Monday, October 28, 2013

Nature does not change

The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka, is a "manifesto about farming, eating, and the limits of human knowledge" that challenges our views on agriculture and how it fits into our (modern) way of living.
Few are able to grasp correctly that natural farming arises from the unmoving and unchanging center of agricultural development.

To the extent that people separate themselves from nature, they spin out further and further from the center. At the same time, a centripetal effect asserts itself and the desire to return to nature arises. But if people merely become caught up in reacting, moving to the left or to the right, depending on conditions, the result is only more activity. The non-moving point of origin, which lies outside the realm of relativity, is passed over, unnoticed. I believe that even "returning-to-nature" and anti-pollution activities, no matter how commendable, are not moving toward a genuine solution if they are carried out solely in reaction to the overdevelopment of the present age.

Nature does not change, although the way of viewing nature invariable changes from age to age. No matter the age, natural farming exists forever as the wellspring of agriculture.

And later,
There are always those who try to mix natural and scientific farming. But this way of thinking completely misses the point. The farmer who moves toward compromise can longer criticize science at the fundamental level.

Natural farming is gentle and easy and indicates a return to the source of farming. A single step away from the source can only lead one astray.

As if the point of our otherwise pointless lives is to aspire toward stillness.

I heard about this book when it was published as a New York Review Books classic a few years ago and it came up in relation to balcony gardening, which I was reading up on. Fukuoka's "do-nothing" philosophy has a great deal of appeal, although "do-nothing" is more work than it implies — more like "do no harm."

Fukuoka describes an epiphany he had that humanity knows nothing and that all our effort has no intrinsic value, is meaningless. I cannot help but relate this to my current readings on Socrates, Kierkegaard, and Hegel — having reached aporia, he intends to transmute it via negative action, not doing. Although nature does not change, Fukuoka states also that "nature is everywhere in perpetual motion"; he tries to achieve balance — a state (but, I think, not a process) of becoming.

I tend not to read much nonfiction but I am motivated because The One-Straw Revolution is a current book club selection. Come discuss it at Argo Bookshop tomorrow evening.

Larry Korn, a student of Fukuoka, and translator and editor of this book, has compiled several resources on Fukuoka and natural farming.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

As if they are from nature

Persian Ceiling

We are using gravity, centrifugal force, the heat, the fire, all of these different elements and in many ways we are not totally in control. Its letting the glass also make the form. Going with it, I want the pieces to be very often as if they are from nature. And so you are not sure, is it man-made? Is it made by nature?

Dale Chihuly

Turquoise Reeds

Chihuly is on exhibit at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal for a few more final days. See it. Download the app.

Like trying to understand the moon

And so when you're working with transparent materials, when you're looking at glass, plastic, ice, or water, you're looking at light itself. The light is coming through, and you see that cobalt blue, that ruby red, whatever the colour might be — you're looking at the light and the colour mix together. Something magical and mystical, something we don't understand, nor should we care to understand. Sort of like trying to understand the moon.
Dale Chihuly

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Die schwarze Spinne

Another, this time animated, interpretation of Jeremias Gotthelf's story The Black Spider.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What makes The Black Spider so creepy

The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, has an incredibly high creepiness factor. The exceedingly creepy cover should have fully primed my expectations, but the book's contents managed to work their way even deeper under my skin.

Jeremias Gotthelf was the penname of Albert Bitzius, a Swiss pastor and novelist, who is celebrated for his detailed depiction of rural life. He lived 1797 to 1854, which makes him a contemporary of Adalbert Stifter, which I mention because the opening of The Black Spider quite reminded me of the style of Rock Crystal, the lyrical way in which the pastoral scene is set.

The story goes something like this:

An attendee of a christening party draws attention to a rough old post beside a window in an otherwise attractive home. Grandfather tells its tale:

A few centuries beforehand, the Swabian Hans von Stoffeln ruled the land, and by grandfather's account, he was not a reasonable man. After building his castle, the peasants were ordered to line the walk with trees. Having neglected their own harvests for several years already, the villagers had reached the point of desperation. A red-bearded huntsman in green comes upon them and offers to help. In exchange for an unbaptized child. After some deliberation, the villagers agree. The huntsman seals the deal with a kiss upon the cheek of the strong-willed Christine.

Babies are born and hastily baptized, cheating the devil out of his payment. Christine's cheek, meanwhile, burns and blackens and gives birth to a plague of spiders that infect the land, killing livestock and people. When Christine's attempt to kidnap a newborn to pay the debt is thwarted, the spider within bursts from her cheek — Christine shrinks into it and it fully consumes her. The spider is finally caught and imprisoned within a hole dug into that blackened post, which was plugged up.

Generations later, the people scoffed at the tale of the spider, and the spider came to be released. Again it was captured and imprisoned, and care was taken that it should not be released again. Thus the grandfather's tale serves to remind the villagers of their blessings, and that God is watching — and that the devil is, too.

A simple-enough pact-with-the-devil story, right?

The Swabian
The first creep factor to set me off was the mention of the "Swabian." It's a term I wasn't familiar with before reading Roberto Bolaño's 2666. and now every mention of Swabia, the region or its people, invokes for me the horror of 2666.

It turns out that there's a little something more to the connection. In the first section of 2666, The Part About the Critics, one of the critics has written a couple papers on Archimboldi, including one:
on the various guises of conscience and guilt in Lethaea, on the surface an erotic novel, and in Bitzius, a novel less than one hundred pages long, similar in some ways to Mitzi's Treasure, the book that Pelletier had found in an old Munich bookstore, and that told the story of the life of Albert Bitzius, pastor of Lützelflüh, in the canton of Bern, an author of sermons as well as a writer under the pseudonym Jeremiah Gotthelf.

Clearly Bolaño was familiar with Gotthelf, and that being the case, he was undoubtedly aware of (and likely read) the book considered to be his masterpiece: The Black Spider. Bolaño's influences were notoriously wide and varied, and I don't doubt Gotthelf (and specifically The Black Spider) was among them. (While it is fairly unknown among English readers, the story does seem to have cult following in German, and quite possibly other languages. Witness this rendering in Warcraft.)

It seems to me that The Black Spider and 2666 share a kind of insidious evil, that at times is embodied within an individual, sometimes pervades the collective social conscience, is part of the natural order of things, and at other times takes on cosmic proportions. It's Evil with a capital E, the likes of which not many novels can grapple with subtly and successfully (by which I mean they are not laughable allegories).

The contract
The second creep factor concerns the nature of the contract. The devil asks for an unbaptized child, and the villagers agree. It is not a contract concerning a particular child, or a particular mother-to-be. The child whose soul is at stake is not yet born, let alone consulted. The particular parents also are ignorant, though it may be argued that as villagers they have been complicit in the deal.

I read a commentary recently, I think it was in relation to the Rosemary's Baby (the movie, but I'm sure it applies to the book just the same), that the horror was not so much in the baby, or the devil, or the satanic cult even — it's in the fact that control is wrested from this poor woman, over her pregnancy and her child. I couldn't help but think of this while reading The Black Spider as one woman after another went into labour fearing for their babies. The women are forced to bear the consequences of not fulfilling a contract they had no part of.

So much of the horror has nothing to do with the spider or the huntsman who introduces it. It's to do with the fact that the villagers have decided someone else's fate.

The specific terms had not been set out in the contract. That is, there were no predefined rules. This is the horror.

The justice
Everybody ultimately gets theirs in this tale. What makes this justice uncomfortable is that it's not clear who is meting it out. The first wave of spiders killed indiscriminately, chaotically. But the Christine-spider strikes those villagers who were implicated in striking the bargain. She kills Hans von Stoffeln and his knights. But she spares those castle servants who had treated the peasants rightly. Is this Christine's justice, then? Or God's? If so, how could it come from what was implanted by the devil? And clearly it still sought an unbaptized child by which to fulfill the obligation. Is it God or the devil who demands a sacrifice?

Premonitions of a dreadful future rose before them, but not one had the courage to put a stop to things; their fear of the devil's plagues was stronger than their fear of God.

A story within a story
This novella has excellent pacing, making it feel much fuller than its 108 pages. When once I thought the story was coming to a head, it took another turn to keep me on the edge of my seat.

Also because the internal story has two parts within a frame story, it is enriched by the sense that it spans time. The frame story's present day seems to be in danger of falling into gluttony and sloth, thus making the hardships of the original peasants all the more poignant.

Unusually, this new edition from NYRB Classics translated by Susan Bernofsky has no introduction or afterword, no supplemental information of any kind. And if ever a story wanted some context, this Swiss horror classic from 1842 does.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Die schwarze Spinne

I stumbled across this clip while doing a little background research into The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, before I set about writing about it. I read it a couple days ago and it's creepy as all get out. This video captures the story and mood quite well.

Story by Jeremias Gotthelf. (The Black Spider is recently reissued by NYRB Classics.)

Soundtrack by Carlos Perón (possibly best known as a founding member of Yello).

Music and images from Mark M. Rissi's 1983 full-length film "The Black Spider."

Friday, October 18, 2013

Many walk their last roads without knowing it

Hans, the husband of the unfortunate woman, had kept his promise all too well. Slowly he had made his way, stopping to contemplate every field, gazing after every bird, watching as the fish in the brook leapt up to catch little flies before the storm. Then he would lurch forward and pick up his pace, at times even breaking into a run; there was something in him that drove him forward, that made his hair stand on end: It was his conscience telling him what a father deserved who betrayed his wife and child, it was the love he still bore for his wife and the fruit of his loins. But then something else held him back, something stronger than the first thing: his fear of men, his fear of the devil, and his love of all the devil could take from him. Then he walked more slowly again, slowly as a man walking his last road to the gallows. And perhaps he really was walking toward the place where his life would end; many walk their last roads without knowing it, and if they did, how differently they might walk there.
— from The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

We think, therefore we are

Cool math aside, in this TED talk Adam Spencer talks up the power of collaborative mindset and distributed computing projects (such as SETI and GIMPS), that this is the greatness of the human race.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"The language neuterized at last!"

Acquired recently at the Antiquarian Book Fair, a pamphlet called The Sexless Dictionary, by John D. Hancock, published by Neuter Press, copyright 1976. A gem of a handbook, keeping my texts politically correct and my coworkers thoroughly entertained.

Because using "chairperson" and "salesperson" doesn't go far enough to establish gender equality.

Here's a representative sampling of entries:
APERSONS, interj. term used to notify the Deity that one's prayer is finished.

DEPERSONDS, n. humble requests made to the powerful by oppressed minorities.

GERPERSONY, n. a pacifistic country in Europe divided into two parts known as East Gerpersony and West Gerpersony.

ROPERSONTIC, adj. (1) characteristic of the delightful atmosphere favored by real and would-be lover; (2) characteristic of the notion that the good persons will always win.

Friday, October 11, 2013

How magnificent it is

"My friends, even if understanding is in fact an intellectual process, it is also a spiritual process, because the truths we arrive at through logic and mathematics, unless we feel them with our souls, will remain raw facts, and we will fall short of grasping how magnificent it is that we perceive them."

— from Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan.

These words are attributed to Hypatia.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

No one knows nothing

First, let me dispose of Socrates because I am sick and tired of this pretense that knowing you know nothing is a mark of wisdom.

No one knows nothing. In a matter of days, babies learn to recognize their mothers.

Socrates would agree, of course, and explain that knowledge of trivia is not what he means. He means that in the great abstractions over which human beings debate, one should start without preconceived, unexamined notions, and that he alone knew this. (What an enormously arrogant claim!)

In his discussions of such matters as "What is justice?" or "What is virtue?" he took the attitude that he knew nothing and had to be instructed by others. (This is called "Socratic irony," for Socrates knew very well that he knew a great deal more than the poor souls he was picking on.) By pretending ignorance, Socrates lured others into propounding their views on such abstractions. Socrates then, by a series of ignorant-sounding questions, forced the others into such a mélange of self-contradictions that they would finally break down and admit they didn't know what they were talking about.

It is the mark of the marvelous toleration of the Athenians that they let this continue for decades and that it wasn't till Socrates turned seventy that they broke down and forced him to drink poison.

— from "The Relativity of Wrong," by Isaac Asimov.

This week I'm reading Plato's Euthyphro and Socrates' Defense as part of the coursework for Søren Kierkegaar​d — Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity.

The concept of subjectivity has not been raised in this week's lecture, but deducing from my own subject experience, I'd have to say it pervades pretty much everything. As a reader certainly I've observed that a lot of what I get out of a text depends on what I put into it.

Not just effort to understand, willingness to suspend disbelief, research into historical or biographical background, but simply mood. I can think of a few books that I approached with such seriousness that I failed to appreciate that they were intended to be comic; others that I was lighthearted about should have imbued me with sadness or heaviness. Sometimes it is the fault of the writer, not giving sufficient clues in the opening pages as to the tone in which a book ought to be read, or relying too much on the reader to carry a tone without providing the words to support it. More often than not, it's simply a matter of the wrong book at the wrong time.

And so it is with Socrates that I came with openness, enthusiasm, and humour (thinking all the time: Really? I'm taking a course on Kierkegaard? How ridiculous am I? What the hell?).

Euthyphro in particular I found funny. I picture Socrates smirking, even winking at a hypothetically more-evolved thousands-of-years-hence audience, as he mocks his victim to the point of humiliation, being deliberately obtuse and nitpicking over semantics. Sure, it's in the service of a greater good, establishing a higher truth, but it's not nice, and I wonder if sometimes he goes too far, ignoring other perhaps lesser but still valid truths that emerge along the way (for example, it's clear to me that Euthyphro values the ties that bind society over the ties that bind his family; but this potential tangent is swept away). Certainly he brings nothing positive to the interrogation — he destroys his opponent, but creates nothing in the place of the void he has unmasked.

In short, I agree with Asimov' implied assessment: Socrates is a real jerk.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The scary thing in the story

What really counts is less how believable we find the scary thing in the story, but how believable we find the characters who encounter those scary things in the story.

That's a really smart thing Andrew Pyper said, and it explains completely why I think Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black is stronger than her Thirteenth Tale (which I'll shut up about in due course).

Has anyone read Andrew Pyper? Do you recommend him?

Andrew Pyper will be at Concordia University tomorrow night, part of the Writers Read series. (I may are may not be going.)

Later this week, Emma Donaghue.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Rooks are made of thought and memory

Will Bellman seems to lead a charmed life. Despite starting out with a few marks against him, life is relatively easy (though he works hard) and good. Until...
It was a source of puzzlement to remember a time when the world had seemed an entirely benign sort of place. He had rarely been ill and never for long; he had never gone hungry; he had been met everywhere with smiles and friendship; his efforts had been rewarded, his failings largely forgiven. Though he was a boy who knew how to get into trouble he had the useful knack of being as good at getting out of it. What little there had been to frighten or pain him was left behind in the forgotten days of childhood: as a man he saw no reason to be afraid. Now some great hand had peeled back the kind surface of that fairy-tale world and shown him the chasm beneath his feet.

Until people start dying around him. Years of death, and business, and the business of death, and Bellman becomes a husk of a man.
"Appetite all right? Sleep?"

It was impossible to describe accurately the horror of his nights. Bellman was loathe to admit, I am tormented by dreams. Birds tap at my window in the night with their black beaks, they are trapped inside my lungs and leave me gasping for breath, they feed on my heart, and when I shave in the morning I can see them looking out at me through my own eyes. Of course not.
Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield, traces the tragedy of the trajectory of Will Bellman's life from when he was 10 years old and shot a crow dead with his slingshot, through his success as a business man, finding love and having a family, more continued business success, and his unravelling, unto his death.

Will, you see, is haunted. Bellman & Black is plainly marked as "a ghost story" (at least on the UK edition, pictured here; my e-book gave no such indication on the cover, but the novel is qualified as such on the title page). This may set the wrong expectations for some readers. In my view, the novel needs no such help; the ghost is there from the beginning, though its nature be not clear.

Following Will are the crows, or the absence of crows, and Setterfield's rook facts are interspersed throughout the text. Also, there are the many dead. And then there's Mr. Black. One thing I particularly like about this novel is that it's not clear whether the ghost has external existence or is purely internal to Will. I expect this may bother readers who come for a real ghost, but the way I see it, this ambiguity follows in a great classic tradition (think: Turn of the Screw).

There are several reviews of this book noting disappointment that Bellman & Black does not live up to the expectations set by Setterfield's first novel. While I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, little of it has stayed with me except for the mood of it (though I'm inspired to revisit it now*). Bellman & Black on the other hand will stay with me a long time, and I have no qualms about calling it a tighter, more mature novel. I loved it. Its net effect on me is like a cross between two other stellar books I read this year: John Williams' Stoner and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.

*Since I first starting drafting this post, I have dipped into The Thirteenth Tale, and I can't get past the feeling that it's some kind of trickery, its hold on people. Sure, there's a story there somewhere, but it draws readers in by relying on their love of bookish things, old bookstores, getting lost in a book, special editions, the romance of writing, libraries. Bellman & Black seems to me purer, it's just the story of one man's life.

The standard description of this book does it a disservice, blithely summing up what amounts to nearly half of the novel in a few sentences, and implying that what follows — Will's meeting a stranger and establishing a new business — is the crux of the story. This is a gross imbalance. The second half of this story would not be worth nothing at all if the first half weren't so deeply felt and wonderfully told.

This book is about grief, and also the business of grief. I wonder if you have to have known grief to appreciate this book, the full devastation of grief, the kind where you make deals with your gods, anything, to abate it.

Or maybe you have to have known crows.
There is a story much older than this one in which two ravens — ravens being large cousins to rooks — were companions and advisers to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, the other Muninn, which meant Memory. They lived in a magic ash tree where the borders of many worlds came together, and from its branches they flew blithely between worlds, gathering information for Odin. Other creatures could not cross the borders from one world to another, but Thought and Memory flew where they pleased, and came back laughing.

Thought and Memory had a great many offspring, all of whom were gifted with great mental powers allowing them to accumulate and pass on a good deal of knowledge from their ancestors.

The rooks that lived in Will Bellman's oak tree were descendants of Thought and Memory. The rook that fell was one of their many-times-great-grandchildren.

On the day that Will Bellman was ten years and four days old these rooks did what needed to be done to mark their loss. Then they departed from that dangerous place. They never returned.

The tree still stands. Even now you can go and see it — yes, right now, in your time — but you will not see a single rook alight in its branches. They still know what happened. Rooks are made of thought and memory. They know everything and they do not forget.
Well written and subtly atmospheric. Also, I recommend this novel for its fascinating historical detail to anyone with an interest in the history of supply chain management or in the Victorian business of mourning emporiums.

Friday, October 04, 2013

I am I don't know

My daughter is under the weather and has stayed home from school yesterday and today (and I've stayed with her). She's relatively sedate, and enjoying the company of the cat.

She's been asking if I've written anything about her lately. No, I haven't.

But I recently found this note on my phone. (Allegedly an experiment in Siri dictation.)

Also, she is insisting that I post a photo of the cat.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Tu lis quoi?

Posters around town are informing me that it's saison de la lecture. (As if I need a PSA to tell me that the cooling nights are perfect for curling up with a good book.)

La Saison de la lecture de Montréal réunit de nombreux acteurs du domaine du livre désireux de promouvoir la lecture comme source de plaisir, mais aussi comme instrument de réussite scolaire et de développement socio-économique et culturel.

Auteurs, bibliothécaires, éditeurs, libraires, promoteurs d'événements littéraires, intervenants du milieu de l'éducation et autres passionnés, tous s'unissent dans un même mouvement pour offrir une grande célébration de la lecture tout au long de l'automne 2013.

In addition to several author events around town, and storytelling hours for the kids, there are some digital clinics scheduled, where you can get information and help regarding your reading devices.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Two Italians

Today's issue of Shelf Awareness dedicated to Rizzoli's Ex Libris imprint delighted me because it features two of my favourite Italians.

Umberto Eco
An oldie but a goodie. As the years pass, I like Eco's fiction less and less — it was all downhill after Foucault's Pendulum. But my appreciation of his work in the realms of semiotics, aesthetics, etc. continues.

His new book, The Book of Legendary Lands, will be published November 19. "This book is not concerned with fictional places alone. [...] I am dealing instead with those places that many people believed to have really existed, like the Earthly Paradise or Atlantis."

While I think the legend of Atlantis is a little tired (and for this reason I'm having a heckuva time plodding through William Azuski's Travels in Elysium), I'm curious to read Eco's erudite take "on why writers are compelled to create these worlds — and why readers are drawn to them."

Plus, it's illustrated, and if the publisher's website is anything to go by, it's bound to be gorgeous.

Gianrico Carofiglio

My literary crush of earlier this year was resurrected on reading this short interview. I mean, we share some of the same favourite authors! And he loves Stoner. And some of the books that changed his life changed my life! And he's so handsome and charming!


Carofiglio's new novel, The Silence of the Wave, is a standalone thriller involving a former undercover narcotics agent, his visits to a psychiatrist, and an 11-year-old boy's nightmares.