Truth in Fiction

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.)

Podcast Episode 37: Edgar Allan Poe’s Graveyard Visitor

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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:

poe toaster

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.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Light Reading

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
Suburbia 9
Afterword by François Caradec 215
Supplement for Use in Schools 217
Index 219

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.
3. Motorcycle.
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.”

Bygones

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.)

Punchup

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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?
Romeo: Thanks.
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.
Julia: Sweetest.
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.)

Double Entendre

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.

(An onion.)

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 key.)

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.

(A churn.)

Noted

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

Safe remarks:

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.

See Observations and More Madan.

Misc

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.

(Thanks, Bob.)

In a Word

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cohonestation
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

More Madan

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

See Observations.