release date: 30 august 2022
listen to episode 69 on soundcloud

Recently I made a small kinetic instrument from a ball carved out of a champagne cork rolling around inside a rotating biscuit tin. Watching the roughly shaped ball bounce and hobble about inside the cylinder I got to thinking about the word tumble and how I’ve often expressed a sense of tumbling through life, rather than purposefully shaping a trajectory of progressive improvement.

Tumble of course conjures a scene and a sense of suddenly falling, with or without control or intention. The unlucky, the inattentive and the trained acrobat alike can take a tumble. It’s a word used frequently in reference to things economic, such as the advice ‘sell into rallies, buy when markets tumble’.

A phonaestheme is a phonic sequence that suggests a particular meaning and there does seem to be some semantic thread stitching together the many umble words of the English language. A run through the alphabet yields bumble, crumble, fumble, grumble, humble, jumble, mumble, rumble, scumble, stumble, tumble and umbles – edible animal intestines. Maybe even dumbbell at a stretch.

There’s meaning overlap amongst them all, of incoherent noise, mild disparagement, lack of success or control, momentary disorder or incoherence. And one might expect the umble words to have some common etymological ancestor but apparently not. Instead, they derive variously from different sources in old english, proto-germanic, old norse, middle dutch, middle french and so on.

In 1980, Talking Heads released the album Remain in Light, featuring the energetic cryptolyrical opening track “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” with David Byrne’s emphatic announcement ‘I’m a tumbler’. Forty years on the song maintains its hypnotic allure. Four hundred years prior, Shakespeare dropped tumbles into many a players exposition, and René Descartes became anxious about his meditations on what can truly be known about our existence.

Tumblers are a performative breed of pigeon that chaotically twist and turn in flight. Botanically speaking, Tumbleweed is a descriptor for wind-dispersed diaspores of many various xerophytic plants. Culturally,  the Tumbleweed as signifier has morphed from a trope of Western cinema to a meme for a moment of empty awkwardness or awkward emptiness.

And then there’s Tumblr.com the American web platform founded in 2007 on the gamble that users might enjoy tumbling through cascades of brief texts and images micro-curated by fellow users. A rewarding prescient insight that was…

BELOW: text quotes spoken/sung by software agents in episode 69 – tumble

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
from Beowulf (1999 translation)

“…No trembling harp,
no tuned timber, no tumbling hawk
swerving through the hall, no swift horse
pawing the courtyard. Pillage and slaughter
have emptied the earth of entire peoples.”

And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
Deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness…

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The Tempest. Act 2, Scene 2

CALIBAN: But For every trifle are they set upon me, Sometimes like apes that mow and chatter at me,  And after bite me, then like hedgehogs, which Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount Their pricks at my footfall. Sometimes am I All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues, Do hiss me into madness.

Robert Browning (1812-1899)
from The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
You heard as if an army muttered;
And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Act 2, Scene 1

THIRD FISHERMAN:  …I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
FIRST FISHERMAN:  Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones; I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ [he] plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry [small fish] before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful. Such whales have I heard on o’ the land, who never leave gaping till they’ve swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Macbeth. Act 4, Scene 1

MACBETH: I conjure you by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me.
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germens* tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.

* stores of grain used to plant next season’s crops

René Descartes (1596–1650)
from Meditations 1 & 2 (1641)

So serious are the doubts into which I have been thrown,
as a result of yesterday’s meditations,
that I can neither put them out of my mind,
nor see any way of resolving them.

It feels as if I have fallen,
into a deep whirlpool?,
which tumbles me around,
so that I can neither stand on the bottom,
nor swim up to the top.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
from poem 465

With Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz —
Between the light — and me —
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see —

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
from poem 600

Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me —

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Titus Andronicus. Act 2, Scene 3

LAVINIA: ‘Tis present death I beg; and one thing more
That womanhood denies my tongue to tell:
O, keep me from their worse than killing lust,
And tumble me into some loathsome pit,
Where never man’s eye may behold my body:
Do this, and be a charitable murderer.

Talking Heads (1975-1991)
from Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Lyrics by David Byrne and Brian Eno

Take a look at these hands
Take a look at these hands
The hand speaks
The hand of a government man
Well, I’m a tumbler
Born under punches
I’m so thin
All I want is to breathe
I’m too thin
Won’t you breathe with me?
Find a little space
So we move in-between
In-between it
And keep one step ahead of yourself
Don’t you miss it, don’t you miss it
Some of you people just about missed it
Last time to make plans
And I’m a tumbler
I’m a government man
Never seen anything like that before
Falling bodies tumble ‘cross the floor
Well, I’m a tumbler
When you get to where you wanna be
Thank you! Thank you!
When you get to where you wanna be
Well, don’t even mention it
Oh, take a look at these hands
They’re passing in-between us
Take a look at these hands
Take a look at these hands
You don’t have to mention it
No, thanks
I’m a government man
And the heat goes on and the heat goes on
And the heat goes on and the heat goes on
And the heat goes on where the hand has been
And the heat goes on and the heat goes on
And the heat goes on
I got time
And the heat goes on
And the heat goes on and the heat goes on
And the heat goes on, where the hand has been
And the heat goes on and the heat goes on
I’m not a drowning man
And I’m not a burning building
I’m a tumbler
Drowning cannot hurt a man
Fire cannot hurt a man
Not the government man
All I want is to breathe
Thank you, thank you
Won’t you breathe with me?
Find a little space
So we move in-between
I’m so thin
And keep one step ahead of yourself
I’m catching up with myself
All I want is to breathe
Won’t you breathe with me?
Hands of a government man
Find a little space
So we move in-between
And keep one step ahead of yourself
Don’t you miss it! Don’t you miss it!
All I want is to breathe
Won’t you breathe with me?

Lewis Carrol (1832-1898)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Chapter 1: Down the Rabbit-Hole

`Well!’ thought Alice to herself, `after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs!