the definite connection that exists
between ravishing meaning from her and
Nicole Brossard Daydream Mechanics translated by Larry Shouldice
Northrop Frye in the preface to The Well-Tempered Critic (1963) writes that the lectures “are intended to fit inside one another, like the boxes of Silenus” . Frye references** Silenus in a review of Robert Graves’s collected poetry (Hudson Review vol. 9 no. 2 Summer 1956) but the Graves poem “Warning to Children” that Frye points towards although constructed in a most marvellous mise en abyme does not mention Sileni of any sort nor play on the inside-outside associations of Sileni boxes. Frye’s reading characterizes the link between imbrication and the Sileni as a theme. The association of Sileni boxes and nesting appears throughout Frye’s career. It is also found in one of the notebooks from the early 1970s where Frye remarks “Also Egyptian is the boxes-of-Silenus mummy cases, of one inside another: Rabelais.”*
But there is no mention of nesting in Rabelais (Preface to Gargantua). Nor in Erasmus. Nor in Plato. My quandary: where does Frye get the image of nesting boxes? What can account for the leap from a multiplicity of boxes to nesting?
I have also located another reference to nesting Sileni: in Charles L. Griswold, Jr. Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (1999) describing his own work with the figure of nesting Sileni: “my discussion here will resemble a series of Sileni, one nested inside the next.”
Andrew Ford in “Alcibiades’s Eikon of Socrates and the Platonic Text: Symp. 215a-222d” in Plato and the Power of Images (2017) has a pointed aside: “There is no archeological evidence for anything like the nested ‘Russian Dolls’ we may picture to ourselves.”
Frye’s figure of the nested Sileni is of course an instance of a model of text at work in generating readings. One that remains for me opaque: the origins of the connection between Sileni boxes and nesting remain a mystery.
* The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye (Collected Works 9) The “third book” notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964-1972 : the critical comedy edited by Michael Dolzani.
** Frye writes in his review of Graves “We notice that the central theme of a relatively early poem, ‘Warning to Children,’ is that of the boxes of Silenus, the image with which Rabelais begins.”
Frye repeatedly references Rabelais. Although one doesn’t find direct reference to nesting Sileni boxes, one does encounter in the Prologue to Gargantua the mention of onion, the peel to be exact, and from this emblematic vegetable might we assume the notion arose of layer upon layer upon layer?
[…] Just such another thing was Socrates. For to have eyed his outside, and esteemed of him by his exterior appearance, you would not have given the peel of an onion for him, so deformed he was in body, and ridiculous in his gesture. He had a sharp pointed nose, with the look of a bull, and countenance of a fool: he was in his carriage simple, boorish in his apparel, in fortune poor, unhappy in his wives, unfit for all offices in the commonwealth, always laughing, tippling, and merrily carousing to everyone, with continual gibes and jeers, the better by those means to conceal his divine knowledge. Now, opening this box you would have found within it a heavenly and inestimable drug, a more than human understanding, an admirable virtue, matchless learning, invincible courage, unimitable sobriety, certain contentment of mind, perfect assurance, and an incredible misregard of all that for which men commonly do so much watch, run, sail, fight, travel, toil and turmoil themselves.
François Rabelais translated by Thomas Urquart (our emphasis)
The proximate image of the onion lodged in memory and the subsequent application to Graves’s poem cemented the association that we find decades later in link between Egyptian sarcophagi and Sileni boxes. Further comment: “peel” gives rise to the notion of layer. The French “copeau d’oignon” is more like a sliver or shaving and less connected to the image of a layer as to a piece.
“Warning to Children”
Children, if you dare to think
Of the greatness, rareness, muchness,
Fewness of this precious only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this:
Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
Red and green, enclosing tawny
Yellow nets, enclosing white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where a neat brown paper parcel
Tempts you to untie the string.
In the parcel a small island,
On the island a large tree,
On the tree a husky fruit.
Strip the husk and pare the rind off:
In the kernel you will see
Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
Red and green, enclosed by tawny
Yellow nets, enclosed by white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where the same brown paper parcel—
Children, leave the string alone!
For who dares undo the parcel
Finds himself at once inside it,
On the island, in the fruit,
Blocks of slate about his head,
Finds himself enclosed by dappled
Green and red, enclosed by yellow
Tawny nets, enclosed by black
And white acres of dominoes,
With the same brown paper parcel
Still untied upon his knee.
And, if he then should dare to think
Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
Greatness of this endless only
Precious world in which he says
he lives — he then unties the string.
Notable not only for its nesting but also for the imperceptible (to the too quick reader) variations — those colours change positions… waiting for children like magic boxes.
And so for day 2418