Archive for March, 2011

March 31, 2011

Be Kind…

Before it was shut down, the motto of a blog I liked to visit was the following quote. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. On the blog it was attributed to Plato. I liked it. I could use being reminded not to jump down people’s throats, being generous in interpreting what they say, hearing not only what they utter, but where they are coming from.
I also liked it because it was Plato’s. The stern and strict father of philosophy ultimately had a soft heart, understanding that people can have different mind frames than his own…errr, that doesn’t sound right. Plato’s the guy who wanted to kick poets and artist out of the ideal Republic because they might distract people from what is real; how would he have been the one to say something so inclusive? Sounds fishy.

Not to worry. The Gods of the interwebs have provided us with Quote Investigator. There we are told (through a quote) that “this sounds anachronistic for Plato by almost 2500 years.” Oops. Other than Plato, the quote is sometimes attributed to Philo of Alexandria and (the always popular) Anonymous.
Ok, so where does the quote come from? The diligent people who write their pages have gone back through time, searching when the quote appears. 1995, 1984, 1965, 1957, 1947, 1932…
(…keep going…)
In the Boston, Massachusetts periodical, Zion’s Herald of December 25th, 1897, they found: “IAN MACLAREN,” along with other celebrities, was asked to send a Christmas message to an influential religious weekly in England. He responded by sending the short but striking sentence: “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.” No message is more needed in our days of stress and storm, of selfish striving and merciless competition.

Pitiful here is in the older, no longer used sense of compassionate, merciful, tender, hence it turns into ‘Be kind…’. Ian MacLaren was the pseudonym for Rev. John Watson, a Scottish author and Theologian. Not quite Plato…still good, though.

March 30, 2011

Key to the World

– for Cait

Recently, I have been told to put Bruno Latour on my reading list. I was further encouraged by a post on deconcrete that led me to an article Latour wrote about the Berlin Key.

Of course, for Latour the key is an entry point for discussion about objects, technology, society, social relations, humans… “Shall we say that the social relations between tenants and owners, or inhabitants and thieves, or inhabitants and delivery people, or co-owners and concierges, are mediated by the key, the lock, and the Prussian Locksmith? […] Give me the society of Berlin, and I will tell you how the key is shaped!”

The name of the Prussian Locksmith, whom Latour says he does not know, is supplied by Wikipedia: Johann Schweiger. (further from Wikipedia.) “It was designed to force people to close and lock their doors (usually a front door or gate).”  Apparently, it “continues to be a distinctive feature of the city of Berlin…”.

For a careful explanation of how the key accomplishes its goal, and interesting thoughts about what its mediation means for the world, read Bruno Latour’s article here.

March 26, 2011

commentary, quote, commentary

I give you a quote within a quote and a comment from a book of commentary on the literature of W.G. Sebald.

“Newspapers were one of the communications technologies that aided the binding together of diverse and geographically dispersed audiences, facilitating the development of nation and national and historical consciousness as newspapers allowed individuals to see themselves in relation wider patterns of ongoing history. Each newspaper-reader, argues Benedict Anderson [in a book published in 1991]:
is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned?

The thought I had when I read the quote was already precisely expressed in the margin by a previous reader, who wrote the words: it’s moved to the www.

Here we are reading and blogging imaginary communities together.

March 25, 2011


In a wonderful article on handwriting through the ages (“from scriptorium to LongPen™”) over at triplecanopy, Joshua Cohen tells us that Antonio Sinibaldi, scribe to the Medicis, who had “an elegant, gracile hand,” was the first major scribe to be put out of work by the Gutenberg machine in 1480.

Antonio Sinibaldi's handwriting

The scribes understood that it wasn’t just their jobs that were on the line – the whole world was changing for them. More from Cohen.
In 1492, Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, wrote De Laude Scriptorum, “In Praise of Scribes,” a polemic addressed to Gerlach, Abbot of Deutz. Trithemius’s intention was to uphold scribal preeminence while denouncing the temptations of the emerging press: “The printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear. But the scribe working with parchment ensures lasting remembrance for himself and for his text.” Trithemius asserted that movable type was no substitute for solitary transcription, as the discipline of copying was a much better guarantor of religious sensibility than the mundane acts of printing and reading. As evidence he offers the account of a Benedictine copyist, famed for his pious perspicuity, who had died, was buried by his brethren, then subsequently (though inexplicably) exhumed. According to Trithemius, the copyist’s corpus had decomposed but for three fingers of his composing hand: his right thumb, forefinger, and middle finger—relics, like manuscripture itself, of literary diligence.

The article talks about everything from the oldest complete Bible to computers, via Shakespare, Melville, Nietzsche, Kafka…brilliant!

March 24, 2011

Memories More Permanent than Stone

Austerlitz, the main (the only?!) character of Austerlitz, the novel by W. G. Sebald, is not telling the story of his life. Or rather, we get very few facts of his biography. The novel is one long tale of moments he spent with other people, mostly retelling things they tell him. This whole poly-thread narrative (if one can call it that) is wrapped in the voice of a nameless, almost non-existent narrator (indeed, but for the frequent reminders “Austerlitz said,” he would be imperceptible), who does not sound any different than Austerlitz himself. Like in Vertigo, the narration slips fluidly from character to character without any real indication of change. You’d be excused for thinking that all the human voices in the book are one character, tied into the name Austerlitz.

Which is only his second second name. Jacques Austerlitz really remembers his childhood name being Dafydd Elias, adopted son of a Welsh preacher. After the death of the preacher and his wife, the boy is told in boarding school that he was adopted at age four on the eve of World War II. It is only in his old age, in the 1980s, that he goes in search of his roots in Prague, where the Austerlitz family is from. From scraps, old photos, records, stories, museum notes, left over objects, and of course stories of other people, he reconstructs that Austerlitz who wasn’t. Only, reconstruct is not the right word. It’s more an archeology of an Austerlitz who wasn’t. It’s all there, in the name, it just needs to be brought out. When he sees a photo of himself, a self he did not remember until that moment, Austerlitz tells us that “the pictures had a memory of their own and remembered us, remembered the roles that we, the survivors, and those no longer among us had played in our former lives.”

This permanence of memory, of past and others’ lives dissolves time itself. The present is endlessly bound up with the past and the invisibility of history makes it all the more present. Looking out over Paris, an acquaintance says: “Sometimes, so Lemoine told me, said Austerlitz, he felt the current of time streaming round his temples and brow when he was up here, but perhaps, he added, that is only a reflex of the awareness formed in my mind over the years of the various layers which have been superimposed on each other to form the carapace of the city.”


To the archeology of the human voices the book opposes the architecture of the inhuman. From the beginning to the end of the book we get descriptions of various castles, towers, fortifications, walls. All of which were built with ruthless precision, unyielding reason, planned out to the last detail and made from the hardest stone. “…a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately strikes the layman as an emblem both of absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power.” Not only do these fortresses fail to protect the people they are designed to protect, however, they become the perfect place to imprison, torture and from which to terrorize people. Like the fort of Mechelen in Belgium, which had “the result that the entire Belgian army would have been insufficient to garrison the fortifications.” Or indeed “the fortress of Breendonk, said Austerlitz, a fort completed just before the outbreak of the First World War in which, within a few months, it proved completely useless for the defense of the city and the country.

One such fortification build in the 18th century is Terezín in Bohemia. The Gestapo converted it into Theresienstadt, a concentration camp where Agáta, Austerlitz’s mother is deported after he himself is sent to England. Despite the horror of the camp (or perhaps because of it), to try and understand the architecture of such a place only renders it less, not more real. In reading a book about the architecture of the camp, he tells us:

“The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unraveled syllable by syllable. When I finally discovered the meaning of such terms and concepts as Barackenbestandteillager, Zusatzkostenberechnungsschein, Bagatellreparaturwerkstätte, Menagetransportkolonnen, Küchenbeschwerdeorgane, Reinlichkeitsreihenuntersuchung, and Entwesungsübersiedlung […] when I had worked out what they meant, he continued, I had to make just as much of an effort to fit the presumptive sense of my reconstructions into the sentences and the wider context, which kept threatening to elude me, first because it quite often took me until midnight to master a single page, and a good deal was lost in this lengthy process, and second because in its almost futuristic deformation of social life the ghetto system had something incomprehensible and unreal about it, even though Adler describes it down to the last detail in its objective actuality.”

The actuality of it, does not make it real, but precisely unreal. The reality of the stones of Terezín is measured here against something more real: words. Even the fake architecture of putting words together can be broken down into its own bricks. And the whole thing would completely fall apart were it not for the context of memory and consciousness holding it together.


I am of two minds whether Austerlitz can be said to be about the Holocaust. I mean, of course the Holocaust is ever present in the book; but I am not sure if it is more than a backdrop. But I wonder if since the end of WWII there have been six million books written worldwide about the people who perished in it?

March 24, 2011

After Camus, everything changed

The New York Review of Books published one of a forthcoming book of essays by Roberto Bolaño. He talks about stealing books:

“But it was a novel that saved me from hell and plummeted me straight back down again. The novel was The Fall, by Camus, and everything that has to do with it I remember as if frozen in a ghostly light, the still light of evening, although I read it, devoured it, by the light of those exceptional Mexico City mornings that shine—or shone—with a red and green radiance ringed by noise, on a bench in the Alameda, with no money and the whole day ahead of me, in fact my whole life ahead of me. After Camus, everything changed.”
“After that, after I stole that book and read it, I went from being a prudent reader to being a voracious reader and from being a book thief to being a book hijacker. I wanted to read everything, which in my innocence was the same as wanting to uncover or trying to uncover the hidden workings of chance that had induced Camus’s character to accept his hideous fate.”

I think I might read Roberto Bolaño now.

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March 22, 2011

Wrong Side of the Road

Here is a quote from the latest W.G. Sebald book I’m reading (I’ll probably post about the book when I’m done):
[describing the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939]: “What particularly upset us […] was instant change to driving on the right. It often made my heart miss a beat, she said, when I saw a car racing down the road on the wrong side, since it inevitably made me think that from now on we must live in a world turned upside down.”

I’m sorry, what? It was the Nazis who made the Czechs drive on the right?! I had no idea. So I looked it up. Sure enough, Wikipedia has articles devoted not only to the right- and left-hand traffic, but the switch to right-hand traffic in Czechoslovakia even something called Högertrafikomläggningen (God bless copy and paste). It turns out that the history of right-hand, left-hand driving in the whole world, and especially in Czechoslovakia is…umm…checkered.

“In about 1925, Czechoslovakia accepted the Paris convention and undertook to change to right hand traffic “within a reasonable time frame”. In 1931, the government decreed to change over within 5 years, which did not happen. The main obstacles were financial cost and widespread opposition in rural areas. In November 1938, parliament finally decided to change to right hand traffic with effect from May 1, 1939.” (Also, I’m not sure what “in about 1925” means, but ok.)

Enter the Germans. “The occupation of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia by Germany on March 15, 1939, sped up the change. A few places switched the same day (e.g. Ostrava), the rest of the area of the Protectorate on March 17, and Prague got a few more days to implement the change and switched on March 26.” (Most of Slovakia was already using right-hand traffic, and the last of it switched with Hungary in 1941.)

Most of the world today drives on the right-hand side.

Countries continued to switch throughout the twentieth century, which brings me to Högertrafikomläggningen, or Dagen H. On September 3rd, 1967, Sweden switched over from left to right-hand traffic. Of course, it’s Sweden, so they had a long debate about it, and turned down the change (overwhelmingly) in a referendum in 1955. But then in 1963, the parliament decided to do it anyway. They “began [by] implementing a four-year education program, with the advice of psychologists. The campaign included displaying the Dagen H logo on various commemorative items, including milk cartons, men’s shorts and women’s underwear. Swedish television held a contest for songs about the change; the winning entry was Håll dig till höger, Svensson (‘Keep to the right, Svensson’) by Rock-Boris.”

Apparently, the right-hand, left-hand traffic picture used to be much more complicated.

Red are countries that have always had right-hand traffic.
Orange are countries that originally had left-hand traffic, but moved to the right.
Blue are countries that have always had left-hand traffic.
Purple are countries that originally right-hand traffic, but moved to the left.
Green are countries that had different rules depending on the location, but now drive on the right.

March 21, 2011

Astronomer, Geographer – true scientist!

– for Varuni (वारूणी)

from an article in National Geographic

One day in Delft in the fall of 1677, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a cloth merchant who is said to have been the long-haired model for two paintings by Johannes Vermeer—“The Astronomer” and “The Geographer”—abruptly stopped what he was doing with his wife and rushed to his worktable. Cloth was Leeuwenhoek’s business but microscopy his passion. He’d had five children already by his first wife (though four had died in infancy), and fatherhood was not on his mind. “Before six beats of the pulse had intervened,” as he later wrote to the Royal Society of London, Leeuwenhoek was examining his perishable sample through a tiny magnifying glass. Its lens, no bigger than a small raindrop, magnified objects hundreds of times. Leeuwenhoek had made it himself; nobody else had one so powerful. The learned men in London were still trying to verify Leeuwenhoek’s earlier claims that unseen “animalcules” lived by the millions in a single drop of lake water and even in French wine. Now he had something more delicate to report: Human semen contained animalcules too. “Sometimes more than a thousand,” he wrote, “in an amount of material the size of a grain of sand.” Pressing the glass to his eye like a jeweler, Leeuwenhoek watched his own animalcules swim about, lashing their long tails. One imagines sunlight falling through leaded windows on a face lost in contemplation, as in the Vermeers. One feels for his wife.

Leeuwenhoek became a bit obsessed after that. Though his tiny peephole gave him privileged access to a never-before-seen microscopic universe, he spent an enormous amount of time looking at spermatozoa, as they’re now called. Oddly enough, it was the milt he squeezed from a cod one day that inspired him to estimate, almost casually, just how many people might live on Earth.

Nobody then really had any idea; there were few censuses. Leeuwenhoek started with an estimate that around a million people lived in Holland. Using maps and a little spherical geometry, he calculated that the inhabited land area of the planet was 13,385 times as large as Holland. It was hard to imagine the whole planet being as densely peopled as Holland, which seemed crowded even then. Thus, Leeuwenhoek concluded triumphantly, there couldn’t be more than 13.385 billion people on Earth—a small number indeed compared with the 150 billion sperm cells of a single codfish!

March 20, 2011

On Sebald’s Vertigo

I didn’t know who Marie Henri Beyle was. Immediately, I want to ask two questions: does it matter, and does it matter? Reading the book, is it important to know who that was, or can he be regarded as just a character in a novel (whether based in history or not)? And secondly, does this question matter in writing about this book.

Let’s back up a bit. The book is Vertigo the first novel by W. G. Sebald, published in 1990.

It is divided into four parts: the second and fourth are largely about ‘himself,’ the narration is in the first person. The third section is about Franz Kafka towards the end of his life. The first section, however, is about the aforementioned Mari Henri Beyle, which is the birth name of the author otherwise known as Stendhal.

I admit there were clues. Sebald directly references a couple of his works. But my ignorance of Stendhal extends even to his works, not counting The Red and The Black, which Sebald does not mention, so I didn’t pick up on it.

(In the section on Kafka, the narrator imitates Kafka’s writing style, so it’s entirely possible that he does a similar thing in the first section, but again, not having read any Stendhal, I wouldn’t know.)

The reason I looked up the name Marie Henri Beyle when I finished the book was that I knew Sebald bases his characters on real authors, artists, scientists from the past, not only Vertigo, but in After Nature as well.

So I got back to my questions: does it matter for the text, and does it matter to my writing here? (Ok, I suppose it matters here because I’ve been talking about it for this long.) What I mean by introducing the book by referencing my ignorance of Stenhal’s life, I’m calling attention to a difference between Marie Henri Beyle and Stendhal. One is the man, the other the author. They are not strictly separate entities (on the contrary!), but they are two and not the same. The difference in name illustrates this nicely.

The whole book, in fact, is that same layering of personalities or persons. The narrator slips in and out of persons, either the man, Marie Henri Beyle, or the author Stendhal, or ‘himself,’ his childhood, people he remembers. In his own trips he is retracing the travels of Stendhal, Kafka and Casanova (the persons), and revisiting certain places where those authors had significant moments in their lives.

Or rather than describing it as different persons the narrator slips in and out, they could be the various things that come to bear on an individual conscience. The trip he takes through central Europe and Italy recalls history of the region, its art, the stories of the lives of the artists who left the art behind, the story of the artists who passed there but didn’t write or create art about it (like Kafka’s story in Riva which cannot be found in his fiction but rather in his diaries), the narrator’s own previous trip(s) (he mentions taking the same train in 1980 and 1987), the personal past of the narrator…all this comes to bear on, or comes into play when we read a description of a restaurant, or a walk-down a street. Perhaps individual consciousness is something very, very small in itself, and the only way it makes sense of a world much too big and complex is to draw on threads from personal and collective history, texts its read, art it found meaningful, trips taken to foreign places; conversely, what if all the things consciousness uses to constitute itself then weigh on it and lead it in directions the will is no longer capable of controlling.

There is one more level mixed in. Throughout these travels he refers several times to his writing. The book however, is not a travelogue, and doesn’t read like a record of travels in an unknown land. What is he writing? How much of what we are reading is what he is writing? Are we witnesses of the book being created (meaning that the writing coincides perfectly with the book); or is he writing something completely different which has nothing to do with the account we have before us? How is his act of writing related to understanding the various sources of consciousness? Those sources are mostly in text form (history, literature, even art), and now memory becomes part of that weave.

Le me go back to one of my questions. Does it matter to me here whether or not the reader of the book (in this case, my previous self) knows that Marie Henri Beyle is Stendhal? Is what I’m writing here simply a record of my reading of the novel, or does it subsequently reconstruct my understanding of the novel? Nothing but head-spinning questions…

The cover of my copy of Vertigo includes a quote from the NYT review where Sebald is likened to “memory’s Einstein.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, except that the subject of the book is going to be an intellectual investigation, an almost philosophical topic. This is the kind of writing that Cormac McCarthy deemed unworthy. I read somewhere that McCarthy does not consider Proust and the like literature because it doesn’t deal with life and death.

Indeed, I keep thinking how the writing of the two authors could not be more different. Sebald’s features no violence, there are no descriptions of desperation or overt injustice. The heros in McCarthy are strong figures (whether good or bad), while in Sebald not just the characters, but the narrator too dissipates between various levels. Where McCarthy’s narrator intensifies the cruelty of the story with his (and make no mistake it’s a he) indifferent story-telling, Sebald’s narrator would be whiney and pathetic in his weakness if it weren’t for his sense of humor and self-mocking.

Even the one thing they have in common they go about doing in opposite ways: McCarthy’s sentences are austere, dramatic, and they stand each on its own, forcing the reader to hold them together or fall between the cracks; Sebald’s sentences are casual, almost banal, giving off the feeling that there is no importance to them, to the point that the narration becomes so filigreed and threadbare it requires a reader with a very careful touch, otherwise it tears or melts in one’s hands as the snow in the Alps.
You have been warned.


March 17, 2011

Ever More Maps

Apparently, maps are important.

Also, I wish I could remember the name of the book about Copernicus I heard about. In an interview, the author said that Copernicus got the idea for his big ‘reversal’ from a map he was studying. So, apparently, maps are important.

In the above video, the cartographers are promoting the use of the Peters projection. A projection I prefer more than the Peters is Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map. Not only does it have no up-down aspect, but it distorts either the landmass or the world oceans less, and can be packed into a cuboctahedron to closer resemble the obloid sphere that is Earth. See…

Dymaxion map as an unfolded icosahedron

When you open it up, it can be set up to place all the landmasses as one piece (like in the image above):

Or you can open it up to show the world oceans in one piece.

Another projection I really like is the Quincuncial projection developed by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce in the 19th century.

It distorts the distance between the landmasses (like between South America and Africa), but it preserves the proportions of the continents better than Mercator and Peters. Also, no up and down here either.

Over at Cosmic Variance, the physicist Sean Carroll offers a few links about map projections (beyond nerdy), and explains one of the reasons for the quincuncial projection being his favorite. The closing line of the piece is the best though. “All of which is simply to say: if Charles Sanders Peirce were alive today, he would definitely have a blog.”

(more projections)