Literature


rgsteele1-thumb.jpg One of the most valuable works in the English language was the writing of the New English Dictionary. Begun in the 1850s and finished in 1927, it strove to define all the words in the English language and to list its different uses through quotations from book that used them.

Aside from the dictionary working group headed by Dr James Murray, readers were asked to contribute words that they came across in their reading of books. But I’m sure very few know that one of its best contributors to the writing of the dictionary was a Dr William Minor, an American confined in an English asylum at Broadmoor.

His life was fascinating, in a sordid sort of way. He believed that people visited him at night and provoked him to do all manners of things. He was deeply religious and he would look at women and feel guilty about his thoughts. But he controlled his feelings to the point that he cut off his manhood. It is believed that his madness was a result of what he saw and experienced in the Battle of the Wilderness where he worked as a surgeon.

Although his insanity is distracting, he was highly intelligent. For over twenty years he meticulously researched for words, mostly from rare books, to contribute to the New English Dictionary, which we now know as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Strange Case of the Surgeon at Crowthorne
History of the Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary: Word of the Day

arabiannights2-thumb.gif    A Thousand Nights and a Night

An hour before daybreak Dinarzade awoke, and exclaimed, as she had promised, “My dear sister, if you are not asleep, tell me I pray you, before the sun rises, one of your charming stories. It is the last time that I shall have the pleasure of hearing you.”

Scheherazade did not answer her sister, but turned to the Sultan. “Will your highness permit me to do as my sister asks?” said she.

“Willingly,” he answered. So Scheherazade began…

gibran.jpg  In my youth I was told that in a certain city every one lived according to the Scriptures.

And I said, “I will seek that city and the blessedness thereof.” And it was far. And I made great provision for my journey. And after forty days I beheld the city and on the forty-first day I entered into it.

And lo! the whole company of the inhabitants had each but a single eye and but one hand. And I was astonished and said to myself, “Shall they of this so holy city have but one eye and one hand?”

Then I saw that they too were astonished, for they were marvelling greatly at my two hands and my two eyes. And as they were speaking together I inquired of them saying, “Is this indeed the Blessed City, where each man lives according to the Scriptures?” And they said, “Yes, this is that city.”

“And what,” said I, “hath befallen you, and where are your right eyes and your right hands?”

And all the people were moved. And they said, “Come thou and see.”

And they took me to the temple in the midst of the city. And in the temple I saw a heap of hands and eyes. All withered. Then said I, “Alas! what conqueror hath committed this cruelty upon you?”

And there went a murmur amongst them. And one of their elders stood forth and said, “This doing is of ourselves. God hath made us conquerors over the evil that was in us.”

And he led me to a high altar, and all the people followed. And he showed me above the altar an inscription graven, and I read:

“If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut if off and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

Then I understood. And I turned about to all the people and cried, “Hath no man or woman among you two eyes or two hands?”

And they answered me saying, “No, not one. There is none whole save such as are yet too young to read the Scripture and to understand its commandment.”

And when we had come out of the temple, I straightway left that Blessed City; for I was not too young, and I could read the scripture.

The Madman: His Parables and Poems by Kahlil Gibran (©1918 by Kahlil Gibran and ©1946 by the Administrators CTA of Kahlil Gibran Estate and Mary G. Gibran)

leanna bird.jpeg    Jerzy Kosinski, a Polish Jew, wrote a morose story where one of the characters captured a crow, painted its feathers in bright colours, then let it go. When it joined its flock, the other birds didn’t recognise him as one of their own and attacked him with their beaks. Eventually, the painted bird died.

Homo sapiens come in different shapes and colours. Of all the animals on Earth, they pretend to be the more intelligent. But if you ask me, they’re no better than dull crows.

Jerzy Kosinski

Isaac Asimov had fascinating ideas. One of them was his theory for predicting human behaviour using the simple rules of mathematics and science.

Let’s look at the molecules that make up water. When we apply enough heat to them, they react by transforming into steam. If wind were introduced to the millions of molecules in the air we breathe, they will move with the direction of the wind. From the scientific point of view, we can deduce how molecules will behave.

Now let’s look at a group of people in any situation. Introduce an idea to them and they will interact. Let’s say we apply the idea that white is ugly and black is beautiful. Or let’s say that first-world countries should part with their money and give it to third-world nations. The people-molecules will react and transform itself into a volatile group, moving either in the direction of, or away from the idea-leader.

In another application, let’s ask a group of educated people and a group of fishmongers, what they would do with money won at a lottery. I have not posed this question in a controlled situation, but I can imagine that the educated class would think of either philanthropic pursuits or wise investments, while the fishmongers would think of something else.

Based on the unwritten laws of human nature, a behaviour pattern will emerge. Human nature varies from one culture to another and should be considered, together with other factors such as religion, when predicting human behaviour.

Asimov termed his new science of social behaviour, psychohistory. Some educational institutions have called it econophysics or social cognitive neuroscience. But I believe stereotyping and racial profiling require a subtile consideration, and should neither be misused nor treated as a blanket description for a group of people.

Isaac Asimov

gibran.jpg Once when I was living in the heart of a pomegranate, I heard a seed saying, “Someday I shall become a tree, and the wind will sing in my branches, and the sun will dance on my leaves, and I shall be strong and beautiful through all the seasons.”

Then another seed spoke and said, “When I was as young as you, I too held such views; but now that I can weigh and measure things, I see that my hopes were vain.”

And a third seed spoke also, “I see in us nothing that promises so great a future.”

And a fourth said, “But what a mockery our life would be, without a greater future!”

Said a fifth, “Why dispute what we shall be, when we know not even what we are.”

But a sixth replied, “Whatever we are, that we shall continue to be.”

And a seventh said, “I have such a clear idea how everything will be, but I cannot put it into words.”

Then an eighth spoke, and a ninth, and a tenth, and then many–until all were speaking, and I could distinguish nothing for the many voices.

And so I moved that very day into the heart of a quince, where the seeds are few and almost silent.

The Madman by Kahlil Gibran

Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre: Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself… But what do we mean by this, if not that man has a greater dignity than a stone or table? … Rather than a patch of moss, a piece of garbage, or a cauliflower… man will be what he will have planned to be. Not what he will want to be. Because by the word “will” we generally mean a conscious decision, which is subsequent to what we have already made of ourselves.

… Man is responsible for what he is. Thus existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.

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