27 February, 2007

Return to Arcosanti

The Egyptians believed that the unblessed dead languish in darkness under the earth. Their punishment was a separation from the light of the sun. But during the night the sun's bark—the Boat of Millions of Years—passed under the horizon and sailed slowly through the sectors of the underworld. The dead souls, briefly lit by the fiery god, would rise up to meet him, enjoying a moment of respite from their agonising tenebrity.

For Arcosantians, Paolo Soleri is the sun. As if to prove it, our guide pronounced his Christian name much like 'Apollo'. When he arrives at the site, two days a week, from his home in Paradise Valley—in the Valley of the Sun—the initiates rouse themselves from their corvée drudgery and flock to hear him. Soleri is a classic charlatan prophet, the best kind, combining the visionary narcissism of today's 'personality architects'—Koolhaas, Foster, etc.—with the hippie ecologism of Frank Lloyd Wright, under whom he studied, and the scruffy futurist aesthetic typical of the 1960s. He published a book with the MIT Press back in 1969 called The City in the Image of Man—this volume, over twice as wide as it is high, and rich with nonsensical aphorisms and diagrams of projected utopias, is better than science fiction. The book was a response to the urban planning crisis of the 60s—to the world of Jane Jacobs, Constantin Doxiadis, the Smithsons and the Anglo-American campus movement. Its central concept is the 'arcology' (combining architecture and ecology), a compact and sky-high city, a sort of organic techno-paradise. The arcology idea proved popular with the hippie video-game designers of the 1990s, and turned up in both Sim City 2000 and Sid Meier's Civilization. It is no wonder that Soleri has remained an icon for iconoclasts, and for daydreamers.

I like to imagine him strolling in scarlet robes among his Arcosanti minions, doling out kooky aperçus like these as they scrabble for bits of paper, tissue, or even a stray leaf, to jot them down. 'He's very outspoken', our guide gushed; 'if he thinks it's a stupid question, he'll tell you it's a stupid question'. Good, replied D pointedly.


Arcosanti overlooks a valley in the middle of the Arizona desert, an hour's drive north of Phoenix. It is a monument of faded futurism, mostly unfinished concrete and glass. The name is said to mean 'against material things'—anti-cosa—though quite obviously it was intended to suggest a sacred ark as well. Soleri started building in 1970 to house 5,000 people. Almost forty years later, it is 4% complete. The site currently houses 79 permanent residents, 20 odd temporary residents, and 4 non-resident workers. 'It is not a commune', said our guide, 'and it is not a cult—it is an experiment'. Unkind estimates might call it a failed experiment. But the inhabitants seem to like it. Mrs. Roth and I had visited the site once before, but we came again for D's benefit. I asked him if it was how he imagined it, and he replied that it was beyond imagining.

A major part of the site consists of 'apses', large concrete quarter-spheres facing south to conserve heat and light during summer and winter. These are used as amphitheatres and communal spaces, though there are also pools and indoor areas. Dotted around the site are the slim cypress trees of southern Italy, which suits the arid Mediterranean landscape rather well. Cows litter the extensive grounds, watching us as we drive into the site on a dirt road off the highway.


A whiteboard in one room, the only object adorning the bare grey concrete, bore the following program, scrawled in a cramped but energetic hand:


FEBRUARY 20, 2007

10.00-10.15 AM: WELCOME REMARK





Much of the construction funds for Arcosanti come from the sale of garlic—they claim to be the second biggest producers in the state—and of the clay and bronze bells cast onsite. Our guide admitted that the bronze-founding techniques were not 'professional'—but then, 'Arcosanti is not about professionalism'.

A spine of garlic, and bronze bells

The bronze foundry

Outside the wind blasts high around the site—tourists dribble in for the hourly tours, and the bells tintinnabulate as ghosts on their long ropes. A sculpture among the trees recasts the Graces as three little girls touching each other; D finds it rather disturbing, but I just laugh. In the gift-shop and in horror Mrs. Roth leafs through a portfolio of Soleri's erotic drawings. Clients—young women—pay him a fee to be sketched nude, and rather poorly too, receiving a single copy for their money. I have already bought a pamphlet and a poster. The latter shows another of Soleri's arcology designs, and reads:
The design finds analogy in eros. Throughout history, this constant drive in our species has been described and inscribed through art and the design of human habitat. Here the tower is the lingam, the male, while two concentric exedrae, semi-circular edifices, are the female, the womb.
There are hundreds of bells, ringing in the wind. The TV has been stolen from the rec-room, and has not yet been returned. Is this the ideal of communal living? The children commute 7 miles to the nearest town for their education; our guide tells us that when someone needs medical attention, native tribes can airlift him to a hospital. A phone rings on the helpdesk; perhaps it is Soleri himself? A rustle of excitement passes among the staff. When the guide has finished her short introduction, she asks, 'Any questions?' Questions are asked, which she answers effortlessly. She is relieved that there are no 'troublemakers'. Out of the shade of the cypresses, sheltered from the high winds, the sun beats without mercy.

Update: an Arcosantian reproves me for sloppy reporting. Apparently my two guides gave me a misleading impression of the locals' devotion to Soleri.

23 February, 2007

Slower reader

Sleep evades me still. Several readers have e-mailed me with pharmaceutical suggestions: for their ideas, and still more for their curae, I am grateful. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten? I must try valerian and melatonin, though my hand hesitates, for fear that my insomniac self produces my best work. It is now 3 in the morning. I'm too tired to read, even though I have been captivated by the first pages of Jean Bodin's Colloquium Heptaplomeres, full of sapid erudition and Plutarchey goodness. So to stave off boredom I climb out of bed and write. One might say that insomnia is my enemy, but your friend.


I am reaching my saturation-point with blogs. Aren't you? There are so many, and I can hardly keep up with my own life, let alone these endless and diverting scriptures. God knows how anyone has the time to read the Varieties. Despite this I feel compelled to direct you to Modal Minority, the website of one Teju Cole. This man already has a devoted following, and no wonder—his writing is terrific. One piece in particular, 'Slow Reader', caught my eye. If you read it, perhaps you will spot something of me in his attitudes. For surely, only a member of my karass could write:
One day I went to the bookshop and selected a pile of books—Svevo, Kafka, James, Calasso, about a dozen in all—and from each I read page fifty.
Mr. Cole, you see, is not daunted by literature. Rather it is a means to an end—
Every book I read these days is part of my study of writing: I want to know how things are put together on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the page. . . My own mania is for words, and it borders on synesthesia. I’ve been known to stay up late into the night marveling at the placement of a comma or at a poignant verb-adverb pairing.
Quite so! Perhaps you will see in this a contrary logic, but it is only a short step from Cole's sentiment to my hatred of reading. In Cole I find a spirit kindred in his desire to conquer literature. Books haunt me, and haunt him: 'I can't even read Emily Dickinson at all; I simply console myself with the memory of her words'. It is because he fears that he will not let himself be daunted. Likewise, I am not ashamed of my horror; it is perhaps a sign that I am listening, that my ears are not yet stopped up with the conceitedness of modern lovers of literature. (I do not mean you, fair reader!) In reading I seek to escape this horror, to transcend literature for the realm of language. For me, and I wonder, for Teju: the product of reading, ultimately, must be a sort of revelling in word-stuff, a prima materia with which I can sit and sculpt. For I love to sculpt. It is only by writing—sculpting—that I am able to feel myself. This is why I lie in bed in the dark and write and sculpt in my head, incessantly. It is why I pray my insomnia will never desert me.

22 February, 2007


A good illustration of how jealously such hard-earned manuscript information could be guarded is the practice of Ludwig Bertalot. As we have seen, Bertalot took an interest in Kristeller when Kristeller first came to work on Ficino in the early 1930s. After Mussolini promulgated his anti-Jewish legislation in September 1938, Bertalot temporarily took Kristeller into his home and helped him financially by hiring him as an assistant. Kristeller was forever grateful for this help in his moment of need. From this association Kristeller knew that, when publishing information about manuscripts, Bertalot used to add a small error to their shelfmark so that he could expose in spectacular fashion anyone who cited these manuscripts from his publications without giving him credit. In 1975, in one of his several acts of pietas toward his old benefactor, Kristeller edited Bertalot's collected articles in two volumes. He took pains to verify Bertalot's shelfmarks. But Bertalot struck from the grave nonetheless. Demonstrating how no good deed goes unpunished, in the case of several manuscripts Bertalot cleverly fooled Kristeller by citing their shelfmarks correctly while transposing the authors of the texts they contain so that descriptions and shelfmarks did not match.

— John Monfasani, 'Kristeller and Manuscripts' in idem, ed. Kristeller Reconsidered (2006). More academic one-upmanship here.

19 February, 2007

The Enormous Room

I needed no second invitation to sleep. Fully dressed, I fell on my paillasse with a weariness which I have never felt before or since. But I did not close my eyes: for all about me there rose a sea of most extraordinary sound. . . the hitherto empty and minute room became suddenly enormous: weird cries, oaths, laughter, pulling it sideways and backward, extending it to inconceivable depth and width, telescoping it to frightful nearness.

— e. e. cummings
Like my mother, I have problems with insomnia. My schedule fluctuates from day to day—I sleep 5 hours, 3 hours, 11 hours, during the morning, the evening, and the night. When I settle down to bed with my wife my mind hurtles with unconscionable celerity, permitting me no slumber. I try pills. I try drink. I try mental exercises. Nothing.

When at last the dark envelops me, I too find myself in some sort of enormous room. They are all with me, every person I have known and know no longer, haunting me. I arrive at a party. I see old faces, still intimately familiar. We are friendly again, or perhaps they act as aggressors. At any rate, our business remains unfinished. Are they grown, or do I see them still as children? I long to drink from Lethe and forget forever. . . but it is impossible. I fear the guilt and the humiliation will be with me, in my dreams, until I die. I have the Freudian mind, unable to eradicate the spectres of its distant past. When I awake, my erstwhile acquaintances recede once more into history.


So it was in the Renaissance. I have in my hand Marcus Vattasso et Henricus Carusi, eds. Codices Vaticani Latini: 10301-10700 (Rome: Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1920). In this tome, hundreds of bound volumes are catalogued—tegumentum ex charta spissata, membrana obtecta—filled with fragments of classical and mediaeval texts. One book contains chapters and treatises by Aristotle, Gerardus Senensis, Nicolaus Damascenus, Marcus Aurelius and the Pseudo-Dionysius; another features Johannes Neapolitanus, Thomas de Virago, Hervacus Natalis Brito, St. Cyprian, St. Isidore, Jacobus Egidius, Raphael de Pornasius, and Guido de Terrena. These are both volumes from around 1450. Panofsky wrote of the humanist 'perspective' on the classical past—as Gombrich observed, he was thinking too much in metaphors. I don't feel any sense of perspective when I read the contents of these jumbled compendia. I feel confusion and loss, a mortal tangle of quires, awaiting oblivion, or else Erasmus and the Aldine Press.

The enormous room of the past became the Adagia, and other such works. When Plato and Plutarch began to be read again, after a thousand years of absence, their old faces were still miraculously familiar. Their features had been copied in late antiquity by the great pagan and Christian visages. So they were seen as grown men—under the veil of Macrobius, Augustine and Eriugena—and as children, fresh-faced and ready for the taking. When Europe awoke to the dry lights of the Age of Science, the classics again receded into history, although their ghosts lingered, and linger still.


When I have loved you once, I shall never stop loving. I am robbed, memorious, incapable of forgetting. The night reminds me. It is a wretched condition.

15 February, 2007


What would you say to the men of 6939?

In 1938, a capsule was lowered into the ground at the New York World's Fair, designed to last 5,000 years. It was made of Cupaloy—an alloy of 99.4% copper, 0.5% chromium, and 0.1% silver—seven feet, six inches long, and sealed with asphalt. Inside, within a glass 'envelope' from which the air had been 'exhausted' and replaced with nitrogen, were placed items and artefacts of the world as it was on the eve of the Second World War: pictures, microfilms—religious texts, the Constitution, a history of the world—and other objects. A small pamphlet was included, with a key to the English language, and other notes; this pamphlet was also distributed to the world's libraries to commemorate the event.

Recently Rick Prelinger at the popular blog Boing Boing scanned one of these pamphlets and wrote a little notice about it. My brother-in-law forwarded this article to me last week. As usual with this sort of thing, the piece consisted mainly of "here's something neat" without any substantive discussion of the pamphlet's contents. Well, I'm glad there was something for me to do.

History, c. 1938.

The tone of the pamphlet is fascinating—it has a sort of wistful, almost elegiac quality in parts, combined with the gung-ho eulogy of technological progress that you'd expect.

For there is no way to read the future of the world: peoples, nations, and cultures move onward into inscrutable time. In our day it is difficult to conceive of a future less happy, less civilised than our own. Yet history teaches us that every culture passes through definite cycles of development, climax, and decay. And so, we must recognize, ultimately may ours.
Was history teaching them that in 1938? Will Durant seems to have been telling that story, for one. And Spengler had been propounding a gloomy version of the thesis for 20 years. In any case, the capsule team commissioned statements on 'the strengths and weaknesses of our age' and 'the discernible trends of human history' from three eminent men of the time. Who would you pick, dear reader? They chose Nobel physicist Robert Millikan, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein. It will be instructive to compare their responses. Millikan writes:

AT this moment, August 22, 1938, the principles of representative ballot government, such as are represented by the governments of the Anglo-Saxon, French, and Scandinavian countries, are in deadly conflict with the principles of despotism, which up to two centuries ago had controlled the destiny of man throughout practically the whole of recorded history. If the rational, scientific, progressive principles win out in this struggle there is a possibility of a warless, golden age ahead for mankind. If the reactionary principles of despotism triumph now and in the future, the future history of mankind will repeat the sad story of war and oppression as in the past.
It is obvious that Millikan is not much of a stylist. In the first sentence 'representative' badly clashes with 'represented', and 'Anglo-Saxon' is precious; 'practically the whole' is childish; 'triumph now and in the future' is redundant, and 'in the future' knocks painfully against 'future history of mankind'; finally, one does not repeat a story 'as in the past'. His dream is the old dream of the humanist Enlightenment—that of the triumph of the rational and scientific against the forces of despotism, and establishment of a 'golden age'. It is almost simperingly naïve. Compare the novelist:

WE know now that the idea of the future as a "better world" was a fallacy of the doctrine of progress. The hopes we center on you, citizens of the future, are in no way exaggerated. In broad outline, you will actually resemble us very much as we resemble those who lived a thousand, or five thousand, years ago. Among you too the spirit will fare badly—it should never fare too well on this earth, otherwise men would need it no longer. That optimistic conception of the future is a projection into time of an endeavor which does not belong to the temporal world, the endeavor on the part of man to approximate to his idea of himself, the humanization of man. . .
Millikan was an American. Mann was not. Mann has no illusions of a golden age: he speaks almost like Hegel of the spirit among men—but in his eyes there is nothing transcendent, for the spirit is only a man's personal quest to absolve himself of temporality, and attain his own Ideal Form. This is in the tradition of Eckhart and the German mystics, and wants nothing to do with the humanist cartoon still trumpeted by Millikan. Read side by side, the men of 6939 will be scratching their heads and laughing at one of them. My money's on Millikan. I suspect that for as long as the human race survives, 'the intelligence & character of the masses [will be] incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce something valuable for the community'. Those are Einstein's words, describing the present—he prays that the future will 'read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority', but I doubt it.

The English Language, c. 1938.

Included in the pamphlet is a 'Key to the English Language' written by one John Peabody Harrington, an ethnographer of Native Americans based at the Smithsonian Institute. His job is to explain how English works to those living when 'all the spoken languages of the present time will have become extinct'. Grammars have been written since time immarmoreal, of course—but they have been addressed to contemporaries, and many concepts are taken for granted. Harrington's task is more comparable to that of the Arecibo message, or other communiqués destined for the stars.

Still, his approach is in many ways conventional. He starts with phonetics—vowels, diphthongs, then consonants—moves on to syllables, then the grammar of inflexions and pronouns, deictics, adjectives, comparative and superlatives, and finally verbs. Classical grammars, likewise, began with the smallest elements (stoicheia) and moved up the scale of complexity, generally ending in syntax and poetic metre. A simple early grammar of English, that written by Ben Jonson around 1620, divides the study into two parts—'etymology' (OED sense 3, 'That part of grammar which treats of individual words, the parts of speech separately, their formation and inflexions') and 'syntax'. The first begins with an enumeration of English sounds—vowels, then consonants, then diphthongs. Vowels are classically defined as those sounds which can be made alone, whereas consonants, as the name indicates, require another sound (ie. a vowel) so as to be heard. Harrington's conception of phonology is much more sophisticated—we should expect this, as he was writing during the heyday of descriptive linguistics, and Bloomfield's standard Language had been published five years earlier. The Key defines the vowel as a sound 'whose hemming amounts to mere cavity-shape resonance', while the consonant is a sound 'whose hemming amounts to closure, violent restriction, or closure followed by restriction'. The IPA had reached pretty much its present form in 1933, the same year as Language. But for some reason, Harrington eschews its notation, using instead a [j] to denote the schwa (IPA [ə]), and a [c] to denote a lengthened vowel (IPA [:]). Harrington also offers a 'mouth map' of the sounds of English:

This is already better than previous guides could do. The Key next discusses grammar, using pictures to indicate grammatical distinctions. The difference between singular and plural is indicated by a picture of one bird and a picture of three. The difference between 'here' and 'there' (or 'this' and 'that') is indicated by a picture of two men pointing to each other. The 'good-better-best' distinction is shown by three arrows in a target. And best of all, 'past-present-future' is represented by a ship between two cities. The idea is admirable, but the problem, as Wittgenstein realised (Philosophical Investigations I.6), is that it is impossible to use a picture to indicate an idea unless the person looking at the picture already has some context for the idea to be taught. The 6939 man looking at the ship between towns might equally conclude, without further knowledge, that "paest" was the name of the first town, "prezjnt" that of the ship, and "fyuctur" that of the second town.

This becomes especially evident when Harrington deals with 'subordination', which is really the only sophisticated bit of grammar he treats. To illustrate "Running he aimed", where 'running' is subordinate to 'aimed', Harrington shows a man running with a bow and arrow:

One wonders how helpful this will be. The Key concludes with the Fable of the North Wind and the Sun rendered in his phonetic spelling, and a list of the thousand most used words in the English language, keyed on a series of diagrams. The words include 'ridgepole', 'rafter', and 'haystack'.

That's 1938 for you.

14 February, 2007

Ecce Ancilla

For twelve long years the fruits fell not
and the trees were heavy with dew.
And then down came a ray from out of the blue
and—well now—just look what you got.

The man with the wings said Hail, favoured one:
and you answered, But my mouth is so small!
and the man said Thou shalt conceive, and was gone,
and his horn had exalted your all.

Announce, annanounce! cried your husband, joy-toped,
for you'll finally own what you dream—
yes just as you wanted, your womb has been oped
and your ray has at last shown his beam.

— I've wept and I've fasted, I've wept and I've prayed
and my head has grown slightly bald.
He'll make us no profits, but we need not the aid,
and we'll savor his skills instead as a skald—


St. Ann of the Rochs doth sit on her throne,
see her hold—hoopsaboy!—her new child:
give her mantle and robe, green and red, of her own,
an ancilla so fair, and so mild!

Now my mouth is enlarged against all my foes
and my horn exalts in the lord.
For broke are the mighty men and their bows
and the weak are no longer ignored.

10 February, 2007

The Royal Road

Do the good people who mean so well by science imagine that sculptors will in the future chisel microscopes in marble, that painters will depict the circulation of the blood, and that poets will display in rich rhymes the principles of Euclid?

— Max Nordau, Degeneration (1892).
The proofs and diagrams of Euclid, organised with their near-perfect artistry, have provided countless philosophers, mystics and poets with visual inspiration. In this post I discuss the response of three writers to Euclid's very first problem—the construction of an equilateral triangle on a straight line. Here's the problem, adapted for clarity from this website:

1. Let AB be a given finite straight line.

2. Describe a circle [BCD] with centre A and radius AB. Again describe a circle [ACE] with centre B and radius BA. From the point C, at which the circles cut one another, to the points A and B, join the straight lines CA and CB. [You can see this construction in the above diagram; CA and CB are indicated by dotted lines.]

3. Now, since the point A is the centre of the circle BCD, therefore AC equals AB [ie. because both lines are radii of BCD]. Again, since the point B is the center of the circle ACE, therefore BC equals BA.

4. Therefore AB = AC = BC.

5. Therefore the triangle ABC is equilateral, and it has been constructed on the given finite straight line AB.
There are several problems with this proof, known since antiquity; most of these concern necessary axioms not enumerated beforehand. But these are specialist quibbles, and need not concern us. The proof is essentially sound.


In the late 5th century, Proclus Diadochus, the last of the great Neoplatonists, wrote a commentary on Euclid's Elements. It is from this work that we have the famous story about Euclid and Ptolemy, from which the title of my post derives. Like his predecessors, Proclus had a mystical conception of number as the essence and foundation of the universe. It is no surprise, then, that we find him allegorising Euclid's first problem in terms of Neoplatonic metaphysics:
That an equilateral triangle is the best among triangles, and is particularly allied to a circle, having all its lines from the centre to the circumference equal, and one simple line for its external bound, is manifest to every one; but the partial comprehension of two circles in this problem, seems to exhibit in images how things which depart from principles, receive from them perfection, identity, and equality. For after this manner, things moving in a right line, roll round in a circle, on account of continual generation; and souls themselves, since they are indued with transitive intellections, resemble by restitutions and circumvolutions, the stable energy of intellect. The zoogonic or vivific fountain of souls too, is said to be contained by two intellects. If, therefore, a circle is an image of the essence of intellect, but a triangle of the first soul, on account of the equality and similitude of angles and sides; this is very properly exhibited by circles, since an equilateral triangle is included in their comprehension. But if also every soul proceeds from intellect, and to this finally returns and participates intellect in a two-fold respect; on this account also it will be proper that a triangle, since it is the symbol of the triple essence of souls, should receive its origin comprehended by two circles. But speculations of this kind, as from bright images in the mirror of phantasy, recall into our memory the nature of things.
I quote the first English translation of Proclus' commentary, done by Thomas Taylor in 1789. Taylor was extremely prolific, also being the first to translate the works of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Iamblichus—and you can imagine how influential these translations were on the burgeoning Romanticism of the late eighteenth century.

The passage quoted here deals with a lot of technical Neoplatonic mumbo-jumbo. I had just written a paragraph explaining this mumbo-jumbo in some depth, but then I concluded that my readers would be more interested if I instead picked out the salient points. The key is this: the human soul (psuche) proceeds at birth from the divine intellect (nous), and through philosophical contemplation seeks to return to an understanding of (and identification with) that divine intellect. This basic theme is at the core of virtually all Western speculative mysticism. Here the triangle represents the soul (which, as in Plato's Republic, has a 'triple essence'), and the two circles represent the twofold path of the soul away from, and back towards, the divine nous.

What is interesting is that Euclid's diagram is taken as a hieroglyphic to focus the contemplative mind: the general schema of Euclidean geometry is presupposed as a perfect picture of the real world, and consequently of the ideal spiritual world as well. This conception of Euclid extends all the way through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and continues among the mystical thinkers of the eighteenth century, including Taylor himself.


Two years after the publication of Thomas Taylor's translation, S. T. Coleridge wrote a comic poem about Euclid's first problem, dated March 31, 1791. He was 18, and still at school; in October he would enrol at Jesus College, Cambrige. However, Coleridge was already devouring the Neoplatonists. In the 1817 Biographia Literaria, he refers to his 'early study of Plato and Plotinus, with the commentaries and the THEOLOGIA PLATONICA of the illustrious Florentine; of Proclus, and Gemistius Pletho'. In his 1818 Treatise on Method, Coleridge would propound a very Platonic conception of mathematics, which he classifies as a 'formal pure science', along with logic and universal grammar. He contrasts this category to the 'real pure sciences' of metaphysics, morals and theology. Mathematics, he insists, deals purely with the ideal—with essentia, not with existentia:
Now these laws are purely Ideal. It is not externally to us that the general notion of a square, or a triangle, of the number three, or the number five, exists; nor do we seek external proof of the relations of those notions; but on the contrary, by contemplating them as Ideas in the Mind, we discover truths which are applicable to external existence.
By the time he attended university, Coleridge was, in his own words, an excellent Greek scholar, so it is debatable whether he would have needed to refer to Taylor in order to read the Neoplatonists. Nonetheless, it is clear that he was already fascinated with mathematics. In 1791, upon completing his poem, he wrote to his brother George,
I have often been surprized, that Mathematics, the quintessence of Truth, should have found admirers so few and so languid. —Frequent consideration and minute scrutiny have at length unravelled the cause—viz.—that though Reason is feasted, Imagination is starved; whilst Reason is luxuriating in it's [sic] proper Paradise, Imagination is wearily travelling on a dreary desart. To assist Reason by the stimulus of Imagination is the design of the following production. In the execution of it much may be objectionable.
Much of the work is, indeed, objectionable. In fact, 'A Mathematical Problem' is one of the silliest poems ever penned. But then, poetry could do with a little silliness now and then. Play it, Sam:

This is now — this was erst,
Proposition the first — and Problem the first.
On a given finite line
Which must no way incline;
To describe an equi —
— lateral Tri —
— A, N, G, L, E.
Now let A. B.
Be the given line
Which must no way incline;
The great Mathematician
Makes this Requisition,
That we describe an Equi —
— lateral Tri —
— angle on it:
Aid us, Reason — aid us, Wit!


From the centre A. at the distance A. B.
Describe the circle B. C. D.
At the distance B. A. from B. the centre
The round A. C. E. to describe boldly venture.
(Third postulate see.)
And from the point C.
In which the circles make a pother
Cutting and slashing one another,
Bid the straight lines a journeying go.
C. A. C. B. those lines will show.
To the points, which by A. B. are reckon’d,
And postulate the second
For Authority ye know.
A. B. C.
Triumphant shall be
An Equilateral Triangle,
Not Peter Pindar carp, nor Zoilus can wrangle.


Because the point A. is the centre
Of the circular B. C. D.
And because the point B. is the centre
Of the circular A. C. E.
A. C. to A. B. and B. C. to B. A.
Harmoniously equal for ever must stay;
Then C. A. and B. C.
Both extend the kind hand
To the basis, A. B.
Unambitiously join’d in Equality’s Band.
But to the same powers, when two powers are equal,
My mind forbodes the sequel;
My mind does some celestial impulse teach,
And equalises each to each.
Thus C. A. with B. C. strikes the same sure alliance,
That C. A. and B. C. had with A. B. before;
And in mutual affiance
None attempting to soar
Above another,
The unanimous three
C. A. and B. C. and A. B.
All are equal, each to his brother,
Preserving the balance of power so true:
Ah! the like would the proud Autocratrix do!
At taxes impending not Britain would tremble,
Nor Prussia struggle her fear to dissemble;
Nor the Mah’met-sprung Wight
The great Mussulman
Would stain his Divan
With Urine the soft-flowing daughter of Fright.


But rein your stallion in, too daring Nine!
Should Empires bloat the scientific line?
Or with dishevell’d hair all madly do ye run
For transport that your task is done?
For done it is — the cause is tried!
And Proposition, gentle Maid,
Who soothly ask’d stern Demonstration’s aid,
Has proved her right, and A. B. C.
Of Angles three
Is shown to be of equal side;
And now our weary steed to rest in fine,
’Tis rais’d upon A. B. the straight, the given line.
Well, I did warn you. Now it is evident that the first two parts (and the beginning of the third part) of this poem merely describe, in hilariously poor verse, Euclid's problem. The remaining lines articulate Coleridge's metaphorical reading of the construction. It is clear that Coleridge has no need of seeing, with Proclus, a mystical hieroglyph. Instead he finds in the construction an image of interpersonal 'balance' and harmony, of 'Equality's Band'. His exposition seems to reiterate itself, with an odd pointlessness, between 'Harmoniously equal for ever must stay' and 'Preserving the balance of power so true'. After that, syntax and sense become gnomic and confusing. The Autocratrix—ie. Catherine the Great—the Briton, the Prussian and the Muslim—what have their fright and fear to do with Euclid? Lucyle Werkmeister (in MLN 1959, online here), reads it as a comic response to Edmund Burke's theories about the relation of the sublime to the human imagination. She concludes, 'as a joke on Burke, it is not without some interest. Even so, one is not sorry that it turned to be unique'.

The reference to the stallion makes one think of the proem to Parmenides' hexametric On Being, though I cannot be sure that this is what Coleridge had in mind. More generally, it is tempting, albeit wholly without foundation, to see in this ridiculous poem an anticipation of the radical, anti-imperialist politics that the young poet would concern himself with during the 1790s—the image of the harmonious triangle a precursor to his utopian Pantisocracy.


James Joyce's response to the Euclidean problem is, naturally, far more difficult to decipher. I have already mentioned this response on a number of occasions, but I have not yet offered any discussion thereof. It occurs in Finnegans Wake 2.293, in the middle of a renownedly difficult passage often referred to as the 'Night Lessons'. Here is Joyce's version of the diagram—

Here π takes the place of C, α and λ the place of A and B, and P occurs opposite π. Joyceophiles will immediately recognise here the recurring initials of ALP (Anna Livia Plurabelle)—'A is for Anna like L is for liv. Aha hahah, Ante Ann you're apt to ape aunty annalive!'. The construction itself is described in the subsequent pages, albeit heavily garbled in the usual Wake manner. For instance, when Joyce writes 'With Olaf as centrum and Olaf's lambtail for his spokesman circumscript a cyclone', we understand 'With α (aleph) as the centre, and αλ (aleph-lambda) as the radius (spoke-sman), describe a circle (Gk. kuklos)'. Similarly, 'join alfa pea and pull loose' means 'join [by straight lines] απ and πλ'. 'Loose' suggests luis (pron. loosh), the Irish L, as well as Lucia, Joyce's daughter. 'Alfa' suggests alfalfa—also called luc-erne—and along with 'pea' connotes fertility. The climax of the exposition arrives on p. 297:
Outer serpumstances being ekewilled, we carefully, if she pleats, lift by her seam hem and jabote at the spidsiest of her trickkikant (like thousands done before since fillies calpered. Ocone! Ocone!) the maidsapron of our A.L.P., fearfully! till its nether nadir is vortically where (allow me to aright to two cute winkles) its naval's napex will have to beandbe.
Finally: 'Paa lickam laa lickam, apl lpa! This it is an her. You see her it'. The significance of this passage and diagram is hotly debated among Joyce scholars. It is clearly, like everything else in the book, polysemic—some have seen in it a schematic map of Dublin, others a sexual joke (the central shape seen as a vagina between two arse-cheeks), or a theological diagram, with 'Pee for Pride' (hell) at the base, and 'Pie out of Humbles' (heaven) at the top. It is all of those things, because it can be. The climax is clearly erotic—'You see her it'—recapitulating the theme of voyeurism that pervades the book.

But when it comes to Joyce—on Euclid or not—your guess is as good as mine, or anyone else's. Thomas Rice's book, Joyce, Chaos and Complexity, discusses our hero's interest in non-Euclidean geometry, an obvious sort of analogy to his own oblique methods. But Rice has nothing on the Euclid diagram. Others do, but their expositions are the usual ingenious exegeses, taking bits here and there to find a pattern. Joyce's total demolition of order and harmony, of the geometric method, is the farthest point possible from Proclus' mystical vision. Far from being an ideal figure inspiring recollection of the Neoplatonic hypostases, Euclid's diagram becomes for Joyce just another part of the dirty, playful, sexy natural world. What was once orderly and bounded, the epitome of clarity and simplicity, is now an icon of the the infinite and indefinite, something to catch the eye in a sea of words.

07 February, 2007

Aesthetics with a Hammer

It is greater to hate the world than to love it; he who loves, thereby desires, but he who hates is self-sufficient, needing nothing beyond the hatred in his own heart, and no third party.

The Night Watches of Bonaventura (c. 1805)
On a recent comment-thread at the Valve, I admitted that I disliked the work of Virginia Woolf. In fact, I provocatively called her 'imcompetent'. The provocation turned out to be too much for the denizens of this website. It seems, gentlemen, that I had stumbled upon a nest of Woolfophilic vipers! In the ensuing carnage I was foolishly labelled 'sexist' and 'misogynist', and accused of a 'personal failing'. Mamma mia! Bloomsbury had prevailed. A man named Rich Puchalsky, who is near-omnipresent over there, claimed that my dislike of Woolf showed the 'poverty of my approach', that approach being 'formalism':
Thus formalism, at least to the extent that you advocate, is an impoverished approach, because it prevents you from appreciating certain forms of literature. . . at a certain point, the consensus of critical judgement is enough.
My response was as follows:
All outlooks prevent one from appreciating certain examples—and even certain forms—of literature. I would rather be discerning than blandly appreciate all things. And whatever it is you choose to dislike, I might turn around and say that your approach is impoverished because it prevents you from appreciating it.
To which he replied:
But certain outlooks prevent you from appreciating more examples and forms than others. That’s why I chose the word “impoverished”—the poor person has less than the rich person.
I think that many of my readers will have some sympathy with Rich's position here. The argument is couched in sadly utilitarian terms—as if Outlook A, which gave a positive valuation to 743 novels, were superior to Outlook B, which valued only 482—but assuredly there is some important thrust behind it. Rich's unstated assumption is that as your readerly abilities develop, as your intellect becomes more subtle and sophisticated, you begin to understand more and more literature—and you begin to like more and more literature. The word 'appreciate' bridges the two senses, 'understand' and 'like'. A similar argument is sometimes offered by jazz apologists—what sounds like a chaotic noise is revealed in its full delightful complexity by the ear that discerns the myriad tonal patterns therein.

But I wonder if I might tempt you with another thought.

Perhaps—perhaps—it would be just as acceptable to suggest the reverse—that the more sophisticated one becomes, the more subtle one's judgement, the fewer things one likes. Why appreciation? Why not rather depreciation? Or even contempt? Is there not as much pleasure—or more, even—in contempt, as in admiration? Does admiration not come from awe? And are we not awe-struck by the sublime, by that which we do not understand? Surely then, the more we understand a work, the less admiration we should have for it. Surely we come to learn a work, and its complexities, so as to transcend it—so as to make ourselves superior to it. The greatest of readers, then, would be superior to all books. He would despise as simplistic even Finnegans Wake. Down he would peer at the poor scuttlers in their labyrinth, chuckling faintly to himself as they busied themselves in its decipherment. What joy he would derive from his universal literary disprision!

Reader, whence comes your delight at having understood The Four Quartets? Be honest now. You say 'spiritual enrichment', or even 'the mere pleasure of the text'. But is it not rather a satisfaction at the thought of being with Mr. Eliot in a room, a small room at that, with just a few fellows, and of gazing out the window, down at the street, where the uncomprehending masses toil without rest?

How much better would it be to find yourself on a neighbouring rooftop, gazing proudly down on Mr. Eliot himself? Would you not then see the appreciant's insufferable smugness for what it really is?

Now, I admit that I am not the greatest of readers. I still admire Finnegans Wake, for instance. Oh, how I envy Mr. Joyce! He sits above me on his poenitential stool, casting down imprecations upon me in his unintelligible brogue. I lap them up, every one of them. And I appreciate 'Bonaventura'—perhaps identified with Schelling—who composed the miserablist classic Die Nachtwachen, prefacing this post. But at least I am a better man than Rich Puchalsky, who still appreciates Woolf! Do not snigger, dear reader. Perhaps there is some writer you appreciate, and would rather pretend otherwise. I was once like Rich. When I was 18 I thought The Waves a decent little bonbon, lyrical and suggestive. But then I turned 19. Does that sting? Then I suggest you get your foot on the ladder as soon as possible.


Rich cast aspersions on my ability to 'teach literature'. Well, I have a mind to impart this marvelous philosophy of depreciation to schoolchildren of an impressionable age—really to inspire them! I would have them learn by heart Hamlet's soliloquy, and recite it over and over, until they knew its every movement—how they would come to despise it! Shown a Renaissance sonnet, they would yawn, Oh! Another wittily inverted pentameter. Shown a passage from Henry James they would sigh, Ah, yet another meticulous character-portrait. Have you nothing more interesting for us? They would revel sybaritically in their grand scorn. The world could show nothing to them—and they would die content at their mastery of it. Or perhaps they would create a new literature, even more sophisticated than what we have, ripe for the contempt of the following generation. Would that be such a bad thing?


Remember, then, that your appreciation of certain books—whether Don Quixote or Notes from the Underground—is really no more than a sign of your own personal failings, your incompetence as a reader.

In my next post I shall be telling you about some books I appreciate.

06 February, 2007


I am in an elevator, contemplating its algorithms, full of thoughts, like an internet crammed with wet poems and fishy analysis. I'm clutching books: a history of agnosticism, Gabriel Naudé's Advice on Establishing a Library, an Italian book on Plutarch that I can hardly read, and a modern paperback of Justus Lipsius' De Constantia, in the Stradling translation. There is a black man with me in the elevator, sharply dressed and boyish, with a wicked afro, in fact the spit and image of that guy from Veronica Mars, which my wife watches.

William Shakespeare? he asks hopefully.

— Er, what?

— The dude on the book, that's Shakespeare, right?

I tell him it's Justus Lipsius, a Flemish scholar. He tuts despondently. I feel like an ass. I want to tell him, Good guess, though. It was a good guess. Right period. Lipsius has a ruff and everything. And it might as well be Shakespeare, for all we know of the Bard's features.

Thus, worlds collide.


A few years ago I was sitting on the Tube on the way back from shopping. I'd just bought some new shoes, and I was going home to bed. This was at around ten in the morning. As usual, I was reading. In this case it was an Edwardian edition of Reynard the Fox, in Caxton's version, with Kaulbach's illustrations, printed with the Stallybrass' translation of the Physiologus. I remember enjoying it. I kept waiting for the annoying moral to spoil the old-fashioned sadistic fun, but it never came. The moral of the book seemed to be, Screw everyone over and you'll succeed. That's my kind of moral.

Anyway, I was reading this arcane edition of this rather arcane mediaeval book, and I looked up, and suddenly I realised that the literary world in which I was immersed bore no relation to the one around me. It wasn't just that it was old. If I'd been reading Hamlet there might have been one or two people in the carriage who could relate. Sometimes you see pretty UCL or Goldsmith's girls reading Eliot and the like. Vergil, Beowulf, Chaucer, fine. But Reynard the Fox? At that moment I felt trapped, as if in a bubble or cocoon. I was overcome with the utter irrelevance of my intellectual life. I think this feeling accounts for the popularity of writers like Baudrillard and Žižek, who make theory of the real world, and who make irrelevant books seem like part of it. So many intellectuals need some assurance that it matters.

My friend M. has quit academia, at least for now, because he 'can't justify it'. He wants to make a real-world difference. I suggested he join MSF, but apparently he doesn't want to get killed for it. I tell him that I have resigned myself to a career of glittering uselessness. We joke about Blair interrupting Commons proceedings to announce the completion of my Plutarch thesis.

On good days I am at peace with all this.

03 February, 2007

On academia

Or, The Glare of an Eye. I repost this, an old piece, in succinct articulation of doubt, and in lieu of immediate new material, which present business and sudden urgent thoughts prevent me from construing.

Whan we been there as we shul exercise
Oure elvysshe craft, we semen wonder wise,
Oure termes been so clergial and so queynte.
I blowe the fir til that myn herte feynte.

— Geoffrey Chaucer, 'The Canon's Yeoman's Tale' (c. 1385-1400)

SURLY. Rather than I'll be brayed, sir, I'll believe
That Alchemy is a pretty kind of game,
Somewhat like tricks o' the cards, to cheat a man
With charming.


SURLY. What else are all your terms,
Whereon no one of your writers 'grees with other?

. . . SUBTLE. And all these named,
Intending but one thing; which art our writers
Used to obscure their art.

— Ben Jonson, The Alchemist (1610), Act 2 Scene 1.
Each passage adjuts a long list of alchemical terminology. Chaucer mentions orpiment, sublimed mercury, litharge (lead monoxide), viols, crosslets, descensories, cucurbites and alembics, arsenic, sal armoniac, agrimony, valerian, calcination, albification, and so on; Jonson lists lac virginis, chrysosperm, mercury, 'oil of height', 'tree of life', marchesite, magnesia, tutty (zinc oxide), and the wonderful nonsense-sequence of 'lato, azoch, zernich, chibrit, heautarit'. Each, also, mentions candidates for the mysterious prima materia disputed by alchemists:
Unslekked lym, chalk, and gleyre of an ey,
Poudres diverse, asshes, donge, pisse, and cley (Chaucer)

With all your broths, your menstrues, and materials
Of piss and egg-shells, women's terms, man's blood,
Hair o' the head, burnt clouts, chalk, merds, and clay (Jonson)
We see here that Jonson follows Chaucer's list, with greater glee for the grotesque; he gives not eggwhite ('gleyre of an ey') but eggshells, not just donge (merds) but menstrues, also called 'women's terms'. That last word is interesting though, referring not just to the terms of the female period, and by metonymy the catamenia (OED sense 7b), but also playing on Surly's "What else are all your terms", the sense echoing the "termes. . . so clergial and so queynte" in Chaucer. The words and language of woman (as opposed to the jargon of the male alchemists themselves) are just like all the other filth and detritus postulated as the ultimate substance of the Philosopher's Stone. In both passages the search for gold remains fetishistic, gathering as materials the unwanted elements of the human body, like a man who retains women's fingernail-clippings for sexual arousal.

And all of this is just a 'pretty kind of game', a free play with signs—signs which are material (bodily refuse) and those which are verbal (terms). The alchemists' jargon makes them appear wise, as it is used to obscure what they are really doing; but even worse, even the professionals cannot agree on the meanings of these terms among themselves. They are left blowing at the athanor-fire until their hertes feynte with exhaustion, achieving nothing but the deception of others, and the accumulation of dross.

01 February, 2007

Perfidious Albion

Apparently the British government, or "They" as I prefer to call it, has seen fit to announce possible cuts to the funding of the British Library—possibly as much as 7%. I, for one, am relieved to hear of this. After all, the cuts will make it much easier for me to plead an excuse of 'insufficient resources' when my doctoral research turns out dud.

Moreover, I think it will do British culture a world of good, and stuff all those woolly-hearted liberals who bemoan the incalculable loss to our society and heritage. Pontificating academics have been sponging off the taxpayer for far too long now. Maybe they'll go out and get real jobs—become lawyers, advertising executives, that sort of thing. Put that brains to good use, I say. For instance, did you know that 'Writer Stef Penney, who won the Costa first novel prize with The Tenderness of Wolves, set in Canada in 1867, had never been to Canada and did all her research at the [British] Library'? I didn't. It's this sort of armchair travel we'd do well to discourage.

Of course the intelligensia have been up in arms. Yes, I'm talking about people like Melvyn Bragg, and Margaret Drabble, and Andrew Motion, the heroes of the middle brow. Do you know how much free booze that idiot Motion receives every year for his 'contributions' to our nation? All that gratuity to write things like,
In the swirl of its pool
The home-coming salmon
has no intuition
of anything changed
Do you think he needed the resources of the British Library to pen that? Some us might regard it as rather impolite to refer that way to the Queen Mum, God rest her drunken soul. Meanwhile cheeky-faced Michael Palin has opined, 'This is one of the great storehouses of world culture, from what I've heard, and apparently their archive material, both photographic and written, is quite dazzling.' It's obvious he's never even been to the library. In fact he's probably never even been to a library, given the quality of his comedic output. Clearly, what Britain needs now is not a first-class library, but rather a show-stopping Olympic spectacular to make the world pay attention to us again. We used to be a global power, you know.