Setting forth in black and white

Pre-footnote in prose: in 1609, when Thomas Thorpe published the first collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the word “adventurer” could mean “investor” (as in the current term “venture capital”) and “setting forth” could mean “publishing.” In 1620, the year of the Mayflower,  the investors who financed the voyage referred to themselves in prosaic business English as Plymouth adventurers, and whatever you may find exciting about the title of this 1952 movie is an anachronism.

In business English, the only uncertainty about the meaning of the dedication where Thorpe applies the terms “adventurer” and “setting forth” to himself and his business is in a term for which the text and the library haven’t yet provided glosses. Who is Mr. W. H.? One of these centuries, an archive may open up those initials into full words, and then one of scholarship’s useful prosy tasks will be finished.

But trying to write “The End” at the ends of the open-ended terms “immortality” and “ever-living” will be a different task for meaning. And about the Thorpe text’s syntax and typography there will remain other meanings to think of and say — but what can they be, and how can they be articulated in words?

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Look below, for instance. The only words that apply to this being are “eat” and “sleep,” and those words are purely external to him. Because he awakens into a world without meanings that can be expressed in words, he doesn’t think of his awakenings as (for instance) adventures. Because such words originate only with us readers, they can never be intrinsic to him and they can never fully communicate what he is.

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Yet as a form seen from without, he evokes a formal meaning. It isn’t expressible in words, but it has a metaphoric typography. To us who can read, it is capable of attaching a literal extension to the figurative term “setting forth.” And at dawn, what is seen without words becomes a black-and-white typography. With the coming of light, a being seen and then played around with and given a name, such as “chiaroscuro,” becomes an only begetter. Realized into words in black and white, it sets forth a text that you begin to know as you begin to see.