Things Are Against Us
by Charles Harrington Elster
This article appeared in The New York Times Magazine September 21, 2003.
I dropped a plastic cup this morning—or it dropped me.
As I removed it from the cupboard it eluded my grasp, bounced on the kitchen floor, hung in the air as if deciding what to do next, and then landed upside down with a complacent plop. When I picked it up and wiped the rim, I could tell that it knew. It knew I was going to write this article today, and it was mocking me.
It is almost a truism to say that words have the power to transform us and crystallize our vision of the world. I say almost because, though the statement may seem trite, it is unassailable. Every literate one of us has experienced its truth.
My crowning moment in word serendipity is seared into my brain. I was thumbing through Paul Hellweg’s Insomniac’s Dictionary (Ivy Books, 1986) when I stumbled upon the word resistentialism, which Hellweg defines as “seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects.”
Reading that definition, I had what can only be described as a revelation. I felt that an entire category of my experience had been uplifted from the Cimmerian realm of The Inexpressible into the clear, comforting light of The Known.
Here, at last, was a word for the rug that quietly curls up so it can snag your toe, the sock gone AWOL from the dryer, the slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down. Here, at last, was the word that explained the countless insolent acts of things, especially the infuriating intractability of plastic wrap.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines resistentialism as a “mock philosophy which maintains that inanimate objects are hostile to humans,” and calls it a “humorous blend” of the Latin rēs, thing(s), and French résister, to resist, with existentialism. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, Fifth Edition (2002), perhaps in resistential defiance of its title, expands that definition to “a mock philosophy maintaining that inanimate objects are hostile to humans or seek to thwart human endeavours.”
Resistentialism was coined by the British humorist Paul Jennings in a brilliant send-up of Jean-Paul Sartre and the philosophy of existentialism published in the Spectator in April 1948. Although Jennings coined the word in jest, I must object to Oxford’s dubbing resistentialism a “mock philosophy.” There is nothing mock or sham about it, as anyone who has ever had to call a plumber on a Sunday morning to unclog a refractory toilet will attest.
“‘Les choses sont contre nous.’ ‘Things are against us,’” Jennings writes in his later essay, “Report on Resistentialism,” which appears in Oddly Enough (1950) and The Jenguin Pennings (1963). “This is the nearest English translation I can find for the basic concept of Resistentialism, the grim but enthralling philosophy now identified with bespectacled, betrousered, two-eyed Pierre-Marie Ventre. . . . In the Resistentialist cosmology that is now the intellectual rage of Paris Ventre offers us a grand vision of the Universe as One Thing—the Ultimate Thing (Dernière Chose). And it is against us.”
Why did it take us until the mid-20th century to come up with a word for something that has doubtless plagued us since before we begot language? Perhaps because resistentialism is nonverbal, which I suspect is why it’s the driving force behind so much comedy. It’s the motivation for many episodes of “The Three Stooges” and “I Love Lucy.” It’s the nemesis of Wile E. Coyote. It’s why people laugh when someone else slips on the proverbial banana peel.
Resistentialism also has a long history in our literature. In his “Ode (Inscribed to W. H. Channing)” (1846), Ralph Waldo Emerson saw the resistentialist writing on the wall and proclaimed that “Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind.”
In his autobiography, published posthumously in 1924, Mark Twain relates an anecdote about a recalcitrant burglar alarm in his ornate mansion in Hartford. It “led a gay and careless life, and had no principles,” he says. “We quickly found out that it was fooling us and that it was buzzing its blood-curdling alarm merely for its own amusement.”
In his 1995 novel The Information, Martin Amis evokes our frustration at being constantly picked on and pushed around by things: “Christ, the dumb insolence of inanimate objects! He could never understand what was in it for inanimate objects, behaving as they did. What was in it for the doorknob that hooked your jacket as you passed? What was in it for the jacket pocket?”
And in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911), Mr. Darling is fit to be tied over his “little brute” of a tie: “This tie, it will not tie. . . . Oh yes, twenty times have I made it up round the bed-post, but round my neck, no! Oh dear no! begs to be excused!”
Reports of resistentialism abound in ephemeral literature as well. The Peter Tamony Collection at the University of Missouri, Columbia, contains dozens of newspaper clippings documenting resistentialism in everyday life. Apparently, Mr. Tamony (1902–1985), a noted San Francisco etymologist, was a jelly-side-down kind of guy, as fascinated as I am by the wiliness of things and by the word Jennings coined for it.
Among Tamony’s clippings is a story about a lady in London whose telephone rang every time she attempted to take a bath. No matter what time she drew the bath, day or night, the phone always rang—and when she’d answer it, nobody was there. Things eventually got so bad that she stopped bathing altogether, which prompted her husband to investigate the problem pronto. The cause, he discovered, was a bizarre, electronically telepathic conspiracy between their water heater and the phone.
In the great scheme of things (think about that one!), Jennings tells us, we are no-Thing and Things always win. This is true, I believe, even in the ostensibly placid world of words—for, after all, words are themselves things that in turn signify Things.
Copyright © 2003 by Charles Harrington Elster.
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