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'.]

17 September, 2008


My friends and I happen to be in the Angel area; we have returned from a walk down the canal from London Fields. At a loose end, I suggest showing them the New River Head, and so in a typically British greyed daylight we head down to Rosebery Avenue to gaze at those glorious edifices. I am still irritated by a mix-up over Belgian beers in a dark pub up Hackney way. We bloody bourgeois, eh? Still, it is hard to remain too endudgeoned when out and about in North London. Round the back of the New River Head I deliver my spiel about the Great Seal and Plui super unam civitatem and the rest of it. A local fellow suddenly appears, just as the sun ceases to be occlouded, and draws our attention to the brick wall encompassing the grounds.

The wall is dotted and scored all over with numbers, letters, codes. What could they mean? You see, said our new interlocutor, there was once a prison near here, and the prisoners, when they were in the exercise yard, would carve their numbers on the bricks. Then the prison was demolished, and the bricks were reused in this wall here. The wall must have gone up in the 1930s with the rest of the Board buildings; the numbers date back to the nineteenth century. We are all delighted by this quiet little effusion of the criminal voice, marring or at least glossing the elegant lines of the chi-chi apartments and gardens beyond.

[15.11.08 update: Upon re-perusing Ulysses, I discover a mention of the gaol in question, in relation to its Fenian spring in 1868, from 'Proteus': "Lover, for her love he prowled with colonel Richard Burke, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and, crouching, saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry."]

12 September, 2008

An Inconvenient Tooth

He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos.
Sometimes the world has an appalling air of doneness. I work best with unsolved, incomplete and unwoven materials—and the Germans have been doing their utmost to foil me of late. I spend a week researching the story of the Golden Tooth, with the plan to write an article on the subject, only to find that it has already been written, and as a whole book, with a comprehensive bibliography, only four years ago, and in German. The swinehound!

Teeth seem to be everywhere at the moment. My cuñada likes to tell the story of the Ndembu tooth-extraction ritual. The Ndembu culture, according to Victor Turner, attributes great spiritual significance to the front incisors, and when a tribesman is thought to be mixing awkwardly with the rest of his tribe, the witchdoctor pretends to extract one of the man's teeth, as a scapegoat object, symbolic of his social problems. The accompanying ritual includes the airing of grievances on both sides, so that the community can return to normal. Thus, cultural homoeostasis at work.

At the moment, Mrs. Roth's second lower right molar is more than a symbol of difficulty: it is a literal source of agony, having broken apart and set her gums and jaw at war with each other—the dentists can only throw up their arms in helpless confusion. Perhaps extracting the tooth would put her soul to rest, and cure her heart of its intrinsic evil: we are yet to discover. It is not the first time we've had a contretemps with her mandibles. Only last year she had to be fitted with a toothguard for her nocturnal bruxism. They took a cast of her dentures, a picture of which I saved for my own macabre enjoyment—

Fifteen pages of typical elegance are devoted to teeth in D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's On Growth and Form (rev. ed. 1945). This is one of the most beautiful books ever written, on a visual, literary, even on an intellectual level. It is one of those books written for dreaming, and I'm sure I could produce a post on every single page. The images are works of art. A photograph of an elephant's jaw, for instance, could double as a recumbent Surrealist nude:

Meanwhile, a series of diagrams demonstrating the shapes of a horse's molars anticipate the biomorphisms produced by Hans Arp in the 1920s. Here we have the beauty of pure form if we want it, and the beauty of scientific analysis if we want that. Figure A represents an eroded molar in cross-section, and B and C are each less eroded. (Funny that Thompson should have chosen to arrange the diagrams in reverse order.)

What do the key-letters stand for? Logophiles rejoice! a (and a', a'') are ectolophs; b is a protoloph; b' a mesoloph; b'' a metaloph. -loph, here, from the Greek for 'crest'. c and c' are lakes, valleys, or fossettes, x is a col, and o cusps or conules. The vocabulary is ported from topography, which unexpectedly becomes the dominant metaphor in Thompson's prose:

"To recognise this lake or pit in the simple contours of the young incisor is an easy matter; but in the abraded molar the enamel-layer which once covered all its ups and downs forms a contour-line, or "curve of level," of great complexity. This contour-line alters as the levels change, and varies from one tooth to the next and from one year to another, so long as wear and tear continue. The geographer reads the lie of the land, with all its ups and downs, from a many-contoured map, but the worn tooth shews us only one level and one contour at a time; we must eke out its scanty evidence by older and younger teeth in other phases or degrees of wear. The "pattern" of a horse's molar tooth is indeed so closely akin to a map-maker's contours that some of the terms he uses may be useful to us. He speaks, for instance, of ridge-lines and course-lines, lignes de faite and lignes de thalweg; of a gap, or lowland way between two hills, in contrast to a col or saddle at the summit of a mountain-pass; or of a gorge, which is a narrow steep-sided valley; or a scarp, which is a long steep-faced hillside."

All this is consistent with Thompson's overall project to bring the living kingdoms closer to the mineral. In his mechanical-mathematical world, life diminishes in significance, and the processes of life, namely the evolutionary processes, begin to jostle with more fundamental physical forces for impact on living creatures. In perhaps the most dazzling chapter, sort of a twentieth-century Garden of Cyrus, Thompson expounds on hexagonal patterns in nature as the simplest product of symmetrical forces:
If the law of minimal areas holds good in a "cellular" structure, as in a froth of soap-bubbles or in a vegetable parenchyma, then not merely on the average, but actually at every node, three partition-walls (in plane projection) meet together. Under perfect symmetry they do so at co-equal angles of 120°, and the assemblage consists (in plane projection) of co-equal hexagons.
What interests us is that soap and vegetable matter are treated side-by-side, as equals—along with tortoise shells, sunflower whorls, the basalt columns of Giant's Causeway, cracks in drying mud or varnish, honeycomb, and so on and so on. The sheer scope of the argument is greater than any division between living and non-living objects: 'In dealing with forms which are so concomitant with life that they are seemingly controlled by life, it is in no spirit of arrogant assertiveness if the physicist begins his argument, after the fashion of a most illustrious exemplar, with the old formula of scholastic challenge: An Vita sit? Dico quod non.'

On Growth and Form is a great book because it is a transformative book: it transforms, or transmutes, the world we know into a world of fantasy, of secret forces vying for power. It transmutes geology into geometry, biology into pure mechanics. And as Thompson's thought tends towards a procedural (hypothetical) inanimism, it coincides with its opposite, animism. It was an animism, or something like it, that suggested to Jakob Horst, a physician at Helmstedt University (and a contemporary there of Giordano Bruno), the idea that gold could grow naturally, for instance on a boy's tooth. In 1594 he was presented to a young Silesian lad named Christoph Mueller, among whose new adult teeth was—supposedly—one made of solid gold. In his account of the phenomenon, De aureo dente (1596), he asserts:
The strange and distant material of the golden tooth comes about from blood flowing through veins in the cavity and substance of the golden tooth. The golden appendage is born from the tooth's osseous roots. The gold on the tooth feeds, lives and feels.
Horst goes on to argue that on Mueller's date of birth, 22 December 1585, the sun was in conjunction with Saturn in the sign of Aries, producing an excess of heat, which in turn fanned the nutritive force in the tooth, producing gold—an effect both natural and miraculous. Years later, Duncan Liddel, a Scottish physician also working in Germany, pointed out that the sun only entered the sign of Aries in March—even Horst's hokum astrology was bad. In 1599, the Ramist and alchemist Andreas Libavius summarised the philosophical grounds of Horst's thesis, to which he himself was opposed, and invoked an old methodological principle later adopted by Charles Darwin:
That gold can assume a vital principle, and perhaps become vegetable [i.e. growing], will not seem absurd to those who believe in the living gold born in the Danube, on which were branches and leaves of pure vegetable gold. Thence the chemists claim that the golden stone is also vegetable: then it seems that the beginning and foundation of vegetation belongs to 'mineral spirits' (succis mineralibus), since these occupy the middle position between vegetable and elemental things, just as zoophytes are between plants and animals—for Nature does not make a leap (natura non faciente saltum).
Thompson would have agreed: Nature does not make a leap, She makes transformations. Hence the perfect continuity between the organic and the inorganic. Of course, Horst's thesis was soon exposed. The tooth was a fraud: its gold had been merely painted on. One account claims that 'a certain nobleman got an inkling [of the imposture], came to the place pretty drunk, and demanded that the tooth be shown him; when the young fellow, at his master's word, kept silent, the nobleman struck his dagger into the boy's mouth, wounding him so badly that the aid of a surgeon had to be called, and so the deception was fully exposed'. When it comes to the generation of gold, the organic appears demarcated from the inorganic after all, despite such modern marvels as this.

In the West, these sorts of stories attract the positivist mind, comfortable in its assurance that such shenanigans don't get taken seriously by intellectuals any more. Thus Vincenzo Guerini, in his History of Dentistry (1909), scoffs: 'In our days news of such a kind would be immediately qualified, and universally held to be an imposture. But three centuries ago the most marvellous and unlikely things were easily believed in, often even by the learned'. Anthropological respect is accorded only to the superstitions of darkest Africa, as to those of the Ndembu in Zambia—superstitions that are not discomfortably close to home, and which, for this very reason, present no threat of fantastical transmutation, of bouleversement.

Plato has not been of much help to my suffering Lily. (Although she did enjoy having her nails done at Aristotle's little salon, next door.) Too busy with all this deuced chatter about Ideal Teeth and intradentine hierarchies. He has no drills in his office: only an assortment of books and lenses. And his understanding of the human anatomy and physiology, at least such as he presents in his Timaeus, is simply idiotic. His fees are astronomical. When I mentioned to him the possibility of gold teeth, he shook his head. But at least if she managed to grow a bit of gold on the end of her crowns it would help pay for an operation. I think it is worth giving it a shot, "science" be damned.

07 September, 2008

erstarrte Musik

When I first met my wife, at a dormitory party at the University of York—an encounter I described here—I took her for a walk around the campus at four in the morning. We climbed up the Central Hall and stood looking out over the artificial lake, shivering in the chill of a northern February. I explained why I liked the campus—its bare geometric forms, its variety of spaces, its schematism—but try as I might, I just couldn't convince her that gravel-grey modular prefab had any architectural merit. It wasn't just her—most of my fellow students thought it a hideous place, a classically ugly product of 1960s tastes, like the South Bank or the Barbican. If Baukunst really is an erstarrte Musik, as Goethe said, then the campus must be near absolute zero.


Hostility towards this style often derives, I suspect, from a confusion of architecture with sculpture, from a criterion of beauty based in the plastic arts. It isn't pretty, is what they're thinking—individuals who'd never dream of requiring prettiness in literature or music. The campus, indeed, is far from pretty. Concrete rarely is. The architects had originally planned to clad their designs in banded white and green—limestone-fluorspar and Cumbrian granite—so as to approximate Siena Cathedral. That would have been prettier, but it proved too expensive, so instead they left exposed the concrete gravel that they'd dredged out of the Trent River. As a result, the campus is a terribly grey place, but it is at least a grey of the earth. (How often we forget the greyness of the earth, our eyes caught up in its greens and ochres, the garish spray of its flower beds and orchards.) The concrete itself is in precast panels arranged on a light steel framework—a method called CLASP, and revolutionary when it was devised around 1960, the campus being its first major application. Some of the panels were sculpted in abstract designs; these 'were an attempt to reassure people as to the fact that prefabrication didn't mean the end of all human variety and the touch of the human hand'. It did seem that way. A reviewer for the Architects' Journal in 1965 noted:
The edges of the precast concrete wall panels show, obliquely, and include angled drainage channels. There is an immediate natural reaction that these gaps need filling—and a further reaction that if they are not to be filled by the builder they will soon be filled by spiders' webs and the like.
The prediction turned out to be correct. When I was there, spiders were everywhere, especially hanging in mazy webs from the lit panels affixed to the ceilings of the walkways that stretch throughout the campus. Those walkways might as well have been taken from the utopian proposals of Charles Fourier—'everything is linked by a series of passageways which are sheltered, elegant, and comfortable in winter thanks to the help of heaters and ventilators'—one walks with nature, protected from it, but not isolated. Frank Lloyd Wright had written of his Living City utopia that 'hard-and-fast lines between outside and inside. . . tend to disappear'—'In spite of all untoward vicarious circumstance, man is now to be less separated from nature'. (Part of me resists Wright's vision: when I typed out this sentence, my fingers put 'not' for 'now' three times, a pregnant parapraxia.) In the same way, as you wind through the older colleges, the paths become corridors, colonnades, open now on this side, now on that: you are neither wholly inside, nor wholly out.

One is supposed to wander in this little world, to dérive: Guy Debord had only just started to use that sort of language when the York development plan was being drawn up. In a 1977 lecture, preserved only on an antique reel-to-reel audiotape sitting misfiled in a dusty corner of the university library, the tape itself threaded the wrong way through the spool, Andrew Derbyshire, one of the chief brains behind the campus, remarked:
We realised pretty early on that this was going to be a difficult place to find one's way about in. . . One wants to be able to explore. I don't like situations that expose themselves immediately, reveal all their secrets.
What we have is a version of the political utopianism so characteristic of post-war architectural theory: the design of the campus rejects hierarchical structure and places man directly in contact with nature. The organisation of buildings, loose and irregular, around intersecting nodes for congregation, are entirely anti-authoritarian: Haussmann would have been appalled. Contrast, for instance, the plan of the York campus:

to a map of Arizona State University, where I spent three long years:

In Tempe, most of the residential blocks are outside the campus, as is its centre of administration. There are some 30,000 students—twice that figure if one takes into account the other campuses. Provision is made for easy access and functional clarity, not for organic flexibility: hence long, broad avenues, lined with palms and palo verdes. At York, on the other hand, residential, educational and administrative blocks were deliberately combined. It was to be a small, close community, for a few thousand students. As Stefan Muthesius put it, 'this university is arguably not an assembly of separate units, but forms a whole, a kind of complete and 'anti-diagrammatic' organism.' This was the vitalistic language of the Smithsons, or of Constantin Doxiadis, who wrote in 1966 that the ideal city 'will evolve continuously, and when it ceases to do so the death of the whole organism will occur'. We are back at Mesa vs. Hornsey.


You can see plenty of pictures of the campus online. But for a more authentic vision, it will be worth examining pictures from the manifestos and early journal reviews of the campus, shot in a gorgeous 1960s high-contrast monochrome, the floors and facades all shiny and modernist. In these photographs, and attendant prose, we can recover some of the initial excitement.

A courtyard in the chemistry department; the columnar object
to the left is an old water tower, since demolished.

Pyramidal rooflights, Goodricke College

Colonnade, Derwent College

Boilerhouse, "ship-shape and shining. Ex-navy boilermen take
keen and obvious pride in their jobs."

And the greatest concession to a sculptural aesthetic, the boilerhouse chimney sticking up from the campus periphery, now usually sidelined by the roving architectural eye in favour of the spaceship-like Central Hall at the heart of the campus, seen here in half-installed form (1965) from a later retrospective:

Finally, the whole campus seen from the air:

The boiler chimney is at the far right, centre; in the bottom-right corner, meanwhile, can be seen Heslington Church, whose spire delightfully resounds in the pyramidal rooflights dotted about the campus: a 'happy harmony,' according to Derbyshire, 'which we hadn't actually ever intended or thought about'. The rooflights provide relationships of form within the campus, as well as a relationship between the campus and its environs.

And the language used to describe these lights is astounding. The 1965 reviewer saw them as evidence of an 'overall romanticism'. A later reviewer concurred: 'roofs and side-elevations were embellished by romantic details in the form of pyramid-shaped rooflights and box bay windows'. Michael Brawne, also in 1965, had mused in own his review of the campus that 'certain systems exert, through their apparent technical neatness, a romantic fascination'. What are we to make of romantic rooflights? They gesture upwards, with the spire at Heslington: they mitigate the modular repetition of the CLASP blocks: and at night they haunt the wanderer in his labyrinth.

05 September, 2008


The conservative poet and critic David Solway begins his essay 'Culling and Dereading' with an obvious falsehood, clumsily expressed: 'It seems that one can no longer survive in the academic world today unless one has mastered the trick of thinking and phrase-making characteristic of deconstruction.' His conclusion, however, is more reasonable—namely, that while the original proponents of the postmodern turn had something of merit, their acolytes are insufferably dull and unimaginative:
those who blithely and unreflectingly repeat its congenial rhetoric begin to resemble the members of the Neminiana secta, founded by the thirteenth-century Frenchman Radulfus who, having the idea that the Latin word for no one, nemo, was the name of an actual person, came to the conclusion that Nemo was the son of God and established a sect of worshippers.
The comparison is cute—Derrida and his friends talked about the presence of absence—a variation of the ancient idea that if you say that something is not, you are already implying its existence—just as the wacky mediaeval (supposedly) began to believe in the actuality of nemo. In Radulfus and (say) Derrida, the mistake is charming—in their followers, it is plain daft. The analogy also plays on the popular conception of postmodernism as a sort of high church with officiants, blind adherents and incomprehensible cant.

The irony is that Solway learnt about Radulfus—almost certainly—from Bakhtin's Rabelais and his World, a central text in today's postpostpost canon. (The Russian is mentioned once in the essay, and labelled 'chic'.)

If Radulfus is a figure of scorn for Solway, he is much more positive in Bakhtin's account, which discusses Radulfus and his Historia de Nemine at some length, finding in it a longing for freedom, expressing 'the recreative, festive suspension' of quotidian restraints—'the free carnivalesque play with offical negations and prohibitions'. Radulfus 'probably did not take his character seriously; probably Nemo was no more than a game, the diversion of a medieval cleric': it was his accuser, Stephen of St. George, with his agelastic condemnation of the Neminian sect, who plays the villain in this history.

Bakhtin's book has made the tale rather popular in certain circles, and browsing Google Books I can find nods to his telling in Joseph Koerner's Moment of Self-Portraiture and Christopher Miller's Blank Darkness, to name just two. But where did Bakhtin get the story from? We know that he and his circle (especially Voloshinov) were reading Karl Vossler, whose Spirit of Language in Civilization, written in 1925, offers a miniature of the legend:
But the maddest invention was reserved for a Frenchman, Radulfus, who lived at the end of the thirteenth century. This man had the idea—whether in earnest or in jest is hard to decide—that the Latin word for no one, nemo, was the name of a person. He hunted for passages in the Bible and other authorities in which this Nemo was mentioned, and actually discovered that Nemo was the true son of God. He preached sermons about him, attracted believers, and founded a sect of worshippers of Nemo, Neminiana secta.
Here, as with Solway, the tale illustrates the dangers of taking language too seriously; Vossler, a German Romantic through and through, characterises languages in terms of religious inclinations or spiritual physiognomies. We are in the same world as the modernist obsession with word-magic. How different in tone from the account in George Coulton, a rabid anti-Catholic, who was all primed to savage this as a classic example of Dark Age foolishness in his 1907 From Saint Francis to Dante:
A certain Radulphus, about 1290, got it into his head that whenever the word nemo (no man) occurred in Latin writings, it was no mere negation, but referred to a person of that name, whom he proved to be identical with the Son in the Holy Trinity. His own reading (as may well be believed) was small: but he paid monks and clerks to make a collection of such passages, mainly from the Bible, from which he composed a "Sermon Upon Nemo".
Clearly, Coulton was not averse to pulling facts out of his arse in support of his thesis. The parent to all of these passages is the full account of Radulfus provided in an 1888 article by Heinrich Denifle, who describes the sermon as 'wie es scheint, ernst gemeinten'—as it appears, seriously meant. More on Radulfus can now be found in Paul Lehmann, Die Parodie im Mittelalter; Gerta Calmann, 'The Picture of Nobody'; and most of all in Martha Bayless, Parody in the Middle Ages.