He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #42

« Il n’y avait plus dans la rue que les boutiquiers et les chats. » — Albert Camus, L’Étranger (1942).

    “There was no longer anything in the street but shopkeepers and cats.” — Camus, The Outsider.

Oneiric Ocean

20000-leagues-under-the-sea


I like this illustration of a scene in Jules Vernes’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) even more because it has at least one mistake in it. At least, I think it’s a mistake: the jellyfish on the upper left are two Portuguese men-o’-war (really colonial hydrozoans, not jellyfish). They have gas-filled float-bladders, so in reality you see them only on the surface, not hanging in midwater like that. The mistake makes the scene like a dream. The absence of colour is good too: it fixes the illustration firmly in the past and the colours you imagine are more vivid. The artist is imagining, dreaming, conjuring a vision of an oneiric ocean.

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #39

— Croyez-vous aux idées dangereuses ?
— Qu’entendez-vous par là ?
— Croyez-vous que certaines idées soient aussi dangereuses pour certains esprits que le poison pour le corps ?
— Mais, oui, peut-être.

  Guy de Maupassant, « Divorce » (1888)


“Do you believe in dangerous ideas?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Do you believe that certain ideas are as dangerous for some minds as poison is for the body?”
“Well, yes, perhaps.”

The Power of Babel

“…par la suggestive lecture d’un ouvrage racontant de lointains voyages…” – J.K. Huysmans, À Rebours (1884).

The language you know best is also the language you know least: your mother tongue, the language you acquired by instinct and speak by intuition. Asking a native speaker to describe English, French or Quechua is rather like asking a fish to describe water. The native speaker, like the fish, knows the answer very intimately, yet in some ways doesn’t know as well as a non-native speaker. In other words, standing outside can help you better understand standing inside: there is good in the gap. What is it like to experience gravity? Like most humans, I’ve known all my life, but I’d know better if I were in orbit or en route to the moon, experiencing the absence of gravity.

And what is it like to be human? We all know and we’ve all read countless stories about other human beings. But in some ways they don’t answer that question as effectively as stories that push humanity to the margins, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), which is about rabbits, or Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (also 1972), which is about trisexual aliens in a parallel dimension. There is good in the gap, in stepping outside the familiar and looking back to see the familiar anew.


Continuing reading The Power of Babel

Numbered Days

Numbered Days: Literature, Mathematics and the Deus Ex Machina

Think French. Think genius. Think rebellious, tormented, iconoclastic. Finally, think dead tragically young in the nineteenth century… And if you’re thinking of anyone at all, I think you’ll be thinking of Rimbaud.

And you’d be right to do so. But only half-right. Because there were in fact two rebellious, tormented, iconoclastic French geniuses who died tragically young in the nineteenth century. One was called Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91) and the other Évariste Galois (1811-32). Rimbaud is still famous, Galois never has been. At least not to the general educated public, though on all objective criteria – but one – you might expect his fame to be greater. In every way – but one – Galois has the more powerful appeal.

Continue reading Numbered Days