sábado, agosto 19, 2017

Chiastic Rhetorical Devices: “Shakespeare's Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays” by James E. Ryan



“MALVOLIO
M, O, A, I; this simulation is not as the former: and
yet, to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for
every one of these letters are in my name. Soft!
here follows prose.
Reads

'If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I
am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon 'em. Thy Fates open
their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;
and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be,
cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be
opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let
thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into
the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee
that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy
yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever
cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art
made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see
thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and
not worthy to touch Fortune's fingers. Farewell.
She that would alter services with thee,
THE FORTUNATE-UNHAPPY.'
Daylight and champaign discovers not more: this is
open. I will be proud, I will read politic authors,
I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross
acquaintance, I will be point-devise the very man.
I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade
me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady
loves me. She did commend my yellow stockings of
late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered;
and in this she manifests herself to my love, and
with a kind of injunction drives me to these habits
of her liking. I thank my stars I am happy. I will
be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and
cross-gartered, even with the swiftness of putting
on. Jove and my stars be praised! Here is yet a
postscript.
Reads

'Thou canst not choose but know who I am. If thou
entertainest my love, let it appear in thy smiling;
thy smiles become thee well; therefore in my
presence still smile, dear my sweet, I prithee.'
Jove, I thank thee: I will smile; I will do
everything that thou wilt have me.
Exit”

In “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare

“Chiasmus – a mirror pattern in which key elements are repeated in reverse order, either with or without an unrepeated central element (ABCBA or ABBA) – is a common organizing principle, employed both rhetorically and structurally. [..] the best-known episodes in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Malvolio’s tortured reading of Maria’s letter in ‘Twelfth Night’, are structurally emphasized in this way.”

In “Shakespeare's Symmetries” by James E. Ryan

Dear, darling Shakespeare! How long is it, how many times hath Phoebus' cart gone round Neptune's salt wash, since you gave us the bad news of your imminent demise? I have been seated here those many years, tearing, fearing, lest, at any moment I should receive the grim testimony of some ugly, unwanted newshound. But, of course, you can never die, dear heart! You have bequeathed us a canon of literary and televisual wisdom like no other, such as would take any man a lifetime to dissect and absorb. And I believe you are working on yet another volume of pretty words, of poetry. Hurry it along, Shakespeare, for I am keen to drink in thy paroles!   

Presumptuous of me, I know, but I think “Twelfth Night” was likely Shakespeare's own favourite and provides a fabulous counterpoint to “Hamlet”, which was written about the same time. I came to “Twelfth Night” late in life. I was reasonably familiar with about a dozen of the canon and decided to pick a new play and study it line by line. What a great exercise for gaining intimacy with the bard and coming firmly to grips with the language of the day, which holds one in good stead with all the plays. For me, the BBC version from about 1979, with the incomparable Robert Hardy as Sir Toby, is still the best. I urge anyone to read the play thoroughly then watch it, for it can be a bit tricky going in "cold." Even one of the actors from the recent film version said he had no idea what was going on. BTW, what turned me on to Twelfth Night was Judi Dench's affectionate allusion to it in “Shakespeare in Love”. And she should know, having played Viola onstage some years before. You can tell she loves it, too – right? Actually, Malvolio isn't the only outsider - Feste is, too. That status is commented on by others, notably Maria (unlike him, very much part of the household), and pointed up by his almost Chorus-like singing role. To my surprise, in none of the (upwards of fifteen) TNs that I've seen has he been portrayed as a disguised catholic priest, though the play, I think, gains in intensity from such a reading. Seen thus, the household is England in microcosm, its female head wooed unsuccessfully from abroad, and steering a pragmatic course between the two ideologies challenging it, embodied in Feste and Malvolio. Of course, Malvolio would hardly have lived on into the Protectorate. I wonder if Feste was ever caught and (as Maria warns him) hanged? You cannot commodify depth, unfortunately, otherwise everyone would be Shakespeare. Shakespeare's true genius is not in the intricacies of his language but in the emotions he conveys to us through his characters. It's a bit of a paraphrase of Bloom's 'Invention of the Human' argument, but ultimately, Shakespeare's language is not a genuine obstacle to that emotional connection.

This is the Shakespeare who is staged more than any other living artist annually - and, I suspect, makes far more than any other living writer per year? Shakespeare isn't just 'another playwright', he's the greatest practitioner of the English language bar none, eclipsing even Milton, Jonson, Marlowe, Webster... etc - a point that is proved by people who don't understand his works laughing helplessly when they go to see his plays. The language isn't that difficult to understand if you take the time with it, like all great things, a little work with it brings infinite rewards.

I once read the second half of Macbeth while blind drunk on a train. It was massively enjoyable. I was lost in the poetry. Thankfully I like it almost as much when sober. However, the point I'm failing to make is that without an excellent English teacher many eons ago I would not have read it at all. Like the chimney sweep point in the article she made it come alive. Thank you, Mrs. Hartnack.
The problem with the current tendency to simplify Shakespeare (at the RSC and the National, as well as more obviously at the globe) is that Shakespeare is nothing but language, spoken and acted out. Changing the language makes it less Shakespeare, and more like “Shakespeare Retold”, those nice films that recycled a few original lines along with the plots (which are mostly not original with Shakespeare). The key to understanding Shakespeare's language, if you don't know what all the words mean, is to hear and see it performed by actors who do understand it. You'll understand very well what's going on, even if you don't get every word. And the more you see and hear Shakespeare, the more his marvelously rich language adds meaning to the music. I think many people's problems with Shakespeare originate in excruciatingly dull reading in the classroom, without the context supplied by performance. It's meant to be seen in action, as well as comprehended through hearing. I had a Japanese friend who said she was so sorry for the English, because they had to readjust their language comprehension, which “furreners” like her didn't have to do when watching him in translation. The fact that he is so popular and so revered and analysed in so many countries and cultures tells us there's a heck of a lot more to him than the language.

Shakespeare remains relevant because his understanding of universals was profound, and his language remains piercingly fresh. Maybe what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is the chiasmus or it’s the iambic pentameter maybe. Who knows? Who cares? He was a genius living at a time when the English language was still wonderfully malleable. It was an age in which the known world was expanding with the discovery of the Americas, when England was a centre of growing prosperity and technological advance - and the headiness of living in a country in such flux is palpable in the texts too. That Shakespeare was a brilliant literary innovator just isn't in doubt; you have only to read Spenser, Marlowe and Jonson to see it. They are all stupendous in different ways (I recently reread Jonson's The Alchemist and was astonished all over again), but the acuity of Shakespeare's phrases, the penetrating psychological insights in Macbeth, Lear and Hamlet, the sheer beauty and strangeness of the language and the thinking set him apart. Portuguese like me who love Shakespeare do so for the normal reasons: the vitality of the language, the brilliance of insights into human nature, and, very often, the tragic pull our natures bringing us to ruin. Thanks Mr. Ryan for giving me another take on interpreting Shakespeare. Celebrate the words, the symmetries, the parallelisms, the iambic pentameter, chiastic rhetorical devices, and whatnot. Celebrate that once there was a voice expressing the deepest fears, the greatest triumphs and the riddle of what it is to be human. Shakespeare is more important to Western culture than most of the parade of characters we see this year on our news screens. Alongside Michelangelo, Bach and Einstein the word genius can be used without fear of hyperbole.


quinta-feira, agosto 17, 2017

There Are no Golden Ages: "New Maps of Hell" by Kingsley Amis


“No wife who finds her husband addicting himself to science fiction need fear that he is in search of an erotic outlet, anyway not an overt one.”

In "New Maps of Hell" by Kingsley Amis

To put it in another context, imagine I'd be teaching F. Scott Fitzgerald to undergraduates, some of whom would be of African descent. Do we look at the casual racism found in the books and say "that's wrong?" No, we assume that everyone "gets" that it's wrong. But we look at the fact that this was considered normal/acceptable in F. Scott's day. He's still a magnificent writer, but he reflects his own era. Scott’s similar to Amis. His attitude to women is a reflection of the times. We can't shy away from that and pretend it isn't so, and we can't negate him as a writer, because of it.

Imagine yourself living in Lisbon as a young woman; wouldn’t you dread the endless comments, abuse, physical assaults that were part of your everyday experience. Maybe this young woman dreamt of buying an electric cattle prod and zapping those who threatened her. But it was the times in which they lived back then. Women had no rights in the 60s. The literature of the times, reflected that. Shall we zap Amis with a cattle prod for being a man of his time? No. First of all, I believe that all good books, whether niche or mainstream or somewhere in-between, must have an implicit message they are trying to put across, which should stick out almost like a sore thumb. That said, I in no way think this should make books programmatic. Writing a novel with the sole purpose of creating a text more politically correct than anything that has ever been written might take away, all at once, all the drama and conflict that all good novels - needless to say, I am merely expressing my own point of view here - play with to a certain extent. Secondly, SF (fantasy and science-fiction), possibly more so than any other genre, and even at their most mechanically chlichéd, are written and read not simply for "idle entertainment", but as a platform for escapism. And "entertainment" and "escapism" are definitely not the same thing. Sure, escapism includes enjoyment, but there are many other elements to it as well. (Such as creating a world that is only lineally similar to the one you attempting to escape from. Thirdly, if one raises the issue that "creators of fantasy stories [should] have the self-awareness to properly represent gender and race in their work". Whilst I agree that misrepresentation of elements such as race and gender should carefully be avoided in all forms of mass-media, I also believe that what we should tread carefully here. How, for instance, would you propose said careful representation of gender and race in fantasy texts? Would that not constrain the genre further, rather than pushing it to evolve? Also, I can easily think of dystopias (Margaret Atwood's included) where gender and race and misrepresented on purpose, and all for a good cause. (Take a world populated and ruled by physically perfect males, for instance, where restricted numbers of females are carefully kept under lock and key solely for reproductive purposes. Would a book describing such a world be encouraging development of an extremist patriarchal society, then?)

All in all, I think one tends to push the "balanced representation" argument a bit too far. What is a fantasy writer supposed to write? A book about a universe where there is a balanced percentage of elves and orcs, with a 50%-50% number of males and females in each population? And this just for the sake of keeping it all politically correct?

I think it is useful to develop a classification for relatively new genres, I just think some critics have an overemphasis on it - for me pigeonholing a book into a sub-genre is useful shorthand but also the least interesting thing you can say about it.

Thinking about gender, for example I am currently reading a fantasy novel; it is set in a grimy slum city and I have read less than a quarter of it. So far there have been about fifteen named male characters and three female (one of whom is a murder victim who never appeared in the book while she was alive. One of them is the main character's best friend's wife - she is tiny and quiet and has had about one line of dialogue. Meanwhile a squad of soldiers who all die in the same chapter; they are introduced and they're given histories and personalities and distinguishing features because obviously, the author found them cooler/more interesting to think about than a bar man's wife. I'm sure we can all think of genre books where the only female characters are the love interest and a few hookers.

I understand that sometimes books can be tedious because they fail to represent, say, women realistically and they reduce them to whimpering "angels in the house" or worse. That is, indeed, unfortunate and inadvisable. However, correctness, in this sense, would be "representing life as it actually is". Well, my point is precisely that the purpose of many, many SF works are representing the world as it actually isn't, i.e. envisioning forced situations which, as an effect, make the reader think. I am not saying authors should be careless and misogynistic (or, conversely, misandrist) in their approach. But by the same token, a forced political correctness, just for the sake of being politically correct is, I believe, misguided.

To make myself clear - yes, I believe characters should be represented realistically and convincingly. But I also think that authors should be free to represent unrealistic situations realistically and convincingly. Sometimes such situations may include gender and racial imbalance, but that is meant to be part of the story they are trying to tell.

Coming again to Amis’ take on SF’s classifications, it's more helpful to think about genres as a group of families than a series of classifications. Using that metaphor, you do away with the need to draw dividing lines, and grey areas become less problematic as you can think on them as cases of interbreeding.   

As to the “genre fiction and comfort” catch phrase, there's a case to be made for candy floss vs. more fibrous fare in every genre. SF stories are challenging to precisely the extent they challenge, subvert and change the worldview encoded in the genre's DNA. That's every bit as true in SF as it is Mundane Fiction, sitcoms, period drama, epic poetry or the pop song.

This is of course a very old debate. Tolkien and CS Lewis and others powerfully made the case for fantasy as a serious literary genre back in the 1930s. Tolkien wrote a brilliant essay called "Beowulf: the monsters and the critics" which is still relevant and interesting - the link is here: http://scr.bi/GTjcoo.

I also think no discussion on the literary importance of SF is complete without referencing the important contributions of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Le Guin's books are a sustained examination of patriarchy and injustice and their imaginative and literary power is inseparable from their genre status as science fiction. For her, the language of fantasy is a key tool for critical understanding of the present world. I have this quote from her above my desk: "Those who refuse to listen to dragons will probably spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians. We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night." Well said.

Often a good indicator of "gratification" versus more challenging entertainment is the attitude towards change. I like genre fiction that embraces the inevitability of transformation - not suggesting that all change should be enthusiastically welcomed for its own sake, but recognising that change will happen, and can be managed to some extent. What I don't like is fiction about restoring an "old order" or a "natural order", as seems to be the case with a lot of fantasy (and, to be fair, probably a fair amount of space opera too). In reality there are no golden ages, there is no natural order; there is only power and negotiation and moral debate - and the future is not going to resemble the past.

And then this pearl of wisdom from Amis concerning Fred Pohl showed up: “We have now reached the point of departure for the consideration, on some detail, of the work of Frederik Pohl, the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced.” What? Say again? Even by 60s standards this is a rather bold statement. There's a broad range of critical approaches taken even in the relatively small pool of SF critics and academics. This kind of rhetoric when it comes to SF is a formalist approach. It's a mistake to think that the development of, for instance, a structuralist approach, invalidates prior thinking. They are different lenses for looking at a text, and they show different things. “New Maps of Hell” specifically seeks to be a kind of Structuralist approach, though it's a pretty shoddy one, because I'm not convinced, I must say, that Amis understood much of the theory he tried to use. As with so many of the most acclaimed SF novels and stories, they must stay within the small and, frankly, ignorant little realm where self-referential people just read all this and think it must be the greatest stuff ever. (And it may be, individually, for them. There's nothing wrong with that. But to make all sorts of claims about literature and theory when they don't have a wide and thorough understanding of all the multiplicities is, to say the least, silly.) One can forgive the mediocrity of academics like Amis; the rush to get published so one doesn't perish is not conducive to great thought. But for the mediocre to be celebrated as gobsmackingly insightful by onlookers suggests that the intellectual culture of the onlookers is rather shallow and self-congratulating

The narrowness of Amis’s readings and conceptions is what limits him. Different lenses are useful for different things, but no lens deserves to be celebrated if it is covered with scratches, cracks and mud. There is a distinct lack of 'literary' merit (or, at least, what today is the current vogue for literary merit) in most SF because of the scale involved. SF seems to have to be about grand scale wars or space operas, clashes of good vs evil, and enormous journeys of revelation, whereas a lot of the literary fiction today is focused on the minutiae of daily life, beauty in microcosm, the power of a single word or action or seemingly minor deed. Surely it's not too much to ask for someone to bridge this gap - for the benefit of both genres...

For many of the reasons which I have already provided in some of my other posts concerning SF (and which I will try not to repeat, since repeating myself would be tedious). At the same time I believe that SF encompasses some of the few genres where "fairness" is not always entirely relevant based on the fact that:

a. I find that often, in fantasy, the one who is guiltier of misrepresentation is the reader rather than the writer. That is because he or she may be reading racial stereotypes where the writer didn't intend them to be, out of too zealous a sense of political correctness;
b. Again, science-fiction is often based on issues of unfairness for obvious reasons.

Moreover, some writers put a lot of effort into creating well-rounded characters and balancing out race and gender representations, they still use stereotypes and tropes from time to time. And yet, all of those are used in order to advance the story and push points that are morally valid and politically correct. China Miéville plays nicely with the "white trash" guy who is actually pretty much sentimental and turns out to be the saviour of the world as we know it trope (in "King Rat"). Catherynne Valente serves a succulent array of female prostitutes (we may easily call them that) who give up their bodies in exchange for just one night of bliss (read that as you will) in "Palimpsest". And yet these tropes do what they are meant to do. They push the story forwards and they make a point.

I guess what I am saying is that there is a fine line between "do" and "don't", especially in art/literature. And it might not be such a good idea to completely try to erase the "don't".


As a provision, I would also suggest that the expectation that writers must "treat characters as statements or representatives and not as individuals" is also a presumption and taste of our own particular time, place, and culture. Why "must" this be so? Are allegorical and symbolic modes always somehow less rewarding? I think that the whole palette should be available to the writer and the reader. I also think that imperatives about making fantasy "representative" reveal the degree to which contemporary notions of Realism have saturated aesthetic discussions. Representative values and individuation are certainly not as necessary (or necessary at all) for the success of works such as Dunsany's “The Gods of Pegana”, Cabell's “Jurgen”, Eddison's “The Worm Ouroboros”, or Lindsay's “The Voyage to Arcturus”. And I would maintain that -- viewed retrospectively -- two works that I greatly admire, “A Wizard of Earthsea” and “Perdido Street Station”, now seem as much about "types" as anything else. This is not meant to mark down Le Guin or Mieville. Far from it. Rather, I think that “A Wizard of Earthsea” and “Perdido Street Station” will endure despite their politics or ideology -- which will increasingly date over time -- by virtue of their style, tone, and aesthetic achievement are given accolades within the SF community because few people there care anything about literary criticism after about 1960 (Amis book came out in the 60s). And they're proud of their derriere-garde status. It's easier for them. They can keep arguing about whether dwarves and elves are fantasy or fantastika or whatever other classification neologism they come up with to feel clever. Such criticism will never grow up until it can give up on all the categorizing and move on to something meaningful. But while the writers yearn to be back in the good ol' golden age of their youth, so do the critics, whose understanding of what literature can be hasn't advanced much beyond secondary school.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

terça-feira, agosto 15, 2017

Micro-Fiction, Text 012: "Go Team Portugal!" by MySelfie


How the crowds would roar. Like a vast wave crashing onto the shore they would rise, pink mouths stretched into a row of noughts. How many, Santa Camarão wondered. 10,000? 100,000? It wouldn't just be the ones packed into the stadium, line after line, like tailors' stitches. There would be many more watching images beamed across nations; images sent speeding into space and back, faster than the fastest athlete, as fast as thought. So, how many? Santa could feel his heart pumping, hot and quick. His time was approaching, hurtling towards him like a meteor. This was his moment: this was it. Was it fate or was it chance? His mouth was dry. He wanted to stride but his feet would only shuffle. Lisbon had changed since he was last there: taller, faster, traffic and people swarming thick. A shadow fell across his face like a slap, a ten-foot smile snatching the sun: Welcome to the Olympics, the billboard read. The windows of the buildings glinted like dark water. Unauthorised posters will be seized a notice warned. It would take more than that to stop Santa. He slipped a hand into his coat, felt the comforting coolness of the metal. He felt calmer now. The stadium entrance flashed in the sunshine, reflecting the sky; shattered pieces of blueness shimmering like splinters along the polished steel. This would show them. He walked through the turnstile. No one paused to look. No one gave much thought to Santa Camarão anymore. He gripped his bony hands into fists. There had been a time when these hands would have held back lions. He had been a giant once: legs like pistons pounding on the track, shoulders broad enough to carry an ox. But, everything was changing. Time was unraveling: hours, days, years unwinding from its spindle, drawing out his strength like a thread. And he was breaking, he knew that with certainty; slowly he was breaking. But, right now that didn't matter, for ahead where the sky arched hot and blue, his crowd was waiting. He stumbled forwards. At first no one saw, then there was a shout. A man waved, wide-eyed, frantic. Reaching into his coat Santa's fingers worked past the cool metal and grasped. Around him, uniformed men were closing in, neat like tailors' stitches, pistols glinting. But, that didn’t bother old Santa. So then, right there, he pulled. The shots were swift: faster than the fastest athlete, as fast as thought. If only he could have heard how the crowd roared. Pink mouths stretched out like rows of noughts along the terraces, and there on the track, fluttering like a schoolgirl’s ribbon, Santa’s banner of support: Go Team Portugal! Beneath its folds his body seemed so small. Against his chest his medal lay cold and smooth.


domingo, agosto 13, 2017

Progressive Rock SF: "Devices and Desires" by K. J. Parker



When Tom Holt uses his K. J. Parker heteronym, at his best, is a very good genre writer: which is not to say that genre writers can't be as good as (if not better than) their literary counterparts - but they have not been taken as seriously, which is true even now. I must admit I found Gene Wolfe's work to be good too, rather than something to be proselytised for, or raved about. Moorcock's essay "Epic Pooh" is a good analysis in some respects (though perhaps influenced by Terry Eagleton et al, and Marxist Lit-Crit in general) and admits the fact the LOTR writing is at least accomplished. Of Moorcock's work "The Dancers at the End of Time" series is both funny and readable and "The Condition of Muzak" to me seems still his best. Folk finding Peake to be overwritten just proves what sort of literary world we now inhabit: Orwell's plain English has come back to bite us on our collective arse, and we can no longer cope with sentences with sub clauses, or paragraphs full of metaphor via elision. Oh, well. It's just that when folk write stuff like "The Book of the New Sun" is the best fantasy ever written, I must assume that they haven't read much to compare it to, genre fantasy or otherwise.  No doubt all shall be well in the ground of our beseeching, if that's the phrase I'm stretching for. 

Much modern fantasy suffers from a need to be perceived as dark, and combined with a desire to out-epic the competition it's led to something of a sameness in the huge-number-of-mutilated-dead count, tougher-than-the-last-tough-guy hyperinflation, and characters flawed by their amorality or brutality (Staveley comes to mind). Parker maintains a personal scale, even though world-changing events (though his worlds always have a sparseness to them - rarely any heaving multitudes), and his characters are flawed by their vulnerabilities. There's darkness aplenty - I find more horror in his themes of erasure or corruption of identity than in how many hundreds of thousands of anonymous bodies line roads to cities (Baker, Staveley, Ryan, Cameron, etc.). This approach pays dividends in his mastery of character development. His books follow anything but an expected path - unexpected events shape characters in entirely unforeseen ways, and while that can lead to great emotional investment on the part of the reader, Parker can be bruisingly unsentimental. That’s why I say fantasy is the progressive rock of literature. It has its ardent fans who champion its cause in the face of utter derision from critics. It has its fair share of pretentious tosh but there are nuggets of excellence to be found if you look hard enough with an open enough mind, a bit like its sister, science fiction. Another factor in fantasy's 'rehabilitation' that might be worth exploring is the prevalence of fantasy in computer and video games. Why does that work so much better than, say political fiction? Anyway, from someone who has read SF (science Fiction and Fantasy) for over 30 years, I’m still surprised we can still find writers writing non-magic fantasy. I like prog rock too, naturally, but that's another story... Parker is a peerless creator of genuinely unearthly mindscapes.

The other great thing about K. J. Parker is that even with his fantasy potboilers he still entertains me with his florid use of language, the weird and wonderful names, and the little details he drops into his stories, products of his wild imagination that elevate even the most mundane tales.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, agosto 12, 2017

A 1000-Year Lineage: "Foi Deus/It Was God" by Amália





Fado makes Leonard Cohen sound like the Laughing Policeman. Steer clear of it unless it is in your blood, i.e. you are Portuguese and can trace your cultural lineage back at least a 1,000 years.

It does not travel.

Think Brazil - samba and fun! Think Portugal - fado and self imposed melancholy!

If you really want to ruin a holiday in Lisbon, visit the Fado museum at the bottom of the Alfama district.

If you want to go down this rabbit hole, rest assured the Queen of Fado was Amália, she was the genius, she invented it all: the addition of the bass guitar, the black dresses, the love for Portuguese music. Her taste was impeccable. It's just frigging unexplainable the genius of Amália. To me, Amália ranks very high, up there with Sinatra and Callas.


sexta-feira, agosto 11, 2017

The Quest for Immortality, variant no. 843: “A Calculated Life” by Anne Charnock




“’That’s the heart of the problem. I haven’t lived enough. My character is just the combination of my intellect and my faults. I haven’t had time to become more complex, more interesting. […] I’m not sure if you realize this but without my flaws I’d be pretty dull. You should know that.’”

In “A Calculated Life” by Anne Charnock


For the sake of argument let me be devil’s advocate.

The scientific materialist assumption is that the body is the primary organ and consciousness is secondary. This is not so; consciousness is the primary experience and the body and all other experiences are secondary. The body is a construct of consciousness. Forward thinking scientists are just beginning to realise this. Man might be able to prolong life but a 'machine' existence will never happen because the 'reality' of phenomenal existence is simultaneously 'real' and 'not real'. People, including scientists tend to see everything in terms of being a binary system. Yes/no, off/on, is/isn't, 0/1, true /untrue. Reality is not that simplistic. Mm, that's some good pseudo bullshit. Preventing aging is almost certainly more achievable soon than consciousness transfer, but ultimately the latter offers greater security and opportunity. Immortal DNA is all very well, until you suffer catastrophic injury or brain damage. With transferable consciousness, you get the immortality, along with the option to backup and restore in the event of a fatal accident, as well as the ability to travel at light-speed as a digital signal to be reawakened on arrival. And that's before we even get into the idea of truly inhabiting the virtual world as digital consciousness. With an infinitesimal fraction of the earth's current energy use, you could have untold trillions living in a virtual utopia, with a near infinite diversity of cultures, worlds and lifestyles. Nevertheless, is it misleading to talk about 'transferable' consciousness? What would be uploaded would be a facsimile of your consciousness. As far as the exterior world, interacting with the facsimile, would be concerned it would be you. However, it would actually be a totally new instance of you, with no continuity of your original consciousness. It's what's always troubled me about the idea of Star Trek-type teleportation - the thought that disintegrating someone in one place and then reassembling them in another, would effectively mean the death of the original, internally-experienced consciousness (although nobody else would notice or care!). Of course, it all depends on the manner of the transfer, and your outlook on identity and consciousness. Personally, I would consider an accurate facsimile to be me. A second version, sure, but I don't see that as an obstacle to identity. Once they start experiencing separate things though, they will diverge, and the concept of which is the "true" me becomes less meaningful. The continuity of consciousness is interesting; a new instance would be me, but would leave the original me intact, so from the original's POV, the copy is a clone. However, if you could first augment the brain with computers, allowing consciousness to run on both subtracts at the same time (imagine your normal consciousness, but with access to extra digital memory, for example) then you could theoretically effect the transfer smoothly, "moving" your consciousness purely into the inorganic memory. Basically, this kind of stuff will force us to challenge our ideas of self, and of identity, because we've never had cause to think of ourselves as anything other than singular beings, though observations after the severing of the corpus callosum in epilepsy sufferers has already put strain on that idea, suggesting that we are already less easily defined than we like to think (I recommend Greg Egan's SF books as a great place to explore these ideas, beginning with Permutation City).

The joy of intelligent thinking. We have it. Computers don't. Computers will be able to make decisions (and sometimes those decisions are going to be wrong), but there are so many ways in which computers cannot compete with the human. "I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do". (HAL 2001). Just look at the European Language top level C2 - "Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations." Being able to say things with "shades of meaning", heck native speakers cannot even do that sometimes. And when it comes to listening or reading humans can read between the lines and they can understand subtleties and nuances. Computers and robots will enhance the world - hey, they can even go to visit Mars rather than risking the life of a person - but it will take much more time before they can out think us.

Chess - Go - Tic-Tac-Toe these are games! And they have finite boundaries. Real life? Enjoy it.

Charnock plays with these concepts in a manner that felt non-gimmicky. Lots of SF nowadays feels all too gimmicky and swamped in crap. Charnock’s basic presumption is that the mind is ultimately not just software, running on the hardware of the brain. Thus, we can transfer it, duplicate it, upload it and the rest. Throughout the novel we’re kept in doubt as to the nature of the human mind. Real science has made very little headway in that direction. Some scientists and philosophers deny there is such a thing as the mind at all. They say the mind is just what the brain does. Jayna’s rebooting makes me thing: "It won't be her surely", but this doesn't even quite catch it, it's worse than that. It won't even be a copy of her. No Jayna 2. Whatever Charnock created on another piece of hardware and software - even if the constructors used another biological neural network! - will approximate aspects that we as the readers will be able to identify, but a) Jayna will never be the same, and b) point (a) does not even matter, because it won't be identical. Even if some godly creature made an atom-for-atom copy of Jayna, that's going to be another “person”. Doesn't matter that it's a copy, meaning same memories etc. From the point of creation of the copy there are two different and separate physical beings without any connection. Will there be a sequel to this wonderful novel? For the first time in many years I wouldn’t mind reading it now.
 

NB: At the end of the novel Charnock mentions Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines” which I read a long time ago. One word: crap! Kurzweil never gives indication of understanding that a finite but infinitely varied and magnificent environment exists in the real world, beyond humans, nor what its relationship would be to this kind of bizarre transformation. The perpetrators of this nightmare seem to be unaware that we are in the Sixth Great Extinction now and that it will include humans. One must believe these people have been in their cells with computers and chips for too long. Perhaps their whole lives. What will happen when the EMP attack takes it all down? I live in Lisbon that is so far away from this kind of isolated industrial society conceit that I can hardly believe Kurzweil understands the real world. But I tell you, in my real world, my swallows were back 2 months early…That much I know.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

quarta-feira, agosto 09, 2017

Mathematical Artifacts: "Shakespeare and Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story" by Stanley Wells


As a Shakespeare dilettante, I find some of the attributions regarding collaborations slightly worrying. I'm not quite sure why this has been worthy of research. One of the more risible of 'evidence' put forward, I forget where, was that Middleton was co-author of “All's Well That Ends Well” (incidentally Wells also professes this attribution). The argument was: 'As an example, the word "ruttish" appears in the play, meaning lustful - and its only other usage at that time is in a work by Middleton' or something to that effect. So, creative writers are supposed never to have used a word only once in their entire oeuvre? This is quite typical of academics who have no idea how creative writers - and particularly dramatists - work. But the most preposterous of all must surely be their citing of the stage direction 'all': '"All" (preferred by Middleton) only occurs twice in the Folio - both times in All’s Well.' Playwrights were writing their plays on the hoof to impossible deadlines. Stylometric analysis is a method which has been seriously challenged and is evidently flawed because it takes no account of how writers write. Only a few obsessives really care, those of us who can bring ourselves to watch Shakespeare, generally just enjoy and don't really worry about whether he might have had assistance from this or that writer. We know he collaborated as a matter of habit, so one for the historians to mull over, the rest of us will focus on what is best, the often-astounding dialogue...

Statistics is a very dangerous tool for someone to use who is not experienced with the kind of mathematical artifacts which can be produced in complex analyses. It is VERY easy to amend the modelling parameters slightly to produce the answer you are hoping for, and few people will ever delve into the workings of a complex statistical algorithm to see whether the weights put on different variables are justifiable or not. In practice, skilled English professors are not going to have the mathematical experience to challenge the findings.

John von Neumann famously said, of graphical mathematical models: “With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.” By this he meant that one should not be impressed when a complex model fits a data set well. With enough parameters, you can fit any data set, even a requirement to draw an elephant on the output graph. I fear that this authorship assertion may turn out to be an elephant...I struggled with this when I was learning foreign languages. I had some naive hope that by applying mathematical modeling to some issues they could be put on a firmer footing than is usual in linguistics. It didn't take me very long to realize that what I was doing was merely recreating the limited data set available, by turning it into formulas rather than raw data. My formulas, simple as they were, described the data set with great accuracy. But if the data set would have been slightly different (say, by some anthropologist discovering some as-yet undocumented languages spoken in Papua New Guinea or somewhere), my formulas would have been slightly different too, and still be equally accurate. I did get very high marks on a paper I did on the subject, from a professor who clearly didn't know much about statistics (very few linguists do), but thought my approach was highly original, and encouraged me to explore it further. I gave up on linguistics soon after that. At least on that kind of linguistics. Sometimes, even mathematical physics, or anything very deeply mathematical is the same. It takes some years to be able to sort the dross and put it to one side.

But whatever the case, I confess to be a Marlowe admirer (not so much with Kyd, Fletcher or Beaumont):

'Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.'

In “Shakespeare and Co.” by Stanley Wells

Those first two lines rank among the best in the English language.

If Shakespeare is not the author of his plays, it is remarkable that so many of his contemporaries accepted he was - Jonson, Heminges & Condell, even the bilious Greene in his own way accept Shakespeare as the author. Others might have contributed a few bits here and there, but Shakespeare was light years ahead of them. Marlowe was not always an astonishing dramatist himself - Faustus contains lots of rather naff comic scenes, in among the good bits. Barabus is presented as entirely unsympathetic and hateful, whereas Shakespeare makes Shylock human. Jonson was still writing plays about 'humours' when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet. Shakespeare's plays junked the unity of time and space conventions that his contemporaries valued. It's entirely likely that some parts of his plays were written by others - but no more than a passage here or there. There is something different about Shakespeare's plays that suggest they were the work of one, very unique, person. Out of interest, why does no-one question the authorship of Marlowe's plays, Jonson's, Fletcher’s, Beaumont’s? Maybe we should be looking for evidence of Will's handiwork in them, rather than expending so much time and energy trying to diminish the Shakespeare's achievements, just because he didn't go to bloody Oxford and his dad made gloves.

Then there's the actors - you think if Kemp, Burbage or Armin came up with a funny line or a nice plot twist, that Shakespeare would have been in any position to say "no, this work is evidence of my brilliance and none shall interfere!" I think not.

Then there's the editing. For the 12,542nd time, I tell you. Do you really think the plays are three hours long because anyone actually wanted to be on stage that long? No! Shakespeare wrote far more material than was needed because they would have edited every performance, using different scenes and different lines for different shows (especially useful when switching between playhouse and court). Is this not a form of authorship? But this is all detail. The big problem is more cultural - we primitively need to believe that a work of art is a window into a single brilliant artist's mind. It is this old fashioned need to see art almost biographically that holds us back. Put simply, we need to think differently about what literature is. This was a world with no copyright, where audiences would often miss the first half of a play, arriving halfway through with totally different attitudes to so many things. I think also a lot of it is snobbery. People don't want to believe that a man without a university education could write brilliant works. I'm sure in the future many will say a man from a London slum (Chaplin) could never have made such films or an uneducated man like Twain could be so wise. Maybe they didn't. Does it matter? The works are timeless.

Those who don't want to face it are fundamentalist Shakespearean scholars, and the town of Stratford-on-Avon, the livelihoods of both depend on the myths and legend. I thought Anonymous was brilliant by the way. Even if it wasn't true. Which it might have been. And it was good enough for Mark Rylance to appear in the film.

Another non-book, I fear. I'm gutted about this to be honest. It's like Milli Vanilli all over again. I threw out all their LPs, and have just tossed my original copy of the First Folio into the recycling. Nah, just kidding; I love Milli Vanilli… Some days when I wake up, I’m sometimes convinced I authored several Acts from Hamlet. But the computer always says, 'No.' Alas. No such luck…