“Le Real” is a kind of Sturgeon

Puys luy offrent Lamproyes à saulse d’Hippocras,
Turbotz, Poullardes, Perches, Soles, et Realz….

(Rabelais IV. lx.)

«Le real»: nom bordelais de l’esturgeon

«Le real»: espèce d’esturgeon, selon P. Lacroix

Le Real is a Kind of Sturgeon

When the word “real” first appeared in English, it meant “royal” (1350) or “a royal individual” (1399). The meaning “landed property” was first seen in 1448. The philosophical and commonsense meanings of the word appeared later: “real” as opposed to “nominal” (1519); the “real presence” in the sacrament (1559); “genuine, sincere, loyal” (1559);  “actually existing” (1597); and finally, “a Spanish coin, the real” (1612).

In Spanish and especially Portuguese, the concrete physical meanings and the royal meanings which are obsolete in English still survive. In Portuguese these are the definitions of “real”: “1. A silver coin;  2. Campground, village, royal festivity; 3. Royal, splendid, etc; 4. Real, true, honest.”  In these two  languages realista still means both “royalist” and “realist”.  In medieval Spanish, real meant “albergue de regale”, or “royal protection”, whereas realme”, somewhat like “realm”, means a line of hereditary succession to a domain. (Both of these, as well as the Portuguese “campground, village”, and the modern Spanish “king’s tent” seem to have to do with “real property” or land). In Portuguese realçar means “to elevate or make conspicuous”,  and realce means “distinction, splendor” etc. (as it does in Spanish, but there the word is seemingly restricted to fairly mundane contexts).

So what about French? In Old French, le real meant a kind of sturgeon, whereas la reale meant either a kind of royal coin, or a ship designated for the use of royalty, but neither of these terms apparently survived into modern French. In Old French, from the XIIc on réel and réelité referred to “real property”, as in English, and in modern French, the word réel now has the main meanings that “real” has in modern English, but not the royal meanings found in Middle English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Ultimately the words real and réel trace back to Latin, and it seems that there are two derivations: one from rex “king” + al, “like, -ly”, and one from res “thing” + al “like. -ly” (whence the renominalized realis, “a thinglike entity”). Presumably the first of these was developed in law and government, with special reference to property and royalty, whereas the second was developed philosophically during the realist-nominalist controversies in the universities (where the word appeared in Latin before it did in the vernacular languages.) When the two words merged, the two kinds of meanings became partly confused, and “real” confusedly came to mean both “actual” (as in “a real nightmare”), and “great or good” (as in “a real man”, which means something much more than “an actual man”). Thus Reality, like Truth,  is a function of power and property.

Now, if the “real” is thing-ish,  what does “thing” mean? In Old English, “thing” originally most often meant “assembly” and “cases treated at assemblies” — the Icelandic Allthing did not mean “a collection of things”, but “a place where cases of all kinds are discussed”. (There was even a verb thingen, meaning “to discuss or negotiate”). From the beginning, however, the word also meant “a material substance”, or “a particular object”, and “things” could mean either real or movable property. So while “thing” tends to mean something material and concrete, it also means anything that can be thought about, talked about, or dealt with.

So we could paraphrase Kant, “A hundred real reals do not contain a centavo more than a hundred possible reals.” Seemingly, The Real is the cash value — the kingly, the important, the inherited realm, landed property, and the gold and silver coins. Philosophical realism is the philosophy for which Ideas or Forms are important because they are royal, and real because they are thinglike – which seems to destroy the purpose of the Ideas, which supposedly gain their power via their distinction from mere physical objects. And in Spain and Portugal, royalty remains “real” to this day, whereas in France since 1789, even the word real itself has been banished from the language except in a historical or peninsular context. (What does Lacan have to say about all this? “The Real is impossible.” Thanks a lot, Jacques!)

But in reality, Le Real is a kind of sturgeon, as Rabelais, at least, understood.


Commentator R. Mutt passes on this bit of information: “Als Meister Eckhart das Wort im 13.Jahrhundert aus dem lateinischen “actualitas” (=”Wirksamkeit”) übersetzte, dachte der Mystiker nicht an den heutigen Wortgebrauch und den Begriff Realität, der seit dem 18.Jahrhundert underen Sprachalltag beherrscht. Er dachte vielmehr an die Geschehnisse, die aus dem Wirken oder aus dem Handeln resultieren.”

I did look at the German cognates of real and reél when I wrote this, but they didn’t seem to add anything to my point. I didn’t think to look at wirklichkeit, echt, etc. A whole different story. Commentator L. Hat points out that realçar and realçe are not really derived from real, but were derived from alçar by prefixing re. But let’s not be pedantic about this.

The Al and the Re-al

It turns out that Le Real is not, in fact, a sturgeon; that is only the exoteric, symbolic version of Le Real. Behind the superficial “Real” lies something deeper (but not more “real”): the Al (“the like”, the -ly), to which the Re-al has the same kind of re-lationship that re-production has to production, re-presentation has to presentation, and re-connaissance has to connaissance. This will made clear below.“The Real” is the re-petition or the second likeness of the Other. This dualism is a fundamental truth of ontology: all of re-ality can be described in terms of opposed pairs of abstract substantives distinguished by the prefix “re-“.

These two ontological realms have been described as primary and secondary, but this is both contradictory and redundant. “Primary” only has meaning if there is a “secondary”, so this amounts to defining the primary in terms of the secondary, whichimpossible. But in any case, this terminology is unnecessary, since the real primary term is occulted in the term “realm” itself: the repressed and forgotten primary term, the *alm, which has the same fundamental grounding relation to the “realm” as the also-long-forgotten *ality has to “reality”. No previous philosophy has properly taken account of the al / re-al difference.

Below are suggested titles for a few books on related themes — books which should virtually write themselves. (My supposed “coinages” are the crucial repressed and forgotten words obscured by three thousand years of misconceived Re-alism.)

In French:

Pétition [from péter] et Répétition [from répéter].
*Sistance et Résistance
Pondre et Repondre
*Pudiation [from pudique, *puder] et Répudiation
*Putation [from *puter, putain; cf. “computer”] et Réputation

In English:

Prehension and Reprehension (for Whiteheadians)

Once the fundamental principle has been made clear, the rest of the paradigm can easily be filled out, and an ontological explosion can be expected. This is a great opportunity for an up-and-coming young thinker.

Jouissance et Le Saumon Real

A recent discussion of the dialectics of fun brought me to the realization that fun is jouissance and jouissance is fun. This not only solves the translation problem, but also makes it easier to present Lacan’s ideas to eighteen-year-old American college freshman. Jouissance : A French word which derives from the verb jouir meaning “to have pleasure in, to enjoy, to appreciate, to savor”; with a secondary meaning, as in English, of having rights and pleasures in the use of, as in the phrases “she enjoyed good health”, “she enjoyed a considerable fortune”, and “all citizens enjoy the right of freedom of expression”. The derived noun, jouissance, has three current meanings in French: it signifies an extreme or deep pleasure; it signifies sexual orgasm; and in law, it signifies having the right to use something, as in the phrase “avoir la jouissance de quelquechose”.

The interpretation of “fun” as “extreme or deep pleasure” is unproblematic, and certainly sexual orgasm is fun. (When asked where her husband is, for example, a wife might say “Right now I’d guess he’s off having fun with some whore”). Only the third meaning of jouissance seems superficially wrong for “fun”, but consider these usages: “Since 1919 American women have had the fun of voting”. “I am now experiencing the fun of home-ownership”. “In their prime the Dakota had dominated much of the Great Plains,but after Wounded Knee the fun was over”.

“Fun”, of course, can be painful — e.g., the expressions “too much fun” or sentences of the type “He had so much fun that he couldn’t get out of bed for three days”. Lacan recognizes this:

Jouissance, for Lacan, is not a purely pleasurable experience but arises through augmenting sensation to a point of discomfort (as in the sexual act, where the cry of passion is at times indistinguishable from the cry of pain), or as in running a marathon. This brings us to the third paradigm (after the imaginarisation and the signifiantisation): the paradigm of the impossible jouissance, that is, real jouissance…. Lacan considered this Seminar as effecting a sort of scission. It constitutes a privileged reference as far as it bespeaks his third attribution to jouissance – assigned to The Real.

Now, The Real, (le real) is, as I have shown above, a fish (specifically, a kind of sturgeon). But Lacan does not speak of le real, but of le réel, contrary to his usual practice of inventing new words to give them technical meanings. Furthermore, he speaks not of a sturgeon, but of a salmon:

But sometimes desire is not to be conjured away, but appears as here, at the center of the stage, all too visibly, on the festive board, in the form of a salmon. It is an attractive-looking fish, and if it is presented, as is the custom in restaurants, under a thin gauze, the raising of this gauze creates a similar effect to that which occurred at the culmination of the ancient mysteries.

Now, why did Lacan engauze his real meaning this way? Why did he occult le real (the sturgeon), hiding it behind le réel and le saumon? To ask this question is to show that you still do not understand. If un real/reél real were to be flopped on your plate, the entire effect of Lacan’s teaching on the l’Impossible would be destroyed, and the whole process would have to be started all over again from the beginning, with even smaller prospects of success than there had been the first time.



It would seem that if Someone as important and powerful as God actually existed, His existence would not be subject to controversy. This is the skeptical disproof of the existence of God: “I doubt, therefore God does not exist”. God, if He existed, would be a Thing of such perfection that His existence could not be doubted. But His existence is doubted. Therefore, He does not exist. (And neither does She.) This kind of naive Nineteenth Century atheism is passé, partly because it’s too obvious and flat-footed, and partly because atheism doesn’t do any of the work that theism claims to be able to do. No salvation, no afterlife, no ecstasy, no grounding of ethics or politics. But the argument from skepticism has its power.

Further development of the explanation of “God”

God is of necessity too large and imposing to get lost in a sock-drawer. If you look around carefully and don’t see any God, there isn’t one. God isn’t like a ring of keys that might still show up some day. There are those who claim that Anselm’s “greatness” is not the same as “bigness”, and that “being able to hide in a sock drawer” is one of the powers of God, and in no way a deficiency. These people probably also believe that God can create a thing so heavy that he himself cannot lift it.

Rather than argue about this, though, I just added a sock-drawer proviso to my list of axioms. It is now one of the axiomatic beliefs of my creed, though also provable by reason, that Gods hiding in sock drawers would be lesser Gods. However, because of their very lesserness, they would also be strictly non-existent, since Godness is identical to absolute moreness. A real God hiding in a sock drawer would be so transcendently evident that his attempt at hiding would fail. His transcendent butt would be sticking out, and you’d just want to kick it so bad.

Coda: The butt of God

I have been asked why I would ever want to kick the butt-greater-than-which-none-can-be-imagined. That’s an easy one. If I were able to kick the butt-greater-than-which-none-can-be-imagined, I would be the ass-kicker of the universe.


Y schal do awey al substaunce which Y made,
fro the face of erthe

I recently chanced to read the Noah story in Genesis. In the King James version, Jehovah’s threat reads: For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7:4) The word “substance” caught my eye, and I decided to dig a little deeper.

Most modern translations use the words “creature”, “thing”, or “being” where the KJV (like Wycliffe’s translation in my title) uses “substance”, which comes from the Vulgate: adhuc enim et post dies septem ego pluam super terram quadraginta diebus et quadraginta noctibus et delebo omnem substantiam quam feci de superficie terrae. Now, substantiam is a Latin philosophical term, from the Greek ousia. Thus, even though Jerome was translating from the Hebrew, he had Jehovah use a Latinized Greek philosophical term to specify what it was that he planned to destroy. (The Septuagint, to which Jerome made reference, avoids the question by using “exanastasis“, ‘that which stands up [out of the earth]’, but ironically which in the NT means ‘removal’ (perhaps “taken off the earth”, as in the Noah story). If substantia is what stands beneath, exanastasis is what stands up out of, not really the same thing).

What was the Hebrew word? One correspondent replies:

“What is the basic fact of “being” for the Israelites will result from the analysis of the verb “hayah” that follows.A) The verb “hayah”: We must devote special attention to this verb not only because it occurs most frequently but also because the verbal problems discussed above are concentrated in this verb and appear in it in their most difficult form. (…) The most important meanings and uses of our verb ‘to be’ (and its equivalents in other Indo-European languages) are: (1) to express being or existence; (2) to serve as a copula. Now, as we have shown above, Hebrew and the other Semitic languages do not need a copula because of the noun clause. As a general rule, therefore, it may be said that “hayah” is not used as a copula; real or supposed exceptions to this rule will be cited later. The characteristic mark of hayah, in distinction from our verb ‘to be’, is that it is a true verb with full verbal force.

In Hebrew it is קוּםְיַה* ,haykum*. In my newer Lexicon, it is defined as “what subsists, what is living.” The older Lexicon defines *ykum* as “substance, existence” which would make *haykum* that which is substance or that which exists. I assume that the root word to it is *kum* which means “stand, arise, endure, last” but I could be wrong. *haykum* only appears three times in the Bible. Here at Gen 7:4, again at Gen 7:23, and once in Deuteronomy 11:6. In all 3 citations, the word is attached (by a hyphen-like symbol) to the word *kol* which means “all, every”. That leads me to think that this might be an idiomatic expression…… Verse 7:4b contains 9 Hebrew words (3 of which are tied together by hyphens). Most of them cannot be translated by one single English word: 1. I will wipe out 2. direct object marker (attached to) 3. all, every (attached to) 4. what subsists, what exists, substance, existence 5. which 6. I have made 7. from upon 8. the face of 9. the soil….. It would not surprise me to find out that the word *haykum* was defined as “substance” because the Latin root of substance means “to stand” as does the Hebrew root of *haykum*, and from context the word refers to things that God made and subsequently destroyed in the flood. So the Hebrew haykum means something like “standing up”. In the Septuagint (which Jerome had at hand, and which was preferred by his contemporary St. Augustine) the Jewish translators from Hebrew to Greek translated haykum as exanastasis: “that which stands up [out of the earth]”.

But Jerome instead used the word substantia, which means “standing under” or supporting”, and whose pre-philosophical meaning (in Tacitus) was “real property”, as in the English “man of substance”. (Le Real again raises its ugly snout.) Now, substantia is in fact is a direct translation or calque of an entirely different Greek word, hypostasis. However, in Christian theology hypostasis is used to mean something entirely different than substantia: the three “persons” of God as opposed to the “being” or substantia, which here translates the Greek ousia, not hypostasis. (The use of substantia to translate ousia apparently traces back to the Montanist heretic Tertullian. And just to confuse matters, Jerome also apparently coined the word supersubstantialem to mean “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer’s “daily bread”.)

So substance is property, the real is property, things stand under themselves, and the three persons and one being of God all stand both under and upon one another. Arguments over these mysteries led many men to their deaths and ultimately sent the Nestorians all the way to China.

(A second correspondent writes: I think you’d have to do some work–and it might end up impossible anyway–to show that there is anything significant in Jerome’s use of the word. Saying that ‘substantia‘ is a philosophical term is like saying that ‘substance’ is a philosophical term: true, but ‘substance’ is also a perfectly good unphilosophical word.As a technical word ‘substantia‘ was, as you already know, utterly confused by 400. For one thing it calqued hypostasis, but commonly translated its theological opposite ousia. (Substantia being what united the three separate hypostases of the Trinity.)

Next week: The three persons of God and two natures of Christ explained by analogy with the three branches of American government and the two houses of Congress. The week after that we will clarify the relationship between free will and predestination.

The Waters Above the Firmament

Evolution isn’t the only problem for creation science. There are also some troublesome passages in Genesis relating to cosmology:

And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:6-7

What are the “waters above the firmament”? For that matter, what is the firmament? It seems to mean the sky, and the idea seems to be that the firmament is something solid holding the stars in place, and that water was above the firmament, just as water surrounds the earth and is below it. The problem is that this seems to have nothing to do with the astronomical system we know about and live in. Not only liberal Christians, but most Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians give this (and many other passages in scripture) figurative or metaphorical rather than literal interpretations.

Unfortunately, the first principle of the majority of American conservative Christians is that every word of the Bible is literally true, and as a result fundamentalists evangelicals are forced to come up with some kind of explanation for “the waters above the firmament”. Eve 1400 years ago at the time of Cosmas Indicopleustes this concept was far-fetched, but when men walked on the moon in 1969 the idea became ludicrous. But the fundamentalists evangelicals soldier on, retranslating the Hebrew, postulating massive changes for which there is no evidence, and finding signs of water on Mars. They might just as well try to prove that the earth is flat, too, while they’re at it, but they never seem go quite that far any more, God knows why. (In fact, Cosmas did do that).

Let the waters that are above the heavens praise the name of the Lord Psalm 148:4

Ye waters that are above the heavens, bless the Lord. Daniel 3:60

Bonus: Christian geometry of π:

Solomon made the sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it. Kings 7:23

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s