I mentioned not too long ago that I thought Diane Ackerman had a tendency in A Natural History of the Senses to make too-quick assumptions about general human feelings vis-à-vis the environment and its many phenomena– and I illustrated my discomfort by citing her assertion that “we” associate winds with destruction. Well, the following has nothing to do, really, with warnings to authors about making more humble characterizations– but it does have to do with wind, and with some fun poked at bygone naturalists with a tendency to exaggeration. Behold, some satire from Mark Twain, directed at popular earthquake reporting and forecasting:
Oct. 22–Light winds, perhaps. If they blow, it will be from the “east’ard, or the west’ard, or the suth’ard,” or from some general direction approximating more or less to these points of the compass or otherwise. Winds are uncertain–more especially when they blow from whence they cometh and whither they listeth. N.B.–Such is the nature of winds.*
I’m not sure why I almost choked on my roll at “Such is the nature of winds”– but that stifled chuckle was soon followed by another when reading just a few sentences later “Oct. 26–Considerable phenomenal atmospheric foolishness.”
This quotation is featured in a chapter on earthquake-centered humor in Deborah R. Coen’s book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter. I’ve long been fascinated by earthquakes, to the point of being so charmed and surprised to find myself in one for the first time that I didn’t even think of moving to safety until the madness had already passed. (Sometimes, as in this case, the stupid get very, very lucky; that one came in somewhere in the middle range of the magnitude scale.) And so, from the start, I knew that the information in this book could even be presented in less-than-stellar style, and I wouldn’t really mind. But Coen’s scholarly exposition makes good use of humor and very human (i.e., quirky, limited, or otherwise engagingly foible-laden) assumptions from the history of disaster science. Even the crotchety Karl Kraus makes a noticeable appearance, with, among other things, his commentary on tone’s ability to convince people of all manner of falsities, citing as an example a satire of an earthquake observation accepted as the real thing by a major press.**
I’m not even halfway through this exploration of how earthquake science developed in tandem with the popular press and scientific practice and discourse as a whole– but if the rest of the book is as thick with lovely linguistic nuggets from long-gone scientists and commentators as it has been thus far,*** the rest of this sunny weekend may just be spent devouring it whole.
* Cited in Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 58.
** I’ve long been meaning to read Kraus via more than secondary sources; now I’m doubly determined to see what he had to say about the “fake news” of his own time, and whether it might help us understand why so many people, in a day at least technologically different from his own, are still so willing to be swindled by what would seem to be obvious misinformation– or, as some might call it in certain circumstances, propaganda or ideology. Another nugget of Kraus-wisdom Coen offers us sounds like it could be a condemnation of a sizable chunk of contemporary social media users: “The idiocy that would never have thought of emerging from its life in private has discovered an opportunity for immortality; banality has been lured out of its hiding place; average humanity has been hauled out in triumph. A consuming greed to be named has taken hold of the Mr. Nobodies.” (Coen, 67.) Kraus was no friend to the average human being– but behind the sneer is nothing other than a more detailed version of the truth-kernel expressed in (what may not have actually been) Andy Warhol’s dictum, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
*** e.g., describing Iceland as one “of the earth’s great safety-valves,” or the way in which false reports were received as evidence of “the heartlessness of a belief that has been disappointed” (that latter quote coming from Kraus again). ibid., 49, 66.
So, here’s a matter for consideration: fame as a(n) il/legitimate path to literary success. (1) For research (believe it or not), I’ve started reading Bob Dylan’s autobiographical Chronicles: Volume 1. I think we can all agree that the man was and is a brilliant lyricist and performer, and that he’s done some pretty cool stuff with and within the tradition of folk music. But, based solely on the bit of the book I’ve gotten through so far, I’m not sure his literary work would have ever made it to the published light of day had he not already been super-famous and a seminal part of a time and movement. The judgment may, of course, be premature, but at this point, I’m not sure what to do with the man’s non-musical writing style. In a way, I imagine it’s what would happen if Hemingway were talking– not writing— at you: a sort of close-lipped and maybe grudging delivery of narrative that would make you uncertain that the guy really wanted to be speaking, or in your general vicinity at all.
Well: maybe it was something someone gave him the chance to do– and it’s not his first book, after all. It’s one of the few– maybe the only– times I’ve read a work by someone who reached stardom in a non-literary field before venturing into extended prose. Morrissey did try his hand at novel-writing before he turned into Mozza– and didn’t he put out a book on the New York Dolls?– so maybe he doesn’t count. Either way, I’m still yearning to read his description/justification of his own life. I’m not including Andy Warhol’s ridiculously lengthy and self-involved diary in this category, since he largely just dictated his thoughts every morning over the phone, which in my book, doesn’t qualify as any sort of planned narrative. And oddly enough, I’m at least somewhat interested in checking out the written stylings of Molly Ringwald, who’s coming to mind as a example of the sort of second-career author I’ve got in mind, and who, based on an interview I accidentally caught with her, seems to be a uniquely intellectual former child star.
I’m sure I’ll kick myself later for having forgotten entire obvious lists of people I should have included here; thoughts and suggestions are, as always, welcome.
(1) How was that for postmodern phrasing?!?!