Wednesday 7 February 2018

Review: Something New by Automathes

Did you know that Oxfam sell antiquarian books online? …I didn’t, until early January when I was alerted to an up to 75% off sale. My attention was grabbed by a collection of essays by ‘Automathes’, published in 1762 and called ‘Something Different’. 

And it is. It’s also a little peculiar.

To mix things up further, it turned out I only bought the second of two volumes. 

The first essay (or essay XXXIV) is titled ‘The Wager’ In this short essay, the author talks about a 100 guinea bet he has with an academic friend of his. This friend suggests that all thought happens in chains and that it is impossible to write a series of essays in which each piece really does deal with something different’ to the previous and next. Our anonymous author has no problem committing to the bet, as 100 guineas is likely to be more money then he will make in ‘all my authoring’ as writing is not ‘worth the printing’. I will periodically return to this wager and assess how he has done. (He also reveals that he is 55 years old… maybe we can build a picture of him as we continue.) 

The second essay (essay XXXV) is called Ifmamijasond. The essay is a paragraph long, asks us to ‘exercise your wits’ on this nonsense word and proudly declares that it has nothing to do with the previous essay and so is on the way to winning the wager - except that it mentions the wager, and so is inspired by it.

The next few essays are more conventional than Ifmamijasond. There’s one laughing at stoics for stifling their emotions and natural goodness. The next a general French-bashing trip to Amiens which involves a bit of catholic-baiting, describing an argument between Amiens and a church in Rome who both have a genuine John the Baptist skull and have been ‘shaking heads’ at each other. This leads on to a religious essay where a woman tries to get a parrot into heaven by teaching it the Lord’s prayer, Nicene creed and the articles on the Church of England - but it chokes to death on the 12th article about ‘good works’.

The next essay (XXXIX) is called ‘Indiana continued’ and has a subtitle referring me back to essay XXVI - which I don’t have. It seems a little like the adventures of Lien Chi Altangi’s son in Goldsmith’s ‘Citizen of the World’ essays. Indiana is the daughter of a Muslim nobleman from India who converted to Catholicism, then protestantism and moved to England. Here she grew up following English customs and falling in love with an English Lord but was sent back to India when her father dies. Later, in ‘Indiana concluded’ (XLVIII) she is forced into the Indian King’s harem, which causes her to cry, press the narrator to ‘her soft, warm and panting bosom’, which wakes him - in what state I daren’t guess. Perhaps we found out the story was a dream in earlier instalments. The following essay is on dreams - this wager is not going well.

One of the strangest parts of the book is a loose series of essays (XLII, LI, LII, LIV and LV) that deal with a strange power. The first of these essays is ostensibly a book review for an anonymous book titled ‘The Posthumous Works of a Late Celebrated Genius, Deceased’ - a title which deserves the ‘no-shit Sherlock’ award for telling us the author is dead three times in nine words. It’s heavily suggested that the late, deceased genius who has left posthumous works is Laurence Sterne, which greatly upsets our author as there is a small mention in it of the existence of a whole new kind of bodily pleasure - which he will never find the answer to.

After a little research, our author discovers the writer of the book not to be the dead Sterne but a living person known as Tri-Juncta. Over the next few essays, Tri-Juncta says how he is able to control the ‘liquid’ which carries nerve signals to create physical pleasure in himself through the force of will. We also learn that he has the ability to kill people with his mind and to sleep at will. Our author discusses the moral possibilities if these skills could be taught and scoffs at those who don’t believe in such powers by citing prodigies such as the piano playing child genius from Salzburg, Theodore Mozart (better known today as Amadeus).

These Tri-Juncta parts are particularly puzzling and reveal one of the hardest elements of the book to understand. I can’t properly judge the tone. Are these essays (and scientific ones such as XL, XLI, XLV, XLVII) supposed to be serious? In XLI, about ‘un-natural’ science, he mentions the mill that grinds old people young. Kit Smart’s alter ego, Mary Midnight talks about this same mill and stretches it into absurd degrees - but Automathes seems to take it seriously.
There’s a whole chapter that includes diagrams and logical chains that tries to prove a mathematical point. I don’t know enough about eighteenth century geometry to understand if it’s a parody - I have the notion it is, but I can’t tell for sure.

In terms of religion, there is an essay (LVII) which includes the phrase, ‘man created God in his own image’ and wallows in a number of pan-religious, pantheistic quotes. It would seem clear that these quotes are mainly included to encourage the readers to laugh at and that the writer of this book is a standard Anglican. That said, there’s the jab at the parrot being choked by the 39 articles. (EDIT: Though, in retrospect, I suppose a parrot in a cage is incapable of good works, so might have choked on that article for that reason.)

We find out a little more about our author. There is a concluding part (XLIII) of a series of personal essays. It says very little. We learn that Automathes used to be a bit of a hustler but because none of his projects came to fruition, he now finds he relaxes more. We find out more in essay LVIII ’On confidence’. In this he says how he feels himself naturally jolly, that he appreciates the little he has in his life, that he was a wife he loves. He also states his ambition in life, which has to be one of the best ever. “I am obstinately resolved, some hundred years hence, to die in the first bloom of my beauty, and the very flower of youth.” 

The book ends with four essays detailing his funeral, elegy and sheet music for the dirge to be played at his funeral - again, these are themed. Although the book was, in itself, ‘Something New’, each essay does link in some way to the pre, and pro-ceeding one. He’d have lost his wager, which is a shame.

The shortness of the essays and the way the author refers to previous chapters would suggest that these were not magazine articles collected into books like ‘The Rambler’, ‘Midwife’ or ‘Citizen of the World’ but written as a whole book throughout.

Oh and Ifmamijasond, it’s a childhood pneumonic about the months of the year. The ‘i’s are ‘j’s, thanks to Latin making them easy to swap for each other. He also includes the classic trick of counting on the hand to remember which have 30 and which 31 days - it also includes a handy, dandy woodcut of a hand. 

I had enormous fun being catapulted into this odd book of seeming in-jokes with no apparatus to help. I want to do it again some day.

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