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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: The Four Frontispieces

I read Lanark as a very young adult and, like many others, was marked by its naked emotion, honesty, and despair. Gray’s death at the end of last year, after a long and successful career as an artist and writer, struck me hard. As a celebration of his life and work, I am posting an essay written for an anthology on Gray’s artwork which never materialized, on the sources of the frontispieces for Lanark’s four books and the uses to which Gray put them.

Revisiting Lanark at twice the age I was when I originally read it, I can step back from my heart and better see how intricately Alasdair Gray had crafted the inhuman machinery into which Duncan Thaw and Lanark fall. Coded with symbolic meaning, the four prints constitute Lanark’s most forceful allusions to modern history—and deliver Gray’s rejoinders to that history.

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David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2019

My top pick is not surprising. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, László Krasznahorkai’s self-declared completion to his life’s work, is a monumental portrait of catastrophe, and though published in Hungarian in 2016, it feels absolutely of the moment, a depiction of a scattering world in which everything is devalued and no one has the resources to make sense of things. I wrote about it at great length for Music & Literature, and while I avoid the present trend of deeming any and every work of writing to be essential and crucial, I do think that Krasznahorkai’s quartet of novels will endure.

Otherwise, it seemed a bit of a lean year for books compared to the riches of 2018, and some of the best books below, like the two Laura Ridings from Ugly Duckling Presse, actually date from 2018. It’s wonderful to see another book from the always-brilliant Barbara Maria Stafford, and some very strong archival work in philosophy and classics appeared. (Sara Humphreys’s book on Athenian kinship is magisterial.) Melanie Mitchell’s book on artificial intelligence is perhaps the best survey of the state of the field I have read and is strongly recommended to all.

Many powerful forces encourage us to devalue knowledge, and to devalue even the very pursuit of knowledge. In an age of fear and encroaching chaos, this pressure grows stronger. It is my article of faith that whatever meaning can be gleaned from life nonetheless resides in expanding our epistemological horizons as far as they can go, and confronting the new frontiers even if we tremble in so doing. It is the only antidote to the myopia of lived experience.

Book of the Year

Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming
Krasznahorkai, László; Mulzet, Ottilie (Translator)
(New Directions)

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The 100 Most Important Words (to I. A. Richards)

Amount, Argument, Art, Be, Beautiful, Belief, Cause, Certain, Chance, Change, Clear, Common, Comparison, Condition, Connection, Copy, Decision, Degree, Desire, Development, Different, Do, Education, End, Event, Example, Existence, Experience, Fact, Fear, Feeling, Fiction, Force, Form, Free, General, Get, Give, Good, Government, Happy, Have, History, Idea, Important, Interest, Knowledge, Law, Let, Level, Living, Love, Make, Material, Measure, Mind, Motion, Name, Nation, Natural, Necessary, Normal, Number, Observation, Opposite, Order, Organization, Part, Place, Pleasure, Possible, Power, Probable, Property, Purpose, Quality, Question, Rea­son, Relation, Representative, Respect, Responsible, Right, Same, Say, Science, See, Seem, Sense, Sign, Simple, Society, Sort, Special, Substance, Thing, Thought, True, Use, Way, Wise, Word, Work.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page (1942)

Richards began with the 850 words included in C. K. Ogden’s “Basic English” lexicon, intended to teach foreigners the maximum amount of English with the minimum amount of vocabulary. He selected those which he deemed most abstract and multifaceted, those which possessed “extreme versatility and ambiguity.” In fact, a word’s risk of being misunderstood is a significant criterion for inclusion.

This systematic ambiguity of all our most impor­tant words is a first cardinal point to note. But “am­biguity” is a sinister-looking word and it is better to say “resourcefulness.” They are the most important words for two reasons:

1. They cover the ideas we can least avoid using, those which are concerned in all that we do as thinking beings.

2. They are words we are forced to use in explain­ing other words because it is in terms of the ideas they cover that the meanings of other words must be given.

I have, in fact, left 103 words in this list—to incite the reader to the task of cutting out those he sees no point in and adding any he pleases, and to discourage the notion that there is anything sacrosanct about a hundred, or any other number.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page

Richards calls out a handful of words—Soul, God, Time, Space—as being equally ambiguous and important, but not functioning as tools of thought. (In the case of Time and Space, I’m not certain I agree.)

Learning to read—like learning to see how the catch on a door works—is becoming able to grasp some of the ways in which the parts of a complex sys­tem are dependent upon one another. The experience from which skill in reading derives is, of course, a vastly more complex and potent growth of universals than anything the cat can develop. Nonetheless, as with the cat, though much more so, the secret of suc­cess lies in the stabilization of universals in the soul. But the universals which good reading calls for con­cern the wide general ways in which minor universals of less scope may and may not fit together. What counts most is not familiarity with the senses of words taken separately but knowledge of their interdepend­encies.

If we can see how we read or misread “cause,” “form,” “be,” “know,” “see,” “say,” “make” . . . how we omit or fail to omit in taking their meaning, we develop our experi­ence as readers better than in any other fashion. It is with these words that the major universals which should order our reading can best be held up for less ‘exclusive attention.’ These words, as we all know, vary their sense with their company. Their variations are patterns for all other words which follow the same forms. As these patterns grow in our minds they be­ come operative in thousands of places in connection with thousands of other words and without our ever being aware what unnamed forms have become our guides in interpretation.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page

This is not such a bad summary of why I have maintained that artificial intelligence has such a long way to go before it can comprehend and engage in human language. Human language has been constructed in the most ad hoc, holistic way imaginable.

Computers don’t manage so terribly with concrete and technical words, but what will AI do when it can understand those words and yet fall down on Richards’s list? What would language be like without those words?

Is that where human language is going under the influence of computers and AI?

A friend has suggested “Taste,” “Health,” and “Care” as worthy additions/substitutions to the list. I think “Value” and “Real” deserve a place. Do readers have other suggestions?

Robert Musil in Martha Musil’s Coat

Martha Musil was not only Robert Musil’s wife, but his avowed soulmate and close collaborator, as well as the model for the central figure of Agathe in The Man Without Qualities. With two translations of Robert Musil’s mystical-erotic novella dyad out this year (Unions by Genese Grill and Intimate Ties by Peter Wortsman), along with Joel Agee’s forthcoming translation of a selection of the Agathe material from The Man Without Qualities, Martha herself is gaining, indirectly, some of the attention she deserves.

Below are two passages from Robert Musil’s notebooks, translated by Philip Payne in the Mark Mirsky-edited Diaries. These passages were only located in 1980, as they had been “sewn into the lining of a coat belonging to Martha Musil.”

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An Outline of 21st Century American History

Tanner Greer put together a very intriguing prospectus for a book of 21st century American history. I am inclined to think that we know very little about much of anything and our perspectives about the present are hopelessly blinkered, so I tend to avoid broad summaries except from oblique angles.

And yet I am fond of books like Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The Age of Ideologies that attempt exactly such a summary. It’s just that I think one must have a combination of age, wisdom, genius, and perspective in order to pull off such a book . I don’t have that combination, so an outline is the most I will offer.

What I have done is to take Greer’s prospectus as a starting point, then radically strip it down to those factors that I believe to have been decisive. The 2000, 2010, and 2016 elections, for example, have made a far greater impact than the others of this century.

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