Know Your Culture

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Culture, noun:
1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
3. The cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc. in an artificial medium containing nutrients.

Like in Titles: Literary Allusions, today’s post discusses the bridge between culture (meaning number 1) and culture (meaning number 3). Today, I focus on the titles from Nature magazine that are related to film and music.

But first: here’s what happened when a pun-detector was applied to a 2004 copy of The Economist (source).

SIR – Your newspaper this week contains headlines derived from the following film titles: “As Good As It Gets”, “Face-Off”, “From Russia With Love”, “The Man Who Planted Trees”, “Up Close and Personal” and “The Way of the Warrior”. Also employed are “The Iceman Cometh”, “Measure for Measure”, “The Tyger” and “War and Peace” – to say nothing of the old stalwart, “Howard’s Way”.
Is this a competition, or do your sub-editors need to get out more?
Tom Braithwaite, London

Actually, even further back, in 1986, a certain Richard J. Alexander published a paper entitled Article Headlines in “The Economist”. An analysis of puns, allusions and metaphors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my efforts to analyse headlines were not that dissimilar from (if less rigorous than) those applied as recently as thirty years ago.


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Film

Title: Science, lies and video-taped experiments.

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Titles: Literary Allusions

← → The Librarian Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1566)

 

Puns proliferate in titles. Allusions, alliteration, attention-grabbing sensationalism. Anything goes, so long as it attracts the reader to click on a link or peruse an article. Sometimes it’s cute, sometimes—and especially out of context and surrounded by ten other similar examples—it’s downright silly.

It sounds like a cunning ploy by the author or editor to market a text.

And it is.

Because it works.

The next few posts will focus on the fun behind the titles of Nature Magazine. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally compiled a list of my favourites from the past nine months of their weekly editions.

If you are not a scientist, do not be alarmed—a PhD in neurobiology or astrophysics is not required. In fact, today’s post highlights the opposite: if you are a scientist reading Nature, you have to be conversant in literature or else you might miss the resonance hook when scanning the contents page.

The listed titles come from the print editions, so sometimes do not correspond exactly to the linked articles.


I discuss the image on the cover in Symbols as Quotes

 

Title: Magnetism in flatland.

Reference: Edwin Abbot’s 1884 satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. It develops the idea of a two-dimensional society, Flatland, where women are lines and men are polygons. Regularity and multi-sidedness is praised (triangles are the lowest caste, near-circles the priests). The narrator is a square who dreams of both Lineland (a one-dimensional world) and Spaceland (a three-dimensional world). An intriguing read if you haven’t seen the idea before.

The Nature article is about condensed-matter physics and being able to study the phenomenon of ferromagnetism in a truly two-dimensional setting, that is, in “flatland”.

Verdict: Informative title; guessable without literary background, but helped with it.

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To Really Know a Word

Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?

(Brevity is the soul of wit.

Occam’s razor.

Tweets.)

Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.

Potemkin gave façades a bad name. (Painting by Dmitry Levitzky, c. 1797)

It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.

But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.

So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.

Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.

Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.

(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)

Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.

But that shouldn’t deter us.

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In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.

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Negative Writing Advice

Advice comes in two flavours:

  • what to do (positive advice),
  • what not to do (negative advice).

Positive advice is like being shown Edgar Rubin’s vase

… and being told you should look for two faces.

Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.

Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …

… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.

Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.

Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.

Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.  

Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.

(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)

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The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards

https://www.wikiart.org/en/maarten-de-vos/unicorn

Maarten de Vos, Unicorn, a familiar beast.

 

Of all the beasts in Jorge Luis Borge’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, I am most struck by those I do not understand. As understanding stems from familiarity—a fallacy and an illusion, but prevalent—I am left fascinated by those I cannot relate to. Or rather, by the ones that keep evading my grasp like Kafka’s godforsaken Odradek, a flat star-shaped spool for thread with a handle, mentioned last time in Playing Detective.

Borges’ book contains 120 entries detailing creatures born of mythology and literature. In his 1957 Preface, Borges chooses to mention the dragon.

Quote: We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster …

 

While reading his book, I noted that the most common feature seemed to be a relation to birds—about a fifth of the creatures has some capacity for feathered flight. Whether that makes them dragons or not, I’m not sure (I too am ignorant of the meaning of dragon), but if the chicken is the closest modern relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex, then perhaps we can assume birds and dragons hatch from similar eggs.

The two oddest imaginary birds are the Pinnacle Grouse and the Goofus bird found under the heading of Fauna of the United States. The Goofus bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been. I get queasy looking backwards when riding the bus, so I’d say that lifestyle takes a sturdy gizzard. Based on this scant information, I speculate that the Goofus bird would be a good pet for anyone in the sect Laudatores Temporis Acti, comprising those who worship the past—to them the past is absolute: it never had a present, nor can it be remembered or even guessed at. On second thought, according to them, the Goofus bird shouldn’t exist.

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Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane

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Why?

That one question gives life meaning. How, who, where, when, all lend solidity to our world, but the intangible web of causality tickles our imagination like nothing else. Asking why means staring into a chasm of chaos and glimpsing sense—the intellectual equivalent of climbing into the jaws of a shark, looking around, and coming out with a souvenir. It’s exhilarating.

Why is also the reason everyone likes playing detective occasionally.

Me included.

Today, I’m investigating The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (co-written with Margarita Guerrero), an encyclopedic account of a most eccentric menagerie. It contains familiar names such as Centaur and Cerberus, Norns and Nymphs, Salamander and Satyrs, amongst a whole plethora of unfamiliar ones. The starting point of my investigation is the opening of the Preface to the 1967 Edition.

Quote:
The title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, of the point, of the line, of the surface, of n-dimensional hyperplanes and hyper volumes, of all generic terms, and perhaps of each one of us and of the godhead. In brief, the sum of all things—the universe.
(Translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges)

My question: Why did Borges chose to include in his book Harpies, but not Hamlet, Fauna of Mirrors but not the symmetries of surface friezes, Animals in the Form of Spheres but not the n-sphere …? I suppose that including all generic terms, each of us, and the godhead, would require an infinite book like the The Book of Sand, Borges invented in his eponymous story published in 1975—over a decade after the Quote. In fact, given the Quote, The Book of Sand could be said to begin with an almost familiar sentence:

Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes…

A gander at Borges’s original work reveals he had other ways of addressing mathematical issues, so perhaps we can assume he simply left that for “later”.

Which leaves the question of why not Hamlet.

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Book Sequences: Quirks and Perks

Paul Signac used sequences of brushstrokes to create meaning in Place des Lices.

 

Quote: Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.

  • I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
  • I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.

In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.

I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.

She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.

So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.

Which brings us to books.

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To Quote: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Here wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.

Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.

She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.

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Translation: Quirks and Perks

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Translate this

Quote: 

All novels are translations, even in their original languages.

— Michael Cunningham, Introduction to Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

Therefore, if you write, you translate. How’s that for being fluent in a foreign language without ever opening a dictionary?

What Cunningham means is that most of the problems that translators face were faced by the authors themselves.

Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few.

This week was marked by two posts on synonymia, Synonyms to Spare and One Word is Not Enough, so it’s unsurprising that I’m primed to consider lists and how conceptually distinct their content really is. What did you think of: confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot? Are devotions the same as fixations in this context? Is a confusion of images the same as some vague sort of plot?

For me the answer is yes in both cases: devotions are fixations in writing because I don’t do things by halves; and I draw a vague sort of plot from a confusion of images and a vague sort of plot is what I’d call a confusion of images.

You probably disagree, and that’s alright.

Equivalence of meaning sits at the heart of synonymia: no two different word fragments are interpreted identically across all writers and readers, across all time. People may be more flexible or more pedantic, but what will be called a creative, meaningful variation in one instance, is likely to be considered redundant repetition in another.

Equivalence of meaning also sits at the heart of translation. The novels in writers’ minds may or may not be synonymous with the novels on the shelves; two official translations of a novel into another language may or may not be synonymous with the original novel, or with each other, depending on who’s reading and to what end. But the mere existence of novels (as translations from thought-speak to human-speak) and of their translations in the standard sense (from one human-speak to another) proves that we believe equivalence of meaning is worth seeking out. Even if what we find is only a good approximation.

Approximations are all we have time for in this life.

Dictionaries: Quirks and Perks

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A single word can seed a mental storm

 

Reading through a list often inspires dread or boredom. It is redolent of school, rote learning, tasks at work, chores at home, shopping at the supermarket on the weekend. It symbolises all those things you don’t want to do in your free time.

But wait, what about dictionaries?

Dictionaries are for daydreamers that think in words, mind-travellers that see adventures in a syllable, historians of linguistic persuasion. The fun is never-ending!

Am I in the minority again?

Browsing dictionary entries is an acquired taste, but every so often there’s an amusing comment or personal aside suitable for wider consumption.

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Saying it the Long Way

Nobel Prize.png

By: Jonathunder. Medal: Erik Lindberg (1873-1966)

 

Genome editing is creeping out of science-fiction into real life, and the question is who owns the rights to a breakthrough. The CRISPR technology is particularly promising and lucrative, and has led to a legal fight for the patent between MIT and Harvard’s joint venture, Broad Institute, and the University of California, Berkeley. The Quote comes from a recent article in Nature Magazine.

Quote: Although that battle is over, the war rages on. Berkeley has already appealed against the decision; meanwhile, the European Patent Office has ruled in favour of Doudna and Berkeley. Doubtless there are many more patents to milk out of this versatile system. And then there’s the fistful of 66-millimetre gold medals they give out in Stockholm each year.

Why is that last sentence so long? Why didn’t the author just say: And then there’s the Nobel Prize?

What makes the Quote quiver?

A mini puzzle to make the readers feel in-the-know once they’ve worked it out.

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Opium Meets Classical Readers

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How much do you know about opium?

Poppies. Sherlock Holmes. Afghanistan.

What about its “classical” forms?

Morphine. Heroin.

Those came later. Opium meets “classical readers” in the form of laudanum, a 10% tincture of opium, discovered in the sixteenth century and recommended as a panacea during the first two hundred years of its existence.

(Not to be confused with ladanum or labdanum, which is made from rockrose, another flower, and which crops up in perfumes.)

The topic’s locus classicus is Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-EaterIt was meant as a cautionary tale of opium abuse, although the first part of the book is dedicated to justifying De Quincey’s contact with the drug and the second part to lauding its restorative qualities (before reaching the third, cautionary part). Good intentions aside, today’s post focuses on a piece of writing taken from the autobiographical section.

Quote: This person was a young woman, and one of that unhappy class who subsist upon wages of prostitution. I feel no shame, nor have any reason to feel it, in avowing that I was then on familiar and friendly terms with many women in that unfortunate condition. The reader needs neither smile at this avowal nor frown; for, not to remind my classical readers of the old Latin proverb, “Sine cerere,” &c., it may well be supposed that in the existing state of my purse my connection with such women could not have been an impure one.

De Quincey wants us to believe him. He asserts his honesty in the matter, then he invokes a proverb to testify in his favour: his pecuniary difficulties must imply his chaste behaviour.

The problem with the Quote is that classical readers are rare in modern times.

What would have made the Quote quiver for the classical reader?

Familiarity with a trusted source.

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Apple’s Metalepsis

 

It is entirely plausible that some people have not heard of Apple, so let me just say that Apple Inc. is a forty-one-year-old technology company from California that designs computers, tablets, phones, and that names them MacBooks, iPads, iPhones. Theirs is the logo that looks like Snow White had a go at it.

Today’s Quote is Apple’s tagline for their upcoming operating system, iOS 11.

Quote: 

iOS 11
A giant step for iPhone.
A monumental leap for iPad.

A bit familiar, a bit grand, a bit silly. Let’s see why.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Resonance.
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The Way We Swing

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The “radicals”.

E. B. White was not yet thirty-eight when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Roosevelt’s suggestions to retire Supreme Court judges over the age of seventy. At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again, after a decade or two of conservatism, writes White. The piece ends with the following paragraph; note White’s use of sweeping generalisations, balanced by a sprinkling of caution (italics are mine).

Quote: A man’s liberal and conservative phases seem to follow each other in a succession of waves from the time he is born. Children are radicals. Youths are conservatives, with a dash of criminal negligence. Men in their prime are liberals (as long as their digestion keeps pace with their intellect). The middle-aged, except in rare cases, run to shelter: then insure their life, draft a will, accumulate mementos and occasional tables, and hope for security. And then comes old age, which repeats childhood—a time full of humors and sadness, but often full of courage and even prophecy.
— E. B. White in Life Phases (2/20/37), Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976edited by Rebecca M. Dale.

Do you agree, more or less, or do you disagree and have you come up with (yourself as) a counterexample?

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More Mileage for Your Metaphorical Money

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Where the metaphorical seas lap the literal sands of language, idioms are born. Some of them are then picked up, like pebbles, to be tossed around, transmitting meaning and merriment. Some get dropped, others get so smoothed out by time, tongues, and tortuous trajectories, that they’re labeled clichés.

Does that mean that a cliché is linguistically dead in the water and beyond the pale? That everyone is sick and tired of it? That you run the risk of boring someone stiff if you use it? Not necessarily. There are ways and means. Let’s see a demonstration (emphasis is mine).

Quote: Stories without [an implicit framework] go unread; stories with it are capable of knocking the socks off someone who’s barefoot.

This is from Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Her implicit framework is what Jorge Luis Borges called algebra in his observation that art is fire plus algebra. (How she interprets this algebra-framework is the essence of her book.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Cute turn of a turn of phrase.

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Language: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: Language has all the suppleness of human flesh, and something of its warmth.
—Arthur Quinn, Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase.

Quinn’s book is a short, gently humorous introduction to figures of speech with plenty of examples. (At their simplest, figures of speech are a form of speech artfully varied from common usage.) My eye caught on the metaphor in the Quoteas it felt fresh and apt, in a heartwarming way despite the mention of flesh.

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The Art of Writing: Quirks and Perks

Image by Geetanjal Khanna https://unsplash.com/collections/510695/hands?photo=8CwoHpZe3qE

Here’s the author of The Martian Chronicles and the classic Fahrenheit 451on where and how to find what to write about.

Quote: We all are rich and ignore the buried fact of accumulated wisdom.
— Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

This could be said of most aspects of our lives, not just writing. Even the tiniest experiences can be mined for gems and insights. A paragraph down, Bradbury elaborates.

From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educated myself as best I can. But, lacking this in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it had observed when I thought I was sitting this one out.
We never sit anything out.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

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Style: Quirks and Perks

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzegerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use language, reveal something of their spirit, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.
E. B. WhiteAn Approach to Style in Strunk & White

White puts it so plainly, so delicately. Only skilled writers show their spirit, their capacities, their biases because their expressive medium is no longer cluttered by ungainly turns of phrase and forced plot devices. Don’t his words make you want to reach that increment in writing where you too have style? (Not to say that you don’t already.)

White also reaffirms that hiding behind words is not possible: the better you write, the more each word says about who you are.

Perhaps I will now commit sacrilege—if so, please avert your eyes and ears, and click away—by placing alongside one of the most timid and decorous writers, E. B. White, the complete opposite: one of the most brash and indecorous men, Charles Bukowski.

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Asylums as Refuge: Dispersing the Gloom

musicophiliaI associate neurologist and author Oliver Sacks with serene-laughter. Don’t ask me to define the term. The best I can say is: look at the image of him that appears on the cover of his book Musicophilia.

I read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat a long time ago, so I do not remember whether he employed magnificent figures of speech, or merely decent ones. But I do remember that his case-studies were not oppressive, despite the seriousness of the conditions he described. The New York Times called him the poet laureate of medicine for a reason.

After two heavy books, Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House, I decided to find a fresh, uplifting voice on a similar topic. I settled for Asylum : Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitalsby photographer and architect Christopher Payne, and with an introduction by—you guessed it!—Oliver Sacks. It was published as an essay in the New York Review of Books, under the title The Lost Virtues of the Asylum. 

You see where the title is going.

Ideally, I would quote the introductory paragraphs here, then dissect their arguments below, but the post would become too cumbersome. Instead, I urge you to read the first few paragraphs of the NYR page  to feel the power of his argument, before having me ruin its effect.

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To Be Sane Amongst the Insane

Nellie Bly, portrait

Nellie Bly (Wikipedia)

New York, September 1887. Twenty-three-year-old journalist, Nellie Bly (real name: Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) has agreed to go undercover in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum and write a report about her experiences for the New York World. After her employers promise that they will somehow get her out, she is left to find a way in. At the time, to be sent to an asylum, a judge had to declare you insane, after two physicians agreed you were of unsound mind. Nellie fears she cannot fool them.

It proves to be easier than she thought.

Here is an excerpt from her report Ten Days in a Mad-House (my emphasis).

Quote: But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.

Just to be clear: this is non-fiction.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Fear of the paradox.

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Writing: Quirks and Perks

It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.
— E. B. White, Approach to Style in Strunk & White

 

bird

Fly free

 

In other words, stop trying to imitate J. K. Rowling or Stephen King; their duty is to themselves, your duty is to yourself.

A bit of motivation for all those (in the complement of Rowling and King) who are planning to write this weekend.


Reading recommendations

  1. The Elements of Style, by William I. Strunk and E. B. White. 
  2.  Essays of E. B. White, by E. B. White.
  3. My other two blog posts on White’s work: Avian Black Humour and Rosebuds Bow Courteously.

The Daffodil and the Preserved Prunes

Quote: His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes.

That’s Christopher Morley writing in his essay, Thoughts on Cider, taken from his collection of humorous essays, Pipefuls (1920). In the Quote, Morley is referring to a poet called Dove Dulcet. A bit of internet snooping suggests that Dulcet may have been Morley’s pseudonym, or that Dulcet may have been a literary agent. (Let me know in the comments if you know the answer.)

The Quote tickled my fancy in more ways than one. There’s the minor mystery of who Dove is; there’s the minor question of what exactly is meant by a girded spirit; there’s the poor daffodil with unrest in its soul, and the poor tin of prunes brewing riot within its walls.

I sought to explain the girded spirit by referring to the context of the Quote.

Dove is one who has faced many and grievous woes. His Celtic soul peers from behind cloudy curtains of alarm. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago fume in the smoke of his pipe. His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes. He sees the world moving on the brink of horror and despair. Sweet dalliance with a baked bloater on a restaurant platter moves him to grief over the hard lot of the Newfoundland fishing fleet.

I was left with a sense of: spirit girded by sorrow and discontent.

But the daffodil! Yes, I agree, girded spirit or not, who could accuse a daffodil of such subversion? (Tinned fruit has always been suspicious, I’ll give him that.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Shock tactic.

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The Ideal Reader: Quirks and Perks

The ideal reader wishes both to get to the end of the book and to know that the book will never end.
Alberto Manguel, A Reader on Reading

In the chapter titled Notes Towards the Definition of an Ideal Reader, Manguel lists around seventy, sometimes contradictory (or paradoxical?), statements about the ideal reader. He’s onto something.

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Similes and Smiles

Photo by ryan baker

In The Quantum and the Lotus Matthieu Ricard speaks about meditation, and how the effect of meditation on the mind can be described.

Quote: For example, some authors say that thought is initially like a frothing waterfall, then like a stream with occasional eddies, then like a large river with the odd ripple running over it, and finally like the ocean, whose depths are never disturbed.

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two seemingly disparate objects. It describes by analogy. The word simile itself comes from the Latin word like, and used to also mean likeness, resemblance, similarity (in examples such as: there is no simile between the two). Imitation is a basic learning mechanism. Our acts, words, ideas are first seen, repeated, then modified by circumstance or will. We start by emulating our parents, our friends, our teachers; later on we emulate ourselves, learning and improving on what we have done. The mutual similarity and the gradual alternations of our actions allow for (a perceived?) continuity of personality.

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Swirling Sahara and an Apricot Whoosh

Quote: White clouds shoot out in all directions, in a dust storm of flame, a gritty, swirling Sahara, burning from gray-white to an incandescent platinum so raw it makes your eyes squint, to the radiant gold so narcotic you forget how to blink.

This is Diane Ackerman describing a night launch of the space shuttle in her wonderful non-fiction book A Natural History of The Senses

Photo by Sugar Bee, sourced from Unsplash.

It has become trite to label a book wonderful, as if the word has been bleached of meaning, and left only with a wash of lukewarm approval. A shame. I rather prefer and, in this case, mean:  full of wonder; such as to excite wonder or astonishment; marvellous. Truly.

Let me dole out a bit more of her prose, as precious proof, how non-fiction can stir an image as much as fiction can. The Quote above continues as follows.

The air is full of bee stings, prickly and electric. Your pores start to itch. Hair stands up stiff on the back of your neck. It used to be that the launch pad would melt at lift-off, but now the 300,000 gallons of water crash from aloft, burst from below. Steam clouds scent the air with a mineral ash. Crazed by reflection, the waterways turn the color of pounded brass. Thick cumulus clouds shimmy and build at ground level, where you don’t expect to see thunderheads.

Photo by Garrett Carroll, sourced from Unsplash

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Knowledge: Quirks and Perks

Diversity

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge.”

Luca Turin, quoted by Chandler Burr in The Emperor of Scent

(In The Emperor of Scent (2003) Chandler Burr tells how Luca Turin, a French-Italian biophysicist, originated the vibrational theory of olfaction and struggled to be heard within the scientific community. Exciting non-fiction book, lively prose, highly recommended.)

Metaphors, by their non-literal nature, are built on disparate knowledge.

Here is the full quote:

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge, and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful. Why. Because there is no such things as disconnected facts. There is only complex structure. And both to explain complex structure to others and, perhaps more important—this is forgotten, usually—to understand them oneself, one needs better metaphors.”

I agree with his viewpoint.

This week’s quotes may have been rather dark, with Richard Morgan’s mass murder, China Miéville’s ambulatory corpse, and the humour of suicidal and homicidal birds from E. B. White’s essay Mr Forbush’s Friends, but perhaps that’s alright.

All sorts of knowledge come in handy: deep and shallow, dispiriting and uplifting, morbid and pure. Indeed, staying away from the nasty, reading just about the nice, would leave us few verbal and mental tools — perhaps even leave us an unexercised imagination — with which to fight the daily melancholy of our own lives, let alone some fiercer trouble. Facing demons within the safety of literary worlds is practice, and the only kind of practice we can get before reality strikes unreservedly, untempered.

PS (added on 5 May 2017): I just noticed that Ian McEwan said in his 2002 interview for the Paris Review: “We need to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”

Avian Black Humour

I see him, again, concealed in the lowest branches of a spruce on a small island off the Maine coast—a soft, balmy night. He is observing the arrival of Leach’s petrels, whose burrows are underneath the tree—eerie, strange birds, whose chuckling and formless sounds might have been the conversation of elves.

This is E. B. White writing in his essay Mr. Forbush’s FriendsWho and what and, dear me, why elves?

Edward Howe Forbush wrote Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States (1927–29), a book E. B. White cherished and returned to over the years, and subsequently wrote about in the aforementioned essay calling it “a three-volume summation of the avian scene”. Through his own writing, White transmitted Mr Forbush’s enthusiasm and even found merit in his rich prose occasionally touched with purple but never with dullness or disenchantment — high praise from the co-author of Strunk & White, where Omit needless words is a dictum carved in stone.

A rather dull topic for those not interested in birds, isn’t it?

But, no!

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Mortal Metaphors

Have you always wanted to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but never found a way to get started? No? Am I helping when I say it’s 600 pages of narrative poetry in Latin written in 8 AD and that it covers the myth and history of the world from the beginning to Julius Caesar? Oh and it influenced Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. There, if that didn’t convince you that the following quote — which is not from Metamorphoses — is relevant, I don’t know what will.

Quote: The gods are invoked or they initiate. They are the intermittent forces, applied at the end of the lever, with a mortal at the fulcrum on whom a myth turns.

This is a line from A. S. Kline‘s A Honeycomb for Aphrodite, Reflections on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s a reasonable, easy-to-understand, 120-page book. It doesn’t claim to be an introduction to the subject matter, but it can give you an idea of what to expect. Also, the author has published his own translation of Ovid’s poem into prose (in the same book). Instead of struggling through meter and stanza you can read in full sentences a sweet little summary of its contents.

However, if you wish to indulge in a beautiful translation, after much internet traipsing, I’ve concluded (possibly incorrectly?) that this translation by Allen Mandelbaum is poetically the most satisfactory.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Simplification.

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Rosebuds Bow Courteously

Roses bowing for love

Quote: The pasture pond was unruffled but had the prickly surface caused by raindrops, and it seemed bereft without geese. The sky was a gloomy grey. Two rosebuds bowed courteously to each other on the terrace.

A vivid few sentences by E. B. White in his essay, Eye of the Edna, from the book Essays of E. B. White. He is describing his farmyard before Hurricane Edna struck New England in 1954.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Vividness, word choice, and economy.

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The Written Word: Quirks and Perks

From Volume 8 of Prose and Verse ... by William James Linton.

Read and Write

On metaphors, quotations, and the continuity of literature, while the world and the times change. From one of the best books about books, A Reader on Reading, by Alberto Manguel.

Metaphor builds on metaphor and quotation on quotation. For some, the words of others are a vocabulary of quotations in which they express their own thoughts. For others those foreign words are their own thoughts, and the very act of putting them on paper transforms those words imagined by others into something new, reimagined through a different intonation or context. Without this continuity, this purloining, this translation, there is no literature. And through these dealings, literature remains immutable, like the tired waves, while the world around it changes.

Alberto Manguel, in AIDS and the Poet, from A Reader on Reading

There. Something for the weekend.