LETTER TO THE EDITOR.

Sir: I seldom venture outside these days on account of the danger of alien abduction; in fact, the last time I remember being out of the house was in January of 1986, and I made sure to do it in the middle of the night, staying under awnings as much as possible so that the aliens would not be likely to see me. Believe it or not, some of my friends (I only have the Facebook kind, but they’re good enough for my purposes) tell me I’m crazy. They say there’s no proof aliens are coming here and abducting people to make them love slaves for lonely fiendish alien princesses. Then I send them the 150,000-word informational email I keep ready for occasions like that, and pretty soon they stop talking to me and I know they’ve been abducted by aliens. Guess they’ve got their proof now.

But anyway, yesterday I ran out of aerosol cheese, and when I called the Food Festival they said they didn’t have any delivery slots available, but the guy I talked to said there had hardly been any alien abductions at all this week, and I could probably make it six blocks to the store without running into a tractor beam of any sort. So I risked opening the curtains a little, and I saw that it was a cloudy day, and the cloud cover might be some protection against aliens, so I decided to risk it.

Well, I got about halfway there when I noticed that the clouds were breaking up. Somebody ought to do something about defective cloud cover, by the way. What are we paying taxes for? And in one more block, the clouds had moved aside, and suddenly there it was: a huge extraterrestrial object in the sky. I could feel the heat of the radiation it was giving off, and it was glowing so brightly I couldn’t bear to look directly at it. But I took this picture of it with my phone, just to show those doubting Thomases that the alien menace is real.

Then I ran back home, and I ordered a whole case of spray cheese from Amazon, and believe you me it’s going to be a long time before I make the mistake of leaving the house again. But what I want you to do is warn your readers. Tell them not to go out of the house, because there’s some giant extraterrestrial object in the sky that’s giving off who knows how much radiation. Stay inside, pull down the blinds, close the curtains, and eat your cheese. —Sincerely, Walter Walterson Walters, Blandville.

THE SINGULAR ASPECT.

Fifteen years ago today, Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine appeared on the Web with this story, the first thing Dr. Boli ever printed in electrical form. Dr. Boli had considered giving up on these celebrations, but fifteen seems like an important number. If we take 1993 as the birth date of the usable public World Wide Web, then for more than half its life the Web has been host to Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine.

A man walked into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

McGUFFIN’S SURREALIST PRIMER.

Nĕd • boŏk • spĕll • wĕll • poŏr • nō • căn


Ned

Can Ned spell well?


Ned can spell

Ned can spell, but not well.


Has Ned a book?

Has Ned a book?


No

No, but he has a mangelwurzel.


Poor Ned

Poor Ned!

WATCHING THE DARKNESS DESCEND.

Everyone knows that YouTube is where Americans go to have their brains sucked out through their eyeballs. Today we’ll examine one YouTube informational video in detail, and show you why it will inevitably leave you stupider unless you counter it with actual information. It’s called “Why Do Americans In Old Movies Sound British?” and it comes from a channel with 2.2 million subscribers, which goes to show how far stock footage and a nodding acquaintance with Wikipedia will get you.


(You have to make the explicit decision to activate that video because Dr. Boli believes you might not want Google following you everywhere just because you landed on his front page.)

The video is a feast of stock footage, and it is sponsored by a supplier of stock footage. The research was done mostly in the Wikipedia article on “Mid-Atlantic Accent,” also called the “Transatlantic Accent.”

Our narrator (after some preliminary self-congratulation) starts off proposing to answer the question, Why does Cary Grant speak with what sounds to us like an English accent? One satisfying answer would be, “Because he was born and raised in England.” That this answer is not suggested, and that the fact is not even mentioned, may give us our first hint that the hours of research that went into this video have been misplaced. Sometimes truly in-depth research requires more than one Wikipedia article.

The next hint comes right afterward, when our narrator says that “nearly all actors in old movies talk like that.” We’ll refute that statement later. Meanwhile, the video breezes along, telling us that the Transatlantic Accent is “not real, fake, synthetic, artificial, contrived, false, phony.” The multiplication of adjectives, though played as a joke, seems to betray some considerable anger, as if the “Transatlantic Accent” had beaten our narrator and stolen his lunch money every day in the eighth grade. This is not likely, because the accent was already extinct by the time our narrator was in the eighth grade. But there is some lingering resentment here: perhaps a memory of some pedantic English teacher who forced the children to pronounce the T in often. There are English teachers who do that, and an entire wing of purgatory is set aside for them.

Or perhaps it is because the idea that any pronunciation could be correct is “racist,” which comes up in a little burst of sarcasm (“super-not-racist idea”) seconds later. This is an interestingly American point of view. In America, it is commonly (though not universally) possible to distinguish Black speakers by their accents. This is a curious fact of American culture; if you turn on a British television show and close your eyes, you cannot distinguish the races of the speakers. But Americans are so used to the distinction that many of us seem to believe that African ancestry causes the accent. (Dr. Boli remembers one very painful conversation in which a gentleman who was certainly not a racist explained in detail how the shape of the African head caused the Black American accent.) So, oddly, it would be racist to propose that everyone should speak a “proper” English that, according to the video, neither White nor Black Americans naturally speak. It would be racist to suggest that there should not be a linguistic distinction by race. —But Dr. Boli is bored with this particular absurdity, so we’ll move on to another.

The videomakers’ Wikipedia research seems to have failed them when they trace the Transatlantic Accent to the 1920s. If they had read the Wikipedia article more carefully, they would have seen that it was already the American prestige accent in the 1800s, as evidenced by the earliest recordings. Dr. Boli will now add to the sum of human knowledge by connecting the accent with Worcester’s Dictionary, the most popular American dictionary of the middle 1800s. Worcester was preferred by educated Americans over Webster, and it was Worcester’s belief that there was and should be no essential difference between educated American and English speech. Many editions of Worcester’s Dictionary incorporated the pronunciations from Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary, the famous English guide to pronunciation, so Americans who turned to Worcester would get the same pronunciation guidance that English readers relied on.

So the elite boarding schools of the 1920s were simply doing what the elite boarding schools of the 1860s or any other arbitrary period in American history were doing. They were teaching their pupils to speak properly, and “properly” was defined with an English bias.

But “why did nearly everyone in old movies use a Transatlantic Accent regardless of whether or not their character would have attended an elite Northern boarding school?”

Oddly, these words are spoken over a clip of Jimmy Stewart. If you know who Jimmy Stewart is, you are already astonished. If you do not know who Jimmy Stewart is, search on YouTube, listen to him talking for fifteen seconds, and then come back here.

So clearly Jimmy Stewart was the wrong example to pick. But most Hollywood actors of the time would have been the wrong example to pick. Some certainly were known for the “Transatlantic Accent.” Cary Grant’s Wikipedia article notes specifically (in the second sentence) that he was “known for his transatlantic accent.” But he would not have been “known” for it if every other movie star in Hollywood spoke that way—it would be like saying Tom Cruise was known for speaking English in his film roles. Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Judy Garland, Joseph Cotton, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Ruby Keeler, Orson Welles, Fred Astaire, Van Johnson, Joan Blondell—these were some of the biggest names in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and they are not Transatlanticists. None of them regularly spoke with that fake, synthetic, artificial, contrived, false, phony accent. Some could code-switch, as the linguists say today: Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel get a lot of comic mileage out of switching between Park Avenue and street-smart chorus girl in 42nd Street. But the idea that almost all movie stars spoke like products of a Northeastern prep school could be held only by someone who knows old movies from four-second clips on YouTube.

There is more misinformation to come. Dr. Boli will only note in passing, for example, that Carnegie Mellon did not exist when Edith Skinner was teaching (doubtless our narrator meant to say “Carnegie Tech”), and anyway Edith Skinner was certainly not responsible for all the actors who adopted the Transatlantic Accent—some of them, in fact, came from elite Northern boarding schools.

Then we come to why the Transatlantic Accent vanished. Why did World War II make Americans want to be more differentiated from the British, the allies we fought with (not against, it may be necessary to explain to younger folks)? It’s just obvious, apparently. So, “having learned from our mistakes”—

What was the mistake? What did we learn? Was it that pronunciation is not a skill that can be taught? That sounds so absurd when we hear it stated that we would wonder whether anyone could be fool enough to believe it, but it seems to be current educational dogma anyway. If pronunciation is not a learned skill, then where does it come from? Dr. Boli is reminded of the old story of the young couple who were taking a crash course in Russian so they could understand their newly adopted baby when she started to talk.

Oh, yes, you say to Dr. Boli, but do you have a better explanation?

We could, in an optimistic moment, say that educated Americans no longer speak this way because fashions have changed. If we were feeling more pessimistic, we could say that educated Americans no longer speak this way because there are no more educated Americans.

But we have already pushed this article past the limits of our readers’ patience. Let us therefore press toward the conclusion and compile a list of hidden assumptions in this video, so deeply hidden that the makers are certainly not aware of them.

  1. Educated is fake. Real means uneducated.
  2. Pronunciation cannot be taught. It grows naturally, like warts.
  3. Midwesterners are real Americans. East-coasters from New England or New Jersey or South Carolina who speak with a non-rhotic accent are not really American at all.
  4. If people spoke differently from us eighty or ninety years ago, it was because they put on a fake accent for show; at home they talked like us.

But the real point of this long essay (we explain to the two or three readers who made it this far down) is not to mock a random video into which its creators put a lot of research (by reading an exceptionally long Wikipedia article) and a lot of work. The real point is to show that the new Dark Age has already begun. There has been a complete and irreparable break in cultural tradition.

Now cultural archaeologists are forced to comb through the ruins for clues to what civilization was like eighty or ninety years ago, before the darkness descended. Naturally their conclusions are mostly wrong. Archaeologists are usually wrong in their first attempts at reconstructing an ancient civilization. But they are making those first attempts. They deserve praise and encouragement. This is how science works: by proposing a hypothesis, working it up into a theory, and then finding that the facts don’t fit and the theory is rubbish. We call that progress. Our videomakers have completed the first two steps, and Dr. Boli has kindly filled in the third for them. Now they can get back to work on a new and better hypothesis.

NOW IN PRESS.

Holy Hour, by Benedict XVI and James Patterson. Down-on-his-luck ex-pope Pius XIII thought he'd left all the Vatican backstabbing and intrigue behind when he retired. But now someone's trying to assassinate his successor, and Pius will need all the martial-arts skills he learned from the Swiss Guard to prevent the unimaginable before the clock runs down on a breathtakingly diabolical plot. It's a plot that will take Pius deep into the bowels of the secretive and unscrupulous Society of St. Pius X, where a shadowy mastermind known only as Archbishop X may have his eye on more than just the papacy. 482 pages, estimated reading time 45 minutes, from Runcible Publishing and Finer Meats.

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY.

General Order No. 3

On this day in 1865, General Order No. 3 was proclaimed in Texas, informing the population that “all slaves are free.” Thus on this one day of the year we have one piece of good news to balance the hundreds of battles, massacres, earthquakes, murders, assassinations, executions, and crimes we might otherwise commemorate on this date.

GEMS OF WRITING ADVICE FROM IRVING VANDERBLOCK‑WHEEDLE.

You should always write the first thing that comes into your head, because in my experience there isn't going to be a second.

When you write fiction, always ask yourself, “Have I got the most out of my plot?” So far I’ve got forty-six novels out of mine.

Pay attention to how you start your morning. I find it helps to get up on the right side of the bed. If I get up on the wrong side of the bed, I hit a wall. I’m not being metaphorical here.

Tension is what makes narrative happen. You need to have an unanswered question that the reader wants to see answered. For example, my readers have told me over and over that the question in their minds when they were reading my books was “When is this book ever going to end?” That’s tension.

The first question young writers ask me is “How do you get published?” My answer is always the same: set your sister up with an acquisitions editor and let nature take its course. It worked for me.

Sometimes students ask me, “Is it necessary to suffer for your art?” I say no. I have always believed that the purpose of my art is to make others suffer.

When aspiring writers ask me how to deal with writer’s block, I have a ready answer: plagiarism. Many writers are not aware that all novels from more than 95 years ago are out of copyright in the United States. This can be a great timesaver.

“Write about what you know” is sound advice, but it is also necessary to write what will sell. This is why so many writers lead second lives as part-time costumed superheroes.

When people ask me for advice on style, I always say, “Avoid the passive voice.” This sends them scurrying off to figure out what the passive voice is (I have no idea myself), and I can finish my latte in peace.

FURTHER OBSERVATIONS ON ART CRITICISM.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Our previous observation on art criticism provoked an interesting discussion between two frequent correspondents. Since the original article was very short, we repeat it here:

The next time you read a glowing review of some work or exhibit by a contemporary artist, train your critical eye on the critic. Ask this probing question: How much of the rhetorical skill of the critic is applied to excusing a lack of technical skill in the artist?

To this “von Hindenberg” responded with a proposed method for distinguishing art from goofing off:

My favorite set of criteria to determine whether something is ‘art’ or not is

1. Did it require technical skill or at least effort to create?

2. Does it attempt to convey a message or elicit an emotional response?

3. Is it aesthetically pleasing?

If a thing hits two out of three criteria, I’ll agree that it’s art. Whether or not it’s good art is another question entirely.

“The Shadow” replied with a question about von Hindenberg’s criteria:

I would question whether something that doesn’t even try for criterion 3 is art.

…to which von Hindenberg replied with another question:

Would you consider a performance that deliberately makes the audience uncomfortable and even unhappy in order to make them consider a subject not art? A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message can be art.

Here Dr. Boli was tempted to make a snide remark. A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message, he was about to say, is an editorial cartoon, not art.

But it seems useless to debate what is and what is not art. A definition of “art” that excluded most of what we could find in a museum of contemporary art would be uselessly contrarian; it would simply prevent us from talking about what is going on in the artsy world without inconveniencing the denizens of that world one little bit. It seems to Dr. Boli that von Hindenberg has pointed the way to the only useful distinction: “Whether or not it’s good art is another question entirely.”

This means, however, that we would have to abandon his three-point plan for identifying art, because it is clear from the most cursory glance at the art world of today that the only one of those criteria anybody cares about is the second: “Does it attempt to convey a message or elicit an emotional response?” To speak of technique at all is embarrassing. To speak of aesthetics is to imply that aesthetics can be judged. The message is everything. Take a look at any art criticism today: how many times will you see words like “issues,” “transgressive,” or “marginalized” used approvingly to describe what the artist is accomplishing? If the artist is giving voice to the marginalized, the artist is doing all that can be done in art.

These seem like lazy excuses for bad art. Dr. Boli observes that people who are actually marginalized generally seem to put a great deal of effort into the technical aspects of their art. The ones who get by on lazy excuses are mostly the spoiled middle-class kids who could afford to go to art school.

But the assumption that the message is the important thing has seeped so far into our collective mind that it is difficult for us to think of art in any other way. Even von Hindenberg tells us that “A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message can be art.” Now, much depends on what we mean by “unpleasing.” If we mean that the subject can be unpleasant, like Gentileschi’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes, then the point is well taken. But if we mean that the unpleasant subject can be treated without caring about how it looks, that is a different matter. Again, the idea that aesthetics should be ignored or defied for the sake of the message seems lazy to Dr. Boli.

Think of Picasso. Guernica is horrifying, but it does not ignore aesthetics. On the contrary, Picasso agonized over the aesthetic decisions. Should there be any other colors than greys and steely blues? He tried them, but they didn’t work. Guernica is certainly a painting with a message (in that way it seems unusual among Picasso’s works), but the message is conveyed through the aesthetics.

In spite of occasional great works like Guernica, Dr. Boli believes that the emphasis on message over form in art has been almost universally destructive. It has created a culture in which we no longer teach artists technique: we teach them to write grant proposals. They learn to plan a work of art by asking, “What do the stupid inferior yokels who never look at art need to be told?” That meaning is almost always implied, at least, although the question is seldom phrased that way, because if it were we could see the absurdity of it at once.

It is time, Dr. Boli believes, for a rebellion against the tyranny of the message in art. It is time for us to refuse to judge a work favorably simply because it says something we agree with. Instead, it is time to insist on technical proficiency and aesthetic judgment. Our rallying cry will be the principle of Oscar Wilde: All art is quite useless.

From DR. BOLI’S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MISINFORMATION.

Bloomsday.—According to a study conducted by unpaid graduate students at the Duck Hollow University School of Literary Statistics, 78% of the people you meet on Bloomsday will claim to have read Ulysses. The remaining 22% of the people you meet will identify the novel being celebrated as Finnegans Wake, which they just adore.