Bloggus Interruptus… Altered States, Altered Quotes and the Lost Art of Fact Checking
A few days ago I sat down to write a blog post about sarcasm. Specifically, I began to describe an experience that had led me to develop a theory about the different ways men and women use sarcasm.
While writing, I recalled a story about the psychologist and philosopher William James. Here’s a version that I found online, from the May 1985 Bulletin of the Royal College of Psychiatrists1:
“The philosopher, William James, had a vivid dream following the inhalation of nitrous oxide [laughing gas]. When he woke he had a clear memory of an eternal truth but rapidly forgot it. The next night the dream recurred when he had a pad by his bed, and [upon waking] he found he had written:
Higgamous Hoggamous, woman is monogamous;
Hoggamous Higgamous, but man is polygamous.
I believe he was disappointed when he discovered this eternal verity, though it seems as valid a truth as any.”
This story tied in neatly with my attempt to categorize male versus female sarcasm – including my initial feeling of brilliant insight and then the less than positive response I got when I shared this “eternal truth” with others (particularly with women).
It also sent my thoughts off in a number of directions. I recalled an episode of Seinfeld with a similar subplot. Jerry had fallen asleep while watching a cheesy sci-fi movie. He woke up in the middle of the night and jotted down what he thought was the most hilarious joke he’d ever come up with. The next day he was unable to read his scribbles and asked people to decipher them. He got different readings from everyone he asked: “Don’t mess with Johnny” from one person, “Salami, salami, baloney” from another. At the end of the episode he happens to see the movie again and learns that what he’d written down was a line screamed by a mad scientist (played by Larry David): “Flaming globes of zigmund!” Hardly a comic masterpiece – in fact, not even funny.
Being old school, I wanted to verify the source of the William James quote. This was particularly on my mind because, a day or so before, Governor Sarah Palin had concluded the announcement of her resignation by saying, “Take the words of General MacArthur. He said, ‘We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction.’”
As it turned out, it wasn’t MacArthur but Major General Oliver Prince Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division, who, during the Korean War, had said, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”
So, hoping to avoid a similar misstatement, I wanted to be sure I had the quote (and the story behind it) right. I recalled first hearing the story when I was a senior in college – that would have been 1970 or 1971, when drug-induced insights were quite in vogue – and thought it was from James’s 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience. I checked – it wasn’t in there, although he does mention his taking nitrous oxide in that book. I Googled. I even Binged. I found lots of stuff about William James and nitrous oxide – this great American thinker was starting to sound like some stoner in the parking lot of a Dead concert – but no direct source for the quote. Even the Bulletin of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which I quoted earlier, offered no source for either the epigram or the anecdote.
The deeper I dug, the more suspicious I became. Wikiquote attributed it to William James but listed it as “unsourced.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations gave the quote as:
Man is polygamous
They attributed the doggerel to William James but listed the source as The Oxford Book of Marriage – published in 1990, about 80 years after his death. Just what kind of Oxford Circus was going on here?
Having drifted so far from my original topic of sarcasm, I was about ready to give up when I found a September 2004 article in the language quarterly Verbatim, entitled Hogamous, higamous!2 The article’s author, Tony Percy, had been down this same road 5 years ago. According to him:
“The anecdote does not appear in any of the biographies of William James, and the lines do not appear in either his conventional works or his published letters.”
Percy’s research indicated that the earliest published version of the incident appears to be in Selected Readings in Psychology (by Don E. Gibbons and John F. Connelly), which was published in 1970 – approximately the same time I first heard it. They offered no source for the story.
The closest he could find was an anecdote related by Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy:
“William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was: ‘A smell of petroleum prevails throughout’“
Flaming globes of zigmund, indeed!
Percy’s conclusion: “There is a good chance that the whole anecdote is apocryphal…Maybe the creation of the verse was a spoof, but a very successful one.”
So… what can we learn from this?
- Mike is easily distracted.
- In my first blog post, I quoted a line from the John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This makes for a good mythic Western – but it also makes for bad journalism.
The next time a male politician is caught philandering, I think he should call a press conference and simply read the William James quote. It makes as much sense as what they usually say – and takes less time. After all, he wasn’t cheating; he was just being faithful in a different way.
[Next week: Sarcasm… maybe]
Filed under: Humorous Musings | 6 Comments
Tags: comedy, humor, m. j. dorn, Michael Dorn, Nitrous Oxide, quotation, quote, Seinfeld, William James