In honor of Halloween, here’s the first horror film, Georges Méliès’ The Haunted Castle. Originally released in 1896, the year before Dracula was published, it had been thought to be lost until 1988, when a copy was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive.

Though it’s full of horrific trappings, in general Méliès intended it to amuse and astonish rather than to shock. The filmmaker himself appears as Mephistopheles, and the woman conjured from the cauldron is Jehanne d’Alcy, who would become his second wife.


Excerpts from the notebooks of English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947):

Two impressions remaining, after a life of scientific research:

1. The inexhaustible oddity of nature.
2. The capacity of the human system for recovery.

— J.B.S. Haldane

“With people like you, love only means one thing.”
“No, it means twenty things: but it doesn’t mean nineteen.”

— Arnold Bennett’s Journal

“I simply ignored an axiom.” — Einstein, on Relativity

“Nowhere probably is there more true feeling, and nowhere worse taste, than in a churchyard.” — Benjamin Jowett

Happiness, only a by-product.

The fine flower of stupidity blossoms in the attempt to appear less stupid.

Boy, wanting to be a “retired business man.”

“Stand on the Right — and let others pass you.” — Directions on an Underground Escalator

“My sad conviction is that people can only agree about what they’re not really interested in.” — Bertrand Russell, New Statesman, 1 July 1939

The doctrine of omnipotence means that life is a sham fight with evil.

“All men wish to have truth on their side: but few to be on the side of truth.” — Archbishop Richard Whately

“Half-knowledge is very communicable; not so knowledge.” — Mary Coleridge

“Mastery often passes for egotism.” — Goethe

Unnatural Beauty
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Harvard’s Museum of Natural History owns a unique collection of botanical models made of glass, more than 800 startlingly realistic plants produced by the German father-and-son glassworking team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. They were commissioned by Professor George Lincoln Goodale to serve as aids in the teaching of botany, but their strikingly accurate detail leads many to regard them as works of art in themselves.

The modern naturalist Donald Schnell, who painstakingly deduced the mechanism by which the butterwort Pinguicula is pollinated, was astonished in 1997 to see the glass butterwort that the Blaschkas had prepared a century earlier: “One sculpture showed a bee entering the flower and a second showed the bee exiting, lifting the stigma apron as it did so,” just as he had hypothesized. “As far as I know Professor Goodale never published this information, nor did it seem to have been published by anyone back then, but the process was faithfully executed.”

This raises a question in aesthetics. If we find, say, the Blaschkas’ glass chicory flower beautiful, shouldn’t we find a live chicory flower equally beautiful? For the two are practically indistinguishable. Some will say yes, but others will insist that “there is an important difference … between perceiving a set of characteristics in an object and perceiving that same set of characteristics as natural to that object,” writes University of Washington philosopher Ronald Moore. “To perceive something as a product of nature is not to perceive one more thing about it; it is to change the way we perceive everything about it.”

(Ronald Moore, “Appreciating Natural Beauty as Natural,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 33:3 [Autumn 1999], 42-60.) (See Perspective.)

Character Study

The Art Institute of Chicago has an actual picture of Dorian Gray — Ivan Le Lorraine Albright painted it for the 1946 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. Working with his twin brother Malvin, Albright started with a pleasant portrait of star Hurd Hatfield and prepared three further canvases reflecting his character’s moral decay.

“For research for these paintings,” reported LIFE, “the twins made the rounds of the local insane asylums, alcoholic wards and hospitals for the incurably diseased.” Even the props in the background were corrupted — the Egyptian cat grows gray and mangy, and Ivan tore the rug and soaked it with acid.

Interestingly, though most of the film was shot in black and white, the portrait was shown in Technicolor — which may have helped the film win its Oscar for best cinematography.


A memorable puzzle from the Russian science magazine Kvant:

How can a goat, a head of cabbage, two wolves, and a dog be transported across a river if it’s known that the wolf is ‘culinarily partial to’ goat and dog, the dog is ‘on bad terms with’ the goat, and the goat is ‘not indifferent to’ cabbage? There are only three seats in your boat, so you can take only two passengers — animal or vegetable — at a time.

(You can keep order within the boat.)

Click for Answer

A Guest Appearance

enigma 11

Edward Elgar dedicated the eleventh of his Enigma Variations to George Robertson Sinclair, the organist of Hereford Cathedral.

“The variation, however, has nothing to do with organs or cathedrals, or, except remotely, with G.R.S.,” Elgar wrote. “The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog, Dan (a well-known character) falling down the steep bank into the River Wye (bar 1); his paddling upstream to find a landing place (bars 2 and 3); and his rejoicing bark on landing (second half of bar 5). G.R.S. said, ‘Set that to music’. I did; here it is.”

After the river incident, Elgar had told a friend, “You wait till we get home. Japes!” He even marked bar 5 “Dan” in an early sketch of the piece. This would not have surprised Sinclair: Elgar had been in the habit of jotting down musical ideas, which he called “the moods of Dan,” in the organist’s visitor’s book, and sometimes these would find their way into later compositions. What Dan thought of all this is unrecorded.


Graham Greene once entered a magazine competition to parody the style of an author named Green(e). He parodied his own style and came in second. His entry, “The Stranger’s Hand,” was made under the pseudonym M. Wilkinson in the New Statesman‘s Week-end Competition No. 999 in 1949:

The child had an air of taking everything in and giving nothing away. At the Rome airport he was led across the tarmac by his aunt, but he seemed to hear nothing of her advice to himself or of the information she produced for the air hostess. He was too busy with his eyes: the hangars had his attention, every plane on the field except his own — that could wait.

‘My nephew,’ she was saying, ‘yes, that’s him on the list. Roger Court. You will look after him, won’t you? He’s never been quite on his own before,’ but when she made that statement the child’s eyes moved back plane by plane with what looked like contempt, back to the large breasts and the fat legs and the over-responsible mouth: how could she have known, he might have been thinking, when I am alone, how often I am alone?

Remarkably, he pulled the same coup in April 1961 (“I’m sorry but I’ve done it again”) with a fragment of autobiography set in verse; in August 1965 with a parodied biography of Sir Hugh Greene (his brother); and in April 1980 with “an extract from an imaginary novel by Graham Greene.” All but the last won prizes for successfully aping his own style. Not one to let good work go to waste, he developed two of these into legitimate projects, the 1949 entry into a script for a 1954 film and the 1980 effort into the opening of The Captain and the Enemy (1988).

(From Christopher Hawtree, ed., Yours Etc.: Letters to the Press, 1991.)

Plausible Deniability,_N.Y.C._ca._1859.jpg

The Boston Gazette published this cleverly seditious “Enigmatical Ballad” on June 24, 1782. If each line is read in full, the poem supports British rule of the American colonies, but if either the italic or the roman text is read alone, then it advocates revolution:

I justify every part, of King and Parliament,
Of a whig with all my heart, I hate their cursed intent;
For to support I’ll try, friends of administration,
Friends of Liberty, are troubles to the nation;
I think the association, a cruel, base intent,
An honor to the nation, the act of Parliament,
I wish the best success, to North and his conclusion,
Unto the grand Congress, the worst of all confusion;
All luck beneath the sun, to Mansfield, Bute and North;
To General Washington, destruction and so forth,
Hark! Hark! the trumpet sounds, the din of war’s alarms,
O’er seas and solid ground, doth call us all to arms;
Who for King George doth stand, their honors soon will shine;
Their ruin is at hand, who with the Congress join;
The acts of Parliament, in them I much delight;
I hate their cursed intent, who for the Congress fight,
The Tories of the day, they are my daily toast;
They soon will sneak away, who independence boast,
Who non-resistance hold, they have my hand and heart;
May they for slaves be sold, who act a whiggish part;
On Mansfield, North and Bute, may daily blessings pour,
Confusion and dispute, on Congress evermore;
To North, that British Lord, may honors still be done;
I wish a block or cord, to General Washington.

Podcast Episode 360: Haggard’s Dream

In 1904, adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard awoke from a dream with the conviction that his daughter’s dog was dying. He dismissed the impression as a nightmare, but the events that followed seemed to give it a grim significance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Haggard’s strange experience, which briefly made headlines around the world.

We’ll also consider Alexa’s expectations and puzzle over a college’s name change.

See full show notes …