Fractured Compass

July 5, 2006

How Not To Get Lost In Translation

Filed under: What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 2:11 pm

Douglas Hofstadter published Le Ton beau de Marot: InPraise of the Music of Language in 1997. The book did not become as famous as his Godel, Escher, Bach (1979) and googling it today does not give very many results. Nevertheless, this is a work worthy of attention. It remains even today a hodgepodge of ideas and a celebration of words. (I bought it years ago but decided to read it only recently.)
Hofstadter is an exponent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which he describes as “the belief in thought as the manipulation of unknown sorts of patterns, the attempt to discover those patterns and the rules for manipulating them, and the strategy of using computers to try out all possible sorts of patterns and types of pattern-manipulation rules.” His belief in AI informs much of this work, but the book is certainly more than an exposition of AI. It is a series of meditations on the art (science?) of translation, an emotional and intellectual autobiography, a collection of sometimes disparate thoughts on linguistics, literature and culture, and 88 translations of an inconsequential French poem, Ma Mignnone (A un Damoyselle malade), originally written half a millennium ago by the obscure poet Clement Marot. The translations were done by Hofstadter and his friends. The bookmark that comes with the book has the translation by Hofstadter’s beloved wife Carol who died at an early age.
Even if you don’t side in the old debate documented here between Hofstadter and John Searle on AI, you can enjoy large segments of this book. The main strand is that translation is not simply translation of content as in machine translation. It is like “the transport of an elusive essence between frameworks” – “an inter-frame essence transport” between linguistic media. He thinks that though languages may seem restricted by constraints, these “are not so tight as to preclude the expression of arbitrary meanings.” That this is possible is demonstrated by analogy from music and common prose which he calls “frame blends.” He refer to an idea he got from Giles Fauconnier’s Mental Spaces as seminal to his thinking – we often refer to people and places with incorrect linguistic markers which may paradoxically increase the efficiency of human communication. Thus, words may slip back and forth across “semiporous linguistic boundaries.” Although certain words may be inextricably tied to specific places and times, they should be used to “evoke, inside the new framework, the local – and now exotic – flavors that they are imbued with.” The translator then, though he/she may be self-effacing, has a more central role than readers care to recognize, because translation involves “small creative acts of faithful infidelity.” There are excursions in this book into translations of nonsense and the untranslatable. The final sections turn philosophical as Hofstadter seems to pin the possibility of understanding across cultures with his concepts of “deep understanding as identity-blurring” and “linguistic empathy” – concepts which at first glance sound like pseudo-mysticism but are actually worth further investigation, especially for us who live and breathe in the Third World but seem to speak a language from the First.
It does help Hofstadter’s cause that he chose a lighthearted poem to translate and expansively meditate on. I guess you could even make more than 88 translations of this poem in English. I also believe certain languages have constraints and I don’t know if more than that number can be achieved in any language. Now try doing that with Rilke’s Duino Elegies. (It would be possible, but I think, more difficult.)


The Trail Riemann Left Behind

Filed under: What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 2:10 pm

In a brief mathematical excursion, Bernhard Riemann, then professor of mathematics at Gottingen in Germany, presented a short paper in 1859 on how he thinks prime numbers are distributed among the whole numbers. This became known as the famous Riemann hypothesis – considered one of the great unsolved problems of mathematics.
Prime numbers have long fascinated mathematicians. They are numbers divisible only by themselves and one, like two, three, five, seven, eleven and so on. It’s easy to go on for a while but once you reach the thousands, it becomes a difficult task. Just how many primes are there and is there logic in the way they grow in size?
Thinking of a number as a multiple of another was a construct known to the ancient Greeks for whom a number is either a composite or a prime. Erathosthenes provided a “sieve” whereby any multiple of a number cannot be construed as prime. Hence, all even numbers cannot be prime. Euclid, the master geometrician, showed a procedure for producing larger and larger primes, proving the infinity of primes.
The French mathematician, Adrien-Marie Legendre (1752-1833), whose “method of least squares” has borne significant fruit in astronomy and statistics, with the knowledge that primes veer slightly away from a straight line (i.e., asymptotically) as they grow, proposed a calculating procedure for counting primes using the concept of the logarithm (“The number of primes less than a given value is asymptotically that value, divided by its logarithm”). Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), the German giant of math, using calculus subsequently developed a Prime Number Theorem. This “logarithmic integral” still holds water now as it comes very close to modern approximations. Then the Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), building on this and Euclid, once more proved the infinity of primes using the concept of the reciprocal and the harmonic series. The reciprocal of 2 is 1/2, of 3. 1/3, and so on. Summing them up yields a harmonic series. Euler “factored” the harmonic series, where each prime contributes, and where each contributing prime can in turn be expressed as an infinite series. Gustav Dirichlet (1805-1859), Riemann’s teacher, did the same using the simpler concept of an arithmetic progression.
Riemann’s lecture on primes was on the occasion of his induction into the prestigious Berlin Academy. He is as well known for his contribution to geometry – the so-called Riemannian geometry which formed the backbone of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. A sphere is an example of such a Riemannian space where if you draw a triangle on its surface, the angles add up to greater than the well-known 180 degrees of a flat space. Using the calculus of complex numbers (numbers which consist of a “real” and an “imaginary” part), invented numbers now central to modern physics, he formulated the Riemann zeta function. Think of this function as a box where you put in complex numbers, process them according to some rules, and out comes another number. The process inside the box utilizes ideas from Fourier, another famous French mathematician. The complex number inputs for which the zeta function of Riemann is zero are called zeta zeros. Some of these zeta zeros fall on the “real” axis. They are essentially the negative even integers e.g. -2, -4, -6. Those which do not are called nontrivial zeta zeros. All these nontrivial zeta zeros occur on an imaginary vertical strip corresponding to 1/2 on the real axis. That this is the most precise estimate of the distribution of prime numbers among the natural numbers is the Riemann hypothesis.
The above paragraphs are my bare outline of what constitutes the first half of Dan Rockmore’s exposition of the Riemann hypothesis and its explorers, Stalking the Riemann Hypothesis (Pantheon Books, 2005). That’s at least how I understood it. The second half provides the nonmathematical layman a narrative of the the modern attempts to prove the Riemann hypothesis. In the final chapters, the attempts at solving it lead to the frontiers of how we understand the world and the more abstract ideas of quantum chaos.
Rockmore’s book is not for everyone, especially if you hate math or if you’re already a math professional. For the mathematically inclined, however, this is a book to be savored. It is written in an easy-to-like conversational style. Nibble at it, page after page, and enjoy its many flavors. In the end, you’ll be surprised that you understand large chunks of it.

June 17, 2006

Bresson’s Chapels

Filed under: What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 8:45 am

European filmmakers often make religious films or spiritual films in a minimalist style. Compare Pasolini’s The Gospel According To Matthew with The Greatest Story Ever Told or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, for example, and see the difference. Now, of course, even Europeans don’t make them anymore. But they used to.
The supreme master in this regard was the French director Robert Bresson, whose Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest), released on Criterion a few years ago, is a good specimen of filmic minimalism. This was adapted from George Bernanos’ equally minimalist novel. Though spartan in its story, non-acting and filming, with hardly any sound except the dialogue and the sound of leaves and footsteps, it is certainly not puritan/ical in its worldview. There is a dangerous touch of cynicism or even despair in this spirituality. In this film, the young, inexperienced priest cannot cope with the problems posed by a handful of villagers (a comical aside, what would he do with a larger community?), but dying of illness, he perseveres in his calling. In the final shot, the camera briefly lingers not on any character but on a cross hanging on a wall. Bresson seems to say that suffering is the essence of the Christian calling and the souce of its redemptive power. I can’t call the lead character a saint, but that is almost the implication. This is essentially mainstream Catholic Christianity though the style is not. There is no touch of politics here (as in Pasolini’s, for example).
The same worldview is sustained in Bresson’s masterpiece, Au Hasard Balthazar, released recently also on Criterion. In less than a hundred minutes, the film covers a lot of territory. It is ostensibly the life of a donkey, the eponymous character in the film, as he is passed on to various owners and ultimately dies. But it is really about people and the pain they inflict on each other. There are hardly any likable characters here but they are all well-sketched. And it is amazing how the donkey, who is almost on every frame, is able to sustain the viewer’s interest as a small world revolves around him. The film is poignant and effective because the lead and ultimate victim is a donkey who cannot complain and, therefore, retains a measure of dignity in the midst of stupidity and suffering. The effect is like seeing a tableaux of human vices that together make a whole, and the donkey’s final, silent death is unforgettable. I hesitate to make the ultimate jump that some critics make – of comparing the donkey’s sufferings to Christ. It’s not a sustainable metaphor from watching the film.
Bresson is not for everyone. Either you like his films or you don’t. Ambivalence with respect to his films is tantamount to not liking them at all. They don’t make a big fuss. They make little noises.
Cathedrals abound in Europe and parts of the world as a testament to religious belief. Bresson did not make cathedrals. He built small chapels whose corners and walls contain pencil sketches, not elaborate frescoes or murals, and whose windows are simple stained glasses. You can barely look out, but you see light and the sky beyond. Quietly.

Why Should We Like Woody’s Movies?

Filed under: Straight and Weird Thoughts,What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 8:32 am

In an interview, Woody Allen was quoted as saying that he thinks he has produced only mediocre works that only had a meager audience and made little money. While the latter may be true, I cannot agree that his work is mediocre. On the contrary, he is one of a handful of living American filmmakers who are true originals.
He certainly is no great actor. His performances in his movies call attention to himself in a way that at times distract you. He is not the character in his films. Rather, he always plays himself, no matter how different the characters he is portraying in his films are supposed to be.
His work has ranged from the trivial to the memorable. I cannot think of any film of his which will make it to anyone’s 10 Best Films of All Time list, but any work of his is singular – infused with a watermark that you cannot confuse with any director’s.
In the third edition of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, the perceptive film critic, David Thomson seems skeptical that Allen can develop as an artist. Thomson is a critic whose judgments I generally trust. After all, I tend to bring his book a lot of times to the toilet as reading material (a compliment, as I only bring the best material which I can read piecemeal there). I don’t have the fourth edition of the book so I can’t say if he has changed his opinion. So I disagree and think Allen is already a fully developed artist. If Vincent Van Gogh, whose work has touches of childishness and angst, can be forgiven for his neuroses (or psychosis?, or is it why he’s a greater artist?), why can’t we forgive Allen his?
Is it because British and American audiences have no use for angst? Angst is a feeling of unfocused anxiety or dread, typical of adolescents or adults who cannot get past adolescence. A European invention, I believe, which has flowered in Nordic climates. Allen is the supreme purveyor of American angst and is the most successful at it. He’s ambivalent about it, jokes about it, skirts it, and finally, makes it the stuff of his movies. Any movie which smacks of being personal nowadays is bound to have fewer audiences. Unfortunately, Allen will not shake it off and I’m not sure if he’d be better off without angst. It’s the lifeblood of his humor, just as the lifeblood of Luis Bunuel’s tirades was his love-hate relationship with religion and society.
Yet who can forget Allen’s attempts at looking like Ingmar Bergman in Interiors or even, Hannah and Her Sisters? He has an edge over Bergman in that he has a supreme abundance of what the Swedish master lacks – humor, no matter if adolescent. Or the exhibitionism of Annie Hall with its somewhat cruel exploitation of its lead star’s emotions? Hollywood loved it for its fashion statement. Can another American go Greek, complete with a chorus, as in Mighty Aphrodite? Or experiment with as philosophically contrived a film as Zelig – the one film where Allen, the actor, seems to fit so well? And what about the The Purple Rose of Cairo, a film that floats before your eyes, a metaphor for all ladies’ fascination with movies and actors, infinitely better than Fellini’s The White Sheik? Or the love affair with a city, as in Manhattan? Or Radio Days, a memory that is as good as it gets.? Half of his work is at least as original as anything you’ll ever get to see on screen, and I’m grateful for them. He falters every now and then, as in the recent Matchpoint, a film that seems to have Hitchcockian inclinations but lacking Hitchcock’s nonchalance and vivid characters.
In the same article, Thomson concedes that Allen is the “most inquiring dramatist at work in American film,” and “could yet be the kind of writer desperately needed by Coppola, Scorsese and so many others.” I disagree and say he is his own man and will probably be of no use to others. Especially to Coppola, whose supreme works, The Conversation and The Godfather part 2, would have been transmogrified into another shape were they written by Allen, or Scorsese whose Gangs of New York is fortunately beyond Allen’s imagination. I do wonder how Allen would fare rewriting or redirecting Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Shakespeare, Bloom and Reinventions

Filed under: Personal,What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 8:31 am

Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead Books, 1998) bristles with some of the finest insights on the Bard’s characters and language that one can possibly read in a single volume. I’m a belated newcomer to this 745-page book – one that I should have discovered years ago.
I once believed that plays were meant to be seen, not read, and that novels were meant to be read, not seen on the screen. But that’s impossible at times, given my geography and resources. So my primary immersion into Shakespeare has been through reading cheap paperback versions of the plays and watching Olivier and Guinness on film and BBC television. And lately, watching revisionist, post-modern movie versions of some of Shakespeare’s plays (starring Al Pacino, Kenneth Branagh, Ian McKellen or Keanu Reeves, for example). My initial adolescent aversion to the language of the plays was quickly replaced early on by sophomoric admiration for the poetry when I was in college. This was especially because the pocketbook versions often had a glossary and essays by the likes of A.C. Bradley. Shakespeare, though, was never a serious affair in school, neither required reading nor part of any English language curriculum. I attempted to get into Shakespeare for the fun and pleasure of it. In the process, I got to know aspects of Elizabethan culture and history and possibly some of the finest poetry in any language as well.
My favorites were Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. I can’t recall having enjoyed Falstaff, though he was famous, nor the histories. Seeing how Bloom approaches the characters in these plays gives me a warm feeling of deja vu and more. That’s because Bloom critiques the characters always in the context of poetry and action. Bloom has prodded me back to reading some of the plays I neglected because of his enthusiasm for characters as diverse as Rosalind in As You Like It or the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. His discussion of Shylock and anti-Semitism are full of wisdom. (One of his latest books, incidentally is Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?). I have even come to appeciate Falstaff.
Much as I appreciate Bloom’s gifts as a critic, I find two things quite jarring here. Firstly, Bloom squarely places himself in the tradition of William Hazlitt, Bradley, Samuel Johnson and Harold Goddard. That is, strongly against modern, postmodern and New Historicist interpretation in the context of reading, academic writing and performance. His insights come from almost a lifetime of reading and teaching Shakespeare. That gives him enough of a critical armamentarium to quash the opposition. But when you work from that perspective, page after page may be spent countering the views of other critics. This gives the book the shape of an acerbic dialogue with critics and performers whose work are sometimes unfamiliar to the reader that it feels like killing flies with bullets instead of flyswatters. I suspect that this is inevitable given that Bloom proudly displays his badge of Bardolatry. I felt the book should have been written with an air of largesse given Bloom’s gifts and stature. The reason why I briefly narrated my own early experience with Shakespeare is to suggest that “diluted” or re-interpreted Shakespeare may be the only experience of Shakespeare possible for some of us. Secondly, in a Western “literary” culture, one can understand the book’s grand claim that Shakespeare invented the human in the sense of not merely a “representation of cognition, personality and character” to the highest degree in “imaginative literature,” but of an “excess of representation…closer to creation.” On this end of the planet, though, the claim is patently rhetoric as the human is not just a literary human, and literature not just Western literature.
Shakespeare does exert, like his own character Prospero, magic, and not only on Anglophiles but on anyone steeped in literature. An amusing illustration occurs in a short fiction by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Towards the end of his life, Borges wrote Shakespeare’s Memory. Here is a story where a character passes on to a willing another Shakespeare’s memory. Imagine your own memory and Shakespeare’s being commingled. Imagine seeing Anne Hathaway or suddenly whistling a foreign tune. But Borges was smart enough to know that the gift of Shakepeare’s memory had limits. Having a memory is not tantamount to writing Shakespeare. In the end, the narrator, Herman Sorgel (who, being partially blind and living among books, is posibly Borges himself) gives away Shakepeare’s memory to an accepting another via telephone. Vestiges remain though. Even reading Swedenborg and Blake returned him to Shakespeare. Sorgel’s solution was to immerse himself in the “strict, vast” music of Bach. Bach, as a friend of mine argues, also invented another type of the human.

Brodsky’s Urania

Filed under: What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 8:31 am

“I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles….”
So begins May 24, 1980, the first poem in Joseph Brodsky’s collection of poetry, To Urania. Brodsky was born in St.Petersburg near the outbreak of the Second World War, became a poet, was accused of “social parasitism” by Soviet authorities, then sentenced to hard labor but subsequently pardoned. Exiled in 1972, he became a U.S. citizen in 1977, taught in various schools and became American poet-laureate in 1991. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and died in 1996. So runs a summary of his presumably colorful, tortured life.
The evidence is in the poetry he left behind – a poetry of solitude, exile, memory, love and philosophical thinking that never gives in to despair. It is remarkable that he himself or with other collaborators translated many of the poems he wrote in Russian. His English and translated-to-English poetry is one of the finest achievements of poetry in the 20th century for me.
While one would expect from such a free spirit an airy, Rimbaud-like free verse, Brodsky hews poems in a classical mould, more like sculptures from which music emanates but remain solid by adhering, in many instances, to rhyme and meter. There are quite a few references to vernacular details and characters and the notes at the end of the book are a great help. One also feels that Brodsky, in his poems, is in communion with the ancient past while referencing the present, not in the way of Ezra Pound whose poetry is mainly for the initiated nor of T.S. Eliot whose references leave you distanced (which is probably what is intended), but inevitably because his thought has no way to go but back in time.
Urania, in Greek mythology, is one of the nine Muses and had as attributes the globe and compass.
“Everything has its limit, including sorrow.
And what is space anyway if not the
body’s absence at every given
point? That’s why Urania’s older than sister Clio!
you see she hides nothing….
There they are, blueberry-laden forests,
rivers where the folk with bare hands catch sturgeon….”
And so the short poem To Urania, from which the title of the collection is taken goes -a poetry of memory and longing, anchored in a body that registers every impact of time and place like a scar. The collection is a poetry of places and people – Lithuania, Russia, vast lands, cities and people in Europe and America.
In The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn, one of my favorite poems, an aging, spiralling hawk, forcing himself to fly higher in the face of nature and winter, finally yields to the cry of children, “Winter’s here.” It seems emblematic of Brodsky’s credo if he ever had one.
It is, finally, a poetry of love and affirmation, refusing to yield.
“…Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.”
So ends the first poem in the collection.

On Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Filed under: What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 8:30 am

One day, many years ago, I began reading One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Anos de Soledad) by the Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo). The feeling I got then was a wondrous sense of discovery, like entering into a world I never imagined. Gabo has a way with words and situations which only his Spanish (or should I say Latin American) heritage allows. There never was a moment of dullness or torpor in those few days I read the novel. The prose had a cadence that seemed like poetry. The melodramatic became magical because of words and rhythm. The leftist orientation didn’t sink in because words kept lifting up the story, or stories, in the air where it/they were kept afloat. The characters with long Spanish names seemed like second nature by the middle of the book. And the ending (the last few paragraphs) was a tour de force, a coda that you would read again and again for its melancholy, grandeur and sense of loss.
Flowing lines that meander like a maze. Contrast that with the equally outrageous but succinct fictions of one other great Latin American writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges seems so obsessed with the logic of the possible and the imagined but writes in terse, equally effective prose.
Together with the Russian expat Vladimir Nabokov, whose Pale Fire (more than Lolita) is an acrobatic performance on tightrope, they are the trio that makes you think there is more to reality than the real. (Did I forget Kafka whose stories border on insanity?)
Reading his autobiography, LivingTo Tell the Tale, Knoft, 2003), today you get a sense of how he did it. You wonder at the stories that made up his life. Snatches of supposed real-life stories that sound surreal populate the book. As if this was one more episode or a retelling of One Hundred Years. Yet the feeling is one of being planted on solid ground, and you ask yourself whether all this can be true. Of course, it doesn’t matter if they are fictions. It doesn’t matter even if Gabo seems to have developed a sense of his own self-importance or hubris in his old age. With his achievements, he can be excused that and almost anything else.
He has recently published another work of fiction (Memories of a Melancholy Whore) which I hope to read.

The Primacy of Prepositions

Filed under: What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 8:29 am

In the heyday of Heidegger’s influence, authenticity became a key word – and living authentically became a catchphrase of existentialism, the art-nouveau bastard child of Husserlian and Heideggerian thinking. Even now that Heidegger and Nazism seems almost a blase topic, there are still Heideggerians among our midst and perhaps wired within our own neurons.
That this cannot be helped is explained by the thinking human’s fascination with Being and beings. There was a time when I read, word for word, every sentence of Being and Time, after reading commentators on Heidegger, hoping to catch a revelation or even a glimpse of Authentic Being.
Then came a period of eclipse, and a year ago, I decided to read again Being and Time, after reading Safranski’s biography of Heidegger. But what Time and a little age can do to Being! What stood out was the almost comic preoccupation with being and Being compounded with prepositions. Philosophy becomes the obvious, perhaps too obvious. Because how else can you conceive of being or Being or Who-ness or What-ness, in consciousness or thinking, except with Where-ness or With-ness or For-ness, or any preposition for that matter. Being or being, necessarily compounds itself, in our mind, with prepositions the moment you think about it or place it in the world. Taken in itself, it flirts with nothing or Nothing (as Jean Paul Sartre’s interminably long Being and Nothingness dissolves Being into Nothingness), Otherwise, it’s substance or essence. Both Spinoza, whose more static substance philosophy leads to a movement towards an overarching Ethics, and Heidegger whose premise is to put being or Being in context, may be right depending on your moods. Both are equally dangerous when extrapolated into practice. Attractive philosophy leads to A Separate Peace or A Separate Ethics or A Separate Revolution which can prove popular or hip although, almost always, never lasting. Authentically dangerous to health or to others.
In the context of textual exegetical debate, the preposition in the text of Scripture can be the skandalon, the literal stumbling-block to consensus, the crucial hinge that links and at the same time allows a door to swing in or out depending on who turns the doorknob.
The only safe philosophy (or exegesis?) maybe armchair or academic philosophy: either Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of Language, or Franco-American (which in its Derrida guise is its Strange Bedfellow) Deconstruction, because the former is mere diversion and the latter dissolves philosophy itself and much else besides, leaving No-thing. Notice how italics, hyphens, prepositions, and Caps seem all-important and how all I wrote is Non-sense.

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