Building Blocks

 

Balcony, baldachin, baptistry, belfry, buttress… All words that are illustrated in the 1979 Merriam Webster. Flipping through, you’d think architecture starts with the letter b.

 

 

Is there something more fundamental about buildings and their features, than about other areas of human activity? Or are stony frills easier to draw? What makes ball-flower a better subject of illustration than ballerina, ball bearing, or ball fern?

Continue reading

The Seventh Meaning of Bail

The bail of custody, the bail of deliverance. The bail, as an outer wall of a feudal castle. To bail a free spirit is to confine it. A bail as a container used to bail a boat, therefore freeing it from a build up of water on its interior.

That is roughly six meanings of the word bail given in the 1979 Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

The seventh meaning of bail or bale has the largest number of specific senses, which mostly centre on a curved iron part used in everything from wagons and small boats to the trunnions of a cannon to the tympan sheet in a platen printing press. Lastly, though, a bail is:

the usu. arched handle of a kettle pail, or similar vessel.

 

 

As curved handles go, my preference lies with the more mouth-rounding boul or bool, which you’d use to refer to the semicircular grip of a teapot or of a pair of scissors. This word, however, did not merit a picture, so I move on with my exploration of illustrated b-words.

Here are few more obsolescent, if not obsolete, visualised entries (the ones I like to call bygones). Continue reading

Beginning with B

 

Six months ago, in January, this year’s blogging season began for me with the letter A. I looked at the words that the editors had chosen to illustrate, and therefore highlight, in the 1979 Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. 

At six kilograms and a volume of 7650 cubic centimetres, the Dictionary is a slab of language, as hefty as any gravity-based weapon, and as monumental (to my mind) as the stone stele carrying the Code of Hammurabi. Compared literally, it’s sized like the brain of a killer whale.

There are 2666 pages. 

So I better move on to B if I intend to finish my survey within the next, shall we say, ten years. Continue reading

Cento: Reading as Rapture, as Vertigo

https://unsplash.com/photos/MN251xZ9mBk

Patchwork, colourful, a garment. I’ve carried the image since childhood. To me this internal multicoloured display is the symbol of being different, of suffering for this difference, though for ultimately righteous reasons.

It took me a while to trace the origin of this association to the Biblical story of Joseph in a comic book that I read as a child.

I do mean comic book: it had panels, gutters, speech bubbles, and lovely colourful drawings—the whole mesmerising caboodle—only the subject wasn’t Batman or Wonder Woman. Instead, I read and envisioned the Israelites’ God living in an elaborate golden box, the Arc of the Covenant, which His faithful servants carried through the desert under an unforgiving sun. The brightness of that sun was only rivalled by the brightness of the Arc itself. God spoke in a stern, sharp-angled bubble unlike everyone else’s.

The story of Joseph lends itself to a dramatic telling, panel for panel, as his fortune rises and falls time and again, to rise in the final instance. He is special, endowed with dream-visions he knows how to interpret. Joseph’s adventures, however, start with his father’s gift:

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.

(KJV, Genesis 37:3)

Alternative versions call it a “coat with long sleeves”, but that is of little relevance to me now, retroactively.

(This isn’t where I was going with this post, but since the association is inevitable and particularly relevant in June: Happy Pride Month!)

My personal mythology has transformed the symbolic coat at every opportunity. Colourful goes hand in hand with unique with beautiful frankenstein with remarkable with dangerously balanced on a pinhead (like Kafka’s spinning tops that lose their lustre once they’re picked up), all of which circle back to dissimilar.

And if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll have noticed that self-dissimilar is ultimately what I strive for, e.g., Carson’s musk-ox Io, Cortazar’s vomited rabbits, Kafka’s silent sirens, Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest; or Hamsun’s Hunger, Zambra’s multiple choice test, Panizza’s porcinic deity

Continue reading

Imaginary Architecture: The Cathedral of Mist

https://www.wikiart.org/en/m-c-escher/other-world/

Other World by M. C. Escher (1947)

 

Looking at the diverse collection of M. C. Escher’s sketches, it’s hard to believe there exist impossible architectures he has failed to conjure.

Throw in everything else described on this site, Impossible World, with its historical and modern explorations of the subject, and you’re in a genuine tight spot to think of something new.

Visually speaking.

So take a sidestep and look at the problem linguistically. Instead of asking about the impossible, ask about the imaginary.

(Note the synaesthetic idioms we swallow daily: you can speak visually—apply the eye to an action of the mouth, and look linguistically—apply language to an action of the eye.)

The sidestep works. Words can paint pictures more bizarre than pencils can. What a warped, inconsistent visual geometry does for sight, a description of an imaginary, non-existent wonder does directly for the brain—many times over and uniquely so for every individual. This shouldn’t be surprising: on paper, a drawing is constrained by two-dimensions and utensil type, while a story is only loosely constrained by two hundred thousand words and some grammar rules (amongst which linearity is chief).

So if you’re not a naturally gifted draughtsman with an instinct for the optical paradox, literary expression is another potential outlet (assuming learning how to write comes more easily to you than learning how to draw well).

If all else fails—read! Inhabiting the worlds that rise from the rows of black squiggles is your prerogative. Continue reading

Words That Come into Leaf

https://unsplash.com/photos/Dz3i1tcSDFA

Is old hat old hat?

A valid question. Old hat is an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is used to indicate that something is old-fashioned, outdated, hackneyed. But has the entry itself become outdated and hackneyed?

You could ask similar questions of other words: has calling something boring become boring, or is talking about clichés now a clichéd activity for a writing blog?

Let me dwell on that last one because, like any writing blog embarking on the topic, I am enticed by the thought that I’ll be able to offer my readers an offbeat experience.

Clichés are the bane of the creative writing (cottage) industry. All aspiring authors realise fairly soon that the phrases first to mind are the phrases first to everyone’s mind. They’re uninteresting in their banality. And to be read, a writer needs to either say something different (in a world where most things have already been said), or say the same things differently (which requires extirpating clichés).

Reaching for unusual words—like extirpate—and combining them with usual words—like cliché—is a common method of seeking out original expression. The problem resurfaces, however, when it becomes apparent that thesauruses are not shortcuts to a rich vocabulary, and that a rich vocabulary in itself is not a shortcut to an ear for elegant phrases (and the discipline to apply said ear consistently). My example works as an eye-stabber, or a comedic hyperbola designed to make a point, but usually an author of fiction isn’t keen to draw attention to word combinations.

(The exceptions are modern meta-fiction or genres dependent on wordplay. For example, Joe Orton’s Loot is a black comedy, so it relies on witty cliché-breaking elements, like the one I marked in bold:

TRUSCOTT. Have you never hear of Truscott? The man who tracked down the limbless girl killer? Or was that sensation before your time?

HAL. Who would kill a limbless girl?

TRUSCOTT. She was the killer.

The darker the humour, the harder it’s weirdness strikes.) Continue reading

The Onion Man

https://unsplash.com/photos/vmkhhhXzMqU

The slender blade of reason is no more than a probe against the tomahawk of insanity, which can crush a skull with a single blow.

—Louis Levy, Kzradock (translated by W. C. Bamberger)

Doubt.

Doubt about our surroundings, about our reality, about ourselves.

But where should doubt start, and when? What do we gain by being the detectives of our minds and souls?

These are the themes at the core of—take a deep breath—Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier by Louis Levy (1910).

A moment to parse the title of this novella:

  • Dr Renard is the protagonist.
  • Kzradock the Onion Man is the title of Part I.
  • The Spring-Fresh Methuselah is the title of Part II.

A shorter moniker generally aids mental manipulation, so I chose Spring-Onion (no disrespect meant); you might chose something else. I note that the original Danish title at least avoids the English double-barrelled translations: Menneskeløget (Onion Man) and vaarfriske (Spring-Fresh).

Continue reading

How to Survive a Tough Book: Bizarre

https://unsplash.com/photos/ALse0bXazlQ

The Pig by Oskar Panizza is difficult to classify.

It first appeared in the 1900 in the Zurich Discussions, a journal self-published by the author. Translated into English by Eric Butler, the book now reaches us via Wakefield press—an American publisher that specialises in literary oddities. The full title helps support its claim to uniqueness:

The Pig: In Poetic, Mythological, and Moral-Historical Perspective.

A quick flip-through provides a tad more insight.

It is non-fiction, erudite, creative in its approach to interpretation, and it has footnotes, lots of footnotes, so many that a page without them is a surprise and a page only of them ought to have been encouraged by the editor. Hebrew slips between two teeth, German and Latin between the other, Greek likes it on the tongue to roll about with French.

The first page has a black and white reproduction of The Lady with the Pig by Félicien Rops (1878). Continue reading

Burn the Manuscript

In the days before the internet people used more ephemeral media for writing, like paper, like parchment, like papyrus. If you wanted to destroy your work, you would chop it up and commit it to flames. You could also delegate the task, though in modern terms that would be like handing someone your phone and asking them to delete your notes.

Kafka died a month shy of his forty-first birthday, in June 1924. Most of his unpublished work he left to his friend Max Brod with a final request that it all be burned.

Brod didn’t burn it.

Jorge Luis Borges offers an answer as to why. The following excerpt is from his interview with The Paris Review in 1966.

In the case of Kafka, we know very little. We only know that he was very dissatisfied with his own work. Of course, when he told his friend Max Brod that he wanted his manuscripts to be burned, as Virgil did, I suppose he knew that his friend wouldn’t do that. If a man wants to destroy his own work, he throws it into a fire, and there it goes. When he tells a close friend of his, I want all the manuscripts to be destroyed, he knows that the friend will never do that, and the friend knows that he knows, and that he knows that the other knows that he knows, and so on and so forth.

True or not, this Borgesian circularity has a particular, pleasing ring to it, like an echo—an echo every reader of Kafka’s work perpetuates.

Thinking about that gives me goosebumps.

 

Continue reading

Quiet of the Now

https://unsplash.com/photos/yBzrPGLjMQw

Between memories and daydreams, between the past and the future, the mind lingers.

It’s squished.

You have to fight the onslaught of time on two fronts before you can carve out a space in which to have a moment for rational, directed thoughts.

That’s how philosopher Hannah Arendt reads the following aphorism of Kafka. 

He has two antagonists: The first pushes him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks his road ahead. He struggles with both. Actually the first supports him in his struggle with the second, for the first wants to push him forward; and in the same way the second supports him in his struggle with the first; for the second of course forces him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two protagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? However that may be, he has a dream that sometime in an unguarded moment—it would require, though, a night as dark as no night has ever been—he will spring out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience of such warfare, as judge over his struggling antagonists.

(From “He”, The Zurau Aphorisms, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and by Michael Hofmann)

“He” is the mind; the two antagonists are the two arrows of time: the past presses at the mind’s back, while the future presses at the mind’s front. The aphorism is told from the viewpoint of a man’s thinking ego struggling to carve out space for itself, as Arendt explains in The Life of the Mind, and not from the viewpoint of a spectator observing the thinking process. To a spectator, time flows uninterrupted (as eternal change) or it is meaningless (the forces of past and future annihilate each other). Continue reading