Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The single longest section in Charles Olson’s Proprioception is the seventh, “GRAMMAR – a ‘book’,” checking in at five pages, six sections. It’s the one you’ll never see printed in native HTML, at least not the first two sections – passages appear at different angles, lines go from A to B connecting different terms, at least once traveling through some other text to get there. Olson also shifts here from italics, with a notable exception, to underlining for emphasis. This is true in both the Four Seasons Foundation and UC Press editions of the text.

Olson begins with a typically curious claim:

why (“adv.”!) instrumental case of hwā, hwaet. See WHO

WHO,” all in caps, is underlined three times, an effect I can’t duplicate here. The instrumental is a case that was already beginning to fade from existence in Old English, where, in the words of one online source of Old English cases, it was

only distinct from the dative case for a few pronouns and for strong adjectives. It is used to indicate the thing or person by means of which the action of the verb is accomplished.

A diagonal line at a 50º angle juts down from the period after hwaet to a line that reads “Goth hvas (Skt kas).” The idea that untangling the origins of a given term will tell you some essential feature thereof is the linguistic equivalent of justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito & Roberts claiming that the original intent of the writers of the Constitution is what determines a phrase’s meaning today. Yet a phrase like “all men are created equal,” was created in a time when all did not mean all, when men meant some men and no women, and when equal did not mean equal. Language itself is infinitely malleable & the social circumstances of one utterance to the next can and do change dramatically, altering content with every turn. Originationism is a vestige of 19th century historical linguistics, known then as philology, and though Olson understands that this is not the whole of language, this process is for him still a very powerful mode of proceeding. Looking up historic precedence is what Olson means by research. Yet one thing he doesn’t note, tho one might think he would had he known it, is that hwaet is itself the first word of Beowulf, & thus in some sense, the first word of English poetry as such.

The page at this point divides roughly into three columns, only the rightmost of which is printed in approximately the standard orientation to horizontal & vertical axes (approximately, but not in fact entirely!). This column traces the history of the word that, which interests Olson apparently because it serves both as a pronoun & a connective. The center passage, which starts at roughly the left margin & then moves downward in a very tight column no more than eight characters wide, appears at first to trace the relationship of the word how with who, what, & again why, then, as it moves downward seems to alternate from annotating the discussion of that to its right to ending up on who.

The left-hand column, boxed in by a border on three sides & tilted so that its bottom crowds the center of the page considers the term quantum, “neuter of quantus (cf. page 192” tho there be no closed parenthesis, nor even an allusion to suggest which book’s page 192 might be in mind. It’s the assertions that occur beneath this that, I think, pull this term into what otherwise appears to be a discussion of the syntactic potential of pronouns:

the process is not continuous

but takes place by steps,
each step being the emission
or absorption of an amt. of
energy called the quantum

Math. distinguished fr. a

Phil. the char. of a thing
by virtue of which measure
or number is applicable to
or it can be determined
as more or less than some

Olson proceeds to give us similar considerations of other pronouns: like, an, another, who, while on the next page, proceeding to argue quantus as pronoun & adjective, which we are told is “Relat. correl. with tantus, / of what size, / how much.” This leads eventually to:

absence of any such a word in English,
fr tantus? Result, or confusion over
? Therefore not understanding
quantus is the neuter case of pronoun,
not an adjective???

Hidden here, tho not very, is Olson’s application of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, the central tenet of any linguistic determinism, the implication that if there is not a single word in English to ask how many, how much, there is some gap in our understanding of the world.

The second section of “GRAMMAR – a ‘book’” is devoted to the middle voice – the middle, so to speak, between active and passive. This is the distinction between The fox ate the chicken, which is active, The chicken was eaten by the fox, which is passive and The chicken cooked in the oven, which is in the middle voice in that the subject of the sentence is in fact the object of the action. The second section, labeled “’Case’” – the inner quotation marks are Olson’s – is not, theoretically or linguistically, his finest critical writing, but what Olson is after is precisely that hybrid phenomenon. This is why, midway down the page, Olson will draw a line from ”future perfect” to “middle” – because it invariably combines some form of will have with a past participle. This is followed by a passage on the “indicative middle,” a phrase inserted with a ۸ between the words Middle and voice. The indicative middle, although Olson doesn’t note this, is a case one finds most often in Classic Greek or Old Iranian. Further, Olson’s notes here appear to be cribbed almost directly from William Hersey Davis’ Beginner’s Grammar of the New Greek Testament, published in 1923, an author Olson does not cite.

The third section of ”GRAMMAR” is entitled “The Indo-Europeans Anyway,” describing their migrations around 1800 BC and the impact this had on the language. Olson’s second (of two) paragraphs is almost entirely a quotation from Edward Sapir:

The first [of the three drifts of major importance at work in the language] is the familiar tendency to level the distinction between the subjective and the objective, itself but a late chapter in the steady reduction of the old Indo-European system of syntactic cases…. The distinction between the nominative and accusative was nibbled away by phonetic processes and morphological levelings until only certain pronouns retained distinctive subjective and objective forms. (Bracketed language, ellipsis and italics all Olson’s)

The fourth section, entitled “Syntax (‘ordering’),” is entirely a quotation of Sapir, arguing that language invariably begins as concrete – Sapir’s example is the origin of of, as it appears in the English phrase, “law of the land,” a pronoun that began as “an adverb of considerable concreteness of meaning, ‘away, moving from, ’and that the syntactic relation was originally expressed by the case form [ablative] of the second noun.” (Bracketed insert Olson’s). Thus:

An interesting thesis results: – All of the actual content of speech, its clusters of vocalic and consonantal sounds, is in origin limited to the concrete; relations were originally not expressed in outward form but were merely implied and articulated with the help of order and rhythm.

Section five, entitled “Concord, in Bantu and Chinook,” again quotes Sapir at length, presenting “an alternative to syntrax [at least as we have understood it] altogether." Olson’s point would appear to be the inner logic is radically different – again, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.

The sixth and final section is “Number,” specifically the singular, since it can be nominative whereas plurals necessarily distribute. This passage, read in the context of the whole of Proprioception feels less like the end of book on grammar & more a staging for the next section, entitled, in all of Olson’s quirky uses of capitalization & speech:

A Plausible ‘Entry’ for, like, man

This, as it turns out, is a time line from Paleolithic man to Eric the Red, 1025 years ago. A long horizontal line divides the page in the middle, with HOMER, all in caps, above it and below the date “450, Athens” and the note “logos invented (universalism possible” tho Heraclitus had been dead for 25 years by then.

The most important date in more recent years, to Olson, would appear to be 732 AD, the “date Martel turned back Moslems at Tours, one has to see a ‘Europe’ – and new “West” – arising.” Europe, thus, is relatively recent as a possibility. This is followed by a list of dates, Names and prepositional phrases:

771    Charlemagne
790    Irish monks to Iceland
823    Norse, to Dublin
862    Swedes to Novogrod
871    Alfred
981    Eric the Red, to Greenland