Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe, by Richard Scholar, Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780199274406

Richard Scholar is Fellow and Tutor in French, at Oriel College, Oxford.

The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe : Richard ...

In the realm of Philosophy ours has been called the age of the method. That is, method as the chosen vehicle with which we locate and explore our understanding of our position in the world.

What is the je ne sais quois? It is the inexpressible, the ‘I do not know what’ of a situation, event, and even, as Richard Scholar shows with Montaigne, of a relationship. Or, if you prefer, it is the ‘I know not what.’ In English there is the phrase he uses as subtitle of the book: a certain something – The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi – Encounters with a Certain Something. This phrase pales against the French, though.

How can we know the je ne sais quoi? We can hunt out its provenance… this, after all, is accepted method. The phrase can be traced back to origins in the Cicero’s example of his use of the expression nescio quid: I do not know what. Richard Scholar qualifies, however: It owns its literary prestige partly to its Latin ancestor and its Romance cousins, but, unlike them, it goes on to establish itself as a vogue-word and an organising topic. (Page 25)

And there we have the tone and tenor of the book. We can trace the literary prestige of the phrase more easily than the vernacular usage. How prevalent was the phrase in ordinary/everyday usage? We would need to see how and if it was used in each and every instance in context, time, speech, manuscript, and print. And so he restricts his search to early modern Europe, examining its use in Montaigne, Corneille, Moliere, Descartes, Pascal, even Shakespeare.

Take those Englishings, above: the ‘I do not know what…’, and the ‘I know not what.’ The second is more succinct, comfortable; is more self-contained-seeming through its use of form. To our ears it has a sound-bite quality to it. The first seems more exploratory, more open, questing. The first expresses a vulnerability towards knowledge, self-knowledge – therefore a vulnerability before a greater, omniscient knowledge. In this way can we extrapolate therefore, a more theistic quality to it, whereas the latter has a more renaissance quality: more au-fait with classical rhetorical forms?
For me this gets to the heart of the question. I use the phrase ‘sound-bite’ etc – it is a contemporary journalistic phrase. Hopefully it will not be known in ten year’s time, as it was not say, twenty years’ ago. It limits. My worry is: do we limit our thinking to what we can only express in words, language? That would be a grievous error. I posit thought as experienced event, full of multiplying connections, and not as ordered and expressible formulation of the event.

Read the excerpt I gave above again; take, for instance, the need of the super-defining Latin writers of the phrase, nescio quid. Something even escapes their forensic practice. In fact, quite a lot did, And this is the fate of so much of our, Europe’s, early heritage, circumscribed by Latin thought, expression, and the vicissitudes of transmission.

In the sixteenth century France, Richard Scholar comments, the phrase became vogue; as with the later vogue for conversatione (see Peter Burke, The Art of Conversation, Cornell University paperbacks,1993:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Conversation-Peter-Burke/)
it spread throughout Western Europe. It changed costume, definition, commercial value, as it crossed cultures.

David M Possner, Chicago University: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/212681, writes: The first part of the book presents itself as a word history: using Starobinski’s notion of the tripartite life cycle of a word — from its emergence as a lexical entity, through a period of currency, to its demise in what Merleau-Ponty calls sedimentation….

And so we have the burgeoning of the great dictionaries at the turn of the seventeenth century. The phrase cannot be so restricted, we find: it retains its ability to disturb, disrupt, by remaining indefinable. And so ‘society’ fights back. We have what is called a parlour game of polite conversation, where the new philosophical writing becomes a polite topic. The game is of nescioquiddity, of applying the phrase to ‘cultured’ phenomena, the world of gentility.

The move from ‘I know not what’, to ‘a certain something’ is a very definite, provocative one. Kant and the Age of Reason are taken wholesale, you might say, and produce their own particular paradigms for conceptualising the essence of the relationship of self and the world.

The phrase throws into relief our relationship with knowledge of the world, of self knowledge, and the relationship between: our basic epistemology.

With this book, and his next, Montaigne and the Art of Free-Thinking (Past in the Present): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Montaigne-Art-Free-Thinking-Past-Present/
Scholar enrolled himself in the realm of histoire des mentalites, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_mentalities
of cultural history’s  investigations.

I’ve always liked putting different things together, and seeing what happens.
Years and years ago when I had a passing interest in such things I had a wondering-moment about the Tree Alphabet.
This alphabet was proposed by Robert Graves in his White Goddess book; it is constructed from ogham practice and text references in Irish.
It is an alphabet that uses tree names as the letter names. I never could work out why which tree was used where, their leafing, flowering, growth do not seem to coincide with the specific months Graves gives.

There are 13 lunar months; each is a letter of the alphabet, and a sequence in the tale of the growth to maturity of the year, represented as a god. He is then supplanted at midsummer by the god of the waning year. Until New Year when it starts again..
It goes like this, from late December on through the year:

Beth -birch
Fearn – rowan
Luis – alder
Nion – ash
Saille – willow
Uath- hawthorn
Duir- oak
Tinne- holly
Coll-hazel
Muin-vine
Gort-ivy
Ngetal-reed
Ruis-elder

Of course, he then arranged this sequence into what he called a Dolmen Arch:

 

Saille Uath Duir Tinne Coll
Nion                               Muin
Luis                                 Gort
Fearn                              Ngetal
Beth                               Ruis

So, this arrangement puts Duir, the oak tree as the all-important capstone of the (square) arch. This accords with his midsummer fight between waxing and waning year gods. Ok.

So, I thought, how does the tarot’s major arcana fit in with this?
Let’s see:

Lovers/SailleChariot/.UathStrength/Duir-Justice/TinneHermit/Coll
Willow             Hawthorn                Oak                       Holly               Hazel
Emperor/Nion                                                                               Temperence/Muin
Ash                                                                                                   Vine                                                   Hierophant/Fearn                                                                         Hanged Man/Gort
Alder                                                                                                Ivy
Magician/Luis                                                                                 Death/Ngetal
Rowan                                                                                              Reed
Fool/Beth                                                                                          The Tower/Ruis
Birch                                                                                                 Elder

 

A few are missing, you say.
Graves has what he called Cross-Quarter Days, special days in each sector. They rule the following months, until the next cross-quarter day, and so on.
From the Fool’s late Dec/early January Birch month, we have The High Priestess: the young year.
The Lover’s March-April Willow tree month has The Empress: the mature year.
The Hermit’s August Hazel month has Wheel of Fortune: the fall from greatness.
The Tower’s November/Dec Elder tree month, has The Devil, as god of the fallen year, darkness, death. Think of him as a god of the underworld: Pluto, Hades, of all things inimical to life, rather than all-out evil.

With this being an alphabet of consonants, we also have the five vowels These make the lintel, or door step:
The World-The Moon-The Sun-The Star-Judgement.
These, like the extra days, do not have tree names. But with this arrangement the Sun vowel is opposite the Strength/Oak consonant; The Moon is opposite The Lovers/Willow and Chariot/Hawthorn; The Star is opposite Justice/Holly and Hermit/Hazel.
The World covers the gaining year’s upright pillar, and Judgement the falling year upright pillar.
The vowels cannot have to one-to-one matches, because they breathe life into all the consonontal word-clusters.

This all made a kind of sense to me. Most appropriate seemed to be The Emperor with the old Ash god, and most of all Strength with the Oak and Sun connections.
The Rowan tree with the Magician also had a resonance.
On the other side The Hermit with Hazel seemed to fit. Not sure about Death, followed by The Tower, though. What do you think?

You have to know Graves’ construction of the story to fit it in. And there you have it: can you believe the man? Was he back-arguing ie fitting things in afterwards?
I have caught him out on a few things over the years. Enough, anyhow, to make me back off.

You can tinker with things forever, seemingly, and it’ll still get you nowhere.

 

 

 

2016-09-06-13-39-15

Negative Energy, by Richard Livermore.
24 Essays and Blogs. Elefantasia Press, 2016

ISBN: 976-1911357-17-9                  Price £.7.99 (Postage free in the UK)

The book can be purchased from:
Richard Livermore, 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh, EH3 6HN, Scotland, UK.
livermore.chanticleer.richard@gmail.com

 

Richard Livermore should be better known.
He founded and edited Chantecleer Magazine, and its later online form Ol Chanty:

http://www.chanticleer-press.com/

He has been active in the literary and poetry worlds for many years. He is a seasoned campaigner for wider dissemination, deeper understanding, for the neglected and the deserving of better readership.
But he never shies away from the difficult questions, the tricky areas.

Aficionados of literature, poetry, film, philosophy, culture will feel very at home in the world of this book.Why? Because

This Is The Book For You!

 

2016 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
I mention this in this context because my favourite essay so far in this collection contains a wham-bang essay on Shakespeare. He opens by questioning Why he was never given a place in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

What he gives us in response is SHAKESPEARE AND THE QUESTION OF LEGITIMATE POWER.
In this mere eight pages he takes us through the pungency of Shakespeare’s response to power as he found it in London under Elizabeth 1, and earlier claimants. He shows how Shakespeare ran the gamut of realisations from Timon of Athens, to the big three of Hamlet, MacBeth and King Lear. This he argues persuasively was a zeroing-in on the subject of the nature of power itself. Timon, he writes was about money as power; no, the real kick came when Shakespeare found a way around censorship via history, other cultures, to look at, pull apart, expose the gaining, use and abuse of political power.
This is why Shakespeare was difficult to domesticate. He had to be ‘bowdlerised’ as one term has it; he had also to be rendered benign through academic study modules.
That is why it takes an essay like this, outside of the academy, to reveal just how much Shakespeare pushed perceptions; how he threw it out into the open, to the populace, to people outside privilege and court circles.

I wrote above that essay was my favourite ‘so far’. Admit it, our likes, our desires, change. They grow develop. Or do they? Is the pack just reshuffled after a time? Time, yes. Time is the problem. What happens to us over time?
Some have attempted road maps (of the soul) for us. Whether they are religions, philosophies, politics or ethical systems, the intent is similar: how do we navigate our combined lives through time, in our shared space?
These essays and blogs take us through these invented landscapes searching all the time for that thing that makes our lives. He has his own particular criteria.

A close second on the Shakespeare essay/blog is EPIC PERSPECTIVES.
Being challenged can be one of our greatest pleasures, as well as spurs to learning, to knowing. In this piece Richard Livermore brings us to that body of writing I have long wanted to dive into and swim, The Mahabharata. In this instance it is Carole Satyamurti’s version. His love for the work is obvious on every page, and it illuminates the text.
The Mahabharata is, of course, another way of navigating time and space. This time it does not follow on the Greek/Classical rationalism method, but uses an older means, that of story. It is an unfolding story, series of stories, though, and this is important: it is not a static, rendered-into-text, finished product. The stories went out into the villages, were added onto, changed, re-valued. What we have here is one-off screen-shot of The Mahabharata’s vast complex of stories.

Think Game of Thrones has twists and turns, and conniving and general skullduggery? Try The Mahabharata. The difference is that The Mahabharata has Dharma, it has a through-line of purpose, intent, that is responsive to current and contemporary situations. G R R Martin certainly knows his predecessors.

On the topic of time, duration, and identity, Richard Livermore takes us through the book  Difference and Repetition, by Giles Deleuze, in his essay DELEUZENARY STATES
It is necessary for any thought-traveller to have some grounding in Deleuze (and Gatari), and this essay is an excellent place to begin. We encounter Kant as a major contributor. Kant occurs throughout the essays and blogs: his contribution to modern thought is given due recognition.

What do you think of democracy? That sacred cow of the enlightened Western world: Do not touch; do not question; just accept it as the best we have to offer.
Well, is it?
Richard Livermore writes: ‘Personally, I would  extend the notion of democracy and limit it at the same time.’ You see, it is possible to think further, think round corners, look at democracy from other sides, angles, and not just the big sell part. In our small worlds of personal interactions, equality and diversity etc, it has proved invaluable. On the big stage it can take on an appearance as lumbering, out-dated.  ‘A means to an end, and not an end in itself.’ he writes. Once an idea, a political ideal, becomes realised it is limited by its success, its existence, even. We sit back: the work is done. It is never done, though, is it. Democracy is just a station on your way, to quote Leonard Cohen.

So what does he mean by Negative Energy? It is part of an equation with positivity. Positivity denotes creating, building up, aspiration and achievement of promise. Negative Energy is not its opposite – that way of thinking, of universals, logical oppositions, contradictories etc is not helpful. Negative Energy is the energy released from the break-down, break-up, of ossified structures and systems. Sound familiar? Sound like someplace you know? The energy can be just as creative, just as vitalizing. The best of our works, our books, plays, symphonies we value as such because they give us the struggle of the breaking out and rebuilding.
It is quite a whoosh when you realise that!

The book is in no ‘particular order – chronological or otherwise’ Richard Livermore writes in his Preface. I see that as a strength, it gives the book a jewel box quality, full of surprises and sparkles, some dark, some glittering, some challenging our icons, some valuing them.
That is not to say there are no through-threads, themes, obsessions, even. There certainly are, and it provides us with a pleasure to find topics occurring in unexpected places.

We glimpse a very human heart and mind at work here behind the essays and blogs on film, opera, novels, plays, poetry, philosophy, science.
Here are our cultural nodes and political moods, explored and unraveled for us. For us to carry on the work.