Day 156: one or the other

What is a duck-rabbit hole?

I think of the duck-rabbit hole, like the duck-rabbit itself, as shifting depending on how you squint at it. From some angles it’s a cavernous hollow, fit for burrowing into; from others, it’s a gleaming surface, perfect for floating on.

If the phrase “down the rabbit hole” suggests passage into an obscure subworld, in a duck-rabbit hole that passage is always forked. And whichever path you go down leads to yet another forking.

I say this more in weariness than in wonder.

I wrote in my last post that, in the course of looking up “lights” in the OED, I discovered that the phrase “the living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights.”

It is true that this is what I thought I discovered; when I read “to scare the (liver and lights) out of (someone)” listed as a colloquial phrase under the OED definition for lights meaning lungs, I was struck by its similarity to the colloquial phrase “to beat (also scare, etc.) the (living) daylights (also daylight) out of” someone. The gestalt symmetry of the phrases arrested me; and it was the internal likeness between the phrases that persuaded me they were related more than any external evidence.

But after looking a little longer, the gestalt switched, in duck-rabbit fashion. Or, I could say, the path forked. There are several sources that do indeed argue that “living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights.” But, the OED argues that the phrase “living daylights” actually derives from the eighteenth-century use of “daylights” to refer to a person’s eyes (“also occasionally: the nostrils”); it cites Henry Fielding’s novel Amelia (1752) as providing the first recorded expression of the phrase to darken a person’s daylights meaning to give someone a black eye (“If the Lady says such another Word to me .. I’ll darken her Daylights.”) “Living” is a general intensifier, said to be an American turn of the century usage.

Both explanations (deriving “living daylights” from “daylights” or from “liver and lights”) require a conjectural leap. The expressions “scare the liver and lights” and “scare the daylights” are both current in the 19th century. Although the first usage the OED cites of “living daylights” is from 1955, a search on Google books shows a few late nineteenth century instances. The point is: there’s no linguistic smoking gun either way to tell us definitively whether the “lights” being scared or beaten out of us are in our eyes or in our chest. (Or both! It’s possible, given that both expressions were current at the same time, that they merged.)

This indeterminacy is difficult for the mind (well, my mind) to accept.

My quickness to leap to the conclusion that “living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights” is yet another case of “lights for cats” in the sense (my own, willful sense) of chasing a delusive gleam.

It’s yet another humbling reminder of how difficult it is to fully accept language’s contingency. Even in the immediate wake of having re-learned afresh what is after all common knowledge—that light refers to both buoyancy and luminosity—I somehow couldn’t hold both meanings in my mind at once. Having originally reflexively read “lights” in Barthes’s essay as meaning luminosity, in my exuberance upon discovering it also meant lungs, I simply switched to reflexively privileging the new meaning. It turns out to be as tricky to toggle rapidly between lungs and lights as between duck and rabbit.

I recently read Toril Moi’s new book Revolution of the Ordinary. It’s been a long time since I read a scholarly monograph from cover to cover for the sheer pleasure of it. The fact that I did so in this case is a testament to Moi’s prose (OK, also maybe to the concentrating effects of Adderall), which is luminously clear. The book is about the relationship between ordinary language philosophy—especially Wittgenstein as read through Stanley Cavell—and literary criticism.

After reading Moi’s book, my thoughts turned naturally to Cavell in trying to think more about the kind of literary criticism ordinary language philosophy might encourage, and I found myself browsing through his book Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. This passage from Cavell’s Introduction speaks to the way that, in my thinking about “lights,” brightness first eclipsed airiness, and then airiness brightness, in quick succession:

“… what he [Wittgenstein] calls ‘seeing an aspect’ is the form of interpretation: it is seeing something as something. Two conditions hold of a case in which the concept of ‘seeing as’ is correctly employed. There must be a competing way of seeing the phenomenon in question, something else to see it as (in Wittgenstein’s most famous case, that of the Gestalt figure of the ‘duck-rabbit,’ it may be seen as a duck or a rabbit); and a given person may not be able to see it both ways, in which case it will not be true for him that he sees it (that is, sees a duck or sees a rabbit) as anything (though it will be true to say of him, if said by us who see both possibilities, that he sees it as one or the other). And one aspect dawns not just as a way of seeing but as a way of seeing something now, a way that eclipses some other, definite way in which one can oneself see the ‘same’ thing” (Pursuits of Happiness, 36).


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