zenpundit.com » language

Archive for the ‘language’ Category

Heart Line — a response to Bill Benzon

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — design fascination — including a Mimbres rabbit with a supernova at its feet ]
.

Bill Benzon has been blogging a remarkable series of posts on Jamie Bérubé‘s drawings as recorded in the online illustrations to Michael Bérubé‘s book, Life As Jamie Knows It: An Exceptional Child Grows Up.

**

I wanted to respond to Bill’s latest, Jamie’s Investigations, Part 5: Biomorphs, Geometry and Topology, which included this illustration:

berube-benzon-5-biomorphs

and these comments, which I’ve edited lightly for clarity and simplicity:

I emailed Mark Changizi, a theoretical neuroscientist who has done work on letterforms. He has been making a general argument that culture re-purposes, harnesses (his term), perceptual capacities our ancestors developed for living in the natural world. One of his arguments is that the forms used in writing systems, whether Latinate or Chinese (for example), are those that happened to be useful in perceiving creatures in the natural world, such as plant and animal forms. I told him that Jamie’s forms looked like “tree branches and such.” He replied that they looked like people. His wife, an artist, thought so as well, and also: “This is like early human art.”

You’ll see why that-all interests me — letters and life forms — below.

And then:

Yes, each is a convex polygon; each has several ‘limbs’. And each has a single interior line that goes from one side, through the interior space, to another side. The line never goes outside the polygon .. Why those lines? I don’t know what’s on Jamie’s mind as he draws those lines, but I’m guessing that he’s interested in the fact that, given the relative complexity of these figures and the variety among them, in every case he can draw such a line.

**

Two thoughts cross my mind.

The first is that one of these forms, Benzon’s Biomorphic Objects 6a, bears a striking resemblance to the letter aleph, with which the Hebrew alphabet — or better, alephbeth — begins:

berube-benzon-5-biomorph-6a-aleph

There may be some connection there, I’m not sure — though Jamie also has a keen interest in alphabetic forms, as illustrated here:

berube-benzon-5-letterforms

**

But it’s my second point that interests me more.

These “biomorphic objects” with “single interior line that goes from one side, through the interior space, to another side” remind me of nothing so much as the Native American style of representing animals with a “heart line” — best illustrated, perhaps, by this Acoma Pueblo Polychrome Olla with Heartline Deer:

The image comment notes:

One generally associates the use of heartline deer with pottery from Zuni Pueblo and that is most likely the origin. The fact that it appears on Acoma Pueblo pottery has been explained in a number of fashions by a number of contemporary Acoma potters. Deer designs have been documented on Acoma pottery as early as 1880, but those deer do not feature heartline elements. Some potters at Acoma have indicated that Lucy Lewis was the first Acoma potter to produce heartline deer on Acoma pottery. She did this around 1950 at the encouragement of Gallup, New Mexico Indian art dealer Katie Noe. Lewis did not use it until gaining permission from Zuni to do so. Other potters at Acoma have stated that the heartline deer is a traditional Acoma design; however, there is no documented example to prove this. Even if the heartline deer motif is not of Acoma origin, potters at Acoma have expressed that it does have meaning for them. It is said to represent life and it has a spiritual connection to deer and going hunting for deer.

Here’s a “heartline bear” from David and Jean Villasenor‘s book, Indian Designs:

bear-heartline

And here’s an equivalent Mimbres design for a rabbit with heartline, in which the line passes completely through the body from one side to the other, as in Jamie’s biomorphs:

mimbres-rabbit

Again, the comment is interesting — it cites a 1990 New York Times article, Star Explosion of 1054 Is Seen in Indian Bowl:

When the prehistoric Mimbres Indians of New Mexico looked at the moon, they saw in its surface shading not the “man in the moon” but a “rabbit in the moon.” For them, as for other early Meso-American people, the rabbit came to symbolize the moon in their religion and art.

On the morning of July 5, 1054, the Mimbres Indians arose to find a bright new object shining in the Eastern sky, close to the crescent moon. The object remained visible in daylight for many days. One observer recorded the strange apparition with a black and white painting of a rabbit curled into a crescent shape with a small sunburst at the tip of one foot.

And so the Indians of the Southwestern United States left what archeologists and astronomers call the most unambiguous evidence ever found that people in the Western Hemisphere observed with awe and some sophistication the exploding star, or supernova, that created the Crab nebula.

That would be the sunburst right at the rabbit’s feet!

**

Posts in Bill’s series thus far:

  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 1: Emergence
  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 2: On Discovering Jamie’s Principle
  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 3: Towers of Color
  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 4: Concentrics, Letters, and the Problem of Composition
  • Jamie’s Investigations, Part 5: Biomorphs, Geometry and Topology
  • My previous comment on #1 in the series:

  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: nine
  • Brutal Times 02

    Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — on Kakutani, Hitler, Trump, Duterte, Aesop — and was Don Quixote a converso Jew? ]
    .

    You don’t have to be an aging Kremlinologist to read between the lines, you don’t have to be a member of the target audience to be alert for dog-whistles, you don’t need a decoder ring to catch what the Washington Post calls “a thinly veiled Trump comparison” in Michiko Kakutani‘s New York Times review of Volker Ullrich‘s new biography, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939.

    tablet-dq-hitler

    However..

    **

    In his essay Persecution and the Art of Writing, Leo Strauss suggests that..

    Persecution gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing and therewith to a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines.

    Such a style may or may not be evident in Michiko Kakutani’s review, but if it is there it is skilfully done — and not, I’d guess, in fear of persecution.

    There’s a blunt equivalent now in use of social media in which, to quote but one example (others, equally or more distasteful, here):

    “skittles” has come to refer to Muslims, an obvious reference to Donald Trump Jr.’s comparing of refugees with candy that “would kill you.”

    Here, the purpose is to avoid algorithms that hunt down racist and other hateful comments on social media and expunge them — so the code words used include google, skype, yahoo and bing.

    **

    But wait. If you lob the h-word at Donald Trump, what ammunition will you have left for Rodrigo Duterte? Duterte is quite open about his admiration for Hitler.

    But Trump?

    David Duke wouldn’t mind:

    The truth is, by the way, they might be rehabilitating that fellow with the mustache back there in Germany, because I saw a commercial against Donald Trump, a really vicious commercial, comparing what Donald Trump said about preserving America and making America great again to Hitler in Germany preserving Germany and making Germany great again and free again and not beholden to these Communists on one side, politically who were trying to destroy their land and their freedom, and the Jewish capitalists on the other, who were ripping off the nation through the banking system,

    And Trump himself? From that 1990 Vanity Fair interview:

    Ivana Trump told her lawyer Michael Kennedy that from time to time her husband reads a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which he keeps in a cabinet by his bed. Kennedy now guards a copy of My New Order in a closet at his office, as if it were a grenade. Hitler’s speeches, from his earliest days up through the Phony War of 1939, reveal his extraordinary ability as a master propagandist.

    It’s worth noting that a few lines later, Trump declares:

    If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them.

    and that the interviewer, Marie Brenner, concedes:

    Trump is no reader or history buff. Perhaps his possession of Hitler’s speeches merely indicates an interest in Hitler’s genius at propaganda.

    **

    So. Why Trump?

    Mightn’t Kakutani simply be writing about Hitler and the new biography?

    Oh, and if you insist on her having a second target, Trump may be nearer to hand, but Duterte is, well, more overt about his leanings..

    Have you considered the Duterte possibility?

    **

    The range of uses to which “Aesopian language” — defined as:

    conveying an innocent meaning to an outsider but a hidden meaning to a member of a conspiracy or underground movement

    — can be put is enormous.

    Here, to take your mind off contemporary politics and point it towards the higher levels of literary and religious thought, is Dominique Aubier’s comment on the Quixote, from Michael McGaha, Is There a Hidden Jewish Meaning in Don Quixote?

    if one accepts that Cervantes’ thought proceeds from a dynamic engagement with the concepts of the Zohar, themselves resulting from a dialectic dependence on Talmudic concepts, which in turn sprang from an active engagement with the text of Moses’s book, it is then on the totality of Hebrew thought — in all its uniqueness, its unity of spirit, its inner faithfulness to principles clarified by a slow and prodigious exegesis — that the attentive reader of Don Quixote must rely in order at last to be free to release Cervantes’ meaning from the profound signs in which it is encoded.

    You want to read the Quixote? How about spending a few decades in the Judaica section of your local university library first?

    But then, those were brutal times.

    On going shopping

    Sunday, September 25th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — this one’s for the Thomas Hegghammer’s “Bored Jihadi” archives ]
    .

    For that special occasion when formal “penguin” attire is required, all black and white — yet with a casual artistic / rebellious flair:

    isis-fashion-poster2239940377

    A good place to shop for such things if you happen to be in Istanbul — Islami Giyim, or Islamic Clothing:

    jihadi-gift-shop

    Of course, you may not feel like dressing in support of terror — but you can still have swag:

    tote

    This tote-bag carries an Arabic inscription that reads:

    The only goal of this text is to spread panic among those who fear the Arabic language.

    And there are in fact people for whom a small amount of Arabic script is enough to call in the bomb squad, as occurred a few days back in Marshall’s Creek, Pennsylvania:

    cookies

    Mmm, date-filled cookies!

    **

    Sources:

  • Vocativ, The Perfect Gift for the Jihadi on Your Shopping List
  • Roads & Kingdoms, The Jihadi Gift Shop in Istanbul
  • Special Broadcasting Service, The Arabic on this tote bag is hilariously edgy
  • WNEP The News Station, Bomb Unit Investigates Box Left at Gas Station
  • Added notes: Shakespeare as Ozymandias

    Friday, September 16th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — how Bill Benzon and Will Shakespeare lead me to Angus Wilson and Ruth Ozeki ]
    .

    Comments are now closed on my fairly recent post, Triangulation: Hoboken, Ramesses II, Ozymandias, so I can’t add there to the strand of the discussion that dealt with Shakespeare‘s language becoming barnacle-encrusted with time and our lack of knowledge, but today was something of a red-letter day for me, so I’ll start from there

    I’d suggested:

    Shakespeare has reached the point where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a Shakespeare translation project:

    OSF is commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions.

    I’m not sure, but as we decolonialize and globalize culture (world music, eg), I suspect that English adds national streams from Barbados, Mumbai, Brooklyn, Adelaide, Louisiana and hiphop to its already rich mix, and that a Shakespeare using the spectrum of the language available in London today as keenly as Wm S used the spectrum available in London in his own day would appear no less neologistic and extraordinary than his older namesake. And then throw in an oligarch’ daughter speaking Russian, as Katherine speaks French in Henry V III.2, explaining as Katherine does, “I cannot speak your England”…

    **

    That’s “past is prologue”. Today, blog-friend Bill Benzon posted a brief squib that ties in with this — and here my advanture begins:

    McWhorter on Shakespeare: Should he be rewritten in modern English?

    McWhorter has argued that Shakespeare’s language is so difficult that it should be “adjusted” into modern English for modern readers and theatre-goers. I’m sympathetic. Yesterday I started watching the Zeferelli movie version of Hamlet, with Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and at times the language just lost me. Here’s a podcast where he discusses the subject with John Lynch.

    Here’s a post at The New Republic where McWhorter makes his case. I quoted passages from that post in an old post at The Valve and it generated a bit of discussion, including a comment from Kent Richmond, who has rendered five plays into modern English.

    **

    McWhorter‘s piece — Will Shakespeare’s Come And Gone: Does The Bard’s Poetry Reach Us Like August Wilson’s? Come On–really? — gives us a sense of what we’re missing when he describes present day audiences in terms borrowed from Alfred Harbage as “reverently unreceptive” — seen in the theater lobby afterwards, “gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go.”

    And he explains something of what we are missing, in Hamlet for instance:

    “Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.” First of all, thought to Shakespeare meant “plan,” not just mental activity. Thus “Give thy thoughts no tongue” meant “Don’t show your hand,” not just “button up.” “Nor any unproportion’d thought his act” – whose act? Who does the his refer to? To a modern listener this is the sort of opaque little splotch we must just let by, which in combination with the thousands of others over three hours leaves us yearning for a drink or a pillow. Actually, his could refer to things as well as men in earlier English. And act meant “execution”: the phrase meant “Do not act on your intentions until they are well proportioned, i.e. completely thought out,” not just “Don’t be a silly-billy.”

    At the end, the famous “Neither a borrower or a lender be, / “For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” Did Shakespeare suppose that the reason one shouldn’t borrow is because it interferes with the raising of livestock? Actually, husbandry meant “thrift” at the time. It will say that in the footnotes of a Hamlet book; but at the theatre, you don’t have that with you.

    **

    All that led me to Kent Richmond, and I wanted to hear his voice, which gives Miranda in The Tempest these lines:

    If through your magic, dearest father, you’ve
    Made the wild waters roar, now let them rest.
    The sky looks set to pour down stinking tar,
    But then the sea, climbing the cheeks of heaven,
    Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
    With those that I saw suffer! A splendid vessel,
    Which no doubt had some noble creature in her,
    Dashed all to pieces! O, their cries knocked hard
    Against my heart itself! Poor souls, they perished.
    Had I the power of a god, I would
    Have sunk the sea beneath the earth before
    It could have swallowed up the good ship and
    The souls that were her cargo.

    Intelligible, yes, in a way that Shakepeare’s version may no longer be, and way better than a crude “version” for students of study notes — but not something that encourages me to see Richmond’s version of the play.

    **

    But wait — McWhorter’s title doesn’t mention Richmond, it merntions August Wilson, and his piece opens:

    Reading the deserved critical huzzahs for the current production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has me thinking about a bee always in my bonnet.

    I don’t know Wilson, and I hold much of modern “poetry” in disrespect, but I go searching with little hope in my back pocket, and lo —

    It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911. The sun falls out of heaven like a stone. The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel. The city flexes its muscles. Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads, and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.

    From the deep and the near South, the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chest with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

    Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.

    My God, the language! The warmth and depth of voice!

    **

    And somehow, from there, after hearing Phylicia Rashad reading some of those words from “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”, I find myself listening for the first time to another voice, that of the novelist Ruth Ozeki, reading from her book, A Tale for the Time Being. I’d learned a week or two back that the novel had resonance with the great Zen master Dogen, whose Mountains and Rivers sutra I greatly admire and enjoy:

    Since the virtues of the mountain are high and broad, the spiritual power to ride the clouds is always mastered from the mountains, and the marvelous ability to follow the wind is inevitably liberated from the mountains.

    Here’s Ozeki, herself a zen priest — skip the beginning intros, start at around the 9’35” point, or at 11’17” where her actual reading from the book begins:

    **

    Again, such a voice! Two such voices in one day, new to me! Today I consider the world with fresh and thankful eyes.

    No Man’s Sky

    Friday, August 19th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a quick blog letter to Chris Bateman, and more broadly to the global God NoGod argument ]
    .

    Warning:

    This post may or many not be of interest to individual ZP readers, so here’s what’s up. The philosopher-game-designer-blogger Chris Bateman gets into blog-with-blog discussions, the rubric with his articles on his own iHobo and Only a Game blogs being “all replies at other blogs will be promoted here to keep the conversation going” – and this ZP post of mine is in response to his No Man’s Sky Roundup post today, and the pieces about the game of that name he led me to.

    It is also an attempt to put the basic insight of that branch of theology called “apophatic” (“other than speech”) theology into, well, written speech. And in a way, it is also my challenge to the entire “God vs NotGod” debate that tiresome long books are written about, since the God described by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa strikes me as the “definition of God” that any worthy attempt to attack the “God” concept on philosophical grounds should be tackling – not such local and verbal matters as whether God prefers seven days to universe completion or a little longer, burkas or bikinis, gays married or chaste, or being embodied or otherwise, three, one or both.

    It’s also written in a language you might term poetico-philosophical or vice versa, you have been warned.

    If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, have at it!

    **

    No Man’s Sky

    Words drag their whatevers with them into some form of presence, which with “table” is not an issue, the table idea is both transparent and vague as clouds, it sits as easy in mind as I sit in a chair – wait, at my desk, a form of table, the word “table” brought table to mind, table brought chair..

    Or was it, “table” brought “chair” and “chair” brought chair, I myself embodied being also enchaired, one might think “enthroned” as I write this.

    At my desk I read these words describing the books in BorgesLibrary of Babel, “every variation of the 22 letters of the alphabet (as well as the additional three symbols of the comma, period, and space” – I read them as illuminating for me the planets, fauna, flora, perils and perceptions players find in the trans-galactic game, No Man’s Sky.

    And words drag their whatevers with them.

    It is the mystery. It is the moon at which the zen finger points, it is the, a, God, whole system, the One and All I wish to speak of – the ineffable – here.

    So it is that the words “the comma, period, and space” drag with them first a tailed dot, a tadpole, a jot, yod in the Hebrew, a tongue of flame, tongue here being fire, language and insight, that descended on certain disciples of someone, arguably, then the dot without tail, a speck, point, blackness minimal – and then, like the zoom from space station window to deep space outside, space.

    In the game, No Man’s Sky. Or at your window, seen perhaps from your desk, imagined at mine. Or dragged, somehow, for I and later, you, with or from these words.

    So: zero to galaxy via a simple “and” less than a second long, short in the life of humans, long enough, it would seem, for some previously unknown game galaxy. Or “galaxy” – game or otherwise.

    The marks, the comma and period, I am habituated to. They are articulation points among the bare bones of the letters, bodying them out into words, langue, langue, language – again, fire and insight, but also scratches, pecked out with pen, keyboard or chisel – but space.

    And I was reading about this game, No Man’s Sky, this game gaming space, deep space, as the books within Borges’ book, within Borges and now shared out among us, game all possible verbal coherences with all possible incoherences, all partials, wholes, and almost nothings, an “a” that may be word or mark, an ‘o” that may close the book, galaxy, universe, be zero, lack sound or howl fury.. and those illimitable periods, commas, spaces.

    Thus: “comma” drags its micro-tadpole with it, I squint, “period” drags it’s point – where is my jeweler’s loup? – and “space” __ I am flung far enough that I stop to take stock, look back from vague, vast imagined space at imagined period and comma, see how far how fast I have come, gasp.

    Now the great mystery, the unknowable more than human mind as human mind is more than speck, galactic cluster more than planetary spack with us specks on it, the whatever the “moon” in “finger pointing at the moon” was, is, pointing at, the stuff and substance of what the word “God” drags in, neither stuff nor substance but, per the good catholic Cardinal, Cusanus, well —

    When we attempted to see Him beyond being and not-being, we were unable to understand how He could be visible. For He is beyond everything plural, beyond every limit and all unlimitedness; He is completely everywhere and not at all anywhere; He is of every form and of no form, alike; He is completely ineffable; in all things He is all things, in nothing He is nothing, and in Him all things and nothing are Himself; He is wholly and indivisibly present in any given thing (no matter how small) and, at the same time, is present in no thing at all. –

    — That!

    The “That” in “Thou art That” with “art” the link connecting them, us, if you’ll allow me to digress into a pun, puny beside that immense No Thing at All.

    You drop the word “space” into an unremarkable remark about “the comma, period, and space” and space, the deep, the trans-galactic space is dragged into mind – mine, anyway, and perhaps now yours – and we ignore it, “space” we know here meaning what “space between letters” would drag with it – we ignore it as though shutting a window, the space station window, the window of mind.

    And God, But God.

    We foreclose the window on God with undue haste, because it is rubbish, garbage, nothing. Or because it is that someone with disciples end of conversation, agree or be damned. Because we’ve got it, we know, we affirm, “I believe”.

    But peer closer at that creed, the longer one, Athanasius’ Creed, skip a few lines and what they drag with them, you’ll find..

    Incomprehensible.

    To be specific:

    The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible .. as also there are not three .. incomprehensible, but .. one incomprehensible.

    Or in short:

    Incomprehensible, three one.

    — which drags a certain amount of sense with it, and the someone, and the entire ineffable.

    And that word, struck like repeated blows of a Thor-sized hammer of mind, “incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible”.

    There is no whatever, it says, no thing or person or process our mind can think or process that this word or these words, “incomprehensible”, drag with them. Such a thing, or process, or person – “someone” included – is not subject to mind, cannot be crammed, cannot be cabined, cribbed, confined, into mind, into your, my, or some – any – high priest philosopher’s mind. Or book.

    Of whom or which or whatever it is said —

    He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
    and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
    He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
    and rescues the least one of us.

    –- of which water is exemplary, which “nourishes all things without trying to” and “is content with the low places which people disdain.”

    Humility, then. And to erect a hurdle, you might call it “epistemic humility” –

    But make no mistake:

    Humility is the game. “Humility” is the name of the game.


    Switch to our mobile site