Day 145: or what

Sometimes I wonder if the movies that permeated my consciousness as a child determined my later research interests. Take Groundhog Day. I watched it the other week with the kids and realized that it’s basically a late 20th-century version of Leibniz’s parable about Sextus Tarquinius. Both can be filed under the category: stories about assholes who are momentarily plucked out of the stream of existence so they may contemplate if they wish to renew their commitment to assholery. The fact that Phil Connors (Bill Murray’s character) chooses, eventually, to be good while Sextus defiantly refuses isn’t the only difference between the two narratives. In Leibniz’s tale the possible world that is actualized is one in which Sextus’s individual interests and the world’s fail to align: Sextus meets a grizzly end but his demise is also the catalyst for the founding of the Roman republic. In Groundhog Day the interests of the individual and the world line up: indeed, the learning curve the movie traces is Phil Connors’ gradual, very gradual discovery that dedicating himself to fulfilling the interests of other people is also the route, the only route, to his own happiness.

Before we watched the movie, I was sitting on the sofa and the younger sidled up to me, eyeing my belly critically.

“Are you going to have a baby, or what?”

I answered carefully. “No. No, I am not going to have a baby.”

Later that night, after the movie, when I was going to bed, I put on my Leibniz T-shirt, as you do (it has a portrait of Leibniz on it—I’ve been told it looks like me, truth be told, which is not a terribly flattering comparison—and underneath it reads, “In another world it would be worse”), and I wondered about that other world, the world the younger the imagined, in which she would be the middler.


Grammatically, when we express ideas about possibility, we use modal verbs like must, shall, will, etc.

This week, it being February, I had to teach “Frost at Midnight.” Duck-rabbit, I said sternly to myself, you shall. Not. Cry.

(I more or less pulled it off.)

“You shall not cry” is an example of something called “commissive modality” (I only learned this concept today.) It refers to a kind of modal statement in which the speaker indicates a strong commitment to ensuring the described event comes to pass (in this example, not crying). In English such statements usually use the modal verb “shall.”

There is something, I reflected today, especially poignant about second person commissive modality –i.e. statements in which shall is used in the second person, like “you shall not cry.” Indeed, it’s precisely when reading those lines when “Frost at Midnight”’s speaker uses shall (and it’s always in the second person, because he’s addressing his infant son) that my voice breaks:

“My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart

With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,

And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,

And in far other scenes!

“But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze”

“he shall mould

Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask”

“Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee”

“Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

Why is shall used in the second person poignant? I think it’s because of the other contexts in which we more usually encounter “shall,” which are quite specific.

Shall is the language of the law, whether divine and laid out in scripture (“Thou shalt not …” in the King James Bible or, to go back to Leibniz and his fable, “If you will renounce Rome, the Parcae shall spin for you different fates, you shall become wise, you shall be happy,” as Jupiter says to Sextus) or secular and expressed in legal documents, where it’s normally used in the third person (“the parties shall share joint legal custody”). The most prominent use of second person shall that I can think of other than in scripture is in fairy tales, where it’s used by fairies good and bad. “You shall go to the ball!” proclaims Cinderella’s fairy godmother. [1]

In the Ladybird book version of Cinderella I read as a child (the one with the three balls and, most importantly, the THREE DRESSES), in response to Cinderella expressing her wish to attend the ball the fairy godmother says, “And so you shall, my dear.”

Or consider these lines, uttered by the bad fairy in the Ladybird book version of Sleeping Beauty:

“When the King’s daughter is fifteen years old, she shall prick herself with a spindle and fall down dead.”

But then the good fairy modifies the bad fairy’s curse: “‘The Princess will prick herself with a spindle,’ went on the twelfth fairy, ‘but she shall not die. She will fall into a deep sleep that will last for a hundred years.’” [2]

When fairies or gods use shall in the second person, it’s not poignant because their supernatural authority underwrites their decrees ; the difference is when mere humans use “shall.” Such statements become poignant because of the auditor or reader’s understanding that the speaker can’t actually guarantee that the events they so confidently decree will necessarily come to pass. When an ordinary human uses “shall” in the second person, the very use of that verb bespeaks the individual’s powerlessness and their resultant desire to take on the authority of a god or fairy who might actually make the desired event so merely by uttering the decree.

Take Tennyson’s poem “The Death of the Old Year”: the first two stanzas end with second-person shall statements; “You came to us so readily, / You lived with us so steadily, / Old year you shall not die.” And then: “So long you have been with us, / Such joy as you have seen with us, / Old year, you shall not go.” But the point, as the poem makes clear, is that the speaker has no agency to stop the year from turning. The “shall” statements are a desperate bid to ward off the inevitability of death.

All of this is a very long way of explaining why “and therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee” makes me cry; because would that all our benedictions for our babies were also promises.


[1] I looked but couldn’t figure out where this particular, now iconic expression of the fairy godmother’s promise to Cinderella derives from. Disney???

[2] I stumbled on an amazing subgenre of YouTube video while searching for these references: videos of actual Ladybird books being flipped through silently, sometimes with hands visibly turning the pages, other times not.


Day 98: fermenting into merriment

“That the professors of literature generally reside in the highest stories, has been immemorially observed.”

(Samuel Johnson, Rambler No. 117, 1751).

The Department of English is mostly spread over the first and second floor of the Humanities Building, with a few offices and the grad lounge located on the basement level. My office is on the second floor (the first floor, if you’re in Britain) of this building. I have occupied this office ever since I first started my current job, in the summer of 2007.

Today, for the first time ever, I walked up the stairs to the third floor.

It’s not that I didn’t realize there was another floor above the second before today. My office is right next to the staircase. I witness people going up and down those stairs every day. But until today I didn’t actually think of the third floor as an existent space.

Now, this might sound unlikely. My beloved D.H. would surely aver that I have, however tacitly, all this time attributed some background level of existence to the third floor. I’m thinking of his own observation that when he hears a person’s voice from the next room, “this impression of my senses immediately conveys my thoughts to the person, along with all the surrounding objects. I paint them out to myself as existent at present . . . These ideas take faster hold of my mind than the ideas of an inchanted castle” (David Hume, Treatise 625).

But yet I insist that the third floor might as well have been a castle in the air to me for all the reality I ascribed to it. The staircase did not, for me, naturally call up any mental image of the floor above. Oddly, I didn’t think of the staircase as a means of transport from one space to another; I thought of the stairs as its own discrete space. If people were walking down them, they weren’t coming from anywhere, and if they were walking up them, they weren’t going anywhere. They were only, in my mind, traveling in any real sense when they were coming down the stairs, because then and only then were they en route to an actual place. If I try to conjure up images of people on the staircase, they are all of people coming down the stairs. It’s almost as though my mind refused to register people going up the stairs because to do so would force the question of where they were going.

Such was the norm for the past eight years. Today, however, for the first time ever, an event I planned to attend was scheduled to take place in a room in the Humanities Building beginning with the number 3. I did a double take as I re-read the email. It must be in another building. That must be a typo. There aren’t rooms in this building that began with a 3. [1]

Are there?

At five minutes to four, I climbed the stairs, genuinely excited. It’s always disorienting, not necessarily unpleasantly so, to enter a space that is identical in some ways to one you know intimately but which is also subtly different; it’s like walking into one of those spot-the-difference puzzles. The third floor felt darker but also more warmly colored, and a little messier. There were cork pin boards on the walls of the corridor. That would never fly on the second floor.

On the third floor, I was a stranger. As the attendees of the meeting immediately before ours drifted out of the seminar room, unfamiliar faces looked at me quizzically as if trying to place me. Once we entered the room and the grad student organizers of our group put out snacks, I couldn’t help but notice that the quality of refreshments was immensely superior to those usually found on the second floor. For a gathering of seven people total, there were three bottles of wine, a lovely looking selection of cheeses, a plate of charcuterie, and some fruit.

Comp Lit is on the third floor. This meeting wasn’t organized by Comp Lit but was it possible that by dint of some kind of osmosis, what were merely Anglo-Saxon snacks on the second floor became hors d’oeuvres when they moved to the third? I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis.

You know what the definition of irony is? Being so busy holed up in your office writing a book about wonder that you never bother to venture up the stairs that spiral up mere steps away from your own office door.

I am a disgrace to my species, and especially to my sex. Daughter of Eve? Please!

Think of all the stories that depend for their narrative interest upon women bothering to go upstairs. Seriously.

Imagine if all those stories instead had a female protagonist who just couldn’t be arsed.

Sleeping Beauty: the tale of a princess who never pricked her finger or fell asleep for a hundred years, or required a prince to awaken her with a kiss. [2]

Bluebeard: the sixth one’s the charm! [3]

Jane Eyre: it’s just Grace Poole laughing up there, you say? I am satisfied with your explanation, sir, and feel no need to investigate further! [4]

And, maybe this, here, is why my second book project has felt like it’s struggling to get off the ground lately. Maybe you just can’t write a book about floating things on the second floor. And it’s not just a problem at the office. In the old house, I worked in the loft, and I could see the tops of the palm trees swaying in the breeze out the window. Now I have a bungalow, where I work most often at my dining table, which is very close to the front door, which, as Samuel Johnson notes in the theory of the garret he lays out in Rambler 117, “is often observed to be infested by visitants, who talk incessantly of beer, or linen, or a coat, and repeat the same sounds every morning, and sometimes again in the afternoon, without any variation, except that they grow daily more importunate and clamorous, and raise their voices in time from mournful murmurs to raging vociferations.”

My visitants talk more frequently of milk, or Nerf guns, or their butts, but the effect is much the same.

So maybe I need to take Johnson’s advice and find higher ground. For, as he observes in that same Rambler essay, “he that upon level ground stagnates in silence, or creeps in narrative, might at the height of half a mile, ferment into merriment, sparkle with repartee, and froth with declamation.”


[1] British readers: note that in the US it is usual for the first number of a room number to designate the floor it occupies. It turns out that this is really convenient. So far as I know, in Britain there is no consistent method for numbering rooms within a large building.

[2] “The princess was running about the castle, and going upstairs from room to room she came at length to a garret at the top of a tower, where an old serving woman sat alone with her distaff, spinning.” (from Old-Time Stories told by Master Charles Perrault, translated by A. E. Johnson (Dodd Mead and Company, 1921))

[3] The number of wives Bluebeard is said to have varies widely, but in most versions there are at least five, each of whom (except for the first, presumably), breaks the vow not to enter the small room beneath the castle. “She was so much pressed by her curiosity that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck.” (Andrew Lang, The Blue Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, ca. 1889))

[4] “ … while Adèle played with her nurse, and Mrs. Fairfax made jellies in the storeroom, I climbed the three staircases …”