Archive for June, 2011

June 30, 2011

a poem

They’re saying that the Universe
Is not accelerating. Rather,
Time slows down.

Day it will unfold completely
And freeze. Into one image
Of nowhen.

If anything, does this mean?
And who will be there to
See the end?

We wrong in our forethought?
Or in our being, tied as it
Is to time?

This moment, and this – vague
As it is – an illusion between

Strange then: from an unreal
World issues thought of its own
Final end.

A solution to a riddle nobody
Posed, whispered in darkness
To no one.

Here, in this timeful present
Not just our thoughts are

And look again, the world
Blurs, and blurred shimmers

Too, unequal to themselves
No longer solid in their

Run together like water,
But for those translucent cups –
Words – which

Back the night its disquiet
And fill time to the brim
With this Now.

June 28, 2011

Freddy’s Little Ball

This is a poem written about the Writing Ball, on a Writing Ball, by (none other than) Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Writing Ball was invented in 1865 by the Dane Rasmus Malling-Hansen as a device to speed up and mechanize writing. The initial designs were a little too large and clunky and lost out to the more sleek and simple Sholes-Glidden designed typewriter produced by Remington. But by the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878, things were a little different. One journalist compared the two devices.
“In the year 1875, a quick writing apparatus, designed by Mr. L. Sholes in America, and manufactured by Mr. Remington, was introduced in London. This machine was superior to the Malling-Hansen writing apparatus; but the writing ball in its present form far excels the Remington machine. It secures greater rapidity, and its writing is clearer and more precise than that of the American instrument. The Danish apparatus has more keys, is much less complicated, built with greater precision, more solid, and much smaller and lighter than the Remington, and moreover, is cheaper.” (source)
This is the 1878 model.

It looks cooler, was more ergonomic, faster, lighter and cheaper…so what happened? The problem was that it was hand-crafted in Denmark and shipped individually. Before producing typewriters, Remington produced sewing machines and fire arms. They not only had factories that could mass produce their product, they had an established market, and could display examples of their machine in windows of stores. Between Remington’s marketing, mass production and possibly home turf of the English-speaking market, the Malling-Hansen design, though better, didn’t stand a chance.

In 1881, while living in Genoa, Neitzsche ordered a Writing Ball from Copenhagen because he was going blind. However, that poem aside, Freddy never really used the machine all that much. Apparently it was damaged on the trip to Italy, and then further by the mechanic who was supposed to fix it.

The poem reads:

Schreibkugel ist ein Ding gleich mir: von Eisen
Und doch leicht zu verdrehn zumal auf Reisen.
Geduld und Takt muss reichlich man besitzen
Und feine Fingerchen, uns zu benuetzen.

Or in English:

The Writing Ball is a thing like me: of iron
Yet twisted easily – especially on journeys.
Patience and tact must be had in abundance
As well as fine [little] fingers to use us.

visualization of Nietzsche's Writing Ball made by a German student, Felix Herbst

More photos and info here and here.

June 25, 2011

Son of Man, on the Shore of Being

The final shot of The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, not counting the flicker of light that opens and closes the film, is a bridge spanning what looks like an immense body of water, reaching towards a blue green landscape, all set against a blue gray sky. The stability of the pillar on the near side and the majesty of the bridge itself are not at all out of place with the natural scene around it.

The shot of the bridge is representative of the entire film. Not only does it feature no actors, no lines, no words like a lot of the film, and not only does it appeal to the visual taste of the viewer in a purely cinematic sense, it also says something. It sounds bizarre to say that a screenshot in a film is supposed to say something (the screenshot is, after all the medium of film, much as words are to literature or shape is to sculpture). But so many films are solely focused on the actors saying their lines, propelling the plot forward, the screenshot takes backseat. (Although in action films, special effects let it sneak back in, but only in a supporting role.) Here, the screenshot takes center stage…so to speak.

What are we bridging? Well, at the very beginning of the film we are told (this time in a voiceover) that there are two kinds of lives. There is the natural life: selfish, focused on itself and perpetually unhappy; and there is the life of grace, which accepts that neither fortune nor misfortune are within its control, is focused on others, but can lead to happiness (I don’t want to say that it does, lest we introduce any guarantees that are not there).

But this is not a Woody Allen flick. We are not going to have a bunch of characters who exhibit various moral choices and see how those play out, as much as I like Woody Allen and those films. Malick’s problem is different. All of nature, the Universe, the Cosmos, everything outside of Man belongs to this first kind of life, it seems to me The Tree of Life is saying. The Universe is a strange and uncaring place. It is at once the place where we live, but the place that could wipe us out in a (cosmological) instant without batting an eye. God, if he’s out there, belongs to this world too. God is the God of the Universe, and our pleas that goodness be rewarded in kind, piety with righteousness, kindness with justice – fall on deaf ears.

However, there is a hitch in this metaphysics. (We’re not in an Albert Camus novel either, although I love those too.) As alien and hostile this whole world is to us, we are a tiny little budding leaf on a tree growing out of a ball of melted metal, and so part of that tree and that world. How come we even have this possibility of a life of grace, when the rest of the universe (including everything on the tree of life save us) belongs only to the life of nature?

Did I mention that Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are in the movie? Yeah, well, that’s another thing about the film: the main character – it’s not either of them. It’s the boy, the young Jack, son of Brad Pitt’s character, who grows into Sean Penn. (There is a long and proud tradition of directors to whom actors are what Orson Welles called ‘talking props,’ and Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, both good actors in their own right elsewhere, fit neatly into that category here.) Young Jack, and of course, his brother. It’s odd to have him be the second lead, when he’s really not there. He dies at the very beginning of the film, only has a few words to say, and is largely a memory for Jack throughout.

As is boys’ wont, Jack belongs to the natural life. We watch him develop from cell structure to teenager. His behavior never quite crosses into wickedness, but he is full of mischief, in the way that a house pet will persist at something it was told not to do, or react to a perceived attack. We watch him continue down this path until we hear him whisper “I have lost them. How do I get them back?” Them is his family.

From there to where we meet Sean Penn, forty years on, is the long road of going towards the life of grace. We watch him walk with his wife through a desert landscape (where previously he was alone), walking through a doorframe made from wood and supported by rocks, on a terrain that resembles the Moon, and most significantly for me, we see him walk through a city plaza seeing the sky, birds and trees reflected in tall glass buildings. Which brings me back to the screenshots. The awesomeness of nature that is shown throughout most of the film yields more and more to man made structures towards the end. But they are shown in shots equally imposing and awe-inspiring as the previous natural phenomena. Although they are highly artificial, Malick sews them, like the bridge at the very end, seamlessly in the fabric of the Universe.

Paradoxically, as long as Man chooses the life of nature, he is cut of from it, demanding justice where there can be none; when he starts living the life grace, he is able to see himself as part and parcel of the Universe. Grace is the natural life of Man.


Clearly, this is a film that does not even pretend to appeal to wide audiences. Movie theaters must be feeling the heat from people who go into this one without knowing what they’re in for. Hence, a movie theater posted this warning.
(via Kafka on the Shore)

June 24, 2011


I found this photo over at First Time User.

It is one of Eugène Atget‘s better known photos, taken in 1898.
I was reminded of a recording I made from my window in Paris in 2008. Three guys with brass instruments went by catching change people threw from windows.

A friend later identified the song as Historia de un Amor, which has it’s own story.

June 23, 2011

There, but for the grace of God…

It is not remotely funny!

The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking “That’s me!”

June 22, 2011

What Cubism is to Your Brain

Over at Nonsite, issue No. 2 is out and contains a fascinating article on cubism and the visual brain by Charles Haxthausen, which also touches on philosophy and the relationship between art and science. I’ll try to recap the argument here, but the article is too good, I recommend it be read in full.

Let’s begin with two paintings by Picasso.

Woman with Pears (Fernande) 1909

Guitarist 1910

Two things are important here. Firstly, that the painting of Fernande, from 1909, has much more easily recognizable content than the painting of the Guitarist from 1910. And secondly, that the two paintings were made a year apart. The transition that happened in that year, where Picasso’s cubism goes from distorted but still recognizable object to almost unrecognizable, is the difference between two views of cubism presented in Haxthausen’s article.

On the one hand is Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, an art dealer and critic who penned his views on cubism as early as 1915 and the neurobiologist Semir Zeki who wrote on art and the visual brain in his 1999 book Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. On the other hand is an art critic by the name of Carl Einstein, who published his views on cubism in 1926.

Kahnweiler understood that Braque and Picasso’s cubism was an attempt to map the way the eye sees an object. Against conventional belief that the eye is simply a lens that passively transmits signals to the brain (like a camera lens transmits light onto a sensor), the eye sees multiple things, surfaces, lines, colors in a broken down fashion and then the brain puts them together into a coherent object. Meaning that Fernande above is probably closer to what appears to the eye (before the brain puts it all together) than an identical photograph. But Kahnweiler’s explanation for why Picasso would go further (from the 1909 version to 1910 version) is that he wanted to detach Cubism from the previous language of painting by “piercing the closed form.” The object no longer resembles anything in actuality. Lines, planes, shapes, brushstrokes – anything painterly is freed from subordination to the content.

This way of seeing cubism is repeated by Semir Zeki. What the eye sees is a world in a constant state of flux. The brain fixes the elements of an object to make them cohere. But the cubists attempted to show what the eye sees, the flux, the change, the different perspectives and views, and unite them all in a single canvas. Thus the painting takes over the function of the brain, uniting the sensory data into a whole. But this only holds for the first of the two paintings. For the second one, the Guitarist, this attempt falls short of what the brain does: the brain cannot recognize the content of the painting and only knows what it is through the title. Cubism is, in a neurobiological sense, a failure.

The Architect's Table 1912

Enter Carl Einstein: failure becomes triumph. What Kahnweiler and Zeki assume in their respective analyses is that the object painted is the way it appears to the conventional brain. That the changes and flux are distortions that the eye picks up, but that the brain clears up, returning the unity to the object. In other words, some object, say this chair, is the way it is, the eye distorts it, but the brain restores it to its previous, stable, unified state.

But what if this is not the case? What if the unity of object we normally perceive in the brain exists only in the brain and not in the object itself? (What if the object is not identical to itself?) What if the eye picks up the object in the flux, changes and perspectives that the object actually has in itself, and the brain distorts that, so to speak, into a coherent object?

The transition from Ferdinande in 1909 to the Guitarist in 1910 is not a failure of cubism to unify what the brain does so easily, but a failure of the brain to see an object differently from what it is used to. In Ferdinande the content is recognizable so the distortions can be attributed simply  to the eye. But if the brain is unable to recognize an object in the Guitarist, it is not because the eye and cubism have gone too far in breaking it down, it is because the brain has not gone far enough in conceiving it.

Cubism, and this is Einstein’s radical thesis, is not just an analysis of the way the eye perceives the world, but a challenge to the subject – us, the viewer, the audience – to reconstitute itself in order to be able to conceive of seeing and recognizing the object. The world is not the stable, familiar place the brain is used to, and in order to see it in its flux and change, it needs to reconstitute itself, to render itself more plastic, more creative, more visionary. In this endeavor, cubism can help.

Man With Violin 1911-12

June 21, 2011

A Familiar Place

I’m discovering the photos of André Kertész. You can see a bunch of them here. One you can’t see among those, and has personal significance for me, is this. In 1929:

And by the grace of Google, today:

June 20, 2011

History of the Calepin

About the same time that Diderot and D’Alembert were putting together their famous L’Encyclopedie, and Samuel Johnson was compiling A Dictionary of the English Language, the Manchu Emperor in China commissioned an update of an encyclopedia of Chinese knowledge. The Siku Quanshu was compiled between 1773 and 1782, was made in 7 copies, took 3,800 scribes, had 79,000 chapters and contained 800 million words. That is more than the contemporary Encyclopedia Britannica and Oxford English Dictionary combined.

I got all of this from an article in The Nation (written by Paula Findlen), reviewing a book by Ann M. Blair,Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age. I always thought that compiling knowledge into dictionaries and encyclopedias is a Western phenomenon, and that only from the eighteenth century onward. Oh boy. It turns out that there have been many attempts in the past to put all human knowledge into one volume in one way or another. Pinakes, by Callimachus, was summary of the contents of the ancient Library of Alexandria; Pliny the Elder put together a compendium of Roman knowledge of 20,000 important things. “By the tenth century enterprising scholars in Byzantium, the Islamic world and China were furiously trying to compile and summarize everything their respective civilizations produced.”

Aided by Gutenberg’s invention, Renaissance scholars  also compiled knowledge and added the index of the book – tittle page, table of contents, copyright page, bibliography. In addition to Domenico Nani Mirabelli’s Polyanthea (1503), and Theodor Zwinger’s Theater of Human Life (1565), the Renaissance saw the birth of books that condensed knowledge (precursors to CliffsNotes), books how to read books, and tools like a book wheel designed by an Italian military engineer.

But my favorite thing from this book review is that in 1502 an Augustinian monk Ambrogio Calepino published a dictionary of Latin. By 1800, it had gone through more than 200 editions. And his name – Calepino – became a word itself, a noun: calepin is an old word for dictionary, and is still used in French to mean notebook. Somehow I think he would have liked that.

June 17, 2011

The Brandy Glass

The Brandy Glass
– by Louis MacNeice

Only let it form within his hands once more  – 
The moment cradled like a brandy glass.
Sitting alone in the empty dining hall…
From the chandeliers the snow begins to fall
Piling around carafes and table legs
And chokes the passage of the revolving door.
The last diner, like a ventriloquist’s doll
Left by his master, gazes before him, begs:
‘Only let it form within my hands once more.’ 

June 14, 2011

Under Foreign Skies

 – for Ana – I’ll see you in Morocco in a year, insha’Allah!

I think not getting it is getting it.

There seem to be two dichotomies operating in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. The first is between Westerners and Western culture on the one hand, and a largely unnamed, native culture of Morocco on the other. We follow this class of cultures through the eyes of Westerners, with the ‘other’ culture remaining unnamed, vague, present but ill-defined. This is a deliberate tactic on the part of the narrator, keeping the other culture as foreign and distant as possible, so as to point out the chasm between the two sides. Neither the characters nor the narrator seem to want to bridge the gap between the two cultures, it simply remains as is.

By the time we get to see the world from the other side, from the other perspective (and even then we only see it conditionally), we lose ourselves. Following Kit, as the reader does, into the desert, into the native, Arab world, we, like Kit, switch sides somewhere along the way. This seems to me to be the function of Ms. Ferry’s character at the very end. Her bewilderment and disdain at meeting Kit is indicative of how far Kit and the reader have come. Ms. Ferry is us, the Western perspective, untouched by the experiences of the book.

By then, however, both Kit and the reader have gone native, emerging back into a no longer familiar world completely shell-shocked. This sets up the second dichotomy of the novel. As I was finishing the last few pages of the novel, I felt repelled by the familiarity of the real world around me. The people on the street in front of me were almost as strange to me as Ms. Ferry was to Kit. The other dichotomy then is between the world and the novel. Although I was perplexed, I was fully engrossed in the novel to such an extent that at its conclusion I felt uncomfortable it was over, uncomfortable at suddenly having to go back to dealing with the real world. Not only are the two cultures incommensurate, but the world of the novel and the real world are as well.

From the moment Kit wanders into the desert in the third section of the book, I kept asking myself as the reader, where are we going with this? None of it made any sense: neither her motivations, nor her actions. Nor did the actions of natives become any less opaque. And in addition to walking into the real desert, Kit is walking us into a cultural desert. The order of planned out cities, luxurious hotels and interpersonal interactions loaded, even saturated with meaning – all of this disappears when she wanders off. From then on we are in a space stripped of all cultural meaning, symbols and signals without significance, nothing but the sun and shifting dunes. But at the end, when Kit meets Ms. Ferry we realize that the desert, just like in the narrative, has become populated, cities emerge, order and meaning created – but the order is different, and different enough that we are not sure we want to leave it for the one waiting to take us back. And when it does take us back, after the crossing and crossing back, the episode in the desert seems no clearer. The novel closes and we find ourselves again able only to see the familiar world, the other side from which we just emerged just as mysterious as before the plunge. This is the only thing to get, that we can’t get the other side.

The other side becomes as foreign as the disorder beyond the sky. The sky, the metaphysical limit of the world, it turns out, is inside the head and is the outer limit of cultural order and meaning. If the sky were to tear, it would turn a world of meaning into a desert, and break everything down into particles, grains of sand that form a meaningless sea of shifting dunes.

It is a little unforgiving to try and assess the extreme cultural relativism that pervades this book. We are reading about a world twice unfamiliar to us. For one, the upper middle class American tourist that existed until the late forties in Europe and North Africa is no more. The luxury, time and distance from the native culture that could have been bought with a relatively modest amount of American dollars is foreign to most readers today. Secondly, we live in a world that through its globalism and shouting the virtues of multiculturalism simply refuses to acknowledge the possibility that cultures could be different enough to be unable to speak to each other. The very idea that cultures cannot be translated, cannot be fused into something common or new or third is rejected out of hand in our politically correct world.