Saturday, March 13, 2004

“The Workhorse of Mammal Penis Research, the Armadillo”

In the oldest literary works, the first word or words of the body of the text served as the title as well. Thus Bereshit, “In the beginning,” is the Hebrew name for Genesis and the title of the Babylonian creation epic, Enumah Elish, is simply “When what is above was not yet called the sky…” Early Greek works were often called “About x”—according to Diogenes Laertes, the Pre-Socratic philosophers normally titled their main works About Nature (Peri Phusis); but most ancient works were given their names by anonymous editors long after they were compiled. More complicated and intriguing titles, presumably contrived by individual authors, came later. Plutarch’s titles are rather more fun than the essays they name: How a Young Man Should Listen to Poems, On the Malice of Herodotus, Whether and Elderly Man Should Engage in Politics. Rabelais recognized that titles didn’t even need a text. Chapter 7 of the First Book of First Book of Pantagruel is mostly a list of books from the Library of Saint Victor, including the useful Ars honeste petandi in sociatate (The Proper Method of Farting in Public) and the indispensable Advanced Ass Kissing for Graduate Students as well as the How to Eat Goats with Artichokes, Even When the Church Forbids It and the classic Quaestio subtilissima, utrum Chimera in vacuo bombinastans possit comedere secundus intentione, et fuit debatuta per decem hebdomadas in concilio Constantiensis (The Infinitely Suble Question of Whether the Chimera, Bombinasting in the Void, Can be Nourished on Second Intentions—Debated for ten weeks at the Council of Constance). I suppose the collection would now include several recent plays such as Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, The Death and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Clarendon Under the Direction of the Marquise de Sade, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Constipated by Tom Stoppered. But titles don’t have to be jokes to be memorable. Consider the grave Victorian music of Darwin’s titles: The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects or The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms or, indeed, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.

I love titles almost as much as footnotes. It’s only the body of the books that puts me off; for I subscribe to the theory, universally held by bookworms like me, that the sole function of the text is to keep the table of contents from running into the bibliography. In this spirit, I make it a practice to use apparently arbitrary titles to conceal the secret and profound meaning of my own little essays by way of a make work project for graduate students in the alternative universe where my texts will be expanded upon as interminably as the works of Moses or Freud or Marx are in these parts.

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