Things Are Against Us

Oh dear – that’s one of the best laughs I’ve had in – well, a few hours, anyway. It was the surprise, partly. You know how a surprise can yank a loud sudden blurt of laughter out of you without your consciously intending it. It was that kind.

What, what, you eagerly cry, tell us so that we can laugh too. It was just a letter on the Letters page about my silly parodic wall article, which said ‘This is one of the silliest things I have ever read.’ Well good! That was the idea, so I’m delighted he thinks so! Mind you, he seems to have missed the fact that the silliness was intentional, but that’s all right – all the better in fact. Shows that it’s plausible enough. That was intentional too – I did try to make it enough like the real thing that the parody would be about something as opposed to merely absurdist. (That’s the basic thinking behind the entries in the Dictionary, too, I suppose. They’re meant to be hooked onto the real thing enough that they’re not just random cartoons. In fact my co-author often had to check a tendency in me to go past the borders of credibility. ‘I just don’t believe that one,’ he would say coldly. I would argue and shout and throw things, but in the end I usually gave in. I put most of the rejects on the B&W version of the Dictionary. I finally removed one of those a few days ago, after the fourth or fifth person emailed to tell me that I had ‘Chinatown’ and ‘The China Syndrome’ confused. I knew I did, that was the joke, but if so many people didn’t realize that – well that must have been a joke that didn’t work.) Mind you, I also included one or two fairly broad hints that it was a joke. The bit about decaying corpses, for instance – I’d have thought that was a bit of a giveaway. But probably the reader was so irritated and incredulous by the time he got to that part that he didn’t quite take it in. And rightly so! If you’re not already familiar with B&W, you wouldn’t asume that it’s a joke, so irritation in that situation is the correct response.

All this reminds me of an article Ellen Willis wrote in the Village Voice in response to the Sokal Hoax. I like her writing, but her partiality for the hoaxed Stanley Aronowitz may have clouded her perception on this occasion. Whatever the reason, she made a surprisingly glaring error:

Roger Kimball, who himself had been totally fooled by Sokal’s parody and blasted it at length in an anti-Social Text polemic in the new Criterion

But – Ellen – oh dear, don’t you see, don’t you get it? The fact that he blasted it means he wasn’t fooled by it, not that he was! The fact that he thought Sokal meant it literally is not the point, the point is that he recognized what Sokal wrote as bullshit, which Aronowitz signally failed to do.

Quite an embarrassing mistake, that.

H. E. Baber reminds us of this splendid item, which I’d read before but forgotten.

Go into any of the little caf├ęs or horlogeries on Paris’s Left Bank (make sure the Seine is flowing away from you, otherwise you’ll be on the Right Bank, where no one is ever seen) and sooner or later you will hear someone say, ‘Les choses sont contre nous.‘ ‘Things are against us.’ This is the nearest English translation I can find for the basic concept of Resistentialism, the grim but enthralling philosophy now identified with bespectacled, betrousered, two-eyed Pierre-Marie Ventre.

All accidentally (as Henry James might have put it), I was gesturing toward the same idea – but not because I remembered Resistentialism. The inspiration was that review of a history of barbed wire we were discussing last week. I was trying to inflate the element of paranoia as much as possible – and ended up in much the same place. Which is quite funny, really.

Clark-Trimble was not primarily a physicist, and his great discovery of the Graduated Hostility of Things was made almost accidentally. During some research into the relation between periods of the day and human bad temper, Clark-Trimble, a leading Cambridge psychologist, came to the conclusion that low human dynamics in the early morning could not sufficiently explain the apparent hostility of Things at the breakfast table…

I have a longstanding, consuming interest in human bad temper. I consider myself an expert in the field.

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