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1953 - Tittivulus, or, The Verbiage Collector

1953. President Eisenhower is sworn-in. Speeches are given. Agreements are signed. Michael Ayrton writes Tittivulus, or the Verbiage Collector.

“If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it” (Eisenhower)

On January 20, Dwight D. Eisenhower is sworn in as the 34th president of the United States.

Eisenhower has a few simple goals:

  1. Reduce the Federal Deficit

  2. Contain the spread of Communism

  3. Get out of Korea

In an ideal world, these aims could be achieved through a peace agreement with the Soviet Union. Stalin has recently suffered a stroke. There is now a historic window of opportunity between the two nations, and a chance to eliminate the high costs of the continued Cold War.

Eisenhower describes these costs in his “chance for peace” speech, which he delivers to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

However, the new leadership of the Soviet Union is unwilling to reciprocate Eisenhower’s approach and the president decides to go with his Plan B – nuclear weapons.

Atomic bombs cost significantly less than army divisions, allowing the president to reduce military spending. They enable the US to maintain military parity with the Soviet Union at a minimal cost. And, they are a credible threat which Eisenhower can use for issuing an ultimatum to North Korea and China.

Eisenhower’s open threats of nuclear warfare achieve their goal. The People’s Republic of China and North Korea agree to sign an armistice agreement with the United Nations forces. Prisoners of war on both sides are repatriated. 22,000 Chinese and North Koreans refuse to return to their home countries and are allowed to convert to capitalism.

The only country left out is South Korea, but that’s just because President Syngman Rhee isn’t willing to accept that the peninsula is divided. As far as he’s concerned, there is a single Korean Nation that needs to be unified under his rule. However, as far as everyone else is concerned, hostilities are now officially over and a demilitarized zone is established

Is the agreement sincere or is it just a bunch of wasted words? That’s a question that diplomats are going to spend the next several decades arguing. Meanwhile the overworked Ministry of Verbiage has its hands full making sure that the Korean Armistice Agreement ends up being repeatedly misinterpreted and misquoted.

What’s the Ministry of Verbiage? Michael Ayrton does a good job of explaining this infernal department in Tittivulus, or, The Verbiage Collector.

“It’s not verbiage, it’s my biography” (Satan)

Michael Ayrton (1921 – 1975) was an English artist and writer, painter, printmaker, sculptor, designer, critic, and broadcaster who the internet has largely ignored. This will result in a shorter, verbiage-lite, bio, despite Ayrton’s very important role in chronicling the abuses human languages have suffered.

Like many teenagers, Ayrton was a disappointment to his parents. His father Gerald Gould was a poet and his mother, Barbara Bodichon Ayrton was involved in the Suffrage movement. Growing up, Ayrton received the best a liberal education had to offer, and this resulted in him getting kicked out of school and launching his career as an artist.

Initially Ayrton studied wood art in England, but later he moved to Paris where he shared a studio with his future friend and collaborator, John Minton. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, young Ayrton attempted to enlist on the Republican side, but his application was refused because he was underage. After WW2 broke out, Ayrton was conscripted to the RAF and promptly discharged as a result of poor health.

Ayrton’s output was very varied, and it changed as he himself evolved as an artist. In the forties, he made many trips to Italy where he developed an interest in Renaissance art and proto-Renaissance sculpture. Later, in the sixties, he travelled to Greece, and there developed an interest in the legend of Icarus, mazes, and all things mythological.

Tittivulus, or, the Verbiage Collector is Ayrton’s humorous attempt to chart the career of the very real minor demon, Titivillus – the patron demon of scribes.

“Stuff and nonsense” (Satan)

Tittivulus was a minor demon who was paddling about in the Styx doing no harm when the invalid archdemon Belphegor conscripted him to gather verbiage for hell. In Belphegor’s view Tittivulus was “idle, indigent, irreverent, impious – in short infidel”, and therefore a perfect candidate to fill the much needed vacant position.

Words were invented primarily to praise God, and secondarily as a means of communication between mortals - a means that is frequently abused. “Every unmeaning sound, every idle word, and every scrap of pretentious nonsense” can be potentially used to damn mortals. Therefore, Tittivulus needs to gather all of them – in sacks – and store them in Chaos.

Initially, Tittivulus is more than capable of handling the seven thousand sacks of words a day generated by Christian clergy busy disputing the precise pronunciation of holy texts, and bored monks forced to spend too much time in prayer at the wrong hours. However, over time humanity evolves its methods of abusing words, generating more work, more sacks in Chaos, and a need for creative assistance.

The Age of Reason, of Liberty, of Equality, and of Paternity, old chap” (Criticus)

I had very high hopes for this book, and ended up being disappointed when they were not met. You need a proper literary education in multiple languages to get all the jokes in this book. While I partially meet these requirements, my literary education is limited to English, and even then it is not sufficiently advanced to catch everything.

There are untranslated quotes in French, Italian, Latin, and some languages I could not detect. These, I was forced to skip. Of the misquoted texts in English, some I recognized. Others, I had no clue until the second reading. I did enjoy the references I was able to catch, but too often I was frustrated by the fact that I knew what I was reading was supposed to be funny, I just had no idea why.

If you are the type of person who is capable of ignoring references and jokes that you don’t get, or if you have a literary doctorate and speak four to eight languages, this book is for you. It’s a lot of fun, and you’ll end up laughing a lot.

Otherwise, I’d skip this book and re-enroll in university to complete your missing education and generate useless verbiage for the overworked Tittivulus to collect.

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