Wednesday, November 23, 2011

'There Ain't No Sanity Clause'

"The brains of older humans are cluttered with irrelevant information." 
                                               - Harper’s Magazine (“Findings,” November 2011).

Scientific research is a trove of surprising propositions, none more so than truffles such as this heady speculation unearthed by social scientists like hogs rooting a Picardine oak forest. Irrelevancy is a relational attribute, however, determined only in relation to something else it is found irrelevant to. Information may be irrelevant in one aspect, but entirely pertinent in another - if the 12:15 is arriving in the station on time it won't be irrelevant information if it's you who happens to be tied to the track. Nonetheless, the sort of information lodged unshakeably in older brains is, so far as social science is concerned, irrelevant simpliciter - of no possible use in any relation whatsoever. 

I find upon reflection that this must be true. I can remember, to cite a trivial example, the name of my first grade teacher from the palmy boyhood days of six decades past - Mrs. Rigby, like in the Beatles song about "Eleanor Rigby," who picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been/Lives in a dream/Waits at the window/Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door, and so on although I don't recall her name being Eleanor, come to that though why on earth should I remember the name of a woman already old and unmemorable by 1950? But I do. Irrelevant information indeed. No movie star, our Mrs. Rigby (Mrs., not Miss), though it occurs to me she must have been born in that same golden era as were some of the old screen idols like Clark Gable (betrayed by some of his leading ladies as suffering from halitosis, as did they each in their turn); or Garbo, or the tragically short-lived and eternal ingenue, Jean Harlow, although on further reflection I can't recall any of them being named Eleanor either, although there was Esther (Williams).

 Jean Harlow

Speaking of which calls to mind a funny story about Jean Harlow who, when still a fresh young face in Hollywood was in attendance at a cocktail evening at which Tallulah Bankhead was also a guest. Evidently J.H. had just learned the phrase "bon mot," which she shoehorned into the conversation at every opportunity, persisting in pronouncing it as spelled, "bonn mott." Finally, with an elaborate patience born of petulance, Tallulah pounced. "It's pronounced 'bawm moe,' dear," she purred languidly, Frenching the phrase perfectly. "The 't' is silent - as in Harlow." 

Plenty of stories as well about Tallulah herself, whether true or not I've no idea, like the one Sabbath she attended a Greek Orthodox mass, the priest entering the sanctuary from the rear and making his way forward toward the altar, richly caparisoned (as the phrase goes) in alb, surplice, chasuble and all the priestly whatnots, swinging a censer (which is a different animal from a 'censor') of  smoking incense down the aisle, whereupon Tallulah when the saintly cleric reached her pew in his venerable progress leaned out and in her best stage whisper said, "I love your gown, dahling. But your purse is on fire."

Tallulah Bankhead 

Although for my money, when it came to the bon mot no one could outdo Winston Churchill. By now the tale of his inebriated exchange with Lady Mary Astor at the dinner table is legend ("You're drunk, Sir!" "Yes, madam, and you're ugly. But in the morning I'll be sober.") Irrepressible even in youth, he once sent a corsage to a young lady with the injunction to "pin it to your white meat." Asked as an elder statesman to account for the martial glory of the Royal Navy he growled in his characteristic growl, "Rum, sodomy, and the lash!"   As Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621) reminds us, Aristotle held that "melancholy men of all others are most witty," and Churchill seems a melancholic sort, though in our more modern age melancholia is a minor crime, a treasonous subversion of the doctrine that happiness shall be universal, a certain sign of moral turpitude akin in gravity to the Catiline conspiracy against which Cicero (who was Tully) fulminated so eloquently in centuries past ("How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?").

Cicero upbraids Catiline in the Senate

Melancholia as you know is the predominance of the black bile - the hotter and drier humors prevailing, an imbalance in the animal spirits which are as you will recall the medium of conveyance for such subtle events as our thoughts, passions and imaginings, a highly refined and rarefied liquor whose subtle influence occasions the motions of the humors in all the assorted ventricles, chasms, receptacles, creeks, channels, conduits, rivulets, ravines, puddles and reservoirs of the brain, transmitting commands and volitions to the limbs and likewise transforming the perturbations and oscillations of the nerves into images, impulses, sensations, smells, sounds, appetites and what have you. Or, as Burton's afore-referenced Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) has it, "The brain . . . hath many concavities distinguished by certain ventricles, which are the receptacles of the spirits brought hither by the arteries from the heart and there refined to a more heavenly nature, to perform the actions of the soul. . . etc. etc." 

From all of which it follows that wit is a bilious excrescence which causes hot and dry spirits, as Heraclitus also implies when he observes that the wisest souls are the dryest (from whence I suppose we get the term "dry wit"), while foolish souls are moist, as in the souls of inebriates such as the uncles of Sancho Panza, famed for their palates but objects of ridicule when, asked to sample a cask of the finest Salamancan, one claimed to taste iron, the other to taste leather. (As the subtle reader might expect, a key on a leathern thong was discovered when the cask was drained.)

A wet soul

One of the wettest souls must have belonged to a Victorian gentleman who boasted in the precincts of his club that over the previous evening he had drank three bottles of port after dinner. Asked whether he had required any assistance, he conceded that indeed he had sought the assistance of a bottle of Madeira. It also bears mention here that the venerable Locke subscribed to a "particle" theory of perception, the animal spirits being set in motion by the bombardments of tiny particles emitted to the eyes and our various animal sensoria via sensible objects. Burton as well brought to the world's attention the fact that "England is a paradise for women, and hell for horses: Italy is a paradise for horses, a hell for women" - and Burton didn't even know Silvio Berlusconi, who has become as irrelevant as most of the information in my brain.

 "So long, suckahs."

But there's no sanity clause in life's fine print - as Harpo Marx put it, "Ya can't fool me - there ain't no sanity clause." Oh God, stop me, what am I doing with all this stuff, it's completely irrelevant . . . I can't seem to clear my head . . . . 

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