Incomprehensibility.

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:

…His delights
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.

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    “Gramery”, like “abracadabra”, refers to mysterious, unintelligible language thought to be magical. I think that both express the illiterate’s awe and fear of the literate, who were probably literate in Latin. I’ve aloso seen the word “latis” in poems, indicating the unintelligible language of birds.

  2. Mazur is equally worried about redundancy of persuasive arguments (the math equations may also be inserted into a text while actually being on point, and comprehensible, but not adding anything extra to what’s has already been written).

    He says, imagine if I re-phrased an argument using different words, perhaps a different language – would I

    have the gall to proclaim the translation as an extra argument in favor of my conclusions

    But isn’t it the basic rule of rhetoric, to hammer down an argument by repeatedly re-phrasing it with different words, expressions, parables, and, yes, languages too? Why grow indignant about the supposedly-fraudulent use of a redundant argument – why not take it in stride as an added alternative way of explaining an idea?

  3. Stefan Holm says:

    the unintelligible language of birds

    Easy as a pie to understand! All you need is a drop of blood from a dragon as testified in the Poetic Edda, the Völsunga Saga and the Niebelungen’s Ring.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_the_birds

  4. Why grow indignant about the supposedly-fraudulent use of a redundant argument – why not take it in stride as an added alternative way of explaining an idea?

    Yes, I agree; I got a little impatient with that part of the essay.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    chascus en lor lati

    Chacun en son latin sounds right to me as an archaic or archaizing reference to birds each using their own ‘language’. Perhaps Latin here is like Greek in “It’s all Greek to me”: a language known to some people (therefore meaningful, not gibberish) but incomprehensible to most.

  6. Mu postdoc adviser used to tell, “If your presentation can’t convince the listeners, then it should at least intimidate them”

  7. J. W. Brewer says:

    He may be right about the gratuitous use of math in certain contexts, but it also strikes me that in some contexts there may be some readers who find the equations easier to follow and others who find the (typically rather dense) prose description of the same thing easier to follow and putting both in is thus a useful rather than harmful kind of redundancy. Why, languagehat himself sometimes composes posts that have extensive block quotes in Russian and then an English translation of the EXACT SAME THING, presumably because he knows that different readers benefit from different presentations.

    There’s also hiding in here a bit of the old notion (perhaps especially appealing to mathematicians, analytical philosophers, and suchlike odd ducks) that rhetoric and poetry are inherently dishonest because emotionally manipulative.

  8. J. W. Brewer says:

    Similarly, using highly-technical specialized vocabulary or using extensive foreign-language quotations (with or without providing a translation) can be done as an affectation (or perhaps an intimidation), or can make the work more user-friendly for at least some subset of its intended audience. It largely depends on context.

  9. In writing down a mathematical proof it is rarely considered a good plan to present more than one logical argument for the same conclusion. Some authors will do it, but not I think because they think the reader is more likely to accept the conclusion if you give two arguments; rather because the writer has more than one point of view to offer.

    Of course, teaching mathematics well is rather different from writing down proofs of theorems. Even giving a lecture to other experts is rather different from writing down proofs of theorems.
    Mazur is a fine teacher and communicator of mathematics, who certainly understands the pedagogical value of conveying the same idea more than once, by different methods. I suppose that he is thinking one way about persuasion and another way about teaching.

    On the other hand I know a professor of rhetoric who loves to urge the idea of “teaching as persuasive communication”.

  10. This concept is, I think, intimately tied up with the magical power of the written script. David Lurie argues that Chinese characters came to Japan long before they could ever be read. The second chapter of his book, Realms of Literacy, is entitled Kings who did not read: Scribes and the projection of power from the first to the sixth century CE. The first sentence is:

    Most of the scarce and scattered instances of Yayoi- and Tomb-period writing had little or no connection to the varieties of written communication most familiar to us: they operated as talismanic or totemic signs, pregnant with magical power and redolent of high status.

  11. Similarly, the Arabic inscriptions on Abbasid coins were widely imitated in the region by rulers who knew no Arabic and produced basically gibberish inscriptions. (I think even the Crusaders may have done this, but I’m too lazy to look it up.)

  12. David Marjanović says:

    they operated as talismanic or totemic signs, pregnant with magical power

    See also: runes. The very name means “secret”, “mystery”.

    I think even the Crusaders may have done this, but I’m too lazy to look it up.

    I don’t think they did… but a good example of someone who did that is good old OFFA REX.

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    A long long ways away from Yayoi-era Japan, lots of American kids in the latter part of the 20th century who were perfectly literate in the regular Latin/ascii alphabet nonetheless spent time trying to inscribe this http://web.archive.org/web/20120222124002/http://www.inthelight.co.nz/ledzep/zososymbol.htm on their schoolbooks, desks, etc etc etc.

  14. Tom Recht says:

    Easy as a pie to understand! All you need is a drop of blood from a dragon as testified in the Poetic Edda, the Völsunga Saga and the Niebelungen’s Ring.

    And by Flavius Philostratus several centuries earlier:

    They tell us that the city under the mountain is of great size and is called Paraca, and that in the centre of it are enshrined a great many heads of dragons, for the Indians who inhabit it are trained from their boyhood in this form of sport. And they are also said to acquire an understanding of the language and ideas of animals by feeding either on the heart or the liver of the dragon.

    (Life of Apollonius of Tyana III.9, tr. F. C. Conybeare)

    Is this the earliest attestation of this idea, I wonder?

  15. 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, …

    I just read the wonderful Schlegel essay here, for the first time and then more closely several times more. At no point does Schlegel “crown incomprehensibility as the touchstone of inspired meaning”, nor say anything even remotely resembling that. Anyone can verify this for himself.

    A disastrous English translation, in which even the first two paragraphs are already incomprehensible, can be deprecated here. For example, the word Verhältnisse is translated as “human relationships”. The word would acquire that meaning only 200 years later. Here it means “(present) conditions, circumstances”.

  16. John Emerson says:

    Greek letters were used on coins by the Kushans (who succeeded the Bactrian Greeks) and their successors for a considerable period, and and as I remember it has been shown that after a certain period their function was purely decorative, or possible magical.

  17. Interestingly, few people weave snippets of sheet music into texts describing something musical – although for the musicians who can read sheet music, the notes may tell much more in a much more direct way than any verbal descriptions … and for the rest of us, the intimidating effect of a Magic Language is guaranteed.

    Is it because it’s hard to squeeze selections of sheet music into one-liners or even in-line the way the snippets of math formulas fit on a page? Or because we’d rather use a different mode of perception – hear it rather than see it – which doesn’t add a veneer of profundity?

  18. For what it’s worth, the patron saint of incomprehensibility in theoretical physics was Ernst Stueckelberg:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Stueckelberg

    Stueckelberg independently discovered many of the fundamental facts of 20th century quantum field theory, and did it 20 to 30 years before anyone else. The catch, as Wikipedia delicately puts it was his ‘idiosyncratic style’. It probably didn’t help that he liked to march around in the uniform of an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer.

  19. “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand.” —E. B. White, in one of the better bits of Strunk & White.

  20. it has been shown that after a certain period their function was purely decorative, or possible magical

    I recall in my undergrad days going to hear Helen Nagy lecture on the art of Etruscan mirrors; she went on a digression about the (apparently) meaningless Greek inscriptions on pottery found in Etruria, with the theory that this may have been Greek artists’ way of covertly mocking those ignorant Italians.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Greek letters were used on coins by the Kushans (who succeeded the Bactrian Greeks) and their successors for a considerable period, and and as I remember it has been shown that after a certain period their function was purely decorative, or possible magical.

    In particular, they became progressively illegible; clearly, they were used long after anyone understood what they meant.

    Coins are often conservative like that. East Rome used increasingly fake Latin letters for the names of its first several emperors, Cyprus used Linear C well into classical antiquity (when Corinth remained Qorinth on its coins and Sicyon kept putting the letter San there)… and the UK uses D·G·REGINA·D·F to this day, even though for centuries now the kings and queens have reigned by the grace of Parliament and the title defensor fidei, awarded and then retracted by a pope, was granted by Parliament again.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, and, I had no idea of Stueckelberg. Let that be a grim reminder to publish in periodicals that people actually read.

  23. The story of Euler blinding Diderot with mathematics is apocryphal.

  24. Birds speaking Latin is a commonplace in French folk song (where it is probably a holdover from tropes in literary poetry of earlier centuries). For just one example,

    Un rossignol vient sur ma main
    Il me dit trois mots en latin
    Ces trois mots-là j’les comprends bien
    Que les hommes ne valent rien
    Et les garçons encore bien moins

  25. nor say anything even remotely resembling that

    Well, the earlier fragment that he quotes approvingly, »Eine klassische Schrift muß nie ganz verstanden werden können. Aber die welche gebildet sind und sich bilden, müssen immer mehr draus lernen wollen.« does seem to imply that poetry demands some kind of friction and I think that is Chaouli’s point.

    Of course, he’s writing ironically about irony, so perhaps all bets are off.

    Didn’t Luhmann’s writings on the German Romantics include stuff on paradoxes of this sort in Schlegel and Novalis?

  26. MMcM: Of course, he’s writing ironically about irony, so perhaps all bets are off.

    Maybe not all bets, but I wouldn’t risk a dime on the purply prose of “crowns incomprehensibility as the touchstone of inspired meaning”.

    Didn’t Luhmann’s writings on the German Romantics include stuff on paradoxes of this sort in Schlegel and Novalis?

    In connection with paradox, Luhmann does occasionally quote Schlegel and Novalis, and rather more often Jean Paul. Is there some topically distinct set of “writings on the German Romantics”, perhaps in Die Kunst der Gesellschaft (which I haven’t read) ?

    At any rate, Luhmann does not paint paradoxes in any color, neither purple nor rose nor black. He shows how certain paradoxes arose historically, and how different kinds of asymmetrization have been used to “resolve”, i.e. wriggle out of them.

  27. In 2008 an stw collection of Luhmann essays appeared with the title Schriften zu Kunst und Literature. I’ll take a look at it.

  28. Oops.

  29. Yes, I was thinking of writings on art. Where, I believe, be praises the Frühromantik for realizing that every Form is a Form-in-einem-Medium and their (or their works’?) self-conscious Selbstreflexion. So distinguishing the understanding of the work of art from the understanding of the world depicted. Which I think is what Schlegel is on about.

    Of course, I run out of steam pretty quickly here, partly because European books are so expensive by the time they get here and partly because I lazily prefer English, though Luhmann did publish an essay, “A Redescription of Romantic Art,” in a MLN German issue.

  30. every Form is a Form-in-einem-Medium and their (or their works’?) self-conscious Selbstreflexion. So distinguishing the understanding of the work of art from the understanding of the world depicted.

    Well shiver me timbers ! In the ordinary course of things I have rarely encountered an anglophone familiar with Luhmann. I have only myself and lack of time to blame, or course, since I read him in heiliger Abgeschiedenheit, as Schlegel writes, while at work I puzzle over eclipse plugin plumbing.

    Only last year did I discover that Luhmann published essays in English. I could turn your lack of steam to my advantage, in fact. I would appreciate it greatly if, when you have a moment sometime, you could mail me a few refs to what you have read by and on him in English, such as “A Redescription of Romantic Art”.

    My particular aim is to see how the English terminology plays out. I just reread Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, and would like to work up certain sections in English as a communication exercise.

  31. Ranemoraken says:

    Pardon me, but are we sure about the etymology of “belfry” running from “berfrei”? When an etymology is claimed, but the two words are unrelated in meaning, I become suspicious. This reminds me of the internet’s claim that the word “shark” came from the Mayan word “xoc”, a claim that has been refuted due to the origin of the word appearing much earlier than European mingling in the West.

    I can see how someone might make this connection – find it easy – and then ignore deeper research. I’m going to take a look myself…

  32. The passage through French seems pretty solid; after all, it’s not “buryfrith”. Thus Etymonline:

    c.1400, “siege tower” (late 13c. in Anglo-Latin with a sense “bell tower”), from Old North French berfroi “movable siege tower” (Modern French beffroi), from Middle High German bercfrit “protecting shelter,” literally “that which watches over peace,” from bergen “to protect” (see bury) + frid “peace.” Originally a wooden siege tower on wheels (“free” to move); it came to be used for chime towers (mid-15c.), which at first often were detached from church buildings (as the Campanile on Plaza San Marco in Venice). Spelling altered by dissimilation or by association with bell (n.).

    There is also Lewis Carroll’s etymology:

    The word “Belfry” is derived from the French bel, “beautiful, becoming, meet,” and from the German frei, “free, unfettered, secure, safe.” Thus, the word is strictly equivalent to “meat-safe,” to which the new Belfry [of Christ Church, Oxford] bears a resemblance so perfect as almost to amount to coincidence.

    A meat-safe was a pre-refrigeration device to keep fresh meat from rotting a little bit longer.

  33. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Stu Clayton:

    In the ordinary course of things I have rarely encountered an anglophone familiar with Luhmann.

    Just to add a further datapoint, I’ll mention that Luhmann is far from unknown among Spanish-speakers, some of his works having been translated as early as the 1970s. I’ll confess I completely gave up after browsing some of the translations; like Adorno, he seemed to me one of those authors that can only be read in the original, and then only at the expense of a complete rehauling of one’s earlier understanding of their language.

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