Paradox Lost

Marcel Bénabou dreamed of producing a book-length literary work, but something always prevented him.

So in 1986 he wrote a book called Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.

“The conceit produces a kind of large-scale demonstration of the principle of antonymy,” notes Harry Mathews in The Oulipo Compendium. “His failures as a writer are what make his success possible.”

Ghosts of New York

http://richardhaas.com/section/308205_Shadow_of_the_Singer_Building_Near_the.html

Muralist Richard Haas had a romantic notion in 1975 — he proposed painting the shadows of vanished Manhattan architectural landmarks on the city’s modern buildings.

Above, the Singer building, built in 1908 and destroyed in 1967, was briefly the world’s tallest; Haas would have restored its shadow near its former site at 149 Broadway.

He also proposed restoring the shadows of St. John’s Church, on Varick Street below Canal, and the tower of Madison Square Garden, which once stood on the corner of 26th Street and Madison Avenue.

Alas, the project never went forward.

“An Election Night Pantoum”

Gaze at the good-natured crowd,
List to the noise and the rattle!
Heavens! that woman is loud –
Loud as the din of a battle.

List to the noise and the rattle!
Hark to the honk of the horn
Loud as the din of a battle!
There! My new overcoat’s torn!

Hark to the honk of the horn!
Cut out that throwing confetti!
There! My new overcoat’s torn –
Looks like a shred of spaghetti.

Cut out that throwing confetti!
Look at the gentleman, stewed;
Looks like a shred of spaghetti –
Don’t get so terribly rude!

Look at the gentleman, stewed!
Look at the glare of the rocket!
Don’t get so terribly rude,
Keep your hand out of my pocket!

Look at the glare of the rocket!
Take that thing out of my face!
Keep your hand out of my pocket!
This is a shame and disgrace.

Take that thing out of my face!
Curse you! Be decent to ladies!
This is a shame and disgrace,
Worse than traditions of Hades.

Curse you! Be decent to ladies!
(Heavens! that woman is loud.)
Worse than traditions of Hades.
Gaze at the “good-natured” crowd!

– Franklin Pierce Adams, Tobogganning on Parnassus, 1913

Unquote

“It is wonderful, when a calculation is made, how little the mind is actually employed in the discharge of any profession.” — Samuel Johnson

The Gettysburg Cyclorama

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:High_Water_Mark_from_Gettysburg.PNG

In 1883 French artist Paul Philippoteaux unveiled a remarkable painting: The Battle of Gettysburg, a single enormous canvas 22 feet high and 279 feet long that was curved into a circle so that the viewer found himself in the midst of Pickett’s Charge, the climactic assault of the Civil War.

“It is quite impossible to describe the effect which is received on first coming up out of the little passage into the midst of the picture,” marveled the Daily Transcript. “It is something as it would seem were one to become of a sudden a part of the picture. … In short, one feels quite helpless and wondering in the midst of this new and extraordinary nature. It would seem as though all these queer impressions might be at once met and settled by the simple consideration of the fact that it was only a picture. But that is just it; it is impossible to accept the thing as a picture. Not because it is absolutely natural, but because there is nothing by which to gauge the thing, one has no idea whether the canvas is ten feet distant or a thousand. And so, all means of rational judgement being removed, the spectator must remain, dazed and helpless, feeling much like the little girl in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ when told that she was but a thing in the dream of the sleeping king.”

Philippoteaux added a hidden signature: He gave his own likeness to one of the Union officers.

“Oi! Mush, Get On With It!”

The Skinhead Hamlet. Brace yourself.

Sleuthing Truths

“Twenty rules for writing detective stories,” by S.S. Van Dine, 1928:

  1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.
  5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
  6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
  7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
  8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
  9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.
  11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
  12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
  13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
  14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
  15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face — that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
  16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
  17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
  20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f) The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

“For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws,” Van Dine wrote, “unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.”

See Ten Commandments and Gumshoe Polish.

Full Credit

What Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) lacked in compositional talent he made up in imagination and a wry sense of humor. His Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1897), for example, is entirely blank.

Allais’ entries in Jules Lévy’s expositions of “Incoherent Art” — dedicated to the works of “people who do not know how to draw” — included a white rectangle titled First Communion of Anemic Young Girls in a Snowstorm. He followed this with a red rectangle titled Tomato Harvest on the Shore of the Red Sea, by Apoplectic Cardinals.

“There was also ‘sculpture’ with the punning title ‘Terre cuite (Pomme de),” writes Steven Moore Whiting in Satie the Bohemian. “Terre cuite by itself means terracotta; with the parenthetical qualifier, the title becomes ‘Baked Potato.’”

Repeat Performance

A “poem for stutterers” by Harry Mathews:

Mimi, our hours so social shall secede;
And answer surlily tie-tidied deed.

Read it aloud.

“A New Weather Cannon”

http://books.google.com/books?id=H6k0AQAAMAAJ

Ever since ‘weather shooting,’ as it is called in Germany and Switzerland, met with such pronounced success in Styria, upper ltaly, Hungary, and France, meteorologists have been engaged in a very wordy battle as to the merits of the scheme. That something has been accomplished cannot be denied. Indeed, so successful have been the efforts in preventing hailstorms in upper Italy that since the experiments of 1898 some twenty thousand stations have been established. At the Agricultural Congress held in Padua last November by far the greater number of the members were in favor of the building of ‘weathershooting’ stations. The congress was very decidedly impressed by an account of one of last summer’s hailstorms in the vicinity of Vicenza. So violent was this particular storm, the story runs, that for miles the land was completely devastated. But in this ravaged section, one spot was spared, because there it is asserted a number of stations had been located which had warded off the danger.

The shooting apparatus hitherto used has been very primitive in construction. For a cannon, a mortar with a funnel-like barrel was often used. In some places the funnel is fixed vertically in masonry. This method of mounting the cannon is not only crude, but also dangerous, for often enough serious accidents have occurred. In order to avoid these dangers as well as to improve the apparatus in general a Hungarian editor named Kanitz has devised a simple form of cannon which is essentially a breech-loading mortar some thirty feet in length. The mortar is journaled in a rotatable carriage, so that it can be raised and lowered and swung from side to side. The charge is a metallic cartridge of blasting powder. After the discharge a loud, shrill whistling is heard, lasting for about fourteen or fifteen seconds. French and Italian wine-growers insist that by means of the gun clouds are torn asunder, so that rain instead of hail falls.

The grape growers of five departments of the French Alps have formed an alliance for buying cannon and powder for next summer. The Italian government has such faith in weather-shooting that it supplies wine-growers with powder at the rate of three cents a pound.

Scientific American, April 27, 1901