Transparent, or Just Unseen? Silent, or Just Unheard?

[About the image: one of several models of “bubble buildings” available from French firm BubbleTree. I originally found this written up at the DesignSwan site.]

From whiskey river:

A Suite of Appearances / iv

In another time, we will want to know how the earth looked
Then, and were people the way we are now. In another time,
The records they left will convince us that we are unchanged
And could be at ease in the past, and not alone in the present.
And we shall be pleased. But beyond all that, what cannot
Be seen or explained will always be elsewhere, always supposed,
Invisible even beneath the signs — the beautiful surface,
The uncommon knowledge — that point its way. In another time,
What cannot be seen will define us, and we shall be prompted
To say that language is error, and all things are wronged
By representation. The self, we shall say, can never be
Seen with a disguise, and never be seen without one.

(Mark Strand)


I am pleased enough with the surfaces — in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on the rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?

(Edward Abbey)

Not from whiskey river:

A Story

Everyone loves a story. Let’s begin with a house.
We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms
with things — tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers
closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept
or big drawers that yawn open to reveal
precisely folded garments washed half to death,
unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out.
There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen
must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one
with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling
to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions.
This was the center of whatever family life
was here, this and the sink gone yellow
around the drain where the water, dirty or pure,
ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point
of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.
Make no mistake, a family was here. You see
the path worn into the linoleum where the wood,
gray and certainly pine, shows through.
Father stood there in the middle of his life
to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof
must surely be listening. When no one answered
you can see where his heel came down again
and again, even though he’d been taught
never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel;
they had well water they pumped at first,
a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood
at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly
to where the woods once held the voices
of small bears—themselves a family — and the songs
of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered
one tree at a time after the workmen arrived
with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill
is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,
those two stained ridges were handholds
she relied on; they never let her down.
Where is she now? You think you have a right
to know everything? The children tiny enough
to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms
of their own and to abandon them, the father
with his right hand raised against the sky?
If those questions are too personal, then tell us,
where are the woods? They had to have been
because the continent was clothed in trees.
We all read that in school and knew it to be true.
Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows
of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes
into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,
there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles
of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

(Philip Levine [source])


As the sounds of the bells died away a voice began to speak from somewhere high up in the gloomy shadows above their heads. The magicians strained their ears to hear it…

At the very least the magicians supposed that their doom was being slowly recited to them. But it was not at all clear what language the voice was speaking. Once Mr Segundus thought he heard a word that sounded like “maleficient” and another time “interfecere” a Latin word meaning “to kill.” The voice itself was not easy to understand… When translated into clear, comprehensible English it was something like this: Long, long ago, (said the voice), five hundred years ago or more, on a winter’s day at twilight, a young man entered the Church with a young girl with ivy leaves in her hair. There was no one else there but the stones. No one to see him strangle her but the stones. The years went by and whenever the man entered the Church and stood among the congregation the stones cried out that this was the man who had murdered the girl with the ivy leaves wound into her hair, but no one ever heard us. But it is not too late! We know where he is buried! In the corner of the south transept! Quick! Quick! Fetch picks! Fetch shovels! Pull up the paving stones. Dig up his bones! Let them be smashed with the shovel! Dash his skull against the pillars and break it! Let the stones have vengeance too! It is not too late! It is not too late!

(Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Chapter 3, “The Stones of York” [source])

Closed captions must not only “translate” spoken words and sound effects ([water drips ominously]) to text. They must also indicate, to people who can hear none of the meaningful sounds, the meaningful silences which can occur in the course of  a film.

(A recent post at the Accessible Rhetoric blog uses video clips to document several forms of the latter: mouthing words, the sudden cessation of sound, and so on. None of the clips there is embeddable, so you’ll need to visit that page to see them. The one from a TV show called Jon Benjamin Has a Van is very funny — worth watching just on its own.)

Closed captioning had a predecessor in the title slides inserted into silent films — but also (more subtly) in the music written to accompany them. The Birmingham (UK) Library recently discovered a cache of around five hundred of these very special-purpose scores; they include snippets with titles like “A Villianous [sic] Theme (for heavy, tragic use)” and “The Hobbling Hobo (for Musical Picturing of Such Characters as a Limping Knight, or Semi-Comical Figures, Like a Sneaking Vagabond, Tramp, etc.).” Here’s the BBC’s report:

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  1. I stole the Phillip Levine for my cache, but the Susanna Clark is the one that will stay with me.

    There are condos and homes lining our beaches here, but I’ve never been tempted to covet one of them. I couldn’t see standing on my balcony at the same time that others stood on their balconies, all of us just gazing out at the water horizon with only a limited field of vision. The beach is only notable for being attached to the land on the other side of the sea oats.

    The igloo, on the other hand…

  2. Nance: Were you previously familiar with both Levine and Clark?

    When The Missus and I went on an Alaska cruise in May, 2000, our cabin had a small balcony. The weather was weirdly balmy the whole time we were up there (except when we were in Vancouver at the start and finish), warm enough that she went out there to sun herself one afternoon. I remember thinking how strange it would look for someone watching from a nearby vessel, or from land, if all the balconies were similarly occupied that day.

  3. I feel like I’ve read the Edward Abbey quote somewhere else recently. Hmmm…

    And I love Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Have you read her book of short stories? Many great moments in them too.

    Oh, and I recently came across ablog called “Silent London.” It is all about silent film. Wait. I didn’t find that through you, did I? I shall feel silly if I did. But in case I didn’t and you’re interested, here is the link.

  4. marta: Rats — the Silent London site is blocked by whatever inconsistent, unpredictable algorithm is responsible for monitoring my employer’s network. Will have to check from home.

    I’m really, really hoping that Susanna Clarke’s career won’t too much resemble Harper Lee’s. I haven’t read all of The Ladies of Grace Adieu, just a free sample downloaded to the Kindle. I understand the title story was what set her on the path to finishing and publishing JS&MN (which took her ten years!).

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