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.


John Cowan said...

All acolytes are insufferably dull and unimaginative. That's why I play the role of a foil here, and only grow dull when I discuss Frye.

Andrew W. said...

I suppose that it is a sign of the gap between priest and acolyte that I would have named this post Finding Nemo.

Such is life...

Anonymous said...

Trivial Note: Magister Allen when Nemo fell into bad company expressed it thus -
From Nemo let me never see
Neminis and Nemine.

He urged the benign confederacy of Nullius and Nullo
Nihilists all.

Your blog is the best sort of carolling.

Raminagrobis said...

Might Radulphus have got the idea (in some indirect way) from the Odyssey?

Derrida wrote in various places about negative theology, pseudo-Dionysius and the like; would be interesting to see if anywhere he had any fun with the 'nemo' idea.

Any connection with Blake's Nobodaddy?

Having made those unimaginative suggestions, this acolyte seconds the 'Finding Nemo' motion.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Finding Nemo" would have been better, no doubt. Michael: thank you. R: the Calmann article, which is on JSTOR, explores the Homer connection (and several others). Don't know about Derrida and Blake!