A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: April 2017


Thomas Cahill relates (p. 160) that the account of the “Cattle Raid of Cooley in the Book of Leinster is followed by a scribal addition in Latin, which is one of the finest texts it has been my privilege to encounter.

I who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of the story or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some are poetical figments; some seem possible and others not; some are for the delectation of idiots.

My boss won’t let me put that on any of my technical reports, so I am adopting it here as the official disclaimer of Idiosophy.

Works Consulted

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. Anchor Books, 1995.

A Narrow Escape from Theory

An interesting convergence of material in the Tolkien blogosphere lately.

Stephen Winter started us off with an excellent trio of posts about the scent of athelas in the Houses of Healing:
Tom Hillman collected these three posts with approbation.
Olga added a guest post at Stephen’s joint:

Shawn Marchese at “The Prancing Pony” ponders what elves must smell like
And last, my little squib , which is high enough to be visible only because all those other weightier essays were sitting on the other end of the see-saw, so my end rose. [1]

Because I have just survived a course on literary theory, I can see that the world has been spared from an outbreak of Newest Criticism by sheer luck. After all, the world has endured (says Wikipedia) historical and and biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, normal feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism. To which our lecturers added performance theory, queer theory, native-american theory, and even oceanic theory.

None of us is (currently) a college professor, else we’d have beefed up our essays with citations, peer-reviewed each others’ work and approved it for publication, and now we’d be the founders of Olfactory Theory.

Works cited

[1] Nabokov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister, 1947. Idiosophers can pad reference lists as well as anyone.

RIP Harry Mathews

While I was checking references for my previous post, I discovered that Harry Mathews, “the first American member of Oulipo after Marcel Duchamp,” died in January at the age of 86. In memoriam, one of his limericks from “The Poet’s Eye”. The ends of the lines are supposed to look like rhymes, but not actually be rhymes. It’s harder than it looks. Sounds. Whichever.

“Bastille Day”
For this best of all army parades
I obtained a seat in the façades
And the tears brought an ache
To my graying moustache
As I heard the tanks rumbling in Hades.

Was C. S. Lewis the Father of Potential Literature?

Oulipo is the “Workshop of Potential Literature”, a group of French (with usually one token American) writers and mathematicians who experiment with new ways to write. Their most famous examples are when they set themselves seemingly arbitrary constraints, as in Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style, where he tells the same dumb story 100 different ways, or Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, a 300-page novel written without using the letter “e”. (The English translation doesn’t use “e” either, which is just as remarkable, especially when I noticed that one of the characters is Jewish.) Book cover Oulipo LaboratoryIt seems like pointless whimsy, until the readers realize that they’re now pondering why sonnets have fourteen lines, and then notice that all literature has apparently arbitrary constraints in it.  I’ve been a fan of Oulipo ever since Michael Dirda tipped me off to their existence in a review in the Washington Post  (reprinted here).

So it hit me with a small shock (as if I’d forgotten to open the circuit breaker before replacing an outlet) when I read, “Whatever the value of literature may be, it is actual only when and where good readers read. Books on a shelf are only potential literature.” in C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. That book’s as old as I am; I’d never seen the phrase “potential literature” so long ago. Did CSL coin it? Better yet, it’s at the beginning of Chapter XI, which is entitled “The Experiment”.  There is nothing more Oulipian than a literary experiment.  (In fact, it’s a great disappointment to me that literary theory has nothing to do with literary experiment.  Shouldn’t one validate the other?)

The English phrase “potential literature” isn’t used enough to register on Google N-grams, but the French “littérature potentielle” is.  The N-gram frequency chart jumps off of zero in 1964: just the right amount of time for Lewis’s book to make it across the Channel, sink into people’s memories, and re-emerge in publication in France.

Is Lewis the founder of Potential Literature?  It’s certainly possible.  The literary experimenters who make up Oulipo are fond of science fiction.  (Hari Seldon is a saint on the ‘pataphysical calendar.)  It strains credibility to think that none of this group who are so interested in literary experiments read a book with that title.

I can’t find any overt admission of the link.  I did, however, find a literary blogger who wrote about C.S. Lewis and Oulipo on successive days, which convinced Google that I wanted to know about it. (I did. Thanks, Larry & Sergei!)

Works Cited

Lewis, C. S., An Experiment in Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1961. Electronic edition via iBooks.

Perec, Georges, A Void. Gilbert Adair, trans., London: Harvill Press, 1995.

Perec, Georges, La Disparition.  Paris: Editions Denoël, 1969.

Queneau, Raymond, Exercices de style. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1947.

The meaning of “Hwæt”

Elaine Treharne from Stanford is tweeting The Dream of the Rood, because that is the kind of thing she does.  I thought I’d better find out something about the poem, so I headed over to the Fount of All Knowledge to read up.

Hwaet from "Dream of the Rood"There, at the beginning of the poem, is the familiar “hwæt”, and with the the clarity that comes from being at the bottom of my first mug of tea, I suddenly knew how to translate that word.  It means:

<!DOCTYPE html-ms>
<HTML lang="ang">

This seems like an obvious web-nerd concept, but the three biggest search engines agree that they can’t find it out there, so I’m writing it down here. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that  there’s an ISO-639 language code for Anglo-Saxon. (Middle English is “enm”.) No one has established an SGML document type definition for parchment manuscripts, perhaps due to the shortage of monks, so I had to invent that one.

Gargantua on Drinking

Doré's Gargantua

Gargantua, by Gustave Doré

Today is Whanne that Aprille Day on Twitter, when we celebrate old languages.

Here’s my contribution, from Gargantua, Book 1, Chapter 5, by François Rabelais.

An almost-Socratic dialogue on drinking, law, mortality, and sports physiology.  Or maybe it’s more of a symposium.


— Qui feut premier, soif ou beuverye?
— Soif. Car qui eust beu sans soif durant le temps d’innocence?
— Beuverye. Car privatio praesupponit habitum. Je suis Clerc. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— Nous aultres innocens ne beuvons que trop sans soif.
— Non moy, pecheur, sans soif. Et si non presente, pour le moins future, la prevenent comme entendez. Je boy pour la soif advenir. Je boy eternellemeut, ce m’est eternité de beuverye, et beuverye de éternité.
— Chantons, beuvons un motet.
— Entonnons!
— Où est mon entonnoir?
— Quoy ! Je ne boy que par procuration !
— Mouillez-vous pour seicher, ou vous seichez pour mouiller?
— Je n’entens poinct la theoricque; de la praticque je me ayde quelque peu.
— Haste!
— Je mouille, je humecte, je boy. Et tout de peur de mourir.
— Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais.
— Si je ne boy, je suys à sec. Me voylà mort.

I own a strange old volume of Rabelais in English translation, which seems to be samizdat to get around the old Comstock laws. It translates that passage this way:

Which was first, thirst or drinking?  Thirst, for who in the time of innocence would have drunk without being athirst?  Nay, sir, it was drinking, for privatio presupponit habitum. I am learned, you see. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum! We poor innocents* drink but too much without thirst. Not I, truly, who am a sinner, for I never drink without thirst, either present of future, to prevent it (as you know) I drink for the thirst to come; I drink eternally, this is to me an eternity of drinking and drinking of an eternity. Let us sing, let us drink, now for a catch, dust it away, where is my nogging? What, it seems I do not drink but by proxy. Do you wet yourself to dry, or do you dry to wet yourself? Pish, I understand not the rhetoric, (the theoric I should say), but I help my self somewhat by the practice.
Enough! I sup, I wet, I humect, I moisten my gullet, I drink and all for fear of dying. Drink always, and you shall never die. If I drink not, I run aground, and I die.

* These words bear allusion to what is said of some innocent people who are tortured with water forced down their throats to make them confess.

Here is my translation:
— Which came first, drinking or thirst?
— Thirst, for back in the days of innocence, who’d have drunk without being thirsty?
— Drinking, because privatio presupponit habitum. Arguments in Latin always win. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— We innocents never drink too much, unless we are thirsty.
— Not me either, and I’m a sinner. Maybe I don’t have a thirst right now, but I drink as a preventative. I drink against the thirst to come. I drink eternally, because through an eternity of drinking, I drink in all eternity.
— Let’s sing and drink a motet!
— Let’s intone in tons!
— Where’s my ton-kard?
— What are you talking about? I only drink by proxy.
— Do you wet yourself to dry out, or dry yourself out to get wet?
— I don’t understand anything about theory, and I don’t have much use for practice.
— Enough!
— I wet, I humidify, I drink, and all from fear of dying.
— Well, keep drinking forever, and you’ll never die.
— If I stop drinking, I’ll be all tapped out.* And that’s as good as dead.

creepy figure

Why sports physiology?  Because the sinner’s philosophy is what all coaches say now – start drinking before you get thirsty.  Renaissance French rules, avant la lettre, if you will.

* A regret: English doesn’t have a slang term for “broke” that overlaps with slang for “sober”, so I couldn’t translate that last pun correctly.  This is a shameful lacuna in my mother tongue.

Works Cited

Rabelais, F., La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua. Françoise Joukovsky, ed.  Paris, Flammarion, 1993.

Rabelais, F.,  The Works of Rabelais, faithfully translated from the French, with variorum notes, and numerous illustrations. Privately printed, who knows when or where.

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