Some Further Reflections on the Mayday Materials

Conrad, in his magisterial post on the Mayday Matter, advanced two complementary ideas: 1) that the ads themselves are the expression of an aesthetic sensibility and have no other discernible purpose and 2) that the community of random annotations that has arisen at Bryan Hance’s site is in itself perhaps more noteworthy and interesting than what they seek to explain. I believe that the creator of these materials has had a lifelong interest in educational methods, particularly those influenced by behaviorism. My general theory is that they are sole-creator, many-partial-reader. I mean by this that they cannot be fully decoded, but that they are designed to be partially decoded in such a way as to instruct the attempter in doctrine or factual information the creator deems important. The apparatus of conspiracy and mystery is designed to elicit interest. This is a university newspaper, after all, and the library resources available to the intrepid (these appeared and were complicated in what was effectively a pre-internet, or at least pre-search engine era) would have mostly sufficed for the annotations that follow (though it would have been considerably more of a trial. The recent pieces seem to have undergone some preliminary google-proofing.) The most direct evidence of this I can find is in the omitted section of the “leitmotiv” from the 2/8/89 ad:

“Ah, Grendel!” he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last.” (73 [viewable at Amazon])

That is the educational purpose, and it may even explain the violent overtones so many of the messages (and their paraphernalia) have. I am now going to explore the structure of one relatively earlier ad in particular, that of 1/20/88. I don’t think there is anything particularly revealing about this one, but I hope to demonstrate some things about how it is designed and what its intended effect is.

The reversed L shape of the ad itself has been used in several others, mostly from December. For those who have sold ads, was this part of a stock shape they use to sell advertising? I think there’s too much variance in sizing and printing for the more baroque theories/disinformation sometimes floated here about the amount of ink/whitespace encoding information.

The text itself has a syntactical pattern. There is a number, a bit of text (often a quotation), a colon, and then either another bit of text or a graphic or diagram. The colon represents separation, of course, but it might also indicate some type of analogy. The leitmotiv, taken from C. P. Snow’s somewhat limited acquaintance with Stalin, suggests that careful reading should be in order. As has been pointed out, the Joan Baez quotation has been altered. It actually goes:

Blessed are the blood relations

of the young ones who have died,

who had not the time or patience

to carry on this earthly ride.

So “blood relations of” has been omitted. “Who”’s been changed to “that.” “To carry on” becomes “for.” What does this mean?

The phrase “have mercy on us, son of David” comes from Matthew 9:27, and an ad appeared on 9/27 of the following year. The earlier ads seem to encode the time of the next one in a relatively simple manner. What might also be of interest is that there are two blind men asking to be healed here, but, in Mark, there is only one. Jesus also tells them to keep quiet about being healed, but they don’t.

“Miss Joan B” has the same form as “Miss Linda R,” a bit later on.

As for 2), “at the sound of the tone” of course typically precedes “please leave a message.” The music was identified earlier as Beethoven’s Fifth. It’s the double bass of the first page of the score, I believe. (Those might be the most recognizable notes in Western music.) I even believe that in the earlier days of answering machines that a greeting sung annoyingly to the tune of the Fifth Symphony was popular.

“Reason with the wind” appears in a sermon by Charles Chauncey called “Enthusiasm,” where he claims that one might as well do that as try to argue with an enthusiast. It also appears in a Methodist reform pamphlet of the mid-19th century. As far as I can tell, it’s not a quotation. “Advise the air” is an alliterative paraphrase, suggesting that this is perhaps a snatch of original verse. Life’s lack of fairness, sorrow, etc. fits in well with the previous. Jeremiah is the sorrowful prophet, of course. Chapter 12, from which the Hebrew is taken, starts off by asking God why the wicked prosper, etc. Interestingly enough, the previous chapter concerns the plots against God and the plot against Jeremiah his prophet. The “no flesh shall have peace” is part of the promised retribution. The fact that Jeremiah’s friends are plotting against him, unbeknownst to him, at the time, I think is important to the general paranoid mood we see here.

Moving along to 4), I have been unable to locate this seeming Zen Buddhist reference exactly in any source. “Milpeda” might mean “thousand-footed.” “Najima” may be a fairly generic Japanese reference; I don’t know. The typical phrasing is “sword that kills/sword that gives life,” and the similarity of this to the sword imagery in the New Testament has been noted on many, many occasions. “Katastrophen von Gottes Gnaden” is how Scheel, one of Luther’s biographers, described Luther’s many difficult moments–a side effect, as it were, of God’s grace. The analogy would be the double-edged (faceted?) sword to the depriving grace, I suspect.The semicolon at the end may only indicate that the next number begins on the same line.

As has been noted, the Linda Ronstadt reference changes “when” to “once.” It wouldn’t surprise me if the music here were also from Beethoven’s Fifth, perhaps the fourth movement, though I haven’t been able to find it either.

Readers of Judges 16 will understand that Samson wasn’t the brightest heroic bulb, though that may not be the most charitable way of reading the story. Verse 29 is elided in the quotation. He was also, perhaps fatalistically, betrayed by a woman. I believe the phrase the “Samson option” to describe Israel’s nuclear deterrent was in circulation at the time (Seymour Hersh’s book was published in 1991). Israel collaborated with South Africa in nuclear testing and such in the 70s. The basic theme of seeking revenge in a moment of crisis against unholy enemies continues. The following quotation from the Iliad is Hephaestus’s greeting of Thetis, mother of Achilles. She is crying, and he comforts her by saying that he will do anything for her, if it can be done. She wants new armor for her son Achilles. He first forges the famous shield of Achilles. The lengthy description of the shield presents a type of imago mundi of the joys of civilization. This unusual decoration has confounded critics. It was thought by some early apologists to be derived from Genesis. Auden’s poem has a particularly mordant commentary on it. Achilles is a terrible instrument of death, and the shield which guards him shows life (see sword parable above). Again, note that Thetis is asking for an instrument of vengeance, and that she will get it.

One variant of this folk-song is “Water when I’m thirsty/Whiskey when I’m dry/The Grace of God within my heart/And Heaven when I die.” There are so many variations that I don’t think a strategic substitution can be assumed. “Sally,” used frequently, definitely has a confessional aspect.

The second part of 7) has a direct reference to levels. I think that the meaning that seems to be most clearly invoked in these ads and the supporting paraphernalia involving levels refers to the four levels of biblical interpretation: literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical (mystical). (Augustine’s version is historical, etiological, analogical, and allegorical.) The fifth, which seems to be humorous–a famous example of a non-compliment–wouldn’t then fit. The leitmotiv of 5/1/87 is the passage describing Catiline’s exhortation, a conspiracy against Rome. The second level, which could either be a moral interpretation or a phylogenetic one, refers to the 15 factorial. The odds of any randomly assembled rack being in the order depicted are quite slim. Similarly, the odds of success for this proposed endeavor are almost nil. Yet perhaps the author believes that they are destined to succeed. The third level is from the song of Tom O’Bedlam. Many versions of this exist, and you can find some scholarship linking the anonymous ballad to King Lear, where, as we’ve seen, a character calling himself “Tom” feigns insanity. The version most commonly seen is “By a knight of ghost and shadows/I summoned am to tourney/Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end,/Methinks it is no journey.” “Summoned” and “I” are transposed here. Issac Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature, viewable at Google Books, has the full version. The license provided by the figure of the madman to indulge in flights of fancy was one reason why this form was popular. This could be the analogical or allegorical aspect hinted at: some truths can only be told by madmen, etc.

The fourth level, “Age quid agis,” has been suggested to perhaps derive from Melanchthon’s translation of Euripides’s satyr-play Cyclops. (With a comma, meaning something more like “what are you doing?”) More likely is that the reference is to Loyola’s phrase: “do what you are doing.” The anagogical qualities of this are not immediately apparent to me. A creation of a radical Protestant counter-Jesuit order?.

The Leonard Cohen quote runs “Then fire, make your body cold,/I’m going to give you mine to hold.” “Joan of Arc,” martyred visionary, revolutionary, etc., fits in fairly well with everything that’s come before. After this we have the formula for dimethyl sulfoxide. Other people have noted the potential for dosing. The Cohen song describes a type of transmutation, which I suspect is significant. The idea of borders becoming porous (permeable membranes) is likely what’s being referred to.

Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” is the reference, as pointed out. The bomb explodes in the song, and it’s “the days” not “days.” It’s fairly clear that “miracle and wonder” is heavily ironic in the song. We have an appellation, but the male singer has his last name written out and his first name initialized, opposite that of the two women (and Leonard Cohen gets no credit at all…). What does the mysterious safe deposit box have to do with the Paul Simon song? I don’t know. I believe that you have to co-sign a form with the renter to allow you to have access to one of these, even if you have the key. I don’t know if that’s always been the policy, is the policy of this particular bank now or then, or if this is simply a reference meant to tantalize the naive readers of this college newspaper into thinking that untold riches reside in that box, if only they can find the key, etc.

The reprise is very likely an original of the author’s, though Cervantes is known to have been proud of fighting at Lepanto.

Here’s a diagram of alterations in quotations in the above: (Left shows original, right what it’s transformed to):

Blood Relations Of
Who             That
To Carry On           For
When               Once
I              Summoned
Summoned        I
Going           When
To           I
              one of

Looks tantalizing, doesn’t it? Almost like a secret message there somehow? “Then I’m going to the…”

The block of smaller text is not numbered and imparts a seemingly different type of information. The first part uses analogies to establish a dominant theme; the second reports on things that have happened and proposes an apparent course of action for the future. There is also a definite syntactic pattern, with a large group of initial information purporting to be about movements being separated by a semicolon, and the rest are distinct sentences. The date is, as has been explained many times, due to the newspaper not printing a 5/1 edition on that day of the week. (5/1/88 was a Sunday.) There are six independent clauses, referring to the movements of eight or nine distinct entities (“John W.” and “Winthrop” might be thought to be the same entity, though the difference in name would be significant.) There’s also the theoretical audience receiving these imperatives.

The commands themselves are evocative of the kind of nonsense we might associate with live-action role-playing games, or an elaborate board-based military simulation game. (This observation has also been made many times before. This document’s presence has never, to my knowledge, been adequately explained, e. g. )

The obvious anachronisms of the instructions suggest that they must have an analogue. I can’t imagine even the most liberal of historical reconstructions encompassing such actions as Schroedinger running afoul of a Hanseatic Factor, even the more baroque pieces of a Turtledove or Jose Farmer would not permit this. The capitalized “IF,” “THEN,” and “NOT,” suggest that we have an encoded flowchart (flowchart forms appear in many of the other ads) or algorithm.

That if Schroedinger has fallen within the “aegis,” (and note shields from above) of the Lutine Bell, meaning, I assume, that he has been at lost at sea, that you must implement the New Economic Policy, I would have to take be a counsel of adopting apparently counterrevolutionary measures to ease social tensions, if we follow the Kronstadt (cf. Linda Ronstadt above) analogy. What this could mean in the present context is less than clear. I suspect that the most likely explanation might be some low-level conspiracy to change policy in a church group (grandiosely described as “revolutionary”) of some type, but this assumes that there the ads are not single-creator, many-partial-reader but instead one-or-many-creator(s), some-readers, and many-partial-readers.

“Letters of Marque” also seems to vintage O’Brian here, though the idea of justified lawlessness and piracy is intriguing. “Port Royal” might nod to Jansenism, which would fit the larger theological context. We also have eyes fixed on our treasury; another ad reminds us that Lenin believed that debauching the currency was the surest way to undermine a country. I’m a little worried about John Brown from Haddington turning into the John Brown going to Harper’s Ferry, though I suppose the point of Calvinist theologian turning into violent political radical is easy enough to see.

The presence of Owsley as a stand-in here may allude to a “consciousness-raising” motif. That Alberich likely refers to a Wagnerian treasurer has been repeatedly noted. Sutter wanted to form an agricultural utopia and mercilessly exploited Native American labor, which seems relevant for what comes later here.

May 15, 1988 sounds much like a graduation date. Why punitive operations against the Narragansett, of all people, would then start, is not immediately clear. Well, other than allying themselves with “heresiarch” Roger Williams (and isn’t it a remarkably festive anachronism of sentiment to have violent thoughts about such a mild figure as Williams in modern times?)

The high-techish sounding “print-outs” and “agitprop” recall a quasi-Leninst enterprise again. The five section names are puzzling: “PRMcS,” as far as databases can best tell me, seems best described as “circulating committed progenitor mast cells,” involved in autoimmune response. The charming doctrine that the body politic has been stricken with “ontological oncology” and must be purified occurs with some regularity throughout these documents, and that’s the only explanation I see here. The others, I don’t know. “FERMI’s FEAR” also receives magisculed splendor; the reference to an atomic bomb seems ready enough, esp. when compared to “conventional ordnance.”

It is also not entirely clear why Williams would be described as “Pelagian,” but this figures as a constantly shifting category of theological abuse throughout the documents. The vulgate quotation form 2 Cor. 2. 16 appears as a valediction in several of the ads. Here we have a reference to a scent, not sword, that saves and kills. What remains astonishing is that the hyperspecificity and obscurity of what is certainly a single-author, single-(whole)-reader concoction. It does not want to be read, except by those worthy to read it. In this, I think, the author proposes an analogy to those “lead as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession” (2 Cor. 2. 14), seeing himself as Paul restoring discipline to the Corinthians. (I wonder if he’s been keeping up with the recent Pauline revival among some continental theorists. Lacan, after all, is not unknown to him, so why should Zizek be?)

I feel as if I’ve done here more of an extended clue-gathering exercise rather than argue what I announced, but I hope I’ve established the thematic plausibility of my interpretation at least. Please comment if any of this interests you; very few people, as I told Conrad, think it worth any of their time at all. To me, however, it’s one of the more interesting outsider-artist projects I know of, and it also is of substantial interest from a cognitive-elitism angle, as the creator is clearly convinced on that point.