Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

More about writing — in English or in Esperanto

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My ideas often develop slowly, emerging over time, like the gradual growth of a crystal in a solution of mineral salts. In this post from yesterday, I wrote about how we express ourselves in our native language (for me, English) by drawing from a large mental storehouse of stock words and phrases — Lego blocks of language, which one snaps together to convey a thought or describe an experience. The stock words are our vocabulary and the stock phrases are those often used that flow easily from our tongue or pen (or keyboard).

Often those stock phrases are but an approximate match and it’s not always easy to find the best fit in phrasing — or even the right word. Mark Twain commented, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

This storehouse of stock phrases and stock constructs — not merely idioms (“we’ll paint the town red”) includes also stock ideas — ideas that we’ve learned and worked through, ready for quick retrieval when they fit (or come close to fitting) what we are trying to say. (Such ideas, alas, include not only things rationally worked (e.g., the products of small whole numbers) out but prejudice and bigotry that come to mind without conscious effort.)

One example of a word and its accompanying idea, present in the mental stockpile of many movie fants, is “McGuffin” (sometimes “MacGuffin”). The word itself is due to Alfred Hitchcock, but the idea is older. A McGuffin is the physical entity that drives the plot and pushes the characters into action. The story is the story of the characters — their hopes, dreams, fears, thoughts, words, actions, and relationships, what they are as people — and the McGuffin (and its pursuit) serves as the catalyst to bring each person’s character into high relief so that we can see it.

The canonical examples are the Maltese Falcon (from the movie of that name) and the wine bottle of suspicious sand in “Suspicion,” but once you understand the idea of a McGuffin, you see it in many movies: it’s the eponymous stone in “Romancing the Stone,” it’s the treasure in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

And the idea of a McGuffin can be generalized beyond a physical object. For example, in “Friday Night Lights,” a television series ostensibly about football but in fact about the people involved, the McGuffin is football and a football championship. Thus people with zero interest in football (e.g., me) can enjoy the series immensely because of the story and the characters — who they are and how they interact and change. The series is not really about football, it’s about people.

Another example: the AlphaGo documentary ostensibly is about AI and the game of Go, but if you watch it (and I encourage you do that — it’s free on YouTube), you will see that AI and Go constitute a McGruffin, and the movie is actually about the people involved: what happens to them, what they do, what that reveals about their character, and how they change. Moreover, in this case the people are real — this movie is not “based on” or “inspired by,” it is the real deal: the actual people in the actual events at the time. But the McGuffin still works as a McGuffin.

It’s interesting the degree to McGuffins come into our lives: the new car one wants so much — it’s a McGuffin. Attending some big event: a McGuffin.

Let me return to that storehouse of stock phrases and ideas, which is what I discussed in the earlier post. As I mentioned above, though we try to describe our experience using these Lego blocks of predefined (and well-worn) phrases and ideas, in fact experience is unique: people differ, physical environments differ, and interactions differ. We must blur our perceptions somewhat to fit that uniqueness into the standard pigeonholes our stock phrases and ideas provide.

It strike me that breaking free of that limitation is exactly what poetry and literary fiction are about: an effort to write clearly — beyond the stock responses — and to express what is seen and understood without cutting it down to fit the stock phrases and perceptions that we normally use to avoid the effort of recognizing our (complex) reality and expressing it (to ourselves or others).

Of course, it goes beyond literary fiction and poetry. It includes art, and theater, and dance. All of those creative efforts are to help us see clearly things hidden from us by our the blinders of our daily life and learned habits.

Naturally enough, much fiction and verse and paintings cater to our limitations, using them, relying on them, and thus reinforcing them: romance novels, for example, or greeting card verse, or Thomas Kinkaid’s paintings. Those are comfortable, like well-worn house shoes, because they fit our expectations and habits of thought and language.

Art (fiction, poetry, painting, sculpture, theater, song, whatever) that makes us see things in a new way is uncomfortable because it breaks the shell we’ve built to hold and categorize our life, the shell that enables us to get from one day to the next without much angst or effort.  Art can make people uncomfortable (so they don’t like it), but it also can break through our old habits and let us see things afresh.

You, like me, have probably experienced discomfort at some painting or movie or sculpture or book and then suddenly “get it.” It feels as though scales have fallen from your eyes and you really se it for the first time, looking at what was familiar and seeing it in a new way, from a new perspective.

This article describes pretty well that phenomenon for a painter.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2020 at 4:45 pm

When art restoration becomes art destruction

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The Guardian article by Sam Jones includes the example above, and also has another. Jones writes:

Conservation experts in Spain have called for a tightening of the laws covering restoration work after a copy of a famous painting by the baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo became the latest in a long line of artworks to suffer a damaging and disfiguring repair.

A private art collector in Valencia was reportedly charged €1,200 by a furniture restorer to have the picture of the Immaculate Conception cleaned. However, the job did not go as planned and the face of the Virgin Mary was left unrecognisable despite two attempts to restore it to its original state.

The case has inevitably resulted in comparisons with the infamous “Monkey Christ” incident eight years ago, when a devout parishioner’s attempt to restore a painting of the scourged Christ on the wall of a church on the outskirts of the north-eastern Spanish town of Borja made headlines around the world.

Parallels have also been drawn with the botched restoration of a 16th-century polychrome statue of Saint George and the dragon in northern Spain that left the warrior saint resembling Tintin or a Playmobil figure.

Fernando Carrera, a professor at the Galician School for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, said such cases highlighted the need for work to be carried out only by properly trained restorers.

“I don’t think this guy – or these people – should be referred to as restorers,” Carrera told the Guardian. “Let’s be honest: they’re bodgers who botch things up. They destroy things.”

Carrera, a former president of Spain’s Professional Association of Restorers and Conservators (Acre), said the law currently allowed people to engage in restoration projects even if they lacked the necessary skills. “Can you imagine just anyone being allowed to operate on other people? Or someone being allowed to sell medicine without a pharmacist’s licence? Or someone who’s not an architect being allowed to put up a building?” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2020 at 3:39 pm

Not something you see every day: Giant, tap-dancing noses

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From Shostakovich’s The Nose (The Royal Opera)

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23 June 2020 at 2:46 pm

Posted in Art, Video

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Anthony Howe’s wind sculptures

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23 June 2020 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Wallace Shawn, The Art of Theater

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A Paris Review interview from 2012:

Wallace Shawn is recognizable to most of the world as a character actor: he made a memorable debut in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) and, since then, has appeared in movies as diverse as The Bostonians and The Princess Bride and on the popular television series Gossip Girl. He has also starred in two films made with his longtime collaborator, André Gregory: My Dinner with André (1981) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which were directed by Louis Malle.

It is as a writer, however, that Shawn has most influenced the American stage. Perhaps the noted young playwright Rebecca Gilman, citing Shawn as an influence, put it best when she said of his work, “He’s the only writer who writes about intellectuals in a complicated and even contradictory way. He’s really funny, too.” Shawn has written in other genres as well. His latest book, Essays (2009), is just that, a collection of first-person nonfiction that reflects, among other things, his political activism and his interest in other writers (it includes, for instance, an interview with poet Mark Strand that he conducted in 1998 for The Paris Review).

Shawn was born in New York City in 1943. His father, William Shawn, was, for nearly thirty-six years, the editor of The New Yorker; his mother, Cecille, worked for many years as a journalist. His younger brother, Allen, is a composer (they collaborated on the opera The Music Teacher, which had its New York premiere in 2006). Wallace—or Wally, as he is known to family and friends—graduated with an A.B. in history from Harvard in 1965; that same year, he traveled as a Fulbright scholar to India, where he taught English, and then spent two years at Oxford studying philosophy and economics. He returned to New York in 1970 and has lived there ever since.

Shawn’s first play, Four Meals in May (1967), was written when he was still at Oxford. He continued to write when he came back to New York, supporting himself at different times as a copier in a copy center, a runner in the garment district, and a schoolteacher. Following a trio of early works—The Family Play (1970), The Hotel Play (1970), The Hospital Play (1971)—Shawn’s first professional production came in 1975 with Our Late Night, directed by Gregory. Since then, he has written six plays: A Thought in Three Parts (1976), Marie and Bruce (1978), Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), The Fever (1990), The Designated Mourner (1997), and Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2008). He has also adapted Machiavelli’s The Mandrake (1977) and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (2006), Shawn’s first work to reach Broadway.

Our conversation took place in the offices of The Paris Review over a period of three months in 2009 and 2010, during which time it always seemed to be snowing. Shawn’s distinctive voice, thoughtful and deliberate, turned a number of his interlocutor’s questions inside out, which lead to many interesting digressions and further meditations on Shawn’s big  subject: the nature of speech and what we mean when we try to say anything at all.


Why did you choose to leave the theater to perform The Fever?


Because there was something I actually wanted to say. The Fever is a one-person play. I decided I would perform it myself, and I decided I would not perform it in theaters, because the character in the play says certain things that I meant. I thought, I’m not just trying to entertain somebody, I’m trying to tell somebody something that I mean. And you can’t do that in a theater, because if you put a person on a stage in a theater, that person will be interpreted as a character in a story. No matter what happens on that stage, it will be interpreted by everybody as a form of entertainment.


What would be wrong with that? Are you against entertainment?


That’s like saying, Are you against pumpkin pie? Pumpkin pie is enjoyable and people enjoy it, but it’s in a different category from, for example, penicillin. Enjoyment is important, and pie is important, but pie is not the only thing we need.

I didn’t want The Fever to be seen as just another “disturbing” play—“disturbing” being a term of praise for a certain kind of enjoyable or entertaining evening. In an amusement park, you can go on a roller coaster that carries you up and down, or you can go on another kind of ride that whirls you around in a circle. Similarly, there are different sorts of entertaining experiences in the theater. You can go to a play that is enjoyable because it’s funny, and then on the next night you can go to a play that’s enjoyable because it’s “disturbing.” For example, in the sixties, there were plays inspired by the black power movement where a guy would come to the front of the stage and yell at the audience, “You are pigs, we are going to get you.” And the drama critic would say, “My favorite part of the evening was the thrilling moment when that guy approached the audience and said ‘You are pigs. We are going to get you.’ ” To that drama critic, that was an exciting moment of theater. To the writer of the play—well, he might have meant it. But the critic watching the play didn’t really feel threatened, he just thought it was great theater.

The idea that people might react like that to The Fever was nauseating to me. I didn’t want to give someone an agreeable feeling of agitation. I was trying to speak as a friend to a friend, from one human being to another. And that isn’t possible in a theater, because in a theater, even if an actor has a heart attack and dies onstage, the audience always interprets it as part of the show.


Where else could you stage it?


I decided to do The Fever in apartments, in private homes. In a way, the play was a kind of declaration to my own friends, first of all, and then to my class, the bourgeois class. I was telling my own group that I no longer believed in the various justifications for our existence that I’d formerly found convincing. It was like a secret meeting of the bourgeois class, in which I would speak frankly about what we were.


But eventually you did perform the piece in a theater.


Eventually I thought, I can’t keep doing this play for twelve people at a time. I love doing it like that, but I’ve done it now a hundred times, and only twelve hundred people have seen it! If I could only do it in one of those rooms where there are a lot of seats cleverly arranged, a hundred people could see it at once! So I went back to theater, although I did do the piece in a slightly nontraditional way—I mingled with the audience before the play, I didn’t have theatrical lighting or a set or a program, et cetera. Unfortunately, it was pretty brutally denounced.


By critics?


Yes. It was described as something that was almost without any value—a ludicrous display of pomposity.


What did you make of that?


Public humiliation is always quite painful, obviously, because you do feel that everyone on the street has read about you and believed what they’ve read, and they’re all thinking, Ah yes, there’s that pitiful fraud I read about. But mainly I was shattered to realize that The Fever would not become part of a public conversation, would not stretch out across the United States and beyond and have the chance to affect people. I was trying to explain to all the nice people out there how it could be possible that from our own point of view we’re so nice, and we’re so lovable, and we’re so cute, and so sensitive, and yet from the point of view of people who are weak and powerless we are an implacable, vicious enemy. I’d found what I knew were the best words I could ever find to say what I wanted to say, and I realized that because of the negative criticism, those words would be heard only by a handful of odd theater fans, not by society as a whole.


Do you enjoy going to the theater? . . .

Continue reading. Lots more, all good.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2020 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Art, Movies & TV

Two park sculptures that change with the season

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The sculpture above is in the Lost Gardens of Haligen, and at the link you’ll find photos of the sculpture in other seasons. Victoria has its own copy (though the hand and forearm suffered in translation) in Beacon Hill Park, not far from me.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 June 2020 at 10:56 am

Posted in Art, Daily life

Tactile Art

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John Lee Clark writes at the Poetry Foundation:


Downtown St. Paul is home to one of the most extensive skyway systems in the world. The sprawling maze connects buildings via enclosed bridges above the streets. The skyway solves one of our challenges as DeafBlind people traveling through a city: crossing busy intersections. My family lived there for as long as we could afford to because it was such a joy to be a mouse racing inside and out, up and down, plying my long single whisker. Following my nose, I found all the best places to eat and, following other instincts, I infiltrated all the cleanest bathrooms hidden away from the masses.

One day my partner, Adrean, an ASL Deaf artist, came home to tell me about something she’d spotted. It was a sculpture of a giant open Braille book. She had never gone that way before, but I’d passed by it several times. It stood in a building’s courtyard, some paces from the street. You had to see it to see it.

A few days later friends from out of town were visiting. We took them out to our beloved Ruam Mit Thai, and after our feast we gave them a tour of the city. I remembered Adrean’s sighting and asked her to show us the public work.

It turned out to be a huge sheet of metal propped up, its bottom edge near the ground and its top edge a foot taller than I. Each Braille dot was the size of a golf ball. This made it impossible to read the text, which was supposed to be a passage from a Walt Whitman poem. Although the sheet mimicked the open face of a book, with two facing pages, each line ran across both pages.

There was a plaque with the title, artist name, perhaps a statement. Did the statement pay tribute to Braille? This information was not available in regular Braille.

As I struggled to read what the golf balls had to say, a security guard trundled out of the building. He spoke no sign language but we got the message. One of the nice secret restrooms was close by, and we hurried there to wash our hands.


Museums are difficult to get to. They don’t want me to touch anything. They require that I make an appointment—by phone, no less. So my information about mainstream aesthetics has largely come from ducks.

They rule over gift shops, Goodwills, and garage sales. Squeaking rubber versions have long been infants’ first encounter with artifice. Minnesota’s state bird is the loon, and many homes and stores here feature wooden, ceramic, metal, stone, plush, and glass loons. Waterfowl are a favorite of woodcarvers. There is even a DeafBlind Canadian who whittles, paints, and sells ducklings. What they all have in common is a flat bottom. A goodly portion of their natural anatomy is taboo. They are meant to appear floating on the still waters of a tabletop, a windowsill, or a bookshelf.

The hitch is that were I to handle a live duck paddling across a pond, I would be able to feel it as a whole, for water is not a tactile barrier as it is a visual one.

Small wonder, then, that one of my definitions of beauty is a certain stuffed wood duck in the nature center at Richfield, Minnesota. A piece of ordinary taxidermy, its feathers are ridiculously soft. “Wood duck,” I was inspired to write in a slateku, a form I invented using the Braille slate, “I feel for you/You never had hands to stroke/Your own wings.” Even more bewildering are its round velvet bottom and granular webbed feet, which bespeak a master creator.


“Here, you can touch my face.”

“Thank you, no.”

“No, it’s fine. Really.”

“Nah. I just—”

“I want you to.”

Well, I want to tell them, what you are offering for my inspection is just a skin-covered skull.

“A head,” jokes the eighteenth-century British comedian George Alexander Stephens, “is a mere bulbous excrescence, growing out from between the shoulders like a wen; it is supposed to be a mere expletive, just to wear a hat on, to fill up the hollow of a wig, to take snuff with, or have your hair dressed upon.”

A friend once showed me a prized possession of his, an egg-shaped sculpture. I could feel its eyebrows, nose, and mouth, but they conveyed nothing. For my sighted friend, it had an exquisite expression of serenity. “Peace,” it’s called.

At least it was bald. The bust of Mark Twain in a museum I visited in New York had him wearing a futuristic helmet, with fantastical whorling grooves. A terrible tumor grows under his nose. Ulysses S. Grant was similarly helmeted but had an iceberg stuck up his jaw.

Helmets notwithstanding, sculptors were onto something with nudity and gesture until the Victorians began to manufacture a statue for every philanthropist and politician. Of these “leaden dolls,” G.K. Chesterton grouses, “Each of them is cased in a cylindrical frock-coat, and each carries either a scroll or a dubious-looking garment over the arm that might be either a bathing-towel or a light great-coat.”


Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2020 at 3:43 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life

How to Draw in Six Steps

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Andy Wright has an interesting NY Times article on how to draw, with brief videos to illustrate the six steps. The article begins:

Drawing can be a meditative way to relax. Do you want to learn today? Here, let us show you!

Binyamin Appelbaum is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, focusing on business and economics. He also doesn’t know how to draw, so we made him try this out as our model.

You will need:

  • Any pencil, pen, or even Sharpie will do. Artists we spoke with especially love No. 2 pencil and Uni-Ball pens

  • Paper

  • A timekeeper


Copy paper does the job but cardboard, old takeout menus, and mail are also all acceptable canvases.

Arshile Gorky sometimes drew on napkins and newspapers; Pablo Picasso’s obsession with scrap of all kinds, from Vogue magazine pages to hotel letterhead, is the subject of a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

“We all have art supplies at home,” said Diane Olivier, a San Francisco-based artist and educator who has been teaching basic drawing classes to college students for over three decades. “We’ve just never looked at them that way.”

STEP 2 . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including the videos.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2020 at 8:15 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Education

Twelve Tones, by Vi Hart

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So far as I’m concerned, this is a must-watch.

Some thoughts I had as I watched:

One thing about learning a new language is that it requires the acquisition and understanding of new patterns because two lanauages don’t really fully match up any more than the lives of people in the same line of work in the same village match up: there are commonalities, but there are also differences difficult to match.

A mild example from this morning: Esperanto has the word kuri, to run, which matches the English verb quite well: replacing to run with kuri  works well: “He runs” and “Li kuras” mean the same thing..

But I could not think of a simple Esperanto verb that would match to walk. There is marŝi, but that definitely includes the idea of walking in step — it matches “to march,” not “to walk.” And there’s promeni, to walk to see sights or for exercise, but it has for me overtones of “to promenade,” “to stroll,” and “to amble.” I wanted a neutral word, in the same way that “to run” is neutral.

I posted a question in the Lernu forum, asking for an Esperanto verb that means “iri per piedoj” (to go by foot) or “iri piede” (to go footwise). An immediate response: piediri. And that does seem to match, and it also illustrates how in Esperanto (as in Forth) one constructs new words to do the exact job you want, whereas in English one must dig through the drawer of words to find the closest match and perhaps be satisfied with a phrase — though it should be pointed out that the poet’s role is to take current words and, through context, stretch them to take new shapes and do new jobs. By putting a word in a new context, the poet fills it with a different color and charges it with a different energy. And not only poets: writers of fiction and drama do the same — think of some of the significant words in (say) “Death of a Salesman,” or “Macbeth,” or some stories of Raymond Carver, and how the impact of those words in that context differs from their workaday use.

A second thought was how the real numbers, being a continuum, contain many numbers and properties that we can never know — very interesting numbers and very interesting properties, if we could only know them. I suppose one of the reasons mathematicians are constantly generalizing is that moving to a more general level you can get a kind of overarching “knowing” of a class and its structure that frees you of having to know the individual elements.

At any rate, I found it a fascinating video, and as I write this I’m listing to Schoenberg (via YouTube), and his music — at least this piece — is indeed very nice.


Written by LeisureGuy

6 May 2020 at 5:43 pm

Online exhibits from Stanford University Libraries

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It turns out that there are many online exhibits to peruse.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2020 at 1:45 pm

Hamlet as a vlogger

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This is fascinating. From Gary Cook’s description of his work: “An adaptation of Hamlet where Hamlet is a popular vlogger who frequently posts his breakdowns online”

He’s got several pieces up on Youtube. Here’s his (well-done and interesting) version of the soliloquy:

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2020 at 10:53 am

Posted in Art, Movies & TV, Video

A look at Monet’s Water Lilies

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Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2020 at 8:23 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Three poets to help you understand ancient Chinese poetry.

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Lee Moore writes in SupChina:

This month, in which we are all locked indoors, happens to be National Poetry Month. Several people, getting tired of the same plot lines in pulpy fiction, have asked me, What should I be reading? My answer is always the same: Tang Dynasty poetry.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) is the golden age of both China and its poetry. And not just that — there is probably no time and place in world history when poetry was more important. The imperial exam, a ticket into the social elite, required test-takers to be thoroughly familiar with poetry. Social life for elites was dominated by parties where people sat around drinking and writing poetry. To move up the social ladder, you had to be able to write poetry. And so, not surprisingly, the Tang produced an abundance of poets.

Because of the sheer number and diversity of works, Tang poetry can be intimidating if you do not know where to start. The Complete Tang Poems (全唐诗 quán tángshī), an 1705 anthology that attempted to gather all Tang poetry into a single collection, has 49,000 poems and 2,200 poets. Even that is really just a “Best Of” collection. How does one begin to break into them?

Luckily, during the Tang era and subsequent ones — the Chinese have never stopped reading Tang poetry — cream rose to the top. Three poets from that time distinguished themselves and remain celebrated to this day. They make for a fine entry point into Tang poetry — let’s take a look at who they are and a representative poem from each (all three poems translated by yours truly).

Dù Fǔ 杜甫

he first poet in the Tang Trinity is Du Fu. Textbooks and other official channels largely agree that he was the greatest of the Tang’s poets. Although it is a simplification, Du Fu represents the Confucian tradition, to the point where, during the Song Dynasty, he was sometimes called the “poet-historian.”

Like the two other poets you’ll be introduced to shortly, Du Fu lived during the Tang Dynasty’s most tragic period, and his poetry is redolent of the sadness at the breakdown in government institutions and the violence that that breakdown inflicted on the lives of the people. The Tang state was at the height of its power when a non-Han Chinese, Central Asian general named Ān Lùshān 安禄山 tried to overthrow the Tang emperor. Du Fu, along with the emperor, fled the capital and did not return until after An Lushan had sacked it.

Much of Du Fu’s best poetry focuses on  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2020 at 2:09 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Writing

Mesmerizing kinetic sculptures

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I would like to get either Spirit or Duality for the wall I face when sitting in my chair. (Note the run times —  and the price.)

Written by LeisureGuy

8 April 2020 at 2:52 pm

Posted in Art

I would call this “surreal,” but perhaps “dada” is better

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2020 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Surrealism, in a short video

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 March 2020 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

Homer Had No Predecessor to Imitate, No Successor Capable of Imitating Him

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The Iliad and the Odyssey are amazing books — the very first seminar assignments in my undergraduate studies at St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD. Mark Twain maintained that the Iliad and Odyssey were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name, and Robert Graves maintained that the Odyssey was written by a woman (and I’m totally now convinced that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, actor and producer, were written by Emilia Bassano — as I’m also convinced that John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by Secret Service Special Agent George W. Hickey Jr. in a tragic accident).

At any rate, Alvaro de Menard writes at Fantastic Anachronism:

It is against nature that he made the most excellent creation that could ever be; for things are normally born imperfect, then grow and gather strength as they do so. He took poetry and several other sciences in their infancy and brought them to perfect, accomplished maturity. [Thus] one may call him the first and last of poets, in accordance with that fine tribute left to us by antiquity: that, having had no predecessor to imitate, he had no successor capable of imitating him.

That’s my old pal Michel talking about Homer.[1] He is almost completely wrong.

The Homeric Question

What he gets right is progress in the arts: early Greek sculpture was copied from the Egyptians and was so amateurish that it seems abstract, but the lack of detail simply reflects a lack of ability. The art was “born imperfect” and slowly gathered strength, eventually reaching an apex four or six centuries later with pieces like the Laocoön.

Homer appears to completely break any such notions of artistic development: the Iliad and the Odyssey emerge at the end of the 8th century with no visible tradition behind them, and until the 19th century this miraculous event was accepted at face value, elevating Homer from merely a great poet to a superhuman figure.[2]

But the Age of Reason rolled around and not even Homer remained unruffled. In 1795 Friedrich August Wolf published Prolegomena ad Homerum which established the basis for the Homeric Question debates over the next century (though, as the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica reminds us, his argument was so overwhelming it would not be challenged for 30 years[3]). Wolf was skeptical, likening the poems to an enormous ship constructed far inland, with no access to tools or water.

I find it impossible to accept the belief to which we have become accustomed: that these two works of a single genius burst forth suddenly from the darkness in all their brilliance, just as they are, with both the splendor of their parts and the many great virtues of the connected whole.

Wolf approached the problem by historicizing it, tracing the text and its historical context from Homer down to the first century.[4] Like Sherlock Holmes, he systematically eliminated the impossible until only the truth remained:

  • There was no plausible occasion at which a poem of 15,000 lines would be recited.
  • There is no internal evidence in the Iliad for books or writing.[5]
  • If writing existed at all in Homer’s time, it was primitive and utilized a limited alphabet.
  • The Greeks at that time had no access to papyrus or parchment, materials necessary to preserve a poem of this length: it must have been transmitted orally (and therefore lossily).
  • The earliest long-form writing came much later than Homer and was utilitarian/public in nature, for example Solon’s laws written on wood for public display.
  • It took yet more time for writing to move from the public sphere to the artistic one.
  • The poem is full of “obvious and imperfectly fitted joints” which suggest alterations from a “later period”.
  • The Alexandrian editors of the Hellenistic age felt free to edit the Homeric poems: “often removing many verses, and elsewhere adding polish where there was none”.

Taken together, these arguments imply that 1) Homer did not compose anything like the Iliad as we know it, and 2) even if he somehow had done it, it was hopelessly corrupted in the process of transmission.[6]

Instead Wolf proposed that Homer was responsible for some small parts which were then combined and expanded by Peisistratus with the assistance of his poet friends in the middle of the 6th century, and finally polished by Aristarchus or Aristophanes 400 years later.[7]

Following Wolf, a cottage industry of Homeric analysis cropped up. Any line that did not suit their tastes was declared an interpolation, and repetitions were taken as proof of copying by later poets. They all agreed that the Iliad was the work of multiple poets, and that philologists could “scientifically prove”[8] it. Yet no two Analysts could ever agree on which parts were Homer’s and which were later additions.

Bethe thought it was the work of two poets. Theiler argued for 5 or 6. Hermann proposed that the Iliad consisted of a bunch of crap surrounding the pristine core of the original Homer, while Lachmann argued that it actually consisted of 18 different folk stories strung together, like the Finnish Kalevala.  . .

Continue reading.

Reading the whole thing, the Homeric method of composition (combining fixed formulae to fit the rhythm and story) somehow reminds me of calculating using the soroban, in which fixed combinations fit different circumstances. (For example, to enter “1” in a position, you move one of the lower 4 beads to the bar, but if all four beads are already at the bar, you drop them back and move the “5” bead — if it is away from the bar, you move it to the bar (4+1 = 5), and if it’s at the bar you move it away and enter “1” in the adjacent position to the left (9+1 = 10).

The same sort of thing works with other values: if you want to enter “3,” move 3 of the lower beads to the the bar; if that’s not possible, move 2 of the lower beads away from the bar and move a “5” bead (5-2 = 3), with the 5 bead either moving to the bar or away from the bar, and if the latter, entering a “1” in the adjacent column.

Very quickly these moves become formulaic and you can do them without conscioous thought, just as a touch-typist just thinks of the words and they’re typed, or a person who knows Morse code hears words rather than the dots and dashes and send words (though her hand is sending dots and dashes, her mind is just thinking of the words).

So also with the Homeric poets, I imagine.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 February 2020 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Art, Books

A Communist LSD Trip: The Story of Czechoslovak Acid

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From Prezkroj, an article by Aleksander Kaczorowski:

The history of Czechoslovak LSD is one of the greatest phenomena of the second half of the 20th century. How come for almost a quarter of a century, in a communist state, thousands of people, including many popular artists such as Karel Gott, were able to use psychedelic drugs entirely legally?

Why was 1960s Czechoslovakia the leading manufacturer and exporter of LSD? And why could psychiatrists there, under the guardianship of the secret police and military intelligence, experiment freely with this substance long after it had been banned all over the world?

The most unbelievable thing about this story is that it originated long before the era of Flower Power, the counterculture movement and the 1968 Prague Spring, in a past as distant and gloomy as possible: during the first years of communist rule in Eastern Europe.

In the autumn of 1952 – at the exact moment when the paranoically suspicious USSR leader Joseph Stalin unleashed a purge among the Kremlin doctors, accusing them of conspiring to assassinate him and other leaders – several young psychiatrists in Prague ingested for the first time a mysterious substance that had been sent from a laboratory in Basel. This is how the Czechoslovak adventure with LSD began.

The substance arrived in Prague in an entirely legal way. A standard shipment from the pharmaceutical company Sandoz was sent to Dr Jiří Roubíček, an associate professor at the Faculty of Psychiatry at the Medical University of Prague. It contained ampoules with an oily, transparent substance described as ‘lysergic acid diethylamide’, a substance first synthesized in 1938 by the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann. Initially considered useless, LSD attracted the attention of the company owners after Hoffman accidentally tested its effects on himself on 19th April 1943. Four years later, the first study summarizing the results of LSD tests involving healthy volunteers and patients in psychiatric hospitals was released. The article was attached to the parcel that landed on Roubíček’s desk.

Doctors in their patients’ shoes

Roubíček was a well-regarded researcher of phenomena related to brainwave activity, and the author of pioneering research on the application of encephalography methods in psychiatry. He regularly received various parcels from the Swiss company, but this one was particularly interesting. The description stated that the mysterious substance evoked hallucinations characteristic of mental illnesses. After a series of tests on animals, Roubíček decided to administer the substance to a group of healthy volunteers and explore how LSD would affect the human brain.

The initial experiments were carried out at a psychiatric hospital in Prague’s Bohnice district. The participants were given minimal doses – doctors already knew that just one gram of the substance would be sufficient to induce hallucinations in 10,000 people. Each volunteer drank a glass of water mixed with the hallucinogen and was locked in a padded room equipped with a one-way mirror.

The doctors then began testing the substance on themselves. “I was one of the first people in Czechoslovakia who took LSD,” the eminent psychiatrist Professor Jan Srnec recalled 60 years later. “It was something unbelievable. First of all, it was extraordinary that such a small dose could cause a complete disintegration of the psyche. Second, LSD had an entirely different effect on different people. In my case, it was a state of pure euphoria, elation.”

Thanks to LSD, psychiatrists were able to put themselves in their patients’ shoes. They could experience, in a controlled environment, the conditions faced by people with incurable mental illnesses. Many orthopaedists have shared the experience of a patient with a broken arm or leg. But how can someone relate to the condition of a person with severe schizophrenic delusions if they themselves do not experience any mental health issues? How can a psychiatrist help such a patient? LSD was the door through which Czechoslovak doctors entered the world of delusions and psychoses, and they left it wide open for those willing to explore.

The first to take advantage of this opportunity were artists, especially painters and graphic designers. Roubíček had acquaintances in the circles of artistic bohemia. So, he came up with the idea to invite some of them to take part in the experiment. In return, they were to express through visual means what other volunteers could only talk about.

The effect surpassed all expectations. The artistic depictions of hallucinations and visions were extremely suggestive, and news of the extraordinary substance quickly spread among non-conformist Czechoslovak artists.

One of them was Vladimír Boudník, the creator of an innovative graphic technique known as ‘explosionism’. Since the mid-1950s, the legendary Gentle Barbarian – the eponymous character of Bohumil Hrabal’s 1973 novel – had been creating prints using filings randomly scattered on industrial sheet metal and imprinted in the graphic press. In this way, he obtained extraordinary visual effects reminiscent of drug-induced visions. Besides LSD administered under the supervision of psychiatrists from Bohnice, Boudník did not take any other drugs or hallucinogenic substances.

As a result, there were so many people keen to participate in the experiments that Roubíček and his colleagues decided to train a group of assistants. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.


Written by LeisureGuy

29 January 2020 at 2:21 pm

Gender is dead, long live gender: just what is ‘performativity’?

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Will Fraker writes in Aeon:

Gender is burdened by a lot of adjectives these days. It’s non-binary, it’s fluid, it’s ‘over’. According to the American rapper Young Thug, an artist at the helm of hip-hop who is known to occasionally wear dresses, ‘there’s no such thing as gender’ at all.

These descriptions share the common assumption that gender is mutable, not fixed. Most contemporary public conversations about what it means to be men and women will engage with some version of this thesis – a development that’s due, in large part, to the work of the American philosopher Judith Butler. Her theory of ‘performativity’ upended ideas about gender by shedding light on the many processes that produce it, and the theory’s far-reaching consequences are still widely misunderstood.

It’s unfortunate that popular culture often reduces performativity to the idea that ‘gender is a social construct’. This catchphrase sets the ‘social’ against the ‘natural’, and implies that gender is merely an artificial layer, encrusted by choice onto the supposedly more fundamental reality of sex. But Butler was careful to avoid arguing for a simple split between nature and culture, or sex and gender. For her, gender wasn’t predetermined by nature or biology, nor was it simply ‘made up’ by culture. Rather, Butler insisted that gender resides in repeated words and actions, words and actions that both shape and are shaped by the bodies of real, flesh-and-blood human beings. And crucially, such repetitions are rarely performed freely.

What’s at stake in performativity stretches into the minutiae of the everyday. I was recently on a road trip with a group of friends, and one woman observed that she always lets her partner, a man, drive her car instead of doing so herself. Such an acquiescence feels feminine, she said. The question Butler would want us to ask is: does my friend do this because she is a woman, or does the act itself contribute to making her so?

Although Butler is its most famous advocate, the concept of performativity is rooted in earlier observations about how language works. In the mid-1950s, the English philosopher J L Austin pointed out that language is often a way of accomplishing things in the world, not only a means of describing it. To make a promise, for example, is to do the promising, not just to say something about it. In How to Do Things with Words (1962), Austin described these types of statements, which entailed performing actions, as (you guessed it) ‘performatives’. This focus on the functionality of statements, not their truth or falsity, proved to be revolutionary, and the interdisciplinary enterprise of ‘speech act theory’ was born in its wake. In a wonderful way, the neologism did exactly what it was describing – it made things happen in the world.

Roughly 30 years later, Butler linked performativity to gender, making explicit reference to the American philosopher John Searle’s work on speech act theory. Butler was interested in Searle’s analysis of the way that performatives don’t simply do things, they also commit the people involved to future actions. For example, when a judge declares a case closed, she’s not simply ending the trial, she’s setting off a chain of events – plaintiffs will be acquitted or indicted, and the courtroom adjourned. What Searle noted is that, in order for a performative (the judge’s proclamation) to have any impact on the future, it has to adhere to certain conventions that have already been established. Society needs to accept the authority of the judge and the form of her declaration. A performative, then, is as much a repetition or re-creation of what’s expected as it is an act of individual agency.

It’s against this background that Butler provides her definition in Gender Trouble (1990): ‘gender proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be’. The basic idea is that gender is created by the very words and actions that appear, superficially, to be simply describing it after the fact. Earlier, in a 1988 essay, Butler had likened gender to ‘an act [in a play] which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualised and reproduced as reality once again’. Gender is not a thing so much as a process by which patterns of language and action come to repeat themselves.

Embedded within Butler’s concept are two key expansions upon ‘performative’ as Austin or Searle used it. For one, gender does not occur with language only: it’s very much about bodies doing things, such as shaking hands or wearing clothes. Secondly, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2020 at 10:34 am

Posted in Art, Books, Memes, Politics

Ballet’s origins and the riot caused by a ballet

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The riot:

Written by LeisureGuy

16 January 2020 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Art, Music

Tagged with ,

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