Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Surreal Marmalade

Surreal Marmalade

One of the pleasures of writing about marmalade is that it often takes one in quite unexpected directions. For example, while idly trawling the internet recently for quotes about marmalade, I came across an intriguing snippet involving Chinese carpets, a theory of inanimate objects and a man named Clark-Trimble. 

The quote was by humorist Paul Jennings and it went like this:

‘When numbered pieces of toast and marmalade were dropped on various samples of carpet arranged in quality, from coir matting to the finest Kirman rugs, the marmalade-downwards-incidence (ยต∂I) varied indirectly with the quality of the carpet (Qc) – the Principle of the Graduated Hostility of Things.’

I was intrigued. What on earth was the context? And what is the Principle of the Graduated Hostility of Things? I continued searching, assuming that it was just a piece of nonsense – but then I saw it quoted in a proper academic essay by Daniel Chandler, entitled 'Technological Determinism'.

Curiouser and curiouser. I read on.

In the essay, Chandler is discussing Technological Animism (stay with me, it gets funnier) as the basis for a philosophy called Resistentialism, summed up as ‘Les choses sont contre nous’ – Things Are Against Us. The essay then refers, quite seriously, to the Clark-Trimble experiments of 1935, in which (and here’s where the Chinese carpets come in) Clark-Trimble investigates his theory that the world’s inanimate objects are engaged in a war against its human occupants.

I’m now completely gripped, though rather feel as if I have wandered into a Douglas Adams novel.

The essay runs thus: 
‘During some research into the relation between periods of the day and human bad temper, Clark-Trimble, a leading Cambridge psychologist, came to the conclusion that low human dynamics in the early morning could not sufficiently explain the apparent Hostility of Things at the breakfast table – the way honey gets between the fingers, the unfoldability of newspapers, etc.

‘In the experiments which finally confirmed him in this view, and which he demonstrated before the Royal Society in London, Clark-Trimble arranged 400 pieces of carpet in ascending degrees of quality, from coarse matting to priceless Chinese silk. Pieces of toast and marmalade, graded, weighed and measured, were then dropped on each piece of carpet, and the marmalade-downwards incidence was statistically analyzed. The toast fell right-side-up every time on the cheap carpet, except when the cheap carpet was screened from the rest (in which case the toast didn't know that Clark-Trimble had other and better carpets), and it fell marmalade-downwards every time on the Chinese silk…

‘The success of these experiments naturally switched Clark-Trimble's attention to further research on resistentia, a fact which was directly responsible for the tragic and sudden end to his career when he trod on a garden rake at the Cambridge School of Agronomy.’

That final sentence rather gives the game away; and Chandler then admits; ‘Resistentialism was actually dreamt up by the humorist Paul Jennings in 1948, but it is one of those schools of thought which ought to exist, and which in our most technologically frustrating moments we devoutly believe to be true.’

The whole of Jennings’s essay is in Dwight Macdonald's book, Parodies; and for the whole of Chandler’s essay, which includes an explanation of why a photocopier knows what you’re thinking, click here. (I’m including the link to give it full credit, in the hope that no one will mind my pilfering this long extract for your amusement.)

The main benefit of discovering this delightful piece of work is that when I next see a piece of toast heading for the floor, marmalade-side down, I can say, wisely, ‘Ah ha! Clark-Trimble was right! Les choses sont contre nous!’ to general admiration.

No comments: