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Tag: 1555

Eco: The Etymological Furor

956px-Conrad_Gesner_-_Conradi_Gesneri_Historia_plantarum_Walderbeere

Conrad Gesner (1516-65), Conradi Gesneri Historia plantarum Walderbeere, Zurich: Botanical Garden zur Katz, published in 1750. Photographed by Roland zh, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Postel’s was a clear and unambiguous demand for the restoration of Hebrew as the universal language. Few, however, made this demand in so radical a fashion. For others, it was usually enough to demonstrate that Hebrew was superior because it was the first language from which all others had derived.

One example is the Mithridates of Conrad Gessner. Published in 1555, the Mithridates is a book that draws parallels between fifty-five different languages.

Having dwelt briefly on the happy condition of some legendary beings with two tongues, one for human speech and the other to speak the language of the birds, Gessner immediately passed to the claim that “all existing languages had retained words of a Hebrew origin, though in a corrupt state” (1610 edn: 3).

Other authors–in order to demonstrate such a parenthood–started a mad etymological chase.

This etymological furor was not a new condition. Between the sixth and seventh centuries, by a fanciful account of the seventy-two existing languages, Isidore of Seville (Etymologiarum) elaborated a series of etymologies that has made him the laughing stock of scholars ever since: our corpus (body) comes from corruptus perit as our body goes to corruption; homo (man) derives from humus or mud from which he is born; iumenta (mare) comes from iuvat because horses help men; agnus is a lamb because it recognizes its own mother . . . These are examples of hyper-Cratylian mimological hypothesis, and we shall see that they were taken up by the supporters of Hebrew.

In 1613 Claude Duret published his monumental Thrésor de l’histoire des langues de cet univers. Using the Christian kabbala as his starting point, Duret set forth a vast panorama that swept from the origins of language, to an examination of all known tongues, including those of the New World, to a final chapter on the language of animals.

Duret started from the premise that Hebrew was the universal language of the human race; it thus appeared to him as self-evident that each animal name in Hebrew should include an encapsulated “natural history” of that animal.

Thus we are told that, in Hebrew:

the Eagle is called Nescher, a word formed by the combination of Schor and Isachar, the first meaning to look and the second to be straight because, above all others, the eagle is a bird of firm sight whose gaze is always directed towards the sun [ . . . ]

The Lion has three names, that is Aryeh, Labi, and Layisch. The first name comes from another which means tear or lacerate; the second is related to the word leb which means heart, and laab, which means to live in solitude.

The third name usually means a great and furious lion, and bears an analogy with the verb yosh, which means trample. [ . . . ] because this animal tramples and damages its prey. (p. 40).

Hebrew had managed to retain this proximity to the world of things because it never permitted itself to be polluted by other languages (ch. x). This presumption of Hebrew’s natural affinity to the world of things is also demonstrated by its magic potential.

Duret recalled that Eusebius and St. Jerome had ridiculed the Greeks because they had exalted their own language but were unable to find any mystic significance of their alphabet.

Only ask a Hebrew child the significance of the letter Alef, and he will respond “discipline,” and so on for all the other letters and for their combinations (p. 194).

Duret is an example of retrospective etymologizing, aiming at showing how the mother tongue was harmoniously related to the nature of things. Other authors engaged in prospective etymologizing, projecting Hebrew words forwards to show how they transmuted themselves into the words of all other languages.

In 1606, Estienne Guichard wrote his L’harmonie étymologique des langues, where he showed that all existing languages might be derived from Hebrew roots. He started from the premise that Hebrew was the simplest language because in it “all words are simple, and their substance consists of but three radicals.”

Manipulating these radicals through inversion, anagrams and permutations in the best kabbalistic tradition, Guichard provided his etymologies.

In Hebrew, the verb batar means to divide. How can we prove that Latin dividere comes from batar? Simple: by inversion, batar produces tarab; tarab then becomes the Latin tribus and, from there, turns into distribuo and dividere (p. 147). Zacen means old. Rearranging the radicals, we get zanec from which derives Latin senex. 

A further rearrangement and we have cazen, from which derives the Oscan word casnar, which is the root of the Latin canus, elder (p. 247). By this method we might equally prove that the English head comes from the late Latin testa, since the anagram of testa gives eatts.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 80-2.

Eco: Postel’s Universalistic Utopia, 2

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An unattributed and undated portrait of Guillaume Postel (1510-84), published by George Saliba. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“After various peregrinations, Postel found himself in Venice, where, in 1547, he was appointed chaplain of the Hospital of Sts. John and Paul (called the Ospedaletto), and censor of books published in the Hebrew language in that city.

While in the Ospedaletto, he was appointed confessor to its founder, the fifty year old Johanna, or Mother Zuana, a woman who had dedicated her life to helping the poor. Gradually, the conviction grew on Postel that in meeting Johanna, he had come into contact with a great prophetic spirit.

He conceived for her a mystic passion in which he saw her as the mother of the world, destined to redeem humanity from its original sin.

After rereading the kabbalist text, the Zohar, Postel identified Johanna as Shekinah as well as with the angelical pope whose coming had been foretold in the prophecies of Joachim a Fiore.

Finally, he identified her as the second Messiah. According to Postel, the feminine component of humanity, guilty of the sin of Eve, had not been saved by Christ. The salvation of the daughters of Eve would only occur with the coming of a second Messiah (on Postel’s “feminism” cf. Sottile 1984).

The question whether Johanna was truly a mystic with extraordinary capacities or whether these were just qualities that Postel projected into her is hardly an important issue for us.

What is important rather is that there was now established an intense spiritual communion: Johanna, the kabbala, universal peace, the last age foretold by Joachim, were all thrown into a single crucible; what emerged was Johanna in the role formerly held by Ignatius Loyola in Postel’s utopian schemes.

What is more, “Johanna’s “immaculate conception” produces her “little son,” Postel, the new Elias” (Kuntz 1981: 91).

Rumors of singular goings on at the Ospedaletto soon spread, however, and in 1549, Postel was forced to leave Venice. He resumed his wanderings in the Orient, returning to Venice the following year only to learn of the death of Johanna.

According to tradition, on hearing the news he fell into a state of prostration mixed with ecstasy in which he claimed to be able to stare into the sun for an hour. He felt the spirit of Johanna gradually invading his body (Kuntz: 1981: 104). He began to proclaim his belief in metempsychosis.

Postel next returned to Paris where, with great public acclaim, he resumed his teaching. Yet soon he was announcing the advent of the era of Restitution, a golden century under the sign of Johanna.

Once again, he found himself at the center of a philosophical and religious turmoil. When the king forced him to abandon teaching, he set off on a new journey through various cities, ending up again in Venice, arriving just in time to prevent his books from being placed on the Index.

He was questioned by the Inquisition, which tried to induce him to recant. In 1555, in recognition of his services to science and politics, he was declared “non malus sed amens,” not guilty but insane.

His life was spared, but he was imprisoned, first in Ravenna and afterwards in Rome.

At the request of the French religious authorities, Postel was later transferred to Paris, in 1564. He retired to the monastery of Saint-Martin-des-Champs where he lived until his death in 1587. During this period, he wrote a repudiation of his heretical doctrines concerning Mother Johanna.

Apart from this final capitulation, Postel seems to have been a relentless defender of ideas which, for this period, were quite unconventional. His particular vision of utopia must be regarded within the cultural context of his time.

Demonet (1992: 337ff) underlines that his idea of the “restitution” of Hebrew as the language of universal concord also required that infidels recognize their error and accept the Christian revelation.

None the less, as Kuntz notes (1981: 49), Postel was neither an orthodox Catholic nor an orthodox Protestant; his moderate and pacifist positions infuriated, in fact, extremists of both persuasions.

Some of his doctrines were theologically ambiguous: he claimed that Christianity was the only religion that verified the message of Judaism, but–at the same time–that to be a good Christian it was not necessary to belong to a sect (Catholic church included), but rather to feel the presence of the divine within.

It followed that a true Christian could, and even should, observe Jewish law, and that the Muslims could be considered half-Christians.

More than once, Postel condemned the persecution of the Jews. He spoke of the Jewishness of all men, talking of Christian-Jews instead of Jewish Christians (Kuntz 1981: 130).

He claimed that the true tradition of Christianity was Judaism with its name changed, and lamented that Christianity had lost its Judaic roots.

Such positions could only be seen as extremely provocative by a church still clinging to the pre-Renaissance doctrine that Christianity represented both the correction and the cancellation of Judaism.

In order to affirm, as Postel did in his De orbis, the existence of a harmony between the faiths, it was necessary to exercise a tolerance on a number of theological issues. Postel’s doctrine has thus been described as a universalistic theism (Radetti 1936).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 77-80.

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