Notes on Dublin Books 1: The Chester Beatty Library, MS 751

This important 13th century Samaritan Pentateuch – the first five books of the bible and the only books in the Samaritan canon – retains evidence of continual use over centuries including inscriptions by its owners in the 15th and 16th centuries.

This opening shows clear traces of kissing, an act reserved for especially sacred passages, such as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.1-17)

Exhibition note for Samaritan Pentateuch,
Abi Barakatah
1225, Palestine (historical region)
CBL Heb 751 at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Logos: The word he utters, the truth that it contains…

They are not kissing the vellum – the animal skin stretched and scraped, depilated, and boiled of its fat. The needlemarks from the skin, stretched on its frame and scraped, are still visible.

They are not kissing the calligraphy, even though the scribe, Abi Barakatah, was one of the most famous and exquisite calligraphers of the 13th Century.

They are not kissing the words of J, E, P, or D. E in this case – Exodus 20. E, who got their initial because they used ‘El’ for God, and Were Not Concerned with Priestly Matters.

Nor are they kissing R – the Redactor, who filleted and assembled the sections of the Pentateuch with paste and cuttings.

These letters! What visions of politics and power in that distant time and land they conjure!

My thesis is that the redactors of Genesis and Numbers have one overriding concern, that is for the prospects of the priestly corporation which they belong to, and which includes their northern brethren in Samaria.

Mary Douglas, Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation, OUP (2004)

Those sensitive, sensuous and reverent lips are touching and kissing the utterances of Moses, and by extension, for it is stated at the beginning of Exodus 20, God:

And God spake all these words, saying…

And yet they are kissing all. The route of transmission of those words to the reader is the route back for the kiss. Though a magician or theologian might say that the route of knowledge needn’t be the return route of divine intimacy.

When I kiss your lips, and we look at each other as if we could look at each other forever, at least until the next kiss, it is into that farthest, most intimate place we gaze. But it is also the lips we taste, and each other’s body that we hold so closely in that moment, and no other. And the smell of your hair, like grass.

The preservation of matter (or conservation of energy in other terms) and the transfer of information are always essential to get to the bottom of any subject or object or any thing that concerns us whatsoever*.

The connexion between the kissing of the page and God necessitates our entire field of humanities, and more besides.

In Eros and Magic in the Renaissance Ioan P Couliano covers the variety and intellectual history of Classical and Renaissance theories of love. How rays from the eyes communicate the image of the loved one via pneuma into the creation of a phantasm of the beloved, perceptible to the soul.

This leads him to quote 13th Century poet and inventor of the sonnet, Giacomo da Lentino:

HOW A WOMAN, WHO IS SO BIG, PENETRATES THE EYES, WHICH ARE SO SMALL

If we closely examine Bernard of Gordon’s long description of amor hereos, we observe that it deals with a phantasmic infection finding expression in the subject’s melancholic wasting away, except for the eyes. Why are the eyes excepted? Because the very image of the woman has entered the spirit through the eyes and, through the optic nerve, has been transmitted to the sensory spirit that forms common sense. Tranformed into phantasm, the obsessional image has invaded the territory of the three ventricles of the brain, inducing a disordered state of the reasoning faculty (virtus estimativa), which resides in the second cerebral cell. If the eyes do not partake of the organism’s general decay, it is because the spirit uses those corporeal apertures to try to reestablish contact with the object that was converted into the obsessing phantasm: the woman.

Ioan P Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, University of Chicago Press (1987)

Now, we can all laugh about this… but in that description is the recognition that any theory needs to account for the material transmission of information that leads to this object cathexis. And in that transmission are very deep matters indeed, much of science and psychology, and areas more generally that remain unfathomed and are still mysteries.

There are analogous issues in the nature of metaphor, another form of transference, which we can see in complex form in a diary entry by Rilke:

I invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt: only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.

Rilke’s Diaries, from this excellent essay by Marjorie Perloff Reading Gass Reading Rilke

As the heat is transfered to the imperceptible petal, so God’s breath and the kissing of the manuscript intermingle, and somewhere in there, between petal, eyelid and heat transference, among the mysteries still to be resolved, are the kisses I treasure.

This post can be read in conjunction with The Squalid Rag, on the destruction of meaning, or Three Ghost Stories for All Hallows E’en, on how ghosts may reach the reader.

*Question: when information is lost in communication as per Shannon etc where does it go? I realise this is the subject of entropy, but I am dumb, and don’t quite get what the equivalent of thermodynamic equilibrium for information would be)

**This reminds me that I must post on the collapsing of distribution chains in media flows

Woolgathering

The other day, I had a good example of one sort of liminal thinking that goes on when you’re not actually doing any proper thinking, and which for quite long periods seems to do the duty of proper thinking.

I’ve been reading Crashed, Adam Tooze’s… I guess ‘monumental’ is the only word?… history of the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences. On the tube going into work I read this sentence:

In the general crisis of legitimacy in 2010–2011 there was no Archimedean point. There was no place to stand above the fray.

Tooze, Adam. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (p. 398). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Although the general importance of the point about a crisis of legitimacy and the undermining of technocratic principles was of interest, the phrase ‘Archimedean point’ burned vividly and resulted in a tessellation of thoughts and references unfolding back out across recent experience.

This phrase describing the notional point of distance from the Earth one would need to stand to lever (move or weigh) it, is used in a Richard Eberhart 1947 poem ‘Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God’s Revelation’ – Kierkegaard.

I first heard not read the poem listening to Geoffrey Hill’s extremely enjoyable Oxford lectures when he was Professor of Poetry there. This reading from the 2012 Michaelmas term lecture, Fields of Force.

That poem contains a line that had been much in my head over the emotional landscape of last couple of years:

All the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers

But the line is not as such Eberhart’s, exactly. It is in fact, as Hill makes clear, a line from a Søren Kierkegaard journal entry of 1837, translated by Alexander Dru for an English selection of the journals published in 1938. And in fact the original translation is ‘All the flowers of my heart turn to ice flowers’. In the original Swedish:

Enhver mit Hjertes Blomst bliver til en Iisblomst

This is translated in the Indiana University Press edition of the complete Journals (by Edna and Howard Hong), as Every flower of my heart turns into a frost flower. That’s an odd choice. Iisblomst seems better represented both in terms of image and rhythm by ‘ice flower’. And regardless the form ‘all the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers’ had become symbolic to me of the emotional landscape I had been inhabiting.

I had in fact already been reminded of it very recently reading a good piece on Petrarch in the London Review of Books.

A series of puns in Canzoniere 239 begins conventionally with ‘dolce l’aura al tempo novo’ (‘the sweet breeze in springtime’); then becomes rather weirder, ‘col bue zoppo andrem cacciando l’aura’ (‘with a lame ox we will go hunting the breeze’); and finally arrives at one of those lines of pure lyric dynamite that lurk throughout the collection: ‘in rete accolgo l’aura e ’n ghiaccio i fiori’ (‘in a net I gather the breeze and in the ice flowers’).

Nicholl, Charles. “On the Sixth Day.” Rev. of Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer, by Christopher Celenza. London Review of Books
 41.3 (2019): 23-26. 9 Mar. 2019 <https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n03/charles-nicholl/on-the-sixth-day>.

‘Ice flowers’ as a fragment of this significant emotional symbol caused me to look up from the article and stare out of the window for a while. This meant that I didn’t notice what I should have noticed, even with my rudimentary Italian, and supposed better English poetic parsing, that ‘ice flowers’ is not here a noun phrase. I must have noticed something was amiss because I haplessly reverse logicked it and decided I quite liked the odd way – disconcerting, slightly haunting – ‘ice flowers’ didn’t have a referent, unless perhaps it was breeze.

‘In a net I gather the breeze and in the ice, flowers’ is the meaning, and no matter the fluidity of the original medieval Italian, probably needs that comma.

But I do not think I would have noticed the phrase had that comma, that small humanist innovation just post-dating Petrarch, been present.

Woolgathering. Carding the wool of language and thought. The processing that takes place beneath thought. An underground emotional shuttling of data and information around our hidden frames of reference, from digitally recorded lectures (incomplete), to translation decisions and the poetry of language, and half-noticed phrases leaping by association to others. From the tube in March 2019, through to the Eurozone Crisis of 2010-2012, to a notional point in the cosmos from which you can shift the Earth itself, posited by a 3rd Century BC Sicilian, to Geoffrey Hill in Oxford in 2012, to Eberhart in Boston in 1947 working at his wife’s father’s floor wax company in the aftermath of the war, to the graduate Kierkegaard in Copenhagen 1837 at the beginnings of his relationship with Regine Olsen, to the publishing almost a century later of Alexander Dru’s 1938 translation, to my front room a couple of weeks beforehand reading the LRB, then whirling back to trecento Italy, and Petrarch’s infatuation for ‘Laura’, the path strewn, like breadcrumbs in the forest, with the flowers of the heart.

[This too-lyrical ending was not how I had intended to finish this – I got carried away and decided to let it stand, on the suggested basis that in one view, no matter the cognitive and neurochemical processes, the vehicle for these transactions is feeling and emotion.

However, the word jumped into my mind when considering this process was ‘cachinnation’, and no matter how much I tried to banish it on the grounds of meaning, it insisted on its relevance. It is the background mocking laughter to our thought, a distant ghost transmission from before Babel, like background radiation, a laughter which gives this blog its name – diasyrmus – and whose sigil is the goat.]

"Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God's Revelation"
Kierkegaard


But to reach the Archimedean point
Was all my steadfastness;
The disjointed times to teach
Courage from what is dreadful.

It was the glimpses in the lightning
Made me a sage, but made me say
No word to make another fight,
My own fighting heart full of dismay.

Spirit, soul, and fire are reached!
And springs of the mind, like springs of the feet
Tell all, all know, nothing wavers there!
All the flowers of the heart turn to ice-flowers,

Heaviness of the world prevailing
("The higher we go the more terrible it is")
Duplicity of man, heart-hate,
The hypocrite, the vain, the whipper, the cheat,

The eternal ape on the leash,
Drawing us down to faith,
Which the Greeks call divine folly,
The tug of laughter and of irony.

from Burr Oaks (1947), by Richard Eberhart