‘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.’
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…’
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.
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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