31 May, 2006


It is singular, therefore, that the roman constitution should have been represented as a pattern of perfection: a constitution one of the most imperfect in the World, originating from crude temporary circumstances, and never afterwards reformed from a general comprehensive view of the whole, but partially altered from time to time. Caesar alone was capable of giving it a radical reform: but it was too late, and the dagger, that deprived him of life, destroyed all possibility of an improved constitution.
Herder's Outlines, 14.4, before a description of the fall of Rome in the terms of class-struggle. Marx who? Constitution of the body, to be not partially altered, but reformed from a general comprehensive view of the whole. Republic 4 (tr. Jowett), 'The just man then, if we regard the idea of justice only, will be like the just State?' Definition of justice as each doing his own work. Menenius Agrippa and ancient labour-strikes. Duncan—the bare bodkin, that deprived him of life, destroyed all possibility of an improved constitution. See Spengler, The Going-Under of the Evening-Lands, on the fall of Rome. Herder again:
Rome destroyed the balance of nations; and under her a World bled to death: what new state will arise from this balance destroyed? what new creature will spring from the ashes of so many nations?

30 May, 2006

On the inevitable

Mr. Waggish, who writes about 20th-century fiction, European cinema, and a bit of philosophy, has been quiet of late, but he's broken his silence with an opening salvo (and another) on everyone's favourite hexception-cum-epigome, Finnegans Wake. Paul Kerschen of Metameat, himself a Joyce fan, comments:
My sense of the indeterminacy and contradiction is that Joyce wanted his last two books to have the form not of an account of the world, but of the world itself: in juxtaposing as many contradictory accounts as possible, he presents not an interpretation but an opportunity for interpretations.
A spark of the old Joyce flame, dear reader, was reawakened. I completely agree with this proposition—how could anyone not?—and so it occurs to me now to write a skit about the Wake, and about books as worlds. Joyce capitalised on that maxim (1925) of Archibald MacLeish that 'a poem should not mean / But be.' MacLeish, incidentally, was one of the few to take Joyce's prospective Wake seriously, back in the 20s when it was first hatched. Appropriately then, Samuel Beckett (amanuensis to Joyce, lover to his daughter) could provide a lovely snatch of bibliobole for the back cover of Anna Livia Plurabelle, Joyce's second printed installment of the Wake:
Here form is content, content is form. . . When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep; when the sense is dancing, the words dance.
It makes sense. As Paul says, Joyce wasn't writing about the world, he was writing the world. He was doing the reverse of the literary archaeologies being peddled by Auerbach, Curtius and Spitzer—stuffing the arcane and inaccessible, his own mind, back into the stylistic fabric of his text. He was uploading, where the Germans were downloading. Naturally, many authors had stuffed their brains into monumental novels before, the usual suspects—Rabelais, Melville, Sterne, Joyce in his own Ulysses. These were writers who wrote the world, and explicitly so: compare Rabelais's description of the utopian-microcosmic Abbey of Thélème to the physical properties of his own book, with its 'belles grandes librairies' carrying texts in six languages, its inscription in Gothic blackletter (a more demotic typeface than Roman, still in the 1530s), and its mirrors which reflect 'véritablement. . . toute la personne'. Even that mirror analogy is telling, echoing the great mediaeval encyclopaedias titled Specula, 'mirrors [of nature]'. Sterne, likewise, had done the book-within-the-book routine which delighted Borges, and Joyce had his microcosmic schemas for Ulysses, laying out Dublin, June 16, 1904, as the entire universe.

But the Wake goes further. As Northrop Frye observed, the book is not just an 'anatomy' or encyclopaedic work, like Ulysses, Gargantua and Pantagruel and Moby Dick, but rather the quintessence of all forms—novel, romance, confession and anatomy—in fact an anatomy of anatomies. One doesn't read it; this is the hardest thing to explain. One can only gaze at it, like the most beautiful of spectacles, or in other words, like the world. It's the type of work which will inspire most to call it the exception, but a Derek Attridge to insist that it's the most typical book ever written, at least if Empson is right that literature is defined by ambiguity, if Bakhtin is right that literature is defined by polyphony. Derrida could hardly help revealing his fannishness—it legitimated his career.

(I spent a younger night attempting a summary of the world as:
Their feed begins. (p. 308)
It didn't work. It's impossible. Look, there Joyce is, the anticheirst, taunting you with footnote 228, 'the free of his hand to you'. He's made the whole text so thick you could drown in the first paragraph alone. So don't even get started on p. 293, Elements 1.1 as a map of Dublin and 'figuratleavely the whome of your eternal geomater', the great cipher of the allwombing tomb; nor the twelve impossible questions set by the fractious schoolmaster Jockit Mic Ereweak, aka. (apparently) Wyndham Lewis, Joyce's modernist nemesis. It is comforting, nonetheless, to hear that Joyce hoped a schoolgirl in any part of the world might peer into Anna Livia Plurabelle, woven together from rivernames, and find her own local river in there somewhere.)

I once was asked by Patricia Palmer about literary theory, in one of the many piss-poor graduate seminars I suffered at York University. I replied, at some length, that I knew very little about theory or criticism, with the exception of Joyce scholarship, which I enjoyed reading, because exegesis of the Wake felt to me like exegesis of the whole world.

This kind of response was once reserved for the Bible. Everything is in the two Testaments—as Sir John Harington delighted to observe, Leviticus even includes details on where to defecate in the wilderness. If the Bible contains the world, then it might replace the world. Same with the Wake. In fact, I once referred to it in a letter as my Holy Babel, a pun which I'm sure has been made countless times before (I don't dare google it), and no doubt by the old bastard himself. In the olden days they used to answer questions by opening pages of the Scriptures at random, and interpreting the passage as a divine response, a kind of literary magic 8-ball. The mediaevals did it with the works of that necromancer Vergil, too, they called it the sortes Vergilianae, and Petrarch did it famously with Augustine's Confessions. There is no doubt in my mind that a text far superior to these for the purpose would be Finnegans Wake; perhaps we could institute the sortes Joyceanae.

I'd like to think that this blog too, in all its disparate pieces, might one day constitute a world entire, the universe plotted as words.

29 May, 2006

Antes el entregarse al sueño

A Catholic family heirloom belonging to my Chilean father-in-law; the Novisimo Diamante Divino, a Spanish missal printed in 1906.

En vuestras manos, Señor, encomiendo mi espíritu. ¿Quién sabe si esta misma noche llamaréis á mi alma? Por lo qui á mí toca, os ofrezco desde ahora el sacrificio de mi vida: disponed de ella: hágase vuestra voluntad y no la mia. La esperanza que tengo en hará descansar y dormir en paz, pues en Vos y en el Corazón de vuestro Hijo es solamente en donde mi alma puede encontrar el reposo que necesita.

28 May, 2006

Quote-Unquote Frigid

I have come to wonder if this word frigid, which suggests to me not only cold, but the stiffness of cold, whether physical or emotional, might trigger similar associations in others; has the word acquired the delayed echo of rigid?

And what does it say about that old conflict of the oral and the written word, that journalists are now so keen to use the expression quote-unquote in print? Quite curiously, it affects the speaking voice imitating written punctuation. Closer still we reach for a complete desegregation of speech and writing, in favour of the former. The spoken expression, in this case, retains its currency partly from the attractive emphasis of its /o: o:/ ictus. But also, I suspect, from an increasing scorn of absolutes, an unwillingness to commit—or be seen to commit—linguistically to given notions. For the inverted commas of quote-unquote are rarely those of reported speech; rather, they are the commas of irony. Thus, a film-review in the Washington Post, 5/26/06, refers to 'a quote-unquote normal lifestyle', suggesting postmodernly that such a lifestyle is only normal insofar as it is considered such. With this device we distance from ourselves our own words, those signs which, in our hearts, we all still know to reveal us utterly.

27 May, 2006

J. G. Herder on mankind

A comment to Tuesday's post on language mentioned the name Herder, though readers will be forgiven if they blinked and missed it. This is Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), scholar, philosopher, student of Hamann, and all-round polymath, identified by Lewis Beck as the chief source of naturalism, historicism, nationalism, monism and mysticism among German intellectuals at the end of the century. Herder made possible the Jena Romantic movement, as well as the theories of Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, G. W. F. Hegel, and therefore Marx and all the rest. In other words, Herder is one of the towering figures of intellectual history, though today largely forgotten (at least in the English-speaking world) by non-specialists.

The mention of his name was a small coincidence, for I've been reading his masterpiece, the Ideen für Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784), rendered in a succulent proto-Ruskinian English by T. Churchill as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1800). The work is, quite simply, astonishing. Herder's subject—the study and philosophy of Man, being the closest thing to anthropology for a good hundred years to come—and his idiom derive from the thinkers of the French Enlightenment, primarily Condillac and Rousseau. A separate treatise, On the Origin of Speech (1774), has much in common with Rousseau's Essai sur l'Origine des Langues (c. 1760), and (in context, but not in conclusion) with the remarks on language in Condillac's Essai sur l'Origine des Connaissances Humaines (1746). Man's essential characteristic is Reason, which overcomes base animal instincts, and his highest attainment is intellectual freedom. Reason is revealed primarily through language, which is conventional rather than natural, and which separates us from the animals (this a subject of considerable debate, following Edward Tyson's 1699 discovery of the apparent biological capacity for speech in orang-utans). The origin of language is expressive passion, and thus verbs, which are violent and active, are older than nouns. Speech is valued above writing as more natural. Different climates engender different kinds of men, and thus of language: warmer southern regions produce effeminate men with languorous vowels (Spanish, Italian), whereas northern climes produce warlike men with thick consonants (German, Russian). Mankind is naturally social, and his most appropriate state is the small, well-organized nation. The first human settlements were on hills, later in rivered valleys (this specifically from Plato's Laws, Book III). All these things had been said before Herder; but he was largely responsible for introducing them to Germany.

More interestingly, we see here the early seeds of Romanticism. Although Reason is the quintessence of man, it is not inborn, but must be learnt. Reason gives us humanity, of which the highest manifestation is not science but religion, a religion of man, and of the interior soul. But while man is the greatest thing on the earth, at the same time he pales in comparison to the great fecundity and sublime power of Nature, about which Herder dissolves in continual rapture. At one point the author scorns the hubris of the human creature, little more than a plant in his mechanical cycle of nourishment and decay.

Curious also is the resurgence, in modified form, of various elements of the mediaeval world-picture. Before the general acceptance of Copernican heliocentrism, there had been a pleasurably neat conception of man at the geometric centre of a universe consisting of concentric spheres, with hell below, and heaven above. This physical position reflects symbolically a moral centrality—man is the most important thing in creation, right at the centre; he is farthest from God, beyond the empyrean at the greatest sphere, but also has the capacity to ascend or descend, based on his ethical decisions. Such a view was expressed even as late as Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), fifty odd years before Copernicus' discovery. One might think that Herder, living long after the general acceptance of a Copernican-Newtonian universe, would be hard pressed to peddle a similar line. Not at all; he only relocates the Great Chain to the planets of the Solar System, stretched out in a hierarchy from the sun. Man lives on a planet midway between the sun, to which all souls strive, and the outer peripheries of the galaxy—he is still symbolically at the centre.

Furthermore, Herder revives the mediaeval teleological view of history, formerly propounded by St. Augustine and Otto of Freising. The sweep of human history, he says, has a purpose (though not one set out by a transcendent deity); everything happens for a greater reason, as mankind slowly tends towards the highest state of perfection. Just as Augustine had justified the barbarian invasions by suggesting (correctly) that they would be responsible for the general spread of Christianity, so Herder traces the 'evolution' of life from the simplest forms to man, and from man's most savage beginnings in Asia to the Renaissance. I parenthesise 'evolution', because what Herder really describes is a succession of superior forms, rather than an evolutionary process as it would be later understood. One of the highlights of the work is a fantastic description of biological 'evolution' in terms of the mouth and digestive system, which recede from the totality of the organism to a small element as the forms develop:
The first mark, that distinguishes an animal to our eyes, is the mouth. Still a plant is, if I may so express myself, all mouth: it sucks with roots, leaves, and pores: like an infant it lies in the lap of it's [sic—the regular orthography in this translation] mother, and at her breast.

. . . The many stomachs of inferiour creatures are united to one in [man], and in some other animals, which internally approach his form; and his mouth is rendered divine by the faculty of speech, the purest gift of the deity.
The result of this picture is a view of human cultures which become progressively more sophisticated as they attain a greater use of reason. By today's standards, this might sound like a blueprint for Volkish racism—but Herder was remarkably moderate. One of his important innovations was a methodical insistence on the importance of climate on shaping character; he concludes, for instance, that the African remains barbaric not from any inherent racial flaw, but merely because his physical environment prevents him from evolving. Herder constantly lambasts his contemporaries who deride non-Western cultures as inferior, not only reminding them of the notable artistic and religious achievements of those cultures, but also mocking the common man for sharing greedily in the achievements of his great forebears—not every Englishman a Newton.

This leads to Herder's single most significant thesis—that a given culture cannot be understood as a lesser form of another, but only on its own terms; all men conceive according to what they already know. Likewise, each culture is revealed through its language and art, which is unique to that one culture, and definitive of it. This idea was enormously influential, begetting the epochal historicisms of Hegel and Marx. Herder specifically anticipates Hegel's Philosophy of Fine Art in his discussion of the relative aesthetics of Ancient India, Egypt and Greece; but he always remains readable, never delving into the oceans of abstraction favoured by his more famous successor.


Herder's Outline, in conclusion, is a monumental achievement, although left unfinished. In 600 pages he covers a gigantic amount of material, including astronomy, geology, biology, and the social sciences of his day, and synthesises from these a theoretical view of culture, psychology and history—everything for a reason, just the way I like it. (Which is not to say that I agree with any of his ideas. There is some notion today that if a man's ideas are wrong, they are uninteresting; I could never agree with this. The Bible fascinates me, yet I could hardly be more of an atheist. I've never read a more brilliant thinker than Plato, yet I can't think of a single Platonic idea that I share.) The Outline is neither just data, nor mere abstract metaphysics, but a wealth of detail keystoning a grand philosophical vision. It even possesses, at least in the English, a singularly beautiful prose.

I leave my readers with this, a small contribution to Project Gutenberg—a passage from the Outline purporting to synthesise (from David Cranz's History of Greenland) a catechism between a European and a Greenland Inuit, supposedly demonstrating one culture's inability to understand the concepts and questions of another. I'm not sure it does any such thing; but it makes an absorbing read, nonetheless. Incidentally, this material (either in Cranz or in Herder>) inspired Coleridge's 'The Destiny of Nations' (1796), online here.

Question. Who created Heaven and Earth, and every thing that you see?

Answer. That we cannot tell. We do not know the man. He must have been a very mighty man. Or else these things always were, and will always remain so.

Q. Have you a soul?

A. O yes. It can increase and decrease: our angekoks [shamans] can mend and repair it: when a man has lost his soul, they can bring it back again: and they change a sick soul for a fresh sound one from a hare, a rein-deer, a bird, or a young child. When we go a long journey, our soul often stays at home. At night, when we are asleep, it wanders out of the body: it goes a hunting, dancing, or visiting, while the body lies still.

Q. What becomes of it after death?

A. Then it goes to the happy place at the bottom of the sea. Torngarsuck and his mother live there. There it is always summer, bright sunshine, and no night: and there, too, is good water, with plenty of birds, fishes, seals, and rein-deer, all of which may be caught without any trouble, or taken out of a great kettle ready boiled.

Q. And do all men go thither?

A. No: only good people, who were useful workmen, have done great actions, caught many whales and seals, endured much, or been drowned at sea, died in the birth, &c.

Q. How do these get thither?

A. Not easily. They must spend five days or more in scrambling down a bare rock, which is already covered with blood.

Q. But do you not see those beautiful heavenly bodies? Are not they more probably the place of our future abode?

A. It is there, too, in the highest Heaven, far above the rainbow; and the journey thither is so quick and easy, that the soul can repose the same evening in his house in the moon, which was once a greenlander, and dance and play at bowls with the other souls. Those northern lights are the souls playing at bowls and dancing.

Q. And what do they there besides?

A. They live in tents, by a vast lake, in which are multitudes of fishes and birds. When this lake overflows, it rains upon Earth; if the banks were to break down, it would cause an universal deluge.—But in general only the vile and worthless go to Heaven; the diligent go to the bottom of the sea. Those souls must often suffer hunger, are lean and feeble, and can have no rest for the quick turning round of the sky. Bad people and sorcerers go thither: they are tormented by ravens, which they cannot keep out of their hair, &c.

Q. What do you believe was the origin of mankind?

A. The first man, Kallak, came out of the earth, and his wife soon after came out of his thumb. She bore a greenland woman, and the woman bore Kablunaet, that is, foreigners and dogs: hence both dogs and foreigners are incontinent and prolific.

Q. And will the world endure for ever?

A. Once already it has been overwhelmed, and every body drowned, except one man. He struck the earth with his staff, a woman came out, and they repeopled the World. It now rests on it's supporters, but they are so rotten with age, that they often crack; so that it would long ago have fallen down, if our angekoks were not continually repairing them.

Q. But what think you of those beautiful stars!

A. They were all formerly greenlanders, or beasts, who have travelled up thither on particular occasion, and appear pale or red according to the difference of their food. They that you see there meeting are two women visiting each other: that shooting star is a soul gone on a visit: that great star (the Bear) is a rein-deer: those seven stars are dogs hunting a bear: those (Orion's belt) are men who lost themselves hunting seals, could not find the way home, and so got among the stars. The Sun and Moon are a brother and sister. Malina, the sister, was assaulted by her brother in the dark: she endeavoured to escape by flight, and ascended into the sky, and became the Sun: Anninga pursued her, and became the Moon. The Moon is continually running round the virgin Sun, in hopes to catch her, but in vain. When he is weary and exhausted (in the last quarter) he goes seal hunting, at which he continues some days, and then he returns again as far as we see him in the full Moon. He is glad when women die, and the Sun is pleased at the death of men.

25 May, 2006

Words and coins

Thumbing through the Greek New Testament, I stumbled on the word thesauros, referring often to a storeroom, but here to the caskets containing the three gifts of the Magi. The word comes [or not—see LH's comment below] from the superproductive root the-, 'to set or place' (indicative form ti-themi), which produces a similar development in apo-théke (apothecary), ie. an area where goods are 'placed out'. I had been dimly aware of this word as the origin both of thesaurus and treasure, but had never given it much heed. Now I consider Peter Roget choosing a metaphor for his gigantic store of synonyms, and the image suggests to me the famous kenning from Beowulf, where the hero 'wordhord onleac', or 'unlocked his word-hoard'. The symbolic association between language and money (or goods) is ancient; no doubt there are entire books and articles about this very metaphor. An early example is Horace's statement (Ars Poetica, ll. 58-59) that
licut semperque licebit
signatum praesente nota producere nomen


It is lawful and it will always be lawful
to produce word(s) marked according to what is presently known.
The idiom is really one of stamping currency, as all translators have understood: 'stamped with the 'mint-mark' of the present coinage'. Another well-known example is from Hobbes' Latin Leviathan, ch. 4, translated here:
fools treat [words] like coins, the value of which depends on their being stamped with some famous name, like that of Aristotle, or Cicero, or Aquinas, or any other merely human authority.
There are countless other examples. Even today we speak of 'coining' words, and of expressions having 'currency'. The core notion is of a token not valued for itself (despite coins originally being gold and silver), but which can be exchanged 'symbolically' for desired items—food, meaning. As such, it reveals a common conception of language, expressed yesterday here by Gawain, as merely a means of communication, even as a barrier to be transcended, a necessary evil. This position tends towards a devaluation of language itself (though I do not accuse my interlocutor himself of this devaluation), and of literary forms which delight in (ornate) language at the expense of meaning. For me, one of the key literary problems is the creation of new words and metaphors, and the tendency towards obscurity of expression. As Leo Spitzer observed on the subject of fantastical language in Rabelais, 'Tout néologisme participe évidemment des deux domaines: d'un côté, il prend racine dans le patrimoine acquis de la langue dont il doit suivre les schémas, d'autre part il s'élance dans le terrain vague de l'inexistant'. The analogy of coinage must here break down: an individual cannot introduce new currency into a society, whereas certain individuals in certain circumstances can coin new words, metaphors and expressions. In this light, language seems not so much a conventional activity, as a creative one; no longer a transparent vessel of meaning, it becomes thick, opaque, and fascinating—almost literally.

[Update: kind words about Conrad from Gawain, who has a great post here on Polish neologisers.]

23 May, 2006

Want / like: a reply to Gawain

(. . . see the comments to yesterday's post)

Dear G—

First of all, I must apologise for the appalling quality of my first reply; one prides oneself on style, yet sometimes it falls in haste from one's fingers. I was planning to rewrite this chewed-up doggerel, but now that time has passed. Second, I advert my readers that Gawain refers in his second comment to that loveable heretic, Giordano Bruno. Third, I'd like to thank my respondent for doing away with pleasantries and engaging in bare-knuckle dispute, quite appropriate for this space and just the sort of kein-Quatsch argumentation I was hoping to encourage in the first place.

Fittingly then, the superficies of the matter have been stripped aside, leaving the core of our disagreement. We concur that there is (theoretically) a live conditional behind the dead formula of politesse in each language; but we disagree on the 'possible world' invoked by this hypothetical. I said 'In world n where I have object x, I like x'; Gawain says (I abbreviate his formula) 'In world m where the present company accepts my desire for x, I want x.' This relocates the problem from the semantics of want / velle to the psychology of the 'polite conditional'. The superiority of Gawain's solution is that it accounts for the English as well: 'In world m where the present company accepts my taste for x, I like x.' It's plausible to suggest that the same conditional is the origin of both 'I would like' and 'Je voudrais', so this satisfies me. And unlike Gawain, I'm convinced that the question is, at least in theory, answerable—that there really was a genuine conditional expressed here, whether or not we can actually find it in extant historical sources.

Now, as for 'occult knowledge', this is a deeper dispute. I share with Freud (though not to his extremes) a dissatisfaction with explanations of human behaviour that rely on chance or coincidence. Correct me if I'm wrong, Gawain, but I am guessing that you associate my position with a quasi-Hegelian stance, that language (like art, philosophy, myth) reveals the 'inner structure' of a personal or national Weltanschauung. Hidden 'occult knowledge' about the human mind is thus to be obtained by examining the discrepancy between, say, 'I would like' and 'Je voudrais'. This type of thinking is largely derided as mumbo-jumbo now, and perhaps rightly so. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater—we needn't conclude that this discrepancy means anything in a 'metaphysical' sense to find it interesting. Words and expressions don't come out of nowhere; they preserve habits of speaking, and habits of thinking, and the more formulaic the pattern, the more basic or important the thought—see Calvert Watkins' How to Kill a Dragon in Indo-European for a wonderful illustration of this. Thus, I was not suggesting from this distinction that frogs and staartmen want or like differently; rather, I was offering an illustration of familiar languages dividing up semantic territory in unexpectedly different ways. The European tongues use slightly different lexical resources to fill the same semantic / psychological hole, a fact which, as you yourself have demonstrated, tells us a little more about that hole, in this case the 'possible world' to which our disagreement amounts. My conclusion is none too earth-shattering, therefore, even if it is right.

[Update: relevant recent posts at Languagehat here, and Language Log here.]

22 May, 2006

Want / like: a note

English indicative, 'I want [to have] an orange'.

English conditional, 'I would like [to have] an orange', ie. 'If I had an orange, I would like it'.


French indicative, 'Je veux [avoir] une orange': 'I want [to have] an orange'.

French conditional, 'Je voudrais [avoir] une orange': 'I would want [to have] an orange'.

Italian indicative, 'Io voglio [avere] una arancia': 'I want [to have] an orange'.

Italian conditional, 'Io vorrei [avere] una arancia': 'I would want [to have] an orange'.

Spanish indicative, '[Yo] quiero [tener] una naranja', 'I want [to have] an orange' (note that Sp. replaces L. velle, habere with quaerere, 'to seek after', tenere, 'to hold')

Spanish conditional, '[Yo] querría [tener] una naranja'—or better, Spanish subjunctive, '[Yo] quisiera [tener] una naranja', 'I would want [to have] an orange'.

The idiomatic Romance conditionals literally state that 'If I had an orange, I would want it'. This apparently makes no sense: for if I had an orange, I wouldn't want it. (To want, cognate with L. vanis, E. vain, really means to lack: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.") The behaviour of to want is here at subtle variance with the behaviours of velle and quaerere. Does this demonstrate that English conceives the semantic like/want distinction differently than the Romance languages, which can produce 'I would want'? NB, the French can use 'j'aimerais' for 'I would like', though I'm not sure about the other Romance languages on this point.

19 May, 2006

Lives of Jesus: films

Pier Paolo Pasolini, dir. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
George Stevens, dir. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Franco Zefirelli, dir. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Martin Scorsese, dir. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Mel Gibson, dir. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Leaving my office this afternoon, in the 100-degree heat, for the last time before we leave for the summer, I heard the campus carillon chime out the tones of Big Ben; soon, dear city, we shall be with you once more. We leave tomorrow, for over two months. Posting will be reduced, but still existent. In fact, I will take the opportunity to write about some of the obscurer reaches of my London book-collection, so watch this space. For now though, a most unreligious topic, surely: Christ biopics. My previous post here on written biographies of Jesus.

Mrs. Roth and I blandly debated the relative merits of this crop. We both favoured Gibson's vision, but she chose Zefirelli for his star, Robert Powell, whereas I preferred Stevens for his film's classical monumentality. It is a relief to say that all five versions were as different as could be expected, a rich hoard of competing interpretations. The first two remain the polar visions. Pasolini uses the Italian countryside, untrained actors, silence, with dialogue largely of teachings, grainy monochrome, a beaten, rustic quality to his cinematography; Stevens uses the canyons and deserts of Utah and Arizona—and this is quite obvious, an incongruous setting for Galilee—mixed Hollywood talent (including Max von Sydow, Telly "Kojak" Savalas, and a hilarious Charles Heston as John the Baptist cum Samson: "I have orders to take you to God!"), silence, with dialogue largely of American BigScreenisms, glorious technicolor, and a statuesque setting for every scene—I marveled at the perfect figural arrangements, like a Raphael, and the slow, framed solemnity of each shot. Stevens' actors, especially Sydow, speak as if they're on Valium; his Jesus seems impressively uninterested in the evangel, which matters little, as the apostles flock anyway to this least charismatic of Saviours. Mrs. Roth intensely disliked the sluggishness and poor acting of this version, but I was entranced.

Robert Powell is really the only thing to recommend Zefirelli's laboriously overliteral mini-series, which insists on spelling out every last detail of Christ's life. James Mason and Laurence Olivier thesp it up in minor roles—Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, ie. the Good Jews. The rest of the film is also pretty halfhearted and mechanical; but Powell, despite a nebulous start, soon ups the smugness factor and hooks you with those limpid eyes of his. He's sufficiently smug that when he's actually crucified, you can't help but smile.

Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, turns fire and brimstone for Scorsese's ludicrous Last Temptation, which at least makes some effort to get into the thick of Roman Israel. Thus we get a frenzied, ascetic Baptist, with initiates thrashing around ecstatically in the water, quite the opposite of the serene pleasantries of Zefirelli's John, or the Herculean athlete offered by Heston. Harvey Keitel, apparently here only to complete his mission of being in every Scorsese flick, offers a Noo Yawk Judas quite at home in a sea of Noo Yawk Judaeans. Mrs. Roth remarked on Scorcese's handling of Lazarus as a horror-movie, the undead hand lurching into the frame for that added 'boo' factor. The post-cross sequence is risible, frankly, and I don't want to dwell on that here.

So much has been written about The Passion that I won't reiterate all the controversies. We find the anti-Semitic accusations laughable (the New Testament, after all, is anti-Semitic); and we both enjoyed the rich language, of which I understood most of the ecclesiasticized Latin and even a few fragments of the Aramaic. The scourging scene is notoriously graphic—at one point the soldier's flail embeds itself in Christ's back, and a yank sends visible pieces of Jesusflesh flying. The film as a whole is undeniably very lovely to watch.


Each film had something to recommend it; but none was the New Testament. It appears impossible now even to put Christ on film without interpolating the entire history of Christian tradition. As Auerbach made very clear in the first chapter of Mimesis, part of the literary power of the Scriptures (he uses the Old, but for our purposes the New follows a similar path) derives from their taciturnity—and in the unparalleled King James Version, archaic even in 1611, the odd turns of phrase and dislocated expressions give the work a very quiet grandeur, a 'still small voice' (compare the legion earlier and later translations of this phrase, 1 Kings 19:12, to realise the perfect music of this rendition). This is absent from all the films, though least absent from Pasolini's. Gibson's, in particular, is heavy with the carnality and sadistic violence of the Catholic Church—it's a fantastic achievement, the keen articulation of one aesthetic, mais ce n'est pas le guerre. Seeking a faithful interpretation is fruitless with this material; we are content to experience instead the religion of modern man.


Is it only a matter of time before somebody shoots all four gospels, beginning and ending with John, but the bulk in real-time four-way split screen (à la the awful Timecode)? It needs to be done.

18 May, 2006

Non traduttore, traditore

It seems that everybody hates St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of history's great curmudgeons. Mediaevalists deride his commentary to the Song of Songs, with its queasy-erotic raptures on the Shulamite-qua-Mary; they tsk-tsk his regressive views on Romanesque art, expressed in the over-quoted Apologia to William of St. Thierry; and they lament his disastrous condemnation of Abelard in 1141 (R. W. Southern offers a superb account of the latter event in his unfinished masterpiece, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe). Bernard did turn up as a hero in the Divine Comedy, and after his death he came to be portrayed in this enviable position, receiving a milky shower from the Holy Virgin's bared pap—no, really!—

—and see also here, here and here—but back in the 12th century, Bernard, and the puritanical Cistercian Order he founded, were the subjects of plentiful satire. Take the following passage, for instance, from Walter Map's delightful collection of folktales, rants and potted biographies, De Nugis Curialium, written at the English court between 1181 and 1193:
Two white [Cistercian] abbots were conversing about Bernard in the presence of Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, and commending him on the strength of his miracles. After relating a number of them, one of the abbots said: "Though these stories of Bernard are true, I did myself see that once the grace of miracles failed him. There was a Marquis of Burgundy who asked him to come and heal his son. We went, and found the son dead. Dom Bernard ordered the body to be carried into a private room, turned every one out, threw himself upon the boy, prayed, and got up again: but the boy did not get up; he lay there dead." Tum ego: "Monachorum infelicissimus hic fuit; nunquam enim audivi quod monachus super puerum incubuisset quin statim post ipsum surrexisset puer." Erubuit abbas, et egressi sunt ut riderent plurimi.
The reader will notice that Map's translator, one M. R. James, has left the end of this passage in its original Latin. The prudish James confesses in his introduction to protecting delicate ears. It seems he hasn't learnt from the mistakes of the previous century, when schoolboys would rummage through the classics for untranslated passages, or else simply turn to the back of their Juvenal or Horace, where the obscene material had been deposited so as to spare the magistri unnecessary embarrassment. The Latin here reads:

Then I said, "He was the most unfortunate of monks; for I've never heard of a monk lying over a boy without the lad immediately springing up after him." The abbot blushed, and they left to the greatest laughter.

Hilarious! I find this practice of not translating rather appealing; it can be found also in John Payne's 1886 Decameron, reprinted in the Modern Library edition. Payne's omission arrives in the middle of my favourite story, Day 3, Tale 10—the one where the lecherous monk Rustico shows his naive protégée Alibech how to 'put the devil to hell'. The happy couple have just tossed their clothes off, when Payne stops his rendering short with an ironic footnote:
The translators [sic] regret that the disuse into which magic has fallen, makes it impossible to render the technicalities of that mysterious art into tolerable English; they have therefore found it necessary to insert several passages in the original Italian.
Sure enough, we get a page and a half of Boccaccian innuendo: "Rustico, quella che cosa e, che io ti veggio, che cose si pigne in fuori, e non l' ho io?" "O figliuola mia, disse Rustico, questo e il diavolo, di che io t'ho parlato, e vedi tu ora: egli mi da grandissima molestia, tanta, che io appena la posso sofferire." And so forth. The Modern Library edition ironically includes a foreword by Morris Ernst lambasting the book's obscenity trials ("Treasury Department Officials acting as guardians of our literary diet at our national frontiers have from time to time refused to admit copies of The Decameron"). No doubt St. Bernard, despite his scribblings on the Virgin's comeliness, would have been there at the frontiers with them.

16 May, 2006

A language joke, twice

1. Sigmund Freud, Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious (1905):

The doctor who had been summoned to help the baroness in her confinement declared that the critical moment had not arrived, and proposed to the baron that they play a game of cards in the adjoining room in the meantime. After a while the doleful cry of the baroness reached the ears of the men. "Ah, mon Dieu, que je souffre!" The husband jumped up, but the physician stopped him saying, "That's nothing; let us play on." A little while later the woman in labor-pains was heard again: "My God, my God, what pains!" "Don't you want to go in, Doctor?" asked the baron. "By no means, it is not yet time," answered the doctor. At last there rang from the adjacent room the unmistakeable cry, "A-a-a-ai-e-e-e-e-e-e-E-E-E!" The physician then threw down the cards and said, "Now it's time".

2. Karl Vossler, The Spirit of Language in Civilization (1925):

An Alsatian woman, of German parentage but French 'education' came to give birth to a child. As long as she vented her anguish in the cry ai! ai! the doctor did not take the matter seriously; only when she gave forth the German cry au! au! did he feel that her time had come.

The first lesson from this comparison is, naturally, that Vossler can't tell a good joke. To be fair, he calls it an anecdote, but it is still an anecdote smacking of the half-told joke. (When telling Freud's version aloud, I have found it best to shriek the final cry as violently as possible, for maximum comic impact.)

It is enlightening to compare the two writers' respective interests and analyses. Freud uses the story to demonstrate one function of wit, the solution of psychological problems 'by bringing the entire character to full expression through a minute detail'. The joke shows us not only 'how pain allows one's original nature to break through all the strata of education', perhaps the more obvious point, but moreover 'how an important decision is rightly made dependent upon a seemingly inconsequential utterance'. We see here an instance of Ginzburg's description of the Freudian method. Tellingly, Freud focuses not on the baroness, but on the doctor as interpreter of the baroness, her physical condition revealed by her psychical condition, which in turn is revealed by her language. This focus points to Freud himself as the interpreter of the psychology underlying given situations.

Vossler's primary concern is not the psyche itself, but rather its activity in language-usage; thus he strips away the wit of the story to make an academic point. Where Freud's baroness regresses from sentences to feral yelps, Vossler's woman regresses from yelps in one phonetic paradigm to yelps in another; the conclusion is that 'of two different language-habits the more deeply rooted is the more 'natural', though it need not be the most frequent'. Vossler is arguing that spoken language conforms only contingently to a pre-determined nature; in the present example, the woman's speech falls away from the expected French sound-pattern, towards the deeper German pattern. The concept of a natural language, obeying natural laws, abstracted from particular usages (idiolects), is merely an illusion. Vossler, like Hermann Paul before him, thus propounds a sort of linguistic existentialism. The dry irony of Freud's doctor, which provides the first joke's humour, and hence its significance, all but vanishes for Vossler, leaving the gravid Alsatian at his story's centre, a mouthpiece for verbal spontaneity.

15 May, 2006

Morgenstern, Nein!

Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), author of the Galgenlieder ('Gallows-songs'), was a remarkable poet, a sort of German Lear or Carroll with a much blacker sense of humour. He wrote sound-poetry before Dada, invented the Rhinograde, and even composed a 'poem' purely out of metrical diacritics, the Fisches Nachtgesang, that last word ('Nightsong') one of the most beautiful vocables in the entire language. Here's another classic:

Pfeift der Sturm?
Keift ein Wurm?
hoch vom Turm?


Es ist des Galgenstrickes
Ende, welches ächzte,
gleich als ob
im Galopp
eine müdgehetzte Mähre
nach dem nächsten Brunnen lechzte
(der vielleicht noch ferne wäre).
Impressive stuff, and quite impossible to translate. Nonetheless, I attempt the second stanza:

It is the gallowsfixture's
end, which pitches,
as when
in gallop
a switchknackered mare
for the nearest fountain itches
(still, perhaps, so far from there).
It is this passage which interests me, for the incredible palatal-dental thickness of the German, only partly reproducible in English: welches ächzte-gleich-müdgehetzte-nächsten-lechzte. It is this inspissated susurrus, evoking the eerie heave and grip of the grave, which provoked me to fixture-stricture-pitches-switch-itches. That trochee ächzte (groans), in particular, is very powerful; I experimented with various ex- verbs, in an attempt to echo the sound—exude, exhort, exercise, exorcise, extricate—all iambs or dactyls—but none was right. (The only trochaic ex- verb is exit, irregular because formed from the noun, itself from the 3rd-person verb ex-it, he leaves.) Rendering the two dead stops of 'ob / Galopp' was too great a challenge. I owe 'Nay!' to Max Knight, a previous translator, whose general effort displeases me; naturally, it suggests neigh! My happiest innovation, I think, is 'knackered', which shares the literal sense of equine death ('knacker's yard') with the colloquial sense of 'tired'.

The passage is an extended metaphor; extended, in fact, almost into pataphor, a term which, as the cliché goes, would have to be invented if it didn't exist. There seems to be a long association between the horse and the gallows. Archaic English phrases for the gallows include 'the horse foaled of an acorn' and 'the three-legged mare' (there's a fine pub of that name in the City of York, though inferior to the Maltings and Rook and Gaskill), and Yggdrasil means 'Odin's steed', which refers to that god's self-hanging at the tree. Knight recognises (unconsciously?) the semantic connection in his introduction; referring to Morgenstern and his friends, he writes: "In a mood of horseplay, they founded a 'Club of the Gallows Gang'". In my mind is the association horse-hoarse-hearse; I am reminded also, indelibly, of a bawdy parody of Goethe's 'Erlkönig' offered us by our German schoolteacher, Richard Stokes, whose translation of Kafka is available from the Hesperus Press:
Wer reitet so spät zum Mutters bauch?
Er ist der Vater mit seinem Schlauch.

14 May, 2006

Problem, solved

Problem: an alarm-clock with broken feet

Available: an odd back-massager belonging to Mrs. Roth


13 May, 2006

Automatic lock-in

I got locked in the library today (for those not in Arizona, that's Hayden Library, with its bizarrely templar exterior and catechumenical underground entrance). Yes, as my office is in the basement (that's two floors below ground-level), I have no way of seeing outside when everybody's packing up. And they did pack up, apparently: very, very quietly. I'd forgotten that with finals over, the campus buildings now shut at 5 on a Friday. I realised this fact the minute I opened my door, and the full horror of a half-lit and deserted library-basement encompassed me. It felt vaguely Cask of Amontillado-esque, truth be told. For any academic, the library must be a site of death-fantasies; there is such a wealth of possibility. I've imagined bibliothecal demise in so many ways; crushed between miswired automated stacks, crushed beneath misbalanced nonautomated stacks, drowned by overactive sprinkler systems, scorched, bombed, invaded by Persians, struck down with apoplexia at half-hushed chatterers, mortally bored by Kant, slaughtered by papercuts, acid-burnt, or, best of all, poisoned, very slowly, by the sinister fingers of bookmold, with death arriving at the precise moment of permanent departure.

I soon had the sense to call the campus police, or rather, get my (amused) wife to do so on my behalf. "Fall asleep?" one of them asked me. "No," I replied sternly, "I have an office." Now I rather wish I'd half-inched something valuable from the collections—it was the perfect opportunity for such a crime. Ah well, at least I'll sleep soundly.

12 May, 2006


Two gems of paraphrase from my recently-unearthed notebook:

Cool: defined as "under control through stylistic moves", by. . . I'm not sure.

On I believe:
His reduction of complex ideas into simple constituents was a practical rather than a philosophical analysis with the aim of isolating ideas which could be represented by physical movements. Thus the phrase 'I believe' would be broken down into four elements, each with its own gesture:

I say yes with my mind
I say yes with my heart
I say yes with my mouth
I have not seen and I still cannot see with my eyes

(Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement, p. 56, on the sign-language system of the Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée)
Also, wonderfully, the Old German for 'foreskin' is zumpfen-huetilin.

11 May, 2006

Apuleius and the Golden Bough

The Golden Ass contains a scene in which the narrator, Lucius the ass, spots in a shady grove the wild roses he needs to transform back into a man:
Ergo igitur cum in isto cogitationis salo fluctuarem aliquanto longius frondosi nemoris convallem umbrosam, cuius inter varias herbulas et laetissima virecta fungentium rosarum mineus color renidebat. Iamque apud mea usquequaque ferina praecordia Veneris et Gratiarum lucum illum arbitrabar, cuius inter opaca secreta floris genialis regius nitor relucebat.
The phrases in red: 'the shadowy valley of a leafy grove', 'the grove of Venus and the Graces', 'among shaded recesses'. Compare this description of the Golden Bough's setting, from Book Six of the Aeneid, lines 136-139:
latet arbore opaca
aureus et foliis et lento uimine ramus,
Iunoni infernae dictus sacer; hunc tegit omnis
lucus et obscuris claudunt conuallibus umbrae.
The Bough lies 'on a shaded tree', the sacred 'grove' of Proserpina conceals it, and the 'shadows enclose it with dark valleys'. In Vergil the religious setting is the occult of Diana/Hecate and Persephone, the Bough as a liminal symbol of bright life glowing in darkness—in Apuleius the sacred roses, which Lucius imagines to be situated in a field dedicated to Venus and the Graces, turn out to be fakes, poisonous 'rose laurels'. Their hue, bright against the surrounding shadows, is the rosarum mineus color or 'bright red colour of roses'—that word, mineus, a variant of the minium or red lead of medieval illumination (whence miniature), but suggesting also minari, to threaten.

10 May, 2006

Fe / raas

A while ago I wrote a post about the old slang term narpoo; I concluded by calling it "a word dragging meaning into itself like a vortex", comparing it to fuck and quoz. Words still very much alive: how can these fail to excite the heart? This morning I came across my notebook from last year, and discovered various scribbled jottings of unknown provenance. One of these got me thinking about Jamaican / Rastafarian patois, my favourite of all vernaculars, both in pure music and in verbal innovation. I had written down the words fe and raas. Both of these are found abundantly in a wonderful book, Michael Thelwell's novelisation of the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come, which I read a few years back. The novel captures the patois perfectly (at least, it seems to!), the melodic lilts of the reported speech seeping out into the narrative voice as Thelwell switches to various interior monologues. And those words, fe, raas, are little narpoos, agglomerating sense and feeling. Below I cite F. G. Cassidy and R. B. Le Page, Dictionary of Jamaican English, 2nd ed. (1980), though I'm not sure how reliable this scholarly work is, with meagre entries for blood clot (bloodclaat), Jah and the prefix I-.

1. Fe. This word, which Thelwell renders 'fe', but Cassidy/Le Page 'fi', is a junked syllable, a zero-graded for, with a great semantic sweep. The dictionary offers a number of uses, hard to categorise neatly: a) as a possessive, fe mi meaning 'mine', b) as a replacement for against, of, to, for, etc., c) "In modal expressions... where Ja dial. omits the verb to be, and some of the modal force is shifted to fi making it quasi-auxiliary: must, should, ought to, have to". The word thus smudges all manner of precisely-articulated meanings, giving the patois a simple, brutal, gymnastic quality. Here are examples from Thelwell:
Ah tell you, if fe me pickney [boy] evah try anything like dis, Ah beat him till him fenneh [tired].

Me no have time fe play with pickney. [Here play can be taken either as a noun, giving 'for play', or as a verb, giving 'to play'.]

Is lose you wan' me fe lose de work, nuh? [Do you want me to lose my job, eh?]

But after me no have not a damn place fe put something like this! You out fe kill somebady, nuh?
2. Raas. Invective, naturally, is a site of disproportionate activity for a vibrant vernacular, and the Rastafarian patois is no exception. But raas has a curious ambiguity about it. Here's what Cassidy/Le Page say about its origin: "RAAS. prob by metathesis, from arse, buttocks, but also possibly by metanalysis; your-arse [becomes] you-rarse. In favour of the first is the sense of raspberry, a disapproving, fart-like noise (Partridge), in which is a latent pun. The former would be earlier, before r ceased to be pronounced." (One notes the Anglocentric bias in choosing 'arse', rather than the more likely 'ass', as the parent word.) Thus, the primary meaning is the buttocks. But, like ass and arse, which each have subtly different connotations, rass extends its use to pure exclamation, "to show strong opposition: scorn, anger, impatience, etc." The simple sense is well illustrated by a song quoted from J. B. Moreton's 1790 Manners and Customs in the West India Islands:
Then missess fum me wid long switch
And say him da for massa;
My massa curse her, 'lying bitch!'
And tell her 'buss my rassa!
Thelwell offers the developed senses, the clearest of which is "Dis raas man mad?" (compare Is this asshole crazy?, except that raas is ruder than asshole). Then we have, "My nerve dem no even recover yet. It alias no raas." (My nerves haven't even recovered yet. It's dangerous, no shit.) But then he throws up these oddities, which have the feel of positive expletives:
"Wonderful," Mass' Burt said, "It wonderful to raas, man."

A star is born to raas.
Interestingly, Mike Pawka's online dictionary conflates raas with the very different ras: "RAS or RASS: backside, rump; a common curse is to rass! or rass clot! a title used by Rastafarians meaning 'lord' or 'head'." The latter word, ras, as in Ras Tafari, is indeed the Amharic word for 'head' or 'king' (the same sense-progression as Latin caput or Greek arkhe). It is closely related to the Hebrew word rosh, as in Rosh Hashanah, literally the 'head of the year', and to the very first word of Genesis, be-resh-it, 'in the beginning', literally 'at the head'.

07 May, 2006

Staartmen, rejoice!

Today the Englishman has cast off petty pejorations like pom and limey; he has discovered, in their stead, a far superior ethnophaulism. This, from Elizabeth Staffell's 'The Horrible Tail-Man and the Anglo-Dutch Wars', in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 63 (2000):
In 1652 there appeared in Holland a pamphlet entitled De Nederlandsche Nyptang ('The Dutch Pincers'), which purported to explain the origins of the time-honoured nickname for an Englishman—'staartman', that is, 'tail-man', or simply 'staart'. (p. 169)
You know, Englishmen have tails, because they're the Devil's children, that sort of thing. And not just little puppy-tails: judging by Staffell's period illustrations, we're talking mammoth-trunk appendages between the legs. (Of course, all Brits know the true origin of this story—and not such a tall tale, neither.) Related legends are found in Pliny and other ancient sources. The OED doesn't have much to say on the matter, but it does provide a small note on start, citing Dryden:
A supposed Dutch term of contempt for an Englishman.

[Perh. a. Du. staart, tail, in allusion to the old accusation that Englishmen had tails. But cf. WFlemish drilsteert, plaagstaert, a bore, vraagsteert a prying person.]

1673 DRYDEN Amboyna I. i. 3. Hang 'em base English sterts. Ibid. V. i. (end) Then in full Romers, and with joyful Hearts / We'l drink confusion to all English Starts.
And where does staart come from? I'm not sure; one internet resource only gave schaduwen as a Dutch translation for 'tail', but this seems to be a cognate (or loanword) of 'to shadow', ie. to tail in the detective sense. The only cognate I can find online for staart is the Frisian sturt, whereas German and the Scandinavian languages have variants of Schwanz. Staffell, meanwhile, speculates further:
It is possible that diabolical descent was attributed to the English before they were said to have tails. The very name of the English lent itself in many languages to wordplay; in Latin 'Angli'/'Angeli' (as in Pope Gregory's famous joke): in Dutch 'engel'/'Engels'; even in French, 'ange' and 'anglais'... When insulting an enemy, the inversion whereby an angel becomes a fallen angel is an obvious step, and in the mid-seventeenth century the Dutch were known to refer to England as 'devil-land' ('Duyvel-landt') in moments of indignation. (p. 170)
An interesting inversion of the Biblical movement from devil to fallen angel, as Isaiah's address to Nebuchadnezzar, 'How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning (heilel ben-schahar)!' (14.12) was transformed by Luke into Christ's words, 'I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven' (10.18). The epithet 'the morning star' (Eωσφόρος, 'the Dawn-Bringer', in the LXX), must have suggested soon afterward an angelic origin for the Devil.

Anyway, today we rejoice as staartmen, with our overelaborated and possibly prehensile coccygial appendices, or even better, as upstaarts.

06 May, 2006

Mundus Subterraneus

Just as springs are the lungs and secretory glands for the earth's process of evaporation, so are volcanoes the earth's liver, in that they represent the earth's spontaneous generation of heat within itself.

— G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, 1830.

05 May, 2006

Language, the old farmer

. . . or, A Mystery Solved.

Denizens of the ASU Main Campus will have noticed for a while now a battery of gaily-painted minivans zipping about the place, each adorned with the quasi-poetic burblings of a sophomore lit. major or majorette. These, it turns out, were the product of an ASU creative-writing project called Moving Poems, financed by local departments. One contributor, a bright young Lindsey Gosma, provides the following message for her cart:

Language, like an old farmer,
drives us through the fields

This cryptic statement had been bothering me for some time. Was she punning on 'fields of study'? Did she mean that language pushes us through academia, like a farmer chases a trespasser off his property? My nights were getting shorter and shorter. Eventually the pressure got to me, and I emailed her for an answer. What the fuck was she on about? I didn't write that, of course. I was a proper gentleman. Well, Lindsey replied half an hour later, very politely, and obviously quite flattered at my interest. It was like this, she said:
The constant change of language is like the fields, used again and again, but always bearing new fruit. Also I wanted to convey a sense of the earth, that language is natural and an inherent part of the human experience.
A-ha! So she is a Chomskyan: the essential quality of human language is its capacity to generate an infinity of new information from the same basic rules. And a Rousseauvian: to be human is to use language, the former cannot be presupposed before the latter. Noble sentiments indeed for a poet. But why an old farmer? Lindsey went on to tell me something else about the design of the cart which I hadn't noticed: "If you look on the actual picture, you can see an upturned letter A." This inverted A was not intended to be the universal quantifer, though that might have curious implications, but rather an imitation of the A's ancestor, ie. the Phoenician aleph, supposedly the ideographic rendering of an ox-head (aleph is Semitic for ox). Lindsey elaborated on her theme, observing that the ox was the first animal to be domesticated, producing all the essentials for life—food, both in their flesh and in the earth which they ploughed, and shelter with their hides. The enshrinement of the ox at the beginning of the ancient alphabet is a testament to its profound historical importance.

She didn't explicitly draw out the connection to the language which "like an old farmer, drives us through the fields", but this is obviously what she was getting at. We are made beasts of burden by our language, represented by the alphabet, just as we have canonised our beast within the alphabet we use to describe it. I was highly pleased with her explanation.

04 May, 2006

Lives of Jesus: books

Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus, 1832.
David Strauss, The Life of Jesus, 1835.
Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus, 1863.

Biographies of the Christ from the nineteenth century: the perpetual suggestion of unreligious experience. I was curious to see how these compared. Readers be warned, it's going to be a long one.

I began with the Frenchman, whose work was translated anonymously almost immediately after publication. A trained Catholic priest, Renan was more interested in philology, social science and liberal politics, and came to promote an Erasmian position of piety without dogma; he explicitly argues that dogmatism is out of place in a work of history. Renan denies the truth of Christ's miracles, calling the supernatural accounts in the Gospels "a violence done to him by his age, a concession forced from him by a passing necessity"—but he refuses to deny (or affirm) the Resurrection itself. His Life glows with a humanist sensibility: from its Ruskinian periods and literary rhapsodies on the natural beauty of Galilee, to its focus on the sociohistorical contexts of Christ's life. Most of all, like a good and self-aware humanist, Renan insists on the value of rhetoric and myth-making (this is response to Strauss); he questions the dogmatic reliance on a scientific standard of truth, or the equation of the true and the good. Thus, although much was fabricated by the Evangelists, ultimately "nothing great has been established which does not rest on a legend". Similarly, although he is himself a moderate, he appreciates the significance of appropriate radicalism: "All the great things of humanity have been accomplished in the name of absolute principles". Thus, Renan's Christ is a fiery Romantic hero, and also the prophet of a religion of humanity, the culminating development of the religious principle in history. Much ink is spilt in condemnation of the legalistic Jews—this, of course, in the great tradition.

Renan's work encapsulates its intellectual context: mid-century high imperialism, its doctrine of moral progress deriving from a Hegelian historicism shorn of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It has much the same flavour as British works of the period, polemical, idealistic but not naive about religious matters. The works of Schleiermacher and Strauss also reflect their milieu: the tradition of German academic philosophy, moving away from the formal metaphysics of Kant and Hegel, and towards the rising disciplines of philology (Franz Bopp and Friedrich Diez) and Higher Criticism (W. M. L. De Wette and Georg Heinrich Ewald). Thus the two German texts are written in a dry, methodical style, concentrating on methodological problems without any of Renan's lyrical outpourings, or any of his politics.

Schleiermacher was one of the first to give historical lectures on the New Testament; Strauss, as Albert Schweitzer would put it, "filled in the death-certificates of a whole series of explanations which, at first sight, have all the air of being alive, but are not really so." These explanations were the orthodox supernaturalist accounts of Christ's miracles, and the fashionable rationalist claims that the miracles could be explained away as normal events misunderstood. Strauss' work was the watershed: we see its importance even in its translators, as George Eliot put it into English (1846), and the great lexicographer Emile Littré rendered the French (1840). And though Strauss took issue with the conclusions of Schleiermacher, it is evident that the latter had the Pisgah sight of the former's breakthrough.

The central problem for Schleiermacher was that of describing historically an individual whose historicity is decidedly ambiguous. We understand most historical figures as affected (even created) by their social and cultural context; our insight into their character must therefore come from an intuition based on contextual knowledge. But Christ is unchanging, the hypostasis of an eternal God; how can he be affected at all by the vicissitudes of human context? Schleiermacher concludes that for the sake of a history, we must treat him as if human, that 'as if' being the characteristic of a post-Kantian writer, who accepts the hypothetical, suspended nature of his claims. Kantian too is the refusal to accept the Chalcedonian human-divine conjunction on faith: either the human or the divine nature of Christ must collapse into the other, just as with Kant's metaphysical antinomies (eg. free will / determinism). Once beyond these methodological issues, Schleiermacher ploughs through the Gospels, demonstrating inconsistencies and impossibilia; he accepts the Gospel of John as authentic, and always trusts this over the others. His Christ can do miracles, though these are occasional and of a moral rather than thaumaturgical character; Christ need not speak aloud to calm the storm. Schleiermacher invokes grammatical analysis, for instance to explain Pilate's use of the word basileus (king) to Christ, suggesting that the actual word had been rex, without religious connotations. And he foresees Strauss' symbolic analysis in his account of the rending of the temple veil at Christ's death; had this actually happened, he reasons, the priests would have covered it up and nobody would have known. Thus the eyewitness account must have been symbolic, misunderstood as the literal truth. Schleiermacher's Jesus ends up as an ideal of humanity, to be taken as the perfect man, rather than as the Son of God.

Strauss' own Life was clearly inspired by Schleiermacher's example. He begins with a different methodological problem, giving a historical account of the conflict between simple, 'untheological' faith and the developing rationalism of complex societies; hence the Alexandrians on Homer's pantheon, Philo on the Old Testament, Origen on the New Testament, and Euhemerus, down to the scholars of modern Germany. Kant, like William of Ockham and other sceptics, had famously 'denied knowledge to make room for faith'. The orthodox dogmatists would not accept reason and historical method, and the rationalists could not harmonise their beliefs with a genuine faith; their Christianity was no Christianity at all. Strauss wanted to harmonise faith and reason, and found himself unable to do so. Thus at the beginning of his Life he draws up a series of methods for detecting the unhistorical elements of the Gospels, searching for the impossible and inconsistent; at every turn he concludes that the unhistorical is no mistake, not the blindness of simple minds, but a calculated and cynical effort to construct rhetorically a Christ who would tally with messianic expectations from the Old Testament, so as to promote belief. Thus the narrated events become symbolic, or rather mythical, in the classical sense of the term. Strauss expends 700 pages accounting for every event of the Gospels in terms of this basic theory, and at the end of it, he still admits defeat at reconciling faith and reason, though he denies the success of those before him. Ultimately, Strauss' Christ can only be a useful fiction, propagated for the purposes of converting a primitive audience to a doctrine which would be historically beneficial. The Hegelian emerges here: as modern, Enlightened thinkers, we no longer need the simple fictions of the Scriptures to embrace a true religion of the Spirit.

See here for Jesus in the cinema.

02 May, 2006

Grammar and magic

A major figure in the history of grammar is Priscianus Caesariensis, or Priscian, who wrote a Latin grammar for the bilingual Greek audience at Constantinople, c. 500 AD; his was the first work of its kind to discuss syntax, the ordering of vocabula in a sententia. To break Priscian's head, therefore, translating diminuere Prisciani caput, is to violate the rules of grammar, to commit a solecism.

In the Middle Ages we see a profusion of linguistic scorn for grammar with all its niggling, un-Christian rules; hence the grammaticaster or petty grammarian, the glomerel or poor grammar-student (coined for Henri d'Andeli's juicy burlesque epic of 1250, Le Bataille des Sept Ars), the artigrapher or composer of Artes grammaticus, and so on. But while some saw the grammarian as a peddler of dusty precepts (Macrobius had awarded him pedibus illotis or unwashed feet), others saw him as a necromancer—thus the popular mind makes the leap from language to the occult. Hence the most mysterious words of all, gramarye (black magic), grimoire (a textbook of black magic), and glamour (black magic or bewitchment, originally a Scotch form of grammar, under the semantic influence of gramarye). Compare the sense-development of spell (speech or discourse, magical incantation).

In this progression is illuminated the dark matter of linguistic thought. It is often noted that ancient societies viewed language, and names in particular, with fear and reverence: the use of formula in ritual, the sacredness of divine names for the Egyptian and Israelite (among many others), the verbal superstition of the kabbalah and speak of the devil, taboo deformation of words for 'left-handed', etc. I suspect this very deep-rooted feeling has never disappeared. There are common words and names which I find it difficult to utter, and not words which have any obvious connection to significant or sensitive objects. For instance, I intensely dislike using the names of British supermarkets. I don't know why. Perhaps my unconscious knows. I would be surprised if others did not have similar secrets. The popular conscience reveals the same tendencies in semi-comic taboo-replacements of political (or pseudo-political) objects, hence 'liberty cabbage' and 'freedom fries'.

In our hearts, we are all fully aware that words exercise an unpleasant sorcery.