30 junho 2010

How Translation Software Saves Mother Tongue

Illustration: Caleb Bennett

Illustration: Caleb Bennett

Every day, on the Xiha Life homepage, there’s a playful poll designed to get members conversing. When I recently dropped by the social networking site, the questions were, How many pets do you have in your home? Would you like more or less? The survey sparked a lively thread: One member owned turtles and a dog, another wanted a rabbit, and a third argued she couldn’t have pets because she vacations so frequently.

But here’s the thing: Many of these commentors didn’t speak one another’s language. Some posted in English, others in Czech, one in Spanish — yet they were all participating in the same conversation. How? At the bottom of each comment on Xiha Life there’s a Translate button. Hit it and the site uses Google’s automatic-translation software to produce an on-the-fly version in your local language. The upshot is a delightful experience: People across the world engaging in a single conversation without ever leaving their mother tongue.

Automatic-translation software has long been treated as a joke because of how hilariously it mangles phrases. (After one Czech member described her collection of pythons, another poster chimed in seamlessly to admit, “I am so afraid by snakes.”) But in the past few years, something has shifted: The technology is now surprisingly mature. I discovered this in the spring when I had to read Web material written in Finnish, German, Spanish, and even Korean. I used Google’s Chrome browser, and it automatically reworked every foreign page into shockingly understandable English.

How have the machines become so adept? Mostly by using new “statistical” techniques. Instead of trying to teach a program the rules of language, computer scientists locate massive corpora of online documents previously translated by humans — say, UN proceedings, which are routinely available in six different languages, or bilingual newspapers. Then they train cloud computers to recognize which words and phrases match up across tongues.
That’s why Google is leading the pack: It’s best at finding oodles of documents to train its cloud. This method also means that the more the Web grows, the better our multilingual machines will get.

The geopolitical implications are profound. For years, pundits have wondered which language will eventually dominate. Will English remain the lingua franca? Will Mandarin ascend?
But maybe it’s no longer a competition. Machine translation could be good enough to obviate the need for a primary global language.

Certainly, any activity requiring serious precision — legal proceedings, business discussions, diplomatic negotiations — will still need expert human translators. And in the short run, English will probably dominate those fields. But most people don’t need that level of quality to chat with foreign friends or surf the international Web.

“Machine translation isn’t good enough to translate a book, but when you have someone you want to talk to, it really helps out a lot,” says Jani Penttinen, CEO of Xiha Life. “Your options are either don’t talk to that hot girl in China — or speak in a little funny way.” He baked translation into his social network because he wanted to seed crosslinguistic conversation. It has worked: Xiha’s 750,000 members come from hundreds of countries, yet no more than 5 percent of them hail from the same nation.

Some academics predict that auto-translation could even save minor languages from extinction. In Chile, for example, pressure to speak Spanish is eroding the indigenous language of the Mapuche people. Auto-translation might make it possible for the Mapuche to communicate with the outside world without abandoning their dialect. “It decreases the drive to consolidate into one dominant language if you can use your own,” says Jaime Carbonell, head of Carnegie Mellon’s Language Technologies Institute.

Welcome— or should I say bienvenue, maligayangpagdating, or välkomma— to a world where everyone can speak for themselves.


28 junho 2010

Speaking in Colors and Shapes and Directions and...

How we see the world impacts our use of language and our use of language impacts how we see the world. Cognitive scientists in the vein of Benjamin Whorf regularly investigate the connections to thought and language use, including how visual perception varies across languages. Since I use (authentic) visual media to assist in foreign language acquisition, my research does have a practical side to the normally impenetrable fields of visual cognition and psycholinguistics. I use photographs at the earliest stages of language learning to train the brain not only in the use of new words, but literally how to "see" in the new language. Seeing a language differently embeds that language into a visual cultural context for the learner and makes for more effective recall later.
Let's look at two aspects of the visual world that provide good examples of how the visual impacts language and vary between languages and cultures: Color & Space.


In order to highlight how color perceptions vary among cultures, I like to use the example of how we linguistically categorize certain colors. Let's take the range of colors in what we call "blue" and "red" in English.
When you look at the following colors, typical native English speaking respondents will describe these two colors as existing with the range of colors we call "blue".

Conversely, the following two colors here represent two distinct color categories in English, namely "red" and "pink"

If one looks at other languages, this same categorization scheme is not evident. For example, the blues above are distinct color categories in Russian. Plain or dark blue (синий, siniy) is a distinct color from light blue (голубой, goluboy). Each of these color categories has its own associated meanings, invoking a specific thought for many Russians. In Moscow, there are separate blue lines on the city metro system which helped me finally learn the difference between синий & голубой . Winawer and other at MIT take a close look at this subject in "Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination." (2007) For the red & pink example, there is a correlating opposite in Chinese. The color distinction is not as prevalent as the colors are in the same category linguistically. Red is 红 (hóng) and pink as 粉红, (fěn hóng) or literally "powder red", a linguistic derivation similar to 'light-blue' in English. Where Russian blues are distinct, so are the Reds in English, but in Chinese, they are linguistically related.

The Winawer study takes this a step further. What does it mean for the function of our brain when we categorize what we see in different ways? They show that Russian concepts of blue affect visual performance, particularly on the language users' ability to discriminate between colors.
They state " ... our results suggest that language-specific distortions in perceptual performance arise as a function of the interaction of lower level perceptual processing and higher level knowledge systems (e.g. language)."
This insight/observation points towards a direct connection between the language one speaks and the functionality of the visual cortex and the brain. In other words, the vocabulary you use and how you categorize the world affects the speed at which you brain can recall certain information through your optic nerves. They also hint that left brain hemisphere tasks may be affected by language and visual perception as this is the hemisphere of the brain where language and logical performance is organized. Interestingly enough, this is switched in infants as visual perception is not yet attached to a language center. Apparently, babies see color purely as what they see is not filtered through the lens of language. I am not sure what it means to see a color "purely", but the Color label wheel from Dolores Labs provides an interesting look at color perceptions within the English language.


In addition to color, spatial perception varies among cultures according to researchers. These differences in how we perceive space (eg. size, distance, depth, and direction, etc) lead to corresponding linguistic differences manifested in the words we use to describe our surroundings in different language. This lens of language here affects how we perceive and feel about our surroundings. One might easily imagine how a phrase like "that is a large house", "it is within walking distance", or "it is located off to the right" would vary in meaning between cultures, but there are more subtle and stark differences in how we perceive space differently. The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has several examples of cultural variances. Researcher Steven C. Levinson has interesting insights and states that in "...many cultures (as suggested by at least a third of the small sample) spatial conception is organized in a fundamentally different way than expected on the basis of familiar western languages."

According to Levinson, a linguistic example can be found in the lack of spatial descriptors as in front of, in back, left of, and right of. Some languages instead use absolute terms or "fixed" cardinal direction such as north, south, upstream, downstream that are irrelevant of the direction of the speaker.
Perhaps it is that certain languages are less ego-centric, linguistically speaking, and focus more on cardinal directions. Apparently, the only universal content in regards to spatial perception in language appears to be the direction 'up' since it is a function of the gravity that we all feel, regardless of our cultural or linguistic background.
Geography, culture, and even technology shape how we view space in our world. In addition to variance among cultures, there is constant change within languages. Additionally, it is not solely a function of this 'lens of language'; it is both a function of our language and our experiences. For example, the exposure to mathematics and science has an impact on how we perceive space.
The following figures represent some classic optical illusions to demonstrate examples of how cultures perceive length differently. In the first image, the question is "which center line is longer? seeinglanguagesdifferentyl1.png
In the second image, the question is whether the blue line is longer than the red. seeinglanguagesdifferently2.png
In both cases, the lines are the same length, we only perceive them to be different lengths; an optical illusion. Interestingly enough, these optical illusions are only perceptible by members of traditional 'western cultures'. Segall, et al. in "The Influence of Culture on Visual Perception " wrote in 1968 that susceptibility to optical illusion is, indeed, a culturally determined factor. Their experiments conclude that the "European and American samples made significantly more illusions-supported responses than did the non-Western samples."

I use these examples of visual differences between cultures to highlight the point that the visual impacts language, and if you use media to teach a language, you need to use authentic media. Clip art and generic stock photography don't take advantage of the benefits of media in learning. Many language learning software developers use inauthentic images, stock photos, or clip art simply because of cost issues. A full description of the design problems in language learning software can be found in my 2003 article: CALL, commercialism and culture: inherent software design conflicts and their results ReCALL, 2003 - Cambridge Univ Press. In the mean time, I will continue to ponder how what I see affects how I think and how I think in a given language affects how I see.

Guestblogger Dr. Michael Shaughnessy is a German professor who specializes in computer assisted language learning and visual representations of culture at Washington & Jefferson College. He is the director of the CAPL project to provide free CC licensed media to language and culture instructors worldwide.

25 junho 2010

The far side of the Moon

The far side of the moon is shown in this image from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The image shows the moon's topography, with the highest elevations in red and the lowest areas in blue

24 junho 2010

What could I cook?

From The Guardian (a partnership):

The recipe search engine from WhatCouldICook.com is now also running on guardian.co.uk. Learn about how it works and what kinds of commercial possibilities the case study demonstrates.

Daniel Levitt runs a recipe sharing web site called WhatCouldICook.com. He was an early beta user of the Open Platform who also helped us see what capabilities people wanted from the Guardian.

"I was really pleased to find out that I could use guardian.co.uk content for my website. Then when I learned I could integrate my search tool directly into guardian.co.uk and partner on a commercial deal I realised how powerful the Open Platform really was."

This brief case study shows how this partner used the Open Platform to get more out of his project than he would have been able to on his own.

A Super Periodic Table ;)

Quelles cochonnes, ces nonnes / Naughty Nuns (bilingual post ;)

Because of Lady Gaga's videoclip Alejandro, Slate.com and Slate.fr recap nun misbehavior in the movies :)

Le walrus, c'était Paul. Lady Gaga, elle, est une prêtresse pornographique. Dans le clip licencieux de sa chanson Alejandro, Lady Gaga (assistée du réalisateur Steven Klein et d'un paquet d'éphèbes glabrissimes) explore quelques comportements fétichistes que je n'aurais jamais songé à tenter par moi-même. Les plus interessants sont ceux où la star apparaît revêtue d'habits de nonne plutôt inhabituels. Elle dégouline de robes en latex, ouvre grand la bouche pour avaler les perles de son chapelet et patin-couffin —en gros, une farce coquine destinée à faire enrager la Catholic League.

The walrus was Paul, and Lady Gaga is the pornographic priestess. In the racy video supporting "Alejandro," Gaga (assisted by director Steven Klein and a mess of smooth beefcake) explores a number of fetish behaviors, many of which I had never before even begun to think about trying. The most interesting of these concern the star's appearances in a few unusual nun costumes. She drips with latex robes, opens her throat to swallow rosary beads, that sort of thing—all in all basically prank-calling the Catholic League.  
Si l'on veut aller par là, on peut trouver bien pire que ce divin petit blasphème. Lors d'une précédente incursion à Gagaland, j'ai tenté de souligner l'importance du fait que Lady Gaga ait été «formée pour son métier d'artiste du spectacle sur des scènes de strip-tease...mais également au Couvent du Sacré-Cœur». C'est une catholique qui a mal tourné, mais c'était également une bonne élève. En l'honneur de sa dernière mini-épopée pop-art en date —et en remerciant au passage les auteurs du guide de référence TV Tropes et de l'essai «Convent Erotica»— j'ai composé pour vous une petite chronologie.
Voici donc les 10 meilleures occurrences de nonnes délurées de notre civilisation:

If you're gonna go that way, you could do much worse than this divine piece of blasphemy. In an earlier foray into Gagalogy, I attempted to stress the significance of Gaga's having "trained for her career in performance art on the burlesque stage … but also at the Convent of the Sacred Heart." She is a Catholic girl gone bad, but she was also a fine pupil. In honor of her latest pop-art mini-epic—and taking care to thank the authors of the reference guide TV Tropes and the critical essay "Convent Erotica"—I have composed a timeline.
Herewith, the top 10 naughty-nun moments in recorded civilization:

La première lettre d'Héloïse à Abélard (vers 1133). Lui était «le philosophe et théologien le plus éminent de son époque.» Elle, c'était l'ado sexy la plus érudite qu'on ait jamais vue. Ils se rencontrèrent dans un genre de club littéraire. Lorsqu'il lui colla un polichinelle dans le tiroir, l'oncle de la belle devint furax. Châtré, Abélard se fit moine, et Héloïse prit le voile. Abbesse de l'oratoire du Paraclet, elle entreprit une correspondance qu'il vaudra la peine de plagier le 14 février prochain: «J'en prends Dieu à témoin: Auguste même, le maître du monde, eût‑il daigné demander ma main et m'assurer à jamais l'empire de l'univers, j'aurais trouvé plus doux et plus noble de conserver le nom de putain auprès de toi que de prendre celui d'impératrice avec lui».

Héloïse's first letter to Abelard (ca. 1133). He was "the most pre-eminent philosopher and theologian of his time." She was the most scholarly teen hottie who ever lived. They more or less met at a book club. When he knocked her up, her uncle was pissed. Castrated, Abelard became a monk, and Héloïse took the habit. While serving as Abbess of the Oratory of the Paraclete, she drafted correspondence well worth plagiarizing next Feb. 14: "God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore."

Le Décaméron (1353). Des cent récits présentés par Boccace —des histoires racontées par des personnages en vacances à la campagne pour échapper à Florence dévastée par la peste— deux évoquent des fiancées de Jésus. Dans la meilleure d'entre elles, un jeune homme bien bâti se fait passer pour sourd, muet et stupide pour être engagé comme homme à tout faire dans un couvent —car il semble ne pas représenter de menace pour la chasteté de ces demoiselles. Ca commence à chauffer quand deux nonnes, travaillant en tandem, décident de tirer parti de cette commodité pour essayer cette histoire de sexe dont elles avait entendu parler: «Pour quoi, avant qu'elles s'en allassent, elles voulurent éprouver chacune plus d'une fois comment le muet savait chevaucher. Et depuis, causant souvent entre elles, elles disaient que c'était bien la plus douce chose dont elles eussent entendu parler.»

The Decameron (1353). Of the 100 stories Boccaccio presents here—tales told by characters sharing a country vacation away from plague-ridden Florence—two focus on brides of Jesus. In the better of these, a strapping lad makes himself acceptable for a handyman job at a convent by pretending to be deaf, mute, and dense—surely no threat to chastity. Things get going when two nuns, working in tag team, take advantage of his convenience to try out this sex thing they'd heard rumors about: "Before the time came for them to leave, they had each made repeated trials of the dumb fellow's riding ability, and later on, when they were busily swapping tales about it all, they agreed that it was every bit as pleasant an experience as they had been led to believe, indeed more so."

La Religieuse (1796). Le Guardian applaudit le roman épistolaire de Denis Diderot, qui rapporte l'histoire d'une «jeune femme forcée par ses parents à entrer au couvent. Suzanne essaie de se conduire en bonne chrétienne mais elle est torturée par ses camarades et se retrouve à la merci d'une mère supérieure sexuellement prédatrice. Impasse!» Comme on le voit, Jacques Rivette fit scandale en l'adaptant à l'écran en 1966.

La Religieuse (1796). The Guardian is very high on Denis Diderot's epistolary novel, known on these shores as The Nun, the account of "a young woman forced into a convent by her parents. Suzanne tries to be a good Christian, but is tortured by her fellow nuns and finds herself the object of attention for a sexually predatory mother superior. No way out!" As reported below, Jacques Rivette instigated un scandale with his 1966 screen adaptation.
Les épouvantables révélations de Maria Monk, telles qu'elles sont présentées dans un récit de ses souffrances endurées lors d'un séjour de cinq années comme novice et de deux ans comme nonne noire au couvent de l'Hôtel Dieu de Montréal (1836). Une fausse autobiographie. En voici une belle et savante analyse: «Les épouvantables révélations s'inspirent de toutes les craintes populaires et des incompréhensions du catholicisme prévalant à l'époque. Rédigé dans le style d'un roman gothique, ce récit parle de sexe et de violence sans sombrer dans la pornographie». Maria Monk prétendait s'être échappée de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, où elle aurait subi des outrages, notamment de la part de trois prêtres pendant une orgie. Il semblerait en fait que l'auteur habitait alors un Couvent de la Madeleine pour filles perdues.

The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal (1836). A hoax memoir. Here's a fine piece of scholarship: "The Awful Disclosures draws on every popular fear and misunderstanding of Catholicism prevalent at the time. Written in the style of a gothic novel, it features sex and violence without lapsing into pornography." Maria Monk alleged that she had escaped from the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal, where she endured indignities including taking on three priests in an orgy. Evidence suggests that the author was actually then making her home at a Magdalen Asylum for Wayward Girls.
Religieuse Italienne Fumant la Cigarette (1944). Une vilaine habitude. Cette huile figure parmi les plus réussies de Clovis Trouille, artiste adopté par André Breton et son cercle mais totalement parti dans sa bulle, et qui représentait parfois des nonnes coquines surréalistes assez soft. Regardez bien l'attention que Trouille porte aux paires ici-les jambes osées, les croix austères, les glands suspendus, les volutes de fumées évoquant l'encens...

Religieuse Italienne Fumant la Cigarette (1944). Nasty habit. This oil painting ranks among the most successful created by Clovis Trouille, an artist adopted by André Breton and his circle but totally off on his own trip, which occasionally involved soft Surrealist nunsmut. Pay attention to the attention Trouille pays to pairs here—ripe legs, stern crosses, pensile tassels, smoke trails like fuming incense …
Le narcisse noir (1947). Des sœurs anglicanes dans l'Himalaya. «Elles ont renoncé au monde des hommes mais ont découvert que le monde ne se laisserait pas rejeter.». Kathleen Byron joue le rôle de la bombe sous les traits de sœur Ruth. Éthérée, Ruth arbore une pâleur poudrée névrosée qui fait exploser une bouche écarlate.

Black Narcissus (1947). Anglicans in the Himalayas. "They renounced the world of men but found that the world was not to be denied." Kathleen Byron is the bomb as Sister Ruth. Dizzy in the thin air, Ruth wears a powdery neurotic pallor setting off a mouth coated crimson.

Les diables (1971). Ce premier triomphe du mouvement de nonnesploitation —on craint que Tarantino ne décide de rendre hommage au genre en réalisant un film long comme Autant en emporte le vent— est une épopée médiévale dirigée par Ken Russell (Love, Tommy) et adaptée d'un roman d'Aldous Huxley. Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, et une utilisation enthousiaste d'un crucifix comme d'un jouet masturbatoire. La bande annonce:

The Devils (1971). This early triumph of the nunsploitation movement—one fears that Tarantino may someday create a Gone With the Wind-length homage to the genre—is a medieval epic directed by Ken Russell (Women in Love, Tommy) from an Aldous Huxley novel. Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, enthusiastic use of a crucifix as an autoerotic device. The trailer:
Entre Tinieblas (1983). [Dans les ténèbres], ce film d'Almodóvar raconte l'histoire d'une chanteuse de discothèque qui fuit la police après la mort par overdose d'héroïne de son petit ami. Elle se réfugie dans un couvent, où les vrais ennuis commencent. Ne manquez pas la joueuse de bongo à la fin de la bande annonce.

Entre Tinieblas (1983). Released in America as Dark Habits, this Almodóvar joint concerns a nightclub singer fleeing the cops after her boyfriend ODs on heroin. She tries to lie low at a convent, which is where the real problems start. Keep an eye out for the bongo player at the end of the trailer.

Warrior Nun Areala (1994). Nous savons de source sûre que la nonnesploitation marche très fort au Japon. Wikipedia cite la Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: «Bien que le christianisme n'eût jamais été une religion dominante au Japon, le Japon est entré en contact avec des missionnaires chrétiens. Parce qu'ils prenaient pour sujet une religion minoritaire, il a été dit que ces "films de nonnes catholiques d'une perversité choquante et horriblement blasphématoires" sont une manière de "faire un pied de nez à la religion organisée sans attaquer les croyances plus sacrés de la société dans son ensemble" ». Areala, aussi connue sous le nom de sœur Shannon Masters, lutte contre le mal et a des cuisses en béton armé.

Warrior Nun Areala (1994). We have it on good word that nunsploitaiton is huge in Japan. Wikipedia quotes the Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: "Though Christianity was never a dominant religion in Japan, Japan did encounter Christian missionaries. By taking a minority religion as their subject, it has been suggested that these 'shockingly perverse and wildly blasphemous' Catholic nun films are 'a way of thumbing one's nose at organized religion without attacking the more sacred beliefs of the general society.' " Areala, aka Sister Shannon Masters, fights evil, has strong thighs.
S'habiller en cochonne au prochain Halloween (2010). Plus que 143 jours pour acheter le costume. Évidemment, il y a tout un tas de moyens de s'habiller en allumeuse pour Halloween —vilaine infirmière, chatte sexy, SDF dévergondée— mais faire la traînée dans une mini-robe noire à 30 dollars avec guimpe assortie est un peu plus piquant: on sera sans doute déjà le 1er novembre, le jour de la Toussaint, quand celle qui la portera s'écroulera pleine de vodka aromatisée pour faire des avances aux plantes vertes. Vous en trouverez chez Ricky's ou Amazon, où cette petite robe, ensorceleuse et écolière à la fois, est souvent en stock. La publicité s'exclame: «Sûrement pas le genre de nonne qui vous faisait l'école! Assortissez la nonne sexy à l'un de nos costumes de prêtre pour former le couple idéal. Bas non inclus».

Dressing like a tramp next Halloween (2010). Only 143 shopping days left. Of course, there are all sorts of ways to dress like a tramp at Halloween—naughty nurses, sexy kittens, slutty hobos—but tramping around in a $30 black minidress with matching wimple has a special piquancy: It will probably actually be Nov. 1, All Saints' Day, when the wearer is falling down full of flavored vodka and making passes at houseplants. Go to Ricky's or else try Amazon, where this little number, witchy and schoolgirlish in equal measure, is often in stock. The ad copy: "This is definitely not the nun you remember from school! Pair Sexy Nun with one of our Priest costumes for a great couples presentation. Stockings not included."

18 junho 2010

RIP José Saramago - death did Not take a holiday :(

from The New Yorker in October 2008

The philosopher Bernard Williams once wrote a paper, “The Makropulos Case,” in which he argued that eternal life would be so tedious that no one could bear it. According to Williams, the constancy that defines an eternal self would entail an infinite desert of repetitive experiences, lest the self be so altered as to be emptied of any definition. That is why, in the play by Karel Capek from which Williams takes his title, the three-hundred-and-forty-two-year-old Elina Makropulos, having imbibed the elixir of eternal life since the age of forty-two, chooses to discontinue the regimen, and dies. Life needs death to constitute its meaning; death is the black period that orders the syntax of life.

In “Death with Interruptions” (translated, from the Portuguese, by Margaret Jull Costa; Harcourt; $24), José Saramago, a writer whose long, uninterrupted sentences are relative strangers to the period, has produced a novel that functions as a thought experiment in the Capek/Williams field. (His novel makes no explicit allusion to either.) At midnight on one New Year’s Eve, in a nameless, landlocked country of about ten million inhabitants, Death declares a truce with humanity, a self-interruption, so as to give people an idea of what it would be like to live forever. At first, of course, people are euphoric:

Having lived, until those days of confusion, in what they had imagined to be the best of all possible and probable worlds, they were discovering, with delight, that the best, the absolute best, was happening right now, right there, at the door of their house, a unique and marvelous life without the daily fear of parca’s creaking scissors, immortality in the land that gave us our being, safe from any metaphysical awkwardnesses and free to everyone, with no sealed orders to open at the hour of our death, announcing at that crossroads where dear companions in this vale of tears known as earth were forced to part and set off for their different destinations in the next world, you to paradise, you to purgatory, you down to hell.

But “awkwardnesses”—metaphysical, political, pragmatic—soon reënter. The Catholic Church is the first institution to sense a danger. The Cardinal phones the Prime Minister to point out that “without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church.” For the Cardinal, life without death is tantamount to God’s willing His own demise. Life without death abolishes the soul. A panel of philosophers and clergymen is convened, and both sides agree that religion needs death “as much as we need bread to eat.” Life without death is like life without God, one churchman says, because “if human beings do not die then everything will be permissible.” (This is a version of the Dostoyevskian fear that without God everything is permitted.) One philosopher, sounding like the slyly secular Saramago, suggests that since death was “clearly the only agricultural implement god possessed with which to plough the roads that would lead to his kingdom, the obvious, irrefutable conclusion is that the entire holy story ends, inevitably, in a cul-de-sac.”

A country in which no one dies inevitably becomes a Malthusian zoo. Old people who were on the brink of death on New Year’s Eve simply remain on the brink, frozen in their desuetude. Undertakers, those selling life-insurance policies, and the directors of hospitals and old people’s homes are variously threatened with unemployment or overactivity. The state will soon be unable to pay for the maintenance of its citizens. And although this sudden utopia may now be the very best of all possible worlds, humans can always be relied upon to wreck utopias. Families with aged, infirm members realize that they need death to save them from an eternity of bedside care. Since death has not been suspended in neighboring countries, the obvious solution is to transport ailing Grandpa over the border, where death will do its business. A Mafia-like organization takes over these death runs, an operation secretly connived in by the government, since no state can afford infinite expansion. As the Prime Minister warns the King, “If we don’t start dying again, we have no future.”

“Death with Interruptions” is a small-ish, toothy addition to a great novelist’s work. It efficiently mobilizes its hypothetical test case, and quickly generates a set of sharp theological and metaphysical questions about the desirability of utopia, the possibility of Heaven, and the true foundation of religion. Recent work by Saramago has tended toward the sparely allegorical, with nameless, universal actors in place of individual characters. These books would be baldly essayistic were it not for Saramago’s extraordinary sentences, and the subtlety of their narration. In the absence of vivid fictional people, Saramago’s sentences, in which a narrator or group of narrators is always strongly present, constitute a kind of community of their own: they are highly peopled.

Some of the more significant writing of the past thirty years has taken delight in the long, lawless sentence—think of Thomas Bernhard, Bohumil Hrabal, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño—but no one sounds quite like Saramago. He has an ability to seem wise and ignorant at the same time, as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates. Often, he uses what could be called unidentified free indirect style—his fictions sound as if they were being told not by an author but by, say, a group of wise and somewhat garrulous old men, sitting down by the harbor in Lisbon, having a smoke, one of whom is the writer himself. This community is fond of truisms, proverbs, clichés. “It is said that one cannot have everything in life,” the narrator of “Death with Interruptions” tells us, and he adds, “That’s how life is, what it gives with one hand one day, it takes away with the other.” The narrator of a previous novel announces, “Fame, alas, is a breeze that both comes and goes, it is a weather vane that turns both to the north and to the south.” And elsewhere: “It has been said, from classical times onwards, that fortune favours the bold.” These platitudes are neither quite validated nor disowned; they are ironized by the obvious gap that exists between the knowing postmodern Nobel laureate writing his fictions and the person or persons seemingly narrating those fictions.

The run-on style is an important part of that irony: the breathlessness lends a sense of chatty unruliness, as if different people were breaking in to have their say. A single long sentence often seems to have been written by different voices, and the unpunctuated welter allows for sly twists and turns, as when a cliché catches itself in the act of being a cliché, and atones: “Such a man, apart from rare exceptions which have no place in this story, will never be more than a poor devil, it’s odd that we always say poor devil and never poor god.” In the sentence about the people’s early euphoria when death is suspended, notice that a poetic image for the Grim Reaper (“parca’s creaking scissors”) gives way to a more ordinary image (“sealed orders to open at the hour of our death”) and then to a frank, weary cliché (“this vale of tears known as earth”), and that this progression allows for the simultaneous presence of the writer, who has his images, and the people he is writing about, who have theirs. And a magical exchange occurs: by the time we reach the end of that sentence about death, the fancy mythical image seems somehow much less powerful than the most banal image.

Saramago’s narration thus feels modern and ancient at once. The writer is self-consciously at work, constantly drawing attention to the narration, yet the narration seems to dip easily into a universal knapsack, to flourish its bony, wise truths. It is this cunningly modest approach that allows Saramago to write his speculative and fantastical fictions as if they were the most likely events, and to give them a solid literalism—an unnamed country gripped by an epidemic of blindness, the Iberian Peninsula broken off from the European continent and turned into a huge floating island, a man walking the streets of Lisbon who is both undeniably real and a literary ghost. His work is in some ways closer to that of an ancient satirist like Lucian, whose sketches imagine people travelling to the moon or to Hades, or the gods squabbling among themselves, than to that of any contemporary novelist. When, in Saramago’s new novel, Death finally decides to end her “interruption” and let mortality have its way again, the Church, which had been praying for such a restoration, is pleased: “The prayers had taken nearly eight months to reach heaven, but when you think that it takes six months to reach the planet mars, then heaven, as you can imagine, must be much farther off, three thousand million light-years from earth, in round numbers.” That prodding voice, with its anti-theological bias, is reminiscent not only of Lucian but of the Lucianic Leon Battista Alberti, whose fifteenth-century satire “Momus” imagines the chaos that might ensue in Heaven if everyone asked God to answer a prayer at the same time.

Saramago’s brief novel provokes similar questions. If eternal life could not possibly work on earth, why is heavenly eternity so ardently to be desired? Perhaps it is because we desperately hope that Heaven will be the same as earth but also very different, given that man ruins Edens. For Saramago, as for Bernard Williams, the problem is not just that humans are natural-born utopia-killers; it is that eternity itself —life forever uninterrupted—seems unbearable. And Saramago does more than tease Dostoyevsky in this novel. For if the disappearance of God means that “everything is permitted,” and the disappearance of death means that everything is permitted, then, by the novelist’s tacit catechism, God must be death, and death must be God. No wonder religion needs death: death is the one God we can believe in.

Saramago is drawn to these Gnostic inversions. In perhaps his greatest book, “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” (1991), the novelist, characteristically, tells the story of Jesus’ life and death without changing any of the famous facts, while at the same time turning the theology of the Gospels upside down. One day, Jesus’ father, Joseph, overhears some soldiers talking about Herod’s orders to kill all children under the age of three. He races home to hide his wife and newborn son, but neglects to warn the rest of the village. For this sin, an angel later tells Mary, Joseph will suffer. And what about my son? she asks the angel. “The angel said, A father’s guilt falls on the heads of his children, and the shadow of Joseph’s guilt already darkens his son’s brow,” Saramago writes. In time, Joseph is captured by Roman soldiers putting down a rebellion and is crucified along with thirty-nine other Jews. Jesus, in turn, becomes obsessed with a sense of inherited guilt, and with the idea, as he puts it, that “Father murdered the children of Bethlehem.” On the strength of a lightning strike from the storyteller’s blasphemous finger, Saramago turns a familiar theological conundrum—the “good” God who brings Jesus into the world is also the “bad” God who permits the massacre of innocent babies—into a deep crux. Suddenly, Jesus is cursed by a form of original sin, and his sacrifice on the Cross becomes not an expiation of man’s sin but an inheriting of it: he is following in his father’s footsteps, cursed by his patrilineage. “God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit” is how the narrator puts it. On the Cross, hearing his heavenly Father declaim from the clouds, “This is My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” Jesus bursts out, “Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done.” It is the novel’s final, and most wicked, inversion.

“The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” was enormously controversial in Catholic Portugal (Jesus sleeps, and lives, with Mary Magdalene), but it is the most pious of blasphemous books. Behind its savage ironies, Saramago seems to do no more than take the Incarnation as seriously as possible: if Jesus was born a man, he seems to say, then he inherits everything man is prey to, including sin, which comes from God anyway. The stakes are very high, but the authorial temperament is mild, quizzical, seasoned. And what if God were the Devil? the author seems to ask, gently peering at us through his dark-rimmed, television-size spectacles. He is in some ways the least fantastical of novelists, because he so relentlessly persists with his fictional hypotheses, following them through to large, humane conclusions. His new novel gradually becomes less and less conceptual, and increasingly affecting, without ever becoming in any conventional sense realistic, or even plausible.

He pictures Death for us as an embodied female absence, a skeleton in a sheet who lives in a frigid, subterranean room, accompanied only by her much used scythe. (He also denies her a capital “D.”) After her seven months of self-interruption, this gloomy goddess sends a letter to a TV station, announcing that she is ending her experiment, because humans have acted so “deplorably.” People will die again at the old rate, which is about three hundred a day. Under the new rules, those citizens whose time is up will be given one week’s notice: each will receive a violet-colored letter, a notice of termination from Death herself. This apparently humane concession—the nominee now has time to take his leave, get his estate in order, and so on—is of course unbearably cruel, since most people would rather be surprised by death than condemned to it.

One such nominee, a fifty-year-old cellist, bewilders the goddess. Death has selected him for termination, but the violet-colored letter is returned to sender, again and again; the cellist seems to refuse his orders. In a series of unexpectedly beautiful scenes, Death, much perplexed, insinuates herself into the cellist’s apartment, and sits quietly watching him while he sleeps; she sees how he gets up in the night to get a glass of water and let the dog out, sees a Bach suite (No. 6) on his chair, and so on. It is the cellist’s time to die—“the time prescribed for them at birth has expired”—but Death seems to have no power over this “perfectly ordinary man, neither ugly nor handsome.” In an earlier novel to which the new one is an obvious companion, “All the Names,” a modest clerk similarly becomes obsessed with a perfectly ordinary citizen, a woman whose name on a birth certificate catches him by surprise one evening at his workplace, the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. As in the new novel, the clerk selects one citizen from the ranks of the ever-dying and living, and gradually, without ever naming her (the cellist likewise goes unnamed), endows her with metaphysical particularity.

This is what the novelist does, too: he takes a name, a character, a person, and saves her from wordless oblivion through the irradiation of words. But he can also kill her whenever he pleases: every novel is “interrupted” simply because it ends. We speak of omniscient authorial power because writers have the power of life and death over their “names.” The clerk in “All the Names,” who is known only as Senhor José, shares his first name with the novelist. In his new novel, Saramago again asks us to reflect on the storyteller’s godlike powers. When Death’s letter is published in the newspapers, a grammarian is consulted, and notes its “chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas. . . .” Death writes like José Saramago. As Death watches the cellist drink, Saramago writes that she looked at the water “and made an effort to imagine what it must be like to feel thirsty, but failed.” The reader wonders: if Death cannot imagine thirst, can she possibly imagine death? And can the novelist? One answer that Saramago offers—it is the wide, universal, antique truth toward which his complex fiction has been travelling—is that if we neither recoil from death nor religiously long to vanquish it, but, rather, accept the old actuality that in the midst of life we are in death, then death surrounds us like life, and to imagine death is really to imagine life.

14 junho 2010

Vive la France! Luc Besson, Jean Reno - and Gary Oldman, my all-time fave - who gave us Léon

Vampire Forensics

So, why vampires? What got you interested in writing this book?
My good friend and editor in the book division, Lisa Thomas, called me up one day and said “How about vampires for a book?” I said, “Vampires? I used to know everything about them when I was thirteen years old. Sure I’ll do vampires.” And then she explained that they were trying to get out a book to coincide with this Explorer show on the Vampire of Venice.
The other reason I acceded to her request is that one of my long-standing interests was in the history of mythologies-- folklore, and that kind of thing. I have shelves of books on Ancient Greek and Roman and Indo-European religions--where the roots of a lot of these legends are. The thing was not just to do vampires but to do the historical and geographical roots of the vampire mythology. So that appealed to me. That would make it distinctive and different from the corpus of vampire books- and there are lots of them.
With Twilight and True Blood, the latest incarnation of vampires are heroes and love interests. Is this new?
No, not really. It depends on how long a view you take of history. It’s new basically with the nineteenth century. That’s kind of where a key shift happens in the vampire story. That’s when what was largely a “peasant superstition”--that’s what the pope called it in the mid-eighteenth century--was picked up by largely English and Irish writers. A figure that sort of resembles what we think of as a zombie today, with bloody sheets, a horrible face, crawling out of a coffin someplace, is cleaned up, dressed in evening clothes, given a title, given a castle, and turned into a new twist on the old gothic villain. The gothic villain came up in eighteenth century novels as a scary character that lived in a castle somewhere on the European continent and terrified a young heroine. They took that archetype and spun it around this vampire, this peasant legend, and created what we think of generally speaking as the vampire of popular culture.
That quickly morphed into the demon lover or the edgy lover or the dangerous lover; forbidden love has always been around too. And that’s what leads up to Twilight. Clearly the appeal of the vampire figure there is that he’s a charming guy but he’s just the other side of a very strange line.
How does Dracula fit into the story?
Dracula, which comes in 1897, is a key point. It’s a novel written by Bram Stoker, the Irish writer. All roads lead to Dracula and come out of it the other side. It’s the crossroads of vampire lore. It reflected- and people have written books on this-- the British Empire’s fear of foreign invasion, of Eastern European invasion. Because the whole story is really about the vampire from Transylvania coming in through the precincts of London and wreaking havoc. It was very scary at the time; it’s not so scary to read now. And certainly today’s vampires are much more sensitive creatures, and they seem to reflect a societal shift from paternalistic thinking to one that’s more nuanced.
New Moon and True Blood are both adding werewolves to their mix—and the werewolves and vampires don’t exactly get along. Was that always the case?
The earlier you go in folklore, the more [vampires and werewolves] are conflated and confused, and it’s hard to separate one from another. An old word in the Balkans for vampire was had a common root with the word varkolak, used to describe a wolf pelt or wolf hair. And some people have explained that werewolves were supposed to become vampires when they died. I think what you have when a mythology gets to a point of maturity is it has this great branching out, with this proliferation of different branches, and mostly it’s the writers, the moviemakers, who impart these new and separate roles and identities. Simply because it gives them more dramatic scope to explore. So now fans of Twilight would be horrified if somebody said that a vampire and werewolf was the same thing. Now they’re mortal enemies, but that’s a very late development in the evolving legend.
In True Blood as well as Twilight, there are human-vampire romances. Does that ever work out?
That thought would have terrified earlier generations. And that’s what’s so terrifying about Dracula in 1897 is that he seems to be pulling the two women he preys upon into his orbit. It’s not like what happens a century later.
In True Blood you have the romance between Sookie and Bill. It’s essentially a fictional device; it’s up to the imaginations of the writers whether [the couple] can work it out. But most vampires today are basically just people: they have the same emotions, the longings, and they fall in love with their human inamorata--essentially a love story with this added element of a line that’s been drawn between them. But they’re no different from a love story of two sides of the rail road tracks. It’s a forbidden kind of love relation.
Could Bill and Sookie have a baby?
Can humans and vampires produce offspring? I don’t know!
Vampires in True Blood have been seen as representing oppressed minorities. Does using the vampire as a symbol for the oppressed work?
It used to be that vampires are the oppressors, sucking the blood out of the population. Karl Marx uses it, and Friedrich Engels: the vampires are the proper classes that are sucking the life out of the workers.
Can vampires enter and control your dreams as they do in True Blood?
They’ve never entered mine! Again, all this is the proliferation of a legend. There’s no stopping the ways they can be interpreted and reworked. And I’m sure it’s been psychologized, let’s say. Even Sigmund Freud once agreed with a German scholar that in the beginning probably all the dead were vampires because everybody was just afraid of dead people. And then one of his great disciples wrote a book on the nightmare in 1920 which talks about vampires as a nightmarish function.
Why do you think vampires have had such a long run in popular culture?
It seems to me that it’s rooted in this psychological, very ancient fear of the dead. There has always been a fear of supernatural creatures. With the human imagination, darkness is filled with monsters. Then we get into something very important, that this book tries to bring out, that before the germ theory of disease took hold, people didn’t often understand what was often killing them.
If you disturbed the grave for one way or another- and this is the forensic angle of the book- the bodies you found in there didn’t always behave as you expected bodies that were in the grave to behave. They weren’t rotting away. They looked swollen and they had what appeared to be blood trickling their chin from their mouths; their hair and fingernails seem to have grown. In times of epidemics, when mass graves had to be opened a lot to put new fresh bodies in there, Seeing these things, and the general fear of the dead, may have been the most important contributory streams to what became the vampire legend.
And to answer your question about the fascination of it, horror has always fascinated people. And only lately, and by lately I mean nineteenth century, was that twisted into the kind of romantic or gothic villain role.
Do you have a favorite vampire book or movie?
Dracula is a must-read. The Hunger is an interesting book and a great movie. That’s a little off-beat.
Do you have vampire envy?
No. I still don’t see vampires as the readers of Twilight see them, as eternal life full of erotic adventures, because all that’s new. It used to be that if you’re a vampire you’re instantly rendered evil, you’re a henchman of the devil, or you’re baited by demons. You wouldn’t want to be a peasant vampire. They didn’t have much of an existence, because usually they were run down after a few weeks and staked through the heart and that was that. This belief in [a vampire’s] eternal life only works if they don’t get you first.

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