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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

... the pins that lay in the house that Adam built

We’ve tried to use fairy tales, so far, to make visible a dimension of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations that has ... well, never been made visible, or mentioned at all, even to be dismissed. And the reason for that lack of mention is easy to understand: like any science, economics demands, first of all, to be taken seriously. What is serious and what isn’t remains in the domain of those presuppositions that are both unexamined and as powerful as household gods. The ludicrous and the serious is that domain into which the old taboos migrated in modernity. Wittgenstein, in whom seriousness took the form of a crippling, lifelong neurosis, asked seriously, once, whether it wouldn’t be possible to express philosophy in terms of a series of jokes. I don’t know of an economist who has pondered that possibility for his or her science.

But LI, rank ponderer and an ardent practitioner of the suicidal practical joke (look at my career, ladies and germs!), is more than willing to free our mind to ludicrous possibilities. Here’s one: that Smith’s catalog of the way pins are made, which, according to Jean Louis Peaucelle’s article, “Adam Smith’s use of multiple references
for his pin making example”, owes its content to numerous French sources (Deleyre’s article on l’épingle in the Encyclopedie, Duhamel du Monceau’s L’art de l’épinglier, etc), owes its oneiric fascination to This is the House that Jack Built.

Here, again, is Smith’s description:

“One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.”

What makes this a peculiar business is that all of this detail goes into all this tininess – and this tininess proves to be a compound, a matter of this AND this AND this, until the pin is done. The difference between the Enlightenment prose of Smith and the 17th century prose of the King James Bible is that Smith omits the ands, using commas instead to speed up the rhythm of the sentence.

The Mother Goose version of the House that Jack built goes like this:

This is the house that Jack built.
This is the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

Ruskin, in Fors Clavigera, notes that this nursery rhyme depicts the slaying of the Minotaur in the labyrinth in Minos. In one of the more wonderful passages of English prose, in Letter xxiii, Ruskin attempts to show how we are still under the rule of that “great Athenian squire, Theseus”, although the liberal historians who, like John Stuart Mill, see in the marble statue of Theseus in the British museum only “utility fixed and embodied in a material object” doubt such a squire existed. “Not even a disembodied utility – not even a ghost – if he never lived. An idea only; yet one that has ruled all minds of men to this hour, from the hour of its first being born, a dream, into this practical and solid world.

Ruled, and still rules, in a thousand ways, which you know nomore than the paths by which the winds have come that blow in your face. But you never pass a day without being brought, somehow, under the power of Theseus.”

Which is the power of Athens, as Ruskin goes on to show, although it is a power brought about by Daedelus – the master Jack of the Greeks. And, to tell the truth, we are not so much in the power of Theseus as we are in Jack’s house, which is the house in which Ruskin pounds on the bars and howls at the moon. The house in which Ruskin lost his mind.

Evidence for his connections, here, comes from odd bits of bric a brac in the European attic. For instance, a symbol on the porch of the cathedral at Luca, where Ruskin found a slightly traced piece of sculpture and a six hundred year old inscription which, translated from Latin to English, read:
“This is the labyrinth which the Cretan Dedalus built,
Out of which nobody could get who was inside,
Excep[t Theseus; nor could he have done it, unless he had been helped with a thread by Adriane, all for love.”
Adriane, Ariane. The “maiden all forlorn” – and what happens to maidens all forlorn when they are shut up and shut in is that they deal with thread, with spinning. No, LI has not forgotten Ricdin Ricdon, and our promise to deal with that tale by Perrault’s niece, Mlle L’Heritier – a heritage here indeed. We are not, of course, advocating Ruskin’s peculiar history here – although a history that goes back from the British Museum to Chaucer – who tells a version of the tale of the maiden all forlorn, and the cow with the crumpled horn – to St. George and the Dragon, to Minos, hangs together in a dreamlike way.

Here’s a bit more of Ruskin’s explanation:

“Theseus, being a pious hero, and the first Athenian knigh who cut his hair short in front, may not inaptly be represented by the priest all shaven and shorn; the cock that crew in the morn is the proper Athenian symbol of a pugnacious mind; and the malt that lay in the ouse fortunately indicates the connection of Theseus and the Athenian power with the mysteries of Eleusis, where corn first, it is said, grew in Greece. And by the way, I am more and more struck every day, by the singular Grecism in Shakespeare’s mind, contrary in many respects to the rest of his nature; yet compelling him to associate English fairyland with the great Duke of Athens, and ot use the most familiar of all English words, “acre”, in the Greek or Eleusinian sense, not the English one!

“Between the acres of the rye,
These pretty country-folks do lie”

Ruskin aptly remarks that the very lines of The house that Jack built go in a labyrinthian way. Myself, I would analyze that labyrinth as the magical product of the “and” – it is the connective that gives us the world, a thing in which all order is simply what the “and” can do. With the “and”, we enter the era of technology.

6 comments:

P.M.Lawrence said...

Wa lakin ("but", in Arabic)... technology and the modern tendency isn't where the "ands" come from (wa, "and" in Arabic). The King James Version translators got them by carrying over a style common in semitic languages that they found in their Hebrew and Aramaic/Syriac sources, sources from a less technological time and place by far. Now, if you had argued that this was an input to a new synthesis that allowed people to think of technology, it would be harder to refute, true or not, but it doesn't run the other way for reasons of sheer timing.

BTW, "knigh" appears to be a typo.

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, I don't disagree with you. The labyrinth Ruskin refers to was built around 1500 b.c. I suppose I should have been clearer - technological era as in age of bronze, the age of chariots, of the plow, the sphere, etc. So, in fact, your comment is convergent with my thesis - the and as an essential part of the artisan's incantatory power, his magic.

roger said...

Oops - the spear - not the sphere! Hey, now that is a typo worth keeping.

catmint said...

Sir,

Joyce writing Ulysses finds "a fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush" to be an adequate riddle answer. How different things were in Ruskin's time! What importance must he have given the Theseus story! From a logical point of view why would one want to encode a story that's demonstrably memorable - remembered for 2500 years - this way? I sometimes read this blog to pick up how things should be written properly. My poor attention span unfortunately negates much of the benefit that, I am sure, a more assiduous reader would greatly profit from etc. I would be all like:

"the thread of this story, for Ruskin stretches back, passed hand over hand, among illiterates, to the spleandour that was Greece"

catmint said...

"a silence which belongs to fairy-tales"

(Barthez - the New Citroen)

I just happened to read this, just now

roger said...

Catmint,

While from a logical point of view, I agree, it is funny how we encode information in tales and myths, I suppose from the point of view of a dreamer, it isn't that odd. You know, one of the things I like to do in New York City is look at the designs on older buildings and dream about how they got there - how Southern Italian bricklayers and masons, immigrating to the New World, took the symbols in which they were impregnated, the symbols of their experience, and blindly reproduced them on the monumental lintels and and coping stones, the corners and bas relief of Garcia Lorca's city, where the messengers not only do not know the meaning of the messages they carry, they don't even know they carry messages: Friend/ get up so you can hear/the assyrian dog howl...