Surprising the Audience

Still from director Alex Cox's 'Walker' (click for more info)

[Above still from director Alex Cox’s Walker (1987), which sounds like one of the most
interesting films I’ve never seen. Click image for more info.]

My regular Friday post inspired by the mysteries of the past seven days’ entries at the whiskey river blog. This one’s a little more complex than most — one or two more selections, and a small cluster of strangely relevant associations from elsewhere around the Web.

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Knowing Only the Present

M.C. Escher: Hand with Reflecting Sphere - what's behind you seems to be before youSince history is on my mind anyway…

From Jeff VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days blog recently, by guest blogger Tero Ykspetäjä: the top five reasons “Why Finnish Is Cooler Than English.” Reason #5 (with slightly tongue-in-cheek coda):

There’s no future tense in the Finnish language. The present tense is used instead. “No future,” as the Tähtivaeltaja slogan says. This makes it easy to seize the day, to live in the moment and not worry about tomorrow. At least in theory. There are some who insist on trying to introduce a sort-of future tense by artificial constructs like “you will come to know this,” but they are clearly in the wrong and should stop immediately.

I jogged over to Wikipedia and found this example:

The future tense is not needed due to context and the telic contrast. For example, luen kirjan “I read a book (completely)” indicates a future, [while] luen kirjaa “I read a book (not yet complete)” indicates present.

(If you’re a native English speaker — perhaps especially so — contemplating following the link to Wikipedia’s article on telicity, and you are not a linguist, prepare yourself to learn more about the language than you ever picked up in Mrs. Grundy’s fifth-period class. Let alone on the playground.)

All of which got me wondering: are there any languages with no past tense?

Duh, what a question. I should have known this (emphasis mine):

All varieties of modern Chinese are analytic languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology — i.e., changes in form of a word — to indicate the word’s function in a sentence. In other words, Chinese has few grammatical inflections — it possesses no tenses, no voices, no numbers (singular, plural; though there are plural markers, for example for personal pronouns), only a few articles (i.e., equivalents to “the, a, an” in English), and no gender.

It’s a topic for a *cough* future post, maybe. But I’ve always been interested in the idea that knowing one language from birth, as opposed to another, might (does?) shape the way one thinks throughout life.

For instance, if you have no grammatical form to express the future tense, can you even think in terms of a time containing events which have not yet happened? If you can’t express the past, what goes through your mind the first time you see a timeline? If your language has no tenses at all, do you have clocks and calendars? What does “time” itself mean to you? If you forget something you mean to pick up on the way home from work, what is the context in which you fail to pick it up, vs. the context in which you formed your intention to remember it in the first place — is there a “when”? (And what on Earth do you make of bizarre concepts like “daylight savings time”?)

Surely it can’t be that you think of “time” only as what English speakers call the present, a sort of neverending concurrency. Surely you don’t think you may walk out your front door and eventually come within (say) a mile of where the Emperor Gaozu is currently taking a bath.

Er… can you?

I think I’m experiencing some sort of linguo-philosophical vertigo here. (Almost said “at the moment” but, well…)

[P.S. For the link to the post on Finnish-vs.-English which started this avalanche of paradox, thanks to the “Instant Distractions” sidebar at Colleen Lindsay’s blog.]

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Whitford lighthouse, very low tide (click for enlarged version)

[In the wake of yesterday’s post (which began as a study of someone else’s neurosis but ended as a study of my own), I’m really feeling the need today to just write about something completely free (for me) of any, y’know, import. Here’s what floated to the surface, as it were.]

A while back, I participated in one of those “blog parties” which seem to come along periodically. The topic (selected by the party’s organizer, Rebecca Ramsey) was Wonders of the World, in which participants celebrated, well, wonderful things or occasions which held some special appeal for them.

My topic was waterfalls. As I explained in an aside there, for some unknown reason I’ve been fascinated by the country of Wales, which I’ve never visited. (Nor, as far as I know, has anyone I know ever visited there.) (Okay, you can all announce yourselves now.) Although I’m not actively looking for information on the Welsh language, Welsh countryside, Welsh history or folklore, whatever, my mind still goes into heightened-interest mode when I come across any of that stuff.

The lighthouse shown here has not been operational for some time. It’s referred to as the Whitford (or alternatively Whiteford) lighthouse. Built in 1866 to replace the original (which was in turn erected in 1854), it was deactivated in 1926. It’s 130 feet high, made of cast iron, and at low tide — as shown here — requires a five-mile walk to reach. The Whitford lighthouse watches over the Burry Inlet, on the southern coast of Wales.

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Somebody Else’s Perfect Moment

There’s a particular category of human experience unlike any other. It’s got nothing to do with personality or intelligence; it crosses geographic and linguistic borders as if they didn’t exist (because they don’t, except in our minds and on the paper where we record the products of those faulty machines). Such an experience comes and goes so quickly that a single blink of the eye, the least distraction can cause us to miss it. It’s grounded in the senses, not in words — nor even in the heart, except in retrospect.

There’s really no way to sum up this category except via the facile phrase the perfect moment.

The work of the late, great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson came to be associated with the phrase “the decisive moment.” He adopted it as the title of his 1952 collection (all of which is online), having borrowed it from a seventeenth century Cardinal de Retz:

There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.

I’ve been considering a series of occasional posts on this subject for a couple of months now. The essence of what I hope to get at with these perfect-moment posts is embodied in a passage from Cartier-Bresson’s introduction to the great book:

…the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving.

He was speaking of photography, of course, and therefore speaking of the visual sense. But we’re awash in sensory experiences of all kinds, tumbling through them as though bobbing and thrashing about in whitewater rapids. Every now and then, without conscious thought, we grab hold of a rock. For a fraction of a second, we’re completely engaged with it — the way the light darts over its wet surface, the feel of its grainy bumpy surface beneath our fingertips or against the palm of our hands, the background roar of water and its smell as it floods our nostrils and its taste in our screaming mouth, perhaps the sixth-sense fear of what will happen when we lose our hold on the rock…

Then we’re moving on, tugged away by the rush of events and voices, the sheer force of all the moments still blasting by. We never go back to that rock. But we never forget it, either.

Those are the perfect moments I’m going to be seeking out here.

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The Engaged Photographer

I’m working on a two-part series of posts at the moment, with Part 1 due up tomorrow. In the meantime, I thought you’d appreciate this. It’s a promotional video for the New York Public Library Photography Collection:

Among the photographers discussed, you can find more information at these Web sites (besides Wikipedia, of course):

  • Dorothea Lange: her work and life is documented in various places around the Web. You can get a good introduction from the site of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s “About Life” exhibit of 2002-2003. (The Goethe quote which the narrator mentions says, “Each traveler should know what he has to see, and what properly belongs to him, on a journey.”)
  • The NYPL’s own Berenice Abbott site
  • Stephen Dupont

And of course, if you’re interested in documentary photography, you could do much worse than visit the Library’s own online Digital Images Collection.

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(Un)Smiling Faces, in Black-and-White

Probably Mrs. John Coleman, from 'Wisconsin Death Trip'I’ve always liked black-and-white photographs — especially family snapshots (even of other people’s families) taken in the 1950s and earlier.

It’s not that they satisfy some inner longing for quaintness (I’m not a fan of quaintness in general, and the adjective “whimsical” often makes me want to reach for the X-Acto knife (especially, ha ha, when someone else uses it)). Nor is it — just — a nostalgia for things which I know are gone, sometimes long gone.

No, it’s not the overall elegiac atmosphere. It’s not the places. It’s the faces of the people.

In candid snapshots, especially, those unguarded glimpses into the souls of their subjects reveal more than their words ever could — or, truth be told, than my own words ever could. But it’s something to aspire to. (Which is one reason why a near-cliche of fiction is the moment when the protagonist glimpses herself in a mirror, or examines the creases and tears in a photograph of himself as a boy. At some level, people’s faces say everything there is to be said about a person — at that very time, even, if photographed or if described in heartbreaking verbal detail.)

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Learning to See

Continuing last Friday’s meditation on the topic of sight, and the things which we might see differently “if only”…

First, from whiskey river‘s commonplace book*:

Picasso is riding on a train and someone sits down next to him.

Recognizing who he is, the person asks, “Why don’t you paint people the way they really are?”

Picasso asks, “What do you mean by the way they really are?”

The man eagerly pulls out his wallet and shows Picasso a picture of his wife and says, “This is my wife.”

Picasso responds, “She looks rather small and flat, don’t you think?”

(by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei; story also recounted elsewhere)

Not from whiskey river:

Jack London, by Arnold Genthe (taken 1906-1916)

When Jack London had his portrait made by the noted San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe, London began the encounter with effusive praise for the photographic art of his friend and fellow bohemian, Genthe: “You must have a wonderful camera… It must be the best camera in the world… You must show me your camera.”

Genthe then used his standard studio camera to make what has since become a classic picture of Jack London.

When the sitting was finished, Genthe could not contain himself: “I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter.”

(quoted at

From The Luminous Landscape:

…a good photograph isn’t measured in line pairs per millimeter, MTF functions, S/N calculations, or any of the other measurements that photography enthusiasts recite like religious mantras. The most important tools that are used to take good photographs are the human eye, the human brain, and the human heart.

And finally, a little music. I’m not going to provide a bunch of links to online information about Ry Cooder — there’s a ton of it out there. I will say that if you don’t know his work, at all, I think you’re in for a treat. The number which follows (not one of his hits, but a performance I’ve always been fond of) is a straight-up instrumental version — a re-visioning — of an Ike & Tina Turner number called “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine.” Here’s what Rolling Stone said of the number in its review of Cooder’s 1979 Bop Till You Drop:

Cooder’s instrumental version of “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine” takes the sweet growl of the Ike and Tina Turner original and sets it against some easy, sexy self-assurance. Ike and Tina made this number into a toe-to-toe at midnight, but Cooder’s version is full of relaxed and low-slung afterglow.

“Relaxed and low-slung afterglow”: love that.

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* whiskey river’s “commonplace book” is what the site’s author calls its archives. Unlike most blog archives, though, whiskey river’s are not strictly speaking chronologically organized: “They are arranged here in random order, the way they were found.”

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Overwhelmed by Ursula Vernon

'Overwhelmed,' by Ursula VernonOkay, look — so I don’t have kids of my own, and my niece and nephews and stepkids are all grown and the next generation is still somewhere out on the misty horizon.

But I keep coming across these nominally “children’s” books which I then wish I had a non-adult excuse to read. Much of the credit (or blame) for this must be placed at the doorstep of the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, whose focus is principally (but not exclusively) on children’s and young-adult books. (The 7-Imp innkeepers, Eisha and Jules, are school librarians.)

Once a week, 7-Imp features the work of a single children’s-book illustrator. This week, the subject was one Ursula Vernon.

Vernon apparently came to children’s books after first succeeding in the Web comics world, as the writer and artist behind Digger, which she describes thusly:

…it is a story about a particularly no-nonsense wombat who finds herself stuck on the wrong end of a one-way tunnel in a strange land where nonsense seems to be the specialty. Now with the help of a talking statue of a god, an outcast hyena, a shadow-being of undeterminate origin, and an oracular slug she seeks to find out where she is and how to go about getting back to her Warren.

That sounds rather… well, precious — right up until you hit the “outcast hyena/oracular slug” part. And indeed, despite her fascination with cute and furry creatures, Vernon does apparently have a knack for putting them in dire straits, depicting them as dangerous characters, and at the very least writing — and writing damn well — about them.

The picture at the top right, for example, is titled “Overwhelmed.” I discovered this and other outstanding bits of her work in her gallery at the DeviantArt site, where she says of “Overwhelmed,” briefly:

And once again, we prove that Ursula trying to do angst = hamsters.

Oh, well. At least they’re expressive little buggers.

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Death of a Jacket

There’s so much news every day. Who can keep up with it all…?

For example, I’m a couple-three months behind the curve on this:

One of the central works in the exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (until 12 May), Victimless Leather, a small jacket made up of embryonic stem cells taken from mice, has died. The artists, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, say the work which was fed nutrients by tube, expanded too quickly and clogged its own incubation system just five weeks after the show opened…

Ms Antonelli says the jacket “started growing, growing, growing until it became too big. And [the artists] were back in Australia, so I had to make the decision to kill it. And you know what? I felt I could not make that decision. I’ve always been pro-choice and all of a sudden I’m here not sleeping at night about killing a coat…That thing was never alive before it was grown.”

Will wonders never cease? Apparently not. Just for starters, what are the odds that a work of art made from mice would have originated with an artist named Catts?

(More details on the Victimless Leather project from Wired, a few years ago.)

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The First Blank Page

Drawing by Edward Gorey

For reasons which I’m not sure I could articulate, I love this drawing without reservation. (Click the image for a larger version.) It’s from a page in 2007’s Edward Gorey “Page-a-Day” calendar and I’ve kept it around on various computers, trying without success to make it work as a desktop wallpaper. (Icons are inconsistently legible when layered over it.) Perhaps I must get used to just knowing about it, without ever using it in some way.

(If there’s anything guaranteed to p!ss a writer off, it’s knowing about something which can’t be used.)

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