The Ruricolist is now available in print.

The Book of Mismatched Lists

[Preface to the Edition of 1984]

Jacques Bourges, the author of what is known as The Book of Mismatched Lists, was born in 1645, the illegitimate son of the favorite mistress of George Blanc, the Abbé de Lamothe. The Abbé was a wealthy man, of diverse interests, but with a particular passion for philosophical languages which would later extend to the preparation of Essai vers une Langue Philosophique, printed in Rouen in 1688, a translation of Wilkins’s Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language.

In 1655, the Abbé visited England along with his favorite mistress and his favorite bastard. During this time the Abbé, browsing (inattentively, as most do) a copy of Thomas Urquhart’s Logopandecteision, discovered Urquhart’s boast that his philosophical language could be taught to a boy of ten years in three months. Since the Abbé intended a long stay in England, he wrote to Urquhart to offer him a large sum of money to undertake that very task. The Abbé’s own words (from his Correspondence 1630–1687 – the Abbé employed several secretaries in the maintenance of folio letter-books) are worth repeating:

It is my fondest wish and dearest hope that you, the illustrious author of this most wonderful plan for a fully developed philosophical language, would undertake the education of my son in your wonderful language of languages, Logopandecteision. My son is but ten years of age; if you will only come to us, we shall be pleased to receive you during those three months of invaluable instruction.

Urquhart, ready for comfort after his confinement to the Tower and hounded by his creditors, took the offer. Urquhart’s stay lasted, in fact, only two months, until the Abbé discovered that this Urquhart was the same as the translator of Rabelais into English – to the Abbé, who wore his tonsure lightly, but took his faith seriously, the whole of Europe had never held anyone else half so despicable as that scoffer Rabelais.

No immediate change in young Jacques was observed, and the Abbé concluded that the lessons Urquhart had offered had been a fraud. This opinion changed quickly after their return to France. Jacques’s restoration to his former tutors was only to their embarrassment; he had only (the Abbé gathered, from the accounts of the thinly enlightened tutors, who had resorted to accusations of sorcery) to work out the names of subjects and their leading ideas in a language unknown to any of those tutors – unknown, but singularly beautiful and fascinating, “more sung than spoken” (as the Abbé wrote, relating the events) – to be able to evince, with but minutes of reflection, a total mastery of the discipline, from its principles to its most arcane and abstruse results. This facility was not only intellectual; he could play any instrument as soon as handle it. He ruined the reputation of his fencing master by repeatedly disarming him before his students in his own sallé.

The Abbé wrote to Urquhart in the most grovelling terms, begging him to come to France (this letter, not collected with the rest of the Abbé’s correspondence, belongs to the British Museum), but Urquhart had left Britain, vanishing into the Continent. The Abbé soon realized that the intellectual facility which the language Logopandecteision gave his son – the Abbé decided to call it Adamic, considering it the rediscovery of the language of Eden – was not altogether a good. Try as he might, the Abbé could not get Jacques to attempt to teach another the language – the boy claimed to have no systematic knowledge of the grammar, as that would have been the burden of the third month of Urquhart’s instruction – or to explain or write out any of the marvelous discoveries the language had allowed him to reach. “He says that while anything that may be said or written in any other language may be said in Adamic,” wrote the Abbé, “very little of what may be said in Adamic can be translated into the languages stemming from the confusion of Babel.”

Young Jacques spent nearly all his time in the composition of poetry – “A sonnet of Adamic, he tells me, contains more than all the treatises of Aristotle and the Schoolmen” – and in one-sided conversation with animals and plants. The Abbé found one incident startling enough to record and send on:

I went down to the orchard, which had fallen barren in my grandfather’s time; those old trees, it seemed to me, would never fruit again. I discovered that without my knowledge, my son had preceded me, and was haranguing the trees in Adamic. I say haranguing, from the loudness of his voice; but his tones were those of a seducer. It was already autumn then. In the depth of that winter, I was riding through the village in my carriage, when an apple was thrown through my window. Astonished at seeing a fresh apple in winter in this remote place, far from the sea, I examined it by what light there was; and it seemed to me that something was familiar in its color. I bit into it; at first taste it was superbly sweet; but the sweetness grew on my tongue, until surpassing sweetness, the taste became painful and bitter, like Spanish licorice. I returned swiftly to my home, and walked through deep snow to the old orchard, where I found the withered trees with their branches obscured with apples, which frost had turned white. I ordered the apples distilled to a cider, to preserve their strange quality. This spring, the trees have all died.

The profit the Abbé made from selling that extraordinary cider to eagerly curious correspondents convinced him that here was a miracle of practical consequence; so he ordered the construction of a greenhouse. The extraordinary flowers which grew there under Jacques’s persuasion – roses which required two hands to hold; orchids which could be worn, properly prepared, like hats – were harvested several times a year and transported to Paris and Versailles to adorn the ladies of fashion. But yet more profitable were certain plants of medicinal virtue which could not otherwise be grown in France, and for which apothecaries were willing to pay more than their weight in gold. The clever Abbé, looking to diversify, had several racing horses brought to his son; each of these won the first race it was entered in by an extraordinary margin, but thereafter could hardly walk. The Abbé entered a few undistinguished horses every year, whose remarkable victories made them, though useless for racing, valuable studs.

In 1669, Jacques fell from a horse and broke his leg. The leg would never heal properly, and Jacques was nearly dumb with fear and exhaustion for some months. The Abbé, alarmed at the prospect of an end to the marvel of Adamic, and optimistic that the language could be systematized along the lines of Wilkins’s new work, again attempted to convince Jacques to try to teach him Adamic. Jacques again professed his inability. The Abbé resolved on an indirect tactic – to create a dictionary of Adamic. Jacques demurred that no writing system available was sufficient to record the subtle accents of Adamic; however, he agreed to begin writing out definitions, pledging to create a writing system later.

The Abbé left with Jacques his manuscript translation of Wilkins, and embarked on a prolonged absence to visit his nominal benefice. During this time, Jacques wrote out in Latin, in a series of octavo notebooks, nearly five thousand definitions. When the Abbé returned, he wished to see them; but they seemed to him only to be gibberish, so he grew angry with Jacques, whom he accused first to trying to trick him; then, in anger, of traffic with the devil.

The Abbé indignantly quoted certain of these gibberish definitions in his letters; to his surprise, his correspondents begged to hear more of them – even correspondents who had never returned his letters before. The Abbé realized that nonsense might still have much of poetry. Jacques, wounded by the Abbé’s first reaction, refused to write any more definitions; but the Abbé took the existing notebooks and had them transcribed by his secretaries, then published as Liber Nominandarum (Rouen, 1670). The Abbé took charge of the whole stock, and shipped copies to his correspondents, keeping careful records of each. Of the original notebooks, history provides no further mention. The printer attempted another printing for sale, printed in Rouen but marked as if printed in Paris; these books, along with the transcription and possibly the notebooks, the Abbé had destroyed.

In 1672, the Abbé died. Jacques closed the greenhouse, gave his fortune into the hands of a firm of Rouen factors, and lived in seclusion until his own death in 1720. His only contact with the outside world was that necessary to secure publication of the Abbé’s correspondence, and of his translation of Wilkins. After Jacques’s death, his and his father’s papers were confiscated by the Intendant; Jacques himself was posthumously convicted of witchcraft; and royal order commanded the utter destruction of the Liber Nominandarum.

The Abbé’s careful records enabled the tracing of every copy; none survive. Three partial manuscript translations into French, and what the Abbé himself quoted in his letters, are all that remain. Between them, they number 612 distinct appositions, as each entry is known. One of these French manuscripts was in 1730 made the basis for an English translation, containing 285 appositions and published in London The Complete Wonderfull Book of Mis-Matched Lists of the Abbot of Lamothy – the printer apparently being confused as to its authorship. From the English edition, all the many other direct and indirect manuscript copies have been made – for the catalog, see Appendix A.

The influence of the Book, in France and England, is difficult to ascertain, as it was almost never quoted directly. The recipients of the Abbé’s copies included nearly every significant figure of the period in French literature and philosophy – one copy, taken from the royal library, was burned in the presence of Louis XV. The French never named the book itself before the burning, because, everyone knowing it, they never had to; after the burning, they were afraid to; and the English, having learned from the French example, kept their copies uncatalogued and out of sight.

Nonetheless, it would be difficult to find an author of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries who did not show, in some degree, the influence of the Book. Some of the appositions have even influenced popular language and sayings. Most notably, Ap. 128 (using the enumeration of Reicher’s definitive 1870 edition): “Devils, the color blue, the deep sea, violins, vinegar, salt, fruits red within.” One appears to be the basis of a common non sequitur: (Ap. 40) “Ravens, batons [or walking sticks], escritoires, night clouds, steeples, old songs.” Some appear to derive from mythology: (Ap. 26), “A woman, an old man, a cane, a lion, a lord, a loss, graves.” Some – and it should be remembered that they precede even Champollion – seem to allude to Egyptian mythology: (Ap. 23) “A heart, a feather, a butcher, a son, a river, scales,” or Babylonian: “The sea, storms, a dragon, water under the earth, the river mouth, mountaintops.” They vary in length, from the shortest (Ap. 7), “Wine, worms,” to the longest (Ap. 90), “A king, a home, a bushel, a mirror, a knife, a god, long [finger]nails, steam, a labyrinth [or the Labyrinth], sand, marble, foreigners, comers, a door, madness, old crimes, hills, a tower, a whale, grass, memory, broken strings [musical], a pit, a torch, the green sea, a stylus, boards, rings, plaster, maps, lamps, a tiger, a plate, a height, a fall.” Snatches of sense in these and other appositions (a king’s home being a palace, knife and mirror both being reflective, and a height preceding a fall) have inspired interpretative efforts which have yet to succeed in making much more sense than the original. There were, it seems, some efforts at organization in the original; compare, for example, appositions 5 and 6, each with eight terms: (5) “Gold, sand, spit, a scythe, a [split] rail, a key, a flock, a [nun’s] habit,” and (6) “Silver, rain, blood, a staff, a post, a lock, a crook, skin.” But each translator felt it worth their time to record only one member of each pair; such pairs as we do have come each from different manuscripts.

The obscurity of so influential a book is a problem of literature without a literary solution; but the human answer is as obvious as the existence of the book is repulsive. It invalidates at least all literature since it was created, and possibly all literature. A Jung could look for a collective unconscious in the mind; but in the Book we have one of paper, a shared universe of dreams which has been the artificial unconsciousness of the whole of romanticism and modernism, a false nature which has beguiled the world alike from classical worldliness and medieval religiosity. But the Book is more than a practical repudiation of the value of criticism and authorship. It debases the value of imagination, to find that all that can be imagined yields to interpretation by this single key, that every myth and story and work of art and piece of music is but a failed evocation and adumbration of a single word of the only true and perfect language. It blasphemes the idea of mystery, that there should ever have existed a Book such as this, in which all mysteries are potentially present. The Book is a rebuke to the intellect of humanity, to our provisional and grasping efforts, to what in the Book’s light we can only mistake for creativity. The Book is a fragment of Divine design – incomprehensible as a fragment of a machine’s design would be if we have but the plan of a valve or a seal; an echo of the confident and fearless thoughts of angels. The Book is as cruel as our vision and understanding is limited; it is as foul as the fact that we built our tower at Babel, and it fell. They were wise who tried to destroy it; and we are fools who have forever bound ourselves to it, by its study, and by this reprinting.

Fable of the Old Man and the Ravens

Once there was an old man, a farmer. Every day he drove his cart to market, and every day he stopped to throw seed to the ravens. Now, the old man did not load the cart, but paid his young nephew to do it. The old man, who had little use for words, had never spoken to him, except to hire him, and to promise that he would inherit the farm.

When the old man was late to rise one morning, the young man left in anger; and the ravens sent one of their number to check on the old man. Through the window, the chosen raven saw that the old man was dead. When he told the other ravens, they became fearful, for they had grown in numbers and depended on the old man for food.

“I have a plan,” said the chosen raven. The ravens came in numbers to the deserted farm. They broke in a window with their beaks and gathered up the farmer’s clothes: his hat, his gloves, his coat, his boots. They brought the farmer’s old scarecrow, and dressed him in the farmer’s garments. They tied the farmer’s fishing line to the hands and feet and head of the scarecrow.

When the young man arrived the next day, he saw the ravens overhead and said to the old man, who was waiting for him: “Aren’t they here a little early?” The farmer shrugged. “Guess they’re hungry,” continued the young man. The farmer nodded and climbed stiffly into the cart. “That fall chill bothering your joints already?” The farmer nodded, picked up and tugged the reins, and the cart rolled on.

Once the cart was out of sight, the ravens let the scarecrow fall and ate everything on the cart. In this way, day by day over months, the ravens grew many and fat.

One day his nephew said to the farmer: “Your fields are getting scraggly. You want me to handle it this year? This place’ll be mine someday, and I might as well start getting to know it.” The farmer nodded rhythmically. “Those ravens sure do follow you around.” The uncle nodded sharply and climbed onto his cart.

It was so for years, the young man doing the farm work and loading up the cart for the market. Fortunately for the ravens, the old man, who had prospered in his last years, had become a miser. Whenever the young man needed money they only had to dig up coins where they had seen the farmer bury them.

One day the young man said: “It’s time I leave here and go see the world. I’ve stored plenty of food for you, you’ll be fine for a few years until I come back. I know you’ll still be here. People keep saying you’re bound to kick off, but you won’t give them the pleasure, will you?”

What could the farmer do, but raise his arms and shrug?

What would feed an old man for years would last the many ravens only months. They became afraid and lamented; but the chosen raven, now the king of the unkindness, said: “I have a plan.” At his order, many ravens came together and lifted the scarecrow high into the air, searching for the young man’s night camp. When dark had come, while the young man tied his horse and lit his fire, there came much squawking of ravens out of the dark woods. “Damn ravens are everywhere these days.”

The young man saw the farmer come slowly out of the wood. “Is – is that you? It can’t be. How…” The farmer rose into the air unsupported, his arms waving. “Oh, no! You’re dead. You’re a ghost!” A raven lighted on the ground before the fire. The old man pointed to it. “The raven? The ravens. You want me to keep feeding the ravens. Of course I will. Don’t worry about it. I’ll keep feeding them. As many as show up.”

The ghost rose up over the young man, arms outspread. “I swear I will!” At that, the ghost sank, lowered his arms, and drifted back into the forest and the dark.

The young man returned to the farm, only to find that his uncle’s house had burned down – with him in it. The young man had only his dear uncle’s bones to bury.

The young man soon regretted his oath, as ravens appeared in incredible numbers; but when he came out of his tent to feed them, they led him, leading him from before and behind, to where his his uncle had buried his wealth. With that money, the young man was able to build a new house, and he found a wife to keep it.

So as the young man became an old man, keeping his vow, he often told how the ravens, to whom his uncle had always been so kind, had shown their simple gratitude; and he always laughed at any who called ravens cunning.

Moral: Silence is not Evidence of Wisdom.

Bacon and Montaigne

Suppose yourself a child, and that two old men live near you.

One is Montaigne. He is delighted by your visits, stuffs you with cookies, asks after your interests, takes it graciously in stride when you tell him (being a child) that they have changed, offers up anecdotes and friendly advice that he will not be offended if you disregard.

The other is Bacon. When you visit, he sits you down, offers you wine – they do that where he comes from – and takes everything you say seriously. You have opinions; he treats them like theories. You have observations; he treats them like theses. You have tastes; he treats them like positions. You finish bewildered and afraid. Montaigne makes you feel grown up; Bacon lets you know that you are not even as grown up as you thought.

The Essais of Montaigne sum to an autobiography in topical cross-sections; the Essayes of Bacon are ventured as Counsels Civill and Morall. Montaigne was the first essayist, the inventor of the essay; he is the standard. There will never be a better essayist than Montaigne, because trying to write an essay is trying to write like Montaigne.

But I should not have to argue that Bacon’s was the greater mind (though the two were more alike than goes acknowledged). Montaigne conceded to the world and posterity, “What do I know?”; Bacon, troubled that he knew nothing, determined to find something out. Read the Apology for Raymond Sebond; count how often Bacon’s method has discovered what Montaigne thought we could never know.

Bacon’s essays, and Bacon himself, have lost their once universal regard. Bacon has been expelled from the history of science. The very idea that an individual might be responsible for the project and phenomenon of science, and a philosopher at that, offends mathematicians who find a debt to the condemned practice of thinking in mere words distasteful, and would prefer an ancestry direct from Galileo to Newton. And it offends historians who conclude that, because science was supported by economic forces, science was therefore predestined by them – the role of individuals, and certainly of an instorer, being redundant; and any claim of originality or responsibility, naive.

Even as Bacon’s achievement increases in importance, he and his age sink ever farther from us into the costumed past. His glory as the founder of science, already lost, is irrecoverable.

But Bacon’s essays should not be forgotten. They are the model of strength in writing: swift, direct, and final. If Shakespeare’s position in society had allowed writing essays, they would read like Bacon’s – only natural in two contemporaneous, equipollent minds meeting the same challenge in Montaigne. They have that life in themselves, and that closeness to life as it is lived; lived not in passing, but in success or failure. Bacon’s language is free from the texture and balance which batten Addison’s meaning; free of Macaulay’s fireworking showmanship; free of the diffidence (or, worse, the confidence) of the twentieth century essay.

Analogy is the proof of a writer’s skill and character. Bacon and Shakespeare were both immune to the absurdity by which office workers pushing keys and paper under fluorescent lights make hay while the sun shines. Bacon’s Idols (not in his essays, but still his) deserve a place in the analogical equipment of every mind besides Shakespeare’s stage of life; or the winding stair, beside time and tide; or death and the dark, beside what dreams may come.

Still, I expect no literary renascence or restoration for Bacon. We still read Montaigne because he, himself, appeals to us; because his observations, centered on and conditioned by himself, are easy even for our suspicious sympathies to enter into.

But Bacon is a counselor; an adviser. We do not like to take advice at all; and the advice that is not accompanied by an exemplary life we not merely reject, but oppose unheard. Bacon’s counsels are stern, harsh distillations. He was not a pitying man; he would not even pity himself. He knew his failure, and he measured it as clearly as he would any other’s.

Bacon had a destination in mind for science, a New Atlantis, and sought the royal road to it. When geometry denied him, he denied geometry. Having found the right course, he took the easy way; as he did in politics, where he certainly practiced flattery (with the ease and excess of the arrogant and disingenuous) with his superiors, and was probably corrupt to his inferiors. These are the vices of politics, inescapable; but Bacon did not merely allow them, he perfected them – the easy way to power, and from power, he must have thought, to what we would call reforms, but he called instoration.

Bacon set himself apart from the world and from mankind so he could inspect them, make experiments on them, and recognize in and learn from them the accidental experiments conducted by nature. In this way, his two great failures – his failure to see the value of mathematics in science, and his failure to – I will not say, practice as he preached (for his essays are not secular sermons), but to act with patience or discretion – are the same failure. He sought, not (as some have) to know God’s thoughts, but to have God’s view. As his aim was too high, his fall was certain.

The Society of Trees

Our remote ancestors lived on the plains; but our even more remote ancestors lived in the trees. It is hard to imagine the transition. Open spaces are not very long tolerable to our species: we must be shut in and canopied over to sleep or live at ease. The universal report of those who try sleeping under the star-laden skies of the desert dark: “It was like I was falling into the sky.” Whoever left the trees first did not do it easily, or by choice. More likely the forest died and left them, than that they left the forest.

It is fitting that the same Roman minds that invented espaliering would invent crucifixion, would assume the conquest of the world as the duty fate had burdened them with. And it is fitting that a civilization careful to trap half-wild forests – bois or Wald or park – within the walls of its cities, would value freedom, discovery, and genius.

Sometimes the woods are like the sea, with swells and breakers of foam-foliage, as along green-walled Southern roads in summer; and sometimes the woods are like the library, and every tree as much an individual, as deep in itself, as much to be known, as a book. People, too, may be like the sea – as the crowd, the mob, the throng, or under uniforms (soldiers, suits, staff, and street people alike). But all of us are individuals, though we deny or try to hide it, while only some trees can distinguish themselves. To use a local (New Orleanian) metaphor, City Park is as full of remorseless individuals as is the French Quarter; but there is nothing humane in an orchard or a tree farm. Still, trees more often distinguish themselves than people, and are easier to get to know. Affectations aside, there are people I love more than any tree, but I have loved more trees than people.