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Lo and Behold!

Periodical enquiries, facts, and problems regarding antiquarianism, the history of science, etymology, palæography, and other sublunary affairs.

Things Altogether Sublunary

To find the title of The Idler, Dr. Johnson idled. To find the title of Lo and Behold! was a similar proposition. Somehow I stumbled upon the fact that William Whewell coined the word ‘scientist’ in 1833, leading me to review his work on induction derived from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. Later, when I came to think of a title for the work in which to encapsulate the day’s meanderings, I thought about Novum Organum and by free association Charles Fort’s New Lands. That was merely a stepping stone to Fort’s Lo!, which in turn led to that excellent song ycleped: Lo and Behold!

Other titles considered in the interim include Planetomachia, Pheldifares and Ganymedes, Mobled Words, Scrippage, The Rheumatick Planet, Corrigenda Sublunariensis, and Tally Ho! The two mentions of ‘planet’, and one of ‘sublunary’, divulge the fact that this series of periodical essays is a successor to the earlier What Planet is This?, a series of essays at first on no particular subject but eventually honed towards what might be considered a kind of contemporary antiquarianism, often appearing somewhat like an informal one-man version of the Oxford journal Notes and Queries.

The gross and scope, if you’ll forgive the shamelessly borrowed hendiasys, of Lo and Behold! is very similar, as is apparent from the current subtitle, “periodical enquiries, facts, and problems regarding antiquarianism, the history of science, historiology, palæography, and other sublunary affairs”. The method involved is an evolution of the amateur tradition, which is to assay as much as essay.

Another important guiding principle is the idea of vectors over resultants. Exciting and productive figures—Elizajacobean playwrights like Thomas Nashe, impressionists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and suffragettes like Emily Wilding Davison, for example—were often powered by their bustling, bemuddlefraught times. So we should study the milieux that they contributed to as much as the contributing individuals themselves. This helps to remind us that the process of essay and discovery too is dependent on context, the results being snapshots of a dynamic process. Results mustn’t belie their vectors, because vectors often turn out to be the most valuable aspects.

Beyond that, Lo and Behold! requires little overschematisation. The proper place for a preface is, anyway, in the middle. As I wrote in a previous essay, many books “have three or so prefaces, one for each new edition that comes out, describing the current state of the work, the motivations behind it, and so on. They’re supplementary materials, and yet they’re always jammed in at the front of the book to help explain it beforehand, which is a little phony, like giving away a plot before a mystery novel.”

Given the homage in style and even leitmotif to 18th and 19th century folk of means and letters, it’s happily coincidental that the earliest use of the phrase “Lo and Behold!” itself that I can find is from an a1770 letter with the author’s name dashed out, published in Select Letters (1778) by Hull: “here I was sat down, full of Love and Respect, to write my dearest Friend a dutiful and loving Letter, when lo, and behold! I was made happy by the Receipt of yours”. But the juxtaposition of the words goes back to at least Shakespeare, in A Lover’s Complaint: “And Lo behold these tallents of their heir / With twisted mettle amorously empleacht”. Only a few writers since Shaksepeare, including Herrick and Tennyson, have since impleached (i.e., woven or entwined) the word ‘impleach’ into their works.

The choice of æsthetic style for this work, on the other hand, reaches back past even the Elizabethans. The current decor at the top of the online version is by Albrecht Dürer, from his engraving of the eighth century astronomer and astrologer Masha’allah ibn Atharī for the frontispiece to a 1504 translation of Mashallah’s work into Latin entitled De scientia motus orbis. For the printed version, the malleable plan is to publish Lo and Behold! online chronologically as written, and then bind it according to the seasons in quarterly issues, to themselves be bound into perhaps yearly volumes depending on the overall size.

External submissions are welcome, but it’s most likely that the work will in full or almost in full consist of only one author. No matter; The Idler, to stick to example, had only a dozen essays not by Dr. Johnson, and yet his second essay was a complaint that he had been an author for a whole week without a single submission. “I solicit only the contributions of those who have already devoted themselves to literature, or, without any determinate intention, wander at large through the expanse of life, and wear out the day in hearing at one place what they utter at another.”

The title of this introductory piece is taken from the second volume of a work entitled There and Back Again in Search of Beauty (1853), by James Augustus St. John; its preferatory quote is one that I know well, from Hudibras. The OED says that the word ‘sublunary’ was coined by either Robert Greene or Henry Chettle, in the preface to the Groatsworth of Wit (1592) that contains a famous swipe at Shakespeare. But it’s wrong: the word only appears in a 1617 epistle dedicatory to that work, signed “I.H.” (John Hind? Jasper Heywood?). The OED’s second oldest quote is by Purchas from 1613, but I’ve found an older one from the same year as Shakespeare’s Sonnets: “he is eliuated into the third heauen when hee dreameth of her, and will admit no sublunarie resemblances in his comparisons concerning her”, by W.M. in The Man in the Moone (1609), p.39. I’ve submitted this information to the OED.

As if further indication of what’ll be investigated here is needed, some topics being considered for upcoming elucidation include: ascertaining the seasons, the hedge accentor, dark auroræ, the færy æsthetic, pseudoscientific metrology, the skies over Chassigny, and the provenance of a fact regarding the Calendrier Républicain. In other words, astra, reges, et ignes fatui; whilst there are stars in the skies, a monarch on the throne, and wisps in the fens, there’s always something that needs to be written about!

by Sean B. Palmer, 2007-03-31

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© 2007 Sean B. Palmer, inamidst.com