Martin Van Buren, feeding nachos to a hyperactive squirrel

Yesterday’s Zippy has Our Pinhead imagining empathetically identifying with Grover Cleveland, Gwyneth Paltrow, Frank Zappa, Martin Van Buren, … and a (particular) squirrel:

(#1) The title of the set piece in Zippy’s dream — “Martin Van Buren, Feeding Nachos to a Hyperactive Squirrel” — uses a familiar syntactic template for describing scenes

This is the world of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer”.

Meanwhile, Zippy engages in a mental exercise that has absorbed philosophers of consciousness for about 50 years, as distilled in the title of an influential paper by Thomas Nagel: “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?”

The syntactic template. Each title has the contents of a PRP clause, with two parts: part 1 is a NP serving as grammatical subject and also as informational topic; and part 2 is a VP in PRP form serving as grammatical predicate and also as informational comment.

Part 1 denotes the central figure(s) in the scene depicted — usually human (Washington, Aristotle, Martin Van Buren), or at least animate; consequently, though clauses with dummy subjects, things like there being no cheese in the fridge, are perfectly fine PRP clauses (There being no cheese in the fridge surprises me, I’m surprised at there being no cheese in the fridge), they are bizarre as titles of depictions: try to imagine a painting entitled “There(,) Being No Cheese in the Fridge”.

Part 2 denotes what the central figure is doing (crossing the Delaware, contemplating a bust of Homer, feeding nachos to a hyperactive squirrel); consequently, though clauses with stative VPs, things like rabbits abounding in Australia are perfectly fine PRP clauses (I’m troubled about rabbits abounding in Australia ‘I’m troubled that rabbits abound in Australia’), they are somewhat odd as titles of depictions: a painting entitled “Rabbits(,) Abounding in Australia” can show a lot of rabbits in a context identifiable as Australian, but it doesn’t actually show them abounding there (maybe a chart showing the incidence of rabbits per square mile in various countries would show this, but that would make a very poor portrait).

Part 1 can be presented merely as subject, or it can be explicitly framed as topic, through intonation (and, in writing, punctuation). So either of these:

Washington Crossing the Delaware [tight association of parts 1 and 2], roughly ‘This is a depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware’

Washington, Crossing the Delaware [loose association of parts 1 and 2], roughly ‘As for Washington, here he is crossing the Delaware’

Washington Aristotle, and Van Buren. On the exemplary paintings.

From Wikipedia:

(#2) Washington

Washington Crossing the Delaware is an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze.
It commemorates General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War. That action was the first move in a surprise attack and victory against Hessian forces at the Battle of Trenton in New Jersey on the morning of December 26.

From Wikipedia:

(#3) Aristotle

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, also known as Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, is an oil-on-canvas painting [of 1653] by Rembrandt that depicts Aristotle wearing a gold chain and contemplating a sculpted bust.

Alas, Martin Van Buren, Feeding Nachos to a Hyperactive Squirrel exists only as a figment of Zippy’s disordered dream state, though the first panel of #1 might serve as a very rough first draft of the work.

As for Van Buren: a model of un-flashy solidity in the first half of the 19th century. From Wikipedia:

(#4) Matthew Brady photo of Van Buren, ca. 1855-58

Martin Van Buren (born Maarten Van Buren; December 5, 1782 – July 24, 1862) was an American statesman who served as the eighth president of the United States from 1837 to 1841. … A founder of the Democratic Party, he had previously served as the ninth governor of New York, the tenth United States secretary of state, and the eighth vice president of the United States.

Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York, to a family of Dutch Americans; his father was a Patriot during the American Revolution. He was raised speaking Dutch and learned English at school, making him the first and still only U.S. president to speak English as his second language.

…  Later in his life, Van Buren emerged as an elder statesman and an important anti-slavery abolitionist leader

What we need now is a melding of the Brady portrait with the first panel of #1.

What would it be like to be Grover Cleveland or Gwyneth Paltow … or a squirrel? Zippy’s question in the first panel of #1. We can relatively easily identity imaginatively with Grover Cleveland or Gwyneth Paltrow (just to note that part of the surreal genius of the Zippy strips is goofy juxtapositions like this one), because they are human beings, as we are, and so we assume they have consciousness and that it’s largely similar to ours. But a squirrel?

Or, to choose Tom Nagel’s example, a bat. From Wikipedia:

“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” is a paper by American philosopher Thomas Nagel, first published in The Philosophical Review in October 1974, and later in Nagel’s Mortal Questions (1979), which presents several difficulties posed by consciousness, including the possible insolubility of the mind-body problem owing to “facts beyond the reach of human concepts”, the limits of objectivity and reductionism, the “phenomenological features” of subjective experience, the limits of human imagination, and what it means to be a particular, conscious thing. Nagel famously asserts that “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism — something it is like for the organism.”

As recited by the Mad Hatter in chapter 7 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a teatray in the sky.

Who knows what the little bat is thinking — whatever it means for bats to think.

(While I’m wondering aimlessly about things, how could we tell that a squirrel was hyperactive?)

One Response to “Martin Van Buren, feeding nachos to a hyperactive squirrel”

  1. Mark Mandel Says:

    “things like rabbits abounding in Australia are perfectly fine PRP clauses”
    made me think immediately of what a difference a slight graphic change could make:
    “rabbits a-bounding in Australia”.


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