In Greek mythology, Procrustes (Προκρούστης Prokroustes) or "the stretcher [who hammers out the metal]", also known as Prokoptas or Damastes (Δαμαστής) "subduer", was a rogue smith and bandit from Attica who physically attacked people by stretching them or cutting off their legs, so as to force them to fit the size of an iron bed.
Procrustean is thus used to describe situations where different lengths or sizes or properties are fitted to an arbitrary standard.
In Greek mythology
In the Greek myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon with a stronghold on Mount Korydallos at Erineus, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis. There he had a bed, in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith's hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, travelling to Athens along the sacred way, who "fitted" Procrustes to his own bed:
He killed Damastes, surnamed Procrustes, by compelling him to make his own body fit his bed, as he had been wont to do with those of strangers. And he did this in imitation of Heracles. For that hero punished those who offered him violence in the manner in which they had plotted to serve him.
A Procrustean bed is an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced. In Edgar Allan Poe's influential crime story "The Purloined Letter" (1844), the private detective Dupin uses the metaphor of a Procrustean bed to describe the Parisian police's overly rigid method of looking for clues. French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in "The Purveyor of Truth", his response to Jacques Lacan's seminar on "The Purloined Letter" (1956), applies the metaphor to the structural analysis of texts: "By framing in this violent way, by cutting the narrated figure itself from a fourth side in order to see only triangles, one evades perhaps a certain complication." This is one of deconstruction's central critiques of structural (and formal) literary analysis. Slavoj Žižek draws upon the metaphor to critique poetic form: “The most elementary form of torturing one’s language is called poetry—think of what a complex form like a sonnet does to language: it forces the free flow of speech into a Procrustean bed of fixed forms of rhythm and rhyme.” Poet Hollis Robbins draws upon the metaphor to structure a sonnet about cutting lines to fit meter and rhyme.
Austrian scholar Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's 1943 book The Menace of the Herd, or Procrustes at Large is a critique of what the author describes as the negative effects of egalitarianism as a political philosophy, where state power is used to force individuals to fit the standards designed by politicians and intellectuals.
The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms is a 2010 book by philosopher and probability theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile. Giving continuation to this idea, in Antifragile, the author uses the image of the Procrustean Bed as an allegory to modernity, linking it to present-day man's fear of randomness.
Procrustes analysis is the process of performing a shape-preserving Euclidean transformation to a set of shapes. This removes variations in translation, rotation and scaling across the dataset in order to move them into a common frame of reference. This is generally the precursor to further statistical analysis. A related problem in linear algebra is the orthogonal Procrustes problem of finding the closest orthogonal matrix to any given matrix.
A Procrustean solution is the undesirable practice of tailoring data to fit its container or some other preconceived structure.
In a Procrustean solution in statistics, instead of finding the best fit line to a scatter plot of data, one first chooses the line one wants, then selects only the data that fits it, disregarding data that does not, so to "prove" some idea. It is a form of rhetorical deception made to forward one set of interests at the expense of others. The unique goal of the Procrustean solution is not win-win, but rather that Procrustes wins and the other loses. In this case, the defeat of the opponent justifies the deceptive means.
In computer science, a Procrustean string is a fixed length string into which strings of varying lengths are placed. If the string inserted is too short, then it is padded out, usually with spaces or null characters. If the string inserted is too long, it is truncated. The concept is mentioned in the Sinclair ZX81 and Sinclair Spectrum user manuals, where a portion of a string is replaced by another string using Procrustean assignment—the replacement string is truncated or padded in order to have length equal to the portion being replaced. Although the term did not catch on in wider usage, it appears in some references, notably FOLDOC.
The film editor Walter Murch refers, not entirely negatively, to a certain style of film editing as "procrustean". If the first assembly of a film is too long by a certain amount, that amount is removed quickly, sometimes brutally. Then the film is viewed at this new length, and progress afterwards is aimed at smoothing out the amputations without adding length.
- Apollodorus, Epitome I 4.
- Diodorus of Sicily, Bibliotheca historia IV 59.5.
- Gaius Iulius Hyginus, Fabulae XXXVIII.
- Pausanias, Beschrijving van Griekenland I 38.5.
- Plutarch, Theseus 11.
- Xenophon, Memorabilia II 1.14.
- Tripp, Edward. The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. Meridian, 1970, p. 498.
- This detail, which injects a note of verisimilitude, is reported by both pseudo-Apollodorus (Epitome1.4) and Hyginus. "Later it was stated, by those who did not think of the meaning of Prokrustes, Prokoptas and Damastes, that he even had two beds, a large one and a small one." (Karl Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks, 1959:223, noting pseudo-ApollodorusDiodorus Siculus, 4.59.5.)
- Plutarch, Vita Thesei §11a. (Theoi.com on-line English translation).
- Derrida, Jacques, "The Purveyor of Truth", in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading eds. John P. Muller and William J. Richardson,
- Less Than Nothing: Hegel and Shadow of Dialectical Materialism Verso 2012 p. 871
- "Acrostic" http://www.mezzocammin.com/iambic.php?vol=2011&iss=1&cat=poetry&page=robbins
- Vickers, Steven (1981). Sinclair ZX81 BASIC Programming. Sinclair Research Limited. Chapter 21.
- Howe, Denis (12 September 1997). "Procrustean string". Free On-line Dictionary of Computing. Retrieved 3 June 2007.
- "Nothing Ever Changes, or Does It?". Folkmanbrothers.com. Retrieved 2014-07-14.
- Marine Le Pen, After Brexit the people's spring is inevitable New York Times 28 June 2016
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