A children's story, a Biblical error, a secret

When I was so young that I wasn’t keeping track, I read or was read Many Moons, a picture book written by James Thurber and illustrated by Marc Simont. There’s another, earlier edition with a different illustrator, but the one I had was definitely illustrated by Marc Simont.

I didn’t know at the time why it might be funny that the story is about a princess named Lenore who lives “in a kingdom by the sea,” or what it means that she suffers from “a surfeit of raspberry tarts.” But the princess is clearly very ill, and says that she must have the moon in order to become well again. So the king consults with his experts.

The Lord High Chamberlain tells the king that it’s impossible; the moon is 35,000 miles away and made of molten copper.

The Royal Wizard tells the king that it’s impossible; the moon is 150,000 miles away and made of green cheese.

The Royal Mathematician tells the king that it’s impossible; the moon is 300,000 miles away and made of asbestos.

Despondent, the king turns to the court jester, who has the bright idea to simply ask the princess herself. The princess explains that the moon is very small, since she can cover it with her thumbnail, and it is just outside her window, and made of gold. The jester goes to make such a moon for her, and the princess becomes well again.

On Wikipedia, you can find that the moon is on average 238,900 miles from Earth, and its surface is composed of (in descending order) silica, alumina, lime, iron (II) oxide, magnesia, titanium dioxide, and sodium oxide.

Last year, I read Roberto Bolaño’s Los Detectives Salvajes, as translated by Natasha Wimmer. A lot of things happen in The Savage Detectives that I wouldn’t have understood as a child, in particular all the sex, but there’s one passage that strikes me in a way I’d like to think that I’d have always liked.

Ulises Lima, poet-vagrant, presents an argument to his old friend Claudia that there is a misprint in the Bible. You know how (KJV) “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”? Well, Ulises says that in Greek, the word káundos is camel, and káuidos is a kind of cable or rope that would be used on ships, and it just so happens that “the n (eta) read almost just like an i.” Perhaps Jesus was actually speaking the nautical language shared by his fishermen disciples.

Which leaves us, Claudia said that Ulises had said, with a less poetic and more realistic parable. It’s easier for a ship’s cable or a thick rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And which parable did he like better? asked Daniel. The two of us knew the answer, but we waited for Claudia to tell us. The one with the error, of course.

There’s a very boring view of reading I encounter sometimes - especially in tech, especially in San Francisco - that the goal of reading is to Transfer Information, and so the best book is the book from which you can ingest the most Facts. But this digital flattening of art comes in many guises, not all of them so obviously dull.

Two Sundays ago, I saw Prisoners of the Ghostland in my friend’s backyard. It was and, regrettably, is a movie by Japanese director Sion Sono, starring Nicolas Cage. It’s a reckless genre farrago of Western, samurai film, and Mad Max apocalypse. It’s a barrage of symbols, mashed together in jarring, heretofore-unseen ways.

I hate it. It’s every bit as inert as the most formulaic transfer of information. Its dirty secret is that its “experimental” spirit is bound to a very finite mathematical space of possible permutations. You can almost see the operator at the switchboard: okay, for this scene, geishas ON, wasteland scavengers ON, cowboys OFF. Pure binary. It wants you to think it’s fun, but fuck that. We’re not gonna let them get away with that.

I have a little faith in you: you have the instinct, you know what fun smells like, right? Right? Good. Because if we both know, it’ll be our little secret. The sort of people who don’t get it, they have every sense but smell.

Bottom line, this movie sucks, so I pull out my phone and open HelloChinese - to do some character-drawing exercises, because those are silent, and even though I hate this movie, I wasn’t raised in a barn. I find something interesting. The app tells me that yŏu (有) - to have - is supposed to look like a pair of chopsticks holding a piece of meat.

Now, I’ve only been learning Chinese for less than a month, but even I recognize the radical that makes up the “meat” - it’s 月, yuè, the moon. No matter what version of this character you’re seeing in your browser, c’mon, look, you can see that 月 is in there.

On Wiktionary, you can find that in 有, this “moon” is actually a corruption of ⺼, ròu, meat. Looks similar, but if you’re writing carefully, you’ll see that the inner lines are angled and don’t connect in quite the same way. For historical reasons, though, 有 is still written with the 月 radical.

But strangely enough, there’s also a note that I’m not the first one to be confused. In Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字), the first surviving attempt (circa 100 CE) to create a systematic taxonomy of Chinese characters, the author derives 有 in part from the moon: 月 + 又. As is common with Chinese characters, the former (月) visually appears in the character, and the latter (又) — “hand” — is a rough soundalike. As an explanatory note, the author provides an excerpt from the Spring and Autumn Annals, which in turn precede our author by some 300 years:「日月有食之。」”The sun and moon have eclipses.” 日 = sun, 月 = moon, 有 = have, etc.

What’s more, this composition changes the definition. Because eclipses were considered inauspicious, the author specifically defines 有 as having something you shouldn’t: 不宜有也, where 不宜 = inappropriate, unsuitable.

So what’s going on? Honestly, I’m not fluent enough to get the full story, but every online Chinese dictionary I can find says the same thing. The consensus of modern experts seems to be that the character is constructed phono-semantically from ⺼ + 又, a hand holding meat. The 月 derivation, clever as it is, is just an error.

What version do I like better? If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you. Nobody can “have” the “moon,” anyway. That’s just foolish.