Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

Bertrand Russell? William James? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell discussed visions and experiences in his major opus “A History of Western Philosophy” in 1945. Russell noted that subjective experiences were not always reliable: 1

William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was

“A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”

What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.

Can you determine who experienced this eccentric revelation?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this passage can be traced back to an episode described by the prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who on June 29, 1870 delivered an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. The New York Tribune reported on the speech two days after it occurred. Holmes discussed his experiments with ether and not nitrous oxide, and the curious insight he wrote down was about “turpentine” and not “petroleum”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.

Here is an extended excerpt from the 1870 lecture of Holmes which was published in 1879: 3

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

An individual using the handle “joculum” investigated this quotation and posted a valuable analysis here on LiveJournal in 2008. The address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was located by joculum before QI found it independently.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

Notes:

  1. 1945, A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Book One, Part II, Chapter XV: The Theory of Ideas, Page 123-124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1976 paperback reprint: A Touchstone Book: Simon and Schuster)
  2. 1870 July 01, New York Daily Tribune, [New York Herald-Tribune], Harvard: Meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Page 5, Column 1, [Quote in Column 2], New York. (Genealogybank)
  3. 1879, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Quote Page 46-47, Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link

Now We’re Just Haggling Over the Price

George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Groucho Marx? Max Aitken? Mark Twain? W. C. Fields? Bertrand Russell?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous story about sex and money that I have heard in myriad variations. A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:

She: What kind of woman do you think I am?
He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

This joke is retold with different famous individuals filling the roles. Often Bernard Shaw is mentioned. Did anything like this ever happen? Who was involved?

Quote Investigator: The role of the character initiating the proposal in this anecdote has been assigned to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson and others. However, the earliest example of this basic story found by QI did not spotlight any of the persons just listed. In addition, the punch line was phrased differently.

In January 1937 the syndicated newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre printed a version of the anecdote that he says was sent to him as a newspaper clipping. This tale featured a powerful Canadian-British media magnate and politician named Max Aitken who was also referred to as Lord Beaverbrook [MJLB]:

Someone sends me a clipping from Columnist Lyons with this honey:

“They are telling this of Lord Beaverbrook and a visiting Yankee actress. In a game of hypothetical questions, Beaverbrook asked the lady: ‘Would you live with a stranger if he paid you one million pounds?’ She said she would. ‘And if be paid you five pounds?’ The irate lady fumed: ‘Five pounds. What do you think I am?’ Beaverbrook replied: ‘We’ve already established that. Now we are trying to determine the degree.”

Note that this newspaper version does not use the blunt phrase “sleep with”. Instead, a more oblique expression, “live with”, is employed to conform to the conventions of the period.

Top-researcher Barry Popik has performed very valuable work tracing this tale, and we have incorporated some of his discoveries in this article. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Now We’re Just Haggling Over the Price

Time You Enjoy Wasting is Not Wasted Time

John Lennon? Bertrand Russell? Laurence J. Peter? Marthe Troly-Curtin?

Dear Quote Investigator: I like to enjoy life and sometimes I am criticized for spending too much time on amusements and diversions. My favorite response is attributed to the legendary free-spirit John Lennon:

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

An acquaintance told me recently that the saying is actually from the brilliant philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell. It is clear that you enjoy tracing quotations, so could you please look into this one? I am certain you will not be wasting your time.

Quote Investigator: In addition to John Lennon and Bertrand Russell, the saying has been attributed to T. S. Elliot, Soren Kierkegaard, Laurence J. Peter, and others. The attribution to Russell was a mistake that was caused by the misreading of an entry in a quotation book compiled by Peter. The details of this error are given further below in this post.

The first instance of the phrase located by QI was published in 1912, a year that occurred before Laurence J. Peter and John Lennon were born. The expression appeared in the book “Phrynette Married” by Marthe Troly-Curtin. This novel was part of a series by Troly-Curtin that began with “Phrynette” in 1911. The image to the left is the frontispiece of this earlier novel. 1 An advertisement in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine grandly proclaimed that “Phrynette” was “The Most Talked-About Book in London Today” in July 1911. 2

In the following excerpt from “Phrynette Married” a character is reproved for wasting the time and energy of others: 3 4

“… Your father, for instance, don’t you think he would have done three times as much work if it had not been for your—what shall I say—’bringing up’?”
“He liked it—time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
“Oh, but it was in his case—wasted for him and for many lovers of art.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Time You Enjoy Wasting is Not Wasted Time

Notes:

  1. 1911, Phrynette‎ by Marthe Troly-Curtin, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. July 1911, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Section: Lippincott’s Magazine Advertiser: [Advertisement for Phrynette by Marthe Troly-Curtin], Page not numbered, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. (HathiTrust) link  link
  3. 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Grant Richards Ltd, London; Riverside Press, Edinburgh. (Google Books snippet view) (Thanks to Eric at the Stanford University Information Center for verification of the text on paper) link
  4. 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Published by The Macmillan Company of Canada, Toronto, Canada. (Note that a flaw is present in the digital image of the microfilm image of page 256; some words are repeated)(Internet Archive archive.org; digitized from University of Alberta Libraries Microfilm; accessed December 3, 2013) link