Monthly Archives: June 2008

Marginalia, no.16

We carry with us the wonders we seek without us: There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us; we are that bold and adventurous piece of nature, which he that studies, wisely learns in a compendium, what others labour at in a divided piece and endless volume.

~ Thomas Browne, Religio Medici

Gnwqi sauton.  I appreciate the encouragement, not feeling like such a “bold and adventurous piece of nature” today.  But even this sort of listlessness is catalogued in the encyclopedic self.  Africa, by the map, is no stranger to the jungles of vexation or the numbing dune sea of ennui.

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Infernal Summer

Everyone loves a fire, at least for a while.  Writing about the war years in Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge says we all harbor a secret desire to see civilization crumble around us, to witness the Great Downfall, to watch the world go up in flames before our eyes.

During a heat-wave this past weekend a clutch of electrical storms pushed through the state, which is rather unusual and frankly unwelcome in a drought year.  The lightning that scattered through the tinderbox canyons and Sierra sparked over eight hundred separate wildfires in a single day. 

The northern half of the state is lit up like a birthday cake, and it’s only the beginning of the season.  Few of us are in any immediate danger since the fires are mostly confined to wilderness areas.  But the smoke smothers and deadens everything.  The horizon disappears in an unwholesome twilight.  The mountains look like belching volcanoes.  There’s a fine ash on the morning streets.

When you finally do see the world burn up before your eyes any appeal the idea might have had quickly evaporates.  The campfire odor sheds all sentimental associations when it persists for days and weeks.  You grow sick over lost landscapes: redwoods and chaparral, oak-lined riverbanks, coastal ridges, alpine meadows – the grandeur passing daily into flame.  You’re left to scratch, as best you can, some stoic comfort from the melancholy truth so nicely captured in Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos or The Architect:

What is most beautiful finds no place in the eternal… Nothing beautiful is separable from life, and life is that which dies. 

Or “burns,” as the case may be.

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Marginalia, no.15

It wasn’t courage the Americans lacked, but only the hope of success.

~ Montesquieu

In other words, the optimist always wins.  Lest anyone accuse me of editorializing on current events, I’ll quickly note that by “Americans” Montesquieu was referring to the Aztecs and Incas in their face-off with the Conquistadors.  As a generalization it crumbles under its own ambition but anyway reminds us that in the end even the most valiant and refined fatalism proves, well, fatal.

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Marginalia, no.14

…for what is a squirrel but an airy pig, or a filbert but a sort of archangelical acorn?

~ John Keats, from a letter to J.H. Reynolds, 1818

It’s comforting to see that those whose early genius will outstrip your most mature accomplishments were nonetheless capable of spouting the same kinds of absurdities you did at age twenty-two.

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Electric Babylon

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries…

Anyone familiar with the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges will instantly recognize these as the opening lines to his 1941 short story The Library of Babel.  Borges’ alternate universe, a library-cosmos, is made up of nothing but interconnecting chambers full of randomly shelved books, extending in every direction, and through which librarians (that is, people) are fated to wander their whole lives long.

Most of the books in Borges’ library are perfect gibberish.  Letters and symbols are arranged on the page at seeming random or according to patterns which provide no foothold for interpretation.  Denizens of the library, even after a lifetime of searching, consider it a great triumph to find a book containing a single intelligible sentence.  However, since the Library is infinite, it can only be conjectured that somewhere in the numberless galleries there exists every possible book, every work of literature, every poem, every instruction manual, every biography of all past and future persons, every history and every prophecy –as well as a mind-numbing multiplicity of textual variants and forgeries.

I ask: what is the Library of Babel today if not the Internet?  Certainly I’m not the first to see the obvious parallels.  Hasn’t Borges’ fictional library achieved a sort of flickering actuality in this so-called “worldwide” Web that extends indefinitely in every direction, page upon page, link upon link, and gallery upon gallery?  The Web encompasses every imaginable variety of human expression.  Full of rot and nonsense, for sure, it nonetheless holds in its digital recesses virtual encyclopedias of accumulated knowledge, experience, observation, trivia and arcana.

This Digital Age, if you want to call it that, is little more than twelve years old.  It only began to come into its own about the time I finished college. Graduating in ’95, mine was the last generation of university students to receive an entirely “offline” education: no assignments or syllabi posted on the Web; no online discussion forums; no laptops in the classroom; no Power Point presentations and no class email lists.  Everything was done on paper.  (In fact, one summer I took a job with the university’s Records department where every grade for every class for every student for over a hundred years was stored on typed or hand-written paper transcripts – which sounds downright medieval now.)  It was only in my senior year, that we were given email addresses – but we didn’t really know what to do with them, and neither did our professors.

However, I do recall wasting a lot of time that year in a place I’d hardly set foot in before: the computer lab.  Some friends and I were using a now-archaic telnet protocol to log into a multi-user dimension (MUD) founded by Pavel Curtis, called LambdaMOO. This was a sort of precursor to today’s online communities like Second Life (which I’ve never visited, but I get the idea).  LambdaMOO was a text-based virtual-reality environment that mimicked a vibrant, rather chaotic city.  At its height, it claimed over ten thousand members.  After gleaning some basic knowledge of how things worked and a few special commands, users could shape their character’s identity, construct their own additions to the metropolis, and interact with -even manipulate- those around them.

I once dated a girl in LambdaMOO.  We went for “walks” together.  We met for “drinks” at bars in the hip central district of the city.  We went “dancing” too (which is difficult to do in text).  We even crossed the line and spoke over the phone, which was a mistake.  She was from the South and I was charmed by her accent, but her real life was too complicated and distant and I didn’t want to get involved.  It wasn’t long before I got sick of my new life in the far corners of the computer lab and returned to my old life in the far corners of the library.

When the World Wide Web arrived, everything changed.  I remember the first time I ever saw image content online through a browser (Mosaic?).  I was impressed.  We all were.  I began to understand that possibly something revolutionary was happening. Was it a good revolution, or a bad one?  I wasn’t sure.  But along with everyone else I watched in mute fascination as the edifice of the Web was built up before us like a new Tower of Babel, soaring upward toward some vague appointment in the digital heavens.

If you are my age or older, you will recall that at its birth the Web was not a consumer space, nor was it a governmental space.  Its prophets announced it as the universal solvent, an equalizer, a democratizer, a peacemaker.  It was supposed to be the harbinger of a new era in human consciousness.  It was immaculate.  It could never, they said, be tampered with by men of ill intent.  It could never be commercialized.  It could never be politicized.  By its very nature it would call forth all that was right in the human spirit, uniting and pacifying strangers and enemies across the thousands of miles, ideological or actual, that separated them.  In all sincerity the question was posed: How could there be hatred, conflict, war, when the mothers and children of Tehran, Moscow, Pyongyang and New York could reach across the frontiers of governmental belligerence and hold virtual hands in peace?

It sounds perfectly ridiculous now.  It was only slightly less ridiculous sounding then.  The Web has become like any other organ of human cultural expression.  No one today seriously considers the Web in itself a promoter of peace and universal harmony.  In many ways it has become the consummate field for conflict and partisanships of all kinds: political, religious, sporting, consumerist, sexual, ethnic, academic, you name it.  For some it may still be a forum for the promotion of peace, knowledge and community.  For others, it’s a forum for inanity, indulgence, or cost-effective and unfettered propagandizing.  The Internet has simply, inevitably, become an extension of our best and worst selves.

Which is not to say there isn’t any philosophical or spiritual content in our life online, just that the Web is not properly conceived as a filter designed to admit only the better angels of our nature – our demons get access too.  Even so, there is a sort of limited transcendence available through the Web that can’t help but exert an influence on our perception of ourselves and our image of the world.  We live in a different way when we live online.  As Nicholas Carr puts it:

For those seeking to transcend the physical world, the Web presents a readymade Promised Land. On the Internet, we’re all bodiless, symbols speaking to symbols in symbols.

In this respect, the Web is the Platonist’s vision of paradise, the consummation of millennia of platonic longing in western culture.  Freed from the limitations and disappointments of materiality, we gain online the godlike powers to extend our interests infinitely and to recreate ourselves according to our own desired ideal image.

And so it’s hardly surprising that, like Platonism, the Web births its own mysticisms.  I need hardly mention, for example, The Matrix or its film and video game offshoots.  More people than you might imagine are eagerly awaiting the day when, in Gibsonesque-fashion, they can cheat death by downloading their consciousness directly onto the Web.  And some of today’s New Age leftovers still speak of the Web as a means for achieving a state of universal collective consciousness.  Others see spiritual significance in the Web’s very architecture and describe visions of data packets ascending and descending through the Net’s immaterial courses like the angels on Jacob’s ladder.

In The Library of Babel there’s room for mysticism too.  Even under the weight of universal incoherence and apparent meaninglessness, the residents of the library whisper of a mythical gallery, a Crimson Hexagon in which is shelved the One Book, an Index of Indexes, containing the key to deciphering the entire cosmic library.  To find the Crimson Hexagon and read the One Book is to transcend the library itself and become “analogous to God.”

But what is this place, this Internet, after all?  A cosmic library, an unreal city, a distillation of the human spirit into bits of light, electricity, data – can we even call it a place?  I caught my first shimmering glimpse of Electric Babylon in the imaginary metropolis of LambdaMOO more than twelve years ago.  Now we are within its walls.  Electric Babylon is a city, a symbol, an idol, a mystery, a place of strange worship and strange encounters, of strong men and beggars, of priests and prostitutes, of hanging gardens and cloud-locked towers. It is a home for some and a place of exile and captivity for others.

How long, I wonder, before some curious sect of netizens begin a hushed pilgrimage to search out the Web’s own Crimson Hexagon?

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Marginalia, no.13

Every reader exists in order to assure for a certain book a modest immortality.

~ Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

How’s that for a raison d’être? Consider it a twist on Aristophanes’ explanation for the origin of the sexes in the Symposium. Were the reader and the book primordially one? Manguel doesn’t say. But rather than living to search the world for that other half we were born to love, we live to search the stacks for that “certain book” we were born to read.

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Cities of Men

I think it was Hemingway who said that a good fiction writer always creates on the iceberg plan: nine tenths of what he writes or knows about a character never makes it to the page for the benefit of the reader.   And yet there is a benefit: the invisible mass below the waves is sensed unconsciously in the stability and cool assurance of what rises above.

If I may repurpose the metaphor, this roughly describes how I feel about cities and neighborhoods.  A good neighborhood is one with a sense of the submerged, of the continuity of space and human community in a single locale over time.  It needn’t be immediately apparent – new growth is necessary – but it needs to be there just the same, under the surface.  The best places to live have been lived in before with pleasure.  The second best places to live must at least have the promise of being lived in again with pleasure.

In the spring issue of City Journal, Roger Scruton writes about Léon Krier and his battle against the long hegemony of modernism in architecture and urban planning.  I think that Scruton, or at least Krier, gets at this same idea.  

According to Scruton, the trouble with architectural modernism is its lack of a universally intelligible vocabulary:

Traditional architecture produced forms expressive of human interests—palaces, houses, factories, churches, temples—and these sit easily under their names. The forms of modern architecture… are nameless—denoting not familiar objects and their uses but “so-called objects,” known best by nicknames, and never by real names of their own. Thus the Berlin Congress Hall is the “pregnant oyster,” Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles the “madhouse,” the new building at Queen’s College, Oxford, the “parking lot,” and the UN building in New York the “radiator.” The nickname, in Krier’s view, is the correct term for a kitsch object—for a faked object that sits in its surroundings like a masked stranger at a family party.

But Krier, like the New Urbanists he influenced, is not only interested in making war on the monumental expressions of architectural modernism.  He also targets the barren utilitarianism (a la strip malls and condo blocks) that threatens to slowly murder our everyday lived spaces.  Both threaten to smother the soul by way of the eyes.

It’s a mixed bag here in California (as it is throughout the United States).  In many of our major cities, it’s possible to find old neighborhoods where the extremes of dereliction and demolition have been kept at bay.   San Francisco, for example, has been fairly successful.  And there are other places (like Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Mendocino, St Helena, Sonora, etc.) where at least the core of the city has retained a sense of vitality and identity.  But too many of our citizens are atomized under curtain-walled glass towers or cooped up in soulless tract-home ghettoes where a pleasant stroll is out of the question and you have to drive twenty minutes to find a grocer, a coffee shop, or a decent park.  

With regard to the latter scenario, the tragedy is not so much that population trends have required us to build outward into the countryside, the marshlands, or the desert, but that we have done so in an essentially unsustainable way, a way that does not foster a continuity of space and human community to make it pleasurably livable for future generations.  By Krier’s lights, the human spirit requires a human architecture in which to flourish; we grow or shrink to fit the spaces we build for ourselves.  It’s both a promise and a threat:

By creating cities, we create ourselves. When we despoil our cities, we despoil ourselves…  A beautiful village, a beautiful house, a beautiful city can become a home for all, a universal home. But if we lose this aim we build our own exile here on earth.

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