Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, February 17, 2017

Building 5: cunning works

Let us reflect further on the call and assignment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur in Exodus 31: We are told that he will “devise artistic designs,” “devise plans,” or, in the irresistible formulation of King James’s translators, “devise cunning works.”

Josipovici again:

The Hebrew phrase for ‘to devise cunning works’ is lachshov machashavot, and the word chosev can have both a good and a bad meaning depending on the person involved…. Joseph says to his brothers ve’atem chashavtem ‘alai ra‘ah, ‘But as for you, ye thought evil against me’ (Gen.50:30). However, where craftsmanship is concerned the word clearly has positive overtones. ‘To make makings’ or ‘to encunning cunningnesses’ might catch the sense of ancient craftsmanship, so often conveyed in Greek by the Homeric word poikilos, which means both ‘dappled’ and ‘cunningly wrought’, and in Latin by the Lucretian word daedulus, which means ‘artificial’, ‘adorned’, but also ‘variegated’. (p. 105)

Josipovici wants the verb and object doubled because the same root (look for the ch) appears in both: thus his suggested “to make makings” or, I might say, “to design designs” — preferable, I think, because the word so often denotes planning or devising.

In any event, the really interesting thing here is the strongly opposing valences of such devising. The only other place in the Hebrew Bible where lachshov appears is Proverbs 16:30, where we are told that “One who winks the eyes plans perverse things,” or — and here again is the greater liveliness, though possibly also the lesser accuracy, of the KJV — “He shutteth his eyes to devise froward things.” Things need to be planned out, carefully devised, because they are complicated, and complication suggests, at one and the same time, deviousness and creativity. Thus the widespread feeling that highly elaborated works, baroque or rococo styles, are somehow less honest and trustworthy than simpler, more direct, less meticulously crafted design or utterance (a sense that the current American political situation ought to call into question).

Thus also the gradual pejoration of “cunning,” a word that, being ancestrally related to the German kennen, meaning simply to know, used to have a far wider range of shades and tones. (“Ken” is common in Scots English — Ken ye not that? — and has a bare survival elsewhere in “beyond our ken,” beyond our knowledge.) Bezalel’s commission to “devise cunning works” is not the only example of that earlier range: in his rendering of 1 Corinthians 2:13, Tyndale has Paul refer to “thinges also we speake, not in the connynge wordes of mannes wysdome, but with the connynge wordes of the holy goost.” King James’s translators ditched that phraseology for something that sounds to us more modern — “things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth” — but not because the word “cunning” had by then completely altered. Indeed, in Shakespeare it is largely used simply to describe those who possess a certain body of knowledge — in Taming of the Shrew we hear of men “cunning in music and the mathematics” and “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” — but occasionally in a strongly positive sense, as in a lovely moment in Twelfth Night when Viola speaks of Olivia’s face, “whose red and white / Nature's own sweet and cunning hand laid on.” (Mercy, what a line that is.) And when Prince Hal, playing the role of his father, asks of Falstaff “Wherein [art thou] cunning, but in craft?” the implication is that “cunning” is a more positive, or at least more neutral, term than “craft,” which seems here to mean something like deviousness — and this in turn brings us back to devising. The whole constellation of terms gradually but inexorably falls under darker and darker clouds.

(This would be an excellent moment to tear off on a long digression about the “cunning folk” — Shakespeare’s characters refer to cunning men and cunning women — that would probably lead to an even more fanciful improvised cadenza on Robertson Davies’s last novel, The Cunning Man, which constitutes a partial and ambiguous rehabilitation of the term … but I am going to restrain myself. For now.)

What I want to suggest here is that Jews and Christians may have good theological reasons to suspect such devices. Here again Josipovici comes to our aid, via his clever linkage of choshev and daedulus, the latter of which, of course, provides the name for the legendary first artist, the deviser of, among other things, the labyrinth of the Minotaur on Crete. One could spend some time listing the cunning works attributed to Daedalus, but I am especially interested in the kind of object named for him, the daidala, and especially one subset of the daidalai, the agalmata, statues of the gods with moving limbs and eyes that opened and closed. Socrates refers to these in at least two of Plato’s dialogues, the Meno and the Euthyphro, and while he jokes about them, they seem to have freaked many people out — as did, a couple of millennia later, the automata that so fascinated Europeans from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment. (As I have mentioned earlier, in a post with strong thematic links to this one, Jessica Riskin writes about those automata in her brilliant book The Restless Clock.)

“Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth,” says Sir Philip Sidney, but there is the suspicion that Daedalus makes things that lie, for instance, mechanical gods who actually might be gods — you can never tell, given the Olympians’ habit of assuming disguises. And in general the more cleverly designed automata occupy that uncanny valley wherein we lose our ability to navigate the world of appearances so as to distinguish true from false, original from copy. (Cue Platonic concerns about mimesis, which will always haunt discussions of artful making.) Consider also, in this light, the most disturbing of Daedalus’s daidalai, the enormous cow he makes for Pasiphaë to climb into so she can present her vagina to the bull for whom she lusts. Not being a god, Daedalus cannot transform Pasiphaë into a cow — but he can, through cunning, do the next best thing. Surely this is “devising a froward thing.”

What results from this art-enabled union is the Minotaur, which Daedalus then must use yet more cunning to contain, by making the great labyrinth from which even he barely escapes. I am perhaps getting carried away with this whole linguistic/etymological thing — I’ve been spending too much time around Adam Roberts — but I can't help noting that the Minotaur is a monster, from the Latin monstrum, which means a sign or revelation, something revealed — usually something terrible. And among the revelations here is that of devising/cunning/designing gone awry, gone awry because it has lost sight of legitimate human ends, and of legitimate means to ends.

Thinking of the cow made by Daedalus we should also remember the Golden Calf made by Aaron: each is a human-imagined, human-designed, human-made artifact that when deployed produces monsters. Those who worship and make sacrifices to objects they have made are as bereft of reason as a woman who offers herself sexually to a bull. Pasiphaë's madness is imposed on her, whereas that of the Israelites seems to be self-imposed, though no adequate explanation is provided: they simply decide to make and worship some new “gods to go before us” when Moses doesn't come down from the mountain when they think he should. But in any case, Pasiphaë and the Israelites alike have become the helpless thralls of disordered desires. They have in a sense become the mere instruments of their desires, they are what Ruskin called “animate tools.” And what they crave is made objects, technologies, cunningly designed to fulfill those desires, thereby extending and strengthening the chain of instrumentality. Whatever enables the fulfillment of those desires they (either implicitly or explicitly) worship.

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