Monday, June 14, 2010

`Strange & Multiplex Byways'

Emerson writes in his journal in 1839:

“Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is a wonderful work of a man. To read it however is much like reading in a dictionary. I think we read it as an inventory to be reminded how many classes & species of facts exist &, by observing in to what strange & multiplex byways learning hath strayed, agreeably infer our opulence. A dictionary however is not a bad book to read. There is no cant in it. No excess of explanation. And it is very suggestive, full of inferences undrawn. There is all poetry & all prose & needs nothing but a little combination. See what hosts of forgotten scholars he feeds us withal.”

Years ago I was charmed to learn Oliver Sacks read the Oxford English Dictionary for amusement, something I had been doing since college when I discovered the OED. A good dictionary is a utilitarian tool, of course, like a screwdriver, but it’s also a cabinet of wonders, a CT-scan of human sensibility across space and time, and a story with infinitely diverging plot lines. I enjoy opening a big dictionary, turning to the page where my surname would appear (it never does), reading the adjacent entries and following a path of endless digression. In my copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, a gift from friends thirty-seven years ago this month, with the covers and spine long ago detached from the text, I find these name-neighbors:

kurnakovite: “a mineral…consisting of hydrous borate of magnesium,” named after N.S. Kurnakov (1860-1941), a Russian mineralogist.

kurrajong (also koorajong or currajong): “any of certain Australian shrubs or trees esp. of the family Sterculiaceae that have strong bast fibers used by the aborigines for making cordage, nets, and matting,” also known as the bottle tree and the flame tree.

Lovely to be flanked, even in my absence, by exotic features of the natural world, things I’ve never seen. Kurnakov, I see, is known as “the founder of a new chemical discipline, physicochemical analysis,” and the kurrajong shows up in “The Man from Snowy River” (1890) by Kurnakov’s close contemporary Andrew Bartson “Banjo” Paterson (1864-1941), Australia’s national folk poet:

“And upward, ever upward, the wild horses held their way,
Where mountain ash and kurrajong grew wide;
And the old man muttered fiercely, `We may bid the mob good day,
No man can hold them down the other side.'"

Paterson is best known for “Waltzing Matilda,” and “The Man from Snowy River” was turned into a movie and a television series. Dictionaries, you see, are bottomlessly discursive. Even my bookless father, who to my knowledge never consulted Webster’s or any other lexicon, was fond of saying with utter assurance, “If you want sympathy you’ll find it between `shit’ and `syphilis’ in the dictionary.” Perhaps for the first time he and Emerson are in agreement:

“There is all poetry & all prose & needs nothing but a little combination.”

1 comment:

Shelley said...

Of course as a writer I'm always encouraged by Emerson's exhortations not to be afraid to be different, and he always offers something new. Just yesterday I discovered this quote about how to treat a friend: “Guard him as thy counterpart. Let him be to thee forever a sort of beautiful enemy, untameable, devoutly revered, and not a trivial conveniency.”