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TSE  April 2006

TSE April 2006

Subject:

Re: Changing times

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Sat, 8 Apr 2006 12:50:58 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (94 lines)

[I started this with something specific in mind but ended up sort of
wandering. Readers can separate the cogent from the mere wandering, I
hope.]

Marcia wrote: "Those who don't know history are doomed to think only
they can think."

[You date this 2005 -- Was it on this list or elsewhere?]

This is a decided improvement over the original version (doomed to
repeat it), and has more explanatory power. That history repeats itself
is mostly an illusion, but those who know little or no history are quite
unable to join in "real argument," since they become too much in love
with their own badly reinvented wheels. Eliot's words re a poet's paying
back what he/she steals should be compared with Pope's 'often thought
but never so well expressed." The expressing well _depends_, crucially,
of having a profound awareness of precisely how often 'it' has been
thought before, and in what terms. Otherwise, what might have been wit
is merely a glaring chaos and wild heap of banalities.

Only the rigid 'rules' of the limerick make possible the following:

There was a young man from Japan,
Whose limericks never would scan,
When told it was so
He replied, "Yes I know,
But I always try to get as many words into the last line as ever I
possibly can."

The joke would also totally misfire for the reader who was not
him/herself aware of those rules. The humorous use of bad spelling,
incidentally, became possible only when (a) spelling was regularized and
(b) a large audience of solitary readers (as opposed to listeners) came
into existence. Since _surprise_ is always involved in humor, it
disappears in the absence of fixed expectations.

Marcia ends:

> The evolution of the book has always, from the
> addition of spaces between words in Greek and Roman texts to now (who
> knows the future?), has been fueled by the cycle of
> needs, met needs, and changing desires of scribes/writers/readers.

I know some but not enough of this history. I don't, for example, know
(or at least don't remember) _when_ that division into words occurred:
e.g., was the division already there when the first transciptions of the
Homeric texts occurred? I would suppose that part of the ancient
reverance of the scribe was grounded in the extreme difficulty of
deciphering texts in which such breaks did not occur???

The quotation from Roberts and Skeat is illuminating and tempts me to
look up the book. It seems that behind my back an entire new discipline
(study of the history of the book as such) has sprung up which I was
unaware of before reading a recent review in the LRB.

Some stray observations which may or may not be relevant to the
interesting discussion you propose.

It is only, really, in the last century that for huge numbers of people
reading has become a totally private experience, and that change
requires a cosiderable revision in our sense of "literacy" in the past.
For example, thousands of people who were 'illiterate' 'read' and
participated vigorously in the discussion of the Federalist Papers,
texts which in the 20th century utterly baffle even many quite bright
freshman comp students (or did at Michigan 50 years ago). They
_listened_ to them being read aloud in the local tavern or coffee house.
Similarly, huge audiences in the 1850s could stand in the hot Illinois
sun and follow carefully hours-long (and quite complicated) debates
between Lincoln and Douglas. And then there is that famous event, of
which I now forget the details, in which the owner of a cigar factory
hired readers to read to his workers as they rolled the cigars, and the
texts chosen were such as would be difficult for many nominally literate
people to follow.

The next is really far-fetched, but possibly relevant because it
involves a split between thinking and vision. Descartes 'liberated'
geometry from the need for figures in geometry. One need not look at or
even imagine an actual circle to study the equations into which (after
Descartes) it could be translated. (This bothered Pound, who thought
Descartes had queered geometry.) And this liberation of mathematics from
the visible was, of course, essential in the development of
non-euclidean geometries, which then in the 20th century turned out to
be essential for understanding certain physical realities.

Experiencing novels as part of an audience might change that genre, for
a private relationship between writer and reader exists in the novel
which did not (obviously) exist for the the auditors of the Homeric
epics or for the (again mostly 'illiterate') spectators of Athenian
tragedy and comedy. But I'll have to continue this later.

It would be entertaining to have actual argument rather than posturing
on this list. Marcia is suggesting a real revolution. :-)

Carrol

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