28 October, 2007

N is for Neville

Heareing a learned Philosopher discourse of death and how it is not to be feared, and the stroake passes and the dead feele no torment. How, sayth M. Gaulard, doe they not feele the ffleas? Then, haueing the Philosophers answere No, Truly then I beleeue it is good some tymes to be dead.

— Étienne Tabourot, Bigarrures or the Pleasant and Witlesse and Simple Speeches of the Lord Gaulard of Burgundy, tr. "J. B. of Charterhouse", from a manuscript circa 1660.
From our bathroom window can be seen, in the indigo night, a far distant object, large and bright, like a cinema-screen, but still, and unanimated. I would stare at it every evening, in an attempt to decipher and identify it, but without success. In the dark it sat, silent and unknown.

Finally curiosity got the better of me. From the family home I fetched a pair of binoculars, and later that evening, after supper, I opened the window and trained my new lenses upon the far light. As I turned the focus, my vision extended slowly into the distance, alighting momentarily on other windows, and on their inhabitants, moving silently, as if in a camera obscura. At last I could see the mysterious object. It seemed to be some sort of communiqué, with words, black on white, but I could make out only letters. I was inclined to think it was a large lane-indicator by the side of the road.

The next evening I returned to the window, this time resting the binoculars against the sill, for a steadier vision. Now I found I could discern words. World; place; home. Important place. I felt rather like Marvin in the climactic scene of So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, descrying God's last message to his creation. The next night I returned again, and this time I could finally see the whole. Home is the most important place in the world. What was this quasi-philosophical banality doing in huge letters by a distant road? I turned to Google, and soon learnt that the phrase is used as a slogan for the furniture company Ikea. The great screen is merely, it turns out, a commercial hoarding. All the sublime has gone out of the world—the mysteries of our city are now only opportunities for product. It's enough to make one a fucking Marxist!


In the face of this vulgarity we grow bored. Don't we? Boredom seems to have become an integral part of my outlook, as if by accident. It is a double-faced vise: on one side, we struggle to avoid it, constantly seeking the new; on the other, we embrace it, accepting boredom, and contempt, as the markers of an ironical and urbane sophistication. We take pleasure in boredom as we take pleasure in incessant and unwinnable combat against it. When I wrote against the appreciation of literature, here, I imagined of my pupils:
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.
This summer, rereading Candide, I realised I had been anticipated, 250 years ago, in the character of Pococurante, a Venetian noble whose palace the hero visits in chapter 25. Candide and Pococurante discuss the latter's maids, his paintings, his large collection of classic books, and his gardens. Candide admires it all, but Pococurante despises everything, weary with the greatest masters.
As soon as our two travelers had taken leave of His Excellency, Candide said to Martin, "Well, I hope you will own that this man is the happiest of all mortals, for he is above everything he possesses."

"But do not you see," answered Martin, "that he likewise dislikes everything he possesses? It was an observation of Plato, long since, that those are not the best stomachs that reject, without distinction, all sorts of aliments."

"True," said Candide, "but still there must certainly be a pleasure in criticising everything, and in perceiving faults where others think they see beauties."

"That is," replied Martin, "there is a pleasure in having no pleasure."
Last weekend I saw the same again, in a modern setting, watching Armando Iannucci's surreal and poignant sketch about the unappeasable. As a doctor explains, 'Sammy's developed a syndrome which means that he's literally being bored to death. If he ever has the same experience twice, his internal organs will haemorrhage simultaneously. We're desperately trying to invent as many completely new experiences as we can.' We see the aged Sammy, utterly jaded by a surfeit of information and entertainment, confronted by his wife with a cascade of bathetic novelties:
— It's a new shaped teabag!

— It doesn't interest me.

— A book about Ronnie and Reggie Kray!

— I'm bored of bastards. . .

— They're starting a new round of Champions League football-matches!

Upon discovery of some unreleased John Lennon material, Sammy's eyes start bleeding, and when presented with a documentary about the International Space Station, he curls up with a pillow, whimpering pathetically. Here is Pococurante, but rather than revelling in his grand bored scorn, he is suffering. I feel a little of either, sometimes revelling, sometimes suffering. It was a condition diagnosed with philosophical sympathy by Kierkegaard, who immortalised the thrill-hunting aesthete as A in his Either / Or. This is not one of those times that the world shows its wares to me. Giornale Nuovo has closed shop, having apparently grown tired of its own endless succession of nice pictures. Novelty palls, or turns out to be an Ikea advertisement. Novelty palls—one wants to stop sorting through the flotsam for once, stop skimming, and start digging, properly. A blog, naturally, is more suited to skimming than to digging, so what this change of heart spells for the dear old Varieties—well, time will tell, eh?

19 October, 2007


There are few activities more pleasurable than transferring one's collection of books, theretofore coacervated all hobson-jobson in unlabelled boxes, to a newly-acquired set of shelves. Thanks to the munificence of neighbours, my wife and I have recently landed, gratis, no fewer than five bookshelves, of various sizes and shapes. Some of them are even antiques. I spent the evening turning over the piles sprawled out from upturned boxes, unexamined since our departure for Arizona three long years ago. As each item surfaces, I can recall exactly the time and place of its purchase; and so the experience as a whole recapitulates my life, and also, in a peculiar way, the structure of my mind.


The collector Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose enormous library—or at least what remained of it in the wake of a great fire (1731), the remnants nonetheless replete with priceless treasures—was later donated to the national collection, arranged his books on shelves marked by the busts of Caesars. Thus, our sole surviving copy of Beowulf was (and still is) designated 'Vitellius A.xv', denoting that the manuscript was found on the top shelf (A) below Vitellius, fifteen along. (One rather suspects that Vitellius was too nugatory a Caesar for a text of such importance.) At any rate, I have decided to revive the practice, only using great literary figures instead of Roman clown-emperors. Thus, atop the first case I have placed a small bust of Goethe, presiding. I have yet to pick my next hero.

The Warburg Library is organised to maximise suggestiveness, all chronological and alphabetical plans having been abandoned, so as to provoke thought (and, dare I say it, often confusion) by unusual, though rarely irrational, juxtapositions. I like the idea. Indeed, it is difficult to know quite how to sort. As with translations, all solutions fall short one way or another. So I tend towards a loose order, with books grouped by size and vaguely by subject, though arranged for a pleasing curve on each shelf. I wanted to get Substantific Marrow onto the shelf of literary essayists, but there was no room, so instead I put him between Duval on Rabelais, and the copy of Mineshaft magazine I picked up in San Francisco. (I offer Emerson the choice of switching Mineshaft for an Aporia Press reprint of a few Thomason pamphlets (1642-61), collectively entitled Anomalous Phenomena of the Interregnum.) I have Hegel next to Lewis Spence and Extraordinary Popular Delusions, which, I'm sure you'll agree, is a fitting apposition. Phineas Fletcher's anatomical epic The Purple Island is next to George Chappell's neo-Rabelaisian Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, which in turn neighbours an old, peeling Béroalde de Verville. Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters makes a cute companion to Christopher Ward's Gentleman into Goose.

Some conjunctions just amuse me. The Book of Mormon sits next to Josiah Royce's Principles of Logic; a biography of Mao next to a two-volume Leben und Werke of Schiller, in Fraktur, kindly given to me by my dear uncle; the works of Molière beside The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí; und so weiter. I'd like to get an octavo Shakespeare to put next to the contes of Voltaire, just to spite the pair of them. At the moment Voltaire's next to Swift and a 1906 Kommersbuch, which is almost as good, I think.

The shelf above the Loebs and other classics is too small for almost any book, so for now I have left it empty. Perhaps in shelving, just as in jazz, and Chinese painting, the notes you leave out count just as much, if not more.

The 200-odd books on these new shelves account for about 20-25% of my total collection, by my estimate. It is mostly second-tier material; although I refuse to have anything on my shelves that I dislike. (There is, of course, plenty that I haven't read.) I once read—damn if I can't remember where—about a French collector so determined to possess a perfect library that he would buy the Works of an author, cut out all the bad bits, and have the book rebound. Now that's my kind of collector. The ordonnance of these shelves is not perfect yet. It needs some tweaking. But it's almost there. I have heard the human body with its DNA compared to a vast library in which every book is the same. I like to imagine that when all my books are assembled in one place, perhaps at the end of my life, and placed in the correct order, I will have disclosed myself to the world more perfectly than in any book or conversation—shemhamphorasch.

Update: As it happens, I stumbled within a week across the reference to that French collector. My mind had embellished the matter, from Matthew Arnold's essay on Joseph Joubert, referring to 'the treasures of a library collected with infinite pains, taste, and skill, from which every book he thought ill of was rigidly excluded—he never would possess either a complete Voltaire or a complete Rousseau'. My version, as usual, is better.

Update #2: More book collections assembled here. Mine is the smallest, but then, it's quality that matters.

15 October, 2007


In the middle of Plato's treatise on the creation of the world, the Timaeus, the Demiurge—for centuries readily identified with the Christian God—divides up the fabric of the World Soul into strips, which he then fastens together:
The entire compound was divided by him lengthways into two parts, which he united at the centre like the letter X [chi], and bent into an inner and outer circle or sphere [kuklos], cutting one another again at a point over against the point at which they cross.
Plato is describing the universe as two circles with a common centre, at right angles. (He then adjusts this and has the second sphere at a non-right angle to the first—on the exact process, see Taylor's commentary.) The two circles meet at two points, each of which resembles the Greek chi, a cross. And the two circles are the circles of the Same and Different—the Same is the circle of the fixed stars, and the Different the circle of the planets, which moves in an opposite direction. This is the Greek origin of all those astronomical cycles and epicycles that remained almost unchallenged until Copernicus.

Bernard of Chartres, the twelfth-century Neoplatonist best known for the maxim ascribed to him by his pupil John of Salisbury—We are but dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants—composed a commentary on the Timaeus in about 1110, using the partial translation made by Calcidius in the fourth century. For Bernard, Plato is writing by involucrum, by the principle of allegory. Per diuisionem significantur duo motus animae: unus rationalis, alter irrationalis. By 'division' is meant two movements of the soul: the one rational, the other irrational. Just as the fixed circle turns smoothly from east to west, and back to east, so the rational soul moves from its Creator, to a consideration of earthly matters, and back to the Creator. The planetary circle turns from west to east to west, returning constantly from the Creator to earthly matters.


Some time in the second quarter of the second century AD, a Samaritan Neoplatonist named Justin converted to Christianity; his work is the earliest (still extant) serious body of Christian literature following the New Testament. In about 150 AD, Justin Martyr, as he is now called, composed his First Apology, online here. Chapter 60 wrestles with Plato's Timaeus.
And the physiological discussion of the Son of God in the Timæus of Plato, where he says, "He placed him crosswise in the universe," he borrowed in like manner from Moses.
This is a bit of a stretch—but delightfully so! The Demiurge, really a sort of careful artisan in Plato, becomes the Christian God, and the World Soul becomes the Son of God. The joining of soul-strips in a chi becomes the crosswise placing of Christ. As in, yes, the Crucifixion. The Moses part is even more far-fetched: 'Moses, by the inspiration and influence of God, took brass, and made it into the figure of a cross, and set it in the holy tabernacle, and said to the people, "If ye look to this figure, and believe, ye shall be saved thereby".' Moses does no such thing: he has a serpent, not a cross (Num 21.8). (And in case you're wondering, the Septuagint has a serpent too.) The point is that Plato gets his ideas about the universe from Moses—the author of the Pentateuch—who in turn is only foretelling the crucifixion. 'It is not, then, that we hold the same opinions as others, but that all speak in imitation of ours'.

When you think about it, this is a clever gambit. Justin is addressing Antoninus Pius, the cultivated Roman emperor, and adoptive father of Marcus Aurelius. If you were a literate intellectual of the second century Greco-Roman world, chances are you were a Platonist of some stripe. All philosophical traditions of the period, including Stoic and Peripatetic, traced themselves back to Plato. And so when Justin argues not only that his Christianity is compatible with Platonism, but moreover that it preceded and inspired Plato, he is one-upping the philosophical fashions of his milieu.

The Holy Cross thus becomes a symbol uniting pagan and Christian thought. The Cross is also treated in Chapter 55: here Justin argues that its symbolic importance is revealed by its morphological recurrence throughout human life. He does not use phrases like 'morphological recurrence', of course.
For consider all the things in the world, whether without this form they could be administered or have any community. For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed without it: diggers and mechanics do not their work, except with tools which have this shape. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended, and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose, through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows no other form than that of the cross.
The Cross is here almost an object of visual, visionary obsession, appearing again and again, informing all that it touches with a Christian spirit. The faith is given not just in Scripture, but in Nature itself.


Perhaps you have some difficult visualising all these objects, supposedly cruciform. In which case, you're in luck. Now, we have no surviving manuscripts illuminating Justin, at least not to my knowledge. But we do have a charming little book by the Flemish scholar Justus Lipsius, first published in 1594, entitled De Cruce, or On the Cross. In 1.9 he illustrates the patristic sources for the Crux Immissa or the standard transverse cross we readily visualise today. Jerome's commentary on Mark is quoted:
Ipsa species Crucis, quid est nisi forma quadrata mundi? Aues quando volant ad athera [sic], formam Crucis assumunt. Homo natans per aquas, vel orans, forma Crucis visitur.

What is the shape of the Cross, unless it is the quadrate form of the world? When birds fly through the air, they assume the shape of the Cross. A man, swimming through the water, or praying, seems to have the form of the Cross.
Then Minucius Felix is quoted.
Signum sane Crucis naturaliter visimus in naui, cum velis tumentibus vehitur, cum expansis palmulis labitur, & cum erigitur iugum, Crucis signum est: & cum homo porrectis manibus Deum pura mente veneratur.

Truly, we naturally see the sign of the Cross in a ship, when it moves with swollen sails, when it glides with oars outstretched, and when the yoke is erected, it is a sign of the Cross; and also when man venerates God with hands aloft and a pure mind.
Then Maximus Taurensis is quoted. Most of this, like Minucius Felix, is a repeat of Justin and Jerome, but he adds a little bit:
Caelum quoque ipsum huius signi figura dispositum est. Nam cum quatuor partibus distinguitur, Oriente, Occidente, Meridiano, ac Septemtrione, quatuor quasi Crucis angulis continetur.

The sky, also, is arranged by the figure of this sign. For when its four regions are distinguished, East, West, South, and North, it seems to contain the four ends of the Cross.
Then Justin Martyr is quoted, from the above passage. And then, finally, we get a nice picture, illustrating all of the analogies from Justin, Jerome, and Maximus. Here is the more attractive 1594 version (from this online copy):

And here the ugly 1595 version (from here):

In the following chapter, Lipsius 'proves' that Christ was crucified on the transverse cross, and not on a Crux Simplex or upright stake. (It was this chapter, incidentally, that the Jehovah's Witnesses who compiled the New World Translation failed to read, when they claimed that Lipsius supported their wacky notion that Christ was crucified on a stake. Catholics quickly got hold of the book, and as soon as they'd mastered enough Wheelock to read the damn thing, were able to point and jeer at the Witnesses' incompetence.) Here, Lipsius starts playing around with the notion of the cross having four points. Sedulius is quoted, from the fifth book of the fifth-century neo-Vergilian epic Carmen Paschalis (Easter Song):
Neue quis ignoret speciem Crucis esse colendam,
Quae Dominum portauit ouans, ratione potenti,
Quatuor inde plagas quadrati colligit orbis.
Splendidus auctoris de vertice fulget Eous,
Occiduo sacrae labuntur sidere plantae,
Arcton dextra tenet, medium leua erigit axem.

For who but knows the Cross we should revere
Which joyful bore the Lord: He gathered here
The symbolled Quarters of the World’s great Sphere.
The Orient shineth from His Head supreme—
Beneath His feet the Vesper planets beam,
And either Pole at either hand shall seem.
This is not my translation, but the rendering of George Sigerson from 1922. I believe there is a pun in the word plagas, here translated 'Quarters', but with the additional meaning of 'wounds'. Sigerson (1836-1925), a patriotic Irish polymath and translator of Charcot, has this to say about the above lines of Sedulius, who was probably Irish himself:
Usually, as in English, men speak of north and south, east and west; children at school are taught that by facing the sun at noon-day they look south, with back to the north, and left and right hands to the east and west respectively. But the terms of the Irish language indicate quite a different position. In Irish, the same word designates both the right hand and the south; the left and the north are named alike; whilst 'behind' and 'west' are identical. . . Thus the symbolism of the Cross, as given by St. Sedulius in the fifth century, which seems strange to modern readers, would appear quite natural and familiar to the Irish-speaking peasant of to-day.
You see, human beings did not stop reading what they wanted to read when the Middle Ages suddenly came to a halt, somewhen between 1350 and 1650. When Sir Thomas Browne dropped his double A-side, Hydriotaphia / The Garden of Cyrus in 1658, he was still playing silly buggers with cross imagery.
Where by the way we shall decline the old Theme, so traced by antiquity of crosses and crucifixion: Whereof some being right, and of one single peece without traversion or transome, do little advantage our subject. Nor shall we take in the mysticall Tau, or the Crosse of our blessed Saviour, which having in some descriptions an Empedon or crossing foot-stay, made not one single transversion. And since the Learned Lipsius hath made some doubt even of the Crosse of St Andrew, since some Martyrologicall Histories deliver his death by the generall Name of a crosse, and Hippolitus will have him suffer by the sword; we should have enough to make out the received Crosse of that Martyr.

[. . .]

Of this Figure Plato made choice to illustrate the motion of the soul, both of the world and man; while he delivereth that God divided the whole conjunction length-wise, according to the figure of a Greek X, and then turning it about reflected it into a circle; By the circle implying the uniform motion of the first Orbs, and by the right lines, the planetical and various motions within it. And this also with application unto the soul of man, which hath a double aspect, one right, whereby it beholdeth the body, and objects without; another circular and reciprocal, whereby it beholdeth it self. The circle declaring the motion of the indivisible soul, simple, according to the divinity of its nature, and returning into it self; the right lines respecting the motion pertaining unto sense, and vegetation, and the central decussation, the wondrous connexion of the severall faculties conjointly in one substance. And so conjoyned the unity and duality of the soul, and made out the three substances so much considered by him; That is, the indivisible or divine, the divisible or corporeal, and that third, which was the Systasis or harmony of those two, in the mystical decussation.

And if that were clearly made out which Justin Martyr took for granted, this figure hath had the honour to characterize and notifie our blessed Saviour, as he delivereth in that borrowed expression from Plato; Decussavit eum in universo, the hint whereof he would have Plato derive from the figure of the brazen Serpent, and to have mistaken the letter X for T.
Naturally, if you've never read The Garden of Cyrus, you must immediately desist from your leisurely perusal of the Varieties, and devote your next hour to a study of its manifold richnesses. Browne has both Justin and Bernard, and a thousand other crosses, lozenges and quincunxes, from the most marvelous texts, and from the variety of the natural world. He is especially good on plants, if you like that sort of thing.

Human beings did not even stop reading what they wanted to read after 1658. We've already seen what patriotism (or should that be 'patrickotism'?) can do to an erudite Irishman. But think also of Justin's 1885 editor, Philip Schaff, who in his introduction exclaims:
And in spite of Gallios and Neros alike, the gospel was dispelling the gross darkness. Of this, Pliny's letter to Trajan is decisive evidence. Even in Seneca we detect reflections of the daybreak. Plutarch writes as never a Gentile could have written until now.
Seneca, that is, who throughout the Middle Ages was believed to have corresponded amicably with St. Paul. And Plutarch, whose De sera numinis vindicta allegedly demonstrates the influence of the Gospel. Later, A. E. Taylor's 1928 commentary on the Timaeus would be denounced by Francis Cornford (in the excellent Plato's Cosmology, 1937) as merely a 'Christianization of Plato'. Christians, like Plato and the rest of the classical pagans before them, have always needed to make analogies. It is a way of dealing with absurd doctrines. It is a way of making sense of that from which sense cannot be made. I write that last line as a chiasmus, so called because it resembles in structure the shape of the Greek letter chi.

I too, it seems, need analogies.

14 October, 2007


It is simply the programme of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life. This principle governs the functioning of our mental apparatus from the start; there can be no doubt about its efficacy, and yet its programme is at odds with the whole world—with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm. It is quite incapable of being realised; all the institutions of the universe are opposed to it; one is inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ has no part in the plan of creation.
Freud was, in many respects, the great successor of Montaigne. Pessimist, leisured humanist, maker of statements—and a writer of exquisite prose, even in translation. I find comforting this high rationalist, so contemptuous of that ‘oceanic feeling’ articulated by the theistical unreligious, lamenting, with all emotional candour, the condition of an animal in a universe ranged against its weal. That man should be happy has no part in the plan of creation.

Freud goes on to claim, in Civilization and its Discontents, that ‘What we call happiness, in the strictest sense of the word, arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs. By its very nature it can be no more than an episodic phenomenon.’ It is only natural, then, after my rush of excitement last week, the satisfaction of pent-up needs, that the novelty should have palled, leaving me wound and nervy by the end of the week. It is not so much a misery as a loss of meaning and colour from the world—I have been unable to concentrate, disinclined to activity and interaction, blank, and distrustful. The thesis, before it is even begun, is haunting me, an uncharted and fearful expanse of possibilities, an oceanic swell of innavigable ignorance. Don’t worry too much, says my tutor. Still, I worry. There is a comfort in worrying, shared.


Shared with you, also. My life is starting to take on some sort of recognizable form. For the last three years I have been crying in the wilderness, with little end—only momentary pleasures and anxieties, diverse varieties of experience. But now there is a telos towards which I am moving, irrefragably. I like to imagine my facility with Latin, how good it will have to be in three years. Yes, if my life has already been made narrative as text in 21.5 months writing for you, it is now becoming narrative not as text, not as art, but simply as life.
Literary historians from Auerbach to John Gardner have traced the way in which the cultural place of narrative has been diminished and the modes of interpretation of narrative have been transformed until it has become possible for modern theorists to understand the form of narrative, not as that which connects story-telling with the form of human life, but precisely as that which segregates narrative from life, which confines it to what is taken to be a separate and distinctive realm of art.
That's what Alasdair MacIntyre thinks, at any rate. Is it true? Does it sound good, at least? For MacIntyre, we have lost, since the Enlightenment, a sense of our lives as parts in a broader narrative—and we have lost a sense of our own life as tending towards a specific goal—the cultivation of virtue and achievement of eudaimonia, which, in the context of modern ethics, is a meaningless word. But was it not Romanticism that called for Bildung? Bildung is teleological in that it has no goals outside itself—its telos is only self-completion and self-perfection. For Gadamer, Bildung is the 'condition of existence' for an authentic humanism. If I have been trying to think, lately, about problems of justification for the pursuit of humanistic discourse—and to no great solution—it is because, for the first time in years, and really for the first time ever, my life smells of Bildung. This must be more, surely, than the vague aesthetic dowsings of a life alone with the library and a keyboard. It must be something constellated, hierarchical.

My tutor talks casually about the stylistic variations in humanist Latin. The man next to her at the lunch table can dissert, for as long as you have, on the manuscript tradition of late Arabic astrology. And, next to him, in turn, a man with Tibetan and Sanskrit, making comments about John Dee.

At this imaginary lunch, I mumble something about Plutarch, and dream of the future, of self-perfection—a perfection which can never be finished, until I feel the fingers of Davy Jones at my throat, and prepare to give my speech, which I have ready, failing, naturally, not only to deliver my last words, carefully sculpted so as to be quotable in biographies—but even to complete my first line, which is, as it turns out, left only as an ellipsis (. . .), a series glittering as the last points of light on a great ocean of souls, occaso sole.

I think it impossible that narrative should not be an integral part of a man's life.

09 October, 2007


Friends, apologies for my recent silence. I have been a little lacking in inspiration of late, and I would not want to bore you with banalities. True, I do have a post's worth of material on the Great Books, but I'm not ready to fashion it quite yet. Last week I began my doctoral sojourn at the Warburg Institute, and have spent the first days in a state of rapturous excitement. Do you know, there are people there to whom one can actually talk about Brunetto Latini, or illuminated Aristotle opuscula, or Walter Pater, or Renaissance geomancy? It seems hard to fathom without choking up in delight.

I was sitting in the Institute's rather crepuscular library yesterday, reading a Montaigne essay. ('Of Coaches', one of his more rambling ventures.) The sheer thrill of the Institute had not yet worn off, and so I found my eyes distracted by shelves and shelves of neighbouring possibilities. I got down on my hands and knees and peered at the linguistics section. From the lowest shelf I plucked the Variorum edition of Yakov Malkiel's collected papers. I opened it at random and immediately my attention alighted upon this passage—from the 1948 essay ‘Italian guazzo and its Hispanic and Gallo-Romance Cognates’:

Guachapear, basically ‘to strike and stir up stagnant water with the feet’ (its second component is reminiscent of apear), has been known since Covarrubias to apply to the rattling of a poorly adjusted iron plate, e.g. a horseshoe. The Academy Dictionary of 1936 records the further meaning of ‘doing something hastily and crudely’; perhaps the compilers had in mind two passages of La Picara Justina in which the word had been interpreted by the editor of the text, J. Puyol y Alonso, signifying ‘to write in a slipshod fashion.’ Guachapear has also been identified at widely scattered points of Seneca’s former colonial empires. In Honduras, guachapeado is a ‘sickly old man’; in Chile, the verb stands for ‘stealing trash just for fun’; along Colombia’s Atlantic coast, it means ‘to clear the ground (superficially) of brambles and bushes.’ It would seem that the idea of inadequacy, of “things done by halves,” which pervades the derivative meanings of guachapear, goes back ultimately to the image of muddiness and thus fits again into the general configuration of the AQUATIO family.
Have you ever seen such a sublimely broad and elaborate range of meanings?

02 October, 2007

Decameron 8.9: pun and pumpkin

Gourds have always been important in human culture. In the late Middle Ages, schoolteachers would cut Latin words onto the surface of squashes and gourds as an aide-memoire for young children. This is, in fact, where we get the very word 'word', via the earlier Anglo-French guord (cf. Guillaume > William, guard > ward), which in turn is simply a variant of gourde or coorde (Latin cucurbita), and from which we have gourd and courgette.


Boccaccio was well aware of the symbolic significance of gourds, as we discover in Decameron 8.9, one of the work's pithiest novelle. In this story, two painters named Bruno and Buffalmalco—a recurrent duo—play a trick on Simone, a greedy and foolish physician from out of town. They convince him that they are secretly wealthy, thanks to the machinations of a cabal of necromancers; they encourage him to come along to a meeting, then push him in a ditch at night. So far, so mediaeval. But it is the imagery that here interests us.

Maestro Simone arrives back in Florence from Bologna (the university for law and medicine par excellence), where he settles in a street named Via del Cocomero—'Watermelon Road'. When Bruno addresses him early on, he calls him zucca mia da sale, 'my salt squash', and praises vostra qualitativa mellonaggine da Legnaia. Legnaia is a region of Florence then noted for its large pumpkins, and 'mellonaggine', which connotes stupidity, comes from the mellone or melon. Later on, Buffalmalco addresses Simone as Pinca mia da seme. Pinca, the etymological dictionary of Pianigiani (online here) tells us, is an archaic word for a species of cetriuolo or cucumber, and da seme means 'full of seed'. Finally, Buffalmalco mocks Simone: it is evident that the physician 'non apparaste miga l'abicí in su la mela, come molti sciocconi voglion fare, anzi l'apparaste bene in sul mellone, ch'è cosí lungo'—'did not learn the ABC on an apple, as so many idiots do, but instead learned it well on a melon, which is rather longer'. (J. M. Rigg's 1903 translation perhaps renders the pun best: 'twas on no pippin, as many a dolt does, but on the good long pumpkin that you learned your A B C'.)

So, what's with all the squashes? Wikitalia's article on the melon claims that it was originally considered a symbol of fecundity because of its large quantities of seed, later coming to symbolize a wild, generative capacity, opposed to intelligent reason—a fool. 'Uno stolto veniva chiamato mellone e una scemenza, mellonaggine'. But it is not just the melon—the entire family of Cucurbitaceae recurs through the novella as an unstated leitmotive, tying Simone's foolishness to his environs (cocomero), his education (mellone), and his interpersonal relations (zucca and pinca). He cannot escape it.