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Another image using the photo-to-line art technique I described in a previous post.
A friend and I were talking.
One of my favorites is Italo Calvino, she said.
Oh, yes!… I used to review some of his books for the San Francisco Chronicle.
My favorite was Six Memos for the New Millennium.
I love that one! Can you send it to me?… The review, I mean.
Maybe? That must have been around thirty years ago. But I think I do still have some old reviews in a box. I’ll see if I can dig it out for you.
And I did. And here it is.
Writing as a Perfect Crystal
Six Memos for the Next Millennium
The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1985–1986
By Italo Calvino; translated by Patrick Creagh
Harvard University Press; 136 pages; $12.95
In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino, master of startling literary transformations in such works as Invisible Cities, Cosmicomics, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, shares his personal alchemical formula for literary Gold.
These lectures, intended for presentation at Harvard University in 1985, are precisely worded, carefully crafted, beautifully illustrated examples of the literary essay and inspiring demonstrations of Calvino’s argument that writing should have the definition, luminescence, and perfection of structure of a crystal. (The book is marred only by the failure of Harvard University Press to credit Patrick Creagh’s excellent translation.)
Calvino’s formula is idiomatic and personal. It will be difficult for literary critics to apply it as a test of value or for aspiring writers to use it as a recipe for their own magical creations. But it provides a brilliant, original approach to literature, a key to Calvino’s own work, and a thoroughly delightful and illuminating commentary on some of the world’s greatest writing.
The predominant focus in the neurobiological study of memory has been on remembering (persistence). However, recent studies have considered the neurobiology of forgetting (transience). Here we draw parallels between neurobiological and computational mechanisms underlying transience. We propose that it is the interaction between persistence and transience that allows for intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments. Specifically, we argue that transience (1) enhances flexibility, by reducing the influence of outdated information on memory-guided decision-making, and (2) prevents overfitting to specific past events, thereby promoting generalization. According to this view, the goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time, per se. Rather, the goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. As such, transience is as important as persistence in mnemonic systems.
This is a fancy way of saying, just think how hellish it would be if you were unable to forget any face you had ever seen on BART.
Recently I’ve been experimenting with a technique for converting photos to line art, which can then be colorized. (I don’t claim this technique is original to me, but I’ve been refining it for my own purposes.)
The essence of the technique is the conversion to lines, using the color dodge and multiply blend modes. In the artwork above, I started from this photo:
Just found out today (from someone who actually watched it) that this is online. I guess it’s been up for years.
Most photographic and print publication work involves operating within rectangular frames. The relationship of width to height is the aspect ratio, expressed as, for example, 1:1 for a square, 1:1.5 for a 6 x 9 book, or 1:2 for a sheet that is twice as wide as it is tall. Conventionally, the width is stated first: that 6 x 9 book is in portrait format, whereas a 9 x 6 book would be landscape, bound on the short side, and most inconvenient to read.
A special case is the golden section or golden ratio, a rectangle with the proportion 1:1.618 (between 3/5ths and 5/8ths). In this rectangle the smaller dimension is to the larger as the larger is to the sum. In other words, 1 is to 1.618 as 1.618 is to 2.618. And as 2.618 is to 4.236, and so on. This relationship, which can be extended indefinitely, was known since classical times, and it underlies the Fibonacci Series and the modular architecture of Le Corbusier, among other expressions. Gustav Theodor Fechner, a German scientist, studied people’s responses to rectangular shapes in 1876 and concluded that the golden section is the most pleasing, though his methodology and results have been questioned. But other aspect ratios also have historic and aesthetic associations.
“Every separation is a link.” — Simone Weil
I haven’t done a links post in quite a while. Here are a few things I thought worth sharing.
- Why Google is obsessed with your photos
“In a landscape fast becoming dominated by artificial intelligence, data — in this case, your photos — has become its own reward.”
- Color perception across cultures
“Is color perception a universal human experience?”
- “Unpaywall” shakes up academic publishing
“Open-source, nonprofit, and dedicated to improving access to scholarly research.”
- How to vet a publishing deal
“Traditional deals don’t require the author to pay for anything.”
- A rabbit hole leads to mystery caves
“An underground sanctuary said to have been used by devotees of a medieval religious order — but is everything what it seems?”
- The Met’s online free-for-all
“375,000 images of works of art from its collection are now available online for unrestricted commercial and non-commercial use in a new initiative, Open Access.”
- Creating the Hartford Whalers logo
“I have the letterforms ‘W’ and ‘H’ and I have a whale …”
- Don’t confuse the Museum of Failure with the Museum of Folly (MoFo)
“I got kind of fed up with everybody’s worshipping of success all the time …”
The aged are inclined to live in the past. In 1576, when Thomas Platter was seventy-seven, he published a charming autobiography. It would be admired centuries later by Goethe. Platter was the son of Swiss peasants. In Europe, the explosion of printing begun in the fifteenth century made advanced education available beyond the traditional literary elite, and Platter had learned seven languages and ended as a schoolteacher in Basel. As a legacy of his success, both of his sons, Felix and Thomas, became physicians. In 1599 the brothers were well enough off to partake of the new fad of international tourism, and they traveled to London. In his travel diary the younger brother, Thomas, describes attending a play “very pleasingly performed” on September 21. The drama was a tragedy concerning the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Felix is sometimes remembered for being one of the first to articulate a theory of germs. Thomas is remembered for having attended a play.
Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing,something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful — more lasting than life itself.
— Charles Rennie Mackintosh, from “Seemliness” (1902 lecture)
Albrecht Altdorfer, a contemporary of Copernicus who worked in Regensburg (today a German city of 138,0000 near the Austria and Czechia borders), was a leader of the Danube school of painting. These painters spearheaded a move toward landscape painting in its own right, as opposed to using landscape mainly as a background for setting classical and biblical scenes.
Nowhere is this more evident than in this small oil painting. St. George and the dragon are dwarfed by trees in a woodsy setting. In fact, some of the leaves appear nearly as big as the dragon, whose appearance is more that of a hapless toad of the traditional ferocious fire breather. Many critics, such as Linda Murray in The High Renaissance and Mannerism (London: Thames & Hudson, 1967), call Altdorfer the first modern landscape painter. A number of his painters contain no figures at all — Altdorfer also worked as an architect, and some depict lonely ruins at twilight.
Altdorfer cleverly uses lighting effects to bring out the figures from the background and give the scene a sense of mystery. The effect is a strange stillness that is at odds with the traditional dynamism and violence of depictions of this subject.
- The most famous of all musicians is Brian ENO.
- Anything mixed up is an OLEO. Not to be confused with AIOLI, foremost among condiments, or OREO, the most popular snack ever.
- All Asian holidays are TET.
- Scandinavian queens like to name their sons OLAV.
- A poem is probably an ODE.
- If you’re on the water you must be ASEA, and very likely ALEE.
- To get someone’s attention, say PSST.
- Taps nearly always produce ALE. But MEAD is a more popular drink than anyone knew (other than crossword constructors). It is nearly always poured from a EWER.
- History is the study of ERAS. Perhaps the most important is that of Pope LEOIV.
- If you only know one muse, make her ERATO.
- Native Americans are often ERIE, which is also by far the greatest of the Great Lakes.
- The most significant architectural features are the APSE and the NAVE.
- Of all of the stories in the bible, the most compelling are those of ENOS and ESAU.
- Don’t forget your SSN.
- When climbing, keep an eye out for ARETES.
- Shakespeare never produced a greater line than “ET TU, Brute.”
- Pinyin has still not been accepted for romanizing Chinese in Crosswordese. Never write Laozi, always Lao TSE.
- A great jazz singer is ELLA. Hey, they got one right!
Greg Fallis, on the website gregfallis.com, does a service in reminding us of the history of the statues of the Charging Bull and the Fearless Girl. I live on the West Coast, and the last time I saw the Bull in the Bowling Green of the Financial District in Manhattan, New York City, the Fearless Girl had not yet been installed.
But I cannot agree with the conclusion Fallis draws from that history. He reminds us that Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who produced the bull at his own expense, created it to represent “the strength and power of the American people.”
The Girl, on the other hand, was commissioned by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. It was intended as corporate marketing. So that seems to be a mark against the Girl.
Additionally, Fallis notes that the Girl draws her strength from the Bull, so she in effect is parasitic on it. “A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art,” Fallis says, “to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art” (Di Modica installed the Bull without permission from the city).
This small (15.75 x 12.25 in.) watercolor is called Das große Rasenstück in German, which is most often translated as The Great Piece of Turf. Some of its greatness lies in that fact that in one sense it is not great at all — it’s just a seemingly ordinary couple of square feet of weeds and grasses. According to Tom Lubbock in The Independent, the plants can be identified as “cock’s-foot, creeping bent, smooth meadow grass, daisy, dandelion, germander speedwell, greater plantain, hound’s-tongue and yarrow.” Not focal plants for most gardeners.
Recently I visited Sohier Park in Cape Neddick, York, Maine (near Ogunquit). About 100 yards offshore on a small rocky island perches one of the prettiest lighthouses I have seen, called Nubble Light House. The lighthouse was built in 1879, and the original lighthouse and perhaps outbuildings are still standing (though no doubt much repaired and updated). The 41-foot-high lighthouse — built of cast iron lined with brick and equipped with a Fresnel lens — remains in use today.
No. 85000844 on the National Register of Historic Places, the lighthouse is a New England icon: its image was included among the Voyager spacecraft materials so that any extraterrestials the ship encounters can gape at it, just as we do. The day before we visited we were hit by an April Fool’s Day storm that dumped ten inches of snow on us. But when we got to the lighthouse the sky was clear and blue.
The visit to Nubble made me recall a few other lighthouses I’ve visited, some of which I was able to dig up from my photo files. My favorites are two Northern California lighthouses, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse near Pescadero (the tallest on the U.S. Pacific coast), and the Point Cabrillo Light Station near Mendocino.
The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse near Mendocino (and the small community of Caspar) is one of the most complete remaining lighthouse complexes.
Subtle, sweet, subversive, and sly, The Lost Poems of Cangjie will leave many readers puzzled – and, equally, delighted. The core of the book consists of two series of lyrical, imagistic poems, both apparently made up of fragmented ancient Chinese verses somewhat in the style of the classic Book of Songs. Individual poems mostly are short, both in line length and in number of lines, and most explore themes of longing and forbidden love.
I’m not kidding when I say ancient. The two poem sequences, as explained in a sort of Borgesian prose frame that describes their origin and discovery, were preserved in scrolls concealed within one of the terra-cotta warriors of the First Emperor’s underground army. One, the “Beta Scroll,” was written near the time of their concealment, which is to say, around 210 BCE, when the Qin dynasty collapsed and was replaced with the Han. (That places these verses roughly contemporaneous with the poems of Apollonius of Rhodes, author of the Argonautica, and a good century and a half before Vergil.)
But that’s nothing compared to the longer “Alpha Scroll,” which is attributed to Cangjie, the legendary founder of Chinese writing. He is supposed to have lived two and a half millennia earlier still, during the reign of the primogenitor of Chinese culture, the Yellow Emperor. In other words, he is more distant in the past from the author of the Beta Scroll than we are in the present. If these poems are indeed the work of Cangjie, that would make them the oldest extant poems in the world by a considerable margin.
Despite the vast time separation, the two scrolls are similar both stylistically and thematically. This may be attributable in part to the transcription (or translation) of the Cangjie poems by the later Chinese poet, known as “the Sculptor” because of his work as one of the creators of the First Emperor’s underground army. In addition, both poem series are translated into English by a mysterious figure known only as “E. O.” The translator also provides an afterword.
But the book begins with a foreword by John Briscoe, who identifies himself as “a lawyer whose practice takes me to East Asia.” There, we are told, he met E.O., who asked him “to act as agent to bring this work to publication.” (Briscoe in turn asked me to assist in producing the publication — under the imprint of Risk Press, directed by Charlie Pendergast — and I will talk a bit about the book’s design in a subsequent post.)
Briscoe touches on the story of the poems’ creation and their journey into English, but this is explained most fully in the translator’s afterword. E. O.’s prose style is more florid than Briscoe’s (though this is not particularly evident in the poems). This is how he begins:
When words first pealed the ecstasy of sunrise, cried the ache of moonrise, sounded the desolation of this life, we don’t know. We don’t know when sounds first stood as words for we, for home. We don’t know whether a word for home existed before a word for returning home, or for the unutterable ache to return home. We do know, though, that like many words, like whole languages, those clusters of words we call poetry arc like meteors. They blaze brief, if at all. If it is particularly right, for its time, or all time, and if the people who spoke it are not all dead or, if written down, and the libraries holding it have not been put to the torch, then a poetry might persist longer, more like a comet than a meteor, a comet plying the night sky that in the end fades into the cosmos. A poetry that survives centuries, however, much less millennia, stands in the firmament like a constellation, wandering at seasons beyond the horizon, but in time returning to the night sky.
E. O.’s telling of the discovery of the scrolls is cloaked in circumspection for political reasons. “Vagueness,” he tells us, “is the better part of discretion, which is better here than any valor.” A young archaeologist, E. O. explains, chanced upon the scrolls within the torso of a terra-cotta soldier as he was working on the excavation of the underground army. To the First Emperor is traditionally attributed a great Burning of the Books, and these scrolls were apparently hidden to avoid that fate. Worried that the scrolls might even today be suppressed or destroyed for political reasons — because they are critical of political rulers and might be seen as seditious — the archaeologist concealed his discovery and removed the scrolls. Eventually the poems were translated by E. O. into English.
I mentioned that the scrolls share certain themes. The archaeologist’s concern about the possibility of their being viewed as seditious results from a shared animus toward emperors and their high-handed governance. Each poet served a strong emperor: Cangjie the Yellow Emperor and the Sculptor the First Emperor (although the Yellow Emperor preceded him by millennia, Qin Shihuang is known as the First Emperor because he unified China only a couple of centuries before the beginning of the common era). In the words of E. O.,
A number of the verses of Cangjie speak (not at all with affection) of an emperor, the Yellow Emperor. Verses of the sculptor, the transcriber of Cangjie’s poems, also speak occasionally of an emperor, the First Emperor. At times Cangjie’s emperor seems a conjured emperor, at times not. The loathed emperor of the sculptor, though, is not a conjured emperor, no mere metaphor for life’s oppressions and petty oppressors. He is, plainly, the historical figure the First Emperor, the Burner of the Books.
For example, the Sculptor writes the First Emperor
First Emperor is only
an emperor, only
But this emperor burns our books.
Burners of books
in the end burn people.
while Cangjie writes of the Yellow Empeor
Emperor practices jealousy
as if it were an art
like falconry, or archery.
He more than lusts,
he is more than jealous,
he is envious of the beauty
sleeping languid in your skin
and not in his.
He seethes when he sees you before him.
Does he take you thinking
you will ravish him
and he will be reborn as you?
The object of the Yellow Empeor’s lust was one of his concubines, who perhaps resembled the woman depicted in the cover art by contemporary artist Hung Liu. Cangjie loved this woman, who of course was unattainable to him, and, we are told, invented writing to communicate his love to her. As the Sculptor explains:
in mudded shallows
the tracks long-legged
wading birds made,
little prints the feet of song birds
left in snow.
. . .
The prints of feet of song birds
were pictures of words
for moonset, and breast
An egret leapt into flight
leaving in sand the etched word
Cangjie perhaps alludes to teaching his love to read his poems in the first fragment of his series (part of which was indecipherable to the translator):
You have listened to my poems. Now
I teach you
to see them to [?.?.?.?]
Mostly his poems express his love and longing. The poems are imagistic, economical, heartfelt, and lovely. The fascinating prose frame that surrounds them (and sometimes manifests in footnotes to the poems themselves), should not cause us to overlook the poetic quality of the verses themselves. These verses, for example, are typical of Canjie:
Like your lashes
your hands flutter?—
quails in a bush
at an approach?—
. . .
The court lights — has a sun pierced
No, it is you entering,
smiling. You have, I think,
drunk more than a cup of wine.
. . .
A band of players pipes
a tune, an air?—
no, it is you
somewhere in the open court.
I will have another cup
brought to you.
Is it all an elaborate put-on? Perhaps, but the sentiments are real and the verses are moving, informed by poetical tradition and crafted with an awareness of poetic technique. Borges would have loved the deadpan literate frame, and Cervantes — whose Quixote is attributed to a Moorish author, Cide Hamete Benengeli — would have appreciated the possibly deflected authorial attribution. And even more the empathatic impulse to acknowledge universal human feelings across vast cultural boundaries. The Lost Poems of Canjie is one of the most original and fulfilling books I have read in a long time. Highly recommended.
This interview with Grace Paley by Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, and Larissa MacFarquhar ran in the Paris Review in 1992. Still of interest.
The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.
A lot of [my stories] begin with a sentence—they all begin with language. It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant…. I begin by writing paragraphs that don’t have an immediate relation to a plot. The sound of the story comes first.
Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options. You choose one, probably the wrong one.
There’s an idea that there’s this great mainstream, which may be wide but is kind of shallow and slow-moving. It’s the tributaries that seem to have the energy.
You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell…. The pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?
Read the rest here.