mark chalk trick

February 9, 2021
Simon Cook

Concluding my first mark-post, I discovered that Mill’s literary analogy makes acquaintance with an object a condition of naming it - a condition made explicit only 50 years later, by Bertrand Russell, and not met in Mill’s actual use of ‘proper names’. This post draws out some implications of this discovery.

Before taking the handkerchief off the old man’s eyes, the thief carefully marked the door with a piece of chalk, which he had ready in his hand, and then asked if he knew whose house that was: to which Baba Mustapha replied, that as he did not live in that neighbourhood he could not tell.

Victorian London (Cheapside), Tuesday afternoon (4.07 p.m.). As he walks home from work, J.S. Mill puts himself in the shoes of the robber in the Arabian Nights and imagines himself chalking a house that he walks past.

Cheapside. Wednesday morning (9.43 a.m.). Mill recognizes the house, on his idea of which he had the day before placed an imaginary mark. He understands this mark as a proper name and infers that a real chalk mark put on the actual house (as in the story) would be analogous to a proper name.

Reaching his office at India House, he breakfasts on a boiled egg. Mill then puts pen to paper. Quoting Hobbes’ definition of a name as serving the double purpose of private mark and public sign, he begins ‘On Names’, the second chapter of a book he hopes will provide the foundation of social science and so of sound political reform - his System of Logic (published 1843). With a chalk mark in his mind, he now unwittingly founds his account of language, the medium of logical thought, on a most splendid verbal conjuring trick.

The trick was actually invented by a Syrian Maronite Christian whose proper name was Hanna Diyab, which means, to you and me, the author of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’. Given that Mill’s right hand did not know what his left hand was doing, I conclude that the radical English philosopher was enchanted by the art of the early eighteenth-century Oriental storyteller.

In a nutshell, the storyteller contrives a chalk mark that denotes a private intention but, inadvertently, connotes a public meaning. By devious abstraction and re-enactment, partly hidden to himself, Mill’s analysis reveals one side of this chalk mark (private and meaningless identification) and hides the other (inadvertent public meaning). Though he fails to see it, by putting himself truly into the clouded mind of the robber, he actually pulls two different chalk marks out of the story. The first, the chalk mark of his demonstration, is an impossible sign, a fairy-element found in the original story only by chasing down the robber’s confusion; the second, which is the one he obviously puts to work elsewhere in his chapter, is merely a queer sign.

We may picture Mill holding up a chalk mark in his right hand - a fantastic symbol, a ghostly abstraction of the robber’s chalk mark, namely, the chalk mark as the numbskull robber intended it. After inviting us all to inspect this queer symbol, and in the midst of some distracting logical patter, Mill’s right hand drops into his pocket while a different symbol drops into his left hand from out of his sleeve. The substitution is unnoticed because the two chalks marks appear identical.

What is so queer about all this, however, is that when Mill hands over to us the chalk mark in his left hand he honestly believes he is putting into our hands the fantastic symbol that he showed us in his demonstration. He is working another’s magic. In fact, by re-enacting a classic fairy-story action, Mill repeats the mistake of the robber, who also sees in his own chalk mark only a private denotation, and so makes a cycle within the story by inviting the marks of Morgiana, which spell the loss of his head. Some mischief appears to have slipped out of the fairy story and into the mind of the philosopher.

Chalk mark 1

Mill assumes that we can only know what we are acquainted with. The robber sees the house before he marks it, and Mill considers that a condition is met for the robber to impose a proper name on the house. This chalk mark identifies the house but means nothing.

(Qualifying his analogy, Mill says that the mark is like a proper name in that it identifies an individual object, but unlike a proper name because it is put by the robber on the house itself and not on the robber’s idea of the house.)

Only a philosopher could so abstract this dimension of the chalk mark out of the story. The robber’s chalk mark is indeed an identifying mark intended to aid recognition of the house, but the story turns on Morgiana spotting the mark and reading it as a sign of mischief…

Chalk mark 2

Once the robber chalks his house, Ali Baba is a marked man. Obviously, the robber places the mark as a step towards apprehension of Ali Baba. As such, the mark means Ali Baba, or to the robber, who has neither met Ali Baba nor heard his name, the chalk mark identifies the location of the nameless man who burgled their cave.

As the robber has not made the acquaintance of Ali Baba, this chalk mark cannot be compared to a proper name. I assume that this was Mill’s private justification for passing over this second reading in silence. This side of the chalk mark is a definite description, meaning something like: ‘here is the man who burgled our cave’.

Imagine, when the robber asked who lives in the house, the cobbler answers ‘Ali Baba’. When the robber returned with the 39 other Thieves the mark would both identify the house and mean to them ‘Ali Baba’. But having none of them yet made the acquaintance of Ali Baba, ‘Ali Baba’ does not identify an idea in their minds of a particular body but rather, to their minds, means ‘the man who burgled our cave’. In the story, the cobbler cannot answer the robber’s question, so the meaning of the chalk mark is more fully expressed: ‘the nameless man who burgled our cave’.

The Trick

Imagining himself marking a random London house so he may recognize it again, with no thought at all as to the occupants of the house, Mill presents the chalk mark of the story as chalk mark 1.

When we read his illustrations of proper names in the surrounding discussion we find that Mill has no more made the acquaintance of, e.g., Socrates than has the robber of Ali Baba. ‘Socrates’ as Mill pronounces this word is an instance of the hidden chalk mark 2.

I do not think that Mill pulled off this trick wittingly - he was, as it were, sleepwalking all the way. It is for all that a wonderful bit of magic, equal to anything pulled off by Gandalf in The Hobbit. A symbol is lifted out of an Oriental fairy story, replete with great literary and etymological baggage: marks on houses (as on a man) have Biblical connotations, the Victorians were increasingly paranoid about wandering vagabonds who marked the doors of respectable houses with secret signs, while mark (Fr. marque) is an ancient Germanic word, related to boundary stones, borders, and territory. To cap it all, the appearance (or design) of the chalk mark is never described in the story. Yet all of these latent associations and mysteries are but distractions from the real trick, which works by holding up for our careful inspection one chalk mark but putting into our hands another.

Postscript: As indicated in my first post, whereas a few years ago I was looking at Mill and Ali Baba as the keys to The Hobbit, today I look to the story of the hobbit only as an aid to reflection on Mill and Ali Baba. Because, to my mind, the two-door story of Ali Baba is so obviously reworked in the later story, we may turn to Professor Tolkien to aid our work. This may sound like a smuggling of my original claim through the back door, and I suppose it is, but I do not here ask of you to even consider Tolkien’s intentions, only to recongize in his story various possible lessons for a reading of the original chalk mark.

With this disclaimer, I invite you to consider this moment in the first chapter of The Hobbit (composed summer 1930):

Just before tea-time there came a tremendous ring on the front-door bell, and then he remembered! (1st edition, p. 17)

What does Bilbo Baggins remember? To answer we need step back three sentences:

The next day he had almost forgotten about Gandalf. He did not remember things very well, unless he put them down in his Engagement Tablet: like this: Gandalf Tea Wednesday. Yesterday he had been too flustered to do anything of the kind. (Cf. Wittgenstein PI 1.)

The sound of the door bell is a nudge to the hobbit’s memory, as would have been the note in the Engagement Tablet. To Mill, however, both are marks, and we may indeed accept that a nudge is a mark of sorts. In any case, the sound of the bell raises the idea of the forgotten guest - Gandalf. Here is another chalk mark 1: it appears differently but the sound of the bell is raised by a hobbit’s pleasure into a mark of an individual (in general, a visitor, but in certain circumstances, such as on that Wednesday tea-time, a particular guest).

But here is the mischief. On opening the door Bilbo Baggins discovers not the wizard but a dwarf with a blue beard, who introduces himself as Dwalin, and stands silent on the doorstep until the hobbit invites him in for tea. And this proves but the opening chime as Gandalf Tea Wednesday turns out to mean An Unexpected Party. With each ring of the bell, Bilbo Baggins is more certain that Gandalf has at last arrived, and each time he opens the door to discover only more dwarves. As Morgiana obliterates the poor robber by putting his private identifying mark on many houses, so the poor hobbit’s routine associations are obliterated by an identifying mark that rings false.

(When Gandalf finally arrives, along with the last dwarves, he - obviously - kills two birds with one stone: banging the queer sign off the door, he knocks.)

The whole affair is of course the work of Gandalf, who begins the action by scratching a queer sign into the hobbit’s round front door. There is no deep mystery here, as conversation inside the hole the next day reveals: the queer sign means burglar for hire and as such is an instance of chalk mark 2, and indeed a secret cypher (for a burglar hardly wishes to identify his trade to all and sundry).

We may, if we wish, make various abstractions of the queer sign. For example, it is as a title that is given just before a person is introduced - it cannot be a name for the dwarves, by the reckoning of Mill and Russell, because they read the sign before they see the object; but it certainly supplies the story-title: inside the hole Bilbo Baggins is recruited as the burglar. Bilbo’s story title is precisely what Russell calls a definite description. Actually, if we are justified in reducing the meaning of the queer sign to the burglar then its is a synonym for the (also reduced) chalk mark put on the door in the Arabian Nights. This is merely to underline that what we have here is indeed an instance of chalk mark 2.

Of course, Tolkien reworks the whole music of marks, markers, and readers by playing havoc with authorship: the private mark the robber makes for himself becomes a private sign of the wizard in the ears of the hobbit made by a dwarf, while the queer sign is read by the dwarves as pronounced by the hobbit, who never sees it and indeed denies its existence. Again, all this is as it should be because, in contrast to his counterpart two centuries earlier, this master storyteller wishes to tell of a mark that works.

What chalk marks that work look like is another story. In the context of the story, the wizard’s sign is but the merest of marks, working rather as the hobbit’s Engagement Tablet should have worked, only as a nudge in the face of hesitation as opposed to forgetting.

In this case, the art of the storyteller is to place chalk mark 2 (the queer sign that is a definite description) before our eyes, but rather than show it working, show things rather from inside out, as the hobbit sees the situation. What is left out of this picture, but is said by Gloin inside the hole, is that Bilbo Baggins looks more like a grocer than a burglar. The purpose of the sign is to nudge the dwarves through the door in the face of the evidence of their own eyes - here is a case of acquaintanceship and naming not quite fitting together. Actually, the nudge works by revealing the promissary hand of Gandalf (the dwarves never really credit his word until Bilbo Baggins has a magic ring in his pocket, later in the adventure). In other words, the mark on the door works because it is the mark of a wizard, whose marks work (by sprouting unexpected stories).

The value of this comparative analysis is that it illuminates certain elements of the original story while passing over in silence the mysterious vision of a purely private and meaningless mark that Mill holds up in his demonstration, but does not really appear anywhere, even in his account of chalk mark 1 as a mere identifying mark.

What Tolkien shows with the picture he draws at the start of his story is the daylight between chalk mark 1, as say the sound of a bell, which may indeed sound within a private residence, and the chalk mark 1 proclaimed in the demonstration as a mark private to an individual mind. Once we understand the sound of the bell as an instance of chalk mark 1, and see that it is hardly a mark inherently private to one mind, we return to Mill’s conjuring trick with the thought that he has a different chalk mark in each hand and some real magic in his pocket.

Left hand: Chalk mark 2. the definite description or story-title of a person, or on occasion, a thing.

Right hand: Chalk mark 1. the identifying chalk mark, which serves no other purpose, a suggestive sign that may be discarded after use, and is (wrongly) imagined by both Mill and the robber as private and meaningless.

Pocket: Chalk mark 1.f. What Mill has in his pocket and thinks he has in his right hand. What he believes he is showing us, but remains hidden to even careful inspection, is the fantasy of a mark that is rightly imagined as private and meaningless. How could anyone ever think they had seen a picture of this mark?

All of the marks and signs in this first story of the hobbit are public - the bell sounding inside and the sign pronounced outside complement a time-honoured metaphor of the house as abode of mind, but the bell is neither a metaphor nor a fantasy but a real object, and Tolkien’s method of realizing Mill’s mental propositions in physical form - as in the Engagement Tablet - dispells any lingering sense of hidden magic. But the thing is, whilst we may spot assorted elements of John Stuart Mill’s reading of the original fairy story in ‘An Unexpected Party’, his impossible mark is nowhere to be seen.

So, all that we arrive at is a highlighting of the fairy element in his pocket that is Mill’s secret contribution to modern literary enchantment. The wheat is separated from the chaff. But where might we hope to find a realization of this impossible idea of a purely private mark with no meaning? Certainly, one would never expect to find such a thing in a hobbit hole, however luxurious.


PPS: Bilbo Baggins is as befuddled as the robber by the mischief of the mis-identifying marks. But if the hobbit forgets that other people may intrude into one’s story, we would likely have made the same mistake in the circumstances, while anyone who chalks a house had better have an eye on who might be watching. The stupidity evidenced by the robber in making his mark, as Mill after him, does have a parallel in the first edition of The Hobbit, but only much later, after Trolls and Elves and Goblins, in a lightless cave with no door at the very root of the mountain, when two people conclude a game of riddles, and so transfer ownership of a magical thing, with each misunderstanding what is happening.

Are you the blindfolded cobbler or the robber?