Barry Mazur’s Berfrois essay “The Authority of the Incomprehensible” has a long middle section on the reprehensible use of mathematics as a rhetorical device to give unearned authority to a text, with a detailed discussion of Malthus; all this can be skipped unless you have a particular interest in it. What attracted me to the essay is apparent in its opening:
You may not know what Abracadabra means, but you very well feel its magical force, and its effect only gains from the obscurity of the incantation. It is true, of course, that ipsa scientia potestas est (“knowledge itself has powers”), but being confronted with something that purports to be wisdom and is Greek to you, is even more powerful.
In a word, we humans are prone to take certain incomprehensible assertions as carrying some kind of evidentiary authority because of their incomprehensibility, and irrespective of the content of whatever messages those assertions were meant to communicate.
Children are constantly showered with words, phrases, usages — that mean both nothing and everything to them — from those beings that tower over them. These are utterances that have presumably potent meaning to the adult world, and — deliciously — can be repeated, in a kind of Bayesian language game, to see what power one derives from proclaiming them.
I remember that the first time in my life I heard the word Chinatown mentioned blithely by some adult, I knew nothing of its referent, and was in awe that a presumably visitable town(?) could miniaturize, distill, and encompass a vast country and language with an inaccessible script: I felt compelled to use that word, Chinatown, repeatedly, in whatever context arose, no matter what it meant, for a full week after I heard it, to possess the sheer power of its incomprehensibility.
I’ve long been fascinated by the attraction of incomprehensibility (which sometimes prompts the exclamation “O altitudo,” about which I wrote here), and Mazur has some good things to say about it:
Here I want to argue that obscurity of a certain sort has a particular, and perhaps essential, role to play in intensifying emotional effect in literature and poetry. Nursery rhymes, of course, are garlanded with delicious meaninglessnesses and metaphors often overstretch their logic, the very tension of this over-stretching being a source of their power. But consider, as an example, the power of Cleopatra’s elegiac cry:
Were dolphin-like; they showed his back above
The element he lived in: In his livery
Walked crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pockets.
in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. This conjures, for me, a vivid forceful image, alive with a dazzling froth of motion, even though – or maybe I should say especially because – the idea behind the phrase “they showed his back” is impossible to hold in my head.
Incomprehensibility, itself, is a central character in the fascinating essay Über die Unverständlichkeit (On the Incomprehensible) by Friedrich Schlegel published in 1800, and brilliantly discussed in Michel Chaouli’s book The Laboratory of Poetry. Schlegel crowns incomprehensibility as the touchstone of inspired meaning. Imagine language as a soup, a medium for ideas, and the poet as a cook who brings the whole mixture to a boil and who only is certain that the broth is really cooked only if the ingredients are so transformed so as to have – in some sense – gotten away from him. They are singed with incomprehensibility.
And there’s a nice quote from Mark Strand:
. . . language takes over, and I follow it. It just sounds right. And I trust the implication of what I’m saying, even though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m saying. I’m just willing to let it be. Because if I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and could verify it and check it out and feel, yes, I’ve said what I intended, I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am.
Not to mention the “marvelous piece of encouragement given by the Boston University mathematician Glenn Stevens to one of his students who came to him, swamped by perplexity when thinking about a certain problem in mathematics”: “It is good to be confused!”
On the quote from Anthony and Cleopatra (V.ii.88 ff.), Susan Snyder has a thoughtful discussion in Shakespeare: A Wayward Journey (p. 75):
What meanings attach to flux and superior solidity in this vision of the dolphin’s firm back gleaming above the dancing, shifting sea? For Kittredge, who was later followed by Dover Wilson, Cleopatra means that “as the dolphin shows his back above the water, so Antony always rose superior to the pleasures in which he lived.” This separates Antony’s superiority from his pleasures, opposes them in fact. But “delights” are the agents of his rising: it is they who show his back above the sea. Another gloss, this one from the Riverside Shakespeare, says that Antony “in his pleasures . . . rose above the common as a dolphin rises out of its element, the sea.” Now the pleasures have been dissociated from the sea, which is simply “the common.” But the sea with its unceasing flux is the element in which those uncommon pleasures lived. Antony’s delights are both flux, the succession of moments, and that which ultimately lifts him above flux — because the moment is fully realized. Finally, then, the motion patterns convey not only the essential, tragic incompatibility between stillness and flux but also a hint of transcendence.
I’ll add that “crowns and crownets” is metonymy for “kings and princes” and “plates” here has its oldest English meaning, “A coin, esp. a gold or silver one” (OED).
And if you were wondering about the name of the journal, berfrois is an Old French word (the source of English belfrey, which etymologically has nothing to do with bells) for a movable tower used in sieges; it can also, apparently, be used for “a grandstand, usually built a full story above the level of the lists , housing the ladies and other noble spectators of the gallery for a hastilude or tournament.” Though perhaps I shouldn’t have spoiled your pleasure in its incomprehensibility.