Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"I didn't kiss him, I only stroked his face"

In the prev. post I'd commented on A.E. Housman's frequent & random appearances in stories about philosophers and mathematicians. Here is an anecdote or two from Littlewood's Miscellany to go with that (if you're unfamiliar with Littlewood see here):
  • The Ellises gave [Housman] a dinner (rook pie). Later I heard Polly protesting to her husband, "I didn't kiss him, I only stroked his face."
  • I once said to him in Hall: "Suppose there was a poet, Shakespeare combined with Milton, and 6 inches high; wouldn't you patronize him?" He said the temptation would be too much for him.

Some other anecdotes from the book:
  • A.W. Verrall. It was the custom (ca. 1905) to read the roll at lectures (in alphabetical order). Verrall came to Mr. Shufflebottom, Mr. Sitwell, burst into his crow of laughter, and never read the roll again. At a Scholarship examination, Dykes pointed out to me that the list had the consecutives Alchin and Alcock.
  • There are a couple of grim stories about [German mathematician Edmund Landau's] treatment of Privatdozents. One was that when the man was recuperating in a hospital, Landau climbed a ladder and pushed a chunk of work through the window.

Some stories about Bertrand Russell:
  • Moore and Russell were having a philosophical discussion in Hall. Russell suddenly said: "You don't like me, Moore, do you?" Moore replied, "No." This point disposed of, the discussion proceeded as before.
  • [Russell] said that what Kant did, trying to answer Hume..., was to invent more and more sophisticated stuff, till he could no longer see through it and could believe it to be an answer.
  • That every argument of Hegel came down to a pun (often involving the word "is"). 
  • He told me (c. 1911) that he had conceived a theory that "knowledge" was "belief" in something which was "true." But he met a man who believed that the Prime Minister's name began with a B. So it did, but it was Bannerman and not Balfour as the man had supposed. [cf. the essay "On denoting."]
Apart from their intrinsic interest, I like Littlewood's stories (and, e.g., Marilynne Robinson's remarks about Lincoln and Darwin) for their way of making intellectual history seem approachable and cozy.

Unrelated PS. Having connected "forever stamps" with the Orwell line about communism being a boot stamping on a human face forever, I find that I cannot unmake the connection.

1 comment:

James said...

Oh God, what a brilliant idea for the picture on a forever stamp. Something like this. Or the stamp could just be a face, and the postmark could be a footprint.