Noise Annoys

“Noise” may have an interesting etymology. Some think it comes from “nausea”, which itself comes from Greek naus, meaning “ship”. Neither the putative etymology of “noise” nor the undisputed etymology of “nausea” would have been news to J.R.R. Tolkien. He was, after all, a professional scholar of literature and languages.

But that’s why The Lord of the Rings is often a puzzling book. Why did someone so interested in words and languages write so clumsily? As I’ve said before: I wish someone would translate Lord of the Rings into English. But perhaps if Tolkien had been a better writer I wouldn’t have read Lord of the Rings so often. And perhaps if he’d been a better writer there would have been no Lord of the Rings at all. Even so, it’s hard to excuse writing like this:

He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping sound. […] There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise. – “Fog on the Barrowdowns”, Book One, VIII

Why did he use “sound” and “noise”? They’re redundant, because creak, scrape and snarl already describe sounds or noises. You could argue that the additional words are there to balance the sentences, but if they hadn’t been there I don’t think anyone would have missed them:

He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping. … There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling.

Later in the book Tolkien gets it right:

At that moment there came a roaring and a rushing: a noise of loud waters rolling many stones. – “Flight to the Ford”, Book One, XII

Then he gets it wrong again:

Turning quickly they saw ripples, black-edged with shadow in the waning light: great rings were widening outwards from a point far out in the lake. There was a bubbling noise, and then silence. – “A Journey in the Dark”, Book Two, IV

This would have been better:

There was a bubbling, and then silence.

It’s crisper, clearer and doesn’t strike an ugly twentieth-century note in an archaic setting. And it should have been what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in the first place. I don’t know why he didn’t and I don’t know why his editors or those who read early drafts of Lord of the Rings didn’t point out his error. That’s why I’d like to visit the Library of Babel and find a copy of Lord of the Rings written by Clark Ashton Smith.

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Performativizing Papyrocentricity #52

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Reds in the HeadThe War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

Canine the BarbarianThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

Star-StuffThe Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)

An Island of Her OwnThe Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon & Schuster 2016)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #36

• “By the time I was twenty-four I had constructed a complete system of philosophy. It rested on two principles: The Relativity of Things and The Circumferentiality of Man. I have since discovered that the first was not a very original discovery. It may be that the other was profound, but though I have racked my brains I cannot for the life of me remember what it was.” — W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), sec. 66.

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #44

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Lesser LettersYou’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (Heinemann 1990)

The Light of DaySJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police, Vox Day (Castalia House 2015)

Sextual KeelingSextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, David Barrie (William Collins 2014)

Twy Defy the EyeThe World of Visual Illusions: Optical Tricks That Defy Belief!, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber (Arcturus 2012)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #22 & #23

“After a million years or so, those screens are about to be removed, and once they have gone, then, for the first time, men will really know what it is to be alive.” — Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008, ed. Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (2012).

“A fertile imagination is better than any drug.” — Ibid.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Vermilion Glands — review of The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (W&N 2011)

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #20

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Clive AliveC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

Ink TuneNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reaktion Books 2013)

Stan’s FansAwaydays, Kevin Sampson (Vintage 1998)

Words at WarPoetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (Oxford University Press 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Bill Self

I would be disturbed and dismayed if Will Self ever wrote an essay on Evelyn Waugh or Clark Ashton Smith. In fact, I hope he has never even heard of CAS. But I’m happy to see Self writing in the Guardian on William Burroughs. It’s a perfect setting for a perfect pairing. And Self, like Christopher Hitchens, raises a very interesting question. What is his mother-tongue? Quechua? Tagalog? Sumerian? Whatever it is, it’s not even remotely related to English.


William Burroughs — the original Junkie — Will Self, The Guardian, 1/ii/2014.

Entitled Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict and authored pseudonymously by “William Lee” (Burroughs’ mother’s maiden name – he didn’t look too far for a nom de plume) …

[Self missed his chance there: nom de guerre would have been much better.]

The two-books-in-one format was not uncommon in 1950s America …

Despite its subhead, Wyn did think the book had a redemptive capability …

Both Junkie and Narcotic Agent have covers of beautiful garishness, featuring 1950s damsels in distress. On the cover of Junkie a craggy-browed man is grabbing a blond lovely from behind; one of his arms is around her neck, while the other grasps her hand, within which is a paper package. The table beside them has been knocked in the fray, propelling a spoon, a hypodermic, and even a gas ring, into inner space.

This cover illustration is, in fact, just that: an illustration of a scene described by Burroughs in the book. “When my wife saw I was getting the habit again, she did something she had never done before. I was cooking up a shot two days after I’d connected with Old Ike. My wife grabbed the spoon and threw the junk on the floor. I slapped her twice across the face and she threw herself on the bed, sobbing …” That this uncredited and now forgotten hack artist should have chosen one of the few episodes featuring the protagonist’s wife to use for the cover illustration represents one of those nastily serendipitous ironies that Burroughs himself almost always chose to view as evidence of the magical universe. …

… if you turn to his glossary of junk lingo and jive talk – you will see how many arcane drug terms have metastasised into the vigorous language. …

Burroughs viewed the postwar era as a Götterdämmerung and a convulsive re-evaluation of values. …

An open homosexual and a drug addict, his quintessentially Midwestern libertarianism led him to eschew any command economy of ethics …

For Burroughs, the re-evaluation was both discount and markup …

… and perhaps it was this that made him such a great avatar of the emergent counterculture. …

Janus-faced, and like some terminally cadaverous butler, Burroughs ushers in the new society of kicks for insight as well as kicks’ sake. …

Let’s return to that cover illustration with its portrayal of “William Lee” as Rock Hudson and his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, as Kim Novak.

When I say Burroughs himself must have regarded the illustration – if he thought of it at all – as evidence of the magical universe he conceived of as underpinning and interpenetrating our own …

Much has been written and even more conjectured about the killing. Burroughs himself described it as “the accidental shooting death”; and although he jumped bail, he was only convicted – in absentia by the Mexican court – of homicide. …

When Burroughs was off heroin he was a bad, blackout drunk (for evidence you need look no further than his own confirmation in Junky). …

By the time Burroughs was living in Tangier in the late 1950s, his sense of being little more than a cipher, or a fictional construct, had become so plangent …

Burroughs was the perfect incarnation of late 20th-century western angst precisely because he was an addict. Self-deluding, vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed, and yet curiously perceptive about the sickness of the world if not his own malaise, Burroughs both offered up and was compelled to provide his psyche as a form of Petri dish, within which were cultured the obsessive and compulsive viruses of modernity. …

In a thin-as-a-rake’s progress …

… a deceptively thin, Pandora’s portfolio of an idea …

It is Burroughs’ own denial of the nature of his addiction that makes this book capable of being read as a fiendish parable of modern alienation. …

For, in describing addiction as “a way of life”, Burroughs makes of the hypodermic a microscope, through which he can examine the soul of man under late 20th-century capitalism.

William Burroughs – the original Junkie, The Guardian, 1/ii/2014.


The big disappointment is that he didn’t use in terms of.

Brit Bot Book

Front cover of Reader's Digest Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain
Reader’s Digest Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain, J.R. Press et al, illustrated Leonora Box et al (1981)

This is probably the best introduction to British wild flowers that I’ve seen: drawings, photographs and text complement each other perfectly over more than four hundred pages. Despite being compact, it’s a little heavy to be a good field guide, but it would be useful in every British field, wasteland and marsh. From Indian balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) to flowering-rush (Butomus umbellatus) by way of green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens), it’s got a lot, if not the lot (no Mycelis muralis, or wall lettuce, for example). The drawings are skilful, detailed, and often show the plant growing with different species in its habitat, which prepares the eye for identifying it in situ. The drawings also often have the adventitious additions that make David N. Pegler’s Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools more enjoyable too, like the half-brick with Canadian fleabane (Conyza canadensis), the chewing-gum wrapper with sea mayweed (Matricaria maritima) and the frog with water violet (Hottonia palustris).

The drawings dominate the page devoted to each plant, but there’s a small photograph of a living specimen too, though “small” doesn’t always mean undramatic. Sea thrift (Armeria maritima) is shown growing quietly on a cliff-top with swirling sea and towering rocks beyond and below it. The photo sums up the book: wild flowers are often delicate and unobtrusive, but they illustrate some grand themes of evolution and biology, from ecological webs to mimicry, parasitism and toxicology: dead-nettles (Lamium spp.) mimick nettles, broomrape (Orobanche spp.) parasitizes broom, clover and more, and lots of British plants can kill you, sicken you or drive you insane, from hemlock (Conium maculatum) to henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). The book explores some grand themes of culture too: the text mixes serious botany with folklore, cuisine, herbalism, and literature. Pignuts (Conopodium majus) appear in The Tempest, for example, and in Ireland “were thought to be the food of leprachauns”. The etymologies aren’t always trustworthy — the “-ard” of “mustard” doesn’t mean ardente, “burning” — but that makes the book itself part of folklore and adds to the plants’ appeal. Highly recommended in this first edition.