The magic of reading

Jumble_02Can you make sense of those lines in the image to the right? Of course not. They’re deconstructed from the letters of a simple, one-syllable word and randomly re-arranged. It’s just four letters, but their component parts are not arranged in the proper order, so they seem like meaningless lines and squiggles. We’ve not been taught to assemble them into a structure that makes sense to our brains. Yet we’re quite capable of assigning meaning and context to abstract forms, if they’re assembled properly.

The order that we prefer those lines and curves to be in is arbitrary – the association of any particular line or curved with another piece is simply a convenience we all agree to use. Other cultures, other languages have a different agreement, equally arbitrary. The lines that form a lamed in the Hebrew alphabet don’t look anything like the lines we use to make an “L” but they get translated into that sound in the reader’s brain because that’s what the reader was raised to expect. Similarly, a Cyrillic “L” looks different from both English and Hebrew, yet performs the same function in the language. When a non-Hebrew or non-Cyrillic reader sees them, they recognize the lines, but there is no neurological association to tell that reader what they mean.*

Jumble_01When those lines and curves are again aligned differently, they offer a hint of order. English readers can more easily recognize some of the forms, even if they don’t always coalesce into specific letters. You might be able to guess at some of the letters, maybe even all., but most likely the word itself remains obscure unless you put a lot of cogitative effort into solving the puzzle.

Yet even if you can’t figure it out, our brains are remarkably agile in that they are eager to build associations from even the smallest clues. That’s how pareidolia happens – described on Wikipedia as, “…a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (e.g. in random data).” But while it makes for imagined faces of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, it also helps us identify things that are not in the exact shape and form that we expect.
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Thoughts on reading Ulysses

James Joyce
Onomatopoeia. Odd, sometimes, entertaining too. Like speed bumps that make you slow down and silently mouth the letters. A slow smile at the sound it makes in your head. Alliteration. Anastrophe. Joycean wordplay.

What is that word? A neologism? Or some Irish colloquialism? An anachronism? Another language? Or more playful spelling? So many to stumble over.

Notes. Can’t read Ulysses without the notes. Too many Latin, too many French, too many Gaelic phrases for my monolinguistic brain. Too many Catholic references for my secular upbringing. Too many dips into the classics for my modern education. Irish politics. British politics. Contemporary culture. Jesuits. French authors. Greek tragedies. Lost without the notes.

But notes add to the work. From 930 pages, it expands to almost 1,200. A third larger, a third more to read.

Stream of consciousness? Misleading. That implies a beginning and an end; a source and a destination. A collective movement towards a goal, words flowing in harmony like fish spawning. A direction towards the final outcome. Ulysses is more explosive. A torrent of consciousness. A tsunami. Volcanic eruption of words.

Who would have thought the minutiae of bodily functions so worthy of literature? So many words dedicated to base biological acts.

Was Joyce’s world really so repressed? Were men really so uncomfortable with women and women’s sexuality? If this this the world my parents grew up in, it explains a lot about them – and how they handled my own childhood.

Of course, it’s set in 1904, the hump of the Edwardian era, before the Great War that would sweep away the last vestiges of Victorianism from Europe (although not the USA, where it still has hold). Literary archeology. And it’s Dublin, even further outside my cultural frame of reference than London or New York of that time.

This was banned? This was controversial? This sparked howls of outrage? My, weren’t we close-minded back then. A single episode of The Sopranos has more profanity, more irreverence, more sex. But a lot less introspection.

Who is speaking? Who is thinking? Not always clear. Joyce ignores the niceties of form and eschews formality at the expense of clarity.

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The House on the Borderland

House on the Borderland “But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality [it] would be a classic of the first water.” So said H. P. Lovecraft of the 1908 novel, The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson. But, Lovecraft admitted, the book was also a major influence on his own, later work. And for good reason: it created the ‘unknown horror’ effect that Lovecraft (and later writers) exploited so well.

House on the Borderland is a seminal work in its genre and, despite its age, deserves not to be forgotten by modern readers. Here’s a passage from the book:

And then, as I peered, curiously, a new terror came to me; for away up among the dim peaks to my right, I had descried a vast shape of blackness, giantlike. It grew upon my sight. It had an enormous equine head, with gigantic ears, and seemed to peer steadfastly down into the arena. There was that about the pose that gave me the impression of an eternal watchfulness—of having warded that dismal place, through unknown eternities. Slowly, the monster became plainer to me; and then, suddenly, my gaze sprang from it to something further off and higher among the crags. For a long minute, I gazed, fearfully. I was strangely conscious of something not altogether unfamiliar—as though something stirred in the back of my mind. The thing was black, and had four grotesque arms. The features showed indistinctly, ’round the neck, I made out several light-colored objects. Slowly, the details came to me, and I realized, coldly, that they were skulls. Further down the body was another circling belt, showing less dark against the black trunk. Then, even as I puzzled to know what the thing was, a memory slid into my mind, and straightway, I knew that I was looking at a monstrous representation of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

You can read or download a copy at Gutenberg.org. It’s not very long – just over 50,000 words, and is a fairly quick read.

Hodgson – whose 140th birthday was celebrated by fans last November (the 100th anniversary of his death is in April, 2018) – was prolific in his lifetime, but is an almost-forgotten figure these days. Only two of his novels – the other being The Night Land (1912) – got any significant attention or popular reprints for many decades after his death. Thanks to the internet, digital files and the magic of on-demand publishing, a lot of his work is available online; five of his novels are now downloadable from Gutenberg. And this slowly growing popularity has seen a few publishers reprinting many (maybe even all) of his works.

While still in the shadows compared to other writers, he is read today by fans of classic horror and early scifi. But he’s not anywhere near a popular writer. In part that may be because better, subsequent writers like Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany and Edgar Rice Burroughs captured (and continue to capture) the public’s imagination. Plus, they wrote about the modern, post-war world: with radio, cars, telephones, movies, steamships and the like. They are easier, I suspect, for modern readers to comprehend than those from the Edwardian era.
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Cultural appropriation is the new gluten free

Cultural appropriationLike food fads, political fads wax and wane as the gnat-like attention span of their followers gets diverted by the Next Big Thing. Political Correctness has of late given birth to Cultural Appropriation just like the gluten-free food fad gave rise to lectin-free food fad.

All such fads are fuelled by the earnest desire of some people to avoid thinking and follow the crowd over the intellectual cliff. They’re not about analysis, research, and objectivity: they’re about being on the Latest Thing bandwagon.

All fads teeter on a basic misapprehension; sometimes it’s a fabrication, other times a misunderstanding, and other times simply a con. Anti-vaccination faddists, for example, believe that vaccines cause autism. You can present reams of evidence that debunks their core belief, but they won’t get off their bandwagon to investigate, let alone change their erroneous belief. You can ridicule chemtrails, flat earth, alien abductions, angels, ghosts, homeopathy and Bigfoot all you want – it won’t shake the faith of the true believers. Just look at the uber-wingnut Food Babe and her gormless followers…

Like food fads, political fads are steadfast until they aren’t. But in the interim, people get pleasure out of pointing fingers and accusing others. Shaming and name calling. Such is the state of the Cultural Appropriation fad: calling out those who deliberately or even inadvertently “appropriate” another culture has replaced the accusations of bigotry, racism, bullying, cyberbullying and misogyny among the Upright Politically Correct Watchdogs for Cultural Appropriation Violations (UPCWFCAV).

Wikipedia tells us that Cultural Appropriation is:

…the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1] Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.

If you even so much as think of rolling seaweed and rice together and you’re not Japanese, watch out: the UPCWFCAV will have you skewered on social media or through indignant letters to the editor. If you dare pluck a balalaika and you’re not Russian, think of getting a Chinese-character tattoo and you’re not Chinese, make a taco and you’re not Mexican, wear dreadlocks and you’re not Jamaican, or admire a totem pole and you’re not First Nations… watch out. The UPCWFCAV will be on you in a flash.

But the UPCWFCAV aren’t made up of Japanese, Russian, Jamaican, First Nations or other natives protecting their culture from exploitation. They’re mostly white, urban (and suburban), leftish Westerners with too much time on their hands and hankering for a suitable cause in which to sink their well-maintained teeth and inject some meaning into their lives.
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Square words

Square word calligraphyWriting has been described as the most significant human invention. We tend to think of inventions as mechanical things, like the wheel, or fire, or the printing press, the airplane, the internal combustion engine or cell phone. But without writing, few of them would exist. Writing allowed us to share the others, to improve them, to record them, to pass them along and record them.

Writing allows us to share ideas, emotions, visions, beliefs, stories, poetry and music through a series of abstract squiggles. Without writing there would be no literature, no religion, no philosophy, no songs, no politics. We would not have a history or mythology beyond what we could share orally. And when you consider writing is no more than 5,000 years old – out of a history of humankind that is millions of years old – it’s pretty astounding that is is so relatively recent.

Humans experimented with various pictographic scripts prior to writing, but they tended to stay localized because they were both difficult and complex to learn and share. They are inefficient for conveying large amounts of information and data, too. With writing came laws, taxation, the census, banking, the codification of government and of religion.

cuneiform tabletTurning sounds into abstract symbols that could be pieced together into words was a new idea that seems to have developed in ancient Sumeria and Egypt almost simultaneously (both before 3000 BCE).

The Sumerians first used writing to keep track of mundane lists: sales, inventory, receipts and temple donations. That evolved to put laws, genealogies and myths into clay – works we still have and can read today. To be able to read the Epic of Gilgamesh, a remarkable tale written around 2100 BCE, today is entirely thanks to the invention of writing.

In Egypt, migrant workers developed a written script as a phonetic way to learn the speech of their Egyptian taskmasters because they couldn’t master the hieroglyphs. Or it may have begun with their graffiti scratched into a quarry wall. Either way, it was a brilliant and necessary invention.
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Eheu fugaces, Postume…

Old ageAlas, Postumus, the swift years slip away. Those words are one translation of the opening line of the 14th Ode in the second book of Horace’s carminas, or songs: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume/labuntur anni… *

For me, it’s his most moving piece, a bittersweet acceptance of mortality; the inevitability of age and death. Something no one in his or her sixties cannot help but think about. And about which Horace wrote several times.

Many of Horace’s poems are moving; very down to earth. His most touching odes read not so much as poetry meant for a wide audience, but rather as personal meditations on life. Perhaps that accounts for their continued popularity.

I’ve been reading a lot of Horace of late, thanks to a very personal and entertaining book about the poet by Harry Eyres (I reviewed it recently and more about it, below). Being an unlettered autodidact struggling to look ad fontes (to the sources), I find it helps to be introduced into the classics by those who know them better. Once there, I may find my own way or search additional help in understanding.

(Why, I ask myself, did I not take these in school, why was my education so thin on the classics? Remedial self-learning is required…)

For me, these poems also cement a connection across the millennia that divides us. There’s a comfort in knowing that the Romans and others in the past were concerned about the same, basic things that still concern us today, that they wrestled with the same thoughts, worries and joys that keep us awake at night. Once stripped of our shell of trivia, technology and consumerism that often cocoons us, our core focus is still small, biological and deeply personal: life, death, love, sex, relationships, friendships, pleasure, pain, food. Horace writes about them in a very matter-of-fact manner.

And while the ancient Greeks and Romans were also deeply immersed in debating faith, politics and war, Horace for the most part ignores them. Sure, he mentions people, battles, gods quite a lot, but they appear as (for him) common cultural signposts on the journey, not matters of deep concern or belief. Which helps both his continued relevance and allows modern writers (like David Ferry) to translate the poems into something that speaks to us now. Perhaps the continued rewriting for a new audience is why, as Horace wrote, his poems would outlast bronze.

Viktor Frankl wrote that our most deeply held drive is our search for meaning. We all to greater or lesser degree, question why we’re here. What differs, I suppose, is how we choose to deal with that questioning. Do we accept a fixed ideology, a faith, a belief as the unalterable bedrock of meaning, and stop looking further? Stop questioning, stop diving into the dark, unanswered depths? Or, as the Buddha admonished the Kalamas, do we question everything, build our own meaning from the individual blocks of knowledge like some philosophical Lego set?

I prefer to find my own way, even if it means stumbling in the dark for some time (and, yes, I have stumbled, and continue to stumble because it’s a journey with no real end). I personally like to look into the mirror of what others have found to see if I can find my own reflection. Sometimes I can recognize the face peering back. Other times it’s a fun-house mirror that stares at me. What matters is that I keep looking, keep peering into the glass. True my personal, philosophical Lego construction looks a bit dodgy and unstable a lot of the time, but at least it’s my own.

Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” So I keep looking, keep walking into the dark passage using for a light the works of someone who went before me. Horace is just one of those candles.

But a comforting, increasingly familiar one these days.
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