Everyday Semiotics

Friday, June 20, 2008

The golden semiotoscope

Hadn’t been planning to, but recently plowed through Philip Pullman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy and was intrigued by the semiotic device that makes for the title of the first book, “The Golden Compass” (1995).

Lyra Belacqua’s alethiometer (from the Greek aletheia, “truth”), is marked with 36 symbols and has an interface of three dials, through which an adept user may enter queries and get back answers. Sort of like a steampunk Google.

The symbols include: “an anchor; an hourglass surmounted by a skull; a chameleon, a bull, a beehive” (“Golden Compass,” 78) and “a baby, that a puppet … a loaf of bread” (“The Amber Spyglass,” 17).

What can the symbols be but an alphabet? And who can their augur be but a reader?

The wise Gyptian Farder Coram gives a pretty good description of the semantic chain, though he thinks he’s talking about divination:

“All these pictures round the rim,” said Farder Coram, holding it delicately toward John Faa’s blunt strong gaze, “they’re symbols, and each one stands for a whole series of things. Take the anchor, there. The first meaning of that is hope, because hope holds you fast like an anchor so you don’t give way. The second meaning is steadfastness. The third meaning is snag, or prevention, The fourth meaning is the sea. And so on, down to ten, twelve, maybe a never-ending series of meanings.”

[…]

“But how does it know what level you’re thinking of when you set the question?” said John Faa.

“Ah, by itself it don’t. It only works if the questioner holds the levels in their mind. You got to know all the meanings first, and there must be a thousand or more. Then you got to be able to hold them in your mind without fretting at it or pushing for an answer, and just watch while the needle wanders. When it’s gone round its full range, you’ll know what the answer is….”

(GC 126)

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