On the Road (original scroll edition) by Jack Kerouac: paper versus oblivion

What was Kerouac trying to do by typing this early version of his classic novel on 120 feet of long strips of paper joined together with tape? How and why does this strange writing technique change what we feel about the words on paper in the book form we eventually read?

In the internet age I confess that old-school publishers such as me need to develop a model of publishing (turning mediated communication into cash) to understand how digital forms of text churn up not just the act of writing but also how we really respond when we read. I’m looking for continuities, from the ancient scrolls to the book as we think of it today (the codex), via Kerouac’s scroll, to our contemporary skeuomorph (‘scroll up/down’) for when we browse the internet.

From the back cover of On the Road: The Original Scroll: Jack Kerouac displaying one of his later scroll manuscripts, most likely The Dharma Bums. Image from http://goo.gl/NJiSE

From the back cover of the US edition On the Road: The Original Scroll. Jack Kerouac is displaying one of his later scroll manuscripts, probably The Dharma Bums. Image from http://goo.gl/NJiSE

Kerouac’s scroll wasn’t the only Road: he typed out at least three other shorter versions (on normal paper) between August 1948 and this one. As it should do, the conviction and raw energy of his writing conceals from us that Kerouac was – contrary to the Beat mystique – a painfully thoughtful stylist, always rethinking his craft and his writerly raison d’être; in the late 1940s he spent more time writing than travelling, usually working at his mother’s home in Ozone Park or his apartment in Richmond Hill (both in Queens, New York). (A fourth version, ‘Souls on the Road’, from the end of 1950, was handwritten, as were his extensive notebooks he wrote while he was travelling.) He eventually confesses in a letter 29 September 1949 that the multiplicity of versions suggests his Road has a block: ‘I’ve got to admit I’m stuck with On the Road. For the first time in years I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. I SIMPLY DO NOT HAVE A SINGLE REAL IDEA WHAT TO DO.’

Neal Cassady

Neal Cassady characteristically paying attention to people (Anne Murphy) rather than the driving. Photograph by Allen Ginsberg, ‘1963’ (according to the Harry Ransom Center, Texas), but looks earlier. Neal’s second wife Carolyn is still very much with us; she lives in a caravan park near Beaconsfield, UK. Image from http://goo.gl/S4mmC

The spark for the writing style – but not the idea for the scroll itself – was a 15,000-word letter dated 27 December 1950 from the novel’s hero/anti-hero, Neal Cassady (aka ‘Dean Moriarty’ in the first published version). In turns inmate in a children’s home, car stealer, Dionysian hustler/huckster/hitchhiker, con artist, seraphic ingénu, would-be devoted father and family man, drug/sex addict and – a couple of years before his death, aged not quite 42, in Mexico – jailbird in San Quentin, Cassady seems to have had an extraordinary life-intensity that inspired and energized people who knew him. Kerouac’s idolization of Cassady is the driving force of the novel: he follows Cassady in a quest to ‘know time’ or, simply/enigmatically, for ‘it’.

Cassady reappears as ‘Cody Pomeray’ (and other names) in several novels in Kerouac’s later oeuvre. His presence manifests in Allen Ginsberg’s majestic Howl, as ‘N.C., secret hero of these poems’; Tom Wolfe’s ‘New Journalistic’ Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test features him; he was one of Ken Kesey’s acid-dropping Merry Pranksters and is said to have inspired the character of Randle McMurphy, memorably played by Jack Nicholson in the film version of Kesey’s (1962) novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Cassady, as the novel graphically portrays, is hardly an easy person to approve of – if that’s how we like to respond to storytelling. Maybe the danger/excitement of this book depends on us finding Cassady – like a Hamlet on four wheels – compelling and charismatic.

Cassady was not, at least in his own eyes, a ‘serious’ writer, but his 15,000-word 27 December 1950 letter (‘To have seen a specter isn’t everything …’) had a characteristically electrifying effect on Kerouac: he thought (according to his same-day return letter to Cassady) it ‘ranked among the best things ever written in America’. Cassady’s conflicted brash/crass schmooze and damaged-angel charm jumps out of a later letter – about his ‘specter’ one – to Allen Ginsberg (17 March 1951):

All the crazy falldarall you two boys make over my Big Letter just thrills the gurgles out of me, but we still know I’m a whiff and a dream. Nonetheless, tho I blush over its inadequacies, I want you to realize the damn thing took up the better part of three straight Benzidrene afternoons and evenings. So I did work hard at it and managed to burn a little juice out of me and if the fucking thing is worth any money thats great.

The key to the unlocking of creative energy for the style of On the Road may have come from Cassady qua literary cowpoke/genius. Giddy freedoms from schoolhouse punctuation, syntax and spelling; luscious onomatopoeias/mouth-music; folk idioms of/from the body and metaphors fully lived; candour about sex and drugs; the complex seductions of a cheap honesty that costs its writer – eventually – nothing less than everything.

What was the appeal of this for Kerouac? As writers and devotees of the inner life find from time to time, thinking can be like a prison. But if his road was ever going to feel free, enaction beats description every time; language has to be, not be about. As Kerouac’s friend and fellow-traveller Al Hinkle said, ‘[Kerouac] had a great shyness and a quiet intensity about him, and I felt that primarily he observed and internally recorded everything he experienced, filtering all through his own unique lens.’ The details in the novel, derived from his extensive notebooks, sometimes seem so closely observed they veer towards the spirit of scholarship/academicism. Perhaps On the Road – particularly this scroll version, complete with real names and scandalous libel-risking anecdotes – is close to being non-fiction. Kerouac’s 27 December 1951 letter to Cassady (with my added emphasis) says he will ‘renounce fiction and fear. There is nothing to do but write the truth. There is no other reason to write.’ When we read, though, does it matter if the novel is fiction or fact?

To borrow taxonomies from Blake and Freud, perhaps Cassady as energy and id gave the rational and super-egoistic Kerouac the breakthrough in style that helped him let go of his craving for artistic and intellectual control, and connect with riskier, deeper and more generative creative energies. The author’s deliberate, provocative and liberatory disregard for the authority of grammar and syntax is an attempt to smash through the crust of dead/deadening tradition or habituation. It acts out what it is to feel truly, madly, deeply.

Obligatory photo of Neal (left) and Jack (right). Photo by Carolyn Cassady. Please buy prints from her site: http://www.nealcassadyestate.com/shop.html. This image shamelessly for profit on Bennetton Mexico: http://blog.benetton.com/mexico/tag/moda/page/3/

The photo of Neal (left) and Jack (right), ‘early 1950s’. Photo by Carolyn Cassady. Please buy prints from her site: http://www.nealcassadyestate.com/shop.html. This image was used, unattributed, on the Bennetton Mexico website: http://blog.benetton.com/mexico/tag/moda/page/3/

But there is no record of where or how Kerouac found his scroll idea, no note of what reading, music or art helped him through his own creative barriers in this uniquely material form. Gilbert Millstein noted, in his highly influential and very early review in The New York Times (5 September 1957), that On the Road has ‘writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style or technical virtuosity.’ The bravura and lengthy description of a ‘jazz joint’ in San Francisco (pp. 295–300; page numbering from the Penguin edition) – with favourable and breathless mentions of ‘two hundred choruses of blues each one more frantic than the other and no signs of failing energy or willingness to call anything a day’ – suggests a transfer over from extended jazz improvisation to literary outpouring. But it’s still not yet a scroll.

From the visual arts of the time I’m thinking of Jackson Pollock’s breakthrough conception of ‘action painting’; the horizontal canvas on the floor compels the artist to paint more fully, more freshly. After 1945 Jean Dubuffet started adding grit to paint in creating art brut that would (as it were) grate off the insidious smoothness of the painted surface. I’m not saying Pollock and Dubuffet were direct influences, but questions of radical innovation in material/artistic form were clearly in the air.

Circling in on the scroll itself, there’s some bizarre backstory. Following the hideous decapitation accident of Beat ‘wild man’ Bill Cannastra 12 October 1950 on the subway at Bleecker Street station, Kerouac both moved (briefly) into the deceased man’s flat on West 21st Street and within four weeks had married his girlfriend Joan Haverty. This heady (please excuse my joke in bad taste) chain of events apparently included finding a stash there of the long strips of paper that eventually became the scroll. The Beats were practical/sensible (sometimes) too: maybe using up the long strips of paper was also a way of saving money.

Perhaps, as Reality Studio suggests, ‘The death of Cannastra signaled the end of an era in Beat New York. Holmes, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, and even Burroughs began the process of maturing not so much emotionally as artistically. All would start definitive work in the next year or so.’ As he frenziedly hammered out his words on this memento mori perhaps Kerouac knew he was struggling for literary immortality, and life itself was so easily cut short. Ars longa, vita brevis. In the case of the scroll, art is very long – about 120 ft.

So it was, then, that between 2 April and 22 April 1951 Kerouac typed out 125,000 words, including 15,000 on the final day. After years of painstaking but dead-end drafts and rewrites, his semi-random wanderings across the USA poured out in a three-week Benzedrine (probably) and caffeine (definitely) rush. Unimpeded by the distraction of changing paper, the pace of Kerouac’s shamanic prose incarnates – out of the abstractions of the letterforms, the mechanical deadness of the typewriter and the hypermateriality of the scroll – the spirits of the people he knows and loves; we feel as we read, somehow, they (and we) are more fully alive.

Perhaps in the hybrid act of writing/publishing, a writer (the publisher is usually unnoticed or invisible) will seem to give voice to the spirit of the age, perhaps even an age later than when the work was written. People of ‘a time’ can see their lives reflected in a work of literature; I am professionally delighted to say this is sometimes admirably expressed by commercial publishing success.

What happened to the novel after April 1951? Why is the published and better-known version significantly different from the scroll? Why did six years pass between the typing of the scroll and publication? Let’s end the first part of this review with a quote from Andrew O’Hagan in The New York Times:

I once asked Robert Giroux, who had been a previous editor of Kerouac, what happened when the novelist arrived at his office with the manuscript of On the Road. […] “He came in with this thing under his arm,” said Giroux, “like a paper towel or something. He held one end of it and threw it across the floor of the office. He was very excited. I think he was high. Anyway, I bent down to look at the thing. And, after a few moments, I looked up and said, ‘Well, Jack. This is going to have to be cut up into pages and edited and so on.’”

“And what happened?” I asked.

“Jack just looked at me and his face darkened,” said Giroux. “And he said, ‘There’ll be no editing. This book was dictated by the Holy Ghost.’ The book then went to Viking and Malcolm Cowley took care of it.”

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‘Brands, stock markets and traffic are the wilderness of today …’

‘Nature used to be an unpredictable place of mystery … Now, man-made cultural constructions are becoming increasingly autonomous and slipping out of our control.

‘Wild systems such as brands, stock markets and traffic are the wilderness of today. Nature has become culture and culture is turning into our new nature.

‘In the Animal pattern, 200 animal-shaped logos are set free.’


Fine insights and artwork from Karl Grandin, also available in his ironic and pleasurably commodified pullover:

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1914, 1939, 1964, 1989, 2014 … war and generational change

All these dates are important – aren’t they? – bar one. Two world wars started, and one – 1989, the First Cold War – finished. I’ll leave 2014 till the end, but 1964 is the most interesting because most obviously the odd one out.

If war/25 years is the connection, the Cuban Missile Crisis (14–18 October 1962) is the nearest fit, the closest to a very hot war in the middle of the cold one. But what – I simply point out, without apology, that this post is sometimes a very personal point of view – was going on in 1964?

Echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis. From Stanley Kubrick’s MAD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction) comedy Dr Strangelove (1964). Image from http://cometoverhollywood.com/tag/doctor-strange-love-or-how-i-quit-worrying-and-learned-to-love-the-bomb/

Looking back, the transformations of 1964 (at least in my bit of the world) seemed cultural rather than military. The UK in 1964 was ripe for renewal, on the cusp between the old and new. The previous 13 years of Conservative government had seen a difficult time of national readjustment. Victory in war belonged to the past; the Empire had rapidly fallen away; any national conceptions of global political or military significance were humiliatingly crushed by the US during the Suez debacle. The youthful Harold Wilson – probably also the beneficiary of the UK’s grieving for John F. Kennedy, assassinated the year before – came to power on a strongly modernizing ticket, with rhetoric to match. One of his striking soundbites that has survived in popular culture was about a modern Britain and ‘the white heat of technology’: the Labour government was – shock horror – modernist and pro-science.

Harold Wilson, his wife Mary, random soft toy and   pipe arrive back in London, 15 October 1964 (election day). Image from http://goo.gl/lRXkv

Harold Wilson, his wife Mary, random soft toy and pipe arrive back in London, 15 October 1964 (election day). Image from http://goo.gl/lRXkv

In this the year that Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media was published, Wilson’s public persona was the first for a politician in the UK to be deliberately designed as ‘television-friendly’. In his public speaking Wilson had learnt to exaggerate his hand movements, which were impressive and assertive-looking from the back of large halls full of trade unionists and party members. In front of TV cameras, though, they seemed menacing, so his media advisers gave him a ‘reassuring’, traditional and TV-friendly sculptural stage prop that became his gimmick: a tobacco pipe. His private preference was for cigars, but the electorate favourably contrasted his Labrador dog, Northern accent and holidays in the Scilly Isles with the patrician lifestyle of his Conservative opponent, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. I remember some TV news footage of Douglas-Home shooting grouse on 12 August. Wearing tweed cap and weird ‘plus fours’, he had a cut-glass RP (‘Oxford’) accent and style of clothes that seemed audibly and visibly at odds with the new supposedly meritocratic Britain. Enough of the electorate agreed to give Wilson a small majority.

Like all governments, the Wilson years reflected as well as contributed to the spirit of the age. They weren’t responsible for The Beatles, the James Bond films or the widespread use of ‘the pill’, but they did legalize homosexuality, relax literary and theatre censorship, bring in race relations legislation, introduce comprehensive secondary schools and create a new generation of polytechnics intended to teach the vocational skills needed in – as people used to say – the modern world. Wilson’s finest achievement, he said when he retired, was the world’s first electronic media-based education institution, the Open University. All these mark the Wilson era as – for better or worse – recognizably ‘modern’. Or perhaps this is me showing my age.

My point here about 1964 is that roughly every 25 years each new generation presses its own image upon the world it remakes. War, mercifully, is only one of the ways to do it. Culture and ‘lifestyle’ are markers of generational change too; they’re just more diffuse and decentralized, more difficult to place on a timeline.

For this reason I’d like to run 1964 together with the more distinctive and memorable radical/political forms of the student revolts of 1968 – although the first major anti-war demonstrations were in May 1964. The unrest in the USA was ostensibly the direct result of the numbers of deaths in the fighting in Vietnam and the terrors of the draft – but note the difference in zeitgeist at the time of the Korean war, where the numbers were very similar, but there was no mass opposition. The Wilson government never, even under US pressure, offered UK military backup in Vietnam, so the UK’s version of student revolts were never about the draft – as with les evènements in France. Whatever the root cause, some of the changes were most noticeable in the realm of culture, notably innovation and experimentation in ‘progressive’ popular music.

Handwritten lyrics for Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ (1964). How prescient! This sheet of paper was sold for $422,500 to a hedge fund manager. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-10/dylan-s-times-they-are-a-changin-lyrics-sell-for-422-500-at-sotheby-s.html

‘Don’t criticize what you can’t understand’: original handwritten lyrics for Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ (first performed 26 October 1963). How prescient they are – this sheet of paper was sold in 2010 for $422,500 to a hedge fund manager. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-10/dylan-s-times-they-are-a-changin-lyrics-sell-for-422-500-at-sotheby-s.html

In West Germany, though, in a clear echo from the Second World War, the terms of surrender required the German demilitarization of Berlin, thus creating perfect conditions for young ultra-left refugees from conscription (e.g. the Red Army Faction) to foment a culture of political violence. I imagine Germany (East and West) to have been/be a place subject to particularly acute generational reassessments of history. This is from Stefan Aust, author of Der Baader Meinhof Komplex:

World War II was only twenty years earlier. Those in charge of the police, the schools, the government – they were the same people who’d been in charge under Nazism. The chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, had been a Nazi. People started discussing this only in the 60s. We were the first generation since the war, and we were asking our parents questions. Due to the Nazi past, everything bad was compared to the Third Reich. If you heard about police brutality, that was said to be just like the SS. The moment you see your own country as the continuation of a fascist state, you give yourself permission to do almost anything against it. You see your action as the resistance that your parents did not put up.

Image from http://bbs.news.163.com/bbs/history/179474062.html

‘In our great motherland, a new era is emerging in which the workers, peasants and soldiers are grasping Marxism-
Leninism, Mao Tse-tung’s thought. Once … grasped by the broad masses, it becomes an inexhaustible source of strength and a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power …’ From the foreword by Lin Piao to the second edition (1966) of Thoughts of Chairman Mao. At least a billion copies have been publishedImage from http://bbs.news.163.com/bbs/history/179474062.html

This puts my generational point very clearly. It seems to me now there was a kind of madness, connected to the past of our parents, that took over young people in the US and Western Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s. From my own experience I’m thinking of time spent reading the Thoughts of Chairman Mao (‘The Little Red Book’, first Chinese edition 1964, English edition 1966) or a weird cult of emotion-free ‘rigour’ in discussions of Marxist-Leninist theories of the state or the role of the revolutionary party. I remember many earnest hours of study in grasping the correct (the word right was incorrect) Leninist conception of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

This seems embarrassing and ingenuous now. I remember an incident, shortly after I moved out of my short-life housing co-op in a gritty part of inner London in 1979, involving my next-door German neighbours. Their house was staked out by Interpol; they were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Red Army Faction. This was particularly difficult for me to understand because – orange spiky-haired and punky leather-jacketed though they were – I thought they just made an unlikely but nevertheless lucrative living out of installing replacement aluminium shopfronts.

Looking back on my – and my generation’s – naivety/absurdity I hope I can be charitable to my young self. At least we tried to assert – yes, some people did this in a weird, horrible and morally contemptible way – values of social justice, authenticity, life. ‘The Bomb’ was such a powerful influence on our lives – instant and total destruction seemed possible at any time. We noticed and pointed out that the state’s readiness to wage war would lead to the total annihilation of the electorate. How could this be called ‘democratic’? Maybe we were trying to find a way to put our depressiveness outside ourselves, but the concept of ‘working for a living’ seemed merely to continue the exploitation endemic to ‘the profit system’ (‘the appropriation of surplus value’). Living for the day and living life to the full – sex, drugs, rock-’n’-roll rather than job, conformity, mortgage – seemed important and necessary.

By unspoken and envious contrast, my father’s generation (were we trying to copy them?) seemed to have had a completely unifying and searingly moral project: the overthrow of Fascism.

It is a curious that each succeeding generation simplifies and fantasizes about its predecessors. History is probably the only defence. For example, by contemporary moral standards it seems strange that information about the Final Solution seems to have been kept secret during the Second World War, and not used for propaganda purposes. The most shocking images of the liberation of the camps were only shown on newsreels after the war had ended. Tony Judt (Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: Heinemann, 2012) makes the sobering historical point that the climate of opinion in the UK and USA, during the ‘total war’ of hearts and minds 1939–45, was by no means sympathetic to Jewish people; their protection from obliteration was not as yet sufficient motivation for further intensification of the war effort. Going back before the war, too, Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Peace in Our Time’ pragmatic if amoral rapprochement with Germany was only subsequently vilified with the knee-jerk value-judgement, ‘appeasement’; in 1938, The Times (of London) editorials were actively advocating alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union. My point is that the hyper-morality of winning the Second World War only became so clear and so right afterwards.

The actual lived experience of the war, particularly for those fighting it, seems to have been existentially absurd, comical: SNAFU – situation normal, all f***** up. My father – peace be unto him – was very much of this opinion. This may sound odd to modern ears, but my father might have said the new sanitized and moralized history wasn’t funny enough either. Of course he didn’t have a theory about it because how can you have a theory of authenticity of experience without it already being inauthentic. More radically he hated hypocrisy and false feeling, but he was more interested in irony that was gentle on the outside for others if fierce on the inside for himself. The manic depressive but funny Spike Milligan was a great favourite: Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall has the ironic tone just right, as in a typical Spike Milligan quote: ‘I was a hero with a coward’s legs.’ An anecdote of my dad’s is an example of this quietly subversive sense of humour, acute observation of human foibles, and kindness too. Recruiting sergeant filling in Dad’s conscription papers: ‘What’s your religion?’ Dad: ‘Agnostic.’ Sergeant: ‘That’ll be Church of England then.’

He was conscripted on his eighteenth birthday and saw active service, before he turned 19, in the 1944 Normandy landings. After two months of combat he was hospitalized for a year by a mortar shell. He wasn’t demobilized for another couple of years; he ran a reading and writing programme for 600 illiterate soldiers. He told me very little about his time in the army – mostly grumbles about sergeant-majors, meaningless ‘square-bashing’ and bureaucracy, disgusting macaroni cheese, dentistry interrupted by an air raid and finished after the anaesthetic wore off … but almost nothing about combat. It must have been terrifying and barbaric. I’m guessing his concealment, at personal cost, was his continuing battle for what he thought was right and good. That was the extraordinarily generous spirit of many people of his generation. Yet a wish for good is not necessarily a protection against evil. Damage has been done. I remember seeing an interview with Steven Spielberg where he said the bloody shock of the opening of Saving Private Ryan was an attempt to answer, for his own emotional completeness in a post-1960s kind of way, his questions about trauma his father wished to sidestep; yet apparently Arnold Spielberg and his surviving Air Force comrades would meet in great secrecy, once a year, simply to grieve. So please note, if you watch this clip or have seen the film already, that the younger Spielberg’s film (and this blog post, in a way) is a fight against generational exclusion and loss; the younger men mourn that their fathers’ vivid memories become the blandness and abstraction of history.

The generation of 1939–45 came back home and heroically remade ‘normality’, but in forms that seemed sometimes, to the next generation of young people in the 1960s, increasingly empty. I’m not saying that in our responses to this we felt simplistically righteous or good; we felt mean, guilty and ungrateful too. The anger in protest is an easy emotion because the problem is someone else’s ‘fault’; if you feel you have no power it’s easy enough to convince yourself it doesn’t really matter what you say or do. And there felt like a discontinuity, a breakage, in the rich succession of generations. The generational legacy of Second World War continues to ripple down through history, for good and ill, from fathers to sons. Admiration, copying, respect for the experience of older people; much has been lost. Through sharing, openness and storytelling, we men still need to do plenty of work to help heal some of these wounds and be good fathers, uncles and godfathers. Perhaps an overlong and slightly indiscreet blog post is part of what I mean.

But as Sir Thomas Browne says, ‘the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity’; generational change is only the post facto description of different organic re-aggregations of power, different subcultures contesting under different conditions for hegemony. As Chairman Mao says, from an unusual period of liberalization: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.’


Prague Spring 1968: ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ (Chairman Mao). Image from http://goo.gl/fiYyw

Perhaps for people like my father, the official and retrospective interpretation of the moral project of the winning of the Second World War made it all seem too simple, too easy. In the world of post-1945 Germany, it must be particularly difficult trying to live decently without feeling crushed by guilt. Clearly, in Eastern Europe pre-1989, the defeat of Fascism (with a capital F) was exploited as a vindication of different kinds of simplifying and self-perpetuating power, power that is therefore comparably as anti-human as that which it claims to have replaced.

Even now, the fears of a repetition of fascism seem often overplayed and reductive of humanity in ways that are more likely to bring about the very outcome that is feared. Damagingly, the realpolitik of diplomatic ‘appeasement’ is perceived – in the widespread practice of government by opinion poll – as weakness, and therefore not available even as a tactic or temporary position. Tragically, the shadow of the Holocaust is still with us – surely some of the current complex of problems in the Middle East are only too clearly echoes of echoes of the pain 75 or so years ago.

But may we see the 1960s’ rhetoric of personal liberation as an attempt by a new generation to exorcise some of the tormented spirits of those times?

Although the confused programme of ‘the counterculture’ of the 1960s seems easy to ridicule, some of its conceptions of cultural expression, authenticity and identity in an alienating and ethically relativistic world seem – to me, at any rate – important, admirable and sustainable. These ideas are actively with us – complex and conflicted but at least usable, transformable – as the experiential compass for the next wave of young people, even those who hold the new seats of power in the mighty digital industries. And there now seems to be less of a gap between one generation and the next. At least that’s my wish and hope.

Many words too late, I realize I haven’t said much yet about 1989 – an extraordinary time politically for the former Soviet bloc. Of course I can’t talk about things outside my experience – namely the Eastern European events of this year. In Western Europe and the USA, though, I wonder if the most transformational events of this generation continuing to the one of 2014 have been the unfolding of another revolution, the digital one. 1989 was in the middle of the personal computing paradigm; it was not yet the age of the internet. I hope to say more about this another time, but I would like to finish for now with a quote from Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859):

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

This argument still seems exciting, true and expansive, and, remarkably, applicable in the digital age. I don’t think Marx could imagine the full implications of his model under very different material – digital – modes of production and exchange. Marshall McLuhan could, though; it leads to a very different kind of outcome than the one forecast by Marx.

Have I, like shops selling Christmas decorations in September, got my 2014 anniversaries piece in first?

For Kate – 1964, the best year ever

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Science, publishing and writing style

Two examples of each today, and some ideas about outreach, power and sustainability:

1. Cambridge, UK,  home of Propagandum Towers and a university or two, every year hosts an excellent science festival. For two weeks thousands of people teaching and learning heavy-duty science willingly give their time to show young people some cool or interesting stuff. The tone is upbeat without being manic, inclusive without being condescending. Some sort of tipping point or critical mass is reached: families flock en masse to soberly purposeful and usually private labs/university departments simply to enjoy themselves. Along the way quite a few schoolchildren will no doubt find science subjects and careers somehow more real and possible. And the scientists who give their time get a chance to refresh their sense of vocation too.

Danger is more exciting – Cambridge science festival 2012. Image from http://www.explorermagazine.co.uk/2012/03/cambridge-science-festival-2012/

Dr Peter Wothers fires up children’s enthusiasm for science – Cambridge Science Festival 2012. Image from http://www.explorermagazine.co.uk/2012/03/cambridge-science-festival-2012/

The whole festival is clearly an example of good, sustainable two-way communication, drawing on and giving back a sense of collective energy. It has mutual benefits that renew the institution of science from one generation to the next.

The payoffs for the region and university are of the hardest-nosed kinds too. By coincidence (or was it?) this story broke hours after the festival finished:

A £330m investment by [pharmaceutical company] AstraZeneca to set up a global HQ in Cambridge is expected to create 2,000 jobs. Research work will stop at Alderley Park, Cheshire, where 2,900 people work. A majority will go to Cambridge, where London staff will also move.

Pascal Soriot, the firm’s chief executive officer, said Cambridge was picked because of its scientific workforce and institutions. ‘[The move] will … allow us to tap into important bioscience hotspots, providing more of our people with easy access to leading-edge academic and industry networks, scientific talent and valuable partnering opportunities.’

I compare the communication values of the science festival with the recent …

2. World Book Day. In 2013 in the UK this was 7 March; in the rest of the world it is 23 April. (Shakespeare’s birthday/death day is 23 April, so why 7 March? ‘World’ Book Day?) World Book Night is 23 April, though … this is also the date that UNESCO catchily (irony) glorifies as World Book and Copyright Day, with the snappy epigraph ‘Translation is the first step towards the rapprochement of peoples, and is also a decentralizing experience, teaching diversity and dialogue …’ All these things are good, admirable and very dear to my heart, but I hope you’re getting a sense of infighting and dead-end streets that contrast with my example #1.

Here’s a more detailed look at the UK’s World (?) Book Day website:

Visually stylish, perhaps turn the hype down a bit? http://www.worldbookday.com/

Fantastic! Amazing! Probably too much hype and too many exclamation marks!! http://www.worldbookday.com/

This is pretty good visually, but the language shows the dangers of hyper/hypo-enthusiasm. Here’s a heavily bipolar paragraph of hype with a big downside:

Websites are great aren’t they? Especially websites about things like reading. And celebrations of reading. And great big celebrations of reading with millions and millions of vouchers for free books going out to kids. But you know what’s even better than websites about great big celebrations of reading with millions of millions of vouchers for free books going out to kids? Reading. So once you’ve finished on this website why not go and read a book, even if only for a little while.

I’m not disparaging the idea of WBD (or WBN, or WBCD), by the way – I support it completely. I’m just describing what’s there. I strongly believe that any company or organization bares their heart and soul in what and how they write, and the tone here is just wrong. For me, something is sustainable when (a) we can continue it for a long time and (b) when it sustains us. Writing should be credible every time we read it; the more I read the WBD website paragraph the more it makes me cringe.

In the UK, the WBD experience centres on the children dressing up; this year my two were, from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit respectively, Meriadoc Brandybuck the hobbit and Bofur the dwarf. Only one of them has indeed read their respective book, but even so in previous years they have usually gone as a character from the film of a book. And what, judging by the numbers of them in the school playground, are all those books whose characters wear replica Manchester United shirts?

Helen Moss. Image from http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781444007572

Helen Moss. Image from http://goo.gl/Eyock

My snide tone here is, of course, only sustainable the same way mosquitos or leeches are, so I pay tribute to its opposite, the loving care of every parent who has patiently encouraged their children to take part in any way. The teachers put in an impressive amount of work and positive energy, too, to make the event a success. Over the course of the whole book week (in my children’s school), several authors, including Helen Moss, came in, read stories, signed books and generally fired up the children’s enthusiasm for writing and reading.

On the down side again, in a town with 1200+ people in publishing, I noticed no input from commercial publishers – not a squeak. I help run a Cambridge publishing society with speaker meetings and social/networking events, but where was our outreach to the next generation? Clearly we in the books business don’t have the same kinds of numbers or geographical clustering as science in this town, but I don’t see the same expansive and proselytizing culture either. What does this mean? Where does this lead to? Mmmm …

3. Science and writing style. Weeks after seeing this book in Hereford Cathedral I am still mulling over Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667) – I blogged about the typography of the title page here. The Royal Society is one of the earliest examples of a collaborative (and competitive) enterprise self-managing and self-regulating for research quality in ways recognizable as the institution of modern science. In the earliest days of the society (c. 1660), following discussions about the best ways to record their experiments, members apparently decided to reject a high-flown writing style, preferring

a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness: bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants before that of wits or scholars.

This fine sentence (on display in the cathedral, but you can find it in its fine seventeenth-century typography on page 113, lines 20–5 in the book online) made my day. What is so good and startling about it? The language is beautifully direct and vivid, and elegant too. The words are serious but they play with and against the meaning – play is serious too. And there’s a strong sense of the sensory richness of our human experience. Three hundred and fifty years later, how many academic and scientific papers today would use the words close and naked to describe intimacy/informality and directness? Most scientific papers I have read seem deliberately to exclude any concern with expressive and communicative writing style.

I don’t mean to simplify, because the science festival clearly shows all the good things that people in science feel about their subject; the brusque asceticism of contemporary scientific prose style probably means scientists just want to get down to business. Something important gets lost too.

In our own times we can see that the popularization of science leads it into public relations and the communication business. And global fear of global warming takes science into prescription rather than description; it also makes science political. I hope to say a bit more about this another time.

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The mystery of the covered-up book cover …

Wandering into my local bookshop the other day, I was shocked to see this:

Nineteen Eighty-Four cover

Rules that break the rules: David Pearson’s January 2013 brave new cover design of ?

W – as some people say in cyberspace – TF? What’s going on here? How can you buy a book if you can’t read what it is? How’s this supposed to work on Amazon? Is this bad design or a printing disaster?

Before I tell you what it is – tease, tease – there’s some interesting backstory about the way organizational politics drive collective decision-making to outcomes we don’t notice, but which have powerful consequences.

Most book publishers have sales conferences where editors make presentations of forthcoming titles to the sales representatives whose job is to sell them to book buyers in bookshops. These events are widely considered motivational for the sales force, whose goodwill and skills are key to successful publishing; they’re also a chance to complete a learning loop for the organization, modifying the agendas of the comparatively sheltered editors and designers with the down-and-dirty ways things work ‘in the real world’. At these conferences, therefore, reps routinely savage proposed book covers that – to quote one comment I remember – ‘you can’t read from the other side of the room’.

This is a perfectly reasonable thing to say – there are thousands of books to choose from; a cover design has, at least, to make it easy for us to buy. This is even more true in online bookshops, which have even smaller display real estate than their high street equivalents. But there have to be exceptions. Unfortunately tired maxims and lazy thinking get built into the power structure of most organizations; their would-be Realpolitik is a totem of support for hard-working reps and the marketing department. In tough economic times, power relations and default values become more explicit. ‘Sensible’ is easier to justify to bosses and investors, so in the corporate tightening-up that precedes full organizational arthritis, creativity/flamboyance is the first thing to go.

So what, this cover design asks us, gets lost?

1. The power and reach of hype – how many other editions of this very well-known book are getting free publicity in the blogosphere?

2. Attention – we all want to find about about a mystery or a puzzle. ‘Sensible’ is good, but note that most of us are extraordinarily straightforward about what we want. I don’t think it’s reductive to say we want a feeling: we want to feel happy, to love and be loved, to enjoy the richness of our life. Most consumer marketing is a promise to do this. We want to believe, so promises have to be believable. Creativity – as with this cover – finds intensity, truth, freshness, surprise. More simply, isn’t this cover getting loads of attention anyway?

3. Potential for evolution. If all your organization’s creative choices are safe, you’re not inventing your future. As Bob Dylan says – in ‘It’s alright, Ma (I’m only bleeding)’ – ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’. We need to take risks because what, long-term, is more dangerous than playing it safe? I can’t imagine anyone is proposing a series of this kind of design, but just this one creates waves that will bring other innovatory books and products to this publisher in the future.

4. Brand value. This publisher is re-creating a reputation for boldness, flair, wit, imagination and courage. Compare Lord Sugar and Steve Jobs – who most fully understood these ways of being fully alive and integrated them with their business model? Neither of them are/were saints, but who created more brand value for his company, industry and country?

5. Meaning, for publishers, is a very special case. I don’t believe that even mass-market books are products like instant coffee or soap powder. While any commercial object must make sense to some people at some level, ad-people and mass-marketeers dream of the depth of consumer engagement that publishers take for granted. If indeed depth marketing and brand storytelling are the future for commerce in our era, retrospectively the crass market-led culture shifts of the 1980s seem like a sad long-term loss of brand value for the publishing industry as a whole.

You might be able to see that the cover is embossed. Image from http://pushblog.co.uk/2013/01/09/nineteen-eighty-four-twenty-thirteen-style/

You might just be able to read it … Black foil blocking and embossed too. Both images from http://creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2013/january/great-orwell-penguin-david-pearson

So meaning for any publisher is a precious asset they must nurture with their commercial lives. If their books don’t mean something to somebody, then what are they?

Why, then, does this cover mean something? Meaning isn’t just words: here it’s a fascinating translation of words into a completely different and idiomatically visual experience – some of the images on previous covers are good, but what do they really mean? This one is tactile too – we want to pick it up and touch the embossed type, like Braille. In a world where – here comes the reveal, I can’t hold it back any longer! – Big Brother is watching you, touching is a subversive act of autonomy and freedom. Yes, you can’t touch the lettering on the web or on an e-book, but could it be that the designer and publisher are suggesting (shock horror probe) the web doesn’t necessarily make us shiny, happy or free?

Another Penguin edition

A previous Penguin Classics edition. Image from http://goo.gl/V3wwg

Is Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, then, just a historical novel set in the past, or is it deeply relevant to our own age? How does a lively and exciting publisher seek to engage us with this book? Use a cover like this old one on the left? Lovely big type, reads from the other side of the room, thumbnail images look good on your smartphone. It is also insufferably bureaucratic and passionless. Who cared about this cover? Even if sales were excellent, I suggest safe solutions like this lead eventually to brand collapse. And since when was Nineteen Eighty-Four a ‘safe’ book?

I am not saying David Pearson’s new cover has the same burning political commitment as Orwell’s text, but why should covers and texts match up emotionally? The variety of tones and visual/text modalities is rich and interesting – I mourn for it on my Kindle.

Nineteen Eight-Four 1954 edition

The Penguin 1954 edition. Image from http://goo.gl/8OppZ

The new design is partly retro/playful – why otherwise ‘complete’, ‘unabridged’? Its direct copy of the first paperback (right) is also postmodern and ironic, but just as Nineteen Eighty-Four was a projection forward from 1948, it makes intelligent if inverted good sense to cast back from 2013 to the first paperback edition. More seriously, the blacking-out forces us to experience for ourselves the subjection of Soviet-style revision of history and distortion of language as key instruments of political power. And the Soviets were not the only culprits.

The arresting visual language of the black bands comes from the West and our own era. A major 2004 news story exposed the US Army use of torture (‘waterboarding’) when interrogating suspected terrorists in Iraq. At this time the word redaction seemed to arrive out of nowhere to substitute – in a way Orwell would have liked us to notice – for censorship. So in the Pearson book cover the title and author have been redacted. For comparison of graphic conventions see the 2004 CIA Special Review title page (left). I wish we could think the absurdity was funny.

Lastly, some credit where major credit is due, in a nicely understated quote in Creative Review by David Pearson about his own cover:

‘It’s obviously the risk-taker of the [new complete Orwell] series,’ says Pearson, ‘and I can be very grateful to Jim Stoddart, Penguin Press’ art director, for safeguarding its progress in-house. It takes a fair bit of confidence to push something like this through and I can only assume that Jim had to deal with the odd wobble.’

Fine work from designer and art director, matched by some brave and creative strategic vision from the publisher’s senior management.

Apparently, back in the ‘real world’, a blogging designer’s mum bought a copy but thought it had been discounted because of the ‘duff’ printing. Even if it’s a sales disaster, though, at the next reprint can’t the publisher just change it?

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‘Only superficial people do not judge by appearances’: type, design and the spirit of the age #2

What do commercial or designed things tell us about the age we live in? And how do they do this? Writers and artists have brilliantly created a reality distortion field where we expect them to give us the benefit of their opinions about the world as they see it. But what about designers of chairs, clothes, computers, type …?

In my previous post I was riffing on the title page of a book published in 1667 – this post is designed to follow on from it. From the contemporary era, for analytical counterpoint, I’d like to look at a typeface, by Jeremy Tankard, released in January 2013: Capline. Here is a sample of it (‘HEADLINE’/Cyrillic at the bottom of the page), with the designer’s own explanation of his rationale at the top:

Capline by Jeremy Tankard.  Available from www.typography.net

Capline by Jeremy Tankard. Available from typography.net

I wonder what creative uses graphic designers will make of it? The sample brochure usefully suggests a robust identity even after various kinds of distortion. The highly original and intelligent conception of a family of types based on a varying-width inline is outside the conventional batterie of typographic effects and may take some time to filter down into collective creative consciousness.

The font’s name is elegant and concise but its neutrality hints at concerns with form rather than the same designer’s full-on brand storytelling in his Shire types or the acutely observed postindustrial ruralism of Fenland. I’m not saying this is ‘bad’, because type designers must get to see their creations in all kinds of unforeseen contexts, some of which (I presume) they must think are completely unsuitable; all makers at some point have to reconcile themselves to the inconceivable and uncontrollable plurality of ‘their’ users’ interpretations (including mine!). Perhaps the reticence in the name indicates more openness, less wish to control end uses – I suggest this is a feature common to the best-received commercial design of any object, product or service.

The customary type designers’ play on negative space and the almost palpable presence of voids is turned outside in, to explore the expressiveness of space inside the strokes as much as between the forms. The designer’s sensitive response to the possibility of visual excess – negative space both inside and outside – is to simplify and rationalize the letterforms. This is an aesthetic, characteristic of modernism, that models coherence and identity in an information-noisy world.

Going beyond official meanings and overt intention to the deeper levels that channel the Zeitgeist, what other metaphors are in play? (I am not suggesting, by the way, that Jeremy is deliberately and consciously addressing the following issues. My subjective responses are necessarily mine; I like to think I’m saying something more than purely subjective, but you have to judge if there’s any truth in it. And regardless of a designer’s intention, isn’t the reception of – the user response to – an object ipso facto the ultimate arbiter of whether it channels the spirit of the age?)

I wondered if Capline is at some level an exploration of body image. Is there a potential commercial and expressive use for this typeface in cosmetics and fashion?

The change to the inline gives the impression of a change in weight. As the inline becomes thinner, the fonts appear to become heavier. The Heavy font has a thin inline, whereas the Thin font has a heavy inline. Or are the lighter fonts in outline?

Creative insight comes from all kinds of strange sources. Whether something feels right, like the punchline of a good joke, is only obvious afterwards. I’m not trying to justify a ‘perambulator type’ design aesthetic that Beatrice Warde denounced in the 1930s: bulbous letterforms that look like an old-fashioned pram. Our souls need something richer than literalism, which is always reductive and deadening.

More speculatively, I wondered if this typeface might only have been thinkable after the banking collapse of 2008/9. The backstory here is that the value of debt as a financial asset depends on what people can pay back; what we thought was full, turned out to be hollow. If we can imagine type in the same way, Capline shows that letterforms can be empty in the middle but still occupy the same space on the outside. I wondered if there was a sense of play on the contemporary crisis of financial value  a very serious subject but handled with wit and entertaining irony in Capline because the designer knows we know, in complete safety, it’s a typeface.

When money is puffed up by quantitative easing, ice cream by air, language by cliché, and burgers by horsemeat, it’s good to remind ourselves that fine commercial designers reflect richly and complexly on our lived world.

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‘Only superficial people do not judge by appearances’: type, design and the spirit of the age #1

Wandering round Hereford Cathedral last week during a welcome few days away from Propagandum Towers, I found a display case of fine ancient books. They weren’t hidden in any way, but it wasn’t obvious what these books do for the work of the cathedral except for – now I think about it – the generous gift of visual pleasure, and an unspoken but gently encouraging invitation to think about them …

One of these books – Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667) – has this handsome title page:

Thomas Sprat, HIstory of the Royal Society, 1667. Nullius Verba (literally 'No ones's words') is the motto of the Society and suggests that knowledge comes from experimental verification rather than the handing down of words.

Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal-Society, title page, 1667. Note that the Royal Society is an English and regal institution: the allusion to the monarch’s coat of arms has been diplomatically modified to retain only the English quarter (the three lions) of the heraldic shield.

‘Only superficial people’, Oscar Wilde said, ‘do not judge by appearances’: I wanted to play, seriously, with the idea that the look of this title page is a reflection of its times – in every sense. I’m fascinated by the idea that small things, often from popular culture or even ephemera, can re-present, for example, a particular historical moment of a mind–body relation, or perhaps their choices of visual effects are expressive of specific metaphors of power and social organization.

Aesthetic preferences make a thing the way it is and not otherwise. Sometimes in the past these preferences are written down for us to read and think about; we agree or disagree but mostly I think we get a sense of people who rework their similarity to us in different ways. Sometimes their choices are just there but unexplained, in which case we risk projecting onto them our contemporary preoccupations. Unexplained choices, though – precisely because there is no attempt to rationalize or justify them – are all the more interesting because they are most deeply expressive of specific cultural values.

We read history and look at objects, then we make comparisons to try to understand both the past and – more importantly – ourselves and the present. If we have a language of comparative analysis across history, we can understand other people and other times; objects from the past will seem to us more expressive of their makers and users. Then, in the present, we will have a broader conception of choices to make our own different kinds of makings richer and fuller.

The typeface in my example here – a vigorous Dutch-influenced close forerunner of Caslon – offers a north-east European version of classicism where the potentially anti-human mechanistic uniformity and control implicit in rationalism is partly moderated by variation and idiosyncrasy. I don’t think ‘character’, ‘warmth’ and ‘robustness’ are just a matter of mechanical imperfection, although hand-cut punches and copying exemplars by eye and experience ipso facto bear the imprint of a specific era of the relation of human body to technology.

(In parenthesis I suggest that, for a hundred thousand years in the history of technology, human perception – not just materials – has been the limiting case for the things we make. But in comparatively very recent phase, modern media explore how to deceive our limited natural powers of perception, for example pixels/the halftone screen [dots for continuous tone], 24 still frames per second [for movies], RGB [for the full colour gamut], digital sampling [for analogue sound], and so on …)

For me, the variation in type design and layout on this title page enacts a broader-than-contemporary conception of human difference. The richly variable slopes and swashes of the italic, together with the variations in capitalization, letterspacing and sizes, reflect the human scale and visual warmth of handcraft. The roman combines the slashing scythe-like bowls of the lowercase c and e with the customary upright sobriety of the stems of the H, I, T and N caps, although note the widely splayed serifs on the T. The leg of the R sticks out in a pleasing double curve. 

 The diagonal stroke of the N is probably too assertive (by contemporary standards), a visual correlative for hierarchies of political power we nowadays find culturally uncomfortable to acknowledge – even if they continue to exist. Compared to the shocking political and military conflicts of the Civil War era and the execution of Charles I in 1648, the hyped-up UK political news in our own era is merely bland. Yes, it’s a strange journey from an over-emphasized diagonal in a letterform to political history, but we can see that tastes have changed – it’s fascinating to try to explain why.

Not subtle

Not exactly subtle: the dedication page (not cropped) of Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society, 1667. Image from http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=g30OAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

From our contemporary perspective the typographical decisions of the dedication page of Thomas Sprat’s book (right) look embarrassingly servile, but if we can imagine ourselves at that very different time, they at least make very good sense, don’t they? After the trauma of civil war – brought home, for us Brits, by Spielberg’s Lincoln – I think here we can feel the immensity of feelings of hope and the wish for healing. In the same way that the size of the figures in a child’s painting will always reflect their emotional importance to the child, KING in enormous caps means something important.

What about the book’s subject-matter? Looking at the history of social change, the potentially (and literally) earth-shattering impact of science in our contemporary world drives us to look for its origins: the Royal Society is a very early example of people coming together to peer-manage and compete in the making of what is clearly recognizable as the institution of modern science. I’ll be saying more about this in one of my next posts.

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Life of Pi: orange, blue, white and burning tigers


Towards the end of Ang Lee’s 2012 Life of Pi an unusually docile CGI tiger – in naturalistic orange stripey colourway – impressively and movingly Method-acts latter-stage emaciation. Image from http://www.aceshowbiz.com/still/00001328/life-of-pi06.html#

The tiger in Life of Pi eats a whole film. In other words, our wish to believe in stories is so strong we gobble them up whether they’re true or not. Those who think of themselves as hard-headed realists probably prefer Pi’s brutal ‘outer’ story – though of course any conception of ‘realism’ in fiction is self-evidently unrealistic. If I may not too egocentrically continue from my previous post, for me the fictive tiger is the living heart of the film. Unbelievably, it’s computer-generated; indeed, the whole film is illusory, but it ultimately endorses human imagination and empathy as the way we make what we conceive to be true.

The film asks the God question, but leaves it open; the openness is the answer. Like one of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödelian strange loops, the meaning of a system (whether the film or the universe) cannot be internally derived, but must be extrinsically generated. The major artistic success of the film, for me, is the deliberate design/framing of the storytelling to make the design visible. What we make of that – film or universe – is our own cognitive replication of the creation, or our God-like choice.

Fairly feline, don’t you think? Neytiri from Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Image from Wikipedia

Next: blue quasi-tigers – or, as Wikipedia puts it, 10-foot tall, blue-skinned, sapient humanoids. For a deeper understanding of Ang Lee’s film, how does it compare with James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar? In this movie, the crushing reality for main character Corporal Jake Sully is that severe wounds during military combat lead to the amputation of his legs; he finds freedom when his mind is uploaded into his (fully mobile) avatar in a new, strange and beautiful world. In Life of Pi the brutal story told to (invented for?) the insurance investigators frames but is subservient to the beautiful images of Pi’s compelling and richly imaginative tiger story. In Avatar, Jake is captivated by the beauty of the ‘natural’ (although of course computer-generated) world his avatar finds; at the end he stays both in this alien world and his lithesome blue-tiger-body. And we the audience in the cinema projectively replicate his complete immersion in an imagined world.

Of course the harsh ‘realities’ of severe disability and human predatory/colonialist exploitation are imagined too: it’s a movie. Our projective identifications remain intact – as with all films (except Life of Pi) until the final narratological violence of the rolling credits and the lights coming up on the banality of spilled popcorn and monster Coke cups littering garish moviehouse carpets. In Life of Pi the smashing of illusions happens within the film and three times, #1 when the tiger slopes off into the Mexican jungle without a second glance, #2 with the brutal story in the dull hospital, and #3 in the ordinary flat in Canada. ‘What I tell you three times,’ says the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s own menacing sea story, The Hunting of the Snark, ‘must be true.’

8/10. Tiger visual references have intriguingly shrunk to the eyes above/below the i’s. Balram’s taxi has got tiger stripes but they are orange. Nice Indian references in the ornamental borders without being too crass. The lively bold lettering sells well from thumbnail images on the internet. Image from http://bestsellers.about.com/od/

The White Tiger, the prizewinning and bestselling 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga, is an unusual dig into the ever-rich seam of storytelling about the subcontinent of India. This time, according to The New York Times, ‘Mr. Adiga said his book was an “attempt to catch the voice of the men you meet as you travel through India – the voice of the colossal underclass.” “This voice was not captured,” he added, “and I wanted to do so without sentimentality or portraying them as mirthless humorless weaklings as they are usually.”’ The lowly caste and sycophantic disposition of the taxi-driving protagonist Balram Halwai initially seem to preclude connection with the killer instinct of the animal in the title … or do they?

Certainly the book is important in our symbolic order for reflecting new and renegotiated power relations between the former colonizeds and the former colonizers. The white tiger, symbolically speaking, stands for the economic and cultural dynamism of the ‘colossal underclass’ and country that Professor Lord Martin Rees, former President of the Royal Society, has predicted will be the intellectual and scientific centre of the world within 50 years.

In Life of Pi the tiger is not so specifically techno-economic – though the film does indeed hint at the strength and impact of Indian modernization and cultural/economic expansion. Mostly, though, the tiger is more like the psychoanalytical conception of the Other, the repressed and refused (in the West) dark side of human energy, instinct and oblivion, in conflict with civilization; it is unassimilable into language or rational understanding, but it is there, too, in us all. Pi’s struggle and accommodation with this powerful animal – whose life-force, he later realizes, keeps him alive – is an impressive negotiation we can trace back in the symbolic world to other Others, for example Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and, from popular culture, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws. I’m also thinking of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, where the evil Captain Hook plays out a very different outcome in his uneasy relationship with the crocodile.

It is tiger as Other that William Blake writes about in his famous poem in the Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789–94): ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright …’. Please remember the speaker of ‘The Tyger’ is not necessarily the poet, but a voice of ‘experience’. The voice could be just one of the poet’s many voices – the poet’s framing of innocence and experience as ‘two contrary states of the Human Soul’ suggests both he the writer and we the reader feel/believe multiple and different things at the same time.

Image from http://radioactiveinternational.org/whatever-youre-havin-12-tiger-tiger-burning-bright/

William Blake (1757–1827), ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright’. Drawn, lettered, engraved, printed and hand-coloured by the poet. Image from http://radioactiveinternational.org/whatever-youre-havin-12-tiger-tiger-burning-bright/

The voice in the poem is a particular kind of adult voice, perceptive and disillusioned, though perhaps, Blake suggests, they simply have different and adult kinds of illusion. I was thinking of this kind of person when I read the NY Times review of Life of Pi I started with in my previous post. He says:

the narrative frame that surrounds these lovely pictures complicates and undermines them. The novelist and the older Pi are eager to impose interpretations on the tale of the boy and the beast, but also committed to keeping those interpretations as vague and general as possible. And also, more disturbingly, to repress the darker implications of the story, as if the presence of cruelty and senseless death might be too much for anyone to handle.

I suggest this kind of adult disillusion is actually adult ingenuousness. I repeat: it’s a movie. No animals – or people – were injured in the making of this film. Besides, no work of art can be about everything – why should it, and how can it? And anyway, when we willingly suspend our disbelief in the implausible we extend our capacity for empathy and imagination.

For comparison with the attitude of the reviewer, here are stanzas 3 to 5 of Blake’s poem. The speaker looks at a tiger in awe but is caged in by their relentlessly anthropocentric metaphors; he (surely male?) struggles to see anything more than his own terror – as if the tiger’s sole object of attention is him. In the fourth stanza (‘What the hammer? …’) notice the obsessional metaphors of the manufacturing processes in the early Industrial Revolution; in contemporary terms this is like thinking about Life of Pi in terms of the algorithms for the CGI rendering of hair. Is there any projective empathy here, outside all the egotism and self-centredness, for the Otherness of the tiger?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

In the face of such closed Dawkins-style scepticism and instrumentalism the speaker finds it impossible to see the utter tigerishness of the tiger, its innocence, that is such a fine achievement in Life of Pi. There is wonder and a sense of awe/dread in the speaker’s voice, but also a sense that this person simply cannot understand a world outside themselves.

What’s left? To borrow another Blake quote, ‘The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’, which I take to mean that tigers in stories – particularly fiction – have more life and energy than the horses of exegesis and interpretation. Which sounds like a good place to stop.

In memory of Oscar (1998–2013)

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Life of Pi – a film review in six or seven facts

What does this film mean? Does it, as its hero Pi Patel says at the beginning, ‘make [us] believe in God’?

This post contains (as they say) spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens, please don’t read it …

An establishing shot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Establishing_shot) for The LIfe of Pi … Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/lifeofpimovie/

An establishing shot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Establishing_shot) for this review of Life of Pi … Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/lifeofpimovie/

Fact #1: The story tells us a story about the telling of stories. This post is my story about Ang Lee’s film of Yann Martel’s book, which tells the story of a writer who writes a book about the story of a man who tells two very different stories about surviving a shipwreck. The giddy regress of mirrors of mirrors (‘mise en abyme’) makes the perceptive and critical reviewer in The New York Times reel: ‘The movie invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things, but it also may cause you to doubt what you see with your own eyes – or even to wonder if, in the end, you have seen anything at all.’

This is good because it gets near the truth. This is bad because the film aims at an ambiguity of believing/doubting that is clearly and completely deliberate. How can a first-class reviewer miss this?

So, moving on to the solid ground of Fact #2: Art always conceals artifice. Art hides its own making. Media contain other media, and the human drive to make sense is so strong that media seem to disappear. What then do we see? We (to invert Blake) behold what we become. For us, narcissus (to quote McLuhan) is narcosis – in other words, when we don’t notice we are reflected back to us in media we’re no longer fully awake or alive. We can extend this point to a God-bothering quote from William Blake, in the author’s own original illustrated/hand-coloured/engraved/hand-lettered form:

William Blake, Plate 11 from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Image from http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/explorer/index.php?oid=598

William Blake, Plate 11 from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Image from http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/explorer/index.php?oid=598

On to Fact #3: Repeated figures or tropes are signs of a maker’s craft and intent. They are evidence of intelligent design. I am talking about the maker of the film rather than a Maker, but the story plays with the parallels between creating and the Creation. The name of the ship carrying the animals from Pondicherry is Tsimtsum, a Kabbalistic term denoting divine cosmogonic retraction or constriction, in other words the formation of apparently empty space for the possibility of Creation/creation. In the film the metaphor is probably playful rather than earnest – the ship sinks. Perhaps the next phase – HaKelim (the making of vessels for holding the Creation) – would have been a better name for the ship. The subsequent Shevirat (shattering – the vessels were not strong enough) clearly connects with the sinking of the ship, suffering and disaster in the real world, and the difficulties of meaning in language/works of art. Indeed, Pi, the tiger, the filmmaker, the writer and we too are perhaps at the next stage, Tikkun: the repair of brokenness. We are all, metaphorically, the film suggests, in the same boat.

Let’s extend Fact #3 with Fact #4: Eating is one of the film’s central metaphors. During the film the tiger eats, in order, its hunter’s name (Richard Parker), a goat, a hyena, the (usable space on the) lifeboat, tuna, flying fish, meerkats, Pi’s heart out, and, finally, the film itself. (I’m thinking of when Jack Nicholson’s Joker stole the whole 1989 Batman movie.) Here I’m tempted to describe the tiger’s performance as Oscar-winning, except it’s an animal, er … I mean it’s a computer animation … Isn’t it fascinating we might even begin to think of it as a real creature? Doesn’t this mean something interesting and important – I don’t just mean the abundant talents of the Rhythm and Hues SFX team, but inside our heads?

The first story Pi remembers from his childhood (he tells the writer) is of the Hindu supreme deity Krishna, ‘who had become a human child out of sport, without any loss of His divine powers’. Krishna’s mother Yashoda sees him eating from the ground and tells him off for eating dirt. She insists on looking into his mouth, and then (as Vanamali beautifully puts it):

She bent forward to peer more closely and lo! she felt herself to be whirling in space, lost in time, for inside the baby mouth was seen the whole universe of moving and unmoving creation, the earth and its mountains and oceans, the moon and the stars, and all the planets and regions. She was wonderstruck to see the land of Vraja and the village of Gokula, herself standing there with the child Krishna beside her with a wide-open mouth, and within that mouth another universe, and so on and on and on.

Let’s, then, not be too literal about eating. May we try to broaden our conception of it? In a food chain of narratives and explanations each story is eaten by a bigger story. In another storytelling chain the bread and wine of the Christian rite of Communion is, in its own terms, disturbingly cannibalistic, but broadened it becomes an act of understanding, generative of life in body and spirit.

Comments in the blogosphere suggest most of us are hung up on the cannibalism meta-story. Its overt plausibility, bitterness and unacceptability doesn’t therefore mean it is true. Yes, people often and understandably lie when they think something is too harsh or cruel to say or even think. But does that mean cruel stories are more true than the beautiful and remarkable scenes we have watched? The images for Pi’s alternative story are stripped back to banal shots of insurance investigators and talking heads in a drab hospital in Mexico. Is this the ‘real’ world? To those who think that plain truth is truer than beautiful truth I offer Fact #5: This film is a work of fiction. It almost seems absurd to think we can debate which of its stories is ‘true’. But to see is to believe. If we see and fully digest the tiger story, what we feel and understand is true. If we are arguing about it, and writing/reading about it, it has become real for us.

Life of Pi water tank

It’s just a movie: the water tank for the sea scenes in Life of Pi. Image from http://movies.infoonlinepages.com/gallery/index.php/Movie-Stills/L/Movie-Stills-Life-of-Pi/Shooting-Stills/Life-of-pi-8

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 helpfully called this the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The themes of his own implausible but compelling sea story, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, are comparable to Martel’s. The mariner kills his Other, the albatross, but escapes Life-in-Death when he blesses the sea-snakes ‘unaware’; Pi survives because his symbiosis with the tiger (whatever this means to him or us symbolically) keeps him alert and alive.

Coleridge’s idea is valuable because it says writing and publishing go two ways. Viewers/readers make the meaning too. We don’t just consume. What’s the next step? What we see therefore tells us about the truth in here rather than out there. Can we watch a film and also understand we see ourselves?

Fact #6: Implausibility is not the opposite of truth. According to Claude Shannon’s information theory (1948), signal is different from noise because (a) it is unlikely (‘negentropic’) and (b) it changes the state of the recipient. Fiction clearly qualifies under both counts. In fact (?) one of the main problems for writers of stories is fact is stranger than …

The central figure of the floating island of millions of (CGI) meerkats seems to be intended to tax our (and Pi’s hearers) powers of belief. How can such a thing exist? More food than Pi and the tiger can eat, with fresh water that turns acidic at night and eats the eaters? How can there be a human tooth inside a flower? Aren’t these the delusions of the starved and the thirsty?

Previously too the story stretches credulity by inviting us to believe Pi’s family named him after a particularly elegant swimming pool in Paris: Piscine Molitor. Further, to avoid being teased about his name, he both changed it to the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and learned it to some hundreds of digits – we see him writing them on a blackboard.

To borrow a fine phrase from an unlikely source (former Arsenal Premier League footballer Paul Merson), the film both has and questions ‘unbelievable belief’. On the God question itself, does the film actually ‘make [us] believe’? Firstly, the luscious visuals and boggingly plausible CGI, particularly the mesmeric tiger and the 3D images of luminescent sea creatures at night, are a feast for the eyes – but I can’t believe they’re belief-changing.

Secondly, to expect a rational and coherent answer to this question is to predetermine that the answer is no. Abstract discussion about a cardboard cutout deity is communicatively a broken and sinking vessel, incapable of holding whatever we can imagine to be the attributes of the unimaginable. I am always puzzled why self-defined ‘rational’ atheists assert their position rationally in an aprioristically meaningless universe, as if they and their argument – both extraordinarily like the theistic conception of a Creator – are somehow not part of it.

Thirdly, two key and conflicting moments, one near the beginning: Pi’s usually kindly father (a Richard Dawkins-style devotee of Western and instrumentalist scientific progress) tigerishly tries to devour Pi’s burgeoning inter-species empathy and Pi’s simultaneously Hindu, Christian and Moslem sympathies by making him witness the Richard Parker’s ‘savagery’ as it crushes and eats a goat. ‘The tiger does not feel what you feel,’ Pi’s father shouts. ‘What you see when you look at it is only your emotions reflected back to you.’

The other is near the end. The tiger walks off into the Mexican jungle without looking back; Pi sobs uncontrollably. Pi’s father was right all along, but in the story his reality principle is not enough to prevent his death; Pi is wrong, but it keeps him alive. It is his life. He weeps that his love for the tiger is foolish, but it is movingly and deeply human.

We project our feelings onto any and every story as we eat them up with our eyes. The film becomes the tiger for us, it becomes real for us; we want to live out who we are on and in these shadows on a wall that flicker at us at 24 frames per second. Our seeing is so poor we don’t even notice. Perhaps the God point in the film is this: we want to experience the world this way. Perhaps we will be surprised that the meanings we find are the ones we hoped/feared/wanted to put there – perhaps that is what we mean by ‘God’. But our errors and foolishness are also our successes and dignity, they’re certainly our humanity.

Finally, in this beautifully made and richly generative film, Fact #7: There are no facts. What you make of it is God, your world, your film. You choose.

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Have you tried the new reduced whiches and thats diet?

You don’t have to be a professional writer to benefit from making your writing sound more natural. The words which or that are often stodgy and unnecessary. Following Strunk and White’s helpful suggestion – under their banner ‘Omit needless words’ – it’s good to go which hunting.

Here is the first paragraph from the lavish prospectus of an English private school:

[School name] pupils receive an outstanding academic education from dedicated and well-qualified teachers, developing qualities which will equip them to face life’s challenges with self belief and optimism. In addition to our broad curriculum, girls and boys enjoy a fabulous range of activities which keep them busy, stimulated and entertained, helping them to find their niche. It is a source of pride to us that our pupils emerge as confident, competent and adaptable human beings.

A modest rewrite goes:

[School name] pupils receive an outstanding academic education from dedicated and well-qualified teachers. Our broad curriculum equips them to face life’s challenges with self belief and optimism. Girls and boys enjoy a fabulous range of activities, helping them find their niche and keeping them busy, stimulated and entertained. We are proud our pupils are confident, competent and adaptable.

The first version is stiff, over-anxious about wanting to be ‘correct’; here hyper-correctness in public seems to be more important than sense and self-expression. Worryingly, their writing style fights against the values they claim to endorse.

There are very few pieces of writing which cannot be improved by removing whiches. We can improve nearly everything we write by removing its whiches. Even the very minor change of which to that in the school prospectus would have helped – that seems more readable to me.

The words aren’t interchangeable, though. Describing the that/which restrictive/nonrestrictive clause distinction is horribly technical – how come language isn’t good at describing itself? But the distinction itself seems natural/sensible to me, and easy enough: if the subordinate clause needs commas, use which. Word’s automatic grammar check is also genuinely useful and almost reliable on this point. But often the resulting sentence is still clumsy. The New York Times 2008 discussion of mistakes in its own pages gives this example:

The depths of G.M.’s problems came to light in its federal filing that painted a bleak picture of a company that has lost more than $20 billion this year and is in danger of not being able to pay its bills in a few weeks.

Philip B. Corbett, The New York Times associate managing editor for standards, suggests they should have replaced the bold that with a comma and which. But the better suggestion is surely rewriting:

G.M.’s federal filing revealed a bleak picture of a company that has lost more than $20 billion this year and is in danger of not being able to pay its bills in a few weeks.

The way in which is one of my least favourite word combinations. I will, I state on public record, eat my cycling helmet if anyone can find it in Shakespeare or the King James edition of the Bible. On The Beatles’ Abbey Road album George Harrison sings ‘Something in the way she moves’. I cannot believe this would have been the second-most covered Beatles song (after ‘Yesterday’) if it had an added in which.

Removing thats is good too. Reading out loud, most thats sound as the toneless schwa vowel, such as the er in dinner, or e in the. This is a rather dull noise. But if we fully voice the a to sound like cat or Jack it sounds artificial and much too prominent, like quacking.

Most thats are the nervous written equivalent of hiatus-fillers like um or er. That is rarer in speech than in writing, so writing without it sounds more natural and direct. I was tempted to put a that in ‘We are proud our pupils’, i.e. ‘We are proud that our pupils’, but I think it sounds more natural without.

My most hated written word cluster ever is the fact that. Here is a very unfair example from Huw Price, Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge. It is unfair because my source presumably transcribes a telephone interview – but I’ll use it anyway because plenty of people write like this. He is explaining the thinking behind a new Centre for the Study of Existential Risk:

The basic philosophy is that we should be taking seriously the fact that we are getting to the point where our technologies have the potential to threaten our own existence – in a way that they simply haven’t up to now, in human history.

The fact that helps writers put ideas down in the order they think of them. But I am shocked. Writing is for readers; it is rude for authors to disregard the delicate and generous gift of attention their readers give them. I quite often come across The fact that [something] meant that [another thing] … For my private amusement I sometimes try to parody authors’ stylistic mannerisms using a well known and simple sentence. Here this becomes: The fact that there was a mat resulted in the fact that the cat sat on it.

In the perfect world, writing completely, simply and only makes sense. Meanwhile, until that world comes along, why not try fewer whiches and thats?

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