Ensign Pulver

A Twitter conversation with Improbable Joe that touched on collecting papers reminded me of Ensign Pulver, looking for marbles all day long, so I Googled to see if I could find a YouTube clip of that bit but no luck, there’s only the more famous last scene where Pulver throws the Captain’s palm tree overboard. So then I Googled the phrase itself and found several things including…a ten-year-old post by me. It’s kind of interesting so I’m just going to recycle it.


One thing (but not the only thing) that prompted this train of thought (or perhaps bus of rumination or minivan of woolgathering or rollerskate of idle daydreaming) was something I read a few days ago in another of Dwight Macdonald’s letters, this one from January 1946, when Macdonald was editing his own magazine Politics.

I suppose you’ve read by now Simone Weil’s article on The Iliad. The response to it has surprised me; I thought it was a great political article, dealing with the moral questions implicit in the terrible events one reads about in every day’s newspaper, which was why I played it up so prominently in the issue…Nothing I’ve printed yet seems to have made so deep an impression. The only people who didn’t understand how such an article had a place in a political journal were – and I think this is profoundly significant – all of them Marxists. To a Marxist, an analysis of human behavior from an ethical point of view is just not ‘serious’ – even smacks a little of religion.

I think the Marxists who didn’t understand must have had a fairly crude understanding of Marxism, but that’s another subject. The relevant aspect is the question of what has a place in a particular kind of journal and what doesn’t – and the fact that Macdonald was thinking about that question. I was already thinking about it when I read that – well in fact I’m always thinking about it, really. Not every second, but every day, usually several times a day. Every time I link to a News item, in fact every time I look for a News item, which in a sense is every time I read anything at all, other than perhaps package ingredients or addresses on envelopes. As Ensign Pulver was looking for marbles all day long, I’m looking for News items all day long. Though not always actively looking – sometimes I’m just reading, like a normal person, and then as I read the act of reading is transformed into the act of reading for something. Though that doesn’t quite describe it either, because I seldom do ‘just read’ any more – or I both just read and read for something. Which is interesting, in a boring sort of way – by which I mean it interests me but I realize it may not interest everyone. Actually maybe I’ve never ‘just read’, at least not exclusively. I think that’s right – but the percentage has changed.

There’s a lot to be said for reading for something. There’s also a good deal to be said for just reading, but on the whole I prefer reading for something, as long as the something I’m reading for is worth it. I thought while I was typing it that all this was an unconscionable digression that I would probably delete, but I’ve changed my mind. It is about the subject under discussion, in a strained sort of way. Why do we read, after all? Surely the way we think about that question has some connection to what kind of thing we want to read, and why, which has some connection to why Macdonald published Weil on The Iliad. She wrote it for something, he published it for something, the readers read it for something.

At any rate, I was thinking about it more than usual even before I read the Macdonald letter. It was because of posting an item about the Bush administration’s approach to science – I was thinking about the fact that that’s not academic (to put it mildly) nonsense, so it’s not strictly our subject. I decided that what did make it our subject was the element of bullshit involved. The fact that it’s not just mistaken, but the kind of mistaken rooted in prior commitments. I decided it is worth pointing out occasionally that the academic left certainly does not have a monopoly on that kind of bad thinking. I try to do that kind of thing sparingly, because otherwise B&W will just be about anything and everything; but that’s my reasoning for doing it once in awhile. That’s my Iliad.

Because our subject is woolly thinking of a particular kind – thinking that’s fuzzy because it’s distorted, because it starts out from the wrong place. Because it starts not from genuine inquiry but from what Susan Haack calls pseudo-inquiry – not from a real desire to find the truth but from a desire to make a case for a pre-selected conclusion. That’s the bullshit aspect, the bogus element, the pseudo factor. B&W examines the academic manifestations of woolly thinking and pseudo-inquiry and bullshit, but it is worth offering an occasional example from other parts of the world too, I think, if only for epistemological reasons. It is part of the overall story, of the Big Pikcha as I said to my colleague the other day. It’s part of an understanding of how woolly thinking and bad moves work, to be able to recognize them in a variety of habitats, to realize that they’re not confined to one discipline or sector of the economy or political orientation. If we don’t know it when we see it, how can we resist it?

– See more at: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2004/reading-for-something/#sthash.2LxvPe5o.dpuf


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Did Pulver’s quest provoke the otherwise inexplicable (to me) idiom that “X has lost his marbles”?

  2. Seth says

    Of course, if Simone Weil had published her article online today, there’s a good chance that any thoughtful commentary about it would have to be sifted through a fucktonne of misogyny from freeze peach warryurz.

  3. Al Dente says

    All I remember about Ensign Pulver is that it wasn’t anywhere near as good a movie as Mr. Roberts. Even the scene with Pulver throwing the palm tree overboard is in Mr. Roberts.

  4. Latverian Diplomat says


    No. There’s a citation here from 1886:

    “He has roamed the block all morning like a boy who had lost his marbles.”


    One point not touched on in that article is that marbles can be played as a gambling game, where each player keeps the marbles he knocks out of the circle. In that sense, “losing one’s marbles” could mean losing the competition so completely that one is bereft and unable to participate, left ot idly wander the streets. That could fit this original citation.

    However, if it ever had that sense it’s definitely lost it. “Losing one’s marbles” has definitely come to mean the same as “not playing with a full deck” and similar metaphors.

  5. johnthedrunkard says

    Yes, ‘Ensign Pulver’ is a waste of celluloid. And we got all the way through the article with only a tangential allusion to the Significance of Pulver to the whole note. BAD.

    As for marxists in 1946. There is a context point to be made: in 1946 ‘Marxist’ was a synonym for ‘uncritical worshiper of the USSR and rubber-stamp endorser of Uncle Joe’s Eternal Truth du Jour.’

  6. says

    Oh, I didn’t even know there was a movie called Ensign Pulver. Ugh. I totally meant the character in Mister Roberts, not the spinoff.

    BAD? Just because the title is slightly surrealist? My titles are often like that. I’d think you’d be used to that by now.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Latverian Diplomat @ # 5 – Thanks for the clarification, and my compliments to your esteemed Head of State!

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