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The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

The act of faith consists essentially in knowledge and there we find its formal or specific perfection.

— Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate

Faith is not a form of knowledge; for all knowledge is either knowledge of the eternal, excluding the temporal and the historical as indifferent, or it is pure historical knowledge. No knowledge can have for its object the absurdity that the eternal is the historical.

— Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments

SUPPOSE A MAN IS a castaway on an island. He is, moreover, a special sort of castaway. He has lost his memory in the shipwreck and has no recollection of where he came from or who he is. All he knows is that one day he finds himself cast up on the beach. But it is a pleasant place and he soon discovers that the island is inhabited. Indeed it turns out that the islanders have a remarkable culture with highly developed social institutions, a good university, first-class science, a flourishing industry and art. The castaway is warmly received. Being a resourceful fellow, he makes the best of the situation, gets a job, builds a house, takes a wife, raises a family, goes to night school, and enjoys the local arts of cinema, music, and literature. He becomes, as the phrase goes, a useful member of the community.

The castaway, who by now is quite well educated and curious about the world, forms the habit of taking a walk on the beach early in the morning. Here he regularly comes upon bottles which have been washed up by the waves. The bottles are tightly corked and each one contains a single piece of paper with a single sentence written on it.

The messages are very diverse in form and subject matter. Naturally he is interested, at first idly, then acutely — when it turns out that some of the messages convey important information. Being an alert, conscientious, and well-informed man who is interested in the advance of science and the arts, and a responsible citizen who has a stake in the welfare of his island society, he is anxious to evaluate the messages properly and so take advantage of the information they convey. The bottles arrive by the thousands and he and his fellow islanders — by now he has told them of the messages and they share his interest — are faced with two questions. One is, Where are the bottles coming from? — a question which does not here concern us; the other is, How shall we go about sorting out the messages? which are important and which are not? which are more important and which less? Some of the messages are obviously trivial or nonsensical. Others are false. Still others state facts and draw conclusions which appear to be significant.

Here are some of the messages, chosen at random:

Lead melts at 330 degrees.

2 +2 = 4.

Chicago, a city, is on Lake Michigan.

Chicago is on the Hudson River or Chicago is not on the Hudson River.*

At 2 p.m., January 4, 1902, at the residence of Manuel Gómez in Matanzas, Cuba, a leaf fell from the banyan tree.

The British are coming.

The market for eggs in Bora Bora [a neighboring island] is very good.

If water John brick is.

Jane will arrive tomorrow.

The pressure of a gas is a function of heat and volume.

Acute myelogenous leukemia may be cured by parenteral administration

of metallic beryllium.

In 1943 the Russians murdered 10,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest.

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