Time Passages


In ordinary life we shift frequently between observing the world before us and summoning impressions from memory. Reproducing this experience in fiction can require an immense sophistication of the reader. In Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1983), Gérard Genette examines a passage from Proust’s Jean Santeuil in which Jean finds the hotel in which lives Marie Kossichef, whom he once loved, and compares his impressions with those that he once thought he would experience today:

“Sometimes passing in front of the hotel he remembered the rainy days when he used to bring his nursemaid that far, on a pilgrimage. But he remembered them without the melancholy that he then thought he would surely someday savor on feeling that he no longer loved her. For this melancholy, projected in anticipation prior to the indifference that lay ahead, came from his love. And this love existed no more.”

Understanding this one paragraph requires shifting our focus between the present and the past nine times. If we designate the sections by consecutive letters, and if 1 is “once” and 2 is “now,” then A goes in position 2 (“Sometimes passing in front of the hotel he remembered”), B goes in position 1 (“the rainy days when he used to bring his nursemaid that far, on a pilgrimage”), C in 2 (“But he remembered them without”), D in 1 (“the melancholy that he then thought”), E in 2 (“he would surely some day savor on feeling that he no longer loved her”), F in 1 (“For this melancholy, projected in anticipation”), G in 2 (“prior to the indifference that lay ahead”), H in 1 (“came from his love”), and I in 2 (“And his love existed no more”).

This produces a perfect zigzag: A2-B1-C2-D1-E2-F1-G2-H1-I2. And defining the relationships among the elements reveals even more complexity:

If we take section A as the narrative starting point, and therefore as being in an autonomous position, we can obviously define section B as retrospective, and this retrospection we may call subjective in the sense that it is adopted by the character himself, with the narrative doing no more than reporting his present thoughts (‘he remembered …’); B is thus temporally subordinate to A: it is defined as retrospective in relation to A. C continues with a simple return to the initial position without subordination. D is again retrospective, but this time the retrospection is adopted directly by the text: apparently it is the narrator who mentions the absence of melancholy, even if this absence is noticed by the hero. E brings us back to the present, but in a totally different way from C, for this time the present is envisaged as emerging from the past and ‘from the point of view’ of that past: it is not a simple return to the present but an anticipation (subjective, obviously) of the present from within the past; E is thus subordinated to D as D is to C, whereas C, like A, was autonomous. F brings us again to position 1 (the past), on a higher level than anticipation E: simple return again, but return to 1, that is, to a subordinate position. G is again an anticipation, but this time an objective one, for the Jean of the earlier time foresaw the end that was to come to his love precisely as, not indifference, but melancholy at loss of love. H, like F, is a simple return to 1. I, finally, is (like C), a simple return to 2, that is, to the starting point.

All in a passage of 71 words! And Genette points out in passing that a first reading is made even more difficult because of the apparently systematic way in which Proust eliminates simple temporal indicators such as once and now, “so that the reader must supply them himself in order to know here he is.”

Round and Round

Army ants are blind; they follow the pheromone tracks left by other ants. This leaves them vulnerable to forming an “ant mill,” in which a group of ants inadvertently form a continuously rotating circle, each ant following the ones ahead and leading the ones behind. Once this happens there’s no way to break the cycle; the ants will march until they die of exhaustion.

American naturalist William Beebe once came upon a mill 365 meters in circumference, a narrow lane looping senselessly through the jungle of British Guiana. “It was a strong column, six lines wide in many places, and the ants fully believed that they were on their way to a new home, for most were carrying eggs or larvae, although many had food, including the larvae of the Painted Nest Wasplets,” he wrote in his 1921 book Edge of the Jungle. “For an hour at noon during heavy rain, the column weakened and almost disappeared, but when the sun returned, the lines rejoined, and the revolution of the vicious circle continued.”

He calculated that each ant would require 2.5 hours to make one circuit. “All the afternoon the insane circle revolved; at midnight the hosts were still moving, the second morning many had weakened and dropped their burdens, and the general pace had very appreciably slackened. But still the blind grip of instinct held them. On, on, on they must go! Always before in their nomadic life there had been a goal — a sanctuary of hollow tree, snug heart of bamboos — surely this terrible grind must end somehow. In this crisis, even the Spirit of the Army was helpless. Along the normal paths of Eciton life he could inspire endless enthusiasm, illimitable energy, but here his material units were bound upon the wheel of their perfection of instinct. Through sun and cloud, day and night, hour after hour there was found no Eciton with individual initiative enough to turn aside an ant’s breadth from the circle which he had traversed perhaps fifteen times: the masters of the jungle had become their own mental prey.”

Problem Solved


Auric and I played all that Satie had written for the piano; one of us would play with him what he composed for four hands. Once, after we had played Morceau en forme de poire, I asked our hero, whom we called mon bon Maître, why he gave such a title, Pieces in the shape of a pear, to this ravishing music. He answered with a twinkle in his eyes: ‘You do know that I visit Debussy quite often; I admire him immensely and he seems to think much of whatever talent I may have. Nevertheless, one day when I showed him a piece I had just composed, he remarked, “Satie, you never had two greater admirers than Ravel and myself; many of your early works had a great influence on our writing. … Now, as a true friend may I warn you that from time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form.” All I did,’ added Satie, ‘was to write Morceau en forme de poire. I brought them to Debussy who asked, “Why such a title?” Why? simply, mon cher ami, because you cannot criticize my Pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are en forme de poire they cannot be shapeless.’

— Vladimir Golschmann, “Golschmann Remembers Erik Satie,” High Fidelity/Musical America, August 1972

(Thanks, Dan.)

Fascinating Rhythm

The theme music for the British television series Inspector Morse starts with a motif based on the Morse code for the word Morse:

-- --- ·-· ··· ·

“It was just a little in-joke,” composer Barrington Pheloung told Essex Life & Countryside in 2001. “I put his name at the beginning and then it recurred all the way through.”

Encouraged, he carried the idea into subsequent episodes. “Sometimes I got a bit cheeky and spelled out the killer’s name in the episode. In the episode ‘WHOK,’ which was a bit of an enigma, the culprit was called Earle. So he got plastered all over the orchestra.” When viewers caught on to this, occasionally he’d insert another character’s name to fool them.

And sometimes he’d give them the slip entirely. When the episode aired in which the detective was due to reveal his first name, 20 million people tuned in to listen for clues in the music, and a national newspaper enlisted the Royal College of Signalling to decipher the notes. They found nothing. (The inspector’s name is Endeavour.)

(Thanks, Dave.)

UPDATE: In the same spirit, the theme to the 1970s British sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (below) spells out the series’ title in Morse code (minus the apostrophes). (Thanks, Nick.)


1!, 22!, 23!, and 24! contain 1, 22, 23, and 24 digits, respectively.

266!, 267!, and 268! contain 2 × 266, 2 × 267, and 2 × 268 digits, respectively.

2,712! and 2,713! contain 3 × 2,712 and 3 × 2,713 digits, respectively.

27,175! and 27,176! contain 4 × 27,175 and 4 × 27,176 digits, respectively.

271,819!, 271,820!, and 271,821! contain 5 × 271,819, 5 × 271,820, and 5 × 271,821 digits, respectively.

2,718,272! and 2,718,273! contain 6 × 2,718,272, and 6 × 2,718,273 digits, respectively.

27,182,807! and 27,182,808! contain 7 × 27,182,807, and 7 × 27,182,808 digits, respectively.

271,828,170! 271,828,171!, and 271,828,172! contain 8 × 271,828,170, 8 × 271,828,171, and 8 × 271,828,172 digits, respectively.

2,718,281,815! and 2,718,281,816! contain 9 × 2,718,281,815, and 9 × 2,718,281,816 digits, respectively.

27,182,818,270! and 27,182,818,271! contain 10 × 27,182,818,270 and 10 × 27,182,818,271 digits, respectively.

271,828,182,830! and 271,828,182,831! contain 11 × 271,828,182,830, and 11 × 271,828,182,831 digits, respectively.

The pattern continues at least this far:

271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,655!, 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,656!, and 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,657! contain 59 × 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,655, 59 × 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,656, and 59 × 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,657 digits, respectively.

(By Robert G. Wilson. More at the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. Thanks, David.)


  • Seattle is closer to Finland than to England.
  • Is a candle flame alive?
  • ABANDON is an anagram of A AND NO B.
  • tan-1(1) + tan-1(2) + tan-1(3) = π
  • “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.” — Carl Andre

Detractors of Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody said that three of the state’s towns had been named for him: Peabody, Marblehead, and Athol.

Take Two


Rod Serling’s original opening narration for The Twilight Zone read, “There is a sixth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, and it lies between the pit of man’s fear and the sunlight of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area that might be called The Twilight Zone.”

Producer Bill Self questioned the line There is a sixth dimension … “I said, ‘Rod, what is the fifth one?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. Aren’t there five?’ I said, ‘I can only think of four.’ So we rewrote it and rerecorded it and said, ‘There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man …'”

Asked how he came up with the title The Twilight Zone, Serling said, “I thought I’d made it up, but I’ve heard since that there is an Air Force term relating to a moment when a plane is coming down on approach and it cannot see the horizon. It’s called the twilight zone, but it’s an obscure term which I had not heard before.”

(From Marc Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion, 1982.)

“No, No, Mr. Nash”


Let us begin by saying we have nothing but the deepest aversion
Against casting an aspersion
On the beautiful works of Ogden Nash.
In fact we might say we go for his stuff like a vegetarian goes for his succotash.
But the thing that swerves us
From downright admiration is the length of his lines which sometimes look more like paragraphs than lines — frankly it unnerves us.
In fact we have it from unreliable sources
That several people have narrowly missed death by asphyxiation while attempting to read aloud one of these book-length sentences in one breath, all of which forces
Us to request that Mr. Nash please stick to a line that can be written entirely on one page, for when we see one of these endless lines looming up over the edge of the next stanza, we have been known to turn the page and start something else; while on the other hand, when Mr. Nash sticks to a briefer line with definite rhythm,
We’re whythym.

— An unnamed college humor magazine, quoted in Richard Koppe et al., A Treasury of College Humor, 1950


Founded in the 1880s by Manhattan rationalists, the 13 Club held a regular dinner on the 13th of each month, seating 13 members at each table deliberately to laugh at superstition.

“I have given some attention to popular superstitions, and let me tell you that argument is powerless against them,” founding member Daniel Wolff told journalist Philip Hubert in 1890. “They have a grip upon the imagination that nothing but ridicule will lessen.” As an example he cited the tradition that the mirrors must be removed from a room in which a corpse is lying. “Make the experiment yourself, and the next time you are called upon to sit up with a corpse, notice how uncomfortable a mirror will make you feel,” he said. “Of course it is a matter of the imagination, but you can’t reason against it. All the ingrained terrors of six thousand years are in your bones. You walk across the floor and catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass. You start; was there not a spectral something behind you? So you cover it up.”

As honorary members the club recruited 16 U.S. senators, 12 governors, and six Army generals. Robert Green Ingersoll ended one 1886 toast by declaring, “We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: ‘Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the Nineteenth Century.'”

But Oscar Wilde, for one, turned them down. “I love superstitions,” he wrote. “They are the colour element of thought and imagination. They are the opponents of common sense. Common sense is the enemy of romance. The aim of your society seems to be dreadful. Leave us some unreality. Don’t make us too offensively sane.”

(Thanks, David.)