Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sardines and oranges

I'm not sure why this poem speaks to me so, nor do I recall the precise circumstance of my encountering it (via) and it speaking to me, but isn't that the way with poetry.

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

— Frank O'Hara

Perhaps the sentiment here — the present absence, or subtraction — might also explain why it is that I'm not a poet, even a writer. Or a mathematician.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The movements of men are not analogous to the stars

Aimee (not her real name) is a grifter. She's killed several times, for money and for justice. She is "the avenging angel of her own nihilism." She rides into town, settles in with the ruling class, and proceeds to dig up the dirt to drag them down.
"When I break this decanter of mine," he said, "I'll replace it with one with advertising on it." He held out one of the glasses to Aimée, who reached for it with one hand as she continued towelling her hair with the other. "I am very interested in promotional items and free gifts," continued the baron. "Also in trash. I have no income, you see, and a man with no income is bound to take a great interest in free gifts and trash." He took a sip of brandy and clicked his tongue appreciatively. "Given the present state of the world, don't you know, with the increase of constant capital as compared with variable capital, a whole stratum of the poor is bound to be unemployed and live off free gifts and trash, and occasionally off various government subsidies. Do you know what I am saying?"

"I am not sure," said Aimée.

"Nor am I," said the baron.
Nor am I entirely sure what to make of Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Every now and then it veers into something like social commentary, something like the above, which is just a little bit weird. Some passages are clearly anticapitalist, while Aimée herself operates on capitalist principals — she is the ultimate self-made woman. Is she being held up as a model or as an object of ridicule?

Similarly, it's difficult to discern if Manchette is espousing feminist sympathies. There must be more to his characterization of this female James Bond–type protagonist than simple male fantasy. What message is Manchette trying to communicate when he ends the novel with the line, "SENSUAL WOMEN, PHILOSPHICALLY MINDED WOMEN, IT IS TO YOU THAT I ADDRESS MYSELF"?

These oddities, other weird narrative insertions, and occasional seeming contradictions in character made this slim book a goldmine for bookclub discussion.
A little later, a little calmer now, as the pair went back down into the hall (on a wall of which hung a Weatherby Regency under-and-over double-barrel shotgun), Baron Jules further informed Aimée that, although the movements of men are not analogous to the stars, it sometimes seemed to him that they were, this on account of the posture that he had adopted, or rather that he had been obliged to adopt. These strange remarks made Aimée a little nervous, and she wanted to get away from this place. It was not long before the baron drove her back to Bléville. Yet when he left in his banged-up old 4CV, Aimée was sorry.
Fatale has a definite noir feel, but perhaps it's a little too clipped. It'd be nice to see Aimée a little closer up, insinuating herself into society, stalking her prey, to know her modus operandi better.

My sense of time and space were a little disoriented in reading Fatale. Written in the seventies, the noir tone may take you back a few decades earlier. It's set in a remote coastal village in the north of France, but "whichever way you go, there is a big hill to climb before you get out of Bléville" (I believe the hill is metaphorical).

The book reminds me of Simenon's romans durs in the moral ugliness of its characters, with a hint of existentialism underlying it all. It also brought to my mind Claude Chabrol's film La Cérémonie (based on a Ruth Rendell novel) in the violence and senselessness, the dark side of French provincial life. (Interestingly, Chabrol had adapted another Manchette work for film, so I may have sensed a common vibe.)

I really enjoyed this novella. It may ultimately prove to be forgettable, but it succeeded in lifting me out of my everyday in spectacular fashion. There are worse ways to spend a couple hours.

New York Review Books has just released Manchette's The Mad and the Bad. I need to get my hands on a copy.

See
Manchette: Into the Muck, by James Sallis, in The New York Review of Books.

Also
Analepsis
NoirWhale

Friday, July 11, 2014

On the shoulders of giants

One of the MOOCs I recently completed was On Strategy: What Managers Can Learn from Great Philosophers. While it is to date the most disorganized and worst prepared online course I've taken, the content and exercises were in fact very valuable.

One module focused on how all genius is built on the shoulders of giants. The assignment was take one or two "giants" of Luc de Brabandere's lecture (featuring Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Russell) and connect them with at least two others, not included in his model. We were to include at least one philosopher and one scientist. I further challenged myself to select women.

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Hypatia of Alexandria was a fourth-century philosopher. As a Neoplatonist, she was heavily influenced by Plato and the Platonic tradition. As such, she valued and used logic and mathematical thinking. She taught the works of Plato and Aristotle in public lectures. 1

Although considered a pagan, she is significant for bridging classical antiquity to Christianity. Her murder heralded the coming dark ages. I think of her as a philosopher because she promoted a mode of logical thinking (based on Plato), but she contributed to the advancement of various geometrical concepts (also founded in Plato) and developed instruments for use in physics and astronomy. She assisted her father in the writing of his mathematical commentary, Euclid's Elements, which in turn influenced Newton.2

Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz later expanded on Hypatia's work.3

Ada Lovelace was a 19th-century computer programmer (i.e., mathematician and scientist) who worked with Charles Babbage in developing the Analytical Engine. Her study of mathematical and scientific concepts, in particular differential calculus (developed independently by Newton and Leibniz), framed by her poetical and metaphysical attitude, drove the conceptual leap to consider the possibilities of computing machines and their applications, far beyond the arithmetic of Leibniz's calculator.

"Whilst describing the revolutionary implications of Babbage's ideas, Lovelace wrote out the first computer programme […] and she made the sensational suggestion that such a device should be able to compose music if a suitable set of rules could be devised. She thus anticipated the development of both modern computing and artificial intelligence by more than a hundred years."4 Among the innovations she imagined (that would be realized only several generations later) were the subroutine (a set of reusable instructions), looping (running a useful set of instructions over and over) and the conditional jump (branching to specified instructions if a particular condition is satisfied).5 Certainly her own shoulders are broad enough for subsequent giants to stand on (such as Alan Turing). She desired also "to create a mathematical model for how the brain gives rise to thoughts and nerves to feelings ("a calculus of the nervous system"),"6 foreshadowing the entire field of cognitive neuroscience. [See also.]


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I repost this assignment because Ada Lovelace seems to be in the air these days: she's been referenced on Halt and Catch Fire, which I've been watching; Melville House is publishing a book; and I get email from the Be Like Ada program the publisher mentions.

Someone outside of the course asked me, not why did I choose these women, but how I do even know about these women to be able to connect them with the other giants of history. The answer is, they're in the fiction I read. (I'll name, for example, All Men of Genius, by Lev AC Rosen, and Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan, as obvious references, but there are others.)

Because everything is connected.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Tell-tale

I'm writing an essay, for a MOOC, on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oval Portrait," because in this unit on Poe and Hawthorne (SF? really?), of the required reading it is the story I've never read before (it turns out I'm that kind of student), and also it's the shortest (it turns out I'm also that kind of student), and in the spirit of procrastination (I need to write 300 words in the next 12 hours, of which about 11 are already accounted for with work, sleep, and personal hygiene), I've fallen down the rabbit hole of Edgar Allan Poe theatrical adaptations, animations, and inspirations on YouTube.

So here's James Mason, with a voice, and a tell-tale heart:

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A vitamin in society's organism

"Does a god have the right to feel anything but pity?"
Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is in some ways more traditional genre fiction, at least in a North American sense, than the other two novels I've read by the brothers. Definitely, Maybe is very philosophical, static (in the sense that nothing much happens), internal (a lot of the little that happens is inside the characters' heads). Roadside Picnic, although kind of post-apocalyptic and with a noir edge, also had a deeply philosophical bent.

Hard to Be a God, on the other hand, at first glance appears to be pure genre fantasy. Or science fiction. I couldn't tell which at first.

[I asked a Russian coworker about this, and he replied, as he does regarding just about anything Russian I've mentioned in the past few years, "No, eez not science feection [or domestik drama or comedy or...]. Ees allegory ov Sovyet Rasha."]

The early chapters are all about world-building and have a medieval stench to them. The science is subtle, certainly too innocuous to be noticed by most of the resident "barbarians." But it turns out that 250 citizens of an advanced Earth have been placed on this planet to monitor and guide this "civilization" into a more enlightened era. Without "interfering." Much harder than it sounds. Don Rumata certainly has a very hard time of it indeed, and much of the book is concerned with his internal reflections.
Two hundred thousand men and women. Two hundred thousand blacksmiths, gunsmiths, butchers, haberdashers, jewelers, housewives, prostitutes, monks, money changers, soldiers, tramps, and surviving bookworms were currently tossing in bedbug-ridden, stuffy beds; sleeping, making love, recalculating profits in their heads, crying, grinding their teeth in anger or resentment. Two hundred thousand people! To a visitor from Earth, they all had something common. It was probably the fact that almost without exceptions, they were not yet humans in the modern sense of the world [sic], but blank, unfinished pieces, which only the bloody centuries of history could one day fashion into true men, proud and free. They were passive, greedy, and incredibly, fantastically selfish. Almost all of them had the psychology of slaves — slaves of religions, slaves of their own kind, slaves of their pathetic passions, slaves of avarice. And if the fates decreed for one of them to be born or become a master, he didn't know what to do with his freedom. He would again hurry to become a slave — a slave of wealth, a slave of outlandish excesses, a slave of his slaves. The vast majority of them weren't guilty of anything. They were too passive and too ignorant. Their slavery was the result of passivity and ignorance, and passivity and ignorance again and again breeds slavery.

If they were all identical, there would be reason to throw up your hands and lose hope. But they were still people, the bearers of the spark of reason. And here and there in their midst, the fires of the incredibly distant and inevitable future would kindle and blaze up. They would kindle despite it all. Despite all their seeming unworthiness. Despite the oppression. Despite the fact that they were being trampled with boots. Despite the fact that no one in the world needed them, and the everyone in the world was against them. Despite the fact that at best, they could expect contemptuous, puzzled pity.

The didn't know that the future was on their side, that the future was impossible without them. They didn't know that in a world belonging to the terrible ghosts of the past, they were the only manifestation of the future — that they were an enzyme, a vitamin in society's organism. If you destroy this vitamin, society will rot, and social scurvy will begin: the muscles will go weak, the eyes will lose their sharpness, the teeth will fall out. No country can develop without science — it will be destroyed by its neighbors. Without arts and general culture, the country loses its capacity for self-criticism, begins to encourage faulty tendencies, starts to constantly spawn hypocrites and scum, develops consumerism and conceit in its citizens, and eventually again becomes a victim of its more sensible neighbors. Persecute bookworms all you like, prohibit science, and destroy art, but sooner or later you'll be forced to think better of it, and with much gnashing of teeth open the way for everything that is so hated by the power-hungry dullards and blockheads.
And that's really the heart of the concept behind this novel.

The Strugatsky brothers had originally conceived this novel as a kind of Three Musketeers, just on another planet. Indeed there is swashbuckling and intrigue and dank taverns, but its tone took a much darker, more serious turn. The only real point in common with Dumas's creation is the sense of honour and justice.

Arkady outlined some of the initial plans for this novel in a letter: "And there would be the implicit idea that a communist who found himself in such an environment would slowly but surely become a petty bourgeois [...]." So it seems my coworker was right. Although the book is also terrific science fiction.

Here's hoping that more English translations of the Strugatsky's corpus get published, but in the meantime it's my mission to track down out-of-print editions.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

M is for meme

It's a meme and it goes like this:
"Here's something that should be fun — and do get involved in the comment section! — I'm going to kick off a meme where we say our favourite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with a particular letter. And that letter will be randomly assigned to you "by me, via random.org. If you'd like to join in, comment in the comment section and I'll tell you your letter! (And then, of course, the chain can keep going on your blog.)"
Via Bookpuddle I've been assigned the letter M (because X just wouldn't've been fair). (Although, M is almost too easy.)

Favorite Book:
Middlemarch, by George Eliot, which I read with a wonderful group of people during March through May of 2006. It's vast and rich and life-affirming and complicated, a lot like real life. Jo Walton loves it, and Eliot is revered by genre aficionados everywhere for her skilled world-building. Quite apart from just being wonderful and romantic and having great insight into human nature, reading it taught me not to be afraid of big books and that I could read carefully while still having fun.

Favorite Author: China Miéville. I've read most of what he's written, and he never ceases to astound me with his inventiveness, weirdness, learnedness. His stories can be frightening, trippy, and truly alien. To date, my favourite remains Embassytown.

Polynia, his latest short story, is available at Tor.com. I haven't read it yet; I'm saving it up for a lazy Saturday morning in bed.

Favorite Song: It being jazz festival, I'll go with The Man with the Golden Arm, which was written as the theme song for the movie of the same name starring Frank Sinatra, which was based on the novel by Nelson Algren. I picked up this album in 1988, before I ever became acquainted with the excellent movie.

Favorite Film: Moonrise Kingdom, because it's so naïve and absolutely not naïve at the same time. It's not funny the way some of Wes Anderson's other films are, but it is whimsical, and I find it heartbreakingly beautiful.



This clip does not appear in the movie. But it explores a main character's book collection. Which is something essential. (Sadly, these books don't actually exist.) I'd like to know more about the book collections of characters in other movies I see.

See also Bill Murray's tour of the set. Oh, and the official trailer, or any of the other featurettes.

Favorite Object: My mattress. Mmmm.

[Let me know if you'd like a letter of your own.]

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Colour

I love colouring.

I've known it for some time — maybe it wasn't evident when Helena was in her scribbling phase, but certainly later, when we embarked on colouring projects together and I was still at it an hour after she'd left the table, it was obvious that I was finding some peace in it.

Over the last year or so, I've fully assumed it. I find it's the perfect accompaniment to Netflix-bingeing. I find so much joy in it that I insisted on giving the gift of colouring books (and felt tips or coloured pencils as appropriate) to several grown-up loved ones at Christmas (although, it only really caught on with my sister).

So I feel somewhat vindicated to learn that colouring books are now outselling cookbooks in France. Although also, I'm a little sorry that my little hobby has become so mainstream.

The best place to buy colouring books: art supply stores and museum gift shops.