Category Archives: reading

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 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)

wordery

The first thing out of the gate in my RSS feed this morning was a pointer to www.thisworddoesnotexist.com/:

deuteroire
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.

epimotor
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:

Question continued

I’m finding Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures to be another of those mind-bending immersive reads, right up there with Powers’ Overstory and Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind and Popova’s Figuring and Macfarlane’s Underland in sheer power as a mind expander. I’m reading and listening both (Kindle and Audacity), and finding the two modes of access to the text to be synergistic. Yesterday I read the chapter about lichens, and wrote down some thoughts not-irrelevant to the Question of Questions that Puzzle and Inspire:

We habitually take some things to be stable, to be established fact: the Big Dipper is a Structure in the Firmament, a north-pointing icon for humanity throughout the northern hemisphere … and likewise we have the conviction (from high school biology) that a lichen is “a fungus and an alga” in simple symbiosis. These are both ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ when examined/questioned beyond the simple versions.

The Big Dipper is only a “structure” in our collective Mind’s Eye, as viewed from our terrestrial perspective. The component Stars (Alioth, Dubhe, Merak, Alkaid, Phecda, Megrez, and Mizar) are vast 3-D and 4-D distances apart, and are, as we experience their placement, only temporarily conjoined as a part of the “constellation” we name as Ursa Major (in a few million years they will seem to drift off in different directions).

And research in the last 5 years or so has established that lichens are far more complex than that cartoon of a ‘simple’ fungus/alga symbiosis, and involve co-symbiont bacteria and viruses as essential components. “We have yet to find any lichen that matches the traditional definition of one fungus and one alga” is how one lichenologist summarizes the current thinking.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the common knowledge that our own bodies contain symbiont bacteria (and viruses, come to that), and the insight usually ascribed to Lynn Margulis [who was married to Carl Sagan, once upon a time (1957-1964)] that eukaryotic cells are the evolutionary product of symbiotic mergers of bacteria (“…the theory that cell organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts were once independent bacteria…”). Once a Heresy (“Your research is crap, do not bother to apply again”), this idea is now regarded as Fundamental, having been conclusively demonstrated in the early 1980s via DNA evidence.

Some highlighted passages from Sheldrake:

Page 93
LICHENS ARE PLACES where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism. They flicker between “wholes” and “collections of parts.” …
Lichens are a product less of their parts than of the exchanges between those parts. Lichens are stabilized networks of relationships; they never stop lichenizing; they are verbs as well as nouns …
lichens don’t contain microbiomes. They are microbiomes, packed with fungi and bacteria besides the two established players.

Page 95
“The human binary view has made it difficult to ask questions that aren’t binary,” he explained. “Our strictures about sexuality make it difficult to ask questions about sexuality , and so on. We ask questions from the perspective of our cultural context. And this makes it extremely difficult to ask questions about complex symbioses like lichens because we think of ourselves as autonomous individuals and so find it hard to relate .”

…it is no longer possible to conceive of any organism—humans included—as distinct from the microbial communities they share a body with. The biological identity of most organisms can’t be pried apart from the life of their microbial symbionts.

Page 109
the study of symbiosis reveals that life is full of hybrid life-forms, such as lichens, which are composed of several different organisms Indeed, all plants, fungi, and animals, including ourselves, are composite beings to some extent : Eukaryotic cells are hybrids, and we all inhabit bodies that we share with a multitude of microbes without which we could not grow, behave, and reproduce as we do.

Continuing some of those thoughts, and encountering others:

The world with which we are entangled is not and has never been STABLE, nor has it been on some Whiggish trajectory toward improvement, let alone progressing toward any goal that we can conceive. And we are not the “Crown of Creation” except in our own Narcissistic reflected vision. So how shall we come to see ourselves as part of, as actors within, the vast terrestrial webs of Life? Our prime relationship to that complexity seems to be HUBRIS, acting on the basis of a tacit conviction that we are the Crown of Creation, and that the rest of Life is somehow our servant, subject to our command.

Via science, we’ve sought to unravel the complexities, to learn how Life works. And the further into the mysteries we proceed, the greater are the complexities we encounter. And the greater are the consequences of our hubris.

Sometimes Life deals out corrective lessons, and COVID-19 is a current example, the personal and societal and global consequences of which are only beginning to unfold—and it’s just a dress rehersal for The Big One, which will surely arrive but in what guise we can only guess.

So a perennial question for me concerns Entanglement, its complexities, dimensions, opportunities: how to map, engage with, appreciate, enjoy, traverse…

With respect to activities of the moment, but metaphorically extendable: we put seeds into the ground and await germination, but really it’s much more than that. The plant has to develop relationships with mycorrhizal fungi IN the soil in order to thrive. Mutualisms emerge which we neither see nor control.

taking stock, May 10th

Today is Kate’s 50th birthday!


KBfirst1970

(see a Flickr album)

=====


My life seems to be a long series of fascinations, sometimes discrete and self-contained, but often braided and intertwingled with one another. They seem to come out of Nowhere, but of course there’s always some grit-in-oyster provocation, which I can only occasionally reconstruct once the pearl has begun to take shape as a new fascination. The last few months have seen a joyous succession, beginning with explorations of pareidolia in November 2019 [though off and on for at least the last 5 years], which led to discovery of Roger Caillois, and thence [not quite sure how] to an immersion in Walter Benjamin in December 2019, and to Maria Popova’s Figuring in January 2020, and to explorations of my library of word books in February and March, which may or may not have sparked a diversion to Georges Perec, which then seems to have led to what has become a continuing bout with Oulipo (and OuXPo extensions), especially via Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, which provoked a reading of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler… and so it goes.

It’s worth wandering into the lexicographical weeds to record the history of the Ouvroir [which I gloss as ‘Workshop’] in Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, as summarized in the [just-arrived] OULIPO: A Primer of Potential Literature, Warren Motte’s anthology of translations of oulipist texts:

…an ouvroir—a word that has fallen into disuse—once denoted a shop and, as late as the 18th century, a light and mobile shop made of wood, in which the master cobblers of Paris displayed their wares and pursued their trade. The word could also denote that part of a textile factory where the looms are placed; or, in an arsenal, the place where a team of workers performs a given task; or a long room where the young women in a community work on projects appropriate to their sex; or a charitable institution for impoverished women and girls who found therein shelter, heat, light, and thankless, ill-paid work, the result of which these institutions sold at a discount, not without having skimmed off a tidy profit, thus depriving the isolated workers of their livelihood and leading them (as it was charged) into vice. Later, and for a short time only, ouvroir denoted a group of well-to-do women seeking to assuage their consciences in needlework for the poor and in the confection of sumptuous ecclesiastical garments. Curiously enough, it was this last notion, the “sewing circle,” that prevailed in the minds of the Oulipians: just like those diligent ladies, Oulipians embroidered with golden thread… (Noël Arnaud’s Foreword to Motte, pg xii)

The lexical playfulness of Oulipo is what attracts me most (despite the lamentable impenetrability to me of the French texts), and what connects me to offshoots (or Potential offshoots) like OuPhoPo (Photography) and OuMuPo (Music). As Raymond Queneau put it,

The word ‘potential’ concerns the very nature of literature, that is, fundamentally, it’s less a question of literature strictly speaking than of supplying forms for the good use one can make of literature. We call potential literature the search for new forms and structures which may be used by writers in any way they see fit. (Arnaud again, pg xiii)

This exemplifies the OuMuPo connection:

Daniel Heïkalo’s comment:

Probably one of the craziest improvisation that we ever recorded. It was the last track we played during a week long session. We threw all the rules into the wood stove and blew out the windows. Robert Kehler came up with the title. But in fact, we do believe that children SHOULD be exposed to this sort of music, and especially the ones that are studying in conservatories…

Elsewhere I’ve noted my personal entanglement with OuPhoPo, to which constructions like this advance my claim:

Mr Belaker

and

4294x2adj2

and

AppShop7ix18005a

and

w

Rabbit Hole du jour

You just never know what the day will bring, and how thing will lead to thing.

I started with a chapter from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, the second part of the first one, which finds the reader in a provincial town railroad station:

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences…

Not in Kansas anymore, hein?

The word that springs to mind is “immersive” but whether anybody else has ever been so sprung upon I know not. At the end of Calvino chapter 1 I begin to read chapter 2:

You have now read about thirty pages and you’re becoming caught up in the story. At a certain point you remark: “This sentence somehow seems familiar. In fact, this whole passage reads like something I’ve read before.” Of course: there are themes that recur, the text is interwoven with these reprises, which serve to express the fluctuation of time. You are the sort of reader who is sensitive to such refinements; you are quick to catch the author’s intentions and nothing escapes you….

Hm. And so I put down Calvino and picked up where I left off yesterday in Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Calvino having been a Oulipian, this seemed perfectly sensible) and the feel of the reading seems the same, some amalgam of fictional narrative and factual discourse where it’s perhaps difficult or possibly pointless to say what is real and what imaginary…

And then a look at the RSS feed’s latest brought me this:



And I think: A new genre? Meld of sound and metacommentary, which turns out to have been “inspired” by William Eggleston, and in some sense the whole video is about William Eggleston.

You know what? Just google him now. Pause this video.

Now, I’ve never gotten William Eggleston as a photographer, and the why of that is surely worth exploring. I accept that he’s widely regarded as one of the modern masters, and I know that John Sarkowski, whom I revere, recognized him with an early solo show at MoMA in 1976 (the first of color photography): William Eggleston’s Guide is Szarkowski’s catalog for the show, and see also a pdf of Szarkowski’s Introduction. Here’s a section of the Amazon blurb for the book:

The book and show unabashedly forced the art world to deal with color photography, a medium scarcely taken seriously at the time, and with the vernacular content of a body of photographs that could have been but definitely weren’t some average American’s Instamatic pictures from the family album. These photographs heralded a new mastery of the use of color as an integral element of photographic composition.

My own photographic aesthetic is deeply dipped in the world of black-and-white photography, mostly before 1976, though I’ve taken to color myself ever since my transition to digital imaging more than 10 years ago. Eggleston’s color and composition just rub me the wrong way, and generally my reaction to his images has been “so what?”, but a couple of years ago I saw a selection at full size at Pier 24 in San Francisco, and began to realize that my judgements have been ill-placed. So I continue to try to reeducate myself away from long-running prejudices. But I’m still leery of Eggleston.

So back to the video, and its “new genre” possibilities, and how all of that might fit with Calvino and with OuPhoPo (the Workshop in Experimental Photography). The text of the video references a New York Times profile of Eggleston, in which he is revealed to be an over-the-top alcoholic.

…WE LEAVE THE OFFICES of the Eggleston Trust and go to his apartment. The first thing one sees upon entering is a bright red plastic sign with a yellow border, printed with capitalized white sans-serif text. It warns, “THE OCCUPANT OF THIS APARTMENT WAS RECENTLY HOSPITALIZED FOR COMPLICATIONS DUE TO ALCOHOL. HE IS ON A MEDICALLY PRESCRIBED DAILY PORTION OF ALCOHOL. IF YOU BRING ADDITIONAL ALCOHOL INTO THIS APARTMENT YOU ARE PLACING HIM IN MORTAL DANGER. YOUR ENTRY AND EXIT INTO THIS APARTMENT IS BEING RECORDED. WE WILL PROSECUTE SHOULD THIS NOTICE BE IGNORED. THE EGGLESTON FAMILY.” It is a devastating thing to see. Heartbreaking. I was also an alcoholic for decades, the kind who had shakes and saw spiders. I’m not even through the hallway and my mind is racing from “I want that sign” to “What kind of doctor prescribes alcohol for an alcoholic? Where was he when I was drinking?”

The text of the song in the video:

What if the thing that helps you live
Is also the thing that will get you killed
It’s the damndest thing

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Beauty Pill, but here are two more remarkable videos:


Africana Barista

and
Dog With Rabbit in Mouth Unharmed


which make me realize that I need to make more room in my musical universe.

And that was all before 10 AM.