On 10/21/2011 8:59 AM, Nancy Gish wrote:
> Dear Peter,
> I agree that there are odd, private symbols like the goat and
squatting Jew, but that is part of what makes symbolist poetry and not
the same as elaborate systems of riddles, the point of which is to
figure out a code. I think code-breaking (having largely saved the West
in WWII) is very serious. My point was not to trivialize that but to say
we should bring in somone serious about codes if we meant to make poetry
only an intellectual's crossword puzzle.
> I agree that the emphasis on Christ as fully human, defecation and
all, is clearly part of the concept of Incarnation; I do not think Eliot
would represent him in this degraded way, for all the reasons of the
time and place during WWI and the very trivializing of the image itself
as representing a god.
(Way down at the end I bring this material back to poetry.)
"Code breaking" is a somewhat misleading term (partly because it
obscures the difference between "codes" and "ciphers." I in a sense
"broke" the cipher system used by the *Czech Border Guard when I was
attached to NSA back in the early'50s. But the term is wrong. We had
thought it was a one-time pad system: the key was never reused. (The way
text was enciphered was first to convert it to numbers, then to 'add'
the key to the text. (You added without carrying.,) For example:
Plain Text: 76204
Enciphered Text: 59509
If the key is never reused, it is in principle and practice unbreakable.
Provided the key is random. Apparently the Czech key was produced by
typists. And if you sit all day typing 5digit groups of numbers, you do
it sort of mindlessly (I assume) and occasionally fall in to patterns.
Then, somewhat painfully, it is possible for the cryptanalyst to
decipher some messages. That way, before I got assigned to the project,
they had accumulated quite a body of key and had studied it and divided
it into “families.” One family was key that contained frequent groups
such as the following: 58869, or LRRLR with a tencency to move across
the keyboard for several groups.
Now, there were also families characterized by groups with that double
digit in the 2 &3 positions, but which did not fit the LRRLR pattern.
Now, I wondered if maybe there was some relationship. (The way I imaged
it to myself was that this second kind of key could be produced by
running the first through and electric typewriter (with paper tape)
with the keys rewired. One could, as it were, encipher the key to
produce new key. So I started moneying around (there was no systematic
way to work with this traffic. One would pull some intercepts out of the
file drawer, copy the text on to graph paper, then fiddle around until a
‘recognizable’ key group produced some recognizable plain text. If
lucky, if there was enough patterned key in a message, one could
decipher it. (And add to the body of key we had.) So I monkeyed around
for a month or two, and one day I found an overlap: Two messages
enciphered with the same key (if one first made the necessary
substitutions in the key groups.) That gave us the ‘key’ to the
encipherd key: We knew how the typewriter keys had been rewired to
produce the new key. And then I found out that what I had discovered had
a name: Isomorphic Key. And then we discovered that the key used in the
Inter-sattelite borderguard traffic (the way, that is, the Czech Border
Guard communicated with Hungarian Border Guard) was also isomorphic.
We hadn’t really “broken” anything, but we had discovered a somewhat
systematic way to look for overlaps – that is, for different messages to
be enciphered with the same key. That gave you a check on the accuracy
of both decipherments. An overlap of only two was a bit iffy, but it was
better than nothing. In WW2 they had overlaps of as much as 50 or more
messages, and with that o ne could decipher almost faster than the man
in the ship’s radio room.
Now here is the point for literary criticism. You cannot believe any
“decoding” that is not certified by something like the Overlaps I speak
of below. You have to have some sort of ‘check’ outside of and
independently of the message you are decoding before there is any reason
whatever to give any credence to your decoding. And that is almost NEVER
available in poetry. You can’t just say X stands for Y in apoem unless
you have other texts where the same system is used. You can’t have X
sometimes standing for Y and then at other times have it standing for Z.
And this is a problem even with more or less traditional “symbolism.”
For example, quite often, going back to the Odyssey, the sea, or just
bodies of water, tend to insert a sense of chaos into a text. It’s
incorrect to say that “The Sea” ‘stands for’ Chaos: but it CAN, sort of,
suggest chaos, give the poem the tone of dealing with chaos. But not
always. Not always even in the same poem. Sometimes (as Freud said of
cigars) The Sea is just the Sea. Even on the same page this can be the
case. The first reference triggrs a sense of chaos; the second reference
10 lines down does not. It just leads to nuttiness to try to treat poems
like a coded system.