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The Truth About Animal Stories - The New Yorker
"Writers aiming to tell us about human life have often done so under cover of telling us about animals. Animals are fun—they have feathers and fangs, they live in trees and holes—and they seem to us simpler than we are, so that, by using them, we can make our points cleaner and faster. With Madame Bovary, you pretty much have to say who her parents were. With SpongeBob, you don’t, and this keeps the story moving. Most important, the use of animals to stand in for human beings creates a fertile ambiguity. We know that the author is not proposing a one-for-one equivalence between human and nonhuman life, but some kinship is certainly being suggested. Think of Swift’s Houyhnhnms, trotting down the road, their withers shining in the sun, saying sober, passionless things to Gulliver. How beautiful they are, and how creepy. Animal narratives have allowed writers with lessons on their mind to make art rather than just lessons.

Such tales are no doubt as old as animal paintings on cave walls. The earliest evidence we have of them is the beast fable, a form that is said to have come down to us by way of Aesop, a Greek storyteller who was born a slave in the sixth century B.C. Actually, no solid evidence exists that there ever was an Aesop, any more than there was a Homer. As with the Iliad and the Odyssey, we are talking about manuscripts that date from a period much later than the supposed author’s, and were probably assembled from a number of different fragments. In any case, a beast fable is a very short story (the Penguin Classics edition of Aesop renders “The Tortoise and the Hare,” perhaps the most famous of the fables, in five sentences) in which, typically, a couple of animals with the gift of speech learn a lesson from their dealings with one another. This moral is then stated at the end of the fable, and it is usually of a cautionary variety: don’t eat too much, don’t brag, watch out for this or that. As early as the third century B.C., these stories were being gathered together in various editions, usually for children, to teach them Latin (most were in Latin until the late Middle Ages) and some basic rules about life.

Eventually, in continental Europe, a more complicated kind of animal story, the “beast epic,” grew up alongside the beast fable. Beast epics used some of the Aesopian material, but they were much longer and more novelistic. They dispensed with the great Noah’s ark of generic animals that we see in a collection of beast fables: a duck, a goat, a frog, an ass, etc. Even a good-sized beast epic features no more than perhaps a dozen types of animal, each represented by only one or a few individuals, with names and rudimentary personalities. In the typical epic, the star is a fox—Reynard, Renard, or whatever, depending on the language—with his unwavering wiliness. Dominated by that slippery character, the beast epic no longer makes it altogether clear what lesson we are learning, or whether we should be learning it.

The fox epic was imported into England by William Caxton, the man who set up the first English printing press. In 1481, Caxton brought out “The History of Reynard the Fox,” a translation—by him, into his late Middle English—of what was basically a thirteenth-century Dutch version. By 1700, this had been followed by twenty-two further editions. Given the prevailing literacy rates, such a sales record qualifies the book, in the words of the Harvard medievalist James Simpson, as a “runaway best-seller.” This, Simpson says, is because its cold satire “answered to the intensely competitive, materialist conditions” of the time. Perhaps in the belief that such conditions still hold, Simpson has produced his own translation of Caxton’s “Reynard the Fox,” and Liveright has just published it."

"One doesn’t have to be an animal, however, to join the ranks of the tricksters. Gods can be tricksters—Hermes, in one of his aspects; Loki, from Norse mythology—and so can mortal heroes, such as Odysseus. A fictional trickster can also be a more ordinary man, like Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley. Lewis Hyde, in his widely cherished book “Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art” (1998), says that artists can be tricksters. He nominates Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. It seems that just about the only kind of creature that can’t be a trickster, at least of the classic type, is a female, a fact that somebody should write a dissertation on.

Why do we like tricksters? A comforting answer is that we enjoy watching the play of intelligence. Even nicer is the idea that we like to see intelligence triumph over power. Actually, brains and brawn are not mutually exclusive—Goliath may have been a smart man—but in trickster tales they are usually opposed. Three pages into “Reynard,” Tybert the Cat, hearing Courtoys the Dog accuse Reynard of stealing his sausage, says, Not so! That was my sausage—I stole it from the miller. From then on, almost no episode passes without someone practically walking into a wall.

James Simpson, in the introduction to his translation, says that this is a great part of the pleasure of the book: its revelation of the stupidity of our fellow-creatures. He adds that Reynard’s preying on them might nevertheless trouble us if it weren’t for the fact that they are also brutal and greedy. Reynard gives them their “comeuppance,” and thereby “becomes a hero, or antihero of sorts.” I think that, for the most part, this is not true. On the contrary, the most interesting thing about “Reynard” is its moral ugliness, or, at least, lack of hope, like something out of a Russian novel. Reynard indulges in ecstasies of cruelty. When he tells the King the big lie about the treasure and gets permission to go to Rome, he decides that he’s not finished. One last thing, he says: I can’t make the trip without shoes. How about Isengrim’s? And so the wolf’s shoes are “pulled off from the claws to the sinews. . . . He didn’t move a muscle, even though his feet bled.”"

"What was Caxton’s world? One where there had been armed conflict—the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses—for a century and a half, where religious persecution was the rule (the first auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition, in Seville, was carried out the year that “Reynard” was published), where the spikes of city gates were topped with rotting heads. Some commentators, such as Hieronymus Bosch, saw this world as a place of madness. To others, like Machiavelli, it was merely a scene of mortal danger, in which—he says it straight out—one must imitate the fox. Machiavelli’s tone is steady and pitiless. But other works of the period are as baffling as “Reynard.” Consider the Unicorn Tapestries (1495-1505), in which, in a forest carpeted with daisies and marigolds, with little rabbits and birds running around, men plunge their swords into the beautiful white animal, and blood runs down its side. As in “Reynard,” you can’t figure out what you’re being told.

Why is “Reynard” being republished now? Simpson says that his version is the first readily accessible English translation to appear in almost a hundred years. I am glad that he rescued it, but I’d also like to know why no one else bothered to. There are a lot of medievalists in our universities, and Caxton’s English, which is only about a hundred years older than Shakespeare’s, isn’t difficult. (“The wulf sayd I may wel forbere your mockes and your scornes and also your felle venymous words strong theef that ye ar.”) Maybe, because of the book’s puzzling nature, people didn’t like it much, and so they left it alone. And now, perhaps, it has ridden in on the coattails of the iconoclastic trend in the modern study of fairy tales, with Disney’s prettified versions being execrated by feminists and queer-studies writers. (By Marxists, too, notably Jack Zipes, a pioneer in this campaign. His new and proudly horrifying version of the Grimms’ tales was published last year by Princeton.)

Amid the newly exposed atrocities in our folk literature, Caxton’s back-and-forthing on the subject of Reynard’s morals does not appear so shocking. One should consider, too, whether we might not be living in a time that’s comparable, or at least relatable, to Caxton’s, in the sense of strong religious feeling being juxtaposed with terrible events. The Ebola virus, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria; the Pakistani Taliban invading a school, setting a teacher on fire in front of her students, and then gunning down the children, a hundred and thirty-two of them. And that’s just last year. Worse things happened in preceding centuries, but we didn’t know about them. A beheading could be shared with only a certain number of spectators. Today, it seems, many people believe that the world is coming to an end. One of the most widely used settings for novels, movies, and television programs is a post-apocalyptic world. Measured against that, “Reynard,” laughing at cruelty, doesn’t seem so strange."
joanacocella  trickster  reynard  williamcaxton  2015  morality  marcelduchmap  johncage  patriciahighsmith  lewishyde  loki  mythology  hermes  uncleremus 
may 2015 by robertogreco
79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation. | The Infernal Machine
"Alan Jacobs has written seventy-nine theses on technology for disputation. A disputation is an old technology, a formal technique of debate and argument that took shape in medieval universities in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In its most general form, a disputation consisted of a thesis, a counter-thesis, and a string of arguments, usually buttressed by citations of Aristotle, Augustine, or the Bible.

But disputations were not just formal arguments. They were public performances that trained university students in how to seek and argue for the truth. They made demands on students and masters alike. Truth was hard won; it was to be found in multiple, sometimes conflicting traditions; it required one to give and recognize arguments; and, perhaps above all, it demanded an epistemic humility, an acknowledgment that truth was something sought, not something produced.

It is, then, in this spirit that Jacobs offers, tongue firmly in cheek, his seventy-nine theses on technology and what it means to inhabit a world formed by it. They are pithy, witty, ponderous, and full of life. And over the following weeks, we at the Infernal Machine will take Jacobs’ theses at his provocative best and dispute them. We’ll take three or four at a time and offer our own counter-theses in a spirit of generosity.

So here they are:

1. Everything begins with attention.

2. It is vital to ask, “What must I pay attention to?”

3. It is vital to ask, “What may I pay attention to?”

4. It is vital to ask, “What must I refuse attention to?”

5. To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.

6. Attention is not an infinitely renewable resource; but it is partially renewable, if well-invested and properly cared for.

7. We should evaluate our investments of attention at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money.

8. Sir Francis Bacon provides a narrow and stringent model for what counts as attentiveness: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

9. An essential question is, “What form of attention does this phenomenon require? That of reading or seeing? That of writing also? Or silence?”

10. Attentiveness must never be confused with the desire to mark or announce attentiveness. (“Can I learn to suffer/Without saying something ironic or funny/On suffering?”—Prospero, in Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror)

11. “Mindfulness” seems to many a valid response to the perils of incessant connectivity because it confines its recommendation to the cultivation of a mental stance without objects.

12. That is, mindfulness reduces mental health to a single, simple technique that delivers its user from the obligation to ask any awkward questions about what his or her mind is and is not attending to.

13. The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.

14. Such mindfulness, and all other healthy forms of attention—healthy for oneself and for others—can only happen with the creation of and care for an attentional commons.

15. This will not be easy to do in a culture for which surveillance has become the normative form of care.

16. Simone Weil wrote that ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’; if so, then surveillance is the opposite of attention.

17. The primary battles on social media today are fought by two mutually surveilling armies: code fetishists and antinomians.

18. The intensity of those battles is increased by a failure by any of the parties to consider the importance of intimacy gradients.

19. “And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.”—Bertolt Brecht, writing about Twitter

20. We cannot understand the internet without perceiving its true status: The Internet is a failed state.

21. We cannot respond properly to that failed-state condition without realizing and avoiding the perils of seeing like a state.

22. If instead of thinking of the internet in statist terms we apply the logic of subsidiarity, we might be able to imagine the digital equivalent of a Mondragon cooperative.

23. The internet groans in travail as it awaits its José María Arizmendiarrieta."

[continues on]

[A collection of follow-ups and responses is accummulating here:

For example: “79 Theses on Technology: On Attention”

And another round-up of responses: ]
alanjacobs  anthropology  culture  digital  history  technology  attention  dunning-krugereffect  anosognosia  pleasure  ethics  writing  howwewrite  jaronlanier  alextabattok  stupidity  logic  loki  cslewis  algorithms  akrasia  physical  patheticfallacy  hacking  hackers  kevinkelly  georgebernardshaw  agency  philosophy  tommccarthy  commenting  frankkermode  text  texts  community  communication  resistance  mindfulness  internet  online  web  josémaríaarizmendiarrieta  simonwiel  society  whauden  silence  attentiveness  textualist  chadwellmon  surveillance  2015 
april 2015 by robertogreco
Sjón & Hari Kunzru — Work in Progress — Medium
[video: ]
[Björk introduction:
more: ]

"Sjón: It writes me. I’m better sticking to being visual when I write. No, but for me, to go in that direction, I actually do think most literature is visual arts."

"Sjón: I think we were typical second-wave punks. I mean, obviously, the generation that started the punk movement in England, the first punk bands—The Clash and The Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks and all these bands—these were all kids that were quite a bit older than we were. They were born around 1953, ’55, so they were all about the anger, and they were all about … I think Johnny Rotten said it came from the liver.

We came to it as teenagers, and it’s interesting that while you can clearly see similarities between punk and Dada, this absolute nihilism, and you can say that the punks were actually fulfilling one of Tristan Tzara’s battle cries where he said, “Musicians, break your instruments on the stage.”

Just as Surrealism followed Dada, something happened when you had seen all this raw anger leading to nothing but raw anger, maybe good old Surrealism became the good and right remedy to all that anger. Like Björk said, it really felt like it fit together, and we were really looking for the revolutionary, the rebellious aspect of Surrealism.

Hari: The idea that it’s sort of dreaming and an escape from reality can be rebellious and revolutionary?

Sjón: As a good Surrealist would say, an escape into reality through dreaming. Ah!

Hari: I was thinking about Jonas Palmason in From the Mouth of the Whale. He goes to Copenhagen, and it’s this huge city filled with more things and people than he’s ever seen before. He imagines that he’s in an ancient version of the city, and I was trying to square that kind of dreaming with this revolutionary dreaming. Are they the same thing? Are they different things? Is the visionary Sjón also an escapist dreamer?

Sjón: One of the first things I learned from Surrealism is that it’s not fantasy, that Surrealism makes a very clear distinction between fantasy and the marvelous. You’re always looking for the marvelous in reality, and that’s where poetry happens. It happens when you hit upon these incredible moments in your reality. In Reykjavik, we had a city of rather small size to go walking around, but this idea of walking around, getting into the spirit, surreal spirit, and awaiting the poetic to manifest in a marvelous way in your reality—that’s very much what I’m looking for."

"Sjón: No. [Pause.] I’m really interested in how people become obsessed with ideas and how they become obsessed with certain cosmologies, and how the obsessed mind starts finding proofs of its truths. How it looks for the manifestation of these truths all around it in reality. This happens all the time—that things start to manifest if you’ve got them on your brain. They start manifesting all around you.

Hari: That’s there in all your fiction, this sense that a certain kind of attention is repaid by this. You start seeing the visionary aspect of the world.

Hari: You’re fond of mythic explanations for things that maybe other people wouldn’t use that for. I saw an interview where you started riffing on the idea that maybe 9-11 was something to do with the power of the great god Pan.

Sjón: I am actually absolutely sure that the great god Pan slipped through some sort of a gateway into our world, on that day.

We’ve been living in panic ever since. Actually, when we were in Athens for Björk’s performance of our song at the Olympics in 2004, I had direct experience of one of the gods there: One day, I was in a group that went down to the peninsula south of Athens, and there is a great Poseidon temple sitting there on a rock. As we came closer to the temple, we saw better and better what a sad state it was in. Obviously, this used to be the place of great sacrifices, 500 bulls sacrificed and burned in one day and all that, and the crowds coming to bow in front of the image of Poseidon.

I thought as we got closer, “Oh, look at you, great Poseidon. Look at the sad state you’re in.” This is how the Icelandic poet’s mind works. That’s how we think when we’re traveling.

We came to the temple and started walking around and looking at these sad ruins, but then I walked to the edge of the cliff. Who was there, who hadn’t moved and left his temple, but Poseidon? The whole ocean stretched out from the cliffs. Poseidon was still there, even though man had stopped sacrificing to Poseidon, Poseidon was still there. Then, Poseidon, of course, feeling a little bit annoyed that people were forgetting him, he moved just a little finger, his little finger a tiny bit, and we had the tsunami in Indonesia.

The myths are really about man confronting the fact that nature is always bigger and stronger.

Hari: It seems that in Iceland, there’s this particular kind of negotiation with nature that has to go on, because it’s a very unstable place, geologically if in no other way. I always think of the island of Surtsey coming out of the sea in the 1960s, and suddenly, you’ve got a new southernmost tip of Iceland that’s been generated by an undersea volcano. Is this sense that things are capable of shifting and that even the ground under your feet could potentially change, do you think this has any link to Iceland’s notorious belief in hidden folk and that sense that the landscape is actually populated with forces that are beyond our immediate understanding?

Sjón: Yes, I think we experience nature as a living thing, and a part of it is to go to the extremes of actually believing that nature has a character, or if not character, that it can manifest itself in different forms. We have folk stories about the hidden people, Huldufólk, who live in rocks and fields and cliffs, and they look exactly like us except they’ve only got one nostril. Apart from having only one nostril, they always lead a much richer and better life than those of us who have to survive above ground. They’re having musical parties all the time. They dress in silk, and whenever an Icelander gives a person from that nation a helping hand, he is rewarded with a cloth of silver or a goblet of gold. We know that the earth is rich, and we know that it’s more powerful than here, so I think when you live in a place that is obviously alive, you tend to populate it with different creatures.

For example, Katla, is this great volcano that possibly will explode fairly soon, and Katla is a woman’s name. It’s the name of a giantess. It’s more than likely that it will wipe out all the habitat that is sitting there on the beach. Man’s existence is—

Hari: Precarious."

"Sjón: I’m interested in the language of faith, and I’m interested in the literature of faith. In Iceland, like in so many Lutheran countries, the translation of the New Testament into the local language was a big moment. The church defined charity and love and all these terms.

I’ve always been interested in religious texts, not only because of the language but because I see religions as cosmologies, and I’m interested in cosmologies, and I’m interested in obsessed people and where to look for obsessed people. The best place is in religion. I think I’ve really taken advantage of the language of religion just in the same way that I’ve taken advantage of the language of myths and the world of myths.

For me, these are all attempts at explaining the same thing, which is to try to answer the question, “Is it possible that in the beginning there was nothing, and now we’re here sitting on these two nice chairs here in this Scandinavia House?”

We know that our cosmology will become obsolete, and it’s really amazing that the biggest given fact of our time is that cosmology, which is the hard science, is so unstable. I love it.

Hari: You take a real aesthetic pleasure in cosmologies, don’t you? What’s the joy of a big system, a big complicated system with lots of moving, whizzing, parts?

Sjón: My joy is the joy of the Trickster. It’s the joy of Loki. It’s the joy of the Coyote, because I know it’s an unstable system, and it will be overthrown, no matter how majestic it is. With the right little tricks, you will have an apocalypse. You will have the twilight of the gods. The gods will fight the last battle, and there will be a new world that rises up from it, and the Trickster can start thinking of new dirty tricks to topple that system."

"Audience Question: You were talking about how you enjoy cosmology and I wondered how you reconcile that with science and with your own art.

Sjón: Well of course it’s the scientists who are destroying each others’ cosmologies all the time. It’s very interesting that most people today live with a cosmology that absolutely ignores the theory of relativity, for example. Most people live as if the theory of relativity never happened because nobody understands it really.

It’s amazing how unaffected we are by these wonderful amazing things. We just continue. That’s one of the ways of overturning cosmologies: just keep brushing your teeth no matter how they say the universe was made."
sjón  iceland  harikunzru  2013  interviews  literature  poetry  davidbowie  surrealism  writing  escapism  punk  reality  björk  fantasy  fiction  nature  myth  mythology  trickster  greekmyths  obsessions  ideas  cosmologies  perspective  science  learning  unlearning  relearning  collaboration  translation  howwewrite  language  icelandic  loki  faith  belief  anthropology  hunting  geology  animals  folklore  folktales  precarity  life  living  myths 
december 2014 by robertogreco

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