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Streeper-Piper Mill, Springfield Township, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Guiermo Torres, 2007 (in Philadelphia's Wissahickon Valley, 1620-2020 Vol. 1)


Below are notes for a fieldwork project I undertook in Cheshire County, New Hampshire in the autumn of 1997. Working in rural New England at that time, I became fascinated by the whirligig, gradually realizing that this diminutive object may have been associated in some way with the ancient craft of the millwright. Was the whirligig a bauble or toy, or did it signify a relation to a time-honored craft and technology, at one time widespread in New England and elsewhere in rural America? Was the whirligig a trace or signifier of a deeper and more complex relationship? I'm posting a redacted version of that one section of the report here, part of an ongoing process of reviewing fieldwork projects I've done over the years.




Mr. H is a talented craftsman and woodworker. His output ranges widely, from whirligigs (or windmills) to entire houses (he built the house where he and his wife now live). Mr. H was born in Amherst, New Hampshire, and as a young man worked for a sawmill, then moved to Connecticut to take a job sanding floors. "I hated it there", he recalled, and later returned to New Hampshire to stay. His father was a millwright, and worked for the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, although Mr. H has no memory of that (by the time he was born his father had left the mill and was working in the woods cutting timber). Mr. H remembers as a child building timber sleds and sled shoes -- miniature versions imitating the full-size ones his father built and used.


Mr. H is an inventive individual with an inquiring mind and a capable hand. As he explained, "I worked with my hands, used my head, and figured out how to do things." I became interested in him because I felt that he embodied the mythos of the New England individual -- ingenious, resourceful, energetic; but also because at a certain point in my work in New Hampshire, I became interested in whirligigs.


In my view, whirligigs are very likely related to the activity of the millwright. They are wind-driven, not water-powered devices, but like the water-powered mill they make use of an external energy source and convert it into motion or other form of directed activity. The whirligig mechanism is designed to animate various carved figures such as men cutting wood, women milking cows, boats moving over water, and so forth. Mr. W, the man who initiated the business that RD later worked for, was a millwright whose business was in Spofford –which, tellingly, is situated on an old mill site. Mr. H's father was a millwright too, and though Mr. H himself was not, he remembers setting up a small device with a paddle wheel across a stream when he was 10 or 12 years old, just to get the wheel to move and see how it worked.


Mill sites and mill ponds can still be seen on the New England landscape, and in fact, the traveler may occasionally come across what can be described as a "working mill" (in Alstead, for example). Water mills are certainly a part of what might be thought of as the "concept of New England". And it's interesting to speculate about a possible continuum: from water-powered mill to industrial factory to the diminutive version of the mill mechanism that we know today as the whirligig -- which is at once a functional object and a whimsical one: a clever representation of deep currents in New England culture. In this respect, the whirligig gestures toward what it is not, or rather, points away from what it is. Whirligigs are decorative items, they're "fun", but their connections are very likely much more deeply significant and hidden from plain sight.


SC is the owner of a small factory in Spofford that makes whirligigs. He is the third owner of the factory (the founder was Mr. W, and the next owner was Mr. G). SC provided a tour of the factory and explained the production process and the function of the various workstations.


SC buys wood for the whirligigs in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Alstead, New Hampshire. SC acquires the lumber, and then planes it down to the thicknesses required for the various whirligig models. The basic shapes are cut out using established patterns. He recalls counting the patterns at one time, and "got as far as 139." Individual parts are next painted, then assembled, inspected, and packed. The whirligigs are produced in quantity and shipped all over the country. Whirligigs are visible, by the way, throughout the Cheshire County landscape -- and beyond. At that time, in fact, SC had just returned from the New England State Exposition, where he'd exhibited his work.


SC explained that there had been a sawmill on the factory site, operated by waterpower. The dam was blown out in 1938, he said. "The guy who lived here…tinkered with whirligigs in the winter months when the water froze" – rendering the mill inoperative. SC gave a tour of the site, where the original sluiceway, dam, and millpond had been located. When he bought the property and business he bulldozed the old mill structure, filled in the sluiceway, and built new buildings for the factory. He added that the previous owner was his brother-in-law, who'd purchased the property in 1972.


SC is a mechanical engineer who graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. When he bought the business, he inherited the original designs for the whirligigs -- the sawyer, the woodcutter, the cow milker, and noted that "they are basically untouched from what Mr. W designed". The designs vary in complexity. For example, the ship has only six parts, the cow has 22. After purchasing the business SC  introduced several new designs – including a baseball player. The previous owner originated the sailboat and carp fisherman, while SC introduced the bass fisherman, along with a man cranking an antique car. He also created "Saturday Night Scrub" (a bathtub scene), a golfer swinging a golf club, and a group of mallards, among others.


Apparently, the process has been iterative. SC said that each successive owner has created "offshoots" based on pre-existing designs. Mr. W designed a cow-milking figure, which Mr. G maintained for his catalog, but SC changed the milking figure to Uncle Sam, and named it "Taxes".


SC said that the history of whirligigs is "pretty damn interesting." He keeps his designs simple because simple figures are "more marketable". Complexity means more parts, he explained, which means more labor, and higher costs. SC is a collector of whirligigs too; he searches for them widely, and when he locates them has them sent along. He also keeps the prototypes for all the whirligigs, whether they are put into production or not. He displayed a "Horse and Buggy" whirligig that was never produced and sold because it was too complex. This prototype is stored with other stalled designs -- (a Christmas scene, Santa Claus milking a cow, a sleigh riding scene, a Statue of Liberty/ocean liner scene) -- in a small area of the building that he calls his "museum".


SC said, "They call them whirligigs, but I call them windmills. They don't do anything. Whirligigs are action figures. They are something." The comparison to windmills is telling; SC may have been indicating that there is something almost ineffable about the whirligig.


The history of whirligigs is most interesting and compelling and might be profitably explored in the context of the preindustrial/industrial past of the region -- all the while keeping an essential image in mind: the frozen millpond, the seasonally quiet mill in winter, the miller/millwright with time on his hands who creates a whimsy using skills adapted from his "real" work. A passage from Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children comes to mind here:


Once, I shyly gave her a necklace of flowers (queen-of-the-night for my lily-of-the-eve), bought with my own pocket money from a hawker-woman at Scandal Point. 'I don't wear flowers,' Evelyn Lilith said, and tossed the unwanted chain into the air, spearing it before it fell with a pellet from her unerring Daisy air-pistol. Destroying flowers with a Daisy, she served notice that she was not to be manacled, not even by a necklace: she was our capricious, whirligig Lily-of-the-valley. And Eve. The Adam's-apple of my eye.


What does the whirligig "mean?" Perhaps, alongside "whimsy", it signifies freedom.


Driving south to Spofford Road, then east along this road, there was at that time a cluster of objects set on sticks with windmill-type propellers affixed to one end. The house there was owned by Mr. D, who explained that those objects had been locally produced in a small factory nearby and that his mother, who was inside at the time, had worked there some years ago.


Mr. D's mother, RD, explained that the business was started by Mr. W in 1925. He was a Seventh Day Adventist, she said, and was a "very clever man" who designed and made "windmills." The first of these was a figure made to look like it sawed wood when the wind moved the mechanism. RD explained that this first figure was sold in Vermont, "on the Hogback, in a gift shop up there." There is an interconnected line of ownership here: WG (see above) bought the business from Mr. W, who subsequently sold it to the present owner, SC. "He runs the mill now", she said. She added that WG and his sister have moved to Jamaica, Vermont, where they continue to make and sell birdhouses and other items crafted from wood.


RD remembered that the original windmill factory was set up in an old barn and that two employees and the owner worked together in that space. She recalled approaching Mr. W in 1953 to ask for a job because she'd heard he "needed someone to paint." She was hired, and at first, she painted the wooden figures by hand. Later, Mr. W introduced a screen painting process. They made trucks, horse carts, rocking horses, and other objects. RD said "The man that runs it now is just as clever as Mr. W was. Mr. W made all the machinery. He had a machine to bend the metal shaft, but now they buy them all done" – cutting one step out of the local production process, perhaps to meet demand and boost profits.


RD worked there until 1973; then "did some hand work in the cellar" [in her home] until age 80. She added that the current owner "now sells everywhere, ships by UPS." Mr. W, however, delivered his product to the nearby states of Vermont and Massachusetts, and throughout New Hampshire. The factory is located on the original site, a few miles from Mrs. D's home. After a while, she went down to her basement and returned with some old "windmills" she herself had painted, that were made by Mr. W in his small factory.


More later.....


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 Lucy Audubon c. 1870 (Wikipedia image)


Watching a film on The Criterion Channel some months ago, it occurred to me that there may be something lurking, some connection between the reading I'd been doing, which I might explicate through the lens of the film. The film in question is from an Iranian director. Here's the basic description, lifted from The Criterion Channel website:


Close-up Directed by Abbas Kiarostami • 1990 • Iran. 
Starring Hossein Sabzian, Abolfazi Ahankhah, Mahrokh Ahankhah. Internationally revered Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has created some of the most inventive and transcendent cinema of the past thirty years, and CLOSE-UP is his most radical, brilliant work. This fiction-documentary hybrid uses a sensational real-life event—the arrest of a young man on charges that he fraudulently impersonated the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf—as the basis for a stunning, multilayered investigation into movies, identity, artistic creation, and existence, in which the real people from the case play themselves. With its universal themes and fascinating narrative knots, CLOSE-UP has resonated with viewers around the world.


I'll describe my impressions of this film in more detail at another time; at the moment, however, it offers a potentially useful jumping-off point. But first, some readings that I feel may connect with this film in an interesting way, and perhaps also touch on my series of Eupalinos posts, ongoing.


In their June 2, 2022 issue, The New York Review of Books published a review of a book by Axel Honneth, longtime member of the Frankfurt School, former student, and later, close associate of Jürgen Habermas. My understanding is that the two frequently co-taught seminars in philosophy at Frankfurt or Hamburg. With that, I have in mind Habermas's writing on the development of the public sphere, his Theory of Communicative Action in particular, which corresponds, if obliquely -- somewhat at an angle perhaps -- with Honneth's version of same. As Habermas's biographer Stefan Müller-Doohm notes,


Axel Honneth criticizes the concept of communicative reason from a different angle, pointing out that inclusion, in the sense of belonging to a society, does not result primarily from the experience of processes of opinion- and will-formation. Rather, according to Honneth, the precondition of communicative action is the experience of social recognition.


That book, by the way, is Recognitions, based on the Seeley Lectures given by Honneth at Oxford in May 2017; which calls to mind, across the span of many years, the work of Martin Buber and other thinkers who have outlined a theory of social identity based on the multifaceted relations between self and other. But here I'll pause to ask, Would the movie I've alluded to, Close-up, be more strongly related to the Pierre Janet-themed blog post I published recently, rather than to Honneth and his work?


I've gotten hold of a copy of the Honneth book and have begun reading through it. I've also been reading a book of interconnected poems called Audubon's Sparrow by Juditha Dowd. The book is subtitled A Biography — in Poems and is written in the voice mainly of Audubon's wife, Lucy, detailing her struggles with life, and with that relationship — her husband opting to follow his star, often leaving her behind as he rambled through various countrysides, observing, capturing, and painting birds, and later traveling to London to promote publication of his book with a London printer. The poetic sequence eventuates in their reuniting, setting up together again in a big house on the Hudson River, with Audubon succumbing to a stroke sometime later and Lucy carrying on alone once again, eking out a living as a music instructor.


Therein lies the crux of the story; as located in the ambiguities associated with togetherness and separation, characterized by Dowd in terms of Audubon's personal struggle with his identity — Storekeeper? Artist? It's not clear whether Audubon's more mundane agon correlates in some way with Honneth's argument, though I believe the latter is fundamentally and profoundly significant. I'll get to that in a moment (possibly a long moment from this writing); but Dowd explores a version of this, whether the high or the low version, in her book. The Audubon couple eventually decided to establish a store at Henderson, Kentucky, seeking to secure a more stable livelihood and wherewithal. But there may be some foreshadowing with Dowd setting the closing line of the following stanza in italics:


This sturdy cabin is our first real home  

My husband writes in his journal  

As better could not be had we were pleased


"As better could not be had"... This is Lucy quoting her husband (his words set in italics); which convey a subtle emphasis, offering a window into Audubon's mind, a window that will open wider later in the book. Meanwhile, her husband sets up as shopkeeper, and entertains or rather explores the idea of establishing a sawmill. But the picture is clouded. A poem titled "Audubon, at the Window":


I do not dissemble when I say that I'm a happy man  

though something weak within me says I'm not.


In closing the poem, Dowd has Audubon reflect more pointedly,


I'm a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families,  

while something in me sighs that I am not.


There's more -- embedded in the coursing verses of the extended poem -- too much poetry to quote here. But the question is pressing — is this Honneth's (and Valéry's Socrates) concern? Or is Audubon, as portrayed by Dowd, grappling with a more routine conundrum, rather than the deeply situated psychic struggle to establish (and project) a personal identity? Honneth's discussion probes more deeply, but I've gone far enough into this question for the moment.

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Negative Capability

Posthumous portrait of Keats by William Hilton, National Portrait Gallery, London (c. 1822)


This post has been in formation, along with two or three others, for several months as I've gradually reintegrated office time into my schedule. I can't recall the origins of this post, but I'd been thinking about past fieldwork projects and ways to write about them. And for some reason, the Baltimore project — conducted in 1994-95 in that city — came immediately to mind. I think that the connection was between my work in port communities and the experience of displacement and marginalization, which had been rising there as elsewhere, discussed these days under the category of houseless, but the condition can take other forms. While I don't equate the displaced with the unhoused (the former produces a psychic condition, the latter a material one), this problem got me thinking. And it got me thinking especially about someone named Girlie Hoffman, whom I met while doing fieldwork in East Baltimore, in the port communities strung along the harbor. I'll return to her in a moment.


Meanwhile, I was reading A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, a book of interviews, conducted by Kyle Schlesinger, focusing on artisanal letterpress printing and associated crafts (such as letter carving); reading this book out of a personal interest in the relationship between setting type and establishing the appropriate verse form for a given poem; crafting the poetic line. (A number of these printers are also poets; shades of Charles Olson!) The book is co-published by Cuneiform Press and Ugly Duckling Presse.


As Johanna Drucker expounded in her contribution to Threads Talks Series, a collection of talks on book arts (co-published by Cuneiform Press and Granary Books):


What would a descriptive language of the techniques of production add to our understanding of poiesis? How would an understanding of the technical and formal conventions of the graphic means of production in which we experience written poetry shape our understanding of what a poem is and can be? Do the expressive limitations and/or affordances of various graphic means inform the aesthetic qualities of a work through features of its actual production?


This very interesting subject of the relation of setting type (or other graphic technologies) to writing and reading poetry may inform the basis of a subsequent post, but for now, I want to mention that one of the interviewees in that book on printers, an Australian poet (and printer) named Alan Loney, spoke of a book called Carving the Elements, with essays by the artisans involved in that bookmaking project. That book was a new edition of Parmenides' writings, the ancient Greek philosopher who formed the subject of one of Plato's dialogues, and who was Zeno's teacher. Readers may know that Zeno was famous — or infamous — for his paradox regarding movement, and especially for my purposes here, his paradox regarding place. Zeno's paradoxes, four in number, were likely efforts on Zeno's part to disrupt the hegemony of common knowledge as it was constituted at that time — common knowledge then as now the bane of philosophers (not to mention mathematicians and physicists).  Zeno's influence has been considerable, as André Laks and Glenn W. Most, editors of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Early Greek Philosophy, Western Greek Thinkers, explain:


…the influence of Zeno's arguments has been immense, if only by reason of the refutations that philosophers have been obliged to seek for them (beginning with Aristotle, in the exposition of his doctrine of the continuous n Books 4 and 6 of his Physics), but it is due less to the philosophical positions that he defended than to the logical challenges that his paradoxes posed. Modern theoreticians of mathematics and physics have continued to find these interesting.


So, what does Zeno have to do with Girlie Hoffman? As I mentioned, I met Girlie while doing fieldwork in East Baltimore, in the Canton neighborhood (her bar and home were located at 1517 S. Canton Street). At that time Girlie had become something of a cause célèbre locally for refusing to sell her property — house and bar/lunch counter — to an oil company who were developing a tank field in that neighborhood. Girlie's bar was right next to the water, and from that place, she (and her mother before her) had served generations of merchant seamen who came ashore for food and drink as the longshore crews worked their ships. The site of the tank farm had at that time become the de facto preserve of the oil company, which wanted to expand and absorb Girlie's property into their tank farm. She refused, even as her business dwindled due to the shift in activity at the port (containerization was advancing at that time, and with it the dramatic shrinkage of turnaround time for visiting ships, leaving sailors with virtually no time ashore). When I met her Girlie was still tending bar, still preparing the homemade soups that she (and her mother) had become famous for. I visited her several times, whenever I was in the immediate area, and wrote a bit about her in my fieldwork report. Here's a brief excerpt (Girlie's friend Henry Erdman was present during this interview):


Girlie Hoffman has refused for many years to move from the site, despite repeated efforts by the oil company to induce her to sell. (Her sister has also refused to sell out. Ms. Hoffman owns the lunch counter and the property it's situated on, as well as another property nearby, and some empty lots and land off the alley that runs behind the store. According to Mr. Erdman, Ms. Hoffman "has tied them [Exxon] up" by refusing to sell her land to the corporation...Girlie Hoffman says that the oil company "didn't give much money" for the properties they purchased from local owners. "And all that money they got," she said. "People think you gotta sell but you don't have to sell." Ms. Hoffman refused to leave because she "grew up right here," at the lunch counter; the family's living quarters were at the rear of the store. "It (the store] feels just like home," she says.


The keyword here is "home", proposed against the powerful corporation's efforts to evict Girlie, she continuing to resist. I'd note that this process of dislocation was widening in Baltimore at the time, especially in the traditional port communities, along with the development of the Inner Harbor (Harbor Place) project, designed to attract tourists and tourist dollars. This development process would be consequential for the people living in those neighborhoods. At one point in our conversation, Girlie Hoffman told me that, "people say this place is like home, it's comfortable. Don't you think so?" I could only agree. Others, not so lucky (or obstinate) had begun to experience dislocation and displacement from their ancestral port-side neighborhoods. As one resident told me:


I remember the port as always being very busy…You had the feeling that you were really living in a working port…being in the Inner Harbor was something you'd do every day…So today, the Inner Harbor isn't part of the port…and the kinds of people you see are very different. Everybody was there in the old days, for better or worse. Today you see a much more middle-class group of people. And the old working people are gone.


Another resident expanded on this sense of dislocation, locating it in the public domain. She recalled driving along Pratt Street and seeing the ships tied up at docks there:


You could almost reach out and touch them. It was an amazing sight…Harbor Place is okay, but the big ships were impressive.


In short, my fieldwork in East Baltimore at that time, encouraged the view that the people in those neighborhoods were increasingly being distanced from place, from the sites and locales where they'd lived and worked, and where they continued to live, then in the grip of "developers".


I'll hastily conclude by appropriating Zeno's concept, bending it to my purposes (but intending to revisit Zeno at some later time — assuming I can contrive a more appropriate place for him!


Hermann Fränkel, writing of Zeno in Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, notes that:


Of his [Parmenides'] immediate pupils there are two of whom we can form some notion, Melissus and Zeno of Elea. Zeno sought to prove the homogenous continuum postulated by Parmenides by presenting with much wit and ingenuity the difficulties that arise if one assumes, on the one hand, infinite divisibility, or on the other, elementary quanta which are incapable of further division. On the former assumption, Zeno's contemporary Anaxagoras built his original system, while the latter led to the atomic theory.


Is "place" an elementary quantum, or is it infinitely divisible? The historical experience of the people of East Baltimore may have embraced the quantum, but their more recent experience has been subsumed by the divisible. More later...


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Lorine Niedecker, "October 1935", in Sulfur 41


An addendum to the previous post: When composing it I had in mind a sort of poem I'd seen somewhere, but couldn't figure out where seen. At some point I thought to thumb through the first volume of the American Poetry series put out by the Library of America. That volume prints a selection of the earliest poetry written here by colonists and other interlocutors, including a poem of sorts by one Benjamin Harris, who according to David S. Shields, compiler and editor of that volume, had published The New England Primer (c. 1690), which, he notes, "became the standard textbook for New England children for generations". That belated discovery might have provided an opportunity to supply an image from Harris's Primer -- exposing yet another angle on the letter Q. But it's also enabled me to mention that while looking for what eventuated as the Harris poem I at first vaguely remembered a poem by Lorine Niedecker that Clayton Eshleman had published in Sulfur 41 (1997), composed in a format similar to the Harris primer (as I said, my memory was vague). The Neidecker piece wasn't as I remembered, not exactly anyway, but was instead a set of poemed calendar sheets which Niedecker sent to Louis Zukovsky at "Xmas 1934" [sic]. The calendar was later found among Zukovsky's papers by Jenny Penberthy (who reprints the calendar entire, in Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works). The Letter Q was not featured there, but I've plowed ahead and reproduced a page from the Niedecker sequence, scanned from my copy of Sulfur 41 -- sidetracking the Harris "poem", at least for now.


Here I want to share something from John Jay Chapman, whose 1897 essay on Emerson is quoted by Christopher Benfey in a recent issue of New York Review of Books:


What difference does it make whether a man who can talk like this is following an argument or not?...People are not in general influenced by long books or discourses, but by odd fragments of observation which they overhear, sentences or head-lines which they read while turning over a book at random or while waiting for dinner to be announced. These are the oracles and orphic words that get lodged in the mind and bend a man's most stubborn will. Emerson called them the Police of the Universe. His works are a treasury of such things.


Helpful context can be found in First We Read Then We Write, Robert D. Richardson's expert gathering of Emerson's thoughts on the writing process. "I expect a man to be a great reader...or", Emerson adds, "there must be a serviceable equation at work within the writer: in proportion to the spontaneous power, should be the assimilating power." Richardson glosses this with some words from Goethe: "What is a genius...but the faculty of seizing and turning to account everything that strikes us?"


And so...as Kurt Vonnegut might say...it goes. I've plugged in Niedecker where Harris ostensibly was the better fit, stubbornly faithful to an early hunch that it was Niedecker, not Harris, I'd been looking for. With thanks... to RWE.


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The Letter Q, in Abecedarium by Peter Lamborn Wilson


There's a blank key on my typewriter, which I'm calling the ghost key. Manually flicking it against the platen I discovered that the striker carries the letter Q, but note that this key is in the position on the keyboard where the numeral 1 appears in the QWERTY keyboard configuration. I've noticed that some typewriters, perhaps especially the portable models, have a blank key in this position -- a key that doesn't strike. But other typewriter keyboards – I think the standard models in particular -- feature a key in this position marked with the numeral 1, and interestingly, the exclamation mark occupies the upper case position. My typewriter lacks a key bearing the exclamation mark; instead, I strike upper case 8 to type the apostrophe, then backspace one space to type a period beneath that mark. For readers, it can be difficult to distinguish this laboriously produced exclamation mark from a colon! (Keeping in mind, however, that the most recent edition of the Chicago Manual of Style advises that this mark "should be used sparingly to be effective"). But why was my keyboard set up that way? The key is physically present on my typewriter, is blank, doesn't strike, and harbors a ghostly form, the letter Q! It occurs to me that irrespective of whether I can make a good argument for or against the ghost key convention, I've been provided an opportunity to engage in some doodling.


In "What is a letter?", the opening essay of her book, What Is: Nine Epistemological Essays, Joanna Drucker writes,


When the letters became familiars of the nursery and schoolroom, their capacity to carry lessons within their forms was exploited. Pictorial images and small vignettes elaborated the precepts of good behavior. Moral tales and instruments of training, as well as the inculcation into that symbolic order which is language and law (ideological training of the young) letters served multiple purposes as they were introduced to the lisping tongues and clumsy fingers of the young.


Okay, perhaps this would make a nice riposte of a sort, to illustrate the demystification of letterforms in service to the education of the young. But there is the other view, with individual letters assigned a cosmological value. Drucker notes that,


Sacred origins and occult traditions have long posited the alphabet as a set of cosmic elements, comprising the full sum of the components of the universe.


And further:


…when we posit the form of letters in terms of their origin, we are prone to imagine their shapes as an index of those bird tracks, constellations, or arrangements of natural elements from which they were supposed to be derived. Iconographic theories of origin suggest pictorial analogy, so that the 'A','B','C' of our Roman letters are somehow to be reconciled with the elements of Semitic tribal camps from which Hebrew letters took their visual form. Such contorted sets of association and formal comparison include all manner of anachronistic or improbable histories, but the mythic strength of such assertions keeps a tenacious hold on popular imagination. To this day the notion that the 'A' contains vestiges of the ox-head, a horned aleph, persists. Once fixed in mind, such associations seem so natural that displacing them with mere historical argument and archaeological information is difficult indeed.


Yes indeed! And not entirely desirable to dissociate them, I would add. The ghostly (or redundant) letter Q on my typewriter keyboard may have been an arbitrary decision on the part of some uber-compositor – I suspect that it had been, until otherwise enlightened – but I've had to wonder why it's there at all. Regarding that particular letter, however, Peter Lamborn Wilson suggests -- in Abecedarium, his engaging account of letters and their associations -- that in the Ancient Egyptian system of pictorial writing, the hieroglyph for the letter Q was symbolized by the figure of an ape. As it turns out, this is suggestive (and productive). As Wilson notes:


The dog-faced ape cynocephalus…endemic to Egyptian temples, was believed to keep time…Keeping time not only resembles writing but requires it, hence the baboon embodies Thoth or Hermes Trismegistus the inventor of writing. The cynocephalus is a scribe. Writing is monkey business – a million typewriters.


It's especially gratifying in this context that Wilson imbricates typewriters and writing. According to Philippe Derchain, writing in Yves Bonnefoy's monumental encyclopedia of world religions,


Thoth is the object of a specific offering, a writing case… Thoth is the model bureaucrat: he knows how to write and perform calculations, is invested with the highest functions in governing the world beside the sovereign Sun, and is conscious of his duties of justice and precision. Thus he regulates the course of the moon, checks the balance of the scale at the court of judgment of the dead, inscribes the name of the Pharoah on the fruits of the tree of history in the temple of Heliopolis, and surveys the precinct of projected temples, except in those cases in which he assigns those functions to one of his companions. For all of this, he must know how to write, like any scribe; and the palette, which holds the ink holders and the brushes and is also used for quick notes, is the instrument of his function.  


(By the way, who are Thoth's "companions"? Might they be each and all descended poets down through history to our time -- and beyond? I like to think so.)


Moving on from Ancient Egypt, this ghost letter of mine appears in the Archaic Greek alphabet, in a different but still unmistakable form, then is carried over into Etruscan and thence onward to the Romans -- and Latin. But having lasted so long the letter Q did not translate into Anglo-Saxon. According to Amalia E. Gnanadesikan in her book, The Writing Revolution,


…Old English or Anglo-Saxon had a different set of phonemes than Latin. (They themselves called their language Englisc, pronounced almost exactly as it is today, except that the first vowel was pronounced as spelled… They dropped and added letters as needed. Z was not considered necessary, as the [z] sound occurred only as a variant of [s] between voiced sounds. The redundancy of C, K, and Q was reduced to just C.


[Note: Englisc is not a typo – the [sc] sound in Anglo-Saxon was pronounced [sh] – as in scip!]


As Gnanadesikan explains,


Vernacular writing had begun sometime before, but it had not yet settled into standardized forms. As the Roman alphabet came to be used for its daughter languages, the letters had to do different work than they had done in Latin. Where Latin had originally pronounced C as [k], the descendant languages used [s], as in French cinque before the front vowels [e] and [i]. Latin [kw], however, had become [k], reintroducing that sound before front vowels. To spell it, the letter k was retrieved from the dustbin, passed on to the Germanic languages (hence English king, kid, and kitten), and then replaced in the Romance languages with QU under the conservative influence of the humanists (and hence French and Spanish qui, "who").


And what of Modern English? According to the OED,


In ordinary mod. Eng. words Q is employed only in the combination qu, whether this is initial…medial…or forming a final consonant…There is, however, a growing tendency among scholars to use Q by itself to transliterate the Semitic kōph, writing, e.g. Qaballa… 


With that I imagine that we may now turn -- by a commodious vicus of recirculation, as it were -- back to Wilson...









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