Friday, 25 October 2013

David Mitchell and Kurt Vonnegut on Addiction

We all have our addictions, some more persistent than others. Mine is an endless string of "complete works of..."s. Luckily though, authors die leaving me with serious withdrawal symptoms and the methadon of mediocre spin-offs and copycats.

One of this addictions is the writings of Kurt Vonnegut. (To be fair, it's really the narration of Kurt Vonnegut: one so compelling you find yourself nodding while reading). Sadly, though, Kurt Vonnegut died. He was planning to use his addiction to tobacco as a "classy way to commit suicide", but fell down his stairs before his addiction could get the better of him. 

Before this though, he had a collection of his essays published in A Man Without a Country. This is one of the few books I've consumed in under a day, in a secluded, vacant room on a slow cruise to which I was considerably less partial than to Vonnegut's laconic tone. In it, he presents an alternative understanding of addiction.

This little text was what caused a exquisite relapse in my literary five step program of recovery. I was suffering in silence, struggling through the nonentity Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, an author whose prowess had been extolled to me by a patently misguided Canadian girl in a Paris café, when in an effort to end the doldrums I read an article by David Mitchell in the Guardian. 

In it, he commented on revelations that an actress had tried drugs in the 70s, arguing that while this shouldn't really surprise anyone, the fact that she clearly didn't sustain any lasting addiction or harm from it caused some issues for anti-drugs campaigns. Lamenting never having been offered cocaine himself (so that he could vehemently refuse), Mitchell reached the nub of his argument, that most anti-drug campaigns, including those against tobacco and alcohol, focus on the wrong thing. 

This was when Mitchell and Vonnegut's shared trait of narrative persuasiveness and topic made a rereading of A Man Without a Country reappear to this listless reader as a beacon of light, an oasis in the desert or some such thing. 

Hopefully, the intellectual gymnastics in these excerpts will allow you to think about communication, addiction and yourself in a new way. Also, if you, like me, appreciate the wit of these two, you would read both Vonnegut's essay and Mitchell's article in full, or even read through A Man Without a Country and watch the episodes of David Mitchell's Soap Box.

But not until you have enjoyed these excerpts:


Kurt Vonnegut,
army portrait

I'm going to tell you some news.
No, I am not running for President, although I do know that a sentence, if it is to be complete, must have both a subject and a verb.
Nor will I confess that I sleep with children. I will say this, though: My wife is by far the oldest person I ever slept with.
Here's the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only 12 years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me.
But I am now 82. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.
Our government's got a war on drugs. That's certainly a lot better than no drugs at all. That's what was said about prohibition. Do you realise that from 1919 to 1933 it was absolutely against the law to manufacture, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages, and the Indiana newspaper humourist Ken Hubbard said: "Prohibition is better than no liquor at all."
But get this: The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal.
One, of course, is ethyl alcohol. And President George W Bush, no less, and by his own admission, was smashed, or tiddley-poo, or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 40. When he was 41, he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gargling nose paint.
Other drunks have seen pink elephants.
About my own history of foreign substance abuse, I've been a coward about heroin and cocaine, LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. I did smoke a joint of marijuana one time with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, just to be sociable. It didn't seem to do anything to me one way or the other, so I never did it again. And by the grace of God, or whatever, I am not an alcoholic, largely a matter of genes. I take a couple of drinks now and then and will do it again tonight. But two is my limit. No problem.
I am, of course, notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.
But I'll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver's licence ­ look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut!
And my car back then, a Studebaker as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused, addictive, and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.
When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialised world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won't be any left. Cold turkey.
Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn't the TV news is it? Here's what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on.


David Mitchell

If I tried cocaine, the worst outcome would be that I liked it and the best that I didn't. When not liking something is the most you can hope for from consuming it, that's a good reason to abstain. 

Do you like my logic? I was pleased with it and looked forward to delivering it to the twat I imagined offering me a 'line' (I lack the confidence to type that without inverted commas) at a party. But not once have I been given the chance! Clearly, I come across as too square even to be worth attempting to corrupt. I'm just not cool.

'Cool' is the key to all this. That's why the celebs are happy to make their admissions. They're boasting that they were the kind of people who were cool enough to be approached, to get involved, to try stuff. They were creative and experimental and dangerously unwise and there's no one alive who, at some point, didn't want to seem like that. Except maybe Ann Widdecombe. 

This is also the problem with anti-smoking campaigns. They persist in trying to persuade kids that smoking isn't cool. Come off it. Look at Sean Connery as James Bond or Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. We're trying to stop millions of young people from doing something that may kill them and we kick off with a demonstrable lie.

Smoking is cool. Addiction isn't (people huddling outside offices in the rain don't look cool so much as cold) and cancer certainly isn't, but smoking when isolated from these things obviously is. No, there's a harder but ultimately more persuasive message we need to find some way to convey: being cool doesn't really matter. We shouldn't let 'cool' become a direct synonym of 'good'.

The problem is that to the marketing and advertising companies this is heresy. Invoking 'cool' is how you make people do things they otherwise wouldn't: buy electric shavers that jizz moisturiser, endlessly drink mini-yogurts, douse themselves in a smell Kate Moss has reportedly made. Cool is why they're smoking, so it must be why they'll stop.

We'll never stop the young from wanting to be cool and it's worth promoting uncarcinogenic ways they can do this. But we might as well spend some time trying to undermine being cool as an aim, rather than pretending we know better than them what constitutes it.

It irritates me when teenagers in bad dramas or adverts say things such as: 'Your mum's cool' to mean: 'I like your mum.' The correct response should be: 'No, my mum is not cool - she doesn't wear sunglasses indoors or weird clothes. She is a middle-aged woman who is nice and good and wise and worrying about what's cool is beneath her.'

Unfortunately the reply to this would inevitably be: 'Cool!'


What do you think?

Is David Mitchell right in indicating that anti-smoking campaigns target the wrong problem, smoking and not addiction? Is this the position he is arguing? Does his attention to the word "cool" sit well with you in this context?

Vonnegut's argument can in some way be seen as contrary to that of Mitchell. Where Mitchell claims out understanding of addiction is too vague and covers too much, Vonnegut claims it's too definite and restrictive. Is he right when he points out that fossil fuels are our most threatening addiction? Are there other, more dagerous ones he does not mention?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: Text1Text2, Pic1, Pic2Pic3

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Pope's Erotic Novel

One of the most popular books of the 15th century was the Historia de duobus amantibus or the Story of two lovers, written by Enea Silvio Piccolomini from Siena in 1444. It was first published in Cologne in 1468 and then in Rome in 1476, whereupon it followed a meteoric increase in publication. One reason for its popularity could be that it is one of the first notable erotic novels, only preceded by Petronius Arbiter's Satyricon and Boccaccio's Decameron, and the first epistolary erotic novel. Another reason could be that Piccolomini went on to become Pope Pius II in 1458.

Piccolomini in his older, more frumpy times

The novel follows the adulterous love of Lucretia, a married woman in Piccolomini's native Siena, and Euryalus, companion of Sigismund, the visiting Duke of Austria. Their relationship progresses from the search for reciprocal affection following a chance meeting, through love letters and secret meetings to a tragic finale. This plot has often been likened to that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and the popularity of the novel might have made it available to Shakespeare 153 years later.

Euryalus and Lucretia meeting on the title page of
an edition from 1500 (click the image to zoom)

Interestingly, the novel is in many ways highly transitional. It occured at a time of budding Renaissance, including a topic and imagery which, save for Boccaccio, had been taboo in Medieval times. Whereas modern readers might find that the relative absence of sex and the poetically introspective and psychological approach to love remind them more of romance than of erotica, contemporary ones would relish in the novel's deviance from the religious rigidity of a waning era.

Euryalus delivers a love letter. 
The illustration breaks with standards of Medieval illumination. 
These were kept alive in Venice, but the Florentine printers 
developed this style because they were printing for
a larger, less wealthy public. (click the image to zoom)

No one exemplifies this change more distinctly than the author himself, albeit in unexpected ways. As a young Poet Laureate of Gaspar Schlick, the Chancellor of the Holy Roman Emperor (Sigismund of Austria...), Piccolomini seems to have embraced the ideals of the Renaissance. In the novel, one of Euryalus' last resort for gaining access to Lucretia, her husband's cousin Pandalus, points out that "Why, she is so changed by love, you would not think her the same person. Alas for piety, alas for grief! No one, until this happened, in all the city was chaster than she, no one more modest. It is indeed amazing that nature has given to love so much power over men’s thoughts." (i). Nature, as Fransesco de Sanctis points out, and in particular human nature, is now what is right (ii). Lucretia and Euryalus are clearly meant to be together, while the laws of society, which were the prevailing good in Medieval texts and the authority behind Lucretia's faltering marriage, is now what is wrong. While Dante viewed nature as evil and Medieval literature tended to view love as something granted by external, supernatural powers, Piccolomini places love in human nature. This Renaissance humanism which focuses on man and nature rather than religion and religious concepts saturates the novel and rules of society and honour which causes the tragic end to their relationship confirms this attitude.

The lovers, in a fond embrace, are being warned by a servant that
Lucretia's husband is at the door. The print is probably 

re-used from some other work. (click  the image to zoom)

However, Piccolomini soon became Pope, resulting in a remarkable volte-face. As Pope Pius II, he famously stated "Aeneam rejicite, Pium suscipite!" ("Reject Aeneas, accept Pius!"). He distanced himself from the favourable descriptions of nature, and particularly that of Lucretia, as well as the success of his younger self, albeit unsuccessfully. In this sense, upon ascending to the top of the Holy See, Aeneas returned to pre-Renaissance sentiments, luckily for us, to no avail.

The erstwhile poet had already made his mark, providing posterity with lyrical and heartfelt descriptions of love and the experience of it. The English translation, introduced by the below paragraphs, makes for a delightful read and a story which remains as engaging and vivid today as it did almost six hundred years ago.

THE city of Siena, your native town and mine, did great honour to the Emperor Sigismund on his arrival, as is now well known; and a palace was made ready for him by the church of Saint Martha, on the road that leads to the narrow gate of sandstone. As Sigismund came hither, after the ceremonies, he met four married ladies, for birth and beauty, age and ornament, almost equal. All thought them goddesses rather than mortal women, and had they been only three, they might have seemed those whom Paris, we are told, saw in a dream. Now Sigismund, though advanced in years, was quick to passion; he took great pleasure in the company of women, and loved feminine caresses. Indeed he liked nothing better than the presence of great ladies. So when he saw these, he leaped from his horse, and they received him with outstretched hands. Then, turning to his companions, he said: ‘Have you ever seen women like these: For my part, I cannot say whether their faces are human or angelic. Surely they are from heaven.’ 
They cast down their eyes, and their modesty made them lovelier. For, as the blushes spread over their cheeks, their faces took the colour of Indian ivory stained with scarlet, or white lilies mixed with crimson roses. And chief among them all, shone the beauty of Lucretia. A young girl, barely twenty years of age, she came of the house of the Camilli, and was wife to Menelaus, a wealthy man, but quite unworthy that such a treasure should look after his home; deserving rather that his wife should deceive him or, as we say, give him horns. 
This lady was taller than the others. Her hair was long, the colour of beaten gold, and she wore it not hanging down her back, as maidens do, but bound up with gold and precious stones. Her lofty forehead, of good proportions, was without a wrinkle, and her arched eyebrows were dark and slender, with a due space between. Such was the splendour of her eyes that, like the sun, they dazzled all who looked on them; with such eyes she could kill whom she chose and, when she would, restore the dead to life. Her nose was straight in contour, evenly dividing her rosy cheeks, while nothing could be sweeter, nothing more pleasant to see than those cheeks which, when she laughed, broke in a little dimple on either side. And all who saw those dimples longed to kiss them. A small and well-shaped mouth, coral lips made to be bitten, straight little teeth, that shone like crystal, and between them, running to and fro, a tremulous tongue that uttered not speech, but sweetest harmonies. And how can I describe the beauty of her mind, the whiteness of her breast?

The remaider of the novel can be found by clicking here.

What do you think?

What is your opinion of the about-face of Pius the poet pope? He could have distanced himself from his earlier work either because of the requirements of office, because of old age and changed values but also for a number of other reasons. What do you think these might be and can you sympathise with his choices?

Also, an erotic novel more or less without sex: is that a contradiction in terms? Is it an erotic novel at all or would you classify it as something else? If so, what and why?

Finally, the personal aspect. Love, romance and sexuality are highly personal themes. Could this be the reason for the novel's popularity back then? What is your personal reaction to the novel? Who deserves your personal sympathy, Aeneas or Pius?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Further reading: A quick but good introduction, a thorough analysis, a look at illustrations and a young literate's reactions

Sources: (i), (ii), Pic1, Pic2, Pic3, Pic4

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Watson and Other Excitable Characters - Ejaculations in the Sherlock Holmes Canon

Hopefully, this heading did not make you ejaculate with shock! Recently, I watched the first episode of the QI J-season, and after a particularly entertaining passage on language and literature, I ejaculated with joy. However, I did so not in the most common modern sense of the word, but in the late 18th century sense. The e comes from latin out (of) while iaculor is to throw or hurl (like a javelin), so while re-ject means to throw/send something back and e-ject means to throw/send something out, an ejaculation used to be just any kind of outburst.

In this particular QI episode, the use of the word in the Sherlock Holmes canon was the object of much mirth. There are 23 ejaculations in the canon, all of which presumably intended to be verbal, but like imagining Frodo and Sam as lovers in The Lord of the Rings, once you've thought it you can't un-think it and you're scarred for life:

This is just a few, though, and so you might ask, "Surely, this must be something for someone with a blog on literature! Why not the lot?" And you did, to which I reply, "Enjoy!"

You must have observed the way in which he held his head and swung his cane. A steady, respectable, middle-aged man, too, on the face of him—all facts which led me to believe that he had been a sergeant.”
“Wonderful!” I ejaculated.
“Commonplace,” said Holmes
Simple as it was, there were several most instructive points about it.”
“Simple!” I ejaculated.
“Well, really, it can hardly be described as otherwise,” said Sherlock Holmes, smiling at my surprise.
“NOW, WATSON,” said Holmes, rubbing his hands, “we have half an hour to ourselves. Let us make good use of it. My case is, as I have told you, almost complete; but we must not err on the side of over-confidence. Simple as the case seems now, there may be something deeper underlying it.”
“Simple!” I ejaculated.
(Watson, in response to his soon-to-be fiancée)
It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us.
“Thank God!” I ejaculated from my very heart.
She looked at me with a quick, questioning smile.

- A Study in Scarlet -

“What on earth does this mean?” I ejaculated after I had twice read over the extraordinary announcement.
Holmes chuckled and wriggled in his chair, as was his habit when in high spirits

- The Red-Headed League -

This observation of his had the natural effect of removing any traces of doubt which might have remained in the minds of the coroner's jury.”
“It was a confession,” I ejaculated 

- The Boscombe Valley Mystery -

While she was walking in this way down Swandam Lane, she suddenly heard an ejaculation or cry, and was struck cold to see her husband looking down at her and, as it seemed to her, beckoning to her from a second-floor window. The window was open, and she distinctly saw his face, which she describes as being terribly agitated. He waved his hands frantically to her, and then vanished from the window so suddenly that it seemed to her that he had been plucked back by some irresistible force from behind.
With these he constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which he perched himself cross-legged, with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of him. In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there, an old briar pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon his strong-set aquiline features. So he sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so he sat when a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up, and I found the summer sun shining into the apartment. The pipe was still between his lips, the smoke still curled upward, and the room was full of a dense tobacco haze, but nothing remained of the heap of shag which I had seen upon the previous night.
“Awake, Watson?” he asked.
“Game for a morning drive?”
“Then dress. No one is stirring yet, but I know where the stable-boy sleeps

- The Man with the Twisted Lip -

 Sherlock Holmes sat up with a whistle. “By Jove, Peterson!” said he, “this is treasure trove indeed. I suppose you know what you have got?”
“A diamond, sir? A precious stone. It cuts into glass as though it were putty.”
“It's more than a precious stone. It is the precious stone.”
“Not the Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle!” I ejaculated.

- The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle -

The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that our door had been suddenly dashed open, and that a huge man had framed himself in the aperture. His costume was a peculiar mixture of the professional and of the agricultural, having a black top-hat, a long frock-coat, and a pair of high gaiters, with a hunting-crop swinging in his hand. 

- The Adventure of the Specled Band -

“What on earth has that to do with it?” I ejaculated.

- The Adventure of the Copper Beeches -

“The young imp cannot be found,” said Dr. Trevelyan; “the maid and the cook have just been searching for him.”
Holmes shrugged his shoulders.
“He has played a not unimportant part in this drama,” said he. “The three men having ascended the stairs, which they did on tiptoe, the elder man first, the younger man second, and the unknown man in the rear—”
“My dear Holmes!” I ejaculated.

- The Resident Patient -

“Surely the gate was open!” ejaculated Phelps.
“Yes, but I have a peculiar taste in these matters. I chose the place where the three fir-trees stand, and behind their screen I got over without the least chance of any one in the house being able to see me. I crouched down among the bushes on the other side, and crawled from one to the other—witness the disreputable state of my trouser knees—until I had reached the clump of rhododendrons just opposite to your bedroom window. There I squatted down and awaited developments.
“The blind was not down in your room, and I could see Miss Harrison sitting there reading by the table. It was quarter-past ten when she closed her book, fastened the shutters, and retired.
“I heard her shut the door, and felt quite sure that she had turned the key in the lock.”
“The key!” ejaculated Phelps 
(and finally)
A moment later the servant's door was opened, and Mr. Joseph Harrison stepped out into the moonlight.”
“Joseph!” ejaculated Phelps

- The Naval Treaty -

Once or twice it seemed to me that I had seen the same figure before, and I especially noticed two men who appeared to be sheltering themselves from the wind in the doorway of a house some distance up the street. I tried to draw my companion's attention to them, but he gave a little ejaculation of impatience and continued to stare into the street.

- The Adventure of the Empty House – see my earlier post featuring this short story!

As Holmes turned up the lamp the light fell upon a card on the table. He glanced at it, and then, with an ejaculation of disgust, threw it on the floor. I picked it up and read:—
Appledore Towers, 
“Who is he?” I asked.
“The worst man in London,” Holmes answered

- The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton -

Amid the droning of the wind there had come the stamping of a horse's hoofs and the long grind of a wheel as it rasped against the kerb. The cab which I had seen had pulled up at our door.
“What can he want?” I ejaculated, as a man stepped out of it.
“Want! He wants us. And we, my poor Watson, want overcoats and cravats and galoshes, and every aid that man ever invented
Tut-tut! Well, then, these tracks upon the grass, were they coming or going?”
“It was impossible to say. There was never any outline.”
“A large foot or a small?”
“You could not distinguish.”
Holmes gave an ejaculation of impatience.

- The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez -

This brought his hand within a few inches of the broken end of the rope, but it was not this so much as the bracket itself which seemed to engage his attention. Finally he sprang down with an ejaculation of satisfaction.
“It's all right, Watson,” said he.

- The Adventure of the Abbey Grange -

My visit was specially made to the good Mr. Ames, with whom I exchanged some amiabilities, which culminated in his allowing me, without reference to anyone else, to sit alone for a time in the study.”
“What! With that?” I ejaculated.
“No, no, everything is now in order. You gave permission for that, Mr. Mac, as I am informed. The room was in its normal state, and in it I passed an instructive quarter of an hour.”

- The Valley of Fear - 

In the bedroom he made a rapid cast around and ended by throwing open the window, which appeared to give him some fresh cause for excitement, for he leaned out of it with loud ejaculations of interest and delight.

- The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot - 

(Holmes misses Watson…)
And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy.

- The Blanched Soldier -


What do you think?

Once more with the etymology! Is the fact that the predominant meaning of words change, sometimes with comic results, the most appealing part of language, or is it something else? According to Queer  and Feminist Theory, a lot of literature can be read from a new angle, as with Lord of the Rings and now clearly the Holmes canon. Have you read anything lately where a different understanding of the genders and gender roles alters your understanding of the text?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: As given

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Kurt Vonnegut's Backwards Movie

I am a slow reader, but Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country is to date the only book I have read all in a day. Kurt Vonnegut's innocent and quaintly humorous tone betrays a wit as sharp and piercing as an antibiotic syringe and this kept me rapt for an entire day. Expectations were therefore high before reading Vonnegut's most acclaimed novel, Slaugherhouse Five.

The novel figures on Modern Library and Time Magazine's lists of the 100 most significant English-language novels and the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books 1990-1999 (i.e. books requested for withdrawal from libraries). It is also known as one of the great anti-war novels, as it follows the protagonist Billy Pilgrim's experience of the Second World War, the bombing of Dresden and their results for Billy's subsequent civilian life. Vonnegut, who experienced the Dresden bombing, created this compelling argument against war halfway through his semi-autobiographic novel. The protagonist, many years after the war has become somewhat peculiar. He can't sleep, and goes into the kitchen.


Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground., to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.


If the significance of this passage eludes you, have no fear. The below illustration, accompanied by Kurt Vonnegut's reading of the passage succincly explains how contrary and illogical war is.

What do you think?

Do you think Vonnegut makes a compelling argument with this passage, or could it be read otherwise? Assuming it communicates an anti-war message, you agree with him and the way he presents it? Vonnegut is known for using short sentences meant for high reading speed rather than contemplation. Do you think this is a fitting style for discussing a topic as deep as war? Did the segment make you want to read more from Vonnegut?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: Vonnegut, Kurt: Slaugherhouse 5, London 2000, 60-61, pic, film, as given

Monday, 1 July 2013

"Tiger" Jack Moran and his Enemies - Doyle, Fraser and Gaiman Ride a Bicycle Made for Three


"I have not introduced you yet," said Holmes. "This, gentlemen, is Colonel Sebastian Moran, once of Her Majesty's Indian Army, and the best heavy-game shot that our Eastern Empire has ever produced. I believe I am correct, Colonel, in saying that your bag of tigers still remains unrivalled?"
The fierce old man said nothing, but still glared at my companion. With his savage eyes and bristling moustache he was wonderfully like a tiger himself.

 "What business have you got at your time of life to be trying to slaughter a man fifteen years younger than you are, in the middle of civilised London, especially when he’s a high-tailed gun-slick with a beltful of scalps who can shoot your ears off with his eyes shut? For that’s what Tiger Jack Moran was, and no mistake." 

"My shoulder, touched by the Queen, continues to improve; the flesh fills and it heals. Soon I shall be a dead-shot once more"


"Tiger" Jack Moran first appeared in the Sherlock Holmes short story The Adventure of the Empty House in Arthur Conan Doyle's 1903 The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes had just been resurrected due to public pressure only to face another threat. A lieutenant of his now conquered nemesis Professor Moriarty was after his blood. This lieutenant was Colonel Sebastian Moran, famed tiger hunter and marksman. The first quotation is from this story.

Colonel Moran
as portrayed by Sidney Paget

Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories inspire in mysterious ways, however, and 96 years later a different short story converged with Doyle’s by the hand of George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser was at this time nearing the end of his Flashman series and the short story Flashman and the Tiger from the book of the same name saw Sir Harry Paget Flashman encounter Moran, whom he calls “Jack” at the infamous battle of Insandhlwana in 1879. However, their paths cross again when Moran manages to draw the old yellow-bellied shirker to confrontation. What he did to provoke this stupendous feat is better enjoyed from Fraser’s pen, but suffice it to say this puts Moran, Holmes, Watson and Flashman in the same room. The second quotation is Fraser's.

Then, in 2006, that master of plot twists and twisted plots Neil Gaiman added the short story A Study in Emerald to his collection Fragile Things. While clearly appropriating Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, there is a twist to the story which really strengthens Moran’s position as one of Moriarty’s lieutenants in the Sherlock Holmes corpus. The third quotation is from Neil Gaiman's short story. While it takes a tremendous Sherlock Holmes addict who has studied the novels and short stories in depth (twice) to identify Moran’s position in the short story, Neil Gaiman once more manages to make his story expand beyond the mere 9 pages on which it is written. It also makes said addict revisit said corpus.

If you enjoyed the first two seasons of BBC’s television revision and update of the Sherlock Holmes stories, aptly named Sherlock, you will be delighted to know that there is a third season in the works. Although not expected to air until 2014, the first episode is expected to build on The Adventure of the Empty House as the last episode of the second series saw Holmes fall to his death. There is hope though, because if you find the wait for The Empty Hearse long and unbearable, you can discover these three short stories in the meantime.

Feel free to read them in any sequence you like, but in retrospect, this one would be highly recommended:

Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventure of the Empty House

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman and the Tiger (starts on p. 179)

Neil Gaiman - A Study in Emerald

What do you think? 

Which story did you like the best? Which author would you like to read more by? Are you looking forward to the third season of Sherlock? Do you know of any other good literary constellations like this one where plots and characters merge surreptitiously? See also my post on the appeal of the villain!

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome!

Sources: As given, Collage, Frame, Pics

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Forbes Fictional Fifteen

Forbes Magazine, known for tracing the lives and fortunes of the world's wealthy, has an annual list ranking the fifteen wealthiest fictional characters. Previously, Scrooge McDuck has figured in 6 of 8 lists, possibly because his legendary reluctance to spend his wealth. However, after a bet with arch-rival Flintheart Glomhold he lost his entire fortune of $44.1 billion and his place on the list.

Other candidates have failed to qualify, like Gordon Gekko (awaiting trial with funds returned to investors), Jeffrey Lebowski (fictional fortune), Chuck Bass (lost control of Bass Industries to Russell Thorpe) and Arthur Bach (spent his fortune on drink).

With these heavyweights gone, who does that leave for this year's list? Let's have a countdown, shall we?


Jo Bennett
From: The Office
Fortune: $ 1.0 billion
Source: Electronics, inheritance


Robert Crawley
From: Downton Abbey
Fortune: $ 1.1 billion
Source: Inheritance, Marriage


Charles Montgomery Plantagenet Schicklgruber Burns
From: The Simpsons
Fortune: $ 1.3 billion
Source: Energy


Tywin Lannister
From: A Song of Ice and Fire
Fortune: $ 2.1 billion
Source: Inheritance


Lisbeth Salander
From: Stieg Larsson's Millenium Series
Fortune: $ 2.4 billion
Source: Computer Hacking


Mr. Monopoly, A.K.A. Rich Uncle Pennybags
From: The Monopoly Board Game
Fortune: $ 2.5 billion
Source: Real Estate


Forrest Gump
From: Forrest Gump film
Fortune: $ 5.7 billion
Source: Apple Inc.


Bruce Wayne
From: Batman franchise
Fortune: $ 6.9 billion
Source: Inheritance, defense
See also: Why Batman is bad for Gotham


Charles Foster Kane
From: Citizen Kane
Fortune: $ 8.3 billion
Source: Media


Richie Rich
From: Richie Rich comics and film
Fortune: $ 8.9 billion
Source: Inheritance, conglomerates


Tony Stark
From: Iron Man comics and film
Fortune: $ 9.3 billion
Source: Defense.


Jed Clampett
From: Beverly Hillbillies series
Fortune: $ 9.8 billion
Source: Oil and Gas


Carlisle Cullen
From: Twilight Saga
Fortune: $ 36.3 billion
Source: Compound Interest, investments


Flintheart Glomgold
From: Disney
Fortune: $ 51.9 billion
Source: Mining, theft


From: The Hobbit
Fortune: $ 62 billion
Source: Marauding

This leaves the top 15 richest fictional characters with a fortune of $209.5 billion, which is 59% up from 2011, much thanks to Smaug. If shared among the real population of the world, each would get $30. For an incredibly thorough article on how they calculated the wealth of Smaug, click here.

Notice also that Santa Claus, who topped the list in 2002 and 2005 is no longer present, so don't expect many presents for Christmas this year!

What do you think? 

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are, as always, welcome!

Sources: As given,

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Death, Thou Shalt Die - Last Photos

With the net overflowing with image collections of every form and fashion, the Tale of Sir Bob has given these a wide berth. However, traditions are there to be broken, and by presenting this collection of photos, being the last known photos taken of well-known people alive, this departure from my own beaten path seems justified.

However, true to the blog's own particular idiom, this is not merely a cavalcade of sombre photos. John Donne, the English Renaissance poet, probably wrote his Holy Sonnet X in 1609 and it was published in 1633, two years after his death. This Petrarchan sonnet is one of the most moving and consoling poetic reactions to death in existence, and beautifully accompanies and complements these pictures.

There is something tremendously poignant about this collection of photos. Knowing that the people in the photos had sometimes only minutes left to live, makes one appreciate the enormous value of human life and the privilege of experiencing that of others. There is also a sad beauty to the transitory nature of life, and seeing these outstanding human beings; artists, politicians, athletes and more at their last should remind us to live life to the fullest.

Or as Oscar Wilde put it through his character Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "make life burn with the hardest flame."

Abraham Lincoln, 1865

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so, 

Mark Twain, 1910, Amelia Earhart, 1939,
Anne Frank and Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945

For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Mahatma Gandhi and Babe Ruth, 1948
Albert Einstein and James Dean, 1955

For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow, 
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 

Marilyn Monroe, 1962, John F. Kennedy, 1963
Jim Morrison, 1971 and Martin Luther King Jr., 1968

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be 
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow, 

Jimi Hendrix, 1976, Elvis Presley, 1977,
Keith Moon, 1978 and John Lennon, 1980

And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and souls' delivery.

Bob Marley, 1981, Freddie Mercury, 1991,
Kurt Cobain, 1994 and Tupac Shakur 1996

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 

 George Harrison, 2001, Ronald Reagan, 2004,
Heath Ledger, 2008 and Steve Jobs 2011

And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well, 
And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then; 

One short sleep past, we wake eternally, 
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die

Sources: as given and Pics

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Quality of Copies

I have a question for you. If availability and price were not an issue, which would you choose:

  1. An original painting or a reproduction?
  2. A concert with your favourite band or a local cover band?
  3. The Twilight/ Lord of the Ring trilogy or the films based on them?
  4. An Armani suit/ Louis Vuitton bag or a Chinese copy?
  5. Attending Woodstock in August 1969 or hearing your parents talk about it?

My guess is you chose the first alternative more often than not. Also, I wager your argument for doing so was that the first is better, but why is that? What makes an original better than a copy, and is the original really what you think it is?

Original and Copy

When a painting is being made, it represents reality. When your local cover band performs, they play already existing songs. The films adapt the readily available books, the Chinese copies mimic the originals and your parents tries to present reality as it was in 1969. The arts' role in representing reality emphasises the distinction between original and copy and Graham Allen, professor of literal and cultural theory at University College Cork, examines the nature of this relationship in Intertextuality in reference to Walter Benjamin's seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:

In an age before the mass publication of books, possession of an individual text was extremely rare and of enormous value. The prices still paid for original classic paintings also attest a residual attachment on contemporary society to the aura of the original work of art. Technological society, however, is dominated by reproductions of original works. The signed copy of the novel may be preferable to the unsigned copy, an original painting by Van Gogh may seem priceless, attendance at a dance performance may seem preferable to viewing it on video, but in contemporary society our experience of these and all other arts are generally of their technological reproductions. New artistic media of the twentieth century such as film, video and television, are, indeed, based on technological methods of reproduction. The aura which surrounds The Mona Lisa or the eight-century Book of Kells in Trinity College Library, Dublin, is unavailable to, and indeed an irrelevance for, these kinds of art forms (i). 
Allen, of course, neglects to mention that by their very nature the original painting by Van Gogh, the Mona Lisa, the Book of Kells and even the dance performances are themselves reproductions. Each of them mimics either natural entities, persons, stories probably already in existence, a dance script or an earlier performance.

Not original

With licence to copy (©)

Dance, by accompanying and illustrating originals such as music, narration or in hunter gatherer societies the movement of animals, necessarily has to imitate an original through body movement (ii). The hunter gatherer would accompany the rhythm of a primitive drum and dance to give a representation of his genesis myth through body movement. He might also dance to mimic the hare which he caught earlier. In these cases, the hunter gatherer tries to adapt cultural expressions like music into another art form, reproducing music and myth narration as dance, or he is imitating the world, reproducing the movement of its animals.

Still not original

The signed copy of a novel is arguably just that, a copy. The Mona Lisa is a static reproduction of the visage of a real person and the Book of Kells is a reproduction of Christian sacred documents and a summing up of contemporary religious discourse.

The basic argument still stands, though, because in the original-reproduction dichotomic relationship the original is the source from which the reproduction borrows and as such truly original within that relationship. Likewise, by being a part of a cultural context, the original appears as a segment of reality, however many earlier sources it may have imitated. Thus, art is always to some extent a copy of reality and it is this copy which is generally encountered in contemporary society.

Copy of Kells

This, in a simple and applicable form, is exemplified by news media. As soon as we do not experience an event first hand, we miss reality because any other way of becoming aware of the event after its passing has to be through a reproduction. This could be in terms of someone having experienced the original event and then reproducing it by narrating his or her experience. Alternatively, it could be in terms of a newscast reporting a real event, its content and form edited and adapted in order to be presentable through a different medium, film (iii). As representative for an age of multi-media, this latter case is symptomatic for the emergence of the field of adaptation where narratives are adapted into new technological modes of expression.

"Do I have an original thought in my head?"

So if everything is inspired by something and nothing is original, does that mean that everything is of poorer quality than some mythical source?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.

A pessimist would say that you cannot create anything new and original and by borrowing, willingly or unwillingly, you make a patchwork which is less coherent and less consistent and therefore of lower quality. Since you cannot help drawing your inspiration from your experience, you are doomed to reproduction and, at best, repetition. The pessimistic approach is expertly exemplified in the opening monolgue of Adaptation:

The pessimist would say that the film takes what you read in the book, leaves out the bits it finds irrelevant and adds bits it thinks should be there, like music or moving images. The chances of these corresponding with what you would think appropriate are slim to none and the rest of the audience faces similar odds. Because of this gap between priorities and between expectations, any new cultural product would in fact be a poorer one.

An optimist, on the other hand, would argue that the novelty is in the combinations. By combining cultural products, like film music, moving images and a story from a novel, the new film could be so much more than each individual product could. You would understand the book differently, listening to the song would never be the same again and seeing that actor play out his part would modify the way you look at both him and other films in which he has appeared.

The optimist would say that because everything is a copy and because you cannot do anything without copying several other copies, you make something original. There are so many elements which inform your creation process, that the likelihood of all those elements having been put together before is as small as the pessimist's priority odds.

An original copy

Let us revisit the list we started with.

  1. The reproduction would be more than a poorer imitation of the painting. It would include all the colours, all the interpretations and experiences of the reproducing painter and all the history of the original painting.
  2. The cover band concert would update the original song and give it a local flavour. It would reflect not only each musician, but also the musical tradition of the area in addition to what were there "originally".
  3. The trilogies could only communicate through symbols or the occasional static image. The films, on the other hand, can tell you things through the sequence of images, through what's in these images and through sound (which includes music, noises, dialogue, voiceover etc.). These would give you experiences you could never create based on just the text.
  4. The Chinese imitations would use different materials, different techniques and would probably be more affordable and available. This combination would greatly expand the impact and implications of all these products.
  5. By combining the Woodstock experience with all their history after the event, nostalgia and modern sensibilities, your parents will have created a new Woodstock, one which is different from the one they actually experienced. In time, you might tell your children about Woodstock and your story will, with almost complete certainty be a different one.
Oh no! That cannibal from Sin City, Jonathan Safran Foer, has got the ring!

The copy, therefore, is original because it is a combination which did not exist before. Considering it as a poorer version just because it is based on something else might have more to do with the psychological fear of being wrong, of having backed the wrong thing. Psychologist Elliot Aronson wrote:

Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world (iii).

So next time you catch yourself thinking that someone has destroyed your favourite book or piece of music, keep Aronson's words in mind and then ask yourself what you have lost, why it was precious and what you have gained.

What do you think? 

How do you react to copies like a film adaptation of your favourite book? Is a copy always poorer than the original? Does the knowledge that you probably are not creating anything new as such take the fun out of creative work? If so, why? Is the alternative that we stop producing cultural expressions or should we open the floodgates and create for the lowest common denominator? Make your contribution to the discussion!

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome!

Sources: (i): Graham Allen: Intertextuality, 2nd edn (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2011): 176
(ii)Ann C. Albright and Ann Dils (eds.): Moving History/ Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001): 119-120
(iii): Elliot Aronson: The Social Animal (New York: Worth, 2012)
Pic1, Pic2, Pic3, Pic4