Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quote of the Day

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For a person who has nothing to remember, life can become severely impoverished. This possibility was completely overlooked by educational reformers early in this century, who, armed with research results, proved that “rote learning” was not an efficient way to store and acquire information. As a result of their efforts, rote learning was phased out of the schools. The reformers would have had justification, if the point of remembering was simply to solve practical problems. But if control of consciousness is judged to be at least as important as the ability to get things done, then learning complex patterns of information by heart is by no means a waste of effort. A mind with some stable content to it is much richer than one without.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

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June 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

The bohemian and the exile

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The age of impressionism produces two extreme types of the modern artist estranged from society: the new bohemians and those who take refuge from Western civilization in distant, exotic lands. Both are the product of the same feeling, the same “discomfort with culture,” the only difference being that the first choose “internal emigration,” the others real flight. But both lead the same abstract life severed from immediate reality and practical activity; both express themselves in forms which must inevitably appear increasingly strange and unintelligible to the majority of the public. The voyage into remote lands, as an escape from modern civilization, is as old as the bohemian protest against the bourgeois way of life…That is the real escape, the voyage into the unknown, which is undertaken not because one is enticed, but because one is disgusted by something…

The bohème was originally no more than a demonstration against the bourgeois way of life. It consisted of young artists and students, who were mostly the sons of well-to-do people…They undertook their excursion into the world of the outlaws and the outcasts, just as one undertakes a journey into an exotic land; they knew nothing of the misery of the later bohème, and they were free to return to bourgeois society at any time…A real bohème…[is] an artistic proletariat, made up of people whose existence was absolutely insecure, people who stood outside the frontiers of bourgeois society, and whose struggle against the bourgeoise was no high-spirited game but a bitter necessity. Their unbourgeois way of life was the form which best suited the questionable existence that they led and was in no sense any longer a mere masquerade…Now that the bohème ceases to be “romantic,” the bourgeoisie begins to romanticize and idealize it.

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art

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June 17, 2018 at 8:21 am

Painting with mirrors

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You should make a habit of observing the reflection of your picture in a mirror with a scrutinizing eye. This will help you considerably—seeing what is on the left on the right, and vice versa—to determine its defects with more accuracy, especially to discover things which are out of balance or out of proportion. The asymmetries and irregularities which are not called for will immediately strike you…Another useful expedient is to have your wife trick you into coming upon your picture in the most unexpected settings and at the most unexpected moments—in an odd room, in a corner of your garden—so that you find yourself suddenly and irreparably confronting your picture. Such brutal surprises are very effective.

Salvador Dalí, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship

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June 16, 2018 at 7:48 am

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The castle on the keyboard

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In March, the graphic artist Susan Kare, who is best known for designing the fonts and icons for the original Apple Macintosh, was awarded a medal of recognition from the professional organization AIGA. It occurred to me to write a post about her work, but when I opened a gallery of her designs, I found myself sidetracked by an unexpected sensation. I felt happy. Looking at those familiar images—the Paintbrush, the Trash Can, even the Bomb—brought me as close as I’ve come in a long time to what Proust describes after taking a bite of the madeleine in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time:

Just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden…and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

In my case, it wasn’t a physical location that blossomed into existence, but a moment in my life that I’ve tried repeatedly to evoke here before. I was in my early teens, which isn’t a great period for anyone, and I can’t say that I was content. But for better or worse, I was becoming whatever I was supposed to be, and throughout much of that process, Kare’s icons provided the inescapable backdrop.

You could argue that nostalgia for computer hardware is a fairly recent phenomenon that will repeat itself in later generations, with children who are thirteen or younger today feeling equally sentimental toward devices that their parents regard with indifference—and you might be right. But I think that Kare’s work is genuinely special in at least two ways. One is that it’s a hallmark of perhaps the last time in history when a personal computer could feel like a beguiling toy, rather than an indispensable but utilitarian part of everyday life. The other is that her icons, with their handmade look and origins, bear the impression of another human being’s personality in ways that would all but disappear within a few years. As Alexandra Lange recounts in a recent profile of Kare:

In 1982, [Kare] was a sculptor and sometime curator when her high-school friend Andy Hertzfeld asked her to create graphics for a new computer that he was working on in California. Kare brought a Grid notebook to her job interview at Apple Computer. On its pages, she had sketched, in pink marker, a series of icons to represent the commands that Hertzfeld’s software would execute. Each square represented a pixel. A pointing finger meant “Paste.” A paintbrush symbolized “MacPaint.” Scissors said “Cut.” Kare told me about this origin moment: “As soon as I started work, Andy Hertzfeld wrote an icon editor and font editor so I could design images and letterforms using the Mac, not paper,” she said. “But I loved the puzzle-like nature of working in sixteen-by-sixteen and thirty-two-by-thirty-two pixel icon grids, and the marriage of craft and metaphor.”

That same icon editor, or one of its successors, was packaged with the Mac that I used, and I vividly remember clicking on that grid myself, shaping the building blocks of the interface in a way that seems hard to imagine now.

And Kare seems to have valued these aspects of her work even at the time. There’s a famous series of photos of her in a cubicle at Apple in 1984, leaning back in her chair with one New Balance sneaker propped against her desk, looking impossibly cool. In one of the pictures, if you zoom in on the shelf of books behind her, it’s possible to make out a few titles, including the first edition of Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss, with an introduction by none other than R. Buckminster Fuller. Kare has spoken highly of this book elsewhere, most notably in an interview with Alex Pang of Stanford, to whom she explained:

One of my favorite parts of the book is its list of hobo signals, that hobos used to contact each other when they were on the road. They look like they’re in chalk on stones…When you’re desperate for an idea—some icons, like the piece of paper, are no problem; but others defy the visual, like “undo”—you look at things like hobo signs. Like this: “Man with a gun lives here.” Now, I can’t say that anything in this book is exactly transported into the Macintosh interface, but I think I got a lot of help from this, just thinking. This kind of symbol appeals to me because it had to be really simple, and clear to a group of people who were not going to be studying these for years in academia. I don’t understand a lot of them—“These people are rich” is a top hat and a triangle—but I always had that at Apple. I still use it, and I’m grateful for it.

And it seems likely that this was the “symbol dictionary” in which Kare discovered the Bowen Knot, a symbol once used to indicate “interesting features” at Swedish campgrounds, which lives on as the Command icon on the Mac.

According to Kare, the Bowen Knot originally represented a castle with four turrets, and if you’re imaginative enough, you can imagine it springing into being from the keys to either side of the space bar, like the village from Proust’s teacup. Like the hobo signs, Kare’s icons are a system of signals left to those who might pass by in the future, and the fact that they’ve managed to survive at Apple in even a limited way is something of a miracle in itself. (As the tech journalist Mike Murphy recently wrote: “For whatever reason, Apple looks and acts far more like a luxury brand than a consumer-technology brand in 2018.” And there isn’t much room in that business for castles or hobo signs.) When you click through the emulated versions of the earliest models of the Macintosh on the Internet Archive, it can feel like a temporary return to those values, or like a visit to a Zen garden. Yet if we only try to recapture it, we miss the point. Toward the end of In Search of Lost Time, Proust experiences a second moment of revelation, when he stumbles in a courtyard and catches himself “on a flagstone lower than the one next it,” which reminds him of a similar sensation that he had once felt at the Baptistry of St. Mark in Venice. And what he says of this flash of insight reminds me of how I feel when I look at the Happy Mac, and all the possibilities that it once seemed to express:

As at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all my apprehensions about the future, all my intellectual doubts, were dissipated. Those doubts which had assailed me just before, regarding the reality of my literary gifts and even regarding the reality of literature itself were dispersed as though by magic…Merely repeating the movement was useless; but if…I succeeded in recapturing the sensation which accompanied the movement, again the intoxicating and elusive vision softly pervaded me, as though it said, “Grasp me as I float by you, if you can, and try to solve the enigma of happiness I offer you.”

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June 15, 2018 at 8:50 am

Quote of the Day

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It may seem to some that through the use of chance operations I run counter to the spirit of Thoreau…The fifth paragraph of Walden speaks against blind obedience to a blundering oracle. However, chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers.” They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concerns for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience, whether that be outside or inside.

John Cage, “Lecture on the Weather”

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June 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

The president is collaborating

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Last week, Bill Clinton and James Patterson released their collaborative novel The President is Missing, which has already sold something like a quarter of a million copies. Its publication was heralded by a lavish two-page spread in The New Yorker, with effusive blurbs from just about everyone whom a former president and the world’s bestselling author might be expected to get on the phone. (Lee Child: “The political thriller of the decade.” Ron Chernow: “A fabulously entertaining thriller.”) If you want proof that the magazine’s advertising department is fully insulated from its editorial side, however, you can just point to the fact that the task of reviewing the book itself was given to Anthony Lane, who doesn’t tend to look favorably on much of anything. Lane’s style—he has evidently never met a smug pun or young starlet he didn’t like—can occasionally turn me off from his movie reviews, but I’ve always admired his literary takedowns. I don’t think a month goes by that I don’t remember his writeup of the New York Times bestseller list May 15, 1994, which allowed him to tackle the likes of The Bridges of Madison County, The Celestine Prophecy, and especially The Day After Tomorrow by Allan Folsom, from which he quoted a sentence that permanently changed my view of such novels: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.” But he seems to have grudgingly liked The President is Missing. If nothing else, he furnishes a backhanded compliment that has already been posted, hilariously out of context, on Amazon: “If you want to make the most of your late-capitalist leisure-time, hit the couch, crack a Bud, punch the book open, focus your squint, and enjoy.”

The words “hit the couch, crack a Bud, punch the book open, [and] focus your squint,” are all callbacks to samples of Patterson’s prose that Lane quotes in the review, but the phrase “late-capitalist leisure-time” might require some additional explanation. It’s a reference to the paper “Structure over Style: Collaborative Authorship and the Revival of Literary Capitalism,” which appeared last year in Digital Humanities Review, and I’m grateful to Lane for bringing it to my attention. The authors, Simon Fuller and James O’Sullivan, focus on the factory model of novelists who employ ghostwriters to boost their productivity, and their star exhibit is Patterson, to whom they devote the same kind of computational scrutiny that has previously uncovered traces of collaboration in Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Patterson doesn’t write most of the books that he ostensibly coauthors. (He may not even have done much of the writing on First to Die, which credits him as the sole writer.) But the paper is less interesting for its quantitative analysis than for its qualitative evaluation of what Patterson tells us about how we consume and enjoy fiction. For instance:

The form of [Patterson’s] novels also appears to be molded by contemporary experience. In particular, his work is perhaps best described as “commuter fiction.” Nicholas Paumgarten describes how the average time for a commute has significantly increased. As a result, reading has increasingly become one of those pursuits that can pass the time of a commute. For example, a truck driver describes how “he had never read any of Patterson’s books but that he had listened to every single one of them on the road.” A number of online reader reviews also describe Patterson’s writing in terms of their commutes…With large print, and chapters of two or three pages, Patterson’s works are constructed to fit between the stops on a metro line.

Of course, you could say much the same of many thrillers, particularly the kind known as the airport novel, which wasn’t just a book that you read on planes—at its peak, it was one in which many scenes took place in airports, which were still associated with glamor and escape. What sets Patterson apart from his peers is his ability to maintain a viable brand while publishing a dozen books every year. His productivity is inseparable from his use of coauthors, but he wasn’t the first. Fuller and O’Sullivan cite the case of Alexandre Dumas, who allegedly boasted of having written four hundred novels and thirty-five plays that had created jobs for over eight thousand people. And they dig up a remarkable quote from The German Ideology by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who “favorably compare French popular fiction to the German, paying particular attention to the latter’s appropriation of the division of labor”:

In proclaiming the uniqueness of work in science and art, [Max] Stirner adopts a position far inferior to that of the bourgeoisie. At the present time it has already been found necessary to organize this “unique” activity. Horace Vernet would not have had time to paint even a tenth of his pictures if he regarded them as works which “only this Unique person is capable of producing.” In Paris, the great demand for vaudevilles and novels brought about the organization of work for their production, organization which at any rate yields something better than its “unique” competitors in Germany.

These days, you could easily imagine Marx and Engels making a similar case about film, by arguing that the products of collaboration in Hollywood have often been more interesting, or at least more entertaining, than movies made by artists working outside the system. And they might be right.

The analogy to movies and television seems especially appropriate in the case of Patterson, who has often drawn such comparisons himself, as he once did to The Guardian: “There is a lot to be said for collaboration, and it should be seen as just another way to do things, as it is in other forms of writing, such as for television, where it is standard practice.” Fuller and O’Sullivan compare Patterson’s brand to that of Alfred Hitchcock, whose name was attached to everything from Dell anthologies to The Three Investigators to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s a good parallel, but an even better one might be hiding in plain sight. In her recent profile of the television producer Ryan Murphy, Emily Nussbaum evokes an ability to repackage the ideas of others that puts even Patterson to shame:

Murphy is also a collector, with an eye for the timeliest idea, the best story to option. Many of his shows originate as a spec script or as some other source material. (Murphy owned the rights to the memoir Orange Is the New Black before Jenji Kohan did, if you want to imagine an alternative history of television.) Glee grew out of a script by Ian Brennan; Feud began as a screenplay by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam. These scripts then get their DNA radically altered and replicated in Murphy’s lab, retooled with his themes and his knack for idiosyncratic casting.

Murphy’s approach of retooling existing material in his own image might be even smarter than Patterson’s method of writing outlines for others to expand, and he’s going to need it. Two months ago, he signed an unprecedented $300 million contract with Netflix to produce content of all kinds: television shows, movies, documentaries. And another former president was watching. While Bill Clinton was working with Patterson, Barack Obama was finalizing a Netflix deal of his own—and if he needs a collaborator, he doesn’t have far to look.

Quote of the Day

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In modern industry, the airplane is certainly one of the products of highest selection. The War was the insatiable client, never satisfied, always demanding better. The orders were to succeed and death implacably followed error. So we can say that the airplane mobilized invention, intelligence, and daring: imagination and cool reason. The same spirit built the Parthenon…The lesson of the airplane is not so much in the forms created, and one must first of all learn not to see in an airplane a bird or a dragonfly, but a machine for flying; the lesson of the airplane is in the logic that governed the statement of the problem and that led to the success of its realization.

Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture

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June 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

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