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Saturday: May 21, 2005

Norman Mailer’s Senile Haplography

Filed under: — site admin @ 1:00 PM UTC

Gerard Van Der Leun (American Digest) fisks a senile rant by Norman Mailer in The Huffington Post (or P.R. Huff’n’stuff, as I like to think of it). Though his criticisms are eloquent and convincing, one of them is ill-aimed:

“Lenin did leave us one valuable notion, one, at any rate.”

Only one? Surely, Norman, you can think of others. After all, Lenin actually achieved the power that eluded you in your many clown shows that sought elected office.

It was ‘Whom?’ When you cannot understand a curious matter, ask yourself, ‘Whom? Whom does this benefit?’ ”

That’s it? That’s the “one valuable notion” left by Lenin before he became an exhibit in the Soviet Wax Museum? I’m no Lenin scholar, but my aging mind is not so far gone that it can’t think of a few others beginning with “Just shoot any political opposition and keep shooting them.”

And “Whom?” Perhaps it might be the formal grammar from your schooldays kicking in, Norman, but I think that it is an odds-on certainty that Lenin probably said “Who.” After all, it is not “Whom’s Whom,” but “Who’s Who.”

In fact, “who” vs. “whom” is a false dichotomy: Lenin actually said both, in the form “Who whom?”. The meaning of this enigmatic phrase seems to be that in any political situation, the most important question is who is the subject, the “who”, the one doing things, and who is the object, the “whom”, the one having things done to him. With no verb expressed, it’s not quite as general as “Who does what to whom?”. The approximate meaning of Lenin’s omitted verb — the “what” in my longer version — is not much in doubt, and I imagine that “Who whom?” is short for “Who controls whom?”, though some might prefer a stronger verb like ‘oppress’ or ‘shoot’.

One of Anthony Powell’s early (pre-Dance to the Music of Time) novels is titled Agents and Patients. It’s been many years since I read it, but as I recall the point of the title is very similar to Lenin’s apophthegm: that the world is divided into those who do things (agents) and those who have things done to them (patients) and it’s better to be an agent than a patient. I believe Powell’s Latinate nomenclature is borrowed from Mediaeval scholastic philosophy, but would have to consult more knowledgeable friends to be sure .

Obligatory pedantic postscript: As for my title, haplography is when (e.g.) a Mediaeval scribe copying a manuscript writes a word or phrase once that he should have written twice. The repetition in the source text need not be exact, so writing “Whom?” for “Who whom?” counts. The opposite of haplography, repeating a word or phrase that occurs only once in the source text, is dittography. Haplography is much commoner in manuscripts than dittography, since a weary scribe has more incentive to lighten his load by omitting words or phrases than to increase it by repeating them.

I wonder how the mistake occurred. Did Mailer’s word processor tell him or his secretary to change “Who whom?” to “Whom?”? Grammar checkers are stupid, and this phrase looks as if it ought to trigger an objection, but I just tried it in Word and it passed without a beep. Did an ignorant amanuensis ‘correct’ the phrase? Or is Mailer’s aged and not-entirely-well-cared-for brain dropping necessary syllables without prompting?

One final question: How many pedantry points do I get for using ‘amanuensis’, ‘apophthegm’, ‘dittography’, and ‘haplography’ all in the same post?


  1. You have won today’s Triple Crown Pedantry Quadfecta. Take your post to the window and collect your winnings.

    Comment by vanderleun — Saturday: May 21, 2005 @ 8:09 PM UTC

  2. More directly, “Who benefits?” is hardly something Lenin came up with.

    That “valuable notion” is both useless in the hands of someone like (today’s) Mailer, and dates back at least to Rome. (Qui bono, isn’t it? My Latin is non-existant, especially in comparison to our Doctor.)

    Ah, Norman. Should have retired ages ago.

    Comment by Sigivald — Monday: May 23, 2005 @ 11:58 AM UTC

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