Dumb Is As Dumb Does
The very first recorded public act of the newly-born Louis XVII (1795) was to obey the call of nature in front of various court dignitaries. Shortly thereafter the dyers and weavers of Paris were busy producing fabric in the newest fashion color, "caca dauphin." All this and more are recalled in journalist Paul Tabori's outrageously outspoken book, The Natural Science of Stupidity, published in 1959 and now, stupidly, out of print.
With obvious relish, the author recounts the tale of a Londoner who lost a leg in World War II. Under the regulations he was entitled to an extra soap ration (though he must have had less to wash, by a leg at least). When his supply of ration coupons was exhausted he applied for more, and was told in an official communication that he could have them if he could certify that his leg was still off. And this was before Monty Python!
The frustrations Tabori experienced seem to have driven him to a prodigy of research into historical examples of stupidity. Some of the most amazing and detailed of these are recounted in the chapter titled "Folie Erotique." The chief part is devoted to an examination of the age of chivalry and the institution of frauendienst, or worship of women. An amazing example is the life of Ulrich von Lichtenstein.
Like other young bucks of his age (he died in 1276), Ulrich developed an obsession to win the patronage of of a high-born lady. The traditional pattern required various courtly approaches, gallant gestures, a lot of sighing, and a general determination on the part of the young warrior to invite the lady to treat him like a dog. In consequence, he sent her love songs and various tender messages composed by himself. (He was illiterate, as convention demanded, but employed a scribe who could keep a straight face). The lady responded by praising the songs and telling him to get lost. The lady also passed word to a relative of Ulrich that she found his rather prominent upper lip quite ugly. Thereupon Ulrich had his lip surgically altered, a painful and dangerous undertaking in those unsanitary and unanestheticised days. She expressed interest in his new appearance, but otherwise gave him the brush-off again. These refusals mixed with encouragement kept Ulrich tethered, as chivalry (or feminine wiles) demanded.
Ulrich projected his frustrations into his tournament battles. He became a famous knight. During one joust he injured his hand, all but severing a finger. An unusually skilled surgeon saved the damaged digit. But then the lady expressed scorn for his battle prowess and his heroic wounds by pointing out that the celebrated finger was still attached. So he had it cut off again. Sheathed in gold, it became the clasp for a book bound in green velvet, containing a long poem by himself, which he sent to her. Her response was to call him a fool.
Thus encouraged, Ulrich next dressed himself in women's clothes and embarked on a well-publicized tour of the local castles, challenging all other knights to joust with "Queen Venus," as he styled himself. Ulrich won much fame and respect for this project, even fighting with a Vendish knight who was also dressed as a woman, in honor of his own lady patron. As a result, the object of Ulrich's obsession finally sent him a ring and a message, saying that she accepted his services. But a few days later she took it all back and broke off the arrangement, accusing the poor knight of dallying with other women.
Ulrich was devastated. He besieged her with tender messages. At last she relented, but required him to come to her castle dressed as a beggar and mingle with the lepers at the gate. After spending several days in this loathsome company, he received a message that his lady would send him a signal. He waited in the night beneath her window. Finally a cradle was lowered. He got in and was hauled up for a short audience in the presence of her attendants. Soon he was hung out the window again; and as he raised his head in anticipation of a kiss from his lady fair, she had the cradle and Ulrich dumped to the bottom of the keep.
Eventually his obsession ended with some final insult that Ulrich refused to describe in his diary. Curiously, the lady's chastity was never the object of Ulrich's questing. We could accuse Tabori of inventing the whole story to kick off some sort of Southern California bondage cult, except that Ulrich really existed and was celebrated as a great knight and composer of love songs.
Closer to home, Tabori takes on collectors of oddball junk. Prominent among these is one Frank Damek. Beginning in 1870, he set out to collect a complete deck of playing cards from discards found on the streets of Chicago. It took twenty years for this determined individual to complete his deck, the last card found being the two of diamonds. Heaven knows what a fortune teller would make of this, but Tabori has no trouble labeling Damek's unique deck of cards the most useless collection in the world.
Even more troublesome than Damek's quest was that of the Italian Rio Caselli, who sought to assemble a library of the world's most boring books. He amassed 8600 volumes, and was challenged to a duel by an outraged author who heard rumors that one of his works was included in the collection. Caselli admitted no one to his library, but enjoyed it in the utmost privacy.
In his chapter "The Stupidity of Doubt," Tabori recounts a few of the many tales of savants who could not believe that some invention or new idea was possible. A scientist named Laland won eternal obscurity by The Natural Science Of Stupidity arguing scientifically, and in print, that it was impossible for a man to float through the air. A few months later the Montgolfier brothers took their first balloon ride. When Du Moncel demonstrated Edison's phonograph at the French Academy of Sciences, he was physically assaulted by one Jean Bouillard, who accused him of a trick, declaring that it was impossible to reproduce the human voice mechanically.
Hot with sarcasm and indignation, rich with facts and opinions, and readily confusing stupidity with true insanity, Tabori's book is a great amusement. It is a pity that The Natural Science of Stupidity was written before computer technology had achieved its massive intrusion into society. Since 1959 vast new opportunities for the expression of stupidity have been created by the computer's remarkable ability to amplify most human traits. One hopes that a future writer with a pen full of vitriol will fill the widening gap between Tabori's book and the computer age, by chronicling the progress of electronically enhanced stupidity.
Dictionary maven John Cumming is looking for new literary worlds to conquer. However, reports that he is going to start reviewing telephone books are premature.
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