Thursday, October 25, 2007


Musa and I were playing minimalist Hangman last fall and she stumped me with "metempsychosis."

"You picked 'metempsychosis' as your Hangman word?" I asked bitterly.

"Joyce!" she chirped. "Just like in Ulysses."

My eyes stinging with the hot tears of defeat, I started seeing the term everywhere. What struck me about the recurring references to the term was that I'd see it outside of a religious or philosophical context about the transmigration of souls; the word started showing up in a material sense of how literary productions get fragmented and reproduced in posterity. Indeed, it showed up in those same places where I'd see that everything is miscellaneous. If I had known about that very narrow but wonderful interpretation of metempsychosis, maybe I would have won the game. Oh, probably not.

Washington Irving takes up the idea in his essay "The Art of Book-Making" (from the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, serialized in 1819-1820). In the essay, Geoffrey Crayon finds a secret room in the British Library where he sees a motley crew of scholars, miscellanists, and critics manufacturing their books:
There was one dapper little gentleman in bright-colored clothes, with a chirping gossiping expression of countenance, who had all the appearance of an author on good terms with his bookseller. After considering him attentively, I recognized in him a diligent getter-up of miscellaneous works, which bustled off well with the trade. I was curious to see how he manufactured his wares. He made more stir and show of business than any of the others; dipping into various books, fluttering over the leaves of manuscripts, taking a morsel out of one, a morsel out of another, “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” The contents of his book seemed to be as heterogeneous as those of the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. It was here a finger and there a thumb, toe of frog and blind worm’s sting, with his own gossip poured in like “baboon’s blood,” to make the medley “slab and good.”

After all, thought I, may not this pilfering disposition be implanted in authors for wise purposes? may it not be the way in which Providence has taken care that the seeds of knowledge and wisdom shall be preserved from age to age, in spite of the inevitable decay of the works in which they were first produced? We see that Nature has wisely, though whimsically provided for the conveyance of seeds from clime to clime, in the maws of certain birds; so that animals, which, in themselves, are little better than carrion, and apparently the lawless plunderers of the orchard and the corn-field, are, in fact, Nature’s carriers to disperse and perpetuate her blessings. In like manner, the beauties and fine thoughts of ancient and obsolete authors are caught up by these flights of predatory writers, and cast forth, again to flourish and bear fruit in a remote and distant tract of time. Many of their works, also, undergo a kind of metempsychosis, and spring up under new forms. What was formerly a ponderous history, revives in the shape of a romance-—an old legend changes into a modern play—and a sober philosophical treatise furnishes the body for a whole series of bouncing and sparkling essays. Thus it is in the clearing of our American woodlands; where we burn down a forest of stately pines, a progeny of dwarf oaks start up in their place; and we never see the prostrate trunk of a tree mouldering into soil, but it gives birth to a whole tribe of fungi.

Let us not then, lament over the decay and oblivion into which ancient writers descend; they do but submit to the great law of Nature, which declares that all sublunary shapes of matter shall be limited in their duration, but which decrees, also, that their element shall never perish. Generation after generation, both in animal and vegetable life, passes away, but the vital principle is transmitted to posterity, and the species continue to flourish. Thus, also, do authors beget authors, and having produced a numerous progeny, in a good old age they sleep with their fathers, that is to say, with the authors who preceded them—-and from whom they had stolen.

I love that passage so much, and it's even better to read it with another of Irving's Geoffrey Crayon essays, "The Mutability of Literature," a prose imitation of Chaucer's House of Fame. It's not just William Cowper who imagines a "forest of no meaning" in a print miscellany; Irving takes the metaphor even further in both essays, which are themselves collected in a miscellaneous sketch-book. "The Mutability of Literature" is worth it for the scene of the talking book who is indignant about being stored on a library shelf, away from the thrills of circulation:
“Sir,” said the little tome, ruffling his leaves and looking big, “I was written for all the world, not for the bookworms of an abbey. I was intended to circulate from hand to hand, like other great contemporary works; but here have I been clasped up for more than two centuries, and might have silently fallen a prey to these worms that are playing the very vengeance with my intestines, if you had not by chance given me an opportunity of uttering a few last words before I go to pieces.”

I found metempsychosis and another forest of no meaning in the prefatory material to Life and Errors of John Dunton (1705). Richard Freind, a colleague of Dunton's, wrote the introductory poem to the book:
The Press grows honest; and, in spite of fate,
Now teems a Birth that is legitimate:
Thy Book's thy own, so rare a Muse 'twas fit
Should not be garnish'd out with dead-men's wit,
Yet lives their Genius, in thee: true it is,
Arts have a kind of Metempsychosis;
But no perfection dwells within thy breast,
For thou has faults, and so have e'en the best.
The World's a Wood, in which all lose their way,
Though by a diff'rent path each goes astray.
Thy forty years did print, thee full of crimes,
But, as Repentance cleanses all thy lines,
We can't be angry that you went astray,
But thank those Errors made you miss your way:
For you, by fixing on a false delight,
Instruct; and by mistaking, set us right:
When life's departing stages we review,
The False things fright us, though they pleas'd when True.
Fantastic sins in dismal orders rise,
And with a real horror strike our eyes:
Thus, whilst we count the up-shot of our pains,
We curse the memory of what remains,
And gaze with terror on the slow-advancing scenes.
'Twas thus: but now the bugbear is no more,
We love to trace the imagin'd stages o'er,
And court the Spectre which we shunned before:
Directed by your nobler rules to cast,
And regulate the future by the past.

Dunton's Life and Errors is part autobiography, part religious confession, and a large part digression. It's a strange book by a strange guy: Dunton planned six hundred literary projects but never finished all of them, and you can see Swift's satire on this type of over-projection in the apparatus to A Tale of a Tub. Dunton and his friends published the Athenian Mercury, a miscellaneous periodical of answers to reader questions and proposals for more literary projects--this is a good essay on Dunton and the age of projectors and here is part of Daniel Defoe's Essay on Projects. Dunton had a prodigious obsession with all the things print could do for writers--his plans came not from the sureness that something like "The Art of Living Incognito" should be written, but rather from the idea that it could be written, and thus he should publish "a thousand letters on as many uncommon subjects." "The Art of Living Incognito" (1700) is difficult to follow because it's so miscellaneous; he calls the jumble of ideas "maggots" in his brain:
For seeing I have a Thousand Magots swarming in my Brain (for this Art of Incognito will consist just of that Number of Subjects) I'm willing now that the World may see the Magots of my own begetting: for, as Randolph says,---If I a Poem leave, that Poem is my Son---which I don't speak out of Ostentation, but that the World may see, after Printing so many Magots of others writing, I'm now (by Imitation) become one my self.

All over the place--in Freind's lines about "dead-men's wit," in Defoe's admonishment that a true projector "picks no one's pocket," in Dunton's worry above about imitation--you see these late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century projectors worrying about taking ideas from other people. J. Paul Hunter has a good section on Dunton in Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century Fiction in which he notes that Dunton's projector compulsion indicates "not only his own increasingly fragile grasp on reality, but also a context in which audiences became progressively more difficult to surprise and impress. If some of his writing projects now seem hilarious and born only a novelty-for-novelty's-sake mentality, they also imply a readership increasingly jaded by claims of originality and innovation yet insistent on knowing the latest modes and fashions."

A century later, in "The Art of Book-Making" and "The Mutability of Literature," Irving shows that when everyone is concerned with over-production and proliferation of printed material, of course one would be hyper-sensitive about plagiarism and the instability of authorship. Dunton, Defoe, and Swift (and then later on Laurence Sterne and Irving) are fascinating to look at for the ways they play around with the idea of the metempsychosis of the author (and editor) even as they're worrying about it. The miscellaneous nature of their projects allows--or even compels--them to generate prodigiously, like mushrooms or maggots.

The 1818 edition of The Life and Errors of John Dunton has a good introduction about Dunton's many projects, including his weird travel-ramble, A Voyage Round the World with Don Kainophilus. Don Kainophilus makes the key connection between miscellany and metempsychosis. The second paragraph (after a lot of funny, weird prefatory material) reads:
But not to mount the Argument above my Readers Head, lest I should crack both that and my own---Let it suffice, that my Soul for ought I know, has been Rambling the best part of this 6000 Years, if those are in the right on't who hold the Praeexistence, and that all Souls were made at once.

I showed it to one of my friends, who asked, "Why did he say he was going to do 24 volumes and then only finish three?" Because he was a projector! The introduction contains a footnote from Isaac Disraeli about Dunton's odd book:
This rhapsody is noticeable for its extreme rarity, and for two elegant pieces of poetry, which, if John's own, entitle him to a higher degree of praise than he has been usually thought to merit. It is obscurely noticed in his "Life and Errors;" but the Anagram of the Author's name prefixed to a copy of verses declares him. It has a frontispiece, which is a large folding cut, with 24 circles, exhibiting the Author's adventures. --To this Work was prefixed Panegyrical Verses, "by the Wits of both Universities," who, however, offer no evidence of their residence or quality; and may suspected to be Wits of the University of Grub-street. One of these wretched panegyricks tells us that "the Author's name, when anagrammatised, is hid unto none," by which John Dunton would, and would not, conceal himself. ... He seems to have projected a series of what he calls "The Cock-rambles of all my Four and Twenty Volumes," but his Readers, probably deserted him at the third. Kainophilus, as he calls himself, "signifies a Lover of News, not any thing of Kain, as if I were a-kin to him." It is a low rhapsody; but it bears a particular feature, a certain whimsical style, which he affects to call his own, set off with frequent dashes, and occasionally a banter on false erudition. These cannot be shewn without extracts, I would not add an idle accusation to the already injured genius of Sterne; but I am inclined to think he might have caught up his project of writing Tristram's life, in "twenty-four Cock-rambling" volumes; have seized on the whim of Dunton's style; have condescended even to copy out his brakes and dashes. But Sterne could not have borrowed wit or genius from so low a scribbler. --The elegant pieces of poetry were certainly never composed by Dunton, whose mind had no elegance, and whose rhymes are doggerel. On a rapid inspection, I have detected him transcribing from Francis Osborn and Cowley,
without acknowledgement; and several excellent passages, which may be discovered amidst the incoherent mass, could not have been written by one who never attained the slightest arts of composition. He affects, however, to consider himself as "a great Original" in what he calls "this hop-stride-and-jump round the World;" and says "So great a glory do I esteem it to be the Author of these Works, that I cannot, without great injury to myself and justice, that every one should own them, who have nothing to do with them; the fellow at Rome who pretended to Virgil's Verses. But I need take no other way to refute these plagiaries than Virgil himself did, requiring the tally to his Vos non Vobis. Let any man write on at the rate this is already written, and I will grant he is the Author of this book, that before, and all the rest to the end of the Chapter. No; there is such a sort of a Whim in the Style, something so like myself, so incomprehensible (not because it is nonsense), that whoever throws but half an eye on that and me together, will swear 'twas spit out of the mouth of Kainophilus."

So the charges of who's lifting passages from whom is difficult to untangle: Dunton is accused of taking from others, but Sterne is accused of taking from him. Disraeli was not the first to note the similarities between Dunton's work and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. In 1762, one of Sterne's rivals re-published Dunton's Don Kainophilus as The Life, Travels, and Adventures of Christopher Wagstaff, Gentleman and Grandfather to Tristram Shandy with the clear purpose of showing, as the eighteenth-century editor put it, "that Shandeism (or something very like it) had an existence in this kingdom long before a late well known publication." The multiple sources of Tristram Shandy are well known, but what fascinated me was that this 1762 book would make the case for plagiarism by saying that the source was Tristram's rambling, dash-and-typography-obsessed grandfather--metempsychosis in action once again. The first line of Christopher Wagstaff is lovely for its joy at experimenting with conventions of writing: "A book is a thing that has no determined magnitude."

(Incidentally, one sees metempsychosis yet again in the mind-blowing Michael Winterbottom version of Tristram Shandy, in which there are a few jokes about the same actors from 24-Hour Party People showing up on the set of the film-within-a-film.)

Isaac Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature is a very funny book to dip through, and this online edition is really great. Here's a passage from Disraeli's essay on antiquarians:
The very existence Of OLDYS’S MANUSCRIPTS continues to be of an ambiguous nature, referred to, quoted, and transcribed; we cannot always turn to the originals. These masses of curious knowledge, dispersed or lost, have enriched an after-race, who have often picked up the spoil and claimed the victory, but it was OLDYS who had fought the battle!

OLDYS affords one more example how life is often closed amidst discoveries and acquisitions. The literary antiquary, when he has attempted to embody his multiplied inquiries, and to finish his scattered designs, has found that the LABOR ABSQUE LABORE, “the labour void of labour,” as the inscription on the library of Florence finely describes the researches of literature, has dissolved his days in the voluptuousness of his curiosity; and that too often, like the hunter in the heat of the chase, while he disdained the prey which lay before him, he was still stretching onwards to catch the fugitive!

Transvolat in medio posita, et fugientia captat.
Blogger Jeff'y on Fri Oct 26, 02:36:00 PM:
An underground radio personality in Infinite Jest uses the nom de, umm, air of "Madame Psychosis". Just FYI.
Blogger Alice on Fri Oct 26, 10:03:00 PM:
I'm teaching a David Foster Wallace essay in my class for the next month ("Tense Present," about grammar and usage). The students picked it from a set I gave them. Little did they know that I'd interrupt class with my own digressions on the funny David Lynch essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, admonitions that they may not finish Infinite Jest if they start it, and tales of my dad's insistent claims that IJ is the best American novel ever written, even better than Moby Dick. Assignment #1: pick a place where DFW's style illuminates his argument, and pick a place where DFW's style may detract from his argument by being annoying or digressive. The class discussion about that subject was great!
Blogger James Welsch on Fri Nov 23, 04:38:00 PM:
There's a strange unfinished John Donne epic about Metempsychosis, worth reading, which follows Eve's apple as it is reborn up thru an evolutionary ascension, until it links with Cain, agriculture & civilization.

Here's a passage where the soul, now an ape, dallies with one of Adam's daughters:


It quickened next a toyfull Ape, and so
Gamesome it was, that it might freely goe
From tent to tent, and with the children play,
His organs now so like theirs hee doth finde,
That why he cannot laugh, and speake his minde,
He wonders. Much with all, most he doth stay
With Adams fift daughter Siphatecia
Doth gaze on her, and, where she passeth, passe,
Gathers her fruits, and tumbles on the grasse,
And wisest of that kinde, the first true lover was.