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Saturday, March 23, 2013


When I was young, a theory was put forward in aesthetic theory [not a branch of philosophy about which I ever knew much, by the way] according to which certain sensory presentations make an objective demand on the observer [I cannot now recall the precise term that was used for this phenomenon.]  For example, it was said, if a subject was presented with a line drawing of almost, but not quite, a complete circle, she would feel an objective demand to complete the circle by adding the missing segment.  A variety of examples were offered of this phenomenon, on which then was erected a theory of the objective status of judgments of beauty.  You get the idea, I trust.

I never gave much thought to the idea -- as I say, aesthetic theory was not my thing.  But I have come to realize that I experience something very like this in my own life.  I am, I must confess, an obsessive crossword puzzle solver.  I don't simply mean that I enjoy doing crossword puzzles.  I mean that when I come across a crossword puzzle, I am psychologically incapable of passing it by without doing it.  I do crossword puzzles in ink, of course, and am embarrassingly vain about my ability to complete them.

For example, all domestic airlines put a copy of their corporate magazine in the pocket of each seat, containing articles about great places to eat at one or another of the airline's hub cities and maps of their principal airports, among other things.   Usually, at the back of the magazine are a few pages of puzzles, including a crossword puzzle.  Now, these puzzles are really easy, and rather boring to do, but if I get a seat with a magazine in which the puzzle has not been attempted by a previous passenger [which happens usually only near the beginning of the month], I am incapable of stopping myself from doing it, preferably before the plane actually takes off.  I quite literally feel a burdensome obligation to do the puzzle, an obligation I would prefer not to be saddled with.  I find this behavior pathetic, but I could no more stop myself than I could stop breathing simply because the air in the cabin is stale and probably filled with flu germs.

Needless to say, I do the NY TIMES crossword puzzle every day.  Those of you who are really familiar with the TIMES puzzle will know that Will Short, now the editor of the puzzle but in the past the creator as well, arranges things so that the puzzles progress in difficulty as the week goes on.  The Monday puzzle is so easy that it takes me no more than five minutes to fill it in.  It is not really fun, and often I find myself irritated by its intrusion into an otherwise relaxed Monday morning in the Carolina Cafe with my lemon poppyseed muffin and decaf coffee.  But I am utterly incapable of simply ignoring it.  It imposes on me an objective demand.  Not until Wednesday is the puzzle any sort of challenge at all.  On Thursday, Short offers a puzzle with a gimmick in it, and that really is fun.  The Friday and Saturday puzzles are genuinely challenging, and there are even weeks -- few and far between, I am happy to say -- when I have failed to finish one of them.  [This morning, for example, I was half way through my muffin before I solved the first clue, and I had to take a break to do the two Ken Ken puzzles before returning to the crossword, but I did, I am happy to say, complete it finally.]  The Sunday puzzle, by the way, is not really very hard.  It is just enormous, so it takes a half hour or more to do.  But there have been some memorable Sunday puzzles.  My favorite is one with the title "I Surrender"  -- [The Sunday puzzles all have titles which are hints to the solution of certain  long across words.]   Each of the long across clues in this one was the same:  "back down"  [i.e., "I surrender."]  In each case, the solution was a word or phrase which meant, roughly, "to back down" or "to surrender," and the answer had to be entered first backwards and then down.  That one was, I thought, really brilliant.

What does all of this mean, other than that I am something of a dork?  I seriously doubt that it implies an objective theory of aesthetic value, but it may very well indicate something about the screwed up hard-wiring of the neurons in my brain.  Maybe I should alter my will and leave my skull to science.


Unknown said...

Do you think we're in the midst of a golden age of crossword puzzles?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not sure. The gold standard, of course, are the London TIMES puzzles, which are massively harder than the NY TIMES puzzles. One finds allusions to the London TIMES puzzles in English detective stories going back to the first third or half of the twentieth century. I used to do the South African MAIL AND GUARDIAN versions of that kind of puzzle during my frequent trips there, and after a while got pretty good at them, though it was rare for me to finish one. Albert Campion, the main character of the Marjory Allingham mysteries, was always represented as a whiz at the TIMES puzzles. [You can see that it never even occurred to me to consider your question facetious! I am afraid I am pretty far gone.]

Don Schneier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Schneier said...

I deleted a plug for the London Times puzzles, the publishing of which Prof. Wolff's comment preceded by mere seconds. Perhaps the greatest testimony to their elite status is that even Murdoch has not tampered with them. They are available online.