Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Resistentialism: Things that go totally awry

By Charles Harrington Elster  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

I dropped a plastic cup this morning -- or it dropped me.

As I removed it from the cupboard, it eluded my grasp, bounced on the kitchen floor, hung in the air as if deciding what to do next and then landed upside down with a complacent plop. When I picked it up and wiped the rim, I could tell that it knew. It knew I was going to write this article today, and it was mocking me.

It is almost a truism to say that words have the power to transform us and crystallize our vision of the world. I say almost because, though the statement may seem trite, it is unassailable. Every literate one of us has experienced its truth.

My crowning moment in word serendipity is seared into my brain. I was thumbing through Paul Hellweg's Insomniac's Dictionary when I stumbled upon the word resistentialism, which Hellweg defines as "seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects."

Reading that definition, I had what can only be described as a revelation. I felt that an entire category of my experience had been uplifted from the Cimmerian realm of the Inexpressible into the clear, comforting light of the Known.

Here, at last, was a word for the rug that quietly curls up so it can snag your toe, the sock gone AWOL from the dryer, the slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down. Here, at last, was the word that explained the countless insolent acts of things, especially the infuriating intractability of plastic wrap.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines resistentialism as a "mock philosophy which maintains that inanimate objects are hostile to humans" and calls it a "humorous blend" of the Latin res, "thing(s)", and French resister, "to resist", with "existentialism." The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Fifth Edition (2002), perhaps in resistential defiance of its title, expands that definition to "a mock philosophy maintaining that inanimate objects are hostile to humans or seek to thwart human endeavours."

Resistentialism was coined by the British humorist Paul Jennings in a brilliant send-up of Jean-Paul Sartre and the philosophy of existentialism published in The Spectator in April 1948. Although Jennings coined the word in jest, I must object to Oxford's dubbing resistentialism a "mock philosophy." There is nothing mock or sham about it, as anyone who has ever had to call a plumber on a Sunday morning to unclog a refractory toilet will attest.

"Les choses sont contre nous. Things are against us," Jennings writes in his later essay, Report on Resistentialism, which appears in Oddly Enough (1950) and The Jenguin Pennings (1963). "This is the nearest English translation I can find for the basic concept of Resistentialism, the grim but enthralling philosophy now identified with bespectacled, betrousered, two-eyed Pierre-Marie Ventre ... In the Resistentialist cosmology that is now the intellectual rage of Paris, Ventre offers us a grand vision of the Universe as One Thing -- the Ultimate Thing (Derniere Chose). And it is against us."

Why did it take us until the mid-20th century to come up with a word for something that has doubtless plagued us since before we begot language? Perhaps because resistentialism is nonverbal, which I suspect is why it's the driving force behind so much comedy. It's the motivation for many episodes of The Three Stooges and I Love Lucy. It's the nemesis of Wile E. Coyote. It's why people laugh when someone else slips on the proverbial banana peel.

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