Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Description of the World - Part 64

Top of Third Bookcase

Olaus Magnus the Goth, A Description of the Northern Peoples 1555, Volume I (This is an odd volume from the Hakluyt Society, publishers of old travel narratives. In the fashion of its time, the full title of this work takes up almost a whole page and morphs into a blurb “…so it is filled with enjoyment and pleasure, readily instilling into the reader’s mind the utmost delight.” I own only the first volume. The entire work is five times larger. Olaus, who was the archbishop of Uppsala, mixes quotations from the Bible, Aristotle, and Pliny with observations of natural phenomena and a rather disjointed ethnology of various northern people. He has the curiosity of a Herodotus without the skill, but the little chapters with their woodcut illustrations are charming. Anyhow, if I hadn’t read the book, I wouldn’t have known about snowshoes for horses.)

Herbert H. Clark, Arenas of Language Use (As it is traditionally studied by linguists, language is rather like a specimen preserved in a bottle. It’s hard to tell whether the characteristics you assign to a sample belong to the animal or to the formaldehyde. You ask the informant to pass on whether a sentence is grammatical or not, but that’s a highly artificial questions since, as Clark points out “ it is utterances and not sentences that we actually produce, hear, or read. We never hear a piece of language that isn’t produced by a particular speaker for a particular audience on a particular occasion. Strictly speaking, it is a category mistake to speak of sentence comprehension or sentence production, as many investigators do…In most psychological experiments utterances…are stripped bare, before they are presented to subjects. The subjects are treated as if they had just begun overhearing a conversation between two strangers. Now there is nothing wrong with studying overhearing. But that must not be confused with studying understanding by addressees.” I wrote in the margin, “Us theoretical types can’t help but overhear, though.” It isn’t just the Ph.D. candidate trying to write a grammar for some Papuan dialect who treats language without a context. After all, somebody or other once claimed in the beginning was the Word, i.e., that meaningful language predates the creation of any context. The sciences are sometimes accused (and sometimes celebrated) for seeking the view from nowhere, but one might also asked who it is told to and who is listening. Anyhow, I was thinking about this issue a long time before I encountered Clark, which is why another marginal remark to the preface of the book records a dialogue which took place in the early 80s’: “c.f. [me] is this the ashtray? [Ralph] it is now.” Clark is a psycholinguist and his book deals with some of the empirical issues that become visible and salient when you focus on utterances instead of sentences. For example, he studied what goes on in literal overhearing, verifying the observation that many of us have made in coffee bars that overheard conversations are often unintelligible. He also made a study of nonce language, i.e., words and even grammatical constructions that are made up on the fly. I’m still waiting for a satisfactory psycholinguistic/ethnographic account of allusion.)

Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-Earth (I like Tolkien’s books well enough, but I’ve never been a fanatic about ‘em. I like geography so much, however, that maps of actual places aren’t enough. I even used to like paperbound mystery novels that had little maps of the crime scene in the back. When I was in elementary school and got tired of counting the holes in the acoustic tile on the ceiling or watching the house flies on my desk rub their hands together, I passed the time making maps of my own imaginary realms.)

The Tempest: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. Horace Howard Furness. (Dover no longer keeps these variorum editions in print. I didn’t value them for their philological value, but for the source material and criticism in the appendices, which, together with the text, allow the patient reader to get some idea of what the play is in four-dimensions. The plain text of the work, even if it hasn’t been cleaned up or modernized, is merely a slice of the whole.)

Twelfth Night or What You Will: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. Horace Howard Furness (In honor of Herbert Clark: “A sentence is but a cheu’rill glove to a good wit, how quickely the wrong side may be turn’d outward.” That’s because the good wit, aka the clown, acts like he is overhearing the conversations he is actually a part of and can therefore sport with the infinite possible meanings in his own sentences. Having slipped out of the straight jacket of occasion, “Foolery sir, does walke about the Orbe like the Sun. it shines every where.” Certain rabbis claimed that there were at least as many interpretations of the Torah as there were Israelites wandering around Sinai with Moses, but 603,550 greatly overestimates the range of readings because the Israelites were in the conversation and not all of ‘em were clowns. I note that the relentlessly witty Twelfth Night features a cross-dressing heroine, which, of course, meant that Viola or the actor who played her appeared in a disguise with two layers. He/she/he was a person of Neapolitan gender. The plot is as perverse as the language, which also seems appropriate. Didn’t Alain de Lille insist that figurative speech was the linguistic equivalent of sexual impropriety? The poet, or Nature herself complaining in his name, likened metaphor to homosexuality. I have a special respect for this comedy because of a wonderfully funny production of it I saw at El Camino Junior College in Gardena maybe fifty years ago. Every production since has been a disappointment.)

Jacques Gelis, History of Childbirth (Supposedly a history of childbirth, the book is mostly an assemblage of random information about conception, pregnancy, and birth. I didn’t manage to get past the illustrations of old ways of giving birth; kneeling, between two chairs, standing, and sitting on the edge of a chair or bed. I guess I’m too squeamish.)

Brewer’s Curious Titles, compiled by Ian Crofton (I got this book because I so enjoyed Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable or maybe because I’ve always like titles—the chapter of Rabelais that lists the books in the library of St. Victor is one of my favorite bits. The practice of titling texts had to be invented. Anciently, books were called by their first lines. The Babylonian creation epic, which we call the Enuma elish, was once “When what is above was not yet called the sky.” We may be returning to this practice. At least in Microsoft Word, the default title for an item is the first couple of words.)

W.S.Shears, The Face of England: a Book of the Shires and Counties (A description of England circa 1950. I’m guessing—the book itself has no date of publication. It would be a boon to anybody writing a historical novel who wanted a run down on every halfway impressive church or valley south of Scotland. The author even lists “dishes which may be sampled” for each shire. I don’t think I’ll go to Staffordshire just for the Beasting's pie, though I imagine a custard pie made from the first milk drawn from a cow after she gives birth might be especially rich. The book is rather like the Description of England William Harrison wrote as part of Holinshed’s Chronicles back in 1577—I have or had a copy of that, too, though I’ve only read parts of either book to get a sense of the texture of the country. I actually got further reading Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, which is the same sort of operation in verse.)