Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 2016

The book of lists

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Richard Wilbur

I love a good list. Whether it’s the catalog of ships in the Iliad or the titles of the books in the fallout shelter in Farnham’s Freehold, I find it impossible to resist, at least when I’m in the hands of a talented writer. Take, for instance, the inventory of Tyrone Slothrop’s desktop that we find toward the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow:

…a scatter of paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens, stubs of pencils of all colors including the hard-to-get heliotrope and raw umber, wooden coffee spoons, Thayer’s Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges sent by Slothrop’s mother, Nalline, all the way from Massachusetts, bits of tape, string, chalk…above that a layer of forgotten memoranda, empty buff ration books, phone numbers, unanswered letters, tattered sheets of carbon paper, the scribbled ukulele chords to a dozen songs including “Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland”…an empty Kreml hair tonic bottle, lost pieces to different jigsaw puzzles showing parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner, the green velvet folds of a gown, slate-blue veining in a distant cloud, the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skin of a Flying Fortress, the pink inner thigh of a pouting pin-up girl…

It takes up a whole page, and I’ve always felt that I could go on reading it forever. An attentive critic could probably mine it for clues, using it as a skeleton key for the rest of the book, but the real point seems to be showing off Pynchon’s exuberant command of the real, until it becomes an emblem of the entire novel.

In a wonderful essay titled “Poetry and Happiness,” Richard Wilbur calls this impulse “a primitive desire that is radical to poetry—the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things.” He quotes the list of smells from the eighteenth chapter of Hugo Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, and then observes:

A catalog of that sort pleases us in a number of ways. In the first place, it stimulates that dim and nostalgic thing the olfactory memory, and provokes us to recall the ghosts of various stinks and fragrances. In the second place, such a catalog makes us feel vicariously alert; we participate in the extraordinary responsiveness of Doctor Dolittle’s dog, and so feel the more alive to things. In the third place, we exult in Jip’s power of instant designation, his ability to pin things down with names as fast as they come. The effect of the passage, in short, is to let us share in an articulate relishing and mastery of phenomena in general.

Wilbur continues: “That is what the cataloging impulse almost always expresses—a longing to posses the whole world, and to praise it, or at least to feel it.” He offers up a few more examples, ranging from the Latin canticle Benedicte, omnia opera domini to “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and closes on a profound observation: “When a catalog has a random air, when it seems to have been assembled by chance, it implies a vast reservoir of other things which might just as well have been mentioned.”

Jorge Luis Borges

What Wilbur calls “the itch to call the roll of things,” then, is simultaneously a natural human instinct and a useful narrative trick, which is a nice combination. Even a grocery list represents an attempt to impose some kind of order on existence, and like the lists in poetry or fiction, the part comes to stand for the whole: the real to-do list of our lives is endless, but we feel more capable of dealing with it once we’ve written some of it down. A novelist is constantly doing much the same thing, and one measure of craft is how conscious the author is of the process, and the extent to which the result evokes a larger reality. And this applies to more than just inventories of objects. Any narrative work, fiction or nonfiction, is a list of things that happened, and even the most comprehensive version is bound to be a subset of all possible components. As a biographer, I’ve become acutely aware that any account of a person’s life consists of a selection of facts, and that there are countless possible variations. As Borges puts it:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39… A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

Borges continues: “The above may seem merely fanciful, but unfortunately it is not. No one today resigns himself to writing the literary biography of an author or the military biography of a soldier; everyone prefers the genealogical biography, the economic biography, the psychiatric biography, the surgical biography, the typographical biography.” And when he evokes a biographer of Edgar Allan Poe who barely mentions the stories or poems but is “fascinated by changes of residence,” it feels like a devastating commentary on the whole art of biography. But the deeper—and more frightening—implication is that we’re engaged in much the same process when it comes to our own lives. We don’t have access to all of our past selves at once: I find it hard to remember what happened last week without writing it down, and there are years of my life that I go for long periods without consciously recalling. This means, inevitably, that our personalities are a kind of list, too, and even though it seems complete, it really only represents a tiny slice of our whole experience. I’m no more complicated a person than average, but there are times when I’m amazed by how little of myself I need to access on a daily basis. It’s a random sampling of my internal contents, assembled only in part by choice, and I live with it because it’s the most my imperfect brain can handle. In a different essay, Borges says: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” We can’t see it for ourselves, but we can list a few of the steps. And in the end, that list is all we have.

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2016 at 9:14 am

Quote of the Day

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Henry Miller

In a few moments the fire died out—and remained dead for the rest of the evening. In about twenty minutes the floor became icy cold…We sat in our overcoats, collars turned up, hats pulled down over our ears, our hands stuffed deep in our pockets. Just the right atmosphere in which to produce masterpieces, I thought to myself…If captured with the brush during a siege of exaltation it could arouse ridicule or indignation on the part of an unseeing beholder; it could also make a sensitive individual bleed with anguish. But it would never bring pocket money, nor heat nor light, nor even apple fritters.

Henry Miller, The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney

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August 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

The code of inner rejections

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Eskimo at seal hole

Why do painters exist? I’m not talking here about the question of why painting itself emerged as an art form: applying pigment to a flat surface is an impulse as old as humanity, to the point where it almost defines us. What interests me is why it persists as a job title. It’s far from the easiest career to pursue, but it’s still an immediately comprehensible one, and our art schools are filled with students who see themselves—in the face of overwhelming odds—as spending most of their lives thinking about the problems of paint on a canvas. (Your in-laws may not think that you’ll make it, but at least they’ll know what you’re talking about.) In some ways, painting is more valuable as a kind of shorthand answer to the cocktail party question of “What do you do?” than as a description of the activity involved. Over the past hundred years, the definition of painting has been stretched to include all kinds of materials and techniques, to the point where its practitioners are united less by a shared body of information than by the ideal of a lifestyle. It’s also a more practical way of life than it seems, at least if you’re a certain kind of person. You could argue that painters still exist for the same reasons that the Inuit still live in Greenland: they’ve occupied that territory for a long time, they’ve adapted in certain ways to survive there, and they’re good at what they do.

The question of why painting endures isn’t a new one, of course, and if anything, the problem seemed more urgent in the first half of the twentieth century, when its boundaries were being seriously tested. In an essay titled “Mobile, Theatrical, Active,” the critic Harold Rosenberg asked why the “action” painters, for whom physical performance was so important, stuck with painting at all, instead of moving into other forms of media. And his answer fascinates me:

For most artists…a more complete action is attainable with a pencil or brush than with an instrument panel; they are suspicious also of means whose effect on the senses is so powerful as to reduce the spectator to passivity, in the manner of the movies. Another reason for “performance” painters to refuse to abandon painting is that, in action, limits, such as the rectangle of the canvas, serve as a counterforce. To avoid flabbiness, new or mixed genres are obliged to develop substitute constraints, in the form either of arbitrary rules of work or a code of inner rejections.

There’s a lot to think about here, but the phrase that sticks in my head is “a code of inner rejections.” The more I think about it, in fact, the more a painter—or any kind of artist—seems defined not so much by what he or she is, but what he or she isn’t.

Harold Rosenberg

And if the idea of a painter is a useful one, it’s because it provides a code of refusals that has been tested for longer than almost any other. A few weeks ago, I quoted the composer Morton Feldman, who pointed out that freedom in art doesn’t mean that the artist is able to do whatever he or she likes: “Freedom is best understood by someone like Rothko, who was free to do only one thing—to make a Rothko—and did so over and over again.” To a greater or lesser degree, that’s true of every artist. A style is really a list of things that you don’t feel like doing, and if most of those rules are arbitrary, so much the better. Within the confines of the canvas, which doesn’t necessarily need to be a rectangle, the possibilities are virtually limitless, which is why most painters quickly develop a few negative rules to guide themselves. (These rules can always be replaced by others, but there’s usually a finite set of them at any given time.) Some are explicit, which is why a certain breed of painter loves to write manifestos; others are intuitive or unconscious, which doesn’t make them any less real. And calling yourself a painter, whether you’re working with oil on canvas or a wild assortment of mixed media that changes from one day to the next, is a way of indicating that you’ve voluntarily taken on certain limits, just as someone else might identify as a vegetarian, a monk, or a Mormon. It’s a statement that you’ve embraced the code.

The funny thing, obviously, is that if you want to be a painter, the world is more than ready to impose any number of constraints on you without your consent. There are the inherent financial challenges, with a few artists who become fabulously wealthy on one end of the long tail, while the rest are faced with a choice between starvation and compromise, which have an unforgiving inverse correlation. Then there’s the ruthless logic of time and competition, which implies, rightly or not, that if you haven’t gotten your big break by your late twenties, you aren’t likely to ever do so. (To be fair, this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we see relatively few breakthroughs in the second half of an artist’s life, it’s mostly because the vast majority have dropped out of the game in the meantime.) And any artist is eventually going to discover natural limits to his or her talent: we all have a ceiling, and if we haven’t found it yet, it only means that we haven’t pushed ourselves hard enough. In the face of all these existing constraints, it might seem unnecessary for a painter to willingly impose even more. In reality, though, it becomes even more crucial. An artist’s freedom might be an illusion, but the only kind we really have, or on which we can reliably depend, is the freedom to choose our own constraints—as long as they fall within the limits that the world has already given us. We paint ourselves into a corner, and then we call it a home.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2016 at 9:12 am

Quote of the Day

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Jackson Pollock

In being so overwhelmingly non-geometrical, Pollock retires to a locus of remote control, placing the tool in the hand as much apart as possible from the surface to be painted. In regularly exiling his brush and not allowing any plastically used tool to convey medium to the surface, the painter charges the distance between his agency and his work with as much chance as possible—in other words, the fluidity of the poured and scattered paint places maximum pressure against conscious design. And yet the design is conscious, the seemingly uncomposable, composed.

Parker Tyler, “Jackson Pollock: The Infinite Labyrinth”

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

No man’s game

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No Man's Sky

I first heard about the video game No Man’s Sky in an article by Raffia Khatchadourian that appeared last year in The New Yorker. This was probably a warning sign in itself. The New Yorker may be the best magazine in the world, but its coverage of gaming has often been disappointing, in part because it assigns novelty stories to gifted writers—like Nicholson Baker—with minimal knowledge of the subject, and because it’s difficult to thread the needle between being both informative to fans and comprehensible to readers with no firsthand experience of the creations of Shigeru Miyamoto. Years ago, I speculated half-seriously in Salon that there was a New Yorker feature curse, much like the more famous one that haunts the cover of Sports Illustrated. It seemed to me that a lot of artists who received coverage in the magazine, especially on the movie side, went on to spectacularly implode soon thereafter, often for the very project that had been glowingly described in the article itself. (John Carter is the first example that comes to mind, but there are plenty of others.) At the time, I suggested that this might be due to regression toward the mean: whenever a filmmaker attracts the attention of a magazine that only runs a handful of Hollywood profiles every year, it’s usually because of an outsized success in the recent past, which is generally followed by what seems like a failure in comparison. But now I think that this is only half the reason. In order to appear in a timely fashion, a feature article has to be written and edited long in advance of a work’s completion, and there’s no way to predict the quality of the result. A reporter might be able to watch the dailies or look at some demo footage, but that’s pretty much it. And if it’s ambitious enough to merit this kind of extended treatment, it’s no surprise that it frequently fails to live up to expectations. It’s just hard to spot a masterpiece before the fact.

No Man’s Sky is beginning to look like a perfect example of this phenomenon, and it’s likely to supplant even John Carter, at least in my own head, as the definitive case study. Khatchadourian’s article, which, by the way, is engaging and intelligent, opens with these lines:

The universe is being built in an old two-story building, in the town of Guildford, half an hour by train from London. About a dozen people are working on it. They sit at computer terminals in three rows on the building’s first floor and, primarily by manipulating lines of code, they make mathematical rules that will determine the age and arrangement of virtual stars, the clustering of asteroid belts and moons and planets, the physics of gravity, the arc of orbits, the density and composition of atmospheres—rain, clear skies, overcast. Planets in the universe will be the size of real planets, and they will be separated from one another by light-years of digital space. A small fraction of them will support complex life. Because the designers are building their universe by establishing its laws of nature, rather than by hand-crafting its details, much about it remains unknown, even to them. They are scheduled to finish at the end of this year; at that time, they will invite millions of people to explore their creation, as a video game, packaged under the title No Man’s Sky.

Khatchadourian goes on how to describe how the game, the brainchild of developer Sean Murray, is meant to evoke a feeling of limitless discovery. It uses procedural generation—in which elements are created on the fly by algorithms, rather than manually by a human being—to populate its universe with quintillions of planets. “Because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance,” Khatchadourian continues. “As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal.”

No Man's Sky

As many of you have probably heard, this isn’t exactly how it turned out. No Man’s Sky was released earlier this month to enormous early sales, followed immediately by a furious backlash as players realized that it wasn’t the game that they had been promised. (For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I haven’t played it myself, and the game also has its defenders—although even the positive reviews tend to be carefully qualified.) There are vast numbers of planets, but they don’t orbit stars: they just sort of hang there in space. The characteristics of a planet, like its climate or natural resources, don’t depend on where it is in relation to anything else, or on any kind of physical logic. Nothing much changes as you get closer to the center. Your freedom to fly your spaceship is severely limited. A multiplayer experience isn’t just rare, but it doesn’t even seem possible, based on the design of the game itself. It was billed as a fantasy of exploring the unknown, but every planet has already been colonized by an alien race with the same generic architectural style. Worst of all, the procedural generation that lies at the heart of No Man’s Sky results, by most accounts, in a boring, repetitive playing experience: all of the planets are technically different, but they mostly follow the same basic patterns and templates, with the knobs twiddled here and there to achieve minor variations. The result might be a decent game on its own merits, but as a damning thread on Reddit makes clear, it doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to the experience that players were sold. When you look at the promises that the developers made, compared to the version of the game that was actually released, it isn’t hard to conclude, as many players have, that they were lying through their teeth. But it seems more likely that at some point during the development process, Murray realized that he was unable to deliver on the grand conceptions that he had outlined to the media. Features were cut or scaled back, ambitions were lowered, and the game was reduced to something more manageable. It’s easier to sketch out an expansive vision than to execute it in detail, and they just couldn’t give players a full universe in a box. As the Dean once said on Community: “Time travel is really hard to write about!”

Inevitably, the reaction to No Man’s Sky has also turned into a referendum on procedural generation itself. If you really want eighteen quintillion planets, you can’t make any of them particularly interesting, because extreme values for any of the relevant parameters could render the results broken or unplayable. Because the variations have to occur within a narrow range, they suffer from a certain sameness. It is possible to create levels that break all the rules, but it requires a human eye, an ability to tinker and revise, and endless user testing, which isn’t available when all your planets are being generated, as Khatchadourian puts it, “out of only fourteen hundred lines of code.” (To be fair, Khatchadourian also notes: “Games based on procedural generation often suffer from unrelenting sameness…or from visual turmoil.” But he adds that Murray hopes to find “a middle ground” that, in retrospect, was probably impossible.) A game like Super Mario Galaxy, which has never received a writeup in New Yorker, has only a hundred levels or so, but each one has been lovingly conceived and burnished by a real person, taking infinite pains and thinking hard about how to delight the player, which is a far more impressive accomplishment. And there were reasons to be skeptical. When I first read the article, my eye was caught, for obvious reasons, by this passage:

The game is an homage to the science fiction that Murray loved when he was growing up—Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein—and to the illustrations that often accompanied the stories. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, sci-fi book covers often bore little relation to the stories within; sometimes they were commissioned independently, and in bulk, and for an imaginative teen-ager it was a special pleasure to imbue the imagery with its own history and drama.

The italics are mine. No Man’s Sky claims to have been inspired by classic science fiction, but it’s really about the artwork, and the confusion between the two is the real problem. Khatchadourian’s profile contains one unforgivable sentence: No Man’s Sky’s references may be dime-store fiction, but the game reimagines the work with a sense of nostalgia and a knowing style that is often more sophisticated than the original.” If anything, this statement seems even more ridiculous now than it did at the time. Genuine sophistication, as Heinlein and the others knew, isn’t just about creating a sense of wonder, but about using it to tell a real story. And Murray might have been better off if he had thought less about what was on the cover and more about what was inside.

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2016 at 9:04 am

Quote of the Day

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Hans Hofmann

What I would hate most is to repeat myself over and over again—to develop a false style. I do not want to avoid immersing myself in trouble—to be in a mess—to struggle out of it. I want to invent, to discover, to imagine, to speculate, to improvise—to seize the hazardous in order to be inspired. I want to experience the manifestation of the absolute—the manifestation of the unexpected in an extreme and unique relation. I know that only by following my creative instincts in an act of creative destruction will I be able to find it.

Hans Hofmann, quoted in Hans Hofmann by Helmut Friedel and Tina Dickey

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August 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

The mouse and the bee

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Louise Bourgeois

An artist’s words are always to be taken cautiously. The finished work is often a stranger to, and sometimes very much at odds with, what the artist felt, or wished to express when he began. At best the artist does what he can rather than what he wants to do. After the battle is over and the damage faced up to, the result may be surprisingly dull—but sometimes it is surprisingly interesting. The mountain brought forth a mouse, but the bee will create a miracle of beauty and order. Asked to enlighten us on their creative process, both would be embarrassed, and probably uninterested. The artist who discusses the so-called meaning of his work is usually describing a literary side issue. The core of his original impulse is to be found, if at all, in the work itself.

Just the same, the artist must say what he feels.

Louise Bourgeois, in Design Quarterly

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

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