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:


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.


“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”.


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

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

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.

Performativizing Polyhedra

Τα Στοιχεία του Ευκλείδου, ια΄

κεʹ. Κύβος ἐστὶ σχῆμα στερεὸν ὑπὸ ἓξ τετραγώνων ἴσων περιεχόμενον.
κϛʹ. ᾿Οκτάεδρόν ἐστὶ σχῆμα στερεὸν ὑπὸ ὀκτὼ τριγώνων ἴσων καὶ ἰσοπλεύρων περιεχόμενον.
κζʹ. Εἰκοσάεδρόν ἐστι σχῆμα στερεὸν ὑπὸ εἴκοσι τριγώνων ἴσων καὶ ἰσοπλεύρων περιεχόμενον.
κηʹ. Δωδεκάεδρόν ἐστι σχῆμα στερεὸν ὑπὸ δώδεκα πενταγώνων ἴσων καὶ ἰσοπλεύρων καὶ ἰσογωνίων περιεχόμενον.

Euclid’s Elements, Book 11

25. A cube is a solid figure contained by six equal squares.
26. An octahedron is a solid figure contained by eight equal and equilateral triangles.
27. An icosahedron is a solid figure contained by twenty equal and equilateral triangles.
28. A dodecahedron is a solid figure contained by twelve equal, equilateral, and equiangular pentagons.

Multitudinous Marriment

• …ποντίων τε κυμάτων ἀνήριθμον γέλασμα… — Αἰσχύλος, Προμηθεὺς δεσμώτης (c. 479-24 B.C.)

• …of ocean-waves the multitudinous laughter… Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus* at Perseus

• …ever-glittering laughter of the far-thrown waves… (my translation)

See also:

γέλασμα, a laugh, κυμάτων ἀνήριθμον γέλασμα, Keble’s “the many-twinkling smile of Ocean, ” Aesch. — Liddell and Scott

Keble was not a sacred but, in the best sense of the word, a secular poet. It is not David only, but the Sibyl, whose accents we catch in his inspirations. The “sword in myrtle drest” of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, “the many-twinkling smile of ocean” from Æschylus, are images as familiar to him as “Bethlehem’s glade” or “Carmel’s haunted strand.” Not George Herbert, or Cowper, but Wordsworth, Scott, and perhaps more than all, Southey, are the English poets that kindled his flame, and coloured his diction. — John Keble at Penny’s Poetry Pages

One day Mr Gordon had accidentally come in, and found no one there but Upton and Eric; they were standing very harmlessly by the window, with Upton’s arm resting kindly on Eric’s shoulder, as they watched with admiration the network of rippled sunbeams that flashed over the sea. Upton had just been telling Eric the splendid phrase, “anerhithmon gelasma pontou”, which he had stumbled upon in an Aeschylus lesson that morning, and they were trying which would hit on the best rendering of it. Eric stuck up for the literal sublimity of “the innumerable laughter of the sea,” while Upton was trying to win him over to “the many-twinkling smile of ocean.” They were enjoying the discussion, and each stoutly maintaining his own rendering, when Mr Gordon entered. — quote from Frederic W. Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little (1858) at Sententiae Antiquae

*Or possibly his son Euphorion.

Tolk of the Devil

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wish someone would translate Lord of the Rings (1954-5) into English. By that I mean (of course) that I wish someone would translate LOTR into good English. I’ve looked at Tolkien’s bad English in “Noise Annoys” and “Science and Sorcery”. Here’s another example:

Pippin declared that Frodo was looking twice the hobbit that he had been.

“Very odd,” said Frodo, tightening his belt, “considering that there is actually a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.”

“Do not speak of such things!” said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness. – The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”

Strider should have added: “Or in such a way!” In the second paragraph, Frodo suddenly talks like a Guardian-reader. Why on earth did Tolkien use “thinning process”, “indefinitely” and “actually” amid otherwise good, simple English? Thinning is obviously a “process”, so there’s no need to say it is, and “indefinitely” and “actually” are badly out of a place in a fantasy novel, let alone in dialogue there. “Considering” is less bad, but it should go too. I would improve the paragraph like this:

“Very odd,” said Frodo, tightening his belt, “seeing that there is now a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning will not go on much longer, or I shall become a wraith.”

Now there’s nothing incongruous: the only un-English word is “very”, but that doesn’t seem un-English on the tongue or to the eye. The Guardianese is gone, but it should never have been there in the first place. Tolkien should not have written like that in Lord of the Rings. And not just as a professional scholar of language: simply as a literate Englishman. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) had been in print for twenty-eight years when The Fellowship of the Ring was first published. It’s hard to believe that Tolkien wasn’t familiar with it.

If he wasn’t, that’s a great pity. If he was, the bad prose in LOTR becomes even more inexplicable and unforgiveable. Alas for what might have been! Imagine if, per impossibile, Tolkien’s masterwork had been edited by the second-greatest Catholic writer of the twentieth-century, namely, Evelyn Waugh.

When bad prose appears in something by Waugh, it’s deliberate:

I had a fine haul – eleven paintings and fifty odd drawings – and when eventually I exhibited them in London, the art critics, many of whom hitherto had been patronizing in tone as my success invited, acclaimed a new and richer note in my work.

Mr. Ryder [the most respected of them wrote] rises like a fresh young trout to the hypodermic injection of a new culture and discloses a powerful facet in the vista of his potentialities … By focusing the frankly traditional battery of his elegance and erudition on the maelstrom of barbarism, Mr. Ryder has at last found himself.Brideshead Revisited (1945), Book II, “A Twitch Upon the Thread”, ch. 1

Waugh was deliberately mocking the mixed-metaphor-strewn prose and pretensions of modern critics. Waugh paid great attention to language and compared writing to carpentry. It was a craft and good craftsmen do not work carelessly or use bad materials. Nothing in Brideshead is careless or casual, as we can see when the narrator, Charles Ryder, first meets the “devilish” æsthete Anthony Blanche, who has “studied Black Art at Cefalù” with Aleister Crowley and is “a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville”. Blanche has a stutter and Waugh uses the stutter to underline his iniquity. Or so I would claim. Here is Blanche engaging in some papyrocentric performativity:

After luncheon he stood on the balcony with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-à-brac of Sebastian’s room, and in languishing, sobbing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river.

“’I, Tiresias, have foresuffered all,’” he sobbed to them from the Venetian arches –
“Enacted on this same d-divan or b-bed,
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the l-l-lowest of the dead….”

And then, stepping lightly into the room, “How I have surprised them! All b-boatmen are Grace Darlings to me.” Brideshead Revisited, Book I, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 1

Talking about the Greek sage Tiresias, who experienced life as both a man and a woman, Anthony Blanche, a man whose surname is the feminine form of the French adjective blanc, meaning “white”, stumbles over the initial consonants of three words: “divan”, “bed” and “lowest”. Is it a coincidence that the same consonants, in the same order, appear in the Greek diabolos, meaning “devil”?

I don’t think so. If Blanche had stuttered on “surprised” too, I would be even more certain. But the –s isn’t essential. After all, it was lost as diabolos journeyed from Greek to Latin, from Latin to French, and from French to English, where it appears as “Devil”. And what does Charles Ryder later call Anthony Blanche after Blanche has spent an evening tête-à-tête trying to turn Ryder against Ryder’s great friend Sebastian Flyte? You can find out here, as Ryder discusses the evening with Sebastian:

“I just wanted to find out how much truth there was in what Anthony said last night.”

“I shouldn’t think a word. That’s his great charm.”

“You may think it charming. I think it’s devilish. Do you know he spent the whole of yesterday evening trying to turn me against you, and almost succeeded?”

“Did he? How silly. Aloysius wouldn’t approve of that at all, would you, you pompous old bear?” – Brideshead Revisited, Book I, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2

Blanche is “devilish” and his reputation for “iniquity” is well-deserved. That’s why I think the three words over which Blanche stutters were carefully chosen by Waugh from The Waste Land. Waugh was a logophile and that is exactly the kind of linguistic game that logophiles like to play.

Nail Supremacy

Ὁ γαρ ἡδονής και ἀλγηδόνος ἧλος, ὃς πρὸς το σώμα τήν ψυχην προσηλοῖ, μέγιστον κακὸν ἔχειν ἔοικε, τὸ τα αἰσθητά ποιεῖν ἐναργέστερα τῶν νοητῶν, καὶ καταβιάζεσθαι καὶ πάθει μᾶλλον ἢ λόγῳ κρίνειν τήν διάνοιαν.

• ΠΡΟΒΛΗΜΑ Β’. Πώς Πλάτων ἔλεγε τον θεὸν άεὶ γεωμετρεῖν.

Nam voluptatis et doloris ille clavus, quo animus corpori affigitur, id videtur maximum habere malum, quod sensilia facit intelligibilibus evidentiora, vimque facit intellectui, ut affectionem magis quam rationem in judicando sequatur.

• QUÆSTIO II: Qua ratione Plato dixerit, Deum semper geometriam tractare.

For the nail of pain and pleasure, which fastens the soul to the body, seems to do us the greatest mischief, by making sensible things more powerful over us than intelligible, and by forcing the understanding to determine them rather by passion than by reason.

• Plutarch’s Symposiacs, QUESTION II: What is Plato’s Meaning, When He Says that God Always Plays the Geometer?

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #57

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Do and DieThe Reason Why, Cecil Woodham-Smith (1953) (posted at O.-o.-t.-Ü)

Liddell im WörterlandLiddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (1843)

Lunar or LaterMoon: From 4.5 billion years ago to the present: Owners’ Workshop Manual, David M. Harland (Haynes 2016)

Headlong into NightmareHeadlong Hall (1816) / Nightmare Abbey (1818)

Twisted TalesBiggles’ Big Adventures: Four Classic Stories Starring the British Empire’s Most Fearless Pilot Adventurer, Captain W.E. Johns (Sevenoaks 2007)

Stop the Brott – staying the serial slaying of a sanguinivorous psychoanalyst

• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR