Plan for a scientiﬁc dictionary, to be called Summa Scientiæ; or,Summary of Human Knowledge. To be contained in one volume of 1500 pages of 1000 words per page. The articles, though elementary, to be masterly summaries valuable even to specialists. C. S. Peirce to be editor and to write about a third of the whole. The other writers to be young men, specialists who have not yet achieved great reputations, but found out and selected by the editor as having exceptional mental power and special competence. These men to conform to certain rules as to matter, arrangement, and style;and required to rewrite until they became trained in the kind of composition required.
Economy of space to be effected by every device that ingenuity and many years’ reﬂection upon this problem can suggest. Facts to be tabulated as far as possible. The style of writing to be extremely compact, yet scrupulously elegant. The ideas dominant in each branch of science to be emphatically indicated, and its leading principles distinctly stated.Every page, even the tables, to be interesting in matter, stimulating and agreeable in manner. The leading works to be always named.
The arrangement to be alphabetical. The length of the articles such as best subserves economy of space. This generally forbids very short articles; yet articles of more than one page should be rare.
The copy to be completed in two years. As every word would have to be weighed and every statement veriﬁed, it would cost $10 to $15 a thousand words. The editor to receive, besides, $3000 a year. The contents to be somewhat as follows:
1. History of mathematics 25 pages
2. Pure mathematics. A complete synopsis, 100 "
mostly without proofs.
3. Tables 25 "
4. Rigid dynamics 25 "
5. Hydrodynamics 15 "
6. Thermodynamics 10 "
7. Kinetical theory of bodies 5 "
8. Thermotics, etc. 5 "
9. Optics 5 "
10. Electricity and magnetism 10 "
11. Mathematical psychics 5 "
12. Mathematical economics 5 "
13. Probabilities 10 "
14. Miscellaneous 5 "
Total mathematics 250 pages.
1. History of logic 5 pages
2. Principles of logic 25 "
3. Traditional rules of logic 15 "
4. Terminology of logic 5 "
5. Outlines of the principal ontological and 50 "
cosmological and transcendental systems
Total philosophy 100 pages.
1. Tables of languages 50 pages
2. Miscellaneous linguistics 20 "
3. Rhetoric 10 "
4. History of literature 5 "
5. Weights, measures, chronology 5 "
6. Anthropological tables 40 "
7. Games and sports 10 "
8. War 10 "
9. History of religion in tables 40 "
10. Politics 25 "
11. Ethics 5 "
12. Jurisprudence and criminology 10 "
13. History of law 5 "
14. Our law and customs 50 "
15. Domestic economy 25 pages
16. Education 25 "
17. Miscellaneous 15 "
G. Individual facts.
1. Astronomy and its history 20 pages
2. Geology 10 "
3. Geography 80 "
4. Statistics 10 "
5. General history 80 "
6. Biography 90 "
7. Miscellaneous 10 "
Total individual facts 300 pages.
Grand total 1500 pages.
This distribution of the contents is subject to changes of detail; but its general character will remain.
The aim is to make the volume the most useful one ever published to persons of modern liberal education.
I recently ran across an old essay by Lisp expert, venture capitalist, and general software guru Paul Graham. Graham is a very sharp person and his Lisp books are excellent, but he writes almost exclusively from a prism of an engineering-centric, Manicheistic worldview.
A good scientist, in other words, does not merely ignore conventional wisdom, but makes a special effort to break it. Scientists go looking for trouble. This should be the m.o. of any scholar, but scientists seem much more willing to look under rocks. 
Why? It could be that the scientists are simply smarter; most physicists could, if necessary, make it through a PhD program in French literature, but few professors of French literature could make it through a PhD program in physics. Or it could be because it’s clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, and this makes scientists bolder. (Or it could be that, because it’s clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, you have to be smart to get jobs as a scientist, rather than just a good politician.)
 I don’t mean to suggest that scientists’ opinions are inevitably right, just that their willingness to consider unconventional ideas gives them a head start. In other respects they are sometimes at a disadvantage. Like other scholars, many scientists have never directly earned a living– never, that is, been paid in return for services rendered. Most scholars live in an anomalous microworld in which money is something doled out by committees instead of a representation for work, and it seems natural to them that national economies should be run along the same lines. As a result, many otherwise intelligent people were socialists in the middle of the twentieth century.
Some would call him a representative of “scientism,” which is the pejorative term for scientific positivism. Because I’m equally suspicious of reductionistic worldviews as well as quasi-spiritual appeals to the metaphysically irreducible, I’m not going to attack him for presenting the former and make it look like I’m appealing to the latter. I want to talk about him because I’ve been thinking about the future as the new year has come and I have been looking at depressing statistics about employment and poverty like these.
So I’ve been thinking about the future, and Graham seems to be a pure representative of one side of the two dominant power bases that appear to be duking it out for control of the US right now. The battle is between technocrats and ideologues, Whigs and Tories, libertarians and moralists. To avoid using any loaded terms, I’m just going to create two generic types of my own:
Type L: libertarian, technocratic, meritocratic, pro-business, anti-government, laissez faire, pro-science, positivist, secular, elitist, progress-driven, Whiggish, optimistic. “The best should have the power.”
Type C: tradition-oriented, pro-status quo, nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, xenophobic, social conservative, pro-business, pro-government (at least in regards to furthering other goals), pro-religion, cronyistic, chauvinistic. “The powerful should have the power.”
These are not types of voters, but types of people of influence, people who in some way affect the policies that are being made. It’s my own heuristic. I thought about government policies of the last 30 years, from Reagan’s tax cuts to welfare reform to the health care bill, and then excluded all those people whose viewpoints didn’t seem to be reflected in them. This is what I was left with.
(Type C clearly holds assorted beliefs reflected in my less-funny-by-the-day Taxonomy of Conservatives, while Type L has beliefs called out in the taxonomy as not actually being conservative at all.)
If, like most people reading this, you don’t fit into either of these types, congratulations! Your opinion is probably not relevant to the dominant discourse in America. You’ll notice that what is not covered in these two types is any sort of socialist attitude advocating government intervention to encourage equality and welfare. This attitude appears to have vanished amongst the influential forces in American life, possibly owing to the decline of labor unions. When you realize that Paul Krugman is several degrees to the right of John Maynard Keynes, you see exactly how little purchase any sort of genuinely socialist attitude has in the country.
These two types are darker analogues of the “conservative” and “liberal” classes described by Leszek Kolakowski in his short essay “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” Here are the ideas that fall under his “socialist” type:
A Socialist Believes:
1. That societies in which the pursuit of profit is the sole regulator of the productive system are threatened with as grievous–perhaps more grievous–catastrophes as are societies in which the profit motive has been entirely eliminated from the production-regulating forces. There are good reasons why freedom of economic activity should be limited for the sake of security, and why money should not automatically produce more money. But the limitation of freedom should be called precisely that, and should not be called a higher form of freedom.
2. That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. The kind of conservative anthropological pessimism which led to the astonishing belief that a progressive income tax was an inhuman abomination is just as suspect as the kind of historical optimism on which the Gulag Archipelago was based.
3. That the tendency to subject the economy to important social controls should be encouraged, even though the price to be paid is an increase in bureaucracy. Such controls, however, must be exercised within representative democracy. Thus it is essential to plan institutions that counteract the menace to freedom which is produced by the growth of these very controls.
I really don’t see much evidence of any of these attitudes in any of our ruling elites. Do you? I don’t think of myself as a socialist and I don’t endorse these views over those of Kolakowski’s other two classes, but the absence of fierce advocates for these views amongst the powerful is a really bad thing.
Democrats and Republicans as well as those calling themselves “conservative” and “liberals” each consist of various proportions of these two sides, but the mix is such a mess that I suspect there will be some serious realignment in the next ten or fifteen years. However, since the disconnect between what people say they believe and what policies they actually endorse only seems to be growing, I don’t dare predict what shape this realignment will take. It is very hard to predict how those depressing statistics will affect voting patterns. (Please see Larry Bartels’ “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?“ to understand how wrong the conventional wisdom about voter bases can be. Stick with the raw statistics.)
So obviously Paul Graham is Type L and Glenn Beck is Type C. Why divide people in the middle by these two categories? Because this is where the social fissures seem to lie. The sharp engineering Type L’s like Graham want to be left alone so that their genius can rain prosperity down on society. Though they may believe in a social safety net, they are hostile to any sort of traditional authority structure not based in purportedly objective measures of merit. They don’t want to deal with people who haven’t earned their place beside them, and they definitely don’t want to work for them. The Type C’s have no such standard. They like people who are like themselves, and would much rather work with someone who shares their hobbies than with someone smarter than them. Type L will advocate for equality of opportunity and scholarships for smart kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Type C most certainly do not want the best and the brightest of the unwashed masses rising up. They’re still unwashed, after all.
Graham is representative of many science and engineering types, the sorts that the US so desperately cultivated during the Cold War to keep pace with Soviet technology. Now they are cultivated by tech companies. Their strong libertarian streak comes from their (frequently mistaken) belief that talent and skill will deservedly win out and help improve the world, and so the more talented are entitled to more wealth and the fruit of their labors. They are not necessarily Ayn Rand sorts, but they are generally enamored of the view that competition encourages progress and efficiency. (I agree, to a point.)
It is a major mistake to think that the CEOs and bankers of today are Type L. While many of them lack the overt social conservatism and xenophobic stances of many Type C’s, they have no love for what Joseph Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” of capitalism. They have endorsed free trade and laissez faire policies because they have been good for their own interests, but they will beg for government handouts in a second and see no problem with colluding with the government to crush their competition and enemies. Lemon socialism, crony capitalism, socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor; whatever it’s called, Type C loves it. Type L will sometimes, when push comes to shove, concede defeat and accede to a rebalancing of the playing field in the hopes of a better tomorrow. Type C wants the playing field tilted forever in their favor.
This is, more or less, the major reason why Microsoft was sued by the government while banks, energy companies, and so many others were left untouched. Microsoft didn’t think it needed to pal around with the old boy network. They were wrong. Tech companies have learned their lesson and now employ lobbyists as aggressively as those other companies, but their tendency toward Type L put them behind the Type C executives of most corporations when it came to politicking. You can get some idea of whether a company tends toward Type C or Type L by seeing to what extent minorities and women have infiltrated their executive ranks: Type C will keep them out without even realizing they’re doing it. Another good post facto signal for identifying Type L: they sometimes admit they were wrong. Type C will go to the grave believing in their divine right to be at the top of the ladder. While JFK’s “best and the brightest” might have had some loose claim to the title, Enron’s “smartest guys in the room” were so flagrantly not that it dirties the term “intelligence” to claim it for them.
Put in such stark terms, it’s easy for me to pick a side, but it doesn’t make me any happier with the choices.
One of the major annoyances with Type L is how shallow the use of reason often runs, leading to thinks like Graham’s conclusions above. This is not even a problem of scientific positivism per se, but just cursory laziness in its application. Yes, at the top of the heap there are good, searching thinkers like Joseph Schumpeter and a number of other economists, but the majority of the Type L people in the ruling class get their rigorous intellectual precision from Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt, Kenneth Pollack, and other proof-by-anecdote writers. They often commit the fallacy of thinking that others have as rigorous standards as they do, when (a) not only are their own standards not rigorous enough, but (b) others have even sloppier standards.
Paul Graham almost certainly has more raw brainpower than I do, but the mental heuristics used to assess evidence and theories in the hard sciences are usually catastrophic when applied to the social sciences. His statement is doubly ironic because he admits that theories in the sciences are more easily assessable even as he is declaiming The Way People Are with the same certainty with which Newton laid down his physical laws.
Type L are prone to believing in simple social laws for the same reason why scientists have so often been duped by psychics: they aren’t used to being tricked. Psychologists and economists aren’t deliberately trying to trick people, but their theories are built on sand compared to those of math and science, and so what they call a “conclusion” or “evidence” is usually an insult to the history of science. This is why things like Social Darwinism, The Bell Curve, and assorted other “scientific” justifications for inequality persistently make their way into supposedly rational people’s conventional wisdom. (The price of rationality is eternal vigilance. And eternal skepticism.)
For a perfect example of this sort of slippage from quantitative to qualitative, check out the collected works of Richard Posner. True to Type L, he has recently changed his views while still maintaining faith in efficient rational markets. Admitting a failure in the current implementation of free market capitalism is within his intellectual horizon; admitting irrationality into his view of the world is not.
So those are the two sorts of rulers I see. They got along reasonably well for a while, but the continuing economic problems are going to make it harder for them to paper over their differences as frequently. Let’s hope they look out for us all. Happy new year to you all and thanks for reading.
PS: As for the people who aren’t part of the above two power structures and receive their beliefs and dictats in a bewildering variety of ideologies and forms only tenuously linked to the real motivations at work…well, I quote Yes, Prime Minister:
Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers:
The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country;
The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country;
The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country;
The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country;
I posted that excerpt from the inflammatory (for sufficiently small values of inflammatory) intro to Steven Moore’s book only as a gag, since people like Steve Donoghue have said much more about it than I wish to. (However! In a rebuke to Moore, his elevation of the Velvet Underground as too-avant-for-Ashbery has just been answered by Moe Tucker’s endorsement of the Tea Party).
But then I happened to reread Milton Babbitt’s The Composer as Specialist. (At publication, it was retitled by the editor to the far more inflammatory and interesting “Who Cares If You Listen?” Supposedly he wasn’t in on it and complains that he is “far more likely to be known as the author of ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ than as the composer of music to which you may or may not care to listen.”)
The war between elitists and populists among the creative classes has gone on for so many centuries that I really don’t think there’s any new argument to be made in the area. Since I’m fairly likely never to command a large audience, I could throw my lot in with the elitists and share in that warm fuzzy smugness that comes with belonging to the aesthetic elite of civilization (and offer it to my readers!)…but no, it’s too silly. But because music offers a purer and less semantically-laden form of art, the elitist arguments there are more raw and less able to fall back on fallacies like “making you a better person.” And Babbitt is upfront and sincere, to his credit.
Babbitt is/was one of those hyper-serialist composers who took Schoenberg’s system to a far greater extreme than Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern ever did. Iannis Xenakis, no traditionalist himself, complained that such music became incomprehensible:
The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum.
And Babbitt said that for most audiences, that indeed was true. Here’s a string quartet:
Well, I like the textures, but it doesn’t quite hold together for me, which tends to be my experience with his music. But music often belies composers’ intentions, so let’s look at the words. There are two criteria by which Babbitt wants to elevate the new, hyper-serialized music.
Criteria 1. Complexity
This music employs a tonal vocabulary which is more “efficient” than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives. This is not necessarily a virtue in itself, but it does make possible a greatly increased number or pitch simultaneities, successions, and relationships. his increase in efficiency necessarily reduces the “redundancy” of the language, and as a result the intelligible communication of the work demands increased accuracy from the transmitter (the performer) and activity from the receiver (the listener). Incidentally, it is this circumstance, among many others, that has created the need for purely electronic media of “performance.” More importantly for us, it makes ever heavier demands upon the training of the listener’s perceptual capacities.
So here, in place of the qualities of allusiveness, elusiveness, nonlinearity, and prolixity of difficult fiction, we have a single analogous criterion: density of information. Babbitt gives a couple other criteria, but they really aren’t so different from this one: those characteristics defining the work are as great in number as possible across the shortest possible time period. (A lossless compression of the music should compress as little as possible!) Stockhausen made a similar complaint when he listened to techno music, always bemoaning the fact that there was any sort of regularity or repetition in the music.
For all the bragging about the density of the information age, I think things are going in the opposite direction. People consume so much that there’s been an incentive to make things consumable as fast as possible. If you look at any of the would-be highbrow serials on television (with the exception of The Wire), they proceed far more slowly plotwise than your average 70s episode of The Rockford Files, which stuck a whole plot arc into a single hour. Ostensibly this is to give a richer background, but the more obvious reason is that there is that much more content to digest in general, and so no point in a greater density of information.
Xenakis’s point was simply that information would be absorbed at a more macroscopic level, which is one way of getting around the problem. Arguably Ferneyhough embraced this as well, though you can make the argument in the other direction to attack Babbitt: how many works with an information density on the order of Webern can a composer make that are going to be masterpieces? Webern only managed a few hours of music total. Babbitt has written far more, and if they’re going to be ranked, information density will not be the criterion for how they’re graded.
Is the density a prerequisite then? In the article, Babbitt simply seems to think that any piece below a certain level of information density just isn’t going to be interesting, and for him, no doubt that is true. But this reduces density to a qualifying factor. Is anything below the threshold just going to be dismissed?
Well no; Stockhausen found some interesting bits in the techno pieces too. But it places the elites in a position where they must discount their own antecedents. This is the problem of so many literary snobs today: they either have to trash Dickens, Cervantes, and Chaucer as being as unworthy of attention as the mass-marketed pablum of today (or else appeal to a dubious “people used to appreciate books more!”), or they have to say that these authors had qualities that were never appreciated by the mass of readers even then. Moore’s polemic hits the wall when he is forced into defending complexity, difficulty, and wordplay for its own sake, as though such qualities had intrinsic merit independent of the content of a work. But appealing to such objective qualities is the safest way to delineate one’s opinions from those of the hoi polloi.
Of course, in music, the complexity really is the content (there are no messy semantics here, for the most part), so Babbitt goes the first route and pretty much proclaims new music to be of a wholly different quality and merit than all previous musics; maybe not universally better, but unmistakably different. And so Beethoven is definitely not dense enough. But at this point, well, he has established a new genre of technical music and no longer has any claim to identify with “music” as it has been known throughout the history of the world, whether gamelan, raga, Gesualdo, or Telemann. And if he does not want to claim the inherited mantle of “music,” then should anyone deny him the right to proclaim worthiness in whatever undefined field of art he occupies?
The thing is, I suspect most composers and writers do want to claim the mantle of their supposed predecessors. They would rather be the next Dostoevsky than the next Robert Grenier.
Criteria 2. Expertise
Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.
Ah, the old art-as-science argument. The Social Text people trotted this one out during the Sokal Hoax in the 90s, saying that of course literary theory wasn’t comprehensible to non-experts, just as quantum physics wasn’t. Babbitt trained as a mathematician and so perhaps has better purchase on these arguments than the critical theorists, but even he hedges slightly:
I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study. I do question whether these differences, by their nature, justify the denial to music’s development of assistance granted these other fields. Immediate “practical” applicability (which may be said to have its musical analogue in “immediate extensibility of a compositional technique”) is certainly not a necessary condition for the support of scientific research.
But nonetheless, if the funding is there, go for it! (And certainly coming from a science background, Babbitt saw how much grant money there was being thrown at math and science at that time.)
And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.
There were a couple superficial reasons why the critical theorists couldn’t use the expertise argument to outflank their detractors. First, there was a shortage of autonomous results: a book of theory, even Of Grammatology, simply does not have the aesthetic standing that a piece of music or even poetrydoes. Patrons of the arts will support philosophy in a pinch (less so these days!), but they do prefer their arts to be lively, even if they are incomprehensible.
Second, there was no theoretical method to which they could appeal, the main direction of critical theory being to dismantle method. Babbitt (and his forebears) have no such issues. They produce music that can be and occasionally is performed, and Babbitt was only one of many who produced extensive theoretical background depicting the exact mechanisms by which works were composed. Even Xenakis produced a book about stochastic music. So ironically, the scientific argument holds together better here than it does in literature.
The problem is the reverse of before. It now makes the expertise a prerequisite for enjoying the music. Or at least, there’s something very puzzling that an appeal to expertise might be needed for something that could be appreciated viscerally and without a background in close listening and musical theory. I suppose I can pick up a physics paper or the Principia and marvel at their visual elegance and the mysterious arrangement of symbols, but that’s a bit difference than enjoying the “moments” of a Stockhausen or Webern piece in a plebeian way, at least to my mind. But such enjoyment is now bastardized, if not wholly illegitimate. And this is not a criterion by which any artist, even an ardent serialist, wishes to live by.
So why use these two criteria of complexity and expertise? Ultimately, I think it’s just a highly developed quantitative argument attempting to marshal seemingly objective measures in the service of judging art, or at least one type of art. I have to admit to giving some grudging respect to Babbitt’s callow words here because he is more objective than every literary or art critic from Longinus onward who thought that ever-so-vague statements of aesthetic guidelines would be sufficient to help everyone decide which art was good from thereon out.
Complexity and listener expertise (comprehension, that is): if these become the metrics by which music is judged, then we really can judge what new piece of music is “interesting” and back it up with evidence. True, the connection of these metrics to enjoyment remain speculative, but hasn’t every aesthetician also insisted that there were more objective measures than a simple statement of like and dislike? At least here we have them. It bothers me far less than the territorial ramblings of aesthetic polemicists struggling to articulate why they are the first to have discovered the actual path to the soul of humanity.
Animalinside, a short work which is published as part of the Cahiersseries on writing and translation, is a formal experiment for Krasznahorkai. Krasznahorkai wrote a text to accompany a drawing by Max Neumann, and Neumann drew over a dozen more in response, and Krasznahorkai wrote a short text for each one. There’s an obvious unity to it all: the pictures all feature the (usually) black silhouette of some sort of feral animal poised to jump, and the texts are all about some sort of beast or beasts, usually written in the first person singular or plural. (Notably, the first text is in the third person and quotes the beast.)
The interaction of images and text is not new for Krasznahorkai, as he collaborated with Bela Tarr on at least four films, including two based on his novels. Those last two films diverge significantly from their source texts, and Tarr has said that modifications were made throughout the filming. So here again, despite appearances, I tried not to make too literal a tie between the images and the texts. The affiliation feels more thematic than literal. The beast’s silhouette is usually black, but occasionally white or gray. These shifts make themselves felt in the beast’s attitudes in the text for each picture. The color as well as the use of space is treated metaphysically. Neumann’s subsequent drawings after the first seem to bring out themes already present in the first text, which Krasznahorkai then elaborates on. Whether they form an actual narrative is ambiguous, but they certainly form a whole.
The beast is angry, but helpless. The beast rants about how he is beyond any constraint that can be put on him by thought or concept. He is unique and beyond comparison: “It is impossible to confuse me with anyone else.” He is within you, caged in one picture, but he is struggling to break free. And so another of Krasznahorkai’s conceptual contradictions emerges: the beast that is at once free beyond everything and yet trapped.
The beast is beyond imagination, beyond containment, beyond conception…but not beyond language. At first, his rantings about chaos and the destruction of anything and everything call to mind The Prince, from The Melancholy of Resistance. But The Prince himself spoke gibberish which was then translated by a Factotum. (In the movie version, however, he speaks Slovak! Thanks to Gwenyth Jones for pointing this out to me.) Our beast here speaks for himself, and in doing so he reveals a weak spot. When the beast faces infinity in the picture accompanying the ninth text, he must rail against it too:
I hate all that is infinite, there burns within me an unspeakable hatred towards the infinite…the infinite is a deception, the infinite is a deception in space, the infinite is a deception in measuring, and every aspiration to the infinite is a trap, but the kind of trap that has to be walked into again and again by him who, just like myself, is searching for the end of a direction, for I have no other aspirations.
Is the beast railing at the infinite itself, the inadequacy of the concept of the infinite, or the representation of the infinite (as in this picture)? I’m not sure. This tension is the same one that occurred in Krasznahorkai’s earlier From the North by Hill, from the South by Lake, from the West by Roads, from the East by River, which contained a book by a mad Frenchman ranting against Cantor’s mathematical conception of infinity. Perhaps the idea is that the conception traps us while simultaneously facing us with its inadequacy, and this is unbearable because, as with the ideas of mortality and immortality, neither side is a conceivable solution.
Because the text is more rarefied and abstract than Kraznahorkai’s other work, it seems to resemble Beckett at times. But Beckett never portrayed such a vicious antagonism. His personae always collapse into themselves. Even their assertions of antagonism are hopeful but futile gestures against solipsistic nightmares. That is not the case in Krasznahorkai. I do not think it ever is. His characters and voices are always struggling within a larger cosmos of forces and others.
Anyone who has been reading me knows that I think Krasznahorkai is one of the greatest living writers, and as I’ve read more, his work hooks together in an increasingly revealing way. I know that a translation of Satantango is due out next year, and hope that more is on the way.
Update: Daniel Medin points me to an article by the translator of Animalinside, Ottilie Mulzet. She analyzes the work in the context of the apocalyptic imagery of the Bible, an approach similar to that which I saw in The Melancholy of Resistance. The key line in the essay for me is “The form that this End would take remains unvoiced, perhaps even too ghastly for articulation. [emphasis mine]” Also notable is this instruction that Krasznahorkai gave Mulzet:
…there are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS…
Perhaps not so secret, but I was raised on the stuff and so I’ve read far more of it than I might have had I been born into a different environment. This list of Gollancz “classics” is going around, and modulo its omissions and overinclusions due to rights issues and the like, it’s got a fair amount of good stuff on it. And some less good stuff. (It overlaps a great deal with David Pringle’s list, and gives similar overweighting to British writers…which is probably not a bad thing.) But if I’m a fan of any genre (that’s not literary modernism, that is), it would have to be sf. So I figure I should engage in an exercise like this from time to time.
I bold it if I’ve read it. I italicize it if I liked it and still like it today. I could go more deeply into degrees of liking vs. respecting vs. enjoying, but I’ll leave it at this.
I – Dune – Frank Herbert II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman 2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson 3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish 4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick 5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester 6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany 7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny 8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe 9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl 10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith
11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon 12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart 13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick 14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester 15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner 16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin 17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard 18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut 19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance 20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick 21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon 22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock 23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg 24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells 25 – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes 26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick 27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford 28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon 29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl 30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish
31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison 32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick 33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss 34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke 35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts 36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick 37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany 38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells 39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke 40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear
41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl 42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore 43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick 44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin 45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek 46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick 47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells 48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper 49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke 50 – Eon – Greg Bear
51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson 52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick 53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock 54 – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth 55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick 56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg 57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick 58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick 59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg 60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven
61 – The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman 62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement 63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick 64 – Tau Zero – Poul Anderson 65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke 66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard 67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm 68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr. 70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis
71 – Dune – Frank Herbert 72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein 73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick 74 – Inverted World – Christopher Priest 75 – Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle 76 – H.G. Wells – The Island of Dr. Moreau 77 – Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End 78 – H.G. Wells – The Time Machine 79 – Samuel R. Delany – Dhalgren (July 2010) 80 – Brian Aldiss – Helliconia (August 2010)
81 – H.G. Wells – Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010) 82 – Jack Finney – The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010) 83 – Joanna Russ – The Female Man (Nov. 2010) 84 – M.J. Engh – Arslan (Dec. 2010)
I’m only torn over Hal Clement, who is brilliant at what he does, but what he does well is not “fiction” per se. Ballard and Gene Wolfe (yes, really!) deserve more entries, probably in lieu of the excess of Dick.
A few more genre authors who really should be on the list: Thomas Disch, Richard McKenna, R.A. Lafferty, Russell Hoban (for Riddley Walker, of course), Stanislaw Lem, Mark Geston, Michael Swanwick, James Tiptree, Carol Emshwiller, Iain Banks, John Crowley, Octavia Butler, Robert Charles Wilson (Spin was the best genre-SF novel I’d read in ages). There are other big names missing, but, offhand, no one comes to mind that I would want to read again.