Monday, May 26, 2008

The Master's Voice Project: More quotable Lem

"Although he was a Renaissance homo animatus and homo sciens, he took pleasure in contacts with people whom I would rank among the least interesting, though they present the greatest threat to our species; I mean politicians."

"Nye represented a very real power, and neither his manners nor his love of Husserl made him likable."

"Our ability to adapt and therefore to accept everything is one of our greatest dangers. Creatures that are completely flexible, changeable, can have no fixed morality."

"In another age, another era, he would have been, I am certain, a stern mystic, a builder of systems; in our era made sober by a n overabundance of discoveries, which tore apart like shrapnel every systemic coherence, an era which both accelerated progress as never before and was sick to death of progress, he was only a commentator and an analyst."

"I confess that he made me uneasy, because I do not believe in human perfection, and people who have no quirks, tics, obsessions, the touch of some minor mania, or points on which they turn rabid — I suspect such people of systematic imposture (we judge others by ourselves) or of totally lacking character. Certainly, much depends on the side from which we get to know a man. If, as usually happened to me, I first became acquainted with someone through his work — which in my profession is extremely abstract — and therefore, as it were, from the most spiritual side, the impact of meeting that entirely physical organism, which I had pictured instinctively as a kind of Platonic emanation, was always a shock."

— from His Master's Voice, by Stanislaw Lem.

This little gem of a book (just under 200 pages) gripped me from the start. I've quoted from it extensively, previously as well as above; Lem makes sweeping yet pithy statements on both the nature of Man and the natures of specific men.

The observations become wordier as the book progresses and the thoughts are more complex, constantly moving further away from black and white and the knowable.

Thus the means of civilizations replace its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values. The rule whereby corks in bottles give way to metal caps, and metal caps to little plastic lids that snap on and off, is innocent enough' it is a series of improvements to make it easier for us to open containers of liquid. But the same rule, when applied to the perfecting of the human brain, becomes sheer madness; every conflict, every difficult problem is compared to a stubborn cork that one should discard and replace with an appropriate labor-saving device. Baloyne named the Project 'His Mater's Voice,' because the motto is ambiguous: to which master are we to listen, the one from the stars or the one in Washington? The truth is, this is Operation Squeeze — the squeeze being not on our poor brains but on the cosmic message, and God help the powerful and their servants if it succeeds.

Lem attacks the science fiction establishment:

One day I found him amid large packages from which spilled attractive, glossy paperbacks with mythical covers. He had tried to use, as a "generator of ideas" — for we were running out of them — those works of fantastic literature, that popular genre (especially in the States), called, by a persistent misconception, "science fiction." He had not read such books before; he was annoyed — indignant, even — expecting variety, finding monotony. "They have everything except fantasy," he said. Indeed, a mistake. The authors of these pseudo-scientific fairy tales supply the public with what it wants: truisms, clichés, stereotypes, all sufficiently costumed and made "wonderful" so that the reader may sink into a safe state of surprise and at the same time not be jostled out of his philosophy of life. If there is progress in a culture, the progress is above all conceptual, but literature, the science-fiction variety in particular, has nothing to do with that.

And he talks about the politics of the Cold War.

For all the questions it poses regarding first contact, alien societies, and the paradigms through which we attribute such concepts as intelligence, civilization, communication, progress — nothing much happens in this book — it's mostly an exploration of humankind itself, here and now, for it's only through others that we can come to know ourselves.

It ends like this:

I was never able to conquer the distance between persons. An animal is fixed to its here-and-now by the senses, but man manages to detach himself, to remember, to sympathize with others, to visualize their states of mind and feelings: this, fortunately, is not true. In such attempts at pseudo merging and transferral we are only able, imperfectly, darkly, to visualize ourselves. What would happen to us if we could truly sympathize with others, feel with them, suffer for them? The fact that human anguish, fear, and suffering melt away with the death of the individual, that nothing remains of the ascents, the declines, the orgasms, and agonies, is a praiseworthy gift of evolution, which made us like the animals. If from every unfortunate, from every victim, there remained even a single atom of his feelings, if thus grew the inheritance of the generations, if even a spark could pass from man to man, the world would be full of raw, bowel-torn howling.

Which a brings a tear to my eye. Because no matter what we find out there, we are alone.

I am at that age

And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me.

Read Pablo Neruda. Read Poetry.

and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,


Friday, May 23, 2008

In her shoes

Yesterday, we fight. We're running late. She refuses — aggressively, physically — to let me help her tie her shoes. I glance at my watch, put down my bag, and resignedly wait.

I sit on the floor beside her. Still she insists on doing it her way, even in the face of failure, the evidence of the "knot" that slips open before she can stand up.

Twenty minutes of tears have calmed her somewhat. I solemnly promise to her that I won't do it for her. She allows my index finger to come close (but not touching!), to indicate how my way is just a little different than hers. She considers, and she tries it. From this point, it's easy to wiggle the loops and ends back and forth to tighten the bow.

We're ready to go. Late, but proud and finally smiling.


This morning she creeps up to my bed and taps me on the shoulder. "Can I go play quietly by myself, Mama?" I mumble my assent, thankful for a few more minutes. It's not even 6:00 yet.

She's back soon, pulling me out of bed by the hand to see what she's done. Sheets of paper litter the kitchen table. All covered in big words: elephant, rhinoceros, veterinarian, and more. "Play" today evidently consists of the diligent copying of text. She asks me to read them to her and nods, as if to say, "Yes, that's what I thought."


This morning she tied her shoes all by herself.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Links reviews, in which other people have more interesting things to say than I do, and that should:
1. Convince me at long last to start reading Dumas's long-lost masterpiece,
2. Convince you to read Patrick Hamilton, and
3. Convince some doubters that Doris lessing is fully deserving of the Nobel Prize.

A review of The Last Cavalier, by Alexandre Dumas, which is ready and waiting for me (What am I waiting for? — it's Dumas! Hurrah!):
Dumas, as Tolstoy said, was a 'novelising historian' rather than a historical novelist. He knew that fiction flourished in the margins of history, which is confined to obtuse and incorrigible facts; the novel specialises in the scrutiny of private lives, not public affairs.

Francine Prose gives a rundown of the intense and squalid Patrick Hamilton:
His ambivalence about his characters is frequently extreme; it's hard to think of another writer who so thoroughly despises the weaknesses of the very same men and women he so desperately and compassionately longs to save from themselves.

At times his view of humanity seems positively Manichaean. Half his characters are consumed by shame and regret while the other half feed on the tender, foolish emotions of the first half. He allows his characters to descend to a level of degradation so low that you might assume they'd hit bottom unless you'd read enough of Hamilton's work to expect them to sink further as they anguish over every major slight and minor decision.

One review of Alfred and Emily, by Doris Lessing:
Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh are the writer's parents and this is a book of two halves — the first section is a novelist's game of might-have-beens: Lessing removes all the frustrations that circumscribed her growing up in Rhodesia, and gives Alfred and Emily the lives they wanted for themselves. The second section is another honest excavation of the lives they were all actually dealt. The gap is the one in which the writer has always lived.

And another:
But whenever she drifts too far from the subject, she returns to her two main themes: the eternal war between mothers and daughters, and the vital importance of women going out to work rather than suffocating at home.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The disembodied burp

Helena brought home a drawing this week that at first glance seemed unremarkable. I will not reproduce it in its entirety here, for you would only be awed by its unremarkableness. It has me and her, and a third little girl she has a fondness for from the daycare, all holding hands, with flowy hair, bright eyes, flitty dresses, waltzing through fields of flowers and butterflies.

But the sly grin with which Helena presented it demanded I take a closer look.

It's overlaid with a darkness, a black sun and a lot of brown. My raised eyebrow is returned with her mischievous glint, but she lets me in on the secret: les mots de toilette.

Inspired by a sudden scarcity in crayon colour options, her artistic endeavour is a test of societal boundaries as well as an exercise in Oulipian constraint.

The idyllic scene is strewn with pieces of garbage, covered in shit, and ants, and worms, and all things brown. (These are also numbered, as if to keep them distinct from the "real" picture. Like footnotes, but without any text accompanying them.)

I ask her about one wholly unrecognizable form, with small dots trailing alongside. She blushes. "Des foufounes. Avec des gouttes de pipi."

The detail shown here is a burp. A brown circle for an open mouth, a pink round of tongue, and a dot of black as the burp's essence.

How would you draw a burp?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quotable Lem

"A specialist is a barbarian whose ignorance is not well-rounded."

"Evolution is, as an engineer, an opportunist, not a perfectionist."

"The satisfaction with which you parade your proof of the lottery origin of human nature is not pure. It is, besides the joy of knowledge, a pleasure in befouling that which others consider lovely and hold dear."

"I could respect philosophers only as people driven by curiosity, never as propounders of truth."

— from His Master's Voice, by Stanislaw Lem.

The Master's Voice Project: Reading Lem

Holy crap!

Have you read Lem?!

Thus far, I've read 18 pages of His Master's Voice, by Stanislaw Lem, written in 1968, consisting of Editor's Note and Preface, and I'm blown away. This front matter is in fact part of Lem's novel proper, written by a fictitious editor (the note) and compiled from unfinished scraps (preface) by the genius mathematician diarist whose quasi-scholarly chronicle of an investigation comprises the main story. In just a few short pages we go through postmodern metafiction and back.

The adventure itself, Peter Hogarth summarizes, "boils down to this: humanity came upon a thing that beings belonging to another race had sent out into the darkness of the stars." And it would bear poison fruit.

I feel I owe it to myself, to Lem, and to my Polish heritage to give his work a careful reading. It will be slow going. It is dense with Idea.

Every single paragraph could yield essays of great thought: the morality of science, that art and science and their criticism hold to different standards, psychoanalysis of the physicist, ego, the problem of subjectivity, good and evil and the "Manichean embrace," the absurdity of determinism, the laughter of betrayal, the mathematics of everything, the imperfection of humanity, the cracks in the foundation. To name a few. Holy crap. I mean: wow.

With sufficient imagination, a man could write a whole series of versions of his life; it would form a union of sets in which the facts would be the only elements in common. People, even intelligent people, who are young, and therefore inexperienced and naive, see only cynicism in such a possibility. They are mistaken, because the problem is not moral but cognitive. The number of metaphysical beliefs is no greater or less than the number of different beliefs a man may entertain on the subject of himself — sequentially, at various periods of his life, and occasionally even at the same time.

I keep returning to this paragraph (above), I think because I'm in a state of metamorphosis myself, and, having overcome the cynicism of youth, am embarking on rewriting my life from a different standpoint, to discern what is its fact and what possible stories it could tell.

Each of us is, from childhood, fastened to some publicly allowed piece of himself, the part that was selected and schooled, and that has gained the consensus omnium; and now he cultivates that fragment, polishes it, perfects it, breathes on it alone, that it may develop as well as possible; and each of us, being a part, pretends to be a whole — like a stump that claims it is a limb.

(I want to cultivate my other fragments.)

Right book, right time. I am ready to be swept away.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

This is my brain on This Is Your Brain on Music

Another year of Blue Metropolis has come and gone. While this year I had the time to go, there was little inclination.

The only attraction for me was "local" boy Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, and it was a last-minute decision to trek downtown at the end of the afternoon last weekend. The show was sold out, but I benefited from one of a few cancellations.

Levitin briefly reviewed some main points from his book, complete with slides and audio samples.

(I can't help but compare Levitin and Steven Pinker, a presentation of whose I attended a few months ago (and no, I didn't get around to writing about it here). Pinker started out in Montreal and journeyed to MIT and beyond, while Levitin made the reverse trip. Pinker's event was a rock concert with high production quality; he's the Bono of cognitive science. The show, and it was a show, had well-rehearsed banter, precision timing — a choreography of slides, commentary, and use of physical space, and just the slightest edge of boredom in his voice. Levitin, on the other hand, was like some obscure little indie band no one's ever heard of, but there's something so genuine, and clever, about the performance you rave about it to all your friends and wonder why more people haven't heard of this guy.)

The main point of the talk, and the book, is what an amazingly amazing super-computer the brain is. We can identify a piece of music given just a couple notes of it, even if we've never heard that particular arrangement before, by picking out rhythm and relative pitch intervals and stuff like that and running those factors against the library of templates we have stored in our brains. No computer can do that, and Levitin says we're at least a dozen years away from technology being sophisticated enough to come close.

Levitin demonstrated the principle by playing us the opening of Beethoven's instantly recognizable Symphony no. 5, as played on power tools, which rendition no one was previously familiar with.

The whole left brain/right brain thing is a gross oversimplification, be you a listener or producer of music. Music is parcelled and processed by pitch, rhythm, timbre, volume, in different cerebral areas. We have a sense of musical syntax, whereby a phrase produces an expectancy generation, which is violated or satisfied, and we react accordingly. We have a reflex to move to music.

Music changes your brain. We feel strongly about it. It lights up primitive and emotional and pleasure centres. A sex-and-drugs-and rock-and-roll centre, if you will. Musicians have thicker corpus callosums (callosi?), being the bridge between the left and right hemispheres. Practicing an instrument changes your brain (Levitin reminds us: "practicing" anything changes your brain — it's called learning). But: a knowledge of music theory doesn't seem to affect or improve the way one responds to or produces music, at least at a biochemical level, much as reading and writing are inconsequential to story-telling. (Paul McCartney can't read music; Eddie van Halen is well-versed in theory. Who's the better "musician"?)

Levitin's very funny and down-to-earth. (He plays in a band at McGill: The Diminished Faculties.) He treated us to a pretty lengthy reading from his out-this-summer book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (to be released August 15, according to Levitin; Amazon states September).

The excerpt was memoir-like, recounting the days when Levitin quite college to pursue the possibility of a career as a professional musician, to which there's some anthropocultural point. Levitin assures us the rest of book is not so autobiographical, but it would be no great crime if it were.

He's had some unusual occupations, many of which seem likely to lend themselves to the collecting of colourful anecdotes.

I chickened out from asking my recently pressing question: Do people learn to suppress the instinct to sway, tap, hum when they listen to their iPods and will I also acquire this skill with practice, or is it possible that music for many has become white noise?

Imagined response: "Obviously you lack discipline, you crazy person. Get a grip."

An evening out is always more than the main event. My outing was highlighted with incidental dialogue and an eerie soundtrack.

There was a small group of older people behind me in the line to enter the lecture room. By "older" I mean older than me — older than middle aged but preretirement; they frown somewhat on cell phones. They sounded like they intended to be heard. I hope I never do that. One garrulous creature stormed into their group with air kisses and odd pronouncements on some festival events and wandered off 5 minutes later; a woman in the group later loudly explained to her companions, "We tend to run into each other at any significant cultural event that's a little on the outré side. We share the same eclectic tastes, you see." People really talk like that!

Musically, the event was bracketed by a walk to and from the metro station, through long, empty, echoing hallways. I heard the occasional click of heels passing some distance from me. And then the swelling of the busker's instrument. He played the theme from The Godfather on what looked to be a plastic flute from the dollar store. He played it perfectly, plaintively. Over and over. On my return journey, he was still playing it. Maybe the only song he knows, or, it occurs to me now, the only one it's possible to play completely in tune on that particular instrument.

Friday, May 09, 2008

When you watch Doctor Who with a 5-year-old

The Sontarans are a warrior culture. They reproduce by cloning.

"What's a clone?"
I can handle this question.

They prepare for battle. Sontar-ha! Sontar-ha!
"Why are they chanting?"
"Mommy, what's war?"
"Why is there war?"
"Why are you crying, Mommy?"

Thursday, May 08, 2008

On the mailing of bees

Today my work led me into the bowels of United States Postal Office documentation.

A fascinating place, that.

9.3.7 Bees
Bees are acceptable in the continental surface mail when shipped under federal and state regulations to ensure that they are free of disease. Packages of honeybees must bear special handling postage, except those sent at a First-Class Mail rate. Only queen honeybees may be shipped via air transportation. Each queen honeybee shipped via air transportation may be accompanied by up to eight attendant honeybees.

Were I a queen travelling by air, I'm not sure eight attendants would suffice.

Friday, May 02, 2008

There was Neruda

Then I heard a faint sound, as if someone were crawling over the terrace. My curiosity piqued, I opened the French doors and went out. The air was even colder than before, and there was no one on the terrace, but in the garden I could make out an oblong-shaped shadow like a coffin, heading towards a sort of pergola, a Greek folly built to Farewell's orders, next to a strange equestrian statue, about forty centimetres high, made of bronze, and perched on a porphyry pedestal in such a way that it seemed to be eternally emerging from the pergola. The moon stood out clearly against a cloudless sky. My cassock fluttered in the wind. Boldly I advanced towards the place where the shadowy figure had hidden. There he was, next to Farewell's equestrian fantasy. His back was turned. He was wearing a velvet jacket and a scarf and a narrow-brimmed hat tipped back on his head, and he was softly intoning words that can only have been meant for the moon. I froze in a posture like that of the statue, with my left foot off the ground. It was Neruda. I don't know what happened next. There was Neruda and there a few metres behind him was I, and, between us, the night, the moon, the equestrian statue, Chilean plants, Chilean wood, the obscure dignity of our land. I bet the wizened youth has no stories like this to tell. He didn't meet Neruda. He hasn't met any of our Republic's major writers in a setting as elemental as the one I have just described. What does it matter what happened before and after? There was Neruda reciting verses to the moon, addressing the minerals of the earth, and the stars, whose nature we can only know by intuition. There I was, shivering with cold in my cassock, which of a sudden felt several sizes too big, like a cathedral in which I was living naked and open-eyed. There was Neruda murmuring words I could not quite understand, but whose essential nature spoke to me deeply from the very first moment. And there was I, tears in my eyes, a poor clergyman lost in the immensity of our land, thirstily drinking in the words of our most sublime poet. And I ask myself now, propped up on my elbow: Has the wizened youth ever had an experience like that? I ask myself seriously: Has he ever in all his days experienced anything like that?

— from By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño.

Darby M Dixon III said it about another novel, but it holds true here: "I realize that I'm reading a book in large part about a society or a people in which poetry is absolutely vital and that I can not imagine this novel being written in America, by an American, about America." I don't know how I feel about that either.

I'm about a third of the way into this novella, my second foray into Bolaño's work, and I promise you there will be more.

It's breathtaking, leaves me breathless, I've said this before of his stories, this hypnotic, driving rhythm that leaves me gasping, it's so honest and passionate. Kind of a similar feeling to what I remember from Hopscotch. Only I'm older and wiser now, and maybe I get it a little better, which makes things all the more happy-and-sad-together than they ever were.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The things of which things consist

The city wakes in a foul mood most mornings, being in direct relation to the hockey score of the night before.

Cognitive dissonance, last week: It's 21 degrees outside and I'm staring at a patch of snow in the courtyard. (It's gone, finally.)

Coginitive dissonance, this week: It's bloody cold. Head hunched down, I watch commuters collect on the metro platform. Winter boots side by side with flip-flops. I'm mildly disgusted that so many would bare their ugly toes (let alone so early, so suddenly) in a city I'd always considered well-shod.

I'm having occasional bouts of spring-cleaning fever, and the closets are being attacked, in a (conceptually) systematic, if not exactly (physically) orderly, fashion. There's a coat in the closet, on J-F's side. He asks what I intend to do with it. I stare at him blankly for a while. I ask what he wants to do with it. "What do I care? It's not my coat." Umm. It's not my coat either. "Have you ever seen me wear this coat?" Umm. Have you ever seen me wear this coat? "Look at this coat! Can you even picture me wearing this coat? I wouldn't be caught dead wearing this coat." It's a large men's jacket, red with a plaid woolen lining. No, he wouldn't wear such a coat. I'd assumed his mother had given it to him. "How long has this coat been in our closet?" As long as I can remember. It's moved house with us. "It must've belonged to one of your ex-boyfriends." Umm. No. Not a one of them ever enjoyed the privilege of leaving a coat hanging about my closet. And I can't picture any of them being caught dead in it either. For two weeks now, the coat lies in a puddle in the middle of the bedroom floor, waiting to be claimed.

In a reversal of roles, Helena asks us to hurry up, please, as we try to get out the door in the morning. Because if we're late, there won't be room for her chair in among the girls. She'll have to sit with the boys, and she doesn't like that. All they do is burp and fart and make faces. Sigh. It doesn't get much better than that, kid.