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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess

Posted by John Holbo on 11/01/07 at 04:02 AM

My friend Josh Glenn, cunning Brainiac that he is, seems to have hauled off and solved an honest-to-gosh minor literary mystery. He argues compellingly that the “little nameless object” in Henry James’ The Ambassadors is ... well, I’ll let you read it.

I hope I won’t be giving anything away if I point out that the earliest evidence in English letters that, once upon a time, the toothpick was deemed a disreputable, foreignish implement of oral hygiene - a real English gentleman sucks his teeth - comes in Act I, scene i of Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John. Here the Bastard (whom I have quoted before on the subject of commodity fetishism) is fantasizing about what life will be like when he is so raised up that he can call someone Peter, if his name is George, and from there he works round to:

... Now your traveller,
He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess,
And when my knightly stomach is sufficed,
Why then I suck my teeth and catechise
My picked man of countries ...

Fascinating stuff. But seriously. Josh has a new book out: Taking Things Seriously [amazon]. And I quite enjoyed it and mean to write a little reviewamajigger soonish.

(Obviously you already read Crooked Timber, so you already knew - maybe even read McLemee’s interview with Glenn. Still, it seemed worth mentioning.)


Comments

No spoilers in this post.  Except for the entire second paragraph.  Oh and the title.  But apart from that ...

By Adam Roberts on 11/01/07 at 07:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Kudos for tying this in to the disreputable, foreignish instrument of embassy.

By nnyhav on 11/01/07 at 08:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Many thanks, John. And please, Valve readers, tell me why I’m wrong and what the nameless object in The Ambassadors REALLY is.

PS: In his Natural History, Pliny suggested that a toothpick fashioned from “the frontal bones of a lizard, taken from the head of the animal at full moon,” would help cure sick teeth. And the Prophet Muhammad was a toothpick aficionado, who requested that a toothpick be placed in his mouth before his funeral; according to the Koran, “a prayer which is preceded by the use of a toothpick is worth seventy-five ordinary prayers.” As for the Bard, in “Much Ado About Nothing,” the soldier Benedick offers to fetch Don Pedro “a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia.” Finally, Cardinal Richelieu is said to have so disliked the use of the knife point as a toothpick that he ordered the tips ground down, thus instituting a fashion that persists in sterling flatware to this day. All tidbits (ha) that I picked up (ha ha) from Petroski’s book on the toothpick. Petroski, by the way, argues that Joyce slyly refers to Charles Forster, inventor of the manufactured toothpick, in “Ulysses.”

By Joshua Glenn on 11/01/07 at 09:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Many thanks, John. And please, Valve readers and writers, tell me why I’m wrong—and what the nameless object in The Ambassadors REALLY is.

PS: In his Natural History, Pliny suggested that a toothpick fashioned from “the frontal bones of a lizard, taken from the head of the animal at full moon,” would help cure sick teeth. And the Prophet Muhammad was a toothpick aficionado, who requested that a toothpick be placed in his mouth before his funeral; according to the Koran, “a prayer which is preceded by the use of a toothpick is worth seventy-five ordinary prayers.” As for the Bard, in “Much Ado About Nothing,” the soldier Benedick offers to fetch Don Pedro “a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia.” Finally, Cardinal Richelieu is said to have so disliked the use of the knife point as a toothpick that he ordered the tips ground down, thus instituting a fashion that persists in sterling flatware to this day. All tidbits (ha) that I picked up (ha ha) from Petroski’s book on the toothpick. Petroski, by the way, argues that Joyce slyly refers to Charles Forster, inventor of the manufactured toothpick, in “Ulysses.”

By on 11/01/07 at 09:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I stand by the “we can never know” argument.  It fits with James’s technique, explified in *Turn of the Screw*, of constructing ambiguities or mysteries that are impossible to solve given the evidence supplied. 

I also *like* the fact that James refuses to tell us.  It’s as if he foresaw the rise of “thing theory” in the academy, where scholars spend years researching the referents of nouns in books in order to spin fanciful interpretations based on tons of seemingly irrelevant archival material.  It’s as if he predicted the rise of *Shoelaces: The Ties That Bind Modern History* and *Paper Clips: Holding a Nation Together* and all these works of “history through the lens of a single commodity.”

James ensures that the only purpose of the object is to display Strether’s values and delicacy.  Late James prose is all about *performing* the act of painstaking distinction, even if the reader cannot really discern a difference among all the distinctions being drawn. 

(He also avoids any easy symbol: if the family got rich off of toilet paper or matches or whatever, the reader would be tempted to see it as a comment on that wealth.  The main point, for James, is the difference between property and business capital, between Europe and America.)

By on 11/01/07 at 10:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Moustrap, like I said. James’s veiled reference to Lititz, Pennsylvania gives the game away.

By John Emerson on 11/01/07 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gentlemen, you do realize that today is the death-day of Alfred Jarry? He is purported to have spent his last breath requesting a toothpick.

I guess you can take it with you!

By mahendra singh on 11/01/07 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The entire first chapter of D.A. MIller’s book about Jane Austen is devoted to Robert Dashwood’s toothpick case.

By on 11/01/07 at 04:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The toothpick session of the MLA will be hoppin next year. Alert the media.

By John Emerson on 11/01/07 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Satie? Corduroy and golf, but no apparent toothpicks.

By John Emerson on 11/01/07 at 10:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>The toothpick session of the MLA will be hoppin next year. Alert the media.

You’re not wrong to mock, John… but I was just invited to submit a paper proposal to “Jamesian Strands,” a conference in Newport next July. Bill Brown, the only thing theorist whose writing I enjoy, is giving the keynote speech. Hmmm. I think I might attend, but I won’t submit a paper proposal. I’m out of ammo on this topic, as Ross Perot’s running partner once said during a veep debate.

By on 11/05/07 at 12:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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