mark. Ali Baba

January 7, 2021
Simon Cook

The first word of the title of this post indicates it is part of a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s handling of the mark. The second part indicates an autonomous project, intended to serve as an introduction that describes another Englishman’s engagement with a metaphorical mark.

This first mark was chalked on the door of the house of Ali Baba in the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’. It was declared a partial analogy of a proper name by the great Victorian philosophical radical, John Stuart Mill. In this post I begin an inquiry into Mill’s analogy, which strikes me as a classic fail, an illustration of how not to frame a literary metaphor.

This opening post copies and pastes two paragraphs of Mill’s System of Logic (1843) and then offers some sign-posts to subsequent readings (i.e. posts). The Logic is a large volume, but we are at the beginning - in the second chapter, ‘On Names’. Mill has just proclaimed that the “only names of objects which connote nothing are proper names; and these have, strictly speaking, no signification.” For ease of reference, I distinguish the paragraphs A. and B. and divide both into two parts (i) and (ii):

A. (i) If, like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk upon a house to enable us to know it again, the mark has a purpose, but it has not properly any meaning. The chalk does not declare anything about the house; it does not mean, This is such a person’s house, or This is a house which contains booty. The object of making the mark is merely distinction. I say to myself, All these houses are so nearly alike, that if I lose sight of them I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at from any of the others; I must therefore contrive to make the appearance of this one house unlike that of the others, that I may hereafter know, when I see the mark – not indeed any attribute of the house – but simply that it is the same house which I am now looking at.

A. (ii) Morgiana chalked all the other houses in a similar manner, and defeated the scheme: how? simply by obliterating the difference of appearance between that house and the others. The chalk was still there, but it no longer served the purpose of a distinctive mark.

B. (i) When we impose a proper name, we perform an operation in some degree analogous to what the robber intended in chalking the house. We put a mark, not indeed upon the object itself, but, if I may so speak, upon the idea of the object.

B. (ii) A proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object, in order that whenever the mark meets our eyes or occurs to our thoughts, we may think of that individual object. Not being attached to the thing itself, it does not enable us, as the chalk did, to distinguish the object when we see it; but it enables us to distinguish it when it is spoken of, either in the records of our own experience, or in the discourse of others; to know that what we find asserted in any proposition of which it is the subject, is asserted of the individual thing with which we were previously acquainted.

A series of posts will offer some reflections on these two, curious paragraphs. To begin with, at least, I will frame my reflections in relation to criticisms made by others, found with one exception by digging around in archive.org. With two exceptions (Stout 1891, a psychologist, and Gardiner 1940, a philologist), all commentators are philosophers (or logicians); with two other exceptions (Husserl 1900 and Tugendhat 1976) all are English; all but one (Stebbing) are men. The earlier comments seem known to the later English commentators (who occasionally refer to them); indeed, in England the train of comments itself illustrates the coming-into-being of the modern university and the professional philosopher (John Venn in Cambridge, W.S. Jevons in Manchester, L. Stebbing in London, and H.W.B. Joseph in Oxford). Significantly, the English university discussion of Mill on proper names passed over the ‘Ali Baba’ analogy in silence (although today, thanks to Wittgenstein teasing it out of Bertrand Russell’s prose, they have a new picture for naming - Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden). To find English professional academic comment on the analogy we have to turn to the psychologist Stout and the Egyptologist Gardiner.

Of those commentators who do discuss the analogy, not all have read the story carefully, or at all. Consider Edmund Husserl (1900), who dismisses Mill’s analogy as “cracked” (the German original I do not know), but begins his criticism by conceding (my emphasis):

Like every expression a proper name functions as an indication, i.e. in its intimating role. Here there is a real analogy with the robber’s chalk-mark. If the robber sees the chalk-mark he knows: This is the house I must rob.

As we shall see, there is certainly room for disagreement about what the chalk-mark on the door means. For example, Mill says that the chalk mark in the story “does not mean, This is such a person’s house”; I disagree - I think it means something like, This is the house of the man who burgled our cave – I have found him and now, having marked his abode, will go and bring the 39 other Thieves so we can deal justice on his miserable head. But nobody who reads the story can disagree with Mill when he says that the chalk mark does not mean: “This is a house which contains booty”. Husserl perhaps failed to understand what Mill meant by booty, but when he says that the chalk mark indicates to the robber that this is a house to burgle he establishes that he has not read, or at least has not in mind, the story.

Despite the limitations of some of this literature, all of it is tasty and without it I would not know how to proceed. The chalk-mark on the door in the story is such an easy picture to imagine, and Mill’s basic claim that it is like a proper name in having no meaning seems so simple (at least until you take the lid of it), and yet I have found it extremely difficult to make sense of his abstract argument (and I have smoked a lot of weed trying). The next post – the first to engage substantially with Mill’s two paragraphs – begins with the curious comment by W.R. Boyce Gibson (The Problem of Logic, 1908) that the chalk-mark in the story actually means “This is the house of Ali Baba”. The reader certainly knows the house as such, but in the story the robber asks the blindfolded-cobbler whose house he has just marked, and the cobbler does not know. And yet… As I will try to show, Gibson’s reading, if wrong, seems more right than Mill’s. In other words, comments on Mill that betray igornance of the story of Ali Baba, Morgiana, and the 40 Thieves may for all that - and perhaps precisely because of that - illuminate.

Still, I wish to distinguish myself from the general run of comments on this passage in Mill’s Logic by anchoring my readings far more solidly on the story as told in the Arabian Nights. (I assume that any serious reader of these posts will, sooner or later, go and read ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ - here are two English versions.) My reading of this orphan-tale of the Arabian Nights is illuminated by the portrait of its author, Hanna Diyab, given recently by P.L. Horta in his Marvellous Thieves (2017). An educated Maronite of the merchant class of Aleppo in Syria, Diyab travelled back to Paris with one Orientalist collector and found himself helping in his research one Antoine Galland, first European translator of ‘Beowulf’, then engaged in the translation of a medieval Arabic collection of tales as Les mille et une nuits (1704-1717). Galland wanted more stories, and Diyab supplied ‘Ali Baba’ and ‘Aladdin’, which became jewels in the crown of this nineteenth-century European bestseller – a book that J.S. Mill in his Autobiography recalls reading as a child.

As Tolkien saw in relation to ‘Beowulf’, identifying an old work as nevertheless the work of an author situates it as modern, however close may be its relationship to the oral traditions of folklore. My guiding intuition in these posts is that Hanna Diyab, the author of the story, knew something that Mill did not about the mark in his story, and that his literary contrivances caught the mind of Mill in an enchantment. Put in the critical terms of Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-stories’, Mill’s passage, if highly abstract and analytical, is nevertheless founded upon a ‘fairy-element’, which appears overtly to Mill as a ‘meaningless mark’, and which leads him - and his readers - to wonder and wander deep into the realm of Faërie.