Figures

tintin

I think Jacques Jouet was the first to notice this. In the first few pages of the Tintin adventure The Secret of the Unicorn, as Tintin visits the Vossenplein antique market in Brussels, Snowy the dog keeps scratching himself. Why?

Click for Answer

Stop and Go

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alesia_metro_station,_Paris_7_April_2014_003.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1990s Jacques Jouet introduced “metro poems,” poems written on the Paris Métro according to a particular set of rules. He explained the rules in a poem:

There are as many lines in a metro poem as there are stations in your journey, minus one.
The first line is composed mentally between the first two stations of your journey (counting the station you got on at).
It is then written down when the train stops at the second station.
The second line is composed mentally between the second and the third stations of your journey.
It is then written down when the train stops at the third station.
And so on.

The poet mustn’t write anything down when the train is moving, and he mustn’t compose anything when the train is stopped. If he changes lines then he must start a new stanza. He writes down the poem’s last line on the platform of the final station.

Jouet’s poem was itself composed in the Métro, according to its own rules. Presumably this type of writing could be done in any subway, but Marc Lapprand notes that the Paris system supports it unusually well: It’s dense, with 368 different stations, including 87 connecting points (or 293 nominal stations, including 55 connecting points) and a fairly short distance between them (543 meters, on average). The average run between two stations in Paris is a minute and a half, which means the poet has to think quickly in order to keep up.

Levin Becker, who tried the technique for his book 2012 Many Subtle Channels, found it surprisingly challenging: “It constrains the space around your thoughts, not the letters or words in which you will eventually fit them: you have to work to think thoughts of the right size, to focus on the line at hand without workshopping the previous one or anticipating the next.”

In April 1996 Jouet wrote a 490-verse poem while passing through every station in the Métro, following an optimized map laid out for him by a graph theorist. “At the end of those fifteen and a half hours,” he wrote, “I was very tired.”

(Jacques Jouet and Ian Monk, “Metro Poems,” AA Files 45/46 [Winter 2001], 4-14.)

Cameo

https://books.google.com/books?id=lMskAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA525

One more Sherlock Holmes oddity: “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” appeared in the Strand in 1893. In it, Holmes tells Watson, “As a medical man, you are aware, Watson, that there is no part of the body which varies so much as the human ear. Each ear is as a rule quite distinctive and differs from all other ones. In last year’s Anthropological Journal you will find two short monographs from my pen upon the subject.”

Just a few months later, in October and November 1893, the Strand published “A Chapter on Ears,” analyzing the ears of famous Britons. Interestingly, the article carries no byline. Was it inspired by the story, or is it the work of Sherlock Holmes himself?

Christopher Morley noted that one of the featured ears was that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Surely, from so retiring a philosopher, then eighty-four years old, this intimate permission could not have been had without the privileged intervention of Sherlock.”

Guidance

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soli-02.jpg

In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” Arthur Conan Doyle created an inadvertent grammatical puzzle: Who does the term “solitary cyclist” refer to? Apart from the title, the phrase appears only twice in the story:

  1. “I will now lay before the reader the facts connected with Miss Violet Smith, the solitary cyclist of Charlington, and the curious sequel of our investigation, which culminated in unexpected tragedy.”
  2. “‘That’s the man!’ I [Watson] gasped. A solitary cyclist was coming towards us. His head was down …”

The first passage describes a woman and the second a man, Bob Carruthers. Which is the solitary cyclist of the title? For 69 years Holmes fans debated the question. Those who argued for Smith read “the solitary cyclist of Charlington” as an appositive phrase, another name for “Miss Violet Smith.” Certainly Carruthers was “a” solitary cyclist, but “the” solitary cyclist was Smith.

Those who argued for Carruthers thought that “the solitary cyclist of Charlington” above was not a description of Smith but the second item in a list — that is, Watson was promising to describe three things: the facts of the case, the cyclist, and the sequel. They allowed, though, that the comma after that phrase was unusual (I gather that the serial comma wasn’t commonly used then). In the story Carruthers pursues Smith, both on bicycles, so either interpretation seems reasonable.

The matter was resolved in 1972, when Andrew Peck tracked down the original manuscript in Cornell University’s rare book room. In the title and in the first passage above Doyle had originally written “man” and then crossed it out and substituted “cyclist.” So the solitary cyclist is definitely Bob Carruthers. Another mystery solved!

(Andrew J. Peck, “The Solitary Man-uscript,” Baker Street Journal, June 1972.)

Plea

https://pixabay.com/en/earth-planet-world-globe-sun-1990298/

One sticks a finger into the ground to smell what country one is in. I stick my finger into the world — it has no smell. Where am I? What does it mean to say: the world? What is the meaning of that word? Who tricked me into this whole thing and leaves me standing here? Who am I? How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought from a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager — I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

— Kierkegaard, Repetition, 1843

Podcast Episode 179: Two Vanished Young Writers

ruess and follett

Everett Ruess and Barbara Newhall Follett were born in March 1914 at opposite ends of the U.S. Both followed distinctly unusual lives as they pursued a love of writing. And both disappeared in their 20s, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the brief lives of two promising young authors and the mystery that lingers behind them.

We’ll also patrol 10 Downing Street and puzzle over when a pigeon isn’t a pigeon.

See full show notes …

Forking Paths

British maze designer Randoll Coate produced this tribute to Jorge Luis Borges — a labyrinth of hedges shaped like an open book and spelling out the author’s name. (The original maze is in the writer’s native Argentina; Coate donated the copy above to Borges’ foundation in Venice.)

“Five years before Borges died, I had a dream in which I heard that Borges had just died,” the designer recalled. “And I thought to myself, I must make sure that Borges is not memorialized with one of those terrible statues — a depiction of angels or something. He has to be honored with something truly Borgesian, in other words, a labyrinth. That’s when I began to design it and think about it and dream up a shape for it — an extraordinary labyrinth for a man with an extraordinary mind.”

(From Francesca Tatarella, Labyrinths & Mazes, 2016.)

11/29/2017 UPDATE: Coate’s design is more sophisticated than I’d realized — from reader Daniël Hoek:

“The maze also contains a tiger, a walking stick, a question mark, the initials MK of his wife, and two hourglasses that spell the number of years Borges lived (’86’). After some effort I think I found all of those (the tiger is very cool once you find it –– you need to rotate the plan as in the attached image)”:

“PS. Another interesting tidbit: the maze in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ has the feature that you can make it through by going left at every turn. Starting at the top entrance and discounting any forced turns, that is also true of this maze, although that is a boring route that takes you around the maze and not through the center.”

Good Boy

Elisabeth Mann Borgese taught her dog to type. In her book The Language Barrier she explains that her English setter, Arli, developed a vocabulary of 60 words and 17 letters, though “He isn’t an especially bright dog.” “[Arli] could write under dictation short words, three-letter words, four-letter words, two-letter words: ‘good dog; go; bad.’ And he would type it out. There were more letters but I never got him to use more than 17.”

She began in October 1962 by training all four of her dogs to distinguish 18 designs printed on saucers; Arli showed the most promise, so she focused on him. By January 1963 he could count to 4 and distinguish CAT from DOG. Eventually she gave him a modified typewriter with enlarged keys, which she taught him to nose mechanically by rewarding him with hamburger. “No meaning at all was associated with the words,” she writes, though he did seem to associate meaning with words that excited him. “When asked, ‘Arli, where do you want to go?’ he will unfailingly write CAR, except that his excitement is such that the ‘dance’ around the word becomes a real ‘stammering’ on the typewriter. ACCACCAAARR he will write. GGOGO CAARR.”

(And it’s always tempting to discover meaning where there is none. Once while suffering intestinal problems after a long flight Arli ignored his work when she tried to get him to type GOOD DOG GET BONE, and then he stretched, yawned, and typed A BAD A BAD DOOG. This was probably just a familiar phrase that he’d chosen at random; Borgese estimated its likelihood at 1 in 12.)

Arli did earn at least one human fan — at one point Borgese showed his output to a “well-known critic of modern poetry,” who responded, “I think he has a definite affinity with the ‘concretist’ groups in Brazil, Scotland, and Germany [and an unnamed young American poet] who is also writing poetry of this type at present.”

That Explains It

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wold_Cottage_meteorite,_Treasures_Exhibition,_Natural_History_Museum_12.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1795 a 56-pound meteorite fell in Yorkshire, a few miles from the village of Wold Newton. No one was hurt, but several people saw it land, and it was still warm and smoking when curious witnesses reached it.

That got Philip José Farmer thinking. In his 1972 book Tarzan Alive, the science fiction author revealed that seven couples and their coachmen had been riding past the village when the meteorite struck only 20 yards away. “The bright light and heat and thunderous roar of the meteorite blinded and terrorized the passengers, coachmen, and horses. … They never guessed, being ignorant of ionization, that the fallen star had affected them and their unborn.”

The coach passengers included:

  • John Clayton, 3rd Duke of Greystoke, and his wife, Alicia Rutherford
  • Sir Percy Blakeney (The Scarlet Pimpernel) and his (second) wife, Alice Clarke Raffles
  • Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife, Elizabeth Bennet
  • George Edward Rutherford (the 11th Baron Tennington) and his wife, Elizabeth Cavendish, ancestors of Professor Challenger
  • Honoré Delagardie and his wife, Philippa Drummond, ancestors of Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond
  • Dr. Siger Holmes and his wife, Violet Clarke, ancestors of Sherlock Holmes
  • Sir Hugh Drummond and his wife, Lady Georgia Dewhurst, further ancestors of Hugh Drummond

The coachmen included:

  • Louis Lupin, ancestor of Arsène Lupin
  • Albert Lecoq, ancestor of Monsieur Lecoq
  • Albert Blake, ancestor of Sexton Blake

The radiation caused a genetic mutation in all of them, endowing them with extremely high intelligence and strength and producing a family tree of 92 people whose deeds have been documented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jules Verne, and others.

Farmer died in 2009, but he’s credited with pinpointing “the single cause of this nova of genetic splendor, this outburst of great detectives, scientists, and explorers of exotic worlds, this last efflorescence of true heroes in an otherwise degenerate age.” The work of uncovering the links among these remarkable people is carried on by an avid community of researchers.