The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 18 Feb 2006

On the prolixity of Baroque authors
As readers of my blog know, I have lately been reading scientific and philosophical works of Robert Hooke, the diary of Samuel Pepys, and various essays by John Wilkins, all written during the 17th century. I've also been reading various works of Sir Thomas Browne, also from around the same time; I'm not sure how I've avoided mentioning him so far. (Had I been writing the blog back in December, Browne would have been all over it. I'm sure he will appear here sooner or later.)

As any reader of Gulliver's Travels (another contemporaneous book) will know, the literary style of the time was verbose. The writers had plenty to say, and they said it, with plenty of subordinate clauses, itemization of examples, parallel constructions, allusions to and quotations (sometimes in Latin and Greek) from previous authors, digression, intermediate discussion, parenthetical remarks, and other such. For example, here is a sentence I chose at random from Wilkins' essay That the Earth May Be a Planet:

The reason why that motion which is caused by the earth does appear as if it were in the heavens, is, because the sensus communit in judging of it, does conceive the eye to be itself immoveable (as was said before) there being no sense that does discern the effects of any motion in the body; and therefore it does conclude every thing to move, which it does perceive to change its distance from it: so that the clouds do not seem to move sometimes, when as notwithstanding they are everywhere carried about with our earth, by such a swift revolution; yet this can be no hindrance at all, why we may not judge aright of their other particular motions, for which there is not the same reason.

There is a reason why this style is called "Baroque".

Baroque writing suits me just fine. The sentences are long, but always clear, if read with care and attention, and I like being required to read with care and attention. I'm good at it, and most modern writing does not offer the reader much repayment for that talent.

The long discussions full of allusion and quotation make me feel as though I'm part of a community of learned scholars, engaged in a careful and centuries-long analysis of the universe and Man's place in it. That's something I've always wanted, something I think we don't have much of today. In these authors I've at last begun to find it. When Wilkins mentions something that Vossius said on some topic, it doesn't bother me that I've never heard of Vossius. I feel that Wilkins is paying me a compliment by assuming that I will know who he's talking about, and that I might even recognize the quotation, or that even if I don't I will want to find out.

These authors do not patronize the reader or try to amuse him with cheap tricks. They assume that the reader wants to think, and that to be instructed is to be entertained.

But as usual I have wandered from the main point, which is to present a couple of contrasts to the usual 17th-century verbosity.

One is from Robert Hooke, in a review he wrote about John Dee's Book of Spirits. Dee was a mathematician, scholar, and occultist of the previous century. Hooke starts by saying:

Having lately met a book, which . . . I never had the Curiosity to examine further into, than upon opening here and there to read some few Lines, which seeming for the most very extravagant, I neglected any further Inquiry into it. . .

Hooke says he eventually decided to read it and see how it was:

Nor was I frighted from this my Purpose, either by the six pretended Conjurers prefixt to the Title. . .; nor by the Title, viz. A true and full Relation of what passed for many Years between Dr. John Dee (a Mathematician of great Fame in Queen Elizabeth and King James, their Reigns) and some spirits, tending (had it succeeded) to a General Alteration of most States and Kingdoms in the World, &c. . . . No, nor thirdly the long and frighting Preface of the Publisher. . .

Even Hooke was put off by the long and extravagant title and the "long and frighting Preface". That must have been some preface!

Another contrast is provided by Wilkins again. He is discussing the same point as the sentence I quoted above: what would be the observable effects of the rotation of the earth. In particular, the current point is whether a spinning earth would cause tall buildings to fall down, I suppose because their bottoms would be swept away by the earth while the tops stayed in place. (Yes, Wilkins provides a reference to someone who thinks this.) Wilkins answers at some length:

The motion of the earth is always equal and like itself; not by starts and fits. If a glass of beer may stand firmly enough in a ship, when it moves swiftly upon a smooth stream, much less then will the motion of the earth, which is more natural, an so consequently more equal, cause any danger unto those buildings that are erected upon it.

But then he quotes another writer's dissenting view:

But supposing (saith Rosse) that this motion were natural to the earth, yet it is not natural to towns and buildings, for these are artificial.

Wilkins' response to this is not at all what I expected. Here it is, complete:

To which I answer: ha, ha, he.

Finally, I'm going to add that of all the books I've ever read, the one with the longest and most baroque title was a work on extremal graph theory, published in 1985:

Graphical evolution: An introduction to the theory of random graphs, wherein the most relevant probability models for graphs are described together with certain threshold functions which facilitate the careful study of the structure of a graph as it grows and specifically reveal the mysterious circumstances surrounding the abrupt appearance of the unique giant component which systematically absorbs its neighbors, devouring the larger first and ruthlessly continuing until the last isolated vertices have been swallowed up, whereupon the giant is suddenly brought under control by a spanning cycle. The text is laced with challenging exercises especially designed to instruct, and its accompanied by an appendix stuffed with useful formulas that everyone should know.

The rest of the book is similarly eccentric, including, for example, a footnote pointing out that fish do not obey the Poisson distribution.

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