Learning Italian

Is there a word for philological wanderlusting? Whatever it is, every so often I suffer it painfully and have to have a crack at a new tongue.

In this case, the stimulant was the knowledge I will never get the full hit of Dante without at least attempting to stumble through it in the original. This is self-evident from a mere glance at the untranslated text, which hides rhymes within rhymes and stacks rhymes on top of rhymes, vs the comparatively rhymeless English of the courageous interpreter who can never give more than a flavour of Dante’s endless cascade of onos and oros and itas and ritas and ortes and elles and ivas and inas.

I’d also realised it’s generally true of the language while rolling around a few memorised lines of Petrarch in my head:

Aura che quelle chiome bionde et crespe
cercondi et movi, et se’ mossa da loro,
soavemente, et spargi quel dolce oro,
et poi ’l raccogli, e ’n bei nodi il rincrespe…

In the first line, every non-conjuctive word but one ends in the same letter. The majority of words in the text end in vowel sounds, which adds immeasurably to il dolce suono. There’s also a beautiful da-da-DUM da-DUM-da rhythm that runs through, but that’s less a linguistic feature than something unique to Petrarch’s art.

(Does anyone else short-change “Petrarch” one of his Rs when typing his name? No matter how many times I type it knowing it’s “Petrarch,” I always seem to type “Petrach” and have to backspace past the C.)

Learning Italian to read Dante and Petrarch is also one of the prescriptions for poetic mastery given by Ezra Pound. (Along with learning Chinese – I’ll leave that one alone for now.)

I’ve always said I don’t have a head for languages, but I’m not sure if it’s more true that I don’t have a head for French, which is a language I’ve been studying on and off, formally and informally, for seventeen years and I still can’t do much more than follow the gist of a conversation. A few years ago I started learning spoken Russian via Pimsleur tapes, and within a few weeks I could comfortably pass the time of day. I read a course in Gaelic at university in order to get a better grip of Irish texts, and picked up a lot in a short space of time.

Likewise, studying Italian with the Duolingo app has been a great deal of fun where French was always a chore. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter – I’ve accidentally developed an almost A.E. Houseman*-esque contempt for French poetry beside Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, whereas I genuinely love Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Foscolo, Leopardi, Ariosto and Michelangelo’s sonnets. I’ve also suffered through Sartre and Camus in French, but I find them to be bores even in translation – maybe I need to turn my attention to a true prose aesthete like Flaubert.

In any case, this may or may not all come to nothing, but hopefully it keeps the brain nice and limber if nothing else.

*An anecdote tells us Houseman once asked the great Andre Gide at dinner why it was the French have never produced any poetry of note. Gide’s response was the quite get-out-of-jail-free-card retort, “What is poetry?” But to fight this bias, I have purchased the splendid Jacques Barzun’s “Essay on French Verse: For Readers of English Poetry.”


You Chose the Wrong Degree

The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you  happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail 95 percent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermés should naturally attend to her appearance first and foremost; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility  that could lead to professional development – besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.

From Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. Translated from the French by Lorin Stein.

The Peripheries of Love

Demolition for the Village View Apartments hadn’t quite finished: July dawns you could still wander the small streets (shortly to be replaced by concrete paths between scrubby lawns and red-brick buildings) and, among the devastated acres, catch sight, in the muggy morning, of fires here and there beside one or another still-standing tenement wall. Off beyond the Jacob Riis Houses with their green sliver of park, the East River’s sluggish oils nudged the city’s granite embankments or bumped the pilings beneath the Williamsburg bridge: girder, cable, and concrete rose from among the delis and cuchifrito stands, the furniture and fabric stores, the movie marquees on Delancey Street to span the night waters – where cars and subways and after-dark cruisers took their delicate amble above the blue-black current banked with lights – before striking deep into Brooklyn’s glittering flank, above the Navy yard.

In the summer of 1961 no one had yet named it the East Village: it was still the Lower East Side.

The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany

This just struck me as such a marvelous piece of writing, from Chip Delany’s memoir/bildungsroman about growing up black and gay in New York. It’s reminded me of my secret fascination with a city I’ve only ever seen from an hour stopover in Newark Liberty. I’m aware now that my New York doesn’t exist any more, and indeed it probably never did – but Delany’s prose is undergoing serious reconstruction work on the New York of my mind.

Can literature be said to have an architecture, or a topography? Or does it merely undertake work on the architecture of our minds, laying foundations of someone else’s dreams and shoring up old memories of things that never happened to us? I look at the paragraph above and think it looks so fine and complex, with its bold parentheses, subtle hyphens and italicised Puerto Rican delicacies, a melting pot of perfect punctuation even as the meaning the words convey peculates through my consciousness, rewriting streets and scribbling out buildings.

In Defence of the Selfie

Ever since the Oxford English Dictionary announced that “selfie” was their Word of the Year 2013, there’s been quite a strident and cynical backlash. Some seem adamant that the rise of the selfie, social media’s apparently negative shorthand for pretty much any self-portrait photography, is indicative of a youth culture defined by vanity and solipsism. Grace Dent in the Independent was particularly hysterical, passionately longing for an era when individuals were controlled by their shame and public ridicule was waiting around the corner for those that weren’t:

In 1993, if you went to Woolworths three times a week to sit in the Foto-Me booth snapping pictures of yourself pulling “The Fonz is Cool” poses, your ego would have been the stuff of local legend. Now, a  selfie-a-day is unremarkable. I sat in a bar recently while one friend took a dozen separate pictures of themselves in the toilet as “it was such amazing light”. We take selfies without irony, sans shame, posting the results online as bait in the great murky cyber-sea. We fish never-endingly for compliments, comments… indeed any feedback at all. Maybe just a Facebook like? A little Instagram regram and a new surge of followers. Anything – please God, anything – which indicates we were bathing, remotely, momentarily in another human being’s gaze.

I couldn’t, in truth, find a professional article behind Dent’s bleating strawmen, fragmented sentences and repetitive sarcastic uses of hashtags, but there must have been one for it to find its way past an Independent editor and subsequently all over my Facebook feed. Let’s therefore assume this isn’t actually more indicative of the hideous decline of journalism and more charitably say this suggests that the backlash against the selfie has moved beyond the usual two or three dry comments per each one uploaded to Facebook and has entered the English zeitgeist good and proper.

It’s good to see people so fired up and passionate about something so important, something so close to the bone of early 21st century social identity. There was a worry that this generation would waste their focus on relatively trivial subjects like the emancipation of Palestine or growing financial inequality on a global scale, but it looks like things are back on track as we stand up to the ubiquitous Instagram imposition, the frivolous Facebook encroachment that is the selfie. Already, crack squadrons of vigilant paladins are scouring their friends’ “mobile pictures” folders for anything that looks remotely like it was taken with a smart phone’s reverse camera, and woe betide those who haven’t got the memo and decide to create a new display picture instead of scrolling through thousands of mates’ pub snaps to find one suitable for their boss to see.

I must admit, I won’t be among them, however. I hold my hands up here: I am one of the hyper-shallow, self-obsessed, narcissistic, empty-headed young sociopaths who have, in the past, taken photos of themselves. Worse, I’ve then uploaded them onto social media. Yes, I am that worst kind of vapid, egomaniacal, attention-seeking, compliment-craving, exhibitionist braggart, the selfie-taker. Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair:

This one was taken after I'd shaved, and needed a byline photo for an interview I was conducting. It was never actually used, but still. Note well the black and white filter hiding any cutaneous imperfections, the idealised tilt of the head, the carefully stage-managed pose and stare. Absolutely disgusting.
This one was taken because I needed a byline photo for an interview I was conducting. It was never actually used, but still. Note well the black and white filter hiding any cutaneous imperfections, the idealised tilt of the head, the carefully stage-managed pose and faux-meaningful stare. Absolutely disgusting.
This was taken as a self-deprecating joke to accompany my return to playing football in the evenings despite being clearly out of shape and sporting facial hair that didn't exactly imply a conviction to the sport. No excuse: this self-consciously 'zany' facial expression is a common feature of the selfie.
This was taken as a self-deprecating joke to accompany my return to playing football in the evenings despite being clearly out of shape and sporting facial hair that didn’t exactly imply a conviction to the sport. No excuse: this self-consciously ‘zany’ facial expression is a common feature of the selfie.
Perhaps the most revolting example of the lot, this was an "after" shot of a new haircut I was trying out after my more hirsuite appearances in the past. I sincerely hope nobody was fooled by the comedic contrast between this and the "before" photo, in which I strongly resembled a werewolf, into thinking this was anything other than conceited vainglory.
Perhaps the most revolting example of the lot, this was an “after” shot of a new haircut I was trying out after my more hirsuite appearances in the past. I sincerely hope nobody was fooled by the comedic contrast between this and the “before” photo, in which I strongly resembled a werewolf, into thinking this was anything other than conceited vainglory by an increasingly aristocratic mentality.

They are merely three examples – there are at least two more around the internet. Looking over these selfies, I’m led to consider why I took them.

For as long as I can remember, I have had self image problems. Not for any good reason, looking at it objectively. When I was a child, I suffered terribly from sinusitis, resulting in a perpetual runny nose I would try to cover up as often as possible. As this faded in my teens, it was replaced by chronic acne, the scars of which I still carry on my body. I had a gap in my teeth that meant I didn’t show them when I smiled until I was about 18, and a permanent stain on one incisor I was neurotic enough to have removed as late as last year. Through this period, I’ve been sporadically self conscious about my weight, my messy hair, a surgical scar that means my bottom lip protrudes more than it otherwise would, my jawline’s lack of definition, the fact one of my nostrils is wider than the other and several other things that have meant my reflection and I don’t always get along well.

So what, right? Well… right. My experience of self-image problems aren’t particularly special. I’m convinced I’m in the majority when it comes to not looking like one would like to look. So, the first obvious point to make is: yes, it is probably nice to receive some mark of acceptance from one’s peers, even if it is a Facebook like. Dent, and others, are aghast that anyone might crave that kind of social confirmation, even a little bit, but I don’t actually find it particularly shocking. It must be said, though, that there’s actually something else going on, something bigger that’s at stake.

There’s a part in The Matrix when Morpheus shows Neo the inside of the computer simulation for the first time. The script reads:

Is it really so hard to believe? Your clothes are different. The plugs in your arms and head are gone. Your hair has changed. Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.

"Also, have you seen my new iPhone camera?"
“Also, have you seen my new iPhone camera?”

This part has always seemed bogus to me, and by conversations I’ve had with others, I’m not alone. The filmmakers, obviously restricted by the medium, can only show us Keanu Reeves in a jacket and jeans, and with an unexceptional haircut. If only it were true that our self images were that normal, basic and unchanging. The “residual self image”, quite simply, does not exist with that degree of consistency. It’s in a constant state of flux.

More so when something alters in our life, from a haircut (see above) to a break up. The Dents of this world want to see the common Instagram image of the girl two days after finishing with her boyfriend as being some kind of desperate public plea for attention and sympathy, as well as validation that she will be able to find a replacement. More likely, the validation that is desired is twofold: 1.) that she is not as ugly as the break-up has made her feel internally, and 2.) on a subconscious level, that she is still recognisably the same person as she was three days ago.

The quite wonderful and epoch-shaping photographer, Nan Goldin, certainly sees it this way, commenting on one of several of her pictures that would now be classified as selfies (emphasis mine):

My work has been about making a record of my life that no one can revise. I photograph myself in times of trouble or change in order to find the ground to stand on in the change. I was coming out of a melancholic phase. This was taken when I was traveling extensively, on the road from hotel to hotel. You get displaced, and then taking self-portraits becomes a way of hanging on to yourself.

A particularly devastating example of one of Goldin’s portraits is her “Nan one month after being battered”, an artistic capturing of her domestic abuse.

"Nan one month after being battered", 1984  © Nan Goldin
“Nan one month after being battered”, 1984
© Nan Goldin

In The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (p.8), she speaks frankly about the events leading up to this photo:

For a number of years I was deeply involved with a man. We were well suited emotionally and the relationship became very interdependent. Jealousy was used to inspire passion. His concept of relationships was rooted in … romantic idealism … I craved the dependency, the adoration, the satisfaction, the security, but sometimes I felt claustrophobic. We were addicted to the amount of love the relationship supplied … Things between us started to break down, but neither of us could make the break. The desire was constantly reinspired at the same time that the dissatisfaction became undeniable. Our sexual obsession remained one of the hooks. One night, he battered me severely, almost blinding me.

This photograph is, obviously, completely different than the smiling Facebook display pic taken in someone’s living room, and it would be completely wrong to compare them directly. But the emotion behind her taking the photo is consistent with Goldin’s more general rationale for her self portraits, which is identical to the reason for most selfies. They aren’t a desire for simple public gratification so much as a necessity for the individual to ground one’s own self, to do away with Cartesian distinction, within the social context that defines us as much as anything else does.

This is nothing new. If you could map the emotional path of Van Gogh, you’d find a tumultuous road indeed: it’s speculated that he suffered from bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy. And the road would have selfies as milestones. Those keen to cling to the fantasy of the selfie as generational, and the sole preserve of talentless egotists, please look away now:

Oil on pasteboard, 41 x 32 cm Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Oil on pasteboard, 41 x 32 cm
oil on canvas 51 × 45 cm (20.1 × 17.7 in)
Oil on canvas, 51 × 45 cm
Oil on canvas, 62 × 52 cm
Oil on canvas, 62 × 52 cm

There are thirty-four more Van Gogh selfies extant. This is relatively restrained next to Edvard Munch, who crafted 190 selfies over the course of his life, in which he frequently sees himself mistreated by women or other forces beyond his control. Frida Kahlo made fifty-five selfies, including this famous one, but there are far more nightmarish and frightening examples where she tries to depict as best she can both her mental and physical anguish – Kahlo spent many years bedridden and alone. We might also here spare mentions for Rembrandt, Dürer, Picasso, Rubens, Schiele, Brueghel the Elder, Van Dyck, Matisse, Cezanne, Manet, Whistler, Toulouse-Latrec, Gauguin, Renoir, da Vinci and Goya, irrepressible selfie-ists all. Schiele, by the way, would also paint himself masturbating or otherwise pleasuring himself, presumably as a forerunner to the satisfaction-seeking nature of the modern selfie:

Pencil and watercolour on paper, 47 × 31 cm
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 47 × 31 cm
Far from being demonstrative of shamelessness and arrogance, the selfie, like the self-portrait of old, seems almost overwhelmingly motivated by self-doubt, nervousness and even a sense of ontological ungrounding. Because your average Instagram user does not have the artistic talent of the ladies or gentlemen named, should that necessarily de-legitimise their own emotions, their own burning necessity to stand in on themselves in times of change and halt the flux, if only for a moment?
Actually not a selfie. Probably.
Actually not a selfie. Probably.
“The only people shallow enough to take selfies,” says the imperiously monikered IvyLeague, a participant in the comment thread below Dent’s crusading piece, “are unlikely to appeal to anyone above the age of 16 or with an IQ above 80.” It is with a little regret that I resign myself, then, to the ranks of the sub-literate, borderline-retarded cretins such as Rembrandt and Goya. It’s a tough cross to bear, but bear it I must, consoling myself with the poetry of that other brain-dead selfie-taker, Rimbaud:
I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.

Checking in

For anyone who has followed my last few posts, it may come as no surprise to know that I’m working again. As a writer, that is – trying to take advantage of a crippling injury that has left me sadly unable to get to my office and argue with clients from the totalitarian perspective of a hideous corporate egregore all day.

The new novel is actually not that new at all – it’s a reworking of a discovered manuscript I wrote about five years ago. The reason for the reworking is simple: it’s fucking terrible.

Nice cover, though.
Nice cover, though.

Here are some problems I had with the original.

– Quentin Quark, transhumanist pulp hero and… CEO of a real company people are meant to take seriously

I deliberately chose the name “Quentin Quark” wanting it to sound ridiculous. The idea for the novel was to pin what I thought were interesting post-human ideas and philosophy on the framework of a Lester Dent-esque pulp story, setting up a contrast between content and context. Fine.

However, in the story, I don’t think I got the balance right. Because people take him seriously, calling him “Quentin” or “Dr. Quark”, the tone never really hitting that farcical attitude the name warranted.

Enter Javon Cray, the real life person for whom Quentin Quark is one of several pseudonyms, a corporate logo, a fictional superhero he plays to push his futurist ideas into the public sphere. It makes sense to me that a multi-disciplined scientist, in the vein of other pulp superheroes like Doc Savage or Reed Richards, should be able to handle multiple identities, too – dissociative identity disorder as a lifestyle choice, as I believe The Invisibles puts it.

King Addrisi of Alexandria, an African city state on the Baraka River

This was my attempt to set up some kind of Doctor Doom-esque villain who ran his own country, but sounds more like an evil Black Panther (the superhero, not the civil rights group. Casual racism aside, any villain who talks like this is pretty much not salvageable:

Leaving without this?” Addrisi’s voice said. Quentin looked up, and there was his enemy, standing on a balcony above, naked but for he disc in his hand. “The Gaia Program. The future of the world contained on this tiny circle. Like a mandala. It’s almost mythic, isn’t it?”

Addrisi leapt from the balcony and fell the ten feet to the floor, landing with a grace that belied his bulk.

What are you thinking, Quentin? What are you thinking in that incredible mind of yours? Do you not realise the significance of our struggle? The location, our shared skin colour. It was here, in the heart of Africa, that mankind took its first steps. Here we first developed societal order. Here, you and I and my scientists fired our hadrons and restructured the standard model of physics!”

Actually, I was thinking of that naked wrestling scene in Women in Love,” Quentin said. “What happened to you, Addrisi? You always wanted power, but you never served the status quo.”

And when did you start serving chaos, instead of anarchy? Oh, yes, Quentin. I have spoken to your masters on the astral plane. Spoken with the gods you have been convening with. Kālī said…”

So, out with Addrisi and in with Isaac “Jericho” Blake, a rogue American technologist designated by the UN as a “science terrorist”. Without giving too much away, he’s essentially an evil Steve Jobs. Well – more evil, I mean.

The terrifying computer program trying to take over the world… Monday!

No, that’s not when it plans to do it: that’s it’s name. I had intended for it to be a corruption of Spiritus Mundi, the “Spirit of the World” from Yeats’ The Second Coming – at the time I was reading a lot of Yeats, including his esoteric automatic writings contained in A Vision. Yeats’ concept of Spiritus Mundi was a kind of informational singularity, a space where the totality of human information and experience was recorded. Monday, an emergent artificial consciousness thinking itself to be a technological singularity, thus named itself.

Unfortunately, as much as we dread it all weekend, Monday is not really very scary. I’ve reworked this almost entirely in the redraft, but kept the Spiritus Mundi connection: the threat is now known as Zphy-Rah-Tus (A.K.A. Zphyratos… Zphyritus… Spiritus… geddit?), a mass of data that’s gone insane and demands we worship it.

Incidentally, the weirdest thing about this was, as soon as I started to re-work the emergent network consciousness concept I came up with four years ago, this popped up on io9: A Neuroscientist’s Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious. This is the problem with writing science fiction at the start of the 21st century: your ideas reach a sell-by date very quickly.

The writing itself was neither pulpy nor serious

Developing a voice is important; this is why I’ve been delving into texts where writers write about their craft recently. The Robert Louis Stevenson essay was especially helpful, as Stevenson is someone who attained the sort of balance I’m trying to get between a popular sense of adventure and a respect for the value of good prose, structure and so forth. Michael Moorcock, whose Jerry Cornelius books were the main inspiration behind Quentin Quark when I started it five years ago, strongly advises to science fiction and fantasy writers who are starting out that they

A) Stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

B) Find an author you admire (Moorcock’s was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

I’m not going quite that far, but I am certainly picking a lot up from my perusals of The Master of Ballantrae, for instance. It seems fitting to me that Conrad admired Stevenson as I admire Moorcock – not that I’m implicitly comparing myself to those three esteemed gentlemen of letters, of course.

Aside from Stevenson, my other two consultants are How Fiction Works by James Wood and Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa. I hope to write more about both at a later date, but already they’ve been immensely helpful, especially in tandem with Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Llosa’s own The Feast of the Goat.

Both Wood and Llosa look to Flaubert as an almost Platonic example of how to construct a narrative (I really want to get hold of Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy, his book analysing Madame Bovary). Wood asserts that Flaubert is none other than the inventor of the modern novelistic voice; “There really is,” he says, “a before Flaubert and an after him.” Reading his predecessors like Fielding, Defoe and even fellow realist Balzac, one will still encounter an essayistic narrator who thinks nothing of digressing with his own opinions and observations. After Flaubert, from Tolstoy to Christopher Isherwood to Ian bloody McEwan, these observations are either dressed up in the everyday or concealed by an ambiguous eye. By an ambiguous eye, I mean that we as readers can’t be exactly sure if it’s the character’s or the author’s.

Being shown these elements of fiction writing that we otherwise take for granted is both gratifying and hugely helpful – far more useful, I’ve found, than any number of How To Write Fiction-esque guides. As Moorcock rightly says, you learn from the masters, and Wood is adept at showing you their brushstrokes.

A few other quick notes, perhaps to expand upon later:

  1. Far from the conventional view that a first person narrative is reliable whilst a third person narrative is omniscient and objective, Wood posits that the first person narrative is, at least, reliably unreliable – in contrast to the third person, which presents itself as reliable but in fact carefully selects the details it shows you and the thoughts it reveals.
  2. Rare examples of an unreliably unreliable first person narrator include Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Italo Svevo’s Zeno.
  3. Wood has led me to Henry James’ mastery of narration, just as William H. Gass’s The Sentence Seeks its Form led me to his genius of rhythm and sentence structure.
  4. Death is often accompanied by the trivial: Falstaff babbling of green fields, Joachim feeling the blanket with his hand in The Magic Mountain. We don’t plan for death, as Proust rightly notes.