My favorite Bible story was always Noah, his ark and all the animals. It was a natural for a kid who collected butterflies and dreamed of becoming a biologist. To this day, it’s a pleasing narrative – a good man chosen to perform an impossible task overcomes the odds and succeeds. Survival stories always make good reading. Only later, in my adolescent years, did questions arise -- principally, who cleaned up the mess after forty days? Today, when the faithful report having found the remains of the ark, on Mount Ararat or elsewhere, I pay attention.
In a letter to Guy Davenport on April 24, 1968, High Kenner reports reading An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668) by Bishop John Wilkins, in which he argues for a universal language to replace Latin, a sort of ante-Babel, proto-Esperanto. See Borges’ essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” Kenner writes:
“It had a wonderful comic passage, some 10 pages, that ought to be reprinted. . . . Wilkins lifts up his eyes from taxonomy and does some calculations about the Ark, which of course obtained 2 or 7 representatives of all species, on three stories within specified parameters. He is answering impious allegations that the Ark would not have been big enough.”
Wilkins, according to Kenner, succeeds in his defense of the Scriptural account:
“But even granting the existence of the rhinoceros, which he is inclined to doubt, and even calculating on food, notably a supply of sheep for the carnivores to eat during the 40 days at sea, these sheep not to be confused with the sheep of which two are carried for the preservation of sheephood, he shows that there is room enough.”
Kenner issues a caveat about the Wilkins text: “And when was the hippopotamus reported? Wilkins in an allegedly complete list of all species of beasts neither mentions it nor even denies its existence.”
In his letter responding to Kenner, written on this date, April 27, Davenport, in typical scholarly fashion, begins: “The hippopotamus is mentioned by Dioscorides, Galen, and Damascius, say L+S [Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon]; see also Aristotle (who received one from Alexander) and Pliny. Sam Johnson lists it: The River horse. An animal found in the Nile. Perhaps Wilkins thought that, like the fish and the whale, it could fend for itself in a flood.”
Imagine having a correspondent like Davenport, gifted with so much knowledge at the ready. Neither Kenner nor Davenport takes the humorless debunking approach to a much-loved Bible story favored by sophisticates.
[Both letters are published in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner (Counterpoint, 2018).]