Dolts and villains can't see this
A trickster in the throne room of Bohemia, Pólya's heuristic for solving literally any problem, and introducing the Time Enough at Last Book Club
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Early Modern Europeans believed some strange things, right?
This was the time of the Loudon possessions, the trials of Valais, the Malleus Maleficarum and Macbeth. When straw-capped peasants believed that sorcerers caused the plague. When people practiced divination, cast lots, read signs.
When cunning folk chanted grimoires, and villagers from Milan to Flanders protected themselves from glen-dwelling giants by memorizing Sator Squares—five-word Latin palindromes believed to be immune to tampering by the devil, who would be confused by the repetition of letters. Evil incarnate: no match for anagrams.
All across Europe, female villagers were prosecuted for being hexen and vedma. Not a good time to be a woman.
Meanwhile, behind their battlements, the mandibularly-endowed Habsburgs believed even crazier things—like that canoodling your first cousin was a healthy idea. Not a good time to be a cousin.
And in the kingdom of Bohemia (now Czechoslavokia), an assembly of protestants threw two Catholic Lord Regents out a window—an act that literally coined the word defenestrate, not to mention launched the Thirty Years War. Not a good time to be a Catholic. Or a Protestant. Or, tbh, alive.
It’s during all of this, ahem, excitement <Jim Halpert looks directly at the camera> that a man named Till Eulenspiegel allegedly roamed the countryside—a jester, a trickster, a tightrope walker, singer and dancer who pranked commoners and was, apparently, beloved for it. His kink: reveling in the hypocrisy and stupidity of others. Kinda the Mister Mxyzptlk of his day. Or maybe just the Hipster Grifter.
Till was originally the subject of a 14th-century German chapbook. More recently, he was the hero of Tyll: A Novel. It’s an incredible book, full of pranks and excrement. And of all its joys, there’s one passage in particular I think you’d be amused by. It’s where the trickster convinces the Queen of Bohemia to hang a blank painting in her throne room. As Tyll tells it:
“It’s a magic picture, little Liz. No one born out of wedlock can see it. No one stupid can see it. No one who has stolen money can see it. No one up to no good, no one who cannot be trusted, no one who’s a gallows bird or a thievish knave or an arsehole with ears can see it—for him, there’s no picture there!”
She hadn’t been able to help laughing.
“No, really, little Liz, tell the people! Bastards and dolts and villains and men ripe for the gallows, none of them can see anything, neither the blue sky nor the castle nor the wonderful woman on the balcony letting down her golden hair nor the angel behind her. Tell them, watch what happens!”
She hung the painting. She told them. And what happened astonished her.
The visitors stood helplessly before the white picture and didn’t know what they were supposed to say. For it was complicated, after all. They knew that nothing was there, of course, but they weren’t sure whether Liz knew it too, and thus it was also conceivable that she would take someone who told her that nothing was there for illegitimate, stupid, or thieving. They racked their brains. Had a spell been cast on the picture, or had someone fooled Liz, or was she playing a joke on everyone? The fact that by then almost everyone who came to the court of the Winter King and Queen was either illegitimate or stupid or a thief or a person with ill intentions didn’t make matters easier.
Hanging a blank painting creates a situation not unlike The Emperor’s New Clothes—except it’s not the emperor who is caught physically naked, but the audience who is mentally in the nude.
If your subjects are too busy lying to maintain decorum—and then competing to up-fiction each other by exclaiming what they see!—then you, the queen, can create any reality you want.
Tho of course it’s the jester who knows the truth in full.
The reader is left to make her own analogies to our present politics, and the blank canvases hanging in throne rooms every day.
Or our museums.
Consider, say, Robert Ryman’s “Bridge”, an all-white painting that sold at Chrystie’s for $20.6 million a few years back.
When confronted with a painting that’s almost, well, blank, it’s tempting to mock the simple composition. The seeming lack of skill. The audacity of the painter to suggest an all-white painting is even art. To say what’s so special, I could do that.
But you didn’t, comes the retort. If there is no common definition of “art”, then the idea of an art matters just as much, if not more, than the physical construction. You didn’t have the idea. Or the audacity. That’s not a value judgement, that’s just a fact.
All you’re left with is your relationship to the all-white void before you, and how it makes you feel. I’m sure there’s another analogy to our present moment there, or maybe a bridge.
But perhaps it’s enough to say that modern Americans: they believe some strange things, right?
Sources and Further Reading
Tyll: A Novel
New York: Pantheon, 2020.
Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
"Why these all-white paintings are in museums and mine aren’t"
September 18, 2017.
Currently working on
“Unfuckulating” some marketing copy for an agency. Very cool gig, looking forward to sharing more. Do you need something unfuckulated? Get in touch.
George Pólya’s heuristic method
A framework for solving any kind of problem
In his 1945 book How to Solve It, George Pólya—Stanford Professor Emeritus and a member of The Martians—provided general heuristics for solving a wide range of problems, mathematical and otherwise. Pólya’s method consisted of four steps:
Understand the problem
Make a plan
Carry out the plan
Look back, evaluate, and adjust.
Sounds simple, but often fails on the first step. If a solution proves too difficult, Pólya advises to find an easier problem, a related problem, or a more accessible problem, all of which will help you solve the original one. In How to Solve It Pólya also lists a dictionary-like list of useful, everyday heuristics in every human’s toolkit including analogy, working backward, and decomposing.
See Also: The Essential Guide to Frameworks
Don’t Waste the Reboot
The inaugural report by Venkatesh Rao’s Yak Collective of indie consultants, Don’t Waste the Reboot offers organizations 25 creative and unexpected provocations, ideas, and action frameworks to navigate the Covid-19 crisis. More interesting than every other similar report published recently and authored by 21 diverse contributors from around the world—including friend of this dispatch, Tom Critchlow.
Covid Concept Generator
Robust Causality! Intersectional Masking! Liquid Differences! This is delightful.
Not everything will be okay (but some things will)
Austin Kleon saying what’s on my mind: your cliched responses to disaster aren’t helping
The Time Enough at Last Book Club
A fraternity of dreamers for the end of the world
Born in the no-time of March 2020, The Time Enough at Last Book Club explores the wonderments, habiliments, and instruments of the world’s greatest sci-fi novels, musical journalism, narrative fiction, and beyond. Join us by reading with us, following along here each week, and replying to this email with your comments and insights—it’s not like you have anything better to do! For you have time enough at last.
Reading this week:
The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts // Chapters 9 and 10 // A time-hopping AI has a Platonic dialogue with an astrophysicist-cum-garbageman as part of a test to determine whether a non-human intelligence can perceive Immanuel Kant’s das ding an sich. Shit gets weird. [SF Reviews]
Last week’s discussion included but wasn’t limited to:
The quackery of Alexander Crowley // Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-cited quote “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” // William Burroughs’ idea that anything done chemically can also be achieved by natural means + his idea that we could use computers to achieve altered perceptual states // How a man-made AI could ever perceive Kant’s “das ding an sich” (no idea!) // whether Sasquatch is a cross-dimensional being (signs point to sure why not!)
Reading next: Passport to Magonia, Jacque Vallée’s classic 1969 treatise exploring the commonalities between UFOs, cults, religious movements, demons, angels, ghosts, cryptid sightings, and psychic phenomena.
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