The first movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 29, the Hammerklavier, bears a puzzlingly fast tempo marking, half-note=138. Most pianists play it considerably more slowly, judging that the indicated tempo would test the limits of the player’s technique and the listeners’ comprehension.
Well, most listeners. In Fred Hoyle’s 1957 science fiction novel The Black Cloud, an intelligent cloud of gas enters the solar system and establishes communication with the earth. It demonstrates a superhumanly subtle understanding of any information that’s transmitted to it. As scientists are uploading a sampling of Earth music, a lady remarks, “The first movement of the B Flat Sonata bears a metronome marking requiring a quite fantastic pace, far faster than any normal pianist can achieve, certainly faster than I can manage.”
The cloud considers the sonata and says, “Very interesting. Please repeat the first part at a speed increased by thirty percent.”
When this is done, it says, “Better. Very good. I intend to think this over.”
In the 1970 Scientific American article “How Snakes Move,” Carl Gans points out an oddity in a Sherlock Holmes story:
In ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ Sherlock Holmes solves a murder mystery by showing that the victim has been killed by a Russell’s viper that has climbed up a bell rope. What Holmes did not realize was that Russell’s viper is not a constrictor. The snake is therefore incapable of concertina movement and could not have climbed the rope. Either the snake reached its victim some other way or the case remains open.
This is indeed perplexing. If it’s not a fact that vipers can climb ropes, then how did Holmes solve the case? If vipers can climb ropes in Holmes’ world but not in ours, then how can we follow his reasoning in other matters? What other features of Holmes’ world differ from ours?
One way out: “The story never quite says that Holmes was right that the snake climbed the rope,” notes philosopher David Lewis. So perhaps the snake did reach its victim in some other way and Holmes was simply wrong.
(David Lewis, “Truth in Fiction,” American Philosophical Quarterly, January 1978.)
For most of the 20th century, a man in black appeared each year at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. In the predawn hours of January 19, he would drink a toast with French cognac and leave behind three roses in a distinctive arrangement. No one knows who he was or why he did this. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we review the history of the “Poe Toaster” and his long association with the great poet’s memorial.
We’ll also consider whether Winnie-the-Pooh should be placed on Ritalin and puzzle over why a man would shoot an unoffending monk.
Sources for our segment on the Poe Toaster:
“Mystery Man’s Annual Visit to Poe Grave,” China Daily, Jan. 20, 2008.
“Poe Toaster Remains a Mystery,” WBAL Radio, Jan. 19, 2013.
“‘Toaster’ Rejects French Cognac at Poe’s grave,” Washington Times, Jan. 19, 2004.
Sarah Brumfield, “Poe Fans Call an End to ‘Toaster’ Tradition,” AP News, Jan. 19, 2012.
Liz F. Kay, “Poe Toaster Tribute Is ‘Nevermore’,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 19, 2010.
Michael Madden, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Poe Toaster,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 26, 2011.
Mary Carole McCauley, “Poe Museum Could Reopen in Fall,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 20, 2013.
Ben Nuckols and Joseph White, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Mysterious Birthday Visitor Doesn’t Show This Year,” Huffington Post, March 21, 2010 (accessed Dec. 1, 2014).
Here’s the only known photo of the toaster, taken at his 1990 apparition and published in the July 1990 issue of Life magazine:
The psychiatric diagnoses of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends appear in Sarah E. Shea, Kevin Gordon, Ann Hawkins, Janet Kawchuk, and Donna Smith, “Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective on A.A. Milne,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 12, 2000.
Many thanks to Harry’s for supporting this week’s episode. Enter coupon code CLOSETHOLIDAY and get $5 off a Winter Winston set at Harrys.com.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening!
French writer Paul Fournel’s 1990 novel Suburbia begins conventionally enough:
Table of Contents
A Word from the Publisher vi
Foreword by Marguerite Duras vii
An Introductory Note by the Author viii
Afterword by François Caradec 215
Supplement for Use in Schools 217
And the “Word from the Publisher” promises that “the quality of this little novel, now that passions have subsided, has emerged ever more forcefully.” But the first page is blank except for four footnotes:
1. In French in the original.
2. Concerning the definition of suburb, see the epigraph et seq.
3. What intention on the author’s part does this brutal opening suggest?
4. Local judge.
The same thing happens on the second page:
1. Notice how Norbert comes crashing onto the scene.
2. This passage is a mixture of backslang and immigrant jargon. Transpose into normal English.
4. Obscene gesture.
And so on — except for footnotes, all the pages in Suburbia are blank. “In Suburbia Fournel was not attempting to give some postmodernist exploration of the nature of literature,” explains Robert Tubbs in Mathematics in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (2014). “Suburbia, instead, was written according to the lipogrammatic constraint that it contain no letters or symbols. This constraint force Fournel to write a textless narrative. Because of the footnotes on each page, it has content — it is not an empty text; it is simply a textless text, a text that just happens not to contain any words.”
The epilogue of The Time Machine contains this strange passage:
One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now — if I may use the phrase — be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age.
What indeed can “now” mean in this context? If the Time Traveller’s life ended on a prehistoric beach, argues philosopher Donald C. Williams, then surely this became an established fact on the day that it happened. If the concept of time is to have any coherence, then history is a tapestry that is eternal and unchanging; to say that it can be changed “at” some future moment seems to be a flat contradiction. “At” where?
“Time travel,” Williams writes, “is analyzable either as the banality that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one we occupied before, or the contradiction that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one which we are then occupying — that five minutes from now, for example, I may be a hundred years from now.”
(Donald C. Williams, “The Myth of Passage,” Journal of Philosophy, July 1951.)
In order to restore Shakespeare to popularity in the 1930s, the theater critic and satirist A.E. Wilson suggested getting Noël Coward to rewrite Romeo and Juliet:
Julia (sweetly): O, Ro, must you be going? It isn’t four o’clock yet. Another cocktail, darling?
Julia: And anyway, don’t be stupid, darling. That wasn’t the lark, silly. It was the thingummyjig, believe me.
Romeo: Rot; it was the lark. The beastly thing’s always singing at this devastating hour of the morning. And it’s getting light and I’d rather leave and live than be caught by your beastly husband and kicked out.
Julia (yawning): Oh, very well, then. Have it your own way, darling.
Romeo: Beastly fag getting up. I’ll stay. Give me another cocktail.
Romeo (drinking cocktail): Angel face. (A pause.) But it wasn’t a nightingale.
Julia: It was.
Romeo: Oh, do shut up talking about it. You make me sick.
Julia (sweetly insistent): But dearest, it was the nightingale.
Romeo: Oh, what does it matter, you ass. Let’s get back to bed and forget it. (They go.)
(From Gordon Snell, The Book of Theatre Quotes, 1982.)
The Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry from the 10th century, contains three riddles that seem shockingly risqué until you see the answers:
I’m a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
a service to the neighbors! No one suffers
at my hands except for my slayer.
I grow very tall, erect in a bed,
I’m hairy underneath. From time to time
a good-looking girl, the doughty daughter
of some churl dares to hold me,
grips my russet skin, robs me of my head
and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
with plaited hair who has confined me
remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens.
A strange thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
hidden by a garment. It has a hole
in its head. It is stiff and strong
and its firm bearing reaps a reward.
When the man hitches his clothing high
above his knee, he wants the head
of that hanging thing to poke the old hole
(of fitting length) it has often filled before.
A young man made for the corner where he knew
she was standing; this strapping youth
had come some way — with his own hands
he whipped up her dress, and under her girdle
(as she stood there) thrust something stiff,
worked his will; they both shook.
This fellow quickened: one moment he was
forceful, a first-rate servant, so strenuous
that the next he was knocked up, quite
blown by his exertion. Beneath the girdle
a thing began to grow that upstanding men
often think of, tenderly, and acquire.
Further excerpts from the notebooks of English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947):
Two psychiatrists meeting: “You’re pretty well, how am I?”
Children: unable to understand the concept of uncertainty.
1. Every subject of the Crown is entitled to make pickles.
2. Every man must bear the name of his father.
— Sir John Markham, Chief Justice, 1465
Pedantry is greater accuracy than the case requires.
“Drink … prevents you seeing yourself as others see you.” — Desmond MacCarthy
1. To inaudible remark: “That’s just what I’ve been wondering all the evening.”
2. “I can never remember how you spell your name.” (But G.M. Young quoted the man who wearily replied, “Still J-O-N-E-S.”)
“So they went forth both, and the young man’s dog with them.” — Tobit 5:16: the only mention in the Bible of a pet animal
The dust of exploded beliefs may make a fine sunset.
A fragment from Robert Frost’s notebook on “Democracy”:
Cancellation Club. A mens club for rendering womens vote ineffective by voting the other way. One woman said No matter if her vote was offset. She only voted to assert herself — not to win elections.
A word-level palindrome by Allan Miller (from Mad Amadeus Sued a Madam):
MAYBE GOD CAN KNOW ALL WE DO; WE ALL KNOW, CAN GOD? MAYBE …
Detractors of Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody said that three of the state’s towns had been named for him: Peabody, Marblehead, and Athol.
“I read the Tchechov aloud. I had read one of the stories myself and it seemed to me nothing. But read aloud, it was a masterpiece. How was that?” — Katherine Mansfield, journal, 1922
Dryden’s epitaph on his wife:
Here lies my wife, here let her lie;
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.
n. honouring with one’s company
William Cobbett, a writer who was to plague Noah for many years, probably invented one piece of Websterian apocrypha. Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom Noah had cultivated, supposedly met him upon his arrival and said: ‘How do you do, my dear friend. I congratulate you on your arrival in Philadelphia.’
‘Sir,’ Webster allegedly replied, ‘you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion.’
— John S. Morgan, Noah Webster, 1975
Further excerpts from the notebooks of Geoffrey Madan:
“Curious how much more room dirty clothes take up than clean ones, when you’re packing — quite out of proportion to the amount of dirt they contain.” — Claud Russell
Sworded/sordid: an absurd homonym.
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which has to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” — F.H. Bradley
Hua [French master at Eton] and Warre could neither pronounce the other’s name, but each made the same sound in the attempt.
The fascination, to a crowd, of anything going up the side of a building on a rope or lift: exceedingly primitive.
“A hamper is undoubtedly requisite under the present circumstances. It must contain several pots of superior jam.” — Lord Curzon, aged 9, writing from school
NO ROAD BEYOND THE CEMETERY — Opinion of the Slough Borough Council, placed on a notice-board near Bourne End Church
Science fiction writer Murray Leinster predicted the Internet in 1946:
I got Joe, after Laurine nearly got me. You know the logics setup. You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It’s hooked in to the tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays. Say you punch ‘Station SNAFU’ on your logic. Relays in the tank take over an’ whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin’ comes on your logic’s screen. Or you punch ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration or what is PDQ and R sellin’ for today, that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation an’ all the recorded telecasts that ever was made — an’ it’s hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country — an’ everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an’ you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, an’ keeps books, an’ acts as consultin’ chemist, physicist, astronomer, an’ tea-leaf reader, with a ‘Advice to the Lovelorn’ thrown in. The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, ‘Oh, you think so, do you?’ in that peculiar kinda voice. Logics don’t work good on women. Only on things that make sense.
More wisdom from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- Diligence is the mother of good luck.
- Caesar did not merit the triumphal car more than he that conquers himself.
- Where Sense is wanting, everything is wanting.
- None are deceived, but they that confide.
- Approve not of him who commends all you say.
- Despair ruins some, Presumption many.
- ‘Tis easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.
- Suspicion may be no fault, but showing it may be a great one.
- Men take more pains to mask than mend.
- As charms are nonsense, nonsense is a charm.
- As sore places meet most rubs, proud folks meet most affronts.
- Admiration is the daughter of ignorance.
- Honours change manners.
- Without justice courage is weak.
- A good man is seldom uneasie, an ill one never easie.
- A wicked hero will turn his back to an innocent coward.
- It is Ill-manners to silence a Fool, and Cruelty to let him go on.
“Bis dat qui cito dat,” he wrote. “He gives twice that gives soon; i.e. he will soon be called upon to give again.”
T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, shared his lonely life with a beloved Irish setter, Brownie, whom he called his child, wife, and mother, “myself with melting eye.” “It is a queer difference between this kind of thing and getting married,” he wrote, “that married people love each other at first (I understand) and it fades by use and custom, but with dogs you love them most at last.” In late November 1944 his friend David A. Garnett received this letter:
Dearest Bunny, Brownie died today. In all her 14 years of life I have only been away from her at night for 3 times, once to visit England for 5 days, once to have my appendix out and once for tonsils (2 days), but I did go in to Dublin about twice a year to buy books (9 hours away) and I thought she understood about this. To-day I went at 10, but the bloody devils had managed to kill her somehow when I got back at 7. She was in perfect health. I left her in my bed this morning, as it was an early start. Now I am writing with her dead head in my lap. I will sit up with her tonight, but tomorrow we must bury her. I don’t know what to do after that. I am only sitting up because of that thing about perhaps consciousness persisting a bit. She has been to me more perfect than anything else in all my life, and I have failed her at the end, an 180-1 chance. If it had been any other day I might have known that I had done my best. These fools here did not poison her — I will not believe that. But I could have done more. They kept rubbing her, they say. She looks quite alive. She was wife, mother, mistress & child. Please forgive me for writing this distressing stuff, but it is helping me. Her little tired face cannot be helped. Please do not write to me at all about her, for very long time, but tell me if I ought to buy another bitch or not, as I do not know what to think about anything. I am certain I am not going to kill myself about it, as I thought I might once. However, you will find this all very hysterical, so I may as well stop. I still expect to wake up and find it wasn’t. She was all I had.
love from TIM
Another letter followed:
Dear Bunny, Please forgive me writing again, but I am so lonely and can’t stop crying and it is the shock. I waked her for two nights and buried her this morning in a turf basket, all my eggs in one basket. Now I am to begin a new life and it is important to begin it right, but I find it difficult to think straight. It is about whether I ought to buy another dog or not. I am good to dogs, so from their point of view I suppose I ought. But I might not survive another bereavement like this in 12 years’ time, and dread to put myself in the way of it. If your father & mother & both sons had died at the same moment as Ray, unexpectedly, in your absence, you would know what I am talking about. Unfortunately Brownie was barren, like myself, and as I have rather an overbearing character I had made her live through me, as I lived through her. Brownie was my life and I am lonely for just such another reservoir for my love. But if I did get such reservoir it would die in about 12 years and at present I feel I couldn’t face that. Do people get used to being bereaved? This is my first time. I am feeling very lucky to have a friend like you that I can write to without being thought dotty to go on like that about mere dogs.
They did not poison her. It was one of her little heart attacks and they did not know how to treat it and killed her by the wrong kindnesses.
You must try to understand that I am and will remain entirely without wife or brother or sister or child and that Brownie supplied more than the place of these to me. We loved each other more and more every year.
He wrote later, “I have found … that the people who consider too close an affection between men and animals to be ‘unnatural’ are basing their prejudice on something real. It is the incompatibility of ages. It is in Lucretius. He says that centaurs cannot exist because the horse part would die before the man part. All I can do now is to remember her dead as I buried her, the cold grey jowl in the basket, and not as my heart’s blood, which she was for the last eight years of our twelve. I shall never be more than half a centaur now.”
“Sorts of readers,” categorized for you by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
1. Spunges that suck up every thing and, when pressed give it out in the same state, only perhaps somewhat dirtier — . 2. Sand Glasses — or rather the upper Half of the Sand Glass, which in a brief hour assuredly lets out what it has received — & whose reading is only a profitless measurement and dozeing away of Time — . 3. Straining Bags, who get rid of whatever is good & pure, and retain the Dregs. — and this Straining-bag class is again subivided into Species of the Sensual, who retain evil for the gratification of their own base Imaginations, & the calumnious, who judge only by defects, & to whose envy a beauty is an eye-sore, a fervent praise respecting another a near-grievance, and the more virulent in its action because the miserable man does not dare confess the Truth to his own Heart — . 4. and lastly, the Great-Moguls Diamond Sieves — which is perhaps going farther for a Simile than its superior Dignity can repay, inasmuch as a common Cullender would have been equally symbolic/ but imperial or culinary, these are the only good & I fear the least numerous, who assuredly retain the good, while the superfluous or impure passes away and leaves no trace.
(From his 1808 Lectures on Principles of Poetry.)
In 1870, John Chippendall Montesquieu Bellew offered a sort of lip-synched Hamlet, in which he read the text at the front of the stage while performers dressed in character acted it out in dumbshow. “The dummies, with the exception of Hamlet, acted but indifferently,” wrote one reviewer. “The gentleman who doubled the characters of Polonius and the First Gravedigger disdained to open his mouth at all, whilst the representative of the King was evidently under the impression that his lips were in the region of his eyebrows, as he moved the latter up and down with great vigour. At present the performance has the attraction of novelty, but we doubt whether it will have a lasting success.”
And in 1809 one Jack Matthews offered a “dog Hamlet,” in which “the Prince of Denmark in every scene was attended by a large black dog, and in the last, the sagacious animal took upon himself the office of executioner by springing upon the king and putting an end to his wicked career in the usual orthodox fashion.”
Punch noted, “Yet surely the play has seldom been acted without the assistance of a great Dane.”
Excerpts from the notebooks of English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947):
Sun sets on 5 May exactly behind the Arc de Triomphe.
There is a social level at which intellect is superfluous; and an intellectual level at which rank is invisible.
The odd fact that one sees Paddington as two such different places when arriving and when departing. [Elsewhere he says this is “perhaps the difference between life seen in youth and old age.”]
“Why is no food blue?” — Jane Asquith (aged 7)
“Society of Contradictory Overseers.” — Attempt by the Chinese Ambassador in 1881 to convey the sense of “Protestant Episcopal Church”
Influenza symptoms seem only a slight intensification of one’s ordinary attitudes to life: disinclination to get up, etc.
“Omlet, Omlet, dies is dein Feyder’s spooke.” — Dutch Hamlet
“My dear, you’re the only woman in the world who’d have known the right hat to wear on an occasion like this.” — Oscar Wilde, to Mrs. Leverson, on his coming out of prison
Finnegans Wake is punctuated by ten thunderclaps, which occur at moments of crisis in the text. “A situation is presented, developed, and subjected to increasing stress until, with the thunder, a collapse, and suddenly a complementary situation that was latent in the first is seen to be in place,” writes scholar Eric McLuhan.
Like everything in Joyce, the claps’ meaning is open to question, but they’re not arbitrary: Each of the first nine words contains exactly 100 letters, and the tenth has 101. Joyce, who called thunder “perfect language,” had apparently adjusted the spelling of the thunderclaps as the book took shape: McLuhan found tick marks in Joyce’s galley proofs, “the only evidence of actual letter-counting I have found in any of the manuscripts, typescripts, proofs, and galleys.”
(Eric McLuhan, The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, 1997.)
Aladdin, the best-known of the tales in the Arabian Nights, is not an authentic folk tale — it was written and inserted into the book by its French translator, Antoine Galland, in 1709.
Galland said that he’d heard the story from a Syrian monk, but there’s no precedent for it in the Arabic tradition — the story was unknown until Galland published it.
In 1980 Philip K. Dick was asked to forecast some significant events in the coming years. Among his predictions:
1983: The Soviet Union will develop an operational particle-beam accelerator, making missile attack against that country impossible. At the same time the U.S.S.R. will deploy this weapon as a satellite killer. The U.S. will turn, then, to nerve gas.
1989: The U.S. and the Soviet Union will agree to set up one vast metacomputer as a central source for information available to the entire world; this will be essential due to the huge amount of information coming into existence.
1993: An artificial life form will be created in a lab, probably in the U.S.S.R., thus reducing our interest in locating life forms on other planets.
1997: The first closed-dome colonies will be successfully established on Luna and on Mars. Through DNA modification, quasi-mutant humans will be created who can survive under non-Terran conditions, i.e., alien environments.
1998: The Soviet Union will test a propulsion drive that moves a starship at the velocity of light; a pilot ship will set out for Proxima Centaurus, soon to be followed by an American ship.
2000: An alien virus, brought back by an interplanetary ship, will decimate the population of Earth, but leave the colonies on Luna and Mars intact.
2010: Using tachyons (particles that move backward in time) as a carrier, the Soviet Union will attempt to alter the past with scientific information.
Also: “Computer use by ordinary citizens (already available in 1980) will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained, information-processing experts.”
(From David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace, The Book of Predictions, 1980.)
“The German long word is not a legitimate construction, but an ignoble artificiality, a sham,” wrote Mark Twain. “Nothing can be gained, no valuable amount of space saved, by jumbling the following words together on a visiting card: ‘Mrs. Smith, widow of the late Commander-in-chief of the Police Department,’ yet a German widow can persuade herself to do it, without much trouble: ‘Mrs.-late-commander-in-chief-of-the-police-department’s-widow-Smith.'” He gives this anecdote in his autobiography:
A Dresden paper, the Weidmann, which thinks that there are kangaroos (Beutelratte) in South Africa, says the Hottentots (Hottentoten) put them in cages (kotter) provided with covers (lattengitter) to protect them from the rain. The cages are therefore called lattengitterwetterkotter, and the imprisoned kangaroo lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte. One day an assassin (attentäter) was arrested who had killed a Hottentot woman (Hottentotenmutter), the mother of two stupid and stuttering children in Strättertrotel. This woman, in the German language is entitled Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutter, and her assassin takes the name Hottentotenstrottermutterattentäter. The murderer was confined in a kangaroo’s cage — Beutelrattenlattengitterwetterkotter — whence a few days later he escaped, but fortunately he was recaptured by a Hottentot, who presented himself at the mayor’s office with beaming face. ‘I have captured the Beutelratte,’ said he. ‘Which one?’ said the mayor; ‘we have several.’ ‘The Attentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte.’ ‘Which attentäter are you talking about?’ ‘About the Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutterattentäter.’ ‘Then why don’t you say at once the Hottentotenstrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte?’
He calls the long word “a lazy device of the vulgar and a crime against the language.”
Washington University philosopher Roy Sorensen dedicated his 2003 book A Brief History of the Paradox “to those who never have a book dedicated to them.”
Despite being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Wallace Stevens held down a full-time career as an insurance lawyer. He took a job at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916, at age 36, and worked there until his death in 1955.
He composed his poems on hour-long walks that he took during his lunch break, stopping periodically to scribble lines on the half-dozen or so envelopes that were always in his pockets. He would also pause occasionally at work to record fragments of poems, which he kept filed in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk. Then he would hand the collected fragments to his secretary for typing.
He was promoted to vice president in 1934 but declined all further opportunities for advancement. His colleagues knew of his poetry, but he avoided talking about it, and he earned a reputation as “the grindingest guy … in executive row”: Working diligently and largely alone, he came to be considered “the dean of surety-claims men in the whole country” and “absolutely the diamond in the tiara” of his company.
“I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once wrote. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.”
Most stories are told in the past tense. “It was a dark and stormy night.” In reading the story we understand that the storm is happening “now,” in the present, but the language that communicates this to us places it in the past.
This is a strange way of managing things. Imagine reading a novel using a bookmark. Everything to the left of the bookmark is in the past, already known. Everything to the right is in the future, not yet known. Our current location, at the bookmark, is someone else’s present narrated in the past tense. And this implies that there’s some future present in relation to which “current” events are past.
“If the past is to be read as present, it is a curious present that we know to be past in relation to a future we know to be already in place, already in wait for us to reach it,” writes Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot (1984). “Perhaps we would do best to speak of the anticipation of retrospection as our chief tool in making sense of narrative, the master trope of its strange logic.”
(From Mark Currie, About Time, 2007.)