Thursday, September 18th, 2014
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Bullets, Ferris Wheels, Cults

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“Why is life a perpetual preparation for something that never happens?” W. B. Yeats asked in his journal, September 16, 1909.

According to Dignitas, an end-of-life clinic in Switzerland, 70 percent of people who begin the formal process of assisted suicide do not go through with it.

“I’m ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” said Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick not long before a Confederate bullet struck his skull and killed him.

On the future of history, Thucydides speculated that since there are no “temples or monuments of magnificence” in Sparta, “future generations would find it very difficult to believe” that it once commanded two-fifths of the Peloponnesus; while those same generations would conclude from the impressive ruins of Athens that it was “twice as powerful as it in fact was.”

“The splendors of this age outshine all other recorded ages,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1871. “I have seen wrought five miracles—namely, the steamboat, the railroad, the electric telegraph, the application of the spectroscope to astronomy, the photograph.” He died in 1882, missing the invention of the machine gun by three years, the gramophone and radar by five years, and the diesel-fueled internal combustion engine by ten years.

About how statements get written up by the press, Andy Warhol wrote, “It would always be different from what I’d actually said—and a lot more fun for me to read. Like if I’d said, ‘In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,’ it could come out ‘In fifteen minutes everyone will be famous.’” About the future, Warhol also wrote, “I really do live for the future, because when I’m eating a box of candy, I can’t wait to taste the last piece. I don’t even taste any of the other pieces.”

To rival the 1,063-foot-tall Eiffel Tower, nearly twice the height of the Washington Monument, planners of the Chicago Exposition of 1893 presented the Ferris Wheel, which was 264 feet tall. While the wheel was slowly spinning, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper in which he proclaimed the end of the frontier phase of American history.

“Have reserved two tickets for my first night. Come and bring a friend, if you have one,” wired George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill, referring to Pygmalion’s premiere. “Impossible to come to first night. Will come to second night, if you have one,” Churchill wired back.

“We don’t like their sound,” an executive at Decca Records said in 1962, rejecting The Beatles, adding, “and guitar music is on the way out.” The same year, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The book is dead. That is to say sometime before the end of the present century, the last printed book will roll off the presses.”

In 1963, having left bread, butter, and milk for her sleeping children, Sylvia Plath stuck her head inside an oven. In 1974, having turned on her car in a closed garage, waiting for the carbon monoxide to kill her, Anne Sexton sat and drank vodka.

At the age of four, Robert Graves, having said his evening prayers, asked his mother if she would leave him any money when she died. “If you left me as much as five pounds, I could buy a bicycle,” he reasoned. “Surely you’d rather have me, Robby,” his mother said. “But I could ride to your grave on it,” he replied.

Responding to William F. Buckley’s question as to whether or not he was free the last week in June 1975, the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “That week I’ll be teaching at the University of Moscow.” Buckley replied, “Oh? What do you have left to teach them?”

By the end of the century, a report by the National Science Foundation in 1982 predicted, 40 percent of American homes will have “two videotex service”—a term describing the emergent conjunction of communications and computing. A U.S. Census report found in 2000 that 42 percent of American homes used the Internet. The first year the census started tracking U.S. computer usage was 1984.

Questions asked in TV commercials aired in 1993: “Have you ever borrowed a book thousands of miles away? Or sent someone a fax from the beach? Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down? Have you ever watched a movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?” The answer: “You will. And the company that will bring it to you? AT&T.”

“The history of the twentieth century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire,” reads the Statement of Principles for the Project for the New American Century, June 3, 1997. Among the signatories were Dick Cheney, Francis Fukuyama, Dan Quayle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Jeb Bush—but not George W.

“Six days, six weeks. I doubt six months,” said Donald Rumsfeld, on February 7, 2003, about the duration of the Iraq war. “Whatever happens in Vietnam, I can conceive of nothing except military victory,” Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1967. Four years before that, Robert McNamara asserted, “The war in Vietnam is going well and will succeed.”

Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835—two weeks after the perihelion of Halley’s Comet. “I came in with Halley’s Comet,” Twain commented in 1909. “It is coming again next year. The Almighty has said, no doubt, ‘Now there are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” He died on April 21, 1910—one day after the comet had once again reached its perihelion.

On July 23, 1995, in New Mexico, the astronomer Alan Hale saw an unidentified fuzzy object in the sky. He emailed the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. In Arizona, Tom Bopp saw the same thing. He telegrammed the bureau. The comet was named Hale-Bopp the following day. Believing that a UFO was traveling behind it, thirty-eight members of The Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide on March 26, 1997, six days before the comet reached its perihelion.

In case of rapture, for $135 an Eternal Earthbound Pets representative will travel to your home and retrieve your pet that has been left behind. The company cannot guarantee that its representatives will not be raptured, only that they have sufficiently blasphemed so that there’s little chance of salvation.

While on his deathbed in 1849, the Japanese artist Hokusai said to those gathered around him that he wished he could live another ten years. He paused, and went on: “If I had another five years, even, I could have become a real painter.” Then he died, at the age of eighty-nine.

“Where were you last night?” Yvonne asks Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, in Casablanca. “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.” Her follow-up: “Will I see you tonight?” To which he replies, “I never make plans that far ahead.”

Image: Reduced gravity walking simulator, via NASA Commons

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Robert Weide
Robert B. Weide talks about his decades-long production of a documentary on Kurt Vonnegut due to be released in 2015.
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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