I make the attempt to challenge my dismissal. It cannot be said that I do not try.) Listening to a woman in her sixties describe, in graphic detail, a bout of rough sex, listening to a man, only a little younger, describe, in graphic detail, his own masturbation, read from a page, and read, mind you, while the audience titters and looks about in embarrassment, watching a rotund fellow, maybe thirty-five, make hand-gestures as he serenades the number 58 bus-route, and a wee girl not much older than me recite, from an imaginary diary, bullet-points about an ex-boyfriend and self-esteem issues, an assortment of people using rude words as if it were still the 1960s, and raising their eyebrows to deliver the last line of their poem, as if to say, Pay attention now, this bit's clever, listening to all this, I wish I could turn off my own ears, or at least concentrate on some work. Most of all of course I wish I could meet someone, or even hear someone from afar, who actually knows how to use words, who actually likes words, or even, at a push, someone who, while not brilliant with words, has something in their brain worth letting out of their mouth, something more than feeling, descriptions, endless and endless concrete banalities, enumeration of detail itself so utterly conventional—not even clever because well-observed—as to merit swift oblivion. Why are poets so incapable of telling us what they know?

There is a look on a poet's face when she is reading, or about to read. It says all sorts of things. It says, Quiet now, this is poetry. We are here to listen to poetry. It also says, I humbly offer my audience just something I sketched out the other day. Perhaps, it isn't finished, or, I'm still working on this and would appreciate your feedback. Of course she does not want your feedback, except to say, I really liked the bit about the sky. That image, what was it, 'the sky was blue as azure', it's such a beautiful image, don't you think, really captures the blueness of a blue sky? The atmosphere at such a recital, in other words, must be simultaneously deferential to the magic of poesie, and relaxed enough to accept it all as a bit of a joke. This is a light piece, she might say. Before each poem she will say, 'This one's called—' or 'This one's about—'. Gravity never comes from the words themselves, but only from the temple of excuses and explanations erected around them. Or better, gravity never comes at all, for it is easier to make a crowd laugh with the word tits or a silly voice, and have them say, afterwards, I enjoyed that, it made me smile, as if making someone smile should be the purpose of poetry.

One comes away wanting to profess, with an air of thoughtfulness and high critical dignity, that some poems were good, others less so. One would be fair and even-handed, and admit that even if that piece is not one's cup of tea, still, one can see the merit in its earnestness or eye for detail. It feels wrong, deeply wrong, ignorant, primitive, lacking in sensitivity and sensibility, to think, this is all bad, and not only bad, but entirely bad; this is all, literally, worthless. I confess that I have never been brave enough to say this in public. There are ways not to lie, or to lie less, as you well know. Poetry isn't my thing. I'm more into novels. They smile benignly, accepting that not all mortals are built to appreciate real beauty. It is no better with the stuff printed in books by famous people. This was penned by a well-respected Etonian with a big heart:
A lot of people have been looking at me recently.
Oh, she's too disgusting. I see you've changed your
hairstyle again. Why don't you kill yourself next time?
I'm cutting down on mirror checks - 100 an hour
is about average - tv screen, microwave, people's
glasses, a knife while eating, if I can eat anything.
I wanted to cut myself into little pieces, then everything
would be all right and I would pass the audition.
I know some readers will quibble this claim, but I do not like to rant. Those who feel as I do cling to a single poet they like, as proof that they are not Neanderthals. Or they say they do not like poetry and leave it at that, as if it were simply alright not to like poetry, as if not liking poetry were the same as not liking cauliflower. I do not like to rant, and prefer to criticise. But sometimes there is too much steam and smoke for criticism, too much clamour of mock subtleties to be heard simply speaking, and one must cry out instead. A considerate man who will not let himself be angry, just a little, and even at those who mean well, damn their pens, is only half a man.

[Update: Avva comments. In Russian. One of his own commenters observes that I have not properly adjusted the case of 'Schällen' for my title: true, perhaps, but then, if I had altered it, Herder would have been obscured.]

30 November, 2008


In 1789, Noah Webster, still 39 years away from his seismic dictionary, published his Dissertations on the English Language, sort of a linguistic manifesto, at least in part, for the new nation. It advocates radical spelling reform, only a small part of which would actually be adopted by young Americans struggling for their own identity; of the advantages of reform proposed by Webster, this is perhaps the most amusing:
Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked.
The Dissertations are dedicated to Benjamin Franklin—'Late President of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania', though not, at least for another year, Late—out of respect for his 'common sense' and for his industry in the collection of 'facts'. Furthermore, Webster progresses to include as an appendix a 1768 letter by Franklin on the subject of spelling reform. On Boxing Day 1789, Franklin wrote to Webster in Hartford, returning the compliment: 'It is an excellent work, and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing.' He shared and appreciated his friend's prescriptivist distaste for vulgar idiom, and wanted to contribute further follies to a future edition of the work. (Franklin's prose is not always so 'plain and elegantly neat' as Webster thinks. On occasion he strives after the style of his German contemporaries:
The general use of the French language has likewise a very advantageous effect on the profits of the bookselling branch of commerce, it being well known, that the more copies can be sold that are struck off from one composition of types, the profits increase in a much greater proportion than they do in making a greater number of pieces in any other kind of manufacture.)
He deplores the verbing of nouns: notice, advocate and progress all incur his censure as verbs. (Richard Bailey, in his 1996 book on Nineteenth-Century English, notes that progress had been standard as a verb in older English, but revived around this period in America, and subsequently seen as an Americanism. On verbing nouns in general, contrast this, from Thomas Gunter Browne's exquisite Hermes Unmasked (1795):
I suppose even that any object of any kind, or any word, may serve to make any part of speech of any sort.—Oh! that I had known this when I was a boy at Westminster!—Birds, beasts, and fishes will make excellent verbs, without the least alteration in sound or spelling.—A pig, a peer, or a pismire, will make as good a verb as the sublimest thing in nature.—The wooden post which stands before us, and which is usually the emblem of stability, will make a verb expressive of great celerity.)
Franklin further laments the loss in printing of capitalised common nouns, as well as the long s, about which, with a rather inappropriate analogy, he remarks:
Certainly the omitting this prominent letter makes a line appear more even, but renders it less immediately legible; as the paring of all men's noses might smooth and level their faces, but would render their physiognomies less distinguishable.
But of most linguistic interest is Franklin's remarks on the word improved.
When I left New-England in the year 1723, this word had never been used among us, as far as I know, but in the sense of ameliorated, or made better, except once in a very old book of Dr. Mather's entitled "Remarkable Providences." As that man wrote a very obscure hand, I remember that when I read that word in his book, used instead of the word employed, I conjectured that it was an error of the printer, who had mistaken a short l in the writing for an r, and a y with too short a tail for a v, whereby employed was converted into improved; but when I returned to Boston in 1733, I found this change had obtained favour, and was then become common; for I met with it often in perusing the newspapers, where it frequently made an appearance rather ridiculous. Such, for instance, as the advertisement of a country house to be sold, which had been many years improved as a tavern; and in the character of a deceased country gentleman, that he had been, for more than thirty years, improved as a justice of the peace.
Thus Mather: 'the Ministers of God have been improved in the Recording and Declaring the works of the Lord', and 'her Tongue was improved by a Daemon to express things which she her self knew nothing of'. Mather's work appeared in 1684; the OED finds this improved, both of persons and of places, in William Hubbard's 1677 Narrative of the Indian Wars in New England. Of a place: 'Near some River. . . whose Streams are principally improved for the driving of Saw-mills.' And of a person: 'Such of the Women as were gifted at knitting and sewing, were improved to make Stockings and Garments.'

In both cases, the OED quotes an 1865 Bostonian edition of the work (volume 2), number 4 of Woodward's Historical Series. This edition corresponds closely to the 1677 first edition, printed in London. (Another 1677 edition was printed in Boston, but this omits the section containing the two above quotations.) But intermediary editions offer a surprise. In an 1803 edition, printed not in Boston but in the idyllic Stockbridge, MA, we notice that improved, in the second quotation, has been emended to employed. Plenty of improveds still remain, but none both a) of a person, and b) interchangeable with employed. For instance, of a place, we still have 'Other places adjoining were soon after seized and improved for trading and fishing'. But of persons we have only:
yet seeing they themselves, as the westward Indians have so ill improved that which they had before
their labour was well improved, and followed with good success at the last
Here the sense is more clearly 'capitalised on': the positive connotation is stronger. In the case of the sewing women, improved has a different shade: 'put to work', rather than 'capitalised on'. In this instance, perhaps thought the 1803 editor, conceivably—one would love to imagine—under the influence of a Franklin, improved was a Bostonism too far. At any rate, the 1828 Webster dutifully lists 'Used; occupied; as improved land' as the third sense of improved.

16 November, 2008

The Place's Name

Dullest of days, most brutally grey and dark and overcast. The rain relents, and then lents again. I take the opportunity for a walk in north London, to Highbury, to find, if I can, or even if not, the home of a childhood friend—long past, say twenty years—the interior of which I remember with apparent exactness, down to the sculpture on the kitchen table, of a carton pouring milk into a bowl: real bowl, real carton, disc and frozen column of milk in plaster. I remembered it to be near a park or green; I remembered the green to be immense, and rather fantastical. But when I arrived in Highbury Fields, I discovered the green to be rather small, though admittedly picturesque in its autumnal finery. The disappointment of age: a tableau.

It was still raining when I found the house, or what might have been, and so I continued my interrogation of the area. Highbury, it seems, is a place of architecture beset by vegetation. A dull block in the private enclave of Aberdeen Park, just to the east, is vandalised by a rather aggressive and brightly-fledged gang of creepers:

A nearby wall, meanwhile, has been shamelessly defaced by some reckless local greenfinger, tired of small canvases:

Just across the street from here is one Baalbec Road, the sudden apparition of whose name is so extraordinary to me that I am compelled to reproduce the signage as documentary evidence:

The street itself is very fine, a series of variations in terracotta and brick, each a slight shade different from the last, nothing supercelestial, but beautifully proportioned. 'Here is a raucous Cockney answer to the Georgian good manners of the [Highbury] Fields,' writes Simon Jenkins: 'an 1880s essay in what a firm chisel could do with red bricks, terracotta and a builder's pattern book. The small houses are covered in carved leaves, swags, dentils, every conceivable stylistic gimmick.' I can enjoy the description of a street as an 'essay': let us literarify our built environment, and let us do it without blue plaques. Jenkins adds, inexplicably: 'This is the London which tourists will want to see in a hundred years' time.'

The terracotta stone in the centre of this wall bears the letters 'AD', to match another bearing the date, 1889. But look at the stone: is its monogram not almost the same as that forming the signature of Albrecht Dürer?

The street is fine, but what of the name? Baalbec? The ancient city of Syria, now Lebanon, was built over centuries under the Roman yoke, and long considered the great ruin of the Near East—so great, in fact, that it was reputed to have been built by Solomon himself. After all, I Kings 9.17-18 tells us, 'Solomon built Gezer, and Bethhoron the nether, / And Baalath, and Tadmor in the wilderness, in the land'. Tadmor, we know, is Palmyra, which was usually twinned with Baalbek—and the name was, for some, too close to Baalath for chance. (Even as late as 1964 we find the identification accepted, by Ruth Nagle Watkins in an article on Baalbek for Art Journal.) Furthermore, Solomon invoked demons to lift and arrange the cyclopaean stones used in the city's temples. Thus in the 1425 History of Timur by Sharafuddin Ali Yazdi, we read:
This town is very famous, as well for the beauty of the walls, as for the height of its buildings; and it is believed to have been built by Solomon's order, by daemons and genii, over whom he had an absolute command.
This sort of folklore was soon common currency among the explorers of later centuries. When John Ray visited in the late seventeenth century, he described the same huge stones as Sharafuddin, noting one in particular that measured 66 feet long (28 cubits in the History). Daniel Fenning, who, in his New System of Geography (1778), calls Baalbek 'the boldest plan that appears to have been ever attempted in architecture', notes also that 'All the inhabitants of this country, both Christians, Jews, and Mahometans, confidently maintain, that both Balbec and Palmyra were built by Solomon.' A slightly later article in The Britannic Magazine labels the site ruins 'some of the most beautiful and best preserved of any in Asia', and remarks:
By what means could the ancients remove these enormous masses? This is doubtless a problem in mechanics difficult to resolve. The inhabitants of Balbec, however, have a very easy manner of explaining it, by supposing these edifices to have been constructed by djenoun, or genii, who obeyed the orders of King Solomon; adding, that the motives of such immense works was to conceal in subterraneous caverns vast treasures, which still remain there.
In good Enlightenment fashion, the moral is spelled out:
All tradition relative to high antiquity is as false among the Orientals as the Europeans. With them, as with us, facts which happened even 100 years before, when not preserved in writing, are altered, mutilated, or forgotten.
But a more modern use of the name, European rather than Oriental, even though preserved in writing, is shrouded in as great a mystery. It was chosen by Proust to designate an important location in his Recherche, contracted a little for delicate Parisian tastes, as Balbec. Most modern scholars, if not all, identify this with Proust's own beloved Cabourg, on the Normandy coast, although not too far from the resort, just east of Le Havre, is a town called Bolbec. Indeed, in an anonymous English novel of 1796, entitled Elvira; or, the World as it Goes, we find a reference or two to 'Balbec' near Le Havre:
I'm going to leave you in suspense about that head dress. Anyway, Proust's Balbec is just too spicy a comfit for the slavering critics waiting to get their teeth into the myriads of words in the Recherche. Let us listen to some plaintive and poignant voices. Here's David Ellison:
What is this strange split city of Balbec? What happens if we, like the young Marcel, pronounce its syllables and allow them to resonate with associations? Balbec sounds a lot like BAALBEK, the ancient city, now in Lebanon, whose name derives from the god Baal, the Phoenician sun god. The congruence of names is so obvious as to be blinding.
And here's Allan Pasco (truncatedly):
Proust's 'Balbec' comprises several of the interlocking patterns of allusive support. The homonymous Persian city, now in Lebanon, was named after the false god Baal, mentioned in the Bible, and thus joins the two biblical cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, found along the protagonist's way. Brichot, the author's pedantic professor who corrects many of the Curé de Combray's false etymologies, points out that –bec means stream in the Norman dialect. Brichot is not sure about Bal-. He suggests it is a corruption of 'Dalbec'. Proust may have chosen the first syllable of Balbec because of a belief that the Baal of the Persian city Baalbek meant 'sun'. It is also possible that he was aware that Bel- in many French place names derives from the Celtic sun god Belenus. His love of puns attests to an interest in the phonic texture. With this in mind, it is difficult to ignore the associations of the French word bal ('dancing, youth, mating,') and of the ornithological bec ('beak').
The phrasing is remarkable: 'What happens if we pronounce its syllables?', 'it is difficult to ignore the associations of—'. Let's just kick back and muck about with words. After all, Proust did. Is this any different from the practices of mediaevals, who identified Baalbek with Baalath? In a somewhat embarrassed footnote, Pasco winds up ransacking a bunch of dusty German philological lexicons, and tracing bal- to PIE *bhel ('white, shining'), which he can then affix to Albertine, whose name clearly derives from Latin albus, 'white'. (He even quotes the delightful kook Harold Bayley, whose linguistic speculations we last encountered here, also in Islington, and not too far from Baalbec Road.)

Best of all, though, is Marie-Magdeleine Chirol's L'Imaginaire de la Ruine. Nobody can do spiel like the French. After discussing a few references to antiquities in an early description of Balbec from Recherche ('De Balbec surtout, où déjà des hôtels se construisent, superposés au sol antique et charmant qu'ils n'alterènt pas, quel délice d'excursionner à deux pas dans ces régions primitives et si belles!'), she concludes:
One last sign points towards a Norman Balbec that is reminiscent of the ancient Baalbek: the presence 'of hotels' (in the modern sense) which, in an ancient context, may seem displaced, even anachronistic. However, if one should replace hotel with 'Temple-Palais' or with 'palais'—terms which the narrator uses to evoke the Grand-Hotel at Balbec—the desired spatio-temporal link seems to be re-established. The substitution would appear reasonable since, after all, when the narrator talks of the hotel at Balbec, he is surely always referring to the Grand-Hotel.
Here is a voice pleading for acceptance, especially in that last sentence. In all these works is the same exegesis of the world we find among the mediaevals, only made secular, and transferred to a world of words only. The study of literature is, as we have long known, the last refuge of the theologian.


But what about Baalbec Road? Why Baalbec? Perhaps in lieu of asking, 'Why was the road called Baalbec?', we might ask, 'What has it done to deserve the name?' Or even, What do we see in the road, and in its environs, that we should not see if it had a different name? Would it smell as sweet?

Baalbek itself, once magnificent, was taken over by nature, and became a ruin. Highbury, as we have seen, is also under threat from its flora, real, painted or carved in terracotta. The name itself becomes that bit more pregnant. Perhaps that is what Jenkins meant about the tourists of a hundred years hence. Before the creation of the road in 1889, London had a single nod to the Baalbek of antiquity. This was in the Temple of the Sun at Kew Gardens, built in 1761, in a Corinthian style inspired by the ornate columns of the ruinated Syrian city. Eighteenth-century letters and notices are full of proud and admiring references to this elegant structure, which has none of the sublimity of the original, preserving only a few flourishes and proportions. In 1916, a tree fell on the temple and it was demolished, not even leaving a ruin. For shame! Still, we have the ruins of Baalbec Road, Highbury. If they are not ruins yet, they contain all the omens of such. The city is like the mind: it never forgets. My old friend's kitchen, with its ridiculous sculpture, is still with me, perhaps altered and mutilated, but not forgotten. I did not want to mention the splendid effusion of autumn in Highbury Fields.

Update: Language Hat on H. W. Bailey, not to be confused with Harold Bayley.

11 November, 2008

Wine and Water

When one cup in fell confusion
Wine with water blends, the fusion,
Call it by what name you will,
Is no blessing, nor deserveth
Any praise, but rather serveth
For the emblem of all ill.

Wine perceives the water present,
And with pain exclaims, "What peasant
Dared to mingle thee with me?
Rise, go forth, get out, and leave me!
In the same place, here to grieve me,
Thou hast no just claim to be.

— 'Denudata veritate', from the Carmina Burana, tr. Symonds.
The American next to me is in transcribing formulae for posset and gooseberry wine from a Middle English receiptboke. I go to the enquiries counter for some pointless request. As I wait, a young gentleman receives his book from Special Collections. It comes in a little packet, and when he pulls it out, I can see that it is smaller than his thumbnail. The look on his face, somewhere between surprise and annoyance, is priceless. He tries, momentarily, to read it, but is briskly defeated, and returns it to the counter. Curious, I order it myself. It turns out to be an 1896 Salmin edition of Galileo's Letter to Cristina (1615), 15 x 9 mm.

(The nice man on the desk says he has personally researched the book. Galileo wrote it so small, he informs me, to avoid the watchful eyes of the Inquisition; I hesitate to point out that this edition was printed almost three centuries after its words were penned, when the Inquisition had become a story with which to scare young Protestant boys into good behaviour.)

Galileo's letter is a plea for religious toleration of experimental science:
I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages but from sense­ experiences and necessary demonstrations. . . It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men.
If you stop and think about this, it is a little odd. The Bible, so as to make itself better understood, says things which are not literally true. But how can false things be well understood? Galileo's idea, which had in certain circles become a commonplace by 1700, was that the Bible fudged its physics (and metaphysics) so as not distract the foolish ancient rabble from their worship of God. But Nature acts without condescension, and so never lies.


Galileo, no doubt, would have pursed his lips at Cana—the classic miracle. Nature cannot transgress her laws: water cannot become wine. Perhaps, if he had been feeling scholastic, he might have suggested that the water merely took on the accidents of the wine, without changing its substance; a hundred years later he might have found some scientific approximation for the miracle, and trumpeted it up as a rational explanation. But here, for now, he would say that it mattered little about water and wine: the Bible simply wants us to know that Christ is the Lord our Saviour.

At any rate, Galileo could work apparent miracles with water and wine himself. In his 1638 Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche he describes an experiment, which runs, in Thomas Weston's elegant 1730 translation:
If I fill a round Crystal Bottle [palla di cristallo, ie. a crystal globe] with Water, whose Mouth is no bigger than that of a Straw, and after this turn its Mouth downwards, yet will not the Water, altho' very heavy and prone to descend in Air, nor the Air, as much disposed on the other Hand, as being very light, to ascend thro' the Water; yet will they not, I say, agree, that that should descend, issuing out of the Mouth, and this ascend, entering in at the same; but both keep their Places, and yield not to each other. But on the contrary, if I apply to the Mouth of this Bottle a little Vessel of Red Wine, which is insensibly less heavy than Water, we shall see it in an Instant gently to ascend by red Streams thro' the Water; and on the contrary, the Water, with the same Slowness, to descend thro' the Wine, without ever mixing with each other, till at length the Bottle will be full of Wine, and all the Water will sink to the Bottom of the Vessel that's underneath.
This is what Salviati, standing in for Galileo, claims to be happening in his thought-experiment:

The wine, instead of mixing with the water as we should expect, changes places with it, each liquid remaining pure. This passage has caused a certain stir in the scholarly literature. Alexander Koyré, the great historian of science, best known for his work on cosmology, considered the story as a reliance on untested thought-experiments gone too far: 'Galileo. . . had never made the experiment; but, having heard of it, reconstructed it in his imagination, accepting the complete and essential incompatibility of water with wine as an indubitable fact'. So much for casting off authority and beginning afresh from sense experience! Koyré, however, does not name a source.

As Koyré one-upped the empiricist Galileo, so James MacLachlan one-upped the rationalist Koyré in turn, and actually performed the experiment in time for a cheeky 1973 note in Isis.
In the late summer of 1971 I filled an after-shave bottle with water and inverted it over a goblet of red wine. A piece of drinking straw sealed in the mouth of the bottle dipped beneath the surface of the wine. For more than an hour I watched in fascination as a perfectly clear layer of water formed at the bottom of the goblet and became deeper and deeper! As Galileo had described, a thin red streamer wafted up through the water in the bottle and occupied a progressively redder and larger region at the top of the bottle. A light shining through the goblet made possible the detection of a streamer of water descending through the wine to form the layer at the bottom. After about two hours the bottle above had become a quite uniform red, and the layer of red left at the top of the goblet began to descend, ultimately making the liquid in the goblet a uniform pink.
So for MacLachlan, the wine and water do ultimately mix, but not before acting roughly as Galileo had said they would. Galileo, he is sure, actually witnessed the experiment, and so was able to describe its results with some precision. But, as it took Antonio Beltrán 25 years to point out, again in Isis (1998), the fact that the experiment can be done does not mean that Galileo actually performed it, and it is just as possible that, as Koyré had suggested, Galileo merely used a well-known example. Beltrán's evidence? The only similar experiment he can find is in Ambroise Paré's Des monstres et prodiges (1573):
The experience of two glass vessels called a wine-raiser, in which device, by placing the vessel filled with water on top of another filled with wine, it can be clearly seen how the wine rises through the water and the water descends through the wine, without their mixing, although they move through the same narrow pipe.
And just so Beltrán didn't go thinking he'd one-upped MacLachlan in turn, the editors of Isis allowed MacLachlan to blow Beltrán an amused raspberry in a note following the latter's article. MacLachlan thinks it pretty unlikely that 'a medical student in Pisa (being indoctrinated from Galenic treatises) would have read a French surgical work', although he does not at all deny the probability that Galileo's experiment was unoriginal. Both Beltrán and MacLachlan, in fact, miss a much more likely source for Galileo: Francis Bacon's 1627 compendium of experiments, Sylva Sylvarum, which contains, very near the start, an even stranger proposition:
Take a Glasse with a Belly and a long Nebb [spout]; fill the Belly (in part) with Water: Take also another Glasse, whereinto put Claret Wine and Water mingled; Reverse the first Glasse, with the Belly upwards, Stopping the Nebb with your fingar; Then dipp the Mouth of it within the Second Glasse, and remove your Fingar: Continue it in that posture for a time; And it will unmingle the Wine from the Water: The Wine ascending and setling in the topp of the upper Glasse; And the Water descending and setling in the bottome of the lower Glasse. The passage is apparent to the Eye; For you shall see the Wine, as it were, in a small veine, rising through the Water.
Here the wine not only slides up past the water without mixing, but actually further unmixes itself! Bacon states clearly that the experiment doesn't work the other way around, or with coloured water, and concludes from this that 'this Separation of Water and Wine appeareth to be made by Weight; for it must be of Bodies of unequall Weight, or ells it worketh not; And the Heavier Body must ever be in the upper Glasse.' And then he moves swiftly on.


Bacon, the better mage, really could turn water into wine, his own sort of miracle. Both he and Galileo described a Nature that seemed so marvelous, even as they insisted it was not. And so as to accommodate the occult secrets of hydromechanics to the understanding of every man, both wrote in the common tongue, and spoke in vivid parables, which they called 'experiments'.

26 October, 2008


One of the great neglected essays of antiquity is the Dialogue on Oratory by Tacitus, written in 102 AD. Why, he asks, has the fire and eloquence of the old orators deserted us? We have lawyers and speech-makers, but no genuine oratory. As Marcus Aper points out from the start, rhetoric is a sword and buckler in argumentative battle, and moreover a pleasure to every ear. Vipstanius Messala and Curiatius Maternus debate the causes of oratory's decline since the golden days of Cicero. (Plutarch, around the same time, was debating the causes of the oracle's decline since the golden days of Pericles.) Messala attributes the decline to the debased wisdom and abilities of modern Romans: a standard narrative of degeneration. Maternus' explanation, on the other hand, is far more interesting; he argues that 'the discourse of men always conforms to the temper of the times'—a position we now associate with the historicism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and that firebrand oratory is suited to an age of war and dissent, an age like Cicero's Republic, but not at all like Trajan's placid Empire:
Eloquence, it is certain, flourishes most under a bold and turbulent democracy, where the ambitious citizen, who best can mould to his purposes a fierce and contentious multitude, is sure to be the idol of the people. In the conflict of parties, that kept our ancestors in agitation, laws were multiplied; the leading chiefs were the favourite demagogues; the magistrates were often engaged in midnight debate; eminent citizens were brought to a public trial; families were set at variance; the nobles were split into factions, and the senate waged incessant war against the people. Hence that flame of eloquence which blazed out under the republican government, and hence that constant fuel that kept the flame alive.

The state, it is true, was often thrown into convulsions: but talents were exercised, and genius opened the way to public honours. He who possessed the powers of persuasion, rose to eminence, and by the arts which gave him popularity, he was sure to eclipse his colleagues. He strengthened his interest with the leading men, and gained weight and influence not only in the senate, but in all assemblies of the people. Foreign nations courted his friendship. The magistrates, setting out for their provinces, made it their business to ingratiate themselves with the popular speaker, and, at their return, took care to renew their homage.
Back when we first started this enterprise, my colleague and friend Gawain and I agreed that politics would be off the agenda. For one thing, we have so little of merit to contribute. There are so many blogs and punditries swimming in this stuff, or rather drowning; and clearly the temperature, at least in America, is now unbearable. I try to explain to some why, despite my continuing lack of interest in politics, I have developed, like so many, an enthusiasm for the current fight. To some I say it is like an absorbing soap—but I do not watch television—to others, like a brilliant game of chess; but nor do I play or follow that sport of brains.

If you mention that you are gripped by the elections, the first question asked, invariably, is 'Whom do you support?' This question does not interest me. In my last two posts I examined microcosms of philosophical conflict—Lockeans vs. Cartesians, and Catholics vs. Protestants. In neither case was resolution possible, as common ground was missing. As Carl Becker argued with such wit, real dispute is intelligible only when there is a substratum of agreement, and none exists in these examples; nor in modern politics. There is no possibility of reasoned choice between red and blue, for the choice is a priori. Partisan accounts of one of the debates, for instance, will provide glittering testimony to how contrarily a word or gesture can be interpreted; what you already believe determines your judgement of its value.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to succumb consciously to surfaces, to admit that one will judge a candidate not on his policies or character, but merely on aesthetics. This entails denying the very possibility of post-partisanship, and embracing tribalism instead. It is at least, I think, the more honest path. Of course I like the way he speaks, and fairly loathe the way she does. But that is simply because, were I American, I would be Noveboracensian. I like fancy-talk, and I like eloquence. I liked it when the New Yorker gushed:
Although his opponents have tried to attack him as a man of “mere” words, Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one—something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
Not because I think it is true, but because I think it is a handsome idea, and handsomeness is a neglected virtue, in today's politics as in its art. In a bold and turbulent democracy, let us see eloquence flourish, at the risk of idol-making.

This contest for office is remarkably similar to the contest for Wimbledon that we enjoyed three months ago: it is a struggle between an artist (in this case perhaps a con-artist) and a fighter, between grace and toughness. Back then I favoured Federer for the beauty of his game, but also because I wanted to see him make history; because I wanted to witness, even to participate in, a historic moment. It is so much the greater with Obama: whether or not his presidency turns out a success, November 5 will be a genuinely historic day. The entire world, like it or not, will rejoice, just as it mourned and mocked when the towers fell. To experience the making of history, even terrible history, is one of the profoundest aesthetic pleasures of civilised man, and to that, politics and substance must be deemed, at the last count, palpably irrelevant.

15 October, 2008

Goal and Guides: How Christians Think

1. How Catholics Think.

A few months ago my wife, returning from the States, offered me a family heirloom. It is a 1945 catechism textbook from a Catholic high-school: Our Goal and Our Guides: Our Quest for Happiness. Most people who learn about the history of a subject will read the most significant, revolutionary or influential works on that subject: they will read Anselm and Aquinas, John Newman and Karl Barth. But if you want to understand a subject properly, it is important also to read the standard works, those that regurgitate material in simple and accessible form for the masses, so as to know the baseline against which the great works innovate. Our Goal is just such a work.

The book is full of marvelous diagrams in a vaguely moderne style, three of which I reproduce here. Catholic thought is essentially a diagrammatic thought: it is ordered in analogies and hierarchies, which lend themselves well to spatial representation. Before woodcuts and printing, which made actual diagrams easy to reproduce, Christian texts were full of verbal diagrams: elaborate correspondences between real and metaphysical objects, architecturally-structured theological summae, even the meditation-wheels of a Ramon Llull.

And with modern technology, these guys are unstoppable. Just look at that, above: that, truly, is wonderful. I don't think it bears much analysis. A few elements are doubtful. I can't identify the man and woman either side of Christ: I had thought of Mary and Joseph, since his attribute is a carpenter's square, but they are wearing monastic robes. I do not know the symbol at Christ's feet; nor the martyr-bishop with the book beside Agnes and Peter at the top right, if indeed he is anyone in particular. You have to admire that classic Catholic horror vacui: every spare cranny is crammed with symbol and ornament. The Church, like its late mentor Aristotle, has always occupied a plenum.

Here, on the tree of sin or death, superstition is on the second tier up, on the left, next to indifference. Superstition fascinates me, as nobody can agree on what it is. Our Goal never defines it; the closest it comes is to say, 'Other sins against religion are those which pay homage to a false god or which give false worship to the true God. Idolatry, divination, magic, and superstition are such sins.' On witchcraft, Our Goal has the audacity to suggest: 'Perhaps someone remembers the trouble this superstition caused in American history.' The book is not referring to the superstition that witches exist: it is referring to witchcraft itself (which 'endeavors to inflict harm with the aid of the devil') as a superstition.

On the next branch up, we find irreligion and presumption. At the top, apostasy, and despair. At the bottom are the rhizomatic deadly sins, symbolised by cute critters. It is all so charming!

Faith, says the Church, is necessary to salvation: it is one of the three Catholic virtues, along with Hope and Charity. The text of Our Goal distinguishes only between unconscious or 'habitual faith', infused into the soul at Baptism, and 'actual faith', consciously practiced by those with the power of reason: 'they are obliged to make acts of faith by which the infused capacity to believe is actually developed and strengthened'. The other divisions represented above are explained in Wilhelm's 1906 Manual of Catholic Theology:
A distinction is sometimes drawn between Explicit and Implicit Faith, founded upon the degree of distinctness with which the act of Faith apprehends its subject-matter; also between Formal Faith, which supposes an explicit knowledge of the motive and an express act of the will, and Virtual Faith, which is a habit infused or resulting from repeated acts of Formal Faith, and produces acts of Faith as it were instinctively without distinct consciousness of Formal Faith.
These three dichotomies (habitual / actual, formal / virtual, explicit / implicit) delineate much the same territories: but Our Goal is so committed to its rigorous hierarchies that it must order them sequentially. Theology is all the richer for it.

Cleverly, the Church stipulates that you must believe all articles of faith, even those you do not know. As an example, Our Goal offers Vatican I, 'man can come to a knowledge of the existence of God through the use of reason alone'. (The actual phrasing is: 'The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, / can be known / by the natural power of human reason.') In other words, we are to accept on faith the idea that faith is not necessary for the knowledge of God. A few pages later, Our Goal offers the reader a list of the catastrophic results that follow from faithlessness: the second is 'rationalism':
Many persons reject faith as a guide in religion and accept only what they can understand. This sin is called rationalism, a term which implies excessive reliance on reason. A person who believes only what he can understand is called a rationalist.
Compare Vatican I on the Reformation:
Thereupon there came into being and spread far and wide throughout the world that doctrine of rationalism or naturalism. . . Thus they would establish what they call the rule of simple reason or nature. The abandonment and rejection of the Christian religion, and the denial of God and his Christ, has plunged the minds of many into the abyss of pantheism, materialism and atheism, and the consequence is that they strive to destroy rational nature itself, to deny any criterion of what is right and just, and to overthrow the very foundations of human society.
This sort of nonsense was being refuted—or 'schooled', as I believe one has it on the interweb—back in the eighteenth century by Anthony Collins and Matthew Tindal, both chums of John Trenchard. But what interests me is the line that rationalists 'strive to destroy rational nature', presumably because it is irrational to be unfaithful towards Church tradition. You have to admire how Catholics could once get tangled up in these knots with a straight face.

2. How Protestants Think.

What I didn't tell you is that Mrs. Roth's granddaddy, the Reverend Bailey, who owned Our Goal and Our Guides, was no Catholic but a Southern Baptist, and a minister at that. Unshockingly, he weren't too keen on the book, and back in his day, if you weren't keen on a book, you didn't tell Amazon, you told the book. Which suits me. His views are manifest from the title-page onward:

Here the hands writing and the hand annotating are so at odds with each other that they cannot even agree on the grounds of theological dispute. And so the volume comes to serve as a scintillary document of religious worlds refusing to meet and interact. When Our Goal reaches the subject of Protestantism—the last of the heresies—Bailey is content to underline, whether amused or outraged:

Catholics should pray for the poor old Protestants? We should prove the truth of the Catholic faith 'by our lives as well as by our words'? The epistemological difficulties are great, as they are throughout the book. How are lives and words to demonstrate any proof to another? They can only demonstrate to those who believe already, those already primed to interpret those lives and those words as they must be interpreted. I would love to ask the authors of Our Goal what it would have taken to persuade them of the truth of Protestantism. Elsewhere, Luther gets lumped in with a Roman pagan and a Deist: a sorry lot!

Of course, at the heart of the dispute between Catholics and Protestants is the value accorded to institutional tradition. It was already the same with the Sadducees and Pharisees; and philosophical epigones still contest the significance of oral, esoteric or unpublished teachings, from Plato to Nietzsche. The Protestant Bailey is always asking: Who says? How do you know that? Does Scripture—the sole criterion of truth and falsehood—contain that doctrine? The Catholic, in turn, observes that it is no simple matter to read the Bible: the text is corrupt, the languages alien and idiomatic, and the sense frequently allegorical, obscure or ambiguous. And so we need to rely on a consensus, a tradition, as a guide to interpreting it. But Bailey will ask: Why your tradition? Why your guide? What criterion is to check and ground your assertions? The one wants liberty; the other assurance from without.

Of course neither side can convince the other; the two voices are locked in eternal battle, stilled and captured on the page, the one in printed Roman serifs and elegant diagrams, the other in oblique, exclamatory manuscript, the commentary pointed up by rough lines of the pen. Bailey is not fond of diagrams, of hierarchies, of systems—'This is a wicked system'. He attacks that distance in his very decision to annotate, uncowed by the serifs. It is a dangerous aggression, destined to pervert the young mind at the very moment it needs strength and discipline. Faith is a fragile shoot. So, too, is reason. It is a noble aggression, destined to liberate the young mind at the very moment it is in danger of submitting forever to a corrupt authority.

10 October, 2008

Constitutions and Distempers

In 1681, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet—tutor to the Dauphin and unofficial head of the French Catholic Church, stuck with playing advocatus diaboli to theological hotshots like Jean Claude and Leibniz—published his Discourse on Universal History, a triumphalist account of ancient and mediaeval Christian history, largely forgotten in the eighteenth century, but resurrected in the nineteenth as a masterpiece of literature for French collégiens to copy out and learn by heart. In Discourse 2.11, Bossuet deals with idolatry:
God knew man's mind and knew that it was not through reason that one could destroy an error which reason had not established. There are errors into which we fall when we reason, for man often gets tangled up because of his reasoning: but idolatry had come in by the opposite extreme, by stifling all reasoning, and by granting predominance to the senses, which sought to clothe everything with the qualities that strike the senses. Thus the Deity had become visible and vulgar.
Religious errors, says Bossuet, occur when we no longer listen to Reason, and devote ourselves instead to sensory experience, which is full of confusion. The true Christian distinguishes what he sees from what he knows: he realises that God cannot be grasped by the senses, but only by thought.


Bossuet was on the losing end of history; he and his ilk would soon concede Ohio and spend the next century on the back foot. This concession is popularly known as the 'Enlightenment'. One faction who stood to make big gains in Ohio were the Deists, and among them the English Whig, John Trenchard, whose Natural History of Superstition appeared in 1709, lambasting popery and enthusiasms. Having offered a litany of superstitions, Trenchard proposes his own account of religious error:
It must necessarily happen when the Organs of Sence (which are the Avenues and Doors to let in external Objects) are shut and locked up by Sleep, Distempers, or strong Prejudices, that the imaginations produced from inward Causes must reign without any Rival, for the Images within us striking strongly upon, and affecting the Brain, Spirits, or Organ, where the imaginative Faculty resides, and all Objects from without, being wholly, or in a great measure shut out and excluded, so as to give no information or assistance, we must unavoidably submit to an evidence which meets with no contradiction, and take things to be as they appear.
The problem for Trenchard is not sense experience but our own minds: where Bossuet saw corruption seeping in from outside, Trenchard sees the outside world as a necessary check to our fantasies.

Bossuet lived in the France of Descartes—Trenchard in the England of Locke. Descartes's Discourse on Method had spoken of man's lumière naturelle, given us by God to follow reason and distinguish truth from error. For Trenchard this is merely an 'Ignis Fatuus of the Mind, which the Visionaries in all Ages have called the Inward Light, and leads all that have followed it into Pools and Ditches'. Descartes is really no better than a mystic: his daimonion or 'voice of God' has become a secular lumière, but it is still claimed to be a divine gift. Of course it can provide no criterion of truth and falsehood, for it has no ground in experience, and thus is subject to the humoral imbalances of the body—'Complexions, Constitutions and Distempers'.

05 October, 2008

Wer band dich in Schlummer so bang?

Today I went along to a little film-screening, courtesy of Owen Hatherley and his cinematophile chums, as part of an ongoing art exhibition called the Wharf Road Project. The walk from Angel took me through the back streets of Islington, under a precipitate artillery—the ideal landscape of a miserabilist London. I almost walked right past the front door. Inside I was greeted first by a uniformed security guard, then, beamingly, by one of the artists, who invited me to explore the four floors of art. And the four floors were full of the usual rubbish that passes for art today—abstract paintings, video-screens, the distended head of a cat with black gunk oozing from its eyes—the sort one sees shortlisted for the Turner Prize every year. It made no impression on me.

On the second floor two pretty girls were wiping walls and rails. They seemed to be cleaning, but the motions of their hands were so spectral and disembodied, or mechanical, they might have been droids, or apparitions. They evinced no desire to exercise any control upon their surroundings. This did make an impression on me. Perhaps it was a performance piece.

Hand-dryers were located in the corridors outside the toilet cubicles.

In one of the rooms on the third floor I found the films being set up. Another young woman in an attractive brown dress handed me a little pamphlet, bearing essays on the event's theme of apocalypse, clamouring with references to T. S. Eliot and Heidegger, Dasein and diegesis. One of them quotes an article by the Marxist economist Harry Cleaver:
Crises are not to be feared or "solved"; they should rather be embraced and their opportunities explored. We should always be ready to take advantage of any crack or rupture in the structures of power which confine us. Only those who benefit from these structures should fear such cracks.
Naomi Klein, clearly, disagrees. (Affidavit: this is the first and last reference to Klein that will ever appear on this site.) We sat in the dark silence, some of us, not me, slurping Red Stripe, others munching on chocolate bites. Owen sat in the middle, communicating little to the assembled crowd. We watched a Herzog documentary on a volcano that never erupted, ending rather inappropriately to Siegfried's Trauermusik, and then an odd made-for-TV drama about nuclear apocalypse in Sheffield. The beards and scarves slurped and munched in passive silence; the DVD broke, and they couldn't find a remote; the rain spat a bit outside; the conspirators were quiet but really very pleasant.


There is now so much emphasis on the revolutionary. I suppose the contribution of modernism, on which Hatherley has written a book, was to make revolution—aesthetic, and then political—the aim of art. The problem is that revolution runs itself into the ground very quickly. Revolutions in taste happened every year until Duchamp put urinals on display, and then there could be no more. Revolutions in literary technique happened every year until Finnegans Wake, and then writers could only go backwards. The same happened with atonalism, photorealism, brutalism. We are still in the abyss of modernism. Its finest results are all in the past: we cannot best them, and we refuse to be conventional—or rather, to accept the conventional, for there is really nothing more conventional than today's art. By refusing to accept convention we have become hollow, straining for empty revolution, which in artistic terms no longer has any meaning. This was brutally and hilariously clear in the Hirst pre-auction show I attended last month out of pure idle curiosity, a fadged-up array of sheikhly gewgaws entirely lacking in talent, ideas, beauty, originality, even shock for Christ's sake—but whose contents went on to fetch £111m.

Up the road from the gallery, on the south side of Noel Road, the interwar Hanover Primary School is heavy and powerful in the drizzle. An architecture that lumbers and speaks, grey and dark. The sky, too, is grey and dark, and the canal. I walk the mile to the Barbican. London can be so flat, so unremitting, lacking in love and romance, so unrevolutionary—and it is magnificent.

29 September, 2008

Rodriguez on Greatness

Despite bright spells, the klaxons of winter seem to have arrived early in London. We shiver in the flat, and on the steps of the Embankment, in the gungy puce of an evening, beneath the Needle and sphinges, leading down to the rocks and slippery rubble that pass for a beach under the wall—camera (broken, lens protruding), mobile (broken), fragment of a pipe with valve, bottles (some intact), and a barge of junks moored at the edge—

—at the Library I work and work—I have been tutoring a German lad in the fine arts of feminist literary theory. From the issue desk I collect the books I've been commissioned to read—Shakespeare and Gender, Women's Writing, Erotic Politics, Desire on the Renaissance Stage—and I suffer the shame of a man buying pornography at the kiosk, recalling the time when, as a teenager, I had to purchase an Elton John CD as a gift for my sister. What if someone I know should see me with these books? What should they think? But they aren't for me, I would say—I'm just helping a friend! Judge not, lest ye be judged. Of course, such a shame quails in the agony of reading the damned things.


Paul Rodriguez, Lullist and Ruricolist, has put into more substantial form the essays of his blog's first year. Rodriguez likes his Hazlitt and Quincey, he tells me, but Bacon most of all. With a wry irony, he calls Bacon his 'idol'. Myself, I do not care much for Bacon, at least not for his Essays—but still.

Paul's best reflections excite the possibility of conversation. 'Do masterworks tend to occur at the beginning of an art form only because they are easiest then?' he asks. Which immediately prompted me to wonder why masterworks did seem to occur at the beginning of literatures (Homer, Vergil, Dante, Chaucer, Rabelais) but not at the start of painterly canons—the traditional view of the Renaissance, for instance, or of modernism, is of gradual progress towards perfection. What it is about a literature that requires the seal of greatness above the door? Paul notices the disparity across artforms:
Do we always owe the name of greatness to whomever makes way for the rest? Patently, no—in the history of painting, for example, for any virtue we can name the greatest are not the earliest; not even in primitive vigor, where the twentieth century trumps prehistory.
Only Roger Fry could disagree. But this raises questions again. Why, despite our strong distrust of historical singularities, does the twentieth century appear so singular in its cultural (and technological) production? Why should it be that art changed more between 1865 and 1915 than between 1265 and 1865? Why does modernism feel so convincingly like an irrevocable expulsion from Eden?
More freedom does not make work easier. We follow simple orders with clear objectives: write a novel, write a drama, write an essay. The first followed another order: make a work of genius; and that is always a reconaissance in force.
No, it is not freedom but constraint that makes art easier: I cannot help but read the modernist thirst and struggle for artificial constraints—from minimalism and Duchamp to the OuLiPo—as born of a lazy desire for impact: wit and virtuosity at the expense of lasting beauty. Freedom is, in fact, the greatest challenge to the artist: 'The great are not great by being first or earliest in something; rather, by being great, they start something.' How tempting is this view! How the Romantic in us longs to be a Shakespeare, a Picasso!

Rodriguez is a Romantic, by which I mean—and one could almost take this for a definition, almost—that he polarises the great and the good, genius and skill. He is self-assured enough—easy for a pollos, more difficult for an intellectual—still to valorize Leonardo, Beethoven and Homer. (And, oddly, Archimedes.) Christ, he even admires the Mona Lisa as a 'painting which earned its place'! I am inclined to agree. The Gioconda is, paradoxically, an underrated work of art, among those who do not gawp and snap but rather rate and underrate.


Paul asks, 'is the phenomenon of greatness only a manifestation of the familiar public taste for the bizarre?' No. Greatness is not reducible to taste, ex hypothesi. The great is always confused with the apparently great, that is, with the lauded; but despite that we must not confuse greatness with apparent greatness. Perhaps it would be better to say that the familiar public taste for the bizarre is a necessary corollary of greatness, an inevitable flinch, serving to make the great less painful to the ungreat, because more remote.

Paul is a Romantic because he polarises the great and the good, the 'honesty of genius' from the 'honesty of the camera or the map'. 'Maps lie,' he says, 'for mappability is what all places have in common: maps deny that places are different'. (Cartographic princess Mary Spence, for what it's worth, feels the same way about internet-mapping, which, she reckons, blands out the landscape it purports to survey.)
I will call a depiction of a place honest if it gives me what I could never learn from maps or satellite photos, but know with a minute of its sunlight; the form of a person, what I could never learn from imaging or lab reports or databases, but know with a minute of their conversation. That kind of honesty is the kind found in greatness, even at the cost of the other.
Here again is a fundamental Romanticism: this honesty of genius is in fact what might better be called insight—that which penetrates the surface. To believe in greatness is to believe that greatness cannot be discerned from surfaces. Hence there is an irreducible difficulty in discerning greatness, and consequently, Paul believes that we should humour greatness: 'we often must accommodate the opinions of those whose judgments we otherwise trust without any evidence of our own'. Here I disagree: greatness should never be humoured, always denied for as long as denial is possible, and only then accepted.
Let us have a thought experiment. Consider those ancients whose works survive to us only in fragments—say, Heraclitus or Sappho. Here is greatness we sense and know, yet cannot prove—a promissory note of greatness that we accept only on the word of writers of good credit.
Let us have as well an anecdote. Recently I read a poem that contained the clause, 'As Heraclitus put it in his Collected Fragments'. The words really stung me, not only because they are thoroughly lacking in poetic merit—for nothing else in this or the other sexdecilliard poems of its stock possesses any poetic merit—and not simply because, as I first articulated, Heraclitus did not put anything in a work entitled Collected Fragments, but because— because the poet had dared to sand and polish, to familiarise. Heraclitus was being implicitly cast as some sort of Poundian modernist, the sort who might produce a book with a title as precious as Collected Fragments. Heraclitus was being made less remote, and less great, because less distinctively Heraclitean. He was simply being assimilated into the general tedium. But it is the very fact of his obscurity and fragmentation, the fact of his historical slipperiness—in Gibbon's words, not of Heraclitus, 'a remote object through the medium of a glimmering and doubtful light'—that, for us, must make Heraclitus Heraclitus. Again, our faith that Heraclitus is fragmentary only by chance, by the whim of history—and the consequent necessity of accepting his words half on trust, with a 'promissory note of greatness'—are intrinsic to the peculiar nature of that greatness.


The klaxons of winter have arrived early. We shiver on the steps of the Embankment, in the gungy puce of an evening, beneath the Needle and sphinges, leading down to the rocks and slippery rubble that pass for a beach under the wall—camera, mobile, Erotic Politics, Desire on the Renaissance Stage. Those inglorious words are oozing into the water, and east, out towards the Estuary, to be drunk up as ersatz opinions. From the promontory we look east upon St. Paul's, remote and promissory, as if all else had fallen, like Macaulay's melancholy New Zealander, surveying the ruins of London.

[Update: Paul responds. I realise I have forgotten to say how much I enjoyed his invention of the word 'rebarbicans'.]