Thesis and Antithesis

R. P. LISTCR is an English free lance whose light articles and verse are widely known on both sides of the Atlantic.


THESIS as well as antithesis must be trans-substantiated in Ibsen’s Hegelian synthesis.

I culled this sentence from a reviewin the Times of Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean. I culled it because it struck me as being, with one possible exception, the most gorgeous sentence I ever encountered in the English language.

The one possible exception is the definition of a urosternite which I encountered one day in thumbing idly through Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, a favorite sourcebook of jests and jolly quips. A urosternite is the stern He of any somite of the tiresome of an arthropod. There is a largeness about this phrase conferred by that word “any.”There is no niggling restriction on the number of sternites that may enjoy the shattering, the overwhelming glory of being urosternites. Not the sternite of one particular somite of the urosome may be thus honored; not the sternile of the left somite, or the right somite, or the counter-rotatory somite; but any somite. It was a great day for sternites when that definition was laid down.

My favorite sentence in the French language, if I may digress for a moment to drag it in, is of a radically different character. It occurs in a novel by Victor Hugo — I forget which novel — and it is a sentence spoken by a rather barbarous sergeant, who opens his mouth and emits the following petrifying system of sounds: “Ou on en a eu un.”

To return, however, to our urosternites and our theses and antitheses. When I encounter sentences of this nature, I like to amuse myself by dwelling on their possible significance. I am aware that this is a heretical point of view. True art, according to received doctrine, does not represent any object perceived in nature, though a perceived object may be used as a convenient peg to hang a work of art on; and in the same way, cither of these sentences, considered as a pure work of art, exists as a joyous thing-in-itsell, quite apart from any meaning that may be thought or imagined into it. I claim to be able to enjoy either sentence purely, in this aesthetic way; but I also like to trace, by cross references in the dictionary, some possible significance in the sentence, without necessarily assuming that the sentence’s creator had any such vulgar purpose in mind. In the same way it amuses me, when regarding the works of Mr. Ben Nicholson, to imagine therein likenesses to moons, pussycats, bottles of pop, and guitars, whether or not they are there.

When I consider the urosternite, for instance, substituting for each of the unfamiliar words in the sentence its dictionary definition, I come to the conclusion that the uroslernite is the ventral portion of any segment of the terminal somatome of one of a great division of the animal kingdom in which the body consists of a definite number of segments. To proceed further and ascertain that the somatome is a homologous serial segment of the body of one of these entrancing arthropods only increases the sense of delighted mystification into which this matter of urosternites perennially plunges me. What is more, I learn that the word urosternite is derived from the Greek oura, a tail, and sternon, a chest, which conjures up a more delightful picture still.

Applying the same procedure to the sentence about Ibsen, I find that its significance is roughly as follows: a position advanced for argument, as well as a counterproposition, must be changed to another substance in Ibsen’s Hegelian procedure of reasoning to a conclusion from principles previously established. When treated in this way the sentence does not become clear, but then it was not clear before, so nothing is lost. What is gained, however, apart from the sheer joy of contemplation, is a useful nervous apprehension of the danger of polysyllables, and a passing acquaintance with the dates of Hegel, as given in the definition of Hegelian: of or pertaining to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).

I should mention in closing that my favorite German sentence is not a sentence, but a word; it is taken from that great Teutonic authority, Mark Twain; and it is Der Hottentotten potentatenmuttermörderattentatsverräter: the betrayer of an attempt to murder the mother of a Hottentot, potentate.