“My notes always grow longer if I shorten them. I mean the process of compression makes them more pregnant and they breed new notes.” — Samuel Butler, Notebooks
A team of volunteers have deciphered a message written by Charles Dickens in his own puzzling brand of shorthand, solving a riddle that had persisted for more than 150 years.
Apparently in 1859 the Times had mistakenly rejected an advertisement that Dickens had hoped to run during his delicate transition from the editorship of Household Words to All The Year Round. Dickens had written to the newspaper’s editor, J.T. Delane, asking him to intervene in the matter and had saved a cryptic copy of the message, possibly for legal reasons. With the passage of time the key to the author’s so-called Brachygraphy had been lost.
When scholars recently appealed for help in understanding the message, an international team of amateur solvers pooled their insights to decipher the “Tavistock Letter.” “Having the text of this letter at long last will allow scholars to learn more about Dickens’s shorthand method while gaining further insight into his life and work,” wrote Philip Palmer, curator and head of literary and historical manuscripts at Morgan Library & Museum. “We are thrilled that colleagues at the Dickens Code project have helped make this letter accessible in new ways to researchers.”
That’s not the end of it — a further puzzling page, this one from the notebooks of Dickens’ shorthand pupil Arthur Stone, still awaits solution.
Who wrote the works of Shakespeare? Here’s a novel way to decide the question: In 1987 Supreme Court justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens presided over a moot-court debate at American University to consider whether the author was really Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. (The session was underwritten by David Lloyd Kreeger, a noted benefactor of theater in Washington, D.C., and an ardent Oxfordian.)
After considering evidence presented by two American University law professors, all three justices chose Shakespeare, though Stevens expressed some uncertainty based on the author’s refined sensibilities.
“Just reading it cold,” he said, “I would tend to draw the inference that the author of these plays was a nobleman; there are just too many places in which nobility is stressed as a standard. In Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, the standard is which ‘is the nobler in the mind.’ There are all sorts of references to nobility and skills that are familiar to the nobility but unknown to most common people. So, you can’t help but have these gnawing doubts that this great author may perhaps have been someone else.”
Blackmun agreed that, of the various alternative claimants, Oxford had come closest to proving his case. “Whether that is enough is something that we’re supposed to say, I suppose; and yet, I am reluctant to say it.” Brennan added, “My conclusion is that Oxford did not prove that he was the author of the plays. And so, I feel that the 200 years that elapsed — I gather at least that long — after Shakespeare’s death before any doubt was cast on whether or not he was the author, leaves the thing about where we started.”
The debate was attended by more than a thousand people and published afterward in the American University Law Review (37:3, 1988).
Similarly, in 1892 the Boston monthly Arena set up a “tribunal of literary criticism” to decide whether Francis Bacon deserved the credit. After more than a year of contributions from various authorities, including the actor Sir Henry Irving, a panel of judges decided overwhelmingly for Shakespeare.
Here’s a creepy fragment by English ghost story writer M.R. James, published shortly after his death in 1936 — he’s recalling a memory from his childhood, when, alone one day in his father’s Suffolk rectory, he had looked out upon a wooden gate in a grove of trees:
As was but right it was shut, and nobody was upon the path that led to it or from it. But as I said a while ago, there was in it a square hole giving access to the fastening; and through that hole, I could see — and it struck like a blow on the diaphragm — something white or partly white. Now this I could not bear, and with an access of something like courage — only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst — I did steal down and, quite uselessly, of course, taking cover behind bushes as I went, I made progress until I was within range of the gate and the hole. Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.
There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. Nor does it make the matter any better if the expression gives no clue to what is to come next. I said just now that I took this face to be malevolent, and so I did, but not in regard of any positive dislike or fierceness which it expressed. It was, indeed, quite without emotion: I was only conscious that I could see the whites of the eyes all round the pupil, and that, we know, has a glamour of madness about it. The immovable face was enough for me. I fled, but at what I thought must be a safe distance inside my own precincts I could not but halt and look back. There was no white thing framed in the hole of the gate, but there was a draped form shambling away among the trees.
“Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.”
In a Word
n. an introduction to some branch of learning
In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), two publishers propose a School of Comparative Irrelevance that teaches “useless or impossible courses,” such as Urban Planning for Gypsies, Aztec Equitation, and Potio-section.
‘Potio-section, as everybody knows, of course, is the art of slicing soup. No, no,’ he said to Diotallevi. ‘It’s not a department, it’s a subject, like Mechanical Avunculogratulation or Pylocatabasis. They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy.’
‘What’s tetra …?’ I asked.
‘The art of splitting a hair four ways. This is the department of useless techniques. Mechanical Avunculogratulation, for example, is how to build machines for greeting uncles. We’re not sure, though, if Pylocatabasis belongs, since it’s the art of being saved by a hair. Somehow that doesn’t seem completely useless.’
Overall, the school’s aim is “to turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subjects.” “The Tetrapyloctomy department has a preparatory function; its purpose is to inculcate a sense of irrelevance. Another important department is Adynata, or Impossibilia. Like Urban Planning for Gypsies. The essence of the discipline is the comprehension of the underlying reasons for a thing’s absurdity. We have courses in Morse syntax, the history of antarctic agriculture, the history of Easter Island painting, contemporary Sumerian literature, Montessori grading, Assyrio-Babylonian philately, the technology of the wheel in pre-Columbian empires, and the phonetics of the silent film.”
“She Was as Cute as a Washtub”
Raymond Chandler similes:
“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
“She looked almost as hard to get as a haircut.”
“The smell of old dust hung in the air as flat and stale as a football interview.”
“Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust.”
“This car sticks out like spats at an Iowa picnic.”
“I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.”
“A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.”
“Then she straightened the bills out on the desk and put one on top of the other and pushed them across. Very slowly, very sadly, as if she was drowning a favorite kitten.”
“If you use similes,” he once suggested, “try and make them both extravagant and original.”
Maxims of La Rochefoucauld:
- “Jealousy is in some sort rational and just; since it only aims at the Preservation of a Good which belongs, or which we think belongs, to us: Whereas Envy is a Frenzy that cannot bear the Good of others.”
- “Good Sense should be the Test of all Rules, both ancient and modern; whatever is incompatible therewith is false.”
- “Avarice is more opposite to Economy than Liberality.”
- “We ought to be able to answer for our Fortune, to be able to answer for what we shall do.”
- “The most violent Passions have their Intermissions; Vanity only gives us no Respite.”
- “‘Tis more difficult to conceal the Sensations we have, than to feign those we have not.”
- “We should have but little Pleasure were we never to flatter ourselves.”
- “We love much better those, who endeavour to imitate us, than those who strive to equal us. For Imitation is a Sign of Esteem, but Competition of Envy.”
- “Whatever Difference may appear in Men’s Fortunes, there is nevertheless a certain Compensation of Good and Ill that makes all equal.”
And “The common Foible of old People who have been handsome, is to forget that they are no longer so.”
“Money Is Not Advice”
Proverbs of Latin America:
- Of the doctor, the poet, and the fool we all have a small portion. (Mexico)
- Each of us bears his friend and his enemy within himself. (Costa Rica)
- The mother-in-law does not remember she was a daughter-in-law. (Venezuela)
- Halfway is 12 miles when you have 14 miles to go. (Panama)
- Diligence is the mother of good fortune. (Peru)
- Face to face respect appears. (Ecuador)
- You may believe every good report of a grateful man. (Guatemala)
- Many go for wool and come back shorn themselves. (Dominican Republic)
- He who marries prudence is the brother-in-law of peace. (Bolivia)
- Nothing is so burdensome as a secret. (Colombia)
- The vulgar keep no account of your hits, but of your misses. (Paraguay)
- Grief shared is half grief; joy shared is double joy. (Honduras)
- A “no” in time is better than a late “yes.” (Uruguay)
- When you mourn, you cannot sing; when you sing, you cannot mourn. (Argentina)
(From Guy Zona, Eyes That See Do Not Grow Old, 1996.)
In the spring of 1908, Max Beerbohm and Edmund Gosse sent a message back and forth, each adding a line until they had composed a sonnet to Henry James, whose incomprehensible novels they both admired. The odd-numbered lines are Beerbohm’s, the even-numbered Gosse’s:
To Henry James
Say, indefatigable alchemist,
Melts not the very moral of your scene,
Curls it not off in vapour from between
Those lips that labour with conspicuous twist?
Your fine eyes, blurred like arc-lamps in a mist
Immensely glare, yet glimmering intervene,
So that your May-Be and your Might-Have-Been
Leave us still plunging for the genuine gist.
How different from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, —
As clear as water and as smooth as oil,
And no jot knowing of what Maisie knew!
Flushed with the sunset air of roseate Rye
You stand, marmoreal darling of the Few,
Lord of the troubled speech and single Eye.
“The sonnet was never shown to James himself,” writes J.G. Riewald in Max Beerbohm’s Mischievous Wit, “because, according to Max, ‘he would be too complex to understand our special brand of sincere reverence.'”
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise — why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then — to give the devil his due — if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then — by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts — it is all one to me for you are quoting Shakespeare.
— Bernard Levin, Enthusiasms, 1983