Can a person be in two places at the same time? This is the question at the heart of Stephen King’s latest bestseller, The Outsider. King’s story begins with the public arrest of Terry Maitland, a popular small-town baseball coach, for a murder committed a few days earlier. Maitland is placed at the scene of the murder by multiple witnesses, fingerprints, and DNA evidence.
However, Maitland also has an airtight alibi – at the time of the murder he was in another city 70 miles away, his presence there supported by numerous witnesses, fingerprints, and video evidence. So unshakeable is the evidence for Maitland’s simultaneous presence both at the murder scene and at the other location, that the investigators eventually find themselves forced to entertain the question of whether one person can be in two places at the same time.
Curiously, bilocation – the phenomenon of one person being in two places at the same time – also featured prominently in one of the highest grossing films of 2017, The Last Jedi, the eighth instalment of the Star Wars saga. At the end of the film, we saw Luke Skywalker fighting Kylo Ren on the planet Crait while simultaneously meditating on another planet, Ahch-To.
Bilocation and multilocation
As surprising as it may sound, bilocation has intrigued and exercised philosophers, scientists and theologians for centuries. There are two reasons for this. First are the numerous reports of bilocation, most of which concern saints, mystics, or other pious persons. For example, in the biography of the 16th-century Saint Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuit order, it is claimed that he was in two places at the same time, performing missionary work in two locations many miles apart. More famously, in the 20th century it was claimed that Padre Pio, a Capuchin priest, had bilocated on many occasions, both within his native Italy and beyond.
The second reason thinkers have taken bilocation so seriously is because it is implied by a traditional interpretation of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist – which holds that Christ’s body and his blood are really present in the bread and wine wherever the Eucharist is validly celebrated. Since the Eucharist is validly celebrated in many different places at the same time, it must be that Christ’s body is really present in many different places at once. Because such a phenomenon would involve being in more than two places at the same time, it is often referred to as “multilocation”.
Explaining and rejecting bilocation
While bilocation has often been heralded as a miracle (as has multilocation), others have simply dismissed the possibility of it outright. The great Christian theologian, St Augustine, was suspicious of reports of bilocation and suggested that they were due to demonic deception. In the 17th century, the philosopher John Locke argued that it was a matter of logic that a person could not be in two places at the same time. Others have suggested that cases of bilocation involve a kind of mental projection, and even Padre Pio seemed to insinuate as much when he explained his episodes of bilocation as “an extension of his personality”.
One of the most intriguing attempts to get to grips with the idea of bilocation can be found in the work of maverick Enlightenment philosopher André-Pierre Le Guay de Prémontval. Prémontval wrote an essay in which he claimed to show how it was possible for him “to be present, and really present, as much in Paris as in Rome and as much in Rome as in Paris” for the whole of an hour.
Prémontval’s explanation involved his body being transported backwards and forwards between the two cities at incredible speed. Because fast-moving objects leave an impression in the eye for a short time after they have moved on, to those in either city it would appear that he was there for the whole hour even though he would have been elsewhere for more than half the time.
Prémontval’s idea would seem to work in theory – think of the unbroken circle of light we see when a luminous object is rotated very quickly in a circle – but not in practice, as the speed of travel required is still beyond the ability of human beings. In any case, since his idea involves a person being moved very rapidly between two locations, even if it were put into practice it would not amount to true bilocation (someone actually being in two different places at the same time), but would constitute only apparent bilocation (someone appearing to be in two different places at the same time).
Stranger than fiction
It would be easy to dismiss these attempts to get to grips with bilocation as quaint but passé, were it not for the fact that modern physics tells us that it is a genuine feature of the natural world. The 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to two physicists who proved that atoms and electrons can be in two places at the same time. By firing photons at an atom Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland were able to bring it to a state where it was simultaneously moving and not moving, occupying locations just 80 nanometers apart.
But, while bilocation may be a reality at the quantum level – and there seems to be nothing in principle to prevent it applying to much larger objects like our own bodies – scientists believe that technical limitations will prevent us from being able to put human beings in different places at the same time.
Not that this should concern King – who, as you would probably expect, preferred the supernatural to the esoteric when working out the paradox of bilocation in The Outsider.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or “The Heart of Darkness”, as it was known to its first readers – was first published as a serial in 1899, in the popular monthly Blackwood’s Magazine. Few of that magazine’s subscribers could have foreseen the fame that Conrad’s story would eventually garner, or the fierce debates it would later provoke.
Already, in 1922, the American poet T.S. Eliot thought the book was Zeitgeist-y enough to provide the epigraph for his epoch-defining poem, The Waste Land – although another American poet, Ezra Pound, talked him out of using it.
Consider one final Heart of Darkness allusion, from Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Exit West. In the novel’s opening pages, a man with “dark skin and dark, woolly hair” appears in a Sydney bedroom, transported there by one of the mysterious portals that have appeared around the globe, connecting stable, prosperous countries with places that people need to escape from.
The “door”, as these wormholes are called, is “a rectangle of complete darkness — the heart of darkness”. This is a more complicated kind of Conrad reference. Here, “heart of darkness” is a shorthand for European stereotypes of Africa, which Conrad’s novel did its part to reinforce.
Hamid’s line plays on racist anxieties about immigration: the idea that certain places and peoples are primitive, exotic, dangerous. For contemporary readers and writers, these questions have become an unavoidable part of Conrad’s legacy, too.
Up the river
Heart of Darkness is the story of an English seaman, Charles Marlow, who is hired by a Belgian company to captain a river steamer in the recently established Congo Free State. Almost as soon as he arrives in the Congo, Marlow begins to hear rumours about another company employee, Kurtz, who is stationed deep in the interior of the country, hundreds of miles up the Congo River.
The second half of the novel – or novella, as it’s often labelled – relates Marlow’s journey upriver and his meeting with Kurtz. His health destroyed by years in the jungle, Kurtz dies on the journey back down to the coast, though not before Marlow has had a chance to glimpse “the barren darkness of his heart”. The coda to Marlow’s Congo story takes place in Europe: questioned by Kurtz’s “Intended” about his last moments, Marlow decides to tell a comforting lie, rather than reveal the truth about his descent into madness.
Although Conrad never met anyone quite like Kurtz in the Congo, the structure of Marlow’s story is based closely on his experiences as mate and, temporarily, captain of the Roi des Belges, a Congo river steamer, in 1890. By this time, Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Russian-ruled part of Poland in 1857, had been a seaman for about 15 years, rising to the rank of master in the British merchant service. (The remains of the only sailing ship he ever commanded, the Otago, have ended up in Hobart, a rusted, half-submerged shell on the banks of the Derwent.)
Sick with fever and disenchanted with his colleagues and superiors, he broke his contract after only six months, and returned to London in early 1891. Three years and two ships later, Conrad retired from the sea and embarked on a career as a writer, publishing the novel that he had been working on since before he visited the Congo, Almayer’s Folly, in 1895. A second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, followed, along with several stories. Conrad’s second career was humming along when he finally set about transforming his Congo experience into fiction in 1898.
Darkness at home and abroad
Heart of Darkness opens on a ship, but not one of the commercial vessels that feature in Conrad’s sea stories. Rather, it’s a private yacht, the Nellie, moored at Gravesend, about 20 miles east of the City of London. The five male friends gathered on board were once sailors, but everyone except Marlow has since changed careers, as Conrad himself had done.
Like sail, which was rapidly being displaced by steam-power, Marlow is introduced to us as an anachronism, still devoted to the profession his companions have left behind. When, amidst the gathering “gloom”, he begins to reminisce about his stint as a “fresh-water sailor”, his companions know they are in for one of his “inconclusive experiences”.
Setting the opening of Heart of Darkness on the Thames also allowed Conrad to foreshadow one of the novel’s central conceits: the lack of any absolute, essential difference between so-called civilized societies and so-called primitive ones. “This, too”, Marlow says, “has been one of the dark places of the earth”, imagining the impressions of an ancient Roman soldier, arriving in what was then a remote, desolate corner of the empire.
During the second half of the 19th century, spurious theories of racial superiority were used to legitimate empire-building, justifying European rule over native populations in places where they had no other obvious right to be. Marlow, however, is too cynical to accept this convenient fiction. The “conquest of the earth”, he says, was not the manifest destiny of European peoples; rather, it simply meant “the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.”
The idea that Africans and Europeans have more in common than the latter might care to admit recurs later, when Marlow describes observing tribal ceremonies on the banks of the river. Confronted with local villagers “stamping” and “swaying”, their “eyes rolling”, he is shaken by a feeling of “remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”.
Whereas most contemporary readers will be cheered by Marlow’s scepticism about the project of empire, this image of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants is more problematic. “Going up that river”, Marlow says, “was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”, and he accordingly sees the dancing figures as remnants of “prehistoric man”.
Heart of Darkness suggests that Europeans are not essentially more highly-evolved or enlightened than the people whose territories they invade. To this extent, it punctures one of the myths of imperialist race theory. But, as the critic Patrick Brantlinger has argued, it also portrays Congolese villagers as primitiveness personified, inhabitants of a land that time forgot.
Kurtz is shown as the ultimate proof of this “kinship” between enlightened Europeans and the “savages” they are supposed to be civilising. Kurtz had once written an idealistic “report” for an organisation called the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. When Marlow finds this manuscript among Kurtz’s papers, however, it bears a hastily-scrawled addendum: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The Kurtz that Marlow finally encounters at the end of the novel has been consumed by the same “forgotten and brutal instincts” he once intended to suppress.
Adventure on acid
The European “gone native” on the fringes of empire was a stock trope, which Conrad himself had already explored elsewhere in his writing, but Heart of Darkness takes this cliché of imperial adventure fiction and sends it on an acid trip. The manic, emaciated Kurtz that Marlow finds at the Inner Station is straight out of the pages of late-Victorian neo-Gothic, more Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu than Henry Rider Haggard. The “wilderness” has possessed Kurtz, “loved him, embraced him, got into his veins” — it is no wonder that Marlow feels “creepy all over” just thinking about it.
Kurtz’s famous last words are “The horror! The horror!” “Horror” is also the feeling that Kurtz and his monstrous jungle compound, with its decorative display of human heads, are supposed to evoke in the reader. Along with its various other generic affiliations — imperial romance, psychological novel, impressionist tour de force — Heart of Darkness is a horror story.
Conrad’s Kurtz also channels turn-of-the-century anxieties about mass media and mass politics. One of Kurtz’s defining qualities in the novel is “eloquence”: Marlow refers to him repeatedly as “A voice!”, and his report on Savage Customs is written in a rhetorical, highfalutin style, short on practical details but long on sonorous abstractions. Marlow never discovers Kurtz’s real “profession”, but he gets the impression that he was somehow connected with the press — either a “journalist who could paint” or a “painter who wrote for the papers”.
This seems to be confirmed when a Belgian journalist turns up in Antwerp after Kurtz’s death, referring to him as his “dear colleague” and sniffing around for anything he can use as copy. Marlow fobs him off with the bombastic report, which the journalist accepts happily enough. For Conrad, implicitly, Kurtz’s mendacious eloquence is just the kind of thing that unscrupulous popular newspapers like to print.
If Kurtz’s “colleague” is to be believed, moreover, his peculiar gifts might also have found an outlet in populist politics: “He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.” Had he returned to Europe, that is, the same faculty that enabled Kurtz to impose his mad will on the tribespeople of the upper Congo might have found a wider audience.
Politically, Conrad tended to be on the right, and this image of Kurtz as an extremist demagogue expresses a habitual pessimism about mass democracy — in 1899, still a relatively recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, in the light of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Italy, Germany and Russia after 1918, Kurtz’s combination of irresistible charisma with megalomaniacal brutality seems prescient.
These concerns about political populism also resonate with recent democratic processes in the US and the UK, among other places. Only Conrad’s emphasis on “eloquence” now seems quaint: as the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated, an absence of rhetorical flair is no handicap in the arena of contemporary populist debate.
Race and empire
Heart of Darkness contains a bitter critique of imperialism in the Congo, which Conrad condemns as “rapacious and pitiless folly”. The backlash against the systematic abuse and exploitation of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants did not really get underway until the first decade of the 20th century, so that the anti-imperialist theme was ahead of its time, if only by a few years. Nor does Conrad have any patience with complacent European beliefs about racial superiority.
Nonetheless, the novel also contains representations of Africans that would rightly be described as racist if they were written today. In particular, Conrad shows little interest in the experience of Marlow’s “cannibal” shipmates, who come across as exotic caricatures. It is images like these that led the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to denounce Conrad as a “bloody racist”, in an influential 1977 essay.
One response to this criticism is to argue, as Paul B. Armstrong does, that the lack of more rounded Congolese characters is the point. By sticking to Marlow’s limited perspective, Heart of Darkness gives an authentic portrayal of how people see other cultures. But this doesn’t necessarily make the images themselves any less offensive.
If Achebe did not succeed in having Heart of Darkness struck from the canon, he did ensure that academics writing about the novel could no longer ignore the question of race. For Urmila Seshagiri, Heart of Darkness shows that race is not the stable, scientific category that many Victorians thought it was. This kind of argument shifts the debate in a different direction, away from the author’s putative “racism”, and onto the novel’s complex portrayal of race itself.
Perhaps because he was himself an alien in Britain, whose first career had taken him to the farthest corners of the globe, Conrad’s novels and stories often seem more in tune with our globalized world than those of some of his contemporaries. An émigré at 16, Conrad experienced to a high degree the kind of dislocation that has become an increasingly typical modern condition. It is entirely appropriate, in more ways than one, for Hamid to allude to Conrad in a novel about global mobility.
The paradox of Heart of Darkness is that it seems at once so improbable and so necessary. It is impossible not to be astonished, when you think of it, that a Polish ex-sailor, writing in his third language, was ever in a position to author such a story, on such a subject. And yet, in another way, Conrad’s life seems more determined than most, in more direct contact with the great forces of history. It is from this point of view that Heart of Darkness seems necessary, even inevitable, the product of dark historical energies, which continue to shape our contemporary world.
The Princess and the Fox was created after a group of writers, artists and developers used a program inspired by predictive text on phones to scan the collected stories of the Brothers Grimm to suggest words and similar phrases. Human writers then took over, to help shape the AI’s algorithmic suggestions into the latest Grimm fairy tale.
The new tale tells the story of a talking fox who helps a lowly miller’s son rescue a beautiful princess from the fate of having to marry a horrible prince she does not love.
But here’s the thing, the Brothers Grimm didn’t actually write their fairy tales in the first place. They collected them – from friends, servants, workers and family members. Fairy tales, of course, have always been retold. They come alive in the telling – whether that’s a child listening to an audio book in the car, watching Snow White and the Huntsman on DVD or singing along to Shrek The Musical in the theatre.
The Grimms’ fairy stories were first published in 1812 and have never gone out of print. The Grimm Brothers were involved in the struggle for German independence. As part of the case for nationhood, they wanted to prove that Germans, as a distinct people, had their own folklore. They were political campaigners too, and among the Göttingen Seven who refused to take an oath of loyalty to the new King of Hanover when he rejected a more liberal constitution. They lost their jobs as a result and Jakob Grimm – like many characters in the fairy tales – had to go into exile.
Jakob Grimm wasn’t just a collector of folk tales either. He was also a philologist (someone who studies language) and lexicographer whose work is still influential today. As well as being a master storyteller, the ideas he developed are still being researched in universities. Grimm’s Law, named after Jakob Grimm, looks at how sounds change as they pass from one language to another – “P” tends to become “F”, while “G” becomes “W” and so on.
Happily ever after
The Grimms’ fairy stories are still passed down through generations. And even though the cast of princesses and swineherds seem a very long way away from the world most of us inhabit, the stories are still a crucial part of our cultural heritage. The stories the brothers found in Northern Germany at the beginning of the 19th-century now belong to everyone.
As a child growing up in Oxford my father – a refugee from Germany and, like Jakob, a philologist – used to tell me the Grimm’s story of The Frog Prince on our Sunday walks in the grounds of Blenheim Palace.
In my father’s version of the tale, the princess first met the frog by the lake – in reality built by Capability Brown for the first Duke of Marlborough – when she dropped her favourite plaything, a golden ball, into the water. When they lived happily ever after, the couple commemorated their meeting by putting golden balls on the top of Blenheim Palace. Now when I think of the story I think of Blenheim Palace, and I hear the splash of the frog in the lake, just as I thought I heard it long ago as a child.
This is exactly what stories can do, they fold all of their tellers and places together – and therein lies their mystery and their magic – once a story exists, it changes how we experience the world. And that will be the only test of “the new Grimm’s tale”, The Princess and the Fox – whether it will be retold and come to life in the telling.
Like Dr. Seuss’ Star-Belly Sneetches and Plain-Belly Sneetches, there are two types of creatures — haitchers with H on their 8th letter name and aitchers with “none upon thars”.
That H isn’t so big. It’s really so small
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But it does — the tiny H on “(h)aitch” divides the nation. The pronunciation has become something of a social password, a spoken shibboleth distinguishing in-groupers from out-groupers. Those with social clout set the standards for what’s “in” and what’s “out” — no H has the stamp of approval.
The best kind of people are people without!
Shibboleths die hard — the opprobrium attached to haitch probably derives from its long association with Irish Catholic Education. There’s no real evidence for this, mind, as Sue Butler points out, but never let facts get in the way of a good shibboleth.
Aitchers’ reactions are often visceral. Someone once reported to us an encounter with haitch is like an encounter with fire ants. We’ve no doubt that psycho-physiological testing would show that haitch can raise goosebumps. Linguistic pinpricks are established early on in the acquisition process (“Don’t say ‘haitch’”!) and they arouse emotions like other childhood reprimands (including swearwords).
The ins and outs of H
The story of the weakly articulated H is murkily entwined with the story of its name. Long gone from Old English words like hring “ring”, hnecca “neck” and hlūd “loud”, it would have disappeared entirely if writing hadn’t thrown out a lifejacket.
It was once usual for speakers to drop aspirates at the beginning of words — in fact up until the 1700s, it was fashionable to do so. But a spelling-obsessed 18th century stigmatised the loss of many consonants, including H.
R-less pronunciations of arm and car might have snuck under the radar, but H-dropping fell well and truly from grace.
In 1873, Thomas Laurence Kington-Oliphant wrote about this “revolting habit” in his chapter “Good and Bad English”, advising:
Few things will the English youth find in after-life more pro-fitable than the right use of the aforesaid letter.
And so, the English youth restored H to words like hat, and even at the start of many French words like humble, which had entered English H-less (the Romans pronounced their Hs, but the French dropped theirs). Spellers who weren’t quite sure whether or not to include H added a few extras along the way — umble pie (“offal pie”) turned into humble pie.
Haitch has the pedigree
There’s an ironic wrinkle to this story. The name aitch might be a sign of high education in some circles, but is itself an example of H-dropping. Deriving from medieval French hache or “axe” (hatchet and hashtag are relatives), it also arrived in English H-less (like humble and herb).
It’s a curious letter name being, as the Oxford English Dictionary describes, “so remote from any connection with the sound”. In fact there’s solid evidence supporting haitch as the better option. To understand why, we need to appreciate the primacy of initial letter sounds in words.
Learning and alliteration
English speakers find it easiest to attend to and manipulate the beginning sounds of words. For example, it’s easier for us (orally, that is – by sound, not spelling) to take away the “b” sound in beat (to make it eat) or to replace the “b” with a “p” to make it Pete than it is to take away the “t” sound in beat (to make it be) or to replace it with a “k” to make it beak.
Tongue twisters highlight the special quality of alliteration for learning as well; who can forget Peter Piper and his pickled peppers, Silly Sally and her sheep, or Betty Botter and her butter?
The ABCs of the ABC
Many letters of the alphabet are phonetically iconic; their names represent the sound they make. In places where letter names are learned before letter sounds, such as Australia and the US, these letter names can facilitate children in learning letter sounds and, ultimately, word reading. The letter sounds that are easiest to remember are those that begin with their corresponding letter, such as B, D, J, K, P, or T.
Research shows it’s more difficult to learn sounds made by letters that end with their letter sound, such as F, L, and M. Those that have no correspondences to the letter sound are the most difficult. Logically, W should make the “d” sound (or change its name to wubble-u).
Haitch vs. aitch, round 2
Whatever your visceral reaction to pronouncing H one way or the other, haitch has definite benefits for letter sound learning.
So it’s not surprising it’s taking off in some parts of the English-speaking world. When the letter H is pronounced beginning with the letter sound it makes, children have an easier time learning its correspondence as they learn to read.
Dr. Seuss implicitly understood this. We suggest that a follow-up primer for young readers will one day include Horton hearing a Haitch.