David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: borges (page 2 of 5)

Charles Hinton and His Cubes

Thanks (and happy birthday) to Michelle at Potato Benevolence for (re?)introducing me to Charles Hinton, mysterious theorist of fourth-dimensionality in the late 19th century. Aside from his forays into gunpowder-charged pitching machines (a proto-Survival Research Laboratories experiment retired after a few accidents) and bigamy, his obsession with extra spatial dimensions influenced Edwin Abbott’s better known Flatland and was celebrated by Borges, who also mentioned him in “The Secret Miracle.” It’s easy to see a connection back to Llull and Bruno in his gnostic quest for knowledge of hidden spaces. He also constructed a series of cubes designed to help train one to envision a four-dimensional hypercube (or tesseract) by envisioning the various three-dimensional views of the hypercube in a mental superimposition. Sort of like this:

But the oddest part is the letter that was sent to Martin Gardner after he wrote about Hinton in Scientific American. (Mark Blacklock has also covered the odd history of the cubes in his comprehensive site on Hinton and others.)

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton’s cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.

As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one’s mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one’s own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

Hiram Barton

On the other hand, Theosophist Sedlak seemed to be fairly happy with the result, as chronicled by his wife:

Towards the end of his long and trying illness, when terrible coughing prevented him from sleeping at night, the long silent hours seemed interminable. On my enquiring one morning as to what sort of a night he had had, he said almost joyfully, “Oh, being awake does not trouble me now. I do the cubes, and the time flies.” So I thanked God and blessed the cubes, for which had been found a utilitarian use at a most desperate psychological juncture. Power won cannot be lost, and will some day be utilised.

Borges: The House of Asterion

Of Mirrors and the Labyrinth, quoted by Art of Memory, made me remember that crucial Borges story that is not as well-known as some, “The House of Asterion.” It is one of Borges’s more explicit invocations of Kafka, and specifically of Kafka’s parables. I’ll just quote the whole thing, seeing as it’s very short:

And the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion. (Apollodorus Bibliotecha III, I)

I know they accuse me of arrogance, and perhaps misanthropy, and perhaps of madness. Such accusations (for which I shall exact punishment in due time) are derisory. It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose numbers are infinite) (footnote: The original says fourteen, but there is ample reason to infer that, as used by Asterion, this numeral stands for infinite.) are open day and night to men and to animals as well. Anyone may enter. He will find here no female pomp nor gallant court formality, but he will find quiet and solitude. And he will also find a house like no other on the face of this earth. (There are those who declare there is a similar one in Egypt, but they lie.) Even my detractors admit there is not one single piece of furniture in the house. Another ridiculous falsehood has it that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Shall I repeat that there are no locked doors, shall I add that there are no locks? Besides, one afternoon I did step into the street; If I returned before night, I did so because of the fear that the faces of the common people inspired in me, faces as discolored and flat as the palm of one’s hand. the sun had already set ,but the helpless crying of a child and the rude supplications of the faithful told me I had been recognized. The people prayed, fled, prostrated themselves; some climbed onto the stylobate of the temple of the axes, others gathered stones. One of them, I believe, hid himself beneath the sea. Not for nothing was my mother a queen; I cannot be confused with the populace, though my modesty might so desire. The fact is that that I am unique. I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing. Bothersome and trivial details have no place in my spirit, which is prepared for all that is vast and grand; I have never retained the difference between one letter and another. A certain generous impatience has not permitted that I learn to read. Sometimes I deplore this, for the nights and days are long.

Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor. I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed. There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. At any time I can pretend to be asleep, with my eyes closed and my breathing heavy. (Sometimes I really sleep, sometimes the color of day has changed when I open my eyes.) But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house. With great obeisance I say to him “Now we shall return to the first intersection” or “Now we shall come out into another courtyard” Or “I knew you would like the drain” or “Now you will see a pool that was filled with sand” or “You will soon see how the cellar branches out”. Sometimes I make a mistake and the two of us laugh heartily.

Not only have I imagined these games, I have also meditated on the house. All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards pools are fourteen (infinite) in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather it is the world. However, by dint of exhausting the courtyards with pools and dusty gray stone galleries I have reached the street and seen the temple of the Axes and the sea. I did not understand this until a night vision revealed to me that the seas and temples are also fourteen (infinite) in number. Everything is repeated many times, fourteen times, but two things in the world seem to be repeated only once: above, the intricate sun; below Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house, but I no longer remember.

Every nine years nine men enter the house so that I may deliver them from evil. I hear their steps or their voices in the depths of the stone galleries and I run joyfully to find them. The ceremony lasts a few minutes. They fall one after another without my having to bloody my hands. They remain where they fell and their bodies help distinguish one gallery from another. I do not know who they are, but I know that one of them prophesied, at the moment of his death, that some day my redeemer would come. Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise above the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no longer even a vestige of blood. “Would you believe it, Ariadne?” said Theseus “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

Hermetic isolation, an invocation of Purgatory as conceived by Dante, and to labyrinths before and after, to the invented worlds of Tlon and the murderous architecture of “Death and the Compass.”

Occurrences at Owl Creek Bridge

The finale of The Sopranos was only the latest usage of a trope that has become a staple of American fiction since its popular inception in Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (If you haven’t read the story, go read it first.) The basic idea is that the main character is about to die or near death or half-dead, and experiences some sort of imagined fantasy, perhaps a wish-fulfillment that he or she believes to be real, until death cuts the fantasy short. In this fantasy, time may be hugely compressed, rules of physics may change, unlikely events may happen, explicit and heavy-handed symbolism of previous events may occur, and so on.

Bierce’s story is notorious on its own, but it’s since permeated popular culture. The entire baby boomer generation got exposed to it when a short French adaptation of Bierce’s story was aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone, revealing just how great Rod Serling’s debt to Bierce (and O. Henry) was. Serling’s heavy-handed and moralistic twist endings, which themselves share much with Golden Age science-fiction, have been even more of a determinant of what constitutes an “ending” to a popular story in American culture. (For a particularly bombastic example, see Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star.) And I do say American; while William Golding’s Pincher Martin utilizes the trope, it does so in a way that makes it less relevant, as the story reads as explicit allegory regardless of the reality of the situation, and the British Golding even seems to give the game away early by subtitling the book “The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin.”

Bierce did not come up with the general idea. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (whose structure was later appropriated by Alasdair Gray for Lanark) is a tale of a boy experiencing an afterlife that recapitulates his life and serves as a corrective, and I’m sure there are earlier examples. Bierce may, however, have come up with the idea to hide the conceit from the audience by restricting the audience’s point of view to that of the main character, so that fantasy and reality are not explicitly distinguished until the “twist” ending. (I don’t know of any antecedents, but please let me know if you do.) This changes the fictional game considerably, since the author’s goal is no longer to contrast the fantasy with reality, as with Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Secret Miracle”, but to blend the two sufficiently that the reader does not figure out that somewhere along the line, reality took a vacation. Consequently, the story must subtly shift to an even more limited point of view, something that Bierce cleverly invokes by shifting to the present tense at the very end of the story, just before the reveal. The trope has become so well-known that mysterious shows are often threatened with angry viewers should the “answer” be some half-dead state of fantasy. (Another favorite cliche: alien zoo!)

That “somewhere” at which point the reader and character leave reality is always weighted with symbolism. In Pincher Martin, it is the natural disaster of a shipwreck. In Jacob’s Ladder, it was a battle in Vietnam. In Mulholland Drive, it was a drug-fueled scene of masturbation and remorse for murder. In The Sopranos, it was going to sleep and dreaming in a moment of mortal danger and betrayal. In Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, it is simply the explosion of a bomb. Regardless, the fantasy that follows from thereon always involves some forgetting or cancellation of the transition point, not only in the sense of plot, but also in theme. The transition point comes to signify a terrible truth that the protagonist(s) would rather not acknowledge, and facing up to that truth cancels the fantasy. In Bierce’s original story, there is no character development: the twist stands alone as plot. But theme came to follow story, and the idea that reality would slowly invade fantasy to reveal death became the standard for the trope.

I could speculate that the prevalence of this trope represents some sort of theme of self-flagellation and masochism in American culture: the desire to delude one’s self and ignore unpleasantness, but an unwillingness to own up to one’s lies leading to increasing cognitive dissonance and eventual punishment. But one could also say that this is just as equally a self-congratulatory reification of the individualistic streak of American culture, in which the morality tale of the trope reassures us that we can never delude ourselves forever, and our minds will eventually know truth. Of the American examples above, Dick’s is the only one in which the morality tale of good and bad capitalists ultimately takes a back seat to metaphysical uncertainty. In the others, we all get our absolute knowledge and our moral certitude, as does the character. Our necks eventually snap. Next to the long history of the United States’s ideal of an individualistic, egalitarian culture and its continued refusal en masse to acknowledge the mostly continual failure of that ideal, the certainty of the ultimate “reveal” is a comfortable myth.

To be continued: next time, the eschatological and religious implications of the Owl Creek Bridge trope.

Inquest on Left-Brained Literature

Excuse me while I get all Franco Moretti on you readers here. I work among engineers, and many of them are voracious readers who, nonetheless, have little connection to any prevailing literary trends. Rather, there appears to be a parallel track of literature that is popular specifically among engineers, which I’ll call “left-brained literature” for lack of a better term. The provisional definition of the term is simply those books that fall into the category of my having empirically observed them being read by a multitude of engineers with a literary bent. My conclusions are tentative, but I think that it’s valuable just to construct this sort of list.

I’m excluding all genre science-fiction from the category, because I don’t find it particularly revelatory. I’m interested in that subset of “mainstream,” “non-genre” fiction (these relative terms having been established by social consensus), and within that set, which novels of some notoriety and good PR happen to attract members of the engineering professions.

(Another scholar who also works amongst engineers produced near-duplication of this list when queried. Some affinities were further verified by use of the “similar items” feature on Amazon. Give me a research grant and I’ll confirm further and conduct a less ad hoc census.)

After each name I’ve given a list of a couple general elements of the author’s work, which I think might be useful in considering their inclusion.

Richard Powers. Uses “science” (and scientists) with a minimum of “science-fiction.” Yet of course this does not explain his comparative left-brained success. By far the most popular of his works amongst engineers: The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2. Emotionally pathos-laden works. Clear stylistic and thematic affinities with Douglas Hofstadter (see below). A key figure in that he appears to be more popular with engineers than with almost anyone else.

Umberto Eco. Only popular for his fiction, and mostly for his first two novels. Use of generic material (mystery and suspense) towards metafictional and postmodern ends. Rather dispassionate.

Milorad Pavic. Portrays history, myth, and religion as game. Most popular for Dictionary of the Khazars, but this is also his most famous work, a self-described “lexicon novel.” Emotionally sterile, but historically panoramic. Experimental means but clear empiricist ethos.

Georges Perec. Life: A User’s Manual is the ur-text for many spatially architected novels to follow. Mathematical (and other Oulipo-esque approaches) methodologies deployed in fields of the humanities. Hesitant about traditional psychology, abandoning it after the early work A Man Asleep. Controlled emotion, especially notable in W: The Memory of Childhood.

Haruki Murakami. Genre-elements of science-fiction and mystery used in psychological phantasmagorias. Imaginative but construction is often less than rigorous. Linear plots with plenty of momentum. Heartfelt and sincere, if sometimes clumsy. Literal writing sytle.

Colson Whitehead. Quite popular just on the basis of his first novel, The Intuitionist. Not yet categorizable, but shows a tendency to sublimate emotion in allegorical assemblages. Pristine, detached style belies strong messages.

David Mitchell. Heavily influenced by Murakami and has lived in Japan. Also heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction. Prefers simple, visceral, classical themes approached in flashy, novel way. Heavy use of pathos.

Don DeLillo. Highly acclaimed by literary establishment, but not as popular amongst engineers as some of those above. Heavy allegorization, usually irony-laden. Socio-political commentary, often delivered through the voices of characters who tend to sound the same. Virtuosic stylist, but the prose can drag.

Italo Calvino. Favored mostly by engineers for post-1965 experimental work reminiscent of Borges such as Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Heavy mythological content; light math/science content. Some “new novel” influence via Robbe-Grillet. Wonderful, breezy stylist.

Douglas Hofstadter. Non-fiction writer, but importance of Godel, Escher, Bach, which partly uses fictional forms, is too great not to list. Brilliant computer scientist and popularizer, but suffers from a glib, punny style and a lack of verbal taste (see his translation of Eugene Onegin) that render his works unreadable to many. His ideas, drawn from logic, music, mathematics, and elsewhere, suffuse the works of many other American authors on this list.

Nicholson Baker. Obsessively detail-oriented. Near-autistic categorizing and cataloguing of quotidian material, especially in his early work. Baroque style, flattened emotions.

Neal Stephenson. Crossed-over from science-fiction into information-laden historical epics of chiefly science history. Most beloved for Snow Crash, but Cryptonomicon is also important. Appropriately-titled Baroque Cycle remains unread even by most engineer fans of his. Competent stylist, light on character and emotion.

William Gibson. Another cross-over. “Cyberpunk” tendencies disguise lack of rigorous science content. Aggressive use of technology, but fundamentally rhapsodic and character-driven. Innovative, influential stylist, but often narratively lax.

Bruce Sterling. A third cross-over who may not yet have crossed over. Parallel career to Gibson, but weak style, emotional shallowness, and lack of character development may have hindered mainstream acceptance. Compensates with greater science and technology content.

Jorge Luis Borges. Literary genius who wrote conceptual, highly-compressed short stories. Not as widely-read as some of the others on this list, but has influenced so many of them that he must be included. Lack of emotion, character, and plot; stories are often driven by a single, revelatory idea.

There were a few other candidates that I excluded from the list either for lack of confirmation data (Cortazar, Pynchon, Auster) or due to the work falling into the realm of “trash,” to use the term descriptively (Danielewski, Coupland). I’d be willing to reconsider. And as much as I racked my brains, I could not come up with a single woman writer that fit.

One obvious conclusion is that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material, but that does not explain many of the names on this list, notably those that use science in a “soft” form, such as Calvino and Gibson. Certain common traits do seem to recur, such as verbal literalism and a lack of irony, but even these are contradicted by some members of the list above.

I have no definite conclusions to draw at the moment, but I do believe that this is more than just an exercise. Within this overlap, I believe one can observe two different forms of reading, one more particular to engineers and one more general. While they may not be discrete, I think they separate cleanly enough to merit deep investigation.

[How do you all like the new list-making Waggish? It’s only a temporary phase, probably brought on by reading Finnegans Wake, which contains many, many lists itself, particularly the list of names of ALP’s letter (i.e., the book itself) and the list of titles for
HCE. These tendencies will be further explored in a forthcoming post
on listmakers and architects.]

Update: more suggestions and hypotheses from readers in the comments.

The Books on the (Finnegans) Wake

I was asked today about contemporary reaction to Finnegans Wake when it was published, and I had to say that I didn’t think that there was much of one. Borges dismissed it as incomprehensible while asking for a guidebook for it, much as Stuart Gilbert had published one for Ulysses. Others genuflected and tried to forget about it as soon as they could. In the absence of any sort of key with which to decode the novel, most understandably could not be bothered. Edmund Wilson supposedly put the most effort in, though I have not read his review. Anyone have a copy?

It’s a sign of Joyce’s naivete, I suppose, that he didn’t foresee this. He was disappointed by the reception, but I can’t imagine what else he could have expected upon publishing a book that would take decades of effort by hundreds of people to begin to decode. Some have speculated that Joyce intended to make much supporting explanatory material available, as he did with Ulysses when he passed out chapter schemae to Gilbert et al., but that Joyce died before he could do so, two years after publication. I wonder, especially since a lot of Joyce’s explanations tended to be after the fact, as though he were interpreting, non-definitively and not without humor, his own work.

The essays by many famous and less famous names included in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Work in Progress being the then-title of the Wake) are more interesting as a sort of Rorschach test for the authors involved than for the light they shed on the book. With the possible exception of Beckett, who probably knew a lot more about the book than the others, the efforts by William Carlos Williams, Eugene Jolas, and others attempt to describe Finnegans Wake based on selected fragments, and it’s as though they were looking at a one-inch square of Guernica.

Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson were the first to have a real go at it in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, which features a great close reading of the opening sections, followed by a dubious but good-hearted attempt to extrapolate the rest of the book. I didn’t get much out of it, but Robinson and Campbell set the style for the two main types of criticism to follow, attempted summarization and word-by-word glossing. To quote David Pears: “Some fly, while others struggle to crawl.”

For a variety of reasons, I stayed within the Joycean tradition of criticism while reading the Wake, avoiding all theory-based and non-specialist approaches. Joyce scholars can be a somewhat hermetic and monomaniacal lot: many of the people below study Joyce exclusively and exhaustively. I can think of no better example than that of Adaline Glasheen, a New England teacher who put together The Census of Finnegans Wake, which attempts to list every personage named or alluded to in the Wake, alphabetically. She remarked:

I hold to my old opinion. Finnegans Wake is a model of a mysterious universe made mysterious by Joyce for the purpose of striking with polished irony at the hot vanity of divine and human wishes…Joyce himself told Arthur Power: what is clear and concise can’t deal with reality, for to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.

The unpretentious Glasheen liberally peppers the text with remarks such as, “I don’t know who this is.” From her husband’s biographical note:

Adaline was born in Evansville, Indiana, attended the public schools there. Adaline and her mother borrowed armloads of books weekly from the public library. They were both able to recall every detail of their reading. Good books, trash they read ’em all. This proved to be a great help in her Joyce work. After a year of two at the University of Indiana, she transferred to the University of Mississippi. Adaline was hired to coach football players in English lest they flunk out and thus do harm to the football team. She continued the reading habits of her childhood. Later she felt that Joyce, too, was a great reader of trash; hence her ability to spot references and allusions in Joyce. She received her B.A. at Ole Miss. She took her M.A. at George Washington University. While I was in the army she taught at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Upon the birth of our daughter in 1946, Adaline was eager for a task which she could do in the few minutes between the incessant trivia of rearing a child. The ‘Joyce game’ enabled her to survive.

The advantage of the approach of such people that they tend to be rather open to heterodoxy and iconoclasm; the disadvantage can be a certain literalism and lack of generalization. Here then are the books that I found and my reactions to them. The James Joyce Scholars’ Collection is a great resource, as it contains some of the key works of Wake criticism in this tradition.

The Books at the Wake, William Atherton. Ultimately, I think this may be the best place to start. The Wake is inarguably loaded with tons of references to certain writers in particular: not just Vico, but Swift, Lewis Carroll, Blake, etc. Atherton goes author by author, which conveniently gives an overview of the continuities of the book (one of the more difficult things to grasp on encountering it) while not being beholden to one particular interpretation of it.

The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. McHugh is one of the most intense Wake scholars, and in The Finnegans Wake Experience he describes moving to Ireland to better understand the book. This slim volume describes, with much reference to Joyce’s notebooks, how the many personages of the book combine into sigla, a dozen or so symbols around which Joyce constructed the book. (For example, HCE in all his various forms is a wicket-shaped “M”, and ALP in hers is a triangle.) Joyce’s sigla changed as he wrote the book, and there’s room for interpretation, but McHugh, like no other analyst, gives the impression of truly grasping the whole damn thing, even as it streams between his fingers. Only my inexpert opinion, but McHugh seemed to be most in tune with Finnegans Wake.

Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. Absolutely indispensible for writing a paper, but insanely frustrating to a newcomer. For those who haven’t seen it, this is an extensive gloss that maps page-by-page on to the original text with concise, sometimes cryptic notes. (You really have to see it to get the effect.) On first glance the Annotations are just as obscure as the Wake itself, but once I started catching recurrences of certain allusions, it becomes how impressively they match up with particular subjects and characters in the Wake. (For example, apparent Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll references occur absurdly often in any section associated with the daughter Issy.)

Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Clive Hart. As the title suggests, Hart’s book contrasts with McHugh’s in tracing linguistic, spatial, temporal, and referential structure through the book rather than focusing on character or narrative. As such, Hart attempts to describe the macro-structure of the Wake with a minimum of interpretation–which invariably turns out to be quite a lot. Hart is in a lot of contentious territory, but his knowledge is solid and his pace careful. I think of Hart’s book as consciously open-ended: even where I find his interpretations uncertain, they are always provocative and spur even more future questions.

More books on the Wake next time…

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