From the archives: Insights

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Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

Continued »

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The theory of anything

Tuesday, 13 October 2009 — 5:43pm | Insights

For the one or two of you wondering where last week’s book review was: no, it’s not the usual truancy. The book I read for last Wednesday was The Two Cultures, the 1959 lecture by C.P. Snow about the drifting specializations of the sciences and the humanities, specifically (but not exclusively) in the context of Cold War Britain.

Coincidentally—or really, by no coincidence at all—the undergraduates in my department are studying the text along with the bilious response by the literary critic F.R. Leavis, and the university is hosting a fiftieth-anniversary public lecture on it tomorrow. So I’ve decided to defer my review, as there’s really no talking about a book like this while burying one’s head in the sands of time and pretending the mountain of scholarly discussion about it didn’t take place. It will not appear tomorrow, though, as this week a book of a rather different sort has demanded urgent attention and jumped the queue, and that book’s author is also scheduled to speak tomorrow.

This is all very exciting.

I bring up Snow, at any rate, because of a personal observation I have made about academic specialization. It is this: people don’t believe me when they ask me what my interests are, and I blithely answer, “Everything.” No, seriously, I am interested in Everything. (Okay, so maybe we can do away with a few of the postpostcolonial identity theorists, but they haven’t much use for taxonomy anyway.)

Now, “What do you specialize in?” is common enough as a social question for studious types to get acquainted, and I don’t have a suitable replacement to propose. That tells us something, though, doesn’t it? It tells us that despite the best binary or ternary efforts to, as they say in this country, mind the gap, Everything is still far from good standing as a favourable subject. Well, in my prelapsarian undergraduate innocence I learned a great deal about Everything (though not nearly as much as I learned about Nothing). I liked it, you know. It came bundled with promises of a fruitful and not-at-all-paradoxical career as a professional dilettante.

I am beginning to realize, though, that I can’t quite call it Everything, because among scientific folks especially, that simply invites confusion with an interest in that holy grail of physics, the Theory of Everything. What an unjust misrepresentation it would be, then, to so haughtily dub myself a specialist in Everything when Nothing could be further from the truth. What should I call it, then? I’m not sure, to be honest. Anything is possible.

(Ah, much better; I’ve gotten the French out of my system.)

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Proposal for a Nordic quantifier

Friday, 4 September 2009 — 9:43am | Insights

A pride of lions. A flock of sheep. A litter of kittens.

A ride of valkyries.

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Messiaen. Olivier Messiaen.

Sunday, 6 July 2008 — 10:44pm | Classical, Insights, Literature, Music

At twenty-four minutes past ten o’clock in the p.m., I was listening to a special broadcast on CBC Radio Two—a special three-hour broadcast devoted to a composition by Olivier Messiaen, as performed by Simon Docking.

At precisely the same time, I was reading a ripping good novel by Ian Fleming. (Which one? Stay tuned to the Wednesday Book Club, where it will be featured soon enough.)

Why are they playing Messiaen, I wondered? Oh, of course. It’s the centennial of his birth.

Why are the cover redesigns so splendid on the Penguin paperback reissues of the Fleming novels? Oh, of course. It’s the centennial of his birth.

(I was shaken.)

And what, might I ask, is this piece by Messiaen? The seven books of Catalogue D’Oiseaux.

And who, might I ask, was the namesake of Fleming’s hero James Bond? An ornithologist.

(I was stirred.)

Have I been wrong about God all along? No, Serendipity, but that was a nice try.

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A dozen-word guide to the opera

Sunday, 27 April 2008 — 1:47am | Classical, Insights, Music

Tenors get the girl.

Basses imprison her in a ring of fire.

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Northern lightbulbs by the millihelen

Monday, 20 March 2006 — 12:15am | Insights, Science

It occurred to me, as I observed a balletic display of aurora borealis at 28,000ft on my flight back from Ottawa, that the aesthetic beauty we assign to natural phenomena is not a response to the elegance of organized expression in the space normally occupied by chaos. In reality, the acknowledgment of beauty is triggered by the impossibility of reconstruction. In the eyes of the conservative aesthete, artistic merit is for better or worse measured by the perceived difficulty of producing the work, be it a challenge of technique and craftsmanship or a challenge of human imagination.

Contemporary interpretation dispenses with the subjective value judgment of beauty, opting instead to locate meaning in an incubating social context or history. But it is not invalid to isolate a work and study the system that pervades it, and the most isolable works of art are those that speak for themselves. We are in awe of the cosmos because it speaks to us and begs for a descriptive system of construction as elegant as its singular and holistic illusions, and all the while it knows with a playful cheek that we will never find a total order to our satisfaction.

This is one of the great paradoxes of science. An imperfect approximation is a factually distant imitation. Yet there is the lingering feeling that even a perfect reproduction, which one already admits is unachievable, is incapable of capturing the subjective element that this was something assembled without the aid of man.

The moment we give up on making an aurora happen is the instant we call it beautiful. And in this sense, natural beauty is the upper asymptote at the unattainable limits of human achievement.

On arriving at this epiphanic juncture, some find God. Others find the Disneyland fireworks and say, good enough for me.

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Mandelbrot and Julia

Monday, 19 December 2005 — 3:58pm | Insights, Mathematics

Scenario: A mathematician defines a recurrence relation that, when applied, generates a fractal image. He leaves it up to a user on the front-end – any user, through a web interface, for instance – to define or adjust some minor but nontrivial parameters: colourization, magnification, the number of iterations, et alii.

Problem: Is it art? If so, who is the artist?

(We assert that in all cases, as a direct result of the elegance of the algorithm, the rendered image is measurably beautiful. Although we are not dealing with human subjects, the millihelen scale is one applicable metric.)

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