Soviet electronica from 1984. The lyrics are exercise instructions.
Paperman (2012), an Oscar-winning, animated black and white short film from Disney.
Juvenile fun: I stumbled upon Benjamin Franklin’s list of euphemisms for being drunk from 1737. As is the nature of euphemism, the list is ambiguous. Observe: He’s Biggy, Half Way to Concord, Loaded his Cart, He’s been too free with the Creature, Enter’d, His Flag is out, Hardy, Got on his little Hat, Got the Hornson, Mountous, Rais’d his Monuments, Rais’d, Soft, He makes Virginia Fence…
The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure. Quick! This thing will be gone after a year, and it’s already in week 47.
Proc World is a very impressive procedural engine for generating and modifying voxel worlds. This demo video demonstrates how it could be used to create Minecraft on steroids, but that’s only one possible application of the engine, which also handles non-square objects just fine. Very interesting, and the blog details many of the technical difficulties in pulling something like this off. See also: Project Frontier, nowhere near as technically impressive, but an interesting behind-the-scenes look at procedural generation.
Speaking of game design: a look at the creation of Museum, a gorgeous new Counter-Strike map.
It’s been years since I used to hang out on the ruby-talk mailing list, but it pleases me that Ruby 2.0.0 was just released. Featuring real keyword arguments! My dark secret that I don’t tell anyone but my faithful blog readers: when I’m bored, I write Lisp interpreters in Ruby.
In the 19th century, the Chilean island of Chiloé was de facto ruled by a witch mafia.
SCP-1471 wants to be your friend. “
Never settle for those awkward feelings of being alone ever again.” The SCP Foundation remains one of my favorite collaborative fiction projects, existing somewhere in the intersection between the Cold War, creepypasta, Lovecraft, Twin Peaks and The X-Files. SCP-093 is a great short story.
This is really sad/sweet. Whateverest is a fake documentary inspired and soundtracked by Todd Terje’s music. It had The Guardian fooled. Marius, alias “Inspector Norse”, is not a very bright man, but he is a man with dreams. He’s stuck in his small Norwegian hometown, where he cares for his aging father and has converted his father’s bakery into a tanning salon to support himself. In his spare time, he makes dance music that has so far been met with a mountain of indifference. And he dances. Oh, how he dances, everywhere, preferrably high on home-made party drugs. There’s something infinitely sad about the way he talks about his shattered dreams—the way he attempts to convince himself that he no longer desires what he so clearly desires because he knows he can’t have it. But it makes for a great short film, with a great soundtrack.
Like any good Norwegian, I’ve had a tree felled on my head. Much as I’d like to blame all my neuroses on the tree, it was a small tree. I was fine. I fell down, but that was more from the shock. It isn’t every day a tree trunk violently tackles you from behind. Treehuggers don’t know it, but trees are sneaky fuckers.
Apparently watching wood burn in a fireplace is primetime television entertainment in Norway now. I didn’t know, because I don’t own a television. If I were a cynical bastard, which I am, I would say that my choice has been validated.
My grandfather was a logger. He and other macho men felled trees with big duo handsaws. The kind of trees that if they fall on your head, you don’t get personality disorders, your brain goes disorderly all over the forest floor. Later he started working at a dairy factory, then he died, and later still I was born and never met him.
I think I’ve told this story before, but my mother insists that her father had a vardøger. My mom is not a superstitious woman, but she insists. A vardøger is a creature of Norwegian folklore, a kind of friendly doppelgänger who goes before someone and announces their coming. My grandfather would drive a moped to and from work at the dairy factory. Every day around five, his family would hear his moped come puttering up the road. The dog’s ears would perk up. Then they’d hear my grandfather put away the moped in the basement. They’d hear him come up the stairs, but he wouldn’t come in. The whole thing would repeat fifteen minutes later, and my grandfather would come in the door for real.
If it were me, I’d be all up in that basement with white flour and string traps and ghostbusters equipment, but apparently that wasn’t their style. Maybe my grandfather did have a vardøger. Or maybe he was just fucking with them. Every single day for decades. Sounds like something a grandfatherly figure would do.
My grandma still lives in the same house. This photograph was taken from her garden.Feb 21, 2013
Ape and Coffee, by Russell Edson. (Previously: A Historical Breakfast. See also: Fire Is Not a Nice Guest.) Feb 21, 2013
Some coffee had gotten on a man’s ape. The man said,
animal did you get on my coffee?
No no, whistled the ape, the coffee got on me.
You’re sure you didn’t spill on my coffee? said the man.
Do I look like a liquid? peeped the ape.
Well you sure don’t look human, said the man.
But that doesn’t make me a fluid, twittered the ape.
Well I don’ know what the hell you are, so just stop it,
cried the man.
I was just sitting here reading the newspaper when you
splashed coffee all over me, piped the ape.
I don’t care if you are a liquid, you just better stop
splashing on things, cried the man.
Do I look fluid to you? Take a good look, hooted the ape.
If you don’t stop I’ll put you in a cup, screamed the man.
I’m not a fluid, screeched the ape.
Stop it, stop it, screamed the man, you are frightening me.
Quickly, before the idea disappears: it is the case, surely, that science is an analytic practice foremost. Analysis being the business of breaking down complex phenomena into simpler phenomena which are easier to understand. The opposite is synthesis, the building up of complex phenomena from simpler ones. And because we live in a culture so dominated by and reverential towards science, and because science—although it obviously also contains, as does any complex practice, elements of both—leans more heavily towards analysis, synthesis has, possibly, acquired a certain subconscious stigma.
Here are some synthetic practices and objects: collages, palimpsests, encyclopedias, layered paintings, double exposures, modern studio recordings, remixing, grafitti.
I believe the internet, that memetic, self-transforming, endless chimera, is a synthetic medium. What this means is that the primary mode of action on the internet is layering, recombination, existential combinatorics. What is a meme if not a continually rewritten palimpsest, a collage, a wall that is being painted on and painted over and painted again? Isn’t that what the typical blog or social network anno 2013 looks like?
On the internet, the tendency is not to erase, but to pile on top. Our identities are like wavefronts: who I am, or who I am to everyone else, at any given moment, is simply a solution of the most recent drops from my stream, the synthesis of the most recent bits and pieces I’ve tacked onto my wall.
This is both good and bad. It is a holistic rather than a diagnostic approach. Cultural critics lament the lack of rest stops, the infrequency with which we slow down and break down and erase and divide and conquer. We go too fast, and we never consider the individual pieces, we simply pile them up and hope they make some sort of sense in aggregate. But possibly they miss the advantages: the things which make collages, or encyclopedias, or double exposures or walls of sound created synthetically in the studio great. Possibly the good part—for surely there must be a good part—of the Way We Live Now is somewhere in there.
But so: the internet, today, operates largely in the opposite fashion to the way science largely operates; we as a culture revere, stand in awe before, worship science; therefore we are subconsciously inclined to think of the internet as fundamentally kind of silly. Because science is serious and the opposite of science must be silly. And obviously we can’t take silly stuff too seriously, except to worry that we spend too much time on silliness to the detriment of serious stuff. Because circular logic.
Where am I going with this? I don’t know.Feb 15, 2013
On trolls: Remember that foul words or blows in themselves are no outrage, but your judgement that they’re so. So when anyone makes you angry, know that it’s your own thought that has angered you. Therefore make it your first endeavour not to let your impressions carry you away. When we’re hindered, or disturbed, or distressed, let’s never lay the blame on others, but on ourselves, that is, on our own judgements. To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education; to accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun; to accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.
On basement dwellers: By the gods, when the young man feels the first stirrings of philosophy, I’d rather he came to me with his hair sleek than dishevelled and dirty: for that shows a sort of reflection of the beautiful, and a longing for the comely, and where he imagines these to be, there he spends his effort.
On copyright and information sharing: Never say of anything, “I lost it,” but say, “I gave it back.” Has your child died? It was given back. Has your wife died? She was given back. Has your estate been taken from you? Wasn’t this also given back? But you say, “He who took it from me is wicked.” What’s it matter to you through whom the Giver asked it back? As long as He gives it to you, take care of it, but not as your own; treat it as passers-by treat an inn.
On blogging: Lay down for yourself from the first a definite stamp and style of conduct, which you will maintain when you’re alone and also in the society of men. Be silent for the most part, or, if you speak, say only what’s necessary and in a few words. Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but don’t talk of ordinary things—of gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes, or of meats or drinks—these are topics that arise everywhere—but above all don’t talk about men in blame or compliment or comparison.
On alt-tabbing and procrastination: When you relax your attention for a little, don’t imagine that you’ll recover it wherever you wish, but bear this well in mind, that your error of today must necessarily put you in a worse position for other occasions. Does the carpenter by inattention do his work better? Does the helmsman by inattention steer more safely? And is any of the minor duties of life fulfilled better by inattention? Don’t you realize that when you’ve let your mind go wandering once, you lose the power to recall it, to bring it to bear on what’s seemly, self-respecting, and modest: you do anything that occurs to you and follow your inclinations?
On the culture of oversharing: When a man seems to have talked frankly to us about his own affairs, how we’re drawn to communicate our own secrets to him and think this is frankness! First because it seems unfair to have heard our neighbour’s affairs and yet not give him a share of our own in turn: next because we think we won’t give the impression of being frank if we’re silent about our own affairs. Still, though he has confided his affairs to me with security, am I to do the same to the first man I meet? No, I hear and hold my tongue, if I’m that sort of man, but he goes off and tells everyone. “Yes; but I trust you, and you don’t trust me.” In the first place you don’t trust me; you’re only garrulous and therefore can’t keep anything back. For if what you say is true, trust your secrets to me and no one else: instead of which, whenever you see anyone at leisure, you sit down by him and say, “My brother, you are the dearest friend I have; I beg you to listen to my story.” And you do this to those you haven’t known even for a short while. If you really trust me, you trust me, of course, because I’m trustworthy and self-respecting, not because I told you my secrets.Feb 12, 2013
I have always suspected fraud in poets and artists. It’s a kind of impostor syndrome applied to other people. I write freely about art, literature, and other issues, referencing all sorts of cultural touching stones. Implicit in this is the idea that there are other references I could have made, but chose not to. By talking about certain authors or directors or photographers, I create the impression that I know what I’m talking about and that I’m making a deliberate selection out of a much larger mental store of possible references. But really, often I talk about a certain book or film not because in my informed opinion it’s the best use of my time, but because it was the only book or film I’ve finished recently. And what I recognize in myself I suspect in others.
Certain famous authors, I’ve concluded, don’t exist. They were made up by other authors, a convenient grab-bag of references and themes that can be pointed to without having to actually create them from scratch. If you go to a bookstore or a library and try to read these authors’ books, you’ll find the books empty beyond the title page. But likely you won’t get that far, because the books have an intimidating aura to them. Their life in other people’s work suggests so much that it seems impossible for them to actually deliver. This conspiratorial cabal of authors has it right. Potential literature is always greater than actual. A page of writing can never say anything as well as an empty page says nothing. Borges had it right, which is why he wrote reviews of imaginary books instead of writing the books themselves. Edouard Levé, the French photographer and author of the greatest autobiography I’ve ever read—see what I’m doing here, implying that I’ve read many autobiographies, which I haven’t—wrote a work called Oeuvres, which is a book about books he might write. The work is only available in French, and appropriately enough, I’ve never read it.
An extraordinary thing has happened, though. A crack in the mirror. The art world has admitted—almost—to their fraud. MoMa has appointed Kenneth Goldsmith as their first “poet laureate.” Goldsmith is a controversial, but respected poet. His books are so impossibly boring that he admits even he doesn’t read them. (“
I can’t even read my own books—I keep falling asleep.”) They are constructed in such a way that, even by the usual standards of poetry and art, his books are unreadable. Goldsmith is a proponent of “uncreative writing” and his books are usually transcriptions: of all the text in a specific edition of the New York Times (is there a single editor at the NYT who has read absolutely all the text in even one edition of the newspaper, including all the ads and the colophon, all the page numbers, etc?); of an entire year’s radio weather reports; etc.
There is a movement for potential literature, oulipo, which includes Georges Perec’s famous novel—which I haven’t read, and which I suspect most people who reference it hasn’t read either—A Void, written entirely without the letter E. But I think Borges or Goldsmith are more in line with potential literature: literature that doesn’t exist in the form of actual books, or in any event is never read as such, but lives a life by proxy in the works of others, as references, as thought experiments rather than as actual works of art.
I recently posted a quote from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I must confess that I have frequently posted quotes from books I haven’t read, and thus don’t really understand the context for the quotes and have likely misrepresented them. But this book I actually read, after reading the first pages on the website of Tao Lin’s Muumuu House publishing house. (Lin, of course, is another author who is possibly more interesting to talk about than to actually read. He is also, like Goldsmith, fond of appropriation, like writing “poems” that consist of selected tweets from other people’s twitter accounts. Or slightly more sophisticated, poems which are selected invented tweets from other people’s accounts.)
Leaving the Atocha Station is a very intelligent and very readable meditation on this feeling of artistic fraud. The narrator, like the author was, is an American poet on a scholarship in Spain, where he is treated like an actual intellectual figure despite feeling like a fraud, like he can’t really write poetry, and despite the fact that, although his scholarship is ostensibly for researching and writing a poem about the impact of the Spanish civil war on Spanish poetry, he spends his time getting high and appropriating the famous Spanish poet Lorca, deliberately mistranslating the Spanish poet in order to create “his own” poems. The quote I posted, and will reproduce here, is about the feeling that other people only pretend to relate to art in a more heartfelt manner, but actually experience the potential for feeling more than the actual feeling:
I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music “changed their life,” especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility. Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.
But this thought is occasioned by observing a man who, at least by appearance, is undergoing a profound emotional reaction to art. Lerner has stated that this scene is one of the few in the novel that are truly autobiographical. The narrator in the book has been going to a museum as a part of his morning ritual, contemplating a specific painting, Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. Usually, he is alone in front of the painting. But this day, there is another man there:
He was standing exactly where I normally stood and for a moment I was startled, as if beholding myself beholding the painting, although he was thinner and darker than I. I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t. I wondered if he had observed me in front of the Descent and if he was now standing before it in the hope of seeing whatever it was I must have seen. I was irritated and tried to find another canvas for my morning ritual, but was too accustomed to the painting’s dimensions and blues to accept a substitute. I was about to abandon room 58 when the man broke suddenly into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?
The man proceeds to walk through the museum, stopping and crying in front of different paintings. The narrator begins to wonder: is this a performance of some kind, or is this man genuinely overcome by the emotional power of works of art? And he considers the dilemma of the museum guards: on the one hand, breaking down and crying in front of a painting could be a sign of mental disarray, and one of the tasks of the museum guards is protecting the priceless works of art in the museum from lunatics who may damage them. Should the guards ask the man to leave before he damages a painting? On the other hand, the whole premise of the museum, the whole raison d’etre of the guards, is that art is powerful, that art is capable of generating in humans the kind of powerful emotional reaction displayed by the man. He finds “
[the guards’] mute performance of these tensions more moving than any Pietá, Deposition, or Annunciation…”
I’ll end on a personal experience. I was in Berlin, visiting the Hamburger Bahnhof, an old train station now turned into a contemporary art museum, situated on the comically named (so I thought) Invalidenstraße. The museum hosted a large number of modern artworks, including a “land art” piece by Richard Long which only served to highlight how hopelessly out of place land art is inside a museum building; another artwork consisted of a black-and-white video of a grown woman crying like a baby. I was more moved by the gift shop than by these works of art. But there was one artwork that made an impression on me. It wasn’t a strong emotional reaction. I didn’t break down and cry. But it moved me more than everything else in the museum.
It was a shovel. A readymade by Marcel Duchamp, he of urinal fame. A regular shovel hanging from the ceiling and lit in the manner befitting a great work of art. The title? In advance of a broken arm.Feb 8, 2013
From the archives.Feb 7, 2013
I am an introspective young man and some of my favorite books are bildungsromane about introspective young men. Two such books are Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I’ve always thought they were unfilmable. Both books have received the big-screen treatment recently.
Norwegian Wood the film was released in late 2010. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything about that film here, because it’s such a disappointment. Nothing happens, and then nothing happens, and then I turned off the film. I didn’t have to see whole 133 minutes of plodding to get a feel for it. I know what happens next, which is to say: nothing.
I managed to sit through the entirety of On the Road (2012), because there’s a little bit more of an external plot for the filmmakers to hang on to, but it’s just like I’d always thought: these books simply can’t be faithfully adapted to film.
I’d never seen a film with Kristen Stewart in it. I now understand the meme where 25 identical Kristen Stewart faces represent 25 different emotions. I think the overarching expression she was going for in this one was “seductive,” but I don’t know. Could as well have been “repulsive,” or “gloomy” or “content.” Not that one can’t deliver a magnetic performance with only one expression. I was absolutely captivated by Natalya Bondarchuk in Solaris (1972)—also a film where nothing much happens on the surface—despite the fact that all she does in that film is stare emptily into space or cry. But Kristen Stewart is not an otherworldly Soviet space beauty.
The obvious and obviously correct criticism of either film is that they are merely a summary of their respective books—neither adding anything of their own nor capturing the spirit of the original. But the more interesting question is exactly what it is they’re missing, and whether this something is bound to literature or if it can be transferred to film.
There are, of course, many relevant differences between Kerouac’s Beat novel, taking place only years post WWII in America, and Murakami’s novel, which takes place during the student protests of the late 1960s and the Vietnam war, but in Japan. On the Road is an extremely thinly veiled autobiography, while Norwegian Wood probably takes its themes and sensibilities from the author, but not the actual plot. What unites them is the sensibility of the narrator and protagonist, who in both novels is a bookish, introverted young man who is curious about life, desirous of it, wanting to experience things more fully and completely, but somehow held back by forces integral to their personality and to their past. And one of the things that the books do, but the films cannot, is to capture the exhilaration such a man feels upon meeting someone who embodies all that they want to be, and when this person accepts them and invites them along for the ride.
On the Road is a novel about the relationship between Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and all the other characters are simply extras. From the first page, Kerouac, as Sal Paradise, drags us along enthusiastically explaining to us how he first met Dean, as he chooses to call Cassady’s literary alter ego, and about his expectations and hopes for the future now that such a force of life has entered his life. It’s almost embarrassing how much I like this book because of the way I identify with it. It feels somehow dirty, as if literary worth should be determined on the basis of more abstract values, as if it’s forbidden for serious literary appraisal to base itself on the same principles, frankly, as teenage girls gushing about Twilight, viz., emotional identification.
Norwegian Wood, on the other hand, is about Toru Watanabe’s relationships with two women: Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend—a friend who committed suicide the year before the main story begins—and Midori, whom he meets while at university in Tokyo. Naoko is troubled, silent, introverted; Midori is outgoing, bubbly, spontaneous. Naoko is Toru’s tie with the past, while Midori is a possible future. Thus the tension in On the Road, between Sal’s introverted nature and the extraverted Dean, between the silent and the loud, between action and inaction, is present here as well, but externalized: Toru’s choice between Naoko and Midori is also a choice about how to align his personality.
There are many other things that could be said about these two books, and about their respective film adaptations. I’m being intentionally reductionistic in focusing on this one aspect, but I do so because it is an aspect that feels particularly relevant right now, in this particular moment for this particular writer, and if there is anything interesting I can say about this topic, that is the angle I must take.
I don’t know what either director intended to say or do with their films. I’m sure that whatever it was, it missed something important about the original source material. I’m not quite sure what that important thing is, but I’m going to suggest, because it seems like an interesting possibility, that it is this very conflict or tension: between introversion and extraversion, between depression and mania. I recently wrote that I’d rather go out as a supernova than as a black hole, that I envy the bipolar their mania. What is it Sal says at the start of On the Road? “
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles…” This is what Sal Paradise encounters in Dean Moriarty, and to a lesser extent, because I am stretching a bit here—this theme is a more important part of On the Road than of Norwegian Wood, although I insist that it applies to both—it is what Toru Watanabe encounters in Midori.
And what both films fail to convey is just how exhilarating, how fantastic, how gripping and exciting and downright ecstatic this is. How a character such as Sal, or such as Toru, or like Jack or Haruki or even myself, reacts to this. How one who is at one end of the personality scale but aspires to the other reacts when the other side comes bursting into their life exploding across the sky like spiders bringing more colors and sounds and sights and life than he has ever seen and says, “You’re welcome to come along for the ride.” That is the rush I get from reading On the Road, and to a lesser extent, it is the rush Toru gets from meeting Midori.
But the films don’t do this. They don’t show it, they tell. Of course, on film, telling is showing, but showing me a picture of someone ecstatic is not the same as making me ecstatic; seeing a journey on film is not the same as being taken on a journey. The books take us along for that ride but the films cannot.
On the Road can’t be adapted faithfully to film. A less faithful film that didn’t try to be a period piece or to adapt scenes from the novel could have been more emotionally faithful. I am sure Jack Kerouac wouldn’t be pleased with the film.
It is because the films fail to take us along for that initial rush that the subsequent character development also falls flat and the films fail as a whole. (Well, Norwegian Wood failed for me before it even got to the character development, since I turned it off halfway through—as such, this is idle essayistic speculation, and not a legitimate review of that film, but for what it’s worth the reviewers who were forced to watch the whole thing appear to agree with me.)
The two narrators choose opposite approaches to resolving the tension between up and down, introspection and extraversion. Sal hops along the road with Dean for a while, and in the process, he manages to push himself a ways towards the other end of the personality spectrum, though he never travels far. In the end, however, Dean abandons Sal with dysentery in Mexico, and when they meet again, Sal, having realized the flaws and incompatibilities inherent in their relationship, basically bids Dean adieu. In Norwegian Wood, Toru pursues Naoko, and so basically goes in the other direction relative to Sal, but Naoko abandons him in a more permanent way: she commits suicide. Thus he is forced back to Midori, to the other end of the spectrum. We never learn just what she answers when he returns to her, basically the second choice.
But though they go along different paths, both protagonists end up somewhere in the same vicinity, having pushed far in one direction and then been pulled back in the other.
In the books, the reader follows along this journey. Because we are allowed to feel, if fainter, as if by proxy, Sal’s exhilaration with Dean and all that Dean represents, his eventual choice to abandon him and the lifestyle is made more poignant. And because we are allowed to feel along with Toru the comfort that comes with his slow, meandering, introspective relationship with Naoko, because we are allowed to feel the false safety of staying in your comfort zone along with him, it feels more poignant when life pulls him in the other direction. Both novels end bittersweetly in a way that depends on the emotional investment of the reader. You can’t manufacture that in a film by putting “Bittersweet Symphony” on the soundtrack. (Neither film does, but you get my point.)Feb 5, 2013
Hell is other people’s alarm clocks.Feb 3, 2013