Why bother with poetry?

Extract

TLS -All’s well that spends well

TLS – Machiavelli’s Utopia

 

Sculpture of Machiavelli for the Uffizi
© Adam Eastland/Alamy

TLS – Machiavelli’s Utopia

About thirty-five years ago, in separate studies, the scholars Silvana Seidel Menchi and Carlo Dionisotti noticed that the “Florentine” Utopia of 1519 appeared in the third volume of a curious set of five volumes of Erasmian works all published by the Giunti Press; and each of the books was a knock-off of a previous Aldine volume. The first contained Erasmus’s translations of Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides; the second was The Praise of Folly; the third was the Lucian-Utopia volume; the fourth was a previously published grammatical collection with William Lily’s treatise “On the Eight Parts of Speech” appended but attributed to Erasmus; and the fifth was a collection of Erasmus’s writings on princes and politics, including “The Complaint of Peace” and “The Education of a Christian Prince”, along with several of his translations from Isocrates and Plutarch on princes, and with his adage, “The Sileni of Alcibiades”, and his “Oration on Virtue” appended to the works in the Aldine original. Dionisotti noted that the Lucian-Utopia volume appeared to have been printed under special circumstances and was perhaps pulled from the market, since a press inventory of 1604 reveals unsold copies eighty-five years later. Both Seidel Menchi and Dionisotti stressed that the works in this Erasmian series that included Utopia were slanted towards political and secular themes. Missing were Erasmus’s religious and devotional writings and his substantial works on rhetoric. The Florentines behind the publication appear to have been reading Erasmus and More with particular attention to their politics.

To piece together the story behind the Giunti publications we have to start with a visit that Erasmus made to Florence thirteen years earlier. Erasmus’s Italian journey, which would result in a stay that lasted until 1509, has often been recounted. In 1506 he accepted an appointment as travelling tutor to the two sons of Henry VII’s royal physician, a Genoese. Erasmus was supposed to accompany the boys in their university studies at Bologna in exchange for expenses and a stipend. In June of that year the three of them crossed the Channel, and in Paris Erasmus left two books to be published with the printer Badius. One of the books comprised his translations of Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis; the other was a volume of Lucian translations that he and More had prepared. The Euripides was published in Paris in September 1506; the Lucian would not appear until November; and in the meantime Erasmus would send from Florence some additional translations that were added to it. From Paris the small party travelled south and crossed the Alps. When they arrived at Bologna, to his alarm Erasmus learned that the city would soon be under attack. Pope Julius II was leading an army against it, so Erasmus escaped to Florence with the two boys. Scholars have frequently lamented that we know next to nothing about Erasmus’s stay in what had been, and in some respects still was, the capital of the European Renaissance. All that has been known is that he was translating additional works by Lucian while waiting for the publication of his Euripides back in Paris. By November 11, Erasmus was back in Bologna for Julius’s triumphal entry.

There is, however, a letter of Erasmus’s, written twenty years later from Basle, which offers fresh clues about the stay in Florence. The very funny epistle describes for Erasmus’s correspondent the explosion of a gunpowder magazine in Basle. Erasmus tells how, since the gunpowder was stored next to a brothel, the blast sent prostitutes and their clients scurrying half-naked through the streets. But most interesting, Erasmus writes, is how the tremendous noise of the explosion reminded him of a thunderclap he heard long ago when he was in Florence waiting for news of Julius and Bologna. Erasmus relates that he was studying with friends when he left them to relieve his bowels. It was while he was tending to nature that there was a thunderclap that sent him rushing back to his friends. Soon a physician hurried by, who told them that three nuns had been struck by lightning and that two of them had died.

The mention of Pope Julius while describing a bowel movement alludes perhaps to Erasmus’s dialogue, Julius Exclusus, while the deaths of the nuns may indicate doubt concerning the value of the religious life. But, most importantly, the letter tells us that Erasmus made some friends while in Florence, though they are not identified. A diary kept by the shopkeeper Luca Landucci dates the lightning strike to November 4, 1506, and tells us that the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina was struck. Since the convent stood close to the famous Library of San Marco, we can assume that that was where Erasmus was studying. Although we don’t know the identity of Erasmus’s friends, someone in Florence seems to have remembered him long afterwards. For, if we look again at the Erasmian series published by Giunti, the first and the third volumes – the Euripides and the Lucian – comprised the very works that Erasmus was worrying over when he was there in 1506.

Although the books of the Erasmian series offer no obvious clues as to who may have selected them for publication, Dionisotti was able to follow up an earlier notice by Roberto Weiss, a longtime Professor of Italian at University College, London, and an authority on the ties between Italian and British humanists. In 1521 the Giunti press published a Greek vocabulary by the second-century grammarian Julius Pollux. It contains a dedicatory letter from Antonio Francini, who directed the press’s publications in Latin and Greek, addressed to none other than Thomas Linacre, the Royal Physician to Henry VIII, who was also the teacher and reading companion of More and Erasmus. Francini, in his letter, praises the achievements of the English humanists, Linacre, More, Grocyn, Pace and Tunstall, and he boasts that it was he personally who had seen More’s Utopia through the press. Linacre had studied in Florence in the 1490s, and, although Francini regrets that he did not meet Linacre back then, he indicates as a friend they had in common, and as the man who made possible these publications by the Giunti, his former teacher, one “Giampiero Machiavelli”. The mention of a “Machiavelli” in connection with Linacre and More is of course fascinating, but although Weiss and Dionisotti looked high and low for a connection with the famous Niccolò, neither was able to identify this Giampiero. Indeed, Giampiero Machiavelli does not appear in the ordinary Florentine fiscal and baptismal records; nor does he appear in family genealogies.

Recently, however, thanks to a string of archival finds, it has been possible to identify Giampiero Machiavelli. Most importantly he was a priest, which explains why he is missing from many of the usual archival records. In fact Giampiero held the benefice in the church at Sant’Andrea in Percussina, outside Florence, which abutted the farm where, in the evening, “dressed in regal and courtly clothes”, his relative Niccolò wrote The Prince.

Giampiero turns out to have been rather close to Niccolò. It was Niccolò who arranged for Giampiero to circumvent several prohibitions under canon law so he could take the benefice at the family homestead. In the same years in which Niccolò rose to importance in Florence’s chancery, Giampiero was elected to the city’s most prestigious religious confraternity, the Misericordia, and he became director of Florence’s cathedral school. The two Machiavelli cousins can be documented sharing an interest in the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius. It was probably in 1497 that Niccolò made a full transcription (sometimes described as an “edition”) of the De rerum natura; while a prose paraphrase of the first three books of Lucretius’ poem was published in 1504 with a prefatory letter by Giampiero. Both Niccolò and Giampiero were at times hounded by followers of the late Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. And we know from the Dialogues of Antonio Brucioli that both cousins participated in the literary and philosophical discussions that were held in Florence’s Rucellai Gardens.

There is no reason to suppose that Niccolò met Erasmus while the latter was in Florence, although it was possible. Erasmus was waiting for news concerning Julius, and on October 28, seven days before the thunderclap that Erasmus remembered so well, Niccolò returned to Florence from an embassy to Julius bearing the latest news of the papal army’s progress. Giampiero, however, as an old friend of Linacre’s, is more likely to have met Erasmus in 1506, and, given the role attributed to him by Francini, to have prompted the publication of the Euripides and Lucian volumes.

But there is an even more complex story concerning this Florentine connection to the world of Northern humanism that remains to be told. In 1510, the Savonarolans in Florence blocked Giampiero’s election to a chaplaincy in the cathedral. In the aftermath he resigned his position at the cathedral school and, following Erasmus’s example, accepted an appointment as the travelling preceptor to an intellectually promising and extremely wealthy young cleric who was about to pursue university studies. So began Giampiero Machiavelli’s close ten-year relationship with Lorenzo Bartolini.

Bartolini, who was a cousin by marriage of Niccolò Machiavelli, belonged to a family that occupied leading roles in the Florentine Republic while at the same time, through its bank, managing the financial affairs of the exiled Medici family. The sharp distinction between “republicans” and “Mediceans” that historians have used when charting Florentine allegiances in this period simply won’t work. The young Lorenzo Bartolini was much beholden to the exiled Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who resigned to him several extraordinarily lucrative benefices, the most prominent being a position as commendatory abbot of the richly endowed Augustinian Abbey of Sainte-Marie d’Entremont in Upper Savoy.

Bartolini’s travels for university study, with Giampiero as his preceptor, began in 1511 with a stint at Pavia, although the two were forced to return to Florence in 1512 when Swiss troops invaded the town. In October 1513, at a time when Giampiero’s cousin Niccolò was already well advanced with The Prince, they left Florence again, this time to study in France, first at Valence along the Rhône, and then, from 1514 to 1519, at the University of Paris.

An account book preserved today in a private archive outside Florence records the expenses of the young Lorenzo Bartolini during these travels. By matching these accounting entries, which offer firm dates, with notarial contracts in Florence and snippets of information from a great many other sources, it has been possible to compile an impressive list of the individuals with whom these two Florentines, Lorenzo Bartolini and Giampiero Machiavelli, came into contact. When studying first at Pavia and then at Valence, they were following the jurist Filippo Decio, who had taught canon law at Florence when Giampiero was a pupil. It was Decio who had provided legal justification for Louis XII’s Council of Pisa in 1512 that aimed to dethrone Pope Julius II, and who would later be sought out by Henry VIII for arguments in support of the latter’s divorce. At Valence the pair came into contact with the humanist Christophe de Longueil, whose expenses they supported for several years. In Paris they subsidized the anti-Arabist physician Pierre Brissot in the period before he decided to travel to the New World in search of new medicinal plants. Bartolini was welcomed into the circle around Lefèvre d’Étaples, who was then studying Aristotle, and he is mentioned in books by Josse Clichtove and Gérard Roussel. It is possible that Linacre met the two Florentines in France in 1514, when he accompanied Mary Tudor to her wedding with Louis XII. The connection must have remained firm, at any rate, since one of Linacre’s few surviving letters is addressed to Giampiero and dates from December 1513.

The account book, while providing much information concerning the relationships of the Florentines, also provides insight into their intellectual interests. In Paris they received many shipments of books in Latin and Greek (“più libri e volumi latini e greci”) from Venice and Florence. Only a few are named, but they include a Sallust and an edition of the works of Plutarch that were purchased specifically for Giampiero, as well as a Lucian in Greek, the De rebus gestis Francorum of Paolo Emili, a Ptolemy, a Dioscorides, and John Lascaris’s translation from Greek of a treatise On the Illnesses of Horses. The dimension of the book purchases is indicated by an entry that states that when Giampiero’s preceptorship came to an end in 1521, Lorenzo allowed him to keep 200 of the books for himself.

Another of the French scholars with whom the two Florentines became familiar was Guillaume Budé. Towards the end of their stay in Paris, as Bartolini was completing his studies, the pupil and preceptor planned a trip to pay homage to More in England and to Erasmus in Flanders, and it was Budé who sent introductions ahead of them. On their return to Paris in the autumn of 1519 Bartolini received his baccalaureate, and then the two of them went home to Florence.

Given this back story, a more detailed account of the Giunti Erasmian series is possible. Both Giampiero and Lorenzo enjoyed close relations with the Giunti Press, which even dedicated its 1519 Iliad to Lorenzo. The publication dates of the first three books in the Erasmian series – Euripides, Praise of Folly, and Lucian-Utopia – suggests they were timed in advance of the visits to Erasmus and More, so that they could be presented as testimony to the esteem in which these Northerners were held in Florence. The fourth and fifth books in the series were instead published soon after the return of the preceptor and his pupil to Florence. The fourth simply updated an existing grammatical textbook by including the new (and soon to become very influential) grammar, “On the Eight Parts of Speech”, that they must have picked up in England or Flanders. But the fifth and last volume, which has to do with princes, is best explained by returning to Giampiero’s cousin, Niccolò.

Niccolò Machiavelli had been unemployed since 1512, when he was fired from the chancery. Even worse, in 1513, he was arrested, tortured and briefly imprisoned on a false charge of conspiracy. There had been attempts to rehabilitate him, but after 1515 he came in for savage criticism on account of the harsh lessons and alleged impiety of The Prince. Still, he had important friends who hoped eventually to secure him employment with the Medici. A number of these friends were associated with the Giunti Press, which in 1521 would publish his Art of War. All the most “Machiavellian” of Erasmus’s writings seem to be gathered in this fifth Giunti volume. Indeed, there is reason to believe they were selected with a view to easing Machiavelli’s situation. If Machiavelli’s Prince could be seen simply as one voice, along with those of Erasmus, Isocrates and Plutarch, addressing problems inherent in princeship and statecraft, its sharper messages would be seen in a broader context and therefore blunted.

There are a number of passages in Machiavelli’s writings that owe something to Erasmus, and of special interest is a letter that has gone unnoticed. From the period 1515–20, when Machiavelli completed The Prince, The Discourses and Mandragola, only a few letters survive, but there is a passage in one of them that suggests a deep appreciation of Erasmus. In December 1517 Machiavelli mentioned that he and a group of friends from the Rucellai Gardens had been planning a trip to Flanders. The early editions of the letter misread the word Flanders (Fiandre) as “Francia”; the Allan Gilbert translation that is still in print reads the word as “France”. The group never made the journey. But since, in addition to Machiavelli, it can be shown that several of these friends were readers of Erasmus, it seems likely that in 1517 – soon after the publication of Erasmus’s Education of a Christian Prince and of More’s Utopia (which Erasmus saw through the press) – Niccolò and his Florentine friends’ plan was to visit Erasmus, much as Giampiero Machiavelli and Lorenzo Bartolini would do in 1519.

When in February 1520 the Giunti published the fifth of the Erasmian volumes, Giampiero Machiavelli and Lorenzo Bartolini had been back in Florence for several months. We know from correspondence between two other friends of Niccolò’s, Filippo and Lorenzo Strozzi, who were also involved with the Giunti Press, that they were arranging to introduce Machiavelli to Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici with a view to restoring him to favour. Niccolò’s meeting with the Cardinal took place in March 1520, only a few weeks after the publication of the fifth Giunti volume. Given the context, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that the Erasmian book on princes was published by Niccolò’s friends in an effort to mollify critics of The Prince. And, if so, it worked. Machiavelli was restored to favour; soon after, he was appointed official historiographer of Florence; and in 1521 he published his Art of War – with the Giunti Press.

There remains a further possibility that deserves mention. It has now become at least possible to imagine that, when Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1515 and 1516, he had some knowledge of Machiavelli’s Prince. More, to be sure, was sufficiently brilliant to have written Utopia without The Prince. Ideas concerning princes and statecraft were very much in the air, as we know not only from the writings of Erasmus, More and Machiavelli, but also from Budé’s work on princes (begun in 1515), and from the circulation of Plutarch (whose works Giampiero purchased). Given the dating of The Prince and Utopia, given Giampiero’s friendship with Linacre, and given More’s liking for the Italian language, we can’t rule out the possibility that More may have read Machiavelli’s Prince in some form, or that he had at least heard about it from Linacre or another intermediary. Machiavelli was almost certainly immersed in writing The Prince when Giampiero left Florence for France in October 1513; by December 10, 1513, we know that Machiavelli had shown the work to his friend Filippo Casavecchia; a few weeks later he sent some part of it by post to Francesco Vettori in Rome. By early 1514 Machiavelli seems to have completed a preliminary version; and in the spring of 1515 he retouched the work in the final form that we now have. More, for his part, began writing Utopia shortly afterwards, in the summer of 1515. If More did see The Prince, one imagines he received as a challenge Machiavelli’s famous declaration in Chapter 15, that “Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in reality”. The “Dialogue of Counsel” section of Utopia’s Book I discusses the strategic position of the King of France in a manner that sounds like an Englishman’s response to Chapter 3 of The Prince (a discussion of France that omits England). And More’s description of the military in Utopia reads like a parody of Machiavelli.

These are, necessarily, speculations. The solid discoveries here are that Machiavelli was not the lonely writer he is so often imagined as being; that he belonged to a network of writers who were contributing to a shared discussion of princes and statecraft; and that Erasmus and More, in the years before the Lutheran break, were being read in ways that were more radical than is generally thought – and than they themselves would wish to be thought after the Reformation took off.

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The author is grateful for discussions of this research in seminars held in London, at the Legatum Institute and the Institute for Historical Research, and in New York, at the Grolier Club.

TLS – Not just ‘weird’ Japan

Poem of the Week: ‘The Demon at the Walls of Time’ – TLS

“My job is to rattle the bars”, says the devil in the opening poem of Edwin Morgan’s sequence Demon (from his collection Cathures, 2002), something that Morgan himself was happy to do throughout his long career. He was born in 1920 and published his first collection of poems in 1952. It was his second – The Second Life (1968) – that introduced the experimental poetry and poems about his native Glasgow that would establish him as one of Scotland’s most important and well-loved poets and lead him to become Glasgow’s Poet Laureate in 1999 and Scotland’s “Makar” or National Poet in 2004. Morgan is a poet who could find a voice in everything; and late in his career he actually turned to the stage, producing colloquial Scots versions of Cyrano de Bergerac (1992), Doctor Faustus (1999) and Phèdre (2000).

In “The Demon at the Walls of Time”, the final poem from the sequence, Morgan speaks through another Faustian figure, one who, if he is still chafing at the limits of language, is also defiantly outfacing his own mortality in lines that burst with physical and intellectual energy. “The life-lines of unreadable inscription” he feels and follows are precisely that – finger holds that allow him to make his death-defying climb until his “crest, like a shadow . . . tops the top of the wall”. This had better be “the climb of climbs”, he says as his head disappears into the stars: life would be “a wersh [sour] drag without it”.

 

The Demon at the Walls of Time

I ran and ran. I was so fresh and fuelled –
The rubble of the plain hardly felt me,
Far less held me back – so filled and flash
With missionary grin and attitude
I almost laughed to find the barrier
As big in its dark burnish as they’d warned.
No top to it that I could see, no holds
Except a filigree of faint worn sculpture.
Is challenge the word or is it not?
Is it the climb of climbs, morning noon and night?
It had better be! What a wersh drag without it –
Life, I mean!
Up it is then – careful! –
Zigzag but steady, glad to have no scree,
Not glad of useless wings, tremendous downdraught,
Nails not scrabbling – please! – but feeling and following
The life-lines of unreadable inscriptions
Cut by who by how I don’t know, go
Is all I know. Beautifully far below
Now is the ground, the old brown beetly ground.
No beetles here! It’s the sun and the blue
And the wall that almost everything
Seems rushing to if I dare one more look
Down, there’s a sea, a clutch of cities,
Cross-hatch of rolling smoke, is it a war
Somewhere on the hot convex, I’m sure
There’s war here on the wall too, written
Never to be lost, lost now, tongues, gods.
You’ll not lose me so easily! I’m climbing
Into the evening until I see stars
Beyond what is only rampart rampart rampart
And if I don’t I’ll take the night too
And a day and a night till my crest like a shadow
(It’s not a shadow though!) tops the top of the wall.

I know you can still hear me. Before I vanish:
You must not think I’ll not be watching you.
I don’t come unstuck. I don’t give up.
I’ll read the writing on the wall. You’ll see.

EDWIN MORGAN (1998)

 

David Byrne: Will Work for Inspiration.

Source: Creative Time Reports

As part of Creative Time Reports’ Summit Series, musician, artist and bicycle diarist David Byrne considers New York City’s present and future ahead:  Art, Place & Dislocation in the 21st Century City.

October 7, 2013

 Peter Halley, Indexed, 1997.

I’m writing this in Venice, Italy. This city is a pleasantly confusing maze, once an island of fortresses, and now a city of tourists, culture (biennales galore) and crumbling relics. Venice used to be the most powerful city in Europe—a military, mercantile and cultural leader. Sort of like New York.

Venice is now a case study in the complete transformation of a city (there’s public transportation, but NO cars). Is it a living city? Is it a fossil? The mayor of Venice recently wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books, arguing that his city is indeed a place to live, not simply a theme park for tourists (he would like very much if the big cruise ships steered clear). I guess it’s a living place if you count tourism as an industry, which I suppose it is. New York has its share of tourists, too. I wave to the double-decker buses from my bike, but the passengers never wave back. Why? Am I not an attraction?

New York was recently voted the world’s favorite city—but when you break down the survey’s results, the city comes in at #1 for business and only #5 for living. Fifth place isn’t completely embarrassing, but what are the criteria? What is it that attracts people to this or any city? Forget the business part. I’ve been in Hong Kong, and unless one already has the means to live luxuriously, business hubs aren’t necessarily good places for living. Cities may have mercantile exchange as one of their reasons for being, but once people are lured to a place for work, they need more than offices, gyms and strip clubs to really live.

Full article ….

The poet who could smell vowels

 The poet who could smell vowels

From The Times Literary Supplement (December 2007)

 

Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralism, owed much to Hobbes and Mill, and numbered Henry VII among his ancestors

John E. Joseph

 

 

As he lay dying, in 1913, of arteriosclerosis and influenza, still a lethal combination today, Ferdinand de Saussure must have been sure that, come the year 2007, no one would mark the centenary of his first course on general linguistics at the University of Geneva or the sesquicentenary of his birth, on November 26. His name, never widely known, was forgotten except among the few scholars who recalled his impressive Master’s thesis of thirty-four years earlier.

All this depressed him. A modest, even-tempered man, at the age of fifty-five he harboured no deep bitterness, yet the one thing that consistently upset him was being denied his due. On a visit, in 1911, to his sister Albertine, at Mettingham Castle in Suffolk, her husband, Major Hastings Ross-Johnson, raised a sceptical eyebrow at Ferdinand’s claim to descent from English nobility. In good aristocratic form, Saussure disguised his dismay, but as soon as he returned to Geneva he started writing to cousins for information that would confirm the lineage.

With the help of Burke’s Peerage, he traced his direct line of descent from King Henry VII, via Princess Mary, the sister and co-heir of Henry VIII, to the Egerton family, Earls of Bridgewater. Saussure’s maternal grandfather, Charles-William Saladin de Crans, was the son of Elizabeth Egerton, and Burke’s Peerage confirmed Saladin’s right to quarter the royal crest in his coat of arms. As Ross-Johnson scanned the family tree which his brother-in-law drew up and sent to him, his eyebrow descended again. Your wife and I, it informed him, are pedigreed descendants of William the Conqueror, whereas you, Major, bear the name of one of his battlefields. Game, set and match.

When a letter from Albertine mentioned that she was planning to send her son to a public school, Saussure urged her to reconsider. As a boy of ten, he had himself gone to a Swiss boarding school run on the British model, and had terrible memories of what the older boys had put him through. He was pulled out in the middle of a term on account of what his father, not usually a reticent man, referred to in his diary only as “deplorable things”. Years later, Saussure claimed a special insight into the English mentality, which, predictably in the circumstances, did not always manifest itself as sympathy. His private writings show him to have been deeply upset at British policies in South Africa in the run-up to the Boer War, though this did not stop him from investing money in British companies there.

None of this information has been published before. It has come to light in papers discovered in 1996, only a very few of which have made their way into print. The Writings in General Linguistics, first published by Gallimard in 2002 (English translation from Oxford University Press, 2006), consists mainly of texts already published in 1974 or earlier. The new material in Writings, including the brief fragments found in twelve envelopes marked “On the double essence” or “On the essence”, does not differ on any essential point from the previously known manuscripts. Saussure was consistent in his conception of language throughout his life.

More revealing is the personal information in the papers. His claims to Englishness are surprising because he seems so archetypically Continental, standing as he does at the head of all the structuralism and poststructuralism that followed in his wake. Yet Geneva, the city of Calvin and Frankenstein (for whom Ferdinand’s great-grandfather Horace-Bénédict de Saussure may have been a model), was described in 1814 by the historian and political economist J. C. Simonde de Sismondi as “a sort of British city on the continent . . . a city where people think and feel in English, though they speak and write in French”. Saussure’s most characteristic ideas have British or American sources, including the most distinctively Saussurean idea of all:

“In a language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, the language contains neither ideas nor sounds that pre-exist the linguistic system, but only conceptual differences and phonic differences issuing from this system.” (From the posthumous Course in General Linguistics, 1916.)
Where the irregular, turbulent form of human thought (A) is mapped onto the irregular, turbulent form of human sound (B) and meaning (or content) is thereby drawn into being through the interconnections, themselves another form of form.

The terms “signifier” and “signified” were not introduced until one of his last general linguistics lectures in 1911. But the idea of a psychological sound pattern corresponding to a spoken word, functioning purely through its difference from every other such signifier, is found in his notes as far back as 1881, when he was in Paris working towards a French doctorate that he never completed. “Language”, he wrote at that time, in a manuscript now in Harvard’s Houghton Library and published in 1995, “is composed of a system of acoustic oppositions.” Acoustic only: no indication as yet that the conceptual side, the signified, is similarly oppositional in its nature – that it too has no positive content, just a value generated by its difference from other signifieds, as claimed in the quote from the Course.

This remains vividly controversial, as I was reminded some months back when I was drawn into an e-conversation with a philosopher of language who is convinced that the meanings of words must have some primordial reality that is not simply differential, and blames Saussure for introducing a fundamental error. Yet, in philosophy itself, and in sciences other than linguistics (because linguists just did not think about such things), it was a commonplace view in the second half of the nineteenth century that all thought and all consciousness was purely differential and negative in nature. It was a defining feature of British psychology, as opposed to Continental (particularly German) psychology, which, before the British approach made inroads into it, took thought to be made up of ideas, maybe innate, maybe acquired, but with real, substantive content.

For the late nineteenth century the locus classicus of differentiality was John Stuart Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), a scathing attack that brought far more attention to Hamilton’s writings than their author had managed during his lifetime. Hamilton’s “relativity of human knowledge” was one of the few things Mill agreed with, summarizing it as follows:

“We only know anything by knowing it as distinguished from something else; all consciousness is of difference; two objects are the smallest number required to constitute consciousness; a thing is only seen to be what it is by contrast with what it is not.”

“With this doctrine”, wrote Mill, “I have no quarrel.” Since Hamilton nowhere states it so succinctly or clearly, one can hardly begrudge Mill his co-ownership of it.

Saussure had come into contact with the English and Scottish philosophical traditions in his teens, reading Pictet’s survey of them in his book on aesthetics, Du Beau. That background left him receptive to the Hamilton–Mill doctrine when he was introduced to it, at the start of the 1890s, via his younger brother. After completing a degree at the École Polytechnique in Paris, René de Saussure had gone to the United States hoping to start an academic career. Not finding himself in demand, he worked as an architect and wrote papers on bidimensional geometry, a field straddling the border of geometry and physics. He would send these papers to Ferdinand, who critiqued them (sometimes to his brother’s irritation) and arranged for their publication in Genevan scientific journals. (The most important of René’s manuscripts, together with his letters to his brother, are among the Saussure papers to have come to light in recent years.)

The main source of René’s inspiration – indeed the sole source cited in one of his papers – was The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics (1882) by John Bernhard Stallo, German-born but from the age of sixteen a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio. René’s papers include very full résumés of Stallo and lengthy citations, ensuring that Ferdinand knew its contents, whether or not he read the book or its French translation. Among the many passages of interest to him is this one:

“Thought, in its most comprehensive sense, is the establishment or recognition of relations between phenomena. Foremost among these relations – the foundation, in fact, of all others, such as those of exclusion and inclusion, coexistence and sequence, cause and effect, means and end – are the relations of identity and difference. The difference between phenomena is a primary datum of sensation. The very act of sensation is based upon it. It is one of the many acute observations of Hobbes that ‘it is all one to be always sensible of the same thing and not to be sensible of anything.'”

Stallo next quotes the sentence from Mill cited above, not mentioning that Mill is summarizing Hamilton. But the invocation of Hobbes anchors the doctrine still more firmly in the tradition of British thought.

What is original to Saussure, then, does not include the view that linguistic meaning or any other form of conceptual knowledge is generated purely by the difference of one element from another within a system of values. Nor, of course, does it include the idea that the link between a linguistic meaning and the sounds which signify it is arbitrary – that is an ancient heritage. His novel contribution was to imagine the sound side of language on the one hand, and the conceptual side on the other, as perfectly alike in their nature and mental operation. This is the “double essence”: two orders of difference, held together by a force that is essentially social, which he called the immutability of linguistic signs. It makes it impossible for an individual to introduce a change into the sign system, and it means that any communal change creates a wholly new system of values, which is to say a new language.

For if all consciousness is of difference, we can only speak of “a language” where all differences have been conventionalized, and are shared. Saussure repeatedly testifies that on this point he was influenced by the work of the American linguist William Dwight Whitney, with whom he had a chance meeting while studying in Germany in 1879. While he did not fully accept Whitney’s characterization of a language as an “institution”, it set him on the track toward his own modified view of its essentially social nature.

How the psychological link is made between the two orders of difference is not addressed by Saussure. But he became centrally involved when the question was taken up in 1892 by his psychologist colleague Théodore Flournoy, the most regular European correspondent, confidant and intellectual soulmate of William James. In his review of Flournoy’s book on “coloured hearing” (also called synopsia or photism or, more generally, synaesthesia), James underscores the vast range of individual peculiarities discovered in the research. “Sometimes”, James notes, “it makes a difference how one imagines the sound to be written. The photism, e.g., of French ou may differ from the same individual’s photism of German u, though the sounds are the same.” The individual James was writing about – referred to by Flournoy as “the eminent linguist Mr X” – was Saussure.

Photism, a word James himself was the first to use in English, had been a popular subject in German and French psychological research since the start of the 1880s. None of the studies mentions the poem “Voyelles”, written in 1871–2 by the young Rimbaud, even though these psychologists were scholar-scientists who kept up with literature. Of Flournoy’s 700 anonymous subjects, Saussure was the only one to report that it made a difference to him how a sound was written:

“In French we write the same vowel four different ways in terrain, plein, matin, chien. Now when this vowel is written ain, I see it in pale yellow like an incompletely baked brick; when it is written ein, it strikes me as a network of purplish veins; when it is written in, I no longer know at all what colour sensation it evokes in my mind, and am inclined to believe that it evokes none.

When Saussure associates ain with an incompletely baked brick, it is hard not to think of the prototypical baked good, and one of the two most common French words to contain ain. Although pain (bread) is not mentioned, it too is a pale yellow when incompletely baked. When ein strikes him as a network of veins, this time the word used to identify the visual association is present – veines – though while the letters ein are there, in this word they are not pronounced with the vowel he is discussing. If in evokes nothing, could that have to do with in- being a negative prefix? Or with in being the stressed vowel of his given name, Mongin, which he never used? He continued:

“So it does not seem to be the vowel as such – as it exists for the ear, that is – that calls forth a certain corresponding visual sensation. On the other hand, neither is it seeing a certain letter or group of letters that calls forth this sensation. Rather it is the vowel as it is contained in this written expression, it is the imaginary being formed by this first association of ideas which, through another association, appears to me as endowed with a certain consistency and a certain colour, sometimes also a certain shape and a certain smell.”

Terms such as association and sensation which Saussure uses here figure prominently in the “associationism” established by Mill’s Scottish ally Alexander Bain. In the second half of the nineteenth century it came to define “modern” psychology in Britain, then in America and Continental Europe, where opposing traditions were more firmly rooted. Saussure deploys an associationist vocabulary in a casual and comfortable way that suggests no deep study of the subject, but rather a familiarity acquired from articles addressed to the general public and discussions in the salon. These are the likely sources of the echoes of Hippolyte Taine, a popularizer of associationism in France, that Hans Aarsleff was the first to spot in Saussure.

Saussure makes no pretence of analysing his own reactions psychologically. He just records them, in exquisite detail. The French letter-sound a he experiences as

“off-white, approaching yellow; in its consistency, it is something solid, but thin, that cracks easily if struck, for example a sheet of paper (yellowed with age) drawn tight in a frame, a flimsy door (in unvarnished wood left white) that you feel would shatter at the slightest blow, an already broken eggshell that you can keep cracking by pressing on it with your fingers. Better still: the shell of a raw egg is a (whether in colour or in the consistency of the object), but the shell of a hard-boiled egg is not a, because of the feeling you have that the object is compact and resistant. A yellowed pane of glass is a; a pane of ordinary colour, offering blueish reflections, is the very opposite of a, because of its colour, and despite its consistency being just right.”

Flournoy’s analytical commentary states the principle of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign that will generally be credited to Saussure’s later lectures, though again its antiquity is well known:

“The word is arbitrary, conventional, and gets attached to the idea only through the direct but purely superficial and (if I may use the term) cortical link that repetition ends up creating between the corresponding centres or plexuses; the connection of the sign and the thing signified is artificial and results from habitual association. On the other hand the relationship of photism to the auditory phenomenon is natural, being essentially founded on . . . the identical psychological effects that they have in the depths of the organism.”

Flournoy’s detailed terminology of cortical links and plexuses will never be taken up by Saussure, nor will the notion of repetition or habit creating links. He was scrupulous about sticking to purely linguistic matters, his expertise being philological rather than psychological. Still, the overlap with the Jamesian Flournoy is unmistakable. The two men remained close, Flournoy turning to Saussure to analyse the “Sanskritoid” utterances of the medium Hélène Smith, made world-famous in Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars (1900). Saussure’s son Raymond studied under Flournoy and married his daughter, Ariane, before going on to become a disciple of Freud.

What seems most disharmonious with Saussure’s later views is the status he accords here to the written sign. No hint of the “tyranny of the letter”, of the visual image of a sound leading to “vicious pronunciations” that are “pathological” – all those overstatements so brilliantly deconstructed by Derrida, but actually all from the pen, not of Saussure, but of Bally and Sechehaye, editors of the Course in General Linguistics. Saussure did make remarks, in his third course, about spelling pronunciations being tératologiques, “anomalous”, even “monstrous”, suggesting that it is unnatural for the visual image of a sound to affect the spoken image, which it is its function to represent passively. In his synaesthesia, the two images seem much more equal, neither outweighing the other in its contribution to the imaginary being that evokes synaesthetic sensations.

No one becomes as famous as Saussure did without both admirers and detractors reducing them to a paragraph’s worth of ideas that can be readily quoted, debated, memorized and examined. Those ideas then become “Saussure”, while the human being, in all his complexity, disappears. But Saussure was a man who lived a life of contradictions, as we all do, he perhaps more than most. At seventeen, he had heard his neoclassical poetry publicly proclaimed by his teacher John Braillard, normally a brutal critic, to be superior to that of Jacques Delille, “the French Virgil”, an immortal of the Académie Française. After that, Saussure never wrote another line of verse, apart from amusing party pieces, though he never lost his poet’s instincts for language.

The best of his poems is “Le Feu sous la cendre” (The fire beneath the ashes), the portrait of a Huguenot family of the sixteenth century: “Seuls on voit éclairés d’une rouge lueur / Le père et ses deux fils devant la cheminée” (Alone are seen, illumined by a red glow / The father and his two sons before the fire). Something, we are not told what, is troubling the old man. As he and his sons look into the fire they have frightful premonitions, and hear anguished sighs reminiscent of Dante’s Hell:

Et les voilà tous trois, rêveurs et sérieux
Cherchant dans ce chaos un sens mystérieux
Et si le destin sombre aussi leur fait attendre
Quelque vague malheur qui couve sous la
cendre.

(And there are the three of them, rapt in sombre thought, / Searching the chaos for a mysterious meaning / And whether dark destiny also has in store for them / Some vague misfortune smouldering beneath the ashes.)

It is the one poem in which Saussure holds something back – a mysterious meaning that smoulders beneath the text. His other verses start from a transparent image, or event, or sentiment, and strive for literary effect on the surface, in rhythm, rhyme and the occasional syntactic affectation.

The family portrayed is undoubtedly Saussure’s own. In his veins ran the Calvinist doctrine that one must express ideas clearly and directly. Any revelling in the beauty of language would be doubly frowned upon, both because it was pleasurable and because it must stand in the way of clear expression. Saussure’s poetic nature provides an insight into his synaesthesia, his fascination with anagrams and his belief in a structure lurking within the chaos. His Calvinism helps us to understand the lucidity of his lectures, achieved with enormous personal effort, but also his inability to commit his conceptions of language to paper in a form that met the superhuman demands he imposed on himself.

For someone who believed that opposition and difference were fundamental to language, he was entirely blasé about the contradictions in his own life. A Genevan through and through, a sergeant in the Swiss militia, his earliest years were spent growing up on a farm, not in Switzerland, but in France. He had Prussian citizenship, because his mother’s family were from Neuchâtel, which belonged to Prussia until 1857, the year of his birth. But French was the Saussures’ language, and Ferdinand never felt at home speaking the German he learned at the boarding school where all those deplorable things occurred. And let us not forget, for he himself has said it, and it is greatly to his credit, that he was an Englishman. Burke’s Peerage shows that Ferdinand de Saussure, the poet who could smell vowels, was a tenth cousin (twice removed) of Princess Diana. In some parallel universe, that surely signifies something.

John E. Joseph is Professor of Applied Linguistics in the University of Edinburgh. His recent books include Language and Identity: National, ethnic, religious, 2004, and Language and Politics, published last year.

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