Day 20: Hoisted by his own bootstraps

Duck and Rabbit are in the midst of a heated argument, which seems to have something to do with a shortage of marmalade in the hole.

DUCK: All I’m saying is that there’s no point in making marmalade if they said they were going to send it. Because then we’d just have way too much marmalade.

RABBIT: And all I’m saying is that if you really want marmalade that badly, you should just make your bloody own instead of waiting around for people to send it to you. Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands, you know? I mean, this is the essential difference between you and me.

DUCK: Oh, here we go.

RABBIT: What? It’s true. You just sit around waiting for people to give you stuff and then complaining when the things you want don’t just miraculously materialize without you having to lift a finger. Well, guess what?—

DUCK: All right: I guess that the marmalade is in the mail.

RABBIT: [Ignoring the interruption] Life isn’t like that! You can’t just sit around waiting for people to make stuff for you. Sometimes you have to go out there and take life by the horns! Just do it! Make it happen!

DUCK: Oh dearie, dearie me. What a ghastly string of advertising slogans and hoary clichés. Next you’ll be telling me to pull myself up by my own bootstraps.

RABBIT: Yes! Precisely! That’s just what I was going to say! You should pull yourself up by your own bootstraps out of this bloody hole, go buy some bleeding Seville oranges and stop whinging on and on about how the jars are empty.

[There is a long and uncomfortable pause.]

DUCK: I really, really wish you hadn’t said that.

RABBIT: Why, what’s wrong with saying that? It’s a perfectly innocuous thing to say.

DUCK: Innocuous? Oh, I beg to differ, mon petit lapin. There’s so much wrong with that phrase that, honestly, it’s difficult to know where to start. But since I have to start somewhere, I’ll start with the fact that it’s just a hoary old chestnut that smug bastards like you use to make ne’er-do-wells like me feel bad. It’s like, what’s that psychological test? Oh yeah, the marshmallow test. The just-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap-types are invariably the two-marshmallow types.

RABBIT: Are you done?

DUCK: Done? I’m not even started. Secondly, that phrase makes no sense, right? I mean, pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, that’s a logical impossibility, right? So to boast that you did it and to enjoin someone else to do it is in fact to unwittingly disclose yourself to be a complete and utter fuckwit.

RABBIT: I think you’re being a little harsh now. And, in any case, maybe that’s the point: something might seem impossible, but maybe you can do it with a little imagination and self-belief. You know, like Baron Munchausen! That’s where the phrase originates from, you know. Baron Munchausen: he’s the hero who does the impossible! He hoisted himself out of a hole with his own bootstraps! It seems impossible, but with enough determination you can do anything you set your mind to!

DUCK: First of all, excuse me while I quietly vomit in the corner at your never-ending stream of platitudes. Second of all, you do understand that the whole bloody point of Munchausen’s stories is that he doesn’t actually do any of these deeds? Indeed, the point of his stories is, precisely, that they are merely stories, not blueprints for self-actualization. Third of all, I hate to contradict you, ma chérie, but you are dead wrong about that phrase deriving from Baron Munchausen.

RABBIT: Oh really, am I? Well, we’ll just see about that, won’t we? I’m right and I can prove it. See [reaching for a book on a nearby shelf] you might not know this, but bootstrapping is actually a concept in both computer science and statistics.

DUCK: Yes, I’m well aware.

RABBIT: You are? Oh, well, anyway, if I consult my copy of Introduction to the Practice of Statistics, Chapter 14, Bootstrap Methods and Permutation Tests, which I just happen to have here, then I find in footnote 3 the following helpful background information, in fact, oh yes, it even gives us the original passage from Baron Munchausen [glances smugly at Duck and then, clearing throat, reads from the textbook as follows] “I was still a couple of miles above the clouds when it broke, and with such violence I fell to the ground that I found myself stunned, and in a hole nine fathoms under the grass, when I recovered, hardly knowing how to get out again. [With special emphasis] Looking down, I observed that I had on a pair of boots with exceptionally sturdy straps. Grasping them firmly, I pulled with all my might. Soon I had hoist myself to the top and stepped out on terra firma without further ado.” [Stops reading] So there we have it. Case closed.

DUCK: Uh-huh. And does that book statistics textbook cite a particular edition of Munchausen?

RABBIT: Yes, it does in fact. The 1952 edition edited by John Carswell, Heritage edition.

DUCK: So [dramatically thrusting a volume before Rabbit] this edition, then, is that right?

RABBIT: Uhhh [cursorily inspecting the volume] I suppose so, yes, that looks to be the right edition. [Curious] Why do you have that?

DUCK: [Ignoring Rabbit] If you’ll indulge me while I read from the scene in question [clears throat and begins to read. Rabbit rolls her eye], “I was still a couple of miles above the clouds when it broke, and with such violence I fell to the ground that I found myself stunned, and in a hole nine fathoms under the grass, when I recovered, hardly knowing how to get out again—”

RABBIT: O.K. What is the point of this? I just read this to you.

DUCK: “—[With special emphasis] There was no other way than to go home for a spade and to dig me out by slope, which I fortunately accomplished, before I had been so much as missed by the steward.” [He stops reading.]

RABBIT: Come again? Here, let me look. [Grabs the volume from Duck.] That must just be a different variation. I believe this edition contains a lot of different versions, you know. The bootstrap version must be on another page.

DUCK: No, it’s not.

RABBIT: What do you mean it’s not? It must be!

DUCK: Why must it be?

RABBIT: Well, because they cite it right here!

DUCK: Trust me, it’s not in that book. It’s not in any other volume of Munchausen either. I checked with Bernhard—

RABBIT: Bernhard?

DUCK: Yes, Bernhard Wiebel. He’s the curator of the Münchhausen-Bibliothek in Zürich. He’s checked at least eighty copies and nada[1]

RABBIT: Look, just what you are saying?

DUCK: Have you ever heard the expression, “Lies, damned lies and statistics”? Well, the point is that you can’t trust statisticians. I’d trust a Münchhausologist over a statistician any day of the week. And, no, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Münchhausen Trilemma. Let’s not even contemplate that duck-rabbit hole, let alone go down it. No, this is just to do with how statisticians are liars. Look, try searching yourself if you don’t believe me. Look for that phrase you cited that is supposedly from this 1952 edition, except that it’s not. Do you find it anywhere in a book or website that is not by a statistician? Do you find that passage anywhere before 2005, which is when that book you just cited was published? No, you will not. Because someone made it up. I don’t know from where the phrase to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps derives, but it’s not from any known edition of Baron Munchausen’s Narrative.

RABBIT: Huh. You seem to know a lot about this.

DUCK: Yeah, well, I had to investigate for myself. It’s like Locke says—

RABBIT: Locke?

DUCK: Yeah, John Locke? In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding?

RABBIT: Err, right. Didn’t know you’d read that …

DUCK: Anyway, as I was saying, it’s like Locke says, [sees Rabbit is taking notes], it’s in Book I, Chapter III. Anyway, what he says there is, you can’t blindly accept other people’s opinions. You have to consider the thing itself; otherwise, you’re just taking it on blind faith, and it’ll just be borrowed wealth, fairy money that turns to dust in your hands.

(There is a long pause as Rabbit contemplates these words.)

RABBIT: So, you could say, to put it another way, that sometimes you just have to make your own marmalade, or else you’ll find that all your daydreams of bitter citrus turned sweet and darkly sticky will be but empty jars o’ nothingness when it comes to use.

DUCK: Oh, fuck off. But, also: nicely done, my friend, nicely done.

Notes

[1] See the Appendix at http://advan.physiology.org/content/33/4/286#ref-30 which also gives the citations for and the different versions of the techniques with which Munchuasen hoists himself from the hole, none of which involve bootstraps.

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2 thoughts on “Day 20: Hoisted by his own bootstraps

  1. Garry MacGann says:

    Faced with the existence of multiple legitimate options, the critical editor should not seek to impose upon them a system which pretends to distinguish one, ideal “Münchhausen.” The field of variants is a radiant one.

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  2. You had me at hello. Ha! Geddit? Seriously, I quoted you in my second post on this very blog, so I am beyond thrilled to have you as a reader. You recall the allusion, surely? It’s when Duck says to Rabbit, “You … you complete me.” That was all you, when you’re breaking down in front of Renée Zellweger.

    Hang on. No, wait, that’s not you. I’m getting mixed up. Garry. Garry MacGann.

    Oh yes! Garry! Gazza! How could I forget? I can call you Gazza, can’t I? Anyway, the point is, Gazza, I couldn’t agree more. There is no one ideal Jerry, I mean no one ideal Garry. There’s just a glorious, radiant is the right word, field of potential personae, of Gazzas and Garrys and Jerrys. I mean, we’re all just Tom Cruisin’ our way through life, aren’t we, as Diderot put it. And not every role can be a Jerry Maguire. No, sometimes, you have be, uh, Brian Flanagan in Cocktail and make a total arse of yourself. Although, to give Brian his due, he does observe, “Not a goddamned thing any one of those professors says makes a difference on the street.”

    Now, I think what Brian is trying to say here (and I’m confident you’ll agree, Gazza), is that it doesn’t matter how good the researcher is at making predictions because, ultimately, “on the street” (by which I believe he means at the sub-atomic level), you just can’t know a particle’s velocity and location simultaneously, am I right Garry? But what the quantum-poetically-minded Professor can do is recognize that in the moment when she (or he, of course) speaks, a persona is assumed, an interpretative stance is adopted, however provisionally. And so, then, in the act of utterance, we invent ourselves anew whether as Gazza the textualist or Jerry, the tender romancer of Ms. Zellweger; or as a duck, perhaps, or possibly a rabbit.

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