Honestly, I promised myself I would write no more satire, no more faux scholarship, no more send-ups. It had grown too confusing, too dangerous for my academic career. After the scandal a few years ago, when it was announced on the Lueger Report blog that I had fabricated evidence of a journey taken by Immanuel Kant to the island of Sumatra in 1773, I learned that my scholarly community has no patience for healthy mischief. They all thought I was hoping to pass it off in earnest. The blunt-minded functionaries!
Anyhow, I'm done with that, and I really have no interest in revisiting those perilous moments. I would not have brought it up at all if farce and reality had not once again, as they so often do, conspired to come together. Again, I insist, I made the whole Sumatra voyage up. It was a total fabrication. You can therefore imagine my surprise when, just last week, I received a message from Professor Ivars Skrastiņš of the department of Baltic studies at Daugavpils University in Latvia. The subject of his message was "Kant's Sumatra voyage-- A Postscript." Naturally, I dreaded opening it. That foolish legend had got me into enough trouble already. I could not of course not open it either. I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff. Some people get drawn into Nigerian 419 scams; I get drawn into ruses of my very own invention.
I think that in order to avoid getting drawn in any more than necessary, the best thing for me to do here will be to simply relate to you the message in full and unedited, just as Skrastiņš sent it:
19 November, 2013
Dear Professor Smith,
Are you aware of that passage of the Critique of Judgement, which Paul Guyer translates in his Cambridge edition of the work as follows?
For that the [things in themselves] cannot be inferred from [human understanding], hence that those propositions are certainly valid of objects insofar as our cognitive faculty, as sensibly conditioned, is concerned with objects of these senses, but are not valid of objects in general, is evident from the unremitting demand of reason to assume some sort of thing (the original ground) as existing absolutely necessarily (272).
As you may know, Guyer provides the following footnote, signaling a correction to the phrase that occurs between parentheses toward the end of the citation: "Reading Urgrund instead of Urgund, a typographical error in both the first and second editions." This would seem an obvious editorial decision: the Riga typesetter had carelessly left out an r, generating a nonsense word, Urgund, that subsequent editors were obligated to correct. Urgrund brings together two semantic units: Ur-, which is a prefix meaning 'original', 'fundamental', or 'primordial'; and Grund, which means 'ground' or 'foundation'. Urgund by contrast attaches the same prefix to a meaningless sound.
Or does it? I had long been perfectly satisfied with Guyer's correction, until I happened to come across a curious facsimile edition, in a Riga antiquariat, of the copy of the first edition of the Kritik der Urtheilskraft in which none other than Thomas De Quincey had written his own marginal notes a few years prior to the publication of his 1827 essay, The Last Days of Immanuel Kant. I had hitherto been dismissive of this work, as it is more or less an uncredited paraphrase of Ehregott Wasianski's vastly superior and more intimate work, Immanuel Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren, first published in 1804. But what struck me was a single morsel of marginalia right next to the word Urgund. In rough but unmistakable letters, De Quincey had written, in English: "Primordial Gound."
What on earth, I thought, could this be about? Naturally, as a specialist in what the Germans call Baltistik, I immediately thought of Gūnd, the pagan god of fennel who is widely attested in inscriptions throughout the broader historical region of the Baltic tribes. Gūnd seems to have been invoked particularly at harvest time, and to have been associated with the fertility rituals that involved reciprocal beatings with bushy stalks of foeniculum vulgare by young couples who slip away at dusk amidst the high-festival chaos of the reaping season. According to Cornelius Popp's Heidnische Ritualdynamik im Baltikum des hohen Mittelalters (Greifswald, 2004), Baltic ritual associated with fennel died out in most of Latvia and Lithuania by the late 13th century, but may have endured among at least a few isolated pockets of Yotvingians in the Königsberg region until the middle of the 18th century. We may at least speculate that Kant came into contact with some of these people during his physical-geographical surveys of the region, and that what he learned of the rituals in honor of Gūnd left a deep impression, perhaps subconscious, which resurfaced years later while writing the 3rd critique.
Another possible explanation has to do with the Proto-Indo-European root *gʰōnd-, which may be related to the modern Latvian gārnis ['egret'], but is clearly well attested in both Hittite and Tocharian inscriptions as, variously, *ghond and *gand, and which denotes a sort of firebird or phoenix common to Indo-European legend, who lays giant eggs that are fertilized by the fire itself and have no other father than it. Some of these virgin-born eggs grow up into great warriors --mounted archers to be precise--, while others are simply cooked by the fire, and then stolen away by moles and desmans and other lowly creatures to be gnawed down to the very yoke. There is of course something primordial about eggs, but beyond this it is hard to see how these could possibly have been on Kant's mind during the composition of the Critique of Judgement.
My own preferred theory builds on the crucial work of Benno Klopp in his 1873 book, Die geheime Sumatrareise Immanuel Kants, which you brought back to light in your own invaluable research, and which is the reason why I am contacting you today, Professor Smith. You see, after much serious inquiry and deep meditation I am now convinced that not only did Kant go to Sumatra: he went even further. Let me explain. In George Bowman's classic article, "When Is a Yam a Bat?" (American Ethnologist 24, 1 (1972)), we learn quite a bit about the extremely unfamiliar classificatory system of the Mount Hagen peoples of inland New Guinea. Among other fundamental taxonomic categories ('grounding categories', you might say), we are introduced to the concept of gound (alternatively, goundh or goumd), which establishes a basic identity relation between the following entities: the sweet potato; the fruit bat; light (as it shines through the thatched walls of a hut); the nostrils; soup broth; a mother's pregnant belly.
I believe Kant made it all the way to New Holland, and in his voyage he encountered these people. He endeavored to understand their concept of gound, and concluded (somewhat naively) that it must be something like the Anaximandrean apeiron, the storehouse of the multiplicity of diverse forms that come forth in this world-- the fragmented glow that shines and breathes and spills out, as nature, from the dark unity behind it.
Consider again the passage from the Critique of Judgement, this time corrected back, so as to reverse the incorrect correction of the supposed typographical error:
For that the [things in themselves] cannot be inferred from [human understanding], hence that those propositions are certainly valid of objects insofar as our cognitive faculty, as sensibly conditioned, is concerned with objects of these senses, but are not valid of objects in general, is evident from the unremitting demand of reason to assume some sort of thing (the primordial Gound) as existing absolutely necessarily.
Please do not suppose I am some lunatic, Professor Smith. I know you've received plenty of messages from real lunatics, and I know you know how to tell the difference. I believed you about Sumatra, and now I'm asking you to believe me about the Gound. We think alike, you and me. Admit it, Professor Smith. I'm onto something.