An Anatomy Lesson

Back in 2008 I mentioned that, as a joke, Mark Twain had slipped the word oesophagus into an otherwise innocent short story in 1902. I wrote at the time that he’d said that few people noticed anything amiss, but apparently a few did. In a letter to the Springfield Republican on April 12, Twain wrote, “I will say privately that I expected it to bother some people — in fact, that was the intention, — but the harvest has been larger than I was calculating upon. … It is time for me to speak up and stop the inquiries if I can, for letter-writing is not restful to me, and I am not having so much fun out of this thing as I counted on.”

He quotes two letters. The first is from a public instructor in the Philippines:

My Dear Sir: I have just been reading the first part of your latest story entitled ‘A Double-barrelled Detective Story,’ and am very much delighted with it. In part IV, page 264, Harpers’ magazine for January, occurs this passage: ‘far in the empty sky a solitary “oesophagus” slept, upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity and the peace of God.’ Now, there is one word I do not understand, namely, ‘oesophagus.’ My only work of reference is the ‘Standard Dictionary,’ but that fails to explain the meaning. If you can spare the time, I would be glad to have the meaning cleared up, as I consider the passage a very touching and beautiful one. It may seem foolish to you, but consider my lack of means away out in the northern part of Luzon.

The second is from a professor at a New England university:

Dear Mr. Clemens: ‘Far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing.’ It is not often I get a chance to read much periodical literature, but I have just gone through at this belated period, with much gratification and edification, your ‘Double-Barrelled Detective Story.’ But what in hell is an oesophagus? I keep one myself, but it never sleeps in the air or anywhere else. My profession is to deal with words, and oesophagus interested me the moment I lighted upon it. But as a companion of my youth used to say, ‘I’ll be eternally, co-eternally cussed’ if I can make it out. Is it a joke, or am I an ignoramus?

“Between you and me, I was almost ashamed of having fooled that man,” Twain wrote, “but for pride’s sake I was not going to say so. I wrote and told him it was a joke. … And I told him to carefully read the whole paragraph, and he would find not a vestige of sense in any detail of it.

“I have confessed. I am sorry — partially. I will not do so any more — for the present. Don’t ask me any more questions; let the oesophagus have a rest — on his same old motionless wing.”

(From Gary Scharnhorst, Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics, 2014.)


More maxims of La Rochefoucauld:

  • “Those who are deceived by our Cunning don’t appear near so ridiculous to us, as we seem to ourselves, when deceived by the Cunning of others.”
  • “The World oftner rewards the Appearance of Merit than Merit itself.”
  • “The Calm, or Disquiet, of our Temper depends not so much on Affairs of Moment; as on an agreeable, or disagreeable, Disposition of the Trifles that daily occur.”
  • “In Misfortunes we often mistake Dejection for Constancy; and we bear them, without daring to look on them; as Cowards suffer themselves to be kill’d, without Resistance.”
  • “How brilliant soever an Action may be, it ought not to pass for Great when it is not the Effect of a Great Design.”
  • “There are Crimes which become innocent, and even glorious, thro their Splendor, Number, and Excess: Hence it is, that public theft is call’d Address; and to seize on Provinces unjustly, to make Conquests.”
  • “‘Tis easier to appear worthy of the Employments we have not, than of those we have.”
  • “‘Tis difficult to love those we don’t esteem; but ’tis no less difficult to love those we esteem much more than ourselves.”
  • “Every body speaks well of his Heart, but no body dares speak well of his Head.”
  • “Flattery is a sort of bad Money to which our Vanity gives Currency.”
  • “Those who are incapable of great Crimes don’t readily suspect others of them.”
  • “Fortune breaks us of many Faults, which Reason cannot.”
  • “We easily excuse in our Friends the Faults that don’t affect us.”
  • “None are so happy, or unhappy, as they imagine.”

A One-Sided Story

Gabriel Josipovici’s 1974 short story “Mobius the Stripper” is subtitled “A Topological Exercise.” The text is written in two strips, which tell two ostensibly different stories.

The first strip tells the story of Mobius, a man of uncertain origin who feels a metaphysical need to strip, “to take off what society has put on me” and discover his true self. He takes a job at a London club, where he talks as he performs and feels his essential self emerging. In the end, though, he comes to an existential crisis, unable to find any ultimate meaning, and shoots himself in his room to provide “an example to all.”

The second strip describes the troubles of an unnamed writer who shuts the world away, eager to write something new but overcome with writer’s block and intimidated by the writers of the past. His friend Jenny urges him to see a stripper named Mobius. “It’ll change your ideas,” she says. “Give it a break and you’ll all of a sudden see the light.” In the end, desperate to overcome the block, he begins to write a story about Mobius, whom he has never seen. “Perhaps it was only one story, arbitrary, incomplete, but suddenly I knew that it would make its own necessity and in the process give me back my lost self.”

If these tales are written on either side of a strip of paper, and one end of the strip is given a half-turn and then attached to the other, they create one unending story in which Mobius’ example frees the writer, who in his story gives new fictional depth to Mobius’ struggle, which lends it greater meaning and inspiration, and so on. Mobius is described differently in the two stories, suggesting that the Mobius of the first story is largely an invention of the writer in the second story. So where does the inspiration come from?

No Answer,_1895.jpg

In 1890 the editor of the New York World invited Mark Twain to offer a message of holiday goodwill to its readers. He sent this:

It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us — the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage — may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss — except the inventor of the telephone.

Mark Twain
Hartford, Dec. 23

“To a Baby Born Without Limbs”

From Kingsley Amis’ 1966 novel The Anti-Death League:

This is just to show you whose boss around here.
It’ll keep you on your toes, so to speak,
Make you put your best foot forward, so to speak,
And give you something to turn your hand to, so to speak.
You can face up to it like a man,
Or snivvle and blubber like a baby.
That’s up to you. Nothing to do with Me.
If you take it in the right spirit,
You can have a bloody marvelous life,
With the great rewards courage brings,
And the beauty of accepting your LOT.
And think how much good it’ll do your Mum and Dad,
And your Grans and Gramps and the rest of the shower,
To be stopped being complacent.
Make sure they baptise you, though,
In case some murdering bastard
Decides to put you away quick,
Which would send you straight to LIMB-O, ha ha ha.
But just a word in your ear, if you’ve got one.
Mind you DO take this in the right spirit,
And keep a civil tongue in your head about Me.
Because if you DON’T,
I’ve got plenty of other stuff up My sleeve,
Such as Leukemia and polio,
(Which incidentally your welcome to any time,
Whatever spirit you take this in.)
I’ve given you one love-pat, right?
You don’t want another.
So watch it, Jack.

Misspellings in original. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis says Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked Kingsley in 1962, “You atheist?” He answered, “Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.”

A Writer Below

While training as an engineer, Robert Louis Stevenson dove to the foundation of a breakwater at Wick, accompanied by a worker named Bob Bain. He remembered the day in memorable prose:

“Some twenty rounds below the platform twilight fell. Looking up, I saw a low green heaven mottled with vanishing bells of white; looking around, except for the weedy spokes and shafts of the ladder, nothing but a green gloaming, somewhat opaque but very restful and delicious.”

Bain took his hand and led him through “a world of tumbled stone … pillared with the weedy uprights of the staging; overhead, a flat roof of green; a little in front, the sea wall, like an unfinished rampart.”

Presently Bain motioned him to leap onto a stone six feet high. Stevenson was incredulous at this, encumbered as he was with a heavy helmet and lead boots. “I laughed aloud in my tomb; and to prove to Bob how far he was astray, I gave a little impulse from my toes. Up I soared like a bird, my companion soaring at my side. As high as to the stone, and then higher, I pursued my impotent and empty flight.”

Bain had to restrain him from rising higher, and Stevenson felt it bitter “to return to infancy, to be supported, and directed and perpetually set upon your feet, by the hand of someone else.” He was relieved when the time came to return to the surface. “Of a sudden, my ascending head passed into the trough of a swell. Out of the green, I shot at once into a glory of rosy, almost of sanguine light, the multitudinous seas incarnadined, the heaven above a vault of crimson. And then the glory faded into the hard, ugly daylight of a Caithness autumn, with a low sky, a gray sea, and a whistling wind.”

He called this “one of the best things I got from my education as an engineer.” The article appeared in Scribner’s in 1888.

Podcast Episode 65: The Merchant Prince of Cornville

Edmond Rostand’s hit play Cyrano de Bergerac met an unexpected obstacle in 1898 — a Chicago real estate developer who claimed that it plagiarized his own play. In this week’s podcast we’ll review the strange controversy and the surprising outcome of the lawsuit that followed.

We’ll also hear an update on the German author who popularized an American West that he had never seen and puzzle over a Civil War private who refuses to fight.

Sources for our feature on Cyrano de Bergerac and The Merchant Prince of Cornville:

“Gross-Rostand Controversy,” in George Childs Kohn, New Encyclopedia of American Scandal, 2001.

Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897.

Samuel Eberly Gross, The Merchant Prince of Cornville, 1896.

Jay Pridmore, “Recalling ‘Merchant Prince’ of the 1880s,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 28, 1992.

“Chronicle and Comment,” The Bookman, November 1910.

The Critic, February 1899, p. 116.

“Samuel Gross’s Cyrano,” New York Times, June 1, 1902.

“Rostand Indignant,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 1, 1902.

“Rostand’s Champion,” The Carroll Herald, June 4, 1902.

“‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ a Plagiarism,” Boston Evening Transcript, May 21, 1902.

“The Law and the Nose,” Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 10, 1902.

“Dollar Is Spent,” The Milwaukee Journal, Sept. 17, 1902.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, Hadschi Halef Omar (retrieved July 8, 2015).

Dschinghis Khan’s disco song “Hadschi Halef Omar” is here. Translated lyrics are here.

Listener Krisztián Vida sent links to some pages and a video on “American Indians” in Central Europe.

Wikipedia, Emilio Salgari (retrieved July 8, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jackie Speir.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

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

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Truth and Fiction

In Lillian Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento, she describes a childhood friend whom she calls “Julia” who became active in the Austrian underground during World War II. The book was made into the Oscar-winning 1977 film Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.

But after the book appeared, readers noticed something peculiar. Julia strongly resembled a real person, Muriel Gardiner, a psychoanalyst. Both women were millionaires’ daughters who had attended Wellesley and Oxford, moved to Vienna to study with Freud, bore daughters, became socialists, and participated in anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi activities before the war. But where Gardiner sailed for the United States in 1939, Hellman’s Julia was tortured to death by Nazis. Hellman claimed that she flew the body home but had it cremated when she was unable to find Julia’s mother.

Despite all these similarities, Hellman insisted that Julia was a different person and said she had never heard of Gardiner. “She may have been the model for somebody else’s Julia,” she told the New York Times, “but she was certainly not the model for my Julia.” She said she refused to reveal her own Julia’s name for personal and legal reasons.

Gardiner wrote to Hellman in 1976, inquiring about all this, but never received a reply. She had kept silent about her activities for 40 years — but it’s notable that lawyer Wolf Schwabacher had socialized with Hellman in Europe while Gardiner was opposing Fascism in Vienna, and also shared a house with Gardiner after the war.

Food Fight

W.S. Gilbert’s neighbor in the country was a partner in a firm that was famous for its relishes, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves. He had been made a baronet but “had grown very touchy about the source of his wealth and his title,” recalled DeWolf Hopper, “and was rather a hoity-toity neighbor.”

One day Gilbert’s dogs killed some pheasants on the man’s property, and he wrote a curt note of protest to the author. Gilbert wrote back:

Dear Sir Alfred:

I am extremely sorry about the loss of your pheasants, and I am taking steps to prevent my dogs from trespassing on your preserves in the future.


W.S. Gilbert

P.S. You will pardon my use of the word ‘preserves,’ won’t you?

In his 1927 autobiography, Hopper also recalls:

Someone once challenged Gilbert to make up a verse offhand riming the words ‘Timbuctoo’ and ‘cassowary’. He studied for a moment and recited:

If I were a cassowary in Timbuctoo,
I’d eat a missionary and his hymn book too.

Quick Thinking

From a letter by Lewis Carroll, about 1848:

I have not yet been able to get the second volume Macaulay’s ‘England’ to read. I have seen it however and one passage struck me when seven bishops had signed the invitation to the pretender, and King James sent for Bishop Compton (who was one of the seven) and asked him ‘whether he or any of his ecclesiastical brethren had anything to do with it?’ He replied, after a moment’s thought ‘I am fully persuaded your majesty, that there is not one of my brethren who is not as innocent in the matter as myself.’

“This was certainly no actual lie,” Carroll wrote, “but certainly, as Macaulay says, it was very little different from one.”