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).


Day 155: (lights for cats!)

I encountered it five pages into Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Grain of the Voice,” which is in the collection Image, Music, Text. I was reading the version translated by Stephen Heath—it’s the most common edition, I think; the paperback has a pale yellow cover. “The Grain of the Voice” is about the distinction between two modes of singing. The first is an expressive, emotive mode (the pheno-song), which trains the listener’s attention on the meaning and emotional content of the words being sung; in the second mode (the geno-song), by contrast, the voice resonates at once abstractly and materially, focusing the listener’s attention on the singer’s enunciation of the sounds, not what they mean. Barthes bemoans the prominence of the former mode, which privileges the breath, identified with soul or pneuma, while mourning the dwindling prestige of the geno-song, which privileges the “grain of the voice,” as opposed to the “myth of respiration.”

It’s while reading a paragraph in which Barthes is criticizing the pheno-song, the style of singing that privileges the breath, that I encounter it:

“The lung, a stupid organ (lights for cats!), swells but gets no erection; it is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented, in the mask that significance explodes, bringing not the soul but jouissance.”

I am used to reading literary theory. I am used to it being abstruse and opaque. But this was different. In the subsequent several hours that I puzzled over the phrase “lights for cats!” I passed through several distinct interpretative moods.

  1. Exuberance

Given that the essay celebrates the “voluptuousness” of language separate from its communicative function, my first thought was that “lights for cats!” might be a Gertrude Stein style linguistic experiment embodying language’s phonic qualities. It doesn’t mean anything, silly!

  1. Paranoia (phase 1)

Because the phrase “lights for cats!” read to me like a non-sequitur, but also has a slogan-like quality like “votes for women!” the thought fleetingly but undeniably crossed my mind that this was a cry for help from Barthes’ cat. But cats can see in the dark, I reasoned. Why does Barthes’ cat need lights?

  1. Resignation

Rest assured that I quickly rejected both of these explanations and turned to Google, certain that this passage must have attracted considerable attention. I found that, indeed, these lines are frequently quoted, but that there was an odd quality to all these citations:

“Barthes dismisses the merely technical function of the lungs, ‘a stupid organ (lights for cats!)’ that ‘swells but gets no erection’” (John Potter, Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology, 172).

“For instance, Barthes writes provoctively of the lungs as ‘a stupid organ (lights for cats!), swells but gets no erection,” which, in its dismissal both of the lungs as healthy and functioning, and worthy of dismissal, does present and confirm Tobin Siebers’s ideology of ability” (George McKay, Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability, 56).

“‘The lung, a stupid organ (lights for cats!), swells but gets no erection.’ In good Freudian tradition, however, let’s take this etymological play on words seriously. [Aha! At last!, I thought. But no.] Apart from the implicit reference to Barthes’s illness, which, because it affected his breathing, forced him to give up his singing lessons with Panzera, what we have here is the binary balance in the form of an association between breath and meaning: meaning given through the abstract soul in its opposition to the concrete body” (Diana Knight, Critical Essays on Roland Barthes, 256).

What all these commentaries have in common is that they conspicuously ignore the lights for cats.

This led to stages four and five in quick succession:

  1. Shock with shades of self-congratulation 

No-one knows what this means. I have stumbled across a profound mystery. I am the first with the courage to admit it.

  1. Paranoia (phase 2)

Everyone knows what this means: it is self-evident and therefore unworthy of commentary.

  1. Admits Need for Help

This is when I texted EHA. In an extraordinarily generative and rapid-fire text exchange, and drawing on our combined powers of free-associating, Googling, and native wit, we came up with an ingenious, utterly convincing, and, as it turns out, completely wrong interpretation of the significance of “lights for cats!” one I was fully persuaded by for about two hours.


With the phrase “lights for cats!” we decided, Barthes underscores his contempt for the pheno-song by comparing it to the appeal of a moving point of light (like a sunbeam or a laser pointer) to a cat. He’s already said that the lung is a stupid organ, and he is personifying this stupidity in the image of a cat chasing light. There were, admittedly, a few problems with this interpretation. Was he saying that “lung” was to human as “lights” is to “cats”? But wouldn’t it more rightly be “sounds emanating from the lungs” rather than “lung” for that analogy to work?

  1. Niggling Seed of Doubt Remains

Even though I was now 99% totally sure that Barthes was saying that that the pheno-song is to humans as laser pointers are to cats, I decide that after all perhaps I should consult the original French just to be sure. (Note that reading something in another language is something of a last resort for me.) This is when I discover that the phrase in the original is not “les lumières des chats!” as I was expecting. Instead it is “le mou des chats”.

Le mou? What is this le mou? I look it up and “mou” means something like soft or limp. What??? Is this to do with lungs swelling but getting “no erection”? Is “mou de chat” French for “flaccid penis?” It has to be an idiomatic phrase, but when I look it up in Larousse, I get nothing. EHA asks her French friend who confirms that mou suggests softness not light.

  1. Paranoia (phase 3)

This is the only remaining explanation: the translation is wrong! I email a colleague who works on French theory to see if she can shed any light on either the original or the translation. In the meantime I give up on my quest and compulsively refresh the Guardian homepage for the rest of the night in order to see the British General Election results come in.

  1. Grudging admiration

Earlier in the afternoon I have casually mentioned to PBJ that I am struggling with this phrase. PBJ is on call tonight because he is an actual doctor. Somehow, in between dealing with psychiatric emergencies, he figures out both the meaning of “mou des chats” and why it is indeed correctly translated as “lights for cats!”

He texts me, “Le mou des chats is the lungs of an animal that a butcher will give to a client to take home and feed their cat.”

A minute later he texts me a definition of “lights”: “the lungs of sheep or pigs used as food, especially for pets.”

I look up “lights” in the OED and it’s even more definitive; it defines “lights” as meaning lungs as food “chiefly for cats and dogs.” [1]

And in French lungs as food seem especially identified with cats. The colleague I emailed had never heard of the phrase, but when I pass on the news she finds an entry from a French dictionary of proverbs from 1749:

“On dit encore que le mou est pour les chats; parce qu’on les nourrit avec du mou, qui est le poumon du boeuf.” [It is also said that ‘le mou’ is for cats; because one feeds them with it, that is with beef lungs.]

  1. Humility

I was so sure that I was dealing with an analogy: that Barthes was saying lungs are to humans as lights are to cats. So it is kind of a shock to discover that lights literally means lungs; in fact, “light” and “lung” share the same etymology, lungs being so named for their lightness, i.e. their airiness. So it’s not a non-sequitur at all. It’s entirely in keeping with the language of breath and pneuma. It’s not surreal. It’s not a leap from one plane of meaning to another. No, it’s my brain that’s been leaping, chasing an ignis fatuus when there’s nothing really there. [2]

Stupid organ (lights for cats!).




[1] I discover from this definition that the phrase “living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights”

[2] Ignis fatuus, n. A phosphorescent light seen hovering or flitting over marshy ground, and supposed to be due to the spontaneous combustion of an inflammable gas (phosphuretted hydrogen) derived from decaying organic matter; popularly called Will-o’-the-wispJack-a-lantern, etc. It seems to have been formerly a common phenomenon; but is now exceedingly rare.

When approached, the ignis fatuus appeared to recede, and finally to vanish, sometimes reappearing in another direction. This led to the notion that it was the work of a mischievous sprite, intentionally leading benighted travellers astray. Hence the term is commonly used allusively or fig. for any delusive guiding principle, hope, aim, etc. (OED)



Day 154: Seven Signs You May Be Dating a Lacanian

  • He nearly names his new dog objet petit a.


  • He wants to get a tattoo of something called “the graph of desire.” He is not fazed when you inform him it looks like a minion. [1]


  • When he sees you’ve linked your blog to facebook he mutters something about you being in thrall to “the big Other,” whatever that is.


  • He only ever wears black. He will claim this has nothing to do with Lacan but this is obviously rubbish.


  • The word “Bataille” is like catnip to him.


  • When he reminisces about his teenage years, he uses the word “jouissance.” You don’t know exactly what “jouissance” means but you know you didn’t have any as a teenager, which means it’s yet another thing to add to the list of Fun Stuff you Missed Out On in London in the Late Eighties. Even if you’d been offered it you would have just said no.


  • He will tell you about seminars in your own department, people in your own department you had no idea existed. You will come to realize that Lacanians, like Canadians, but actually more like vampires, live among us.



[1] minion


Day 153: Books—they’re just like stuff!

They Are Good for Leaning On!

  • Davide Panagia, Impressions of Hume. Excellent surface for younger child to lean on while sitting in back of car drawing cartoons of people farting and defecating. Note: be sure you have the hardback.
  • Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read. Adequate surface to lean on while sitting on sofa at 8am on a weekday morning writing note excusing elder child from P.E. Note: for this purpose the paperback is just fine.

They Hold Up Screens!

  • Samuel Richardson, Clarissa. Handy stand for iPad so kids can watch insufferable Disney show while eating ice cream at same time. Note: I used the Penguin unabridged but I suspect you could obtain similar results with the Broadview abridged (if you try this let me know how it works in the comments!). The iPad should be leant against the volume; if it slides down you may need to use a slimmer volume (any monograph should do the trick) to prop it up at the front and wedge it securely in place. This method should also work with other brands of tablet.

They Can Be Jumped Over Without Injury or Breakage!

  • Jesse Molesworth, Chance and the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Grudgingly accepted as substitute for a laptop, younger child’s first choice of object to jump over on sofa. Note: your child will probably only accept the substitution if you are able to maintain the fiction that jumping over the book is an accomplishment. While it would be somewhat impressive for a young child to be able to jump over, say, the Penguin Clarissa (not so much the Broadview), jumping over a monograph is clearly not all that impressive, even for quite a small child, so you may find yourself struggling to maintain the façade. Yet maintain it you must. N.B. This actually connects with Jesse’s argument about how modernity is all about magical thinking. Just go with it.

Day 152: do you get it now?

The younger has recently learned from her cousin how to play the Pokémon card game and now she is teaching me.

She deals us each six cards.

“OK, you have to pick one of your cards that you think will beat my card and then you put that card down.”

“How can I tell which cards are better?” I ask.

“You just see which one is the best,” she explains.

“Yeah, but what makes one card better than another card? Is it to do with the numbers on the card? Or are certain characters better than others?”

She looks a little vague. “I’ll tell you when you put your card down if it’s better or not,” she says.

I narrow my eyes.

“Do you get it?” she asks.

“Not really,” I say, “but let’s just start playing and I’ll figure it out.”

We both put one card down.

“So whose card is better?” I ask. She examines them carefully. “Mine,” she says. “See how mine is shiny?”

“Oh, so all the shiny cards are better?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says, a little uncertainly.

“OK, let’s try again,” I say. I look at my cards. “None of my cards are shiny,” I say, “so I don’t know how to choose.”

“I can help you,” she says. I show her my cards. I point to one with a plucky looking panda on it. “What about him?”

“Yeah, he’s OK,” she says.

I put him down.

The younger puts her card down. “I win again!” she says.

Her card has some kind of exploding metallic abstract design on it.

“Why?” I say.

“Mine is a mega ex,” she explains.

“And what’s mine?” I ask.

“Yours is just ordinary,” she says. “It isn’t evolved.”

“OK,” I say, “but how am I supposed to tell that from looking at it?”

“Just look at my card!” she exclaims. “Look how much better it is than your card!”

I look at her card again. The design is, I guess, more complex than my card.

“Oh, fine,” I concede.

For the next round, I choose a card with a cute red bird on it. The younger lays down her card, which has some kind of green mollusc on it.

If the game’s logic is evolutionary, I feel pretty confident about this round.

“OK, I think I win this one,” I say.

“No you don’t!” she says, triumphantly. “Look how much better mine is than yours!”

“Yours is not better!” I protest. “Yours is just … just a snail, and mine is this nice bird!”

She looks at me severely. “Mine is a legendary from an ultimate universe.” she says. “And yours is just an ordinary creature that lives in … in the bushes.”

“OK,” I concede, because my bird is in the bushes in the picture. “But why does that make yours better?”

She sighs, exasperated. “Which sounds better to you,” she says, “‘a legendary from an ultimate universe’ or ‘an ordinary creature in the bushes’?”

“Well ‘a legendary from an ultimate universe’ sounds better,” I mutter, rolling my eyes and scowling.

“OK, so I won that round,” she announces. “Do you get how it works now?”


Day 150: literary pursuits?

I have been obsessively refreshing the “my classes” webpage for the last two days hoping to see something other than 0/10 under the “enrollment” tab for my seminar this quarter. At this point I am actually sitting in the large, empty classroom, at the assigned class time, on my own, and I’m still refreshing the webpage on my laptop. I believe that this is called “denial.”

I feel more perplexed than insulted because of all the classes I’ve ever come up with, this may be the one that would have most appealed to me when I was an undergraduate. It’s called “Literary Pursuits.” Here’s part of the course description: “We will consider pursuit as a theme and plot structure in literary works, and we will also think about literary criticism as itself a form of pursuit: is literary interpretation a form of detection in pursuit of a smoking gun or missing piece of the puzzle? Or is interpretation much more open-ended than these metaphors would imply and therefore, inevitably, unfinished? What kinds of questions can literary critics answer and what sorts of questions are worth asking?”

Each week takes up a particular concept—examples include puzzle, mystery, and maze. The plan was to read literary works that imagine the literary object in these terms: so we would have read Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet” for puzzle; and Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” for maze. In the second half of the course, we were going to read two novels—Pale Fire and Possession—that both imagine the literary scholar’s work as a form of pursuit—whether hermeneutic or archival.

Last night I emailed our undergraduate advisor asking if I should show up for class today. She wrote back that I should because “at this stage of the game, some students may be skittish about formally enrolling … but that doesn’t mean they won’t possibly show up today to check it out and make sure it’s ‘real’ before signing up …”

At this point, I’m not sure it’s real.

After about fifteen minutes a guy stopped outside the classroom and stood for some time looking at the number next to the door as if trying to figure out if he was in the right place. I said in my most friendly and real-sounding voice, “Are you looking for literary pursuits by any chance?” He ignored me. I noticed he had earbuds in and so I said again, more loudly, “excuse me, are you looking for literary pursuits?” He continued to ignore me and then walked away.

Then another guy walked into the classroom. “Literary Pursuits?” I said, hopefully. He threw his banana peel into the garbage can, and walked back out again.

Am I actually here?

Another guy comes over, looks at the door doubtfully and then walks away again. I hear him ask someone in the hallway, “Do you know where A26 is?”

“Here!” I yell, a little too loudly. “This is A26! Literary pursuits?” I enquire. He walks into the classroom slowly and scans the room with an anxious expression. I don’t blame him: for some reason the classroom I’ve been assigned for this course is not a normal seminar room, but a large classroom with a podium at the front. It’s hard not to be struck by its … emptiness. He doesn’t look thrilled at the prospect of having a one-on-one class.

“So you’re here for literary pursuits?” I say again.

He kind of squints at me, and I wonder if he’s making an on the spot decision to deny all knowledge of the course.

I start thinking about what my counter-move will be. He’s just skittish, I think to myself. Reel him in slowly. Don’t make any sudden moves.

“Is this … Japanese?” he finally asks.

Well-played, I think to myself. I take a few seconds and think about saying “yes.”

Finally I decide against it. “No,” I admit, sighing.

“It says here my Japanese class is here,” he says.

“Really!” I say, brightening. That would explain it! I think. It’s just a room mix-up! He looks at his notebook. “Let me double-check. Ohhhh, no, it’s A62, not A26!”

At this point an hour has elapsed. It’s kind of peaceful sitting here on my own. Maybe I really don’t need the students, I think to myself. I could just come here every week and sit in this classroom by myself for three hours. It could be a kind of performance art … a willful embrace of the solipsistic sort of literary pursuit that a character like Charles Kinbote embodies. Students wouldn’t be able to participate themselves, but they would be welcome to eat bananas and watch.

I decide to go home.