Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Quote of the Day

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If that part of science which is regarded as stable be called basic, then the traditional method is to take as basic that which at the time is consciously unattained, whilst I take as basic that which at the time is consciously attained. Whilst the traditional way is to regard the facts of science as something like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle, which can be fitted together in one and only one way, I regard them rather as the tiny pieces of a mosaic, which can be fitted together in many ways. A new theory in an old subject is, for me, a new mosaic pattern made with the pieces taken from an older pattern.

—William H. George, The Scientist in Action

Written by nevalalee

December 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

The asymmetry of history

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Wherever God or Christ are represented as symbols for everlasting truth or justice they are given in the symmetric frontal view, not in profile. Probably for similar reasons public buildings and houses of worship, whether they are Greek temples or Christian basilicas and cathedrals, are bilaterally symmetric. It is, however, true that not infrequently the two towers of Gothic cathedrals are different, as for instance in Chartres. But in practically every case this seems to be due to the history of the cathedral, namely to the fact that the towers were built in different periods. It is understandable that a later time was no longer satisfied with the design of an earlier period; hence one may speak here of historic asymmetry.

Hermann Weyl, Symmetry

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

Two ways of looking at Nancy

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For the last month or so, I’ve been browsing with mingled amusement and wonder through the book How to Read Nancy by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden. It’s a witty manual on the art of the comic strip that takes the form of an obsessive commentary, extending for nearly a hundred pages, on a single installment of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, pictured above, which ran on August 8, 1959. In the abstract, this sounds like the sort of activity that might be embraced by a background character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, but in Karasik and Newgarden’s hands, it makes a weird kind of sense. As the strip is broken down into its raw components—the horizon line, the word balloons, the panel gutters—it rises up again as something strangely monumental, and the insights that emerge can be surprisingly profound. For instance, here are the authors on Nancy’s garden hose:

Here the hose…is the prescribed problem-solving tool, a deus ex machina direct from the Sears lawn and garden center. Its most obvious function is routing pressurized water from the leaky spigot to Nancy’s itchy trigger finger. But that route has been detoured. Winding and curved like a black cobra in repose, out of the panel and then back in, the hose also diverts and achingly prolongs the proceedings…In the overall composition of this strip, the hose diagrams and embodies this quickening narrative tension. Functioning somewhat like a dining room table extension leaf, it sustains the tension created by the first two attacks on the left—as well as ensuring the inevitable release on the furthest right.

Your fondness for this book will probably depend on your patience for this sort of thing, but I mostly love it, and its annotations often lead in unexpected directions. The reference to Sears, for example, is no accident. According to Karasik and Newgarden, Bushmiller “routinely claimed the Sears, Roebuck catalog as a major inspiration,” and his use of common objects and props as a source for gags placed him in the same creative line as “Buster Keaton, Otto Mesmer, Jacques Tati, and other master craftsmen of the twentieth century’s visual humor.” They expand on this a few pages later:

Ernie Bushmiller discussed his process: “It is difficult to explain how an idea is born…I start with a blank piece of drawing paper and I just sweat and stew until I think of a subject that seems likely to produce a ludicrous situation.” Visual stimulation via Life magazine ads, the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and other printed ephemera often jump-started the procedure for him. “When I find an item that seems likely, I start to kick it around in my mind to see if I can work out a funny situation. If nothing jells after a reasonable time I discard it and try another item. Sooner or later my mind warms up and I get the nucleus of an idea…I keep a lot of notes on gags that haven’t quite materialized; I look these over from time to time and sometimes the solution comes to me and I am able to salvage some of these undeveloped ideas.”

Karasik and Newgarden note that the Sears, Roebuck fall catalog for the year in which the strip was drawn included illustrated ads for hoses, pistol grip nozzles, and gun and holster toys “for backyard lawmen.” And while it’s impossible to know for certain, they speculate that these pictures “passed right under Ernie’s nose and smelled ripe for a fresh twist on some reliable themes.”

It’s also impossible to close this book without a renewed appreciation for Nancy itself, which at its best was remarkably hilarious, weird, and poetic. Like Peanuts—or even Dennis the Menace or The Family Circus—it’s one of those strips that can seem inexplicable to readers who first encounter it decades after its golden years, and I confess that until recently, I’d never given it much thought. As it happens, however, Nancy has been back in the news for other reasons. After Bushmiller’s death, the strip fell into the hands of various caretakers, and in April, the role was assumed by a cartoonist who works under the pseudonym Olivia Jaimes. Overnight, its tone changed dramatically, as Nancy and Sluggo were ushered into the world of cell phones and social media, and the results are often startlingly funny. Much of the new incarnation’s appeal comes from how unceremoniously it seemed to depart from the conventions that the strip had established, but Jaimes is closer to Bushmiller than it might appear. As the normally reclusive artist explains in a recent interview with Vulture, she keeps her own notebook full of gags:

It’s just the Notes app on my phone. Everybody I’ve talked to, every cartoonist, or like, the vast majority of us, have some notes program with ideas, and maybe a third of them are comprehensible and the rest you’re like, What was I thinking when I wrote this down? Autocorrect is terrible for this. Autocorrect has probably killed hundreds of jokes for people, because they have a great idea and they write it down, but they spell it wrong, so it changes to something else, and then they’re like, What was this idea?

And just like Bushmiller, Jaimes is inspired by physical objects and the associations that they evoke. It’s one thing to put a cell phone in Nancy’s hand, but it’s quite another to consider how its presence would change her life, or to ask what the absence of other props might mean:

I realized that all of the nouns that Nancy used to have are being supplanted by a phone. Things that she would have lying around the house to make up a joke are gone. She uses megaphones for a ton of things in Bushmiller’s strips, and I don’t have megaphones lying around my house. So how, then, can Nancy solve problems, given that technology is advancing to the point where problems are being solved in really nonphysical ways? That’s why I’m making her learn robotics. It opens up a wider range of visual gags to make down the line.

The italics are mine. Nancy’s megaphone is gone, replaced by a new category of props that lead to gags and stories that are as organic, in their way, as Sluggo’s water pistol. (As Jaimes observes: “I’m basically cutting out a third of my life that people could relate to if I exclude phones.”) Not surprisingly, the results have been controversial among longtime Nancy fans, whom Jaimes seems happy to annoy—but the strip as it currently exists is a worthy successor to the version that Karasik and Newgarden thought was worth anatomizing for tens of thousands of words. As they write in the conclusion of their analysis of the garden hose: “Tension is a prerequisite of laughter.” And all that it took to restore this tension to Nancy was the addition of a few crucial objects.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2018 at 8:37 am

The flat earth society

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In his indispensable book Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster draws a famous distinction between flat and round characters in fiction. This classification has been beaten to death in countless high school literature classes, so it can be bracing to revisit his original language:

In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round…One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a proper name. In Russian novels, where they so seldom occur, they would be a decided help. It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.

This kind of insight from a professional novelist is cold, hard cash, and it reminds us that a round character isn’t necessarily better than a flat one. “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round,” Forster says, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I frequently get more enjoyment from stories populated by vivid flat characters than by the indistinguishable round ones of so much modernist realism.

Yet there’s an even deeper point to be made here, which is that flatness may actually be closer to how we think about the people around us, or even about ourselves. We can start with Forster’s observation that flat characters are often more memorable than round ones: “They remain in [the reader’s] mind as unalterable for the reason that they were not changed by circumstances; they moved through circumstances, which gives them in retrospect a comforting quality, and preserves them when the book that produced them may decay.” And I’d argue that we also remember flat characters more clearly because they partake of the ways in which we see the supporting players in our own lives. When we think of neighbors, coworkers, and other casual acquaintances, we’re likely to associate them with one or two obvious qualities, if we even manage to have a distinct impression of them at all. It’s only the ones we know best—our families, lovers and closest friends—that we can grasp with the nuance with which we view the roundest characters in fiction. And this can even extend to our own motivations. It’s hard for us to integrate all aspects of our past and personality at once, except when it takes the form of instinct. Most of our actions are intuitive or habitual, and when we need to consciously pay attention, it’s easier to emphasize one part of our identity at a time. We can switch between roles multiple times each day, or we can play a single part for years. It’s an adaptive strategy that makes it easier for us to act and make decisions. We’re only one thing at a time because that’s all we can keep in our heads at once, and the other sides of ourselves have a way of falling into line.

I started thinking about this after reading an article by Perry Bacon, Jr. on FiveThirtyEight on how Americans seem to be shifting other aspects of their identity—like religion or ethnicity—to fit their political affiliations. This conclusion is based on a paper by the political scientist Patrick Egan, who analyzed a series of surveys that were given to the same group of respondents over time. He found that what we tend to see as relatively fixed demographic information can actually be quite fluid, and that these changes are strongly correlated with the political labels that we embrace. As Bacon sums up the results:

Liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to start identifying as Latino or saying that their ancestry was African, Asian or Hispanic.

Conservative Republicans were much more likely than liberal Democrats to become born-again Christians and to stop identifying as non-religious; liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to leave religion and stop describing themselves as born-again.

Conservative Republicans were more likely than liberal Democrats to stop describing themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual; liberal-leaning Democrats were more likely to start identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Bacon concludes: “Increasingly, the political party you belong to represents a big part of your identity and is not just a reflection of your political views. It may even be your most important identity.” And this strikes me as only a specific case of the way in which we flatten ourselves out to make our inner lives more manageable. We pick and choose what else we emphasize to better fit with the overall story that we’re telling. It’s just more obvious these days.

And while this might seem like a stretch, I can’t resist drawing a comparison between our two most recent presidents. Whatever else you might think of Obama, he was undeniably complicated, with a personality shaped by a vast network of pressures and expectations. From a literary standpoint, he was a round character. Trump, by contrast, can seem ridiculously flat. Nearly everything that he does can be adequately explained by his vanity, or his desire to project weakness as strength, and he emerges as a far more sinister version of a flat character like Mr. Pickwick. As Forster writes: “It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something.” And there’s a real mismatch between Trump’s flatness, which is traditionally a comic quality, and the tragic consequences of his actions. Here’s Forster again:

[Flat people] are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying “Revenge!” or “My heart bleeds for humanity!” or whatever his formula is, our hearts sink…It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humor and appropriateness.

Cultures have a way of taking psychological cues from their heads of state. As Forster says of one critical objection to flat characters: “Queen Victoria, they argue, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, so what excuse remains for Mrs. Micawber?” When the president himself is flat—which is another way of saying that he can no longer surprise us on the downside—it has implications both for our literature and for our private lives. The process is already happening. And it shouldn’t astonish us if we all wake up one day to discover that the world is flat.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2018 at 8:39 am

Quote of the Day

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Contrary to the strict division of the activity of the human spirit into separate departments—a division prevailing since the nineteenth century—I consider the ambition of overcoming opposites, including also a synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity, to be the mythos, spoken and unspoken, of our present day and age.

Wolfgang Paul, in Quantum Questions

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November 13, 2017 at 7:30 am

The essential solidarity of poets

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We now give more serious weight to the words of a country’s poets than to the words of its politicians—though we know the latter may interfere more drastically with our lives. Religions, ideologies, mercantile competition divide us. The essential solidarity of the very diverse poets of the world…is one we can be thankful for, since its terms are exclusively those of love, understanding and patience. It is one of the few spontaneous guarantees of possible unity that mankind can show, and the revival of an appetite for poetry is like a revival of an appetite for all man’s saner possibilities, and a revulsion from the materialist cataclysms of recent years and the worse ones which the difference of nations threatens for the years ahead. The idea of global unity is not new, but the absolute necessity of it has only just arrived, like a sudden radical alteration of the sun, and we shall have to adapt or disappear.

Ted Hughes, Selected Translations

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October 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

Between uncertainty and certainty

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I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one. This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park. But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog. It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair. The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying…It leaves me with only two choices: I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice…

Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art. But as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their book Art and Fear, “ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

Sally Mann, Hold Still

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

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