‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday 25 October 2014

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”: One Last Note

Today I've been thinking a little about Robert Browning “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” (1842); and one thing that occurs to me (that never occurred to me before) is that Browning's starting point may have been Thomas à Kempis's Soliloquy of the Soul; and The Garden of Roses. Think of the poem's stress on roses! Think also of Saint Thomas's stress (which Browning's narrator so potently and ironically refutes) on brotherly forgiveness and kindness:
Be kind towards a tempted brother, and pray for an afflicted one as for thyself. Thy good, and my good, are cause of congratulation: thy evil and my evil of compassion. For we are all frail men; and are therefore bound by charity to pray one for another. None can upbraid another with his failings, when he neglects himself. Because when one despises an imperfect brother, it is as if a blind man mocks the blind, a deaf one chides the deaf, and a foolish one scoffs at the foolish. Speak not evil of another, but rather look to thyself, and amend what thou hast done amiss. If thou judgest rightly, and wouldst correct thy neighbour, begin with thyself. And then proceed, not hurriedly, but modestly and discreetly. If thou lovest me sincerely, and as a brother, feel for me, as for thyself, and pray for me. Whoso chides another, and does not pray for and grieve with him, is a cruel enemy, not a good physician, but a troublesome tattler. Whoso prays for another as for himself, doeth a double good. The more he hath of brotherly love, the more willingly does he pray for him, that he may the more perfectly amend, and not offend the eyes of the weak. The more bitterly does he grieve, if he will not hear, and is angry with his adviser. Each one is to another either a fragrant rose, or a piercing thorn.

Hy, Zy, Hine

Browning's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" (1842) ends:
Or, there's Satan!—one might venture
Pledge one's soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he'd miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We're so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine...
'St, there's Vespers! Plena gratia
Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!
Glossing this, Woolford and Karlin (in what is, I think, the best-annotated scholarly edition of Browning) can't resist a little side-swipe at the myriad scholars who have laboured to explain ‘hy, zy, hine’:
Only two of the astonishingly numerous and frequently bizarre accounts of this phrase carry any conviction, those of G Pitts (‘Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”: Hy, Zy, Hine’ N&Q xiii [1966] 339-40) and J F Loucks (‘“Hy, Zy, Hine” and Peter of Abano’, VP xii [1974] 165-9). Pitts argues that B derived it from a medieval liturgical parody, the Mass of the Ass; Loucks that B. adapted the phrase from a string of nonsense words in a medieval manual of magic formulae, the Heptameron, or Elementa Magica, ascribed to Pietro of Abano (c. 1250- c.1316). Browning was certainly familiar with Abano’s work. [Woolford and Karlin Poems of Browning (1991), 2:171]
The multiplicity (and bizarreness) of interpretation has dried-up in recent years, I think; and a consensus generally arrived at, along the lines Karlin and Woodford indicate: the unnamed speaker of the poem is beginning some kind of Black Mass or evil magic charm to 'blast' Brother Lawrence's 'rose acacias', but, interrupted by the chiming of the vesper bells, the speaker breaks off with a final fist-shake at his blandly unaware fellow monk. That certainly makes sense of the poem's final stanza.

I have re-opened the interpretation box, and wish to propose a new reading of 'Hy, Zy, Hine', one I consider consistent with Browning's poetic practice in the 1830s, as well as plausible for the imagied speaker of the poem. And one, moreover, that fits the sense of the final stanza as well as, or perhaps even better than, the consensus. I agree the words are the start of a magic charm, but rather than macaronic or dog Latin, I think they are dog Greek.

The first thing to note is the convention of recording Greek 'υ' in English as 'y' (in his preface to his much later translation of the Agamemnon, Browning makes mild fun of this odd convention: 'it's a wonder we have escaped "Eyripides"'. But conventional it remains). This in turn leads me to wonder the following:

The phrase cannot be twisted into properly grammatical ancient or koine Greek, it's true. But it is strongly suggestive, in the context of the poem's repeated stress on Brother Lawrence's supposed 'swinishness' (not just the poem's last line, but stanza 2's mocking question at the expense of Brother Lawrence's nose, 'what's the Greek name for "swine's snout"?'). With that in mind, note that:

ὗς ‘hys’ means ‘swine’; and I'd argue 'hy' is plausible as an abbreviated or truncated form of the word, because the 's' of ὗς elides with the ζ of ζυ.

ζῷον ‘zōon' means beast, animal; but also ‘form, shape’. L&S also note alternate forms, including ‘ζώϊον’, which is a little closer to ‘zyn’. (Or perhaps the poem’s thinker is half-remembering that ‘ζύ-‘ (‘zy’) is the prefix for words to do with yoking together or joining up such as ζῦγμα (‘zugma’, ‘zeugma’: ‘anything which joins two bodies’; another common component of magical charms).

ὗν ‘hyn’ is the genitive form of the same word (‘of swine’, ‘swine’s’).

Might this mean that the words are there to evoke a speaker with poor Greek, vaguely remembering a Greek-language magic charm for transforming an enemy into the shape of a pig? The charm could begin: 'a swine in the shape of a pig ...' (and conceivably continue '... be thou now brought forth' or some such); or perhaps 'swine [assume thou] the actual shape of a pig ...'  That is to say, we can imagine a dog-Greek necromancical charm along the lines of 'let this person's pig nature be made manifest in a swinish exterior form ...' the articulation of which is interrupted before the speaker can finish the charm. 'ὗ[ς] ζύ ὗν ...'

We think of black magic charms as couched in Latin (as they often were); but medieval magic charms phrased in ancient Greek magic were not unknown, as Ogden's Greek and Roman Necromancy (2001) makes plain. After all, the very word "necromancy" is from the post-Classical Greek νεκρομαντεία (nekromanteía), a compound of Ancient Greek νεκρός (nekrós), "dead body", and μαντεία (manteía). All we need now is some charm that starts ὗς ζῷον ὗν ... either in a medieval black magic text, or else in a writer like Hipponax (not Hipponax, though, so far as I can see: I've checked). Surely there must be such medieval charms, designed to turn your enemy into a pig?

Thursday 23 October 2014

Emily Apter's Twenty Theses on Translation

Emily Apter's The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton Univ. Press 2011) opens with her 'twenty theses on translation':
Nothing is translatable.

Global translation is another name for comparative literature.

Humanist translation is another name for comparative literature.

The translation zone is a war zone.

Contrary to what U.S. military strategy would suggest, Arabic is translatable.

Translation is a petit metier, translators the literary proletariat.

Mixed tongues contest the imperium of global English.

Translation is an oedipal assault on the mother tongue.

Translation is the traumatic loss of native language.

Translation is plurilingual and postmedial expressionism.

Translation is Babel, a universal language that is universally unintelligible.

Translation is the language of planets and monsters.

Translation is a technology

Translationese is the generic language of global markets

Translation is the universal language of techne.

Translation is a feedback loop.

Translation can transpose nature into data.

Translation is the interface between language and genes.

Translation is the system-subject

Everything is translatable.
Lovely, stimulating stuff. I don’t ‘agree’ with all of it, mind (I’m not supposed to agree with it, I suppose; any more than I am supposed blithely to 'agree' with Nietzsche’s more pared-down apothegms). But they are getting at something important by refusing to map meaning from grid to grid the way the ‘transparent’ paradigm for translation tacitly presumes. (To be a little more specific: I think ‘translation is a war zone’ is a hyperbole that muddies something true about the way texts are in conflict with other texts; the point about Arabic being translatable ‘contrary to what U.S. military strategy would suggest’ rather squanders its point—which I take to be about the sometimes murderous condescension of cultural imperialism—in cheap agit prop: the US military knows perfectly well that Arabic is translatable, after all, and sends its troops into battle with kitted-up Arabic translators alongside them. Also, I don’t see that translation is always the loss of native language, or always inevitably traumatic. But maybe that’s my Anglophone privilege showing. And the other theses touch on something really important: especially the Beckettian nothing and everything being translatable point, the feedback loop and ‘techne’ points, and translators as ‘the literary proletariat’.)

There’s an interesting review of Apter's latest book, Against World Literature, by Joshua Mostafa over at The Sydney Review of Books.

That's Not Even How You Pronounce "Prague" ...

Edward Lear: 1846.

1907 Alice in Wonderland cover

Art by Charles Robinson. Once you notice the way the March Hare is staring straight at you, the image becomes considerably more unnerving. No wonder Alice looks so alarmed. Also: apparently starring Richard Dawkins as the Mad Hatter:

Wednesday 22 October 2014


There's something really quite upsetting about this Superman comic triplet of panels:

Does anyone else think the gigantic eye looks a litle bit like a breast? Or is that just me?

Is Man A Machine?

"Recently I was with a group of mathematicians and philosophers. One philosopher asked me whether I believed man was a machine. I replied, “Do you really think it makes any difference?” He most earnestly replied, “Of course! To me it is the most important question in philosophy.”

I had the following afterthoughts: I imagine that if my friend finally came to the conclusion that he were a machine, he would be infinitely crestfallen. I think he would think: “My God! How horrible! I am only a machine!” But if I should find out I were a machine, my attitude would be totally different. I would say: “How amazing! I never before realized that machines could be so marvelous!”

Raymond Smullyan, This Book Needs No Title

Sunday 19 October 2014

Englishing Homer sonically rather than semantically

Not an exact translation, of course; that would be too strained and gibberishical. But to render (say) the first line of the Odyssey
Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
Andrew, my enemy. Mousy Polly, true upon horse: my love, Polly.
rather than 'Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far etc'. I wonder how far this could be sustained? I suppose it would be liable to get rather tedious, rather quickly.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Reading Without Tears

From Favell Lee Mortimer's, Reading Without Tears: or A Pleasant Mode of Learning to Read (London 1857):

I particularly like this ur-Ted Hughes poem:

And poor old Sally!

Death in Younger and Older Children's Fiction

This, from Roberta S. Trites [‘“When I can control the focus” Death and Narrative Resolution’, in Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature (University of Iowa Press 2000), 118] is interesting:
The greatest difference between how death is portrayed in children’s and adolescent literature lies in the use to which death is put in the literary text. According to Karen Coats. Children's literature is very much defined by children learning to separate from their parents (“Lacan with Runt Pigs” 116-120). Books from The Runaway Bunny to Harriet the Spy demonstrate children learning to individuate by separating from their actual or symbolic parents. Many children’s books are about death: Charlotte’s Web and Ruck Everlasting are two important examples. But in both of these books (and in many children’s books about death), death is portrayed as part of a cycle, as an ongoing process of life. Learning about death seems to be a stage in the child’s process of separating from the parent more than anything else. Wilbur, for example, becomes an adult only after death separates him from his mother figure Charlotte. … Mortality, however, has a different purpose in adolescent literature. In this genre, protagonists come to understand that death is more than a symbolic separation from the parent. Acknowledging death is more than a stage necessary toward growing up and away from one’s parents. Death in adolescent literature is a threat, an experience adolescents understand as finality. Few adolescent novels use the cycle imagery that dominates books like Tuck Everlasting and Charlotte’s Web because the Bildungsroman formula mandates a plot determined by the concept of growth as linear: death is the endpoint of that line. Adolescent literature thus sustains narrative investigations into death that are more than symbolic journeys into separation from the parent. Indeed I would submit that death is the sine qua non of adolescent literature, the defining feature that distinguishes it both from children’s and adult literature.
I wonder if the claim in that last sentence can be sustained. But, yes: it's hard not to think of stories like the Grimms' 'Juniper Tree', Bambi, Lion King (specifically referencing the circle of life!) and Charlotte’s Web on the one hand -- and Catcher in the Rye, The Bridge to Terabithia and Harry Potter on the other.

The image at the top, there, is from the extraordinary and beautiful Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (2007). You can find out more about that story here.

Monday 13 October 2014

Devotional Somnium

A very interesting case, this: Rachel Baker was a New York woman who created something of a local sensation in the early 18teens by falling asleep and preaching the gospel in her somnific state. These sermons and prayers were collected in Devotional Somnium (1815), together with medical accounts of other sleep-walking cases famous at the time. Here's its title page:

It's Not Much Of A Job, Standing Here All Day Holding a Letter T, But I Suppose At Least It's Steady Employment

The opening paragraph of A History of Wonderful Inventions (London, 1849):

Saturday 11 October 2014

Sonnet 146

I often use this poem as an early exercise for my first-term first-years (we have 'foundation tutorials' with small groups of these, designed to supplement their regular courses with extra readings, picking up stuff they haven't understood, sessions on essay writing and lecture notetaking ... all that sort of stuff.) I give them a photocopy of the poem. They have to read it, and work their way through the thicket of unfamiliar Shakespearese to get at the meaning. It's usefully estranging for them, because insofar as they are used to Shakespeare sonnets it is as love poetry and this has a rather different focus. After we've worked out what the poem says, we discuss the way the imagery works: the way the tropes keep restlessly changing their terms: the body is a planet and the soul the centre of the planet; the body is a city, being besieged by outward forces (and the soul, presumably, the prince of the city); the body is a decaying mansion (and the soul the house's inhabitant). Then, with the turn at the end of the octave, the scale swings about: now the soul is the master and the body the servant. Now the soul is not confined within the body, but somehow other to it, and -- able to devour and internalise death -- larger than it. Running alongside this, setting up a kind of interference pattern that doesn't facilitate easy comprehension, are a couple of other sets of images. Food and eating is one: worms will eat our dead bodies; but we may be able to eat Death. Another, more obliquely related to these others, is the stock-market flavour of buying 'terms divine' with the money obtained by selling hours of dross. It's a lot to pack into a short poem, and my experience is that students either come to like it -- they'll note, for instance, how craftily S. steps down the size of the comparators of the body (planet, city, house, actual body...) by way of de-emphasising bodily satisfactions and vanities -- or take rather against it. It's a muddle; it's a jumble; that kind of thing.

Then, if the group is awake (and at my prompting if they're not) somebody will spot the metrical eccentricity of line 2. 'Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,/My sinful earth these rebel powers that thee array'. They'll usually try to extract some sense out of the repetition of 'my sinful earth', or the garbled syntax of the second line as printed. Then I'll talk them through the circumstances of publication, the unlikelihood of Shakespeare being involved in the publication at all, let alone doing anything so modern as 'checking proofs'. Ahh! they say. The typesetter made a mistake! Then we finish off with the pleasant game of trying to guess what two-syllable phrase has been buried under the (I like to imagine, tired and rather bored) typesetter's inadvertent replication of 'my finfull earth,' from the end of line 1 to the beginning of line 2, complete with comma.

It's interesting to compare different editorial guesses on this point. Some editions of the sonnet simply leave a bracketed ellipse here, as honest if slightly pusillanimous acknowledgement that we can't ever 'truly' know what S. wrote.
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[ ... ] these rebel powers that thee array,
This is what the Norton Shakespeare does, adding a footnote: 'there is no way of discovering what Shakespeare wrote; amongt the guesses are "Starved by" and "Foiled by". Fair enough. I've also seen
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Fool'd by] these rebel powers that thee array,
Which, although adopted by several editors, rings false to me: party because the 'f' in amongst the sibilance of the lines many 's's strikes an uneuphonious note (also true of 'foil'd by'), and partly because it strains the sense not of the larger poem but of the specific analogy. Beseiged cities are hardly 'fooled' by enormous armies camped outside them. Or here (Mowat and Werstine in 2010):
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Pressed with] these rebel powers that thee array,
Seems a bit 'meh' to me. Or here:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Why feedst] these rebel powers that thee array?'
That's Thomas Tyler, in 1890: the Victorian Shakespearian explaining himself thus:
The principal subject is manifestly the feeding of the body and soul; and the conclusion come to is, that the latter, and not the former, is to be fed. The emendation, "Why feed'st," is thus suitable. Moreover, the "my" of the first line and the "why" commencing alike the second and third lines may have been the cause of confusion and error. Then, too, there is a verse of Southwell's Content and Ritche which Shakespeare may have had in view:
Spare diett is my fare,
My clothes more fitt than fine;
I knowe I feede and cloth a foe,
That pampred would repine
I don't know if I'm convinced though. For one thing, Tyler is forced by this to add in a question-mark at the end of the line. In the second: why would a besieged city give food to the army that is besieging it? (That might be the whole point, of course; as Tyler's quotation from Southwell implies; but it seems to me to strain the image of the siege). And the idea that the typesetter was distracted y the rhyme of 'why' at the beginning of line 3 to set 'My sinful earth' in line 2 is just daft. Typesetters proceed line by line; if something distracted him in this case it'll be because line 1 is still, in some sense, in my his head.

What else? Wikipedia goes with Tyler, although it prefers 'Feeding' to 'Why feedst?' (to avoid the need for a question mark). It also notes: 'other guesses include "Thrall to", "Fool'd by", "Hemm'd by", "Foil'd by", "Fenced by", "Flatt'ring", "Spoiled by", "Lord of", and "Pressed by".'

I've a different suggestion. It strikes me as obvious (so obvious that somebody must have written about this; although I can't at the moment find out who) that the sonnet is a meditation on 1 Corinthians: 15:52-55
The dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?*
I think the sonnet's balancing of corruption and incorruption takes its lead from here ('victory' making S. think of a city being besieged, the notion of death 'swallowed up in victory' being specifically rephrased in the final couplet and so on). Indeed, I wonder if scholars would have gained a clearer sense of this had the typesetter not buried the true opening to line 2:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Stung by these rebel powers that thee array,
This carries the serpentine, worm-y (wyrm-y) hissing of soul, centre, sinful into the second line; the 's' might have tricked the typesetter into thinking the word was 'sinfg or sinfl and lead him to his inadvertence. 'Sting' is an unusual word to describe an army's attack, which might also explain why the typesetter became confused. That said, it is not an unprecedented usage. David Lyndsay, writing about King Harry fighting 'the King of France his greit armie' says: 'Bot thair wes daylie skirmishing,/Quhair men of armis brak monie sting' [The Historie and Testament of Squyer Meldrum, 253-54.] [Update: probably not -- see comments; though stung does have a military sense...]  And again: unlike 'feed' and its variants (which tends, in Stephen Booth suggests, to 'explain the joke' of the poem as a whole), this works more like the line in Hamlet about death's sting -- as a way of pointing the reader back to the Biblical original.

I'll make plain what's implicit here. I'm not suggesting I have magical access to what Shakespeare 'really wrote'. Indeed, I'm suggesting the exact opposite: that the emendations such as the one proposed here ought not to be advanced under the aegis of 'getting back to what Shakespeare actually wrote'. He's an author deader than most. Rather, emendation should be a hermeneutic business, offered by way of advancing a reading of the text. My reading here is that Sonnet 146 proceeds from an imaginative engagement with 1 Corinthians 15:52-55. You may think a different Biblical text is behind the poem (though you'd be hard put to persuade me that the poem doesn't have any Biblical inspiration in its DNA), in which case a different proposed emendation would bring that out. Have at it.

[*Note: to forestall the obvious objection: of course, Shakespeare and his audience didn't have the KJV in 1609; but Tyndale's version is pretty close: 'ye deed shall ryse incorruptible and we shalbe chaunged. For this corruptible must put on incorruptibilite: and this mortall must put on immortalite. When this corruptible hath put on incorruptibilite and this mortall hath put on immortalite: then shalbe brought to passe ye sayinge yt is writte. Deeth is consumed in to victory. Deeth where is thy stynge? Hell where is thy victory?']

Wednesday 8 October 2014

J Miller's "The Universal Gazetteer, or Alphabetical Geography" (1826)

The title page:

I can't work if that intriguing dark-skinned Atlas, squatting painfully on one knee, is located outside a generic riverside town, or if that's supposed to be London. Is that an etiolated dome of Saint Paul's in the background? It may well be, because the frontispiece is Britannia attended, in 19th-C British fashion, by representative maidens from the four corners of empire.

The Magic Mountain: A Story of Exciting Adventure

I'm assuming 'Howard Austin' was the pseudonym Thomas Mann used in the USA. Pluck and luck indeed!

Monday 6 October 2014

The Great Fable In Praise of Book Burning: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

I've been thinking recently about the underlying logic of modern commercial Fantasy, and wondering whether we couldn't thumbnail it as mostly concerned with detailing the fault line between the raw and the cooked. So: let me inch towards my main point by starting with a personal anecdote. When I started out as an academic, in the backward and abysm of the last century, my older colleagues were all to one degree or another dismissive of my professed admiration for Tolkien. One, Peter Caracciolo, told me slightly haughtily that Fantasy began and ended with the Arabian Nights; ‘but,’ he added, ‘there is one moment in Lord of the Rings I have always loved.’ ‘Just the one?’ He ignored me. ‘It is when Sam, thinking he is doing Gollum a favour, cooks his fish for him. “What are you doing?” Gollum complains. “Scorching my lovely fish!”’ That has, strange to say, stuck with me.

We aren't surprised if our imaginary world of medievalised or Old English/Norse Fantasy tends to valorise fire. Fire the friend that keeps us warm and cooks our food; the fire around which we gather in groups and which therefore symbolises companionship. But fire warms by scorching, and scorching is more than simply destructive—it is the principle of aridity, of desiccation, that dries up the very juiciness that fans come to Fantasy for. In Lord of the Rings there is only one fire that will destroy a Ring of Power, and it is the one presided over by the novel’s fiery principle of evil himself, Sauron. This reflects back upon the book itself, of course. I think of one of Tolkien's key imaginative resources. Poor old Beowulf—I mean, the text itself, the actual physical object, sole and unique, upon which the words of that poem have been precariously carried down the centuries to us. Poor old Beowulf, scorched and singed in its old library fire. The book got burned!

Tolkien’s ring of power is a plain gold ring, of course, and embodies a series of quite complex valences to do with binding, with vows and marriage. But at the same time as being a blank surface, the ring is also paradoxically (which is to say, magically) lettered. The ring, in other words, is a book. To be sure it is a short book; its whole text is the one ring charm. But a short book is still a book. Looked at this way, Lord of the Rings becomes a strangely self-destructive fable—a book about the quest to destroy a book, a long string of carefully chosen words positing a world in which words have magical power to huge evil. How few books there are in Middle Earth! Indeed, I've written elsewhere about not just the paucity of written texts in Tolkien's world, but the way they keep getting misread. Gandalf scratches his run at Weathertop; the hobbits misread it. The elven door in Moria, beautifully lettered, commands 'speak friend and enter!' and nobody understands its simple instruction. The fellowship find a dwarfish book in the mines, as scorched and battered as poor old Beowulf; but as they read it aloud ('drums in the deep', 'we cannot get out') it becomes true to them, and they repeat the words as suddenly, horribly, appropriate to their own predicament. The repeated theme is the danger of words; their slipperiness but also the ease with which they can move us directly into the malign world of the text. One ring to bind us all. Books are bound, too.

We could put it this way: that Tolkien’s imagination positions itself between two iterations of ‘The Word’, one (oral culture) raw, the other (the printed word) cooked. This is not as straightforward as it might be. As both a Christian and a scholar of Old English, Tolkien has a necessary investment in the spoken word, especially as it is passed between a communion of loving friends: the logos, the face-to-face, the speak-friend-and-enter. The Lord’s Prayer (which Tolkien liked to recite in the Gothic language) was conveyed by Christ to his followers verbally, not in written form. Of course, Christ’s whole life is conveyed to us via a written text.

There are no books in Beowulf, except one—the Borgesian map-for-the-territory that is Beowulf itself. Tolkien works a similar logic: the story we are reading is supposed to have been written in a book by one or other bourgeois hobbit. This is an odd conceit when you think about it, for otherwise there are no libraries, or bookshops, or reading groups in the Shire. But of course the book is directed at us, not at the other hobbits; and of course we want to have our cake and eat it too. We love books. We don’t want to burn books. Except that we celebrate the burning of the book. We prefer the rawness of our imaginary realm unscorched. Gandalf is a ‘raw’ wizard compared to the ‘cooked’ wizardry of Saruman (though he’s not so raw as Radagast is reputed to be; he’s sushi, not the wriggling fish). The world of Middle Earth is a raw world compared to the ‘cooked’ world of 20th- and 21st-century urban living. And so for Fantasy more generally: the word is raw in its immediacy and naturalness, its directness and magic. Magic here is spoken aloud; songs are sung directly to an audience; nothing is written down except the everything that is written down to construe the Fantasy realm. Fire is warming insofar as it supports the wholeness of communion (you’re there with your friends around the camp fire, laughing and swapping verbal stories, singing verbal songs). But fire is a danger too.

‘Book burning’ is an emotive phrase, of course. We like to think that we revere books, hold them in a holy duty of care. Of course, we don’t. I've recently been reading Gillian Partington and Adam Smyth's edited collection Book Destruction from the Medieval to the Contemporary (Palgrave 2014). It's fascinating. The editors start with a vivid description of an ordinary day in a book pulping facility.
In the business of books, production and destruction are linked. Their shredding and pulping on a mass scale is a fact of life. Tens of thousands of books meet this fate every week in the UK alone, the equivalent of a small library. But, expressed in these terms, the reasons for the aura of secrecy surrounding “destruction work” start to become apparent. The spectacle of industrial shredding brings to light some awkward paradoxes We have investments in the written word as a lasting monument, yet its deliberate destruction is routine and even necessary. Books are two-faced; on the one hand they are totems: carriers of culture, values, beliefs. But on the other hand they are quotidian objects: material and ephemeral things, subject to decay and physical obsolescence like any other. We weigh them down with significance out of all proportion to their flimsy paper and cardboard construction. Their destruction, too, is a material fact that is overloaded with symbolism. It provokes unease, sometimes outrage or anger, eve in some cases violence. In 2010, when the Florida Baptist preacher Pastor Terry Jones announced his intention to burn 200 copies of the Quran he provoked a major international incident. The threat, though not executed, was condemned by Hillary Clinton as a “disgraceful, disrespectful act” and was considered grave enough to warrant a personal international from President Obama. A year later, Jones set fire to a single copy of the Muslim holy book, sparking riots in Mazar-i-Sharif Afghanistan in which a UN compound was overrun and twelve were killed. [5-6]
They go on to name-check the inevitable reference: ‘hovering inescapably in the background whenever books are burned is the spectre of the book pyres in Berlin’s Opernplatz in 1933. On 10 May that year some 40,000 people, included propaganda minister Josef Geobbels, gathered to watch as truckloads of “decadent” “un-German” books were burned by National Socialist students.’

At the site nowadays is a plaque, marking the spot with the legend (fashioned by Anthony Burgess out of an old Heine play): ‘das war en Vorspiel, dort man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’: this was only a prologue; where people burn books they will in the end burn people. As Partington and Smythe point out, ‘given the scale of human suffering and death under the Nazis, a solemn monument to the destruction of inanimate objects seems in a principle a strange gesture; disrespectful, even.’ That's right, when you come to think of it. God knows I love books, but it's self evidently much much worse to burn a person. Books can reify our alienation from common humanity as well as enrich the mind and pass knowledge about. Of course, in Lord of the Rings, it is only the bad book (the ring) that gets burnt; and only the bad people (Denethor, Gollum) whom the narrative follows up by burning. But that’s exactly the point. Geobbels of course believed he was burning the bad. And the semiology of burning is of renewal as well as destruction. That's why it works as well as it does in this book and its myriad imitators. A song of ice and fire ends, phrasally speaking, in fire.

Friday 3 October 2014

Guy of Warwick: Famous

Last of these today. I've no idea why this notable and worthy knight is accompanied by a pet cat with a man's face -- with, in point of fact, a man's moustachioed face.

The Urinal of Physick

Book of the week.

Levinus Lemnius on Sleepwalking

Levinus Lemnius was a sixteenth-century Dutch doctor and writer, whose Occulta naturae miracula (1559) was translated into English in 1658. Here is what he says about sleepwalking.