When I was a kid (I have a clear memory of this), I decided that I wanted to know everything. Pretty absurd, I suppose, but I was a kid and that was my dream. It was hardly achievable back then, but now it is absolutely inconceivable that one even could begin to know everything. Thinking about this today, I riffed on the fact that the only way this could even be approximated, was if I could get myself incarcerated.
But what crime could I commit that would be heinous enough to keep me locked up for years, yet injure no one in the process? Obviously it would have to be white collar, but my collars are flowered or striped. Although clearly my logic is a bit deranged on this score (and, having watched the modern iteration of the Chicks Behind Bars genre – Orange is the New Black – I figure I am way too much of an aesthete and a priss to make it work), there is a precedent for my fantasy; it involves one of the chief contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary circa 1875, Dr. William Chester Minor.
Minor was a Yale-educated, battlefield surgeon who had served in the Civil War. His often futile interventions in the gruesome aftermath of the fighting might have precipitated the rapid decline of his mental health, or he could have already been wired for dementia praecox, an obsolete term for schizophrenia. Whichever it was, he became increasingly plagued by paranoia. He wound up in England where he fatally shot a stranger he believed had broken into his flat, for which he was committed to Broadmoor, the notorious prison for the criminally insane. For some reason, perhaps the fact that he retained his acute intelligence, he was given two rooms in which to live. Minor brought with him a large library of antiquarian books, and was allowed to contact London booksellers to purchase more; it was thus that he learned the OED project was looking for volunteers to track down quotations to exemplify the use of words to be included.
Minor soon became their most prolific provider of these, sending in thousands of perfectly handwritten quotations. The director of the dictionary project, Dr. James Murray, was immensely appreciative. He arranged for books to be sent to Minor and, himself entirely unaware of the doctor’s place of residence, frequently offered to visit but was graciously declined. Strangely, the widow of the man that Minor murdered began to visit and she also brought him books. Clearly Minor had some charisma. On the cusp of 1900, Murray stated that ”we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.” (If you’re curious about this story, there is a marvelous book called The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester.)
Alas, Minor’s madness took an alarming turn. His paranoid dreams led him to believe he had been abducted and was being coerced into committing sex acts with children. To escape this horror he proceeded, now wide awake, to perform an auto-penectemy, after which the authorities decided it was wisest to return him to America to wind out his life. A rather sobering end to the idea of incarceration for the purpose of furthering one’s knowledge, although his operation is one I would be unable to perform under any conditions. I do wonder if he provided the quotation for this particular procedure to the OED…
The more I contemplate this story – the linkage of madness and categorization – the more I marvel at the ambition to pin all living things, like the lepidopterist with a butterfly, (or contain and process all dead things, like the robber baron his soil, his minerals), andI wind up seeing how this urge to know everything (and define everything, and own everything) can easily lead to a short-circuit. Nature however is subversive. And language is constantly in motion, always morphing; any cruise of a big dictionary, especially an older one, will reveal how much obsolescence has occurred over the lifetime of the English language. Yesteryear’s bully was a sweetheart, today’s bully is a brute. And yet we often learn that the bully conceals a wounded, shy heart – eager, like that of a sweetheart, to love.
At any rate, I believe my youthful desire to know everything has been superseded by other more accessible dreams. But then, perhaps these too are far-fetched. At least they do not require my incarceration!