What truth, then, was it that was present to those mighty spirits of the past, who, making whatever is greatest in writing their aim, thought it beneath them to be exact in every detail? Among many others especially this, that it was not in nature’s plan for us her chosen children to be creatures base and ignoble,—no, she brought us into life, and into the whole universe, as into some great field of contest, that we should be at once spectators and ambitious rivals of her mighty deeds, and from the first implanted in our souls an invincible yearning for all that is great, all that is diviner than ourselves. 3Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but man’s mind often overleaps the very bounds of space.85 When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of man’s being. 4And this is why nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny lamp more wondrous than 69the caverns of Aetna, from whose raging depths are hurled up stones and whole masses of rock, and torrents sometimes come pouring from earth’s centre of pure and living fire.
To sum the whole: whatever is useful or needful lies easily within man’s reach; but he keeps his homage for what is astounding.
(Longinus, On The Sublime, circa 200 AD)
Two quick endorsements tonight before I pack it in.
First, the Netflix miniseries The Get Down, by Baz Luhrmann. Two episodes in, it’s a strange piece. It tells the story of youths in the Bronx in the late 70s, just as disco was dying and hip hop being born. It’s a Luhrmannian, baroque mix of everything and the kitchen sink. It sucks in themes of politics, religion, style, culture, sex, race, and stirs it all together. It’s a chunk of black and hispanic history in the US, wonderfully told through the music and culture of those people at that time.
The major trick the series does is that it tells the story of the recent past in the register of mythology. Everything overdrawn, epic, larger-than-life. Told as though it was the story of Thor, Ulysses or a Kung Fu movie. It is like a superhero origin story of hip hop, basically, but with real, historical people like Grandmaster Flash mixed up in it, playing a sort of wise sensei to the protagonists’ kohai. It’s such an amazing trick to pull, showing how history becomes mythology.
The second endorsement is an absolutely amazing piece of pop-cultural scholarship I found through the latest episode of the ever-lovely Culture gabfest podcast at Slate. It is a work that catalogues what comes after the period The Get Down chronicles.
Basically, the mp3 blog Fluxblog has been making massive, epic mixtapes of the entire 1980s. One for each year of the 1980s. This is deep, an ocean of songs to fall into. It is the music I grew up in. And it is releasing unfathomable energies of memory and emotion for me. It is just a staggering work of cultural curation. You can hear, as you do in The Get Down, the acceleration of cultural evolution. It is an electric period in cultural history I have been fortunate enough to live through. These two cultural artifacts hammer that fact home.
Reading a really good book, for the first time in a while, I find myself rediscovering, like a half-forgotten childhood memory*, the liberating force of literature. A sensation of openness, of anything being possible.
This sense of possibility is the underlying meaning of all strong, creative works. At any given moment, something entirely new can happen. Something liberating, life-altering.
And human creativity, our ability to find new solutions to the problems of the real world is this ability: to change the world with our minds. And to change ourselves. The act of creating, I think now, is the act of changing yourself first. You change into someone who is capable of solving the problem. For this new person you have become, the path that was shut is open.
In a haiku poem by the amazing Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer** (which a friend, knowing my predilection for chess, kindly translated to me from the Swedish), he writes:
Death leans in
Over me, a chess puzzle
And has the solution ***
Lately, as the world I live in has been forcing me and constricting me and the people around me, I’ve also been playing a lot of chess. I have found this ability in grandmasters to find good paths through a contested chess game to be tantamount to magic.
In fact, I’ve started to think of it as a simplified, abstract version of the practice of other creative forms. Writing literature is figured somehow in a game of chess. It is a way of navigating the contested space of language and the impingements and constraints of the material world and our own selves, in which the creative force of our own minds can suddenly lean in with the solution. Death, the annulment, is just another kind of solution. A way of changing the self so that solutions no longer matter. The ultimate solution of the problem.
I’ve written about this view of creativity before. I think now that I should dedicate myself more forcefully to the working-through of the chess problem, to finding the creative solutions. I don’t need, nor want, death’s solution. I need to solve life. Literature shows me that maybe a path can be found. It is a reminder to never stop the search for better moves.
* I am nine, we have recently moved to a new country and I do not yet speak the language well. I am in the room of the boy next door. The house is pink, full of knick-knacks and his mother’s taste in wall-to-wall-carpeting and porcelain dogs displays the domination of the father and the boy on every shelf and coffee table, on the floor of every room.
The boy asks me to crawl into a small, low cabinet, really a small box where he puts his toys. I think that we are friends. I crawl into the cabinet. There is very little room. I wonder what he wants. He shuts the door quickly, and puts something heavy in front of it. My knees are under my chin, my head is bowed, there is no space. My mind goes dark. I am going to suffocate and die. I pivot and brace myself against the back wall, and my feet against the door, I push with all my strength. The door moves, but not enough. I can’t get leverage. I push and push, I can’t get out. I yell, my voice small and hollow in the box.
Suddenly, I find a hatch in the ceiling, I edge my way through it. There is a rope. I climb the rope through a crawlspace. Down below, the boy opens the box, looks in, cannot find me. He shuts it again, puzzled. I climb to the pitched roof, into the space of the blue sky, a scattering of clouds. I ascend gently, and escape across the rooftops and fly up, into airplaned heights, scooping up cloud-stuff as I go.
In fact, I start crying. The boy outside realises eventually, in a moment of insight, that he has made a terrible error. His game has caused pain. He opens the door. I leave the cabinet. He tries to apologize. I want to, but do not, break his jaw and his nose, I do not pound his head against the bedpost. But I don’t let him escape. I offer him no respite or absolution. He is trapped in knowing that he hurt me. I am free of the box, and of him.
Many years later, he comes to visit me. He works in the cement industry now, working a job on the other side of the hill. He has shed his childhood obesity and become a normal guy, a nice guy. He has a family. We have very little to talk about, and there’s a gulf between our lives. But that doesn’t matter. We respect each other in our knowledge that we will never be close. But right this moment, on my porch, underneath the green of late spring, the fluttering of birds, we are. He sits on my stoop, the leaves shimmer, we talk and laugh about old times. Over what we both became. Both of us having eventually escaped our childhoods, outpaced the confines. The box was the house, the problem our ability to hurt each other. We laugh, veterans of foreign wars, fought against the wrong enemy.
** If you haven’t read Tranströmer yet, run, don’t walk, and get Robert Bly’s translations, especially The Half-Finished Heaven. Or Robin Fulton’s Collected and Selected Poems which are equally good.
*** Man, those wacky Scandinavians. So much fun.
The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani tweeted a link today to “Hiroshima”, a stunning, epic article, the first major journalistic investigation of the Hiroshima bombing, published 70 years ago this coming week, in The New Yorker. I ended up rereading large portions of the 30.000 word article, the horror coming back afresh.
The piece is just a completely devastating examination of the effects of the bomb. But really, through telling stories about the Hiroshima bombing, it is about how communities are destroyed, the fabric of life rent and torn by modern, industrialised warfare. The piece somehow seems to signal an expansion of consciousness about the horrors perpetrated by the allies in WWII, argues a very short recommendation of it in The Guardian today:
Subscribers to the 31 August 1946 edition of the New Yorker received their journal as usual, its cover adorned with a picnic. Inside, though, it was all change. Where the Talk of the Town column usually appeared, there begana 30,000-word article by a reporter, John Hersey. “To our readers,” said the note beneath it. “The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.” Later that year, this piece was published as a book,Hiroshima. It has never since been out of print.
The change lay in the way the piece told the stories of victims, according to The Guardian:
Lots of writers do this now, or try to, but then it was revolutionary; people hadn’t yet grasped that good reporting – the mind-changing kind – has as much to do with the quotidian and the intimately private as with “events”.
I’m not sure this is entirely true, stories about individual fates abound in witness literature through the ages, from Herodotus and Euripides on up until today. But there really is something new afoot in that piece by John Hersey, some acknowledment of the weight of lives destroyed by the Allieds. Some dawning through storytelling of the tragic nature of war itself. The dark heart of even the most just war. And there is something new in the scientific and detailed telling of the stories, too. A newness to the journalistic narrative.
If you can stand it, there are some terrible photos in the immediate aftermath of the bombing that shows the same horror of everyday humans smashed by unbelievable forces.
The UN is now working slowly towards a ban on nuclear weapons. Austria is leading the way on the slow legal campaign. But a counter-campaign led by Australia and the US is very hard to get around. There is a deep shame to this work for the preservation of nuclear weapons. A shame that the victims of Hiroshima in Hersey’s piece, or in Nagasaki, confront us with. And all of the potential madness, all of the unbelievable grief put away in storage in the Cold War, ready to fly at a moment’s notice is still there, still our responsibility.
Okay, okay, fine, FFS, I’ll start blogging again.
I don’t know how we’re going to continue like this if we all have to be online all day every day. We need good things to read. We need them steadily, from people whose voices we enjoy. Short things. Commentary about a topic the writer has a greater interest in than you do. Something funny. Something very stupid. Not some big, long, boring thing, just a little thing that you read and enjoy. If aggregation, less aggregate-y.
I think I share, 100 %, this writer’s longing for the daily influx of good writing that the blogosphere gave me. Twitter is a poor substitute, more a kind of generalised weather forecast for the psychosphere. Facebook is too close, too bound up with my personal and professional life. Blogging was always where the internet was at, for me. It hit a sort of sweet spot there. A free and easy abundance of good writing, some long, some short. (Some bad.) Mostly good.
For over two decades now, I’ve found the work of the novelist William Gibson immensely compelling. I believe that his interest for me is something beyond the literary qualities of his work (which are significant). I think it’s something about his basic view of the world, his way of looking at technology, character and the shape and meaning of history. I recently sort-of-reread his 2014 novel The Peripheral looking for a specific quote, and thought that he has accurately captured the anxiety of climate change and the fear of humanity maybe becoming something entirely different than what we have been, in the coming decades.
So, I found this interview with him, in Business Insider, really interesting. Especially some of his explanations of media habits and how it relates to his fiction. He is maybe the person I follow on Twitter who I find to be most relentlessly interesting. I suspect this is partially just because his way of thinking and reading has some degree of sympathy with my own, but also that I think we use Twitter in much the same way (here’s my profile), and think of it in similar ways. Anyway, I found this description precise:
Rosoff: You’re very active on Twitter. I follow your stream and you talk a lot about politics and some other things. What do you like about Twitter? People in tech are kind of down on the company and service right now.
Gibson: I probably like it for a lot of the reasons I suspect people in tech wouldn’t. It’s the only brand of social media that I have ever taken to at all …. I like the feeling of having my perception of the world expanded daily, 24/7, by being able to monitor the reactions of 100-and-some people throughout the world that I personally follow so I have some sense of who they are.
There has never really been anything like that before, at least in terms of the digestible 140-character bandwidth that Twitter is based on. I am able to wake up, open Twitter, and sort of glance across the psychic state of the planet.
But on the other hand, I am used to spending $300 or so on piles of mostly foreign magazines that I would sit leafing through, thinking all the while that I am actually working in a sense, but it left no evidence in the world. If I didn’t tell you that, no one would know that I had been doing that instead of writing. So people can now spend 6 solid hours on Twitter in 2016.
Rosoff: You are a novelist, a profession where you disappear to write for a couple years and you’re really focusing on one thing. Twitter seems to be almost the exact opposite of that. It’s quick bursts.
Gibson: Yeah, but as a novelist, I have never been focusing on only one thing. I have found that it doesn’t change my level of concentration on my work.
The scary thing about it is that it provides almost too much material. Magazines in the traditional sense were aggregators of novelty.
A good magazine was a lot of novelty, stuff you’ve never heard of before, clearly aggregated by people who have been able to travel further and dig deeper than you have been able to do. And that used to be really an important source of stuff for me. And now it is less important because the Internet has eaten it all up. But my Twitter feed as an aggregator of novelty is like … I don’t know what I would do if it became any more powerful, I would have to start reining it in somehow.It’s limited to some degree. I’m in a consensus bubble because I have tailored my feed to be people who I think are interesting or likable. There are other universes of stuff on Twitter that I never even look at. I find it too compelling actually. I keep thinking I’m wasting too much time doing this.
Today, you didn’t know you wanted to hear the Game of Thrones theme performed on hard drives and scanners. I’ve seen this kind of thing done before (it’s a whole genre — here is the Dr Who theme song for eight hard drives) but this one is interesting because it simultaneously displays the code driving the music.
Think about the amount of time it took for someone to assemble the sounds, build the program, write the code in the minute detail of the arrangement he’s created, complete with percussion and bassline
. What I love about this is that it gets you to think about the minute detail, the care and thought that goes into every operation our computers make. Somebody has spent weeks and weeks slaving over every line of code in the program you are using to read these words. Everything you see around you is an idea someone had in their head, made visible, audible. This video makes you see and hear that work in a delightful way.
That seems, by the way, to be one of the loving staples of nerd culture: spending absurd amounts of energy to make something bizarre, something not really economically “worth” doing.