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English as she is spoke

Jan. 4th, 2010 | 3:30

Academic, n. One who, lacking the gift of natural stupidity, has attained stupidity by degrees.

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Octopoid note

Jan. 4th, 2010 | 12:34

One thing that makes the Magnificent Octopus so difficult to work out satisfactorily is that there are two main strands to the plot, which seem to me to be inextricably entwined and necessary to one another: like the two themes in the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, which are so finely balanced that I never can make up my mind which one to hum. What makes this difficult in the writing is that one strand is exoteric, as it were, and the other esoteric; and the esoteric strand has got to proceed largely beneath the surface and out of the way, for several reasons, including the plain practical reason that most of it goes on when the first-person POV character is not about. For this reason, too, I find it much the more difficult of the two strands to describe satisfactorily in an outline.

Imagine my astonishment, then, to find that the second strand, the difficult one, the esoteric one, has already been summarized with admirable skill — a little too perfectly, perhaps — by G. K. Chesterton, in his essay ‘The Feasts and the Ascetic’:

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Church is out of the question; that we have nothing but the earth and the children of man pottering about on it, with their normal mortal tales and traditions. Then suppose there appears on this earth a prodigy, a portent, or what is alleged to be a portent. In some way heaven has rent the veil or the gods have given some new marvel to mankind. Suppose, for instance, it is a fountain of magic water, said to be flowing at the top of a mountain. It blesses like holy water; it heals diseases; it inspires more than wine, or those who drink of it never thirst again. Well, this story may be true or false; but among those who spread it as true, it is perfectly obvious that the story will produce a number of other stories. It is equally obvious that those stories will be of two kinds. The first sort will say: ‘When the water was brought down to the valley there was dancing in all the villages; the young men and maidens rejoiced with music and laughter. A surly husband and wife were sprinkled with the holy water and reconciled, so that their house was full of happy children. A cripple was sprinkled and he went capering about gaily like an acrobat. The gardens were watered and became gay with flowers,’ and so on. It is quite equally obvious that there will be another sort of story from exactly the same source, told with exactly the same motive. ‘A man limped a hundred miles, till he was quite lame, to find the sacred fountain. Men lay broken and bleeding among the rocks on the mountainside in their efforts to climb after it. A man sold all his lands and the rivers running through them for one drop of the water. A man refused to turn back from it, when confronted with brigands, but was tortured and died calling for it,’ and so on. There is nothing in the least inconsistent between these two types of legend. They are exactly what would naturally be expected, given the original legend of the miraculous fountain.

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Meritocracy: A fable

Jan. 4th, 2010 | 15:17

The Lion having been shot by a passing hunter, the other beasts held a council to decide which of them should succeed him as King. All were agreed that the new king should be the one best fitted to rule, as excelling in the highest and most noble qualities of a ruler. But there was a trifle of difficulty in agreeing which quality best befitted a monarch.

‘Courage is the noblest quality of all,’ said the Shrew, ‘for it was the hallmark of our late King. And as all the world knows I fear nothing, I should therefore be King in his place.’

‘Courage is vain without strength,’ said the Bull. ‘As I am the strongest of us gathered here, it is quite plain to me that I should be King.’

‘Strength is no better than weakness if it comes to bear too late,’ said the Horse. ‘My swiftness is what you really want in a King.’

‘What are strength and speed without vision to guide them?’ said the Eagle. ‘My eyes are keener than any of yours, and therefore I should be King.’

‘What a King needs most,’ said the Ape, ‘is a sound grasp of things. Not one of you has an appendage to compete with my hands.’

‘All these things are useless,’ said the Owl, ‘without wisdom to direct them. And as I am well known to be wisest—’

But before he was done speaking, all the beasts set to quarrelling with a will, each proclaiming his pre-eminence at the top of his voice. It was some time before the Bull (who was loudest) called them to order, reminding them that not all their claims had been heard. The Sheep and the Fox were yet to speak.

The Sheep, of course, had the admirable point of view that it was peace that the beasts needed most, and as he was the most peaceable of all creatures, they could do worse than profit by his royal example. But while he was waiting meekly for the noise to subside, the Fox stole up from behind and killed him and ate him, and was just finishing his meal when the others called his name.

‘What of you, cousin Fox?’ they said. ‘Surely you have some reason to offer why you should be King.’

I, cousins?’ said the Fox, licking his chops. ‘I have no claim to make. I am quite content that you should settle the precedence among yourselves.’

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