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13 June 2008

Ekskybalauron, or The Discovery of a Most Exquisite Jewel by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1652) is a strange animal, hard to classify. It was written when Urquhart, a Royalist supporter of the late Charles I and his displaced son Charles II, was a prisoner of war after the battle of Worcester (3 September 1651); originally pseudonymous, under the pen-name "Christianus Presbyteromastix", it argues that Urquhart ought to be freed and have his ancestral lands (engrossed by his father's creditors) restored to him. The core of the book is a few pages of a prospectus for a universal language, offered as a primary reason for Urquhart's release; if freed, he will be able to finish work on the language and offer it to the world, which will be of inestimable benefit to mankind. The same prospectus, slightly revised and expanded, occurs as Book I of Urquhart's non-pseudonymous Logopandecteision (1653), written after he was paroled by Oliver Cromwell; there, Urquhart argues in his own person for debt relief as a necessary preliminary to the full publication of the Universal Language.

In The Jewel, the framing device has "Christianus Presbyteromastix" relating the results of the Battle of Worcester, following which the Parliamentarian soldiers looted the town, including the house where Urquhart was staying. His manuscripts, supposedly including the full grammar of the Universal Language, were scattered and the paper used for base purposes; only the brief outline or prospectus of the language was recovered, supposedly found in a gutter a few days after the battle.

The language was apparently to be taxonomic in structure:

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 Noun, unto what predicament or class it is to be reduced ; whether it be the sign of a real or notional thing, or somewhat concerning mechanick Trades in their Tooles, or tearmes ; or if real, whether natural or artificial, compleat, or incompleat ; for words here do suppose for the things which they signifie ; as when we see my Lord Generals picture, we say, there is my Lord General.

It was apparently to be fairly phonologically complex, its phoneme inventory being a union of the sets of phonemes in all other languages known to its author:

57. The Universal alphabet therefore must be first conceived, before the exactness of that computation can be attained unto.

58. Then is it, when having couched an Alphabet materiative of all the words the mouth of man, with its whole implements, is able to pronounce, and bringing all these words within the systeme of a Language, which, by reason of its logopandochie, may deserved be intituled, The Universal Tongue, that nothing will better merit the labour of a Grammatical Arithmetician, then, after due enumeration, hinc inde, to appariate the words of the Universall Language with the things of the Universe.

But Urquhart seemingly had scant notion of the phonological complexity to be found even in many European tongues:

112. Two and Fourtiethly, No Language but this hath in its words the whole number of letters, that is, ten vowels, and five and twenty consonants ; by which means there is no word escapes the latitude thereof.

And the language was to be of great inflexional complexity, though perfectly regular; for instance (a few grammatical categories of many):

76. Sixthly, In the cases of the declinable 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. [Urquhart was apparently unfamiliar with Finnish.]

81. Eleventhly, Verbs, Mongrels, Participles, and Hybrids, have all of them ten Tenses, besides the present ; which number, no Language else is able to attain to.

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.

So far all this seems doable, if not necessarily advisable; apparently something like what we call now a "kitchen-sink conlang"; but Urquhart makes more audacious claims for his language as well:

71. First, There is not a word utterable by the mouth of man, which in this language hath not a peculiar signification by it self ; so that the allegation of Bliteri by the Summulists, will be of small validity.

75. Fifthly, So great energy to every meanest constitutive part of a word in this Language is appropriated, that one word thereof, though but of seven syllables at most shall comprehend that which no Language else in the world is able to express in fewer then fourscore and fifteen several words ; and that not only a word here and there for masteries sake, but several millions of such ; which, to any initiated in the rudiments of my Grammar, shall be easie to frame.

89. Nineteenthly, Every word of this Language declinable or indeclinable hath at least ten several synomyma's.

93. Three and twentiethly, Ever word in this Language signifieth as well backward as forward ; and however you invert the letters, still shall you fall upon significant words : whereby a wonderfull facility is obtained in the making of Anagrams.

97. Seven and twentiethly, in translating verses of any vernaculary Tongue, such as Italian, French, Spanish, Slavonian, Dutch, Irish, English, or whatever it be, it affords you of the same signification, syllable for syllable, and in the closure of each line a rime, as in the original.

99. Nine and twentiethly, what rational Logarithms doe by writing, this Language doth by heart ; and by adding of letters, shall multiply numbers, which is a most exquisite secret.

When I first read Logopandecteision a year or two ago, I thought the language pure vaporware, and intentionally (satirically) so. After reading The Jewel, and its editors' (R.D.S. Jack and R.J. Lyall) introduction, I'm not so sure; maybe Urquhart was serious about having developed the language beyond the outline we have and intended to develop it further and publish it if his demands were met. It hardly seems possible, however, that if he had developed it fully (as far as we know, no conlang prior to Volapük was ever developed enough to be used for writing or speaking extensively) it could have fulfilled all the extravagant claims he made for it, given subsequent experience with other philosophical languages of the same type; I don't think any conlang of this type has ever gained any speakers besides its author, or even been used by its author for writing extensive text.

The next part of The Jewel argues for Urquhart's release on the grounds that inventors and discoverers of useful things ought to be rewarded by the state; then it moves on to attack the Presbyterians of Scotland and defend the Scottish character more generally, by a number of anecdotes about recent Scottish war-heroes and scholars. The cream of this section is the long narrative about the Admirable James Crichton (1560-1582); this section has sometimes been reprinted separately.

In Logopandecteision, Urquhart follows the prospectus for the Universal Language with several chapters attacking his creditors and other enemies; this material is fun to read in small doses, but not as interesting as the prospectus for the Universal Language or the biographical anecdotes in The Jewel.

Urquhart's prose style is baroque, tending to long and complex sentences, obscure words, and neologisms (mostly Hellenic or Latinate or hybrid) of his own invention. It took me several months to finish The Jewel (I checked it out of the library three times). Besides the extracts from the prospectus quoted earlier, I'll give a choice extract from the life of the Admirable Crichton. On the last day of his life, Shrove Tuesday (i.e., Mardi Gras) 1582, he gave a performance to the court of the Duke of Mantua:

O, with how great liveliness did he represent the conditions of all manner of men! How naturally did he set before the eyes of the beholders the rogueries of all professions from the overweening monarch to the peevish swaine through all the intermediary degrees of the superficial courtior or proud warrior, dissembled churchman, doting old man, cozening lawyer, lying traveler, covetous merchant, rude seaman, pedantic scolar, the amorous shepheard, envious artisan, vainglorious master and tricky servant! He did with such variety display the several humours of all these sorts of people and with a so bewitching energy, that he seemed to be the original, they the counterfeit; and they the resemblance whereof he was the prototype.

I'll stop there; the next sentence is delicious, but it's almost a page long, and I'm a bit tired of transcribing. Soon after this there follows what I've heard somewhere (I forget from what source) might be the first sex scene in English prose literature; then Crichton's death at the hands of his lady's former swain, the Prince of Mantua, and a long epilogue about the mourning following his death. Urquhart ("Presbyteromastix") goes on to write about a number of other Scottish mercenaries and scholars, before returning to the theme of Urquhart's unjust imprisonment at the end.

With their stylistic complexity (over and above the mere archaicity of books written 350 years ago) The Jewel and Logopandecteision are not for everyone, but I enjoyed them greatly and will probably read them again someday.


Strokes by John Clute (1988) is a collection mostly of his book review columns from various magazines, 1966-1986, with some new material, mostly in the form of inline bracket notes. It seems entirely too meta to spend much time reviewing a book of book reviews; but there's one intriguing passage in the long essay "Scholia, Seasoned with Crabs, Blish Is" that I want to quote and comment on, and ask my scant handful of readers to comment on if they have any clue about it:

In Beyond Genre (1972), Paul Hernadi takes on and presents for contemporary readers Ramon Fernandez's 1926 proposal to divide prose fiction into two broad tonalities or aspects. At one pole, the roman concerns itself with "the representation of events as they emerge and develop in time." Its "intuitive," "synthetic," "vital tonality evokes a 'psychogical present (which has nothing to do with the grammatical tense of a text)." This idiom, the idiom of the roman, is clearly instinct with and generates mimesis. At the other pole, the recit concerns itself with "the presentation of past events by a narrator in accordance with the principles of logic and rhetoric." Its "logical" and "analytical" tonality reports a "conceptualized temps," which has nothing to do with grammatical tense either, but which gives off a sense of distanced, disjunct pastness. This idiom, the idiom of the recit, is just as clearly instinct with and generates exemplification.

I'm not at all sure that what I got out of this passage is what Fernandez, Hernadi or Clute wanted me to get; but it was fairly thought-provoking in spite of a certain opacity due partly to my inadequate grasp of literary theory terminology, partly perhaps to the complexity of Clute's style. What I immediately recognized in it was a distinction between fiction where the text does not attempt to account for itself in any way; usually third person, but often enough first person, where there is no conceit embedded in the text about how the first-person narrator's story is being conveyed to the reader; and, on the other hand, fiction which accounts for itself as a work of nonfiction, usually some sort of history or biography or most commonly autobiography, within the invented world of the story. The narrator is usually first-person, often more or less unreliable, and his vagaries of thought and memory intrude often into the text, perhaps in the form of asides such as "I didn't understand this at the time, but..." or "I forgot to mention this earlier...". (I'm vaguely paraphrasing from memory some locutions from Gene Wolfe's Pandora by Holly Hollander and/or Pirate Freedom, which I don't have handy as I'm writing this.)

Further reading in Clute's essay on James Blish led me to think that I had misunderstood the Ferndandez/Hernadi/Clute classification of roman/recit. My conception of those categories put Tristram Shandy and most of the works of Gene Wolfe and John Crowley in the "recit" category — or perhaps, at the "recit" end of the spectrum — and the vast majority of 19th and 20th century fiction, e.g. most of Robert Heinlein's work, even his occasional first-person narratives like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, at the "roman" end of the spectrum. But then on the next page Clute goes on to argue that most of James Blish's works are recit; which showed me that, whatever Clute (and presumably his sources) meant by those terms, it wasn't what I thought at first that I understood by them. I still, after re-reading a large chunk of the essay on Blish, don't quite get what Ferndandez, Hernadi, and Clute meant by those terms — but I think the classification this opaque passage suggested to me may be a useful one anyway.

And back with James Blish, we're able to dissolve some of the knots and crabbed access he offers to the field through the realization that as a writer, he's deeply immersed in the recit idiom, maugre science fiction's general devotion to a shrill, streamlined mimetic parlance.

Surely Blish's works are stylistically (and maybe structurally) fairly different from most of the works of his contemporaries; but (though it's been years since I've read most of his works) he doesn't remind me particuarly of Laurence Sterne, Gene Wolfe or John Crowley, who were the authors that immediately came to mind on first reading the passage quoted earlier. The mainstream authors Clute mentions as typically recit include Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Laurence Sterne, George Meredith, Thomas Love Peacock, James Joyce, and William Faulkner; the only other sf authors he mentions besides Blish, I think, are H.G. Wells, Thomas Disch, and John Sladek. I haven't read Joyce, Faulkner or Sladek, and very little by Meredith, Peacock or Disch; what I've read by the authors he mentions doesn't help much in understanding what recit is really supposed to mean, as I can't see strong stylistic or structural resemblances among their works. Does anyone else have any suggestions (besides reading Paul Hernadi's Beyond Genre, which I'll do if I can find it at the library)?

1 June 2008

Back in January there was a discussion on rec.arts.sf.written of the Modern Library Association's list of 30 books everyone should read before they die. Several people posted their own preferred lists; I posted mine here, as a reply to Gene Ward Smith's message with the librarians' list and his own list. Of the various lists other people posted, Lawrence Watt-Evans' list accords most closely with my own taste and judgement.


"Rhinocéros" by Eugéne Ionesco (1959) is an absurdist play in which, first, one or more rhinoceroses show up in the middle of a city for unknown reasons, and people react in consternation; later, it turns out that people are changing into rhinoceroses, though it's not entirely clear whether it's volunary or involuntary (or perhaps involuntary for some people and voluntary for others?) — one of the main characters blames certain others for turning into rhinoceroses, saying they oughtn't to have done it. As a Christian, I read absurdist authors for the humor, not for the mostly if not entirely bogus philosophy; judged by that admittedly narrow standard, "Rhinocéros" is enjoyable but not one of the best absurdist works. Ionesco's own "La Leçon" and "La Cantatrice chauve" are a lot funnier, as is Samuel Beckett's "En Attendant Godot".


Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (2006) is apparently more or less autobiographical; it episodically tells the story of a year in the life of a teenage boy living in the titular village in Worcestershire in the early 1980s. I would compare it to Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine in its content and structure, and favorably; Mitchell isn't as lyrical a writer as Bradbury, but Black Swan Green works better as a novel. It's pretty low-key and uneventful compared to Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, but still manages to tell an interesting story and delineate several strong characters. I would recommend it, though not as strongly as his earlier novels.


Italy and the Vatican at War by S. William Halperin (1939) seems to be a fairly objective and thorough history of the relations between Pope Pius IX and the Italian state from 1870-1878. However, it makes few concessions to the nonspecialist reader; the brief Introduction giving an overview of the situation from 1848 to 1870 will be of little help to someone who hasn't read a history of Italy or a biography of Pius IX recently, preferably both. Both in the Introduction and in the main text Halperin mentions many persons without introducing them, assuming that his readers already know who they are.

A notable feature is the repeated extensive sections quoting from the editorials of (chiefly French and Italian) newspapers, showing the views that different parties took of various events as they happened.

Apparently the copyright was never renewed, so this may be in the public domain, but as far as I can tell no etext exists yet. There were several copies available fairly cheaply on abebooks.com when I checked.

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