Saturday, September 17, 2016

Polyslavic Patterns

by Drew Martin
I am fascinated by the scope, sounds, and structure of the dozen-plus Slavic languages that span from Eastern Europe and wrap around all of Asia to the north. They are all quite similar but it is not common for one country to take interest in another's language. They would rather learn English or French or German. Plus there is the history of Russian being forced on all the other Slavs. And so, along with strong nationalism, there is a disdain for each other's variation, which they say sound weird or childish. The fact is that there are more similarities than differences but how do you capture all of this in a map or a chart. Here are two examples of graphic attempts i found that show the variety but their focus is more on territories and splits than what they share.

And once you think you have captured them all you find another region or tribe that has a unique dialect or language in their own right. This is true of the Wends, also known as the Sorbs, who are the only independent Slavic tribe without their own country. For hundreds of years they have been in German territory, nestled in a region where northern Czech meets western Poland. There are very few resources online about the language so I just ordered a Sorbian-English dictionary to figure out a few things. My interest in the Sorbs is because their language fills the gap between Czech and Polish, which the org chart above does not properly show. One might assume that Slovak was something more of a bridge language but it is rather more like a variation of Czech, whereas Sorbian looks and feels like a real hybrid. I would move their branch between the drop-downs for Czech and Polish, but this still does not tell us that much. I know both languages pretty well but I mix words, which causes problems in conversation. I figured Sorbian (not to be confused with Serbian) would be a good meeting ground for me. 

[Sometimes the names of the languages are confusing. For example Slovak and Slovenian are slovenský and slovenski. Sorbian and Serbian are serbšćina and српски (srpski)] 

One thing I was really interested about Sorbian since both Czech and Polish are pretty similar was which one did it lean towards where there are obvious divisions. As far as Slavic languages go, there are two main options for an alphabet. They either use an alphabet based on the Roman alphabet or the Cyrillic alphabet, which itself was hand-crafted for Slavic tribes by the Macedonian monks Cyril and Methodius from the alphabet systems they understood: Roman alphabet of Latin, Hebrew and Greek. The more western tribes which revamped their alphabets to adopt Roman alphabet characters picked up a few unique characters along the way. What is interesting about Sorbian is that it samples from both the Czech and Polish variations of the Roman alphabet. It favors Czech for the soft consonants but it also includes at least one letter unique to Polish.

So while I wanted to do a quick study about the Czech and Polish ties to Sorbian, I also wanted to take a look at which languages aside from the ones I knew kept the Cyrillic alphabet. I created a chart in Excel of thirteen common Slavic languages: Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Czech, Sorbian, Polish, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Macedonian. There are a handful of other tongues I would have liked to include such as the Kashubian language of northern Poland and the dialect of the Górals in southern Poland but this was supposed to be a quick survey and I did not have the resources as readily available as the list of the 13 languages I have mentioned. I then chose thirteen words and one phrase: mountain, leg, head, hunger, I am hungry, hospital, room, basement, store, pub, soup, train, library, and language, and made a matrix.

I chose mountainlegheadhunger because these are usually identical words between the languages but there is an exchange of g and h. For example mountain in Czech is hora, but góra in Polish. Similarly there are exchanges of the o and ó (u). I wanted to see what the Sorbs chose. For all of these words Sorbian favors the softer h sound, like Czech. In doing I learned something new. I had always assumed the Cyrillic г from Greek for g was always g when written as г but while this is true of Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Macedonian, the other languages that use Cyrillic, Ukrainian and Belarusian, actually pronounce the г as an h. This was a little mind-blowing for me.

I threw in "I am hungry" because I wanted to see how each language treated this sentence. The structure between the Slavic languages varies. Sometimes it is like I-am-hungry, or I-have-hunger, or I-hungry, or reflective hungry-I-am. The jury is out on Sorbian but I am looking into it.

I chose 
hospitalpubsoup, and library because these are key words for me. I wanted to know, did they adopt Latinized words such as biblioteka for library or kept an older Slavic word relating to their word for book. Pub was a similar word. Short for public house in English; did they simply copy it or use a Slavic word.

I included basement because the words for basement, store and pub get mixed around. I once got into and argument with a Czech man because I told him earlier that day I had been in his basement. He got very angry at me until, half an hour later we both realized I was using the Polish word for store, which meant basement. I would be angry too if a stranger insisted that he was hanging out in my basement especially if I did not have one. This is one of the problems between countries because instead of diving deeper into the usage, the differences and similarities become jokes. Like how the word for west in Polish means toilet in Czech and how the word for love in Czech is similar to the word for whip in Polish.

I chose 
roomtrainand language because I have noticed a variation in these words between Slavic countries and because language is usually the same word for tongue.

During this course of this nitpicking exercise I thought I might turn myself off to continuing the study of Slavic languages but quite the opposite has happened. I have a newfound energy to learn more about them and to make it back to a region I lived for five years. My dream is to Start up in Belarus, dip down to Czech, Poland, then the Balkans, and then to walk east across Ukraine and Russia to the Sea of Japan.

The Self-will of Will Self

by Drew Martin
Americans have a lot of self-will but not enough Will Self. He's one of these writers and cultural figures who has quite a presence in the U.K. but hardly anyone knows of him "here" in the U.S. Interestingly, his mom is from Queens, New York so Will is an American citizen as well, which gives him a bigger territory to write about with the advantage of connection. I first became fascinated by him many years ago when I read about how he would fly into the airport of a major city, such as JFK of New York, and then walk to the center of that city, i.e. Times Square. He talked about the physical boundaries and rings of a city as he worked his way into the heart of that culture, passing graveyards and major roads void of people. I identified a lot with Will but I never read much by him until I picked up his Junk Mail last week for $1 in the back clearance section of Barnes and Noble in Paramus, New Jersey. I am reading it now, and will make a post about it when I finish. What I wanted to share at this point is a lecture I just watched by him. It was my first time seeing/hearing him and I found him more interesting than I expected. I guess with his junkie past I was expecting someone a bit more jaded but he is clear, smart, and insightful during this fascinating talk about Isolation, Solitude, Loneliness and the Composition of Long-Form Fiction in which he contemplates the need of isolation to write and read literature while at the same time questioning if we perhaps fetishize solitude and might be better off in a world without privacy.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Real Hexadecimal Numbers Have Curves

by Drew Martin
37-24-35  38-26-37  41-25-38
35-25-35  36-25-36  37-26-45  
34-24-35  34-26-38  36-26-40

These are the "measurements" of famous, beautiful, curvy celebrities: 

Madonna, Kate Upton, Dolly Parton, 
Lynda Carter, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, 
Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Kim Kardashian.

I was always perplexed as a kid when men fantasized over numbers like these. They were too abstract, I was too young to understand, and they seemed to be bantered about by the type of guys who also traded baseball and other sports statistics with each other that got decoded in their meaty heads into an actual performance, and in the case of the women's measurements, erotic visions of impossible pin-up girls. Maybe a lonely submarine sailor sending Rita Hayworth's 36-24-36 and other "bomber girls" measurements by Morse code to another poor enlisted seaman was the first instance of electronic sexting. Which reminds me of an article I once read about two former American servicemen who returned to Plzeň a half a century after liberating the Czech city during WWII. One shouted to the other "Incoming at 11 o'clock!" and his buddy spun around in time to catch a glimpse a Slavic beauty pass by.

I recently wondered if arrangements of these six numbers correlated to anything other than womanly curves. How might they look as a patch of RGB color space values? I envisioned a psychedelic matrix of hot pinks and purples.

When I tried that all I got was a dull grid of bluish black squares except for one slightly brighter area because Nick Minaj's big butt bumped up the blue value. A little disappointed by this, I converted the inches to centimeters and entered those values as RGB: a little lighter and brighter with a bump again from Minaj's rump. So I decided to switch over to CMYK color space and alter the K (black) value by another measurement unique to each woman. The greater the value of K, the darker the box.

The first time I did this, I used height as the variable, which is why the just-shy-of-six-foot Kate Upton (top middle of the left matrix) is the darkest. The next box, centered here, uses weight as a variable. And finally the far right box uses age as the variable, which is probably the most interesting of all the matrices because even though Dolly Parton, Lynda Carter, and Madonna are all attractive older ladies, there is a real sense of mortality in the darkening of the squares.

Despite all the variations I was still disappointed and was hoping for something more insightful. I tried placing the numbers as global coordinates such as 36°25'36" but the South West coordinates dropped everyone in the South Atlantic Ocean, South East in the Indian Ocean, and North West smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

And then finally, miraculously, the North East coordinates parachuted these beauties into Turkish territories, with Dolly Parton busting into neighboring Georgia. Maybe she figured Nashville was just a short haul from there. 

Most surprisingly, Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian were strategically positioned near the Syrian border not far from Aleppo. Maybe this new information will help Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate for US president, to remember this location of this war-torn Syrian city.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Weapons of Mass Communication

by Drew Martin
What if our dreams are not random clips of past events or slumbering fantasies but rather tests of how we might act in certain situations? If that is the case, I just destroyed a futuristic quantum communication device that would allow us to instantly interact with humans anywhere on the planet without the need for the Internet, satellites, cell towers, or energy as we know it. This device even had the potential to get on with intelligent creatures around the universe faster than the speed of light. The problem is that I tossed the only working prototype out of a moving car and destroyed it. Sorry.

In my dream last night, the inventor of the device was sitting across from me in an open-aired vehicle that was whizzing up the FDR Drive in New York City. He had it in his lap but I could not figure out what it was. It looked like a cross between a round boombox and the discontinued Brother MFC 210-C fax/scanner/copier that I picked up off the curb a couple weeks ago and got working last night in order to scan a drawing.

The young man was oddly grinning to himself and there was a digital counter on the device that was clicking down. I thought it was a bomb and we were about to go under an overpass in Manhattan so I threw it out on the road to minimize its blast damage. In the same moment the inventor disappeared and someone else in the vehicle said “Do you know what you just did?” 

A moment later I found a little remote speaker on which I could hear the voice of a lady in Africa with whom he was having a conversation. It quickly faded out and I realized I had foolishly destroyed this new device and somehow also caused the inventor to vanish.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Art For Gamers' Sake

by Drew Martin
Almost three years ago I wrote a raving review about Indie Game: The Movie. It is a really interesting and beautifully made documentary from 2012 about young, indie video game developers. Phil Fish, the developer of FEZ best expresses the sentiment of the phenomenon of video games,

"It's the sum total of every expressive medium of all times, made interactive."

Yesterday, I was very happy to see that there was a sequel documentary, Indie Game: Life After, which is an interesting follow up. It is more of a hodgepodge of clips and interviews a couple years after the first film. There are the epilogues of the formerly struggling indie video game developers who have all cashed in on their successes. Instead of working in messy apartments they now have tidy homes and fancy cars. You are happy for them but kind of miss their angst, which gave the first movie its character.

One nice thing about the follow-up movie is that it interviews David Hellman who did the artwork for Braid. This was one of the featured games in the first movie but only the coding creator was interviewed. Hellman talks about the process of creating the artwork for Braid, which has a hand-drawn quality to it and is one of the more famous indie video games. (pictured top) 

Another great thing about this sequel documentary is that it features many other indie video game makers and shows a bit more of the community. Steph Thirion, for example, is the creator of Eliss, which is a "puzzle video game" in the spirit of Tetris but is a touchscreen interface and revolves around filling "squeesars" with planets of like color and size. Eliss is a blend of the artist name El Lissitzky (Lazar Markovich Lissitzky, Ла́зарь Ма́ркович Лиси́цкий) a Russian avant-garde artist, who with his mentor, Kazimir Malevich, helped develop suprematism. Their work influenced the Bauhaus and constructivist movements, which dominated 20th-century graphic design. (pictured bottom)

Click here to read my first review of Indie Game: The Movie, "The Sum Total of Every Expressive Medium of All Times"

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Foreskinny Dipping

by Drew Martin
Last night I saw Michelangelo's David in Union Square. It was not as some art-in-the-park replica but rather he was on literature being passed out by a group of anti-circumcision g
uys; all young and good-looking. 

At first I passed by them but then I turned around and picked up their flyers. The piece with David on it had the tagline Born Perfect. Keep Him That Way.

I started talking with a young Australian guy who was ecstatic to learn that while I was cut like most boys in America in my generation, I
 was adamantly opposed to it for my two sons. Having a daughter first was a relief to delay the decision until some time later because the hospital puts a lot of pressure on your to do it a day after the birth. It makes sense for them and the doctors because they get to cash in on this billion-dollar industry, not just from the procedure but from the sales of the foreskins to beauty companies. But no matter how one looks at it, it is genital mutilation and it leads to the deaths of hundreds of babies each year or life-long problems such as accidental castration - that's a pretty big problem.

The Aussie explained that the cut rate down under is much lower than the States because the procedure is not covered by insurance. Here it is just part of the hospital-birth package deal.

Most of what the young man said was interesting, although I had heard a lot of it before. The one thing that absolutely blew my mind was that the biggest advocate for it in America was John Harvey Kellogg. Yes, the man that invented Kellogg's Cornflakes ushered in the nationwide call for circumcision in 1877 to curb male masturbation to uphold the moral values of the Victorian period. Fortunately the foreskin was already carved in stone of some of the world's greatest sculptures, which definitely influenced my decision to leave my boys intact because of my appreciation of the male body as they presented it. That, and a decisive moment in 1992, shortly after arriving to live in Prague. I was privy to a conversation at a friend's apartment where a young, attractive American woman who had dated circumcised Americans prior to her uncut Czech boyfriend was asked which she preferred: foreskin! I remember telling myself at that time to keep her enthusiastic response in mind if I had to make that decision for a baby boy entering the world, which I had to do in 2000 and 2007.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

An Ä+ for Svante ‎Pääbo's Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

by Drew Martin
The hand axes and eagle talon necklace pictured here were fashioned by Neanderthals more than 100,000 years ago; tens of thousands of years before modern humans arrived in Europe. In fact, these Neanderthal inventions predate modern human tooling and crafting.

While Neanderthals may not have produced sculptures and paintings, they were apparently fond of collecting knick-knacks and certainly had an eye and appreciation for symmetry and adorning themselves.

I just finished reading Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, which is Svante Pääbo's fascinating explanation of how he and his team first sequenced the genome of Neanderthals and then Denisovans (another early hominin, which Pääbo first discovered through gene sequencing). 

Pääbo is diligent in explaining all the trials and tribulations of his quest, which include managing bacterial and human contamination of their samples and perfecting the clean room, getting enough prehistoric hominin bone to sample, finding the most efficient and accurate sequencing machines, worrying about the competition who might publish their findings ahead of Pääbo's group, and handling the critics, which range from creationists to other scientists less enthusiastic about genomic analysis.

A good understanding of biology is helpful to fully grasp Pääbo's more scientific writings about DNA, but even without that I think one would still be impressed by the process he describes. 

While this is not a travel book, Pääbo does take you a bit around the world including his research in Berkeley, California, setting up his department in Leipzig, Germany with the Max Planck Institute, a romantic awakening in Hawaii, and several bone-sourcing trips to Croatia and Russia, where he learns a lot about friendship.

What comes of all of this is a clearer understanding of our relationship to Neanderthals and the dispelling of less probable scenarios. It is now understood that we are much closer to Neanderthals than we previously comprehended. We shared an ancestor in Africa, but the group that evolved into Neanderthal left to Europe about 800,000 years ago. There appears to be a couple waves of modern humans that later joined them. The first wave lived among them and had fertile offspring. A subsequent wave of humans mixed with the interbred humans and spread out into the rest of the world with new technologies and a greater gift of exploration.

One thing 
Pääbo tries to make clear several times, is that whichever the correct order of events, Neanderthal aren't exactly extinct as previously explained when it was thought that humans were a replacement group that did not mate with them. The fact that humans and Neanderthals had children together means that everyone who is not purely African has a certain percentage of Neanderthal genetic information in them. An interesting topic that is teased out of their studies is gene flow. It is clear that in the first interchange of genes, male Neanderthals were impregnating female humans, which would contradict the thought of human dominance over the Neanderthals.

Pääbo is an interesting writer, devoted to his topic, but also willing to make numerous asides:

I was intrigued, but again. I was also worried. There might be a stigma associated with being "Neanderthal." Would people feel bad if they knew that some part of their genome that carried genes involved in how brain cells work came from Neanderthals? Would future arguments between spouses include arguments such as "You never take out the trash because such-and-such brain gene of yours is Neanderthal"?  

And when discussing testicle size in relationship to promiscuity, Pääbo offers:

Humans, as measured both by testicle size and evidence for positive selection on genes relevant for male reproduction, seem to be somewhere between the extremes of chimpanzee promiscuity and gorilla monogamy, suggesting that our ancestors may have been not so unlike us, vacillating between emotionally rewarding fidelity to a partner and sexually alluring alternatives.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lo and Behold

by Drew Martin
Werner Herzog's greatest talent is easing the subjects of his interviews into a quiet, trusted, confessional space and letting them talk. What they say is often remarkable. 

Herzog keeps the camera rolling so the person is framed in a wide, temporal space. It is a style that further isolates the individual and typically reveals deeper emotions that trail the answers to his quixotic questions. It does not feel manipulative when you see the final cut but I can hear Herzog saying to himself in his long-strided German (accent) "This is a gold-mine." 

It is a set up but not for a comic moment or to tease out a desired soundbyte. It is to create a script of serendipitous remarks stitched together with his calming voice, which has the cadence of a large-load dryer at the laundromat.

What I like most about Herzog's films, which I have written about several times before, is not only his quest for the profound but his ability to capture whatever topic he is focused on with the same level of appreciation. The beginning of Lo and Behold, about the Internet, is not just a visit to UCLA to see the seminal networking device that begot the Internet, but to create a sense of awe about it, which is carried throughout the film.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Irish Pub

by Drew Martin
Last week I watched a really nice documentary, The Irish Pub, about the traditional pubs of Ireland. While these public houses are known for drink, the film emphasizes their place in the community for intermingling, and most of all good conversations and the feeling of belonging.

The latent linguist in me loved the hour + of Irish brogue, while the junk artist that I am loved the eclectic nick nacks that cover the walls and ceilings of these establishments and are part of the tales of each place: "nice tongs" from Canada, a mole trap from America, a blood-stained jersey from 1963 of someone who was hit by a car nearby, a camogie, an odd wellington pegged to a rafter, a samurai sword from a pub owner who was a prisoner of war for three years in Nagasaki where he survived the atomic bomb blast, an iron deadlock bar bent by the Black and Tans, and the painting here of a scene from John B. Keane's play Sive.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Doodling Dreams

by Drew Martin
I took the day off for my little kid's 9th birthday but then I ended up taking too long of a nap so now I can't sleep and it's past midnight. My 17-year-old daughter is up working on her portfolio so I am hanging out in her room doodling dreams I recently had while her affectionate cat makes it difficult to do anything.

A couple days ago I dreamt that I was stranded on a deserted island which had two humps of land masses. The water rose so much that the section I was on got cut off from the higher area, then became submerged. I needed to get to the other side but the rising water was shark infested. Apparently there was a headless whale carcass at hand because the plan I devised was to swim with the big body to the remaining part of the island, and shield myself with/hide under the dead whale.

Today, during my long nap, I dreamt that I was on a bus going to a Philip Morris Museum in some suburban part of Virginia (I think). I had wanted to go to take a picture of something on the museum grounds but forgot what it was during the bus ride. The sun was setting so by the time I arrived not only had I completely forgotten my reason for going but it was too dark to take pictures of what I did find there. On the way to the museum the bus passed a house, which had Pop Art versions of its own facade that were coming out of the front of the house, like in an exploded view, which continued to where the car was parked out front. I wanted to get off the bus to take a picture of it but figured I would first see where the museum was and then walk back but it was too late, too dark and too far.

That got me thinking, it would be cool to actually design this kind of house, or maybe one where the front of the house looked like a cross section of itself and then a garage out front would look like the front corner of the house, so elements of the yard/garage in front of the house would look like an exploded view of its interiors. I think I need to illustrate that too.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Shining Stars of a Dull Hotel

by Drew Martin
I never read or watched The Shining but I do think a lot about it, particularly because my parents often took me to the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, where Steven King supposedly wrote it. So with that, in combination with the horrifying happenings at the Bates Motel in Psycho, and the unsettling lyrics of the Eagles’ Hotel California, I really need a hotel to work hard at making me feel like I will survive the night and that it is not some warped playground for a wacko. But more than that, I am typically more unnerved by the existential crisis I feel at the lack of culture and intelligence in a boxy, nondescript place.

When my family and I recently checked into a place in Massachusetts for a four-night stay, I immediately panicked. It was a tired, cavernous structure, with old carpets, shoddy construction, too much unpainted dark wood, and it seemed depressingly empty. But then I started noticing a couple young dancers trickling in and milling about. Within a couple hours the place was filled with hundreds of bouncy teenage girls in satin dance school jackets, and their perhaps-once-attractive middled-aged moms not far behind, moving slowly like pack animals. 

Lo and behold a regional dance competition filled the void for almost the duration of our stay. Sure it was noisy and chaotic, and the teens were splashing around in the indoor pool while eating chocolate donuts, but there was an infusion of youth, color, and creativity into the old, drab, and boring hotel. 

Due to the fact that I am on vacation with my family, I could only pop in on the events for fifteen minutes each day because my wife and kids were shockingly disinterested. My initial reaction from my arts background was that this was a gold mine and that I needed to document the event/take hundreds of pictures, and make a movie of it all: the costumes, the dancers, and the moms reliving their dreams. 

It was a fascinating occasion because on one level it was entirely inspiring to see all these kids honing their craft and doing something creative and physical with their lives/bodies, but then on another level there were all of these tense hopes and mini-dramas at work; somewhere between a kids beauty pageant and a varsity sporting event.

But alas, I only took a couple pictures with my phone camera and saw a tiny fraction of the phenomenon. And when they all took off today at the conclusion of the competition, and the hotel emptied out, it felt like someone poked a little hole in my soul. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Unique Concrete

by Drew Martin
I have a thing for concrete. If you search this site for "concrete" you will find more than a couple dozen posts referencing the material. I am amazed by its properties and artistic possibilities. And as part of my "peripheral art" notions, I am fascinated by the concrete sculptures that surround us in multitudes. You have seen them on lawns and at garden centers but you probably never thought about how they are made and who makes them. I used to live next to Fountains of Wayne in New Jersey, from which the rock band took their name, and I have several artist friends who work in concrete.

So today, when I was washing my family's clothes at a laundromat during vacation in Sturbridge, Massachusetts and noticed Cornerstone Creations: Unique Concrete Home and Garden Art, I moseyed on over and had a look.

I was greeted by Pete Robitaille, a pleasant young man running his own shop who showed me his work and answered the biggest question I have had for several years regarding concrete statues: Do people ever ask to have the cremated ashes of loved-ones mixed into the cement to make a concrete sculpture of Buddha, Ganesha, or something symbolic of the deceased?

I have been thinking about this because it would seem like a nice alternative to sticking someone in a box underground, or putting their ashes in an urn. It might be reassuring for someone to at least have a custom statue reminder of a special person, which he or she could place in the garden or in the woods. Pete said he has done a couple such requests for markers for pets graves but that it is not a common thing.

Here is a picture of Pete at work, and some of his creations including a cat candle holder with glowing marble eyes (the finished works are painted), the fountain at the hotel where we are staying, an Escher-inspired piece, and two pieces that you probably would not otherwise see placed together: a trio of mushrooms and an Aztec fire god.

more at Cornerstone Creations: facebook  ebay 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Waiting for the Barbarians

by Drew Martin
In a Carpool Karaoke episode with James Corden and Gwen Stefani, the two of them pause from singing her songs and wander into a conversation about different terms for male genitals. James starts a list: eggplant, the prize, the truth. Gwen stops him at "the truth" and asks him to explain that one. He replies, because the truth hurts, and, you can't handle the truth. Gwen laughs and says, You know what the name of my record is? This is What the Truth Feels Like.

In many ways this multi-meaning of the truth, both this sexual distinction and as the verity of fact, is a theme of J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Coetzee cleverly uses a tactic with his readers that his barbarians use to draw out and isolate the Empire's guard to leave them abandoned. The book is set in an outpost of an empire, and while the main character, who is a magistrate of the fort-like town, refers to this place as an oasis and paradise, we are in fact abandoned there, and it is not a good feeling. The is no reference to the era or a specific location. We come to know that there are extreme seasons and the land wastes away into a desert, where the barbarians lurk and evoke a constant fear of attack. Is it even Earth? Most likely because the characters are all too human.

The magistrate is a hapless character who is sympathetic to the barbarians, and even takes in one young barbarian woman with whom he sleeps. He also visits a young prostitute to fill the voids in his life. And while he is not a great leader, his aloofness does not disrupt the rhythm of the outpost. This is later contrasted by the colonel and an influx of soldiers. During that authoritarian regime he is held in prison, and tensions with the barbarians lead to failed troop maneuvers, flooded crops, and abandonment of the outpost by many civilians.

The truth is, of course, countered with lies:

For I was not, as I liked to think, the indulgent pleasure-loving opposite of the cold rigid Colonel. I was the lie that the empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that the Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.

I like how Coetzee also plays with the word lie as a sexual twist; to lie in bed with the naked body of the barbarian consort, and the prostitute. One of the more interesting uses of lie is a passage when he confronts the man who imprisoned him.

Thinking of him, I have said the words 'torture...torturer' to myself, but they are strange words, and the more I repeat them the more strange they grow, till they lie like stones on my tongue. 

Torture and language are two other themes in this book, which pair nicely with truth and lies. In fact, we start this story with torture. The colonel speaks about the process of torture and how truth has a certain tone of voice.

First I get lies, you see - this is what happens - first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth.

Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.

In the first line of the book we are contemplating the dark sunglasses of the colonel:

I have never seen anything like it; two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind.

And with this, from the start, the idea of blindness and truth go hand in hand. The young barbarian
consort was partially blinded during her initial detention at the outpost, before the magistrate took her in. His comments include visual arousals such as...

She lies naked, her oiled skin glowing a vegetal gold in the firelight.

...but there is another level he accesses by abandoning his vision...

I shut my eyes, breathe deeply to still my agitation, and concentrate wholly on seeing her through my blind fingertips.

Eventually the magistrate decides to return his other-worldly mistress to the barbarian people and sets out on a life-threatening trek with a handful of men. But when they are finally face to face with hostile barbarians, the magistrate asks her to tell them the truth.

You really want me to tell them the truth?

Tell them the truth. What else is there to tell?

She shakes her head, keeps her silence.

It is a moment when only the barbarian consort is in possession of both languages. The magistrate thinks the truth in their own language will diffuse the tense meeting, while she knows the danger of the truth, particularly that she was the old man's consort.

One of my favorite passages about language discusses their communication common ground. 

In the makeshift language we share there are no nuances. She has a fondness for facts, I note, for pragmatic dicta; she dislikes fancy, questions, speculations; we are an ill-matched couple.

And when the magistrate is imprisoned and tortured with a sloppy, failed hanging he cries out...

From my throat comes the first mournful dry bellow, like the pouring of gravel....Someone gives me a push and I begin to float back and forth in an arc a foot above the ground like a great old moth with it wings pinched together, roaring, shouting. "He is calling his barbarian friends," someone observes. "That is barbarian language you hear." There is laughter.

This is later revisited when he accepts the hospitality of the "quartermaster's plump wife",

I ramble on; she listens to these half-truths, nodding, watching me like a hawk; we pretend that the voice she hears is not the voice of the man who swung from the tree shouting for mercy loud enough to waken the dead.

The deepest dive into language is when the magistrate returns from the trip out into the barbarian wasteland. The colonel accuses him of espionage. A chest of hundreds of barbarian messages are found in the magistrate's office and he is directed to translate them.

I look at the lines of characters written by a stranger long since dead. I do not even know whether to read from right to left or from left to right. In the long evening I spent poring over my collection I isolated over four hundred different characters in the script, perhaps as many as found hundred and fifty. I have no idea what they stand for. Does each stand for a single thing, a circle for the sun, a triangle for a woman, a wave for a lake; or does a circle merely stand for "circle", a triangle for "triangle", a wave for "wave"? Does each sign represent a different state of the tongue, the lips, the throat, the lungs, as they combine in the uttering of some multifarious unimaginable extinct barbarian language? Or are my four hundred characters nothing but scribal embellishments of an underlying repertory of twenty or thirty whose primitive forms I am too stupid to see?

After this contemplation, the magistrate begins to "read"/fake-translate the slips, and gives a voice to barbarians that is critical of the Empire. 

This one reads as follows...I am sorry I must send bad news. The soldiers came and took your brother away. I have been to the fort every day to plead for his return. I sit in the dust with my head bare. Yesterday for the first time they sent a man to speak to me. He says your brother is no longer here. He says he has been sent away.

The magistrate's creative ad lib translation even explores a fantastic structure of a language that actually stumps him.

...Now let us see what the next one says. See, there is only a single character. It is the barbarian character 'war', but it has other senses too. It can stand for 'vengeance', and, if you turn it upside down like this, it can be made to read 'justice'. There is no knowing which sense is intended. That is part of barbarian cunning...It is the same with the rest of these slips...They form an allegory. They can be read in many orders. Further, each slip can be read in many ways. Together they can be read as a domestic journal, or they can be read as a plan of war, or they can be turned on their sides and read as a history of the last years of the Empire...

Coetzee's strongest voice, however, is a very personal unveiling of emotions by an older man with a younger love interest. 

I have known her a year, visiting her sometimes twice a week in this room. I feel a quiet affection for her which is perhaps the best that can be hoped for between an aging man and a girl of twenty; better than a possessive passion certainly.

As the magistrate ages and his circumstances in the outpost worsen, his understandings of his relations with the young women becomes much more self-critical.

Her beauty awakes no desire in me. Instead it seems more obscene than ever that this heavy slack foul-smelling old body...should ever had held her in its arms. What have I been doing all this time, pressing myself upon such flowerlike soft-petalled children - not only her, on the other too? I should have stayed among the gross and decaying where I belong; fat women with acrid armpits and bad tempers, whores with big slack cunts. I tiptoe out, hobble down the stairs in the blinding glare of the sun.

Near the end of the story the magistrate contemplates various scenarios of the final breech of their insulated outpost by the barbarians and how his life would terminate but then he finishes his more brutal thoughts with something quite elevated:

I lie on the bare mattress and concentrate on bringing into life the image of myself as a swimmer swimming with even, untiring strokes through the medium of time, a medium more inert than water, without ripples, pervasive, colourless, odourless, dry as paper.

For me this is symbolic of the writer and his story. Coetzee is not a linear narrator. His magistrate ebbs and flows through the happenings around the outpost. And even while the empire seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, the magistrate bobs between hardships and pleasure. 
Despite all the abuse and humiliation the magistrate endures, he finds comfort in the arms of women who sympathize with him, even if for a short while. After getting out of jail he wanders through and around the outpost. He lives on scraps of food tossed to dogs as well as the offerings of the women who want to hear his story. Just as the outpost is an oasis to him in the barbarian desert, women are oases within the outpost. 

How can I believe that a bed is anything but a bed, a woman's body anything but a site of joy?

His organic dependence on woman is in contrast to the military men. When he goes to speak with the colonel and must first address a man sitting at his old desk, he describes the over-confident man.

I picture him sitting up in bed beside a girl, flexing his muscles for her, feeding on her admiration. The kind of man who drives his body like a machine, I imagine, ignorant that it has its own rhythms.

[some words I came across in Waiting for the Barbarians, which I did not know: palliation, palaver, apposite, jute]

Sunday, June 19, 2016

If You Think Going To The Moon Is Hard, You Ought To Try Staying Home

by Drew Martin
When my parents came over today to celebrate Father's Day I asked my dad about his applying to be an astronaut back in the late 1960s. He had wanted to be a scientist astronaut but said he was turned down because he had not yet completed his Ph.D. in nuclear physics. My mom thought it was because of a varicose vein found in his leg during the rigorous physical exam. Either way, he stayed home (on Earth) and raised a family and was/is a great father.

Yesterday, I finished watching The Last Man on the Moon about Gene Cernan, who was the pilot for the Gemini 9A mission, during which he did one of the first space walks, in June of 1966. He was also the lunar module pilot of Apollo 10 (the first Apollo mission, which orbited the moon at a low altitude but did not land) in May of 1969. And he was the commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972. Originally there were supposed to be ten Apollo missions but the program was shortened to seven flights so Cernan became the last man to walk (and drive) on the moon.

Most of the documentaries I have seen about the United States space program focus on the missions but this film is much more reflective and contemplative, and Cernan is obliging to share his experiences. He does talk about the bravado and ego of his fellow astronauts but there is much thought given to the lives of the families of the men, including his not being around a lot for his daughter, and this absenteeism and self-centered personality that led to his divorce from his first wife (pictured above on the ground) who sums up the tensions and frustrations with a zinger of a line, "If you think going to the moon is hard, you ought to try staying home."

It is a bittersweet tale but the overall positive tone to the documentary is about the phenomenal achievements that happened at NASA during the Apollo missions and the profound feeling of being on the moon and seeing the Earth, which Cernan tries to relay to everyone he meets.