Monday, July 26, 2010

the states that began with an I

In some ways Old Bill was like a parent to us, or a grandfather perhaps. He not only taught us Latin, Greek and other languages, but he spoke to us as if we were already adults ...

I read those lines in David Musgrave's Glissando, and, strangest sensation, not one I've had before, I saw that Glissando was a tunnel or alternate doorway to Little, Big, opening into or out of the moment when Smoky Barnable's father teaches him "Latin, classical and medieval."

Because the two of them moved so often, Smoky never did go to a regular school; and by the time one of the states that began with an I found out what had been done to Smoky by his father all those years, he was too old to be compelled to go to school any more. So, at sixteen, Smoky knew Latin, classical and medieval; Greek; some old-fashioned mathematics; and he could play the violin a little. He had smelled few books other than his father's leather-bound classics; he could recite two hundred lines of Virgil more or less accurately; and he wrote in a perfect Chancery hand.

I know it's not unusual to believe that you've seen an echo of one writer in another writer's style, or another writer's themes, or sensibility (and later in Glissando the narrator talks about memory palaces, as Crowley does) but this wasn't that -- I didn't believe I was seeing an influence, or anything conscious; I didn't think, "So he's read Crowley and now he's copying Crowley's idea," although it's possible that he did (if so, it doesn't matter). This was something abrupt, like love at first sight, not a feeling of, "I've spotted a hidden connection, I'm clever," but a moment that seemed to exist outside one's perception of oneself as a reflective thing, or as an opinionated thing (I had no opinion, none, nothing). I wasn't thinking about myself at all, but I felt like a conduit, as a wire might feel when the electricity comes on, radiant or consumed.

At the same time I knew that I was holding Musgrave's novel in my hands, and I remembered the position of Little, Big in a pile of books on the other side of the room. Not only the position of it, but the way the front cover would have looked if I had taken it out of the pile. My mind was performing practical functions; it was also putting itself in the position of a medium. This amphibiousness, this two-in-one, reminded me of the hippocampus Wikipedia page I'd found while I was looking up seahorses.

The appearance of hippocampi in both freshwater and saltwater is counter-intuitive to a modern audience, though not to an ancient one. The Greek picture of the natural hydrological cycle did not take account of the condensation of atmospheric water as rain to replenish the water table, but imagined the refreshening of the waters of the sea oozing back landwards through vast underground caverns and aquifers, rising replenished and freshened in springs.

So I was in two kinds of water, one physical, one chemical or spiritual, observing the imagined souls of two books, and when I thought of Proust's narrator, who describes himself as, "a man, one of those amphibious creatures who are plunged simultaneously in the past and in the reality of the moment," I wondered if this experience could be split in another way as well: the love-perception and the feel of Glissando in my hands were "the reality of the moment," and the idea of Little, Big hidden in the pile at the other end of the room, where I could only look at it with my mind, not my eyes, was "the past," since it was memory that was providing me with a picture of the cover.

When I arrived at Musgrave's lines about memory palaces I paused, wondering if the connection would come to me again, but there was nothing aside from a kind of mechanical recognition. "He has just mentioned memory palaces. Crowley mentions them too." I couldn't make myself feel that this duplication of memory palaces meant anything significant. Dozens of authors, fiction and non-fiction, have talked about Giordano Bruno and his ars memoria or art-of-memory. There was no reason to assume that Musgrave should have come across it in the same place I had, which was, first of all, Little Big, in the character of Ariel Hawksquill.

So it was that Ariel Hawksquill was rooting around in one of the oldest attics of her memory mansions, looking for something she had forgotten but knew was there.

She had been reading an ars memoria of Giordano Bruno's called De umbris idearum, a huge treatise on symbols and seals and signs to be used in the highest forms of the art. Her first-edition copy had marginal notes in a neat Italic hand, often illuminating but more often puzzling. On a page where Bruno treats of the various orders of symbols one might use for various purposes, the commentator had noted: "As in ye cartes of ye returne of R.C. are iiiij Personnes, Places, Thynges &c., which emblems of cartes are for remembering or foretelling, and discoverie of smalle worldes."


The immense laughter of Bruno when he understood that Copernicus had invented the universe -- what was it but joy in the confirmation of his knowledge is the centre of all, contains within it all that it in the centre of?


  1. Deane, this post of yours reminded me of my last day in Rome, in the square where Bruno's statue is, see
    The blog post doesn't capture how we felt about being there, safe in a world where we could believe what we like in the shadow of a man who could not. So many fine and questing minds were lost to religious bigotry, and Bruno's was one of the finest.

  2. Weirdly enough, I hadn't heard of that statue until earlier today, while I was writing this post. I looked up Bruno's name to see if I could find a sample of his ars online, and one of the first links I came across was this -- -- at Salon.

    "The bronze figure of Giordano Bruno that stands at the center of Rome's Campo de' Fiori may be the most successful commemorative monument in the world. The average statue in a park or square usually rates no more than a glance: Either you already know who the guy is, or you don't care. But the hooded and manacled effigy of Bruno, with its haunted stare, immediately catches the eye, and the gruesome story attached to it -- Bruno was burned at the stake in that very spot, for the crime of heresy -- cements him in memory. Practically every tourist who comes to Rome tromps through the Campo and hears that story, even if they've never heard of Bruno before. The students who commissioned the statue in the 1880s, as an emblem for freedom of thought and the division of church from state, really got their money's worth."

    I thought that was terrific. I had the fanciful idea that his ashes had somehow magically sunk under the pavement, where they waited in the dark until the right moment, when they could sprout up again in the form of a statue. (Like a daisy.)