This is an excerpt from Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum of 1930. The snaky line running through it is a slur (!) encompassing the whole complex passage.
Indiana University information scientist Donald Byrd observes, “It has a total of 10(!) inflection points; it spans three systems, repeatedly crosses three staves (this is also the most staves within a system for any slur I know of), and goes slightly backwards — i.e., from right to left — several times.”
A poor artist is visited by a time traveler from the future. The traveler is an art critic who has seen the artist’s work and is convinced that he’s one of the greatest painters of his time. In looking at the artist’s current paintings, the critic realizes that the artist hasn’t yet reached the zenith of his ability. He gives him some reproductions of his later work and then returns to the future. The artist spends the rest of his life copying these reproductions onto canvas, securing his reputation.
What is the problem here? Kurt Gödel showed in 1949 that time travel might be physically possible, and there’s no contradiction involved in the critic arriving in the artist’s garret, giving him the reproductions, and later admiring the painter’s copies of them — that loop might simply exist in the fabric of time.
What’s missing is the source of the artistic creativity that produces the paintings. “No one doubts the aesthetic value of the artist’s paintings, nor the sense in which the critic’s reproductions reflect this value,” writes philospher Storrs McCall. “What is incomprehensible is: who or what creates the works that future generations value? Where is the artistic creativity to be found? Unlike the traditional ‘paradoxes of time travel’, this problem has no solution.”
In 1943, fed up with modernist poetry, two Australian servicemen invented a fake poet and submitted a collection of deliberately senseless verses to a Melbourne arts magazine. To their delight, they were accepted and their author hailed as “one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Ern Malley hoax, its perpetrators, and its surprising legacy in Australian literature.
We’ll also hear a mechanized Radiohead and puzzle over a railroad standstill.
Reader John Kelleher found this letter in the University of Illinois archives — in 1921 instrument maker Elden E. Benge had written to cornet soloist Herbert L. Clarke asking whether there was any future in the trumpet:
This is the so-called Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare, engraved by Martin Droeshout as the frontispiece for the First Folio, published in 1623. In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-Speare, Edwin Durning-Lawrence draws attention to the fit of the coat on the figure’s right arm. “Every tailor will admit that this is not and cannot be the front of the right arm, but is, without possibility of doubt, the back of the left arm.” Compare this with the figure’s left arm, where “you at once perceive that you are no longer looking at the back of the coat but at the front of the coat.”
If that’s not enough, note the line beneath Shakespeare’s jaw, suggesting that he’s wearing a false face. The engraving is in fact “a cunningly drawn cryptographic picture, shewing two left arms and a mask” and proving that Shakespeare is a fraud and not the author of the plays attributed to him.
I’ll admit that I don’t quite see the problem with the coat, but apparently I’m just not discerning enough: In 1911 Durning-Lawrence reported that the trade journal Tailor and Cutter had agreed that Droeshout’s figure “was undoubtedly clothed in an impossible coat composed of the back and front of the same left arm.” Indeed, the Gentleman’s Tailor Magazine printed “the two halves of the coat put tailor fashion, shoulder to shoulder” and observed that “it is passing strange that something like three centuries should have been allowed to elapse before the tailor’s handiwork should have been appealed to in this particular manner.”
In Through the Looking-Glass, John Tenniel’s two illustrations above are designed to fall on opposite sides of a single page. In this way the page itself becomes the looking-glass — Alice enters one side and emerges from the other, where all the details are reversed, including Tenniel’s signature and initials.
“Tenniel this time clearly draws the borderline between the world of dreams and reality,” writes Isabelle Nières. The dream occupies the center of the physical book. “Yet not all perceived that Alice’s return was not a symmetrical one, i.e. back through the mirror, but is symbolized by an almost perfect superimposition of the Red Queen on the kitten.”
(Isabelle Nières, “Tenniel: The Logic Behind His Interpretation of the Alice Books,” in Rachel Fordyce and Carla Marello, eds., Semiotics and Linguistics in Alice’s Worlds, 1994.)
In 1626, Dutch artist Roelandt Savery composed this historic portrait of a dodo, one of the few painted from a live specimen. Unfortunately, he gave it two left feet.
Likewise, in Johann Tischbein’s 1787 portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, the poet’s right leg bears a left foot.
And what has happened to Thomas Jefferson’s left foot on the back of the $2 bill? “Unless Jefferson can bend his leg in the wrong direction at the knee, it is hard to see how this foot can be attached to his leg,” writes William Poundstone in Bigger Secrets. “If it’s someone else’s foot, he is standing in a more incredible position yet.”
The $2 bill engraving is based on John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence, below. But “The perspective is easier to judge in that painting, and the foot in question (definitely Jefferson’s) does not look so strange as on the bill.”
During a visit to the Colt firearms factory in Connecticut in 1995, English sculptor Cornelia Parker was captivated by the recognizably gun-shaped casts of metal produced early in the manufacturing process. As blank casts they had none of the capacities of working weapons, but “in one further step, a hole drilled, a surface filed, they would technically become firearms.”
Fascinated by this transition, “I asked the foreman if I could possibly have a pair of guns at this early stage in the production, and if he could give them the same finish that they’d get at the end of the process,” she wrote later. “Amazingly, he agreed, and they became Embryo Firearms, conflating the idea of birth and death in the same object.”
Ironically, as she was leaving America, customs officials discovered the casts in her luggage and “an argument ensued that perfectly reflected the questions raised by Parker’s work,” writes Jessica Morgan in Cornelia Parker (2000). “The American Customs department insisted that Embryo Guns were weapons, while the police department, in Parker’s defense, argued that they were harmless metal forms and Parker was released from questioning.”
Hans Hollein’s 1964 photomontage “Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape” challenged viewers’ conception of a city, suggesting that any structure that supports a large population might earn this title.
In the same year, British architect Ron Herron proposed building a massive “walking city” (below) that could roam the world as needed. Ironically, the closest we’ve come to building this is an aircraft carrier.
Pre-Raphaelite painters found an unusual source for one of their pigments: They ground up Egyptian mummies. In the words of one enthusiast, “A charming pigment is obtained by this means, uniting a peculiar greyness (due to the corpse and its bandages) with the rich brown of the pitch or bitumen, in a manner which it is very hard indeed to imitate. It flows from the brush with delightful freedom and evenness.”
Artist Edward Burne-Jones was so shocked at learning that this was the source of his umber paint that he staged a poignant little ceremony. “He left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then,” recalled his wife Georgiana. “So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.”
The production of “mummy brown” ceased in the 20th century — only because the supply of mummies was exhausted.