Verbol

Green on green on green
The light befalls me clean,
Beneath the birds.

And how I can capture
This mute green rapture
In blinded words? (7viii21)


Post-Performative Post-Scriptum

This poem is an attempt to describe the impossibility of describing the green light I saw falling through the leaf-layers of a chestnut-tree a few days ago. I wanted a title that compressed the most important images in the poem — trees and greenness — and I remembered a clever portmanteau I’d seen in a Spanish translation of Lord of the Rings. In the translation, the Ent Treebeard, a walking-and-talking tree, was called Barbol, which is a blend of the Spanish words barba, “beard”, and arbol, “tree”. I’ve tried to blend Spanish verde, “green”, and arbol. The resulting portmanteau contained more than I planned: it’s also got ver, Spanish for “to see”, and vēr, Latin for “spring, youth”. And it’s almost “verbal”, but with the “a” replaced by an “o”, representing the sun and its indescribable light. And come to think of it, there’s an important chestnut-tree in Lord of the Rings:

A little way beyond the battle-field they made their camp under a spreading tree: it looked like a chestnut, and yet it still bore many broad brown leaves of a former year, like dry hands with long splayed fingers; they rattled mournfully in the night-breeze. — The Two Towers, ch. 11

That’s when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are camping on the edge of Fangorn, the ancient forest where Treebeard dwells. The broadness of chestnut-leaves is why the light that falls through them is greened and cleaned in a special way.

Scribal Waugh Fare

Because I thought I’d accidentally deleted it, for years I’ve been thinking fondly about a little essay I’d once written comparing errors by scribes in the ancient world with typos in printed copies of Evelyn Waugh’s books. Then I dug up an old CD with back-up copies of various files on it. And it turned out, first, that I hadn’t deleted the little essay and, second, that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. Here it is anyway, following the essay that originally accompanied it.


The Purloined Letter

The writer and musician Alexander Waugh was once looking through a bound collection of Alastair Graham’s letters to his grandfather Evelyn Waugh.[1] Graham had been Evelyn’s first great love at Oxford, but the letters were not at all diverting and Waugh petit fils had reached a point of tedium at which any interruption was welcome when an interruption fortunately arrived: the collection fell apart revealing that the following words had been concealed along its spine:

RIEN N’EST VRAI QUE LE BEAU.

The words, which mean “Nothing is true but beauty”, were probably taken from the French romantic Alfred de Musset (1810-57),[2] and they are interesting not only for the light they shed on Waugh’s æsthetic attitudes in his youth but also for the way in which they were uncovered: the collection fell apart because a letter had been forcibly removed from it.

Why this should have been done is probably now an unanswerable question, but not beyond all conjecture. Graham was a central model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), and “Nothing is true but beauty” might be taken as the principle that guides Charles Ryder early in the novel. This is why he falls in love with Sebastian, who is “entrancing, with that epicene beauty which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.”[3] But the entrancing, epicene Sebastian hints at another famous French saying when he concludes one of his letters to Charles like this: “Love, or what you will. S.”[4]

The valediction may conflate the two great rules of the occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), which appear in Waugh’s short-story “Out of Depth” (1930) when Dr Kakophilos,[5] a black magician based on Crowley, confronts the story’s lapsed Catholic protagonist, Rip Van Winkle:

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” said Dr Kakophilos, in a thin Cockney voice.

“Eh?”

“There is no need to reply. If you wish to, it is correct to say, ‘Love is the Law, Love under will.’”

“I see.”

The famous French saying underlying Crowley’s first law is Rabelais’s Fay Ce Que Vouldras, or “Do What Thou Wilt”, which was written over the entrance to the Abbey of Thélème in Rabelais’s novel Gargantua (1532).[6] It is not an invitation to unbridled hedonism in either Rabelais or Crowley,[7] but it might nevertheless be read as justifying the “silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and […] naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins”[8] of Ryder’s first term at Oxford.

Some of this gravely sinful naughtiness was Waugh’s in reality as well as Ryder’s in fiction, and if Ryder’s naughtiness included dabbling in the occult, perhaps Waugh’s did too. If he was initiated at the country house of his lost novel The Temple at Thatch,[9] perhaps this explains why so many references to the occult are attached to the Flyte family who own the country house at Brideshead. They range from Lady Marchmain’s alleged sanguinivorous “witchcraft” in Book One[10] through Julia’s “magic ring” and “fawning monster” in Book Two[11] to the “wand” Julia wields against Charles on a night of “full and high” moon in Book Three.[12] But one of the references was cut from the revised edition of the novel published in 1960. In the older edition (which is still issued in the United States), Anthony Blanche, who has “practised black art” at Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema “in Cefalù”,[13] says of the Flytes that they are “a subject for the poet — for the poet of the future who is also a psycho-analyst — and perhaps a diabolist too.”[14]

Poet, psycho-analyst, and diabolist are all gone in the revised edition, but Blanche’s insistent warnings against the Flytes’ charm are left untouched: “I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight.”[15] Someone as interested in etymology as Waugh almost certainly knew that “charm” was once a supernatural term: it meant a spell cast to control or influence and came from the Latin carmen, meaning “song”. Such echoes of ancient meaning are also apparent in, for example, the names Cordelia and Julia. Cordelia is the exemplar of unselfish Christian love in Brideshead, and her name probably comes from the Latin cor, meaning “heart”; Julia is the exemplar of ultimately sterile beauty and sexual attractiveness, and her name comes from the Julius family of ancient Rome, who were said to be descended from Venus, the goddess of beauty and sex.

The name “Marchmain”, on the other hand, seems much harder to analyze, although it echoes mortmain, literally meaning “dead hand”,[16] and may hint at the impending loss of Brideshead by the Flytes, none of whom has any true heirs. However, its first syllable is also an anagram of “charm” — m-ar-ch <-> ch-ar-m — and “Charmmain” is very like the French charmant, or “charming”. So the Flytes are charming, and perhaps Waugh is hinting that the originals on whom he based them were charming in more senses than one. If so, perhaps that explains why a letter from the original Sebastian is missing from a collection of letters that occultly proclaimed “Nothing is true but beauty”.

However, the phrase also sheds light on Brideshead Revisited itself. Charles Ryder discovered first Sebastian’s beauty and then Julia’s and thought he had discovered truth too. In the end he, like Waugh, concluded that he was wrong. The “beaten-copper lamp” Ryder finds burning anew in the untouched art nouveau Catholic chapel of an otherwise ruined Brideshead is of “deplorable design”, but its pure light, “shining in darkness, uncomprehended”,[17] is beautiful because it is the light of truth.

2. Scribal Waugh Fare

The avant-garde self-publicist Will Self once described the Book of Revelation as “an insemination of older, more primal verities into an as yet fresh dough of syncretism”.[18] One can see what he means, but Evelyn Waugh’s pastiche of Revelation in Decline and Fall (1928) is still much funnier. The novel’s protagonist Paul Pennyfeather is in prison talking with a religious maniac, who describes a vision he has had:

No words can describe the splendour of it. It was all crimson and wet like blood. I saw the whole prison as if it were carved of ruby… And then as I watched all the ruby became soft and wet, like a great sponge soaked in wine, and it was dripping and melting into a great lake of scarlet. […] I sometimes dream of a great red tunnel like the throat of a beast and men running down it […] and the breath of the beast is like the blast of a furnace. D’you ever feel like that?”

I’m afraid not,” said Paul. “Have they given you an interesting library book?”

Lady Almina’s Secret,” said the lion of the Lord’s elect. “Pretty soft stuff, old-fashioned too. But I keep reading the Bible. There’s a lot of killing in that.”[19]

However, the Book of Revelation isn’t always as crazy as it seems:

4:2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. 3 And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and […] a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

Rainbows that look like emeralds are crazy but priests surrounding an emerald throne are not, and the traditional image may be nothing more than a mistake by a scribe taking dictation: Greek hiereis, “priests”, was pronounced much like Greek iris, “rainbow”.[20].

When scribes were copying texts by eye rather than ear, they made other kinds of mistake, as in Romans 6:5, where two ninth-century codexes[21] have , hama, “together” against a more general , alla, “but”: two lambdas, , are easily mistaken for a mu, M. And perhaps, in the words of Peter Simple, it is a triumph of the rich human past over the tinpot scientific present[22] that more than a thousand years later, despite all advances in the manufacture of books, one can find the same kind of mistake in the Penguin edition of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945):

We went across the hall to the small drawing-room where luncheon parties used to assemble, and sat on either side of the fireplace. Julia seemed to reflect some of the crimson and gold of the walls and lose some of her warmness.[23]

If the earth is struck by an asteroid and the few copies of Brideshead that survive are in the Penguin edition, the scholars of some future resurrected civilization should be able to reconstruct the “wanness” of the manuscript (even without the assistance of an earlier line that runs “in the gloom of that room she looked like a ghost”).

Those are what are technically known as errors of permutation; elsewhere in Waugh one can match the New Testament’s errors of omission. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, for example, the egenêthemen êpioi or “we were mild” of later manuscripts seems to be a haplography for the egenêthemen nêpioi or “we were children” of earlier ones.[24] Many centuries later, in the Penguin edition of Helena (1950), we can find this:

Carpicius looked at him without the least awe. Two forms of pride were here irreconcilably opposed; two pigs stood face to face.[25]

Those scholars of our putative post-apocalyptic future should be able to reconstruct the original “prigs”.

NOTES

1. The collection is called Litteræ Wellensis.

2. De Musset continued “rien n’est vrai sans beauté”, “[and] nothing is true without beauty”, but the original phrase seems to have been used first by the classicist Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711), who continued “le vrai seul est aimable”, “[and] truth alone is lovable”.

3. Op. cit., Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 1, pg. 33 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

4. Op. cit., Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 3, pg. 71 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

5. Greek for “Lover of Evil”.

6. Book I, ch. LVII. Thélème is from the Greek thelema, meaning “will”.

7. Rabelais amplified it thus: parce que gens liberes, bien nez, bien instruictz, conversans en compaignies honnestes, ont par nature un instinct et aguillon, qui tousjours les poulse à faictz vertueux et retire de vice, lequel ilz nommoient honneur: “because free people, well-born, well-taught, living in honest company, have by nature a sharp instinct and spur, which prompts them always towards virtue and away from vice, and which they name honor.”

8. Op. cit., Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2, pg. 46 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

9. See ‘Adam and Evelyn: “The Balance”, The Temple at Thatch, and 666 at http://www.lhup.edu/~jwilson3/Newsletter_33.2.htm.

10. Ch. 1, pg. 56 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

11. Ch. 2, pg. 56 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

12. Ch. 3, pg. 277 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

13. Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2, pg. 47 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

14. Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2

15. Book III, “A Twitch Upon The Thread”, ch. 2, pg. 260 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

16. Referring to land held under impersonal or institutional control by the Church.

17. “In fragments and whispers we get news of other saints in the prison camps of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, of cruelty and degradation more savage than anything in Tudor England, of the same, pure light shining in darkness, uncomprehended”. Introduction to Edmund Campion (1935): the reference is to John v,1: And the light shineth in darkness: and the darkness did not comprehend it. (Authorized Version and Douay).

18. From Self’s introduction, pg. xii, to Revelation, Authorized Version, published in a single book by Canongate, Edinburgh, 1998.

19. Part three, chapter iii.

20. Compare the initial vowels of the English derivates “hierarchy” and “iris”.

21. Augiensis and Boernerianus: see http://www.earlham.edu/~seidti/iam/permutation.html

22. The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Briston, 1980, “1962: Glory”, pg. 60.

23. Op. cit., Book II, “Brideshead Deserted”, ch. 3, pg. 200 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

24. Haplography is writing once what should be written twice: an original  (egenêthemen nêpioi), meaning “we were children”, may have lost a nu, N, and became  (egenêthemen êpioi), “we were mild”. Alternatively, it may have gained a nu in an error known as dittography, or writing twice what should be written once.

25. Op. cit., ch. 8, “Constantine’s Great Treat”, pp. 107-8 of the 1963 Penguin paperback.

Guat Da Fack?!

From Intellectual Impostures (1998) by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont:

To conclude, let us quote a brief excerpt from the book Chaosmosis, written by Guattari alone. This passage contains the most brilliant melange of scientific, pseudo-scientific, and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered; only a genius could have written it.

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multidimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously. A machinic assemblage, through its diverse components, extracts its consistency by crossing ontological thresholds, non-linear thresholds of irreversibility, ontological and phylogenetic thresholds, creative thresholds of heterogenesis and autopoiesis. The notion of scale needs to be expanded to consider fractal symmetries in ontological terms.

What fractal machines traverse are substantial scales. They traverse them in engendering them. But, and this should be noted, the existential ordinates that they “invent” were always already there. How can this paradox be sustained? It’s because everything becomes possible (including the recessive smoothing of time, evoked by Rene Thom) the moment one allows the assemblage to escape from energetico-spatiotemporal coordinates. And, here again, we need to rediscover a manner of being of Being — before, after, here and everywhere else — without being, however, identical to itself; a processual, polyphonic Being singularisable by infinitely complexifiable textures, according to the infinite speeds which animate its virtual compositions.

The ontological relativity advocated here is inseparable from an enunciative relativity. Knowledge of a Universe (in an astrophysical or axiological sense) is only possible through the mediation of autopoietic machines. A zone of self-belonging needs to exist somewhere for the coming into cognitive existence of any being or any modality of being. Outside of this machine/Universe coupling, beings only have the pure status of a virtual entity. And it is the same for their enunciative coordinates. The biosphere and mecanosphere, coupled on this planet, focus a point of view of space, time and energy. They trace an angle of the constitution of our galaxy. Outside of this particularised point of view, the rest of the Universe exists (in the sense that we understand existence here-below) only through the virtual existence of other autopoietic machines at the heart of other bio-mecanospheres scattered throughout the cosmos. The relativity of points of view of space, time and energy do not, for all that, absorb the real into the dream. The category of Time dissolves into cosmological reflections on the Big Bang even as the category of irreversibility is affirmed. Residual objectivity is what resists scanning by the infinite variation of points of view constitutable upon it. Imagine an autopoietic entity whose particles are constructed from galaxies. Or, conversely, a cognitivity constituted on the scale of quarks. A different panorama, another ontological consistency. The mecanosphere draws out and actualises configurations which exist amongst an infinity of others in fields of virtuality. Existential machines are at the same level as being in its intrinsic multiplicity. They are not mediated by transcendent signifiers and subsumed by a univocal ontological foundation. They are to themselves their own material of semiotic expression. Existence, as a process of deterritorialisation, is a specific inter-machinic operation which superimposes itself on the promotion of singularised existential intensities. And, I repeat, there is no generalised syntax for these deterritorialisations. Existence is not dialectical, not representable. It is hardly livable! (Félix Guattari 1995, pp. 50-52)

Witch Switch

Below is one of the best album-covers I’ve ever seen. It’s a triumph of subtlety and simplicity:

Burning Witch, Crippled Lucifer (1998)


The American blackened doom sludge-sters Burning Witch used Sorgen / Sorrow (1894-5), a painting by the Norwegian painter Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914), to conjure an atmosphere of despair and darkness. Here is the original painting, skilfully combining snow, darkness and despair:

Theodor Kittelsen, Sorgen (1894-95)


But while the painting and album are good examples of less-is-more, the album is also an example of less-and-more. Part of its power comes from the contrast between the simplicity of the wandering figure and the complexity of the scripts used for the band’s name and album title:

Crippled Lucifer (detail)


Usually images are more detailed than writing. Here it’s the reverse. And while you can easily read the writing, despite its complexity, you can’t “read” the figure, despite its simplicity. Kittelsen’s skilful simplicity raised questions that can’t be answered. Is the figure male or female? Why is it sorrowful? Where is it going?

Well, you can say where it’s going in one sense: it’s walking from left-to-right. And that made me wonder whether the album could have become even starker in its contrasts. If you’re literate in Norwegian or English, you naturally read images from left-to-right, because that’s the direction of the Roman alphabet. On the album, you read the figure and the writing in the same direction. They contrast starkly in other ways, but they don’t contrast there. So let’s try making them contrast there too. Compare these two versions of the cover:

Crippled Lucifer (original cover)


Crippled Lucifer (figure-and-snowscape mirrored)


I think there’s something emptier and more despairing in the mirrored figure, walking from right-to-left. On the original cover, the figure is in some sense walking into the future, despite the weight of sorrow it carries. As we read from left to right along a piece of writing, what’s to the left of our eye is the past, and what’s to the right is the future. The figure carries the same implication. And because the figure moving towards the highly-complex-but-perfectly-intelligible band-name-and-title, there’s almost an implication that its story will be told, even if it’s moving towards death or suicide.

When the image is mirrored, all that disappears. Moving from right-to-left, the figure seems to be walking into the past, not the future. It’s no longer near or moving towards the complexity-and-intelligibility of the band-name-and-title. It’s abandoning the world more strongly: there’s no hope, no future, no implication that its story will be told.

I think the same happens, though less strongly, when the original painting is contrasted with a mirrored version:

Sorrow (original)


Sorrow (mirrored)


The contrast is less stark because, unlike the album-cover, there’s no complex patch of writing in the painting and the figure is moving away from what writing there is: the artist’s signature in the bottom left. In the original, the figure is abandoning identity and intelligibility by moving away from the signature. That’s why I’ve removed the signature in the mirrored version of the painting. It would be anomalous on the right, whether or not it was mirror-reversed, and it would be anomalous if it stayed on the left.

Finally, here’s a photo of two musicians in Sunn O))), the band into which Burning Witch eventually evolved:

Sunn O))) in black robes


In the original, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson are walking from right-to-left. Here’s a mirrored version for comparison:

Sunn O))) photo (mirrored)


I think the original photo has more power, because the robed figures are walking against the grain, as it were — against the direction in which our Roman-alphabet-conditioned eyes read a photo.

Freeze Please Me

“Ich habe unter meinen Papieren ein Blatt gefunden,” sagte Goethe, “wo ich die Baukunst eine erstarrte Musik nenne.” — Gespräche mit Goethe, Johann Peter Eckermann (1836)

• “I have found a sheet among my papers,” said Goethe, “where I call architecture a frozen music.” — Conversations with Goethe

N.B. The aphorism “Architecture is frozen music” has also sometimes been attributed to Friedrich von Schelling (1775-1854) and Ganopati Sthapat (1927-2011).


Peri-Performative Post-Scriptum

The toxic title of this paronomastic post is a key reference to core Beatles album Please Please Me (1963).

Letishist’s Labor of Love

Вряд ли где можно было найти человека, который так жил бы в своей должности. Мало сказать: он служил ревностно, нет, он служил с любовью. Там, в этом переписываньи, ему виделся какой-то свой разнообразный и приятный мир. Наслаждение выражалось на лице его; некоторые буквы у него были фавориты, до которых если он добирался, то был сам не свой: и подсмеивался, и подмигивал, и помогал губами, так что в лице его, казалось, можно было прочесть всякую букву, которую выводило перо его. — Николай Гоголь, «Шинель» (1842)

It would be difficult to find another man who lived so entirely for his duties. It is not enough to say that Akakiy laboured with zeal: no, he laboured with love. In his copying, he found a varied and agreeable world. Enjoyment was written on his face: some letters were even favourites with him; and when he encountered these, he smiled, winked, and worked with his lips, till it seemed as though each letter might be read in his face, as his pen traced it. — Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat” (1842)


Post-Performative Post-Scriptum

Бу́ква, búkva, the Russian for “letter”, may be related to the German Buche, meaning “beech”, which in its turn may be related to the English word “book”. Why so? Because beech-bark was once used for writing.

Strength thru Joyce!

Here is a Clarificatory Conspectus for Core Comprehension of Key Counter-Culture:

(open in new window for larger version)

Please note the inclusion of James Joyce (1882-1941). You will see that he is at one remove from the Heart of Darkness represented by the despicable, deplorable and downright disgusting phrase “in terms of”. That is, I put Joyce in the clarificatory conspectus because he is popular among the abusers of “in terms of”, not because I think he would have abused “in terms of” himself. Although I can’t stand Joyce’s writing and think it has had a very bad influence on English literature, I also think he wrote too well and was too aesthetically and linguistically sensitive to use “in terms of” in the degraded fashion of his countless modern admirers and imitators.

Please note, however, that being at one or more removes from the Heart of Darkness is not exculpatory for any other inclusees in terms of the Clarificatory Conspectus (Marty Amis, Sal Rushdie, the LRB, etc).


Elsewhere other-accessible:

Ex-term-in-ate! — core interrogation of why “in terms of” is so despicable, deplorable and downright disgusting…
Titus Graun — core interrogation of key deployers of “in terms of”……
Don’t Do Dot — core interrogation of why “…” is so despicable, deplorable and downright disgusting dot dot dot

Termed Out Nice Again

In 2013, I made a key discovery that disturbed and distressed core members of the non-conformist maverick community on a global basis dot dot dot… In America (or so it appeared) a key lexical marker of non-conformist maverickness was rapidly declining in terms of core usage, thusly:

At the same time, the non-conformist maverick community in Britain had maintained their core commitment to this key lexical marker of etc, thusly:

I expressed my puzzlement at the decline of “in terms of” in America. I couldn’t see a linguistic explanation and should (I now realize) have expressed doubts about the reliability of the data. Yes, in 2020 I’m very happy to report to members of the non-conformist maverick community that they need be disturbed and distressed no longer. The term has turned and it seems Google’s nGram wasn’t working properly at that time-period. Key statistics for core usage of “in terms of” are now in core accordance with key expectations, thusly:

“in terms of” (American English)

(open in new tab for larger image)


“in terms of” (British English)

Sadly, however, non-conformist mavericks in French- and Spanish-speaking countries seem to have stopped being non-conformist:

“en termes de” (French)


“en términos de” (Spanish)


Peri-Performative Post-Scriptum

The title of this incendiary intervention radically referencizes a key catchphrase of core comedian George Formby (1904-61), viz, “turned out nice again”. Formby’s home-county of Lancashire (England) was — and remains — a core hotbed of non-conformist maverickness dot dot dot

Core discussion around “in terms of”…

Seis Segundos de Salvador

“Será tan breve que ya he terminado,” — Salvador Dalí, Con la frase “Ja soc aquí”, Dalí abrió una surrealista conferencia de Prensa, El País, 25×1980

   Salvador Dalí […] once gave the world’s shortest speech – six seconds in duration. He said, “I will be so brief I have already finished,” and he sat down. — Edward O. Wilson


Previously pre-posted

A Seriously Sizzling Series of Super-Saucy Salvadisms — more good quotes by Salvador Dalí