Monday, September 22, 2003

This is What I Really Call a Message

I’ve frequently had elaborate dreams whose apparent purpose was nothing more than to set up a punch line. For example I had a flying dream in which I took off from my backyard and laboriously winged my way to L.A. where I swooped into Shrine Auditorium to make a speech. Barely catching my breath as I approached the podium, I began, “I just flew in from San Francisco; and, boy, are my arms tired!” As I recall, I woke up laughing. Two nights ago I had another such dream but more in the style of David Lynch. At the end of a dream in which people started disappearing one after another as in a serial version of the Rapture, I finally encountered the Special Effect that Created the Heavens and Earth. Oddly, instead inquiring why everybody was being snatched up or what was the meaning of life, I asked the transparent, amoeboid deity a more practical question: “I’ve been invited to a formal dance at a nudist colony. So where do I put the boutonnière?” Well, even that was an improvement on last spring when I had dream after dream in which children kept asking me the riddle, “Why did the Invisible Man stop using rubbers?” It took me several nights to figure out the answer: Because he wanted to become a parent.

The Russian formalists claimed, with good reason, that much of literature is, to use their expression, motivated by the device. Writers don’t employ rhetorical schemes and figures to make a point or express an emotion. Just the reverse. The purpose of the writing—the recital of true facts, the expression of deep emotion, the conveyance of profound wisdom—is the real contrivance, a pretext in the most literal sense. However well the motivation of the device explains, say, A Tale of Two Cities, it certainly fits with the observed logic or illogic of dreams and jokes or, in my case, joke-dreams. It also occurs importantly in religious thinking where, so to speak, the spirit is often postulated to excuse all the fuss about the letter. According to Cicero, for example, the Etruscans believed that important events happened so thunderbolts, wayward birds, or lumpy livers could foretell them. The prophetic signs are more fundamental than the history they signify. Similarly, the Mimasa school of Vedanta maintains that the only really primal things in the universe are the eternal sounds of the Vedas whose meaning is contingent on the particular world cycle in which they manifest themselves and how and why they are chanted by Gods, demons, or men. The same inversion occurs in Jewish mysticism, no doubt inspired by the establishment of a ne veritur text of the scriptures in which even the obvious scribal errors are sacred and canonical. In this line of thought, the Torah predates by thousands of years the creation of the world and everything else except Yahweh himself who, like a teenager writing a phone number on his hand, inscribed it on his arm since no other surface yet existed. The meaning of this sempiternal Torah depends not only on the hermeneutic capabilities of the interpreters who number at least 600,000—one for each of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai–or even on the combinatorial permutations of the letters that make it up and the alternative ways of adding vowel signs to the consonantal text, but on the actions of all men, which, free and therefore unpredictable, give the signs their referents after the fact. In this vein, Sabbatai Sevi, the 17th century mystic and would-be messiah, claimed that universal repentance would make the Bible read as a Torah of Mercy rather than a Torah of Judgment. Which is rather like my fantasy of a book which, read out loud in a certain fashion, is a brief guide to bookkeeping on collective farms and read in a different way is a translation of one of Karl May’s novels about cowboys.

I presume this book-length pun does not exist; but there is a book, Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames: The d’Antin Manuscript, that consists of French symbolist poems that sound exactly like English-language nursery rhymes. Many of the works of Raymond Roussel take the reader on a similar wild goose chase. Their first and last sentences are phonetically identical but semantically unrelated. It sometimes takes hundreds of pages of convoluted plot to set up this gimmick. Grendel Briarton’s Ferdinand Feghoot tales, published long ago in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, offer a homelier equivalent. Feghoots are complicated shaggy dog stories that set up ghastly but desperately ingenious puns—one of the classics ends with the titles, in German, of all four of the Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen opera. One can find hundreds of amateur examples of the genre at the Tarzan’s Tripes Forever web site and highfalutin, professional versions in Thomas Pynchon’s books, e.g. the Hobbesian law firm of Salitieri, Poore, Nash, De Brutus, and Short that appears in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Of course, I eschew these exercises of false wit, except as a way of illuminating the Statistical Mechanics of the Word or in the exceedingly rare cases where I encounter a naturally occurring linguistic miracle. So far that’s only happened once. While looking something up in the index of a volkish and somewhat anti-Semetic treatise on Baltic antiquities, I encountered an entry that read: Mid-Gulf Jew znak, q.v. borscht pyx. It took some effort to decode this cryptic phrase, which refers to the black legend that Jewish faith healers in the vicinity of Riga identified themselves by wearing a tiny badge or znak in the shape of one of the boxes for the transportation of consecrated Eucharist wafers they used to steal from churches and use in the preparation of potent medicinal beet soup. That’s routine enough, though sufficiently obscure. The amazing thing is that this 26-letter phrase—quite a bit shorter than the bit around the quick brown fox—uses all 26 letters of the alphabet. Having stumbled on this wonder, I’ve begun to reconsider my former skepticism about the Bible Code, which, after all, is not that much more unbelievable…