Marcel Danesi is a Professor of Anthropology who has followed his heart, from the study of Italian language & literature to the study of customs, signs & symbols (aka semiotics), and culture in its manifestations. Danesi’s current brainchild is That’s Puzzling!, a new Saturday magazine insert in the Toronto Star, and he also makes regular contributions to Psychology Today.
I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five about his work.
1) Which of your parents do you resemble (what’s your nationality / ethnic background)?
I resemble my father most, although I have the spark of my mother (both have passed away). I was born in Italy.
2) what is the BEST thing / worst thing about what you do?
The best thing about what I do is teaching. I love every minute of it, and I get paid for it to boot. I will miss it horribly when I retire. The worst thing is having to give grades. I wish that this system of evaluation did not exist. It is difficult and often humiliating to have to assess the very ones I teach and who I really admire.
3) who do you like to listen to or watch?
I love classical music. I have it on all the time, morning to night as I work and do other things. I love to watch documentary programs on TV.
4) what ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I am not sure I want to be any different than what I am.
5) when you’re just relaxing (and not working) what is your favourite thing to do?
My favorite thing is to read. I love it.
5 more questions concerning puzzles and That’s Puzzling!
1) what’s the biggest challenge in creating puzzles?
Striking a balance, that is, making them at a level that is just challenging enough, but not too much, for then the solver would become frustrated.
2) what do you love about puzzles?
They tell a human story. Since the solution to a puzzle is never obvious, involving twists and imaginative thinking, it is a small-scale model of the large-scale questions of humanity. The latter have no answers, puzzles do and thus, as a great puzzle-maker, Henry E. Dudeney once said, they are their own reward.
3) do you have a favourite type of puzzle?
Not really. Since I write about them and teach a course here at the university on the history of the “puzzle instinct” I have come to realize that every type of puzzle has its particular charm.
4) how do you reconcile being a puzzle afficionado with your life as a modern man?
Puzzles are as old as civilization and they continue to fascinate us today as they did people in the ancient world where they were considered to be portents of destiny–oracles spoke in riddles and gematrians used anagrams to foretell destiny.
5) Is there a puzzle you’ve ever encountered that you especially admire, or that influenced you?
The Riddle of the Sphinx, as the first written puzzle of humanity, is still the most fascinating puzzle of all. “What is that walks on four at dawn, three at noon, and four at twilight?” The answer is “humans”, who crawl at the dawn of life (on all fours), stand up and are bipedal (at the height of the day) and need a cane to get by at the twilight of life. What a brilliant metaphor for who we are. And guess who solved it? Oedipus. The rest is legend.