Friday, January 27, 2006

Seven Types of Ambiguity

It's a lovely book with a lovely cover--a giant number 7 in the edition I have from the library.

When I was an undergraduate I never heard about the New Critics, mainly because nearly every professor (like my high school teachers before them) practiced New Criticism. Like some forms of Protestantism or Midwesternness, it was not even seen as a practice, certainly not one among many. It was just what you did. Then when I got to grad school "New Critic" was a term of derision, meaning bourgeois liberal, meaning Republican, meaning fascist. (I would currently agree with the equation of numbers two and three in that series, but let's leave the bourgeois liberals out of it, please.) It was only very recently that I decided to figure out just who these New Critics were, and of course they were a pretty diverse lot (methodologically) spanning a good chunk of the twentieth century.

I'm just dipping into Empson so far, but here's a line I love from the last chapter, which I'm reading first. Speaking of the experience of apprehending a poem, Empson says "one cannot give or state the feeling directly any more than the feeling of being able to ride a bicycle; it is the result of a capacity..." Empson was a poet himself so his critical method was poetic. Imagine that.

Americans are not afraid

A few days ago Maureen Dowd wondered in her NYT column when the Democrats were going to pull together an effective message to combat the Republicans' endless fear-mongering. How about this: Americans are not afraid. Think about it--if we stop being scared the Republicans lose. They have nothing else.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The really personal computer

Sitting in an office or tethered to one electronically, it's easy to think of the personal computer as a weightless, quietly hissing millstone. Worse, it's the window into our minds that Big Brother has been waiting for, and it can be thrown wide open with a wink or a handshake. But that wasn't what at least some of its pioneers meant it to be. In What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, John Markoff shows the computer's roots in radical individualism. From Vannevar Bush's theoretical Memex machine onward, sixties visionaries saw the computer as a tool to manage and explore our own minds. Nothing need be forgotten, and the burden of memory need not weigh so heavily on us. Like LSD (in some ways) and maybe like fiction (in others) the computer functioned as a mirror and amplifier, a tool of self-discovery. Is there any technology that frees its user by design, or can all tools be turned to oppression?

Friday, January 20, 2006

The hole in the paper

My previous post suggests the hole in the page is a blindspot, like a flash-spot in the eye. The flash-spot happens when the light-sensitive rods in the eye get temporarily overwhelmed by light that's too strong (a camera flash, a reflection off a car windshield). That seems like a good way of representing madness, when the psyche is overwhelmed.

Stephen King talks about the "hole in the paper" in Misery, only for him it means the writer is in the zone. This doesn't preclude madness, and I don't believe King thinks so either. When the writer, Paul Sheldon, sees the hole in the paper he forgets he's writing. Specifically he forgets words and the technologies used to produce them (Annie Wilkes's crappy typewriter) and sees only his characters in action. That's also Paul's and King's hope for their readers, that they will not even be conscious of the physical words or the writer's deployment of them, and instead see--at a later time--exactly what the writer saw through the hole.

But because Annie makes Paul write on a bad typewriter (and also maims his hand) it's harder to see through the paper. Writing becomes more obviously a physical chore, and when the typewriter throws its "n" key, Annie fills in the "n's." In other words, she inserts herself ("n" sounds like "Ann," unfortunately for me, and unfortunately too because deconstruction is out). Instead of the madness of the writer's brain firing on all cylinders, Paul sees Annie's disgusting body when he writes. For King these are two sides of the same coin, I think.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I still haven't finished Pale Fire. I've stopped reading it because I don't want it to be over. My favorite part so far is John Shade's daughter's encounter with the poltergeist, a spot of light that she tries to speak with by reciting the alphabet and recording which letters it bounces on. The poltergeist reminds me of those blind spots you get in your eyes when a camera flash goes off. And in fact orbs appearing on digital photos are supposedly evidence of poltergeists in people's houses.

The flash-spot moves around with your vision, which drives you crazy, like the belief that your house is haunted. All you can see is that you can't see what's there. The orb of light in Pale Fire seems like a version of the Nedotykomka in Sologub's Petty Demon. The Nedotykomka is a sort of malevolent dust bunny that represents and drives the protagonist's madness. I now see that David Bethea in Russian Review (63:1) has found reflections of the Petty Demon in Nabokov, so I'm not the only one. It might be that the orb is not just a repercussion of the Nedotykomka, but an image of unacknowledged literary influence--a hole burned in the page. Influence is definitely maddening.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Deepness in the Sky

I want to be someone who likes reading science fiction. I love the ideas in it; I love literary fiction that's infused with the strangeness of sf worlds. I dive into sf novels with enthusiasm, refreshed by the (seemingly) straightforward language and the attention to concepts and action rather than psychology. But usually I come up again halfway through, fatigued from keeping track of terminology and hundreds of faceless characters. I don't like this inkling that I'd rather have someone else tell me about the novels than read them myself. And so I'm going to finish Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. I left it some months ago, bogged down in what seems to be backstory about a dull but important human character, a member of the Qeng Ho, a commerce-oriented society--as opposed to the Emergents, the fascists (of whom more in a moment). Deepness was wonderful in the first half. Some reasons:
  • The Spiders, a non-human race that lives on a planet orbiting the On-Off star. When the star is "off" the Spiders hibernate for over a century (I think) and when the star comes back on (rather beautifully), they must rebuild their civilization. The Spiders who have multiple eyes and legs and full body hair are the most engaging characters by far in the book. They're idiosyncratic, inventors, with senses of humor. When the human characters are on stage I keep asking, like David Bowie did, Where are the Spiders?

  • The Focused. These are people whom the Emergents deliberately infect with a neural toxin that makes them essentially autistic. They think only about their current task, talk about nothing else, neglect their hygiene and personal lives utterly. They're the perfect high-tech employees. The fact that they usually receive the infection in grad school requires no further discussion.

  • Systems. Specifically, what does one do with the systems of a society it has conquered? How does the conquerer adapt and use the techologies of its enemy? What's the difference between adoption and cooption? How can they trust the tools?
Also a young woman keeps discovering the truth, over and over, about her mother's murder, only to have her memory erased by the emergents at the moment of discovery. It's a lovely problem.

I will finish, I will, right after Pale Fire, which seems like it's going to be the best book ever written.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On no

It's apparently an old saw in creative writing that characters should never say "no." It's not that they are supposed to be doormats; they just shouldn't use the word "no" in dialog. That's because "no" provides no information, whereas other forms of refusal do. I heard this from Charles D'Ambrosio at the Tin House workshop last summer, so I'll use his example:

Do you want a banana?
No. [=lost opportunity to provide information]


Do you want a banana?
You know I don't like bananas. [=intriguing implications about the speakers' relationship]

Since hearing this I've been going through my stories with the No Comb. And yet: "No" is fun to say. It's fun to write. It looks great on the page.


See what I mean? It's even better without quotation marks. It does stop the narrative, it is empty, more like punctuation than a word. That's it's power. There must be a use for these little dead spots in fiction.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Extremophiles and philosophy

We went to a talk at the San Mateo County Astronomical Society by Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames, last Friday evening. Yes, NASA does pay people to think about life in outer space and I can't think of a better use of taxpayer money. And for those of us looking for a Grand Unified Theory of science, religion, and humanities--which I'm not--astrobiology is a good entry point.

Rothschild studies "extremophiles," creatures that live in extreme conditions on Earth. These studies suggest life could exist on a place like Venus, with its stifling toxic clouds, or on Mars, where it gets damn cold. (Although Mars has other problems, notably "chaotic obliquity," meaning the tilt of its axis changes dramatically over relatively short time periods. It rocks. The Earth doesn't because of our Moon.) One thinks of the bacteria living in the "smokers" or thermal vents on the ocean floor, but it turns out there are lots of other examples of extremophiles, including penguins. And us. Because one of the questions Rothschild raised was how to define "extremophile"--especially if we take out the requirement to "love" the extreme and say it's OK to merely tolerate it. Some bacteria live in pools of acid only because they can't get out. They thrive in the relative comfort of the lab ("I didn't know it could be like this!"). Apparently some biologists consider it cheating to grow a layer of blubber or develop the ability to make and wear coats--so a kid ice skating couldn't be an extremophile--but that's an arguable line to draw.

What became clear for me at this talk was how deeply science is imbued with philosophy. The notion of questioning what an "extremophile" really is, and working from the understanding that the definition is questionable, opens huge investigative possibilities. Humanists are all about questioning definitions, and it's time we all starting seeing this method as productive rather than merely undermining.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ghost net / net ghost

Ghost net: abandoned synthetic-fiber fishing net that traps and kills marine wildlife.

Net ghost: abandoned web site that clings to the mind. Example: Heaven's Gate.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Brian May's web site

It should be noted before too much more time has passed that Brian May has a web site. This is startling to someone who worshipped Queen in junior high, who was partial to Freddie but always knew Brian was seriously smart, an astronomer and a math whiz and a nice person, clearly nicer than the others, "Fat Bottom Girls" and "Tie Your Mother Down" notwithstanding. Of all the band members Brian seemed the most capable of living beyond and outside it, except now he has reconstituted Queen with Paul Rogers in the Freddie position. What to think about that...Brian posts to his "Soapbox" in a chatty, exclamation-point sprinkled style that doesn't quite seem like him, though I'm getting used to it. He responds to fan mail about guitar minutiae and the music business and also the bonsai-kitten hoax, which distressed him. The Soapbox includes quite a few photos, and there's nothing like seeing the guitar god in half-glasses hunched over the Red Special on his workbench.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Riderless horse

Last week my husband Trev and I were hiking at Point Reyes and came upon a horse with no rider. He was standing beside the trail eating grass, his stirrups twisted, bridle hanging to the ground. There were large wet patches on his neck and back and a line of foam on his cheek. We shouted for the rider, wandered up and down the trail, but no one came. So while Trev stayed with the horse I went back to the hostel at the trailhead to get help. As I walked the same thoughts occurred to me as they have on the few occasions in my life when I've realized something could be very seriously wrong--that is, this isn't happening, this is a joke, I'm going to embarrass myself by calling for help when anyone with the slightest knowledge of horseback riding knows that riders routinely leave their horses alone to graze in the mist. Also that I should be running, not walking. Also that I should stay off the grounds of the hostel until 4:30 because that was what the sign said in no uncertain terms, also that I couldn't ask this family moseying up to me if I could use their cell phone because that would ruin their day.

The guy at the hostel told me to take a deep breath and while he waited for the ranger to answer the phone asked me where I was from and if I'd been birdwatching. This seemed to be his method for dealing with city folk who came in gasping about some horror (slug, owl vomit) on the trail, and I wanted to tell him that I was not panicked, only worried that I was not worried enough. I went back outside to flag the ranger down and saw my husband walking the horse and its rider, a taciturn woman with legs as thin as my wrists. She'd been riding on the beach, but her horse was from Montana and had never seen the ocean before. The surf had panicked him and he had thrown her.

"It's always the rider's fault," she said. She was unhurt.

At Ronald Reagan's funeral a riderless horse followed the casket with boots reversed in the stirrups. A ghost was in the saddle, looking backward.