Friday, July 31, 2015

Let’s stay down under, way, way, way down deep

While researching his book Deep, James Nestor hires a private submarine for a tour of the sea bottom 2500 feet down. Nestor’s description of the sights reminded me of L. Frank Baum’s Sea Fairies wherein the visiting land dwellers are given mermaid tails and gills so they can mosey about comfortably. They see fiddler crabs playing violins, listen to the songs of barnacles, avoid a cross sea pig, and pause before a batch of jellyfish:

[F]loating in the clear water was a group of beautiful shapes that the child thought looked like molds of wine jelly. They were round as a dinner plate, soft and transparent, but tinted in such lovely hues that no artist’s brush has ever been able to imitate them. Some were deep sapphire blue; others rose pink; still others a delicate topaz color. They seemed to have neither heads, eyes nor ears, yet it was easy to see they were alive and able to float in any direction they wished to go. In shape they resembled inverted flowerpots, with the upper edges fluted, and from the center floated what seemed to be bouquets of flowers.

Most of the creatures in Sea Fairies are punnily magical, but in the case of the jellyfish Baum seems to find their natural state magic enough. Sea Fairies was published in 1911 and available views of undersea life at that time were very limited.

Even today the deeper you wish to go the harder it is to get there. Water is heavy and ever so crushingly heavier the more it piles on itself. Light doesn’t get as deep as Nestor does in the little yellow Idabel (captained by its creator Karl Stanley). Yet there is color in the darkness, color generated by the natives:

In the distance, a group of glittering disco balls hangs a few feet above the seafloor. It’s a school of squids, Stanley tells us. Each is wrapped in a Technicolor coat more sparkly and garish than the next. Beside the squids are other animals — jellyfish, I think — that emit bright pink and purple light. It’s like we’ve stumbled into some underwater Studio 54. …

A two-foot glob of flashing color approaches, then hovers a few inches from the window. Along the top of this glob is a blanket of lights, all blinking, one after the other, in perfect synchroncity. First, only blue lights flash, then only red; then purple; then yellow, until every color in the spectrum has appeared. Then all the colors flash at the same time and the spectacle repeats. The hundreds of rows of little lights are evenly spaced around the glob. It looks like a cityscape at night: when the lights are red, they look like the taillights of cars on a freeway; when they’re white, they look like a grid of streetlights as viewed from an airplane thousands of feet above. Between these lights, there is nothing, no visible flesh, no nerves, no bones or body. … Stanley says it’s a comb jellyfish, the biggest he’s ever seen.

Deep: freediving, renegade science, and what the ocean tells us about ourselves by James Nestor
2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York
Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum
1911. Reilly & Lee, Chicago

[The post title is a couple lines from Tom Tom Club's "Suboceana"]

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Do speakers of Tzeltal never get lost in the woods?

I remember reading about a language that features the cardinal directions in its grammar. The author did not include a description of the method this language’s speakers use to determine whether one is facing east, west, north, or south with such dependable accuracy that they can take it for granted, which is something you have to do if you’re going to be incorporating that information into everyday speech. I remember wondering if speakers were rarely indoors, thus hip to directional cues from the sky, the sun during the day, the stars at night. But I didn’t take it any farther than an idle puzzling.

In a discussion of hidden senses in his book Deep James Nestor says this:

The Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal tribe, had a remarkable sense of direction that they incorporated into their language. Instead of using words meaning ‘right,’ ‘left,’ ‘front,’ and ‘back,’ Guugu Yimithirr used the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west. If a Guugu Yimithirr tribesman wanted you to make room for him on a bed, he’d ask you to move a few feet west. Guugu Yimithirr didn’t bend backward, they bent northward, or southward, or eastward.

The only way Guugu Yimithirr could communicate was by knowing their exact coordinates at all times … But it was second nature to them, as well as for a host of cultures throughout Indonesia, Mexico, Polynesia, and elsewhere, whose languages were also based on cardinal directions.

In the 1990s, researchers from the … Max Planck Institute … placed a speaker of Tzeltal — a Mayan directional language spoken by about 370,000 people in southern Mexico — in a dark house and spun him around blindfolded. … [A]sked … to point north, south, east, and then west [the Tzeltal speaker] did this successfully, and without hesitation, twenty times in a row.

You’ve heard that birds and sharks use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate, right? Well, maybe that’s how east and south got into grammar. Maybe we can take advantage of magnets in our heads.

“Human magnetoreception [is] distinct from other senses, like vision and smell [in that magnetoreception] is an unconscious, latent sense,” says Nestor. “We don’t know it exists unless we put ourselves in a situation in which we have to use it.”

Like when we’re lost in the woods? Or at sea?

Were the Polynesians relying on their magnetoreceptive sense when they colonized islands thousands of miles apart in the Pacific?

source: Deep: freediving, renegade science, and what the ocean tells us about ourselves by James Nestor
2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York

Sunday, July 19, 2015

word of the day: scanlation

Many of the readers coming to this book [Massive: gay erotic manga and the men who make it] will have found the first crumbs leading to our pie years ago at websites that host scanlations and other forms of pirated manga. The road we as editors took to get here was itself paved in part by the purveyors of these illicit goods — not because we were downloading illegal scanlations, but because the presence of those sites was proof that thousands of manga fans were desperate for legitimation. Across the board(s), we’d see the same rationalizations come up repeatedly in conversations about the unsanctioned translations.

“It doesn’t hurt anyone because it’s out of print.”
“It’s never going to be published in English.”

The problem isn’t just when this isn’t true. It’s the fact that not telling someone you like their stuff enough to sepnd hours translating and publicizing the work is just weird. It’s a little bit stalker-like.

That’s Anne Ishii, one of the editors (and the translator) of the gay manga collection.

I think you get the definition just fine from the context. It’s a new word, clearly. The most thorough version of its meaning is this one at Wikipedia:

definition: the scanning, translation, and editing of comics from a language into another language. Scanlation is done as an amateur work and is nearly always done without express permission from the copyright holder. The word “scanlation" is a portmanteau of the words scan and translation. The term is mainly used for Japanese comics (manga), although it also exists for other national traditions on a lesser scale. Scanlations may be viewed at websites or as sets of image files downloaded via the Internet.

source: Massive: gay erotic manga and the men who make it edited by Anne Ishii, Chip Kidd, and Graham Kolbeins
2014. Fantagraphics Books, Seattle WA

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Attitudes” by Jean Le Louet


At that time I saw three men. The first was covered with blood, and because they had beaten him, the blood kept pouring out of him. The second was kneeling, and because they had tied his arms, he remained on his knees. The third was sitting at his enemy’s table, and because the enemy treated him with respect, he remained at that table.

Then I called the first by name and cried out to him, “Don’t die.” But the blood continued to flow and through the blood he replied, “I’ll make it, because I love.”

Then I named the second man and cried out to him, “Cast off your bonds.” He replied, “I am weak, and the man who tied me up is very strong.”

And I named the third man and said to him, “Stand up, won’t you!” And he replied, “I shall remain here, because my enemy is cunning and I wish to outwit him.”

Then I summoned the angel of unity and said to him, “Unite these people or destroy them.” At that the angel of unity took the first man’s blood and smeared it on the other two.

And he who had been kneeling and he who was sitting were strengthened.

The bleeding man leaned on them for support. And the blood flowed less freely from his wounds. And the blood removed the veil from their eyes.

I came across Jean Le Louet’s poem in Czeslaw Milosz’s Year of the Hunter. Czeslaw Milosz includes some context:

[I]t is a translation into French of my translation into Polish; the French original was lost. Its author, Jean Le Louet, a French poet of the second wave of Surrealism was in Warsaw in August 1939, possibly for romantic reasons (he was gay). … The outbreak of war caught him in Warsaw; the Germans sent him to Lake Constance as a French citizen, and he was interned along with another French citizen, Stanislaw Dygat. That is when he wrote the poem, immediately after the fall of France in 1940, I believe. Dygat brought it to Warsaw and gave it to me; I translated it and put it in my anthology The Invincible Song (1942).

Louet [was] thin, delicate, almost feminine, with a sickly throat, speaking in a whisper. … I heard that after the war he led the life of a clochard [vagrant]. No one knows when he died. … Completely forgotten as a poet, with that one title to his fame — a poem in Polish translation. An unusual poem, having nothing to do with Surrealism … but referring to biblical tradition (as if it were written by a Polish romantic poet); a prophetic poem, because how in 1940 could he have foreseen collaboration?

I searched the web for more on Jean Le Louet and found description of a chapbook from 1937, Ceci Passe: Quatrième Cahier de Habitude de la Poésie. So it seems more than just a single poem of Jean Le Louet has survived. I found no mention of his publishing after the war. I’m sure there are French sources to search, but that’s beyond me.

I present the poem here because I like it. The poem traveled no easy path to survival. Yet, despite Milosz’s claim, it is not the only “title to his fame.” I am curious, if Milosz’s translation is the closest we can get to Louet’s French original, is the one here, the version in English, translated from Milosz’s French version of his own Polish version or did the translator of A Year of the Hunter, Madeline Levine, work with Milosz’s Polish?

source: A Year of the Hunter by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Madeline G. Levine. 1994. Farr, Straus and Giroux.

update: After asking the question at the end of the post, I looked up the translator, Madeline G. Levine. There is a professor of Slavic Literatures, Emerita at the University of North Carolina named Madeline G. Levine. Her email is listed on the UNC site. So I sent Ms Levine an email, apologizing for bothering her, but wondering if she could recall whether Jean Le Louet’s “Attitudes” made one stop or two on its way to English. Ms Levine wrote back the same day saying she remembers reviewing the page proofs of Year of the Hunter with Milosz himself. She said she translated the poem from the Polish. The French original (in Stanislaw Dygat’s transcription) must have been lost. Why else would the poem require retranslation from Polish back into French?

Monday, July 13, 2015

word of the day: auscultate

Primo Levi survived the German extermination camp, Auschwitz. Reflecting on Germany in 1960, fifteen years after its defeat in World War II, Levi thinks back to the country’s embrace of Nazism. “[T]he National Socialist message found an echo precisely in the Germans’ traditional virtues, in their sense of discipline and national cohesion, their unquenched thirst for primacy, their propensity for slavish obedience.”

What has changed since the end of the war?
It is difficult to auscultate the hearbeat of a people. Anyone who travels in Germany today finds the outward appearances that I found everywhere. A growing affluence, peaceful people, large and small intrigues, a moderate subversive atmosphere; on the stands, newspapers like ours, conversations like ours on trains and in trams; a few scandals that end like all scandals. And yet in the air you sense something that you do not sense elsewhere. Anyone who takes them to task for the dreadful events of recent history rarely finds repentance, or even critical consciousness: much more often he encounters an ambiguous response, in which are intertwined a feeling of guilt, a desire for vindication, and a deliberate and impudent ignorance.

definition: to listen (especially with a stethoscope)

source: The Mirror Maker: stories and essays by Primo Levi
translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal
1989. Random House, New York

Sunday, July 12, 2015

word of the day: vernissage

He is working three or four nights a week for the caterer, plus the odd afternoons, waiting tables, tending bar, assembling hors d’oeuvres; at bar mitzvahs, cocktails, vernissages, dinner parties, bank openings. … He prefers to work in the kitchen or pantry, where he is safe from discovery and can make the rent money in peace. Often he has looked out from the equivalent of the wings and spotted a friend or even a table of friends among the guests. Everything he does … is a distortion of his old expectations of being rich and glamorous. He is present at the experience but on the wrong side of the canapes.

definition (from the Oxford English Dictionary): A day before the exhibition of paintings on which exhibitors may retouch and varnish their pictures already hung. Now usu. denoting a private view of paintings before public exhibition.

source: The Family of Max Desire a novel by Robert Ferro
1983. E. P. Dutton, New York

Saturday, July 11, 2015

word of the day: gallooning

The house faced the sea from a low bluff of dunes beside a red-brick lighthouse with a fourteen-mile, two-second light. Down the coast green lawns met the beach with a thin gray strip of boardwalk in between, like gallooning. All the way down, where on the clearest days the horizon came ashore, the rocks of an inlet led into Barnegat Bay.

definition (The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t offer this particular form “gallooning;” however a definition appears under “galloon”): A kind of narrow, close-woven ribbon or braid, of gold, silver, or silk thread, used for trimming articles of apparel; a trimming of this material.

source: The Family of Max Desire a novel by Robert Ferro
1983. E. P. Dutton, New York

Friday, July 10, 2015

word of the day: machicolation

On either side of the gate rose square towers
faced with white marble, one pierced by
a narrow door, too low to enter without stooping.
Beyond it, ramps and stairs twisted upwards
through the mass of stone. At the halfway point
the lights failed: it was completely dark.
We lit improvised tapers, emerging at length
on the broad summit of the tower.

The students posed for a group portrait against
a backdrop of machicolations and the sea,
but the elevation made me giddy and my knees weak,
so I descended alone, stumbling in the dark.

lines from John Ash’s “The Tour”

definition (according to the Oxford English Dictionary): Archit. An opening between the corbels which support a projecting defensive parapet, or in the floor of a gallery or the roof of a portal, through which combustibles, molten lead, stones, etc., could be dropped upon assailants below. Also: a projecting structure having a range of such openings.

source: The Anatolikon by John Ash
2000. Talisman House Publishers, Jersey City, NJ

Thursday, July 09, 2015

word of the day: pervicacious

[Dr William] Masters underlined a quote he found in the library from Dr. Robert L. Dickinson, former president of the American Gynecological Society, who wrote in JAMA [The Journal of the American Medical Association] during the mid-1920s: “In view of the pervicacious gonadal urge in human beings, it is not a little curious that science develops its sole timidity about the pivotal point of the physiology of sex.”

definition (from the Oxford English Dictionary): Thoroughly obstinate or stubborn; headstrong, wilful, refractory.

The prudish aversion to serious research into human sexual response is nearly as pervicacious as human sexual response is pervy.

source: Masters of Sex: the life and times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple who taught America how to love by Thomas Maier

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

word of the day: titrate

Dr. N. was a decent, sensitive man who had known Michael since his initial psychosis nearly fourteen years earlier, and he too was disturbed by the new, drug-related problems he was encountering with many of his patients on Largactil. He was trying to titrate the drug, to find a dosage which would be just enough but not too much or too little.

… I wondered whether systems in the brain concerned with the perception (or projection) of meaning … systems underlying a sense of wonder … systems for appreciation of the beauty of art and science, had lost their balance in schizophrenia, producing a mental world overcharged with intense emotion and distortions of reality. … [A]ny attempt to titrate them, damp them down, could tip the person from a pathologically heightened state to one of great dullness, a sort of mental death.

definition: continuously measure and adjust the balance of (a physiological function or drug dosage).

Oliver Sacks does a fine job of defining titrate upon introducing it. Sacks doesn’t use much jargon, but when he does he readily helps out his lay readers with the likely unfamiliar term.

source: On the Move: a life by Oliver Sacks
2015. Borzoi / Alfred A. Knopf, New York


I marked a couple places in the autobiography where Oliver Sacks mentions books that look worth hunting up:

Mind of a Mnemonist by A. R. Luria
“I read the first thirty pages thinking it was a novel. But then I realized that it was in fact a case history — the deepest and most detailed case history I had ever read, a case history with the dramatic power, the feeling and the structure of a novel.”

Pride and a Daily Marathon by Jonathan Cole
“[A] virus … deprived [Ian Waterman] of all proprioception below his head. [Proprioception is the sense we have of inhabiting a body.] … When [Ian] sits, he must consciously hold himself erect so he does not fall forward … He may appear perfectly normal, but if the lights suddenly go out … he will fall helplessly to the ground [as Ian has compensated for his lack of proprioception by continually checking himself visually]. Over the years Jonathan [Cole] and Ian have formed a deep relationship — as doctor and patient, investigator and subject, and, increasingly, as colleagues and friends (they have been working together for thirty years now). In the course of this decades-long collaboration, Jonathan has written dozens of scientific articles and a remarkable book, Pride and a Daily Marathon, about Ian.”