Imago Mundi - Tome 5 - LEffet Babel (French Edition)

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Within this limitation, the epic totalizes and encloses a small, perfect cosmos; i t 40 treats a past absolutely sealed off from the flux of the present. The encyclopaedia, on the other hand, writes on the edge of contemporaneity, in a present always threatening to become the past. Tn this openness to the present, the form—whether fictional or no n - f i c t i o n a l — i s open to new areas of knowledge; i t does not enclose or encircle once and for a l l , so much as create a structure capable of supporting an indefinite number of inclusions.

Further, the encyclopaedia treats i t s material with none of the awe accorded to the epic object; i t s seriocomical or parodic tone brings a l l of i t s inclusions onto the same le v e l , where they may be subjected to playful manipulation. Nonetheless, i t is the case that definitions of epic already mentioned—that is is a "poem including history," that i t has the quality of "expansiveness, the impulse to extend its own luminosity in ever widening c i r c l e s " — a r e relevant to the idea of a fictional encyclopaedia.

The epic's length is another relevant t r a i t : the work must be roomy or long enough to comprehend a totalizing vision of a culture and to include a global perspective on time. The past, present and future of an action, and more importantly the beginning and end of - 31 -history i t s e l f , are brought within its bounds. Correspondingly, the fictional encyclopaedia, as i t rewrites the sacred scriptures and reenacts sacred r i t u a l , is particularly concerned with the Creation, the Fall and the possibility of an often erotic Redemption.

The epic's hesitation between telling history and making beautiful fictions is very much a trait of the fictional encyclopaedia.

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A work such as Dante's Commedia which, in the sense that i t includes topical issues, is more encyclopaedic than epic is concerned with history but is not content merely to report i t. It must place events within a larger fictional structure, place historical figure next to angel, place Italy next to the cosmos and God's scheme of things.

In this sense i t imitates the encyclopaedia i t s e l f which, while professing to be working objectively with the real, shapes and takes liberties with knowledge in a manner reminiscent of f i c t i o n. The epic hero finds his double or his extension in the fict i o n a l encyclopaedia. We recall that in the epic scheme of things, in an order bounded by the wi l l of the gods or by God's foreknowledge , the hero is ultimately limited in his capabilities and recognizes his own mortality.

This is the case even though the hero is larger in stature than any other figure. Now, the epic hero takes two different forms in the fictional encyclopaedia, depending on whether the work Is ironic or not. In both cases the hero's nature is bound up in the pursuit of knowledge—a pursuit which was not foregrounded in the. In works such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the epic hero faces his ironic double. Bloom and HCE are based on - 32 -the larger-than-life heroes, Ulysses and Adam; they move through the respective works in a grandiose manner, having adventures and mishaps; their actions are commented upon from the perspective of myth and history.

And yet both figures are voyeurs and tricksters. What would be known in these works, a set of truths at once erotic, nostalgic and mystical, is balanced by this ironic perspective and hence is rendered somewhat ambiguous. In less ironic works such as Faust and Moby-Dick, the epic hero faces his extension into an untenably extreme form. Faust, obviously caught up in the pursuit of knowledge, overshoots the epic mark, transgresses the boundaries traditionally limiting the epic hero's capacities.

Faust would go beyond God's order and accede directly to the truth of things. Faust, like HCE, wants to know too much, but his Fall is not ironized; he loses far more than his reputation. Like Aeneas, Faust towers over his contemporaries; unlike the prudent epic hero, however, he does not ultimately submit his w i l l to a divine one.

Similarly, Ahab in Moby-Dick is modelled on the epic voyager after knowledge; however, in his desire to see into the heart of evil in the form of the white whale, he transgresses like Faust the boundaries of cosmic order and ultimately f a l l s from grace. Thus the fict i o n a l encyclopaedia repeats and transforms the epic hero differently depending on whether i t is a modern ironic work or not. Oral epic is more or less anonymous: i t may be performed and transformed by a particular bard, but i t is actually authored by a whole community of singers who have contributed versions of tales to a common pool of formulae, themes and ideas.

In the epic, as in the Menippean satire and the essay, anonymous composition the text as a wide assimilation of cultural categories is in tension with authored composition the text as a personal project. This tension within the epic genre is precisely the distinction between primary and secondary epic. Now, the fictional encyclopaedia often gives the impression of having anonymous authorship. A multitude of categories of knowledge are drawn into i t and enter into play; cliches, proverbs, direct transcriptions of signs, snatches of songs, weave through the text. A culture or community, not a particular person, seems to be authoring the work.

So much information is included that one person, i t seems, could not possibly have transmitted i t. This effect is particularly marked, for Instance, in Finnegans Wake: this work, along with Pound's Cantos, requires a collective venture of annotation. Like oral epic, then, the fictional encyclopaedia has an anonymous aspect; however, like written epic and, of course, like a l l written works , the genre remains an authored one.

Indeed, i t goes further in being quite conscious of its nature and limitations as writing. Images of writing, of the book, in examples of the form are an important indication of this l i t e r a r y , or even scriptural, self-consciousness. Finnegans Wake, for example, while often giving - 34 -the impression of being a compendium of popular, orally-transmitted knowledge, a chorus or, better, cacophony of voices from different cultures and times, nonetheless features specifically literary images: Anna Livia's letter and the exegete's activity in deciphering i t transmit a consciousness of the literary epistolary nature of the 43 enterprise of the book; further, the parody of literary conventions of marginal commentary and footnoting indicates a textual tradition to which the book, however much i t may aspire to a condition of o r a l i t y , necessarily belongs.

Thus we cannot simply say that our genre takes over the oral qualities of epic; i t absorbs, rather, the conflict between oral song and written book that stands at the heart of the epic as genre. The encyclopaedia: Introduction and general discussion We have seen an encyclopaedic mode to be operating, to varying degrees, in several historical genres, and to be determining our perception of their "encyclopaedic" nature. These genres are the essay, the Menippean satire, and the epic.

It is clear, however, that there exist certain texts that transcend these generic boundaries or include them a l l.

Such texts contain aspects of the more limited genres, and yet seem to form a group on their own—the genre that we have - 35 -tentatively called "the ficti o n a l encyclopaedia. Our task wil l now be to establish the traits of the latter as i t provides a model for the fictional encyclopaedia.

In doing so, we must realize that the encyclopaedia Is only a metaphor for its fictional counterpart; we must not posit direct relations between the two levels. Characteristics of the non-fictional work are not taken over directly by fictional texts such as Moby-Dick and Finnegans Wake: instead, they are translated or transposed by a fictional universe and intent. In discussing the encyclopaedia, we shall be concerned with a number of different questions, a l l useful in f i l l i n g in more completely, later, the traits of the fictional encyclopaedia.

We w i l l look at the etymology of the term i t s e l f ; at other, related forms or metaphors for the encyclopaedia, such as the thesaurus, etc. These questions suggest more general ones focusing on the ambivalent relation of the encyclopaedic project to i t s own limitations: to Its own necessary incompleteness as opposed to a totalization of knowledge ; to its own historical specificity as opposed to a timelessness of knowledge ; to i t s reliance on other books, sources as opposed to an unmediated knowledge ; to i t s own status as an ideological construct and as writing as opposed to being a mirror of the world.

Thus a number of assumptions as to - 36 -possibilities for knowledge underlie the encyclopaedic undertaking— underlie i t and at the same time are put into question by i t. The term "encyclopaedia" derives from the Greek terra for "encyclical education": the terra refers to the circle of arts and sciences considered by the Greeks to be essential to a libe r a l 45 education.

The notion of an encyclopaedia, then, before referring to a book charged with including within its covers this circle or circular body of learning, referred just as importantly to a body of ideas, a course of education or instruction, which could conceivably have been 46 held and practised in oral, as well as l i t e r a t e , cultures. We must think about both a body of knowledge and a course of instruction or doctrine; the encyclopaedia, that i s , concerns both the object of knowledge and the process of coming to know.

The term has more commonly come to refer to a book or set of books containing information on a l l aspects of knowledge, or on one particular branch of knowledge. The term has even come to be synonymous or almost so with the Encyclopedie of Diderot and d'Alerabert, such that many encyclopaedias neglect to include articles on their own form, its special problems and history, while nonetheless including an article on their famous predecessor. It is important for a consideration of the fictional encyclopaedia, however, to avoid exclusive emphasis on the notion of the book, and to return to the roots of the term "encyclopaedia," emphasizing the notions of circularity comprehensiveness, totalization of knowledge and of education "paideia" means "culture".

Besides being Books containing, and somehow replacing, the world, encyclopaedias and, indirectly, their - 37 -fic t i o n a l counterparts are engaged in the process of education, formation, acculturation. What is important is not simply the knowledge included in i t s e l f , but also the act of building up this body or circle of "connaissances" and communicating i t to the public. The notion of "paideia" is thus important to keep in mind; i t has the same root as "paideuma," that notion which Pound places at the base of his vision in the later Cantos, and which comes to mean, for him, that body of ideas, rooted in a culture, that forms the basis of its ways of ordering experience.

A notion of knowledge as arcane possession, store or treasure is definitely not lacking in the encyclopaedic endeavour; this hoarding for purposes of power is nonetheless balanced, or undermined, by the above drive toward a clear distribution of ideas.

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Magical or conservative and populist or distributive tendencies both compete in the encyclopaedic impulse. It is illuminating to look at names, often metaphorical, that encyclopaedias may take or have taken in different cultures; these tend to reflect the opposing impulses, magical and social, noted above.

There is the term "reference work," which assumes the communication of ideas, grounding this process in the material support of the book, a 4 9 social product. Other cultures have played with terms such as "book - 38 -of categories" Chinese and "tree of knowledge" India. Other terms include a "key to knowledge" Islam and a "necklace" Islam , a circle of treasures. The "c i r c l e " in the term "encyclopaedia" joins the above metaphors; one must also include a notion of a "thirst" or desire for knowledge, a notion engendering such aquatic metaphors as a "fountain of words," an "ocean of jade," an 54 "ocean of words" a l l Chinese.

Tree, book, key, necklace, treasure, c i r c l e , mirror, ocean: a l l are concrete words figuring, in different ways, the disposition of knowledge in the book, the relation of the work to its object. The relation is one of desire—or, in the metaphor, "thirst"—with the qualification that such thirst is self-engendering and endless.

This is the "magical" drive for arcane knowledge and power, a drive that conflicts with the encyclopaedia's communicative function. There are two general ways in which the encyclopaedia can arrange i t s material. These are the alphabetic and the systematic orders. Both orders work under a common assumption: that one is aiming at a comprehensive account of a l l that is known, that one can indeed provide such an account. Within this totalizing framework, the two orders are quite dis t i n c t , and presuppose different world-views and historical conditions.


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Systematic arrangement used, for example, in the Encyclopedie de l a Pleiade is that in which the areas of knowledge are - 39 -presented according to their "natural" logic, divided up into chapters and sub-chapters; each area is intended to be read in it s entirety. There is a strong sense of a whole behind the parts: this discourages any desire, on the reader's part, for quick reference.

The alphabetic order used, for example, in the Britannica i s , on the other hand, allied with empirical theories of knowledge; this is why i t has come to the fore only relatively recently. Unlike the systematic order, i t does not presuppose closed or previously-given systems of knowledge. Each object of knowledge is to be attended to separately, and is important in it s own right; one can thus "look up" such an object to the exclusion of a l l others.


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In alphabetic ordering, one finds the most bizarre, non-systematic juxtapositions of objects or entries. The two encyclopaedic formats thus presuppose different conceptions of the nature of knowledge, although both assume, i t would seem, the possibility of attaining to i t to some degree.

The systematic arrangement, in progressing confidently through categories of knowledge, structures assumed to be given as such, obviously does not question the possibility of knowledge i t s e l f. The alphabetic format does not question the possibility of knowledge either: i t posits the existence - 40 -of a body of knowledge, or at least of an array of individual objects of knowledge, on which i t can draw for its individual articles or entries.

There might seem to be other possible arrangements of knowledge, such as the tree of memory-reason-imagination placed at the head of the Encyclopedic of Diderot; these do not dislodge the two major orders from their primacy. The Encyclopedie s t i l l follows the alphabetic order. Whatever the principle of order used, a body of knowledge is assumed to exist, which requires such ordering for i t s communication.

No one s ft format is inherently superior to the others. There are two kinds of authorship possible in an encyclopaedia: the book s may be the work of a single person, or they may have joint or communal authorship. These may ally themselves with the two principles of order, discussed above—over history, at least, i f not at the present time. A single author may write an encyclopaedia when the available body of knowledge is compact enough to be digested, ordered and transmitted by one scholar.

A single encyclopaedist, that i s , is more common in times, such as the Middle Ages, when the body of available knowledge is limited and submitted to an overriding usually theological order. This type of authorship is also possible in encyclopaedias dealing with only one, narrow segment of the total ci r c l e of arts and sciences.

Knowledge capable of being gathered and ordered by one author is also more lik e l y to be conceived of as a whole; that i s , i t is more likely to be set out in a systematic fashion, i t s areas being arranged from their general traits to their particulars, from one limit to the other. We should caution, however, that this correlation - 41 -between single authorship and systematic arrangement does not always hold, especially at the present time the Encyclopedic de la Pleiade is a case in point.