Monday, July 07, 2008

De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia

Last night, I was visited at my bedside by a fairy.

"What do you want of me, fairy?" I asked.

"I am not a fairy!" he exclaimed, "I am 16th-century Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam!"

"But you look like a fairy."

He smiled. "It may seem flamboyant to your postmodern eyes, but this is how humanists dressed in mainstream Holland back in 1512."

"Well," I said, reaching for my cigarettes on the nightstand, "at least it's better than yellow stars."

"That is true," said Erasmus, "You've heard of the yellow stars. I take it you are Jewish?"

"Not really," I said, striking a match, "but I'm a friend of the Jews." I motioned to a chair at the foot of the bed, "Have a seat, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam."

"Please," he smiled, "Erasmus is fine."

"Erasmus, you say?" I exhaled thoughtfully, "You know, I've actually read some of your stuff."

"Oh, really?" he clapped his hands excitedly, "Which? Tell! Tell!"

"In Praise of Folly."

What did you think?"

I poured some warm Arizona strawberry/kiwi juice from a can into a pair of glass tumblers and handed him the less dirty of the two, "I liked it. Although I'm a much bigger fan of Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style."

He sighed, "De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia."

I smiled at his Dutch-accented Latin, "You probably get that all the time."

He took a drink, "Copia was my big hit. The 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' of Renaissance-era rhetoric."

"And well-deserving of its status, if I might add." Then I paused, suddenly confused. Erasmus looked discontent. He wasn't at all like his painting. Out of place--even by normal time-travel standards. I tried to crack his troubled exterior. "Say, Erasmus, what brings you to modern-day Queens?"

He stood up and shuffled to the window, peering out into the pre-dawn blackness. "I'm bored."

"You? Bored? With all your words, all your rhetorical skills?" I was astonished. How could the inventor of the 'abundant style' be bored? Was this the same man who had said in 1512:

"If in these circumstances we find ourselves destitute of verbal riches and hesitate, or keep singing out the same old phrase like a cuckoo, and are unable to clothe our thought in other colors or other forms, we shall look ridiculous when we show ourselves to be so tongue-tied, and we shall also bore our wretched audience to death."?

Just then, I thought of Chapter 33 of the Copia in which Erasmus offered the reader 195 different ways to say "Your letter pleased me greatly."

An idea occured to me, "Can't you entertain yourself by inventing manifold ways to say the same thing, just as you advised your readers to do in the Copia?"
I suggested.

"I could if I still lived here on earth," he said, setting his tumbler down on the windowsill, "but in Heaven, we don't really say anything, so there's nothing to restate in different ways. Not only is there no variation in speech, but there's no
need for variation in speech. That's how God likes it. He runs a tight ship."

"Well, that's something exciting. You got to go to Heaven at least."

"Unfortunately," he sighed. In the silvery moonlight, I noticed a tear streaking his left cheek.

"Jesus, Erasmus. You sound disillusioned. I thought Heaven was a
good thing."

"I thought it would be, too. That's why I became a theologian and a Christian humanist." He motioned for a cigarette from my pack and I handed him one along with the book of matches. He continued, "But they don't say
anything up there! It's all 'Praise Him!' or 'Glory Be!' or"Look, here comes God!'"

"Oh, I'm sure you could find a way to augment those trite sayings and share your gift of the abundant style with the denizens of Heaven."

"Don't you fucking get it?" he shouted, punching his fist against the wall, "God
hates linguistic ornamentation! He thinks excessive wording obfuscates His praise!"

I didn't know what to say. I had never been to Heaven before. Both the Old Testament and Nietzche had claimed that God was vindictive and narcissistic, but I hadn't known His attitude towards ornamentation of speech until now. "Wow. I didn't think He'd be
that demanding."

"'Praise Him'! That's all He wants to hear, all fucking day! Nothing but those three things: 'Praise Him!', 'Glory Be!', and 'Look, here comes God!'" With shaking hands, Erasmus finally lit his cigarette, "And God forbid if you should offer any sort of eloquent rewording like 'To Him direct your praise!' or 'Let a state of glory exist among us' or 'I spy Deity coming this way!'" He steadied himself, took a deep breath and walked over to the bookshelf, pulling out my dog-eared copy of
The Complete Works of William Blake. "You like Blake?" he asked.

Fuck yeah," I said, "You can borrow that if you want."

Blake hates it up there, too." said Erasmus. "God's pissed at him for redefining Christ as the human imagination and the Devil as earthly limitations."

"Wow, Erasmus. You make Heaven sound like Hell."

"It is! That's exactly what it is! I mean, what the fuck was the point of writing the goddamned
Copia in the first place? I only wrote that fucking thing to praise Him! To thank Him for the fucking gift of language! Well, I say, fuck Him!"

A flash of early morning lightning filled the room followed by a crack of thunder that filled my ears. "You shouldn't say things like that, Erasmus."

"Why the fuck not?"

Suddenly, a banging was heard underneath the floorboards. The muslim landlady's muffled voice came through, "What is please there doing in late night with loud!!!"

"I'm talking to Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam!!!!" I shouted back.

"Infidel!" she screamed.

"Heathen!" I screamed back--effectively silencing her in the process. I looked up at Erasmus, "Hey man, you ever run into John Milton up there?"

"Oh, he didn't make it."

"Really? What about
Paradise Lost?"

Erasmus laughed and exhaled gray smoke through his nose, "Yeah, he's in Hell, all right. God was pissed at all that embellishment of Satan's character. He thought John gave short shrift to Christ."

"Jesus," I sighed.

"Yeah, that's the one.
Jesus Christ."

"So Erasmus," I said, "when do you have to get back?"

Erasmus put Blake carefully back into its slot on the shelf, "I should try to make it back by sunrise. God's coming home tomorrow afternoon from a campaign stop in Montana. I have to be there bright and early to say 'Praise Him!', 'Glory Be!' or 'Look, here comes God!'"

"Well, if you're looking to kill time, I'd be up for a little linguistic ornamentation."

He smiled, "You
really like ornamentation?"

"Fuck yeah," I said, "that's what Joyce was all about.
And Monty Python."

"The 'Dead Parrot'," he agreed, chuckling softly, "Yeah, I've often wondered where they got the idea for all that thesaurus humour."

"Look in the mirror," I smiled, "It's you, my friend." I leaped out of bed excitedly, "So what do you think? Let's come up with a bunch of different ways to say the same thing!"

"Shouldn't you try to get some sleep?"

"I'm fine. I just need to be at St. Vincent's hospital by noon so I can see my shrink."

"All right," said Erasmus, "what sentence should we ornament?"

"Well I was watching
Scenes From a Marriage earlier."

"The Bergman film?"

"Yeah. And every time I see a Bergman film, with those really tight close-ups and profile shots, I always think the same thing:
More than any other director, Bergman demanded the best from his actors."

"Okay!" said Erasmus, clapping his hands together again, "Let's get to it. You go first."

1. More than any other director, Bergman demanded the best from his actors.
2. Of all the directors who have ever directed, Bergman demanded the best from his actors.
3. Actors in Bergman's films, more so than in the films of other directors, had the best demanded of them.
4. Bergman, more than any other director, demanded from his actors the best.
5. Ingmar Bergman, the director, demanded from his actors the best, as opposed to other directors.
6. The best was demanded from Ingmar Bergman's actors, more than actors working with other directors.
7. The opposite of the worst was demanded from Ingmar Bergman's actors, unlike the actors in films directed by other directors.
8. Ingmar Bergman insisted on the best from his actors more than any other director.
9. Bergman, Ingmar: Director who insisted on the best from his actors more than any other director.
10. Demands of bestness were placed upon actors by Bergman, the director who differed from other directors in this regard.

If you'd like to join Erasmus and Will, send your own rewording of the statement "More than any other director, Bergman demanded the best from his actors" to

One week from today, on July 14th, all suggestions, no matter how nutty, will be posted on this blog with credit going to each individual author. This is all part of Erasmus Awareness Week. Take part in this historic event.