Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

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?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Standards? Who needs them? Or, Thomas Urquhart & That Which Is Infinitely Superior to Cricket.

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/29/09 at 04:42 PM

Teaching composition exclusively leads to (1) a greater appreciation for the pedestrian complexity of correctly subordinated clauses and (2) a bone-tiredness for the unmerited praise of student peer reviews.  As someone with a penchant for paragraph-length sentences, I find (1) wholly salutary; but (2) irks me endlessly.  Why?  In one of my undergraduate History of the English Language course, the professor handed out slips of paper on which he had written a single sentence and told everyone to decipher what it meant, because he wanted us to present the sentence and the paraphrase to the class in ten minutes.  My sentence read:

Another thing there is that fixeth a grievous scandal upon that nation in matter of philargyrie, or love of money, and it is this: There hath been in London, and repairing to it, for these many years together, a knot of Scotish bankers, collybists, or coine-coursers, of traffickers in merchandise to and againe, and of men of other professions, who by hook and crook, fas et nefas, slight and might, (all being as fish their net could catch), having feathered their nests to some purpose, look so idolatrously upon their Dagon of wealth, and so closely, (like the earth’s dull center), hug all unto themselves, that for no respect of vertue, honour, kindred, patriotism, or whatever else, (be it never so recommendable), will they depart from so much as one single peny, whose emission doth not, without any hazard of loss, in a very short time superlucrate beyond all conscience an additionall increase to the heap of that stock which they so much adore; which churlish and tenacious humor hath made many that were not acquainted with any else of that country, to imagine all their compatriots infected with the same leprosie of a wretched peevishness, whereof those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets have given of late such cannibal-like proofs, by their inhumanity and obdurate carriage towards some, (whose shoe-strings they are not worthy to unty), that were it not that a more able pen than mine will assuredly not faile to jerk them on all sides, in case, by their better demeanour for the future, they endeavour not to wipe off the blot wherewith their native country, by their sordid avarice and miserable baseness, hath been so foully stained, I would at this very instant blaze them out in their names and surnames, notwithstanding the vizard of Presbyterian zeal wherewith they maske themselves, that like so many wolves, foxes, or Athenian Timons, they might in all times coming be debarred the benefit of any honest conversation.

That would be from the EKΣKYBAΛAYPON of Thomas Urquhart, best known for his translations of Rabelais.* In Urquhart, Rabelais found less a translator than a kindred spirit; but in Urquhart’s prose, I found an unparaphraseable wall of words, before which I stood befuddled but impressed.  Granted, I should have been impressed, so the analogy to peer reviews is imperfect; but my comprehension and subsequent paraphrase of Urquhart amounted to what I abhor in peer reviews: salivation at the sight of a dependent clause containing multiple polysyllabes and a “Good!” slapped in the margins—as if knowing big words and including them complex sentences means someone’s saying anything meaningful.  But now that I teach composition exclusively, I see similar instances of unmerited praise everywhere:

When most former major leaguers write memoirs, you wonder why they bothered; with Ron Darling—Yale graduate, former New York Met and Oakland A, and current Mets broadcaster—you wonder why it took him so long. What other former athlete could write a sentence like this even with assistance from a professional writer (Daniel Paisner): “This right here [his legendary college pitching duel against St. Johns star Frank Viola**] was one of the great epiphanies for me as a competitive athlete, only it took a while for it to resonate.” Most former pitchers can’t resonate even with help.

Just so you know, my love of béisbol knows no limits; moreover, my love of the Mets generally, and Ron Darling in particular—both as a player and announcer—is unimpeachable.  But for the San Fransisco Chronicle to praise a Yale graduate who double-majored in French and Southeast Asian history and who speaks both Chinese and French fluently—to praise him (if it was him and not his co-writer) for using the words “epiphany” and “resonate” makes me want to quodlibetificate into demission this clusterheaded intelligentry, the miserable baseness of whose expectations ought to debar them from the profession of letters.


*But who should be remembered for titling the second volume of his Logopandecteision; or an Introduction to the Universal Language thus: Chrestasebeia; or, Impious Dealing of Creditors Wherein the Severity of the Creditors of the Author’s Family is Desired to Be Removed, as a Main Impediment to the Production of this Universal Language, and Publication of Other No Less Considerable Treatises.

**The bracketed link takes you to 95 percent of Roger Angell’s “The Web of the Game,” a contender for the best essay about baseball ever written.


"But who should be remembered for...”

On the contrary, who should be remembered for tracing his family history back to Adam and Eve, anticipating almost everyone on the Universal Language, rewriting the study of spherical trigonometry, and inventing the reputation of James “the Admirable” Crichton.

The only style-writer who has defended the Urquharts of the world, to my knowledge, is Richard Lanham. Most of his predecessors regard U as a crank, just one step past Browne. Meanwhile, J. C. Powys contradicting you:

“Sir Thomas Urquhart is not a fellow-spirit with Rabelais; and the fact that he was so vigorous and headstrong a genius on his own account is precisely what did the mischief…

When it suits his purpose to be so, Rabelais can be as much of a concise and simply narrator as any artful modern adept. Now it is just this direct story-telling that was impossible to the more ponderous, more fantastically physiological, more heavily-moving North-British genius of Urquhart… again and again the humorous emphasis of the whole story is shifted from an essential point [in Rabelais] to an unessential point… the serious thing is that this shifting of the emphasis affects the essential nature of the humour itself, changing it from a humour that in Rabelais’s case springs from what we might call the basic clashes between the human egotisms of the various persons upon his stage into a humour that in Urquhart’s case depends upon the amount of incidental slap-stick and of incidental word-juggling which the ‘pitiful ambition’, as Hamlet would say, of the clown who uses it can manage to insert.”

By Conrad on 03/29/09 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

who should be remembered for tracing his family history back to Adam and Eve

All literate people did Biblical genealogies back then, didn’t they?  Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m half-remembering a crack in Marlowe about the trend.  I’ll look into it.

anticipating almost everyone on the Universal Language

Wasn’t he mocking the very idea that it’s possible?  Maybe I read him too much as a Rabelais protege, but isn’t he satirizing the nascent pre-Babelarian movement?  He hints about getting around to discussing it, but spends the entire treatise attacking his creditors, were it not for whose immoral practices, he would’ve finished the Logopandecteision years ago.

incidental word-juggling

Incidental?  He’s deliberately coining new words as he describes the language he never actually gets around to describing:

70. Now to the end the reader may be more enamored of the language, wherein I am to publish a grammer and lexicon, I will here set down some few qualities and advantages peculiar to it self, and which no language else, although all other concurred with it, is able to reach unto ...

72. Secondly, Such as will harken to my instructions, if some strange word be proposed to them, whereof there are many thousands of millions, deviseable by the wit of man, which never hitherto by any breathing have been uttered, shall be able, although he know not the ultimate signification thereof, to declare what part of speech it is; or if a noune, into what predicament or class it is to be reduced, whether it be the signe of a real or notional thing, or somewhat concerning mechanick trades in their tooles or tearmes; or if real, whether natural or artificial, complete or incomplete; for words here do suppone for the things which they signifie, as when we see my Lord General’s picture, we say, there is my Lord General.

73. Thirdly, This world of words hath but two hundred and fifty prime radices, upon which all the rest are branched ; for better understanding whereof, with all its dependant boughs, sprigs, and ramelets, I have before my lexicon set down the division thereof, making use of another allegory, into so many cities, which are subdivided into streets, they againe into lanes, those into houses, these into stories, whereof each room standeth for a word; and all these so methodically, that who observeth my precepts thereanent, shall, at the first hearing of a word, know to what city it belongeth, and consequently not be ignorant of some general signification thereof, till, after a most exact prying into all its letters, finding the street, lane, house, story, and room thereby denotated, he punctually hit upon the very proper thing it represents in its most specifical signification.

74. Fourthly, By vertue of adjectitious syllabicals annexible to nouns and verbs, there will arise of several words, what compound, what derivative, belonging in this language to one noune or to one verb alone, a greater number then doth pertaine to all the parts of speech in the most copious language in the world besides ...

76. Sixthly, In the cases of all the declipable parts of speech, it surpasseth all other languages whatsoever, for whilst others have but five or six at most, it hath ten, besides the nominative ...

78. Eighthly, Every word capable of number, is better provided therewith in this language then by any other; for in stead of two or three numbers, which others have, this affordeth you four; to wit, the singular, dual, plural, and redual ...

80. Tenthly, In this tongue there are eleven genders ; wherein likewise it exceed- eth all other languages.

81. Eleventhly, Verbs, mongrels, participles, and hybrids, have all of them ten tenses besides the present; which number no language else is able to attaine to.

82. Twelfthly, Though there be many conjugable words in other languages defective of tenses, yet doth this tongue allow of no such anomaly, but granteth all to each.

83. Thirteenthly, In lieu of six moods which other languages have at most, this one enjoyeth seven in its conjugable words.

84. Fourteenthly, Verbs here, or other conjugable parts of speech, admit of no want of moodes, as doe other languages.

85. Fifteenthly, In this language the verbs and participles have four voices, although it was never heard that ever any other language had above three.

86. Sixteenthly, No other tongue hath above eight or nine parts of speech, but this hath twelve.

87. Seventeenthly, For variety of diction in each part of speech, it surmounteth all the languages in the world.

88. Eighteenthly, Each noun thereof, or verb, may begin or end with a vowel or consonant, as to the peruser shall seem most expedient.

89. Nineteenthly, Every word of this language, declinable or indeclinable, hath at least ten several synomymas.

90. Twentiethly, Each of these synomymas, in some circumstance of the signification, differeth from the rest ...

93. Three and twentiethly, Every word in this language signifieth as well backward as forward, and how ever you invert the letter, still shall you fall upon significant words, whereby a wonderful facility is obtained in making of anagrams.

Maybe I’m misreading this, but I don’t think he really believes eleven the proper number of genders, or that ease-of-anagramming is a real consideration when inventing a universal tongue.  (Were he a Victorian, maybe.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/29/09 at 08:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Sorry for the long quotation, but I just love the cumulative effect of Urquhart’s absurdities.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/29/09 at 08:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t say I’ve ever come across anyone else who traced their family on both sides to Adam and Eve respectively, with full dates and name for each ancestor, and copious notes for many.

As for U’s mockery, that’s certainly how one is inclined to read it now, and probably true. But the marvelous thing about him is that you’re never quite sure. The Rabelais conflation is perhaps a bit too attractive. U’s propositions for the universal language (e.g., anagramming elements) are not a million miles from the combinatorics of Leibniz (1666), for instance.

As for ‘incidental’, I think Powys (whom I don’t fully agree with, though I value his note of dissidence) means that in the original Rabelais, word-coinage is more specific in its intention (the obvious example being the Limousin scholar, or various sexual euphemisms), whereas for U, he’ll take it wherever he can get it. For my money, R himself has a bit more of the U than Powys credits.

By Conrad on 03/29/09 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But the marvelous thing about him is that you’re never quite sure.”

I’m new to Urquhart but already I have the feeling that everything he wrote was both an elaborate satire and an attempt to raise money from idiotic investors.  Ideas like “Universal Language” might have been perfect for this; the notion was very much in the air at the time (including the serious proposals of fellow Scots John Wilkins and George Dalgano).  The idea that his language would be both oligosynthetic (every word is self-explanatory) AND that any thought could be expressed in his language with unprecedent brevity—well, that sort of vaporware is just deliciously funny to anyone who has gotten a taste of the labored explications advanced in a serious universal semantics project like Natural Semantic Metalanguage.

If Powys took Urquhart too seriously, consider that this sort of reaction might only have been grist for Urquhart’s mill.  After all, what fun to have an endless supply of people who take you far more seriously than you take yourself, when you’re only trying to be funny or bamboozle investors or both.  You’ll never run out of material, and if your bread and butter is selling tickets to public lectures on turgidly intellectual topics delivered in thick brogue, one thing is certain: you don’t want to run out of material.

By on 03/30/09 at 12:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I might balk at the ‘infinitely’, but I suppose I’d have to concede the superior to cricket description.

By Adam Roberts on 03/30/09 at 07:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"notion was very much in the air at the time”

Yes, but the ULs of Wilkins, Dalgarno, Cave Beck, Francis Lodwyck, John Comenius, etc. were all later than Urquhart. Bacon had vaguely suggested it fifty years earlier, but his very earliness is what makes U’s proposition particularly interesting. It’s hard to parody what doesn’t exist yet. Furthermore, U’s prose lacks the obvious markers of irony and satire found in, say, Thomas Nashe, or John Harrington’s Metamorphosis of Ajax.

By Conrad on 03/30/09 at 09:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I said “in the air”, the chronology of which is not to be confused with (or by) book publication dates.  See here:


Feverish activity around ULs might have germinated around the time of Comenius’ collaborations with Samuel Hartlib from 1842 onward.

Just because ideas aren’t embodied in book form doesn’t mean they aren’t circulated and discussed in less public channels.  Books are after-the-fact, if anything.

By on 03/30/09 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It ‘might have’, yes, although Urquhart wasn’t moving in those circles. At any rate, we’ll never know his intentions. I certainly do not deny that his UL was satirical--I just don’t think it is necessarily the case, especially when you compare the serious labour he put into his Trissotetras.

By Conrad on 03/30/09 at 12:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just because ideas aren’t embodied in book form doesn’t mean they aren’t circulated and discussed in less public channels.  Books are after-the-fact, if anything.

Great, now I’m having dissertation flashbacks.  Damn you, Turner!

As to the genealogy, this confirms my hazy recollection that Urquhart belonged to a long, proud line of people who drew their descent from the Torah.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/30/09 at 02:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is definitely the fault of Rabelais that students cannot peer review rigorously.  Or did I miss the point of this post?

By on 03/30/09 at 06:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t say I’ve ever come across anyone else who traced their family on both sides to Adam and Eve respectively, with full dates and name for each ancestor, and copious notes for many

A relative of mine traced his (and thus my) ancestry back to King Arthur and Calgacus, although honesty compelled him to admit in a footnote that the evidence for the lineage grew a bit sketchy before around 1100 AD.

By on 04/06/09 at 08:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: