July 23, 2007

from unpublished book, The Apocrypha of William O’Shaunessy

Book II, XVI

In the settlements along the Chersonese straits they have a scarcity of all medicinal herbs, the soil being poor as much of its power is drained by enormous trees. Instead they rely on jumblewords (wordjumble) to cure all manner of illness. Far from being an idle superstition the practice is both highly efficacious and based on the soundest principles. When language continues along its smooth well-worn path we remain in the same state, whether for good or ill, the body accumulating those destructive habits and contaminated airs that soon manifest themselves as stomach cramps, painful bones, the blight that eats into the eye or other forms of illness. By breaking up that well-worn path, by putting kinks and twists to spoken words, the mouth learning babble frees the spirit within a person. For words, the ancients say, are the backbone of the mind. Cracking words open, reassembling them in new combinations, the mind gains rest and so cures itself and the body. The practice strongly resembles what happens spontaneously on the edges and furthest shores of sleep. Hippocrates himself discusses the efficacious nature of such wordsplicing and wordfusion within half-dreaming states in the third volume of his dissertation on the alternatives to surgery. He records the example of one Menandron of Corinth who, suffering from a painful swelling of the forehead, had requested the removal of his brain to alleviate the torment. From inquiries among neighbours Hippocrates learned the illness had set in shortly after the death of his son, killed through the violence of a playmate. Suspecting the means to cure the illness lay within the power of language, could it only be induced to shatter itself, to remake itself at the precise point when waking gives way to sleep and the soul slides most easily between its several lives, Hippocrates placed Menandron in a dream-like state. There words broke effortlessly from his lips in a babble of drowning sounds. Menandron found himself swimming among reeds, drawn onwards by a yellow flower of the brightest radiance. Reaching inside the flower a word came to him "allodendronhamratia spreuge". With difficulty he seized the word bearing it with him back into his conscious life. On waking he pronounced the word once, then left the doctor’s residence as one intent on a mission, firmly believing he must complete his task before the death which he assumed was imminent. He began organising a petition to ban all gladiatorial games throughout his city - for the common practice of bringing small children to watch the games had led to the corruption of the other boy's mind and so to the death of his own son. (Frequently parents so lusted to watch the blood sports they considered leaving their children elsewhere too troublesome to arrange.) In his enthusiasm to ban the vile Roman, or as they assert Etruscan, practise, Menandron forgot his own condition and within a month the swelling had disappeared. Although the popular clamour for the game proved undefeatable, Menandron did succeed in having the ban on the presence of young children enforced.


According to a tradition preserved among the Carian women, the name "poetry" (poesis, poemata) derives from this practise of deliberately making curative words. The rhythmic nature of these fractured or recombined words gave rise to the notion of the poetic line. A person who made such wordjumbles became known as a "poeta" as opposed to a "rhetor" or "aidos", both of which words highlight the sung nature of extended lyrics. In poetry the curative power was held to lie in the word itself, rather than the melody to which the words might or might not be sung. The respect given to poets, then, was in its origins an extension of the respect given to doctors and healers.

(from Theophrastus, “Compendium of poetic practices”)

—Peter Boyle

Posted by dwaber at July 23, 2007 11:45 AM