David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: encyclopedia

Louis de Jaucourt: Encyclopedia MVP

Jaucourt wrote about 18,000 articles (a quarter of the total) for Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie in the 1750s and 1760s, at the rate of 7 or 8 a day.

The Chevalier de Jaucourt (1704-1779), as his title shows, was the younger son of a noble house. He studied at Geneva, Cambridge, and Leyden, and published in 1734 a useful account of the life and writings of Leibnitz. When the Encyclopædia was projected, his services were at once secured, and he became its slave from the beginning of A to the end of Z. He wrote articles in his own special subjects of natural history and physical science, but he was always ready to lend his help in other departments, in writing, rewriting, reading, correcting, and all those other humbler necessities of editorship of which the inconsiderate reader knows little and thinks less. Jaucourt revelled in this drudgery. God made him for grinding articles, said Diderot. For six or seven years, he wrote one day, Jaucourt has been in the middle of half a dozen secretaries, reading, dictating, slaving, for thirteen or fourteen hours a day, and he is not tired of it even now. When he was told that the work must positively be brought to an end, his countenance fell, and the prospect of release from such happy bondage filled his heart with desolation. “If,” says Diderot in the preface to the eighth volume (1765), “we have raised a shout of joy like the sailor when he espies land after a sombre night that has kept him midway between sky and flood, it is to M. de Jaucourt that we are indebted for it. What has he not done for us, especially in these latter times? With what constancy has he not refused all the solicitations, whether of friendship or of authority, that sought to take him away from us? Never has sacrifice of repose, of health, of interest been more absolute and more entire.” These modest and unwearying helpers in good works ought not to be wholly forgotten, in a commemoration of more far-shining names.

John Morley, Diderot and the Encyclopedists

Though he was financially independent, Jaucourt did all the work gratis to the point that he sold one of his houses in order to pay for the secretaries. I doubt it bothered him too much, since there doesn’t seem to be much record of him doing anything with his life other than reading and researching.

Charles Sanders Peirce: Summary of Human Knowledge


Winter–Spring 1892

Plan for a scientific dictionary, to be called Summa Scientiæ; or,Summary of Human Knowledge. To be contained in one volume of 1500 pages of 1000 words per page. The articles, though elementary, to be masterly summaries valuable even to specialists. C. S. Peirce to be editor and to write about a third of the whole. The other writers to be young men, specialists who have not yet achieved great reputations, but found out and selected by the editor as having exceptional mental power and special competence. These men to conform to certain rules as to matter, arrangement, and style;and required to rewrite until they became trained in the kind of composition required.

Economy of space to be effected by every device that ingenuity and many years’ reflection upon this problem can suggest. Facts to be tabulated as far as possible. The style of writing to be extremely compact, yet scrupulously elegant. The ideas dominant in each branch of science to be emphatically indicated, and its leading principles distinctly stated.Every page, even the tables, to be interesting in matter, stimulating and agreeable in manner. The leading works to be always named.

The arrangement to be alphabetical. The length of the articles such as best subserves economy of space. This generally forbids very short articles; yet articles of more than one page should be rare.

The copy to be completed in two years. As every word would have to be weighed and every statement verified, it would cost $10 to $15 a thousand words. The editor to receive, besides, $3000 a year. The contents to be somewhat as follows:

                          A. Mathematics.
 1.  History of mathematics                                  25   pages
 2.  Pure mathematics. A complete synopsis,                 100      "
     mostly without proofs.
 3.  Tables                                                  25      "
 4.  Rigid dynamics                                          25      "
 5.  Hydrodynamics                                           15      "
 6.  Thermodynamics                                          10      "
 7.  Kinetical theory of bodies                               5      "
 8.  Thermotics, etc.                                         5      "
 9.  Optics                                                   5      "
10.  Electricity and magnetism                               10      "
11.  Mathematical psychics                                    5      "
12.  Mathematical economics                                   5      "
13.  Probabilities                                           10      "
14.  Miscellaneous                                            5      " 

       Total mathematics                                    250   pages. 

                           B. Philosophy.
 1.  History of logic                                         5   pages
 2.  Principles of logic                                     25      "
 3.  Traditional rules of logic                              15      "
 4.  Terminology of logic                                     5      "
 5.  Outlines of the principal ontological and               50      "
     cosmological and transcendental systems
       Total philosophy                                     100   pages. 


                            F. Sociology.
 1.  Tables of languages                                 50   pages
 2.  Miscellaneous linguistics                           20      "
 3.  Rhetoric                                            10      "
 4.  History of literature                                5      "
 5.  Weights, measures, chronology                        5      "
 6.  Anthropological tables                              40      "
 7.  Games and sports                                    10      "
 8.  War                                                 10      "
 9.  History of religion in tables                       40      "
10.  Politics                                            25      "
11.  Ethics                                               5      "
12.  Jurisprudence and criminology                       10      "
13.  History of law                                       5      "
14.  Our law and customs                                 50      "
15.  Domestic economy                                    25   pages
16.  Education                                           25     "
17.  Miscellaneous                                       15     " 

                           G. Individual facts.
 1.  Astronomy and its history                           20   pages
 2.  Geology                                             10     "
 3.  Geography                                           80     "
 4.  Statistics                                          10     "
 5.  General history                                     80     "
 6.  Biography                                           90     "
 7.  Miscellaneous                                       10     " 

      Total individual facts                            300   pages.
      Grand total                                      1500   pages.

This distribution of the contents is subject to changes of detail; but its general character will remain.

The aim is to make the volume the most useful one ever published to persons of modern liberal education.

C. S. Peirce

Finnegans Wake: The Book of Lists

Since I was just talking about ecumenicality, I thought it would be good to return to the king of consubstantiality himself, James Joyce. Consubstantiality is an archetypal example of Joyce secularizing his Catholic influences. The Trinity are one substance in three persons, as much as instantiations of interpretation are present in a single substance of the underlying text. Hence, we read out of a text as much as we read into it, and I gather that Joyce so liked this idea that he sought to reject the finality of any single interpretation.

For all of Joyce’s constructivist instincts, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake both take pains not to display their architecture in miniature. The famous Ulysses schema Joyce gave to Stuart Gilbert has served as a misleading guidepost ever since it was published, since Joyce made alterations in versions he gave to others, and there is a ex post facto feeling to the whole affair that suggests it only tells a part of the story, or perhaps too much of it.

What Joyce does give, in copious quantity, is lists. Finnegans Wake can be irritating in that Joyce uses lists in two overlapping manners, neither of which serve to advance the overall architecture of the book:

  1. Lists are given to restate with variation a central element or elements.
  2. Lists are given to multiply possible interpretations and actions, both in number and in contradiction.

Joyce does not particularly differentiate between these two tactics, and wading through sometimes exhausting lists of river names (for example) that seem to be adding nothing can feel like trudging through molasses. Alas, there’s no getting around it; the technique is so ubiquitous that you have to approach it as with most things in the Wake, at the figurative limit.

Joyce gives a significant clue early on with the placement and content of the three largest lists. All three are miniatures are the content of their chapters, and all three concern themselves with a single central element. (Quick key: HCE is the father and husband, ALP the mother and wife, Shem and Shaun their twin boys.)

  1. Abusive Names Directed Towards HCE (pages 71-72, I.3)
  2. Colloquial Names Given To ALP’s “Untitled Mamafesta” (pages 104-107, I.5)
  3. Descriptions of HCE (pages 126-139, I.6)

The last one in particular is a real monster, thirteen pages of descriptive clause after clause with no apparent organization or continuity. It’s also the odd one out because while I.3 discusses the gossip around HCE’s purported (but highly doubtful) crimes and I.5 concerns itself explicitly with the physical aspects of ALP’s letter, I.6 is a Q&A between Shem and Shaun about all of the main character sigla of the Wake, from the family members to the old men to the citizens to the book itself. So I’ll leave the monster for last.

The abusive names are comparatively straightforward, a series of accusations in keeping with the general thrust of the chapter. The names, though, slip away from concerning HCE the publican and towards the realm of the wholly universal and arbitrary (“Lycanthrope”? “Sower Rapes”?), and ending with these three: “In Custody of the Polis,” suggesting HCE as both custodian of the city (he is the builder of Dublin and all cities) and being “in custody” of the city (under accusation and buried under the landscape where he sleeps); “Boawwll’s Alocutionist” sounds like “false accusationist” to me, HCE both as the victim and (self-)accuser of neurotic, imagined crimes; and “Deposed,” his ultimate fate of being conquered by his children. But the rest are so reference-laden as to defy easy assimilation, seemingly the residue of past actions and stories only hinted at by these names.

ALP’s letter (which is, at the least consubstantial with the Wake itself) carries colloquial names that are often these stories themselves. Rather than describing a single person’s characteristic or action, these titles often provide backstory, explanations, or motives, in keeping with ALP’s motive to defend her husband from the accusations leveled at him. So we get things like “Look to the Lady” (from MacBeth), “For [Noah’s] Ark see Zoo” (the saved animals now imprisoned), “Lumptytumtumpty had a Big Fall” (that would be HCE as Humpty Dumpty, as he is frequently), “How to Pull a Good Horuscoup even when Oldsire is Dead to the World” (fathers and sons in Egyptian mythology), etc. Only at the end does she explicitly address his purported crimes in a burst of defensive rhetoric about false accusations.

The third list, Shem’s enormous question, becomes partly a statement of filial piety. Not merely providing explanations as the names of ALP’s letter did, here HCE grows in his descriptions to full stature: he is the builder of cities, Adam Cadmon who was first and equal to God, Odysseus, St. Paul, every historical father figure of old. There is no defense in here, nor are there many crimes (there are probably a few in there somewhere…); it is a list of salutation and accomplishment. The speaker and respondent will be the ultimate destroyers of HCE later on, but here in nascent form prior to the proper start of the story (or after the end), they are sons under the sign of their father.

More than concerning their chapter’s contents, all the lists are about HCE in one form or another. They all serve to remove the traditional narrative and present many narratives quickly in no clear order. These progress from the vague accusations of I.3 to the defenses of I.5 and finally to the myths of I.6. Where it all is meaning to go, I can’t really say, but here is one interpretation.

HCE, as the builder and burgher of the city/polis, is strongly identified with the city, which contains all good and all bad in the modern world (“Dear Dirty Dublin” is the common refrain). As HCE and
ALP encompass myriad men and women respectively, so too does the city,
with its accomplishments and filth. The lists are a portrait, appearing as they do in the most spatial, non-temporal section of the novel. (Books II and III are far more narrative than Book I.) Moreover, they are a panorama and mosaic, an array of single shots from different points of view arranged cubist-style (hermetic cubism, I’d say). It extends the consubstantiality analogy into the realm of the visual, and then back into thematic elements, as the city is life itself. The lists are there because on this level, Finnegans Wake is meant as an encyclopedia as much as a narrative. To read it as a narrative and not be constantly reminded of its endlessly multiplicative nature would be to miss the point.

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