28 abril 2010

Wonderful hand-drawn maps

Last month, I asked Slate readers to send me their hand-drawn maps. The request was part of my series on signs, the tools that professionals use to orient us and direct us from point A to point B. But official signs aren't the only things that help us get around. Since early man first drew on his cave wall—including marks that some scholars argue were maps of local rivers and settlements—we've been sketching out routes to guide one another to the market and to the mountain top.
These humble maps can be beautiful. They can also be messy, indecipherable, inaccurate, and unattractive. Slate readers sent in nearly 200 maps, and they ranged from hasty scribbles on scrap paper to elaborate, multicolored renderings. No matter what it looks like, a handmade map offers several advantages over a road atlas or the directions you get from Google. Read on to see some of your most interesting hand-drawn maps—and to discover why homemade maps are often superior to the ones designed by the pros.
The crucial advantage of the handmade map is that it is designed for a particular person confronting a particular task. The map below, for example, was drawn for a reader named Marya by her grandmother. It depicts the back of her computer "and how to connect it to things." Although Marya could probably have gathered the information conveyed here by consulting user manuals, she would have had to flip through pages of useless gobbledygook, some of it in Korean and Portuguese. This map offers only the details Marya needs. "Every time I moved," Marya writes, "I went back to this map to find my way from one apparatus to another."
A proper atlas must include every street name, not just the names of the streets you're looking for. By comparison, the map below—drawn by Slate reader Saral Kaushik to direct a friend to a club in Soho, London—edits ruthlessly. There's not much here, but the minimal amount of information makes for a map that's easier to use than one that's cluttered with detail. The small Saturn shape at right evokes the London Underground roundel and signifies a station; "TCR" stands for Tottenham Court Road, the name of the stop. Two relevant streets—Oxford, where the underground exits, and Greek, where the club is—are named. The others are unnamed, or left off entirely.
Homemade maps also play with scale in fascinating ways. Paul Stiff, a professor of information design who's been collecting hand-drawn maps for decades, reviewed all the submitted maps for Slate, and he was intrigued by the one below, which was drawn by an Australian architect to direct his daughter from Brisbane to his farm. Stiff notes: "If you compare this with a topographical map, you'll see that he's compressed the scale astonishingly." There's less detail closer to home, where roads are familiar, Stiff says, "but the scale expands the nearer we get to the destination because we need more information in places that are new to us." Indeed, the distance from Brisbane, at the top of the map, to the Murwillumbah turnoff, depicted just below it, is more than 40 miles; the rest of the journey, which takes up most of the page, is only 20 miles or so.
Alexander Calder used the same trick in 1949 when directing his friend Ben Shahn from New York City to the artist's home in Roxbury, Conn. Calder omits much of the journey, assuming that Shahn can find his way to the Merritt Parkway, where the map below begins. And Calder devotes almost one-third of this map to the final five miles of the trip, the part where Shahn must navigate unfamiliar local roads. The map, submitted to Slate by an archivist at the Smithsonian, is striking in part because it uses Calder's familiar bold lines and primary hues. But it also conveys information with elegant simplicity. Note how Calder uses arrows from the address stamp in the upper right-hand corner of the page: A blue one runs from the name of his road to his drawing of the road on the map; a yellow one runs from his own name to his home. The arrows eliminate additional labeling, Stiff notes, making the map more legible.
You don't have to be an internationally renowned artist to draw a map that's more useful than a road atlas. Consider this map of Fort Wayne, Ind., submitted by reader Hollie Briggs. It was drawn hastily by her father-in-law—in pink crayon—to show the way from his home (the circle at the top of the map) back to the interstate. The map worked so well when it was made six years ago that Briggs has kept it and used it ever since. Like Calder's map, it eliminates unnecessary information: There are a number of side streets between Union Chapel Road and Dupont, for example, but Briggs' father-in-law left them off because they're irrelevant to the route.
Good hand-drawn maps do more than edit out useless details. They often ignore the mapmaking convention that puts north at the top. That's what Slate reader Don Davis has done in the next map, a well-ordered guide to an area near St. Louis. The drawing is for a traveler coming south on I-55, and it puts south—not north—at the top of the page. Information designer Paul Stiff notes that Davis' approach is common among nonprofessionals because it makes maps easier to use: "If you're following a map from the bottom of the page to the top, it means you don't have to switch left and right." You also don't have to flip the map upside down to line it up with the road unfurling ahead of you.
Handmade maps also tend toward straight lines and right angles, a phenomenon spatial psychologists refer to as "rectilinear normalization." The world is full of squiggly roads that intersect at oblique angles. When we envision space, though, we tend to reduce such complexities to relatively simple geometric forms. Consider this next map, of Seeley Lake, Mont., drawn by Slate reader Bonnie Wasson. "If you look at these roads on a map of the world according to Google," Stiff notes, "it's like a bag of snakes. Writhing and tortuous and twisted. But it would be crazy to reproduce that, every twist and turn, for your friends." So Wasson simplifies reality, imposing a nonexistent grid on her town. The map succeeded in impressing its users, with one guest reporting: "She does a better job than Map Quest!"
Another advantage of personal cartography: Homemade maps often include error indicators, signs that you've taken a wrong turn or gone too far. Steve Kortenkamp produced the map below—of Safford Peak in Arizona—for the young hikers in his son's Boy Scout troop. You can discern his concern for their well-being in the many warnings he includes: the "barbed wire" you'll hit if you take a wrong turn for the horse ranch, the "cave where you end up if you miss the turn" for the summit, and the "Bridge of Death," where hikers encounter a "sheer drop on both sides!" The map uses charming drawings to orient hikers, highlighting a saguaro grove and memorable rock outcroppings. Kortenkamp explains that he took such care because the trails are poorly marked, and stranded hikers sometimes "end up calling 911, clinging overnight to the sheer rock face, and finally being plucked by helicopter in the morning." Using this map, his son's Boy Scout troop fared much better.
Hand-drawn maps are often most useful in places like Safford Peak, where the terrain is wild and the routes uncertain. Slate reader Ruben Flores was part of an emergency medical team working in a remote part of Kashmir after the Pakistan earthquake in 2005. "Our team was supposed to work out of an established field hospital," Flores reports. "Our helicopter, however, dropped us off about an hour's walk through impassable terrain. Oops. A Pakistan Army Colonel received us and helped us get our bearings. … With the help of this map, we were able to plan mobile clinics to reach those who had been without any access to healthcare." Stiff observes that it's clear how much the "emergency map" pictured below was needed and used: "It shows all the signs of wear and age. It's been torn and damaged and folded countless times. It looks kept as a token, a memorial to that experience of being there."
Hand-drawn maps can be a boon for first responders, who must travel swiftly and can't afford to get lost. Washington, D.C., firefighter Oleg Pelekhaty submitted the map below, drawn on a stationhouse blackboard by his "wagon driver" Tony Kelleher. "To get his job, Tony studied for a year: hundred blocks, alleys, addresses and hydrants. That's right, he even knows where every hydrant in the surrounding area is, and just about every address, even the oddball ones. Every day, Tony draws a map on the blackboard, from memory, to help us 'back step' guys learn the area." This map, which shows an eight-block stretch of 14th Street Northwest, doesn't highlight a specific route, but it shows potential destinations with more detail than a standard road map. That morning's exercise for Pelekhaty's crew: "[G]ive the address of each numbered building."
Although Google is in the process of mapping some interior spaces, it will be a long time before the world's interiors are comprehensively charted by the pros. Consequently, hand-drawn maps are an essential tool for travelers who need to navigate complex areas indoors. Slate reader Maryanne Mutch sent us a guide to the Jordanian border terminal at the Alenbi Bridge crossing between Israel and Jordan. She designed the map below to help the recipient locate the cheapest transportation options, group taxis and buses that are easier to find from the Palestinian (and nontourist-oriented) side of the terminal. "Of course, if it is your first time through," she says, you may "have no idea that the Palestinian side even exists." Her map conveys both the peculiarities of the space and thrifty advice only an experienced traveler could provide.
Paul Stiff is confident that personalized route planners like Google Maps won't render hand-drawn maps like the ones collected here obsolete any time soon. As we saw in the submissions from Slate readers, homemade maps can be better than professional ones at eliminating extraneous detail, playing with scale, simplifying complex forms, and mapping remote terrain or interiors. Indeed, some computer scientists have examined whether professional route-mapping algorithms could produce maps more like the ones we draw. MacArthur grant winner Maneesh Agrawala developed software called Line Drive that works along these lines, making computer maps more legible by distorting scale and straightening out bendy roads. Like Paul Stiff, Agrawala studies information display, and he became interested in Web-based driving directions when he noticed the limitations of their maps: "They almost never produce a map that I can actually use to get to the destination," Agrawala told me. "Really the text directions are what I end up using." When he rolled out Line Drive, users responded positively to the maps in surveys, and Microsoft bought the technology in the early '00s. Although it hasn't been incorporated into Bing Maps, Microsoft's current mapping platform, you can still find and use Line Drive maps at mappoint.msn.com, if you use a browser other than Explorer and click on the radio button that says "Line Drive." Asked to plot a drive from the Empire State Building to Old North Church in Boston, Line Drive produces the following image:

Even if all computerized route maps eventually learn to mimic the most useful aspects of our homemade creations, we'll keep drawing maps for one another and for ourselves. We'll do it because we'll come up with new things to chart and convey, and because we like to share our spatial understanding of the world. In the late '90s, Justin M. Spivey drew the map below to help his friends avoid the Delaware Turnpike toll ($1.25 when the map was drawn; $4 today). He says it worked better as a "conversation piece" than as a map, even at the time; it was a way to reveal his clever solution. Today, of course, Google will give you the same route if you click the "avoid tolls" option. But the resulting directions won't have the mischievous verve of the instructions below.

And it's unlikely that any software would produce the following map, drawn for a Slate reader by a friend: It's a guide to the neighborhoods of Paris, put in terms a young New Yorker can understand. Although the map is simplistic and juvenile, the effort to match Parisian arrondissements with demographically corresponding areas in Brooklyn is a conceptually interesting way to present information about an unfamiliar town.

Above all, we'll keep making maps because we're fond of them. In 2008, artist and graphic designer Kris Harzinski founded the Web site handmaps.org, which hosts a collection of beautiful specimens. Harzinski started the site after he found a map in which a North Dakotan sketched the United States, jumbling much of the East Coast. He believes we'll keep making maps: "The Google Map is sort of generic, whereas you can add so much of your own interpretation of the place, you can add your own personality to the place" when you draw it. "What's most interesting to me about the maps is the stories behind them. Each map is a particular record of something that happened in time."

I was similarly moved by the maps readers sent in, each of which told a story—of a research trip, a tractor ride, a summer vacation, a year abroad, a romance. Readers sent maps from their childhood and maps from their children. This one, drawn in 1998 by Nathan English, charts rivers and campsites in Nepal, and the locations of some geochemical samples his team was gathering there. It's a map, a guide, a to-do list, and a memento, and it tells a story more eloquent than any street sign.

Every Generation deserves a new Translation

Who wrote the Milan Kundera you love? Answer: Michael Henry Heim. And what about the Orhan Pamuk you think is so smart? Maureen Freely. Or the imaginatively erudite Roberto Calasso? Well, that was me.
The translator should do his job and then disappear. The great, charismatic, creative writer wants to be all over the globe. And the last thing he wants to accept is that the majority of his readers are not really reading him.
His readers feel the same. They want intimate contact with true greatness. They don't want to know that this prose was written on survival wages in a maisonette in Bremen, or a high-rise flat in the suburbs of Osaka. Which kid wants to hear that her JK Rowling is actually a chain-smoking pensioner? When I meet readers of my own novels, they are disappointed I translate as well, as if this were demeaning to an author they hoped was "important".
There is complicity between globalisation and individualism; we can all watch any film, read any book, wherever made or written, and have the same experience. What a turn-off to be reminded that in fact we need an expert to mediate; what the Chinese get is a mediated version of me; what I'm reading is a mediated Dostoevsky.
Some years ago Kazuo Ishiguro castigated fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult for easy translation. One reason he had developed such a lean style, he claimed, was to make sure his books could be reproduced all over the world.
What if Shakespeare had eased off the puns for his French readers? Or Dickens had worried about getting Micawber-speak into Japanese?
Translation has been even more of an issue for Kundera, concerned his style was being made to sound banal. The translator's "supreme authority", Kundera thundered in Testaments Betrayed, "should be the author's personal style... But most translators obey another authority, that of the conventional version of 'good French, or German or Italian'."
Yet deviation from a linguistic norm only has meaning in the context of the language from which it sprang. When Lawrence writes of an insomniac Gudrun in Women in Love that "she was destroyed into perfect consciousness", he gets his frisson. But what if destruction was understood as a transformation; what if consciousness was seen negatively?
You'll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness. Imagine shifting the Tower of Pisa into downtown Manhattan and convincing everyone it's in the right place; that's the scale of the task. Writing my own novels has always required a huge effort of organisation and imagination; but, sentence by sentence, translation is intellectually more taxing. On the positive side, the hands-on experience of how another writer puts together his work is worth a year's creative writing classes. It is a loss that few writers "stoop" to translation these days.
Of course, if the translator is poor there will be awkward moments of correspondence (you get the content but not the style); alternatively the prose will be fluent but off the mark (you get style but not content). The translator who is on song – the one who has the deepest understanding of the original and the greatest resources in his own language – brings style and content together in something altogether new that is also astonishingly faithful to its model.
Occasionally, a translator is invited to the festival of individual genius as the guest of a great man whose career he has furthered; made, even. He is Mr Eco in New York, Mr Rushdie in Germany. He is not recognised for the millions of decisions he made, but because he had the fortune to translate Rushdie or Eco. If he did wonderful work for less fortunate authors, we would never have heard of him.
This is why one has to applaud Harvill Secker for launching a prize for younger translators, one of the few prizes to recognise a translator not because he is associated with a famous name, but for translating a selected story more convincingly than others.
Each generation needs its own translators. While a fine work of literature never needs updating, a translation, however wonderful, gathers dust. Reading Pope's Homer, we hear Pope more than Homer. Reading Constance Garnett's Tolstoy, we hear the voice of late-19th-century England. We need to go back to the great works and bring them into our own idiom. To do that we need fresh minds and voices. For a few minutes every year we really must acknowledge that translators are important, and make sure we get the best. 

25 abril 2010


Aquele que na hora da vitória
respeitou o vencido

Aquele que deu tudo e não pediu a paga

Aquele que na hora da ganância
Perdeu o apetite

Aquele que amou os outros e por isso
Não colaborou com a sua ignorância ou vício

Aquele que foi «Fiel à palavra dada à ideia tida»
como antes dele mas também por ele
Pessoa disse.

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

Não me digam mais nada senão morro
aqui neste lugar dentro de mim
a terra de onde venho é onde moro
o país de que sou é estar aqui.

Não me digam mais nada senão falo
e eu não posso falar eu estou de pé.
De pé como um poeta ou um cavalo
de pé como quem deve estar quem é.

Aqui ninguém me diz quando me vendo
a não ser os que eu amo os que eu entendo
os que podem ser tanto como eu.

Aqui ninguém me põe a pata em cima
porque é de baixo que me vem acima
a força do lugar que for o meu.

José Carlos Ary dos Santos

17 abril 2010

Ethical Vampires

Vampires figure the anxieties of their cultural moment. They come out at night—and during periods of social and political turmoil, and their habits and looks mutate to personify the fears of the age in which they appear. Bram Stoker’s Dracula dramatized Victorian fears of sex as morally corrupting and fears of English culture as threatened by invading foreigners.  The vampires of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, published primarily in the 1980’s, shared a certain kinship with the ruthless, amoral financier characters of the age, Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Patrick Batemen of Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho, but their most striking feature was their homosexuality. Rice’s vampirism as blood-borne pathogen also came to seem a metaphor for AIDS—a taunting metaphor, since her beautiful men could not die.

coverSo what about our vampires—the vampires of Charlaine HarrisSookie Stackhouse novels or those of Stephenie Meyer’s ubiquitous Twilight?  Our vampires seem a domesticated, morally evolved breed. Meyer’s vampires have been defanged altogether (Meyer only agreed to sell the film rights with the caveat that the Cullens could not be depicted with fangs in any film version), while the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (better known as HBO’s True Blood) have discretely retractable fangs. Both authors’ vampires are committed to humane, sustainable diets. Indeed, if Michael Pollan wrote for vampires, he might recommend the diet devised by the vampires of Meyer’s Twilight. The members of the Cullen household, the forward-thinking vampire “family” at the center of the series, forswear feeding on humans. “I don’t want to be a monster,” Edward Cullen, Meyer’s teenage vampire hero explains to his human beloved, Bella Swan, when she asks him about his diet.

Turning from the gruesome practices of most of the rest of the vampire community in Meyer’s alternate version of contemporary America, the Cullens feed only on wild animals they hunt in the woods around their home on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. And even in this (by some standards) less murderous diet, they take a sustainable approach, carefully alternating their hunting grounds so as not to decimate the local populations of deer and cougars.  Carlisle, the patriarch of the Cullen clan and the originator of what they refer to as their vampire “vegetarianism,” goes even further in his determination to be good. Through hundreds of years of practicing this vegetarianism, Carlisle has perfected his self-control to such a degree that he remains seemingly unmoved in the presence of human blood. His control is so great that he can practice human medicine. Not only does he not kill human beings—he heals them and saves their lives.

The vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are also known as the Southern Vampire Mysteries and are the basis of Alan Ball’s  hit HBO series True Blood, share with Meyer’s Twilight a kinder, gentler vampire whose physical beauty seems the outward sign of his moral improvement. Gone are the days of the repulsive and remorseless Count Dracula, with his hairy palms and rank breath, his insatiable hunger for blood. Like Twilight, Harris’ series presents a morally enlightened vampire. Set in an alternate version of the contemporary American South, the Sookie novels depict a world in which vampires have declared themselves publicly, sought and won some civil rights, and live openly amongst humans. Their emancipation from the shadowy world of myth and legend is possible because a synthetic blood developed by the Japanese allows them to refrain from feeding on humans.
Living only on bottled blood, however, doesn’t satisfy like organic warm-from-the-body human blood. Fortunately for the vampires and humans who occupy the Sookieverse, Harris’ mythology also revises the nature of the vampire bite. Unlike Meyer’s vegetarian Cullens, Harris’ vampires still feed on humans, but do so more considerately and in moderation. In the Sookie novels, being bitten by a vampire isn’t normally lethal, nor does it turn one into a vampire. In fact, the vampire’s bite, a quintessential symbol of sex (penetration, exchange of fluids), becomes pleasurable for human and vampire alike rather than damning or damaging: “I felt Bill’s teeth against my neck, and I said “Yes!” I felt his fangs penetrate, but it was a small pain, an exciting pain,” Sookie says of her first bite, given to her by the prosaically named vampire Bill Compton. (”I thought it might be Antoine, or Basil, or Langford!” Sookie responds, laughing, when Bill first tells her his name.) But the point of vampire Bill’s prosaic name is that he’s one of us—that vampires are people too.

Harris’ and Ball’s versions of Sookie’s world are full of such prosaic details of modern vampire life. Their vampires play Wii Golf, serve Fresca to guests, shop at the mall, wash their hair with Herbal Essence shampoo, wear Dockers, renovate their homes. For Ball and Harris, vampires are people too, both materially and morally. And while the melodramatic pitch of Twilight makes Edward and his kin seem like they couldn’t possibly do such grubbily vulgar things as shopping or styling their hair, their artfully tousled locks and well-cut leather jackets tell another tale.  These vampires, our vampires (whether we like it or not), do and feel human things: They attend high school, practice abstinence and medicine, tend bar, go to the prom, get married, create computer databases, lobby for civil rights. They cry, fall in love, feel guilty, worry about whether they have souls and what state those souls might be in.  Which is why they’ve gone vegetarian—or at least Whole Foods sustainable.

Our vegetarian vampires, I think, are afflicted with the same crises of conscience that we are as first-world twenty-first century humans. We eat too much, we shop too much, we use too much fuel, water, land; we mistreat the animals on which we depend for food and the other peoples whose labor produces for us the cheap abundant goods we have all grown so used to. The vampire’s insatiable hunger for blood mirrors our insatiable hungers for food, wealth, property, and possessions. Contemporary vampire fiction mirrors our collective anxiety about our need for self-discipline and a return to a more humane approach to our fellow beings: Now, the vampire, the most appetitive and unrepentantly murderous of our culture’s mythic archetypes, restrains himself in our popular fiction. He has become a “vegetarian” of sorts, the vampire version of a Whole Foods shopper, who prefers humanely raised meat, free range eggs, sustainably farmed produce. From the shimmering pâleur of the vampire radiates something new and hardly otherworldly: an aura of white liberal guilt.

But being kinder to your food, whatever it might be, isn’t the be all and end all of ethical living, nor does it mean you’re not a vampire. Harris and Ball’s versions of the Sookieverse acknowledge this: that even as we try mightily to live ethically, the dangerous, cruel, and illicit—the side of human character that the vampire has always represented—cannot be vanquished altogether. Vampire Bill, born and raised in the antebellum South, may be an attentive suitor and a perfect gentleman whom Sookie can take home to her grandmother, but he’s also a self-professed murderer and his sexual appetite can turn terrifying.  All of the characters in Sookie’s world, both human and vampire, have this same moral ambivalence.
Harris/Ball’s vampire is not all bad, but their human, in turn, is not all good. The world of Meyer’s Twilight, on the other hand, embraces Stoker’s basically strict segregation of good and evil. The heroes and heroines of Twilight are all understood to be morally exemplary. Meyer often has Bella compare Edward’s body and soul to that of an “angel” (and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t offer a single sly wink to let you know that she knows it’s all a bit over the top—which is really impressive in a way.  I certainly couldn’t get through 2000+ pages of treacly teenage melodrama without a single devious aside to my audience).

So, in both Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires do and feel human things–but a crucial philosophical difference between Harris’ books (and Ball’s series) and Meyer’s remains. Harris insists, as Meyer does not, that people are vampires—that people do and feel vampiric things—rape, murder, illicit and subversive sexual desire, manipulation, betrayal. After all, the first vampires, the sadistic historical figures out of whose strange cruelties the idea of the vampire came, were human beings: the fifteenth-century Romanian prince Vlad Dracul (meaning “dragon” or “devil”), whose name Bram Stoker immortalized in Dracula, and Erzébet Báthory (known as the Beast of Csejthe), the sixteenth-century Hungarian countess sometimes referred to as the first female serial killer. Báthory tortured and killed hundreds of young serving girls and bathed in their blood, believing that the blood of virgins had powerful restorative and magical properties. Prince Vlad was known for torturing his enemies and citizens alike, often en masse—usually by impaling them on stakes. He liked to make public spectacles of these executions, sometimes eating meals while watching them. He was also, more mundanely, known for unscrupulous labor practices such as working his peasant laborers to death. Karl Marx refers to this exploitative cruelty of Vlad’s in Capital and uses the figure of the vampire repeatedly to describe the behavior of the capitalist—though he never makes the connection between the vampire and his historical forebear (nor does Marx to Vlad by name; he refers to him “a Wallachian boyar,” but the practices he describes are Vlad’s).

coverThis basic connection between human monstrosity and the vampire is explicit in the Harris novels. Harris’ vampires have gotten a little nicer, but her humans have picked up the slack. As her vampire characters limit their consumption of human blood, her human characters drink vampire blood in a tidy little economy of gore. Vampire blood heals humans with extraordinary speed, makes them more attractive, sharpens their senses, and enhances their libidos. It is the recreational drug of choice in Harris’ fictional world. In the first two scenes of blood drinking in the first Sookie novel, Dead Until Dark, Harris reverses the traditional roles of human and vampire: vampire becomes victim, human becomes blood drinker. In the first, an unsavory trailer trash couple, the Ratrays, begin draining the vampire Bill Compton using needles and medical tubing. They plan to sell his blood as a recreational drug.   In the second scene of blood taking, human Sookie, who has been beaten almost to death by the Ratrays for preventing their attempted draining/murder, drinks vampire Bill’s blood at his insistence.  At first, Sookie gags on the blood, but as she forces herself to swallow, knowing it’s her only chance of survival, she begins to enjoy it: “Suddenly, the blood tasted good, salty, the stuff of life . . . my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth. I felt better with every swallow.”

This human taste for blood becomes the emblem of other vampiric traits. Harris’ and Ball’s human characters can be arrogant, chilly, and race-proud: murderers, rapists, self-righteous hate mongers, child molesters. Harris’ vampires may inevitably have a detached, cool demeanor, an unnerving lack of human emotional response, a disregard for laws and a disdain for human lives, but on balance the people in her books are little better. Her heroine’s most potentially devastating encounters come more often at the hands of humans, rather than vampires. Sookie’s great uncle molests her as a child; a local man revolted by relationships between human women and vampires attempts to kill her when she starts dating vampire Bill; an anti-vampire church called The Fellowship of the Sun blows up a hotel during a massive vampire conference killing scores of humans and vampires and nearly killing Sookie.

Alan Ball’s version of the Sookieverse also inverts the traditional structure of the vampire genre (vampires = bad; humans = good) to expose human moral failings, cruelties, abuses of power. In one of True Blood’s most socially canny plots, a young woman addicted to vampire blood coerces her boyfriend into kidnapping a gentle, paunchy middle-aged vampire.  They tie him up with silver chains and keep him in the basement, thereby assuring themselves of an unlimited supply of V or V-juice, as vampire blood is called in Ball’s series. The vampire starves and becomes weakened in his captivity and his hunger causes him excruciating pain. He senses that his female captor is going to kill him and confronts her about it, as she’s milking blood from his tender, weakened arm. She punches him savagely and commands him angrily: “Don’t you dare get morally superior on me.” She tells him that she gave up a full scholarship to Vassar to work in an impoverished village in Guatamala, helping to bring clean water to the village. She continues, “I am an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is miniscule ’cause I know that ultimately we’re all just a single living being. But you are not.”

The scene indicts Whole Foods piety as morally insufficient—as a frail ethical blind that can obscure and justify monstrous selfishness and cruelty.  By reversing the roles of human and vampire, turning the human into the torturer, the scene suggests that we humans are the vampires now—that we have always been. For Ball and Harris, the essence of the vampire is a ruthless, violent selfishness that characterizes fanged and unfanged characters—humans and vampires—alike. The Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood continually pose the question, “Who’s the vampire now?”  They repeatedly refuse easy distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, vampire and human.

In another such equivocal scene, an ancient vampire saves Sookie from an aspiring human rapist.  This vampire, it turns out, believes himself damned and intends to destroy himself by walking out into daylight (where the sun’s rays will burn him to death). “We take the blood of innocents,” he explains, when Sookie asks why he thinks himself an abomination. She counters his claim with the question, “Who is innocent?” He says simply, “children”—the vampire fed exclusively on children for centuries. But Sookie, in gratefulness for his kindness, still decides to bear witness to his self-destruction, a decision that the vampire doesn’t understand. “I am an evil creature,” he tells her. (A confession that might seem more noble and poignant in light of the Catholic Church’s failures this week to take such responsibility for crimes against children.) “But you did a good thing, saving me,” Sookie responds. To her own surprise, she cries when the vampire steps into sunlight and begins to disintegrate.
Meyer’s fiction, on the other hand, scrupulously avoids such subtle moral shading, favoring instead the stark good/evil duality of Victorian vampire fiction.

Through her contact with vampires, the danger and intrigues and moral conundrums they bring into her life, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse discovers her own primitive, uncivilized self—and a capacity for violence. Sookie may be friendly, hard-working, kind, and generous most of the time, but when she drinks from vampire Bill a second time, she begins to feel her own vampiric longings and potential:
A little ripple of madness went through me . . . I drank and saw visions, visions all with a background of darkness, of . . . going hunting, the thrill of the run through the woods, the prey panting ahead and the excitement of its fear; pursuit, legs pumping, hearing the thrumming of blood through the veins of the pursued.
In later books this “primitive self, the truer me,” as Sookie calls it, rises to the surface when she’s threatened. Several times she kills in self-defense without remorse. She is attracted to several men at once, and acts on these desires without feeling ashamed of them.
coverTwilight’s moral universe is rather different. The wariness of fixed, inflexible human characters and easy moral absolutes, continually apparent in Sookie’s world (in which the only consistently demonized social group is the fundamentalist, occasionally terrorist anti-vampire church, The Fellowship of the Sun) is absent in Stephenie Meyer’s. This is in part because Meyer’s heroine, Bella Swan, a sheltered, self-absorbed teenage girl, narrates the majority of the Twilight novels. 
coverKenneth Turan, reviewing the first Twilight movie in the Los Angeles Times, argued that the film succeeds, “because it treats high school emotions with unwavering, uncompromising seriousness. Much as you may not want to, you have to acknowledge what’s been accomplished here.” Turan is right: the movie succeeds because, like the novels, it takes adolescent emotions—in all of their naive absolutism and world-consuming intensity—very seriously.
Bella certainly believes, as only young lovers can, that no one has ever loved as she does, that her love will be eternal and absolute, that no man before Edward has ever been so deserving of love. And Meyer’s plot allows this to be true. From the first time she sees Edward, Bella is filled with a fascinated reverence for his beauty.  He and his family are all “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful.” Edward in particular, has “the face of an angel,” and his face, Bella insists, is the outward sign of transcendent, spiritual beauties: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body.”
Bella feels this—without qualification, without doubt—through all of the two thousand and some pages of her saga, and Meyer seems fully invested in her teenage heroine’s worldview. Edward becomes like a drug to Bella: “Edward’s lips were like a shot of some addictive chemical straight into my nervous system. I was instantly craving more.” When she’s away from him, “each tick of the second hand aches like the pulse of blood behind a bruise.”
In order to enjoy the Twilight novels, you have to be willing to enter into this intense emotional and hormonal fundamentalism, the twin of the moral fundamentalism apparent in Meyer’s refusal of nuance and ambivalence in favor of an either/or approach to good and evil. You have to believe that Edward and Bella’s love is eternal, unqualified, rare, imperturbable—that it will never waiver or end. Meyer’s plot never calls these teenage certainties into question. The final pages of the novel find Bella more certain than ever of her love for Edward: “No one’s ever loved anyone as much as I love you.”  Nor does Meyer’s saga question the goodness of the Cullens—though other than Carlisle, the doctor vampire, they don’t do any useful work in their community, aren’t particularly friendly or generous, and generally seem to live only to satisfy their own material desires (for cars, clothes, travel).
And even by the generous standards of fantasy, there’s something obscene about Twilight’s happy ending. It denies its heroine nothing and asks nothing of her. No major characters die in Twilight; no one has to sacrifice or lose anything they love, especially not Bella. Meyer suggests repeatedly that Bella’s determination to be made a vampire so that she can be with Edward forever will require heavy sacrifices on her part: that she will not be able to see her parents or her best friend again, that she will not be able to have children, that, when she gets pregnant with Edward’s vampire baby, carrying it to term will kill her. But none of these sacrifices are required.
coverThe final book, Breaking Dawn, promises that most sacrosanct of fantasy conventions, an epic battle between the Cullens and the Volturi (evil vampire royalty who still feed remorselessly on humans and who believe that Edward and Bella’s half-vampire/half-human child, Renesmee (a name Bella invents by combining her mother’s name and that of Edward’s mother), presents a threat to the vampire community as a whole). However, when the good and bad vampires finally gather on the field of battle, Bella’s new vampire talent–the ability to shield all she loves with an invisible, impenetrable force field–immobilizes the enemy. The battle’s over before it starts. And so begins happily ever after “forever and forever and forever” for beautiful, rich, immortal Bella Cullen, who will spend eternity with her beautiful, rich, immortal family, eternally in love and in lust with the god-like Edward. It makes Harry Potter, with its dead parents, friends, classmates, teachers, and relatives, look like brutal realism.
Reading Meyer against Harris is a lesson in the varieties of fantasy. Meyer’s fantasy is total—as much a fantasy about human nature and love as it is a generic fantasy.  In Twilight, perfect happiness and love, perfect goodness, and perfect material satisfaction are all bestowed on the heroine. Harris’ fantasy, by contrast, is temperate, self-aware. Sookie is a waitress; she’s never been to college; she has no health insurance. In between her forays into the luxurious and exciting world of vampires, she worries pretty constantly about money—medical bills, her need for a new car, a new roof.
coverHarris’ characters are also readers of genre fiction. We see a Tami Hoag suspense novel tucked into Sookie’s coworker’s apron; Sookie’s grandmother reads Danielle Steele; Sookie repeatedly professes a love of romances and mysteries. In True Blood, we catch a glimpse of Sookie’s grandmother reading a Charlaine Harris novel. These images of escapist reading in Harris’ own novel series don’t allow her reader the sort of total immersion fantasy that Twilight demands. Harris’ novels show you yourself engaged in fantasy (Look! That’s me! That’s what I’m doing—reading vampire-romance-mystery novels, just like Sookie’s granny, trying to forget about being unemployed/bored senseless by work/behind on the mortgage!).  And through Sookie’s incessant money worries Harris incorporates into her fictions the mundane oppressions that create the need for escapist literature. In this, Harris’ books offer a metacommentary of sorts on their own social and emotional function and that of genre fiction more generally (and please forgive me for using the word “metacommentary” about the Sookie novels–I know it’s at least silly, possibly profane). Sookie dates and goes to work for the vampires just as I might pick up one of Harris’ vampire mysteries: to leave the real world and all of its tedious, squalid hassles behind.
Harris knows what her books are and what they do and she won’t let her readers forget it. She forces you to see yourself trying to escape your own life and in so doing she refuses you the total fantasy that Meyer offers—she reminds you that escapism and fantasy are just that—fantasy and escapism: They are not real, they are not ultimately the solution to the oppressions of daily life.  Like Sookie, I always have to go back to the hassles of real life (unemployment, health insurance, family drama)—have to close the book, leave behind the vampires in all of their impossible glamour and titillating danger.
Harris is also keenly aware that class as much as race is at the heart of our cultural myths about vampires. Sookie works for vampires because she’s poor and they are wealthy (through long lives and disdain for human laws, circumstances the Harris vampires are unapologetic about). They pay well and she can’t afford not to, despite the dangers this work inevitably entails. And Sookie’s unabashed about how dazzling and tempting the luxuries of vampire wealth are to her as a small town barmaid, though the money’s not so intoxicating that it keeps her from being regularly revolted by the machinations and violence that vampire business usually entails (Harris’ vampires are engaged in business or work of some kind, unlike Meyer’s).  Making money is bloody, dangerous work—a truth that Alan Ball’s True Blood makes queasily literal.
coverOn her first assignment for the Viking vampire and nightclub entrepreneur, Erik Northman, Sookie gets a Carrie-style blood soaking when she (using her telepathic powers at Erik’s behest) discovers that Erik’s vampire partner has been embezzling. The vampire embezzler is staked and erupts into a fountain of blood–gasp and guffaw-inducing in its abundance. Anna Paquin, who plays Ball’s Sookie and wears a lovely white dress in this scene, ends up as red and slick and gooey as Erzsébet Báthory after one of her blood baths (see Part I of this essay for more on her).  
And this pretty much sets the tone for all of Sookie’s vampire work: she ends up bloody, battered, sore, almost dead.  It’s working for the man—er, vampire. It’s another day in the salt mines. Harris doesn’t have any illusions about what it means to be socially vulnerable, to live somewhere around the poverty line. While part of Sookie’s motivation in accepting the vampires’ lavish payments for her telepathic services is definitely the allure of their world of beauty and intrigue and money, sometimes, even when she’d rather not, Sookie feels like she doesn’t have much of a choice—as a single woman with no college education or health insurance whose day job is waiting tables and whose savings are dwindling.
Meyer, on the other hand, attempts to obscure the workings of class and money in her books, but she acknowledges these even as she try to hide them. The first vampires, Vlad the Impaler and Erzsébet Báthory, fed on the lives and labor of their subjects. The Cullens, Meyer’s enlightened vampires, don’t literally feed on human beings—and yet their whole monied way of life is the product of a different sort of feeding on others, a metaphorical but nonetheless illicit sort of feeding. The Cullens’ beautiful houses, cars, parties, clothes—their leisured and essentially dilettantish lives (playing cards, hunting, driving Ferraris, composing melodies on the piano, shopping) are all funded by supernatural insider trading:
Edward had a lot of money—I didn’t even want to think about how much.  Money meant next to nothing to Edward or the rest of the Cullens.  It was just something that accumulated when you had unlimited time on your hands and a sister who had an uncanny ability to predict trends in the stock market
Vampirism, in its most basic structural form, is not a collection of campy trappings (pale skin, pointed canines), but the ability and willingness to appropriate the life, work, property, and livelihood of others. Edward’s sister Alice is psychic and while Meyer never shows Alice having visions of the future of the stock market, here Meyer rather unapologetically reveals insider trading as the source of the Cullen’s unbelievable wealth—this, and an unlimited time in which to wait for investment returns.  The Cullens, for all of their virtuous vegetarianism and pangs of conscience, are no better than the arch-villain Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, no better than the host of “vampire capitalists” who, by some accounts, who brought the global financial system to its knees in December of 2008.
Bella is wary of the Cullens’ money while she is human, and she claims that this is because she has nothing to give in return:
Edward didn’t seem to understand why I objected to him spending money on me—why it made me uncomfortable if he took me to an expensive restaurant in Seattle, why he wasn’t allowed to buy me a car that could reach speeds over fifty-five miles an hour, or why I wouldn’t let him pay my college tuition…Edward thought I was being unnecessarily difficult.
But Bella, as usual, has it wrong. She’s wary because she knows it’s bloody money (never mind Edward’s condescending paternalism—which, creepily enough, is appropriate given that he’s around 100 to Bella’s 18). Bella’s wariness here is motivated by the same horror that made her recoil from her brief glimpse of a Volturi (i.e. evil, human-eating vampire) feast: a flock of unsuspecting tourists are ushered into the turreted throne room of the Volturi’s Italian castle and happily begin to snap pictures. In horror, Bella watches the doors close and lock on the unsuspecting lambs; she hears their screams as the feeding begins.
Intuitively, she recoils from the Cullens’ money for the same reason (at least while she’s human—once she’s a vampire she revels in it). The “vegetarians” no longer suck blood from human bodies, but they suck money from the labor of others through illegal means.  It’s not quite as physically repulsive or terrifying but it’s still not quite in line with Bella’s insistence that Edward and family are spiritually radiant individuals.
And so we’re back to the beginning, to Erzébet Báthory, Vlad the Impaler: remorseless aristocrats taking blood and life and labor from their poor.  Meyer’s vampire is no more enlightened for his vegetarianism, no better and no different than he ever was.  But Meyer doesn’t understand the difference.  The Cullens’ “vegetarianism” and its patina of moral evolution is enough for her—just so long as they don’t bite anyone outright, literally.  Harris knows better and uses her fantasy to teach as much: We’re the vampires, the vampire collaborators, now and we always have been—but vampires can be people too.

Emily Colette Wilkinson for

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14 abril 2010

Let There Be More Light

1  God commanded, “Let there be light,” but it didn’t happen for nearly half a million years. That’s how long after the Big Bang the universe took to expand enough to allow photons (light particles) to travel freely.
2  Those photons are still running loose, detectable as the cosmic microwave background, a microwave glow from all parts of the sky.
Light moves along at full “light speed”—186,282.4 miles per second—only in a vacuum. In the dense matrix of a diamond, it slows to just 77,500 miles per second.

4  Diamonds are the Afghan­istan of gemstones: Any entering photon quickly gets bogged down. It takes a lot of pinging back and forth in a thicket of carbon atoms to find an exit. This action is what gives diamonds their dazzling sparkle.
5  Eyeglasses can correct vision because light changes speed when it passes from air to a glass or plastic lens; this causes the rays to bend.
6  Plato fancied that we see by shooting light rays from our eyes.
The Greek philosopher was not completely wrong. Like all living things, humans are bio­luminescent: We glow. We are brightest during the afternoon, around our lips and cheeks. The cause may be chemical reactions involving molecular fragments known as free radicals.
Bioluminescence is the largest source of light in the oceans; 90 percent of all creatures who live below about 1,500 feet are luminous.
World War II aviators used to spot ships by the bio­luminescence in their wakes. In 1954 Jim Lovell (later the pilot of Apollo 13) used this trick to find his darkened aircraft carrier.

10  Incandescent bulbs convert only 10 percent of the energy they draw into light, which is why Europe will outlaw them by 2012. Most of the electricity turns into unwanted heat.
11  In the confined space of an Easy-Bake oven, a 100-watt bulb can create a temperature of 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
12  Light has no mass, but it does have momentum. Later this year the Planetary Society will launch LightSail-1, attempting to capture the pressure of sunlight the way a boat’s sail gathers the wind.
13  Laser beams bounced off mirrors left behind by Apollo astronauts show that the moon is moving 1.5 inches farther from Earth each year.
14  Visible light makes up less than one ten-billionth of the electromagnetic spectrum, which stretches from radio waves to gamma rays.
15  Goldfish can see infrared radiation that is invisible to us. Bees, birds, and lizards have eyes that pick up ultraviolet.
16  Photography means “writing with light.” English astronomer John Herschel, whose father discovered infrared, coined the term.
17  Shoot now: The “golden hour,” just after sunrise and before sunset, produces the prettiest shadows and colors for photographs.
18  Day and night are everywhere the same length on the vernal equinox, which occurs this year on March 20.
19  Auroras light up the night sky when solar wind particles excite atoms in the upper atmosphere. Oxygen mostly shines green; nitrogen contributes blue and red.
20  But to the Inuits, auroras are spirits of the dead kicking around the head of a walrus. 

Fantastic Voyages

Because of Carsten Jensen's new novel

1. The Odyssey by Homer

Written in an era when the world believed in magic, and that the unmapped seas contained both marvels and monsters, The Odyssey is the greatest seafaring epic of all. Homer's storytelling skills are so deft that readers tend to overlook the shortcomings of his hero on the seamanship front: not only does it take Odysseus 20 years to cover the relatively short distance between Troy and his beloved island of Ithaca, but during that time, he also manages to lose his entire fleet of 12 ships. When he finally arrives home, not a single one of his crew remains alive. Hardly a great role-model for would-be captains.
2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Melville's masterpiece tells the tale of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest for a whale whose terrifying whiteness comes to embody evil itself. I doubt that any contemporary publisher would take on such a vast, eccentric, anarchic work if it crossed their desk today. Reading it, you realise what a free and wide-ranging genre the novel once was, and how much has been wrecked by a book industry catering to the most conventional taste. Not only does Melville forget all about his main character, Ishmael, for hundreds of pages, but he also allows himself to indulge in endless speculations about the nature of whales, before reaching the conclusion that they're not mammals, but fish. What to do in the presence of such artistic nerve, but salute?
3. The Narrative of Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

This is the only novel Poe wrote, and what a strange piece of work it is: a seafaring adventure by a writer who specialised in claustrophobia. Here, Poe explores its opposite: his protagonist, approaching the South Pole, encounters a vast world of menace and shrouded monsters. The story's abrupt end, complete with unsolved mysteries, sucks you in like a maelstrom. But where better to be stuck than inside one of western literature's most fertile and weird imaginations?
4. The Shadowline by Joseph Conrad

The Polish-born Conrad stepped into world literature more or less from nowhere; despite English not being his native tongue, his writing is the most sophisticated I've ever come across. Of his many extraordinary novels, this classic rite-of-passage story remains my favourite. When the ship of a young, untested captain is becalmed, he is faced with his first big challenge – and despite the odds, rises to it. For, Conrad the deck was a microcosm of the wider world. His novels are all about ethics and honour. Those were the days.
5. A Footnote to History by Robert Louis Stevenson

This short journalistic report, which Stevenson wrote during his final stay in Samoa, provides great insight into Samoan culture – along with a wonderfully ironic dissection of the follies of imperialism. Three colonial powers – Great Britain, the US and Germany – prepare to pitch into battle over the spoils of Samoa when a hurricane strikes and wrecks their men-of-war. Stevenson could have called it The Revenge of the South Seas.
6. The South Sea Tales by Jack London

When I read the novel Ulf Larsen as a boy I didn't understand the Nietzschean rantings of London's tyrannical captain, but his South Sea Tales still left a lasting impression on me. His depictions of the brutal life of the Pacific are forthright and disillusioned, especially when the representatives of higher civilisation show up.
7. The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo

The story takes place on the island of Guernsey, but its drama is definitely more French than British, concentrating as it does on the fickleness of women's love and the futility of men's heroism. There's a great underwater scene in which a man fights a giant octopus armed with only a knife. And all this happened before Freud, so the sea could carry all the freight of the subconscious without waving symbolism in anyone's face.
8. The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen

The Little Mermaid isn't strictly a seafaring story, but it does involve a lot of swimming. And fish-tails, too. Readers outside Scandinavia tend to think of Andersen as a precursor of Disney, but read The Little Mermaid in its original version, and you'll discover he was anything but. The prince and the mermaid don't end up in each other's arms, and love doesn't prevail: it brings pain and doom. The Denmark of Andersen's era was not as idyllic as we'd like to believe. It was a narrow-minded, intolerant and deeply divided society. Andersen, who came from the bottom rung of the social ladder, was never allowed to forget his humble origins. But he cunningly used his fairytales to tell his tormentors harsh truths in a seemingly inoffensive way.
9. August by Knut Hamsun

Despite being a bestseller in Germany, the Norwegian Nobel laureate never had the popularity he craved in Britain. Some claim this is what drove him into the arms of the Nazis. But a better explanation lies in his loathing of modernity, coupled with his passion for the tough, untamed, tradition-loving Nordland region north of the Polar Circle that was his native landscape. This makes Hamsun's choice of August as the novel's eponymous hero a surprising one, since August represents the rootless cosmopolitanism and "Americanisation of life" that the author so loathed. But August is unquestionably a sympathetic character, and an endless source of fun, inventiveness, tall tales and generosity. In sidelining his own prejudices Hamsun shows an awareness that the requirements of art supersede those of politics, and herein lies his greatness. Hamsun's sprawling, entertaining novel with its vivid portrait of a small town on the shore of a big ocean remains immensely readable to this day.
10. The Fishermen by Hans Kirk

In spite of Denmark´s history as a seafaring nation, surprisingly few of its novels describe life at sea. Hans Kirk´s 1928 masterpiece is the understated, tightly-crafted story of a deeply religious fishing community which decides to uproot from the harsh shores of the North Sea and seek a more comfortable existence on the banks of an inland fjord. But the fishermen fail to adapt to their new surroundings. Increasingly isolating themselves to safeguard their puritan belief in a punishing God, the community gradually falls apart. Although almost a century has passed since it was written, The Fishermen still provides a striking psychological insight into the workings of the fundamentalist mind.

José Saramago's infinite internet

In September 2008, at the age of eighty-five, José Saramago was feeling restless. “Here’s a job for you”, said his wife. “Write a blog”. And so the 1998 Nobel laureate began to record his reflections on an almost daily basis, jubilantly freed from the constraints of fiction and awed by the “infinite page” of the internet: “that place where I can most express myself according to my desires”. So close has this blog since become to Saramago’s heart that a review of it in a Portuguese newspaper caused him to break a vow, “which hitherto I have fulfilled to the letter – never to respond to, or even comment on, any criticism of my work”. The reviewer had remarked on Saramago’s “excesses of indignation”. The blogger was outraged: “How can one talk of excesses of indignation in a country where it is specifically lacking?”

Saramago may at times be Lear-like in his umbrage, but he opens his Notebook with a “love letter” to Lisbon: “My Lisbon was always that of the poor neighbourhoods . . . the Lisbon of people who possess little and feel much, still rural in their customs and in their understanding of the world”. This romanticized view is perhaps unsurprising given the author’s distaste for capitalism and his conviction in the “definitive ankylosis of the global economic order”. Although it is not mentioned, The Notebook opens on the day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, and the entire blog is permeated with a sense of anger (and vindication) at the failure of the markets, the greed of bankers and the moral degeneracy of governments. Other bugbears include literary agents; Israeli politicians; zoos; the G20; Saudi Arabia; and the youth of today. Saramago has been a member of the Portuguese Communist Party since 1969, and he saves some spleen for the shortcomings of his political allies: “The left has no fucking idea of the world it’s living in”, he writes before concluding that “Marx was never so right as he is today”. Sadly, he fails to explain exactly in which way, though he does pause to ask the “economists” and “moralists” to quantify just how many individuals “condemned to wretchedness, to overwork, to demoralization” it takes to “produce one rich person”.

Saramago is no stranger to a well-ordered political manifesto. He has twice in recent years stood as a candidate for the European Parliament. Here, however, his judgement is too often eschewed for the rhetoric of lunatic howls. It is one thing to write of Nicolas Sarkozy that “I’ve never thought much of this gentleman”; quite another to accuse George W. Bush of having “expelled truth from the world”. Saramago cannot believe that Silvio Berlusconi hails from the same country as Verdi. It is easy to mock Saramago in his ire, and two things must be said in his defence. First, there is something invigorating about his “refus[al] to accept” the world as it stands in its inequality. Second, this is a blog, and not a manifesto, and as such it is personal, fragmented and reactionary. This does, however, prompt a wider question about the “book of the blog” phenomenon, which risks forcing coherence on a body of writing that was never intended to be digested in this way.

Far more rewarding are his musings on literature, language, theology. “God”, he writes, in an echo from The Lanzarote Notebooks (as yet unpublished in English), “is the silence of the universe and man is the cry that gives meaning to that silence”. Blogging has certainly inspired Saramago’s aphoristic side, and he is particularly memorable when reflecting on his literary heroes. Here he is on Fernando Pessoa: “[He] never did find out for sure who he was, but thanks to his doubts we can manage to learn a little more about who it is we are”. He writes an elegant tribute to Carlos Fuentes, who has “managed to make the greatest critical demands and the greatest ethical rigour . . . compatible with a well-chosen tie”, and introduces us to the brilliance of Javier Ortiz, who wrote his own obituary.

Saramago’s enthusiasm is irresistible and his commendations are acute. He praises Kafka “because he demonstrated that man is a beetle”, Montaigne “because he didn’t need Freud to know who he was” and Gogol “because he contemplated humanity and found it to be sad”. The more private aspects of Saramago’s blog are also very moving, whether he is being sweetly uxorious or reflecting on the day he nearly died of organ failure (“I later learned that my body was going to be displayed in the library, surrounded by books”). He was restored, he writes, “by that universal medicine called work”. He shows no signs of letting up. He signs off his blog, a year after the first entry, with news that he is starting work on a new novel. “Farewell”, he writes to his readers. “Until another day? I sincerely think not.” A quick look at the website, caderno.josesaramago.org , reveals another broken vow. Since that “final post”, there have been at least ten more. 

13 abril 2010

A Tax Form for the Marginally Employed: Freelancers



It is one of the most notorious scenes ever filmed – yet Hitchcock and Janet Leigh didn't tell the truth about it.

In the run-up to the release of Psycho in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock did everything he could to build up the suspense. "No one will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance," declared the poster, bearing a sulky-looking Hitchcock wagging a finger. The director bought up all copies of the original novel, which he had optioned for a paltry $9,000, so that hardly anyone would know how the story ended. He also filmed on a closed set and forced cast and crew to sign an agreement promising not to mention the ending to anyone. There were no advance screenings.

When the reviews for Psycho, which is rereleased this week, rolled in, they focused on one shocking moment: the shower sequence, in which Janet Leigh is slashed to death. Comprising over 70 shots, each lasting two or three seconds, it has become one of the most infamous moments in horror movie history. Mixing fast cutting and Bernard Herrmann's screeching music, Hitchcock created a brilliant illusion of gore, violence and nudity – while actually showing very little.

The greatest illusion, however, was to give a very clear suggestion that it was Leigh being hacked to death, by Anthony Perkins as a cross-dressing maniac. Leigh, in her first interview after the film's release, shared the audience's horror: "I believed that knife went into me. It was that real, that horrifying. I could feel it!" In later interviews, Hitchcock and Leigh categorically stated that it was her body in the shower scene – but it wasn't. The body belonged to a model called Marli Renfro. When you can't see Leigh's face in the shots, you're looking at her body double.

A Dallas-born stripper who worked in Las Vegas, Renfro was one of the first Playboy Bunnies. Apart from Psycho, she only appeared in one other film, Francis Ford Coppola's 1962 soft-porn comedy-western Tonight for Sure. Then she disappeared, forgotten – until a news report in 2001 said a 34-year-old handyman had been sentenced for raping and strangling her, a crime that had occurred in 1988 but had gone unsolved for over a decade.

The US writer Robert Graysmith – author of Zodiac, the classic account of the 1970s San Francisco serial killer – was fascinated. He had been interested in Renfro and had always thought about writing a book about her. Now it seemed she had died in a murder that was a gruesome echo of the fictional one she had helped to make so famous.

The original 2001 Associated Press report said Kenneth Dean Hunt, the handyman, had been convicted of "killing two women, including an actress who was a body double for Janet Leigh in the film Psycho". This actress was called Myra Davis; subsequent press reports explained that this was Renfro's real name.

Graysmith probed deeper into the story, certain that something didn't add up. In December 2007, he read an interview with Davis's granddaughter in which she expressed confusion at the shower connection. "My grandmother would never have done any nude work," she said.

Graysmith made two discoveries. First, that Renfro and Davis were two separate people; and second, that Renfro was still alive. The confusion had arisen from the fact that, while Renfro was Leigh's body double on Psycho, Davis was her stand-in, used to check lighting set-ups. In his new book, The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower, Graysmith suggests that Kenneth Dean Hunt was a Psycho obsessive who wanted to kill Leigh's body double but got the stand-in by mistake. "Everyone confused them," he says, "even a murderer. I discovered Marli was still alive. It turns out she's been so busy fishing in Utah, hiking in Alaska, swimming with dolphins in Florida and generally living life to the full that she had no idea she was meant to be dead."

Renfro, who now lives in California's Mojave desert, only found out about her supposed murder when Graysmith told her about it. "She wasn't a vain person, and had no interest in her past career," he says. "She didn't read articles about herself; and, after her first husband made her burn all her old glamour photographs out of jealousy, she didn't keep a scrapbook."

This might also help explain why she never asked for more than her initial $500 for essentially starring in the most famous movie scene in history, in a film that made $15m in its first year alone. "Janet Leigh went around telling everyone how embarrassed she was filming the shower scene, and Hitchcock backed up the story," says Graysmith. "They concocted a lie."

Tony Curtis, Leigh's husband at the time, claimed in his autobiography that Psycho's success, and the fact that all anyone wanted to talk to her about was the shower scene, drove his wife to drink, which eventually led to her breakdown and their divorce. Had she and Hitchcock been more open about how the shower scene had been achieved, it might not have become the subject of such speculation and obsession. Fifty years after Psycho's release, Graysmith hopes his book will finally bring this all to an end.

St. Jerome: patron saint of translators, librarians, books!

Jerome became the patron saint of libraries and librarians because of the one task he is most known for: the translation, editing, and assemblage of what became the standard edition of the Bible for over the Millennium: the Vulgate. Various canonical lists of the Bible had been circulating as early as the mid-third century, but only with the Council of Rome in 382 did an official council of bishops agree on the list of books to be included. Known as the Damasine List, it was so named for Pope Damasus I, who headed the council, and who had hired Jerome as his personal secretary. And so it fell to Jerome, also present at the Council, to assemble a fresh translation of this newly ratified library—known first as the “versio vulgata,” or “commonly used translation,” and later simply as the Vulgate.

For all the controversy surrounding the Bible, its apocrypha and conflicting versions, Jerome’s accomplishment had long been seen in terms of divine intervention—as with the Council of Rome, he is guided by the hand of God. Seen in this light, the Bible is perfect: there are no books missing, no books extraneous. It is a perfect library, a collection of exactly the books that God intended for humankind.

Without the certainty of Jerome, every other librarian has only one option: include it all, leave nothing out. It was this caution that had motivated Ptolemy I to build the Library of Alexandria at the end of the third century BCE, in which he hoped to assemble “all the books of all the people of the world.” Ptolemy calculated all the books in the world to be roughly five hundred thousand volumes, but long ago our capacity for books over took any sane number: the complete library is now, quite simply, infinite. If you do not have the divine grace of Jerome, to tell you which books to keep and which to exclude, you are obligated to take in everything, and you are condemned to a library without end.

This is the library imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story “The Library of Babel.” He describes the library as an “indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical, in fact, to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance.”

Every librarian, every book collector, finds him or herself between these two mythical places—the Perfect Library of God and the Infinite Library of Babel, the one transcribed by Jerome, the other by Borges.

But in some ways, they are closer to one another than they first appear. Borges’ description of the infinite library as a series of hexagonal cells that disappear into the distance, echoes (perhaps coincidently) the Roman catacombs that Jerome would visit while he was a young scholar, with bodies instead of books. “Often,” he later wrote, “I would find myself entering those crypts, deep dug in the earth, with their walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead….Here and there,” he continues, “the light, not entering in through windows, but filtering down from above through shafts, relieved the horror of the darkness. But again, as soon as you found yourself cautiously moving forward, the black night closed around and there came to my mind the line of Virgil, ‘the horror and the silences terrified their souls.’”

It was to terrify his own soul that Jerome came down to those catacombs, so that he could remind himself of his own mortality. This reminder of death—in Latin memento mori, “remember that you will die”—is represented in art by a human skull, the grinning death’s head that awaits, that is all that is left after our own decay. And this skull is a common image in representations of Jerome, the saint who transcribes the immortal Word even as his own mortal body fails him.
For me, the most compelling of these images of Jerome are those by Caravaggio. In one painting he depicts the librarian’s long thin arm stretched out over a great folio, and on that folio—as a compositional counterpoint to Jerome’s haloed head—rests a human skull, reminding him of what awaits, exhorting him to prepare for the next life.

In Jerome’s time, this preparation took the form of asceticism, a word deriving from the Greek askesis, which means “exercise” or “athletic training.” In practice, asceticism was the abstinence of worldly pleasures and all but the most basic needs—the deprivation of one’s physical needs seen as crucial preparation for the time when one was without body, when one was pure spirit.

Jerome begun devoting himself to asceticism when he was about thirty years old, having left Rome for Antioch, after a serious illness led him to abandon his remaining secular studies. He ventured into the deserts of Syria, where a converted Jew taught him Hebrew and he began translations of the Hebrew Scriptures. Eventually, he returned to civilization and allowed himself to be ordained as a bishop, but only under the condition that he be allowed to maintain his ascetic life. Immersed in his books and his translations, Jerome prepared his body for death, and prepared his mind for a life without his hated, corruptible body.

Returning to Rome in 382, Jerome was distinctly out of place—a desert hermit amidst a bustling metropolis. He harangued the city’s clergy for their posh lifestyle, making him more than a few enemies. But eventually a circle of wealthy women, including the widow Paula and her daughter Blaesilla, gravitated to him, following his example and adopting an ascetic lifestyle.

Here in Rome, under the direction of Damasus, the Master Librarian continued work on his perfect library, where his reading itself was a sort of asceticism. As Michel de Montaigne noted 1400 years later, reading “is not a plain and pure pleasure…it has its disagreements, and they are onerous; the soul disports itself, but the body, whose care I have not forgotten, remains inactive, it grows weary and sad.” In the very act of reading and study, Jerome could be said to be forever mortifying his body.

As I read my way through these accounts of his life, I found myself wondering if the very act of reading, or at least book collecting, was itself a kind of memento mori, and whether this was connected to the habit of so many scholars over the centuries who have included human skulls in their libraries, perched amidst their books on endless shelves.

Like Jerome, Borges’ unnamed librarian remains fixated on his own death. “I am preparing to die, a few leagues from the hexagon where I was born,” he tells us early on. “When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.”

The image has always haunted me as quite beautiful, but the passage begs the question: in the Library of Babel, do bones, too, decay? Borges’ description suggests that yes, they do, that at some point during the infinite fall even the librarian’s bones disintegrate. But for a fall to be infinite, there must be something that is always falling, and I prefer to think that the bones remain, and that they fall infinitely, endlessly through the hexagonal galleries, so that as the librarians go about their business in the Library of Babel, every so often comes the sound of bones from some librarian who died so many, many floors up. The shafts of this great library filled with the sporadic clattering of bones, a memento mori falling at terminal velocity.

That Borges neglects the messy detail of bones reminds one that we too often neglect the body of the librarian, and partly for this reason, Caravaggio’s painting of Jerome is striking in that he so forcefully emphasizes the decrepit, ailing body of the great librarian. Jerome is barely alive, more skeletal than flesh, his arm stretched across the folio like a body pulled across the rack, as though the immortal Word were itself some kind of torture device.

Caravaggio reminds us that not only was Jerome a librarian, he was also flesh, mortal. There’s a subversive element to Caravaggio’s painting, precisely because what’s most engaging about the work is Jerome’s hated mortal coil, that which he cannot escape.

The stubborn reality of the body over the immortal Word was a truth that two of Jerome’s followers—the widow Paula and her daughter Blaesilla—were to learn all too well. Both adopted Jerome’s ascetic lifestyle, but after only a few months, Blaesilla, who had recently recovered from a serious illness, collapsed from exhaustion and malnutrition, and shortly died. Paula was grief-stricken at the death of her daughter, but Jerome found her display of earthly emotion both unbecoming and unchristian, and the Master Librarian harshly chastised the mother for her grief at the loss of Blaesilla’s earthly body. Ultimately, Jerome was forced out of Rome, in part because his protector Damasus died, but also because of his indirect role in the death of Blaesilla and his cold indifference to her fate.

Before I read this story, I had always assumed, or wanted to believe, that the narrator in Borges’ fable was a version of Jerome, and that we were listening to the voice of the great librarian himself. But I’m less sure now. Late in the story the narrator describes a librarian greater than himself, whom he calls the Book-Man, the sole librarian who understands the entirety of the Library of Babel, the sole librarian who has read the ultimate book. “On some shelf in some hexagon,” he says, “there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books, and some librarian must have examined that book….” Borges’ narrator opines that the Book-Man is thus analogous to a god, but I would argue that Jerome is a better fit—after all, it is not God that librarians dream of, but Jerome, and if this longing for the Perfect Library sometimes takes the form of idolatry, so be it. We’re told that “there are still vestiges of the sect that worshipped that distant librarian. Many have gone in search of Him. For a hundred years, men beat every possible path—and every path in vain.” And finally, the narrator confesses that he, too, has long searched for the Book-Man: “It is in ventures such as these that I have squandered and spent my years. I cannot think it unlikely that there is such a total book on some shelf in the universe. I pray to the unknown gods that some man—even a single man, tens of centuries ago—has perused and read that book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification.”

Searching himself for the Book-Man, he is not Jerome, sure in the perfection of his work and in the smug knowledge of a library that is so perfect it needs not our bodies nor our bones. He is instead Blaesilla, willing to pledge himself on faith, and willing to annihilate himself in subservience to the dream of a perfect librarian, and the secrets he may hold.