The Great Panjandrum
Obscure Questions and Unobscured Nudity
Paul Collins is the author of Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism (published by Bloomsbury) and several other books. We invited him to review the audience at his reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on April 26, 2004.
In 1755, the London wag Samuel Foote made a bet with his friend Charles Macklin--an actor famed for his phenomenal memory--that he could utter a perfectly grammatical sentence so blitheringly nonsensical that Macklin could not remember it. You're on, Macklin said--or whatever the 1755 equivalent was. "Do tell," perhaps.
This was Foote's verbal throwdown:
So she went into the garden to pick a cabbage leaf, to make an apple-pie of; and a she-bear, coming up the street, put her head into the shop, and said, "Do you sell any soap?" So she died, and he very imprudently married the barber; and the powder fell out of the counselor's wig, and poor Mrs. Mackay's puddings were quite entirely spoilt; and there were present the Garnelies, and the Goblilies, and the Picninnies, and the Great Panjandrum himself, with the little round buttons at top, and they played at the ancient game of "Catch who catch can," till the gunpowder ran out of the heels of their boots.
I was put in the mind of poor Mr. Macklin recently when, at a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, I was asked a question of such penetrating impenetrability that, god help me, I could not have told you what it was even before the woman asking it was halfway through the aforesaid question. If it was indeed a question. Then again, I'm not sure she could have recalled it either, even as she was asking it.
Let me say that I was very well equipped by the bookstore for any and all such contingencies. My water was cold, my latte was hot, and the stage so brilliantly lit that, if I looked up toward the ceiling, I was blinded in a warm white haze, like I was dying. Don't walk into the light, Paul--don't walk into the light! Incoherent people back on Earth need you!
So: I lived. But I do not recall a single word of her question, except perhaps for the presence of a "the." I am pretty sure that she somehow managed to speak for five or six minutes without using a single conjunction. Quite remarkable, really.
I was asked many perfectly intelligible questions by the rest of the crowd, though--shall I describe this crowd to you? No, no--I shall not. I will allow you to imagine it, because your conception--a great mass of people, all muttering something that vaguely sounds like rhubarb rhubarb as I approach the stage, or making a general hubbub like the Sgt. Pepper intro--this will outdo any crowd that I could actually conjure up in person. I actually half hid from this crowd during the introduction, browsing books on the shelf behind the platform because... well, it was a bookstore. It seemed the thing to do. There was a first-edition Kafka on that shelf selling for just $2, by the way. Put away your wallets: It was Mitzy Kafka.
The reading? Oh. Yes, there were words read aloud. I'd tell you about them, but a subsequent incident has blotted out all my memory of the other events of that evening. For as I passed Fourth and Lenora the next day on the Gray Line bus bound for Sea-Tac, there erupted a great commotion among my fellow passengers and the driver. They were gaping, gasping, and laughing incredulously all at once: It took a moment before I realized they were all looking out the front window. I followed their gaze, and there I saw a gentleman strolling down the street, in very windy weather, without a shirt. Also, he was without shoes. Or socks. Or pants. Or underwear. Or anything. I'm not sure that words suffice to express the nakedness of this fellow. Imagine a man without an atom of clothing on: Now, imagine that, miraculously, it is somehow possible to make this man even more naked. Having achieved this mental image, you still will have not begun to form a conception of the clothelessness of the gentleman on Fourth Avenue.
And I thought: Now there is a man who knows how to face a crowd.