The Book and the Morning Glory

https://www.wikiart.org/en/hiroshige/morning-glory

Morning glory by Hiroshige

 

I designed the following parable to deliver its moral using a fixed, but versatile formula. See whether you can spot it.


The King had a son who loved nothing better than to sit indoors and study. Despite the numerous books that already surrounded him, the young Prince was desperate to peruse his father’s grand library—a library reputed to contain the wisdom of humankind. The King repeatedly refused, year after year.

On the day he came of age, the Prince woke to a message from his father inviting him to receive a birthday present in the library. He got dressed and rushed into the courtyard, but the library was no longer there. In its place smouldered a heap of rubble. Dismayed, the Prince walked across the sooty field, sifting through the cinders, until he arrived at the centre, where he found a pedestal and on it a single, unsinged book. He leafed through it; it was blank.

The Prince looked up to see the King slowly approaching with a saddled horse. The Prince smiled, spoke a word of thanks, and tucked away the book, before taking the reins from his father.

Later that day, the peasants working the fields near the palace watched as a young man galloped past, heading for the sunset.


Continue reading

Discovering Japanese Aesthetics

It is still believed [in Japan] that, although the elements found common to beauty are perhaps universal, it is their reception (the universal standard) that creates the excellence of the art.

Donald Richie, Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007)

The relativity of any “universal standard” is best exposed at the cultural boundaries, so it is prudent to investigate as many such boundaries as possible, in good light and good faith.

Finding an appropriate guide can be tricky.

Indeed, when seeking introduction to unfamiliar topics, I am wary of two types of books: the highly technical, impenetrable beasts dense with signs and shortcuts aimed at experts in a neighbouring field, and the colloquial, jokey-breezy anecdotal stories filled with mental candyfloss aimed as those desiring educational fairgrounds. Once in a while, I find myself in either readership, but usually the fairest, quickest route lies through the middle ground, and even then I require a particularly fortuitous path that caters to my strengths.

An introduction to Japanese aesthetics has been long in the planning, and only recently did I find an apt foothold.

Donald Richie’s Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007) is a brief but serious text, and one which can be read quickly, read for pleasure and insight, and at a later stage, read with a view towards references and synthesis.

Take the following quote:

If aesthetics in the West is mainly concerned with theories of art, that of Japan has always been concerned with theories of taste. What is beautiful depends not upon imagination (as Addison thought) nor qualities proper in the object (as Hume said) nor in its paradoxes (as Kant maintained) but rather on a social consensus.

You may be unfamiliar with the philosophies of Addison, Hume, and Kant, yet the gist of what Richie is saying remains intact. On the other hand, familiarity with the names only enhances the experience. Continue reading

Quirks and Perks: Playfulness

val vesa https://unsplash.com/photos/ihFWKicceNk

To be playful is to let go; it is to seduce and to be seduced, though perhaps in a small way. Finally, solemnity is the virtue from which we may someday perish, while playfulness is the vice that may yet redeem us.

—Crispin Sartwell, Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality (1996)

Playful is light-hearted, or light of heart.

It means jumping up because you can.

It means embracing the slight uncertainty of landing because nothing can be certain anyway.

It means reaching for the stars and grabbing handfuls of air because air is what we need, anyway, to breathe. Continue reading

The Text That Chooses You

https://www.wikiart.org/en/carl-spitzweg/the-book-worm/

The Book Worm by Carl Spitzweg (1850)

 

Books sit on shelves and wait for us to find them. 

Not quite.

Every book, inanimate as it is in its state of matter, may not have the attention-seeking drive of a living, brainy organism, but it does have a presence that selectively draws some of us closer, while repelling others.

Little experience with book covers (design, size, publisher’s logo) is needed before you can make a basic, almost subconscious approximation: yea or nay. A little more experience with certain authors, and you know upon associating their names to a new text where you stand in relation to it.

That’s old-school thinking. Still basically correct today, though evolved.

Subtler forces govern a book-world where shelf browsing often happens online, at clicking speed, where previews and reviews are abundant, where recommendation lists crop up unbidden (books-by-this-author, lists-with-this-book, what-others-who-liked-this-also-bought), and where many, mostly older, books are freely available on sites like gutenberg.org (50k) or archive.org (1500k). Continue reading

For the Word-Lovers: Soul

https://www.wikiart.org/en/john-william-waterhouse/a-alma-da-rosa-ou-minha-doce-rosa-1908/

The Soul of the Rose by John William Waterhouse (1908)

 

An unexpected etymological delight cropped up in my reading of Jung. The soul, wouldn’t you want to know whence it came? For once I did not have to trawl through a dictionary myself, but could enjoy a clear, informative, and measured exposition (no puns, no detours, no dry details).

What is the origin of the world Seele? Like the English word soul, it comes from the Gothic saiwala and the Old German saiu’alô, and these can be connected with the Greek aiolos, mobile, coloured, iridescent. The Greek word psyche also means butterfly. Saiwalô is related on the other side the old slavonic word sila, meaning strength. From these connections light is thrown on the original meaning of the word Seele: it is moving force, that is life-force.

The Latin words animus, spirit, and anima, soul, are the same as the Greek anemos, wind. The other Greek word for wind, pneuma, means also spirit. In Gothic we find the same word in us-anan, to breathe out, and in Latin an-helare, to pant. In Old High German, spiritus sanctus was rendered by atun, breath. In Arabic, wind is rīh, and rūh is soul, spirit. Thre is a quite similar connection with the Greek psyche, which is related to psycho, to breathe, psychos, cool, psychros, cold, and physa, bellows. These affinities show clearly how in Latin, Greek and Arabic the names given to the soul are related to the notion of moving air, the “cold breath of the spirit.” And this is also why the primitive point of view endows the soul with an invisible breath-body.

—C. G. Jung in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (translated by W. S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes)

Jung goes on to talk about other metaphors used to described the soul. Except air, there is fire, because warmth is associated with life, there is the name of an individual, and there is their shadow.

I wonder which name the modern soul prefers.

Hazelnuts in the Chocolate Text

Characters in yellow by Paul Klee (1937)—resisting uniformity

 

Endless walls, endless trains, endless clouds.

Uniformity, monotony, apathy. They make for drearier reading than a blank page (at least a blank page is hope’s canvas). Hence Kurt Vonnegut’s counsel to aspiring authors:

Make [your] characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

(From his interview with The Paris Review in 1977.).

Needs must when nature drives.

Wants give the reader a foothold in the story: What do you think of a man dying of thirst because he cannot reach the glass on his bedside table? Or of a political activist refusing a glass of water as part of her protest fast until she is force-fed?

Opinion is hardly dispassionate. A meagre glass of water will elicit something in even the most desensitised reader (pity, bile, fever), and the emotional investment in another’s hardship—be it fictional—amounts to attention.

Generating hardship is the storyteller’s prerogative and duty, generating it any which way, usually by an idiosyncratic magic opaque to others. But before the twirl of the wand happens, the elements of the craft are strategically employed: the opening paragraph hooks the reader, story parts flow into one another, the final punch is delivered with due panache. Ultimately learnable, practicable, and discernible, these elements are the ideal backdrop against which to measure the effect of the wand’s hocus-pocus. Continue reading

Writing What Will Not Be Read

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DvorakReader.jpg

Reader by František Dvořák (1906)

 

In a conversation, we speak to be heard, if not listened to. In a letter for a friend or a story for the public, we write to be read, if not deeply regarded.

Every word is intended for effect.

No other starting position makes sense for a wordsmith, especially with respect to impatient, multitasking modern readers. Their attention mustn’t be wasted on unnecessary ideas, passages, or words. 

(Or, in the extreme, on individual letters. Getting the Words Right, an otherwise helpful guidebook to writing, suggests that s be cut from words like towards and forwards as part of a so-called nano-reduction, at least in American English. In British English, towards and toward are interchangeable, but the nuanced distinction between forward and forwards is still respect-worthy at the cost of the occasional extra letter.)

But who judges what’s necessary in a text?

A writer’s intentions—the best, the worst, and the proverbially dubious—pave all sorts of profoundly manufactured, “necessary” roads the reader almost certainly won’t walk. The reader seeks what the reader needs: excitement, information, oblivion, or perhaps just a digestive after a heavy meal. The reader takes what is useful and strips off the rest. Roland Barthes calls this perceived encounter of useful and useless tmesis. Continue reading

Reading Faster, or Speeding up the Striptease

https://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-honore-fragonard/a-young-girl-reading-1776-1

A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1776)

 

Most communions are licit between mind and body, though only some are enshrined in language. 

Within standard usage, the mind can handle, sit on, kick about, or push through difficult problems, while the body remembers what it’s like to be out in the open, the legs are happy to run for miles, and the lungs don’t mind the effort. More creative metaphors would have the mind swimming through a sea of problems or the body navigating a complex ontological issue by mutating. (Here navigating, the physical action of driving a ship, was first abstracted for application in matters of intellect and Internet, before being returned to serve in the physical realm, metaphorically.)

While metaphors can sidle up, similes are signposted either with like or as, or with phrases such as the colour/sound/feeling of or the way that. Also, similes tend to focus on partial comparisons: in the context of gymnastics, a girl could be as nimble as a fawn, without the reader worrying that she might fall prey to the wolves in the hills. Because there are no wolves and no hills; the fawn is, with few exceptions, confined to the initial phrase. That said, extended, unintended meanings are effortlessly available (predatory males as wolves, for example). The imagination obliges, whenever the simile resonates. Continue reading

Cutting Through Language

https://www.wikiart.org/en/wassily-kandinsky/gentle-accent-1934/

Gentle accent by Wassily Kandinsky (1934)—one way to think about the deep layering of language?

 

Covering a few miles on the weekend means checking the weather program and pulling out those old shorts and putting on the stinky trainers and knotting the fraying shoelaces and stepping outside and taking the first step and… jogging.

It can also mean getting ready, warming up, jogging, finishing with a sprint.

These two descriptions of the same activity illustrate the basic difference between the rhetorical figures they employ: polysyndeton in the first case (many conjunctions), and asyndeton in the second case (no conjunctions).

The polysyndeton brings about a stream of consciousness that reports elements as they occur, or a stately, biblical grandness, such as:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, …

—John 10:27–28, KJV

The asyndeton brings about swiftness and density, or a jerky, rushed rhythm, such as:

Ho! hearts, tongues, figures, scribes, bards, poets, cannot
Think, speak, cast, write, sing, number, ho!

—Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 3.2.16

(These and many more examples are offered in Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech.)

The Shakespeare example is a particularly radical asyndeton, called a brachylogia (meaning short speech), where the conjunctions are omitted between individual words making them into a list or heap. Indeed, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian classed both syndetons as types of acervatio (a heaping up).

Rhetorical heaps are sensible sequences. The Gospel polysyndeton is a temporal sequence; the Shakespeare asyndeton comprises two sequences derived from the same word classes (nouns, then verbs). Other more general heaps, like congeries, rely on a climactic ordering to achieve the satisfying feeling of crescendo and carry the reader over (sometimes dubious) reasoning.

Commas hold an asyndeton heap together.

A proliferation of commas, however, can signal crisp yet complex writing not comprising of homogeneous sequences. Continue reading

Reading Speed: Aristocratic

https://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-art-of-conversation-1950-3/

The art of conversation by René Magritte (1950)—slow down, look. Rêve is dream in French.

 

In an age obsessed with saving time, reading speed is increasingly scrutinised. Brevity, clarity, immediate relevancy—done! Click on the next link.

The prize is gratification at the price of linguistic mystique.

Lyrical novels are the obverse. Looping descriptions, metaphors upon symbols upon embedded stories, resonances with previously unexplored feelings and questions questions questions—not done! Not done, even when the last word is read.

The prize is linguistic mystique at the price of gratification.

The dichotomy isn’t so obvious: lengthy thrillers immediately pertain to the specific goal of fun pastime, as do mystery novels; on the other hand, short poems resonate for years, as do certain “clear”, brief statements or questions (traditional sayings, koans).

In fact:

One. This dichotomy isn’t drawn between nonfiction and fiction, or between genre and literary, or between prose and poetry.

Two. This dichotomy isn’t about the words per minute one person can read compared to another.

Three. This dichotomy isn’t well-defined.

Four. A better-defined dichotomy is that of renown French literary critic, Roland Barthes, who divides the world of texts according to one of the two systems of reading applied to each text.

 The translator, Richard Miller, makes clear that Barthes’s original Pleasure of the Text is far more titillating than the English version. (The book, after all, centres on the explicit, almost erotic pleasure that can be derived from a text.) If there’s one reason to learn French— Continue reading

The Figure of a Book

 

Some measurements of an object may be more important than others. If a medieval scholar asks how many angels can dance on the head of a pinyou’re unlikely to enquire about the length of the pin. (But enquiring about the size of the dance area, namely the head, would be reasonable.)

Some measurements distort under projection. A man at noon dwarfs his own shadow, but a man in a torchlit cave casts a giant on the wall. This happens because the shadow of an object depends on the object, the source of light, the surface catching the shadow, and their relative positions. Therefore, shadows hint at features of their owner without necessarily describing their owner’s essence.

Those in Plato’s cave cannot imagine the sun.

Similarly: silhouettes are contours from one viewpoint (a cylindrical candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, and a circle when seen from above); photographs show us the lens-facing side (a rectangle of wax and a flaming disc).

Projections are simplifications.

Shadows, silhouettes, photographs, x-rays, scans are projections of physical objects that a human mind grasps more easily than the objects themselves. In intellectual matters, we outline issues and give snapshots of complex situations. Further, a state of mind is the mind viewed within a slice of time—it’s a momentary projection of a more complex figure.

A current state of the mind is by definition “reasonable” or “comprehensible” to that mind, but taken over time, taken together, these projections of mind trace an incomprehensible figure consisting of various states (incomprehensible, in as much as we cannot remember all of it or recreate all of it or make sense of all of it).

But what if all projections over all time could be understood in their entirety? And not just those of mind, but more generally, those of man? Continue reading

The Shell of a Book

https://www.wikiart.org/en/leonardo-da-vinci/study-of-hands/

Study of hands by Leonardo da Vinci (c.1474)

 

Artefacts are made to the measure of a human hand. A spoon balances between thumb and forefinger, a cigarette between forefinger and middle finger, a ring between the knuckles of the fourth finger. A keyboard letter fits on the tip of one, a smartphone fits in the grip of all five.

Physical books are no different: their shells are designed to be held and manipulated (from the Latin manus meaning hand). Size, weight, shape; cover quality, binding; texture, thickness, stickiness of pages. Certain values of these parameters confer certain “paravalues” on the content, even if spuriously. Larger is lengthier is deeper or broader. Slimmer is smaller is sleeker or sparser. Weightier is weightier. Lighter is lighter-weight.

Test it on unfamiliar content. 

Unfamiliar content is more serious in hardback, more grand in a large format, more fancy on glossy paper—than it is in mass-market paperback. The content ought to vaguely match the paravalues implied by a particular shell, and usually does. Or else, for example: A jolt of incongruity strikes me every time I see an airport novel bound solid and shiny for the centuries, like it’s a compendium of philosophical wisdom.

Test it on familiar content.

The same content in a sturdy shell and in a flimsy shell is not the same content. 

Conventionally, visual aspects of the shell feed prejudice, hence the saying: do not judge a book by its cover. But the saying omits to warn against judging a book by the overall feeling of its shell—edges, friction, and gravity—when hand goes to cover.

The shell’s physicality also imbues the reading process. Via the visual aspect, as usual: font, layout, print quality. But also via the tactile: size, weight, shape, etc, like above. The landscape between the palms, with a broken spine or dog-eared pages or an annoying French flap, integrates, over the formative period, a reader’s proprioception with their mental representation of the book’s content. 

This is why the e-reader experience, where the “shell” of all e-books is the same, sometimes feels like a bobbing about of the mental faculty, disconcerting and abstract, in the absence of the body—it’s discombobulating.

Which hints at one of the two underappreciated aspects of a book-shell: its finiteness. 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

Fishing in a Bathtub

https://unsplash.com/photos/2qvxIr_DXGo

Here, have some flash-fiction from seventy years ago.

You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.” That story belongs to the baroque type. But in it can be grasped quite clearly to what a degree the absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic. Kafka’s world is in truth an indescribable universe in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it.

—Albert Camus on Kafka, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien)

The bathtub story starts from an absurd proposition (fishing in bathtub).

The doctor assumes the patient has taken seriously the first part of the proposition (fishing), so proceeds to play along by asking whether the fishes are biting.

The patient, however, latches onto the second part of the proposition (bathtub) and is insulted by the doctor’s lack of intelligence.

The logic of both participants isn’t at fault, though the disjunction stemming from the initial absurdity is. At a basic level this paradoxical repartee is easily inserted into the core of any incident. Somehow it doesn’t fail to perplex every time.

  • Man is talking to the wall. Friend asks whether the wall is talking back. Man responds: “It’s a wall, how can it talk back?”
  • Woman in a café is teaching her dog to read. Kindly waiter asks whether the dog has learned any of the letters yet. Woman responds: “It’s a dog, you idiot.“
  • Boy is writing dead grandma a letter. Mother asks whether he expects grandma to reply with a letter. Boy rolls eyes and responds: “Of course not, grandma is dead.”

Even though I just wrote those three examples, holding their meaning in my head makes me spin like Kafka’s top.

Continue reading

Imaginary Creatures: Cross-Breeds

https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q17494958#/media/File:Joseph_blanc,_perseo,_1869.JPG

Perseus riding Pegasus by Joseph Blanc (1869) — Pegasus has a braid in his tail!

 

Moonlit blue-tinted night, billowy curtains flicking edges of open terrace doors, impending danger for two sky-gazing protagonists. In swoops a softly neighing white horse with wings so large they trail on the ground when folded.

My first memory of Pegasus.

Despite the grainy TV picture and the obviously unrealistic set of what must have been an ancient Hollywood film, I only remember the awe. The magic! A flying horse, whoever thought of that?

Afterwards, catching a glimpse of a flying lion in a show about Narnia somehow didn’t do it for me. Not to say that Aslan is comparable to Pegasus, but perhaps there is a little idea-bulb in every child’s mind belonging to winged animals, and it can only be turned on once: first-imagined best-imagined?

https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-moreau/the-sphinx-1864/

The Sphinx by Gustave Moreau (1864)

Fictional cross-breeds, or hybrids, are produced by mating or creatively putting together a few different species. They’ve populated humankind’s imagination as long as shape-shifters.

I won’t attempt a classification—Wikipedia is thorough. However, since I mentioned horses and lions, here’s a taster for their hybrids.

With lion bodies:

  • The Great Sphinx of Giza (built c. 2550 BCE) has a human head, but the mythological sphinx also has wings.
  • The manticore, a fantastic man-eater creature from Persian mythology, has a human head and a scorpion’s tail (recorded by Pliny the Elder c. 70 CE).
  • The lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity, has a human head and wings (first recorded in 3000 BCE).
  • The Lion of Venice has wings (erected in the 12th century).
  • The griffin has the head and wings of an eagle (traced back to before 3000 BCE).

Continue reading

Kafka’s Invisibles

https://unsplash.com/photos/2L50Or-nJDw

Invisibility is a superpower. 

Tolkien’s One Ring and Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility render the wearer unseen by conventional methods. Much before that, the Ancient Greeks had gods who surrounded their favourite heroes in mists and clouds so that they could pass unchallenged.

Of course, all superpowers come with a price, and occasionally end in tragedy. H. G. Wells’s invisible man, the protagonist of his eponymous novel, struggles to control his ability, so much so it becomes more of a hindrance than a help.

But what of invisibility in daily life?

It’s actually quite prevalent, and it comes about in two flavours: as a result of being ignored, or as a result of ignorance. The former implies intention and a deliberate act, the latter an accident and blameless innocence—the middle ground is shaded by degrees of intentional ignorance.

(Unsurprisingly, both ignore and ignorance come from the negation of the same Latin stem gnō-, meaning to know, but perhaps surprisingly ignorance is the older word by a few centuries.)

Franz Kafka’s collection of short stories includes at least four very different explorations of invisibility, of which only Rejection was published during his lifetime. Here they are. Continue reading

Kafka’s Hunger Artist

Fasting would surely come into fashion again at some future date, yet that was no comfort to those living in the present. What, then, was the hunger artist to do?

—Franz Kafka, The Hunger Artist (1922); translated by Will and Edwin Muir.

Fasting has come into fashion. Today it’s called dieting.

In moderation, it’s vaunted as a healthful activity. Taken to an extreme, it’s a debilitating mental illness. Either way, dieting is usually triggered by peer pressure, and since our bodies are our visible, measurable exteriors, all those peers will have an opinion which will affects us.

To put it bluntly: losing weight quickly becomes a performance art.

Kafka’s Hunger Artist explores what this performance art means without going into the physical aspect. Sure, bodies existed in the early 20th century, but calorie-counting, bodybuilding, and pilates weren’t the fad. So instead, the premise is entirely absurdist à la Kafka, but the debilitation, the existential angst, and the struggle of the protagonist with the world (and with himself) are all recognisably modern. Continue reading

Kafka’s Harrow

https://unsplash.com/photos/ihU_N2YOuQo

Kafka has fallen out of favour in the modern age. 

The German-speaking Bohemian author, Franz Kafka (1883–1924), I mean. 

In contrast, the software, Apache Kafka, is prominently favoured in nine out of the first ten Google results for the search string Kafka.

Perhaps rightly so. After all, software is designed to aid not to befuddle, and to disperse existential angst not to replicate it on paper. Although, it’s a toss-up which of computer-esque or Kafkaesque better describes the alienation of man from mankind.

Since computers are all the rage, I’ll favour the “underdog” Kafka on this blog.

Image of the man?

I expected the search engine to throw up pictures of a human-sized beetle with a rotting apple stuck in its carapace. Even after having read five hundred pages of Vintage Kafka that contains all of his shorter works, I still identify the author with his novella The Metamorphosis. Or rather, with the protagonist, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin-beetle-creature.

The beetle is nasty; his story is sad.

The revulsion, the absurdity, the helplessness of this ungeheueres Ungeziefer (the German original helps spur the imagination), the ostracism that follows, and the final sinking into irrelevancy—they’re the sequence of events anyone on social media dreads. What happens if one day you wake up “ugly”, “disabled”, “different”, and ultimately incapable of communicating with the rest of society?

So despite his poor performance in search results, Kafka is still germane today. Continue reading

Wittkop’s Necrophiliac

This post stands in the controversial shadow of its title.

You have been warned.

Quote: Sex is spoken of in all forms except one. Necrophilia isn’t tolerated by governments nor approved by questioning youth. Necrophiliac love: the only sort that is pure. Because even amor intellectualis — that great white rose —waits to be paid in return. No counterpart for the necrophiliac in love, the gift that he gives of himself awakens no enthusiasm.

—Gabrielle Wittkop, The Necrophiliac (1972); translated by Don Bapst.

Should every gap in the literary offering be plugged with a high-brow treatment?

I’d say no, because every is too broad a requirement. But some gaps do need the occasional thoughtful contribution. Necrophiliac was Wittkop’s, and she wasn’t shy about it.

Rewind a couple of centuries, and we find one of her literary forefathers: Marquis de Sade. He plugged a gap of his own, but in a savage, largely unpalatable, and tedious manner. For example, his 120 Days of Sodom runs close to four-hundred pages, and just the opening few contain enough brazen graphic violence to put off most people.

The Necrophiliac isn’t like that. It’s ninety pages, written in first person, from the point of view of a sensitive, poetically inclined protagonist. Readers always have to work harder to condemn the narrator in whose head they ride—Wittkop knew what she was doing. Continue reading

Morality and the Multiple Choice Test

lacie-slezak https://unsplash.com/photos/yHG6llFLjS0

On the continuum containing dictionaries with tiny margin-side illustrations and full-blown comics, where would you put a novel in the form of an exam?

An exam with pictures?

No, no pictures. But at least it’s multiple choice.

Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice published in 2014, is a novel-exam hybrid which I’ll refer to as a novexam. It is divided in five sections according to the types of questions he asks of the reader. Section I contains the following instructions (translation from the Spanish by Megan McDowell):

In exercises 1 through 24, mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.

1. MULTIPLE

  1. manifold
  2. numerous
  3. untold
  4. five
  5. two

How would you answer?

Manifold is almost a synonym for multiple, as is numerous, as is the first meaning of untold. But what of five and two? They’re related to each other (as numbers), and they’re both multiples, even if two is smaller than five. The dilemma may appear trivial, or subtle, or indeed unsettling depending on how you see it.

To my US readers: who just had a flashback to an SAT nightmare?

To everyone: if I were giving out instructions on how to read this, and any other, novexam I’d say: before and after reading each “question” remember—remember!that this is voluntary and no one will grade your answers. Otherwise you may not progress past the first few questions, or you may find your blood pressure needs medical attention.

A unique reading experience is undeniably Zambra’s intention, so you shouldn’t completely anaesthetise yourself from the emotional impact, but if you’re unused to challenging books, beware.

— Mini spoiler alert: I will not reveal the plot of the stories, and there are plots and stories in the book; however, I may reveal the moral of Section I, and therefore possibly part of the overall message Zambra wishes to impart—

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Storytelling in Space and Time

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Remember, remember, The Last Jedi that came out in December?

 

There’s the conventional text, rows of inky print on ivory.

Then there’s the audio book on one side and the graphic novel on the other. Audio books replace the visual aspect of reading with an aural one, whereas graphic novels introduce additional visual elements at the expense of words.

Occasionally, the internet debates whether consuming either of these counts as reading, so let me first state my opinion—it depends how you define reading, and in any dialogue I’m willing to be as liberal with the terminology as is needed so long as it’s consistent—and now let me move on.

It’s more interesting to consider how different means of storytelling combine our senses into a coherent experience. After all, we hear in time, but we see in space; to my mind this affects the chosen medium and the experience more so than most other aspects.

Let me explain why.

In storytelling, written words convey both sounds and pictures. You hear that gunshot, you see the victim sprawling. Of course, words can make you cringe or break out in goosebumps; they can make you laugh or teach you a lesson. Like any story.

But it’s also true that sounds—spoken words, music, noise—convey pictures (and words) and more.

Indeed, pictures—moving, stationary, on the page and off, fine art, doodles—convey sounds (and words) and more.

So audio, illustrated, and written mediums, whilst not interchangeable, lend credibility and imaginative capacity to each other like a set of connected siphoning chambers in the reader’s mind.

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How to Surive a Tough Book: Philosophy

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Different books offer different pleasures and not all of them end in heart-thumping affect.

Some books are initially overwhelming—like, for me, Knut Hamsun’s Hungerand require a modified, laterigrade approach where I half-squint, half-sidle down the page, and whenever it gets too much, I write a comment to release a part of the emotional pressure.

Some books are initially underwhelming—like, for me, Spinoza’s Ethics—and require a modified, porpoising approach where I jump in and out of the page, searching for connections and meaning.

In both cases a creative persistence is needed, and ultimately rewarded (if anything, rewarded more than when reading a middling potboiler that ticks all the boxes).

When books are deemed “tough”, it’s because they require a new coping mechanism from the reader: a different approach from chapter to chapter, a modification of reading goals mid-chapter, and (gasp!) actual thinking while reading.

Escapism—of the kind where you plop yourself on the massage table in an all inclusive resort, become dough, and forget the hands that knead you—it is not. When a book gets tough the bar serves glasses full of pebbles, the air smells of an end-of-year exam hall, and the band plays an industrial hard-metal version of Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring.

Most people riot, then get up and leave.

However, a tough book is also a challenge, and one which can still bring the pleasure of “flow”—a psychological state where man is so well-matched to mission that the world’s problems fall away.

So don’t leave.

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Chain of Reasoning

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This week has been about intention: first, where it starts and are we in control; then, once established, how it can employ paltering to achieve its goals. Today, I bring up the fundamental intention most of us have when we communicate: we want to make sense.

In particular, there is one figure of speech, anadiplosis, that can lend our arguments the forcefulness and validity of truth even when applied to unconnected elements.

Start from the beginning.

Making sense amounts to cogently conveying our arguments to another person. What it means to do so cogently and what is defined as an argument will depend on the situation: explaining why we’re late, discussing whether to purchase a car, or simply telling a story. Whichever the circumstances, our aim is rarely to garble and perplex.

On sentence level, our reasoning is often a long chain of phrases bound together by conjunctions, which, like the accordions of articulated buses, bend and groan under the strain of each turning—but hold. On paragraph level, we rely on unity of subject matter (traditionally a new subject requires a new paragraph), conventions of reasoning (specific to general statements, general statement and examples, logical argument etc), or all of the above formatted in an idiosyncratic, but fairly apparent “flow of thought”, such as bullet points in agendas, dialogue blocks in a book, action sequences, stanzas. Anything.

Occasionally, what we’re saying doesn’t contain any immediate or established sense, but we would like it to appear otherwise (for whatever reason, poetic or pernicious). This is when we can apply anadiplosis, a figure of speech where we begin a sentence with the final word, or any other significant word, from the preceding sentence.

Let’s see it do the job.

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Mephisto and Words: Quirks and Perks

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Faust or Faustus of German legend started his literary life in a late sixteenth century chapbook by an unknown author. He was brought to the English audience by Christopher Marlowe in his play Doctor Faustus, and then flourished in Goethe’s Faust more than two hundred years later (and has become a literary trope since then).

Faust is God’s favourite scholar, bent on learning all there is but dissatisfied with what he has thus far achieved. Mephistopheles is a demon who bets with God that Faust can be corrupted, and proceeds to pit his wits against Faust. In Goethe’s dramatisation, Mephistopheles is a whimsical, down-to-earth character—he is the cynic to Faust’s romantic—and he has some of the best, if not wisest, lines in the play.

Since Quiver Quotes is devoted to fine writing, and in that sense too, the art of rhetoric and the power of the word, let us hear what Mephistopheles, or Mephisto as is his hypocoristic, has to say about words, paradoxes, and human nature. (Taken from the Wordsworth Classics edition; translation by John R. Williams.)

MEPHISTO.    I’ve always found that you can fox
                           A wise man or a fool with paradox.
                           It’s an old trick, but it works all the same,
2560                 And every age has tried time and again
                           To spread not truth, but error and obscurity,
                           By making three of one and one of three.
                           And so the fools can preach and teach quite undisturbed —
                           Who wants to argue with them? Let them wander on;
2555                  Most men believe that when they hear a simple word,
                           There must be some great meaning there to ponder.
                                                                                               (2557–2566)

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To Live or to Recount: Quirks and Perks

arms spread wide, sky

Photo by Joshua Earle

Quote:  This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must — and this is all that is necessary — start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

But you have to choose: to live or to recount.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (translator: Robert Baldick)

A lesser mind might have put that last statement as: you cannot be both present in the moment and looking back at the past. Or: you cannot be both within, experiencing life, and without, observing it. But Sartre framed his words in terms of storytelling. On the other hand, the first sentence of the Quote is a recipe for any author (supposedly) bereft of ideas or inspiration: you are a story, your life is a story, all you have to do is recount it.

Skip now from Sartre, the existentialist, to Camus, the absurdist, speaking in his novel The Stranger (which I discussed in The Sunny Absurd).

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The Sunny Absurd

 

Albert Camus’ Stranger (1942) has one protagonist, the first person narrator called Meursault, and one antagonist: the sun. The book is originally in French; I quote from a translation by Stuart Gilbert. I have italicised all the words related to the sun.

Quote: There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.

Any book blurb gives away that this is a story of how Meursault got drawn into a murder on an Algerian beach. There’s also mention of the story being Camus’ exploration of the nakedness of man faced with the absurd. The Quote describes Meursault walking along the fateful beach, and his physical fight with the absurdity of his situation.

The Quote is not a spoiler. The book is short, around 100 pages, and within the first quarter the following words play prominent roles in conveying the oppressive mood of absurdity: sun, light, heat, lamps. The remaining three quarters intensify the heat — summer and the plot set in.

Oh, and the opening words are: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. That surely adds to the heavy mood, and yet, the only image that had stayed with me since I last read this book, half a life ago, was the dazzle of yellow and white that can wreck havoc on the mind.

 

What makes the Quote quiver?

Sun-glare.

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