Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gödel Escher Bach

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

The sense of an ending

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Note: This post discusses details from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

When I was working as a film critic in college, one of my first investments was a wristwatch that could glow in the dark. If you’re sitting through an interminable slog of a movie, sometimes you simply want to know how much longer the pain will last, and, assuming that you have a sense of the runtime, a watch puts a piece of narrative information at your disposal that has nothing to do with the events of the story itself. Even if you’re enjoying yourself, the knowledge that a film has twenty minutes left to run—which often happens if you’re watching it at home and staring right at the numbers on the display of your DVD player—affects the way you think about certain scenes. A climax plays differently near the end, as opposed to somewhere in the middle. The length of a work of art is a form of metadata that influences the way we watch movies and read books, as Douglas Hofstadter points out in Gödel, Escher, Bach:

You have undoubtedly noticed how some authors go to so much trouble to build up great tension a few pages before the end of their stories—but a reader who is holding the book physically in his hands can feel that the story is about to end. Hence, he has some extra information which acts as an advance warning, in a way. The tension is a bit spoiled by the physicality of the book. It would be so much better if, for instance, there were a lot of padding at the end of novels…A lot of extra printed pages which are not part of the story proper, but which serve to conceal the exact location of the end from a cursory glance, or from the feel of the book.

Not surprisingly, I tend to think about the passage of time the most when I’m not enjoying the story. When I’m invested in the experience, I’ll do the opposite: I’ll actively resist glancing at the clock or looking to see how much time has elapsed. When I know that the credits are going to roll no matter what within the next five minutes, it amounts to a spoiler. With Twin Peaks, which has a narrative that can seemingly be cut anywhere, like yard goods, I try not to think about how long I’ve been watching. Almost inevitably, the episode ends before I’m ready for it, in part because it provides so few of the usual cues that we’ve come to expect from television. There aren’t any commercial breaks, obviously, but the stories also don’t divide neatly into three or four acts. In the past, most shows, even those that aired without interruption on cable networks, followed certain structural conventions that allow us to guess when the story is coming to an end. (This is even more true of Hollywood movies, which, with their mandated beat sheets—the inciting incident, the midpoint, the false dawn, the crisis—practically tell the audience how much longer they need to pay attention, which may be the reason why such rules exist in the first place.) Now that streaming services allow serialized stories to run for hours without worrying about the narrative shape of individual episodes, this is less of an issue, and it can be a mixed blessing. But at its best, on a show like Twin Peaks, it creates a feeling of narrative suspension, cutting us off from any sense of the borders of the episode until the words Starring Kyle MacLachlan appear suddenly onscreen.

Yet there’s also another type of length of which we can’t help but be conscious, at least if we’re the kind of viewers likely to be watching Twin Peaks in the first place. We know that there are eighteen episodes in this season, the fourteenth of which aired last night, and the fact that we only have four hours left to go adds a degree of tension to the narrative that wouldn’t be there if we weren’t aware of it. This external pressure also depends on the knowledge that this is the only new season of the show that we’re probably going to get, which, given how hard it is to avoid this sort of news these days, is reasonable to expect of most fans. Maybe we’ve read the Rolling Stone interview in which David Lynch declared, in response to the question of whether there would be additional episodes: “I have no idea. It depends on how it goes over. You’re going to have to wait and see.” Or we’ve seen that David Nevins of Showtime said to Deadline: “It was always intended to be one season. A lot of people are speculating but there’s been zero contemplation, zero discussions other than fans asking me about it.” Slightly more promisingly, Kyle MacLachlan told the Hollywood Reporter: “I don’t know. David has said: ‘Everything is Twin Peaks.’ It leads me to believe that there are other stories to tell. I think it’s just a question of whether David and Mark want to tell them. I don’t know.” And Lynch even said to USA Today: “You never say never.” Still, it’s fair to say that the current season was conceived, written, and filmed to stand on its own, and until we know otherwise, we have to proceed under the assumption that this is the last time we’ll ever see these characters.

This has important implications for how we watch it from one week to the next. For one thing, it means that episodes near the end will play differently than they would have earlier in the season. Last night’s installment was relatively packed with incident—the revelation of the identity of Diane’s estranged half sister, Andy’s trip into the void, the green gardening glove, Monica Bellucci—but we’re also aware of how little time remains for the show to pay off any of these developments. Most series would have put an episode like this in the fourth slot, rather than the fourteenth, and given the show’s tendency to drop entire subplots for months, it leaves us keenly aware that many of these storylines may never be resolved. Every glimpse of a character, old or new, feels like a potential farewell. And with each episode that passes without the return of Agent Cooper, every minute in which we don’t see him increases our sense of urgency. (If this were the beginning of an open-ended run, rather than the presumptive final season, the response to the whole Dougie Jones thread would have been very different.) This information has nothing to do with the contents of the show itself, which, with one big exception, haven’t changed much since the premiere. But it’s hard not to think about it. In some ways, this may be the greatest difference between this season and the initial run, since there was always hope that the series would be renewed by ABC, or that Fire Walk With Me would tie off any loose ends. Unlike the first generation of fans, we know that this is it, and it can hardly fail to affect our impressions, even if Lynch still whispers in our heads: “You never say never.”

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2017 at 8:48 am

The perfect bookstore

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

I’ve written before about the end of browsing, but for me, it took place a little sooner than I expected. In the old days, I’d spend hours roaming through used bookstores like The Strand in New York and Open Books here in Chicago, keeping an eye out both for books I was hoping to find and for a few unexpected discoveries, but now, with a baby in tow, it’s hard to get into the timeless, transcendent state required for a deep dive into the perfect bookstore. My definition of the perfect used bookstore is a simple one: it needs to have an enormous inventory of interesting books, low prices, and the possibility of exciting serendipity. You shouldn’t know precisely what to expect going in, and if you do find the book you’re looking for, you feel a surge of delight in the same region of the brain that responds to varied, unpredictable pleasures. I thought I’d left this kind of browsing behind, but recently, I discovered a way to do it from the comfort of my own home. And although it really only works for the kind of idiosyncratic, obsessive browsing that I prefer, I’m sharing it here, in hopes that someone else will find it useful.

The first step is to get your hands on a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog. I’ve sung the praises of the Catalog here more than once, but even more than “Google in book form,” as Steve Jobs memorably called it, it’s a portable simulation of the perfect bookstore. It’s usually associated with the 1970s hippie culture of Berkeley and the rest of the East Bay, and not without reason: the older editions include several pages of resources on how to build your own geodesic dome. Really, though, it’s a book for curious readers of every persuasion. Every page is bursting with fascinating, often unfairly neglected or forgotten books on every subject imaginable: literature, art, science, history, philosophy, religion, design, and much more, along with the more famous sections on homesteading, environmentalism, and sustainable living. If you’re the kind of browser I have in mind, it’s the ultimate book of daydreams. (Any edition will work for our purposes, but if you can only get one, I’d recommend The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which gives you the greatest poundage per dollar and breathes the right air of intelligent funkiness.)

Better World Books

Next, you need to head over to Better World Books, my favorite online used bookstore. More specifically, you want to check out their Bargain Bin, which allows you to buy four or more used books at a discount, usually translating to something like four books for $12. (You’ll also want to get on their email list for flash sales and special events, which can lead to even better deals.) Then you settle down in a comfortable chair—or maybe a bed—with The Whole Earth Catalog and start to browse, looking for a book or subject that catches your eye. Maybe it’s Form, Function and Design by Paul Jacques Grillo, or The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides, or Soil and Civilization by Edward S. Hyams, or the works of R. Buckminster Fuller. Then you check the Bargain Bin to see if the book you want is there. In my experience, four times out of ten, you’ll find it, which may not seem like a great percentage if you absolutely need a copy, but it’s ideal for browsing. Even better, since you need four or more books to qualify for the deal, you’ve got to keep going, and it’s often when you’re looking for one last book to fill out your order—and end up exploring unexpected nooks of the Catalog or your own imagination—that you make the most serendipitous discoveries.

Best of all, the Catalog is only a starting point. When you’re leafing through it, you may end up on the page devoted to computers and remember, as I did recently, that you’d been meaning to pick up a copy of the legendary handbook The C Programming Language—and bam, there it is for four dollars. Each page is likely to remind you of other books that you’ve long wanted to explore, and if you follow that train of thought wherever it leads, you’ll find yourself in some unexpected places. And it’s the peculiar constraint of the Bargain Bin, in which you might find the book you want for a wonderful price, that makes the exercise so rewarding, and so much like the classic used bookstore experience. (If you don’t have a copy of the Catalog, you can also use other books with big annotated bibliographies to spark your search: if you’re interested in the sciences, for instance, the one in Gödel, Escher, Bach is particularly good.) When you’re done, you’ll have a package on the way, and part of the fun of Better World Books, as opposed to Amazon Prime, is that you’re never quite sure when it will arrive, which gives each mail delivery an extra frisson of interest. I find myself doing this every month or two, whenever Better World Books has a sale, and I love it: it’s a sustaining shot of happiness for only ten dollars a pop. And my only problem is that I’m running out of shelf space.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

The golden braid of Douglas Hofstadter

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When I was growing up, if needed something new to read, I’d just head for the garage. My parents owned hundreds, possibly thousands of books, and there were never enough shelves for them all, so the same dozen cardboard boxes followed us from house to house, rarely, if ever, being unpacked. (Some of them are still there, untouched, after twenty years, and a visit to my parents’ house isn’t complete before I’ve had a chance to go through them yet again.) Rummaging through these boxes was like browsing through a great, if eclectic, used bookshop, and the quality of serendipity I love in such stores was multiplied tenfold—I just never knew what I was going to find. Quite a few of those discoveries have probably ended up on my own shelves, absorbed by now into the rest of my library, to the point where I no longer remember where they came from. And my inner life has been enormously shaped by the authors I found there, which only serves to illustrate the point that if there are books anywhere in a house, a true reader will always find them, like a junkie in search of a fix.

One book in particular sticks in my mind, if only because it influenced so much of what came afterward. When I was in seventh grade, my father was browsing in a carton of books—I can’t remember why—and came up with a copy of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themes, which he said I might like, mostly because of Hofstader’s discussion of the Rubik’s Cube. I liked those chapters a lot, but loved the rest of the book even more, and it’s followed me on every move I’ve made since—I’m looking at my original copy as I write this. It’s pretty worn and tattered by now, and just leafing through it takes me back, as much as any book I own, to the period of ferocious reading that I wrote about yesterday. Metamagical Themas, a collection of Hofstadter’s columns for Scientific American, led me inevitably to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and The Mind’s I, and what I found there dazzled me so much that I ended up dedicating my school project that year—an autobiography, printed on dot matrix paper, that ran a hundred pages or more—to Hofstadter himself.

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Who was this guy, anyway? Then as now, Hofstadter was a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University in Bloomington, and his work was my first exposure to a kind of writing that I’ve since come to love passionately: the eccentric, unabashedly nerdy attempt to fuse science and the humanities into something that isn’t quite either, but draws on the best qualities of both. Even now, I don’t think I’ve quite made it through every page of Gödel, Escher, Bach, but what I found there, and in Hofstadter’s other work, has stuck with me ever since. Among other things, he was my first introduction to Zen, self-reference, the Codex Seraphianus, the Skeptical Inquirer, Alan Turing, Magritte, Nabokov’s notes on Eugene Onegin, James Falen’s translation of the same, and countless other authors and concepts I’ve been mulling over ever since, not to mention the larger subjects of consciousness and artificial intelligence. The range of his references is so rich, in fact, that he was later compelled to write another—and somewhat less interesting—book, I Am a Strange Loop, to clarify what he was trying to say in the first place.

I discovered Hofstadter in the same year as Umberto Eco, and they’ve acted on my life in similar ways, one on the side of science, the other of literature. (From an intellectual standpoint, it’s likely that ninety percent of what I care about as an adult was formed in middle school, although those aren’t exactly years I’d like to revisit.) Both are polymaths who opened me up to surprising influences and countless other books, and if my decision to major in classics in college was ultimately due to Eco, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take also a long hard look at cognitive neuroscience. Since then, I’ve become more aware of Hofstader’s limitations—his own translation of Eugene Onegin is a misguided vanity project of the worst kind—but I remain in awe of his brilliance and intellectual omnivorousness. The book of his I treasure the most is Le Ton beau de Marot, which came out when I was a college freshman, leading to many late evenings in my dorm, with my roommate and I trading rival translations of “Ma Mignonne.” There are other writers I’ve come to love more, but few who fill me with such gratitude. If you haven’t read his stuff, you might want to give it a try—he might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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