A Brief Note on Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” & “Under Old Earth”, Raleigh’s “Pilgrimage”, and the Adjective in Biblical Hebrew.


But there was another voice somewhere, a voice which grated like the rasp of a saw cutting through bone, like the grind of a broken machine still working at ruinous top speed.  It was an evil voice, a terror-filling voice.
Perhaps this really was the “death” which the tunnel underpeople had mistaken her for.
The Hunter’s hand released hers.  She let go of D’joan.
There was a strange woman in the room.  She wore the baldric of authority and the leotards of a traveler.
Elaine stared at her.
“You’ll be punished,” said the terrible voice, which now was coming out of the woman.
– Cordwainer Smith, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, Galaxy Magazine, vol. 22, no. 6, August 1964, p.42.

Lady Arabella Underwood’s appearance about one third of the way into Cordwainer Smith’s classic Science Fiction story, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” comes with that brief but somehow remarkable description of her attire: “She wore the baldric of authority and the leotards of a traveler.”  Remarkable because it contains the somehow-evocative-of-something-deeply-meaningful parallel pair of  concrete nouns modified by genitive prepositional phrases.  The “leotards of a traveler” may simply be some sort of imagining of the sartorial preferences of a fictional future – although there is nothing in the story to suggest that Lady Arabella is in any real sense a traveller.  The “baldric of authority” is also unexplained (Smith’s fiction is rich with allusion to unexplained details of his richly imagined future), and may perhaps be taken as some sort of badge of office.  But this concrete “baldric” with its modifying phrase of qualitative genitive seems of a deeper rhetorical significance.
 Smith uses this construction a number of times in his stories, for example, in “Under Old Earth” (Galaxy Magazine, vol. 24 no 3 February 1966, pp. 6-48) the aged character Sto Odin stating “I wear the feathers of immunity” (p. 27) and, most charming:  “I am caught by the dry, drab enturtlement of old, old age”(p. 22).  What is Smith doing here?  Why does this construction seem so evocative to a discerning reader?
 Well, consider:
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
– Sir Walter Raleigh “Pilgrimage”

What a pile of genitives of quality Sir Walter has collected here!  Every concrete item of the pilgrim’s simple equipage is qualified by an abstract. The scallop-shell (the symbol of the pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago), the staff (the physical support), the scrip (the pilgrim’s small satchel), the bottle (water for the journey), and the gown (simple clothing) are transformed with those genitive prepositional phrases into the abstract qualities which are the true sustainers of a successful pilgrim.
 Why does Raleigh use this construction, the concrete noun followed by the genitive of an abstract quality?  Why not just use an adjective – the quiet scallop shell, the faithful staff, the happy scrip, and so on?  Well, most obviously, because they don’t quite mean the same thing.  A quiet scallop shell is just a scallop shell that is not making noise.  A scallop shell of quiet is the concrete partaking of the abstract, of the transcendent, perhaps.  And, obviously for someone of Raleigh’s time, temper, and education, there is a consciousness of scriptural rhetorical forms, and the genitive of quality is decidedly an Old Testament rhetorical form.
 Jouon Paul and ‎Muraoka Tamitsu, in A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, speak of the “genitive of the quality expressed by an abstract noun”  referencing Exodus 29:29 : וּבִגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ “garments of holiness”(p. 437 ), which is so clearly a parallel to Raleigh’s “gown of glory” and, perhaps, to Smith’s “baldric of authority” and “feathers of immunity”.  This construction in Biblical Hebrew has sometimes been described as a way of compensating for Biblical Hebrew’s “lack of genuine adjectives” (see, for example, Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi,  A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, p. 10).  Cynthia L. Miller-Naudé and Jacobus A. Naudé, however, argue quite convincingly that Biblical Hebrew does, in fact, have true adjectives in “Is the adjective distinct from the noun as a grammatical category in biblical Hebrew?”, In die Skriflig 50(4), a2005.  Whatever the underlying reason for the development and use of the rhetorical pairing of a concrete noun with the genitive of quality of an abstract noun in Biblical Hebrew, the evocative construction certainly has had a continuing impact on English rhetoric, from Renaissance poetry to mid-Twentieth Century science fiction stories.

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