It must have been in Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American where I first acquired a hazy notion of what a syllogism is and what can make its premises and/or conclusions either valid or false. My understanding has since gotten considerably hazier, but here’s three factoids that happen to be absolutely true and look like there is is some link or element of causuality binding them together when obviously there isn’t.

1.               At an early stage of his career, the  ecclectic British writer Colin Wilson was  horsewhipped by his future father-in-law.  Made the papers and all. Don’t know if Dad caught them dissing Sartre in the sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath where Wilson wrote The Outsider, ca. 1954, but it was a real event and a real horsewhip, from all accounts. I suspect this is a distinction few living writers can claim. 

2.               In one of the Marx Brothers films -- Horsefeathers, I think  -- Groucho says “I’d horsewhip you, if only I had a horse”.

3.           Two decades later, when Groucho wrote his memoirs, he asked his British publisher to send copies to three individuals: Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, and Colin Wilson (who has never been a big Marx brothers fan, he maintains). What can this possibly mean? I have no idea.  

Fearful Asymmetry

John Hemingway, son of Gregory, son of Ernest, tells his Oprah-worthy life story in Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir.  He lifts the lid on his complicated (i.e. screwed up beyond repair and almost beyond belief) relationship with his father, Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son. There is not that much John can say about Ernest since he was still an infant when the Abercrombie and Fitch shotgun went bang, but the grace under pressure guy does feature in a vituperative exchange of correspondence with the author’s father.
           Not all of the (by my rough count) eight half-siblings Greg sired on three of his four wives appear as vulnerable as John, the son of a schizophrenic mother and a manic depressive (bipolar hardly does justice to Greg’s pit-and-pendulum mood swings), cross-dressing alcoholic and de-licensed doctor who managed to live just long enough to realize his dream of full gender reassignment. It was as his lifelong alter-ego of Gloria that Greg died of heart failure in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center, where he was charged with lewd behavior and resisting arrest.

John appears to have escaped the toxicity that seeped into the third generation of Hemingways (half cousin – is there such a thing? – Margaux killed herself) by hightailing it to Italy and coming to terms, from a distance of safety, with the father for whom dressing a woman, passing as a woman and being a woman was the only joy in a life of hopeless and (he claimed) paternally-induced inadequacy.
            The detail that startles is where John says that before undergoing the full transsexual transformation, Gregory had a breast implant – and in this case the singular article refers to the implant, not the procedure. One implant, one breast. His son speculates that he didn’t have the money to pay for number two and just let it ride, until he decided to have the lump of solitary silicone removed at a later date.

           My question is: what were other people seeing and thinking in the meantime? Didn’t something look a bit odd to them? Would it have led them to assume that an unselfconscious, rather peculiar-looking woman had undergone a complete mastectomy? But if Greg went to the trouble of submitting to surgery, wouldn’t it be because he wanted his breasts to be looked at – and decided that this would be the way to make sure people did? I wonder about such things.  

Look, it’s Chico Marx being bawled out by Sig Ruman. No, wait, it’s Wile E. Coyote

On January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia, one of the largest and most expensive ($570 million) cruise ships ever built, struck a rock in the Tyrrhenian sea while approaching the island of Giglio. After water poured in through the gash in its hull, the ship finally listed to port and capsized. But it took over an hour for the order to be given to begin evacuating more than 4,000 passengers and crew. Captain Francesco Schettino was later charged with dereliction of duty, as he was alleged to have been absent from the bridge. It was claimed by some he was entertaining his Moldavan dancer girlfriend blow decks during the critical interval. Thirty-two people died. Many of the victims were on their honeymoon cruise.  

I Transcript of the radio transmission between Livorno harbormaster Gregorio di Falco and Captain Schettino.

FALCO: Schettino, get back on board! You’ve abandoned ship and I’m in command now. Get back on board, do you understand?.... There are bodies -- are you listening to me, Schettino?  Let’s get moving!

SCHETTINO: How many bodies are there?
FALCO: I don’t know! I’ve only heard about one. You’re the one who’s supposed to be telling me how many bodies there are! Christ almighty!

SCHETTINO: But you don’t understand. It’s all dark here and I can’t see a thing.
FALCO: What’s the matter, Schettino, you want to get home or something? It’s dark outside and you just want to hurry on home, is that it? Climb back up the ladder and get on board  and tell me what needs to be done, how many people there are and what they need. Do it now!

SCHETTINO: I really would like to get back on board but…
FALCO: You’ve been saying that for the last hour. Now get back up and call me from there. And I mean NOW.   

II.               Domenico Pepe, head of the legal team defending Schettino on charges of involuntary manslaughter, causing environmental damage and gross culpable negligence.

“Captain Schettino never abandoned his ship. The vessel tipped over and when it was at an angle of 90 degrees, the captain fell off and dropped into one of the lifeboats below. “

SOURCE: El País, domingo, 14 de julio de 2013. Excellent  reporting by Pablo Ordaz.


Two poets and an actor go into a pub in London and when they’re all good and drunk one of them says: let’s see which of us can recite the world’s greatest lines of English verse. The poets are Louis MacNiece and Dylan Thomas and the actor is Richard Burton, the scene is a pub called the George in wartime London and the story is in a book called War Like a Wasp by Andrew Sinclair who got the story direct from Burton, he says in a footnote.

MacNiece goes first and recites something written by himself. Burton does a turn from Hamlet. Then Dylan Thomas in that incredible Welsh voice of his and with the bombast turned up full blast declaims:
                                                                            I am

Thou art

He is, She is, It is

We are,

You are,

They are.



Long ago a picture must have been an event. Capturing an image has become too ordinary a miracle, perhaps. They go about with their automatic drive Nikons, and OM-2’s and their Leicaflexes and put their finger on the button  and the hand-held machinery makes a noise like a big toy cricket. Reep, reep reep, reep. A billion billion slides, projected once, labeled and filed forever. Windrows of empty yellow boxes blow across the Gobi, the Peruvian highlands, the temple steps at Chichicastenango. The clicking and whirring and clacking is the background sound at the Acropolis, at the beach at Cannes, on the slopes of Villefranche.  All the bright people, stopped in the midst of life, looking with forced smile into the lenses, then to be filed away, their colors fading as the years pass, caught there in slide trays, until one day the camera person dies and the grandchild says, “Mom, I don’t know any of these people.Or where these were taken even. There are jillions of them here in the big box and more in the closet. What will I do with them, anyway?

“Throw them out, dear.”

John D. MacDonald, The Empty Copper Sea  

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