Pope: Scriblerus (1741)

Pope’s Scriblerus is not Pope’s and not titled Scriblerus. As Peter Ackroyd explains in the book’s forward back in 1714 Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift established a literary club under the Scriblerus name. The group wanted to create a satirical periodical, but ended up only with one work. That was published as Pope’s work for the first time in 1741 under the title “Memoirs of the Extraordinary life, works and discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus.” It was a joint effort though each chapter written by somebody else and often together. Wikipedia suggests that it was mostly written though by John Arbuthnot, in whose home the club met.

I have to admit the exquisite language and some of the content proved to be a minor obstacle for understanding the work. But they didn’t stop me from enjoying it. I don’t usually read early 18th century literature thus quite a bit of the words used here were either unfamiliar for me or had a different meaning than for the authors’ contemporaries. This proved a double challenge as they were parodying something they were familiar with and was part of their literary and scholastic culture, but I only have vague notions of.

The focus of the book is satirizing the view that the older knowledge is the more valuable it is. The longer the author of a work has been dead the higher authority it has. It is a mindset that is getting increasingly difficult to occupy in our age, when the pace of information fold is so fast. We have to fight the opposite fallacy: the newer some information is the more reliable it is. Twitter, constant personal and professional updates may make us think that we are missing something if we are not up to speed.

However Pope and his colleagues were trying to bring Enlightenment and modern reason into fashion and show how antiquated knowledge was outdated. In this work they did it by creating a character who was the exact opposite of their ideal scholar. Through seventeen short chapters we learn about the life of Martinus Scriblerus, starting from before his birth and ending with posthumous appraisal of his life and works. Once you get into the style of the prose you will find it as hilarious as I did. The protagonist’s (and his father’s) notion of science not just borders with superstition but enters deep into its territory.

I laughed out lots of times their actions were so ridiculous and not just against logical reasoning but ordinary common sense too. I just wish I had got more of the context. If I’d known the literature and the popular people of the era I am sure I would have gotten even more out of the book, by understanding the specific references. But even without that it was a terrific reminder how far we came in terms of understanding the powers working in our surroundings, but also how far we could still go.

The book @ Amazon.com.

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