[A cyclist's] point of view — faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person — became my panoramic window on much of the world over the last thirty years — and it still is. It’s a big window and it looks out on a mainly urban landscape. (I’m not a racer or sports cyclist.) Through this window I catch glimpses of the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in. Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are. A cognitive scientist need only look at what we have made — the hives we have created — to know what we think and what we believe to be important, as well as how we structure those thoughts and beliefs. It’s all there, in plain view, right out in the open; you don’t need CAT scans and cultural anthropologists to show you what’s going on inside the human mind; its inner workings are manifested in three dimensions, all around us. Our values and hopes are sometimes awfully embarrassingly easy to read. They’re right there — in the storefronts, museums, temples, shops, and office buildings and in how these structures interrelate, or sometimes don’t. They say, in their unique visual language, “This is what we think matters, this is how we live and how we play.” Riding a bike through all this is like navigating the collective neural pathways of some vast global mind. It really is a trip inside the collective psyche of a compacted group of people. A Fantastic Voyage, but without the cheesy special effects. One can sense the collective brain — happy, cruel, deceitful, and generous — at work and at play. Endless variations on familiar themes repeat and recur: triumphant or melancholic, hopeful or resigned, the permutations keep unfolding and multiplying.
David Byrne in Bicycle Diaries
(Noted in 2023-01-14)
The premise of They Live – that aliens are hiding behind human masks, enslaving America with subliminal messages and can only be detected with special glasses that are being distributed by subversive cells around the country – is pretty close to Romero without the excess, a provocative metaphor for a thinly veiled reality. But what really makes the film so affecting is its feeling for the acrid tastes and smells of life on the margins, its boisterous physicality (yes, that is the longest fight scene in movie history between Piper and Keith David, with his terrific slow burn sneer), its sense of hollow, lapping desperation, its sad prole poetry. Who else had the cunning, the compassion, the ingenuity, and the efficiency to fashion an ode to the working class during such a rock-bottom, sickeningly cheerful moment in American history? Similarly, the metaphor for media saturation and paralysis in In the Mouth of Madness (the books of a King-ish writer named Sutter Cane literally drive people insane) seems a bit straightforward simply taken on its own. But the way Carpenter delineates the experience of going mad, in which a world seen through long lenses keeps ripping away its cheap surfaces to reveal more cheap surfaces underneath, is a brilliant feat of low-budget engineering and a very disturbing encapsulation of the experience of living amidst so many media and their endless supply of product.
Kent Jones about John Carpenter (copied from here)
(Noted in 2022-09-10)
The usual causes
He asked me, “what were the usual causes or motives that made one country go to war with another?” I answered “they were innumerable; but I should only mention a few of the chief. Sometimes the ambition of princes, who never think they have land or people enough to govern; sometimes the corruption of ministers, who engage their master in a war, in order to stifle or divert the clamour of the subjects against their evil administration. Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more. Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
“Sometimes the quarrel between two princes is to decide which of them shall dispossess a third of his dominions, where neither of them pretend to any right. Sometimes one prince quarrels with another for fear the other should quarrel with him. Sometimes a war is entered upon, because the enemy is too strong; and sometimes, because he is too weak. Sometimes our neighbours want the things which we have, or have the things which we want, and we both fight, till they take ours, or give us theirs. It is a very justifiable cause of a war, to invade a country after the people have been wasted by famine, destroyed by pestilence, or embroiled by factions among themselves. It is justifiable to enter into war against our nearest ally, when one of his towns lies convenient for us, or a territory of land, that would render our dominions round and complete. If a prince sends forces into a nation, where the people are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to death, and make slaves of the rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from their barbarous way of living. It is a very kingly, honourable, and frequent practice, when one prince desires the assistance of another, to secure him against an invasion, that the assistant, when he has driven out the invader, should seize on the dominions himself, and kill, imprison, or banish, the prince he came to relieve. Alliance by blood, or marriage, is a frequent cause of war between princes; and the nearer the kindred is, the greater their disposition to quarrel; poor nations are hungry, and rich nations are proud; and pride and hunger will ever be at variance. For these reasons, the trade of a soldier is held the most honourable of all others; because a soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill, in cold blood, as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can.”
Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels
(Noted in 2022-07-21)
Less than empty words
Any crude statements of optimism would be more than misplaced: it would be the kind of lie that deceives no one, least of all the sharpened moral senses of the young, who see through the empty promises and reassurances of politicians with an anger we know is justified. If we told them that everything will be OK, these are less than empty words: they are a failure to take their experience seriously, and that, as the pessimists would tell us, is the one thing guaranteed to make their suffering worse.
Mara van der Lugt in Look on the dark side (Aeon, 26 April 2022)
(Noted in 2022-06-26)
A thing is
For yourself, I have but this last thing to say. Do not be afraid of the past. If people tell you that it is irrevocable, do not believe them. The past, the present and the future are but one moment in the sight of God, in whose sight we should try to live. Time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of Thought. The Imagination can transcend them, and move in a free sphere of ideal existences. Things, also, are in their essence what we choose to make them. A thing is, according to the mode in which one looks at it. ‘Where others’, says Blake, ‘see but the Dawn coming over the hill, I see the sons of God shouting for joy.’
Oscar Wilde in De Profundis
(Noted in 2022-04-17)
Society takes upon itself the right to inflict appalling punishments on the individual, but it also has the supreme vice of shallowness, and fails to realise what it has done. When the man’s punishment is over, it leaves him to himself: that is to say it abandons him at the very moment when its highest duty towards him begins. It is really ashamed of its own actions, and shuns those whom it has punished, as people shun a creditor whose debt they cannot pay, or one on whom they have inflicted an irreparable, an irredeemable wrong. I claim on my side that if I realise what I have suffered, Society should realise what it has inflicted on me: and there should be no bitterness or hate on either side.
Oscar Wilde in De Profundis
(Noted in 2022-03-25)
The sun has long been set
The sun has long been set,
The stars are out by twos and threes,
The little birds are piping yet
Among the bushes and trees;
There’s a cuckoo, and one or two thrushes,
And a far-off wind that rushes,
And a sound of water that gushes,
And the cuckoo’s sovereign cry
Fills all the hollow of the sky.
Who would “go parading”
In London, “and masquerading,”
On such a night of June
With that beautiful soft half-moon,
And all these innocent blisses?
On such a night as this is!
(Noted in 2021-08-18)
Considerations of Melville’s withdrawal, whether that withdrawal is dated from “The Confidence-Man” of 1857, or the move from Pittsfield in 1863, or “Battle-Pieces” of 1866, tend to center upon the neurasthenic symptoms reflected in family letters of the early fifties and come to a head in his long siege of illness in 1855. His biographers all — Newton Arvin most sensitively, Edwin Haviland Miller most relentlessly — read his life and works for the pattern of a neurosis that, after “Moby-Dick,” cramped and truncated a career of infinite promise. The ineffectual father, early dead in a dreadful scene of madness; the domineering mother; the shaming poverty amid genteel pretensions; the latent (or, in his shipboard years, active) these existed, as well as the pressing financial limitations of authorship and a general incomprehension of the expressive experiments the mature Melville was determined to make. But the golden day, as Lewis Mumford has called it, of American literature was no feast of best-sellers; of its four masterpieces — “The Scarlet Letter” (1850), “Moby-Dick” (1851), “Walden” (1854), and “Leaves of Grass” (first edition 1855) — only “The Scarlet Letter” was an immediate worldly success. There are other sorts of success, and Melville’s withdrawal — not so instant or so complete, we have seen, as the mythic image of it — can be viewed as itself a necessary and therefore successful artistic gesture.
John Updike in Herman Melville’s Soft Withdrawal (The New Yorker, May 1982)
(Noted in 2021-05-31)
They cut the throats of the packanimals and jerked and divided the meat and they traveled under the cape of the wild mountains upon a broad soda plain with dry thunder to the south and rumors of light. Under a gibbous moon horse and rider spanceled to their shadows on the snowblue ground and in each flare of lightning as the storm advanced those selfsame forms rearing with a terrible redundancy behind them like some third aspect of their presence hammered out black and wild upon the naked grounds. They rode on. They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds.
Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian
(Noted in 2021-04-16)
This was how I started to appreciate that, because I had been uncritically consuming other people’s versions of Africa – shaped by particulars of those people’s existence – I had learned to be afraid of it. This was reflected quietly in the way that I thought about the horizons of possibility, of what I thought was wrong or troubling about the continent, and what needed to be changed. Later, I would go back to my travel guides and realise something that today seems so painfully obvious: the vast majority of guidebooks, especially those written about Africa, are written by white men for white men. Does this matter? It shouldn’t, but of course it does. It is an unfortunate consequence of the world that we have built, and until we all develop the moral clarity to move away from it, it matters. (…) Race (like gender, sexuality and other markers of identity) shapes travel – and backpacking especially – in such palpable ways. As a black woman, I find there are spaces where my race and gender make me invisible, which means that I can immerse myself more fully into the lives of those around me. I can take a series of public buses from Cape Town to Nairobi over a month and have no one notice that I am thousands of kilometres from home. And there are spaces where the colour of my skin makes me hyper-visible, like taking the train from Vienna to Berne and being the only people in our carriage to get their identity documents checked.
Nanjala Nyabola in Race shapes travel: backpacking as a black woman (The Guardian, November 2019)
(Noted in 2020-11-23)