Signifying Nothing

If … we were asked to select one monument of human civilization that should survive to some future age … we should probably choose the works of Shakespeare. In them we recognize the truest portrait and best memorial of man. Yet the archæologists of that future age … would misconceive our life in one important respect. They would hardly understand that man had had a religion. …

Shakespeare could be idealistic when he dreamed, as he could be spiritual when he reflected. … It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that we should have to search through all the works of Shakespeare to find half a dozen passages that have so much as a religious sound, and that even these passages, upon examination, should prove not to be the expression of any deep religious conception. If Shakespeare had been without metaphysical capacity, or without moral maturity, we could have explained his strange insensibility to religion; but as it is, we must marvel at his indifference and ask ourselves what can be the causes of it.

— George Santayana, “The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare,” in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 1900

To the Point

In 1755 Samuel Richardson published an index of the “moral and instructive sentiments, maxims, cautions and reflexions” in his novels Pamela, Clarissa, and The History of Sir Charles Grandison, so you can receive all the edification without actually reading them:


One of the characteristics of a good man, is, to be studious to avoid danger, and to be unappalled in it, iv. 104. [276].
In a case of inevitable danger, the way to avoid it, is not to appear to be intimidated. One man’s fear gives another man Courage, v. 289. [vi. 267].
Courage is a glorious quality when it is divested of rashness, and founded on integrity of life and manners, v. 296. [vi. 274].
But otherwise founded, it is rather to be called savageness and brutality, than Courage, ibid.
See Challenges. Duelling. Good Man. Magnanimity.

The whole thing is here. See Asides.

“A Man of Principle”

During a shower of rain the Keeper of a Zoölogical garden observed a Man of Principle crouching beneath the belly of the ostrich, which had drawn itself up to its full height to sleep.

‘Why, my dear sir,’ said the Keeper, ‘if you fear to get wet you’d better creep into the pouch of yonder female kangaroo — the Saltatrix mackintosha — for if that ostrich wakes he will kick you to death in a moment!’

‘I can’t help that,’ the Man of Principle replied, with that lofty scorn of practical considerations distinguishing his species. ‘He may kick me to death if he wish, but until he does he shall give me shelter from the storm. He has swallowed my umbrella.’

— Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1899

Worldly Wisdom

Proverbs from around the world:

  • Gray hair is a sign of age, not wisdom. (Greek)
  • A smiling face is half the meal. (Latvia)
  • Fear has big eyes. (Russia)
  • Adversity makes a man wise, not rich. (Romania)
  • The child tells what is in the house. (Albania)
  • Love makes time pass; time makes love pass. (France)
  • The seeds of the day are best planted in the first hour. (Dutch)
  • It is easier to criticize art than to create it. (Spain)
  • A house does not rest upon the ground, but upon a woman. (Mexico)
  • All fear is bondage. (England)
  • Nature is better than a middling doctor. (China)
  • The miles are longer at night. (German)
  • Respect is given to wealth, not to men. (Lebanon)
  • If everyone swept in front of his house, the whole town would be clean. (Poland)
  • Even the handsome are divorced. (Egypt)

“With art and knavery we live through half the year,” the Italians say. “With knavery and art we live through the other.”


Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

“The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

(From his introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box. Thanks, Sharon.)

Nonsense Cookery

Edward Lear’s recipe for amblongus pie, 1872:

Take 4 pounds (say 4 1-2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses, and put them in a small pipkin.

Cover them with water, and boil them for 8 hours incessantly; after which add 2 pints of new milk, and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.

When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out, and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously.

Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder, and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne pepper.

Remove the pan into the next room, and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses have become of a pale purple colour.

Then, having prepared the paste, insert the whole carefully; adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters.

Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.

Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of window as fast as possible.


Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Cask of Amontillado” is regarded today as a testament to his imagination, but in fact it was inspired by a feud with a literary rival. Poe and Thomas Dunn English had been friends, but they had a falling-out that descended into a fistfight in which Poe claimed to administer “a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death.” Thereafter the two caricatured one another in their writings — Poe even successfully sued English’s editors at the New York Mirror for libel in 1846.

In English’s novel 1844, the character Marmaduke Hammerhead is a veiled dig at Poe — he’s a liar and drunkard who is said to be the author of “The Black Crow” and uses phrases such as “Nevermore” and “lost Lenore.” It was in response to this novel that Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” — the story mentions a secret society, a signal of distress, and a particular coat of arms because they all figured in English’s book. The very setting of Poe’s story derives from a scene in English’s novel that takes place in a subterranean vault.

But these associations have now been forgotten, and Poe’s story is remembered as a tale of the fantastic.

Man of the World

Names of the Mad Hatter in various translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

  • the Hatmaker
  • the Maker of Hats
  • the Hatman
  • the Man Who Made Head Protection
  • Mr. Tophat
  • Owl
  • Master Hats
  • Marble Mason
  • Stockman
  • Blockhead
  • Baboon
  • Fellow With Hats
  • Cap-Wearing Person
  • Kynedyr Wyllt mab Hettwn Tal Aryant

That last one’s in Middle Welsh. Though Lewis Carroll’s novel abounds in wordplay, rhymes, quotations, nonsense, homophones, logical twists, and Victorian allusions, it’s found its way into 174 languages and more than 9,000 editions around the world. Zongxin Feng of Tsinghua University in Beijing wrote, “Of all Western literary masterpieces introduced into China in the twentieth century, no other work has enjoyed such popularity.”

In an 1866 letter, Carroll had written, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.”

(Jon A. Lindseth, ed., Alice in a World of Wonderlands, 2015.)


A Highwayman confronted a Traveler, and covering him with a firearm, shouted: ‘Your money or your life!’

‘My good friend,’ said the Traveler, ‘according to the terms of your demand my money will save my life, my life my money; you imply that you will take one or the other, but not both. If that is what you mean please be good enough to take my life.’

‘That is not what I mean,’ said the Highwayman; ‘you cannot save your money by giving up your life.’

‘Then take it anyhow,’ the Traveler said. ‘If it will not save my money it is good for nothing.’

The Highwayman was so pleased with the Traveler’s philosophy and wit that he took him into partnership and this splendid combination of talent started a newspaper.

— Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1899