Tocsin of the Absolute: Armel Guerne

Armel Guerne (1911-1980) was a French poet and translator. A friend of Mounir Hafez, Georges Bernanos and Emil Cioran, he is the author of numerous translations, including those of Kawabata, Hölderlin, Novalis, Woolf, The Book of a Thousand and One Nights and Moby Dick, to name only the most famous. The fame of his work as a translator has somewhat obscured his own immense poetic work. Yet, according to his own admission, he had no other ambition “than to be welcomed and received as a poet, to be able to count myself one day among the holy number of those divine ruffians of love.”

In the midst of an indigent modernity, dominated by the “absurd and monstrous accumulation of the things without souls,” Armel Guerne knew how to tear open an irredentist breach—a breakthrough “against the world” to sound the tocsin of the Absolute. From his first arrow to his final salvo, his work never deviated from its outgrowth—all were charitably oriented towards a poetic star, the only herald of a “truth that lasts, that begins at the ground level and goes to the sky, and that remains.” And as a cliff carries its other side, his work as a translator and poet are rooted in the same mythical Vale of Tempe—that land of the German Romantics, on which they silently set the “very seal of eternity” on poetry.

Of Armel Guerne’s critical writings (collected in Le Verbe nu [The Naked Word] and L’Ame insurgée [The Insurgent Soul]), chanted at the edge of inner constellations, one could say what Bettina von Arnim said of Hölderlin’s poetry: they are “in the eternal fermentation of restless poetry.” Without ever feeding on any “flavor of the day”—whose constant frenzy is only a proof of its latent paralysis—Armel Guerne watched over a branch of speech, which it is up to each generation to revive in a “grace of living charity” (Lettres Dom ClaudeLetters Dom Claude). Like a guardian of the Pyrenees, like the crypt where the Mazdean priests maintained a sacred fire for a thouysand years, Armel Guerne praised and preserved this heritage of “incessant orations”—thus re-establishing the preeminence of the poem, this “brazen shaft of all words, this axis around which all the worlds revolve and all the ages turn.” (La Nuit veilleNight Watch).

In fidelity to this stellar decree, one finds in each of Armel Guerne’s poems the destined reflection of the “infinite Silentiary” (JournalDiary), which gave his poetry a vesperal and definitive character—in the image of the burnt sky which culminated above Tourtrès, where Guerne sat with his mill, like a watchman on an inalterable Acropolis. It is from this “mill of miracles,” rooted in “the mineral of the wind and forgotten times” that Armel Guerne wrote his greatest poetic work, including Les Jours de l’Apocalypse [The Days of Apocalypse], Le Jardin colérique [The Angry Garden], or the Rhapsodie des fins dernières [Rhapsody of the End Times].

In spite of the overwhelming confidentiality in which his work remains walled up, Guerne remains a sentinel in our night, reminding us of the imperative necessity of poetry, this “Ravenous hunger of the Holy Spirit” which never gives up its weapons to any world, and only gives its eyes to the expectation of a Word—without ever dimming its “purple wing” (St. John of the Cross).

If the poets are immutable and that they alone “found what remainsm” as Hölderlin said, the conservation of their voices seems however to be endangered by the modern pandemonium, which does not cease to reduce the range of their insolent brisures. Guerne hurled in particular violent anathemas at the prolific critical logorrhea which, contrary to its initial mission of “passer-by,” is now happy to palaver blissfully, by assembling and disassembling the great texts upon a mechanical and inert frame. In this necropolis of the word, erected by these merchants of contraband, we find “Nothing true. Nothing alive. Nothing lived. Death put in tomes. Death. Easy to recognize: it cannot be silent, since it exists only in its chatter” (Le Verbe nu). By thus spatulating its plaster of quibbles, this “necrophilic literature of professors, doctors, commentators, exegetes, analysts, biographers, historiographers, anecdotists, nomenclators” proves in the same gesture that it does not actually reside in the poem—its learned objectivity was thus only a scarecrow, upon which it leaned its disarmament—its escape before a sovereign Word. According to Guerne, this denial is the very sting of this pantomime modernity, which, by fear or by cowardice, gesticulates ceaselessly on its own rubble: “For there is a modern thought… clothed in a barbaric or zany language, caught in a corset, a thought without breath; its circle has been reduced to the dimensions of a tiny circus… without ever risking a glance outside” (Le Verbe nu). From then on, we have to consider, following Guerne, that this tropism to the dismantling of the poets is only an umpteenth modality of the “technical Moloch” demystified by Bernanos—this specter of orphaned ashes, which voluntarily forgets as its corruption of the world advances, the vital ferments which made it get born.

Drained and brutalized, the modern soul—whose each edges seems dedicated to the countable osculation of the world—does not know how to measure itself with this sibylline and elusive truth deposited by poetry. It is against this seated deciphering that Guerne crystallizes his rock of insurgency: his anger has no other aim than the fight against all these debilitating deadlocks—tightened every day by the modern dementia, “whose characteristic is to never think, but to turn in circles, faster and faster, in the sawdust and the dung of the time, with the other civil servants, without ever risking a glance outside” (Le Verbe nu).

It is thus against the grain that Guerne reveals to us the dawn of an interior vox cordis, that of poetry—since it is “the only language still alive enough, still armed enough, still powerful and whole enough, close enough to the mystery also of the word, to carry away the fortresses of the inertia and to burst the concrete of the lie, carrying in it a grain of human truth which can still germinate, a seed of beauty which will bloom in the hideousness” (L’âme insurgée).

“All true language is silence”

In response to this deadlocked language, padlocked in its own corrosion, Guerne enjoins us to scrutinize the incandescent hearth of poetry, where only “silence” crackles—this pneuma of an unconquerable breath that whispers its “Unavowable absence impossible to grasp” (Le Jardin colérique). This absence—unavowable because unforgivable—is not this withdrawn mutism that a certain poetry obscure to itself claimed in a self-sufficient glory. On the contrary, with Guerne, silence is an immemorial tear to be safeguarded, a mythical Palladium which guarantees to the world the perpetuation of an island of freedom: “Silence is not what one believes, an extinction, an immobility, a not closed in a yes wide open. Silence is a movement that contains itself, of such power and intensity that to move beside it becomes a grotesque caricature, a stunning simulacrum. The movement of movement, the universal source… The hand of all caresses, of all pains, beyond evil and good, of all acts” (Fragments).

To be disposed to this poetic grammar, it is necessary to imagine that poetry shelters in its torn center a baptistry of silence, where is imperially maintained the forefinger of Angerona, that ancient goddess whose finger affixed to lips—symbol of an ordered silence—is an insolence opposed to all the noises of the world, be they the sweetest. And it is from this preserved archipelago—where the eternal and the temporal intersect—that Armel Guerne composed his Adamic alphabet, wherein culminates in its summit “the unique human voice that stands behind the words and that resounds, mysteriously, each time man reaches out to himself… Sometimes open to the heavy night and echoing in the depths of the abyss, sometimes torn by supernatural gleams, this authentic voice of man, which reappears suddenly at the crucial hours, pierces and disperses his languages” (L’Ame insurgée). For Guerne, perhaps even more than an inapparent heart or a founding axis, silence is the very strength of the poet—indeed, the only one he truly possesses. [“That the most sublime poetry is really, in the end, only the learning of silence” (Le Verbe nu)].

And to connect the corolla of the diamond cutters, who set poetry with an aura of silence, it is appropriate to quote Max Picard and his Monde du silence (World of Silence), in which he writes that “Poetry comes from silence and for the nostalgia of silence.” [Max Picard wrote of Hölderlin that his words “seem to come from a space that existed before creation” (Le Monde du silence)].This echo without return acts thus in the manner of a liturgical screen, by which the poet sifts the relics of a word which precedes the creation, to collect the deposit of a new clarity—opened in the immobile one. This is what Guerne’s poem Le Poids vivant de la parole (The Living Weight of the Word) evokes, in which he dips his hieratic blade, ever more deeply into the “amassed” powers of silence [“The most difficult thing is still to gather the silences, all the silences of the most diverse kinds, and to bring them back intact, one by one, by the dozens, by the thousands, the smallest and the largest, to collect them carefully as they pass and to bring them home delicately. Without breaking them, without tarnishing them, without crumpling them” (La nuit veille)]:

You can write, and you write;
You can be silent, and you are silent.
But to know that silence
Is the great and only key,
One must pierce all the symbols.
To devour the images,
To listen in order not to hear,
To undergo until death
Like a crushing
The living weight of the word.

It is thus about poetry as about an asceticism: a constant and heroic “mine of will” which arms itself in a column of silence. In these two secret nobilities, the same language of oracle is whispered: an awakener of the Spirit who goes “to seek behind the noise; who picks it up and who collects it for all those who are exiled from it. In such a poetic alchemy, there is no place for embellishment or ornament: each word, however simple, is chanted at its “maximum flavor“—thus crystallizing this concretion of the poem into a secret pearl, which testifies before its living weight: “The silent meditation of the most silent of monks is, in this sense, a listening of the word until the finest of the ineffable. Almost perfection” (Fragments).

The Abyss of Time

For Guerne, much more than a simple aggregate of captious and scattered words, the poem is a tension—torn at the two points of the infinite, between the previous Word and the words that seek it. This caesura of abyss, as violent as a “silent storm,” reminds us of the famous letter of the American poet William Carlos Williams [1913 letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine], where he, after having written that ” Now life is above all things else at any moment subversive of life,” indicates that it is the same for the poem: ” Verse to be alive must have infused into it something of the same order, some tincture of disestablishment, something in the nature of an impalpable revolution.” With Guerne, it is a question of the same perseverance of the poem in a stellar conatus, of the same light accentuating itself in a coruscating force—all these ardent powers concur to this “oxidation of the infinite, of the eternity or of the things” carried by the poetry.

Detecting then a “source of all fires,” the poet fans the mythical remains of it to the point of setting his own word ablaze in a burning firebrand—to be able to welcome “the deposit of a truth” which is not his own. It is this lightning rearrangement that the poem Soudain [Suddenly] encloses, spurring even more deeply this “urge for renewal is gaining ground in the aftermath of monstrous destruction,” of which the poem is only one meteor:

Words, just to put them down
One next to the other,
That say more and go further
Than we go; words
Suddenly no longer ours
And stand so close
Close to a supreme truth.
Words that cease to be said
To better come, suddenly, to become again.
Words of the word.
(Le Poids vivant de la parole)

And if “the ark of the world is on the waters of time,” as Guerne writes in his Jours de l’Apocalypse, it is because it is the poet’s responsibility to go up the tubular corridors of time—themselves linked to the “pillar of Eternity”—to ring the bell of the unalterable. Split between these two temporal poles, his own and that of the word, the poet condenses a “hurricane above the deserts” and breaks the anthropic bodice by a ray of lightning—such as the “interior blood and its irrevocable mystery, until then contained in the night of the body” (La Nuit veille). For, contrary to a modern taxonomy, which requires of the poet a hectic inventiveness turned towards artifice or imagination, Guerne teaches us that the “clairvoyance” of the poet is above all an inclination of the soul towards itself—a sovereign expectation of the living Weight of the word: “The true mystery of all poetry, it is that the poet is in us; the other one, the one who speaks, doesn’t speak; it’s not true: it’s not him, it’s just the Word. Thus, it is by an august gesture of allegiance that the poet makes himself Sphinx, by putting himself in tune with an anterior sovereignty—being able thus only “to give his voice—even if it is breathless—to the voice which calls” (Au bout du tempsAt the end of time).

And it is in this beginning of a rediscovered word that we detect the first strain of Guerne’s thought—the vital point from which all its foliage branches out. It is based on the intuition that poetry should not “second the world” as Kafka said about the novel, but that it aspires to be a mirror of the Apocalypse, taken in its primary sense of “revelation” and “unveiling”: “We have passed the threshold of the Apocalypse and, in my opinion, we are mistaken when we want to look at or read the Apocalypse as a prophecy. In reality we should read and understand it as a lived history, already past in part, and in the depths of which we are charitably engaged. This is what is happening every day. It is more than at our doors; it has entered our lives, we are living it, absolutely.” This apocalyptic bottom generates a deep caesura in his poetic thought—it calls him to a conversion, which carries the word on the imperious way of necessity. As if, by the tear that it would impose, the Apocalypse definitively breaks the vitiated fabrics of the babble, so that poetry finds its innocence of the aerolith. It is with this breaking star that Armel Guerne hoped to hang poetry, as shown in one of his confessions, written in the beating of a revealed abyss: “About poetry, I have ambitious and clear ideas which put it a little higher than the ditty: I want to say, today, vigil of the end time” (Letter to his editor).

The Open Palms

“On a sinking ship, panic comes from the fact that all the people, and especially the sailors, obstinately speak only the language of navigation; and no one speaks the language of shipwrecks. Only prophets and poets know how to use this language of meltdown panic, according to Guerne. In a disoriented universe, where dissolution and siltation seem to be the only avenues of the future, these two passers-by of the absolute raise the lost by only their glances “turned right side up.” It is one of the multiple possible meanings that we give to the Apocalypse evoked by Guerne—beyond a material state of the world, it is an interior accentuation by which the poet does not write any more for himself, nor for the others, but in front of the end of times. Howling thus his Rhapsodie des fins dernières, under the porch of the agony of the world, his verses are consumed in an irrevocable detonation, which tremble with equal intensity with all the “revelations”—”For the poet, the universe is an incandescent drama. Its tragedy enlightens” (Fragments).

Guerne initiates us then into a blessing by the desert—understood as the voluntary desiccation of the poet where the waiting and the attention become his only prayers, his only consoling sources. In these latitudes—dug in an unfathomable abyss that summons all the chasms of silence and night—the freedom of the poet is strangled by the very power of the word: “The word speaks; and I listen to it speak. It sings; and I listen to it sing. It commands; and I listen to it obey and I see it obey. This is the School of the Seer.” And it is from these specular sighs, which reflect even more deeply the received light, that the poet abandons his lower maneuvers to receive the break of a superior verb: “The writing is only a bark of which one makes a divine cup; remains the One who fills it and the one who is thirsty and who takes it to drink. Begging before the one and begging before the other, the poet is between the two ” (Rhapsodie des fins dernières). It is this hieratic snatch of which each poem is the palpitating witness that makes Guerne’s poetic thought so necessary. It reminds us that beyond the dislocation of the poet, between supplications and thundering, it is the simple word carried by poetry which bequeaths to us an effulgent crystal—”The poet did nothing but open his blood, source of word” (Le Verbe nu).

It is up to the poet alone to hold out this open palm of the beggar—whose bruised phalanxes are only the pulverized reflection of his own charity—to pick up this immemorial tear of the word. Like a herald, the poet then remembers this mythical needle by affixing it on all the ruins of the world—and carries in front of a new Axis Mundi, like an Atlas armed with the sword of the Archangel: “All set their traps for you, scholars, politicians, bankers; the traps in which they themselves are caught. The poet holds out to you his buoy, and if he can, his hand”. (Preface to his translation of the Disciples at Sais, Hymns to the Night, religious songs of Novalis).


Henri Rosset writes from France. “Everyone wants to own the end of the world.” This articles through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.

Derrida the Negator

There are posthumous editions that are only of secondary interest in relation to the work already known by their author. Such is not the case with this work, written by Derrida in 1960. It cannot be reduced to its sole pedagogical aim, which was to provide the learned correction of a dissertation subject given to his philosophy students at the Sorbonne, on a subject that is none other than a sentence written by Alain: “To think is to say no.” Indeed, in his Preface, Brieuc Gérard stresses that Derrida, then an assistant in “general philosophy and logic” at the university of the Sorbonne, enjoyed for four years “a complete autonomy as to the subject-matter of his courses and the organization of his directed works,” which ceased in 1964 when he was forced to follow the program of the agrégation of philosophy at the École normale supérieure of Paris. In virtue of this autonomy, proper to any enterprise of “general philosophy,” Derrida thus professed his own thought through those he taught. By the mediation of the philosophers that he summoned and discussed, according to a well determined direction leading to his master Heidegger, Derrida who became one of the greatest thinkers of “French Theory” gives us to read and to think the most important premises of his philosophy of deconstruction.

Deconstruction

The title given by Derrida to his four-session essay thwarts the reader’s expectations—instead of representing an apology of negation, in the logical sense of the term, it first follows faithfully Alain’s original proposal to lead to a thought of “neither yes nor no,” where the implications and presuppositions that organize the two affirmative and negative modalities of thought are deconstructed, that is to say, unpacked, and not eliminated. The opposition that Alain makes between thought and affirmation begins in fact, at first, by being translated in the terms of an opposition between thought and belief—for him, Derrida tells us, “the idea of proof as a technical instrument of truth is to be refused, because as soon as one says yes, one ceases to think and one begins to believe.” In this sense, Alain, more Cartesian than Descartes, would adopt an “ultraradicalism of doubt” which consisted in not using it to reach a certainty under the aegis of a veracious God, but on the contrary in remaining at “the hypothesis of the deceitful God and even of the Evil Genius to save thought and the initiation of thought… which has no initiation except in the “no,” hostile to any proof, to any definitive destination in the true.

Even before opposing the ready-to-think provided against it by “the world, the tyrant and the preacher,” the thought is thus constituted by a movement of negation: on the one hand, negation of appearance, insofar as to think, that is to say, to examine objects and to reflect on them, is to refuse to stick to what one perceives; on the other hand and above all, negation of what one holds oneself to be apparent, since “in order to see something, necessitates [already] a whole implicit work of selections, criticisms, questions;” that is to say, of negation of what one excludes in our perceptual sorting: “to believe everything, therefore to say yes to everything, is to choose to see nothing,” Derrida comments. To say yes, one must say no.

In fact, this raises an objection to Derrida, in that this total affirmation, instead of being only a total deprivation of the visible, can be, on the contrary, under different conditions of the rational or discursive thought, the way of access to the invisible itself. Doesn’t the naive “yes to everything” deserve to be measured and rethought by the “I choose everything” of Saint Therese of Lisieux?

Notwithstanding what the saint may object to in the dialectician, Derrida pursues Alain’s reasoning, whose antithesis does not fail to put classical skepticism out of the game: if belief signifies a halt in the movement of thought, its being put to sleep, it is only as “credulous thought.” On the contrary, faith, in its broad sense of an act of trust, is not naive credulity, but the inevitable presupposition of all awakened thought, of all thought that says no: “without a kind of primitive axiological adherence to the legitimacy of truth, it would not even be possible to challenge opinion in general… as a de facto breach of the truth.” In other words, to be able to deny, one has to feel that one has to do so: to say no, one has to have confidence in truth as an ideal against which an opinion can be refuted because it is wrong: “to say no, to doubt, to refuse, one has to want to, to decide to. It is a necessary fiat or a be that is a yes to the will to say no.” The actuality of doubt is based, if not on the ideal certainty in the truth, at least on a confidence in it. To say no, one must say yes.

By showing that thought says neither yes nor no, Derrida leads to the deconstruction of affirmation and negation. This in a double sense: by revealing, on the one hand, the negation supposed by affirmation (in the form of a sorting, a selection) as well as the affirmation supposed by negation (in the form of a confidence in one’s own project), he denies—on the other hand, the pretension of both to represent two modalities of thought, each one provided with its own and definite meaning. In so doing, Derrida challenges classical logic and ontology, which respectively make non-being and negation the symmetrical opposites of being and affirmation, in order to disseminate the meaning of these two opposites in the variety of their mutual implications.

Dissemination

While following Bergson, Derrida notes that negation in classical logic is not a negation; it is only a “modalization” of affirmation, since it consists in refusing an affirmation in the name of another implicit affirmation. For example, to say that such and such a table is not white is to affirm in disguise that the table is of another color. This is why, in the same way, the nothingness in the classical ontology is not a nothingness either, because if it is a nothingness; it is nothing at all; we don’t have to talk about it; it is thus, on the contrary, under the mode of “the haunting” that it means something: “it is necessary that the nothingness haunts being so that negation is possible.” The negation, logical or ontological, must therefore be rethought. By ending his course on Heideggerian phenomenology, Derrida announces what his philosophy will be based on: a renewed thought of negation. For a negation to be really such, in fact, it is necessary, while remaining discursive (without which there is no judgment), that it is the affirmation of nothing. For there to be negation, it must not be a contrary affirmation, but the contrary of any affirmation; consequently, not the determination or definition of any meaning, but the dissemination of meaning.

Derrida has indeed a neantizing conception of freedom. He repeats in his course that humanity experiences its freedom only through its power of “neantization” of the world, of negation of everything: “for my affirmative judgment to have a value of truth,” he says, commenting on Bergson, “it is necessary that I be free to choose for the truth and that I be able to say something other than what I say;” that is to say, to negate the truth. It is thus “by the negation or the thought of nothingness that the spirit authenticates itself as freedom,” he concludes. However, it was Bergson’s mistake, as well as Husserl’s and finally Sartre’s after him, to think negation incompletely: if, indeed, consciousness that denies all existence does not deny itself as existence (or as “being”), its negation is not complete. To affirm its freedom, the subject must be able to deny itself also, to include itself in the hyperbolic negation: “The most comprehensive phenomenological reduction, the most extended, the deepest anguish [will be able] to negate the totality of the world, the totality of the states, the totality of the regions of the being [only by negating also] the man, the for-itself, the consciousness included. It is thus necessary to exceed this opposition consciousness-world.

This is what Heidegger finally understood when, abandoning his theme of anguish, he refused to affirm the power of neantisation “from to be [or] from being,” and to think it on the contrary from “the difference between to be and being,” by which “to be shows itself by hiding itself in being.” Indeed, for Heidegger, nothingness haunts everything, since everything appears and disappears on a purely undetermined background—the fact that any phenomenon can appear and disappear indicates to us that any phenomenon always rests on an empty place; that nothingness is not the opposite of existence but its condition of appearance, as a blackboard allows any form to be drawn on it. But as long as we remain in the order of logically measurable language, this Heideggerian theory of “ontological difference” is an error, since logically speaking, “there is only difference within a genus, [and] being is not a genus.” To assume the ontological difference, it is thus necessary, for Derrida, to make language incommensurable, to subtract it from any possibility of logical measurement, by thwarting any attempt to fix meaning, to define it. Such was the Derridean enterprise of the “dissemination”—once deconstructed the sense of the words, necessarily, instead of recomposing what has been deconstructed, leave the elements of sense scattered, without a coherence definitively assignable to a system or to a given interpretation; it is necessary to let the elements show themselves scattered in an irremediable multiplicity and without substance. Derrida thus saveed the coherence of the Heideggerian phenomenology by exceeding it in a more radical theory—that of the meontological “differentiation,” true contrary thought of to be.

Unbinding

The “differentiation” that Derrida theorized consisted in substantiating the insubstantivable—not the fact of differentiating one thing from another, but the fact of deferring in time the meaning of a concept by its inscription, in a chain of other concepts. Against the traditional principle of identity which, at the foundation of the other principles (of contradiction and of the third-excluded), stipulates that “every thing is what it is,” “A is A,” the course “Thinking” is saying no; it intends to show that the two fundamental elements of language, the yes and the no, have no determined meaning—the yes is not a yes, the no is not a no, since their meaning is always deferred, awaiting donation through the diversity of their uses and their mutual implications. We thus understand why Derrida concluded his course by saying that Heidegger’s “ontico-ontological difference” “would allow us to really hear Alain when he says that ‘to think is to say no'”: this thought indeed opens a breach in the possibility of thinking a negation that is really one, by preventing any determination, any assignment of any meaning whatsoever to a given sign by disseminating it, by always ceaselessly deferring the sign from itself.

The Deconstruction inaugurated by Derrida is thus much more subtle, and therefore more pernicious, than what many contemporaries understand it to be by associating it, wrongly, with an enterprise of pure and simple destruction. Derrida does not destroy anything—he deconstructs to disseminate, to untie. He exhibits the constructions of thought and language, without suppressing them nor recomposing them, by leaving them “disseminated” out of any possibility of stable recomposition. To the antipodes of the philosopher Albert Leclère who, in 1901, defended in his Essai critique sur le droit d’affirmer (Critical Essay on the Right to Affirm) that “the thinking subject cannot consider thought without immediately noticing that it poses the existence of some reality,” concluding that “the reality of being, of metaphysical being, is a necessary affirmation of thought.” On the contrary, Derrida wrote, sixty years later, a succession of essays to show the necessity, for thought, of denying. All of Derrida’s originality is to see to it that this negation is a true negation; that is to say, not a contrary affirmation, but the contrary of any affirmation—this is why he considered that “to criticize a philosopher is a lamentable gesture” and, refusing all criticism, does not seek to refute but to dissolve the problems by taking care to never completely satisfy the need for comprehension, by thwarting all attempts at definition.

Derrida thus represents the most coherent attempt to dissolve the traditional philosophical “realism” of a Saint Thomas Aquinas, by denying to signs not only their connection to things, to which they refer (as the nominalists were content to do), but also their capacity to coincide with their own meaning. If, from this course, the sense is untied from the real (“the noem is nothing real since it is a sense,” he infers about Husserl), the sense announces itself similarly to be untied from itself in the justification of the thought as “saying no.” Thus, it is not excluded to think that Derrida completed, in the 20th century, the whole process of desubstantialization of language inaugurated by nominalism from the 14th century, completing the modernization of thought in an enterprise of final dissolution of meaning.


Paul Ducay, Professor of philosophy with a medievalist background. Heir to the metaphysics of Nicolas de Cues and the faith of Xavier Grall. Gascon by race and French by reason. “The devout infuriate the world; the pious edify it.” Marivaux. [This article comes through the kind courtesy of PHILITT].


Featured: “Via Dolorosa,” by Sybil Andrews; linocut print, 1935.

On Cancel Culture

Back in the 1970s, Jorge Luis Borges complained that American publishers would not publish his novels and short stories because he called the black man “negro” and not “colored man” and the blind man “stone-blind” and not “visually-impaired.”

Around that time, Yankee intellectuals began to use what is today known as “inclusive language”: the use of invented and repetitive rhetoric like “everyone” for “men and women,” “child and children” for “boys and girls,” “”workers,” for “the working man,” etc. In North America it now no longer needs to be used; but, as usual, it arrived twenty or thirty years later in South America where progressives have adopted it as a novelty.

Progressivism, that senile disease of old ideologies such as Marxism and liberalism, found in this pseudo-language its most successful expression: it speaks without saying anything and defines without defining. Its method is to be always at the forefront of everything. Hence, man cannot have a pro-ject (something moving forward) because he (the progressive) is his own project.

When political analysts ask themselves about this or that project of a progressive government, they are asking a false question, or a question without foundation. It is like pretending to ask the hanged man about the noose or rope he’s hanging from.

This senile disease, a mixture of liberalism and Marxism, supported by the secular religion of human rights, is slowly occupying all the governments of the West, thus establishing a single, politically correct way of thinking.

The common areas of this thought are: concern for humanity and not for the needs of the people; concern for individual well-being and not for that of families; concern for consumption and not for savings; concern for the Earth and not for the land; concern for ritual and not for the sacred; concern for the economy and not for politics; concern for virtual companies and not for work; and so on in all aspects of behavior and thinking.

As early as 1927, Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time (Section 35), spoke to us of the dictatorship of the “anonymous one (das Man)” who “says, thinks and acts [in me] as one says, thinks and acts,” which governs improper being. In nearly a hundred years, the issue has worsened and intensified.

Today the power of progressivism, being hegemonic, is unconditional. This explains why any questioning is considered right-wing, fascist or imperialist. If multiple sectors of society say “no” to erroneous measures, the response is “no response,” silence, ignoring—in short, the canceling of the objector. Canceling has become a mechanism of denying everything that discomforts or questions progressivism. What is particularly serious is that at the same time that cancel culture denies or does not listen to the objections of its opponents, it yet calls for dialogue on the basis of a consensus that does not reach a consensus; that is, by way of a false consensus.

This pernicious mechanism is the basis of progressive governmental action. The philosopher Massimo Cacciari has rightly observed that these governments do not resolve conflicts but only manage them. The lack of a firm ideological definition (President Fernandez of Argentina is both a Peronist and a social democrat, as he has declared) allows governments to swear allegiance to Biden, Putin and Jinping at the same time.

But all this is nothing more than feints; appearances used by progressive governments to join the globalization process that seems to be inevitable in the world.

After two years of Covid, the economy became completely independent of politics. The indirect powers (the lobbies, the mega-corporations and the international imperialism of money), according to Pius XII’s preclear expression, justify their actions in and with progressive governments.

However, the indirect economic powers demand that progressive governments be installed on the basis of the “one man, one vote” mechanism, since they need to have the legitimacy offered by the democratic mask. Democracy, being limited only to the legitimacy of origin, denies any demand for legitimacy of exercise, which is the requirement of good governance. Just and correct actions are what characterize good government, which is why there have been and will be good governments without them necessarily being democratic.

In South America, the ten governments we have are progressive in their different variants: in Argentina a Peronist who defines himself as a social democrat; in Chile a Marxist who calls himself a Peronist; in Bolivia a Marxist who calls himself a nationalist; in Uruguay a liberal who defines himself by Agenda 2030; in Paraguay, as usual, nothing; in Brazil a nationalist who lets multinationals do business; in Peru and Ecuador Marxists subjected to the crudest capitalism; in Colombia a liberal partner of the United States (now, a former FARC guerrilla converted to green ideology is taking office); and in Venezuela a Marxist with a calling to be rich, to the torment of his people.

Who governs South America? In reality, the international imperialism of money with all its ramifications, although nominally the ten progressive governments that with their disregard for a legitimacy of exercise facilitate the work of anonymous imperialism that has neither hands nor feet.

In this sense the great corruption of the ruling class counts a lot. To give an indisputable example, a thousand kilos of gold and ten thousand kilos of silver leave Argentina every year for Europe and the USA, practically without paying taxes. In the ports on the Paraná River, from where the grain production, worth millions (wheat, corn, soybean, sunflower), is shipped out, the annual tax evasion comes to 10 billion dollars. Fishing depredation in the South Atlantic by hundreds of Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Norwegian and English ships is uncontrolled.

Cancel culture has ensured that these and many other issues are not talked about. The title of Marcello Mastroianni’s movie, De eso no se habla (I Don’t Want to Talk About It) is the rule.

When Perón returned from exile in 1974, he stated that the Argentine man is broken and it will be very difficult to recover him. Since then, no attempt has been made to systematically recover our system of civic values, such as savings, hygiene, conduct, etc. Such values have been left, more and more, to their own devices, without any restraint. Those institutions that made Buenos Aires great (la piu grande cita italiana del mondo, as Franco Cardini said), such as the neighborhood clubs, the libraries and the popular swimming pools, the schools that gave on to the streets, the parishes with their festivals and tents—all them disappeared. The support for that Argentine man, who is all of us, was null. And so, teachers who do not read, professors who do not study, priests who do not take care of the soul but of food, librarians who do not invite to readings, clubs where drugs and not sports are the main focus; the combination of all this ended up with the promotion of the mediocre. And that mediocre, today between 40 and 60 years old, is the one that is holding office in the progressive governments of South America.

What to do with a subcontinent like the South American one that covers nearly 18 million square kilometers; that is, twice the size of Europe, or twice the size of the United States. It has 50,000 km of navigable waterways in its interior that take us from Buenos Aires to Guaira in Venezuela; or from the Atlantic in Belém do Pará in Brazil to Iquitos in Peru (San Martin, when he was governor of Peru in 1823, donated his salary to build a ship to stem the advance of the Bandeirantes, by sailing the Amazon from one end to the other). This subcontinent has minerals of all kinds, forests still impregnable, oil, gas, electric energy, and the largest reserve of fresh water on the planet in the Guarani aquifer. And above all, the subcontinent has a diverse human type (about 440 million) but with similar customs, habits and traditions, and speaking the same language as the Hispanic man, according to Gilberto Freyre, the greatest Brazilian sociologist, who speaks and understands without difficulty four languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Galician and Catalan. This extraordinary advantage has never been promoted as a State-policy by any of the ten countries that integrate it.

Anyone who studies us should not underestimate the order of these magnitudes. Hegel has readily taught that the order of magnitudes, when it is immense, transforms them into qualities.

The disadvantage of this great space is that anti-Hispanic colonial powers, such as England (in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Malvinas), Holland in Aruba and Surinam, and France in Guyana are still installed in it. (All plans for subcontinental unity since the time of San Martin and Bolivar have been aborted by the contrary intervention of these three countries).

I proposed in the Social Forum of Porto Alegre in 2002 the theory of the rhombus, with its vertexes in Buenos Aires, Lima, Caracas and Brasilia, as protection of the South American heartland. But this idea did not succeed. Chávez surrendered to Cuba, and the latter, as it has been doing for 70 years, sterilizes any Hispano-American nationalist project.

I invite European and Yankee researchers to study sine ira et studio the process of Cubanization of Our America as the source of all the failures of regional integration attempts.

Lenin’s question returns: What must we do? To dissent, which is nothing more than to raise, to propose “another version and vision” to that established by the single thought. To practice dissent in all its forms and ways is to stop being the mute dog of the Gospel. Dissent is not a negative thought that says no to everything. It is a propositional and existential thought that starts from the preference of ourselves. It rejects imitation and relies on our genius loci (climate, soil and landscape) and on our ethos (customs, experiences and traditions). You may consult my book Teoría del Disenso (published in Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Porto Alegre and Santiago de Chile).

Finally, you may note that I never spoke of “Latin America” because it is a spurious, false and misleading term, created by the French to intervene in America. The Italians know it very well because none of them call themselves Latin except those from Lazio. And in the USA, they are Italian Americans, never Latin Americans. Latin excludes the Basques who have done so much for America since the time of the conquistadors. The concept of “Latin America” is clearly a politically correct one, as it is used by everyone: the Church, the Freemasonry, the liberals, the Marxists and, obviously, the progressives—and also the clueless nationalists.

When we speak of Hispanic in America, it is not like in Spain, which is limited to the monarchy and the Catholic religion. Here, the Hispanic opens us to the whole Mediterranean culture (Italy, France, Portugal), the Arab world (Syria, Lebanon, Morocco). This explains why the millionaire Italian, French and Syrian-Lebanese immigration to South America has been comfortably welcomed.

The first thing to be lost in a cultural struggle is the semantic war, when one adopts the enemy’s denominations. We are Hispano-Creole, neither so European nor so Indian, as Bolivar affirmed.


Alberto Buela is an Argentinian philosopher and professor at National Technological University and the University of Barcelona. He is the author of many books and articles.


Featured: “Daniel Defoe in the Pillory,” by Eyre Crowe; painted in 1862.

Democracy and Psychotic Vocabulary

In the study of human language, the oldest and most fundamental distinction is between sign, meaning and referent. A sign is a sign, visual, sound or any other that indicates an idea, an intention, and represents it in the mental sphere. A meaning is a set of signs that expresses the subjective intention contained in the sign. Referent is the object, the thing, the element of the real world—objective or subjective—to which the meaning, and therefore also the sign, refers. If a subject knows by heart the definition of “cow,” but, when we show him a cow, he can’t distinguish it from an armadillo, a matchbox or an atomic reactor, the sign he used corresponds only to a meaning, a subjective intention, but to no element of reality.

In political discussion, and in journalistic language in general, the use of meaning without referents is a self-hypnotic habit by which the sender of the message persuades himself and his audience that he is saying something when he is saying absolutely nothing.

Whether he does this out of ignorance or malice is indifferent—for malice is nothing more than feigned or planned ignorance.

One of the most characteristic examples is the current, omnipresent and obsessive use of the expression “democratic institutions.” This is understood to mean the entities and institutions founded on laws and constitutions that institute the representative system, as well as the rule of law that controls it. It is understood that this expression defines a thing called “democracy,” differentiating it from dictatorial, tyrannical or authoritarian regimes, where rulers who represent only themselves do as they please and are subject to no law whatsoever. In Brazil, the defenders of “democratic institutions” present themselves as protectors of freedom and of the people, in opposition to the supporters of a “military dictatorship,” represented, it is said, by the current president of the republic, his sons, friends and supporters.

So far, everything is very clear, but with this conversation we don’t leave the realm of verbal meanings. We don’t touch the referent. If we now look for the entities of reality that ordinary language associates with these terms, we find them nowhere. First of all, the supporters of the “dictatorship” that they also call “military intervention” or even “constitutional military intervention” do exist; but they are rare and have not the slightest influence over the mass of the president’s supporters, who present themselves as a mass firmly resolved to fight for their own objectives, supporting the president, to be sure, but without receiving from him even an instruction or a word of an order, let alone a voice of command.

This means that when they present themselves as defenders of “democracy” against the danger of “military authoritarianism,” the supporters of “democratic institutions” pretend to fight an imaginary enemy in order not to have to declare which real enemy they are fighting and wish to destroy. This enemy is not any “dictatorship,” but the popular mass, the populist indignation that occupies the streets and wishes to impose its sovereign will on the political, journalistic and university minority of “defenders of democracy,” as well as on the eventual apostles of the “dictatorship.”

But democracy, unless I am mistaken, is not defined by the presence of such or such “institutions,” but by being “the government of the people, by the people, and for the people;” that is, the government in which the institutions, whatever they may be, are under the control of the people and not the people under their control.

When they turn against the masses of the people in the name of “democratic institutions,” the advocates of the latter are simply reversing the meaning of democracy, making it the absolute empire of “institutions” under which the people have and can have no power and no means of action. No wonder that, on his release from jail, the highest apostle of “democratic institutions” and sworn enemy of “fascist authoritarianism,” Mr. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, finds no popular support and seeks instead the support of the military class, the personification of “dictatorship.”

The language of Brazilian public debates is a set of psychotic inversions in which each speaker tries to deceive himself in order to better deceive others.


Olavo de Carvalho (1947-2022) was a Brazilian philosopher who lived in the United States. His books cover a wide array of topics, including Aristotle, Descartes, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Christian philosophy. For his work, he was honored with the Grand Cross of the Rio Branco Order, Brazil’s highest award, by President Jair Bolsonaro. His most recent book in English is Machiavelli or the Demonic Confusion.


Featured image: “Skat Players,” by Otto Dix; painted in 1920.

A Case For Teaching The Humanities

“I am Roman because Rome, from the time of the consul Marius and the divine Julius to Theodosius, drafted the first form of my France. I am Roman, because Rome, the Rome of priests and popes, has given eternal solidarity of sentiment, of morals, of language, of worship, to the political work of Roman generals, administrators and judges. By this treasure, which it received from Athens and transmitted that deposit to our Paris, Rome means without question the civilization of humanity. I am Roman, I am human: two identical propositions.” These words from the pen of Charles Maurras in Barbares et Romains (Barbarians and Romans) form a vibrant praise not only of Rome, the sweet anaphora, but also of civilization, conveying tradition and transmission and not oblivion and renunciation; perpetuation and not the clean slate; community and not individuality; permanence and not rupture.

For a few days now, the Minister of National Education has seemed inclined to see the teaching of Latin and Greek return to middle and high schools. The Latinist that I am and who used to unveil to students the mysteries of rosa, rosae can only be pleased. However, I am not fooled by these dupes. This kind of announcement is certainly enough to make a whole section of the conservative university and academic intelligentsia of the center-right feel good about the woke and progressive drifts already well underway, with inclusive language, the satanic and non-gendered pronoun “iel” and the convoluted discussions about male domination in language.

We shouldn’t imagine that the Macronian renaissance is about to be launched, as other renaissances were in the course of our history. Minister Blanquer is a liberal-conservative, certainly, but does not have the courage to be conservative. Is he the most cynical of the bunch? That is quite possible—he has already sabotaged the BA degree, reduced to a pittance, and is in favor of the digital school and even of the digital kindergarten.

If I were naive, I would believe that this sudden impulse is inspired by the spirit of Lucien Jerphagnon, whose death, ten years ago, we are commemorating and whose birth we are celebrating a hundred years later. Father Jerph was one of those sparkling, light spirits that contrast with the dullness and pomposity of academics. He was inhabited by joy, the kind of joy that delights youth, lifts the heart, sharpens the soul, and makes it rise above all misfortunes, torments, and distresses. The true joy of knowledge. Lucien Jerphagnon was neither of the Left, nor of the Right, nor a Marxist, nor an intellectual at the forefront of research. He was freelance and classical; close to Paul Veyne by originality, Désiré Nisard by taste, Jean Bayet by academic outlook.

His was a strange life: he dressed like a monk and was ordained a priest; then, a passionate lover, turned into a happy husband and ended up as a patriarch. He was in turn a theologian, historian of ideas, translator and philosopher; of high class, of good style, careful to be versatile if he could not manage the modern complexity of reality. Plotinus was his tender companion, with whom one shares a cigarette and a glass of cognac. In love with Augustine, he knew how to render the full measure of this author. A gifted young scholar, who became a professor in Milan in his thirties when others were at the Collège de France in their twilight. Jerpha revived Madauros, a university town in northern Algeria, that supreme and delicate refinement of Romanization, where Augustine, the orator Maximus, Apuleius and Martianus Capella lived. His biography of Julian the Apostate seeks to understand how a philosopher-emperor thought he could return to paganism and make Christianity a footnote in history. An unresolved death by the side of Mosul clinched it—Christianity would triumph.

Jerphagnon was a philosopher of time and banality. Influenced by Vladimir Jankélévitch, he was concerned with understanding the everyday, the alltäglichkeit, as Heidegger politely said, pretext to all the astonishments, typical of the wise. He was a serious discoverer of forgotten authors such as Marcus Varro or Favorinus of Arles; a historian of ideas of high caliber who made us understand, in les Divins Césars (The Divine Caesars), why the emperors of the 2nd century thought they were the sun and who envisaged Rome as the center of a cosmos—all the while writing with amusement and enjoyment a formidable history of Rome.

The young Lucien at the high school in Bordeaux was bored during a mathematics class. On his knees, he flipped through a book containing a few photos of the ruins of Timgad, the Palmyra of Algeria: “That’s where I want to live and die,” the young lad said to himself. From heaven came down a voice: “Jerphagnon, you will make up two hours!” Then his teacher stuck a future specialist in the Greco-Roman world. “I could never get used to the fact that Rome was dead,” confessed the wise old man to José Saramago, “because I loved it since my 6th grade. I lived my life there, faithful to this love of Roman civilization.” What a beautiful profession of faith!

If Lucien Jerphagnon is to be made an exemplum, let’s not forget that in matters of education, the Left is chopping our legs and causing us many problems. And this is not the end of the story! I hold as proof Vincent Peillon who writes in la Révolution française n’est pas terminée (The French Revolution is not Finished) that it is necessary to reinvent the revolution of the spirit, with the aim of destroying at all costs the Catholic religion and to invent a republican religion. This requires the total conversion of the elites and the young to the sciences and the disappearance of Latin and Greek, languages of the old regime, of Catholicism, of bourgeois domination.

Such is the pinnacle of the freemasons: radical leftists yesterday, social-democrats today; old-fashioned, stuck in the Third Republic, detached from reality and perfectly barbaric, since they claim, shamelessly, not to transmit any more, to cut themselves off from tradition and civilization. They swear only by individualities in the perspective of human rights. Now they promise inclusiveness, flattering the youth, corrupting it with vague ideas about freedom and equality.

In an interview given on TV in 1958, Pagnol felt the problem looming: specialization, the end of the humanities and the science of the technocrat. Specialization, by reducing the fields, reduces the possibilities of linking the fields. To have a rational mind is precisely to see relationships. But if the objects no longer exist, the relationships can no longer be made. It can only result in an impoverishment of thought. National education goes even further, since it has given up training literate people, to preparing only future employees for the labor market. The best will be slug-brain specialists, dumbed down like tabletops, the least good will be cashiers at Franprix, salesmen at Prisunic.

The professors stuff the heads of young people with new ideas, smelling of Pierre Bourdieu, ready-made and passed off as revealed truths, so they themselves can continue to dine at the faculty club during silly seminars on anti-racism in literature, and history colloquiums on North African minorities in the gay Paris of the 1920s. The education of yesteryear has degenerated into a total moron-factory based on the ideological teaching of soft sciences. We are far from the gentleman, far from the humanist, far from the cosmopolitan scholar.

Getting beyond her gavel, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem completed the work, explaining that Latin classes would be for the children of the rich and privileged, that elective classes had to be abolished, and that antiquity had to be made accessible to all by diluting Latin in French courses, thus putting ancient language courses to death in a gentle way; a bit like euthanasia.

Between this caricatured, barbaric Left, in the very sense in which Maurras took it, some have retained the opinion of Raymond Aron in this matter, like Paul Veyne, our dear friend, whose opinion that Latin and Greek should be abolished in secondary school and that a national establishment should be created to train solid scientists and researchers, I do not quite understand. This is a mistake. To dedicate Latin to research is to render it autistic; to leave it in the hands of the colloquium-makers who titillate the coffee-brewers and the editors of scientific articles in obscure journals is to render it mute, invisible, extinct.

It doesn’t matter if people are interested in Aristophanes’ scholia, or in the placement of an accent on a word in a twelfth-century manuscript in the Vatican library. One does not ask young people to read the Pharsalus in the original, even yours truly would not be able to do so. But to have a good head, made robust by the training in, and knowledge of, Greek tragedy, the functioning of the Athenian city, the Peloponnesian war told by Thucydides, the epic of Alexander the Great, Latin and Greek rhetoric, the work of Cicero, Caesar and Augustus, the personality of Seneca, elegiac poetry, Virgil, the bloody and mannered histories of Tacitus, the orientalism of the emperors, 312 and our world that has become Christian. It is grand to arrive, by love of the rei latinae, to the character of Des Esseintes in À Rebours by Huysmans who, in chapter III, gives us the menu of his likes and dislikes of all literature, criticizing the Chickpea (Cicero), judging the verses of a phony and vain poet, and preferring in the “fin de siècle” Roman authors the rot and the carrion, and at times the supreme refinement of precious stones and topazes.

I do not believe in progressivism and personal development, nor even in the scientific and academic elitism left to the Giscards of thought. I firmly believe in the tradition of inheriting and transmitting, of passing on the work of Hellenic-Christian civilization, from generation to generation. This is achieved through solid and serious learning of civilization, through language and grammar, literature, philosophy and history. It is necessary to go through the pain of declensions and conjugations; to make the effort, as in Pétanque, to have access to the texts, to their style; to reflect on the words and their concepts in order to understand the civilization. Nothing is more precious than to know the feeling of the language, to understand the spirit of an era.

This apparent need for Latin and Greek can take three forms: as a declaration in an electoral context; resistance and head-on opposition to progressivism; or a reconciliation with Wokism. The problem is not so much what Minister Blanquer says or thinks, but what the left-wing ideological machine, the Éducation Nationale, is capable of producing. The teacher conforms to the Houellebecquian image of the tired West. The teachers are mostly mediocre, cowardly and subscribe, under contract, to all the sickness of the modern world: deconstruction, diversity, immigration, inclusion, in the public as well as in the private. If this impulse for antiquity gets mixed up, dare I say it, with this kind of progressive thinking, it would do equally bad things for the mental health of our young people. I can already imagine the titles of the courses: “Migratory Crisis in Roman Gaul;” “the Roman Baths: A Space of Hybridization for Minorities;” “Conspiracy and Fake News: The Catiline Conspiracy;” “Being a Slave and Gay in Ephesus;” “Transidentity in Rome.” What a wonderful antiquity!

What we need are professors who are like Hussars in full cavalry at Jena—scholars like Bernard Lugan, like Marc Fumaroli; focused minds concerned with civilization—like Valéry, Thibaudet; intransigent polemicists—like Bloy or Julien Benda. The rest will follow. I began with Maurras, I end with Charles Péguy and Notre Jeunesse (Our Youth): ” What this entry was for me, in sixth grade, at Easter— the astonishment, the newness before rosa, rosae, the opening of an entire world, completely different, an altogether new world. That is what needs to be said, but that would get me tangled up in fondness. The grammarian who just the one time, the first, opens the Latin grammar on rosa, rosae will never know on which flowerbed he is opening the child’s soul.”


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.


Featured image: “Etruscan Vase Painters,” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, painted in 1871.

Indo-European Origins: Eurasian Steppes Or Northern Fjords?

The question of the “home of origin” (Urheimat, Homeland) of the Indo-Europeans has given rise to the most varied hypotheses and suppositions, theories that are analyzed in detail in Alain de Benoist’s book Indo-Europeans: In Search of the Homeland, without the author—nor anyone else—being able to venture a definitive solution, even though the new revelations of paleogenetics point to the “Yamna culture” of the Eurasian steppes, since anthropological and archaeological evidence insistently points to the European Nordic area. In any case, the debate about the “original homeland” of the Indo-Europeans is still open.

5,000 years ago (especially in the period 2800/2500 BC. ), in the Bronze Age, it seems that a people from the Eurasian Pontic steppes, predominantly light pigmented (skin, eyes and hair), nomadic herders and herdsmen, predatory warriors mounted on horseback and with wheeled chariots, used for both transport and combat, with unique funeral rites, innovative metallurgy and unique pottery, began to invade Europe, in successive migratory waves, imposing themselves on the peaceful hunter-gatherer-farmers. In any case, around 2000 B.C., the hardy bands of steppe nomads reached the Atlantic coasts and passed to the British Isles, after a frenetic race of invasion and conquest, devastating in their path the primitive, agricultural, peaceful, matriarchal and egalitarian European pre-civilization cultures.

Their “original habitat”: the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine, between the Black and Caspian Seas, reaching westward to eastern Hungary across the Balkans, and eastward to present-day Kazakhstan and the Altai, which would validate the hypothesis of the “kurgans” (tombs in the form of burial mounds) of Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Her greatest “legacy”: the impressive extension of the Indo-European languages, which include most of the languages spoken from Iceland and Ireland to northern India, in addition to the Indo-European peripheries in America, Australia and South Africa. This “Pontic and Steppe hypothesis” seemed to disprove the “Nordic or Germanic hypothesis” held, among others, by Gustaf Kossinna (and more recently, by Lothar Kilian and Carl-Heinz Boettcher), which fits better with the prehistoric data of mythology and anthropology, but which fell out of favor because of the perverse use of “Aryans” in Nazi Germany. Their “other legacy”: genetic inheritance.

They were the “Yamnayas,” the proto-Indo-Europeans who colonized all of Europe, Central Asia, reaching the southern Caucasus, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Chinese Turkestan. The “Yamna” culture (“hole” in Russian and Ukrainian, referring to the graves where they buried their dead) are a “ghost people,” as it is known in genetics, a people that have disappeared but can be identified by the genetic, archaeological, linguistic and anthropological traces they has left in their wake. The result is that the genes of the Yamnayas are present, to a greater or lesser extent, in all present-day Europeans.

Thus, paleogenetic research led particularly by the American geneticist David Reich—carried out from 2010 and culminating in 2015—concludes that “today the peoples of western Eurasia (the immense region encompassing Europe, the Near East and much of Central Asia) show a great genetic similarity… Western Eurasia reveals itself to be homogeneous, from the Atlantic façade of Europe to the steppes of Central Asia (Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past). Genetic haplogroups R1a and R1b, transmitted through the paternal line, are the most representative of present-day Europeans, with a predominance of the former in the East and the latter in the West. Precisely, these two branches are directly linked to the Yamnaya ancestors. Thus, around 2500/2000 B.C., according to the data provided by ancient DNA, the “norcaucasian” or “steppic” component was already part of the anthropological heritage of most of the inhabitants of Europe.

It should be noted that, in fact, archaeological, linguistic and mythological disciplines already indicated that the close kinship between the Indo-European languages meant that they all derive from a single original language (Ursprache), which had been spoken by a single people (Urvolk) in a very ancient homeland (Urheimat), to be spread later, in the course of a series of migrations. Thus, the spread of Indo-European languages would represent the expression of a people living in the same geographical area, in a community of culture and civilization, sharing expressions related to flora, fauna, economy and religion. Now, paleogenetics has confirmed this hypothesis.

But how could this rapid migration/expansion have occurred in a people presumably few in number? In the first place, this “rapidity” must be qualified without taking into account the context of war, since according to the researcher Wolfang Haak, the “conquest” of such an immense territory could have taken about 500 years.

Secondly, the explanatory factors of this prehistoric proto-Indo-European “great march” are diverse. The eminently warlike character of the Yamnayas, with an overwhelming superiority in the mastery of metallurgy, reflected in the use of weapons, such as the sword, the dagger, the bow and the battle axe, their extreme mobility through the use of the horse and wheeled chariots, as well as a society structured very hierarchically around a group of men who held supreme leadership of the various clans and tribal families, to which should be added, according to Kristian Kristiansen, a greater anthropological complexion, more corpulence; in short, surely due to a better diet, because compared to a diet basically reduced to cereals and vegetables typical of the Paleo-Europeans, the Yamnayas enjoyed a more caloric diet based also on meat and dairy products. The conquest/invasion was the work, above all, of young men (according to chromosomal sequences, between 5 and 15 men for each woman), of “bands” not very numerous, but very active militarily and sexually, because they had great reproductive success, surely because they enjoyed advantages in the competition for female partners, occupying the summit of symbolic, religious, political, military and social power.

In any case, although the genetic findings attribute a central weight to the Yamnayas in the spread of the Indo-European languages, which tips the balance definitely in favor of some variant of the “steppe hypothesis”, these discoveries do not yet resolve the question of the territory of origin of the Indo-European languages—acknowledges Reich—the place where these languages were spoken before the spectacular Yamnaya expansion. The debate about the “original homeland” of the Indo-Europeans, therefore, remains open.

Despite the tremendous sensation caused by the paleogenetic studies, which revealed the massive migration of the peoples of the Yamnaya steppe culture in the Early Bronze Age to northern, central and western Europe, considering this event as the basis for the spread of the Indo-European languages, other authors are beginning to express their criticism of the genetic inference and, in particular, its implications for the problem of the origins of the Indo-European languages.

According to the genetic revelations, the steppe “Yamna culture” would be associated with the Proto-Indo-European language, while the origin of the derived linguistic groups (Greek, Germanic, Italic, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, among others) would be attributed to the cultures of the “Chordate pottery” (also called “battle-axe culture,” spread in northern and northeastern Europe). The supporters of this hypothesis, however, are aware of the relative weakness of their conclusions, advancing, for example, that perhaps not all Indo-European peoples come from the Yamnaya, but only some of them. This means, in essence, that we are not dealing then with the cradle of the proto-Indo-European, but only with one of its subfamilies: in this case, the stereopic hypothesis of the origin of the Indo-Europeans would be transformed only into the origin, so to speak, of the Indo-Iranian group.

Many archaeologists doubt that the discoveries in question reflect a direct migration from the “Yamna culture” to the “Chordate culture.” The first doubt is that the Yamnaya people spoke the Proto-Indo-European language. All recognized dates for the fragmentation of the Proto-Indo-European language are between the seventh and fifth millennia BC. The Yamnaya culture is well dated by calibrated radiocarbon chronology: it begins, at the earliest, within the second third of the third millennium BC. Thus, there is a gap of about 2.5 millennia (1.6 millennia minimum).

The Russian archaeologist Leo S. Klejn highlighted a remarkable fact: the strange distribution of steppe genetic contributions to the “Corded Pottery” cultures and their descendants, revealed by Haak and others, very rich in northern Europe and increasingly weaker towards the south, particularly in Hungary, just where the western edge of the “Yamna culture” itself is located. This distribution is at odds with the suggestion that the source of the contribution to the “Corded Pottery” cultures is the southeastern “Yamna culture;” that very distribution seems rather more natural, if it is suggested that the common source (of both cultural units) is in northern Europe—and hence the common cause of genetic similarity.

The mystery of the origin of the Proto-Indo-Europeans remains an enigma, but perhaps not so indecipherable after reading this book.


Jesús Sebastián Lorente is a Spanish lawyer. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Elmanifesto.


Featured image: “Trizna,” by Andrey Shishkin, painted in 2019.

François Desset: On The Decipherment Of Linear Elamite Writing

We are so greatly pleased to present this interview with Dr. François Desset, who recently accomplished a remarkable scholarly feat – he deciphered an ancient and elusive writing system that used in Bronze Age Iran.

Dr. Desset is a French archaeologist, who earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne. His primary interest is Bronze Age Near Eastern Archaeology (ca. 3500-1500 BC), particularly in Iran, where he has lived for the most part since 2014, working at the University of Tehran, as well as with the French research team, Archéorient (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). He has conducted numerous excavations, especially in South-Eastern Iran, at sites pertaining to the Jiroft civilisation. Another interest of his is in Iranian writing systems.

In this latter field, along with four collaborators, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Mathieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello and Gianni Marchesi, he has recently been able to decipher the long-elusive Linear Elamite writing system. At present, some 95% of the signs can be read. This is a monumental achievement, comparable to Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and Ventris’ decoding of Linear B.

This interview, on behalf of the Postil, is conducted by Robert M. Kerr, who heads Inarah, the institute for the study of early Islam.


Robert Kerr (RK): How did you first get interest in Linear Elamite writing?

François Desset.

François Desset (FD): During my first excavation in Jiroft (South-Eastern Iran), in 2006, four tablets with a “very weird” geometric writing system were discovered. My curiosity in undeciphered ancient Iranian writing systems, such as this geometric one, linear and proto-Elamite script, was sparked. This inspired me to write a book on the subject. At this time, most colleagues preferred to keep their distance from this material as it was still undeciphered.

RK: So, a healthy curiosity of the unknown took an un-relinquishing hold of you. As we both know, even deciphered writing systems of lesser-known languages, such as the language isolate, Sumerian, still pose considerable difficulties. Undeciphered writing systems, on the other hand, tend to deter serious scholars and attract dreamers, as for example with Linear A. Your approach, much like that of Champollion and Ventris was logical and systematic, leaving no room for wild speculations.

FD: Indeed. For me the turning point was the realisation that the proto-Elamite (as the early phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) and the linear Elamite (as the late phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) must be one and the same writing system, but at two different, chronologically distinct periods. Between the two is a middle proto-Iranian script, which, however, is still not well known. Crucial for me was that I was able to gain access to a collection of inscribed silver vessels (kunanki) in London (the Mahboubian collection) from which I could make exact copies. As pointed out by Gelb many years ago, the first step in decipherment, is to establish precise copies of the texts themselves.

François Desset with columns from Iranian Baluchistan.

RK: Certainly, without autopsy, you know nothing. Drawings in my experience are often detrimental to reading such texts.

FD: Initially, in my case, when I started in 2006, I only had photographic access to one side of the objects, the silver vessels; thus, I had only one half of the inscription. It was only in 2015, after considerable efforts, when I was granted access to the artefacts themselves that I was able to start to make progress. Two years later, I was able to present my first readings.

RK: Access to the written objects is the sine qua non of any philological endeavour. However, successful decipherments, yours being no exception, pursue in their analysis a three-pronged approach: Is the language previously known? Are personal names known? Are there bilingual texts?

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Y. Mahboubian collection.

For the first point, the key for the later decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was the conclusion by Athanasius Kircher, a Renaissance polymath at the Collegium Romanum, that Coptic must be the last phase of the Egyptian language. Although he was unable to decipher the hieroglyphs themselves, this realisation was later crucial for Champollion.

We see this too with Ventris, who concluded that the language of the Linear B tablets must be a form of Greek, and Knozorov’s decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs. As per your second point, personal names, the realisation that such must be contained in cartouches was essential for Champollion’s work on the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone of course is triscriptural (hieroglyphs, demotic, both forms of Egyptian writing) and Greek and bilingual (Egyptian and Greek).

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

FD: With linear Elamite we do not have bilingual texts stricto sensu. We only have “partial bilingualism;” that is texts recorded in different languages and containing. e.g., the same anthroponyms, titles, etc. So, for example, those referring to the Susian king Puzur-Sušinak (2150-2100 BC), which display a cuneiform inscription recording an Akkadian text, and a Linear Elamite writing one, recording what we could prove as being an Elamite (or Hatamtite) language text. The texts themselves, although they share the same onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects.

Distribution of writing systems in the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BC Near East, showing the locations of the cuneiform (in red), Indus (in green), LE (in yellow) and geometric (in white) texts.

The texts themselves, although they share only the onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects. Then, we also have what one might term “biscriptualism;” that is, two objects with the same text (in the same language), though written in two different writing systems.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 1. National Museum of Iran.

This was the jackpot – the same Elamite or Hatamtite text written on one artefact in cuneiform, and on the other in Linear Elamite. This is a classic knowledge-driven decipherment based on our capability to make connections between Cuneiform and Linear Elamite scripts inscriptions recording the same Hatamtite (or Elamite) language text.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 2. National Museum of Iran.

RK: An excellent point, especially in this day and age when many seek to replace knowledge with technology.

FD: Certainly. I wish in this regard to emphasise that I have been asked a lot about computers, statistical data, etc. All hogwash! Knowledge, especially cultural knowledge and of the languages used at the time, some luck, and most important perseverance were essential.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

RD: Often today, computers are employed to avoid thinking, as an ersatz for genius – information nowadays often is mistakenly equated with knowledge. Technology is no substitute for ingenuity, the feat of you and your team is a true intellectual achievement. Here, with regard to the first criterium, previous knowledge of the language, you were sailing somewhat on uncharted waters.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

FD: Not entirely. We had Hatamtite (Elamite) proper nouns recorded in cuneiform. Without that, we would have been unable to make any significant advancements. The language though, like Sumerian, is a language isolate (i.e., has no known cognates). We know now, after decipherment, that cuneiform is rather unsuited to render the Hatamite language.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

So, for example, the name of the 14th century BC king rendered in cuneiform as Untaš-Napiriša is rather to be rendered Ontaš-Napireša, because we now have a graphic rendering in Linear Elamite closer to contemporary phonetic reality, i.e., how it was pronounced. This writing system is well adapted to the morphophonology of Hatamtite, much more so than (the au fond logographic) cuneiform.

na-pi-(r)-re-sha

We have now also made considerable progress towards understanding the phonology of the language. I have the impression that Linear Elamite is in a way more “advanced” than cuneiform since it provides a more precise rendition of phonemes.

Curiously enough though, many scholars thought that the silver vessels bearing the inscriptions were forgeries. After their publication in 2004, nobody seemed interested in these objects. I thought I must have missed something.

RK: There was of course in the 1990s the famous “heist” of supposedly Achaemenid metalwork in New York, which turned out to be modern forgeries.

FD: We must always be careful with objects which are not unearthed in the course of official, professional excavations. Metal in the Middle East, a scarce, hence mostly imported commodity, was nearly always recycled. We usually only find such objects in graves. My suspicion is that the Mahboubian artefacts may come from graves dated around 2000-1900 BC.

RK: Looted artefacts lack archaeological context and hence are of limited scientific value. And they aid in the dissemination of forgeries. In your case, your decipherment has shown that the objects must be authentic. Could you now briefly explain to us the distribution of writing systems on the ancient Iranian plateau.

FD: I am proposing a new history of writing in the Near East. Things in this regard have now become a lot simpler. Until 2018, I thought that we had proto-Elamite, Linear-Elamite and this geometric writing system only attested in Jiroft. Then I came to the conclusion that the first two must be one and the same writing system. Their different appearance is due to chronological development. My thinking now is that in this region, “Iran” (archaeologically speaking), there was only one ancient writing system which appeared around 3000 BC. It was used, based on the names of the kings attested until about 1880 BC. These I divide roughly into three distinguishable phases.

The first phase, traditionally known as proto-Elamite, I term Early proto-Iranian writing; these appear to be mostly administrative tablets, found on eight sites, primarily in Susa during the French excavations at the end of the 19th/early 20th centuries, on the Iranian plateau. They are datable to circa 3300-3000/2900 BC. Although these texts are hitherto undeciphered, now that we have deciphered what I call Linear Elamite (Late proto-Iranian writing phase), we will be able to work backwards (as was done with cuneiform).

Then, we have the Middle proto-Iranian writing phase, about which we have only sparse information, and which probably should be dated in between, ca. 3000/2900-2300 BC.

Then comes what has been conventionally known as Linear Elamite, Late proto-Iranian writing (phase III), that which we have deciphered and is more or less datable to 2300-1880 BC. For this last stage, the present corpus is not large, with currently some 43 inscriptions, found in Southern Iran, in Susa, in Fars and in Kerman province (Shahdad and Jiroft). Thereafter, this (proto-Iranian) writing system falls into disuse around 1880 BC.

I believe that there were two reasons for this: first, in the early 2nd millennium BC, there was a large-scale urban collapse in Eastern Iran, in what is now Kerman Province; all the cities, Jiroft, Shahdād (Khabīs), etc. were abandoned – but this was not limited to the Eastern Iranian plateau; this was also, for example, when the Indus Civilisation came to an end. Second, in South-Western Iran in this period, in Susiana and Fars, Mesopotamian cuneiform was adopted by Hatamtite speakers.

RK: Often with urban collapse, writing systems, whose primary function is administrative, fall into disuse. We see this elsewhere, for example at the end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Could you now briefly walk us through your decipherment of Linear Elamite?

FD: By being able to access the artefacts in the Mahboubian collection, I was able to distinguish specific, repeated sequences of characters which were likely to be names. Of special note was a sequence of four tokens, which I thought in all likelihood must render the name of a king. The first sign, /ši/, had been previously identified in 1905 by a German scholar, Bork; the third and fourth signs were identical. Thus, I just needed to find the name of a king whose first syllable was Ši- and which ended in two identical syllables and who ruled in the early 2nd millennium BC. The names of the Elamite kings are known (e.g., from cuneiform sources). And there was only one king to whom these criteria applied, namely Šilhaha (20th century BC). This was the key. It gave me the phonetic value of two further signs, from which I could proceed.

ši-l-ha-ha

RK: I do not wish to diminish your intellectual achievement in any way, but could one say, that what aided you vis-a-vis previous scholars such as Hinz and Merigi’s brilliant and painstaking work, was that you had a larger corpus?

FD: Indeed, access to the Mahboubian collection was essential; in this regard I was quite fortunate.

RK: It was indeed your perseverance, gaining access to the collection while others showed no interest. This is an essential trait, especially for epigraphists.

FD: Yes, especially since the writing system itself is not as complicated as for example cuneiform.

RK: Yes, and with regard to writing systems, we must never forget that orthography and phonology are two related though quite distinct manifestations of language.

FD: Of course, language sound is not visual language/graphemic rendering. So, for example, there are logographic writing systems, such as Chinese characters (Hànzì), which do not record sound.

RK: And, as for example speakers of English and/or French know, how you write something is not how it is pronounced. These are two related, yet entirely different phenomena. We see that the advantage of the alphabet is that we can graphically produce words with a limited character-set, which then are read “hieroglyphically;” we recognise the word shape. Children and language learners have difficulties until they are able to master word shapes (cf., with smartphones, Chinese is written phonetically using the Latin alphabet, whereupon the user selects the correct character).

FD: Yes, speaking and writing serve two different goals.

RK: Moving on then, can you provide us with a brief overview of the Linear Elamite texts that you have deciphered.

FD: At present, we have a corpus of some 43 texts, which is not really a lot. We can roughly divide these into seven different corpora, periodically and geographically speaking. The first, the best preserved, longest, and the most important genre is votive or dedicatory royal inscriptions; those of Puzur-Sušinak (cf. supra) from Susa (2150-2100 BC). A second corpus in this genre is represented by the somewhat more recent texts on silver vessels of the late Simaški/early Sukkalmah dynasty (2000-1880 BC), by Eparti II and his probable son, Šilhaha (cf. supra).

e-pa-r-ti

On the silver vessels we can also glean two important conjugated verbs, “I made” and “I gave;” e.g.: I am … the King of Hatamti, I made … and I gave (scil. presented this object to deity x). We only have one text containing historiographical data, a campaign by Puzur-Insušinak previously known from cuneiform sources. We do, however, have important data pertaining to anthroponyms and the names of their gods which were previously unknown. Also, because as elsewhere in the ancient world, names had an apparent meaning, i.e., they are grammatically analysable and hence supplement our knowledge of the language. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a simple sentence and a “sentence name.”

Graphic rendering of the Persian Gulf type seal with Linear Elamite inscription V.

Now that we can read some 95% of the Linear Elamite signs, the challenge with which we are faced is the translation – as mentioned, distinguishing names from sentences, but also due to our limited knowledge of Hatamtite/Elamite grammar and lexicon. The latter especially, since we can now read the texts, we are continually encountering previously unknown lexemes and grammatical forms.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Z. Mahboubian collection

RK: These are the problems which one faces when reading a linguistic isolate. As we mentioned, Champollion had Coptic to work with, Ventris, Greek. And there are very few bilingual texts involving a Hatamtite/Elamite version, including most notably the much more recent royal Achaemenid trilingual texts (Old Persian, Akkadian and Hatamtite/Elamite). I read many years ago the works of David McAlpin, who proposed a relationship with Dravidian languages. This has not been widely accepted, and hard to prove due to the chronological distance between the recording of the two posited groups.

FD: Indeed, this is a very unlikely proposition. To the best of our knowledge, it would seem that Hatamtite/Elamite remains, for now, a language isolate. Of course, no language can be a real isolate; it is just due to the data available to us. A lot changes over the course of three millennia. I choose, however, to leave this for what it is. I am not a historical linguist.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription K’. Mahboubian collection.

It is however possible that Hatamtite/Elamite was spoken up to the tenth/eleventh century AD. Indeed, Persian geographers, writing in Arabic, make mention of a language (Khuzi) spoken in Khuzestan, which would seem to have been a late form of Elamite or preferably Hatamtite.

The so-called “Table au lion,” with LE (text A) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

Here I wish to make a brief note on the terminology. I am a fervent advocate of using “Hatamtite” as a glossonym, based on the auto-toponym Hatamti found in Linear Elamite texts themselves. “Elam” is a Mesopotamian allo-toponym which can roughly be translated as “Eastern Highlands.” Hatamti was probably the most important designation for the political structure of the Iranian Plateau during the third millennium BC.

RK: Your point is well taken. When the Louvre has its displays rewritten accordingly you will know that you have won. Let us return to your point on proto-Iranian writing, that this is one system with three (chronologically distinct) manifestations (One might compare the decipherment of the Shang Dynasty ‘oracle bones’, whose writing system represents the first attested stage of Hànzì). Indeed how many independent writing systems might one expect in one culturally homogenous region?

FD: The idea is not new. In the early twentieth century, it was widely thought that they were related. Thus, I am rather promoting classical ideas. It was only in the 1970s/1980s that what I call proto-Iranian writing Early, Middle and Late phases were viewed as distinct and independent writing systems. Although a general scientific consensus remains in this regard, I believe that I have good reasons to dispute this. So, for example, even a superficial glance at the shapes of the tokens themselves strongly suggests that the Early (Proto-Elamite) and Late (Linear Elamite) phases (the Middle phase is still poorly documented) are one and the same writing system.

Broken boulder with LE (text B) text of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

I have now started to work on the most ancient texts, the Early phase, using the phonetic values of tokens from the Late phase or Linear Elamite. It is still early days, but I can unequivocally state that there is a continuity.

RK: I do believe that you are on the right track and look forward to the completion of this work very much. Let us now turn to the implications of your decipherment and your thoughts about the origins of writing in the Ancient Near East, especially your suggestion that the earliest cuneiform writing and Early proto-Iranian (or Proto-Elamite) writing are contemporary, i.e., sister scripts. The communis opinio states that cuneiform is the mother of all writing systems. You posit a chronological and a logical argument.

FD: Yes, I have published extensively on this. Firstly, in my 2012 monograph, usually ignored by the academic world, and again in 2016, which received slightly more interest. This discussion is however completely unrelated to the decipherment of Linear Elamite.

However, I want to use the attention which the decipherment has attracted to promote my ideas on the origins of writing. Simply put, Carbon14 datings and the stratigraphy of the respective texts show that both Proto-Cuneiform in Mesopotamia and Proto-Elamite in Iran are contemporary. Conventional wisdom dates the Uruk (proto-cuneiform) texts to 3300-3200 BC. If we accept such, we must note that proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) texts found in the1970s in the Iranian site of Tal-e Malyan were C14 dated to precisely the same period. From the point of view of pure chronology, based on the current data, both are consequently contemporary..

Goddess statue with LE (text I) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

As for my second argument, logic, let me note that if proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) was a daughter script of cuneiform, then it should manifest numerous shared elements or borrowings. However, both differ for roughly 95% of the time. There is only 5% which is shared, especially, the numeral signs and systems employed and several logograms or sign-objects. Both of these, however, can also be found in the “numerical tablets” which are somewhat older, ca. 3500-3000 BC and are attested from Syria to Iran. It is clear that both proto-Elamite/ Early Proto-Iranian writing and proto-cuneiform share a common ancestor, namely, these numerical tablets. Thus, they are sister scripts.

Although I have been criticised for this thesis, my evidence is solid. I would of course be willing to reconsider should an excavation in the South of Iraq produce proto-cuneiform tablets which can be unequivocally dated to circa 3500 BC or earlier. Mine is the most parsimonious explanation with the data currently available.

RK: One must not forget that these “numerical tablets” do not render a language. They display logographs which are language independent and numerals.

FD: earliest writing systems were not very related to (a specific) language. We also see that they were only employed in specific domains, mainly accounting. This can be done without rendering specific linguistic information.

RK: Furthermore, if one accepts the theory of Schmandt-Besserat, that writing emerged from the use of symbolic tokens, “tags,” clay envelopes which only then became tablets, then the origins of writing are logographic. The latter, especially in light of their distribution, both chronological and geographical, could well be the precursor to both writing systems.

FD: With regard to her theories, we must be cautious. So, there is the discussion about the simple tokens dating back to the sixth and seventh millennia BC, which I do not view as the precursors to writing. The complex tokens on the other hand, which date to the fourth millennium BC, along with the clay envelopes, may well be the precursor to writing stricto sensu.

RK: The envelopes are convincing because they were used into the early second millennium BC. Thus, the evidence for a common ancestor for both proto-Iranian and cuneiform Mesopotamian writing is very credible.

FD: When I refer to the common ancestor, I mean the “numerical tablets” and not the complex tokens. The former have been found throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Iran, and date to the mid fourth millennium BC. It should also be noted that these tablets did not immediately fall into disuse after the invention of writing, and continued to be used for accounting and administration alongside the writing systems.

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

RK: (Complex) Bureaucracies tend by their nature to be conservative, and these served the required purpose well. Can we turn now to the nature of the proto-Iranian writing system itself?

FD: Here we must proceed with caution. We must not conflate the Early proto-Iranian phase (proto-Elamite; late fourth millennium BC) with the Late proto-Iranian phase (Linear Elamite; late third/early second millennium BC). Let us discuss the latter first. Until 2018 – put yourself in my position at that time – what other writing systems were present? Mesopotamia, Egypt and Indus. Let us ignore the latter, it is still undeciphered.

Focusing on Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see that they are mixed writing systems, employing both logograms and phonograms. Initially, I was convinced that this would also apply to Linear Elamite, and tried to identify these in the texts. I slowly however came to the realisation, confirmed, now that we can read some 95% of the graphemes, that this writing system was purely phonetic, using both syllabic and graphemes rendering one phoneme, without any logograms – it is an alpha-syllabary. It is thus the most ancient, purely phonetic writing system known to us. This is spectacular!

I believe that the Hatamtites were strongly attached to phonetic writing. So, for example, when they later abandoned proto-Iranian writing in favour of Mesopotamian cuneiform (cf., supra), they initially rejected the logograms and the logographic values of the characters. This has been known for a long time. Previously though, many scholars claimed that this was due to the Hatamites poor grasp of the essentials of cuneiform writing and its logograms; they were only able to use it at its basic, phonetic, level. We now know that this is not the case. The Hatamtites had a long tradition of phonetic writing, and kept this when they adopted another, scil. cuneiform.

They wrote cuneiform just as they wrote Linear Elamite. Later in the second millennium BC, logograms began to re-appear – here we see the influence of Mesopotamian scribal habits.

Late Proto-Iranian or Linear Elamite works on the principle of a phonetic grid with vocalic and consonantal values. It is perfectly logical. I could even use it to write French. Due to this, it works with quite a limited number of signs, especially when compared to cuneiform and hieroglyphs. Excluding some variants, we have about eighty characters. It is my impression, at present, that the Early Phase had not yet reached this degree of abstract rationalisation.

I am now trying to use our knowledge of the Later Phase to read the Early Phase texts, starting with the proper nouns, i.e., anthroponyms and theonyms. In these texts, we have longish sequences of characters, which do not seem to render numeric data, and which I suspect render onomastic information, which are often theophoric sentence names that undergo little innovation. My impression is that in the Early Phase (Proto-Elamite tablets), we have a hybrid system employed to record proper nouns, both logograms and phonograms.

Semantic structure of a Proto-Elamite tablet found in Susa using the decimal system. Some of the sequences in red may record anthroponyms.

My aim is to read the syllabically written parts of the personal names, and then try to deduce the value of the logograms. All in all, the corpus of tablets belonging to the Early Proto-Iranian Phase amounts to about 1700, mainly found in Susa and now in the Louvre – but also throughout the Iranian Plateau, with a more wide-spread distribution than in the Latest Phase. We have a good knowledge of the Susian onomasticon from the late 3rd millennium BC (i.e., written in cuneiform).

Using both the Late Proto-Iranian/Linear Elamite deciphered signs and the onomastic data available for the inhabitants of Susa in the cuneiform sources could lead to some progress in understanding the names recorded in the Proto-Elamite tablets. This is on the assumption that naming practices did not change dramatically during the third millennium BC. Of this though we can be fairly certain; so, for example, there is little change between ca 2300 and 1500 BC.

RK: This is certainly a good starting point. Just for the sake of clarity, in your Early proto-Iranian Phase, we find no cuneiform influence. The fact that it is a mixed logographic-syllabic system is what one would expect in the initial stage; this cannot be considered external influence. However, if the Early proto-Iranian writing was a daughter script of cuneiform, one would expect borrowings, since writing systems cannot be entirely separated from the language(s) which they rendered. So, the use of Sumerian logograms in Akkadian, and the use of Akkadograms in Hittite, etc. The borrowing of writing systems presupposes bilingualism in both the donor language and the target language. Cf., the historical influence of Latin in languages that use the Latin alphabet. When there is no bilingualism, it is the idea of writing that is borrowed, not the writing system itself (cf., e.g., Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary).

FD: Yes, as we discussed previously, the commonalities are largely restricted to the numerical signs and systems employed. Both Mesopotamian cuneiform and proto-Iranian inherited these from a common predecessor. The absence of Mesopotamian cuneiform influences supports both being contemporary and does away with the notion of cuneiform primacy, for which there is no evidence.

RK: I think that you have made a strong argument that proto-Iranian writing and Mesopotamian cuneiform are sister writing systems with a common ancestor, the numerical tablets. And again, my congratulations on your brilliant achievement in deciphering Linear Elamite – we eagerly await the publication of your findings. We also look forward to the progress of you and your team on proto-Elamite. Many thanks for your time.


Sanskrit – Language Of The Buddhists?

India is a recent state created by the conjunction of three historical sequences: The old civilization dominated by the Sanskrit language; the Mughal civilization where Persian and Muslim components were predominant; and mostly the British colonization that opened India to the contemporary world.

In the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, the Sanskrit language discovered by the Europeans left them intoxicated, having essentially turned them towards the past; they now had access to some of the oldest texts in the world. Unlike Germany, French Indianism did not completely lose its mind over Sanskrit, and began to study the language at the beginning of the 20th century. But the idea of the great antiquity of Vedic and other texts (and therefore of Indian writing) was a kind of ineradicable dogma.

Before The Discovery Of The Ashoka Edicts.

The religious texts of India do not translate any historical reality nor clarify historically the history of India. For that, it is necessary to turn to the testimonies of foreign authors, generally Greek ones. Hence the importance of monuments, which very early became the initial point of support for the historical reconstruction of the past. In 1801, we discovered the first datable inscription – which we attributed to a king by the name of Ashoka (circa 260 BC). Then were found a set of edicts of this same Indian sovereign. Both finds became rare and firm islands in the sea of fog that is otherwise the history of India.

Grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, Ashoka completed the unification of India, begun by his grandfather and continued by his father. He governed a kingdom that encompassed the entire sub-continent (except for the extreme south of the peninsula), as well to the north, Gandhara and part of Bactria, and then won over the Hellenistic kingdoms that were the consequence of the conquest of Alexander.

European Indianism made Ashoka a convinced Buddhist, and attributed to him the organized diffusion of Buddhism throughout Asia, with “missionaries” being sent out, and a grand council, whose legendary character is now well established.

However, neither the Sanskrit known by the literary tradition, nor the religious language of the Vedic hymns is the language of Ashoka. Nor is it one of the Prakrits, (languages that have disappeared but are consecrated either by dramatic or religious literature). His inscriptions are everywhere written in a dialect which is distinct from Pali, especially by the phonetics (which therefore makes it not Pali), and which thus makes it possible to write the different dialects of the Ashokan empire – that of West India (Girnar recension); the dialect of north-west India (the inscription of Kapur-di-Giri); the dialect of Eastern Hindustan (the inscriptions of Orissa). We knew nothing about this alphabet, when we discovered the first edicts on stone, or on a column. And it was not until 1837 that a young English engineer, James Prinsep, succeeded in deciphering them. We called this “Indian” alphabet, Brahmi.

We know today that these inscriptions were “proclaimed,” and that the engraved edict was a kind of witness, so that the people did not forget the royal instructions of an empire under the close surveillance of a solidly organized administration. Three decades later, another series of Ashokan inscriptions were discovered – but in another alphabet, called Kharosthi (also called Gandharan). In north-western India, none of the Mauryan rulers had touched local customs. Ashoka just left an old bureaucracy, probably effective, in the south and east, comprised of officials from other parts of the empire, regions formerly under-administered, or whose loyalty remained doubtful.

The Role Of Émile Sénart: The Linguistic History Of India

In France, the one who studied Ashoka’s language was the Indianist Émile Sénart. But it is less the language of the king that interested him than the difficult question of the linguistic history of India, of which he wanted to try to lay some foundations. In a small, dense, and concise article written in 1886, he took up the analysis made in his work on Ashoka’s inscriptions. He attacked a double dogma: that of the antiquity of Indian texts in general and that of the antiquity of Sanskrit.

Traditionally, there were three types of Sanskrit: the Vedic language (an archaic Sanskrit), classical Sanskrit, and the group of Prakrits. But Sénart added a fourth category – an idiom “in a way intermediate between Sanskrit and Prakrit” – the dialect of the Gathas, used in fragments and versified by northern Buddhist literature, but also in secular works (such as a treatise on arithmetic).

Why, Sénart wondered, was Sanskrit not used by King Ashoka, which in its “literary” form would have been adequate for official or literary use? The answer is simple – because this literary Sanskrit, in its written form, did not exist in the time of Ashoka.

But if it did not exist in its written form, it did indeed exist elsewhere, sheltered in the schools, where it was developed without any other application than the cult from which it hardly dissociated itself, and within the dominant religion, Brahminism. The Vedas dominate. The Vedic hymns are the eternal word that regulates everything, that decides everything; worship governed by Vedic ritual is the source of all prosperity in this world and in the next.

In the history of Indian scriptures and Sanskrit, the presence of the Brahmins and of their language has been essential. Sanskrit is the standard language. The distance between the truth that they state and the reality that they inspire (or imagine themselves inspiring) characterizes the Brahmins, as does the relationship that they have established with their language of worship – the language that states the fixed norm, unchangeable and sacred, which governs the Word that must also be sacred. Through the transmission of ancient songs, these Brahmins found themselves in possession of an idiom that belonged to them in their own right. Exclusive depositaries through oral tradition of a religious literature on which their authority was based; and they have shown themselves reluctant to relinquish their monopoly.

From the analysis of language, the Brahmins draw consequences, sometimes surprising, on the world, on its structure, its future, on things, or on man: “There is the blue sky, the sea, the stars and … Sanskrit,” which is, as the grammarian Patañjali says (around 200 BC?), “the support of the world order.” Hence the weight of grammar, as Michel Angot rightly noted, has an almost metaphysical dimension. All traditional knowledge adopts the method developed by the master-founders of the grammar of Panini and Patañjali. Adopting the old archaic Vedic language, the Brahmins thus adapted it to their spiritual and intellectual needs to work out the Sanskrit which they thus fixed, perpetuated and made sacred. The development of this language has therefore been almost completely controlled, being subject to this small group of statutory scholars.

At the time of Ashoka’s reign, in the 3rd century BC, what therefore existed was an archaic religious language that was essentially liturgical, and the object of a certain culture. Buddhists, on the contrary, might have been rather in a hurry to use writing to spread their doctrine. And their relationship to speech was not that of the Brahmins. For the latter, what was first, was the sacred Word. For the Buddhists, it was the “Law,” allegorized by the key moment of the “gesture” of the Buddha – the sermon of Benares, when he formulated his preaching for the first time. Now the “Law” and the “Word/preacher” were on the same plane. But that was not formulated doctrinally; and whatever the moment when this gesture of the Buddha was elaborated and transmitted, the Brahmins were not be mistaken: Buddhism was an enemy religion.

Speaking of this legendary Sanskrit language, Sénart said aptly that if we attributed all authority to it, it is pure fiction. We sit her on a throne, but she is dead. Indianists called it “archaic” or “Vedic Sanskrit” to distinguish it from classical Sanskrit and corrupt Sanskrit. It was Colebrooke who made the first distinction between states of the Brahminic language, which the Sanskritizing Indianists then readily adopted.

On the basis of this idiom, which was primarily religious and liturgical, the priestly caste no doubt created a learned language, which may have had profane use. But the idiom thus created could not long remain an instrument without use in the hands that forged it. Modified by the reaction of popular writing on religious language, Sanskrit once “thrown into general circulation” passed to the status of literary language, and entered the secular sphere and found new applications. In other words, it was secularized.

What is called classical Sanskrit was born and became the standardized language of a specific civilization, by assuming analogically the role that elsewhere was played by Greek or Latin. A language of scholars, it took the name of samskrita vac, “refined word;” that is to say. prepared according to the canons of Panini’s grammar. It then became the language of the spiritual; and it was reserved for this job. A largely artificial language, it was now a “language of thought,” to use Michel Angot’s expression.

It is this classic Sanskrit that the Germans discovered, as “the egg of Columbus in linguistics,” during the “Eastern Renaissance” which intoxicated the great German dreamers of the early 19th century. But was it the language of the Buddhists? There is nothing to suggest it. Sénart made the assumption that King Ashoka, with the edicts engraved almost everywhere in his kingdom (in particular on the borders), played an eminent role in this event, which constitutes the emergence of classic Sanskrit. He did not have his edicts engraved in Sanskrit, but in a unique alphabet (Brahmi) which made it possible to write the different Prakrits spoken in the different regions of his kingdom, in particular in Peninsular India. And in the northwest regions, it was another alphabet entirely, this one from Aramaic (Kharosthi), in which he had these edicts engraved with a religious, but above all a political, purpose. Before their Hellenization, linked to the conquest of Alexander, these regions of the northwest were included in the great Achaemenid federal state, that which the Macedonian took over. The language chosen by the Achaemenids was Aramaic, the “lingua franca” of the ancient world. We can thus legitimately assume that it was under the influence of the Hellenized scribes, in their meeting with Indian scribes, that these Ashokan alphabets were designed.

If the language of Ashoka was not Sanskrit – if it did not appear in its written form until about a century later, and then in its grammatically fixed form another century later – at what point was this presumed Buddhist canon fixed? And was it in Sanskrit?

The Role Of The Buddhists

Buddhists were recruited into the Brahminic caste, as into the others, and were introduced, to a certain extent, to its knowledge, including linguistic. And over time, they were also able to form themselves as a class of scholars who eventually adopted Sanskrit, first to communicate with the Brahmins, and then as a religious language. As the use of Sanskrit led to the scholarly immobilization of the language, there was thus fashioned a convenient literary instrument which allowed the grammatical elaboration of Prakrits, those languages which had a literature. This is how the northern Buddhists, in their mixed Sanskrit, deployed Prakritic spellings that resembled literary Sanskrit. This also explains how their spelling in “mixed” Sanskrit (a term that Indians prefer to the perceived depreciative phrase, “corrupt Sanskrit”), tended to come closer and closer to correct Sanskrit. And this can help shed some light on the mystery of these legendary “Buddhist Scriptures.”

If classical Sanskrit has undoubtedly been the subject of an elaboration by the Brahmins, (and on this point we can follow Sénart), it was the Buddhists who indirectly caused its diffusion. Unlike the Brahmins, they were animated by a strong missionary spirit, eager to spread their doctrines by all means. Early attempts at writing, undoubtedly gradually, introduced into circulation the processes of a fixed and learned spelling – with probably less mastery than the Brahmins. At least at first.

If, as it has sometimes been argued, that Pali was, despite Magadhi, fixed in Western India, its relatively archaic character can be explained either by the tendency for etymological spelling, sensitive to the North West; or (during the period of development of classical Sanskrit) by the divergence of the tradition among rival sects, to then become immobilized in each of them. This could explain the two identifiable and identified traditions: One in Pali, the other in Sanskrit. But this does not account for Magadhi, with many Indianists even claiming that the language of the Buddha could be Magadhi.

But it was apparently in Sanskrit that Buddhism continued to expand outside the subcontinent. To understand this, it suffices to remember that in the first century AD, it was the Kushans from the steppes who took possession of this entire area of North-West India and part of the Maurya kingdom. And they chose two languages of chancellery, Sanskrit and “Bactrian,” another Indo-Aryan language. Their religious indifference largely contributed to the expansion of Buddhism out of its original cradle (in southern Nepal). This is how Sanskrit was able to continue its expansion outside the subcontinent. From the third century AD, it undoubtedly began to play the role of language of the Buddhist koine. Thus, when Chinese pilgrims set off for India (from the north), in search of the “sacred” texts of Buddhism, which they took to be written in Sanskrit, Sanskrit itself spread throughout Eurasia.

Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, Buddhism disappeared from the Indian lands where it was born; but it persisted outside India, where it had been exported, and with it Sanskrit, despite the tough competition from Persian, linked to the rise of Islam in India. It is this persistence of the sacred language of Brahminism, held (wrongly) for the original language of the doctrine of the Buddha that has resulted in the same texts in Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian, on the basis of a “table” Sanskrit texts. The first corpus of Buddhist texts was collected by the Englishman Brian Houghton Hodgson, in Nepal, where he was stationed. Working in monasteries, he affirmed that Nepalese texts had Sanskrit originals. But often the Sanskrit originals had disappeared, and the remaining text was only known in the language of translation.

The second corpus was collected by Sándor Csoma de Kőrös, a Hungarian who mastered the Tibetan language with heroic dedication, and included in the journal of the Bengal Asian Society, with detailed analyses of the great Tibetan library.

The third corpus was especially cited by Russian orientalism which claimed to have it, as per Isaac Jacob Schmidt.

Philippe Édouard Foucaux, a pupil of Émile Burnouf, who is considered to be the founder of Buddhist studies, had only one Tibetan copy. His Sanskrit copy is very late (18th century); and the first translation was made from the Burmese.

In the 20th century, the expeditions of Dutreuil de Rhins and Fernand Grenard, of Albert Grünwedel and Albert von le Coq, of Sir Aurel Stein, of Sergey Oldenburg, that of Otani Kozui and Zuicho Tachibana and of Paul Pelliot and Louis Valliant unearthed from the sands of Central Asia and caves of Kansu a mass of documents in various languages (in particular, Sogdian). Among these texts, the Sanskrit ones correspond to the sutras translated into Chinese.

What Buddhist Canon?

What then can we say about an alleged Buddhist canon?

It is impossible that a primitive Buddhist canon existed prior to the concomitant written fixation of the orthographic reform described by Sénart, which may have spanned two or three centuries, (from the 2nd century BC to the first century BC).

The French Indianist very clearly posed the question: “Is it believable that a sect, Buddhist, Jain or other, which would have possessed, either written, or an established oral tradition, that is, a definite and consecrated canon, would have consented to modify and to subject canonical writings to a new grammatical regulation? The codification of an idiom specific to the sect and applied to its fundamental texts can only be imagined on the very date when traditions hitherto imperfect or dispersed were united. Fixed earlier in a canonical body, they would have made law; their authority would have made the reform both useless and impossible.”

Between the language of Ashoka’s edicts and the Prakrit of grammarians, the similarities are obvious; but there is no complete agreement between any of the dialects described by grammarians and those represented by the edicts. Sénart’s conclusion is clear: the Brahmi alphabet has no precedence. It is an alphabet designed for Ashoka, probably by scribes at his service.

However, for the same alphabet to adapt to different languages, a deep knowledge of Indian languages was required. It could not have come from the Brahmins, grammarians specialized in Sanskrit, and who, moreover, did not form a body of administrators in the service of the State. These two functions, scribes and administrators, were reserved for a specific caste whose status was always lower than that of the Brahmins, even if some of the latter could participate, as advisers, in the exercise of power. It is undoubtedly a conglomerate of this specific caste of scribes, undoubtedly Hellenized, especially those in the Northwest, who conceived the two alphabets intended for King Ashoka. Whatever the religion of these scribes, the concept of Dharma (Law) was familiar to them. And it could be Buddhist or Hindu or Vedic.

But if the alphabet was designed by the king (or his language technicians) and for his particular use, and if it did not have prior existence, the inscriptions could not be read by anyone. It was therefore necessary to proclaim them. Hence the existence of emissaries sent by the king. “Oyez, Oyez good people, King Ashoka makes his instructions heard for the happiness of his people, and the happiness of his people is to obey Dharma, the Law” – that is, the Law defined and identified by the king. The Mauryan state was indeed a police state, as suggested by Megasthenes, the Greek who spent some time at the court of King Chandragupta. King Ashoka’s alleged Buddhist teachings enveloped close administrative surveillance, for political rather than religious ends.

Buddhism: Sect Or Heresy Of Brahminism?

None of the founders of the modern Indian state, Nehru, Gandhi, Jinna for Pakistan, knew Sanskrit. When they were of Brahmin origin, they sometimes knew some hymns or prayers as we can still know some prayers in Latin, or can know them in Aramaic. The pandits converted to politics. If Sanskrit had been the language of this radiant Buddhism throughout Asia, it is difficult to believe that we cannot find more originals – especially when you think of the profusion of Buddhist texts in various languages found in the cave of a thousand Buddhas. If we had had a Buddhist canon, “Living Word of the Blessed One,” there is no doubt that it would have been preciously preserved by his followers.

When, at Benares, during his first sermon, the Buddha “turned the law,” what can it mean except that he instituted by this gesture (whether he existed historically or not) the new legislator: a new Manu for the Hindu world. As for Brahminism, the preaching of the Buddha claimed to replace this sacred Word, so sacred that it was reserved only for the legislators of the language which conveyed and preserved it. Little wonder that Buddhism competed with both of these religious currents. And that, no doubt, if a primitive cannon existed, it was destroyed.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.


The featured image shows the head of the Buddha, Gandhara, ca. 1st-2nd century AD.

Limericks A Tad Quitain

Me, I’ve been a poet since the age of six or seven, when my mentor was the very great Spike Milligan. The following was my favourite “Uncle Spike,” and I somewhat fear, dear readers, that it isn’t especially woke:
“A thousand hairy savages/ Sitting down to lunch/ Gobble-gobble, glub-glub/ Munch, munch, munch!”

Not only did I admire its visceral intelligence, but for a six-year-old, being taught stuffy English middle-class manners and mores, it was irresistibly subversive. Under Spike’s influence, I penned the following couplet:

“My dear,” said I, “my bonnie lass.”
But she replied, “You silly ass!”

It would prove uncannily prophetic à propos my subsequent overtures to the fair sex. Though my creativity and quality have somewhat dimmed since, I now find the Muse hits me powerfully, and in my unbiased view, not unimpressively. Blame semi-retirement for that. So here, dear reader, find a number of art historical Limericks – these shouldn’t upset anyone fearing an abrupt transition from the genre of my jokes. Talking of which, one really good joke does accompany this selection.

Kasimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915.

In this preface – the editor considers my output here worthy of Dr Johnson on the Bard (and he’s spot-on, as usual) – I will refrain from providing any of the usual, tedious art historical summaries. Apart from the Kiwi-Croatian painter Milan Mrkusich (1925-2018), an abstract artist of singular intellect, rigour and impenetrability to fools who wish every picture to tell a story, my exemplars are all well-known figures, compatible with everybody’s cultural arsenal. “Bloody Arsenal!” protests one reader (the epithet was stronger), “What about Spurs?”

My good man, is my reply, pray what do you think you are doing, reading this erudite journal?

But first, some amuses-bouche…


A well-known writer, Marcus Stocker, had just written a novel which he was quite pleased with, but for reasons best known to himself, decided to change the name of his leading character from David to Geoff. The “find” and “replace” function did its bit. Rather too well, as Stocker only remembered when it was too late that he had referred to a famous statue by Michelangelo…

My friend Lisa, an attractive young woman with plucked eyebrows who has a lovely smile the rare moments she is serene, is nonetheless prone to whine and whinge. You qualify as an art historian if you can guess her nickname.

My Maori friend Tama is slightly affected, and has artistic aspirations. Hence, he named his beloved daughter Moana Lisa.
[pause for laughs]
Later on in life, Tama was prone to eloquence in praising Moana’s beauty: “Moana Lisa rocks; she’s older than the rocks among which she sits”, blahblahblah. Moana is a smart lass, and and her response is “Oh shut up, Pater!”

Right. Now on to the much-anticipated limericks…


Eat your poor heart out Yeats,
You’re no better than Stocker or Keats
There was once a time
You could make it rhyme
But now who admires your bleats?

An elderly painter named Milan
Said, “I’ve got this brilliant p-lan
I’ll paint a red square,
What it means I don’t care,
But critics will all praise my e-lan”

Rodin told Camille Claudel,
You really are my kind of gel,
You’re a real good looker
Ma petite French cooker,
Now, help with those damn Gates of Hell!’

The Thought (Camille Claudel) by Auguste Rodin, 1888-1889.

A very idiomatic translation of the above follows from Mark’s attractive friend, Antoinette. He asks, “Why do the French always end up going to bed when we’d rather play Scrabble™?” To which she replies, “Come with me, Dr Stocker, and find out!” But I digress!

Rodin dit à Camille:
T’es quand même une chic fille!
Tu excelles au ciseau
Presque autant qu’aux fourneaux.
Mais tu es, mon canard,
Encore mieux au plumard!

The heterosexual male
Will try but invariably fail
De ne jamais toucher
Le grand sexy Boucher;
He really is beyond the pale!

Mademoiselle O’Murphy by François Boucher, 1752.

Georg Baselitz leaped into fame
With paintings that all looked the same.
His figures – inverted –
Made us once disconcerted,
But he’s now at the top of his game!

Henry Moore said, “My sculpture is goals,
Organic and pierced with great holes.
This was Barbara’s idea,
Now it’s mine – the poor dear,
You women have second’ry roles!”

An erudite scholar of Mich-
elangelo, Klee and Van Dyck [not our Bard – Ed.]
Claimed, “For my part,
I know all about art,
But I’ve no idea what I like!”

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles
Insults sweet Avignon gels.
But he said, “I don’t care
If they’re cubic or square
So long as my masterpiece sells!”

David resolved for a laugh,
He’d paint old Marat’s last bath.
He paid for his error,
Supporting the Terror,
And did Charlotte hurt him? Not half!

Bernini, when sculpting Theresa,
Said, “I just know what will please her.
An angel – so fierce
Her body will pierce
As heavenly sentiments seize her!”

As an apt aside, here are some of my favourite artists… There’s Jackson, the painterly dripper, Fontana the loose canvas ripper, The pious Giotto, The decadent Watteau And Frith, the Ramsgate day tripper!


Dr Mark Stocker is a former academic and art curator who lives in New Zealand. Besides his jokes, he has 230 marginally more serious publications, many of which are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His book When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.


The featured image shows, “Self-caricature in profile, standing,” a drawing by Edward Lear, October 1870.

The Democratic Dilemma: Herman Melville’s Ship of State

This excerpt comes from William Morrisey’s latest book, Herman Melville’s Ship of State, which reads the classic novel, Moby-Dick, as an allegory of America, democracy and the reciprocal obligations of the individual and the state. Thus, is America Moby-Dick? Is its power a source of chaos or order? You will have to read the Morrissey’ intriguing book in order to arrive at the answers.

William Morrisey held the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College until his retirement in 2015. A native of Rumson, New Jersey, he served as Executive Director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission before his appointment at Hillsdale College in 2000. He is the author of eight books and has been an editor of Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy since 1979. His reviews and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Social Science and Modern Society, Law and Liberty, The New Criterion, and many other publications.

Please support the excellent work being done by our friends over at St. Augustine’s Press and buy this book. You will not be disappointed.


In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of Democracy in America, his magisterial study based on observations he had made on his nine-month visit to the United States nearly a decade earlier. Although we Americans understandably read his book as a treatise about ourselves, Tocqueville wanted less to understand America than to understand democracy. By “democracy” he meant not primarily a political regime of the kind seen in ancient Athens or in a modern-day New England township, but the condition of social equality, a society free of an aristocratic class legally entitled to rule ‘the commoners.’ In America, everyone is a commoner, and those who pretend otherwise invite ridicule. As an aristocrat himself, Tocqueville saw the decline of his class in Europe, a decline accelerated by both monarchy and republicanism in his own country. He called America “the sample democracy” in the world, the place to go to see what an egalitarian society looked like, how it thought and felt, its “habits of the mind and heart”—habits soon coming to a country near you, my fellow noblemen.

William Morrisey Herman Melville’s Ship of State

What political regimes would such societies see? Without the possibility of the rule of ‘the few,’ that left the rule of ‘the one’ or ‘the many.’ And because the long-ago replacement of small, ancient city-states with large modern nation-states precluded the direct rule of the people, rule of the many in the modern rule would mean representative government, republicanism. The regime alternatives for democratic societies in modern states were republicanism and despotism—to be seen, Tocqueville remarks, in America and Russia, respectively, “each destined to hold half the world in its hands one day.” To outline the structure of his preferred republican regime, he simply wrote an able summary of The Federalist, whose institutional structures might be adapted, although not simply carried over, by other ‘founders’ of republican regimes in other countries. But to describe democracy’s habits of heart and mind, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which egalitarian social conditions pervade the souls of those who live amidst them, this took several hundred pages.

The 1840s also saw the return to America of another voyager, Herman Melville. At the time Tocqueville was bringing out his Volume II, the young American, ten years Tocqueville’s junior, was signing up for his first whaling adventure, which began at the beginning of 1841. For nearly four years Melville experienced the democratic despotism of life at sea under several captains on a variety of ships, intermingled with sojourns on islands in the South Pacific, where a life of hedonist freedom rested uneasily on binges of cannibalism. The young sailor enjoyed the freedom without partaking of the fare; worrying that one day he might become part of a feast, he cut his island idyll short. For him, the remedy for shipboard despotism was either rebellion (he joined one mutiny) or exile (his adventures on shore occurred after he jumped his first ship).

The America he returned to in October 1944 was about to elect James K. Polk to the presidency. Along with Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois and former president Franklin Pierce,

Polk was part of a new intellectual and political movement which registered a generational shift in the American conception of the right basis for law and liberty. Whereas the founding generation had understood republican regime-building as an attempt to secure unalienable natural rights for “all men” under that regime, and the generation after that was divided over whether “all men” included slaves (New England said yes, the South, increasingly, said no), this third generation of Americans began to see republicanism less as security for rights as security for, and the best expression of, democracy itself, of the social egalitarianism Tocqueville had described. Might that not lead to majority tyranny, the rule of ‘the people’ in its might instead of popular sovereignty under the laws of nature and of nature’s God?

Having just voyaged on seas even broader than the American continent, seas where might is indeed taken to make right, whether in the form of a captain on a ship or of mighty Leviathan underneath that ship, Melville had seen that a diverse and egalitarian society could find its ruler not in a popular majority but in one person. With no aristocratic class to serve as mediator between the one and the many, each pole of the political world would threaten the other. Fear of the many might cause the one to rule by fear absolutized, by terror. Tocqueville never wrote on Napoleon or on the Russian czar. In Moby-Dick, Melville did.

He could do so because he had survived and learned from what might be described as the photographic negative of Tocqueville’s experience: Instead of voyaging to democratic-republican America from a Europe beset by unstable monarchies, a declining aristocracy, and constant threats of war and violent revolution, Melville had voyaged from America to societies in the condition of a state of nature—communitarian and pleasure-loving, to be sure, but with a sinister undercurrent of manslaughter, the faint smell of blood mingling with fragrance of the tropical flowers. He had voyaged on ships ruled by ‘princes’ (with the title of captain) wielding absolute power unknown to American landholders, even to the most adventurous pioneers. Returning to America, he too had an outsider’s perspective, the ability to think like what we now call a political comparativist. In Moby-Dick he shows what a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society would be under the regime of tyranny.


The featured image shows a portion of “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World,” by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington, which was first exhibited in 1848. It is America’s longest painting, at 1275 feet in length.