Code of Conduct

For his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose devised the Law of Jante, a list of 10 rules that summarize common attitudes in Nordic countries:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Sandemose intended this as satire, but it’s entered colloquial speech (Janteloven) to describe a general disapproval of individualism and unseemly ambition in Denmark and Norway. An 11th rule, “the penal code of Jante,” says, “Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things about you?”

Lento

At a performance by an Italian string quartet, George Bernard Shaw’s companion remarked, “These men have been playing together for 12 years.”

Shaw said, “Surely we have been here longer than that.”

The Slave Bible

In 1807, three years after the Haitian Revolution, someone decided to edit the Bible that was provided to Caribbean slaves to omit any inducements to rebel. The result was Select Parts of the Holy Bible, for the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands, a heavily redacted version that includes Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt but omits Moses leading the Israelites to freedom.

The anonymous editors were “really highlighting portions that would instill obedience,” Museum of the Bible curator Anthony Schmidt told History.com. Also cut were Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”) and the Book of Revelation, which tells of a new world in which evil will be punished.

But they retained Ephesians 6:5: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”

Here’s a copy.

Elevated Thoughts

davis home office

The home workspace of National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis includes an overhead library.

“The original idea I had was to put the books that meant the most to him over his head at all times, floating, above and in his head as his own, very personal lyric,” said architect Travis Price.

“The dome shape above was a tholos, the shape of a pregnant woman’s womb, similar to the rotunda of the oracle’s temple at Delphi.”

(From Alex Johnson, Improbable Libraries, 2015.)

Narrators and Film

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Ishmael narrates Moby-Dick, just as Gulliver narrates his travels and John Watson narrates the Sherlock Holmes stories. In each case we can assume that all the information presented in the literary story is imparted to us by its fictional narrator.

But the filmed version of each story contains thousands of details that are apparent to us but clearly never observed directly by the narrator. Yet it’s still the narrator who’s ostensibly telling us the story. If the narrator isn’t supplying these details, then … who is?

A Prose Maze

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Max Beerbohm wrote two parodies of Henry James’ impenetrable style. The first, “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” appeared in The Saturday Review in 1906:

It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it. But just where the deuce had he left it? The consciousness of dubiety was, for our friend, not, this morning, quite yet clean-cut enough to outline the figures on what she had called his ‘horizon,’ between which and himself the twilight was indeed of a quality somewhat intimidating. He had run up, in the course of time, against a good number of ‘teasers;’ and the function of teasing them back — of, as it were, giving them, every now and then, “what for” — was in him so much a habit that he would have been at a loss had there been, on the face of it, nothing to lose.

He wrote the second, “The Guerdon,” when he learned that James was about to receive the Order of Merit:

That it hardly was, that it all bleakly and unbeguilingly wasn’t for “the likes” of him — poor decent Stamfordham — to rap out queries about the owner of the to him unknown and unsuggestive name that had, in these days, been thrust on him with such a wealth of commendatory gesture, was precisely what now, as he took, with his prepared list of New Year colifichets and whatever, his way to the great gaudy palace, fairly flicked his cheek with the sense of his having never before so let himself in, as he ruefully phrased it, without letting anything, by the same token, out.

He wasn’t alone. “It’s not that he bites off more than he can chaw,” Clover Adams once wrote of James, “but he chaws more than he bites off.”

Podcast Episode 267: The Murchison Murders

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In 1929, detective novelist Arthur Upfield wanted to devise the perfect murder, so he started a discussion among his friends in Western Australia. He was pleased with their solution — until local workers began disappearing, as if the book were coming true. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Murchison murders, a disturbing case of life imitating art.

We’ll also incite a revolution and puzzle over a perplexing purchase.

See full show notes …

The Copenhagen Faustparodie

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In The Roots of Coincidence, Arthur Koestler mentions that the participants at a 1932 conference on nuclear physics put on a parody of Goethe’s Faust in which Wolfgang Pauli played Mephistopheles. “His Gretchen was the neutrino, whose existence Pauli had predicted, but which had not yet been discovered.”

MEPHISTOPHELES (to Faust):

Beware, beware, of Reason and of Science
Man’s highest powers, unholy in alliance.
You’ll let yourself, through dazzling witchcraft yield
To weird temptations of the quantum field.

Enter Gretchen; she sings to Faust. Melody: ‘Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel’ by Schubert.

GRETCHEN:

My rest-mass is zero
My charge is the same
You are my hero
Neutrino’s my name.

There’s more here, including a link to the original script (in German).

Near Miss

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I just bumbled into this: In 1978 Isaac Asimov judged a limerick contest run by Mohegan Community College in Norwich, Conn. He chose this as the best of 12,000 entries:

The bustard’s an exquisite fowl,
With minimal reason to growl:
He escapes what would be
Illegitimacy
By grace of a fortunate vowel.

It was written by retired Yale official George D. Vaill. Asimov said, “The idea is very clever and made me laugh, and the one-word fourth line is delightful.”