Thursday, September 27, 2012


Galbungus and Co.

R.A. Stewart Macalister (1870-1950), The Secret Languages of Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), pp. 84-85 (on the works of Virgilius Maro Grammaticus):
The unknown writer, good easy man, did his best to make the absurd world realize that he was in jest. Like Socrates and his symposiasts in Plato's dialogues; like Mr Spectator with his Club; like Schumann with his portentous Davidsbündler; like Mrs Gamp with Mrs Harris and her family; like the excellent Sir Arthur Helps; he surrounded himself with an imaginary company of 'friends in council', whom we are to suppose working in harmony with him. To one of these airy fictions he gave the name 'Galbungus', which alone ought to have been enough to make the fortune of a humorist. These sages, it appears, had written marvellous books, the titles of which read like excerpts from the Academy Library Catalogue of Laputa: but not one of which has left the smallest trace behind, outside the casual references which our author makes to them. In the passage most frequently quoted, he shews us Galbungus and another colleague, Terrentianus [sic, read Terrentius], disputing day and night for a fortnight on the question whether the pronoun ego can have a vocative case. He affects a Latinity—or as he himself says, twelve different kinds of Latinity—never seen before on the earth, with all manner of spurious words and unheard-of grammatical forms. He discusses prosody, filling his illustrations with absurd false quantities. He teaches his readers how to make cryptograms which no human being could ever decipher, even though he knew the principle upon which they were constructed. He commends Cicero—another of his imaginary friends, not the orator—for inventing abbreviations equally impossible to comprehend. But to enumerate all his antics would involve a translation of the whole book.

It ought to have been obvious that the book is a parody, seasoned with bitterness. Galbungus and Co. are of one stuff with the Trissotins who haunt the salons of Les Femmes Savantes: indeed, the world lost much when Molière, who alone could have done it justice, passed from its ken without ever having had his attention drawn to the dispute upon the vocative of ego, and its dramatic possibilities. Like the schoolmen, 'Maro's' friends make their appeals to shaky 'authorities'. But, his joke missed fire: in vain did he call his fantastic phraseology 'pleasantries' (leporia): he shared the fate of Swift, to whom we have compared him. Swift wrote an appalling description of the travels of one Gulliver, whereby he sought to express his hatred of the world in which he found himself. The world took the book, tore out a few of the more lurid pages, and light-heartedly placed the incoherent remainder upon its nursery bookshelves, side by side with the whimsies of the blameless Lewis Carroll. The old scholar of the seventh century wrote a burlesque on the literary fads of his time. The world blinked owlishly over it—and solemnly accepted it as a serious textbook!
For a translation of the dispute on the vocative of ego, see Vivien Law, Wisdom, Authority and Grammar in the Seventh Century: Decoding Virgilius Maro Grammaticus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 109-111.

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