The iron bun

The US Senate and the European Parliament likened to the ostrich that Sir Thomas Browne tried to feed an iron bun.

A bad week in democratic politics. By the virtual filibuster procedure conceded by Harry Reid, the Republican minority in the US Senate killed the minimal Manchin-Toomey bill ever so slightly tightening background checks on gun sales. It almost adopted Cornyn’s amendment imposing interstate recognition for concealed carry, a step toward the gun nut dystopia of arms everywhere, all the time.

American politicians are crazy, I thought, European ones are just stupid, I thought. Until the European Parliament voted down the Commission’s proposal to tighten carbon emissions allowances and revive the cap-and-trade market, now at a zero lower bound that makes the scheme a nonsense.

At least the American public, if it’s interested, can find out instantly who crashed the plane. I can’t find a proper analysis of the EP vote. Here is the raw voting list by parties (doc, page 23, vote on item 10, amendment 20 to reject the proposal). List of political groups, to explain the acronyms. Debate transcript – not yet translated, so you get the multilingual flavour of the plenary, if not a full understanding, unless you read Greek and Finnish.

ostrich2In an engagingly eccentric BBC programme on 17th century sensibilities, they picked Sir Thomas Browne, provincial doctor, polymath, writer of prose as rich and flavourful as Malmsey, and enthusiastic but unstructured Baconian experimenter. His best-selling(!) compendium of received errors, Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths (1646), has a chapter attacking the belief that ostriches eat iron.

The ground of this conceit is its swallowing down fragments of Iron, which men observing, by a froward illation, have therefore conceived it digesteth them; which is an inference not to be admitted, as being a fallacy of the consequent, that is, concluding a position of the consequent, from the position of the antecedent. For many things are swallowed by animals, rather for condiment, gust or medicament, then any substantial nutriment. So Poultrey, and especially the Turkey, do of themselves take down stones; and we have found at one time in the gizzard of a Turkey no less then seven hundred.

Browne finally encountered a live ostrich. According to Leslie Stephens [microupdate, see comments]:

Sir Thomas takes a keen interest in the fate of an unlucky ‘oestridge’ which found its way to London in 1681, and was doomed to illustrate some of the vulgar errors. The poor bird was induced to swallow a piece of iron weighing two and a-half ounces, which, strange to say, it could not digest. It soon afterwards died ‘of a soden,’ either from the severity of the weather or from the peculiar nature of its diet.

pain au chocolat The BBC presenter Adam Nicolson claims, relying on Browne’s copious notebooks, that he first tried to tempt the ostrich by concealing the iron in a pastry, like a haematic pain au chocolat. (Browne’s style is catching.) The ostrich ate the bun, but spurned the filling.

By what illation do we get our ostrich politicians to swallow their iron bun?

Literary Quiz

Google not and tell me:

What is the origin of the phrase “red herring” and how is it of particular interest on this day?


Bleg: The Universal Pantograph

What happened to the fourth book of Alexei Panshin’s series of Anthony Villiers stories?

Just finished re-reading (for the nth time) Masque World, the third volume of Alexei Panshin’s Anthony Villiers tetralogy (starting with Star Well and The Thurb Revolution). Looking forward to reading the concluding volume, The Universal Pantograph.

Problem is, that book has never been published. Panshin is still alive and writing. According to Wikipedia, The Universal Pantograph was held up by “conflicts between the writer and his publisher.” The publisher was Ace, the same outfit that pirated The Lord of the Rings, so it’s easy to imagine that they tried to cheat Panshin somehow and he put his foot down.

It’s also easy to believe that Panshin found he couldn’t deliver on the tremendous promises he’d effectively made in the first three volumes. (Cf. Roger Zelazny, whose reputation would be higher if he’d dropped the Amber series after Nine Princes. “Better to remain silent …” .) But if the book exists in any form, there would have to be a substantial market for it, and of course the cost of on-line publication is epsilon. Now that Ace is part of Penguin, perhaps the instinct to chisel has subsided.

Surely there’s a back-story here. Does any reader know what it is?

Update Answered. See comments. The series was outlined at seven books. There’s a manuscript of the fourth, but apparently it’s not much good, and Panshin gave up. Too bad!

Wodehouse, Orwell, and the Black Shorts

P.G. Wodehouse published a light-hearted but viciously effective satirical attack on Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, in 1938. That seems relevant to judging his motives in making broadcasts on German radio after having been captured during the conquest of France.

George Orwell’s In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse is both a fine piece of criticism and a monument to Orwell’s decency and courage. Wodehouse, having foolishly made some broadcasts on German radio after being captured during the conquest of France (he lived at La Touquet), faced some risk of prosecution as the war wound down, based on the accusation that he had been a pro-fascist on the model of Amery or Lord Haw-Haw or Ezra Pound. Orwell, by examining the moral and political atmosphere of Wodehouse’s stories, showed how ludicrous that accusation was.

But Orwell admits that he hadn’t read the entire Wodehouse ouevre, and in fact he seems to have missed a key piece of evidence, which supports his main thesis but weakens his secondary claim that Wodehouse was entirely innocent of politics and utterly out of touch with the England of the 1930s (being, by Orwell’s account, stuck in the mentality of 1912).
Continue reading “Wodehouse, Orwell, and the Black Shorts”

An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables

Based on its vivid colors and exaggerated gestures, one is tempted to dismiss Academy Award Best Picture nominee Les Miserables as a cartoon. But cartoons have clarity of line and a sense of direction, not to mention momentum from frame to frame. This movie is more like the result of dropping the Sunday funnies in a mud-puddle: smeared with detritus and coming apart at the seams.

Start with the source. The musical itself, though much beloved by aficionados of Glee and Smash, takes Victor Hugo’s outraged critique of post-revolutionary France and turns it into a parade. While purporting to address the depredations and degradations of poverty, Cameron Mackintosh’s production was staged so elaborately that it depended on $150 tickets to keep it running. Thus there was the awkward matter of cheering gaunt poor people on the barricades from plush seats in the orchestra.

Happily even overpriced movies like this one cost only $10 or so to see, reducing the contradiction between medium and message. But director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and his collaborators have replaced that one difficulty with a raft of their own: frying pan, meet fire.

Continue reading “An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables”

Grove Patterson on Faith

Grove Patterson, a once well-known newspaper man, writes about faith.

I was fortunate to be friends with the great psychologist Seymour Sarason, who said that when he came to the end of his days, he knew it would make him sad to reflect that there were still books in the Yale University library that he hadn’t read. I have the same frustration; there are just more good books than there are hours in a life. And because so many more are published each year, good books of the past I might enjoy are forgotten and therefore I will never even hear of them.

There is however one redeeming pleasure in this situation, which is the discovery of a promising book of which we have never heard, even if it was popular in its day (The comment thread generated at RBC when I posted about reading The Worm Ouroborus remains one of my favorites). I found just such a book yesterday, oddly enough on my own bookshelf. I assume some visitor left it at our home years ago.

It’s an autobiography entitled I Like People by a Midwestern newspaper editor named Grove Patterson. The inside front cover is autographed with “Mitch, I like you too — Grove”. Never having heard of Patterson, I went on line and found out that — gasp — he has no Wikipedia entry. But there are apparently some schools named after him. I did though find an short essay on faith which was intriguing enough to make me want to dig into his autobiography: Continue reading “Grove Patterson on Faith”

Paul Ryan, Serial Torturer

During Paul Ryan’s train-wreck interview with Chris Wallace (not to be confused with his train-wreck interview with Norah O’Donnell or his train wreck acceptance speech at the RNC), he dismissed the (as-yet unrefuted) Tax Policy Center study of the Romney proposal by saying:

It just goes to show that if you torture statistics enough, they will confess to whatever you want them to confess to.

This is an odd attack for someone whose platform endorses waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Isn’t it an admission that torture doesn’t work?

I’m sure that Ryan hasn’t thought this through.  It’s just a good applause line for him.  His entire career is a series of sound bites and talking points.  In that, he very much resembles his fellow midwesterner, Jay Gatsby, for whom personality was simply a “series of successful gestures” and who fell in love with Daisy Buchanan because her voice “sounded like money.”

Gatsby was also a serial liar.

One of the songs of Zion

Reducing the 137th Psalm to a stroke diagnosis rather misses the point.

Psalm 137 is one of the world’s highest-impact poems, and not less beautiful for the horror of its final verse.

Here’s the text as I recall it, which doesn’t seem to match precisely any of the translations I can find on line. It partly reflects the Melodians’ astounding reggae version (featured in The Harder They Come) which translates the sorrow of the Hebrew exile into the suffering of the rural Rasta displaced to Kingston.


By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.

Upon the branches of the trees
in the midst thereof
we hung up our harps.

For those who carried us
into captivity
required of us a song,
and our tormentors
asked of us
the sounds of mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How shall we sing
the Lord’s song
in a strange land?

If I forget thee,
O Jerusalem,
let my right hand
forget her cunning.

Let my tongue cleave
to the roof of my mouth
if I remember thee not;
if I set not Jerusalem
above my greatest joy.

Remember, O Lord,
against the children of Edom,
the day of Jerusalem,
Who said: “Raze it, raze it,
even to the very foundation.”

O daughter of Babylon,
that art to be destroyed;
happy shall he be,
that repayeth thee
as thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be,
that taketh thy little ones
and dasheth them
against the rock.


Andrew Sullivan points to what seems to me an astoundingly tone-deaf and reductionist account in which the details of the self-curse – paralysis of the right hand and the vocal mechanism – are interpreted as the symptoms of a stroke of the left middle cerebral artery, with the origin of the term “stroke” – being “struck down” by divine displeasure – offered in support of the thesis.

What a remarkable exercise in missing the point! The poem isn’t about paralysis; it’s about revenge. As Jeremiah Wright said, religious zeal has morphed “from thoughts of paying tithes to thoughts of paying back.”

When Nebuchadnezzer, having conquered Judah, exiled “the people,” he didn’t bother with the peasantry, who were needed to cultivate the soil. He took the ruling class, the wealthy, and the intellectuals. The psalm reflects the rage of a bard in exile, eking out a living by performing his quaint native compositions for the sophisticates of the big city and hating his audience for asking him to “Sing us one of the songs of Zion”: hating them so much that he fantasizes about killing their very infants, with as much brutality as his ineffectual vengefulness can imagine.

“Jerusalem” in the poem does not name a city, cherished in memory or dreamed of in the future; it is not the Jerusalem of “Next Year in Jerusalem!” Nothing is said of its beauty or sanctity, past or to come. Only its destruction is remembered, and those who ordered it razed to its foundations. “Jerusalem” names a crime, like “Glencoe” or “Nanking” or “Dresden.”

The curse this Israelite singer-songwriter calls down on himself, should he forget his desire for revenge on the destroyers of Jerusalem, is simply the loss of his ability to perform: his right hand for the harp and his tongue for the song.

A diagnosis of cerebral accident? I don’t think so.


We’re having a big religious weekend in Judeo-Christian circles.  Jews are celebrating their deliverance from slavery, but of course nothing is simple for the Jews, so we get to argue about inconsistencies and errors and missing pieces in what presents itself as a very detailed instruction manual for the Seder. And try to figure out why a just God would exterminate a generation of Egyptian children to start the Israelites on a (potholed) multi-millenial journey of growth and capacity-building.

Christians are celebrating their more general salvation, conditioned on the sacrifice of one person (God is a lot less bloodthirsty in the New Testament) and Christ’s resurrection to eternal life.  This is the most important Christian holiday, but for some reason the secular culture gives it much less support than it does to Christmas, so a Moslem or Hindu tourist might reasonably infer it to be a celebration of new threads, lately evolved to center incoherently on marshmallow, rabbits and eggs. The public celebration is mostly held in drugstore aisles, with less salience than Hallowe’en, and setting children to poke around under bushes for hidden eggs.

For all the missteps and absurdities of religion, it’s not a bad idea to take a weekend like this to reflect on big questions like the immortality of the soul, man’s place in the universe, and like that. Do we go to heaven; and what are we when we do?   Mark Twain gives us a hilarious take on what our traditional ideas of an afterlife heaven really imply, but no satisfactory concept to replace what he demolishes.  We do not readily give up the hope that we are engaged in something much longer than threescore years and ten: For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. (Hebrews 13:14)

In my view Marvin Minsky put paid to the idea of a literal eternal soul with anything like a human personality simply by asking, in The Society of Mind, “does the soul learn?”.  But someone who combines the skeptical, cleareyed perception of humanity-warts-and-all of a Twain or a Bierce with more underlying kindness, and what I might call a lyric impulse, presents an eschatology I can get behind, along with a good model of immortality.  I think Forster gets this right.