Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

16 APRIL, 2014

The Science of Humor and the Humor of Science: A Brilliant 1969 Reflection on Laughter as Self-Defense Against Automation


“Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?”

What, exactly, makes a joke funny? How does an intelligent joke remain a joke without diluting the intellectual and remain intelligent without compromising the funny? From the altogether fantastic 1973 volume A Random Walk in Science (public library) — a compendium of comments, both lighthearted and serious, by scientists that “reveal their intensely human ambitions, frustrations and elation” and that “record some changing attitudes within science and mirror the interaction of science with society” — comes an essay titled “Keeping Up with Science” by Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki, adapted from his 1969 paper published in UNESCO’s journal Impact of Science on Society. Feleki explores the role of humor — specifically educated humor and scientific humor, even more precisely — as a sort of cultural defense mechanism against the incomprehensibly fast-paced technological progress of modern society. Revisiting Feleki’s words more than four decades later — after then-unthinkable developments like personal genomics, 3-D printing, advanced robotic space probes, and the world wide web — gives them all the more amplified resonance. He writes:

With the invention of the steam engine the hell of science broke loose. Since then one admirable discovery has followed the other. Today no human brain is capable of comprehending the whole of science. Today there are part-sciences with part-scientists. Man has hopelessly surpassed himself. He can be proud of this, but he is no longer able to keep track of his own achievements.

Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor? It is decisive for the present and future of mankind whether humor and science can keep in step…

Considering the question of humor to be one of “extraordinary importance,” Feleki notes that “to laugh at a joke without analyzing it is work half done” and sets out to explore what humor actually is:

The term “humor” itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humor. Humor as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them. Humor is, of course, palatable even without moisture; in such cases we are dealing with dry humor.

Still, Feleki concedes that one of the hallmarks of humor is how it eludes definition. He outlines, instead, “some partial truths about humor”:

It is evident that humor is difficult to write and therefore is certainly not “light” literature.

Parody is a humorous genre of literature. A really good parody or take-off is better than the original.

The basis of acid humor is ulcers. Many humorists have ulcers.

Truth is often humorous simply because it is so unusual that it makes people laugh.

The greatest blessing of humor is that it relaxes tension. It is really indispensable in situations when there is nothing left but a big laugh.

Feleki goes on to demonstrate the tenets of the science of humorology through a single joke, which he himself told to an acquaintance at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences:

Two geologists converse in a cafe. One of them says: “Yes, unfortunately fifteen years from now the Sun will cool, and then all life on Earth will perish.” A card-player nearby has been half listening to the joke, and turns in terror to the geologist: “What did you say? In how many years will the Sun cool?” “Fifteen billion years,” the scientist replies. The card-player lets out a sigh of relief: “Oh, I was afraid you said fifteen million!”

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria, about half a million years old. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from her project 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But as Feleki awaits an outburst of laughter, or at the very least an amused smile, from the professor, he is faced with nothing but “brown study — rock-bottom humiliation for a teller of jokes.” Just as he began to wonder whether his companion had understood the joke, the professor gave an appreciative nod, which he substantiated with a romp through the history of philosophical theories explaining humor:

The joke is good… If we accept Aristotle’s definition according to which the comic, the ridiculous is some fault, deficiency or ugliness which nonetheless causes no pain or trouble, we will find the joke just heard meets these criteria. The cooling of the Sun is certainly a deficiency, or more accurately heat deficiency, although it is not ugliness, for even a chill celestial object can be a very pleasing sight as there are several examples in the universe to demonstrate.

And, then, what about Hobbes’s hypothesis? In his treatise on the causes of laughter Hobbes pointed out that laughter is the feeling of pride, as seeing the weakness of others, we experience our own intellectual superiority.

The joke also satisfies the contrast theory. For, according to Kant, contrast is the essence of the comic. And in fact it would be difficult to imagine a sharper contrast than that existing between the ephemeral life of man and cosmic time.

In Schopenhauer’s terms, this can also be taken as the disharmony of a concept with some realistic object with which it is associated. Indeed, the card-player who sighs with relief at the idea that he can calmly continue his card-playing until the 14 millionth year of his life, for it will remain warm enough, entertains a most unrealistic thought within the context of a most realistic idea that men like to live as long as possible and dislike the cold.

Nor is Bergson’s theory of automatism left out of account, because the protagonist is jolted out of the mathematically induced natural time sense that measures human life.

To sum it up, I repeat that the joke is funny. Hence I am fully justified in laughing at it.

With this, the professor burst into uncontrollable laughter “so hard that tears flowed and he held his sides.” Faleki returns to the heart of the matter:

It was easy to laugh in the past at the modest jokes which involved the Little Idiot, the two traveling salesmen, someone’s mother-in-law, the drunk, or the Scotsman. Only a small surprise element had to be provided for the listener. A proper appreciation of scientific humor requires the proper scientific qualifications. The vital need to future generations is for a scientific education so they can have the incomparable surcease of humor in order to endure the state of perfection to which man and life will have been reduced by the process of science.

Just consider what degree of culture and education is required to understand the joke which is said to have practically drawn tears of laughter from Einstein and Oppenheimer. One photon asks the other photon weaving about in space: “Can’t you move straight? You must be drunk again!” The other photon protests vehemently: “What do you expect? Can’t you see that I am getting soaked in a gravitational field?” Yes, this is coming, this is what we have to get prepared for.

A Random Walk in Science is a fantastic read from cover to cover. In the introduction, editor Robert L. Weber captures the volume’s spirit perfectly by citing something he read in the Worm Runner’s Digest, a publication that began as one researcher’s “personal joke with the Scientific Establishment” and evolved into a bona fide journal without losing its sense of humor:

We know considerably more about flatworms than we do about people who study flatworms. The Establishment never questions its own motives; the true humorist always does.

The collection is thus the Establishment’s effort to inhabit the spirit of the humorist. The result is infinitely delightful.

Complement this particular meditation with Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor works.

Thanks, Lucinda

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27 MARCH, 2014

Rejection as Creative Catalyst: A Lesson in Entrepreneurship from New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff


A tale of finding art in the absurd and entrepreneurial spark in the rejected.

“Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity,” Anthony Lane wrote in the introduction to the impossibly delightful Big New Yorker Book of Cats. Incidentally, the same can be said of both cartoonists and entrepreneurs, but especially of entrepreneurial cartoonists.

In his new memoir, How About Never — Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons (public library), titled after his cartoon-turned-pop-culture-classic, Bob Mankoff, who founded the New Yorker’s wildly successful Cartoon Bank and has been the magazine’s cartoon editor since 1997, peels the curtain on how he reverse-engineered the machinery of a successful cartoon and turned his side project into a trajectory to the top. Embedded in his story is a testament to the power of self-education, tenacity, and the gift of seeing rejection not as a deterrent but as a springboard for entrepreneurship — something we’ve seen again and again in the psychology of failure and mastery.

Mankoff, who dropped out of his psychology Ph.D. in the 1970s to pursue a career in cartooning, decided to educate himself in the intricacies of the New Yorker aesthetic by spending countless hours at the New York Public Library, which he calls his “cartoon college.” There, he closely studied every single issue of the magazine since its inception in 1925 to understand what made cartoons work. This self-initiated learning was something Mankoff modeled after his father, an erudite man with little formal schooling who had educated himself at the New York Public Library — a heartening testament to the power of alternative education. He encapsulates his learnings from his systematic ethnography of the New Yorker cartoon:

I later learned that The New Yorker doesn’t call a cartoon a cartoon. The material of interest is referred to as a “drawing.” And because it’s a drawing, not a cartoon, it doesn’t necessarily have to be funny. Interesting is enough, if you’re as interesting as William Steig or Saul Steinberg. But whatever the form or content of the cartoons, the one common thread that ran through all of those I studied in the New York Public Library was that they made the reader think. You had to be a participant in the experience, up-to-date on the latest trends and buzzwords, aware of the world around you, and possessing a mental flexibility able to appreciate different comic visions, techniques, and talents.

Mankoff adds a note on his two greatest influences, Saul Steinberg and James Thurber:

Steinberg appealed to my rationality and Thurber to my whimsicality. Steinberg’s cartoons didn’t cause an outward laugh or even an inward one, but they made my mind smile. Each one was a philosophical mediation in ink.

Thurber, for him, provided two different kinds of inspiration:

First, his flavor of funny wasn’t like the traditional gag. His captions didn’t make sense of the image. Instead, the caption made what was going on stranger and, if you were on the Thurber wavelength, funnier.

Thurber’s jokes were not the type you “get” in that classic way where you suddenly put two different frames of reference together and therefore are able to understand why the former Mrs. Harris is up there on the bookshelf. And trying to figure out where the midgets came from or, for that matter, why they made you giggle, wasn’t going to get you anywhere. It was go-with-the-flow humor in which you enjoyed absurdity by giving yourself over to it.

That approach appealed to my wacky side and encouraged me to, well, have a whack at it. My absurdity was different from Thurber’s because weirdness by definition, if truly weird, needs to be idiosyncratic.

What was especially intriguing about Thurber, a man who knew how to transmogrify the absurd into the humorously philosophical, was his apparent lack of drawing skill in the traditional sense, which offered a kind of assurance for Mankoff:

Look, if the requirement for admission to The New Yorker was that I would have to draw as well as Addams, Arno, George Price, “Watch out, Fred! Here it comes again!” or Charles Saxon, well, that was going to be too high a bar for someone who couldn’t even make the Music and Art honor roll. But Thurber’s drawing ability was considerably less daunting. It looked amateurish by any academic standard, including that of my old high school. In fact, to get into M&A I’d had to submit a portfolio that included drawings of the human figure, and if those figures had looked anything like Thurber’s homunculi, I never would have been admitted.

But arguably the most interesting aspect of Mankoff’s career was how he came to found the magazine’s now-legendary Cartoon Bank, a simple but at the time incredibly innovative online database from which one could license a cartoon or buy a print. In 1990, when the web as we know it was but a half-conscious infant, Mankoff came up what he thought was a “million-dollar idea” — to do for cartoons what stock-photo houses had long been doing for photography, making cartoons available for licensing to publishers and general-public fans alike. He originally thought he’d populate the bank with cartoons published in The New Yorker — it seemed like a simple, brilliant, win-win proposition.

Alas, the magazine rejected it, which neither surprised Mankoff nor deterred him:

I was just a cartoonist with an idea, and The New Yorker was quite comfortable rejecting ideas from cartoonists—it did just that by the hundreds every week. This experience with rejection gave me an idea for Plan B. The New Yorker was getting many more cartoons than it could possibly use. No matter how funny your batch was, necessity demanded that most of it be deemed not funny enough. Why not create the Cartoon Bank from all the cartoons The New Yorker was rejecting every week? That would amount to thousands every year.

While some of the rejects, Mankoff points out euphemistically, “fell short of great,” the majority “weren’t half bad, a quarter bad, or bad at all” — in fact, they were pretty fantastic, which makes sense even as a purely statistical probability: Some of the best cartoonists in the world submit a total 500 cartoons to The New Yorker per week, of which the magazine prints, on average, only 17. Driven by the belief that the remaining 483 couldn’t all be “stinkers,” Mankoff decided to forge forward with the Cartoon Bank idea — a concept that would not only help the cartoonists themselves by giving their work wider exposure and enabling them to make money from the rejects, but would also help The New Yorker in the long run.

But bringing the idea to life would take two things: an understanding of cartoons, both creatively and commercially, and some computer skills. Fortunately, Mankoff had both — not only that, but also had incredible foresight about the future of social technology. In 1982, more than two decades before Facebook was born and even before Mark Zuckerberg was conceived, Mankoff drew the following cartoon:

The Cartoon Bank idea was also very much shaped, as most cultural innovations, by the available technology at the time. To think that Mankoff pulled off what he did in that context gives one pause amidst the modern technologies we take for granted:

MacPaint wasn’t good for drawing cartoons, but once you had drawn one, it was good for tinkering with it. Now if only you could draw the cartoon on paper and get it into the computer! Trying to stuff them into the disk drive didn’t work, but I discovered an early handheld scanner that you would drag across what you wanted to scan. It wasn’t wide enough for cartoons; you needed two passes to scan one, and then the software would stitch the image together.

As scanners got better and Macs more powerful, I began storing all my cartoons on the computer. From this it was not much of a leap to think that I could store all my friends’ cartoons, too, and sell them, which is how the idea of the Cartoon Bank was conceived.

From that point on, a lifelong pattern emerges in Mankoff’s story as his creative and entrepreneurial journey becomes largely propelled by women. First, his wife, Sarah — a business entrepreneur herself — not only supports Mankoff unconditionally as he pursues “what many thought to be a hairbrained scheme” (how’s that for a homonym pun), but she also teaches him the practicalities of running a business. Meanwhile, Mankoff was busy convincing the other New Yorker cartoonists of the project’s value. By 1997, seven years after its conception, that derided “scheme” had come to life and quickly proved to be a brilliant idea. But Mankoff needed one last push — it was still a catalog of rejected cartoons rather than an official archive of The New Yorker’s licensable drawings.

This is when another pivotal woman enters the scene: Media mogul Tina Brown had just been hired away from Vanity Fair to helm The New Yorker, and Mankoff set out to sell her on the Cartoon Bank idea. In one of the most intriguing asides in the book, especially given the context of Brown’s media stature today, Mankoff writes:

At a luncheon Tina held for the cartoonists, she told us … that she thought the Cartoon Bank was “a million-dollar idea.” All of this was exhilarating but also frightening. Here I was on the cusp of becoming an overnight success at the age of fifty. I had luck and Tina on my side, so what could go wrong? Everything, I feared. What Queen Tina wanted, Queen Tina got, and as long as I was golden, that boded well. Right now, Tina was blowing hot, but she could just as easily blow cold, and then off with your head as well as your headline. Golden boys, under Tina, could turn to lead very quickly.

But Brown was, and is, above all a shrewd businesswoman, so the Cartoon Bank was a go:

By 1997 the Cartoon Bank was up on this newfangled thing called the Internet and was among the first, if not the first, to, in today’s jargon, “monetize” cartoons.

And yet the Bank remained an archive of rejected cartoons — that is, until a third woman steps in: Deputy editor Pam McCarthy, who had come to The New Yorker along with Brown from Vanity Fair, became a champion of the project’s potential and set out to convince, Si Newhouse, the owner of The New Yorker, to buy the Cartoon Bank and expand it to include not only rejects but actual published cartoons.

Once the offer was on the table, Mankoff agreed to sell his baby on two conditions — that he would remain president and that he would be made cartoon editor of The New Yorker — the latter was a bold proposition, which he didn’t think the magazine would buy but when, by fluke or politics, then-editor Lee Lorenz announced his retirement a few months later, Brown immediately gave Mankoff the coveted job. He writes of the change with just the right balance of good-guy self-consciousness and entrepreneur’s confident ambition:

Look, I was very grateful to Lee for having brought me into the magazine, but not so grateful that I didn’t want his job. In other words, I was an ingrate. It wasn’t that I thought I could do it better, but I did think I could do it differently, by evolving the tradition, bringing in new comic sensibilities, and using the combined positions of president of the Cartoon Bank and cartoon editor to make cartooning more economically viable. So when push came to shove, I guess I did think I could do the job better.

I actually didn’t expect them to meet the second condition and I knew they wouldn’t, but I felt it couldn’t hurt to have my ambitions, both for myself and the expanded nature of the job.

Lo and behold, they did, and Mankoff became the magazine’s editor in 1997, seven years after he envisioned the Bank of Rejects — the once-fledgling idea that went on to become of The New Yorker’s most successful offshoots. In a New York Times article about Mankoff’s new position, Tina Brown was quoted as not only extolling his “edgy, contemporary kind of humor,” but also his role as “a passionate curator of and defender of and promoter of the art of cartooning.”

But the tragic nature of business is such that once creative venture tips into a scale large enough to tickle the commercial interests of those involved, those interests begin to warp the integrity and heart of the venture — a perilous pattern of which E.B. White admonished in 1976. What was originally primarily a way to get cartoonists exposure and help them make a living from their art now became a showcase for Condé Nast’s products. Mankoff notes wryly:

The fun stopped for me about ten years into it, when the focus shifted from the Cartoon Bank to using the online platform to promote Condé Nast’s photos, covers, and illustrations from other magazines, such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour, and Golf Digest. Nothing wrong with doing that from a corporate point of view, but from a personal perspective it was clear that someone who has no interest in fashion, never reads celebrity profiles, is unglamorous, and agrees with Mark Twain that golf is “a good walk spoiled” wouldn’t be a good fit to head such an entity.

So Mankoff stepped away from the Cartoon Bank — because, as Kio Stark memorably put it, “a gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing” — but remained cartoon editor of the magazine. It’s a position he still inhabits with his singular sensibility and inexhaustibly refreshing kind of humor — he, who educated himself in the ethos of cartooning at the public library and who took himself to the top of a legendary cultural institution by scrapping together its rejects and sculpting them into a crown jewel.

In the rest of How About Never — Is Never Good for You?, Mankoff goes on to explore how he found his voice as an artist, what role luck and timing play in success, what makes a successful New Yorker cartoon, and how to win the magazine’s coveted caption contest. Complement it with the wonderful Blown Covers, a collection of rejected New Yorker covers we were never meant to see.

For a teaser-taste, see Mankoff’s fantastic TED talk exploring the anatomy of a New Yorker cartoon and touching on Arthur Koestler’s seminal theory of how humor and creativity work:

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26 FEBRUARY, 2014

Mark Twain on Masturbation


“If you must gamble away your life sexually, don’t play a Lone Hand too much.”

In 1879, 44-year-old Mark Twain — irreverent adviser of little girls, pointed critic of the press, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans — took the podium at a men’s club in Paris and delivered a lecture titled “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism,” onanism being masturbation, after the Bible’s Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was slain by God for this sinful transgression. The lecture was eventually adapted into On Masturbation (public library) and illustrated with charming Victorian-style engravings, but to fully understand just how scandalous Twain’s message was at the time, we ought to return to those Biblical admonitions.

In the Middle Ages, at the height of its rabid crusade to punish desire, the Catholic Church deemed masturbation a mortal sin deserving of eternal damnation. By Twain’s day, as medicine was beginning to split off from religious doctrine, doctors no longer claimed that God would slay those guilty of onanism, but did vehemently portend the harmful effects of self-pleasuring — or “self-abuse,” as it was referred to at the time. Admonishing that the perilous practice would even effect early death, they used medical warnings as a vehicle for the same old moral judgments stemming from religion. Victorian newspapers would regularly feature ads for male chastity belts, “scientific” pills to dampen desire, and even metal clamps designed to contain any unwanted “excitement.” Those, ironically, were marketed at treatments for rather than mechanisms of “self-abuse.”

'What Will the Boy Become?' Illustration from an early 20th-century manual of 'social hygiene.'

A medical text from 1903 exemplifies the spirit of the era:

Teach your boy that when he handles or excites the sexual organs, all parts of the body suffer. This is why it is called “self-abuse.” The sin is terrible, and is, in fact, worse than lying or stealing. For, although these are wicked and will ruin the soul, self-abuse will ruin both soul and body. This loathsome habit lays the foundation for consumption, paralysis, and heart disease. It makes many boys lose their minds; others, when grown, commit suicide.

Twain, who reserved some of his sharpest critique for religion, thus unleashed his satire on both the cultural judgment of a practice so common yet so condemned, and on the sheepish religiosity that underpinned those judgments. His lecture pokes fun at those social attitudes by mashing up, more than a century before the Internet’s satirical mashups, famous words by cultural luminaries with thoughts on the subject of masturbation. Twain beings:

All great writers upon health and morals, both ancient and modern, have struggled with this stately subject ; this shows its dignity and importance. Some of these writers have taken one side, some the other.

Homer, in the second book of the Iliad, says with fine enthusiasm, “Give me masturbation or give me death!”

Caesar, in his Commentaries, says, “To the lonely it is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and impotent it is a benefactor; they that be penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion.”


Robinson Crusoe says, “I cannot describe what I owe to this gentle art.”

Queen Elizabeth said, “It is the bulwark of virginity.”

Cetewayo, the Zulu hero, remarked that, “A jerk in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The immortal Franklin has said, “Masturbation is the mother of invention.” He also said, “Masturbation is the best policy.”

Michelangelo and all the other Old Masters — Old Masters, I will remark, is an abbreviation, a contraction — have used similar language. Michelangelo said to Pope Julius II, “Self-negation is noble, self-culture is beneficent, self-possession is manly, but to the truly great and inspiring soul they are poor and tame compared to self-abuse.”

After running through a similar list of imaginary quotations from history’s masturbation-opponents, Twain plants a particularly well-aimed jab at religion by enlisting its arch-nemesis, evolution:

Mr. Darwin was grieved to feel obliged to give up his theory that the monkey was the connecting link between man and the lower animals. I think he was too hasty.

The monkey is the only animal, except man, that practices this science; hence he is our brother; there is a bond of sympathy and relationship between us. Give this ingenious animal an audience of the proper kind, and he will straightway put aside his other affairs and take a whet; and you will see by the contortions and his ecstatic expression that he takes an intelligent and human interest in his performance.

Twain proceeds to highlight the absurdity of condemning masturbation by offering a set of humorous diagnostic criteria for spotting those guilty of onanism and once again pokes fun at the purported effects of the practice:

The signs of excessive indulgence in this destructive pastime are easily detectable. They are these: A disposition to eat, to drink, to smoke, to meet together convivially, to laugh, to joke, and tell indelicate stories — and mainly, a yearning to paint pictures.

The results of the habit are: Loss of memory, loss of virility, loss of cheerfulness, loss of hopefulness, loss of character, and loss of progeny.

Twain concludes:

Of all the various kinds of sexual intercourse, this has the least to recommend it. As an amusement it is too fleeting; as an occupation it is too wearing; as a public exhibition there is no money in it. It is unsuited to the drawing room, and in the most cultured society it has long since been banished from the social board…

So, in concluding, I say: If you must gamble away your life sexually, don’t play a Lone Hand too much.

When you feel a revolutionary uprising in your system, get your Vendome Column down some other way — don’t jerk it down.

On Masturbation is a quick and delightful read in its entirety, and is available digitally for a rather guilt-free 99 cents. Complement it with Twain on religion and human egotism and his illustrated advice to little girls.

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07 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Dreadnought Hoax: Young Virginia Woolf and Her Bloomsbury Posse Prank the Royal Navy in Drag and a Turban


How a small group of literary twenty-somethings pulled off “the most daring hoax in history.”

On February 7, 1910, six friends pulled off one of the greatest pranks in history — on the Royal Navy, no less. Among them was Virginia Woolf — at the time still Virginia Stephen, an unpublished twenty-eight-year-old aspiring author — wearing drag and a turban. It’s a remarkable story about privacy and security, about poking fun at society’s ideas about bravery and authority, and perhaps above all about how relative our moral codes for justice and injustice are. It’s also a timeless fable of how, even a century before the age of clickbait, the popular press that claims Truth is its currency is complicit in the success of any hoax.

To this day, the only first-hand account of the prank is The ‘Dreadnought’ Hoax (public library), written by Adrian Stephen, Virginia’s brother and a member of the Bloomsbury Group, who co-initiated the operation along with the famed British prankster and poet William Horace de Vere Cole. The slim memoir was originally published in 1936 by Hogarth Press, co-founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and reprinted in 1983 with an introduction by Virginia’s nephew and official biographer Quentin Bell, with whom she had collaborated on a charming family newspaper and who went on to become a cultural critic in his own right. Bell writes of the hoax:

It was a nine days wonder; it was noticed and embroidered in the press, it resulted in questions in Parliament, it is said to have led to a revision of the security regulations of the Royal Navy. It was a source of endless merriment and some indignation. … The only merit of the plan, in so far as there was a plan, lay in its pure lunatic audacity.

Virginia Woolf in drag as Ethiopian royalty

But a few things make the story particularly noteworthy, besides the disarmingly entertaining image of Woolf in turban, beard, and brownface and the fact that it brought the eventually-famous author her very first contact with the national press. It is, above all, a curious parable of moral psychology and how we rationalize our subjective sense of justice and injustice. It also sparks a strange dual awareness of, on the one hand, how hoaxes today are so much easier to propagate thanks to the churnalism of the social web and, on the other, how impossible it would be to pull off something like this in our present era of TSA-style mega-security. (Even Bell, decades before 9/11, writes wryly: “We have all grown more solemn and serious and ‘security conscious’ and a part of the fun went out of life after [World War I].”)

The story itself is an absolute hoot. It all began in 1905, when Adrian Stephen and Horace Cole were attending Cambridge and, out of boredom, decided to play a little prank. Their initial idea was to acquire some uniforms, impersonate German officers, and march a detachment of troops across the border into France. It was partly pure fun, partly political statement. Stephen writes:

It had seemed to me ever since I was very young, just as I imagine it had seemed to Cole, that anyone who took up an attitude of authority over anyone else was necessarily also someone who offered a leg for everyone else to pull, and of all the institutions in the world that offered a leg for everyone’s pulling the most obvious was the German Army.

'The Sultan of Zanzibar' and his suite. From left to right: Adrian Stephen, Bowen Colthurst, Horace Cole, Leland Buxton, 'Drummer' Howard

But Cole countered with an idea that was “easier and cheaper to carry out”: Since the Sultan of Zanzibar happened to be in England at the time, the duo decided to impersonate him and pay a state visit to Cambridge. They reasoned it was a bad idea to hoax the University, fearing expulsion, so they deemed it safer to hoax the Mayor of Cambridge instead. But because photos of the Sultan had appeared in the newspapers and neither of them looked anything like him, they decided instead to impersonate his imaginary uncle. They got full makeup and costume at a theatrical shop in London and took the train back to Cambridge, first sending a telegram to the Mayor warning him to expect the Sultan’s uncle. Once in Cambridge, they were formally received by the Mayor and even accompanied him on a visit to a charity bazaar, where Cole, as the Sultan’s uncle, proceeded to make “enormous purchases at all the stalls” — proof that pranks are only ever the domain of the privileged.

The hoax was a success — so much so that the Daily Mail ran a story about it, which unfortunately sent an investigator on Stephen and Cole’s trail. Their identities were eventually exposed and they narrowly escaped being expelled from Cambridge.

But their appetites for mischief were now whetted.

It took another five years for their next adventure, but once the perfect opportunity presented itself, the great Dreadnought Hoax commenced.

The idea was first suggested to Cole by a naval officer, who wanted to make a point about the honor of the Navy, but also secretly wished to play a practical joke on another officer, who happened to be a cousin of Stephen’s and the chief command officer on the battleship HMS Dreadnought, the flagship of the prestigious Channel Fleet under Admiral Sir William Wordsworth Fisher’s command. The idea was this:

Cole, Stephen, and a troupe of hoaxers they recruited — which included British soldier and author Anthony Buxton, painter and textile designer Duncan Grant, barrister Cecil Guy Ridley, and Virginia Woolf — would present themselves as the Emperor of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) and his posse and pay a royal visit to inspect the battleship. Cole would pose as a young gentleman from the Foreign Office, Stephen as the interpreter, Buxton as the Emperor, and the rest as his royal suite. Stephen recounts the accouterments:

Horace Cole had just to wear a top-hat and tail coat, but the Emperor and his suite, including Virginia, had to have their faces blackened, to wear false beards and mustaches and elaborate Easter robes. I was merely disguised with a false beard, a mustache, and a little sunburn powder. I wore a bowler hat and a great coat and looked, I am afraid, like a seedy commercial traveler.

'The Emperor of Abyssinia' and his suite. From left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Horace Cole, Anthony Buxton (seated), Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley

And so they proceeded just as before: They sent the Admiral a telegram to expect them and set off. On the train, Cole attempted to teach Stephen a few words of Swahili — the only East African language they could find, never mind that it wasn’t spoken in Abyssinia. Stephen could hardly remember more than two words but — for a taste of how deftly newspapers manipulate the “news” — he recounts that several later reported that the group spoke “fluent Abyssinian.”

Once they disembarked the train, a naval officer in full uniform greeted them and the hoax thus began. Stephen speaks to a curious tendency of human nature, which shares a foundation with the psychology of trust and the rationalization of dishonesty:

By the time we reached the Dreadnought, the expedition had become for me at any rate almost an affair of every day. It was hardly a question any longer of a hoax. We were almost acting the truth. Everyone was expecting us to act as the Emperor and his suite, and it would have been extremely difficult not to do so … and we almost, I think, believed in the hoax ourselves.

Still, the dangers of being exposed began rolling in almost immediately. An unexpected one came when Stephen realized that the captain of the ship was someone he knew: They both belonged to a small club that took country walks on Sundays, and they had spent whole days together on several occasions. But thanks to “the naval officers’ proverbial tact” and their cordiality, Stephen wasn’t examined closely enough to be found out, so the inspection of the ship proceeded.

'The Emperor of Abyssinia' and his suite. From left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen, Anthony Buxton, Guy Ridley, Horace Cole

A second hazard emerged when the Admiral asked Stephen to translate something about the fleet’s use for “the Emperor,” at which point Stephen’s non-grasp of non-Swahili paralyzed him for a moment. But he recovered swiftly thanks to his education, as he points out with the delightful self-derision that elite schooling tends to engender:

I don’t find it easy to speak fluent gibberish impromptu. . . . I must somehow produce something that would not be too jerky, and too implausible. After a pause I began again as follows: “Tahli bussor ahbat tahl aesque miss. Erraema, fleet use…” and so on. My language may have sounded a bit odd, but at any rate I could be fluent enough. When I was a boy I spent years on what is called a classical education, and now I found a use for it. It was the habit in the middle forms of my school to learn by heart the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid as “repetition” I was able, therefore, to repeat whole stretches of it, and I knew a good deal of Homer in the same way. I was provided by my education, then, with a fine repertory of nonsense and did not have to fall back entirely on my own invention. I had to take care that neither the Latin nor the Greek should be recognized … so I broke up the words and so mispronounced them that probably they would have escaped notice even of the best scholar. The quotation that I started with by the way is from the Aeneid, Book IV, Line 437.

Buxton, meanwhile, was also very quick in picking up some of Stephen’s phrases and using them in his replies as they continued to tour the ship, “inspecting” the equipment and the cutting-edge “wireless room,” the Navy’s pride and joy, which Stephen continued to duly describe to the “Emperor” in a mixture of Homer and Virgil.

Another difficulty arose when the officers, in their extreme hospitality, insisted that the Abyssinians eat and drink at a lavish lunch. The hoaxers, worried that their already deteriorating makeup would falter — “Duncan’s mustache was beginning to peel off,” Stephen notes — cleverly abated disaster by saying that the royal family can only touch food prepared in certain ways. They were equally cunning when a budding breeze and drizzle threatened their makeup. Stephen, with diplomatic subtleness, mentioned to the captain the disparity between the heat of Abyssinian climate and the chill of England. The captain took the hint immediately and escorted the group downstairs.

H.M.S. Dreadnought, 1906-1920

Still, even knee-deep in this epic prank, the hoaxers had a sense of right and wrong when it came to how far they would go. When the Admiral insisted a military salute for the “Emperor,” which required that the ship fire its enormous guns, Stephen thought of how much work the cleaning of the guns would require later and thought it “too much of a shame to cause such unnecessary trouble,” so he refused the salute, passing it off as a grand gesture of benevolence on behalf of the “Emperor.”

The group spent the rest of the day on the ship — the hoax had been a success. On the train back, they devoured their dinner still in costume, thinking that the adventure was over. They had agreed not to tell the newspapers. (Cue in another reminder of how different things were before the age of the social web and ubiquitous smartphone cameras.) But they hadn’t anticipated what happened next. Stephen recounts:

We had a photograph taken of ourselves in our fancy dress as a memento, and one day walking in the street I saw this reproduced on the poster of (I think) the Mirror. I believe that was how I first realized that someone had given the story away, and I have never felt the slightest doubt that it was Cole who did it, and he would certainly never contradict it.

After this we heard nothing more for some time, till one day walking with Cole near the top of Sloane Street, I saw [the Dreadnought captain] and his wife. He saw us, too, and recognized us and pretended at first to be horrified and then to call a policeman. After a second or two, though, he began to laugh and, in fact, took the whole affair in the best of good humors.

But not all officers did. One Sunday morning several weeks later, Stephen’s cousin — whom the naval officers that originated the idea had sought to prank — showed up at Stephen’s house with a grim expression, saying that questions had been asked in Parliament, demanding that Stephen and his co-conspirators apologize, and asking for the names of the others, which Stephen sheepishly provided. It turned out, however, that his cousin was less concerned with the Parliament than with the word on the street: The hoax had gone “viral” in the press and one newspaper published an interview with a man who claimed to have witnessed the Abyssinians’ visit and alleged that they had used the expression “Bunga Bunga.” The phrase quickly became a “meme” of the pre-meme era — it made its way into song lyrics and, to the cousin’s extreme distress, into the mouths of little boys in the streets of the town, who would shout “Bunga Bunga” as a mockery.

Cartoon published in the Daily Mirror, February 1910

The Navy set out to conduct its own revenge on the hoaxers. Cole received a visit from Stephen’s cousin and another naval officer, which turned out at least as comical and absurd as the hoax itself and illustrates, once again, the strange double standards of our moral sense of justice and injustice. Stephen recounts it with the same light-hearted mockery of authority that had inspired the hoax in the first place:

Cole received them in his sitting room, and they announced that they had come to avenge the honor of the Navy. They proposed to achieve this by beating him with a cane. In ordinary circumstances there would probably have been a free fight, and as Cole was pretty formidable, and as his manservant had scented trouble and was waiting outside the door in case he was needed, there is no telling who would have won. There was one thing which complicated matters, though. Cole was only just recovering from an illness which would have made violent exercise rather a serious danger. This was pointed out to the officers, and it put them in a dilemma. This was the third week-end, they said, that they had journeyed up to London to avenge the Navy, and they could not be foiled again. Eventually Cole made a proposal: he would agree to be beaten if he was allowed to reply in kind. This was agreed to, and the whole party adjourned to a quiet back street [where] six ceremonial taps were administered to Cole’s hindquarters, and six ceremonial taps were administer by him in return.

After this the Navy’s honor was at least partly cleared, and the two sides shook hands and parted.

How charmingly British indeed.

The next day, Duncan also received a visit. Per Stephen’s amused account, the officers “asked [him] whether he was ill, fearing [perhaps] a repetition of the night before.” They were also befuddled by the fact that Duncan wasn’t resisting at all — one officer remarked, “He does not put up any fight. You can’t cane a chap like that.” Stephen writes:

In the end it proved that they could cane a chap like that, but only with some difficulty. My cousin was unable to do it himself, but he could order his inferior officer to do so and the inferior officer could carry out his orders. Duncan, then, received two ceremonial taps, also, and the little party broke up. It so happened, though, that Duncan had only his bedroom slippers on, and no hat, and this so distressed the officers that they pressed him to accept a lift home.

“You can’t go home like that,” they said, but Duncan felt it less embarrassing to travel home by tube.

Of course, the story of the avenge is so absurd that it sounds like a Lewis Carroll tale — perhaps we should consider the estimation of myth vs. reality in the context of who is telling the story: a masterful prankster who went on to become a psychoanalyst. But even so, at the end of the book Stephen makes sure his irreverence isn’t misinterpreted and writes rather generously — assuming he is being earnest rather than sarcastic:

I should be so sorry, indeed, if anything I wrote were taken as intended to cast doubts on the bravery of naval officers. These men have very particular feelings on this point. Bravery is as much a matter of professional pride to them as it is the quality of his potatoes to a green-grocer. I should be sorry without the strongest reasons to cast doubts on either.


As for “revenge,” if [the Navy officers] wanted any they had already had plenty before the hoax was over. They treated us so delightfully while we were on board that I, for one, felt very uncomfortable at mocking, even in the friendliest spirit, such charming people.

As for Woolf, she was spared punishment and rarely mentioned the hoax. She only used it once in her writing, as inspiration for the short story “A Society.” In Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Bell cites a letter his aunt sent to composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth when the Admiral died in June of 1937:

Yes, I’m sorry about William — our last meeting was on the deck of the Dreadnought in 1910, I think; but I wore a beard. And I’m afraid he took it to heart a good deal. . . “

Still, Woolf continued to cherish the fun of it. In 1940, she called it “the most daring hoax in history” as she recounted it in a lecture at the Women’s Institute in Rodmell, the effect of which E.M. Forster captured perfectly in saying that it left the audience “helpless with laughter.” Even so, for Woolf — who challenged and subverted gender norms in both her revolutionary fiction and her private life — there was more to the hoax. Bell writes of his aunt:

She had entered the Abyssinian adventure for the fun of the thing; but she came out of it with a new sense of the brutality and silliness of men.

Surviving copies of The ‘Dreadnought’ Hoax can still be found online and at some public libraries. Stephen’s entertaining and irreverent first-hand account is well worth the read.

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