Currently viewing the category: "The Trivium is not trivia"

As many of you know the trivium derives from the introductory curriculum in many medieval universities, where it involved the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The word is Latin in derivation, perhaps obviously, and literally means the place where three (tri-) roads (via) meet. Our modern word trivia is loosely, and I think unfairly, connected by blood relation to trivium, by way of the altogether vulgar (in its literal sense) trivialis. Compare this with the quadrivium, similarly medieval, and comprising the four “mathematical” arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. An example of someone who would have excelled at the quadrivium is Brian May, the guitarist from Queen.

By way of illustration, I present the following story, or proselet, which is not a word I expect to catch on. It incorporates two quotations that one might find in any trivium worthy of the name, but places them in a setting of cheap jewelry that I hope makes some kind of emotional sense.

The Man Called Marriage

Two bursts of light, in rapid succession, woke him from a dreadful dream. A car turning around in the driveway, most likely. He shifted from his side onto his back, flinging a sleep-deadened arm across his chest. He enjoyed the way feeling would slowly creep back into the lifeless arm and hand.

He raised his head and looked at the pillow next to his on the bed. He knew she wasn’t there, knew that she had not been there for months, knew that barring some unforeseeable fold in the fabric of time she would never be there again. But he couldn’t help checking.

No sound but a few weary crickets, whether inside or out he could not tell. Dark of night had swallowed the room. Only blurred and mobile shapes. Shadows and deeper shadows.

Darkness has no lines, only depth, he thought. His eyes, adjusting to the murk, recovered what might be a chair, what might be a lamp, what might be a network of twigs on the ash tree outside his window, laying odds on how long till the sun comes up.

The sun is impossible to catch, he thought. Many things are thought impossible, but later turn out possible all along. It’s possible, he thought, that all things are possible, or will turn out to be possible. Two robins settled on the hickory tree outside his kitchen window. He was standing in the kitchen making coffee. Light from the morning sun, filtered by the greasy dirt on his unwashed windows, lay wan and shapeless on the counter and the dull tiles of the floor.

“Our separated dust, after so many pilgrimages and transformations into the parts of minerals, plants, animals, elements, shall at the voice of God return into their primitive shapes, and join again to make up their primary and predestinate forms.” He remembered the quote clearly but could not remember who said or wrote these words that he once believed.

He stood in the room where his books were lined against the wall. He held a long, serrated kitchen knife in his right hand, methodically scarring the spines of his books. He slashed diagonally, from top to bottom, left to right, in the same direction in which he used to read, it occurred to him, as he slashed the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, without understanding why, without self-examination or emotion.

In the zoo, sidling up to the aviary, he saw parakeets varicolored like the desert sun setting on a cloudless night. A small snow-owl, half-blind from daylight, peered through slitted eyes at the end of all diseases of the flesh. The snow-owl, he thought, is a curious bird. He keeps most of what he knows to himself. But not all, he thought, and chuckled.

You could set the snow-owl free right now, but the snow owl would always be in prison. Once you injure something it stays injured. Fetters cannot be removed by any human hand.

One time he dreamed that he was walking along the red clay bank of a warbling creek, and saw an injured sparrow. He was overwhelmed with pity at the sight of the poor bird, and fell to his knees, cupping the sparrow in his hands and blowing gently on its feathers, thinking that somehow the blowing would reassure the tiny creature. The next part of the dream he couldn’t remember exactly, whether the bird simply died or immediately healed and flew away. Either way, he knew he had lost the sparrow for good, and knew, too, as one knows things in dreams that one could never guess in waking life, that the bird was her, and that she was gone.

Inner duration, perceived by consciousness, is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another, and the gradual growth of ego. Another useless quote, but why, he wondered, did this fragment of knowledge reduce him to helpless tears?

Wind snapped a branch outside and he woke. Tears streamed down his cheeks; his pillowcase was soaked.

“I am unbelievably happy,” he whispered to the empty room. And thought: I am unbelievably happy.

Still from Mimesis, a short film I made.

Trivium: from Latin, meaning “the three ways,” or “the three roads.” In medieval universities, the trivium denoted the three subjects of primary study: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Wind snapped a branch outside and he woke. Dark of night had swallowed the room. Only blurred and mobile shapes. Shadows and deeper shadows.
At first, he could not remember where he was, nor who he was. Darkness has no lines, only depth, he thought. His eyes, adjusting to the murk, recovered what might be a chair, what might be a lamp, what might be….

Whatsoever the world terms happiness, is to me a story out of Pliny, an apparition, or neat delusion, wherein there is no more of happiness than the name.” Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici.

I believe that our estranged and divided ashes shall unite again; that our separated dust, after so many pilgrimages and transformations into the parts of minerals, plants, animals, elements, shall at the voice of God return into their primitive shapes, and join again to make up their primary and predestinate forms. As at the creation there was a separation of that confused mass into its species; so at the destruction thereof there shall be a separation into its distinct individuals.” Ibid.

Inner duration, perceived by consciousness, is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another, and the gradual growth of ego.” Henri Bergson, Time And Free Will.

An uneven number of vowels in given names portends lameness, blindness, or similar disability on the right side; an even number of vowels the same disability on the left.” Pliny, Natural History, Book XXVIII.