Reading on the Fringes: The Voynich Manuscript

Reading is understanding, symbol for symbol, page for page. This understanding can take many traditional forms—literal, intuitive, passive, applicable—but it is the non-traditional forms, the anomalies, that tempt us to explore the boundaries of written communication. 

For example:

  • Calligrams, where the arrangement of words forms a shape suggestive of the meaning (blending of visual and literary arts), characteristic of Apollinare’s Calligrammes, and less so of the avant-guard poetry of E. E. Cummings.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calligrammes

From Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes.

 

  • Automatic writing, where words are produced (supposedly) without conscious will (associated with surrealism and spiritualistic séances).
  • Asemic writing, where the result is without fixed message, context, words, though it may appear regular enough to suggest meaning (a “literary” equivalent of abstract art).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Wheels_of_Transformation_.jpg

Asemic writing by Tatiana Roumelioti (CC BY-SA 4.0 ), from Wikimedia Commons

 

  • Paradoxes, absurdity, and pataphysics (science of imaginary solutions) where anomaly is the rule, or rather, to quote Canadian poet Christian Bök, the rule itself is the exception in a pataphysical science that rules out the rule. 

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Writing What Will Not Be Read

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DvorakReader.jpg

Reader by František Dvořák (1906)

 

In a conversation, we speak to be heard, if not listened to. In a letter for a friend or a story for the public, we write to be read, if not deeply regarded.

Every word is intended for effect.

No other starting position makes sense for a wordsmith, especially with respect to impatient, multitasking modern readers. Their attention mustn’t be wasted on unnecessary ideas, passages, or words. 

(Or, in the extreme, on individual letters. Getting the Words Right, an otherwise helpful guidebook to writing, suggests that s be cut from words like towards and forwards as part of a so-called nano-reduction, at least in American English. In British English, towards and toward are interchangeable, but the nuanced distinction between forward and forwards is still respect-worthy at the cost of the occasional extra letter.)

But who judges what’s necessary in a text?

A writer’s intentions—the best, the worst, and the proverbially dubious—pave all sorts of profoundly manufactured, “necessary” roads the reader almost certainly won’t walk. The reader seeks what the reader needs: excitement, information, oblivion, or perhaps just a digestive after a heavy meal. The reader takes what is useful and strips off the rest. Roland Barthes calls this perceived encounter of useful and useless tmesis. Continue reading

Reading Faster, or Speeding up the Striptease

https://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-honore-fragonard/a-young-girl-reading-1776-1

A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1776)

 

Most communions are licit between mind and body, though only some are enshrined in language. 

Within standard usage, the mind can handle, sit on, kick about, or push through difficult problems, while the body remembers what it’s like to be out in the open, the legs are happy to run for miles, and the lungs don’t mind the effort. More creative metaphors would have the mind swimming through a sea of problems or the body navigating a complex ontological issue by mutating. (Here navigating, the physical action of driving a ship, was first abstracted for application in matters of intellect and Internet, before being returned to serve in the physical realm, metaphorically.)

While metaphors can sidle up, similes are signposted either with like or as, or with phrases such as the colour/sound/feeling of or the way that. Also, similes tend to focus on partial comparisons: in the context of gymnastics, a girl could be as nimble as a fawn, without the reader worrying that she might fall prey to the wolves in the hills. Because there are no wolves and no hills; the fawn is, with few exceptions, confined to the initial phrase. That said, extended, unintended meanings are effortlessly available (predatory males as wolves, for example). The imagination obliges, whenever the simile resonates. Continue reading

Cutting Through Language

https://www.wikiart.org/en/wassily-kandinsky/gentle-accent-1934/

Gentle accent by Wassily Kandinsky (1934)—one way to think about the deep layering of language?

 

Covering a few miles on the weekend means checking the weather program and pulling out those old shorts and putting on the stinky trainers and knotting the fraying shoelaces and stepping outside and taking the first step and… jogging.

It can also mean getting ready, warming up, jogging, finishing with a sprint.

These two descriptions of the same activity illustrate the basic difference between the rhetorical figures they employ: polysyndeton in the first case (many conjunctions), and asyndeton in the second case (no conjunctions).

The polysyndeton brings about a stream of consciousness that reports elements as they occur, or a stately, biblical grandness, such as:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, …

—John 10:27–28, KJV

The asyndeton brings about swiftness and density, or a jerky, rushed rhythm, such as:

Ho! hearts, tongues, figures, scribes, bards, poets, cannot
Think, speak, cast, write, sing, number, ho!

—Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 3.2.16

(These and many more examples are offered in Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech.)

The Shakespeare example is a particularly radical asyndeton, called a brachylogia (meaning short speech), where the conjunctions are omitted between individual words making them into a list or heap. Indeed, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian classed both syndetons as types of acervatio (a heaping up).

Rhetorical heaps are sensible sequences. The Gospel polysyndeton is a temporal sequence; the Shakespeare asyndeton comprises two sequences derived from the same word classes (nouns, then verbs). Other more general heaps, like congeries, rely on a climactic ordering to achieve the satisfying feeling of crescendo and carry the reader over (sometimes dubious) reasoning.

Commas hold an asyndeton heap together.

A proliferation of commas, however, can signal crisp yet complex writing not comprising of homogeneous sequences. Continue reading

Building Blocks

 

Balcony, baldachin, baptistry, belfry, buttress… All words that are illustrated in the 1979 Merriam Webster. Flipping through, you’d think architecture starts with the letter b.

 

 

Is there something more fundamental about buildings and their features, than about other areas of human activity? Or are stony frills easier to draw? What makes ball-flower a better subject of illustration than ballerina, ball bearing, or ball fern?

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The Seventh Meaning of Bail

The bail of custody, the bail of deliverance. The bail, as an outer wall of a feudal castle. To bail a free spirit is to confine it. A bail as a container used to bail a boat, therefore freeing it from a build up of water on its interior.

That is roughly six meanings of the word bail given in the 1979 Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

The seventh meaning of bail or bale has the largest number of specific senses, which mostly centre on a curved iron part used in everything from wagons and small boats to the trunnions of a cannon to the tympan sheet in a platen printing press. Lastly, though, a bail is:

the usu. arched handle of a kettle pail, or similar vessel.

 

 

As curved handles go, my preference lies with the more mouth-rounding boul or bool, which you’d use to refer to the semicircular grip of a teapot or of a pair of scissors. This word, however, did not merit a picture, so I move on with my exploration of illustrated b-words.

Here are few more obsolescent, if not obsolete, visualised entries (the ones I like to call bygones). Continue reading

Beginning with B

 

Six months ago, in January, this year’s blogging season began for me with the letter A. I looked at the words that the editors had chosen to illustrate, and therefore highlight, in the 1979 Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. 

At six kilograms and a volume of 7650 cubic centimetres, the Dictionary is a slab of language, as hefty as any gravity-based weapon, and as monumental (to my mind) as the stone stele carrying the Code of Hammurabi. Compared literally, it’s sized like the brain of a killer whale.

There are 2666 pages. 

So I better move on to B if I intend to finish my survey within the next, shall we say, ten years. Continue reading

Poetry of Hyphens: Elements

thomas-millot https://unsplash.com/photos/iiJGeLWb6d4

I reserve a special internal exclamation of joy for words that I have never seen before, but I immediately understand and appreciate. These mostly fall under the heading of compound words or meld words tailored to a particular context.

(Other examples are words that I know in one language and then see for the first time ported into another language—they’re altered, but recognisable; and also word-puns that hit a sweet spot of meaning.)

In my previous post,  I discussed “new” colour descriptions coined by W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, and Keri Hulme, such as cloud-pale, blackred, seashaded, some of which are more, some of which are less far fetched. In the case of the senses (not only vision), it is fairly straightforward to write a recipe for creating sensible adjectives that a reader can enjoy without effort. It is even relatively easy to hone the craft: pick a colour and an animal nuancing that colour (e.g. elephant-grey), pick two colours (e.g. yellow-orange) and so on until you’re happy with your creation.

However, when it comes to more advanced meld-compounds—to coin a word which means either meld or compound word, or a combination, like Cummings’s watersmooth-silver—there are both more options to play with and fewer options that will work.

Take eyes. You can describe them with colours (greengrey), but suppose you want to go beyond that. Then you can also consider physical features (goggly, globular), emotions (gleeful, glamorous, goading), things and people (ghosts, gammoners, gemstones) etc. The options are endless. The price you pay is that the further afield you stretch, the harder it will be to find a reasonable pairing that will be worth the reader’s effort. Metaphors are nice, but they are taxing—this is why meld-compounds become more common and more complex the further you move along the spectrum from genre fiction to literary fiction to poetic prose to verse-novels to poetry.

This is why I picked my examples from poetic sources. (Elsewhere they are scarce and stale.)

As always, reading, reading, reading (of poetry), and tuning one’s inner ear, is probably the quickest way to accumulate ideas and experience that will allow you to hatch your own meld-compounds.

But … If I were to invent an exercise to help the process, this is what it would be:

  1. find examples you like,
  2. expand them into what you think they mean,
  3. write your own sentences of that form,
  4. compress your own sentences into meld-compounds resembling, but distinct from, your original example.

Let’s give it a go.

Four steps. I denote the transfer from one step to the next with an arrow. The first word in italics is taken from the author I’ve indicated; the last is my new meld-compound.

Simple:

  • Yeats: sea-covered stone -> a stone covered by sea -> a shell buried by sand -> sand-buried shell.
  • Cummings: balloonman -> a clown who has/sells balloons -> a clown who wears pantaloons -> pantaloonclown.
  • Hulme: moonshadow -> a shadow cast by the moon -> shade cast by the stars -> starshade.

Continue reading

Poetry of Hyphens: Colours

sam-operchuck https://unsplash.com/photos/LX5PKZvlseA

Approximately 90 posts and 90 books ago, in mid-April this year, I wrote about Keri Hulme’s The Bone People—the beautiful, unusual love story that won the Booker Prize for 1985. I titled the article Seabluegreen Eyes to mark my appreciation of her meld words, and, as it turns out, to mark a change in how I viewed English words.

Since then, I have become a hunter of creative and effective meld words (consisting of two or more words that have been merged, like seabluegreen) and compound words (consisting of two or more words joined by hyphens to create new nouns, adjectives, verbs, like Yeats’s red-rose-bordered hem). I seek out those neologisms that bring something genuinely new—beyond syntactic surprise—into a sentence or stanza.

Unsurprisingly, they’re seldom found.

Firstly, there is a modern tendency to avoid hyphenated hybrids: in 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from 16,000 words, either by splitting the words (ice-cream became ice cream) or by melding them (bumble bee became bumblebee). But those were old words. The University of Oxford Style Guide from 2014, for example, offers the following advice in general: To make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words (e.g. it’s webpages not web-pages). I suppose the Guide would prefer to see Hulme’s seabluegreen just like that, rather than as sea-blue-green, but perhaps today it’d tell Yeats to write redrose-bordered hem?

Secondly, at around 200,000 words, some obsolete, some regional, some derivatives, English is fairly rich and nuanced by most standards. One may think, then, that the coining of an inventive compound or meld word—outside of novel applications in science, technology, and trends—is either a sign of a greedy mind unaware of a well-established equivalent, or of a greedy mind aware that none of the well-established equivalents will do. The former type of greed is almost guaranteed by the scarcity of the latter.

Except it isn’t.

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Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane

joao-silas https://unsplash.com/search/photos/magnifying-glass?photo=I_LgQ8JZFGE

Why?

That one question gives life meaning. How, who, where, when, all lend solidity to our world, but the intangible web of causality tickles our imagination like nothing else. Asking why means staring into a chasm of chaos and glimpsing sense—the intellectual equivalent of climbing into the jaws of a shark, looking around, and coming out with a souvenir. It’s exhilarating.

Why is also the reason everyone likes playing detective occasionally.

Me included.

Today, I’m investigating The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (co-written with Margarita Guerrero), an encyclopedic account of a most eccentric menagerie. It contains familiar names such as Centaur and Cerberus, Norns and Nymphs, Salamander and Satyrs, amongst a whole plethora of unfamiliar ones. The starting point of my investigation is the opening of the Preface to the 1967 Edition.

Quote:
The title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, of the point, of the line, of the surface, of n-dimensional hyperplanes and hyper volumes, of all generic terms, and perhaps of each one of us and of the godhead. In brief, the sum of all things—the universe.
(Translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges)

My question: Why did Borges chose to include in his book Harpies, but not Hamlet, Fauna of Mirrors but not the symmetries of surface friezes, Animals in the Form of Spheres but not the n-sphere …? I suppose that including all generic terms, each of us, and the godhead, would require an infinite book like the The Book of Sand, Borges invented in his eponymous story published in 1975—over a decade after the Quote. In fact, given the Quote, The Book of Sand could be said to begin with an almost familiar sentence:

Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes…

A gander at Borges’s original work reveals he had other ways of addressing mathematical issues, so perhaps we can assume he simply left that for “later”.

Which leaves the question of why not Hamlet.

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All Those Times

fabrizio-verrecchia https://unsplash.com/search/photos/time?photo=Ai7sV3SSMIQ

Time is a lot of things. It’s precious, it’s money, it’s irreversible. It measures change and is defined by change. And, as I was proud of deducing early on (when I still thought of the world as consisting of either-or pieces), time is easy to measure: you’ve got an eternity ahead of you, until you have not a moment more.

Now here’s how Anne Carson thinks about Time at the beginning of a chapter in her verse-novel Red Doc> (I discuss the book’s unusual structure in my previous post, The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox).

Quote:
Time passes time
does not pass. Time all
but passes. Time usually
passes. Time passing and
gazing. Time has no gaze.

Sense or senseless? Let’s see, Time by Time in the Quote:

  • The first is a paradox. (Time is elusive)
  • The second is a quibble, a bridge between the two extremes, as is the third. (Time is finicky)
  • The fourth introduces a new theme of gazing, as we’d gaze from a car in passing. (Time is aloof)
  • The fifth denies the gaze. (Time is blind to our differences)

But that’s just the beginning. This chapter is fifty-one lines long, and she goes on to give another twenty-four instances of Time, most of which follow this pattern of starting a sentence with the same word—an example of the figure of speech called anaphora.

What makes the chapter special beyond the hammering of a repetitive element, however, is how Carson employs examples of Time to describe other human afflictions.

I’ve chosen to showcase some of her best ones (I quote her lines verbatim in italics, but I’ve left out the formatting). My interpretation is in square brackets.

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