Tagged: satire

Science and Subjectivity

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.”

US propaganda leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

US propaganda leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A Delicious Sort of Hell

Not ten minutes ago, I finished Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. I had no idea what to expect, since I remember nothing about The Poor Mouth other than some absurdist comedy, and little more about At-Swim-Two-Birds other than the fact that I absolutely loved it. (I really should go back and reread the latter one.) I’d even forgotten the few places where I’d heard about The Third Policemen, although I suspect it was via luminaries from the cultural studies and/or contemporary philosophy crowd/s.

At any rate, the fact that I couldn’t even wait for a day to pass after having read it to scribble something out about this book should hint that I either adored or despised it. I’m glad to say it’s the former. Among other things, I kept realizing why theorists, for example, probably can’t get enough of it; in the midst of what seems to be inexplicable, oddly poetic looniness are send-ups of scholarship, an interesting take on the soul and eternity, and, what made me most jump out of my skin with excited recognition, a couple of disquisitions on the (here unnamed) notion of homo sacer that Giorgio Agamben explored so beautifully in his book of the same name.*

This tale of a wandering assassin is never what you think it’s going to be, and although you could technically breeze your way through it, doing anything other than taking at least some sort of time to really digest the words in front of you will amount to a loss. At times, I was pulled up short in the midst of madcap scenes by passages of enormous beauty whose sincerity was hard to guess at. For example, this:

Down into the earth where dead men go I would go soon and maybe come out of it again in some healthy way, free and innocent of all human perplexity. I would perhaps be the chill of an April wind, an essential part of some indomitable river or be personally concerned in the ageless perfection of some rank mountain bearing down upon the mind by occupying forever a position in the blue easy distance. Or perhaps a smaller thing like movement in the grass on an unbearable breathless yellow day, some hidden creature going about its business– I might well be responsible for that or for some important part of it. Or even those unaccountable distinctions that make an evening recognizable from its own morning, the smells and sounds and sights of the perfected and matured essences of the day, these might not be innocent of my meddling and my abiding presence.**

The publisher’s notes that function as a sort of afterword in this edition provided a few quick and interesting facts, such as the detail that the people behind the TV series Lost were influenced by and featured the book. Although I never got far in that series, this new information doesn’t surprise me– but I’m definitely going to use that tidbit with friends who did love said show, in an effort to put out the good word about The Third Policeman.

I’m sure that, as things settle in my brain, I’ll have more, and more interesting, thoughts to convey about this little book. At this point, though, I’m simply feeling like the high school kid who has some really good gossip and can only revel in the pleasures of sharing something juicy. What a treat to have something so good to talk about!


* I’ve been dying to know whether or not Agamben used O’Brien at all in his studies ever since I came across the latter’s examination of the man who essentially, although he can be killed, can’t be considered to have been murdered, since the state doesn’t accept him as a possible legitimate victim of such a crime.

** Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), 164.