Non-Fiction

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Sherlock Holmes is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Holmes did not exist, but he should have existed,” society chief David Giachardi said in bestowing the award in 2002. “That is how important he is to our culture. We contend that the Sherlock Holmes myth is now so deeply rooted in the national and international psyche through books, films, radio and television that he has almost transcended fictional boundaries.”

Tongue Tied

Mark Twain received this letter from a Danish customs officer in 1879:

Please to excuse that I fall with the door in the house, without first to begin with the usual long ribble-row. I want to become the autograph of the over alle the world well known Mark Twain, whose narratives so apt have procured me a laughter.

If you will answer this letter, I will be very glad. Answer me what you will; but two words. If you will not answer me other so write only, that you do not like to write autographs.

Your

Carl Jensen

It’s not known whether he responded, but on the envelope Twain wrote, “Please preserve this remarkable letter.” See Lost in Translation.

Book Talk

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A bizarre episode from Anthony Trollope’s autobiography, 1872:

I came home across America from San Francisco to New York, visiting Utah and Brigham Young on the way. I did not achieve great intimacy with the great polygamist of the Salt Lake City. I called upon him, sending to him my card, apologising for doing so without an introduction, and excusing myself by saying that I did not like to pass through the territory without seeing a man of whom I had heard so much. He received me in his doorway, not asking me to enter, and inquired whether I were not a miner. When I told him that I was not a miner, he asked me whether I earned my bread. I told him I did. ‘I guess you’re a miner,’ said he. I again assured him that I was not. ‘Then how do you earn your bread?’ I told him I did so by writing books. ‘I’m sure you’re a miner,’ said he. Then he turned upon his heel, went back into the house, and closed the door.

“I was properly punished,” Trollope conceded, “as I was vain enough to conceive that he would have heard my name.”

Parting Orders

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Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:

“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”

Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.

A Blind Pirate

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Several years after publishing Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson was abashed to discover that he had drawn much of the story from Washington Irving’s 1824 book Tales of a Traveller, which he had read many years earlier and forgotten.

“I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther,” he wrote later. “The book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones, his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters — all were there, all were the property of Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning’s work to the family.”

This is an instance of cryptomnesia, the mistaking of a forgotten memory for an original idea. Stevenson charged himself with plagiarism, but he had honestly believed he was writing a new story: “It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye.” In reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Carl Jung was surprised to discover “almost word for word” an incident reported in a ship’s log in 1686. Jung recognized the passage from a book published around 1835, about 50 years before Nietzsche was writing. He contacted the philosopher’s sister, who confirmed that the two of them had read the book when Nietzsche was 11 years old.

“I think, from the context, it is inconceivable that Nietzsche had any idea that he was plagiarizing this story,” Jung wrote. “I believe that fifty years later it had unexpectedly slipped into focus in his conscious mind.”

The Mummies of Guanajuato

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1833 a cholera outbreak struck Guanajuato, Mexico, and the dead were buried in a local cemetery. Sixty-three years later, in 1896, city officials levied a fee on burial plots, and poor families had to agree to have their dead relatives disinterred. They were horrified to discover not skeletons but grotesquely preserved bodies, contorted into nightmarish postures and facial expressions. The region’s climate and soil conditions had combined to preserve the corpses.

The city has put 119 of the bodies, some still bearing hair, eyebrows, and folds of skin, on display. Author Tom Weil writes, “In the figures one sees both the living and the departed, death with a human face and humanity with the skull beneath the skin.”

Ray Bradbury, who visited the museum in the 1940s, wrote, “They looked as if they had leaped, snapped upright in their graves, clutched hands over their shriveled bosoms and screamed, jaws wide, tongues out, nostrils flared. And been frozen that way. All of them had open mouths. Theirs was a perpetual screaming.

“The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ill-Favored

harold ross

New Yorker founder Harold Ross was a brilliant magazine editor, but his personal appearance was distinctly unprepossessing. “His hair sticks straight up, his teeth stick straight out, his eyes slant, and his expression is always that of a man who had just swallowed a bug,” wrote Ogden Nash. Alexander Woollcott said he looked like a dishonest Abe Lincoln.

Staff member Janet Flanner remembered, “His face was homely, with a pendant lower lip; his teeth were far apart, and when I first knew him, after the First World War, he wore his butternut-colored thick hair in a high, stiff pompadour, like some gamecock’s crest.”

Indeed, Ross’ first wife said he was the homeliest man she’d ever met. “There was certainly a mismating of his head, his hands and his feet to his gaunt, angular body; his hands, though he learned to use them gracefully, were too large; so were his feet, and his ears and his mouth were also oversized; his tongue was a real problem and he was really more comfortable when he let it hang over his loose lower lip, as he did when he was relaxed or was thinking hard.”

At least it gave fodder to his friends. At a poker game, Franklin Pierce Adams announced that he’d just seen Harold Ross toboganning.

“For God’s sake — Ross toboganning!” said George S. Kaufman. “Did he look funny?”

“Well,” Adams said, “you know how he looks not toboganning.”

Character Study

There is a game — in the 1950s it used to be played by members of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — called ‘Smoke.’ It works as follows. The player who is ‘it’ chooses some famous person with whom everyone playing is surely acquainted (Harry Truman, Marlon Brando, Chairman Mao, Charles DeGaulle, for instance) and tells the other players, ‘I am a dead American,’ ‘I am a living American,’ ‘I am a dead Asian,’ ‘I am a dead European’; and then each of the other players in turn asks one question of the person who is ‘it,’ such as, ‘What kind of smoke are you?’ (cigarette, pipe, cigar — or, more specifically, L&M, Dunhill, White Owl) or ‘What kind of weather are you?’ ‘What kind of insect are you?’ or ‘What kind of transportation?’ The person who is ‘it’ answers not in terms of what kind of smoke his character would like, if any, but what kind of smoke he would be if, instead of being human, he were a smoke, or what kind of weather, insect, transportation, and so forth, he would be if reincarnated as one of those. Thus, for example, Kate Smith if an insect would be a turquoise beetle; Marlon Brando, if weather, would be sultry and uncertain, with storm warnings out; and as a vehicle of transporation Harry Truman would be (whatever he may in fact have driven) a Model T Ford. What invariably happens when this game is played by fairly sensitive people is that the whole crowd of questioners builds a stronger and stronger feeling of the character, by unconscious association, until finally someone says the right name — ‘Kate Smith!’ or ‘Chairman Mao!’ — and everyone in the room feels instantly that that’s right. There is obviously no way to play this game with the reasoning faculty, since it depends on unconscious associations or intuition; and what the game proves conclusively for everyone playing is that our associations are remarkably similar. When one of the players falls into some mistake, for instance, saing that Mr. Brezhnev of the U.S.S.R. is a beaver instead of, more properly, a crafty old woodchuck, all the players at the end of the game are sure to protest, ‘You misled us when you said “beaver.”‘ The game proves more dramatically than any argument can suggest the mysterious rightness of a good metaphor — the one requisite for the poet, Aristotle says, that cannot be taught.

— John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, 1978

Saying Nothing

In a historic passage Mallarmé describes the terror, the sense of sterility, that the poet experiences when he sits down to his desk, confronts the sheet of paper on which his poem is supposed to be composed, and no words come to him. But we might ask, why could not Mallarmé, after an interval of time, have simply got up from his chair and produced the blank sheet of paper as the poem that he sat down to write? Indeed, in support of this, could one imagine anything that was more expressive of, or would be held to exhibit more precisely the poet’s feelings of inner devastation than the virginal paper?

— Richard Wollheim, “Minimal Art,” in Minimal Art, ed. Gregory Battcock, 1968

Author!

How do I know that I’m not just a fictional character in some imagined story? What could I learn about myself that would prove that I’m real? “I am human, male, brunette, etc., but none of that helps,” writes UCLA philosopher Terence Parsons. “I see people, talk to them, etc., but so did Sherlock Holmes.”

Descartes would say that the very fact that I’m thinking about this shows that I exist: cogito ergo sum. But a fictional character could make the same argument. “Hamlet did think a great many things,” writes Jaakko Hintikka. “Does it follow that he existed?” Robert Nozick adds, “Could not any proof be written into a work of fiction and be presented by one of the characters, perhaps one named ‘Descartes’?”

Tweedledee tells Alice that she’s only a figment of the Red King’s dream. “If that there King was to wake,” adds Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!”

Alice says, “Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.”

“Well, it’s no use YOUR talking about waking him,” replies Tweedledum, “when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.”

“It seems to me that this is a philosophical problem that deserves to be treated seriously on a par with issues like the reality of the external world and the existence of other minds,” Parsons writes. “I don’t know how to solve it.”

(Terence Parsons, Nonexistent Objects, 1980; Charles Crittenden, Unreality, 1991; Robert Nozick, “Fiction,” Ploughshares 6:3 (1980), pp. 74-78; Jaakko Hintikka, “Cogito, Ergo Sum: Inference or Performance?”, The Philosophical Review, 71:1 (January 1962), pp. 3-32.)