I have for years been nonplussed by phrases in literature whose sense eludes me. Some of these statements have attained celebrity despite their obscure nature. For instance in the December, 1984, issue of the Smithsonian magazine, an article on [quoteright]Boswell
quotes from his Life of Johnson the following insult:
"Sir, your wife, under pretense of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods."
I have carefully reread the text both before and after this quotation in an attempt to clarify it within its context, but to no avail. Therefore, I attempted parsing as a method of unraveling the meaning of the statement:
"Sir, your wife, under pretense (i.e. affectation or claim), of keeping a bawdy-house (house of prostitution)..." So far, so good.
"...is a receiver (a fence?; an obtainer) of stolen goods."
The imponderable phrase here seems to be "stolen goods." Taken in context up to this point, the statement reads: "Your wife, affecting to be a madam, receives or deals in 'stolen goods'." Since a madam deals in commercial sex, the stolen goods must either allude to male customers — unlikely, since their only contribution is cash, whereas goods connotes commodities — or the prostitutes under her management. Therefore, if the prostitutes are assumed to be the "stolen goods," the question remains from whom and by whom were they stolen? In the former case, I can only suppose that the victims are either the parents of the prostitutes, or in a broad sense, society. In the latter, the answer, if other than the perverse preference of the prostitutes themselves, must lie with the pimp or madam who has enlisted the women into the profession. If such is the case, then the statement must read that the madam is both receiver and the thief of the goods in question. Assuming this to be true, we now have a statement even more recondite than the original one from the Life of Johnson. Unless there is a critical error in my reasoning, the statement is not definable.
Moving on to a quote from the book 40 Years with Berenson by Mary Costelloe, Bernard Berenson makes the following statement in a letter to the author, dated August 3, 1895:
"Whether the latter statement be psycho- or bio-logical is to me utterly indifferent — biology being after all nothing but psychology in a packed-down form..."
Having again skirted the text outside the perimeter of these sentences, I find nothing to clarify them, although the first part of the statement is not in itself obscure. It is the phrase "...biology being after all nothing but psychology in a packed-down form..." that cries out for the nimble needles of the unraveler. In this case, the phrase is too straightforward for parsing and must be attacked as a whole by naked reason. In what way does one "pack down psychology" and what (besides biology) does one produce after it is so packed? In Websters II, psychology is defined as "The science of mental processes and behavior," and biology is defined as "The science of living organisms and life processes." On a very simplistic level, it could be argued that everything — art, commerce, and research among others — could be attributed to a biological function. But this just won't wash when applied to the quotation. In the opening part of the statement the writer himself has divided psycho and bio as two opposing autonomous fields. To state therefore that botany "packed down" is simply zoology is ludicrous. Botany packed down is botany condensed, and psychology packed down is psychology on a more basic level, but nevertheless still the science of mental rather than physical studies. Therefore, the statement is inexplicable except under the sophistic and easy premise that all things are interrelated. When this premise is used, no statements are inexplicable — or are clear, either.
However, I keep running into those that defy my understanding, like the following one from the fine book, Long Walks in France by Adam Nicolson:
"Albert du Cayla has recently defined civilization as the state in which each individual can learn more about how to live from the past than he need contribute himself. Significantly, this definition also embraces a state of complete stagnation."
Here again parsing is of no use, and one wonders about the efficacy of reason. The first part of the statement is fairly obvious: civilization is promoted (perhaps in direct ratio) when the benefit of formal education augments the individual's personal experience. This section of the quotation is arguable only by Rousseau and his followers. Unfortunately, it is pursued by the phrase "Significantly, this definition also embraces a state of complete stagnation." Whether the term "significant" here means either momentous or important does not matter. It is meaningful that the author believes that the "definition" of civilization as offered above "embraces a state of complete stagnation." Assuming stagnation to mean "motionless" or "stale," that belief is highly debatable. Mr. Nicolson may have felt that formal education by itself channelizes learning and precludes intellectual curiosity.
But this is not the case when education is extended by personal experience. The phrase "than he need contribute himself" must refer to personal experience. Excepting divine inspiration, what is there to activate the human mind into fresh currents of thought and action besides education and personal experience? What justification is there to use the term "a state of complete stagnation" when the results of education and personal experience are used to define a state of civilization?
These three examples illustrate the bosky attractions and frustrations inherent in the inexplicable statement. I have unsuccessfully attacked them by three different methods. First, by an attempt to parse separate phrases within the quotation until the overall meaning emerges. Second, by redefining salient words within the statement in the hope that an obscure synonym will clarify the whole. And third, by placing the statement back into its context and rereading the text surrounding it.
If these methods, augmented by the concentrated reasoning of the reader, fail to unravel the inexplicable, it is time to consider the fallibility of the author. It is he who has caused our befuddlement and frustration, our sleepless nights fraught with doubts about our mental competency. If an author can't think things out for himself, it is futile to ask that we should think them out for him.
Above all, it is important that our minds, under the delusion of arcane clarity, should grapple with such statements and accommodate them by the purveyance of warranted assumptions.
LIANA ALLINIKOV, appearing here for the first time, is both an editor and a technical writer. She lives and works in Yellow Springs, OH.
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