Friday, April 3, 2009

Tracking Down A Myth Behind A Legend

Usually when I climb into bed at night sleep does not come quickly. But I don't mind. In fact, I treasure that time. It is when my mind feels free to roam and wander through places usually lost in fog and clutter.

Last week, for example, I happened to wonder if some prognosticator who based his or her writings on odors wafting through the air would be named Nostrildamus. Would those writing have a basis in common scents? They certainly couldn't be considered nonscents now could they?

But last night I stumbled upon a truly perplexing question. I had been looking at lists of quotations recently and one name popped up quite regularly. No matter what subject was being expounded upon, this name was in the list. The question formed in my mind - "Who was Anon?"

Books of quotations are cluttered with sayings attributed to Anon, and these scraps of truth and wisdom have earned Anon universal recognition and immortality. Innumerable biographies have been written about lesser authors, even authors so obscure that their works are seldom read. But Anon, though widely read and widely quoted, has been accorded only widespread indifference. So complete has been the scholarly neglect of Anon that his name has become a synonym for "unknown." In spite of this, his works have stood the test of time, and he continues to be one of the most often quoted authors. Ibid is also frequently cited, but his works only seem to follow someone else's work rather than state something new.

Anon's work was considered immortal in all historical ages although we know that it is generally quite difficult for an author to achieve immortality in his own time.

Perhaps Anon inspired an ancient "school" of thinkers who later traveled far and wide disseminating his ideas? This may be true. Nobody knows. But then, he would, since Nobody knew Anon personally. Indeed, Nobody knew a lot of things which baffled everyone else. But the hypothesis that Nobody was a pupil of Anon is dubious, if true.

The historical problem is compounded by the timeless quality of Anon's work. His wisdom seems too old-fashioned for modern times, yet too advanced for ancient times. Either Anon was in the habit of living in the past, or anticipating the future. If so, it follows that he was probably neglected and unappreciated in his own age, and that could explain a lot.

Leaving these irrelevant questions aside, let us look at Anon's career. It can be divided into three distinct phases: the first, the second, and the third. That leaves only the problem of deciding into which phase to place each of Anon's works. This is especially troublesome for his posthumous works. Since we have no idea when Anon died, it's even a bit difficult to determine which of his works were posthumous.

We might at least hope to extract Anon's philosophy from those fragments of his genius which have trickled down to us through the sieve of history. It is a vain hope. While Anon wrote (or perhaps spoke) on many subjects, he had the infuriating habit of speaking on every side of every question. No consistent pattern emerges, but this is itself consistent with Anon's own observation that "Consistency is the curse of small minds." On yet another occasion he said, "Sticking consistently to any one position sooner or later leads to logical difficulties." Perhaps Anon merely wanted to ensure that all sides of every question be heard. Yet he expressed reservations about this approach, saying, "One who can see both sides of a question doesn't understand the question." Such remarks strongly suggest that Anon may be the true father of the disciplines of logic and philosophy.

To achieve a true appreciation of Anon's work we must first recognize that the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent or implied in his work do, in fact, represent the central, unifying theme of his philosophy.

One historian even goes so far as to suggest that all of Anon's works are forgeries of recent (19th century) origin, perpetrated by author Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) writing under the pseudonym: E. M. Anon. When this name is read backwards it is seen to be an anagram of the kind Carroll loved to devise. This outrageous theory deserves to be rejected on its merits.

The name "Anon" is virtually unknown in any language, which suggests that Anon had no descendants. Perhaps Anon's family suffered from hereditary infertility. It's a well-known biological fact that if your parents had no children, it's very likely that you won't either.

Lest we be overawed by Anon's versatility, we should look at what he didn't do, for that demonstrates his discrimination and good taste. He never wrote an epic poem, a play, or an opera. He never wrote a best selling work of fiction, never wrote a textbook, and never edited an anthology. He left such enterprises to hacks and lesser intellects.

No painting or drawing bears the signature "Anon." No sculpture has "Anon" chiseled on its base. If he ever tried his hand at art, he apparently never signed his works.

For all of his output of serious sagacity, homely homilies, and profound pronouncements, Anon had a lighter side. In fact his output of jokes far exceeded the rest of his literary work. It is true that many of these jokes are off-color, but that has only enhanced their popularity. They are remembered and quoted verbatim by people who couldn't recite one line of "The Ancient Mariner." Anon knew that art is of no value without an audience, or as he put it so well, "'Tis better to be obscene than unheard."

So, a picture of Anon emerges: a witty, slightly cynical, philosopher of the people. He could sum up the essence of an idea in one pithy sentence. Though many others plagiarized his works, he never complained. He must have cared little for money, for there is no record that he was ever paid for any of his work.

Anon demonstrated that the best way to achieve recognition is by not seeking it. He was unconcerned about the judgment of posterity, for he said, "Be not obligated to posterity. What has posterity ever done for you? The critical judgment of posterity comes too late to be useful."

Of course any conclusions about Anon, the man, might have to be modified if it were shown that Anon was a woman. The true sex of Anon may be a matter of dispute among scholars, yet we have no reason to believe that Anon ever had the slightest concern about this question.

As usual, Anon had the first word on such speculations when he (or she) said, "Nothing stimulates outrageous theories so effectively as an absence of evidence."

Or sleepless nights?

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