Currently viewing the category: "Outsider Logic"

JF Ptak Science Books

"Sometimes a book is just entirely bad, and sometimes it is entirely nothing. It is impossible for a book to be both very bad and very nothing. Impossible. Except for this book, whose badness is exceeded only by its nothingness, and vice versa ". –Oscar Wilde

And so into this black hole of imaged Wildeian description we go, into a very real-ish book.

I found a novel tonight, bought long ago and long ago mostly lost. It was written by a doctor who worked in the District Hospital in Lima, Ohio, and written in 1934. The Lima Hospital was the largest poured concrete structure in the world when it was built in 1915, and stayed so until the Pentagon was completed. The hospital was established for the criminally insane, had 14"-thick walls, and reinforced steel bars laid into the walls that went "right down to bedrock".

It was somewhere in there that this doctor wrote something that was really so toweringly bad that it escapes comprehension. I own the carbon copy of the unpublished work, which is typed on 14×8.5" sheets of paper, front and back, running 94 pages. It is a very crowded affair, with 90 lines of single-space typed lines, making the work about 115,000 words long.

There wasn't enough space evidently for paragraphs, which gives the work a kind of insistent, casket-cramped cruelty. To read it takes your breath away for its dullness–the book moves so weirdly and at the same time so very slowly that it doesn't move at all even while moving.

Manuscript insane one

A few months ago I found the seven-foot-long scroll of the book's plan–a work of crowded magnificence of nothing and confusion, being very orderly at the same time. It went to a friend of mine who created artwork around it, and as it happens made a very noticeable appearance in a very significant yearly show in NYC last week. I was stunned to find that there was actually a text to go with the scroll-outline–it emerged from the warehouse this week, so perhaps this too will find a very celebrated life as art as well. Certainly the book would go nowhere on its own as a book, though it stood a chance at surviving on the grounds of its considerble design weirdness, which is of a complexified beauty.

Manuscript insane two

In the meantime, before all of the letters slide themselves off the page from sheer boredom and before the thing is resurrected as a magnificent artistic effort, I'll share some ianges of the extra-ordinary book of reversed brilliant badness. I've also culled a few imaginary descriptions of the book from writers known and not:

Potboiler scribbler:

"He couldn't speak. He could barely see. Blinded by the flames ignited inside his eyeballs from the novel in his lap. The words were like molten lead, sucked off the page by his eyes, forming a vacuum in his brain. It was a bad book".

The first-time published novelist's approach:

"He couldn't speak the words of the thoughts in his head, because they and all of his breath were stolen by the magic of the complete badness of the book in his lap".

Gertrude Stein:

"The book was bad and bad, and bad was the book. Even the badness of the bad was bad, a whole new insight into being bad. It was the bad book by which bad books are called bad".

Ernset Hemingway:

"He didn't read the book so much as he looked through it. It was easy–there was nothing there. As bad as it was, it could get no worse. So he shot it, and poured a drink".

You might wonder what this book is about. Me too.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

New earth
Which is a detail from:

FSA--signs--religious detail

Which itself is a detail from:

John Vachon; Religious Signs, Minnesota. 1936.

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Vachon (1914-1975) was part (beginning in 1936) of one of the great groups of photographers in the history of American images: he worked for Roy Stryker in the FSA as part of the U.S. government's attempt to record the good and ill of American poor. That group included Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Charlotte Brooks, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn. OF the many images recorded by Vachon, I liked the words in this one.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1876

Hair fingers copy
Well. This item is of course lost on me, but the new “wonder-worker comb" somehow did an anti-crushing something to the scalp and the hair root that promoted/restored and fictionalized hair health. The secret to understanding it all, evidently, is that "bad scalp" is “crushed thin”. This is brought about by “HAND pressure”, from “strong fingers that mash and force the elastic scalp to become thin and such” causing hair to be “more crowded, flattened”. For some reason the inventor didn’t speculate on whether other sorts of combs did this, or not; it looks as though he/she was targeting only those who combed their hair with their own non-plastic fingers, clearly elucidating this primal contest in a "wonder worker comb" vs. crushing/flattening comb fingers vocabulary.

The comb with the adjustable fingers “pulls, exercises, stretches, thickens and loosens the scalp as it passes through” (the hair, the scalp?). It makes the scalp “roomy inside”, allowing the extra room that the hair needs “to function”. These hair restorative miracles is the result of the simple use of the comb, providing “complete results all by itself, no wasted efforts…”.

The comb also, it seems, controls dandruff, and improves “thin, Lifeless, Dry-hair (sic)”.
That’s a lot to ask of a piece of plastic.


This somewhat-scary item is a photographic postcard sent to the Library of Congress as a Copyright Deposit copy–part of the process of securing protection from intellectual theft via American copyright. One is set to wonder about who–and why–this idea would be stolen. It would make an interesting story about Really Bad Ideas that were appropriated to no good end.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1844

It is difficult to lose your reader right in the very title of your text. But I do think that John Penn ("the Greatest of Living Authors" accomplishes this in his

Right from the Star-Chamber! Wholly Moses Another Coutnry Heard from Another Presidential Candidate declines the Nomination! Big Little Franklin Puts in its Disclaimer and Begs to be Heard Before the Big–(June)–Bug Convention... And on and on.

I can find nothing for Mr. Penn, who claims that this is Volume 3 Number 2 of a magazine called The Revelator (June 1888), a magazine that doesn't seem to exist in the holdings of the massive WorldCat/OCLC. The message of the slim and fragile pamphlet is–in the most kind appreciation possible–unclear. There seems to be a lot of political something going on, though it is a tangled webby road. Much of the center stage seems occupied by the election of 1888, when President Cleveland was renominated in a peaceful convention, but then bested by Republican challenger Ben Harrison in the electoral college in one of those elections where most stuff seemed to be going relatively fine in the United States. (Cleveland would come back to defeat Harrison in 1892.) So references to something like "Big Little Franklin" might actually refer to Benjamin Franklin Jones (1826-1903) who was the chair of the RNC from 1884-188 and the force behind the failed James Blaine nomination in '88. Some references are obscure but solid, and some are just obscure and unsolid, and others turn the deep corner of obscure and fly into the arms of mondo bizarro.

Perhaps it was all just theatre. And perhaps it was the work of someone who had some money and insisted of giving a platform to his black-and-white kaleidoscope, and had the thing printed (if not published) there in Concord, Pennsylvania, in 1888 (also known here as "J.P. 6600").

Here's the last page–the pamphlet is too delicate to open and scan any of the interior–perhaps this is enough:

Read Full Article →

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1829

Vision from the inside out, or from another version of the outside-in, from the very Outside, can be very fruitful things, idea-engineers, inspirations. They might have real insight of lasting applied value, or imaginary insight into the unexpected and imagined, with nothing of immediate or future values save for sense impressions that might trigger thinking in unexpected ways or areas.

There are occasionally great finds in mounds of experimental thinking that find a foothold in the outside world, such as in the case (further) below of Robert Fludd. Fludd (1574-1637) was a Welsh-born, London-based (and Oxford- and Padua-educated) astrologer, Paracelsian physician, occultist, Qabalist, hermeticist, semi-cosmologist and energetic thinker who found inspiration and solution in many ususual areas, some of which didn't really exist.

For example, a visionary of a different sort, as his celestial sphere will show:

Spheres--robert fludd
And here in detail:

Universal Correspondence from Fludd's Utriusque Cosmi Historia, 1617.Rob

Spheres--robert fludd det

Fludd’s (1574-1637) features a complicated astrological existence well beyond the point of Copernicus. In addition to everything else, real and imagined, Rosicrucianism and astrology and puffy-birds, Fludd looked deeply into the real stuff of the world in this book in addition to all of the other make-believe–optics, the musical intervals, perspective drawing, hydraulic engineering, construction of lifting machines, military engineering and many other interesting, physical science topics. But this drawing, right there on the title page, reveals Fludd’s real interests and shows what governs what he does. Everything else, the math and and the physics, services this need. Of course the image is beautiful, which is why it is here, but it is also a deeply personal, exploitative, cover-all for the things that Fludd *wanted* to find.

So in the middle of all of this, Fludd wrote his Pulsus seu nova et ARcana Pulsuum Historia e Sacro Fonte Radicaliter Extrata…(Published in Frankfurt in 1630), which was a tall but realtively skinny work on what at the time was a skinny topic: the pulse. In addition to discussing an listing all manner of data and observations ancient and modern on the subject, Fludd visits the newish and vastly important work of William Harvey, De Motu Cordis (1629), and gives it the first published favorable review. This was a big deal at the time as Harvey's epochal work was still feeling its way around for support. And here it was, in an unlikely place, a book filled with useful and not information, its writer claiming a certain association with mystical medicine and universal knowledge and getting the whole deal with Harvey right.

+()+outsider coverThere are some other more recent contributions in our Outsider Logic collection that reach the limits of outside, reaching far into the aspects of knowledge that lies more or less completely hidden and inaccessible to the vast majority of readers. Sometimes bumping into outré thinking like this is very useful because it is just so very different; and sometimes this thought process is just and only that: very different.

This is last bit is probably the case for W. Clarissa Christeen’s (“D.D.A.T.O.M.”) The Universal Color Keyboard for Body Building. But what Ms. Christeen absolutely does have going for her is her artwork, which is, in its own special way, quite sensational—I’m really sorry that the pamphlet is limited to only two pieces of her work, as I’d really like to see more. +()+outsider cover det

Her philosophy is at the very least odd, though it may spring from a synesthesia. Or not.

"Syn" (Greek, "together" and "Aisthesis" ("sensation") combine to form this very interesting word and ability, being an automatic response to a stimulus by one sense when that stimulus is usually associated with another sense. For example, there are "synesthetes" who perceive color as an auditory input, basically hearing yellow and so on; more famously are the musicians composing tone poems associating sound with color. There are letter-color and number-color associatons, as well as taste-senses from colors and sounds and so and on. For example in Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art there is an attempt to relate color theory to touch and smell; Franz Liszt wrote color music; Isaac Newton attempted to establish the common distribution and association between color and tone frequencies; Rameau constructed a clavencin oculaire while Rimington made a color organ; Richard Feynman spoke of colored equations, and Nabokov recorded ( Speak, Memory) letter/color visions. THese are just a few examples of some of the more well-known practicing synesthetes.

In any event Ms. Christeen may be of that mold, and is attempting the universal perfection of mind and body through the combination of color and music (and scent), which “is valuable in building body-tissues of a harmonized order…the music chosen for social functions, the key notes being for the planet ruling or governing the day or the hours etc.. This brings celestial and terrestrial vibrations in direct contact, without interrupted angles which produce in harmony; in other words the creative powers which produce these various waves f light and sound or color or tone, acts upon the lower octave, matter or material manifestations recreating it, transforming it, and raising the vibrations of the said matter or material manifestations, thus, refining the temperature and quality of germ or tissue, etc.”

This is a long passage, but I include it because, well, I just had no idea when an abrupt turn was going to be made in the discourse; nor did I have any idea of what the principles were of what was being discussed. And this is still all on page one. Sometimes passages like these are breathtaking, as in leaving you without breath, because their foundation for understanding is so elusive. All you’re left with, sometimes, is a “wow!” reaction, like appreciating a pitcher who has just struck you out on three roughed-up-greasy-spit-laden nastiness pitches that were invisible and illegal, and didn’t matter at all.(What the figure in the cover illustration is saying. by the way, is "Ether air motions creates cell activity", with a couple of Biblical references, somehow.)

+()+outsider cover ultra det

+()+outsider inside I do know that the major divulged secret is the Universal keynote (and “keyboard”) and its control through music and fragrance of all that is, “each individual is to harmonize his or her astral colors to the universal keynote that he or she may be surrounded by a correcting aura, which sends out its streamers of light rays into the cosmos”. Things get more deeply possessed after this, stretching into the Old Testament and astrology, which we don’t need to get into here.

+()+outsider insidedet As I said, perhaps Ms. Christeen was a synesthete, and perhaps multiply so. In 1925, when this book was written, there mayn’t’ve been a place for people to go who had advanced sensibility of seeing colors in music, and perhaps colors in fragrance. Perhaps Ms. Christeen was working out there in Los Angeles completely alone, trying to figure out just what her special and very different gift actually was. Perhaps her life was greatly enlivened by her synesthesia, and sent herself out on a mission to the world to have other people experience it, too,, with the help of her color-relational charts. I do feel for her, though I have absolutely no connection to what she was trying to explain. I do find the artwork fascinating—a true “outsider” contribution.

(By the way, I don't think that we ever got to the "body building" part in this work. Also, I think the "DDATOM" after Ms. Christeen's name meant something like "Doctor of Divinity of the Atom" or something like that–it wasn't mentioned in the text.)

And so there you have it. I think that I'm just making the point that the outcome of some of this very provocative work doesn't necessarily come into play in its ultimate evaluation, and that it should all be judged by what short of thinking that it excites in its reader.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1750


This is the frontispiece to the delightful work with the luscious title of The Slang Dictionary; or, the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases and Fast Expression of High and Low Society… printed in London by John Camden Hotten, in 1870. It is a hobo or “cadger” (“a mean or vulgar fellow who would rather live on other people than work for himself”) map (or the map of “a tribe of vagabonds”) of Maidstone, in Kent, drawn by a “screever” (a sidewalk chalk artist who normally would draw religious images for money), and showing the various chalked and etched signs that the hoboes (“and other mendicant marks”) would leave for one another, being a key to the town, for what was practicable, safe, dangerous, and the like.

Recorded antiquarian hobo and tramp symbols like these are really quite rare, given their ephemeral nature to begin with; of course the need to record these obscure signs by polite society was not on a high order. There are many indications that signs such as these existed, but not many illustrations. For example in the book The Triumph of Wit; or, Ingenuity Display'd in its Perfection, edited by John Shirley. (1724), as well as works by Holyland and Borrow there is a description of English gypsies and their travels, and a short description of their use of boughs and sticks, set out for each other, so that a duplication of effort by different bands or families would not occur.

(The figure of the woman, wonderfully named “3/4 Sarah”, probably connects this Sarah to a sort of popular dance.)Bloghobo_a199_2


JF Ptak Science Books Post 1712

Insane art 3 titke pageThis book– The Writing of the Insane, by George Mackenzie Brown, 1876– seems remarkable to me for the attention paid to the creative products of the insane. I am not sure when the first of these efforts occurred, but it seems to my experience that 1876 is an early production date for such an undertaking. It also seems to be a very early identification of the "special talents" of some of the observed individuals, including in the text of the book two remarkable (and remarkably "modern" looking) pieces of what today might be considered Art Brut/Outsider Art.

The author is George Mackenzie Bacon (1836-1883), a doctor who took classes at Guys Hosptial and who had membership in the College of Surgeons in 1858.1 Bacon was the author of Primary Cancer of the Brain (1865) as well as an editing contributor of at least a dozen annual reports of the Committee of Visitors of the Cambridgeshire, Isle of Ely and Borough of Cambridge Pauper Lunatic Asylum (from 1869-1883 ro so). He definitely made improvements to the conditions of the inmates when he worked at Cambridegshire County Asylum (also known as Fulbourn Hospital, 1858-1992), where he provided those living there with more personal living space and patient-built work areas. This was certainly an interesting approach to take for the mentally ill, especially given the time and place.

But in his (scant) published works it seems that the Writing of the Insane must be his masterwork for at least being among the earliest books to serve as an archaeology of deeply-different and illustrated thought:

Insane art
And this remarkable effort:

Insane art 2

[Source and full text, here.]

This is certainly not a "celebration" of talent, but there are moments of recognition of such in the Writing of the Insane, which at the very least is a very early expose of the topic. One of the earliest books written by someone who was admittedly "insane" (and this is very different from the many books written by insane, or brilliant, or misunderstood, or "complex", or "different" author) came to us in 1846 by Green Grimes. thirty years before the Bacon work. In A Treatise on the Most Important Subject in the World: Simply to Say, Insanity2 Grimes recounted his life at the Tennessee Hospital for the Insane, about which the blog Canton Asylum for Insane Indians writes: “There are other Medical books which treat on Insanity, but comparatively few to the population, and none written by an Insane man,”


1. There is scant personal information on Bacon available online. This data comes from the British Medical Journal, 3 March 1883, in an obituary on Bacon.

2. The full title is pretty full: A treatise on the most important subject in the world: simply to say, insanity: The only work of the kind in the United States, or, perhaps, in the known world, founded on general observation and truth. There are other medical books which treat on insanity, but comparatively few on the population, and none written by an insane man. This contains a short history of the author's case, giving the general causes which produced the disease on him individually, manner of treatment and termination. Giving the only treatment by which a cure may be effected, the manner of detecting the disease, and the duties of sane parents towards the insane offspring of their bodies; with some general remarks upon idiotism, the jurisprudence of insanity, suicide, &c

The American Journal of Insanity simply states that the 94-page book is "very curious" .

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1684

On an early use of the term, Outsider.

Outsider b075

Sometimes a word is just a word, and the elements of recognition sometimes inhibits that. Except in this case that the word seems to be just what it is and also indicative of what it would become.

Outsider, or outside, outside the recognition of "official" art, of critiqued-art, is the English language equivalent/translator coined in 1972 (by Roger Cardinal) to illustrate the term art brut ("raw art") created by Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet created with others Compagnie de l'Art Brut in 1948, which in some respect was a reaction to a new sort of displayed art that had begun its life in the early 1920's, mainly as the efforts of doctors treating psychiatric patients who were expressing themselves through their art. (Two famous examples include Dr. Walter Morgenthaler's Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist), published in 1921 on the work of perhaps the most famous people in the Outsider canon, Adolf Wölfli; and another being Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the mentally ill) published a year later by Dr Hans Prinzhorn.)

[Adolph Wolfi]

Well, "outsider" as we know it today in reference to the arts is definitely not what the editors of Punch magazine pursued in this cartoon for their issue of 6 May 1886. The "infuriated outsider" was simply an artist left outside a show, whose work was not accepted for exhibition. (And from the looks of it, the small work on the huge easel, being rejected for the "want of space" might not have been the reason for the artist not making the list.)

Trenton Doyle Hancock, “AND THE BRANCHES BECAME AS STORM CLOUDS”, 2003, Mixed media on canvas. Photo courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York and the American Folk Art Museum.

[Henry Darger]

This outsider was simply outside with probably-not outsider art. Henry Darger (1892–1973), Martín Ramírez (1895–1963), Paul Gösch (1885–1940), Charles A.A. Dellschau (1830-1923), Willem Van Genk (1927–2005) and so on were Outsiders, their work being Outsider/Art Brut and also being left outside for a long time. Far outside. In the far-deep outsider, further and deeper outside than the more aesthete outsider varieties of "outsider" art–like Impressionist, Cubist, Dada, Constructivist, Futurist–ever got outside.

[Willem van Genk, detail]

Anyway, I thought it curious to find the term stuck in the middle of a cartoon rant in an 1886 popular journal.

JF Science Books Post 1519

In a world where everyone wins and no one loses, why can't we cut a square hole with a round bit. Or vice versa? Well, we can of course, its all just a matter of perspective. The image (below) that started this thought thread down the rabbit hole is of a member of Great Britain's ruling class, Sir William Houghton, appeared in Punch magazine in 1890 as an illustration in a debate over hunting rights for hares and other small critters, in what seems to have been an attempt to further control the access of the wide working class to certain freedoms. To be honest I haven't looked at this debate, and I'm not sure why the liberal Sir William is shooting Dodos as rabbits, but the image–independent of what it was intended to represent–seems to be the inside-out, or the reverse-inside-out of what had been the situation with the bird. It would look "wrong" even if you didn't know the history of the flightless and basically defenseless creature being hunted to extinction, standing in the place of the rabbit. It has an oddness to it, like a very high-pitched tone that floats above a piece of music, a slightly pungent odor coming from a nicely-executed painting. Perhaps it is the the sense of expectation being thrown off just a bit with something like the unexpected-expected.

And then of course there's the rabbit hole connection. And Alice. And the Dodo.

From Report of Debate on Hares Preservation Bill, June 26.—"They (the other Members of Parliament) could not go out and kill 300 Dodos,"—but evidently he (Sir W.V. HARCOURT) could, and here he is—caught in the act… [He reminds me of a peeing stallion--one of the most majestic poses a horse can strike]

Lewis Carroll's Alice gets right down to business in her adventures in Wonderland, right from chapter one ("Down the Rabbit Hole"), only a few hundred words into the story1–down she goes. In one very memorable scene (in a book composed of memorable scenes) Alice meets a Dodo bird (which scholars say is a play on the stuttering Carroll's real name, Dodgson, or Do-do-ogson), and <things happen> after which the Dodo suggests a "Caucus Race", being a play on the legislative process in which the Dodo-shooting Sir William participated above.

File:De Alice's Abenteuer im Wunderland Carroll pic 10.jpgThe deal with the Caucus Race was that there was no set course, necessarily, for any one racer–everyone would run their own course as they chose; so in a self-defined course with no competitors and no rules, racing a race that the race liked, it would be hard to lose. Carroll writes:

"First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (`the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no `One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?'

"This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes."

The rabbit hole was made by the cylindrically-gifted rabbit, though in Carroll's world the rabbit could've been a square, a cube or cube2-something. Or of course the rabbit could've made a square hole, or square-squared hole, which probably would've been more to Carroll's taste, approaching a very early thought on square2. But people in the three-dimensional world had been working on making square holes with round bits, though coming a bit after Carroll's time, as in this example:

The device at the bottom of the drill was made to follow and then restrict its cutting motion to that of a square, the device (considerably less wide than the diameter of the bit) cutting and scraping the round hole into a square. Which in its own way reminds me of a motion picture depicted on a polygon, in a movie theatre for example, which began in a somewhat different way, filmed on a circular surface, or at least in one aspect of it. Auguste and Louis Lumiere began the new mass-medium, illustrated here from their Nouvel Appareil Photographique Panoramique Reversible le Photorama (which was printed in Lyon in 1895/6)


The Lumieres claim for "first" as cinematographers is better understood in terms of the motion pictures being a new mass medium. Whereas other inventors and experimenters were earlier–like chronophotography devices constructed by Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey and Ottomar Anschütz, which all produced forms of moving pictures in the decade prior to the Lumieres, but were decidedly not for public consumption. The work of these men, as with that of Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope (1891), was intended for scientific and academic consumption; or with the case for Edison, at least, for the amusement of the wealthy classes, as well as for educating the children of the rich. There were certainly others who worked in this area in the 1890's, but none really fashioned an interest to their invention for the use of one-and-all as did the Lumieres.

Which gets us back to our square rabbit hole. Soon after the Lumiere's introduced their fabulous new invention, they decided that there was no future whatsoever in the motion picture as a new medium, and abandoned it. They undoubtedly felt a little bit like the square peg in the round hole of the needs of art, and moved on.



1. "There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat- pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge."– Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll.

It is highly probable that no artist who ever depicted a Dodo actually saw one.