Yearly Archives: 2006

December 28, 2006

Un-Santa In The Man

Earlier this week, I woke up in the middle of the night laughing out loud at a dream I was having. I was watching a film called “Un-Santa In The Man.” It was about colognes or perfumes, which, when worn by a man, would not make him smell like Santa. “In the man” was like saying “in the male of the species” – and “un-Santa” was a similarly clinical term. The film was sort of like a report on product testing. But I think it was sung. That’s all I can remember; once I registered the meaning of the phrase “Un-Santa In The Man,” I started laughing and woke up.

December 15, 2006

Christmas Carol

This just worked itself out naturally and thus ended up being heavily derivative, of Mompou and Rodrigo. That’s what happens when you let things work themselves out naturally.

It’s not really a carol, but it is sort of seasonal. Bells, you know. Something.

No score, at least not any time soon. It takes a while to get them clean enough for the world to see, and I don’t feel like it.

I tried to take reader advice and play it slower than my ear and nerves want it to go, but as you can hear, I couldn’t keep it down. I could claim that it gets faster and faster as it goes for dramatic purposes, but it’s not true. It just gets faster and faster because I’m antsy.

Happy Hanukkah.

December 11, 2006

Giuseppe Ungaretti: Selected Poems

Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970)

Giuseppe Ungaretti: Selected Poems, translated by Patrick Creagh (Penguin, 1971)
Selected Poems, translated, annotated, and with an introduction by Andrew Frisardi (FSG, 2002)
Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti, translated and edited by Allen Mandelbaum (Cornell, 1975)

After lingering a while with the various copies of Gilgamesh, I declared it done and proceeded as per the plan. A random integer between 1 and 2535 was generated: 1128. 1128 is the line on my master list that says “Giuseppe Ungaretti.” This means I read the first work listed under his name. There are two work entries for Ungaretti: the first is Selected Poems (Bloom specifies that he means the collection translated by Allen Mandelbaum), and the second is The Buried Harbour: Selected Poems (a collection translated by Kevin Hart). This is an odd redundancy for Bloom, who usually likes to be sweeping and efficient and just drop something like “Collected Works” under an author’s name and be done with it. For William Shakespeare the only entries are “Plays” and “Poems.” And yet for the somewhat lesser figure of Giuseppe Ungaretti he’s taking the time to name two different translations of what must be substantially the same selections. The Mandelbaum seems to have long been the only major collection of Ungaretti in English, as well as the one with the finest pedigree, since Mandelbaum knew Ungaretti personally. The Hart collection, by contrast, was printed by a small Canberra publisher (!) in 1990 and is extremely rare in the US even among university collections. Why then would Bloom have put this redundant oddity on his list? All my hypotheses are fairly cynical. Anyway, if I ever roll a 1130 I’m going to have a hard time a) finding that edition and b) feeling like I haven’t already read it.

I went to the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library and got out what they had – no copies of the Mandelbaum were checked in and/or un-lost, but two other collections – one a little Perm-a-bound paperback from the early 70s “Penguin Modern European Poets” series, translated by Patrick Creagh (first image above); the other a recent, still-in-print collection translated by Andrew Frisardi (second image above). Later I found the Mandelbaum collection at the Brooklyn Public Library. Third image. Above.

So, you might ask, who the hell is Giuseppe Ungaretti? I certainly didn’t know. Exactly the kind of surprise I hoped this project would generate! I’m serious. A quick Wikipedia or something like it gave me the basics: one of the most prominent 20th century Italian poets. Founder of “hermetic” school of poetry. Born in Egypt, famous for World War I poems.

The “hermetic” thing, though good for encyclopedia entries, was played down by all three editor-translators in their various introductions. The word “hermetic” suggests a way of reading the style – I tried to let it guide me somewhat in determining what I should consider peculiar to Ungaretti and his particular moment – but none of the commentators endorsed this idea that this was a school and that Ungaretti was the founder. So I pretty much disregarded that. They did all try to place Ungaretti in the context of the history of Italian poetry. But when one isn’t familiar with a history, placing something within it tends only to diminish rather than illuminate: it seems as though the curator/editor is acknowledging that the thing in itself is not necessarily interesting and is best served by being seen as a mere component of a larger pageant. I know that’s not the intention, but that’s the effect on the ignorant, i.e. me. So I mostly disregarded that, too.

For most of my life, my reading comprehension has been characterized to some degree by compromise, approximation, and sour grapes. Part of the impetus behind this random-reading scheme was the feeling that I’d finally reached a point in life where I could read and actually get most anything. Well, the first arrow fired went straight through a gaping hole in my armor. “Oh right, poetry.”

I don’t understand poetry primarily in that I have not read enough of it. That’s fine, of course, but what it means is that if you (or I) sit me down with a book of poetry and tell me to read and understand it… no matter how slowly and thoughtfully I go, I can’t necessarily do that. First I’m going to have to go through a process of acclimation to poetry as a whole, and try though I might to be smart, there’s no shortcut to the head of that class. I’m not embarrassed by that but I am disappointed. It’s just going to take a lot of poetry for me to build up a fluid, mature sense of what this stuff is. The selected poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti can be one step on that road. I don’t imagine it’s the step that anyone would have chosen to assign me at this stage in my alienation from poesy, but as with learning a language, just jumping into the deep end (or perhaps, in this case, diving hard into the shallow end) also has its benefits.

Another problem with this selection, though, was that it’s poetry in translation. Translating modern poetry is a losing game. All translation is a loss of resolution, and Ungaretti’s little sketches would seem to be all about fine resolution. Translating a poem is like making an engraving of a painting, like they used to do to make images reproducible. It’s a lossy process but the sacrifice is worthwhile for those who won’t be able to see the image any other way. But translating poems that are all about the resonating implications of particular words and sounds, turning them into other words and other sounds, is like making an engraving of a Jackson Pollock. The painting is all about paint, so what are we to make of this line drawing of it? It refers to it but it doesn’t stand in for it.

Better metaphor here would be a blocky scan of a delicate line drawing.

Frisardi and Mandelbaum, understanding what they’re up against, opt for bilingual editions with the original Italian facing the translation. One attempts to read the original by means of the translation, which serves as a one-to-one phrasebook and tour guide. This I can get behind, but it’s hard work. I had the benefit of having several translations (quite a few of the poems were in all three collections) from which to triangulate a meaning. Plus, luckily, though Italian might be hard to learn for real, it’s fairly easy to fake-understand when you’re being told what it means. So I managed.

Then there’s the hard work of poetry itself. On which issue: here follow some things I wrote down while I was in the process of reading. Particular reference is being made to the World War I poetry, which begins all three collections.

War poetry is very different for writer and reader. In the midst of an overwhelming horror, four choice lines may be a distillation but they are also a contrast. What is most poignant and intense is that poetry is actually quite unlike war. It’s something different to read four choice lines while sitting on the couch. The imagination is responsible not only for everything the poem is meant to evoke, but also for everything that it chooses not to evoke but which to the poet was immediate.

This is my difficulty with poetry. It is an art based in empathy, the delivery of interior sensations and impressions, and yet the interior context in which these sensations find their meaning is not itself delivered. How could it be? A metaphor that often presents itself in my mind presents itself here – the fact that the human DNA sequence has been mapped would seem to be all we need to know everything about how the body does everything, but it isn’t, because protein folding – the conversion of the linear chain of chemicals into a functional lump – is an opaque process, dependent on many tiny details of context. That the poet thought these four lines were choice is certainly information, but the internal world in which he thought so is ours to recover/invent.

Ungaretti begins a poem:

The face
of this night
is dry
like a

That’s Mandelbaum; Creagh has

is dry
as a piece of

and Frisardi doesn’t include it. Anyway. What kind of night has a face that’s dry like a parchment? I can easily imagine that such a night – such a kind of night – exists, and that Ungaretti was there, and sensed it, and got it down beautifully. But he was living it when he wrote these words, and as I am reading them, I am not. To find this night, I cannot follow the parchment face backward – it leads nowhere, or only to some misty poetry limbo that does not satisfy me. I have to imagine different kinds of nights and test them – would this sort of (imagined) night inspire me to say that it had a face as dry as a piece of parchment? I am the active agent, investigating this inert unhelpful artifact, this poem. This is not communication. Poetry, or at least this sort of poetry, does not communicate, it only records and arranges. If I do not already possess the poet’s experiences, I cannot find them here. Only my imagination can provide them.

It is one thing to experience a night and recognize that its salient feature is that its face is dry like parchment. It’s another to extrapolate a night, knowing only that its salient feature is that its face is dry like parchment.

Perhaps this is the skill that poetry requires, but if so, mine is very weak. Or at least I don’t trust that what I find, when I let my mind create following scant poetic indications, has any more to do with the poet than it does with me.

And it should. All art should. I have enough thoughts and enough things to think about that I don’t need art as an ice-breaker with no other agenda.

As with the crossword puzzle, what to the conossieur might feel like pure deduction is actually enculturation. The seasoned solver may believe that he is fundamentally sharper than the rookie when in fact he has reprogrammed his own intuition over a long process of trial and error. A seasoned reader (or writer) might feel that the indications are full and sufficient, when in fact they are only sufficient when taken in combination with a silent complex of assumptions and expectations that cannot be simulated by any conscious thought process but must simply be amassed over the course of years.

I’ve developed intricate enough associative webs for dealing with a variety of cultural products. But not poetry. Not yet.

So anyway, accepting that I wasn’t quite up to the task, what was the poetry like? It was a mixed bag. The voice of the poems, throughout Ungaretti’s career, always has a certain innocent-in-the-face-of-the-infinite awe. I would call his outlook “naive,” except that it gets worked and reworked in such a wide variety of intellectual configurations that the word “naive” seems misleading. The introductions all praise the absence of bitterness in his poems, his openness to life’s mystery even in the face of war or tragic personal loss. I can see it that way. Certainly in the collection he wrote after the death of his young son, there’s something quite affecting in his combination of heartfelt anguish with mystery-of-nature imagery. But much of the time, the air of awed humility, or even the pose of wise detachment, rang a little false for me. Something about his interest, which many poets seem to share, in the figure of the poet – or sometimes quite blatantly in the figure of himself – felt indulgent rather than open. In general I had the unhappy suspicion that his poetic expression was vague, mystical and self-involved because he was vague, mystical and self-involved, and that the rather tedious classicizing his poetry underwent later in his career was just a mask for said vagueness.

That’s the negative, but there was much here that I enjoyed – poetry, no less! – which for me is saying something. His imagery is distinctive, somehow both plain and mysterious, and I frequently admired phrases and images, even when I was skeptical of the poems they formed. At his best, his poems create a quiet sense of beauty and human emotion dwarfed by, yet suspended poignantly within, the sobering reality of the infinite. That’s quite a sentence; something like that, though. There is that suggestion, as with haiku, that the delicacy and obliqueness of the poetry is the only possible response to the profound actuality of time, death, the world. When it worked, it was lovely. But most of the time, either it was too difficult for me or it was more manner than thought. I assume it was the former. In asking “why this here and not another” about any given phrase or image, I had no clear answer and wasn’t convinced he did either, even though the commentators told me to admire his incredibly careful craftsmanship. But, for the last time: I’m not good at this yet.

Here’s one of the better of the early, readily-understood war poems. I figure you deserve a poem after reading all that. Plus you get to see what I was dealing with in terms of parallel translations. Also, I imagine this is the poem that Frisardi collection’s cover designer had in mind.


Vallone, 19 August 1917

above the rubble
spreads the crystal
of boundless space

And the man
over the water
by the sun
comes back to his senses
as a shadow

Cradled and


Vallone, August 19, 1917

above the rubble heaps
the limpid
of immensity

And the man
over the water
by the sun
as a shadow

Cradled and


Vallone, August 19, 1917

the lucid
is high
above the rubble

And the man
over the sun-
he’s a shadow

Rocked and

In this particular case, Frisardi has gone the route of literal sense whereas Creagh goes in the other direction. Mandelbaum tries for a middle ground. I’m all for literal sense. In fact this is one of those cases where I’m not sure Creagh fully understood. None of these guys tried at all for the rhythmic effect that seems crucial to the original. Judge for yourself:

Vallone il 19 agosto 1917

è alto
sulle macerie
il limpido

E l’uomo
dal sole
si rinviene

Cullata e

So: I think the Frisardi translations are generally the most helpful to the reader and his collection is the largest, whereas Mandelbaum’s selections, though a tad more stiffly translated, were more in accord with my personal taste regarding which poems deserved inclusion. Creagh, on the other hand, strays very slightly further from the text and comes the closest to writing attractive poetry in English. Unfortunately, there are too many places where he lets the meaning become even more obscure than it would seem to be in Italian.

November 15, 2006

Gilgamesh in English

For comparison, here are, from every English version I could find, the opening lines of Tablet V. After a long journey, Gilgamesh and Enkidu arrive at the cedar forest. They are on a quest to kill its guardian, the monster Humbaba (Huwawa).

I’ve divided these into four categories based on the translator’s apparent intent, and ordered them by date within each category. Let me know if you are aware of versions that I’m missing. The dates are of the first editions, though the texts are not necessarily.

A. Line for line translations.

Alexander Heidel (1946, Chicago)

1. They stood still and looked(?) at the forest.
2. They beheld the height of the cedar.
3. They beheld the entrance to the forest.
4. Where Humbaba was wont to walk there was a path;
5. Straight were the tracks and good was the passage.
6. They beheld the mountain of the cedar, the dwelling-place of the gods, the throne-dais of Irnini.
7. The cedar uplifted its fulness before the mountain;
8. Fair was its shade (and) full of delight;
9. [Cov]ered was the brushwood (and) covered the […].

John Gardner and John Maier (1984, Knopf/Vintage)

They stood looking at the forest.
They saw the cedars’ height;
they saw the forest gate.
Where Humbaba walked, a path was made.
The alleys were straight, the road good.
They saw the cedar mountain, home of the gods, throne-base of Irnini.
On the face of the mountain, the cedar lifts its seed.
Its shade is good, full of comfort.
The thorn is covered and hidden …
… the incense of the tree …
… one double-hour …
… again for two-thirds …

Maureen Gallery Kovacs (1989, Stanford) [online]

They stood at the forest’s edge,
gazing at the top of the Cedar Tree,
gazing at the entrance fo the forest.
Where Humbaba would walk there was a trail,
the roads led straight on, the path was excellent.
Then they saw the Cedar Mountain, the Dwelling of the Gods, the throne dais of Irnini.
Across the face of the mountain the Cedar brought forth luxurious foliage,
its shade was good, extremely pleasant.
The thornbushes were matted together, the woods(?) were a thicket
…among the Cedars, …the boxwood,
the Forest was surrounded by a ravine two leagues long,
…and again for two-thirds (of that distance),

Stephanie Dalley (1989, Oxford)

They stood at the edge of the forest,
Gazed and gazed at the height of the pines,
Gazed and gazed at the entrance to the pines,
Where Humbaba made tracks as he went to and fro.
The paths were well trodden and the road was excellent.
They beheld the Pine Mountain, dwelling-place of gods, shrine of Irnini.
The pines held up their luxuriance even on the face of the mountain.
Their shade was good, filling one with happiness.
Undergrowth burgeoned, entangling the forest.

Andrew George (1999, Penguin)

They stood there marvelling at the forest,
&nbsp&nbsp gazing at the lofty cedars,
gazing at the forest’s entrance ­-
&nbsp&nbsp where Humbaba came and went there was a track.

The path was straight and the way well trodden.
&nbsp&nbsp They saw the Mountain of Cedar, seat of gods and goddesses’ throne.
[On the] face of the mountain the cedar proffered its abundance,
&nbsp&nbsp its shade was sweet and full of delight.

[Thick] tangled was the thorn, the forest a shrouding canopy,
&nbsp&nbsp …cedar, ballukku-trees……

Benjamin R. Foster (2001, Norton)

They stood at the edge of the Forest,
They gazed at the height of the cedars,
They gazed at the way into the forest.
Where Humbaba would walk, a path was made,
Straight were the ways and easy the going.
They saw the cedar mountain, dwelling of the gods, sacred to the goddess Irnina.
On the slopes of that mountain, the cedar bears its abundance,
Agreeable is its shade, full of pleasures.
The undergrowth is tangled, the [thicket] interwoven.
Near the cedar [ … ] the balsam tree

B. Conservatively re-written versions.

N.K. Sandars (1960, Penguin)

Together they went down from the gate and they came to the green mountain. There they stood still, they were struck dumb; they stood still and gazed at the forest. They saw the height of the cedar, they saw the way into the forest and the track where Humbaba was used to walk. The way was broad and the going was good. They gazed at the mountain of cedars, the dwelling-place of the gods and the throne of Ishtar. The hugeness of the cedar rose in front of the mountain, its shade was beautiful, full of comfort; mountain and glade were green with brushwood.

Robert Temple (1991, Random House) [online]

They stood quite still and looked at the forest,
Saw how high were the great cedars,
And gazed upon the entrance to the forest.
There, where Humbaba was want to tread,
Was a fine path; straight it was and easy to travel.
They saw also the Cedar Mountain, where lived the gods
And Irnini, Goddess of Love, holy Inanna had her throne seat
The cedar raised aloft its great luxuriant growth:
What cool shade, what delight!
Covering the brushwood, covering the….

Danny P. Jackson (1992, Bolchazy-Carducci) [online]

Gilgamesh and Enkidu froze and stared into the woods’
great depth and height. When they spied
Humbaba’s path, they found the opening toward
straight passage. Then they were able to find and see
the home of the gods, the paradise of Ishtar’s other self,
called Irnini-most-attractive.
All beauty true is ever there
where gods do dwell, where there is
cool shade and harmony and
sweet-odored food to match their mood.

Stephen Mitchell (2004, Simon & Schuster)

They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest,
marveling at the great height of the trees.
They could see, before them, a well-marked trail
beaten by Humbaba as he came and went.
From far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,
sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,
the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars
with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.
Gripping their axes, their knives unsheathed,
they entered the Forest and made their way through
the tangle of thorn bushes underfoot.

C. Liberally re-written versions.

Herbert Mason (1970, currently Houghton Mifflin)

They stood in awe at the foot
Of the green mountain. Pleasure
Seemed to grow from fear for Gilgamesh.
As when one comes upon a path in woods
Unvisited by men, one is drawn near
The lost and undiscovered in himself;
He was revitalized by danger.
They knew it was the path Humbaba made.
Some called the forest “Hell,” and others “Paradise”;
What difference does it make? said Gilgamesh.
But night was falling quickly
And they had no time to call it names,
Except perhaps “The Dark,”
Before they found a place at the edge of the forest
To serve as shelter for their sleep.

David Ferry (1992, FSG)

They came to the Cedar Forest that grew upon
the sides of the Cedar Mountain, throne of Irnini,

forbidden dwelling place of immortal gods.
This was the place the guradian demon guarded

to frighten away the daring mortal who
would venture there. But who would venture there?

This was the place Huwawa was; Huwawa’s
breath is death. Beautiful is the Forest;

green upon green the cedars; fragrant the air
with the fragrance of cedar trees; the box that grew

along the silent walks of the guardian demon,
shadowed and still, utterly still, was fragrant.

D. High concept.

Derrek Hines (2002, Chatto and Windus/Random House)

In the valley of the Bekaa under Mt Lebanon.
Easy soldiering with the ladies willing,
their legs spread wide as a peal of bells;

plenty of grub, and the zig of split-stone fences
snaking through terraced orchards,
apple and Eve ready.
Good, rolling chariot country.

November 15, 2006

Gilgamesh (2100-1000 BC)

Sumerian / Assyrian traditional
standard Akkadian version attributed to Sin-leqe-unnini, probably ~1200 BC.

Myths From Mesopotamia, edited and translated with an Introduction and Notes by Stephanie Dalley, revised edition (Oxford, 2000)
Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, by David Ferry (FSG, 1992)
The Epic of Gilgamesh, an English version with an introduction by N.K. Sandars (Penguin, 1964 ed.)
Bohuslav Martinů: Gilgames [The Epic of Gilgamesh] (1954-5) (as recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus under Jirí Belohlávek, 1995. BBC Music vol. IV no. 11, 1996)

So the first thing I did upon solidifying this plan – the inspiration happened in August but I didn’t really move on it until September – was go to Foyle’s, one of the biggest bookstores in London, which happened to be just a few blocks from where I was working at the time, and look for a copy of Gilgamesh. At the time I didn’t yet know that Harold Bloom’s list had more info on it than what can be seen here, so I figured the choice of translation was up to me. There were heaps of Oxford paperbacks on the front tables at Foyle’s – 3 for 2, as you can see above – and right there was “Myths From Mesopotamia,” featuring the Epic of Gilgamesh. I flipped through and the treatment seemed scholarly but unobtrusive. On the back it said “Revised Edition” and also “So much has been discovered in recent years both by way of new tablets and points of grammar and lexicography that these translations by Stephanie Dalley supersede all previous versions.” This edition first published in 2000. Okay, so I bought it.

The images above, by the way, link to full-size scans of the copies I read. PRETTY AWESOME.

Beth and I read Gilgamesh aloud over a couple weeks. The work in its most complete form was written on twelve tablets, and those divisions are maintained in most versions. We did a tablet at a time. Many of them feel like meaningful chapter divisions; a few don’t.

Gilgamesh – or The Epic of Gilgamesh (it’s certainly episodic but it’s not nearly as long or involved as “epic” usually implies) – or, as the ancient librarians called it, “Of him who found out all things,” which is the first line – gets press as “the oldest literary text” and then dated to “almost 5000 years ago,” which is misleading. Gilgamesh may have been a real historical figure – he’s recorded as such, anyway, elsewhere – and whoever he was, he may have lived around 2800 BC. So that’s almost 5000 years ago. But the not-very-historical-King-Arthur-ish stories about him that constitute The Epic of Gilgamesh first appear in writing around 2100 BC. That is, many centuries later. And those are just disconnected stories in Sumerian – earlier versions of a few of the episodes in the epic. Then a few hundred years later, after political shifting, they appear in a somewhat unified form as the “Old Babylonian” version of the epic, now in Akkadian. But the long version, with significant additional material, in particular the Noah’s ark story for which the rest of the epic becomes a frame, comes to us from yet a thousand years later. A thousand! It was collected and archived by one of the very last kings of Assyria, who had an antiquarian bent and was trying to do honor to the ancient culture of his country. This version, the longest, most unified, most “literary” version, is attributed to a named author: Sin-leqe-unnini – someone who had probably lived 600 years earlier. Sort of a Homer to this Odyssey. But my point is, this story and its “author” were as remote as Homer seems now, to the Assyrians who wrote it down for us. And the age of Gilgamesh himself was unimaginably primitive to the people for whom this tale was a classic.

This is to say that there is an important cultural distinction to be made between the context of The Once and Future King (1958) and of the hypothetical historical King Arthur himself (~500 AD). Except for Gilgamesh it’s on an even grander scale.

I tried to keep all that in mind as we read. It seemed relevant for the same reason that it seems relevant to understanding the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) that the society that made it and enjoyed it was not actually living in castles and thatched roof cottages. The reason is the same: this isn’t one of those situations where we need to try to see past the period-ness of the text. Ancient and mysterious is part of the point. Moreso here than with the bible, even, I think, because so far as I know there were no ritual or religious reasons for this story to be kept around. It seems to have been deemed important mainly because it was good. It notably does not include any “begats” – no genealogies or elaborate invocations or anything else that purports to be important in a way that transcends the story itself. It is appealingly earthy and unpretentious.

Gilgamesh is a young hotshot king of Uruk. He’s two-thirds god, one-third man, which is an interesting breakdown. He’s a little larger than life and he lives life a little too large for the people of Uruk, sleeping with every bride and overworking the military men. The people pray that a proper match for his energies come and carry off some of the burden of dealing with this guy, so the gods create Enkidu, his perfect companion, who enters the world in a state of complete nature, hairy, naked, living like a gazelle in the wild. A plot is hatched to civilize the wild man by sending out one of the temple prostitutes (temples were different back then) into the wild to tempt him. He lies with her, as they say, for a long time, and when he gets up the gazelles flee from him – he’s gained the knowledge of the civilized world. He learns how to drink from a glass and things like that and then goes to the city to confront Gilgamesh. They have a big superhero fight and become best friends.

That’s the first section of the story, at least the way it breaks down in my head, and maybe my favorite part. There’s something very touching to me about Enkidu’s state of innocence being as a gazelle, and that he is civilized by sex with a woman from the city who has come to teach him, and then his friends the gazelles run away, and then he has to learn to deal with a knife and fork – this is much more resonant and interesting, not to mention warm, than the comparatively frowny, nervous story about the snake and the apple, which covers the same mythic territory and for all we know may be obliquely descended from this story. There’s also something sweet about the idea that Gilgamesh is only a tyrant because he has not been properly matched with companions and goals big enough for him; that the people cry out to the gods not to kill their terrible king but to make a best friend for him.

I tried for a while to think of what contemporary story is like Gilgamesh but nothing quite fits the bill. The idea that ran through my head while I was reading it, though, is that the oldest story in literature is sort of a buddy movie. But it gets more complicated than that.

Gilgamesh then announces his desire to achieve fame by taking on great tasks, and sets out with Enkidu to the great cedar forest that is guarded by the terrible monster Humbaba. They eventually succeed at bringing down Humbaba, who begs for mercy in the end. Enkidu warns Gilgamesh not to fall for it and they kill him. They chop down a bunch of cedars and use them to build a gate for Uruk. When they return to Uruk, the goddess Ishtar notices how hot and famous Gilgamesh is and invites him to be her lover, but he says no, that she’s spiteful and selfish. This angers her so much that she releases the Bull of Heaven, which storms around Uruk until Gilgamesh and Enkidu bring it down, thus achieving more fame.

The last section is the most important and gives the story its literary weight. One day Enkidu has a dream that the gods have decided the two need to be punished for their overreaching and have decided Enkidu must die. Gilgamesh tries to comfort him by doing honor to him and reassuring him about his achievements, but Enkidu is more than a little bitter – death is unfair. Then he dies. Gilgamesh is shaken and goes out wandering the countryside in grief, obsessed by the idea that he too is going to die some day. There is one ancient wise man who was granted eternal life by the gods – Gilgamesh goes on a long, increasingly mystical journey to the end of the world, where the wise man lives, to find out what he knows. When he finally gets there, there is a series of “punchlines,” each of which has a shaggy-dog quality. First off, the wise man tells him that there’s no way to live forever, and that he should just be happy that he’s lucky enough to be Gilgamesh. Then he tells Gilgamesh that he himself is only immortal because… and then he tells the story of Noah’s ark, from the point of view of Noah. At the end the gods make him immortal. Then he tells Gilgamesh that if he really wants to be immortal, he first has to stay awake for six days, at which Gilgamesh prompty falls asleep for six days. Then, as Gilgamesh is leaving, the wise man says, okay, I’ll let you in on a secret: there’s a plant at the bottom of the river that will keep you young forever. Gilgamesh swims down, pulls it up, and sets out for home, but at the first rest stop, a snake swims up and steals the plant from him while he’s bathing. This turns out to be why snakes can shed their skins. Gilgamesh returns home empty-handed and the story ends as it began, with some words in praise of how well-built and impressive Uruk is.

So, ultimately, this is a story about confronting the fear, and the inevitability, of death. The more you think about it, the more it seems appropriate that this is our oldest story. In fact, I was struck by how rare it is to come across a treatment of death that seems so accessible and real, in literature. Somewhere in European history, the idea of death got caught up with all sorts of other ideals, and now, in most fiction, death carries some romantic baggage that has nothing to do with the way I fear my own death in real life, or the deaths of people I am close to. On the cover of the New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago, in the review of Cormac McCarthy’s unbearably grim-sounding new book, the reviewer says that McCarthy, quote, “has said that death is the major issue in the world and that writers who don’t address it are not serious.” I thought of Gilgamesh. Death in Gilgamesh is something recognizable. Gilgamesh goes on a quest to save himself from it that has a big shrug at the end of it. I recognize that from black humor, but this isn’t humor and it also isn’t black. The deadpan ending, extolling the high-quality bricks of Uruk, is not a slap in the face. It’s just not reassurance either; or, rather, it’s reassurance in terms of everything we can be reassured about, which is life, not death.

Gilgamesh’s grief for Enkidu is simple and believable. It’s very affecting that the fairy-tale constructions (everyone tends to say things three or more times) are here put in the service of a basic emotion that for whatever reason isn’t a big one in the European tradition – fear of death. Gilgamesh says that he saw a worm fall from the dead Enkidu’s nose, and, more or less, that it really freaked him out. He tells this to everyone he meets.

The more I write it here, the more it’s starting to bother me. Why has fear of death been so marginalized and degraded? Talk of “cowardice” and “immortal souls” and whatnot have usurped our commiserating about something that is the thing for humans to commiserate over. Gilgamesh offers that and it offers it in a very unassuming, accessible way.

In general, this was an interesting read because it offered access to the mindset of an alternate, to-me-unknown culture, the attitudes of which seemed to me immediately interesting and applicable, in the way that some people are innately drawn to “Eastern thought” or whatever. This Sumerian worldview – though, let me be clear, intensely foreign and peculiar – made more immediate human sense to me than the ancient Chinese worldview or the ancient Egyptian worldview, etc. Insofar as I’ve been exposed to those.

Another interesting thing about reading something this old and this foreign is that the degrading effect of all that time is unavoidably relevant to the task: it’s full of holes and question marks. “Gap of about 40 lines” is an extremely mysterious and evocative thing to encounter in a story you’re reading. You get good at guessing what goes in the gaps that only affect half of a line, and then you start to know what’s going on even when several sentences are missing. And then you get to one of the really big gaps and you have to concede defeat to the chipping of clay over thousands of years, which is bigger than any of us. A bit like death.

So. We finished that and returned to the US, and then I found out that Harold Bloom actually specifies that he recommends the version of Gilgamesh translated by David Ferry. So I went to the New York Public Library and got out a copy of it. Second image in there. This I read over a weekend trip to the Jersey shore. I don’t recommend it. To me it’s a case against Harold Bloom, in fact. David Ferry’s version is not a translation of the Akkadian – he doesn’t read Akkadian. He made a version based on prior word-for-word translations, with heavy poetic license. In heroic couplets. Why, you might ask, is it in heroic couplets? Because for some people, iambic pentameter is a necessary adjunct to seriousness. Why such people would want to read anything from ancient Sumer is not clear to me. The philosophy behind turning Gilgamesh into something that feels European and familiar goes entirely against the grain of everything I enjoyed in reading the story in the first place. Whatever survives of its peculiar attitude and peculiar origins have been transmogrified, here, into some kind of intentional (and thus condescending) primitivism. Furthermore, I just don’t feel like Ferry got it. There’s a big chunk of stone on the cover (condescending primitivism?) but on every level the actual text has been made more elaborate, more involved. 50% of the content has been put in the work’s mouth, as it were, by someone who thinks he’s walking in step with it but is actually riding in his own anachronistic horse and buggy. Surely Harold Bloom wanted us to read Gilgamesh and not the minor contemporary poet David Ferry. I don’t think he knew what he was talking about. Maybe he had political reasons for putting Ferry’s name in there. Or, more likely and more dismaying, maybe he’s one of these people who gets a kick out of iambic pentameter no matter what the occasion because it reminds him of Great Things like Shakespeare, with all the curlicues that that entails.

It may be worth noting that the Stephen Mitchell Gilgamesh, published in 2004 (Bloom’s Canon is from 1994) has praise from Bloom on the back cover calling it “certainly the best that I have seen in English.” So perhaps we can take that to be a revised recommendation. I haven’t read the Mitchell version but it looks fairly tasteful.

Then I was walking near a flea market here in Brooklyn and on the first table I passed there was a copy of the old Penguin edition of Gilgamesh as rendered in prose by N.K. Sandars. Third image there. I think I got it for $2. This one is still in print, with a slightly different cover and several further stages of revision, but I got a 1964 copy. I can endorse it as having a very good (and very long) introduction, offering a lot of context, and having been done intelligently. As The Times Literary Supplement is quoted on the back cover: “The work of synthesis has been accomplished, and with a remarkable degree of tact and imagination.” Exactly. This version fills gaps and makes guesses, but they’re smart guesses. We can tell that Sandars gets the big picture, so we’re willing to trust her choices. But I wouldn’t recommend this as a first read. Knowing where the gaps are and that they exist is part of what makes it acceptable to read the version where they’ve been spackled up.

Honestly, if I had to recommend a version, I’d recommend the other Penguin edition, translated by Andrew George. This one’s the most widespread these days anyway. I haven’t read it all the way through, but I’ve spent some time with it, and George’s notes are the most helpful of any of the versions I’ve found, his presentation the most inviting, and most importantly, his translation the clearest of the “faithful” translations. He also includes all the major alternate/earlier versions of the stories. Dalley’s version is actually very similar in approach and has the benefit of including several other interesting Myths from Mesopotamia, but phrase for phrase, George’s reads just a tad smoother.

This whole issue of how to deal with such an alien, broken-up text started to interest me in itself, so I’ve been collecting the same excerpt from all the versions I could find. The next post will be all of those in a row. I think it makes clear why the Ferry version is not the one to read. Let me know if you’ve got a version I should add. That post will also include links to online versions of Gilgamesh if anyone’s read this far and maintained enough interest to want to read it.

Finally, when I was at the Brooklyn Library getting out the next book in this project (10 billion points if anyone guesses it correctly! 10 billion) I saw that they had a recording of Bohuslav Martinů’s 1955 oratorio of Gilgamesh, so I got that out too. The last image up there. It’s terrific! Really. I only knew Martinů’s můsic from one quirky piano work – which I always really liked – and Gilgamesh shows a much broader expressive range. Composers responding to literary works tend to exaggerate and simplify, but I found this extremely sensitive and intelligent, retaining both the humanity and the strangeness of the text. It also is interesting in that it uses a lot of tropes from movie music in a much more engaging, satisfying way. Martinů eliminates much of the story (no quest for fame) and replaces the wise man with an invented segue to the story of the 12th tablet, which all the translators point at as a distinct and unrelated addition to the main text, wherein Enkidu dies differently and then is made to rise from the dead so that he can report eerily on what things are like in the underworld. Martinů makes it work, but again, probably not the best place to start with this story.

Word on the internet is that this isn’t the best of the three or four recordings available. Oh well. Here’s a quick sound sample for you.

November 3, 2006

Western Literature: Prologue

We were in our little room in Edinburgh, in August, and Beth was trying to take a nap but was having trouble falling asleep. I said, “I’ll read you the great books, that’ll help you fall asleep.” I went to Google, typed in “great books,” clicked on one of the top hits, and found myself at this weird, proud little site. “Okay, here we go,” I said, and launched into the first thing on the chronological list, The Code of Hammurabi. Now, the Code of Hammurabi is an odd choice for a list of “great books,” and I didn’t even make it through the opening invocation before Beth made me stop – it wasn’t helping anyone fall asleep – but still, I started thinking, “Why haven’t I ever actually read this before? I’ve heard about it for years, and all I had to do was go online and I could read it. Just like everything else on that list. I only have one life to either read these things or not read them. And look, I’m not doing anything else right now. We’re just sitting here. I really should be reading the great books.”

The peculiar list at that site, however, wouldn’t do. After not very much searching, I found myself at this satisfying page, which compiles several prominent lists of “The Great Books” or the like, and has indexed them to allow comparison. Obviously, I had to pick one of these lists. In the end, much though I hate Harold Bloom, I ended up choosing his “Western Canon” list, as copied out on this page. For one thing, it had more recent works and more ancient works than most of the other lists. For another thing, it simply had more works. Somehow, since actually completing any of these reading lists is of course absolutely impossible, this seemed to at least promise greater variety. Bloom also prefaces his list with: “Since the literary canon is at issue here, I include only those religious, philosophical, historical, and scientific writings that are themselves of great aesthetic interest,” which seemed reassuring.

The idea of starting from, say, Hammurabi’s Code and then reading forward through time was part of what had excited me, but after a moment’s thought I realized that this would kill the project – by measuring my progress, making me resent my infinite task rather than savor it. Plus it would just mean that for the forseeable future, I’d be reading ancient works only. No thanks. Still, the idea of starting at the beginning appealed to me. So the first work would be, according to Bloom’s list (and several others): Gilgamesh.

I copied the list from that webpage into a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is 2535 rows long. There are not nearly this many works on the list – each author’s name appears on its own row prior to his/her works, and there are several headings and subheadings too. Not that it matters. The plan is this: after finishing each work, I go to and generate a random integer from 1 to 2535. If I land on a heading, I roll again. If I land on any work by an author with several works listed, I read the first unread work by that author – this it to prevent my reading minor or supplementary works prior to the more important ones, which generally seem to be listed first. Same goes if I land on the author’s name itself. Obviously, if I land on a work I’ve already read, I roll again. Though we’ll have to see what happens if I land on something I only read in high school and don’t really remember or feel that I understood. Probably I’ll just read it.

Bloom’s list forms an extended appendix to his book The Western Canon, and there is slightly more detail given there than on the web page where I found it. For one thing, he frequently names editions and translations. As I do not own and have no desire to buy Bloom’s book, I have been conferring with the Amazon “search inside this book” feature to get what I need in this respect.

So those are the rules. At this point, a couple busy months later, I’ve rolled three times. The process has been great. I’m not sure this is going to make me a well-read person, but it’s certainly intellectually rewarding. If the purpose of reading is to widen your range of experience, truly random great works are a pretty good way of ensuring that you choose independent of any prior inclination or bias. If the purpose of reading is entertainment, I’ve also been thoroughly entertained. So that’s win/win so far.

What I’m going to do when I hit things like “Complete Works,” which appears for several authors, is not so clear. We’ll cross that when we come to it.

This is all as prologue to my talking about the works I’ve read thus far. First up: Gilgamesh! Which I finished more than a month ago. But you’ll still have to gimme a day or two to throw something together. Or more maybe.

October 20, 2006

History vs. Morality

Reading Robert’s History of the World:

When we talk about ancient history, we don’t really pass judgment. Nobody seems to take the time to condemn the Inca for sacrificing children. Or to tell us that the Huns were too warlike. It would seem petty and displaced, no?

This, to me, is an argument against the religious definition of morality. Morality is not a code of standards against which all behavior may be judged. If it were, we would be perfectly ready to say whether the way Homo erectus conducted itself was “good” or “bad.” Morality is in fact really meaningful to us only when the possibility of choice still exists; we apply it to past events only when their consequences for the present can be identified.

Moral principles and moral discernment are useful because they guide each individual to choose actions that are beneficial. But moral judgment in the religious mold – the sort that, in God’s hands, purportedly decides which prize you get in the afterlife – has no real application when practiced by humans. We might well have intra-societal reasons for pointing out whose behavior we think is “good” and who is “bad,” but it’s disingenuous to say that these reasons are “because we have a moral standard, and we call it like we see it.” Otherwise we’d be equally willing to judge things that happened today and in 1200 BC. But we are not.

This is why it is so disheartening that certain political elements in the US place such an emphasis on a rhetoric of unequivocal moral judgment. It’s true, the Republicans take a pretty strong stance on terrorists, but they’re soft on the Aztecs.

The only real “stance” that can be taken on anything, by a government or an individual, is one of policy. Moral judgment can at its best be an aid to this end, but it has no merits of its own. Obviously, since there can be no policy toward the distant past, there can be no judgment of it either.

The preceding doesn’t make much of a case; it just records my thought. I already agree with me so I don’t need a lot of convincing.

Of course, the mindset that the Inca needn’t be reprimanded because they’ve been gone for 500 years may well be a new one, or specific to my culture. Books from a century ago often surprise me by managing to hold out a judgmental or superior tone about the oddest things. So that pretty much nullifies my little argument.

Not sure I stand by any of it anyway. It flickered through my head while I was reading about ancient Egypt. Maybe I don’t agree with me after all.

October 14, 2006

Art thought – Tate Modern notes

As mentioned earlier, here are the pretentious and cranky notes I wrote while walking around at the Tate Modern, to keep myself from getting too annoyed at the far more pretentious art. I think the idea originally was that I could eventually work them into essay form but who needs it? I’ve worked them into sentence form – that should be plenty.

The various thoughts informing these notes, as suggested in the previous entires here, were associated, in my mind, with my memory of a picture and caption from Move Closer by John Armstrong, a little book about art that made a strong impression on me and which I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before. Yup, there it is. Well, I just looked through the book and see that my memory has conflated and altered two different pictures and their captions. One is a photograph of a door (not this one) at the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, with the caption “Teaches us what a door is, just as Cézanne or Chardin teach us what an apple is.” Then, elsewhere, he has a reproduction of this painting, and captions it “Visual contemplation involves seeing each individual object just as it is. This picture testifies to the love of that kind of looking.” Both are interesting captions as they stand, but in my memory I had mixed them, and thought that under the painting he had said something like “teaches us what it is to look.” Which false memory, in turn, was an impetus to my little thesis.

That misremembered caption seems to have been the departure point for my angry scribbles, which begin… now.

– Art teaches ways of seeing the world.

– Much of the recent work here offers only limited or non-functional ways. Modern art does not emanate from a living, active culture; it does not connect us to a way of life. Most of these works have no applicability other than escape or fantasy; fantasy with no function.

– [This is at least partially in reference to this work:] Album cover stylings: a make-believe mind. We get a rush of false experience for 20 seconds. Full-fledged sci-fi and fantasy strain to sustain this falseness as long and wide as possible. At least that is an aspiration in terms of craft: not to let the bubble burst. But this is art selling us the blatantly irrelevant.

– The curation would have it that all art is historical – the grand narrative as a justification. E.g. something like minimalism is described as a “response” to the opposite trend. But is this a philosophical response or merely a counter-ploy? What is the work attempting? What discourse can possibly be underway when the art has willfully divorced itself from human discourse, culture as it exists?

Jorge Macchi: Incidental Music – [The work is made up of lines of text from news clippings about death, arranged so as to form sheet music, where gaps in the clippings are taken to indicate notes. The resulting (unplanned) music, a series of disconnected tones, can be heard on headphones nearby.] This is of course not a real way of thinking about the news – it is an imaginary way of thinking that does not exist. The work says “imagine if this were meaningful!” As does so much modern art.

– Earlier abstraction (say, up to 1950?) was a conscientious attempt to portray experience, abstracted. The abstractions were explorations of the nature of the brain, of experience. This is still a legitimate avenue. Kandinsky saw abstraction as a path to the spiritual in art. Brancusi said of this sculpture that he was attempting to portray the essence of a fish rather than a fish. In general, abstraction used to portray experiences or states of mind that exist, rather than states of mind that do not exist.

– As that guy said, as quoted in that piece I linked to that time, “a nonexistent point of view.” Modern art is overrun with the point of view that does not exist, that which can be built but not experienced. Or that thing I said, and I am still proud of myself for having said, in a music seminar in college, explaining what was to be resented about Philip Glass’ Einstein On the Beach: that it was easier to write than to listen to.

Dan Flavin on his work in general: “It is what it is, and it ain’t nothin’ else… it is very easy to understand.” Uh-oh!

[The preceding stood alone in my little notebook, and it amuses me that way, but just to be clear: Uh-oh because it is in fact very important that art be somethin’ else. “Uh-oh,” rather than a real rebuttal, because I don’t buy his unfrozen-caveman-lawyer routine. Click on the art if you haven’t. It’s a fluorescent lightbulb.]

– Duchamp’s Fountain. “What Is Art?” A distracting and silly question. I addressed this very thing a couple entries ago.

Signageobjects… all such works isolate elements of reality rather than of experience. This mistake is compounded by isolating elements of discourse: a concept is even further from experience than a thing.

– Without craft to justify the exhibitions, [can’t read my own writing!] art that aspires to highlight subtleties that actually live elsewhere in life. The white space is an affront to relevance, accessibility to humans. [Don’t know what I was talking about. Either an all-white painting, or else the notion of blank museum space, elaborated on below.]

– The idea that white is a neutral space is a romantic illusion by and about humans. (To be true to our biologically inborn sense of “neutral space” maybe we should display art in a savannah?) It’s as unrealistic as the impartiality of display in a rococo drawing room. Discrete objects – discreteness, cleanness – these sell a lie that is belied by the spirit of most art. Cataloguing, curatorial plaques, numbering systems, glass cases. This paradigm is not quite “numbing,” but it is prejudicial.

– Museum-going as a repeated, imaginary process of acclimation. [I didn’t flesh that out into a sentence because I’m not sure which of several possible things I meant. Hm.]

– The highest aspiration of so much contemporary art is not applicability but piquancy.

– In the abstract expressionist galleries: so much of the work suffers from a preoccupation with the method, rather than the object, of abstraction.

– “Playful sense of humor” my ass.

I don’t remember which plaque inspired that last; I know I was in this room. I think I might have written it in indirect response to this piece.

In general, it sums up my anger at the modern art museum as a whole: “How dare you act as though this strangeness is all part of normal human discourse! It’s very aggressively and intentionally not, and if you or any artist sincerely wants to offer something to me, you will recognize that.” That emperor who bought those invisible clothes that only smart people could see should have known they didn’t actually exist. Not because he himself couldn’t see them – everyone is fallible, after all – but because no accommodations of tact were made for the possibility that he might not be able to see them. The only reason to handle things that way is to coerce people into nervous lies. My irritation wasn’t that there was a flourescent lightbulb being displayed as art; it was that nowhere did the museum say, “Hey! Wondering why a fluorescent lightbulb on the wall is on display as a work of art? Does that seem ridiculous to you? Well, don’t worry! A lot of first-time visitors feel that way; that’s why we wrote this friendly explanation! Read this!” I think curators, because of their weird little cloistered world, might think that saying something like “Flavin’s work, both materially and experientially, challenges accepted notions of what constitutes artistic value,” addresses the issue. Far from it. The evasive, passive, implicitly laudatory, euphemistic acknowledgement that a work of art is irritating and bewildering is the proverbial unkindest cut.

I’m not saying it’s all nonsense! Let me be clear that I don’t think any of the works linked, not even the Dan Flavin, is devoid of interest or value. The question is of the scale of that value. I think the comment about “piquancy” is my central criticism here.

October 13, 2006

Art thought satellites

1. I feel like these thoughts address the question of why music is meaningful, too. Music taps into the mental programming in some hack-y way, directly addressing the constitutent subroutines that are called in our comprehension of emotion, comfort, social relations, etc. without calling on the larger routines themselves. We have trouble talking about “tension and release” in music in ways that seem meaningful because these words are just vague metaphors for things that have no names – we are actually trying to talk about variables and functions, so to speak, in our mental programming. Music manipulates elements of the mental program whose relationship to experience is technical rather than mimetic. Music is a bit like one of those neurological experiments where an electrical impulse sent directly into the brain creates certain perceptions, except that music’s insertion point is hierarchically higher. Or, if you prefer, music is a bit like “POKE“.

2. Part of my problem in writing these things down is that I have been away from writing for so long. Thinking in terms of language is a habit to be cultivated and maintained, distinct from the skill of simply thinking. I have been struggling in these past entries with an awkward translation process, from the non-linguistic to the linguistic. The more time I spend in the realm of the linguistic, the more likely that my thoughts will spontaneously organize themselves along linguistic lines. And the more exacting and clear my writing will be. Hopefully.

October 12, 2006

Art thought part 3

Was walking to the bank and reading from that little art book I’ve been reading, and I remembered some of what I had intended to write last time.

Something else I’ve started reading – this is a very ambitious time for me! – is Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, which was displayed somewhat prominently in some UK bookstores. Not so in the US, but I did still find it at the library. This one I don’t intend to finish, but it’s still enriching to dip in. It’s a huge book meant to introduce a lay reader to the contemporary physicist’s view of the universe, but with somewhat more actual exposure to the math than such books usually have. Trying to pitch that sort of content to a genuinely “lay” reader is tough, and I can already tell that Penrose’s grip on what he’s not assuming us to already know is a bit shaky. He’s trying to do the right thing but the occasional aside that zooms way out of bounds is unencouraging, and, from browsing forward, I predict total comprehension failure at about the halfway point. But we’ll see.

Anyway, he starts with a discussion of “what is math, exactly?” and this discussion, though ultimately rather superficial, nonetheless was very helpful for me. The crazy Platonic dilemma, of individual horses vs. “horseness,” is much clearer and more apparently real when applied to mathematical (rather than semantic) abstractions. There are no squares or lines in the real world, only approximations. Yet when we talk about math, and geometry, we are talking about interactions and relations among things that have a certain kind of reality to us. Where, then, do the absolute and perfect squares and lines of mathematics exist? Penrose gives a funny little diagram of three worlds, each containing the next: the physical world, the mental world, and the Platonic world of forms – this last being the world of mathematics. The diagram, I take it, is in part a play on one of Penrose’s claims to fame, and is a little wacky for me, but the idea that the world of mathematics is neither the mind nor the world fits in well with what I’ve been thinking – it is in fact, in this inner cosmology I’m working out, the world of the mental program. As per my last entry.

The philosophy that tells us that there are multiple possible mathematical systems, each internally coherent, is easy to nod at, but our intuitive sense that (to use Penrose’s first example) Euclidean geometry is “the real deal” and non-Euclidean geometry is just “an interesting notion in math” is very strong. The idea that the real (real!) spatial universe might well be non-Euclidean is one of these affronts of modern physics that we are forced to write off as being simply beyond the pale of normal human experience, something that can be theorized about but which is fundamentally inassimilable. This idea that there are things which are true but, in practice, fundamentally inassimilable is a useful wedge for separating our model of the world from the world itself. Euclidean geometry too, as Penrose and Plato and others have pointed out, is not the world itself. Again: there are no perfect squares or lines in the real world. The mass of world-modeling accumulated under the name of “science” is still not truth – it is just as close an approximation of truth as we can muster. Math and science are not a collection of “facts” about the world, they are an independent structure, which through careful revision tends asymptotically closer to the actual world.

A computer game that plays poker – why did I think of this, of all things? – uses variables and routines and subroutines and formulae etc. to “model” the game of poker. The computer does not “know” anything about poker, per se. It has images stored away that look like cards, and it calls them up according to algorithms that mathematically mimic the play of poker, yet it has never heard of “cards” and wouldn’t recognize them if they were, um, fed into the disc drive. Conversely, a person who plays poker – even computer poker – would have no reason to recognize or understand nerdy jargon like “function cardValue (cardPlayed) {return cardArray[cardPlayed].value;}”. But what if the poker program itself was the person who played poker? It would know the game from both worlds at once, and so would have a hard time differentiating between the function “cardValue” and the value of a given card – which, you might argue, is not so problematic. But it would also have a hard time differentiating between the programming world in which the concept of “function” was meaningful, and the poker world in which it was not. What I am saying about art, basically, is that if computers could write poetry, it would be about functions, not about, um, poker. (Better computer example for poetry would be a flower simulator. Do they have that? Sort of.)

So back to the geometrical example: the feeling that a straight line is a valuable construct, that it is a useful notion, is deep deep down there in the roots of what humans do with their minds. Dogs, for example, do not care about squares. They don’t believe in them the way we do. Human interest in geometrical figures is a fairly low-level example of our interest in our own world-model; it has something to do with the way our brains have learned to perceive and evaluate space. Drawing a repeating pattern of parallels or diamonds on a stone axe is a way of prioritizing and sharing this world of forms, this mental model. Primitive art and folk art are heavily geometrical – this is the first tier of the human activity of projecting the mental model. Primitive man didn’t find squares in the wilderness and draw pictures of them; the squares arose from some substratum of his own mental program.

I’ve also done some reading about Pythagoras recently. Pythagoras attributed mystical importance to numbers and apparently taught that the world of numbers, not the physical world, was the “real” world. It is clear to us now that, in fact, the world of numbers is less real than the world outside us, but is one of the most versatile and durable things inside us for predicting and emulating that outer world. Compared to religion, say, mathematics makes much better predictions. So of course Pythagoras applied religious significance to it. It’s a running feature of all religion that it privileges its explanations over the everyday “apparent” explanations. This is because explanations exist only in the mental world, not in the outer world, so, accurate or inaccurate, believing in explanations will always involve a certain deprioritizing of the outward appearances of things.

Oh man.

This entry once again reveals that I don’t quite know how to say all this in a way that seems clear and concise. But I’m working around to it. Prepare for a few more rambles like this before this has been purged from my system.

One more shot. Though the five senses deliver data to us from physical reality, our cognitive experience of a coherent and comprehensible world is not actually an experience of the outer world, but rather of an inner model world. This model is constructed by our brain according to a program that combines and interprets the sensory data according to certain principles and assumptions. While at the lowest levels, regarding our perceptions of space, time, and matter, these principles are common to all humans, at higher levels these principles vary from culture to culture and even from individual to individual. Furthermore these principles are subject to revision and adaptation. All of the above may seem self-apparent, but when taken to heart, this description of the relationship between reality and experience sheds a clarifying light on many issues that continue to be discussed in a muddled and deluded way. E.g. the nature of art, the nature of science, the nature of culture, etc. etc.

I don’t doubt that some philosopher has said the same thing. Can anyone tell me what philosopher’s work I’m clumsily reenacting here?

Beth says (tentatively) that I shouldn’t post stuff like this until I’ve really worked it out for myself. My suspicion is that all this adds up to very little of value to anyone other than me. I think I’m just trying to express a shift in my personal understanding, which does not represent any actual new insight for the world. As with all learning I’ve ever done, there is a vital difference between having understood an idea and having incorporated it into one’s thought. I’ve just incorporated something into my thought.

But this website was supposed to be space for me to give vent to these sorts of things. The idea is that it is only incidentally public; I’m trying to inure myself to the idea that everything I do, potentially, is public, and that it’s really only a question of what I want to achieve rather than what’s appropriate. So I’m just posting stuff as I type it. I’ll take it down later if it embarrasses me that much. Reading it is your problem.