Unreal Nature

April 30, 2009

The Russian Sense of Blueness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:18 am

What makes this exchange of secret values possible is not only the mere contact between the words, but their exact position in regard both to the rhythm of the line and to one another.

Is that quote referring to genetics? For example, yesterday’s post:

… understanding chromosomal topography is absolutely essential to understanding the genome.

Or maybe it’s about the universal importance of structure in nature, from an even earlier post:

… there is one overriding message: shape, shape, shape. At every size, from atoms to cabledomes, we see that shapes can do things we could hardly have expected.

No. In this case, it’s from a 1941 essay, by Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Translation, out of the archives at The New Republic. Here is the end of the piece:

… I have lately tried to translate several Russian poets who had either been badly disfigured by former attempts or who had never been translated at all. The English at my disposal is certainly thinner than my Russian; the difference being, in fact, that which exists between a semi-detached villa and a hereditary estate, between self-conscious comfort and habitual luxury. I am not satisfied therefore with the results attained, but my studies disclosed several rules that other writers might follow with profit.

I was confronted for instance with the following opening line of one of Pushkin’s most prodigious poems:

Yah pom-new chewed-no-yay mg-no-vain-yay

I have rendered the syllables by the nearest English sounds I could find; their mimetic disguise makes them look rather ugly; but never mind; the “chew” and the “vain” are associated phonetically with other Russian words meaning beautiful and important things, and the melody of the line with the plump, golden-ripe “chewed-no-yay” right in the middle and the “m’s” and “n’s” balancing each other on both sides, is to the Russian ear most exciting and soothing — a paradoxical combination that any artist will understand.

Now, if you take a dictionary and look up those four words you will obtain the following foolish, flat and familiar statement: “I remember a wonderful moment.” What is to be done with this bird you have shot down only to find that it is not a bird of paradise, but an escaped parrot, still screeching its idiotic message as it flaps on the ground? For no stretch of the imagination can persuade an English reader that “I remember a wonderful moment” is the perfect beginning of a perfect poem. The first thing I discovered was that the expression “a literal translation” is more or less nonsense. “Yah pom-new” is a deeper and smoother plunge into the past than “I remember,” which falls flat on its belly like an inexperienced diver; “chewed-no-yay” has a lovely Russian “monster” in it, and a whispered “listen,” and the dative ending of a “sunbeam,” and many other fair relations among Russian words. It belongs phonetically and mentally to a certain series of words, and this Russian series does not correspond to the English series in which “I remember” is found. And inversely, “remember,” though it clashes with the corresponding “pom-new” series, is connected with an English series of its own whenever real poets do use it. And the central word in Housman’s “What are those blue remembered hills?” becomes in Russian “vspom-neev-she-yesyah,” a horrible straggly thing, all humps and horns, which cannot fuse into any inner connection with “blue,” as it does so smoothly in English, because the Russian sense of blueness belongs to a different series than the Russian “remember” does.

This interrelation of words and non-correspondence of verbal series in different tongues suggest yet another rule, namely, that the three main words of the line draw one another out, and add something which none of them would have had separately or in any other combination. What makes this exchange of secret values possible is not only the mere contact between the words, but their exact position in regard both to the rhythm of the line and to one another. This must be taken into account by the translator.

Finally, there is the problem of the rhyme. “Mg-no-vainyay” has over two thousand Jack-in-the-box rhymes popping out at the slightest pressure, whereas I cannot think of one to “moment.” The position of “mg-no-vain-yay” at the end of the line is not negligible either, due as it is to Pushkin’s more or less consciously knowing that he would not have to hunt for its mate. But the position of “moment” in the English line implies no such security; on the contrary he would be a singularly reckless fellow who placed it there.

Thus I was confronted by that opening line, so full of Pushkin, so individual and harmonious; and after examining it gingerly from the various angles here suggested, I tackled it. The tackling process lasted the worst part of the night. I did translate it at last; but to give my version at this point might lead the reader to doubt that perfection be attainable by merely following a few perfect rules.

One further bit from earlier in the essay demands inclusion:

… Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators — and this has nothing to do with my three categories of evil; or, rather, any of the three types may err in a similar way. These three are: the scholar who is eager to make the world appreciate the works of an obscure genius as much as he does himself; the well meaning hack; and the professional writer relaxing in the company of a foreign confrere. The scholar will be, I hope, exact and pedantic: footnotes — on the same page as the text and not tucked away at the end of the volume — can never be too copious and detailed. The laborious lady translating at the eleventh hour the eleventh volume of somebody’s collected works will be, I am afraid, less exact and less pedantic; but the point is not that the scholar commits fewer blunders than a drudge; the point is that as a rule both he and she are hopelessly devoid of any semblance of creative genius. Neither learning nor diligence can replace imagination and style.

Now comes the authentic poet who has the two last assets and who finds relaxation in translating a bit of Lermontov or Verlaine between writing poems of his own. Either he does not know the original language and calmly relies upon the so-called “literal” translation made for him by a far less brilliant but a little more learned person, or else, knowing the language, he lacks the scholar’s precision and the professional translator’s experience. The main drawback, however, in this case is the fact that the greater his individual talent, the more apt he will be to drown the foreign masterpiece under the sparkling ripples of his own personal style. Instead of dressing up like the real author, he dresses up the author as himself.

… “can never be too copious and detailed.” At least I have some idea of who to blame (aside from Felix).

I hope you’ll read the whole Nabokov essay especially the description of a brutal translation of Gogol, and translation tennis with a Poe poem. [ link ]

Translation of written texts from one language to another has always reminded me a bit of the necessary “translation” that happens when a viewer tries to parse what a painter or photographer intended in his pictures. (The difficulties of translation can also can be further generalized to issues in philosophy or neurology or, I don’t know, boogers and toast if you make an effort.)



April 29, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 1:01 pm

An asterisk is not a footnote. It’s a larval note — a caterpillarnote, a milli-note. ‘Nuff said.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 11:03 am

I am surprised and delighted to find out, from this post, that Jim Putnam whose Thinking Through My Fingers blog I read regularly also reads my blog. This discovery is particularly timely as I was just this past Saturday repeatedly and quite shamelessly claiming, more or less, to know Jim Putnam. I will explain:

When I got home from a hike on Friday afternoon, I found a handwritten note tucked in my front door. It was from a man (the name given was clearly male) who said he had been by the house for the Census, and, having seen my waterfalls, was wondering if he could come back tomorrow (Saturday) to take photographs of them. Would I please call him. I was a bit puzzled as the Census-taking person that I had seen and spoken to earlier that week had rather definitely been a woman. I called him up; he explained that he was the supervisor and had been doing follow-up to the woman. I gave him permission to take his pictures.

Next day, mid-morning, he stopped up at the house to say thank you. We then got into an extended discussion of the Census; the process, the little hand-held devices, the workers, the local reaction and so forth. That’s where I repeatedly claimed to know “a fellow” or “a gentleman” in North Carolina “who said ….” It was very interesting to compare what I already knew from the Thinking Through My Fingers postings to this man’s experiences. He had also worked on the previous Census.

So, there you have it. Confessions of a Jim Putnam fan. My only complaint about the Thinking Through My Fingers blog is that I’d like more, more, more …

[In addition, I was interested in the description of Census-taking given by a woman to Andrew Sullivan on his The Daily Dish blog.]



The Indiscriminate Desire to Please

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:14 am

I used to do gymnastics, but I had forgotten — or never been able to see — its true weirdness. The unnatural sinew on the prepubescent girls, their equine musculature, their grim faces. It is a cruel sport painted with the brush of world politics, always projecting international conflicts onto tumbling female bodies; the Russians are boycotting, the Chinese are forging. In a world of nationless terrorism and oozing oil, gymnastics remains quaintly nationalistic, warm-up suits proclaiming countries’ names in foreign alphabets, coaches defecting, turning over the secrets of their launches and landings.

As I watched, I was struck by the gymnasts’ military precision and consequent lack of artistry. Gymnasts are foremost athletes and therefore terrible dancers. The flourishes of their hands and extensions of their legs are perfunctory, their motions far more dutiful than beautiful.

The very best ones express the least of all. They perform but they do not emote. They quite literally go though the motions, ticking them off an invisible mental checklist. The harder they set their jaws and the less they show they feel the higher their scores from the equally impassive judges. Like simple projectiles, they go from point A to point B. The awesome quality of their feats is conferred by the fact that a human body is not naturally a projectile and even more rarely a self-propelled one. Sometimes, when they land, if they stick it in a way that inspires their coach to exult in some guttural language, they show for a moment a flicker of joy indiscernible from relief.

I thought about how your parents would watch you in gymnastics class, when they waited behind the glass, arms crossed, to pick you up. And you would ask if they’d seen you as they bundled you into your snowboots, and they would say, “Yes, I saw, very good, it was very good.” I felt an almost parental heartbreak for these girls, for the sincerity of their efforts, for the premature hardening of their bodies and the truncation of their youth.

— from an essay, Noise by Emily Meg Weinstein (Mar 31, 2009) in Identity Theory

Those few paragraphs seem to have stirred up a great load of mucky sediment in my memory. Stuff from many decades ago has been set to seething again — distilled through many previous seethings.

The problem is conformity versus nonconformity or more precisely, those two urges in children — where they are trying to do both at the same time. It’s about how, when, and where athletic, social and/or educational authorities or teachers or parents equate obedience and conformity with all things good. Conformity is equated with joy (which is, of course, nonsense; they aren’t of the same category). In their juvenile dependence, children naturally derive joy from pleasing grown-ups. This is often an indiscriminate desire to please (indiscriminate in means, not in to whom it is directed), to show-off, to get attention. The development of a child’s ability to innovate, to be creative, to make independent decisions is or can be stunted or grossly distorted or even exterminated. Or not, depending on his/her teachers.

Conformity, rules, training are necessary and frequently good things but they should not be rewarded or encouraged as if they were ends in themselves.

Disclaimer: I have nothing against gymnastics. I am not and have never been a gymnast. I like watching the sport on TV.



Shape, Shape, Shape

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:10 am

… Across the wide range of technologies covered in this book there is one overriding message: shape, shape, shape. At every size,from atoms to cabledomes, we see that shapes can do things we could hardly have expected.

That’s a re-quote from the end of my post of a few days ago. It’s from the book, The Gecko’s Foot: Bio-inspiration: Engineering New Materials from Nature by Peter Forbes (2005).

The bits, below, carry Forbes’s theme into the genome. They’re from To Understand the Blueprint of Life, Crumple It, by Brandon Keim (Apr 28, 2009) in Wired Science:

… Unlike the textbook image of neatly-arranged, X-shaped lines of genes, which are usually photographed during moments of cellular stability, chromosomes assume a highly complicated form as genetic code is transcribed into a buzzing protein swarm. They’re intertwined like balls of loose twine.

In the last few years, scientists noticed that certain genes only seem to be activated when arranged in a certain configuration. Though unable to explain exactly why this happens, they’re convinced that understanding chromosomal topography is absolutely essential to understanding the genome.

… Exactly how chromosomes take their necessary shapes, and how these shapes then affect genes, is still unknown. Misteli called that knowledge the “holy grail.” Researchers do, however, have a few ideas. Some suspect that, rather than sending gene-activating and gene-stifling proteins to particular gene targets, chromosomes adjust their shape in order to bring genes closer to the proteins.

Misteli and Kosak describe this as a form of genomic self-organization, and say the findings support it. When Kosak and Rajapakse compared the mathematical patterns derived from their observations to patterns produced by a self-organizing computational model of the genome, the datasets fit.

Kosak next plans to study chromosome topography in human stem cells as they become functional tissue.

Read the full article to get all the details. [ link ]



April 28, 2009

The Cat in the Hat

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:34 am


— from The New Yorker cartoons for this week


This sometimes happens to me. Okay, okay, it happens a lot. I like putting my hat on upside down.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:29 am

At a particular time of year, in the middle of the night a narrow beam of of full-moonlight shines through the high clerestory window above my bedroom, across and down at a steep angle and lands precisely on my sleeping head. It wakes me up. And reminds me that, clearly, I am a goddess. Either that or there is some pervert sitting on the moon with a big spyglass who likes to look at a sleeping person with her hair every which way, drooling gently into her pillow.

At other times of the year, next to the chair in which I usually am sitting at a particular time of the morning, the combination of the rising sun, the low overhang of the porch roof, and the window below and behind that roof  leaves an ever narrowing strip of sunlight right at my feet on the hardwood floor inside. When the light strip is about an inch wide, you can see it speeding down to nothingness. I always stop what I’m doing and watch it. It takes about one minute to vanish. Damn, the earth is flying round and round!

Repeatedly, in the circling of the years, there are certain times when the light comes in at particular angles through various windows and catches my attention. For example, the fuzzy string* that ties the cloth of my bird-blind to the wall to keep it taut looks like this, just for a while in the spring:


If you are a photographer, you will stop and look at that light.

Or this:


That’s light from a skylight in the bathroom, casting a shadow into the sink. Again, only a certain time of the year, late on an uncloudy day. And, again, if you are a photographer, you will stop and look — and maybe . . . probably . . . take a few snaps. Light demands worship.

*That piece of string is from my awesome ball of string:


One should always have plenty of string on hand.




April 27, 2009

Who, What, Where, When and Why

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:18 am

George Gudger [Agee’s pseudonym for Floyd Burroughs] is a human being, a man, not like any other human being so much as he is like himself. I could invent incidents, appearances, additions to his character, background, surroundings, future …. The result, if I was lucky, could be a work of art. But somehow a much more important, and dignified, and true fact about him than I could conceivably invent, though I were an illimitably better artist than I am, is that fact that he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant, who, what, where, when and why he is.

That’s a quote from James Agee that is within an essay, Vistas of Perfection: The self-dissatisfied life and art of James Agee, by Adam Kirsch in the May/June 2009 issue of Harvard Magazine.

The last part of that quote, “he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant, who, what, where, when and why he is.” is probably what a great many people think straight photography is — or can and should — be about. The problem is, it’s not possible. Nobody, including Floyd Burroughs himself, knows, much less could convey, what “he is.”

You only need go back two sentences above the Agee quote in Kirsch’s essay to see the absurdity of the attempt:

… In fact, Agee’s book is a long meditation on the difficulty of capturing reality in language, on the incomparable uniqueness of the individual soul, on the prison of American materialism — much the same themes that inspired the transcendentalists a hundred years before. They are not themes that lend themselves to direct or shapely expression, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is at times maddening to read — Agee meanders, elaborates, doubts, catalogs, quotes, and versifies, more or less as the impulse takes him.

The only thing you find in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is Agee’s world view. The book, necessarily, cannot be ‘about’ the Burroughs/Gudger family. He spent two weeks living with the Burroughs. If a pair of aliens from outer space (Agee was with photographer Walker Evans) had been living in the Burroughs house, it would not have been any more disruptive than these two New England reporters.



Why Reading Philosophy Books Drives Me Crazy*

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:06 am

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving day meant, as it does for most Americans, eating a grotesquely large meal. We usually invited several family friends to join us in this ritual. One of those friends was an elderly lady who must have read, somewhere, that old business about it being best if you chew every bite of your food ninety-seven times. So she did. She also liked to talk. Between the interminable chewing (she chewed very deliberately, like a cow chewing its cud) and the talking (during which she would put down her fork and stop chewing!), for all of the rest of us (there were a lot of us) time seemed to stop. We, who were all very fast eaters (we inhaled it, more or less — no chewing involved) would become transfixed on the progress of her fork. Sometimes she would load it up (with a much-too-small bite), start to lift it to her mouth (as we all followed its progress with our eyes, silently urging it on), then think of something to say. The fork would return to the plate. This could go on for hours. It was horrible.

The sensation I get when reading most philosophy books is very similar to what I felt while watching that lady chewing every bite ninety-seven-times. Everything had to be chewed whether it needed chewing or not. Mashed potatoes have to chewed. Ninety-seven times.

The only thing worse than the chewing ninety-seven-times was when she stopped chewing. That’s what footnotes are like.

On rare occasions, footnotes can be (slightly) welcome because, in footnotes, the author seems to think its actually okay to just get to the point. For example, the footnote with the bit about blindness that I quoted yesterday from Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama by Tzachi Zarnir (2007), looks like this on the page:

(click the thumb to enlarge)

Another example of a stop-everything footnote, from the same book is this, from the chapter about Othello:

(click the thumb to enlarge)

If they have something to say, why can’t they weave it into the text so I can read the damn thing without doing this circling and qualifying and stop-and-start, where-was-I will-this-ever-get-to-the-point madness? I know, I know, it’s philosophy, which has its own logical requirements and expectations. Shakespeare said the same stuff quicker, better, and without any footnotes.

*A lot of the things in life that I love drive me crazy.



April 26, 2009

Willing Blindness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:56 am

Being less able to see some things can make you more able to see other things.

During a solar eclipse, because the sun has been blotted out, removed from sight, you can see the stars in the daytime. I have read descriptions of methods used in telescopic observations of heavenly bodies to deliberately mimic the effect of solar eclipse; to obscure very bright bodies in order to see small dark objects that are close to them. Photographers are familiar with the limits, either imposed by conditions or used deliberately by choice, of the brightness range that can be contained in one exposure. Where the range of brightness exceeds the capabilities of your film or sensor exposure for either the darkest or the lightest will be at the expense of the other.

But what of a cognitive corollary to this mechanical sort of deliberate blindness?

The ocular figures that shape so many of our epistemological notions predispose us against blindness, taking blindness as opposed to understanding. I will argue for an opposite conclusion: sometimes it is precisely blindness that opens up modes of understanding, not only because it tells us something about blindness itself but also because it is itself an enabling condition, as well as a part of, the experience one wants to connect with.

That’s from the book, Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama, by Tzachi Zarnir (2007). More specifically, the quote, above, is from the last part of footnote 14 on page 123 of the chapter on Romeo and Juliet.

I think that it is generally believed that artists works from a particularly good, clear, deep vision. Isn’t that the opposite of blindness? I would have said so before reading Zarnir’s essay but now I think he makes a good point. It may well be that selective, deliberate, willful blindness can reveal or make visible many things not otherwise apparent in the same way that the solar eclipse reveals the stars in the daytime. And that can be what art is about.

Here is more from the essay. Try substituting ‘art’ wherever he writes ‘literature.’

… Not seeing that skepticism should have arisen in Romeo intimates to us a pattern of response that duplicates his own blindness regarding the stability of his emotions. For him, such blindness is achieved through divorce from reality and stems from Juliet’s beauty. The blindness of enthusiastic reading is an effect of the strong formulation of love that the play articulates. In the fictional domain, a dreamlike experience involves perceiving the beauty of a person. On the level of response, forgetfulness results from moments in which one is overtaken by the beauty of fictions.

… Philosophical discourse may be able to explain how love operates or what it is. However, it fails to enact the epistemic conditions that enable perceiving love. Such perception is required in a theoretical activity on love since what some of us need from such intellectualization is not only explanation but also reformulation. Romeo and Juliet’s reformulation of falling in love boiled down to experiences of blindness that paradoxically open up an aspect of the world, rather than block it from view. Once again, what distinguishes literary discourse from the standpoint of philosophy is not primarily that it is particular, evocative, figurative, or simply denser in such elements than other discourse. Rather, literature reshapes our listening capacities in certain ways. Through a rhetorical strategy that is enacted by this play both internally and in its audience, a certain selectivity of inputs makes perception possible. This reconfigured receptivity also explains why philosophers should contemplate the previous claims into the love-as-blindness theme or the epistemic advantages of silencing skepticism as part of a reading of a play, rather than lifting such insights out of the context of the work and assessing them as part of a theory of beauty.

…. [I] sought to show that there exists an experience of personal and aesthetic beauty that involves blindness. Erotic blindness is not merely an epistemic limitation but also a form of opening to aspects of the world. [ … ] Examining Romeo and Juliet and how some of us react to it imparts not only a conception of romantic love but also indicates how we recognize beauty. It tells us something about our perception and about how we can be made to listen. We need not oppose a critical, suspicious, philosophical reading experience to a trusting, yielding, literary one. If we must talk of trust, we may say that in rare moments when captured by some literary line, we also suspend reality, doubt, and reflection. All of these return almost at once. But for a few moments, we are blinded to doubt, which is what beauty of person and beauty of fictions involve.



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