Sunday, May 17, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form: Stefan Themerson on Belief and Knowledge

I was struck, reading my Chapter on Stefan Themerson, that I had included these summaries of his attitudes to 'belief', salutory words in a world in which the word 'faith' is treated with hushed reverence, as though its claims were beyond discussion (or ridicule).

The world of Themerson’s writing, like that of Lewis Carroll, is one in which logic and poetry wrestle, an antagonism that runs from the early French poem ‘Croquis dans les ténèbres’ (written 1941), in which the divergent languages of science and poetry contrast with the pedantic language of those who assume rather than seek truth (they are mere believers in Themerson’s taxonomy and thus dangerous), through to his penultimate novel The Mystery of the Sardine (1986) in which a Catholic priest neatly but pointlessly believes in God but does not believe in his belief. (1)

What appears to be ethical aporia at the end of his 'Semantic Sonata' (1945) is actually the first step towards a stance that will eventually match the summary Bertrand Russell gives of the ethics of Themerson’s novel Professor Mmaa’s Lecture (written 1942-3): ‘The world contains too many people believing too many things, and it may be that the ultimate wisdom is contained in the precept that the less we believe, the less harm we shall do.’ (Russell 1984: ii) This ‘wisdom’ leads to Themerson’s late belief – I use the word to emphasize the delicate irony of his position – that ‘All ideologies, all missions, all corrupt … Because, when all is said and done, decency of means is the aim of aims.’ (Wright 2005: ix.) Ends, historical or not, do not justify the means; only the means may ‘justify’ the means.

See also the website of the Themerson Archives, the British one at and the Polish at See also the site for Gaberbocchus Press at Three surviving films may be viewed at He may be heard on 1983 number 3,1977, a recording which I am proud to note that I co-published. (All accessed 25 March 2010).

See the rest of The Meaning of Form project here.


(1) Other freaks in Themerson’s work include Cardinal Pölätüo (whose very name is a typographical joke), the poet-phobic father of Apollinaire, who successfully engineers his offspring’s death, but who lives – ever slowing in his adjustable modernist chair in his Vatican palace – until he is 200 years old when, in 2022 he manages to teleport himself in duplicate form to several destinations in the US simultaneously. See Cardinal Pölätüo (1961).