Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adventure Time in the Rabbit Holes

House of HolesHouse of Holes by Nicholson Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Post-Freudian expressionism has now had a century to percolate throughout the arts. I think in particular of painters and writers, Spaniards and Jews. Picasso, Miró, and Dalí. Sensuous dreamers like Modigliani, Chagall, and Soutine. Kafka and Singer and Marquez. But lately it's disseminated as far as white-bread Montana Eagle Scouts like filmmaker David Lynch and to men with names like Methodist generals in the Civil War: a man named Nicholson Baker has written three literary works of sex fantasy, and a man named Pendleton Ward created the very funny and super-creative expressionistic cartoon Adventure Time (in which Jake the Dog and Finn the Human roam the wastes of the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo, where the stuff of our own world has been made substrate to fanciful recombinations in the person of characters like Peppermint Butler and Donny the Grass Ogre). Via Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, psychologically sophisticated expressionism even animates my Cheerios box, which asks me impertinently, "What makes your heart beat a little faster?" over the two sensuous humps of a heart-shaped bowl.

Nicholson Baker's House of Holes is like a sexual Adventure Time. It possesses that same modern combination of self-awareness with expressionistic free-for-all. Baker goes farther with his erotica than any other literary writer I've ever heard of, including D.H. Lawrence, of whom Lenny Bruce said, “This guy can really tear up a piece of ass.” (The Essential Lenny Bruce, p. 216) Yet Baker inspires a sense of expressive freedom that transcends sexuality, much like Lenny Bruce himself does; if he can say that, I think, then surely I can say this. I found the book activated my whole sense of possibility even in non-sexual terms. I could go out to a fancy dinner two nights in a row! What's to stop me? I could put music on right now! Damn straight: I am stone cold crazy insane.

A favorite quote of mine—from Andre Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism—is apropos: “Among all the many misfortunes to which we are heir, it is only fair to admit that we are allowed the greatest degree of freedom of thought.” But a freedom of the imagination that excludes sexual desire would be a chicken-shit sort, wouldn’t it? "[T]he reason we left England was just for that right," Lenny Bruce said: "to be disgusting." (p. 216 again) But of course he meant "disgusting" ironically because he held "dirty" words in high esteem. They’re a (relatively) peaceful conduit for vital human aggression, and Bruce saw no dirt on the body parts and functions to which such words referred. The censorious people with their obscenity laws, Bruce observed, don’t hate the words as much as they hate the parts and the deeds and wishes; in the final prudish analysis, "the word isn't dirty—the titties are dirty.” Having gone to jail on charges of obscenity, Bruce called out the hypocrisy in the comparative public lenience toward violence: “Here’s how the titties work. If the titty is bloody and maimed, it’s clean. But if the titty is pretty, it’s filthy.” (Bruce, p. 180)

House of Holes is Baker’s third erotic novel, and also his most imaginative and funniest. Commentators have called all three books funny, but I sometimes get the feeling they have nervous laughter before something that was meant seriously—like kids in a sex ed class or on a trip to see the nude Greek statues at the art museum. Baker always writes elegantly, persuasively, and the people in his novel are real enough for the job, but he’s gone out of his way to fashion a plane of experience purified of anything but the unadulterated physical appetite for sex. His success in fashioning such a plane, and with a certain Eden-like innocence no less, reflects a sustained, sincere act of concentration from its creator. This third novel in particular can be hilarious in its reflections of the absurd contradictions, magic symbols, and gluttony of the id, in its characters’ preposterous lack of public shame, and in their equally preposterous castration anxiety, relieved in preposterous fantastical ways; but still the book’s ethos is in general more fun than funny. It isn’t principally satiric. It doesn’t side with shame by any means. It’s obscene. It’s filled with pretty breasts, penises, vaginas, buttocks, legs, bras, pubic hair, and underwear, and with people making shamelessly “filthy” use of them in body and mind. Don’t read it.

Or if you do read it—and apparently some other people besides me have, because I found it on a shelf of bestsellers in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport—just tell everyone it was really, really “funny.”

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Under-the-Hood Nausea

How Computers Work (9th Edition)How Computers Work by Ron White

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's something vaguely nauseating about looking under the hood, yes? I want to hear the music, I don't want to think about the speakers, or even about syncopation or harmony, the Mixolydian mode or the bridge, and certainly not about the trail of human gore that lies behind a commercial song; I want to eat the drumstick, not think about veins and connective tissue, or overcrowded chicken coops with chickens wearing their tiny red contact lenses; I want to swim in the shallow Caribbean Sea, I don't want to think about the mouths of great white sharks and the eleven-inch-wide eye of the giant squid, horribly human and ectopic like an eye in a tree trunk somewhere in Tolkien’s Middle Earth; I want to see my thoughts given form on a page, and I don't want to think about what's happening below the keys in channels of rectilinear silver. I don't ever want to look under the couch pillows.

And yet, I'm curious—not about the vile intra-couch detritus—but about how things work. Knowing that makes you powerful and wise, even more than going to bed early.

Ron White's book on computers is a useful, clear-yet-thorough, lavishly illustrated introduction to the basics of computers covering everything from digital cameras and displays to the internet to power supply, heat regulation, programming languages, database management, optical discs, hard drives, etc. I was mainly interested in the segments describing how transistors, logic gates, and microchips work—and those chapters answered most of my humble questions. For one thing, I learned at last how RAM is physically structured.

RAM, or ‘random access memory,’ holds data temporarily—like when you’ve added a sentence to a document and not yet saved it to disk, the added sentence is encoded temporarily in RAM circuits. There's a grid of copper traces on a wafer of silica (that is, quartz, the major constituent of sand and of glass). The grid is made of address lines in one direction and data lines perpendicular to them forming a field of intersections, and at each intersection is a transistor and a capacitor. A transistor is a "switch," meaning that one current flowing across it activates (closes) a circuit that allows another current to flow across it. A capacitor temporarily stores an electrical potential like a battery.

An address line carries the current that activates the transistors along it and the data lines send currents or not to each of these activated transistors. At the activated address line, a data current charges the capacitor with voltage, and if a data line doesn't send a current, the capacitor at that intersection doesn't get charged. A charged capacitor is used to represent a bit of information that the engineers call a '1' and an uncharged capacitor represents a bit of information called a '0.' In this way, the machine stores a string of 1s and 0s (i.e., a byte of information) along an address line. Numbers as we know them can be represented in strings of 1s and 0s using Gottfried Leibniz's system of math notation known as binary arithmetic, which was invented long before the computer but happily suits it. And letters or other meanings can be encoded in number sequences according to standardized languages or codes like ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange).

I also learned that a microprocessor converts data inputs (in the form of bytes of information) into outputs according to particular logical rules and that those rules can be represented by particular configurations of logic gates, which are in turn particular configurations of transistors. So you could program the microprocessor to do numerical calculations but you could also have the computer convert a particular input code (say, one that's produced by depressing the 'a' key) into a particular output code (say, one that leads to pixels lit up on the monitor in the shape of an 'a').

Was that too much information? If so, you may be experiencing under-the-hood nausea. Once I literally made a friend vomit with too much information. It was his bachelor party and he was drunk. I was in medical school at the time and began to explain to him what his liver was doing with all that alcohol. Every time I said the words ‘cytochrome P450 enzymes’ he begged me to stop, but I was also fairly drunk and when I’m drunk sometimes I become even more boring. I kept going and he called for the limo to pull over for a bout of hyperemesis bacheloris.

I think this is one reason it’s hard to look under the hood; it reminds us that things are made of parts, that we’re made of parts, and that we’re therefore mortal. I confess that learning about computation made me think somewhat despondently, “Are my own thoughts and memories basically like this? Made out of 1s and 0s?” It feels castrating to look at it that way, not only because it reminds me I’m dust and to dust I shall return, but because that level of magnification destroys my identity. If you look at a person at that level of magnification, so that their bodies are cells and their thoughts bits of data, then the familiar forms of the self seem to disappear. The universe itself seems to be lonely and full of nothing but the illiterate sand lying on the beach and in our laptops’ integrated circuits.

Looking under the hood can breed anxiety dreams, for sure, which is why people don’t dare to look, but in reality nothing is lost. The old familiar scale of things still exists and is a distinct and scientifically valid phenomenon. Particles do things en masse, at large scales, that they don’t do individually; they have “emergent properties.” For example, five water molecules do certain things, but they don’t make waves. You need an ocean full of them for that. And you need an ocean full of bits for that unique phenomenon of a human self.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

What the #$%* Is Life?

What Is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical SketchesWhat Is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches by Erwin Schrödinger

Nobel-prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger published the essay "What is Life?" in the 1940s, before the elucidation of the structure of DNA, and in it he conjectures about the molecular structure of the matter in our chromosomes, which he presumes to be an "aperiodic crystal." Physicist Roger Penrose tells us that Francis Crick (one of the scientists who actually uncovered the structure of DNA a decade later) "admitted to being strongly influenced by ... the broad-ranging ideas put forward here by this highly original and profoundly thoughtful physicist."

Schrödinger is, like Homer Smith, a lucid writer on hard science. Some minimal science education is probably necessary to fully understand him, but not more than is possessed by a humble M.D. who majored in English like me. Everybody in the humanities ought to read the two paragraphs on p. 10 under the heading "PHYSICAL LAWS REST ON ATOMIC STATISTICS AND ARE THEREFORE ONLY APPROXIMATE." Schrödinger writes, "Only in the co-operation of an enormously large number of atoms do statistical laws begin to operate and control the behaviour of these assemblés with an accuracy increasing as the number of atoms involved increases."

In the humanities, people often bemoan (or is it celebrate?) the uncertainty of all knowledge in the wake of modern physics--Einstein's Relativity and Heisenberg's Uncertainty and Quantum Mechanics. Take it from Erwin Schrödinger: the role of random motion in physics, of chance, in no way endangers the existence of valid scientific laws, in no way eliminates or even reduces the ability of human beings to predict the future or understand the past. The opposite is true. Uncertainty is far from the dominant ethos of modern physics; in fact we know more than ever before about when and which observations are accurate and how accurate we may presume them to be. To add to Schrödinger's erudite discussions of Brownian motion, diffusion, paramagnetism, and entropy, let me put it like this: when you play roulette, there is some chance you will win and some you will lose. As any gambling addict can tell you, the longer you play, the more you lose. That's very certain. Just ask casino tycoon Steve Wynn, who can buy Picassos and stick his elbow through them if he wants to. Chance does not cancel law.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

I Don't Want Change, I Want Swiss Cheese!

Death of a Salesman (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Sometimes you are not happy to hear the truth, because it hurts inside," Georges Perrier, chef of the famous Philadelphia restaurant Le Bec-Fin, told the New York Times upon his retirement. "But I have to accept it." Perrier retired shortly after a newspaper review skewered the restaurant for a terminal decline in quality.

Impressive, in a way--or is that just the sort of ennui that once caused a Frenchman named Claude to tell me and my dad without a trace of irony, "I am too tired to go on lee-ving...."

In any case, Perrier's words would never have arisen in the throat of Willy Loman, the all-time maestro of self-deception. "I don't want change, I want swiss cheese!" Willy cries out to his wife in Act I. It's funny out of context, and I think I'll keep the line out of context as a souvenir, but it also speaks to the forlorn, bewildered, childlike beast that Willy Loman is--he is "a poor, bare, forked animal" with a simple and small desire, the desire of a mouse, in fact, a mere morsel of cheese! But like King Lear, he encounters a world bent upon frustrating even the most miniscule of human desires. His frustration exceeds his humiliation threshold and he seeks a way out in suicidality. His son Biff bears the burden of filial responsibility for his crumbling father, who he once adored, so Miller has his Lear and his Hamlet together in one ringing gong of a play.

Willy cannot feel the obvious, overt love of his sons or his wife, in part because of scarring abandonments in his deep past inflicted by his own father and brother. (A dreamed phantasm of his brother enters and re-enters Willy's thoughts, boasting of exploits with diamonds in the jungle and the Alaskan wild.) When Willy tells this phantasm that their father left when he was three or four, and asks his big brother for details about their father, the phantasm brother coldly specifies that Willy was three years eleven months when their father left as if the fact has no more meaning than to reflect the sharpness of his memory. He boasts afterward that with all his businesses he doesn't even keep any books, not noticing the mortal wound in the heart of the man in front of him, and not feeling a bit of fraternal responsibility to him. But the fact concerning their father's abandonment inspires a rare moment of lucidity and truthfulness in Willy. He seems grateful for this tiny bit of nutrition to his famished spirit, and he says to his brother beseechingly, "I never had a chance to talk to him [their father], and I still feel--kind of temporary about myself."

When Philip Seymour Hoffman (who was born to play Willy Loman) utters lines like these, you hear people in the Barrymore Theater actually sigh or gasp. By the end, you hear people sniffling all around you. It hurts like broken fingernails to watch Willy Loman setting himself on fire, refusing to be helped, and watching Biff (Andrew Garfield of The Social Network) immolate himself on his father's pyre. This is a devious shapeshifting rotating slithering demonic viper of a play, come to kill and eat its audience with its bare hands. It's wrought with bewildering skill, and is in some respects more O'Neill than O'Neill, more Aeschylus than Aeschylus. Arthur Miller done gone Greek on our ass with the pity and the fear.

Mike Nichols's production, which reproduces the original 1949 set to the molecule, left me bleeding all over my soul from its 100,000 viper bites of despair. (A fun night out at the theater! My wife joked at the intermission, "Well, at least it has a happy ending!" and I said to the woman sitting next to us, "Yeah, don't worry, I hear it all works out in the second half!") Hoffman is the master portraitist of self-deceivers, that tortured species which deserves its own private wing of heaven in which to recuperate from life. Hoffman unearths aspects of Willy Loman I've never noticed before: that he has charm and wit, and that his crazy volte faces from puffed up aspiration to sudden gloom have an inherently comic rhythm to them. Also, I appreciated that just as when I saw Hoffman on stage next to Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day's Journey into Night, Hoffman's head was one and a half to two times as large as Garfield's.

Even if watching a good production like this is fatal to a melancholic soul like me, I'll always have a soft spot for this play, if only because I won the Arthur Miller Prize for Fiction at the University of Michigan in 1992 and was given a copy of the play inscribed by the master himself, Arthur Miller. There were no more than 20 or so of these awards ever given. U of M also sent my award-winning juvenalia to Miller and I like to think he at least passed his eyes across the letters of my name.

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Jack Kerouac's Harmonica and Mary Shelley's Hair

The Museum of Modern Art defines a Wunderkammer like this:

Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, arose in mid-sixteenth-century Europe as repositories for all manner of wondrous and exotic objects. In essence these collections—combining specimens, diagrams, and illustrations from many disciplines; marking the intersection of science and superstition; and drawing on natural, manmade, and artificial worlds—can be seen as the precursors to museums.

To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the New York Public Library has unleashed from its storehouse of artifacts a Wunderkammer to rival even those in the Morgan Library, which owns more Gutenberg Bibles than I do televisions. On Thursday, I decided to work for a bit at the library at 42nd Street before a lunch meeting.

However, I couldn't work there, because I was ensnared by the unexpected Wunderkammer there on the first floor. Within, I saw in glass cases: e.e. cummings's typewriter (a Royal); Hemingway's Nobel acceptance speech, which he wrote inside the back cover of John P. Marquand's Thirty Years (because it was blowing so hard that day by the pool in Havana); Charlotte Bronte's writing desk; Charles Dickens's letter opener, apparently ivory and of rapier length, with "C.D. In Memory of Bob 1862" engraved on it and bearing a handle made from the paw of his deceased cat (Bob); Virginia Woolf's diary and the cane that Leonard Woolf found floating in the River Ouse after she killed herself; a lock of Mary Shelley's hair (which Mary had sent to Thomas Jefferson Hogg as a token of affection at the behest of Percy, who encouraged her to have affairs so that he could in good conscience have his own); Jack Kerouac's harmonica and Valium pills; George Washington's handwritten farewell address (never delivered orally, but evidently the precedent for many later empty farewell platitudes); a letter from Picasso to Jean Cocteau; a Gutenberg bible (just one, though--point to Morgan Library); a funny typed letter from Groucho Marx to Harold Robbins of The New Yorker, signed; a Beethoven score messily handwritten (by Beethoven); Jerome Robbins's colorful diaristic collage including tickets to shows, programs, drawings, and scribblings; a book hand-painted by Joan Miró; a marked-up draft of Jorge Luis Borges's story "The Lottery in Babylon," written on graph paper in his micrographic hand (each letter is about three millimeters high); the first photographically illustrated book (Photographs of British Algae--Cyanotype Impressions by Anna Atkins, 1880); Richard Wright's diaries; Malcolm X's diaries (he wrote the most mundane things in them--apparently he took a lot of naps); a signed copy of Mein Kampf; a Kiki Smith self-portrait that's described as having been painted with her "hair" (when it's fairly obvious it was painted with her pubic hair); a Thomas Edison "Gem" Wax Cylinder Phonograph in pristine condition; a typed draft of "The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot with handwritten comments and suggestions from Ezra Pound (such as "Wonderful!" alongside some now famous verse as if "The Wasteland" were a high school term paper and T.S. Eliot the student!); and thirty or more small cuneiform tablets from several millennia ago, one of which was juxtaposed with a plugged-in MacBook showing Thursday's New York Times, digital edition, with an image in the middle of it of a poster of Vladimir Putin.

I was enthralled--until I began to feel a little like I did while going through my wife's great aunt's personal effects at her house in South Bend, Indiana after she was dead. (There was nothing in the great aunt's house so rarefied as Mary Shelley's hair, but there were jugs of Canadian Mist whiskey and Fleischman's vodka on the floor of her bedroom closet.) I told an editor enthusiastically about Virginia Woolf's cane and he said ironically, "Do you think you have a morbid side, Austin?" I realize now that the rarest and most exotic items in the NYPL Wunderkammer were indeed also the most morbid. It occurs to me that even a one-of-a-kind painting gives out a faint scent of the morgue; but the huge reproduction of Kiki Smith's pubic hair, besides focusing the viewer's mind on genitals, was also redolent of life because it wasn't entombed in the coffin of a solitary glass case. It was a participant in the present and the future--in some way alive in the way that living things are alive. It was replicated, propagating itself through many doors, into many spaces, many minds, moving, engaging, interacting, changing others (if itself incapable of change) and incorporating itself into others and so into the future, alive, alive, alive, like Shelley's monster, alive.

Which is to say: I don't think I can join Walter Benjamin in his gloom over the prospects for art in the age of mechanical reproduction.