Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn

Wednesday, 24 October 2007 — 12:20am | Literature, Mathematics

I’m not someone who is intimately familiar with poetry, but I’ve always had a weakness for heroic verse—a trait that has become all too apparent to me again as I pore over the sweeping couplets of Lord Byron’s The Corsair. It’s a pity that the ongoing reinvention of poetic forms in the last century and a half, much as I appreciate some of its products, has progressed at the expense and exclusion of antecedent formal constraints: my impression is that most journals of poetry don’t even take rhyming couplets anymore as an editorial decision—partly under the expectation that nobody can do it well, that they are bound to tumble off the shoulders of the giants of the Western Canon and spiral towards a fiery and generally messy doom. It’s easy to imitate rhyming and metrical patterns and let a work fall into parody, but I almost wish for epic poetry of genuine earnest and good faith.

I’m sure it’s out there, and I just don’t know about it. That’s one of the first rules of art consumption in any medium: never assume that something hasn’t been done. I got a taste of the possibilities when I attended Derek Walcott’s reading at the University of Alberta last month, and I’m really going to have to look into Omeros, Walcott’s reinvention of Homer’s Odyssey.

This is all a fancy setup, by the way, for one of my ill-conceived what’s-the-big-ideas: why not deploy the heroic epic in the genre of science fiction?

It’s probably been done, but not prominently enough to be known to me. And it doesn’t help that sci-fi is, to an even greater extent than most other fiction, split between a tradition that seeks to incorporate features we might consider “literary” (beginning with the New Wave before the subsequent assimilation of its breakthroughs) and a tradition that emphasizes an almost technical clarity of prose so as to not obscure the inventiveness of the scientific what-ifs (Isaac Asimov is an early example; Robert Sawyer, a recent one).

There is, in the meantime, such a poetic character to the language of science and mathematics that remains largely unexploited. But then again: never assume that something hasn’t been done.

Back in April, I read a book that I was ready to declare, on the spot, my favourite work of fiction of all time. This is no small feat, as I read a lot of great literature, perhaps even classic in some cases, and usually manage to temper my enthusiasm within reason. It takes a mighty exercise of the written word to seriously challenge the cosmic level of sentimental attachment I reserve for the likes of The Lord of the Rings and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and after half a year of relatively sober reflection, I am still surprised that the book to finally manage this feat was a collection of short stories about robots.

I’m talking about The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age by Stanislaw Lem, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel. The translator is important here: like Don Quixote, much of the text depends on the preservation of wordplay and an authentic control of register in order to work.

Like I said, I’m reluctant to declare anything of any sort my favourite X in the set of all X’s, but it’s been some time since the initial impression, and it’s clear that The Cyberiad is here to stay in at least the top echelon of my high opinion.

The Cyberiad is a loose collection of folk tales about Trurl and Klapaucius, two Constructors (cybernetic engineers in a posthuman future) who go on picaresque adventures throughout the galaxy and build machines that can solve virtually any problem. Lem later added a few that didn’t make it into Kandel’s English translation, and if I can’t find them anywhere, I guess I’ll just have to learn Polish.

There is a story entitled “Trurl’s Electronic Bard” in which Trurl constructs a poetry-writing machine and invites Klapaucius to challenge it with any request. Klapaucius, not about to admit the magnificence of Trurl’s ingenuity, attempts to fool the machine with instructions like this one:

“Let’s have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit.”

To which the machine responds:

Come, let us hasten to a higher plane,
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n,
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

And so on. There are seven other stanzas, but I’ll not spoil them all here, as you should go read the book yourself.

The interesting thing about the story of the electronic bard is that it is just about the only tale in the book that relates the world of The Cyberiad with the world that we know, the only time there is a vague reference to a technological singularity whereafter machines created their own mechanical civilization and humans, “palefaces”, faded into extinction.

This comes into play at one point, when we get a hint of how the bard’s great heroic epic begins:

Arms, and machines I sing, that, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Homo’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Terran shore…

When I read that, I couldn’t help but think what a great and serious heroic epic that would be as a complete and standalone work: a downright Homeric opus about the birth of a mechanical epoch, its progenitors cast away by their flesh-and-blood creator in another iteration of the Fall from Paradise. Here the poetic form is employed in a comedic situation, but I think that out of its context, it could have an air of seriousness that removes the poem from being such a parody. Underscoring the effect would be the cybernetic identity of the narrative voice, implying that even in the art of lyric storytelling, machine has superseded mankind.

Ultimately, my point is that within a certain aesthetic that we’ve dismissed as antiquated and supersaturated, there’s always room for evolutionary discoveries that do not require a formal revolution. What’s hard to pull off is a sense of authenticity: a conviction that the form is indeed the most appropriate choice for the delivery of the story, as opposed to the deliberate use of an ill-fitting story to force a parody of the form.

Technological and aesthetic progression will proceed as it may and always has, but it is my opinion that a medium is never truly exhausted: we haven’t explored the limits of classical marble sculpture, black-and-white silent films, sonata-rondo form, and 2D arcade games, and we shouldn’t pretend that we have. If we accept a reasonable distinction between form and content for a moment—and I’m usually a fierce proponent of the idea that no such distinction really exists—I would argue that similarities to established forms and techniques still provide a space for invention.

I’d of course maintain that art has a duty and obligation to progress and experiment in order to remain interesting; if I didn’t, I would not be such an advocate of improvised music. But invention should not be concomitant with the obliteration of past conventions. When those conventions die, so do the institutions of education, performance or publication that permit their continuation and revival. It’s small wonder that most amateur attempts at verse are adolescent hackwork: the foundation has been torn down amidst the overzealous (if well intentioned) efforts to discourage direct imitation.

The moral of the story? Read The Cyberiad. It’s impossibly good.

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6 rejoinders to “Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn”

  1. But what are all such gaieties to me
    Whose thoughts are full of indices and surds?
    x^2 + 7x + 53 = 11/3.

    Saturday, 20 December 2008 at 2:18pm

  2. Ooops. Lewis Carroll.

    Saturday, 20 December 2008 at 2:18pm

  3. I’m sorry – stare at it as I might, I can’t figure out how the “= 11/3” part is supposed to scan.

    Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 11:41am

  4. “Equals eLEVen THIRDS”. Note the rhymes, too: me – three, surds – thirds.

    Monday, 23 March 2009 at 9:06am

  5. Ah, got it. The syllable count of the last line threw me off.

    Monday, 23 March 2009 at 2:27pm

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