Category Archives: biblio

Equinoctal meta-tation


It’s been a busy fortnight of explorations:

And then yesterday along comes email from John the Son with this challenge:

On the subject of cats in Sarawak, have you read [Paolo Bacigalupi’s] ‘the windup girl‘ it’s very evocative and the GMO cats are everpresent. I’m very curious of your perspective on this vision of southeast Asia in the somewhat near future. And of the tensions between the Malay and Chinese immigrants that are cited as a brutal(future) history in the book.
I remember you saying that each of the four groups thought the others were disgusting for different reasons: the Muslims, the Chinese, the Malay and the westerners…

into the answer of which is packed a vast morass of entangled Information. I did read The Windup Girl when it first came out, then passed the book along to my (much-missed since 2016) friend Hutch (whose Thai connections were deep), so I snagged it via Kindle and am reading it again to see what I might have thought before and what I think now.


John’s question dropped me right into Professor mode, to wrangling what I “know” and/or what I have thought I knew over a broad canvas, thinking about what I’d have to weave into any …explication… of the dimensions of a satisfying answer to the question. That’s great sport, in which I’ve lived for a good 55+ years—and which I should have lived in those 60 years ago days of Harvard /opportunities/, but needed then to (a) invent for myself, and (b) develop the requisite background to begin to practise. And of course I’m still learning how to do those things, and how to think about them.


That’s true for all of my Entanglements with subject matter

  • photography
  • music
  • geography/landscape
  • words
  • The Computer
  • food
  • curiosity [about things not already listed…]

…and so I’ve been exploring the Southeast Asia territory of my mental and bibliographic Catalog, to figure out how to set about providing enough of the relevant background to make a sensible answer (i.e., to Inform the Others Against Their Will). There’s a sequence to the exposition, starting with physical geography, ecology, at least a millennium of human demography, and then finally history… covering the whole of what JOM Broek has summarized as

an area of transit and transition … [with a long history of] foreign intrusions … culturally a low-pressure area … recipients rather than donors of culture … ethnic and political fragmentation—a kind of Asian Balkans.

There’s plenty to quibble over in that summary, but it serves to indicate the diversity that has to be accounted for, understood, and fairly characterized.


That’s a term-long class to even contemplate. But wouldn’t it be fun to … no, it wouldn’t, or rather YES it would but only in the imagination. No names, no pack drill, no papers to write and read, no grades to turn in.

So here’s the first page I wrote:

The first thing I’d say is how arbitrary the national boundaries of Southeast Asia are [essentially colonial legacy] and how complex ethnic identities are within each of the current-day nations. Labels like ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Thai’, ‘Burmese’, ‘Indonesian’ project an image of homogeneity within the labels that is at best false-by-oversimplification. There’s an interesting analogy to explore in the shadow theatre so widespread across Southeast Asia; another is the music of gongs, present everywhere as shimmering sound, but in both cases built on illusion: the shadows of the puppets are insubstantial, flickering, turned into narrative by the words of the puppet-master storytellers; the striking of gongs rendered musical and comprehensible as evanescent layers each of which is a pretty simple repetition of a pattern. Somewhere under those visual and aural realizations is a profound syncretism of … Hindu and Buddhist influences, Muslim notions, a Western European and Colonial imposition of “order”, bits of Chinese high and low traditions … and all of that overlaid on a persisting base of indigenous animisms—enormously complex worlds of spirits and ghosts and shamanic manipulations. Add a murky history of trade and gene flows, and natural and anthropogenic ecologies, and human entanglement with plant and animal life, and rising falling seas. And make it equatorial, and subject to annual monsoon/dry cycles…


And there you have the stage set. For next class, please read………

(at least two classes on rice… and there’s rubber… and oil palm… and and and)

Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company

Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia

and so on.

and that was July

Once again I’ve got only a single blog posting for the month. The photostream records a succession of grill-watching evenings:

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(Kate does the grilling, I having no genes for that activity.
She includes kohlrabi and green beans and zucchini as regular grillage,
and it seems possible that ALL garden produce can be grilled…)

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Organizing projects in shop and Library Annex proceed:

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I bought a couple of professional-grade book carts to facilitate the Library (re-)organization process:
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…and it proceeds slowly, arranged by my own idiosyncratic and ever-morphing categories:
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It’s been very pleasant to spend afternoons sitting here dipping in and out of a succession of rediscovered books.
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In Convivium space, I spent quite a while thinking about the Future. On other frontiers, lots of books read, music played, videos watched, trash picked up. Quite content to be mostly At Home, going from thing to thing.

Fungi and Education

The London Review of Books is a continual delight, every issue replete with surprises and challenges, lambent writing, and things I had no idea I was interested in until I started reading. This week’s case in point: a review by Francis Gooding of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds And Shape Our Futures, which I was reading and listening to (via Audible) about a year ago. This (summarizing “what we know of mycelium and its habits”) is from the last paragraph:

The explosive growth of interconnections, the development of flexible new relationships, the filling of spaces with a tangle of new pathways, novel and powerful exchanges and flows of information coursing through an electrically excitable network: what else but this would a fungus do if it really did seize hold of your mind… an entanglement of intimate, sudden, pulsing fresh connections between the things around it?

What a marvelous characterization of Education, I thought, and how very like what I experienced (mostly outside of classes…) with friends in the halcyon days of 1969-1971 at Stanford, and now and again in the years since (though the “electrically excitable network” didn’t really bloom until the 1990s), and mostly on my own in 16 years of retirement. Perhaps the greatest pleasure is never knowing when and in what modality the next inspiration will present itself, but they keep coming.

KFTF

I’ve been thinking about the perennial problem of Keeping Found Things Found, and about narrating explorations of the past and present, and that has led to consideration of Finding Aids for my various collections. Many happy hours have gone into the process of figuring out how to construct such summaries and guides, and most recently I’ve been using LibraryThing to build the database for my library of photography books (see a list of those tagged ‘photography’ for its current state) and considering how to sort and sub-categorize that collection to make it more useful and accessible. Others will follow.

This morning I picked up Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, which I’ve had for 10 years or so and dipped into now and again. A couple of passages leapt off the pages and seem to cast useful light on my present concerns:

The closer we look, the more detail we find. The only limitation to our view is the limitation of our ability to see. In order to find something new, we simply have to be willing to look more closely, more carefully.

We refer to the written work of the past to see what has been done and how it has been done… we focus on the maker’s methods and assumptions. We find tools and ways to use them… our work will, inevitably, echo and respond to the work of the past that resonates most strongly for us.

We all have our touchstones.

Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination, pages 207, 220, 221

Impostures

An astonishing book has fallen into my hands and into my life: Michael Cooperson’s Impostures by al-Ḥarĩrĩ: Fifty Rogue’s Tales Translated Fifty Ways. It’s worth recording how that ‘fallen’ transpired: first, a blog post by Victor Mair at Language Log (which often delights, often mystifies), which pointed to a Wall Street Journal review by Sam Sacks (June 27) and provoked an Amazon order. One of the key hooks in Sacks’ review was reference to maqamat, glossed as ‘improvization’ and so directly parallel to a musical form I’m well acquainted with and always seeking broader understanding of. There’s also a clear link to my explorations of Oulipo (and OuXpos of various sorts) that are themselves a bit more remotely tied to my wanderings in Benjaminia, thus linking several threads of the last 6+ months of reading and thinking. Just what the resulting tissu or macramé amounts to, or might lead to next, is less than clear at the moment, but it surely harks back to Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language, and to the grand problems of translation /übersetzung, ‘over-setting’/, and thence to ruminations on Culture and the deep complexities of understanding and en- and de-coding. I’m a wanderer in these forests, always open to new delights. And rogue threads are forever finding their way into the macramé, viz. Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan “I contain multitudes”. These are all two-bit epiphanies, bits of insight rather than pointers to grand revelations. And mostly probably intransitive, for my own amusement and edification and pleasure. Reason enough.

Isogloss bundles

This morning, while waiting in the barn for today’s Zoom yoga session to start, I gathered up a few word books in the general realm of American English and one fell open to a map of isoglosses, which immediately called to mind a song written Donkey’s Years ago by my dear friend Ken Stallcup, who said that he got one good song out of every career. I quarried the mind for all that I could remember of the text as I lay on the mat, and here it is (there might be verses I haven’t remembered, indeed I hope there are…):


Little peasant upon the land
what’s that implement in your hand?
How many years have you been here?
What do you call your mother’s brother?
Tell me what you shouldn’t do and what you oughta,
Now that I’ve got my data I’m on my way

Anthropologist pen in hand
Now you’re standing here on my land
You to me are but a passing breeze
Kroeber, Lowie, Leach and Levi-Strauss
and even Malinowski have stayed in my house,
Now that you’ve got your data, where’s my pay?

Dialects run along isogloss bundles
Leaving little wavy lines across the land
And everybody knows they must be documented carefully
Fron the Andaman Islands to the Rhenish Fan

Academics flow in a circular motion
Hurrying and scurrying across the Earth
With money from Ford and it’s all very interesting
But other than that, tell me what is it worth?
Other than that, tell me what is it worth?


I’m contemplating a heap of books on American English and on dialects thereof and trying to figure out how to make an efficient and interesting summary of their whats and whys, via comparisons and tasty extracts. How is one to make sense of these riches, thousands of pages of words and analysis and commentary, difficult of access and best consumed in sporadic tastings, not in epic bouts of reading? The collection or more exactly collocation would be perfect for bit-by-bit consumption in the Locale of Easement, but for the unwieldy format of the Large Book. A cleverly designed hinged or rolling desk might be the solution, but would perhaps not meet with universal enthusiasm if constructed and installed as a fixture in the Smallest Room. Perhaps a Dictionary Alcove built onto the side of the house…

At work upon several future posts in these realms.

le mot juste du jour: Sprachgefühl

I’m working in the direction of a posting on books about American English, but along the way I encounter all manner of things that divert and inform and goad and send me haring off into wanton serendipities. The Language Log blog is dependable that way, and today’s post on Ancient Chinese mottos is a case in point. It has to do with a text from ca. 700 BCE, and ends with this deliciousness:

To do this kind of high level translation requires hard work going through old annotations and commentaries. To make the English felicitous demands inspired creativity and a high level of Sprachgefühl.

Yeah, I know that word, but was hazier than I might have been:

intuitive feeling for the natural idiom of a language.
“it’s not genes or culture but Sprachgefühl that sets the French apart from the Finns, and the Russians from the Romanians”

the essential character of a language.
“each language has its own personality, or Sprachgefühl, which limits its speakers to a certain mode of thought”
(https://www.lexico.com/definition/sprachgefuhl)

And, just because I can, I looked it up in the German Wikipedia:

Als Sprachgefühl bezeichnet man das intuitive, unreflektierte und unbewusste Erkennen dessen, was sprachlich als korrekt (in Wortwahl und Grammatik) bzw. als (situativ und kontextuell) angemessen oder aber als falsch bzw. unangemessen empfunden wird. Geprägt wird es insbesondere im Zuge des Erwerbs der Muttersprache, wobei Herkunft, soziales Umfeld und Bildung und die entsprechenden sprachlichen Erfahrungen des Kindes eine maßgebliche Rolle spielen. Durch intensive sprachliche Erfahrungen in der alltäglichen (auch medialen) Kommunikation, wozu auch literarische und andere Leseerfahrungen gehören, kann das Sprachgefühl aber auch in späteren Jahren trainiert und modifiziert werden.

The problem with the American English books is that there are so many, and they are so various: descriptive, evaluative, jocular, narrow, broad, thick, thin… each has something to add, and I’m still wrestling with a typology. And I’m so damned Sprachgefühl re: American English. So I’ll be back to that subject.

Lexicon of Musical Invective

Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) is famous for several things, the most immediately relevant here being his Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time. The Amazon blurb:

A snakeful of critical venom aimed at the composers and the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. Who wrote advanced cat music? What commonplace theme is very much like Yankee Doodle? Which composer is a scoundrel and a giftless bastard? What opera would His Satanic Majesty turn out? Whose name suggests fierce whiskers stained with vodka? And finally, what third movement begins with a dog howling at midnight, then imitates the regurgitations of the less-refined or lower-middle-class type of water-closet cistern, and ends with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow? For the answers to these and other questions, readers need only consult the “Invecticon” at the back of this inspired book and then turn to the full passage, in all its vituperation.

The Invecticon lists 30+ pages of calumnies and disparagements:


and examples of Critical Response: Stravinsky, Webern and Varèse

There’s a lovely Nicolas Slonimsky Documentary- A Touch of Genius (56 min)


and an interview with Slonimsky about his friendship with Frank Zappa:


Another example of Slonimsky’s genius is his Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns, known to Jazz and Classical musicians alike.