'Some Sea-Serpents, Original and Selected'

Posted by September Blue Friday, 27 April 2007 1 comments

(Cornhill, March 1886.)

No doubt the sea-serpent, like most other animals, has varied a little from time to time, and has been affected by the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest, in proportion as the credulity of the sea-serpent-observing world grew less and less. Still, the monsters that devoured Laocoon possessed in very full perfection all the 'points' that ought to distinguish a perfectly thorough-bred and first prize sea-serpent. Their heads and shoulders were raised (in the most orthodox manner) high above the waves, while their bodies trailed behind upon the surface, rising up in an undulating fashion here and there between the foaming billows. They had a bristly mane upon their necks; and it is well known that a good mane is highly desirable, or even absolutely indispensible, in the get-up of a successful sea-serpent, to this very moment. They were more or less blood-stained and fiery creatures; and the original and only genuine medieval portent went so far as actually to belch forth flames and black wreaths of smoke from his mouth and nostrils. This last alarming feature, however, has been greatly mitigated in his modern representatives, who now don't care, apparently, to put themselves into competition with an ordinary locomotive, and so content themselves with making the sea boil, and spurting out foam from their unspeakable blowholes (if any).
Abbreviated Aeneid: Laocoön told the Trojans to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, threw a spear at the wooden horse when they didn't believe him, and Poseidon sent sea serpents to kill Laocoön and his sons.) There's a gorgeous woodcut of Laocoön wrestling with the serpent here (by Daniel Biehl).
There are a good many theories now extant about the semi-mythical monster, which have been defended with varying ability by various learned men. Mr. P. H. Gosse was of opinion that the sea-serpent (if there be a sea-serpent) was a modern representative of the otherwise extinct saurians, who enacted the part of whales in the teeming secondary seas. Whether any of these big dragons of the prime have really left any descendants or not, there can be no doubt at all that they were certainly very parlous monsters in their own day. Naturally, the biggest things in such extinct reptiles have been discovered in the Western States of America, which whip creation for big trees, big rivers, big fossils, and big fortunes. One of the most disconcerting creatures to meet a yachting expedition in cretaceous seas must evidently have been that uncanny beast from the Colorado beds, which Professor Geikie soberly describes as 'a huge snake-like form, forty feet long, with slim, arrow-shaped head on a swan-like neck, rising twenty feet out of the water.' According to Dr. Cope, who has closely studied the habits and manners of this unpleasant animal in his native rocks, the monster must often have swum several yards below the surface of the sea, only occasionally popping up his head for forty feet to take a breath, and then withdrawing it to feed forty feet below on the bottom, without once moving the position of his body. Such an unaccountable saurian as this, suddenly rearing his 'swan-like neck' (as if he were a noble Anglo-Saxon lady) within a few yards of the observant pleasure-boat among the Inner Hebrides, would create a far greater impression than any that can be produced by the degenerate and somewhat shadowy krakens of these prosaic latter days.
I think that's a plesiosaur, and if plesiosaurs interest you at all, even a tiny tiny little bit, then you need to read this story by Wardon Allen Curtis. That's a link to the e-text, which is illustrated. I don't want to give away the ending, but I will share one brief passage with you, written shortly after the narrator removes the brain from the still-living elasmosaurus (a species of large plesiosaur) Because It Was There and realised that his friend Framington was dying. Ask not how he found a plesiosaur in the first place; linger not on what happened to Framington; just wallow, for a moment, in the kind of thought process that could bring you this:
"If you hear me, wink," I cried [to Framingham]. The right eye closed and opened with a snap. Ah, here the body was dead and the brain lived. I glanced at the elasmosaurus. Its mouth, half closed over its gleaming teeth, seemed to smile an invitation. The intelligence of the man and the strength of the brain. The living body and the living brain. The curious resemblance of the reptile's brain-pan to that of a man flashed across my mind.
I won't tell you what happens next, although you can probably guess. Scientists, eh? Anyway. Back at the Cornhill article, we're talking about 'pythonomorphic saurians'. More of that below the fold.
[...] I am not aware that any modern theorist has yet proclaimed the identity of the various scattered sea-serpents of our own day with the pythonomorphic saurians; but if any enterprising young writer cares to act upon the hint in the silly season, when Parliament has ceased from troubling, and reporters are at peace, he is perfectly welcome to accept the suggestion without further acknowledgement.

Mr. Searles V. Wood, on the other hand, will have it that the sea-serpent (supposing there is a sea-serpent) is not a reptile at all, of what sort soever, but a whale-like monster, belonging to the same group as certain extinct toothed whales who flourished (as the history books say) in the eocene period. The particular part, in fact, which they flourished most effectively, according to Mr. Wood, was their formidable head; and with that they (as well as all their hypothetical heirs, executors, or assigns, the modern sea-serpents) were wont to attack less warlike whales, whom they killed and devoured with their big teeth. These undeniable eocene monsters ran to about fifty or sixty feet in length, and were certainly provided with most carnivorous fangs, sufficient to render them very unpleasant contemporaries for the other whales who lived side by side with them. Several of the most respectable authorities believe that the toothed cetaceans in question were really (to put it plainly) big seals, caught in the very act of developing into thoroughgoing whales. They are, by origin, warm-blooded, air-breathing, terrestrial animals, which have taken to the habit of swimming, till at last their outer form has come closely to resemble that of cold-blooded, gill-bearing, egg-laying fish. Mr. Wood has set forth his very hypothetical views with an air of sober conviction which is quite charming in its simplicity, and has assigned the as yet undiscovered sea-serpent to the 'order Zeuglodontia,' almost as confidently as though he had got a specimen or two of the evasive monster securely bottled for examination in his own private museum. On the whole, it might be better to follow Mrs. Glasse's admirable advice, and first catch your sea-serpent.
Zeuglodonts were early whales. One of them, Basilosaurus, achieved brief fame in the early 21st century with the BBC series Walking With Beasts, and has a picture here along with a great profile: "Length: 20m. Diet: Omnivore. Predators: Probably none." No, really, you think?
[...] Now, the question is, could one of the forty-eight known species of sea-snakes ever attain sufficient dimensions to have given rise (allowance being made for human exaggeration) to the best recorded instances of the great sea-serpent? Bishop Pontoppidan's specimen, seen off Norway in 1740, was one of the finest on the record, and measured about 600 feet in length. On the other hand, the biggest sea-snake known to Dr. Gunther of the British Museum (the great authority on things reptilian) is only twelve feet long; which leaves a considerable margin for the bishop's specimen to make up, even under the most favourable circumstances. Again, the very notable beast spied off Boston, Massachusetts, in 1819, is described with a noble and poetical vagueness as being 'from 80 to 250 yards in length;' which reminds one of the ingenuous advertising dodge, whereby shopkeepers announce that a lot of goods, worth obviously on an average five pounds apiece, are 'from one shilling.' In 1822, a second sea-serpent, spied off the Norwegian coast, was again calculated at 600 feet long, which seems a suspicious reminiscence of the father of all sea-serpent seen by Pontoppidan. Captain Drevar's great snake, which coiled itself twice round a sperm whale, was of indefinite length, but as it raised its head 'some sixty feet perpendicularly in the air,' its total extent must have been pretty good for an overgrown sea-snake.

There can be no doubt that certain kinds of animals do really produce at times abnormally large individuals; and this is particularly the case with fish and reptiles, where the size of the different adults always varies greatly with varying circumstances. Everybody knows that a full-grown trout may be almost any size, big or little; while as for pike, Mr. Frank Buckland records the biggest he ever saw as being no less than 3 feet 10 1/2 inches long. Still, the amount of lee-way that a twelve-foot sea-snake has to bring up before it reaches the 600 feet of the Norwegian specimens, or the 750 of the Bostom champion monster, is really too immense to be readily granted by sober reasoning. Moreover, it is a curious fact that sea-serpents should be most frequently seen in the North, while sea-snakes are almost confined to the tropics. Why do the gigantic growths always come northward, to the exact spot where they may be seen by credulous Norwegians and wonder-loving Americans? Is it not just a trifle significant that these portents are oftenest beheld by the superstitious Norse sailors, and the still more superstitious Celts of the west coast of Scotland?
We go on to discuss giant squid (called simply 'big squid' here, which does have a certain something going for it here as far as snappy names go). Dead giant squid had been washing up on beaches throughout the nineteenth century, but there were also accounts of live squid. They don't make holidays to Tenerife like this one these days:
Very recently, the big squid has become quite a respectable scientific character, and has been duly admitted to our natural histories under the specific titles of Architeuthis monachus and A. dux. When an animal comes to have a double Latin name, for genus and species, he may be considered as having fairly forced his way into good society, and attained for himself a public recognition. The first big calamary found in modern times, according to Dr. Woodward, was sighted by the French steamer Alecton, off Teneriffe, in 1861. Every effort was made to secure it; but after a long fight, the monster got away, leaving its tail behind it, in the running noose of a rope. This brute was supposed to be about eighteen feet long, with arms of five or six feet more (still a long way off from the sea-serpent). But one must remember that the salmon that got away from one is always a far larger and heavier fish than any salmon one ever actually landed and weighed in the impartial scales of undistorted reality. Perhaps the size of the Alecton's squid was computed not in British feet, but in a measure of length equivalent to that well-known angling standard commonly called fisherman's weight.
Something similar applies to wordcounts on student assignments, I think. Especially the ones with the really wide margins.

Can we conclude then, as a clever writer has lately done, that the giant squids are the real creatures which have given rise to the belief in sea-serpents? To me at least it seems improbable. I can hardly believe that any one form of sea-serpent will cover all the various myths and observed cases. I have, rather, a modest theory of my own as to the true origin and development of the entire family, which I shall proceed to set forth in the usual scientific classificatory fashion. [...]

There seem to be two grand divisions of the genus sea-serpent: firstly, those due mainly to preconceptions and superstitions, and so ultimately mythical in origin; and, secondly, those due mainly to observations, accurate or inaccurate, and so mainly genuine in origin.

The mythical sea-serpent, in my humble opinion, is by far the commoner animal of the two. His origin goes back in time to a very early period, when he and many other formidable dragons stalked abroad, unchecked and rampant, over sea and land alike. In the old English epic of Beowulf there is a very fine monster called the Fire Drake (drake being good Anglo-Saxon for a dragon), which guards a mysterious submarine treasure, and which comes out by night to slaughter the people of the royal hero. Beowulf himself goes forth, with his royal sword, to battle with this relentless monster, and slays it, indeed, by his own strong arm, but is blasted by its fiery breath, ad dies shortly after the fierce encounter. Now, the old literature of the North is full of sea-dragons of just the same type – fire-breathing krakens, which devour ships: terrible shapes, begotten of the dread and mystery of the ocean, and possessing all the ordinary mythical features of dragon-kind. It is a very significant fact that, as we go down in time, the dragons and sea-serpents of each age are, as a rule, exactly what that particular age expected to find them. In the fifteenth century a dragon that didn't breathe fire would have been quite unworthy of notice, and a mere big marine snake, with a prosaic habit of lolling on the top of the water, would have been considered not one whit better than an ordinary whale or walrus. At the present day, on the other hand, the common sea-serpent possesses few obviously mythical features, though he has still a distinct tendency to retain a mane, which, in the memorable instance of the Daedalus's monster, is significantly described as 'something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of sea-weed, washing about its back.'
The HMS Daedalus was a British navy ship of the nineteenth century whose crew saw... well, a sea-serpent, obviously... in 1848. (You can read more on that, and other Mysteries Of The Deep, here.)
[...] The final question is just this: In an ocean teeming with so many known animals of huge size, ought we to set down any un-caught specimen as a new species, on a cursory examination, under eminently deceptive and unsatisfactory circumstances? And if we do, are we not in all probability more or less directly influenced by surviving memories of the great extinct krakens and fire-breathing dragons? Are we not, in short, trying to make a sea-serpent out of it? Let us rest satisfied with our big cuttle-fish and huge whales and monstrous sharks for the present; and whenever anybody catches us an enaliosaurian or an zeuglodon or an immense marine snake, let us accept their new addition to zoology with all acclamation. Meanwhile, let us urge once more on all theorists, 'First catch your sea-serpent': then proceed to classify him.

Love your research

Posted by September Blue 1 comments

I'm falling in love with an author. Not in the standard (well, standard for me) crush-on-a-long-dead-poet way, but through the kind of accidental romance that starts with a footnote and ends in chasing publishers down the street, out of breath and scattering pages behind you ("waaaaaaaaait, Mr Penguin!"), as you try to explain how Very, Very Important it is that they contract you to edit a new scholarly edition of her best-known work.

She's one of those Victorian writers who flourished for a little while and then faded back into obscurity again, and she's part of a big enough crowd in that. Still, she's worth a revival. Her writing probably won't be the Next Big Thing in Victorian studies, but it's interesting and unusual and funnier than it has a right to be, and more people should read her. Some people should read her. Anybody should read her. And if they're not reading her, they should start selling her books at prices I can afford.

She's gone from a few footnotes in my thesis to taking up most of one chapter, and she's worked her way into every conference paper I've given in the last year. I had to fight my better judgement on including an irrelevant, biographical footnote on her in an article I'm writing at the moment. My long-term research plan features her heavily, I'm already mentally drafting the next article (in which she'll feature prominently), and I'm about three weeks away from printing 'Obscure Victorian Writers ROCK!' T-shirts and setting up a campaign to raise awareness. (Would Bono help, do you think?)

Everyone needs a champion, even if the best you can get is a completely non-influential one living a hundred and fifty years too late.

Aaaaand they're off!

Posted by September Blue Monday, 23 April 2007 3 comments

My students spent most of this morning's class talking to each other. I love it when this happens; they pick up the discussion and run with it, and I just referee and gently swat them back onto track occasionally. And they're so polite about it, too. All "No, I see what you're saying, and I respect that, but where I'd disagree is..." and "Yeah, I do think that's valid, I just think we need to take this into account as well." I wish I knew what kind of things triggered this so I could set it going in every class - while I'd like to claim it's all due to my teaching, it's really the students who deserve the credit for this - but I've never been able to work it out. Some particular group dynamic, or some subject they've got personally invested in, and my introduction works like a touchpaper. The existence of moments like this is one of the things I'm happiest with about my teaching, although it's ironic that my greatest successes are the times when my students probably wouldn't even notice if I got up and left the room. Still, teaching is about them, not me.

To balance this out, the bus ride home felt like the driver had a cloud of bees around his head, and I got thrown out of my seat (and into one of the guardrails) twice. This morning's bus driver gave me all my change in coppers, too. Either I've offended a bus driver somewhere, or I've offended Grumpio, God of Busdriverkind.

and Oh! The difference

Posted by September Blue Friday, 20 April 2007 1 comments

Some poems just lend themselves well to parody. Take this of Wordsworth's, for instance:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

It's well-known, it's simple, and it's easily recognisable from a couple of lines, all of which make it fun to teach if you're introducing students to lyric poetry. And so, of course, it lends itself to parody. There's probably more out there than these, but here's my favourites:

Hartley Coleridge (son of S. T.), writing on Wordsworth himself:
He liv'd amidst th'untrodden ways
To Rydal Lake that lead;
A bard whom there were none to praise,
And very few to read.

Behind a cloud his mystic sense,
Deep hidden, who can spy?
Bright as the night when not a star
Is shining in the sky.

Unread his works - his 'Milk White Doe'
With dust is dark and dim;
It's still in Longman's shop, and oh!
The difference to him!

Phoebe Cary, in a poem that sounds far too recent to have been written in 1854:
He dwelt among "apartments let,"
About five stories high;
A man I thought that none would get,
And very few would try.

A boulder, by a larger stone
Half hidden in the mud,
Fair as a man when only one
Is in the neighborhood.

He lived unknown, and few could tell
When Jacob was not free;
But he has got a wife,– and O!
The difference to me!

Rudyard Kipling:
He wandered down the mountain grade
Beyond the speed assigned –
A youth whom Justice often stayed
And generally fined.

He went alone, that none might know
If he could drive or steer.
Now he is in the ditch, and Oh!
The differential gear!

And Carolyn Wells, parodying another well-known poem:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dee;
A Cow whom there were few to praise
And very few to see.

A violet by a mossy stone
Greeting the smiling East
Is not so purple, I must own,
As that erratic beast.

She lived unknown, that Cow, and so
I never chanced to see;
But if I had to be one, oh,
The difference to me!

My favourite parody poem, though, is much better-known now than the poem it's parodying. You can see them side-by-side here: Robert Southey's 'The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them' with Lewis Carroll's 'You Are Old, Father William'.

| edit post

The other side of student writing

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 19 April 2007 3 comments

From this Guardian article on the murders at Virginia Tech:

[Lucinda Roy] had removed Cho from a poetry class in November 2005 because his behaviour and writing frightened fellow students, as well as his professor, Nikki Giovanni. "There was something about his anger that made me think it just wasn't someone writing. It was a deeper place where it came from," Ms Roy said. "I just thought, here is someone who doesn't have much to lose." She notified campus counselling services, the legal department, and the dean of students about Cho. "He seemed incredibly depressed. He really needed help," she said.

She also asked campus police to review the writing sample which had disturbed Ms Giovanni. The police were responsive, but Ms Roy said there was little they could do because Cho had not made direct threats [...]

[Another professor, Edward Falco] said: "Periodically you get very violent writing. You get writing that is misogynistic, that is hateful. You have to deal with that. What is lack of craft, and what is a reflection of psychological problems - these are not easy to discern."
In a sense, it's just a lengthy if-only. To think that a crime like this was nearly prevented is consoling, somehow, and if someone was concerned enough to take a writing sample to the police, then it's much easier to think of this as a 'nearly'. And it's difficult to imagine academic staff taking student work to the police unless that work was so clearly the sign of psychological illness and of a potential threat. On the other hand, is it ever that easy to tell?

Student creative writing can be a very strange thing. Not all potentially disturbing material implies something's wrong with its author, and young writers tend towards extremes anyway, because... well. Because they're stretching their writerly wings, I suppose, and because they've yet to learn the power of understatement, and because why write a touching and poignant conversation between parting lovers when you can get your TA to mark acrobatically explicit sex scenes instead? ("You're overusing exclamation marks here. Also, I think one of your protagonists would have sprained something by now.") And sometimes they come across as angry or angsty or downright weird, but a lot of teenagers are angry or angsty or downright weird, and most of them don't hurt anybody. Still, there's standard creative writing eccentricity, and then there's the work that goes beyond 'eccentric'. Most academics haven't taught mass murderers, but I bet lots of us have taught students like 'Pete'.

'Pete' was in my first-year class a few years ago. Smiled a lot, sat at the back. A few of the girls stuck to him like remoras and giggled at every joke. He was a handful without being too difficult, and so long as the limelight shone on him for a few minutes in every class he wouldn't be too disruptive. But Pete was there for the credit, not the books, and when it became clear English wasn't the easy ride he'd hoped for, Pete started resenting both the work he had to do and the fact he had to do it. He wasn't happy when I said I would no longer be marking him present if he turned up to class without his books; he was even less happy when his first assignment got the fail it deserved. And he didn't like me much.

Pete's second assignment was a creative response piece, and the most disturbing student work I've seen so far. It was a re-writing of a text we'd already studied in class, but it had little in common with the source material except for the female protagonist's name: in this version, she was kidnapped, graphically tortured, and broke free to start killing and torturing people herself, including her mother and various men. I say she had the same name as the protagonist in the source material, but she was only called that once, in the first paragraph, and described just as 'the slut' or 'the whore' after that. I didn't know what to say about it, let alone what grade to give it. I still don't, really.

I don't think Pete was a danger to me or anyone else in the class. I think he was a brat who was trying to shock me. But I remember meeting him in the corridor the day that assignment was due in, and stepping out of his way as he sprinted past to get to the office before the deadline, and how he laughed and waved hi to me when he was holding that story in his other hand. Only a tiny, tiny minority of students will be murderers, but they're all people, and sometimes they won't be the kind of people you'd want to be left alone with. Still, there's never going to be a way to tell the unpleasant ones from the disturbed ones from the truly dangerous ones, based on their writing alone. How would you ever know?


Posted by September Blue Monday, 16 April 2007 3 comments

One of my favourite things about working in a university library, apart from the still-not-quite-tarnished glow of 'they're paying me to be in a library!', is finding the variety of things people use as bookmarks. I have my doubts about the rasher of bacon story (apart from its friend-of-a-friend nature, it seems to defy the whole point of emergency bookmarks: if you really needed to mark your page, wouldn't you have a knife and fork to hand? A plate to hold the book open? Why scavenge through your breakfast?), but the stuff I have found makes up for it: train tickets, plane tickets, family photos, photocophying cards with credit still left. Actual bookmarks, far too nice to lose, including a very sensible leather bookmark left in a very sensible Economics textbook, which, when removed, had 'HELP ME - MY BRAIN IS MELTING - MY BRAIN' written on the back. Credit cards, twice, both long past their expiry dates.

Scribbled notes become tiny short stories in their own right: 'Sorry, forgot I said I'd go out. See you soon. Love you.' Or, on an empty envelope, 'Thought you mind need these for Finals. Good luck! - S.'

Sometimes they're torn-up scraps from somebody's own notes, now and forever obscure: '24. Philosophers useless. Socrates', or 'Elspeth's birthday present!! Sparkles.' I'm guessing that 'Deuteronomy xxii5 as God's veto upon an actor wearing female dress' was only intended to make sense to its author, although a 3x5 index card with 'Titus 3:15 - Grace be with you all' in large, careful calligraphic handwriting seems to have been aimed at a wider audience. And sometimes, they're torn mid-word or mid-sentence, leaving things like 'The student of arithmetic who has mastered the first four rules of his art, and successfully striven with money sums and fractions, finds himself confronted by an unbroken' - which breaks off, right there. Or, my favourite piece of accidental poetry: 'The end / besides deconstruction / ends up v. well.'

The letters are the best, though.

A scrawled letter to an unnamed scientist:

I would like to get in contact with people who have some expertise in work with this to exchange ideas ref. and experiences. At end of PhD I ultimately would like to look at the impact house cats are having on prey population. I am aware that this is one of the main things you investigate with spotted Hyenas in the Serengeti and I would be very grateful if you would
...where it trails off into nothingness, which might or might not be the endless silence of 'my research will never be as cool as yours.'

A get-well-soon card:
With loving thoughts for your speedy recovery & that God may richly bless you in your service for Him.

Mrs Lennox told me yesterday that you were ill. As you continue the good work your dear husband began, may you be given good health and see fruit for your labours.

A typewritten letter dated 1936, from the Hon. Secretary of a Methodist Peace Fellowship to the man named as its president, beginning enigmatically:
No thanks, we do not want another President. I quite understand that most of these things must be regarded as "extras"; nevertheless your assistance has proved, and doubtless will prove, invaluable.

And the saddest, two letters together:
Dear Michael,

I hope you remember me, I'm Vicki's mum who married Jason.

I have enclosed a letter from me to Jason & it is about Rebecca his little girl. She is always asking me have I found her 'daddy'. She & her brother Adam are in 'foster care' at the moment. I thought Jason should know about this & if he is interested would he contact me or Joanne on [numbers]... I am enclosing a letter for Jason and would you pass it on please.

Dear Jason,

I am sorry to contact you under the circumstances I outlined in my letter to Michael. I fully understand if you decide not to do anything about Rebecca. I have no idea what your situation is or where you are living & I won't do anything to upset you or your family.

As I stated in my letter to Michael, Rebecca & Adam are in foster care at the moment due to Vicki's behaviour. Rebecca is a marvellous little girl, very mature & loving. She looks just like you & is of the same dispostion as you. If you want to 'talk things over' with me or Joanne please don't hesitate to contact us...
One letter being folded inside the other one would suggest that Michael never passed Jason's along, if he even received it in the first place, but I hope that's not what happened.

This one, written in 1941 from a - grandmother? godmother? teacher? - chose a holiday destination for me and some friends sixty-five years later, having been found the same day we were wondering where to go:
Well my dear Patricia, I am looking forward to going my holidays. My husband and I go off on Saturday to Dunoon for a week. Your Mummy and Daddy know that place well. We really wanted to go to Oban, but we could not get fixed up in any of the hotels.

You know Patricia where I would really like to go for my holidays, can you guess - Morar. Perhaps after the war I shall be able to take my husband there, and show him all the walks and places you and I know so well. I wonder if you are going up to Morar this year?

How are Michael and Carolina? I have been wondering if Hannie is still with you, I have not heard from her in such a long time. I wondered if she might be doing war work.
(Morar is beautiful, by the way.)

And finally this, last night, in a library book I'm reading for my thesis:
It's rather depressing but everything I think has already been thought & written. My only consolation is that my deductions are made rather independently - sort of a logical corollary to what I know I have learned.
I went to bed after that. You'd have done the same.

The year before I was born, my dad turned down a job at a huge chemical-pharmaceutical company because of Vonnegut's story 'Deer in the Works'. If he'd taken it, I'd have grown up three hundred miles away in a richer family with an unhappy father. "This book changed my life" is a fairly empty cliche most of the time ("...and without Holden Caulfield, I'd never have questioned authority as a teenager!"), but I could make a case for this one.

| edit post

There is something very strange about any critical overview which describes New Historicism as 'develop[ing] in response to New Criticism'. It's not wrong, as such; it's just, given the time-gap between New Criticism falling out of favour and New Historicism skipping giddily in, weird to think of the latter's development as a bunch of literary critics sitting in a room for several decades trying to puzzle things out ("You know... I keep getting this nagging feeling that historical context is important, but I can't quite put my finger on why..." "No, same here, and - my God, is it 1975 already? Who wants some more coffee?") until Stephen Greenblatt leaps onto a desk shouting "Eureka, everybody, I've got it!"

'On giving offence'

Posted by September Blue Friday, 6 April 2007 0 comments

(Cornhill, July 1884.)

In a social point of view when you have said that a man is an offensive fellow you have said the worst of him, or that can be said. He may be in his private capacity a forger or, as is much more likely, a murderer; but, so far as his attitude to society is concerned, the revelation of that circumstance would put him in no worse position; on the contrary, while his character would in no wise be deteriorated, it would invest him with a certain dramatic interest, and, even if the worst came to the worst, it would be very pleasant to see him hanged.

Everyone knows an offensive fellow at the first glance: he can no more conceal his disposition than the skunk can deodorize himself; in nine cases out of ten indeed it is evident in his face, the expression of which, like a tavern-sign, unfortunately frank, informs us that sour wine is sold within; but if not, he has only to open his mouth and out flies the truth about him; for this hateful creature always prefers to say a disagreeable thing to you instead of an agreeable one, and cannot hold his tongue.
Fairly short, so I'm typing this one out in full. The rest is below the fold.

To this class belong bullies and backbiters, in whose favour no one has a word to say, and at whose decease the very ingrates move their tardy lips in thankfulness. Under these circumstances it seems strange that the adjective 'inoffensive' should not carry more praise with it; whereas when applied to one's fellow-creatures it has rather a contemptuous significance. The term 'good-natured' is not very eulogistic; as the poet most familiar to my boyhood rather abruptly observes,

Oh! what is mere Goodnature but a Fool?

but 'Inoffensiveness' if personified and described in any song would probably come off even worse.

The explanation of this is, no doubt, that everyone, it is felt, should have what is called 'a kick in him;' the capability, not indeed of giving offence, but, if it is offered to us, of giving it back again. There are degrees between the hornet and the humble-bee, and everyone should have a sting in his tail, ready for use on occasion.

I cannot help thinking, however, that there is another reason for the deprecation of inoffensive folk. They have such a want of self-assertion that they never give the least ground for quarrel. And though it is only the morose and evil disposed who like a grudge, there are a good many of us who like a grievance. to take offence where no offence is meant, and where they know none is meant, is also a great joy to some natures; and these naturally resent a state of things wherein even by the unmost ingenuity the intention of hurting their feelings cannot be imputed.

To the grievance-monger there is nothing so objectionable as an explanation .It is putting out the fire beside which he nurses his wrath and keeps it warm. In the atmosphere of his discontent his wrong has assumed gigantic proportions, and it is very disagreeable to me to see it melt away in the wholesome air of common-sense. When we see a play on the stage built up on some misunderstanding which three words would dissipate, we exclaim 'How absurd! How unnatural!' but these people weave a life-drama for themselves out of these very materials, and take their pleasure in a maze of feelings warranted of their own manufacture. They are always on the look-out for slights; a depreciatory observation, a glance which can be construed to imply contempt, is at once furnished with a personal application, and provides them with their desideratum; even silence has been known to furnish it. The 'Hurt' family, to which they all belong, has many branches, but the type is the same throughout. If fortune, so far from being 'outrageous,' has neither stings nor arrows, there are at least nettles to be found, and they proceed to divest themselves of their last garment and roll in them. Nothing is more amusing than to see these people unexpectedly confronted with a real grievance: some elephantine person who is accustomed to put his foot down, and is not particular where he puts it. They are like boys who, 'ranging the woods to start a hare,' come on a sudden upon a fierce old bear, who 'lies amid bones and blood.' The homeopathic remedy which the schoolmaster aplies to whining children – the 'giving them something to cry for' – is most efficacious. It must be said, however, for this class of persons, that they are ready enough to accept an apology; which indeed does them no harm, since they can discover a new cause of offence within the next five minutes.
The lines about the boys who stumble across a bear are from Thomas Babbington's poem
'Horatius' (popular in its time if somewhat less well-known now), which describes the lone Horatius Cocles single-handedly defending the bridge over the Tiber from the Etruscans.
A much more contemptible variety is to be found in those who refuse to be conciliated; who will not take those words, alike gentle and simple, 'I am sorry,' in the sense in which they were uttered. This generally arises from petty egotism; the sense of quarrel seems to invest them with a certain importance, which they have no other means of attaining; they prefer to be unreasonable, and therefore to some extent extraordinary, rather than to return to their original position of insignificance.

There is still a worse class, who seek in discord a channel for their evil temper, which is always at the flood. they have a bad word for everybody, but a particularly bad one (which is also generally a falsehood) for the object of their private rancour. The Corsican, ignorant, idle, and venomous, is the head of this charming family. The art of taking offence in his case is not only carried to the most delicate perfection, but is hereditary.

Nevertheless, a certain King of Scotland must needs be placed at the hed of this profession, inasmuch as he took offence by proxy. Perceiving one of his courtiers to have lost an eye, he inquired the reason. 'It was put out by a fencing master,' was the reply.

'And is that man alive?' inquired his majesty significantly.

Whereupon the courtier, recalled to a sense of what was due to himself as a nobleman and a Christian, at once went and murdered the innocent offener.

It must be remembered in charity that accidents of birth and blood, or even family misfortunes, make people quick to take offence. When one's father has been hanged, an allusion to a rope, even by one who has never heard of the deplorable occurrence, is apt to grate on the ear. A personal blemish or deformity will, in a sensitive nature, have the same unfortunate effect. One of the kindest men I ever knew, and certainly the very last to give offence to any human being, was once a victim to this circumstance. When a boy, he was on the Chain Pier at Brighton with his mother, a lady also of exceptionally gentle nature, when an umbrella blew inside out chanced to excite their mirth. A woman sitting next to them at once arose and favoured them with this amazing speech, 'An ill-bred woman, and a worse taught child!' They then perceived for the first time that she had what is called a port-wine stain on her cheek, to which, I suppose, as in the case of Byron and his club foot, this poor lady imagined that everyone was directing their attention. An apology was out of the question; but I am very sure that the child and his parent suffered far more than the injured party.

Misunderstandings which might easily be rectified are often followed, in the mean time, by actions which admit of no remedy. In a country town, where I once lived as a boy, the virulence with which two men hated one another was quite a proverb. Mr. A. and Dr. B. had once been intimate friends, and though one was a Tory and the other a Radical, had agreed to differ: they could even afford to rally one another upon the vehemence of their respective qualifications.

'For all your high and dry principles,' said B., when the news came of Queen Caroline's acquittal, 'you will have to illuminate your house to-night.'

'There shall not be a candle,' returned A., defiantly.

The next morning Dr. B. met his friend, and congratulated him, since the violence of the mob had been very great, that he had thought better of his resolution, and taken the prudent course of lighting up his house.

'I did nothing of the kind,' said A.

'Then I don't know what you call lighting up; it was so well done, however, that I hear the mob gave you three cheers.'

'That is false,' replied A. excitedly, and – not to go into painful details – a blow was given and returned.

The fact was that A. had gone out to dinner, and his wife, in spite of his injunctions, and preferring unbroken windows to principles intact, had lit up the house, without his knowledge. A. and B. went to their graves without exchanging another word with each other.

After all, those who speak with the deliberate intention of giving offence – the 'Roughs' of polite society – are not numerous. Some women will, however, 'say things' to persons of their own sex which to our ears sound outrageous, and would not be tolerated for a moment by men from a man. The reason of this is that though women have a reputation for badinage (as they have, less deservedly, for 'tact') they shrink from all retort, save the 'retort courteous.' They cannot reply when a disagreeable thing is said, 'Well, upon my word, you're a nice agreeable ladylike person, you are;' or even 'Do you really think that remark of yours exhibits the desire, so insisted on by moralists, to increase the happiness of the human family?' There are many ways of stopping the mouth of a disagreeable male, besides putting your fist in it, which are denied to the gentler sex.

The consciousness of this – of there being no remedy in case of the thing going too far – is perhaps the reason why women do not rally one another, as men do; with a latter a certain good-humoured chaff, among old friends, is as the bread of life to social intercourse; women chaff the other sex, but not their own. They say 'our tempers will not stand it; we are less good-natured to one another than you are;' but the real cause is, I believe, as I have stated it.

He who has the wish to please need never fear giving offence; those who take it under such circumstances mistake egotism for self-respect, moroseness for dignity, and are among the chief obstructives to human enjoyment.

You know twenty-six is old when...

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 3 April 2007 1 comments

A student, at the start of a close-reading exercise on some 'modern' (ha) literature: "That's really sexist language. And it was probably sexist even in 1995."

Objectively, I already knew that most of my students were born somewhere around 1986. Objectively. But nothing will bring it home to you more speedily than realising that while for you, 1995 meant writing Bon Jovi lyrics in the back of your geography book and quoting Clueless beyond the point of human endurance, for your students, 1995 is another country and they do things differently there.

(Although, we did buy Robson and Jerome singles of our own free will. Maybe it was another world after all.)