Saturday, November 04, 2023

4: Many thousands of fountain pens must have been made in the eighteenth century.

Many thousands of fountain pens must have been made in the eighteenth century.

But one particular pen resides in a museum because that particular pen is the one with which Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence.

But surely, Captain Picard could use teleportation and replication technology to make a replica of the fountain pen, identical to the original at a sub-atomic level. Do you now have two instances of Jefferson’s pen? Could you in principle have thousands of iterations of that one pen? And would they all now be the pen with which Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence? Over the last two millennia, billions of tons and trillions of gallons of the actual body and blood of Christ have been consumed by pious Catholics.

Even those of us who are not that interested in rare books can see that a mint condition copy of the first edition of Lord of the Rings with an intact dust jacket is worth more than a mint condition copy of the first edition of Lord of the Rings without a dust jacket. But it might sometimes happen that a particular collector has kept his dust jacket pristine but inadvertently spilled tea on the interior pages of the book; while another might have kept the book in good condition but scrunched up the dust jacket. But it turns out that if you take the undamaged dust jacket and put it around the undamaged book, you do not have a mint condition first edition of Lord of the Rings. You have actually committed a kind of artistic fraud. The rest of us wonder what difference it could possibly make.

Phillip K Dick’s frivolous suggestion (in the Man in the High Castle) is that Thomas Jefferson’s pen must contain a sub-atomic particle—call it Historium if you like—which the matter replicator cannot reproduce.

He is being silly. But it does seem that a very large number of people believe that pictures and books and words contain sub-atomic particles called Obscenium, Pornographium, Racisium and Wokium.

In the Star Wars prequels, it turns out that spirituality is not a subjective, ineffable state: a Jedi Knight can be scanned for Midichlorians and discovered to be either Strong or Weak in the Force.

Perhaps we could in principle create a detector that could isolate the amount of Smuttium in Michelangelo’s David and the amount of Racistium in my beloved rag-doll.

We have mentioned Simon Heffer before. His unintentionally comedic grammar book, Strictly English, maintains that the meaning of all English words was irrevocably fixed when the Oxford English Dictionary was completed.

He acknowledges that new words like “television” and “internet” may occasionally have to be coined; but any usage of a pre-existing word which deviates from the 1928 definition is simply wrong (and barbaric, and a threat to the future of civilisation).

Christian fundamentalists believe that the true meaning of the Bible was in flux until the creation of a unique and perfect English version in 1611, which can never be improved on. I do not know if Heffer envisaged seventeen cloistered Rabbis producing seventeen textually identical copies of the Oxford English Dictionary under divine supervision. It would not greatly surprise me if he did.

I once had an argument with an internet pedant who strongly objected to use of electrocute to mean “to receive an electric shock”. The word, he opined, irreducibly meant “to be killed with electricity”.

Interestingly, he deprecated “he was electrocuted while trying to fix the light and had to be treated for burns” but permitted “he recklessly climbed a pylon and was electrocuted.” But so far as I can see, this is not the original meaning of the word. Electrocute is a vile portmanteau of “execution” and “electricity”, coined by Thomas Eddison to refer to his new system of judicial torture. (He had previously considered calling it “dynamort”.) You can’t say someone stuck his fingers in a plug socket and was electrocuted, any more than you can say that someone stepped out in front of a fast-moving car and was guillotined. 

Except, I suppose, as a colourful metaphor.

But then, if we believe in essential meanings, we have no right to say that a murderer was executed. You don’t execute people, you execute sentences, in the same way you execute wills and real estate contracts. And come to that, electricity didn’t originally mean a force, a charge, or a current. It originally meant “the quality of being attractive”, and before that (according to Wikipedia) “pertaining to amber”.

People who have vaguely heard that there is such a thing as Critical Theory believe that English Literature Departments teach that texts mean exactly what you want them to mean. Books like Strictly English are more or less conscious attempts to slay the imaginary Post-Modern foe. I suppose that was what Jordan Peterson has in mind when he insists that “brown” is always and only a description of skin-tone and never a label of ethnic heritage, even when the speaker is quite clearly using it in the latter sense.

But no-one has ever argued that texts mean whatever you want them to mean. No-one has ever argued that when Propsero says “Pluck my magic garment from me”, pluck means “hold a referendum”, magic means “a common market in goods and services” and garment means “free movement.” But any fool can see that two different people might read the Tempest and come away with different impressions about how wicked Prospero is, how hard-done-by Caliban is, and how completely unfunny Trincolo is.

Tolkien said that he disliked allegory. Cordially.

But mark what followed. He did not say “The Lord of the Rings is not allegory: it’s just a story, a piece of light entertainment, stop reading stuff into it.”

He said that the Lord of the Rings meant whatever any individual reader thought that it meant: and that you shouldn’t necessarily give special status to what he thought it meant just because he wrote it. Allegory, on his definition, was not critics reading things into books: it was authors trying to insist that their meanings were the only ones.

“I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

This doesn’t mean that “three rings for the elven kings under the sky” means, or might mean, “seventeen pairs of sneakers for the seventeen delegates from the department of trade and industry.”

But it does mean that although Tolkien thought that the elves’ magic lembas bread was like the holy wafer in the Catholic Mass; and even though Tolkien consciously edited the book to make the likeness more obvious, readers aren’t obliged to think of the body of Jesus every time anyone reaches for some elf-bread.

This post forms part of an extended essay. 
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