Friday Commonplace:
29 June 2012

The other day or so ago, Kathleen and I were laughing about PT Barnum’s famous bamboozlement, “This Way to the Egress.” Unsuspecting patrons would follow the arrow, only to find that they had left via the exits, and would have to pay anew to re-enter.  We were wondering just how obscure the word “egress” was at the time. I decided to have a look at the OED and, what d’you know, but “egress” must have been something of a shibboleth in the Nineteenth Century, when every educated Anglophone read Paradise Lost, at least far enough to encounter Satan’s great exhortation in Book II.

O Progeny of Heav’n, Empyreal Thrones,
With reason hath deep silence and demurr
Seis’d us, though undismaid: long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light;
Our prison strong, this huge convex of Fire,
Outrageous to devour, immures us round
Ninefold, and gates of burning Adamant
Barr’d over us prohibit all egress. (ii, 437)
This past, if any pass, the void profound
Of unessential Night receives him next
Wide gaping, and with utter loss of being…

The word, while never common, cannot have been unknown. The fact that Satan, hero of the epic, utters it is all I need to know to conclude that Barnum could expect to have legal opinion entirely on his side. Ignorance of Milton is no excuse!


From “Spry Old Character,” by Elizabeth Taylor (1953).

Later, the wind drove gusts of fair-music up the hill. Miss Arbuthnot complained; but Harry could not hear it. Missing so much that the others heard was an added worry to him lately, for to lose hearing as well would finish him as a person, and leave him at the mercy of his own thoughts, which had always bored him. His tongue did his thinking for hiim: other people’s talk struck words from him like a light from a match; his phrases were quick and ready-made and soon forgotten, but he feared a silence and they filled it.

I was struck by the idea of finding one’s own thoughts boring. And yet who am I to sniff, who carry something to read wherever I go?


From Colm Tóibín’s review of three books about Thomas Mann, collected in Love in a Dark Time (p 118).

Ronald Hayman and Donald Prater are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Anthony Heibut’s Hamlet. They are dull and worthy and useful perhaps, and they repeat the same facts and the same narrative. Their desire for Mann to be a better person is almost comic. Heilbut has clearly been to Wittenberg, he can be brilliantly perceptive about Mann’s books, he can put on an antic disposition, he can lose himself in long soliloquies about Mann’s sexuality and his work…

…Prater then adds in parenthesis: “The supreme egoism here is as remarkable as the blinkered application to his work.” Mann is sixty-four, his whole world has been destroyed. He has the reaction any normal writer might have during a crisis: he wants to get on with his work; and like everyone else, he is worried about what the war will mean for him. Prater seems to want him to join the Red Cross and spend his morning helping old ladies cross the street rather than working on Lotte in Weimar.