August 04, 2006

Miscellaneity, etc.

‘I WRITE in praise of miscellaneity, and in particular of assortment and variousness in books; of motley volumes; of mixed-up, impure works which nevertheless accord with the mess & disorder of nature, of life.’ So began a short piece I wrote for a projected collaborative anthology which was never realised. Until recently, I had hardly ever paused to think about my sympathies with the miscellaneous and the curious, but a couple of books I’ve lately been reading have dredged these affinities out, blinking & shivering, from the back of my mind to its better-lit foreground. First of these was Neil Kenny’s The Palace of Secrets, Béroalde de Verville and Renaissance Conceptions of Knowledge, a title I’d bumped into while researching this recent entry about Del Bene’s Civitas Veri. ‘During the Renaissance,’ runs its blurb, ‘very divergent conceptions of knowledge were debated. Dominant among these was encyclopedism, which treated knowledge as an ordered and unified circle of learning in which branches were logically related to each other. By contrast, writers like Montaigne saw human knowledge as an inherently unsystematic and subjective flux.’

Frontispiece from Béroalde de Verville's 'Le Tableau des riches inventions,' 1600, engraving by Thomas de Leu, or Léonard Gaulthier.

In the book, Dr. Kenny explores the distinctions and overlaps between these two worldviews, with a specific focus on the literary career of François Béroalde de Verville (1556-1626), an author whose name I had first heard as the author of Le Moyen de Parvenir (‘The Way to Succeed’) a supposedly near-unreadable, and sporadically obscene work, somewhat reminiscent of Rabelais, that had been first translated into English by a young Arthur Machen. Béroalde was also responsible for a French version of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, entitled Le Tableau des riches inventions, to which he added a ‘Steganographic’ preface, packed with alchemical imagery, which purports to expound on the symbolism of the book’s frontispiece (above). Béroalde, by the way, defined steganography as ‘the art of representing plainly that which is easily conceived but which under the coarsened features of its appearance hides subjects quite other than that which seems to be represented…’

Frontispiece from Béroalde de Verville's 'Le voyage des princes fortunez,' 1610, engraving by Léonard Gaulthier.

Dr. Kenny explains how, in his first books, the polymathic Béroalde was an exponent of the encyclopædic school of thought, but that in his later works he moved away from this position to one which instead exemplified a Montaignesque relish for the miscellaneous, the uncategorisable, and the uncontainable. Until I read The Palace of Secrets, it simply hadn’t occurred to me to think of ‘miscellanism’ as any kind of valid philosophical outlook, and I suppose I’m still not quite convinced that it is, even though it isn’t a bad fit, in many respects, for my own outlook on life. Anyway, impressed & intrigued by Dr. Kenny’s writing, I ordered a second, more recent book of his which also concerns a subject close to my heart, that of Curiosity. I’m still making my way through The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany, which, fortunately, seems to be picking up steam after a decidedly stodgy opening section.

Map of the fictional locales in Béroalde de Verville's 'Le voyage des princes fortunez,' 1610.

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I’ll be away on vacation for a week, from tomorrow, and will probably disable comments here for the duration, in case there’s an outbreak of spam during our week off-line by a lake in the woods… Posted by misteraitch at August 4, 2006 09:34 AM


I picked up an old copy of Le Moyen de Parvenir, in French, this summer, a bargain for a fiver. I haven't gotten round to reading it yet, but it looks juicy.

Posted by: Conrad H. Roth on August 5, 2006 12:03 AM

Hmm… your post, and the essay In Praise of Miscellaneity contain so many interesting threads. I’d like to mention a couple of passing (miscellaneous?) thoughts:

  • Perhaps the dominant, encyclopædic approach to knowledge is made necessary by the sheer mass of written information that became available from the Renaissance onwards. Specialization requires a grid to pin it to.
  • the word anthology means (etymologically) a gathering of flowers; if we are going to stop along our way to pick a bouquet, we might as well make it varied…
  • The passage from ‘a certain Chinese Encyclopædia’ is so Borgesian it hurts: a heterogenous list that is also a forged quotation.
  • Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, the translator of Verville’s ‘steganographic’ preface, is Balthus’ son, Pierre Klossowski’s nephew, and an interesting character in his own right, it seems.

Hope you enjoyed your time off!

Posted by: Michelangelo on August 14, 2006 04:23 PM

Conrad—sadly, the English translations of Le Moyen de parvenir (at least the ones that I’ve seen) are very expensive, or I would have probably ordered a copy by now!

Michelangelo—many thanks for your comments; now you mention it, I do believe I had read about the etymology of anthology before (but had quite forgotten it by the time I wrote that piece). And I certainly didn’t know (though I should have guessed) that Borges’s quotation was forged. I was vaguely aware of Klossowski de Rola’s famous family, and knew of him as the editor of the marvellous book The Golden Game: I can’t say I’m a fan of his dad’s paintings and haven’t read any of his uncle’s books—what’ve I missed?

Posted by: misteraitch on August 15, 2006 07:41 AM

I am not 100% sure that the Borges list is forged; it’s just that it sounds so perfect, and no one has been able to trace it or the wonderfully titled Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.
I read a little Klossowski years ago and I vaguely remember it being fun and obscene; his writing is certainly better than his drawings. I could never understand why he (like many other French intellectuals) finds Sade so intriguing.
I agree completely with you on Balthus, although his early works are really good, in a retour à l'ordre sort of way. He was only eleven when he published his first book of drawings, with a foreword by family friend Rainer Maria Rilke. Not a bad start, huh?

Posted by: Michelangelo on August 15, 2006 05:24 PM

I read Klossowski's "Baphomet", and found it pretty forgettable. But it was a translation, so who knows?

Posted by: Conrad on August 15, 2006 09:51 PM
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