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.)

Moving Drama

In May 1869, Lewis Carroll and 13-year-old Isabel Seymour traveled together by train from Oxford to Reading, where they parted, he to go on to Guildford and she to Paddington, London. After they had separated, he realized that he had forgotten to give her her ticket. He wrote to her:

My dear Isabel,

I was so sorry to hear from Miss Lloyd of your not being well, and I hope you will not think of writing to me about ‘Alice’ till you are well enough to do so. I only write this on the chance of your being in the humour to read it, or to have it read to you. When you are in that state, I should like you to know the real reason of my having carried off your railway-ticket. … Well, you told me, you know, that it was your first railway-journey alone: naturally that set me thinking, ‘Now what can I do to give her a really exciting adventure?’

Now three plans occurred to me. The first was to wait till the train had started from Reading, and then fire a pistol through your carriage-window, so that the bullet might go near your head and startle you a little. But there were two objections to this plan — one, that I hadn’t got a loaded pistol with me, the other, that the bullet might have gone in at a wrong window, and some people are so stupid, they might not have taken it as a joke.

The second plan was to give you, just as the train left Reading, what should look like a Banbury-cake, but should afterwards turn out to be a rattlesnake. The only objection to this plan was, that they didn’t keep that kind at Reading. They had only common Banbury-cakes, which wouldn’t have done at all.

The third plan was to keep the ticket, so that you might be alarmed when you got to London. Of course I arranged thoroughly with the Guard that the thing was not to be overdone. He was to look a little stern at first, and then gradually to let his expressive features kindle into a smile of benevolence. I was very particular on this point and almost my last words to him were, ‘Are you sure you can manage the benevolence?’ and I made him practice it several times on the platform before I would let him go.

Now you know my whole plan for making your journey a real Adventure. I only hope it succeeded. So, hoping much to hear you are better again, I remain very truly yours,

C.L. Dodgson

Tale Types

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In 1916, after extensive study, French writer Georges Polti announced that all the stories in classical and modern literature could be reduced to 36 essential situations:

  1. Supplication. The Persecutor accuses the Suppliant of wrongdoing, and the Power makes a judgment against the Suppliant.
  2. Deliverance. The Unfortunate has caused a conflict, and the Threatener is to carry out justice, but the Rescuer saves the Unfortunate.
  3. Crime pursued by vengeance. The Criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the Avenger seeks justice by punishing the Criminal.
  4. Vengeance taken for kin upon kin. Two entities, the Guilty and the Avenging Kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the Victim, who is allied to both.
  5. Pursuit. The Fugitive flees Punishment for a misunderstood conflict.
  6. Disaster. The Power falls from their place after being defeated by the Victorious Enemy or being informed of such a defeat by the Messenger.
  7. Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune. The Unfortunate suffers from Misfortune and/or at the hands of the Master.
  8. Revolt. The Tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the Conspirator.
  9. Daring enterprise. The Bold Leader takes the Object from the Adversary by overpowering the Adversary.
  10. Abduction. The Abductor takes the Abducted from the Guardian.
  11. The enigma. The Interrogator poses a Problem to the Seeker and gives a Seeker better ability to reach the Seeker’s goals.
  12. Obtaining. The Solicitor is at odds with the Adversary who refuses to give the Solicitor what they Object in the possession of the Adversary, or an Arbitrator decides who gets the Object desired by Opposing Parties (the Solicitor and the Adversary).
  13. Enmity of kin. The Malevolent Kinsman and the Hated or a second Malevolent Kinsman conspire together.
  14. Rivalry of kin. The Object of Rivalry chooses the Preferred Kinsman over the Rejected Kinsman.
  15. Murderous adultery. Two Adulterers conspire to kill the Betrayed Spouse.
  16. Madness. The Madman goes insane and wrongs the Victim.
  17. Fatal imprudence. The Imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the Object Lost or wrongs the Victim.
  18. Involuntary crimes of love. The Revealer betrays the trust of either the Lover or the Beloved.
  19. Slaying of kin unrecognized. The Slayer kills the Unrecognized Victim.
  20. Self-sacrifice for an ideal. The Hero sacrifices the Person or Thing for their Ideal, which is then taken by the Creditor.
  21. Self-sacrifice for kin. The Hero sacrifices a Person or Thing for their Kinsman, which is then taken by the Creditor.
  22. All sacrificed for passion. A Lover sacrifices a Person or Thing for the Object of their Passion, which is then lost forever.
  23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones. The Hero wrongs the Beloved Victim because of the Necessity for their Sacrifice.
  24. Rivalry of superior vs. inferior. A Superior Rival bests an Inferior Rival and wins the Object of Rivalry.
  25. Adultery. Two Adulterers conspire against the Deceived Spouse.
  26. Crimes of love. A Lover and the Beloved enter a conflict.
  27. Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one. The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One.
  28. Obstacles to love. Two Lovers face an Obstacle together.
  29. An enemy loved. The allied Lover and Hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the Beloved Enemy.
  30. Ambition. The Ambitious Person seeks the Thing Coveted and is opposed by the Adversary.
  31. Conflict with a god. The Mortal and the Immortal enter a conflict.
  32. Mistaken jealousy. The Jealous One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and becomes jealous of the Object and becomes conflicted with the Supposed Accomplice.
  33. Erroneous judgment. The Mistaken One falls victim to the Cause of the Author of the Mistake and passes judgment against the Victim of the Mistake when it should be passed against the Guilty One instead.
  34. Remorse. The Culprit wrongs the Victim or commits the Sin, and is at odds with the Interrogator who seeks to understand the situation.
  35. Recovery of a lost one. The Seeker finds the One Found.
  36. Loss of loved ones. The killing of the Kinsman Slain by the Executioner is witnessed by the Kinsman Spectator.

For example, the Sherlock Holmes stories are an example of situation 3; Madame Bovary of situation 25; Romeo and Juliet of situation 29; and Crime and Punishment of situation 34. (The full text is here.) Correspondingly, he claimed, in life there are only 36 emotions, whose “unceasing ebb and flow … fills human history like the tides of the sea.”

Though he found that 36 categories were enough “to distribute fitly among them the innumerable dramas awaiting classification,” Polti felt that his system shouldn’t inhibit the creativity of future writers. “Any writer may have here a starting-point for observation and creation, outside the world of paper and print, a starting-point personal to himself.”

Fry Another Day

In the U.S. edition of Thrilling Cities, his 1963 collection of travel pieces written for the Sunday Times, Ian Fleming included a brief section describing a visit to New York by James Bond, who visits the Edwardian Room at the Plaza and orders a dry martini, smoked salmon, and “the particular scrambled eggs he had once instructed them how to make.” And in a footnote, Fleming gives the precise recipe for 007’s scrambled eggs:

Scrambled Eggs “James Bond”

12 fresh eggs
Salt and pepper
5-6 oz. of fresh butter

Break the eggs into a bowl. Beat thoroughly with a fork and season well. In a small copper (or heavy-bottomed) saucepan melt four oz. of the butter. When melted, pour in the eggs and cook over a very low heat, whisking continuously with a small egg whisk.

While the eggs are slightly more moist than you would wish for eating, remove pan from heat, add rest of butter and continue whisking for half a minute, adding the while finely chopped chives or fines herbes. Serve on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes (for appearance only) with pink champagne (Taittainger) and low music.

It serves “four individualists.”

The Inman Diaries

When chronic illness confined Boston poet Arthur Crew Inman to a darkened room, he turned inward, scribbling his thoughts and feelings into an enormous diary that eventually filled 155 volumes with 17 million handwritten words — most of them peevish:

A Lithuanian came to read to me. I disliked her at once. She was common. Her voice sounded like an ungreased axle. She spoke with a pronounced accent. She would start to read fairly well, but in short order she would become interested in the book, forget me, let the reading go as it might. I began to ask her questions. She answered in monosyllables. She used gutter slang. Her father, she said, had fled from Poland to escape the Russian term of army service. He had come to America where he had stayed for a while in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After saving some money, he took his family to Amsterdam, New York, and started a dry goods store. The girl had been one of six children. She had not learned to speak English until she was thirteen. She had gone to public school. Now she is studying music at the Boston Conservatory.

Harvard professor Daniel Aaron, who edited the diaries for publication in 1985, called them “surely one of the fullest and largest diaries ever kept by any American.” Inman would have agreed with him. “I trust to do in nonfiction what Balzac did in fiction,” he said. Perhaps he succeeded — the diaries were turned into an opera in 2007, and a film version starring John Hurt is in development.