Monday, December 10, 2007

"Prologues to What Is Possible": Wallace Stevens does the Year in Ideas

The New York Times Magazine's Year in Ideas issue is always one of my favorites, and this year did not disappoint. I wasn't surprised to note how many of the articles concerned emergent phenomena: for example, the vase constructed by bees, digital search parties for Steve Fossett and Jim Gray, and mob jurisprudence. Furthermore, many of the articles were about the possibilities of "scaling up" or "scaling down" a procedure or an effect to see what would happen. The dielectric elastomer may be a way to capture the energy outputs from ocean waves, and "while the energy output was a paltry five watts, the firm hopes to scale up." On his company's attempts to capture lightning in a bottle, Donald Gillespie is working on an idea that controlling scaleability is the key to mastery: “Given enough time and money, you could probably scale this thing up,” he says. “It’s not black magic; it’s truly math and science, and it could happen.” (Another scientist interviewed for the article notes that while the electricity generated in a thunderstorm is immense, the electricity that reaches the ground is dissipated--thus the scale isn't the only problem in this experiment.) Then there's the lovely examples of fake tilt-shift photo sets on Flickr, which can make pictures of landscapes or cityscapes look like a tiny scale models--what a delightful play with perception of scale!

I loved Steven Johnson's Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and have found much of his vocabulary to be provocative even for my own weird study of eighteenth-century error correction and footnotes. I use his vocabulary of zooming in and zooming out to talk to my writing students about places to close-read a text and places to incorporate a wider sense of perspective. It's neat to see how these ideas play out in other contexts.

I was particularly interested in a throwaway reference in Clive Thompson's "Knot Physics" article about physicists who have developed a different kind of string theory: "In October they published their results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with a title worthy of Wallace Stevens: 'Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string.'" Wallace Stevens is a great poet of scaleability (and not just cool titles for his poems): many of his poems are about shifting human perspective to see the earth or a landscape from far away or really close up, when its thing-ness becomes or threatens to become unrecognizable. How does language work then? Here's "Chocorua to its Neighbor":
To speak quietly at such a distance, to speak
And to be heard is to be large in space,
That, like your own, is large, hence, to be part
Of sky, of sea, large earth, large air. It is
To perceive men without reference to their form.

Stevens is also obsessed with hidden orders, as in "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue":
...If ploughmen, peacocks, doves alike
In vast disorder live in the ruins, free,
The charts destroyed, even disorder may,
So seen, have an order of its own, a peace
Not now to be perceived yet order's own.

That interest is also apparent in "The Connoisseur of Chaos":
A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)
A. Well, an old order is a violent one.
This proves nothing. Just one more truth, one more
Element in the immense disorder of truths.

(See also "Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas" and a great poem about earthquakes, "Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion")

So I decided to pair a few of the articles from the Year in Ideas section with parts of Wallace Stevens poems, just to see what would happen when you read a poet who's interested in how "the truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them" (here's Wikipedia for the cite) with people who are trying out ideas in very much the same realm.

Ambiguity promotes liking: "Why? For starters, initial information is open to interpretation. 'And people are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles,' Norton says. If a man writes that he likes the outdoors, his would-be mate imagines her perfect skiing companion, but when she learns more, she discovers 'the outdoors' refers to nude beaches. And 'once you see one dissimilarity, everything you learn afterward gets colored by that,' Norton says.
"Of Modern Poetry":
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

Cardboard bridge: "Though the bridge resembled a life-size erector set, its diameter and curvature were modeled on the classic proportions of the Pont du Gard’s arch. 'It was an interesting contrast,' Ban says. 'But it was both a contrast and a harmony.'"
last stanza of "To an Old Philosopher in Rome":
Total grandeur of a total edifice,
Chosen by an inquisitor of structures
For himself. He stops upon this threshold,
As if the design of all his words takes form
And frame from thinking and is realized.

Edible cocktail: "Arnold calls this kind of cucumber a 'flash pickle,' as the changes in texture and flavor that can take days to produce with salt and brine take about two minutes in the vacuum machine. Each spear has roughly the same amount of alcohol as a standard martini. To serve, he sprinkles the spears with celery seed, grated lime zest and flaky Maldon sea salt."
from "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together" (my favorite title)
Universal delusions of universal grandeurs,
The slight incipiencies, of which the form,
At last, is the pineapple on the table or else

An object the sum of its complications, seen
And unseen. This is everybody's world.
Here the total artifice reveals itself

As the total reality. Therefore it is
One says even of the odor of this fruit
That steeps the room, quickly, then not at all,

It is more than the odor of this core of earth
And water. It is that which is distilled
In the prolific ellipses that we know...

Indie-rock musicals: "Why did he and his theater peers choose to work with indie rock? It may be because the idiom’s technical tics and idiosyncrasies lend their productions a feel of eccentricity, and of endearing amateurism, qualities still largely alien to Broadway."
from "The Comedian as the Letter C":
The lutanist of fleas, the knave, the thane,
The ribboned stick, the bellowing breeches, cloak
Of China, cap of Spain, imperative haw
Of hum, inquisitorial botanist,
And general lexicographer of mute
And maidenly greenhorns, now beheld himself,
A skinny sailor peering in the sea-glass.
What word split up in clickering syllables
And storming under multitudinous tones
Was name for this short-shanks in all that brunt?
Crispin was washed away by magnitude.
The whole of life that still remained in him
Dwindled to one sound strumming in his ear,
Ubiquitous concussion, slap and sigh,
Polyphony beyond his baton's thrust.

Pixellated stained glass: "an abstract composition of 11,500 identically sized units — at 14.5 square inches each, they are frequently compared to pixels — in 72 colors, the arrangement of which was determined randomly by a computer program."
from "As at a Theatre":
Another sunlight might make another world,
Green, more or less, in green and blue in blue,
Like taste distasting the first fruit of the vine,
Like an eye too young to grapple its primitive,
Like the artifice of a new reality,
Like the chromatic calendar of time to come.

Self-Righting Object: "They began looking to see if they could find a naturally occurring example; at one point, Domokos was so obsessed that he spent hours testing 2,000 pebbles on a beach to see if they could right themselves. (None could.) After several more years of scratching their heads, they finally hit upon a shape that looked promising. They designed it on a computer, and when it came back from the manufacturer, they nervously tipped it over, wondering if all their work would be for naught. Nope: the Gomboc performed perfectly. 'It’s a very nice mathematical problem because you can hold the proof in your hands — and it’s quite beautiful,' Varkonyi says."
"Man Carrying a Thing":
The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motnionless in cold.

Wave energy: "Imagine a cable of elastomer with one end tied to the ocean bottom and the other attached to a buoy on the surface. When the buoy rides up a crest of the wave, it stretches the elastomer. When it sinks into a trough, it contracts and then generates a pulse of electricity."
"The Place of Solitaires":
Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea
On the dark, green water-wheel,
Or on on the beaches,
There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;

And most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitares,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.