and another Convivial wonderment

The incoming Freshman class of September 1961 was assigned CP Snow’s The Two Cultures (based on his 1959 Rede Lecture). An excerpt of the original lecture:

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of
western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. When I say the
intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because
I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be
distinguished. I shall come back to the practical life a little later. Two polar
groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no
one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there
were no others. I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild
puzzlement, some time in the 1930s: “Have you noticed how the word
‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which
certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It
does seem rather odd, don’t y’know?”.

Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most
representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual
incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and
dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted
image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of
emotion, they can’t find much common ground. Non-scientists tend to think of
scientists as brash and boastful. They hear Mr. T. S. Eliot, who just for these
illustrations we can take as an archetypal figure, saying about his attempts to
revive verse-drama that we can hope for very little, but that he would feel
content if he and his co-workers could prepare the ground for a new Kyd or a
new Greene. That is the tone, restricted and constrained, with which literary
intellectuals are at home: it is the subdued voice of their culture. Then they hear
a much louder voice, that of another archetypal figure, Rutherford, trumpeting:
“This is the heroic age of science! This is the Elizabethan age!” Many of us
heard that, and a good many other statements beside which that was mild; and
we weren’t left in any doubt whom Rutherford was casting for the role of
Shakespeare. What is hard for the literary intellectuals to understand,
imaginatively or intellectually, is that he was absolutely right.
And compare “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a
whimper—incidentally, one of the least likely scientific prophecies ever
made—compare that with Rutherford’s famous repartee, “Lucky fellow,
Rutherford, always on the crest of the wave.” “Well, I made the wave, didn’t I?”
The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly
optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe
that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly
unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to
restrict both art and thought to the existential moment. And so on. Anyone with
a mild talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean
back-chat. On each side there is some of it which is not entirely baseless. It is all
destructive. Much of it rests on misinterpretations which are dangerous. I should
like to deal with two of the most profound of these now, one on each side.

I regret to say that I punted: I didn’t read the book at the time, and I didn’t quite see why it would matter to me. Looking back, I see what I might have begun to think about if I had just made the effort. I could see, dimly, that Snow was on about two hostile camps, between which we might be supposed to choose. Or so I thought. Of course there was much more to it than simple four-legs-good-two-legs-bad (I had read Animal Farm…), with/against binary opposition.

Betsy and I were both in that Freshman class, though unbeknownst to one another, and likewise we were both in a Gen Ed class on Philosophy (along with maybe 300 others), taught by Rogers Albritton, in which I have to confess I drifted aimlessly, largely ignorant of how to read and how to listen. One of the readings was Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A section I still recall (though don’t remember it as verse) describes the imagined atomic world:

     What seems to us the hardened and condensed
     Must be of atoms among themselves more hooked,
     Be held compacted deep within, as 'twere
     By branch-like atoms--of which sort the chief
     Are diamond stones, despisers of all blows,
     And stalwart flint and strength of solid iron,
     And brazen bars, which, budging hard in locks,
     Do grate and scream. But what are liquid, formed
     Of fluid body, they indeed must be
     Of elements more smooth and round--because
     Their globules severally will not cohere:
     To suck the poppy-seeds from palm of hand
     Is quite as easy as drinking water down,
     And they, once struck, roll like unto the same.
     But that thou seest among the things that flow
     Some bitter, as the brine of ocean is,
     Is not the least a marvel...
     For since 'tis fluid, smooth its atoms are
     And round, with painful rough ones mixed therein;
     Yet need not these be held together hooked:
     In fact, though rough, they're globular besides,
     Able at once to roll, and rasp the sense.
     And that the more thou mayst believe me here,
     That with smooth elements are mixed the rough
     (Whence Neptune's salt astringent body comes),
     There is a means to separate the twain,
     And thereupon dividedly to see
     How the sweet water, after filtering through
     So often underground, flows freshened forth
     Into some hollow; for it leaves above
     The primal germs of nauseating brine,
     Since cling the rough more readily in earth.
     Lastly, whatso thou markest to disperse
     Upon the instant--smoke, and cloud, and flame--
     Must not (even though not all of smooth and round)
     Be yet co-linked with atoms intertwined,
     That thus they can, without together cleaving,
     So pierce our body and so bore the rocks.
     Whatever we see...
     Given to senses, that thou must perceive
     They're not from linked but pointed elements.

What I couldn’t grasp in 1961 was that I was being introduced to how people thought, to the evolution of understanding that led to the present moment. I’ve been working on repairing my inattention ever since.

Alexander Boxer’s A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data drifted into my ken a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been nibbling at it gradually, as a brick in the edifice of History of Science that I’ve been tracking for years. The book is full of surprises for me, the example of the moment being a discussion of oppositional schools of thought, Epicurean vs. Stoic in Boxer’s formulation, that contrasts Lucretius the materialist/skeptic/randomness-oriented Epicurean and Manilius the instantiator of the zodiacal elements of astrology (Stoic, or perhaps Pythagorean or Platonist), and advocate of divine intelligent-plan determinism. Boxer suggests that astrology is in effect Stoic astronomy, in which all can be analyzed mathematically. Manilius (of whom I had never heard) seems to have been the first to codify the characteristics associated with each of the 12 Signs of the Zodiac: Those born under the Sign of Virgo (“associated with the arts of writing, inquisitive and studious, adept with words and speech, held back by shyness…”) vs. [for example] those under Cancer (“associated with finance and international trade, grasping and miserly, shrewd and combative”) and so on. The newspaper horoscope version of all that is hokum and flim-flam, but in Boxer’s telling there’s much to tantalize. And I’ll have to confess that the description of Virgo characteristics is too close for complete comfort for this Virgo.

But what interests me is the proclivity for and predominance of oppositional thinking, this OR that, one or the other, for or against, right or wrong. It’s worth reflecting on how many witless binaries have blighted our lives, how often we are called upon to “Stand With” or to Oppose. John McIlwain’s comment is apposite: “Divinely ordained/fated, or simply a very complex machine – are these the only two metaphysical choices we have? We seem to still be struggling with these two alternatives, both of which free us from the responsibility of free choice. Either way, it’s not my fault!”

I seem to be sheltering in a metaphysics that is more organic/vitalist than ‘very complex machine’, a world of open systems and transduced energy and vast interconnectivities that we only dimly grasp and have, to our surprise, no dominion over.

Impostures continued

In last night’s Convivium Wende described a meditation session which began with the injunction to seek one’s own Tradition (left undefined and general) and dwell in its Source. Wende found herself in exploration of Mystery as her own personal core [I may have overset what she described to suit my own modes of perception and thought, but I think those are the essential terms she used].

Interesting to me is the name-it-and-nail-it experience as Wende related it, in this case the consequent and consequential explication of Mystery and the Mysterious.

My own imagining and reading of a personal Source was surely most influenced by the so-recent experience of reading the introductory material to Impostures, described in yesterday’s post, and especially the discussion of maqamat as ‘art of freestyle improvisation’. The literary meaning of the term, as explored by Cooperson, partakes more of the notions of ‘assembly’ and ‘standing up’, with the sense of “a verbal performance delivered to strangers” (pg. xix), which Cooperson glosses as ‘Impostures’. The book contains Cooperson’s renderings, in various Englishes, of a set of 50 Tales of the “eloquent rogue” Abu Zayd al-Saruji, couched by al-Hariri in forms that display linguistic virtuosity in Arabic (often considered utterly untranslatable).

My take on maqamat is primarily musical, and references the term as it is used in Turkish and Arabic musics. A maqam can be thought of as beginning with a series of notes, or as a succession of intervals—a scale in the most basic form, but then further developed in practise into a feeling. The major/minor distinction in Western classical music, or the seven conventional modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) of Western theory are a much simpler and more limiting framework than the scales found in Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Indian systems, none of which are greatly concerned with writing music in notation. They are taught and learned primarily by ear, and in master/student settings, and generally performed as improvisational meditations on their basic sonic materials. In North and South Indian examples, particular ragas are associated with hours of the day and night, and even with particular states of mind.

Many musics are primarily or wholly improvisational. Here’s how Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: its nature and practice in music summarizes:

Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practised of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total absence of information about it. Perhaps this is inevitable, even appropriate. Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analysis and precise description; essentially non-academic. And, more than that, any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation. (pg. ix)

The parallel between al-Hariri and Robert Johnson is almost too striking: al-Hariri apparently had no skill at the highly-valued forms of extemporaneous composition that were greatly appreciated in his 12th century Basran milieu, so he went away and woodshedded and then returned with a manuscript of his 50 tales (based on al-Hamadhani’s 10th century model, who “astounded the [city of Nishapur’s] elite by defeating a local celebrity in a prose-and-poetry slam” [pg. xx]). al-Hariri’s maqamat

…enjoyed a reputation unlike anything else in literary history, so marvelous in expression, and so copious in vocabulary, as to carry all before it. The author’s choice of words, and his careful arrangement of them, are such that one might well despair of imitating him… (xxii, a biographer’s description)

And likewise with Robert Johnson, who learned from older Delta musicians like Charlie Patton and Son House and Willie Brown, all of whom played in the highly competitive arena of rural Mississippi and Arkansas jook joints. Initially Robert Johnson was pretty inept, but he left the area for a while and returned with vastly greater skills. The legend grew that he had sold his soul to the Devil to gain his newfound skills…

from Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues

The fear in “Cross Road Blues” is actually a complex of fears, some rational and immediate, some more metaphysical. The most literal reading of the tune is as a description of an actual experience. Johnson finds himself alone at a county crossroads, attempting to flag a ride as the sun sets…In blues lore, the crossroads is the place where aspiring musicians strike their deal with the Devil, and Robert claimed to have struck such a deal… (pg. 126)

from Alan Greenberg’s Love In Vain: the life and legend of Robert Johnson

The camera slowly dollies down the ghostly, dirt-paved artery. Anonymous black men walk or stand stationary at points along the way.

Now the road becomes barren. At a dark crossroads we behold Robert Johnson, picking on his guitar nervously, delicately. It is out of tune. Then, footsteps, up the road.

The devilman weaves and stumbles into view. He never looks at Robert, only at his guitar. He takes it, tunes it, turns around and plays an extraordinary guitar part. He hands it back and starts to go. (pg. 49)

(later, in a jook joint)
Stunning guitar sounds cut through the night from the jook. Robert is playing “Preachin’ Blues,” astonishing all with his rhythmic and emotional intensity. (pg 55)

from Giles Oakley’s The Devil’s Music: a history of the blues

The legend of Robert Johnson has been created from the combination of the tragic brevity of his life and the overwhelmeng sense of inner torment and foreboding in his blues. He only recorded some thirty odd songs but taken together they create visions of a restless, self-destructive interior world filled withsecret fears and anxieties. At times he seems scarcely able to control the extremities of feeling which press in on him or the tensions and neuroses which drive, harry and confuse him… (pp. 218-219)

And, as a reward for coming this far:

see also Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Elijah Wald, 2004) and Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, 2019)


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.

Omnia disce

If I have a patron saint, it’s probably Hugh of St-Victor [12th century, author of Didascalicon], whose advice was

Omnia disce, videbus postea nihil esse superfluum
(Learn everything, you will see later that nothing is superfluous)

One can’t, alas, Know Everything, but elaborating one’s understanding of the world around has been a lifelong Odyssey, and a great joy. Sometimes the piling up of knowledge and the interweaving of threads of understanding leads to precipices, viewpoints where an unanticipated vista opens to disclose a chasm of personal ignorance. Happens all the time…

It’s a measure of something that I have read NONE of the reading list on issues of race in this issue of Harvard Gazette. I am uninformed in these matters, and forever surprised/chastened to discover vast realms of ignorance of important things I should have known about. Just now I happened upon May Jeong’s Ah Toy, Pioneering Prostitute of Gold Rush California, which considerably enlarges my knowledge of the history of Chinese immigration into California, and raises a host of other issues and questions about intersectional matters.

It’s easy to find examples of “I’m not responsible for…” with respect to evils of the past (slavery, the extirpation of aboriginal populations, anti- stances toward various Others, etc.), and indeed I’ve mouthed the formula myself in defense of one thing or another. The question of ‘responsibility’ might be reframed into a discussion of how does/should/might one take account of complicities in distant (temporally, spatally, socially…) iniquities and inequities. At the very least, one ought to be ready to inform oneself when a chasm of personal ignorance presents itself. Books like 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the works of Eduardo Galeano (among them Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, The Memory of Fire trilogy) and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States tend to blow the wheels off the wagon of complacency.

Lately I’ve been reading Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (which sports Kate’s beautiful maps) which provides a potent backstory to recent events like Ferguson (Amazon blurb: “…exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation’s past…”). So much of our national mythos is built upon glorifications of events and people, of wilful self-deceptions under the rubrics of Patriotism and exceptionalism, of flaunted symbols like The Flag and the honored dead of glorious wars, and of notions of Progess and Victory. The Emperor’s Raiment, the thumping of tubs, demagoguery, coming to a screen near you…

A brace of haiku in praise:

moral certitude
inspires the cannon fodder
waving flags: Huzzah!!

another martyr
ours or theirs: keep careful count
a winner someday

another Convivial question

An all too well-known doofus put it thus:

If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases if any…

That evoked a derisive snort, but I didn’t stop to think why it seemed so preposterous, I just knew that it was. A blog post this morning enlightened me:

[the all too well-known doofus] made an elementary error known from quantum physics,
of suggesting that the state of the world is determined by our perception of it.

It’s no surprise, indeed it is fundamental, that we are I-centered, and that’s not good//bad so much as BASIC (unlike ants, or mycelia, or rocks, whose consciousness is collective…). We look out at the physical world through two eyes (and ears and nostrils…) and interpret what we sense in the context of a lifetime of seeing and processing and linguistic construction. Imagination, illusion, Maya—but our own, continuously updated and elaborated and refined. The complications of Id, Ego, and SuperEgo as components of the I are a whole other subject.

I woke up with the realization that sometimes a book or a piece of art or music, a movie or video series, or a photograph can shanghai your life, such that you live in and through it for a while. It becomes an obsession, a preferred reality, a personal refuge. I look back on a very long series of such engagements, each foundational in my evolving sense of what matters and how to interpret the world around me. Some seem trivial to others but loom large in personal retrospect, like the novels of RF Delderfield and Nevil Shute and Jan de Hartog, the fictional worlds of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the Okefenokee Swamp of Walt Kelly, the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the mystery stories of Manning Coles, Eric Ambler, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers and Arthur Conan Doyle, the hobbitry of JRR Tolkien, the sci-fi of William Gibson and John Brunner, to name just a few things I’ve binged upon over the years (and happily return to, repeatedly). Their contribution to my Present burgeons as I consider further and dig down into Implications. The same journey could be undertaken in music, in imagery, in culinary experience.

And it’s clear that books (and other media) speak to each other in surprising ways, as I’ve been recognizing via an ongoing project of library reorganization: pretty much every book connects to (enlivens, illuminates) others, and all of that territory could be mapped, literally or figuratively. It’s informative, even heuristic, to consider the contingencies, the hops from one enthusiasm or infatuation to another, that consititute one’s history as a reader, viewer, listener, gastronome.

So the Question is, once again, an open-ended invitation to

reflect on the mapping of
one’s own history and trajectory
in the construction of Self
via encounters with significant influences of the Past

Another Rabbit Hole

A couple of days ago I was organizing books in the Auxiliary Library in the barn and happened on Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (which I had bought in 2008, on just what inspiration I can’t recover, 12 years later). Many of the 40 essays contained within are interesting to probe again, touching as they do on interests and enthusiasms and questions that have arisen during those dozen years. The last third of the eponymous and first (“The Geography of the Imagination”, originally a Distinguished Professor Lecture at University of Kentucky in 1978) is an extended riff on American Gothic, Grant Wood’s evocation of American essence:

(Art Institute of Chicago)
(see Wikipedia entry)

Davenport’s four pages of deconstruction of this eidetic image is a lovely mapping of implications, of allusions, of in-knottings. Some are explicit references by Grant Wood, others seem imbricated [an overlapping of successive layers], where the pointer is to bricolage, in the sense of ‘creation from a diverse range of available things’, rather than to an orderly pattern of overlapping, as with shingles (bricoler is “to tinker”). A similar unpacking can be visited upon other familiar images, to get at the question of how and why they come to be eidetic, and I’m tempted to try some of that myself (stay tuned…).

It’s no surprise that American Gothic has been praised as representing “steadfast American pioneer spirit”, derided as Norman Rockwellish cliché of a[n imaginary] small town America, and widely replicated in satire and parody (see a blog devoted to instances). Here’s an instance from my own archives:

Kent and Shel 1969
Shel and Kent Anderson, 1969

on finishing, only to begin again

The whole month of May I’ve been reading Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature in chunks, interspersed among a dozen or so other books similarly picked up and put down, and today I got to the end and thought that the right thing to do would be to start again. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s what I’m intending to do for the next month or so. Again and again I encountered passages that seemed to speak directly to me and my persistent questions and wonderments. Sometimes I copied them out, more often I vowed to return later. Thus:

The underlying belief shared by the Oulipo and the legion of Ou-X-Pos, serious and non-, is essentially that any enterprise or discipline can be treated as solid and particulate, as an experiment we can tweak and tinker with until we get results that interest or comfort or provoke or unsettle us… (pg 275)

I discovered the Oulipo with an overwhelming sense of relief, welcomed the idea that literary language, instead of anything and everything else around me, could be the surface onto which I projected my obsessive-compulsive mental fidgetings. If I had been someone else, it might have been painting or history, puppetry or pornography, some other X to solve for; if I’d been lucky, it would have been one that already had an ouvroir on the case. As it turned out, I was lucky—not to find what I didn’t know I was looking for, exactly, but to find the questions I didn’t know I was asking. (pg 304)

The key to the oulipian project, I think, lies in that inattention to disciplinary boundaries: the ability to take comfort in the certainty that every non-literary language act simply isn’t literary yet … The scary part, but the liberating part too, is that there’s no greater truth, or at least none worth invoking, that isn’t just as artificial as literature, just as mutable and self-justified and tautological as language. Science can explain the flood of light in a darkened room, but not why it matters, not why it feels like a miracle. Potential, in the Ou-X-Pian sense of the word, is just a way of chasing down and expressing that thing, whatever it is, that you’re sure makes the world make sense. (pg 317)

To live your life craftily, whether you read it as a labyrinth or a puzzle or simply a long combinatorial succession of evening and mornings, is to move through it with the purpose and the security that come from knowing you hold the tools to give it shape and meaning. (pg 318)


The first thing out of the gate in my RSS feed this morning was a pointer to

1. a legal document giving instructions concerning the legal rights and duties of a deceased person “he signed the first deuteroire for this subject”
2. a word that does not exist; it was invented, defined and used by a machine learning algorithm.

1. relating to a mental process or the rate at which they develop from peripheral attachment to the cortex or nervous system “epimotor neuron activity”
2. a word that does not exist; it was invented, defined and used by a machine learning algorithm.

Link / New word / Write your own

Hm. I thought. The scrabble/clabbers player in the family will be amused.

And then I picked up the book that arrived yesterday, All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo: 1963 – 2018 (Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker) and found this in Jacques Duchateau’s “Lecture on the Oulipo at Cerisy-la-Salle, 1963“:

…if all literature contains artifice, since artifice can be mechanized, at least in theory, does this mean that literature in turn can be mechanized as well? Literature and machines has a bad ring to it, it even sounds, a priori, perfectly contradictory. Literature means liberty; machines are syonymous with determinism. But not all machines are the kind that dispense train tickets or mint lozenges. The essential characteristic of machines that interests us is not the quality of being determined but that of being organized. Organized means that a given piece of information will be processed, that all possibilities of this piece of information will be examined systematically in light of a model given by man or by another machine, a machine whose model can be furnished by still a third machine, one whose model etc. etc.

…In the OuLiPo, we have chosen to work with machines, which is to say we are prompted to ask ourselves questions about these notions of structure. This is not new. Writers have always used structures…. From a structuralist perspective, shall we say, all that is evident is suspect. Those forms that are relatively general, accepted by all, and modeled by experience can conceal infra-forms. A systematic re-questioning is necessary to uncover them. A re-questioning which will lead, beyond the discovery of subadjacent forms, to the invention of new ones… (pp 15, 16)

So 55+ years between those two, exactly the time in which my own sentience has been firing on all cylinders, which I might date from my first introduction to hands-on with computers and lexicon, via awareness of Phil Stone’s General Inquirer project (a used copy of General Inquirer: A Computer Approach to Content Analysis [1966] duly ordered…)

…which is of course part and parcel of my lifelong engagement with words and word play. One of the early examples that squirted out when I began to inquire of the Mind for instances:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, [for] to make an apple pie; and at the same time [coming down out of the woods] a great she-bear /coming up the street/, pops its head into the shop. ‘What! no soap?’ So he died, and she [buried him and] very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with little round button at /the/ top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

([my version] /not my version/)
(see here for the marvelous backstory)

which my brother John quoted to me when I was 5 or 6, and I took to mind… along with many other snatchets of verse and balladry, from John and from records in the family library. My engagement with Ogden Nash and Edith Sitwell and Tom Lehrer all spring from the same font of lexical foolishment, and Archy and Mehitabel and of course Pogo are other ur-text examples. More will doubtless surface as the day progresses.

Dept. of Blinding Flash and Deafening Report

I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of Japanese paintings and woodcuts, but only really looked at a handful, and with even fewer have I had anything more than the shallowest understanding of what I was seeing. A couple of months ago I heard about an exhibit at the Harvard Museums, Painting Edo (mid-February through July), covering about 250 years (1615–1868) and seeming to be an opportunity to repair my ignorance. And then COVID-19 closed museums. So I looked to see if there would be a published catalog, and sure enough Painting Edo: Selections from the Feinberg Collection of Japanese Art appeared… Knowing that it was most unlikely that I’d be in Cambridge by July, I ordered it. Well. It’s a lovely book, and the text overflows with just the sort of explanations I was hoping for. Here’s part of what I read this morning, accompanying the first image in the book:

Tani Bunchō’s “Grasses and Moon” from 1817. (photographed by John Tsantes and Neil Greentree); © ROBERT FEINBERG/COURTESY HARVARD ART MUSEUMS

The Gallery Text is a good start, but Yukio Lippett’s text in the book is eye-opening, and this passage transfixed me:

Bunchō aimed to create a “true view” (shinkei), as stated in his inscription. This term in fact designates a literati concept of great complexity shared among advanced painters and intellectuals from the mid-Edo period onward. Rather than referring to any notion of optical truth or reality, it was rooted in the ability of the painter to capture the subjective experience of a site or scene through picture-making. Works in this tradition invariably involve some combination of motifs identifying the site and a discursive framework—typically provided through an inscription—that refracts the image through a particular emotion, interpersonal exchange, or sensory experience from the encounter. In many cases, the inscription incorporates a citation from classical literature, thus fashioning this moment of encounter as both contingent and eternal. The true view was a fundamentally interrelational concept that imbricated the singular, intimate experiences of an artist with those of earlier figures who had commemorated similar instances. (pg 15)

So much to admire here: an elegance and precision in the prose (discursive, refracts, imbricated), a lucid explication of shinkei, a generous nudge toward thinking differently about how and why text might accompany images.

Some more of the text accompanying this image:

The scene is conceived as if observed from a low vantage point among the river reeds, looking up and through them at the moon… The powerful sense of immediacy thus generated by the design is reinforced by the fact that Japan was a floor-sitting culture: viewing a painting from a standing position would have been highly irregular, and accordingly, Grasses and Moon anticipates the vantage point of a Yaozen patron looking up at the scroll from the tatami mat-covered floor. (pg 14)

The image on the book’s cover is a marvel itself:

the whole image:

and a detail: