Archive for the ‘mirrors’ Category
Today I was worrying that my fur hat was getting wet in the rain when it occurred to me that it had previously been a fox that probably got wet all the time. Given a choice between the states of “wet” and “hat,” I realized, it probably would have chosen “wet.”
Tonight at dinner we were telling jokes and it came to me that lately I’ve been encountering the sort of faulty logic that follows the same lines as “this fur will be spoilt in the rain since it’s now a hat” and think that my favorite part about it is that second between the thought and the squint that your face makes when you notice that all the pieces aren’t tied together in order or at all. The following are some sequences of things and combinations of words that play on our reflexes to link things that rhyme, on our tendency to isolate one part of a sentence to focus on, and other places in language where logics of mirror image, of reversal, of progression, and of deduction fail.
1) Solve the following:
My friend’s mother told her that for graduation she could have a trip to Laos, where she would be able to harvest red ant eggs to eat and milk her own silk worms. So what is harvested when a silk worm is milked? What do cows drink?
2) Rank for creepiness:
us drinking cow’s milk :: cow drinking breast milk? breast milk ice cream? cow eating beef? cow eating spam? us eating spam? taking a buttermilk bath? canines :: molars?
3) Jokes and possible answers and followup jokes:
what’s black and white and re(a)d all over? a zebra reading a newspaper. what colors is a frog reading a newspaper? black and white and green? how do you confuse a frog? put him in a round bowl and tell him to take a nap in the corner. how do you confuse a frog? tell him to do anything. how do you confuse anything? put it in a bowl.
4) A joke from Sofia Annis
Two penguins are standing on an ice flo looking at each other from some number of yards apart. One says to the other: “You look so much like you’re wearing a tuxedo.” The other replies, “Who’s to say….that I’m not”
Love – Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale
If you know anything about me you won’t be surprised to learn that one of my favorite books of all time is The Phantom Tollbooth. I love puns and wordplay, dogs, odd modes of transportation concealed within large boxes in one’s living room, doing things you might get in trouble for during the period after school before your parents get home, etc. One scene that has always stood out in my memory is the one in the word market where Milo and Tock paw through piles of words, long and short, rare and common, blustery and modest. Because the words are represented as actual objects with weight and value, the scene highlighted for me the sensuality of language: the heavy and light words, the ones that sparkle with the regality of rare usage, the tireless blue-collar “ifs”, “ands”, and “buts” (laboring long hours and worked overtime behind semicolons, bearing the weight of a too-heavy second clause and probably not even paid time-and-a-half)…. This feeling that words have real body to them has never left me and today I notice it in the way that I am almost physically moved by the dually clean and sumptuous effect of a word that exposes the true meaning of a thing; a word that mercilessly and motheringly cuts to the center of an idea or a feeling and envelops its fluttering heart in swaths of muscular accuracy.
My father described this as the “inevitable ache of precision.” I notice an ambiguity in this statement: is the ache the result of the search for accuracy and the painful desire for truth, or of the feeling one gets when one has shed a light on something that for a long time lay peacefully in darkness; the sense of guilt in destroying something beautiful? It seems to me that at the heart of this ambiguity lies something deeply curious and elegant about mankind: the contradiction of our constant search for the perfect and our abhorrence of the final – one and the same, even linguistically speaking.
In the book I am reading right now, Arthur O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, I just ran across a section in the chapter “Genesis of the Idea” about two historical modes of human thinking. The first of these stresses the impossibility of finding anything true or real in man’s natural life and thus fits into a category Lovejoy titles “otherworldiness”. The other of these modes, which he calls “this-worldliness”, stems from a declaration of the value of worldly life (of the “sufficient worth of the general conditions of existence”) inherent to an “antipathy to satisfaction and finality” common to the Romantic period and identifying “the chief value of existence with process and struggle in time.” Our aversion to conclusion, to the departure of things we love and cling to, is as deeply seated as our longing for truth and perfection, as our search for something purer and distant from ourselves. I think this paradox is stunning because of the way that it reveals the pulling of our souls in two different directions. Nothing is more touching than the way in which humans have tried to at once nest in this world we inhabit, to find beauty in it, to love it for its pains and its losses and its moments of fulfillment, while at the same time feeling our eyes constantly pulled to a distant horizon; to something our hearts press hard against our cage of ribs to be closer to but at the same time fear because of the oneness of perfection and death. In literature we witness authors looking out along this course and following it as far as they dare: in Moby Dick, Ahab pursues his goal of punishing the White Whale, of bringing justice and thus drawing a complete and perfect circle, ending necessarily in death, but Melville spares us from the weight of excruciating perfection by allowing the whale to escape, thus leaving the scales unbalanced and us with a sense of the “sufficient worth of the general conditions of existence” that we are subject to as a race. In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Ramsay children’s unsatisfied desire to go to the lighthouse represents the mercy of the imperfect: of a life not yet complete, of a hopeful dissatisfaction and the gift of a time-bound vigorousness present only in mortal souls and bodies. Their longing for something out of their reach attests to the Romantic sensibility of “the chief value of existence with process and struggle in time” and in this way the lighthouse acts not as the sacred and unattainable goal but instead as the mercy that gives worth to human experience.
In seeking to do anything perfectly, or more accurately, or more deeply – in trying to find “some final, fixed, immutable, intrinsic, perfectly satisfying good” – we are inflicting upon ourselves a pain that as members of mankind is unavoidable: the pain of seeking to close the divide between the human and the divine, between the imperfect and the perfect, in a way that would in itself destroy the essential value at the heart of our humanity: process and struggle in that most mortal of things, time.
As the bee danced, it gave off the faintest scent of marzipan that mingled with the pinky-orange perfume of the hibiscus.
“Sweet…sweet,” whispered the hibiscus.
She drew her petals tightly round her, and drooped towards the sinking moon.
“Fly away now, for the honey,” she said to the bee. “Fly, so I can see you flying against the last of the yellow moon.”
“I wish I could have been a gentleman for you,” said the bee, and it flew off, towards the golden passing windows of the District Line, and the last of the yellow moon.
When I was a child my mother read to me almost constantly, and later she told me that her method was to lay my books out flat alongside each other in rows, covers beckoning with their rich oilpaint illustrations and embossed lettering, so that I could choose with more to entice me than the thin stripes of small-fonted vertical spines on a shelf. Many of these books make up the strongest memories of my childhood, and I’m interested in considering in what ways the rhythm of the language, the sometimes almost hypnotizingly measured development of the story, the aesthetics, and the fantasy of children’s books have influenced me in my thinking, my writing, and my appreciation of the world as an older person.
As a tot I loved the Frog and Toad books for no other reason than that Frog and Toad were, as it seemed to me, somewhat isolated best friends in a foresty world that I liked the looks of. Of these books I would say that their primary influence on me stems, interestingly, from the graphics: the greys and greens and browns of the watercolor illustrations seemed so cozy to me and reminded me of what my parents referred to as “lake light”, or the way that on overcast days the light sometimes looks green as though one were looking up at the sky from beneath the surface of a lake. The colors of the books pleased me and atmospheric, cloudy weather – my favorite sort to this day – still evokes the happiness I felt in reading them.
A favorite was always Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I had on video cassette narrated by Jack Nicholson and which gave me the bizarre ability to imitate Nicholson’s nasal, ever-so-slightly-menacing voice perfectly as a six-year-old (watch all three parts of The Elephant’s Child here, here and here) and a knack for peppering my everyday conversations with vaguely out-of-place phrases (“the bi-colored python rocksnake”, “insatiable curiosity”, “the banks of the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo River”, and so on). I think these stories left an indelible mark on my way of speaking, for better or worse: they are swept along by a whimsical, pulsing rhythm, strings of adjectives that become comical in their accumulation, a pleasing cadence of repeated words and phrases, and overall a style that, even as commits itself earnestly to vividly illuminating a story, laughs at itself and in so doing mirrors the playful relationship of fantasy and reality that lies at the heart of a series of fanciful explanations for real life that is Just So Stories. They allow a child to imagine a more fantastical world behind the facts they are taught in school, and train him in the suspension of disbelief that can make life so much more interesting and funny for its duality and juxtapositions.
One of the stories that I remember perhaps most vividly is The Marzipan Pig. I think I can mark in this story the first time I felt alerted to the poignancy of solitude – I might venture to say that my own desire for solitude woke up when I heard this story over the years of my childhood, like a new baby turning its head sharply when it hears its father’s voice for the first time and recognizes it as the enunciation of murmurs it heard from within its warm darkness months before. The pig in the story, a festive candy gift to a child, somehow falls behind the couch and lies there alone for what feels like an eternity, awake in the darkness, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock and wishing someone would find it. As time passes it imagines the family’s frantic concern that it has gone missing; that upon its rescue there will be great rejoicing and celebration, but is alarmed when it realizes its toe, and then its haunch and sugary pink belly, are being nibbled at by a hungry mouse. Soon it is eaten up and the mouse emerges from behind the couch to nap in the grandfather clock. As the story goes on, taking place in one night and part of the next day, the sweetness of the Marzipan Pig passes from one body to the next in a somehow charming cycle of life and death – from the mouse to an owl to a bee to a nightblooming hibiscus and on. The nocturnal atmosphere of the story fascinated me, as did the vignette-like quality of the different creatures’ experiences and the fleeting intimacy of their interactions and unfulfilled longings (the grandfather clock who has fallen in love with the mouse who naps inside it, the owl whose bellyful of marzipan and mouse causes his heart to beat fast for the meter light of a taxicab and dance for joy, the bee and the hibiscus who court each other in the darkness, mourning the inevitable death of the hibiscus that will come with the sunlight and end their romance). The language of the story is elegant and slow, with the repetitions and lilting phrasing that lull a child into listening peacefully and hearing, between the words themselves, the life of the narrative behind them. The quiet intimacies and thoughtful privacy of the characters stuck with me because on some level I suppose I realized how much they echoed the experiences of an only child, who looks for connections all around him and, more accustomed to silence than other children, hears more deeply and in this way stumbles often upon the deeper and darker nature of his world. The Marzipan Pig deals with silence, solitude, longing, and fleeting happiness – all very adult subjects, if one considers them – in the same way that The Velveteen Rabbit, Abel’s Island, and Stuart Little do, and in a way that draws more relevance and meaning from them as one grows older.
Annie and the Wild Animals and The Girl in the Golden Bower had a dreamlike quality that made an impression on me, and brought about a sort of chilly unease that I liked and still like to this day. The two stories both involve girls who for one reason or another are left alone in houses in hostile situations, abandoned by adults and left to defend themselves against nature. In both stories, animals creep into their houses one by one and the domestic setting of the house becomes more and more overrun by the natural world. It occurred to me how dreamlike these stories are: children often dream of being left to fend for themselves, and the animals seem like clear symbols for frightening or otherwise foreign invasions of our safety. As animals appear steadily in groups of two or three per day, encroaching little by little, they mark the passage of time like seasons or daily cycles of light and dark – in other words, with the same measured symmetry that is so inherently present in nature and to which children look to guide them in their growth and development. The animals in these stories represent the awe-inspiring largeness and forward motion of nature, and I recall feeling equal parts terror and wonder at this mingling of natural and human worlds, in the same way that one is often fascinated by overgrown houses fused to the earth by vines and trees growing up through their foundations.
Phosphorescent – Wolves
The last book I’ll talk about is one of the most special to me, called The Boy & the Cloth of Dreams, which tells the story of a child whose beautiful blanket, woven for him by his grandmother to ward off nightmares, rips, leaving him vulnerable to all the terrors that seep into his sleeping mind through the hole. The story begins with a visit to his grandmother’s house, and the description of the meal they eat together and the blissful evening he spends before bedtime never left me: I was struck by their evocative aestheticism and to this day value things so much for their sensuality I think in part due to this book. The supper is described as salty, sweet, hot, cold; the evening striped with dusty sunlit columns and dark pools of shadow; the house scented with old wood and later, during the nightmares, filled with a vast darkness turning even the most familiar shapes into foreign, warped, looming mysteries. The cloth itself is a fantastic aesthetic object in itself: it illustrates the idea that the world of fantasy and reality, of the tangible and the abstract, could be connected in a physical way, giving mass to our imaginings (much like a passage of mirrors that allows for mingling of the spiritual and physical worlds). Later when, upon the instruction of his grandmother, the boy pulls threads from the moon and sun to mend the hole in his cloth, the fantasy of the story graciously melts away the reality of the situation – the distance, the actual makeup of sun and moon – like an elegant circus ringmaster bowing and pulling aside a curtain, and leaves children with only the most wonderful of aesthetics to feast their minds upon: the manifestation of the sun’s heat and the moon’s cold, reminiscent of the supper from hours before, into gold and silver strands tugged from their tapering rays in a way that could not seem more natural or perfect.
Wild Nothing – The Witching Hour
The children’s stories that meant the most to me, I’ve found, are those that brought my attention to things I still find haunting to this day: solitude, the painful loveliness of fleeting intimacy, the awful steadiness of time passing, the sensuality of light and dark and tastes and smells and temperatures, the eerie connections between the physical and metaphysical, and the imagination and its manifestation in our lives.
Collage by Alexis Anne McKenzie | More here
I am thrilled as pie (is that an expression? pleased as pie? yes) about my avant garde music class at Paris VII. Recently we’ve been talking about Messiaen’s work and I’ve been taking copious notes a) because I bought a fountain pen and love watching it write and b) because talking about his color-based theories for composition could not fit more cozily into the niche of things I try to wrap my brain around whenever it’s feeling flexible. We spent a good hour talking about the way he, because of his synesthesia, heard color in music – he describes chords with adjectives like “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white.” (If any of these remind you of words you’d use to describe the colors of a bird, there’s a reason: his music theory treatise was called Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie [Treatise of Rhythm, Colour and Birdsong]). The treatise apparently manages to prove that color is not a decorative element of music, but instead absolutely ingrained in its fundamental structure.
Olivier Messiaen – Préludes I. La Colombe
Olivier Messiaen – Préludes II. Chant D’extase dans un Paysage Triste
The first track above was written with orange in mind, and the second, a deep blue.
I’m so interested in the relationship between music and color, suddenly. Taking the term “chromaticism”, in its musical context, it might seem that color and music have always been associated with each other, but the word proves to be a bit of a red herring, if you will: it shares the same origins as coloration, or the medieval system of the coloring in of notes to indicate duration. The ties between the frequency of electromagnetic radiation (that is, color) and the frequency of sound still seem indisputable, however: lower frequencies are so fixedly matched in our minds to equal degrees with deep colors and deep sounds, and higher frequencies with brighter colors and higher sounds. I am hesitant to pretend I know more about science than I do, or to tentatively posit ideas that I am sure have been investigated in volumes already, but I find them to be so pertinent to things I think and write about that I can’t help but unpack them a bit for myself.
Messiaen’s use of color as a tool for the hearing and writing of music reminds me, as so many things do these days, of making a map: of using the parameters of one field both to define, and in so doing, to create, another. (Here we could also consider the colors used to indicate height and depth in mapmaking, and in linking these colors to pitch, consider the potential similarity between a musical score and a topographical map.) In thinking about Messiaen’s additional work with palindromic rhythms, I am reminded of mirrors and their central role in so much literature, philosophy and art. One could say that Messiaen’s work is a good indicator of the most basic desire humans seem to have to represent one thing with something else – put simply, to make art.
It is the indelible stamp of process – of distance between the real and the rendered – that gives art, as an act of transposition, its deeply human element. Mirrors, then, are appealing to us like anything that is untouched or otherwise without signature: as producers of no more or less than a copy, they present us with the purest form of parallel; with a result too perfect to be human. In Messiaen we sense this aesthetic gap both growing and shrinking: his representation of color through music is rooted in the fundamental fissure defining human art, while his fascination with the perfect, with the mathematical, with the mirror reminds us of the deep-seated longing we have to close this divide.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Today for work I did a translation, French to English, of an article about artwork and sound design. I had a grand old time and was still thinking about it later when I was looking at a book of Rilke poems I have, Poems from the Book of Hours. It struck me what beautiful translations, from German to English, the poems are, and it made me consider why I had so enjoyed the process of translating earlier in the day.
I like that the most basic meaning of “to translate” lies in transferre – literally, to bear across – and thus from its roots acknowledges that to translate is to carry a load. The task of the translator is a weighty one: he is bound inextricably by several opposing responsibilities. As only a creative mind is able, he must somehow see past the gleam of the finished product to discern the masonry beneath, and in retracing these steps seek to follow them himself. But translation is a creative act that does not give creative license: the translator has to understand that the tool he uses is not his own; that in his case creativity serves only to aid in the production of a loyal representation of an original. In short, the translator must look deeply into the polished surface of a work without seeing his own reflection.
The act of translating is a process marked by its tenuous balance between dutiful distance and moments of measured emotional release, at once intimate and bound by the most formal sense of duty and restraint. One must seek, find, and convey something without for a moment claiming it; one must break apart and reconstruct but leave no mark or signature. I think that an exercise like this – of holding without intending to own – stimulates in its sensuality an awareness that I’d like to experience more often.
On a totally unrelated note –
I just went to see the new Cohen brothers movie, “A Serious Man,” which arguably lived up to assertions that it’s the best the pair have ever made. These two songs played in the movie, the second pretty much throughout. I liked it more coming through theater-sized speakers than I ever have before, so maybe listen to it loud.