Mary and the Faulty Description

Mary and the Faulty Description

— Atlanta, GA

I visited the High Museum of Art yesterday where I saw this picture. It isn’t the most beautiful or most lavish or most inventive work in the museum, but it still got me to pause and linger. There is something very striking to me about the muted understatement of color and detail, and I like the gaunt, gangly figure with the scythe (which I first took to be Death).

Actually, though, it was a discrepancy between the image and its description that really captured my interest.

The first sentence is clear enough and seems to be a fairly accurate description of the action depicted in the image: “In this deceptively simply scene, a laborer hurries home from the fields, tipping his hat to a young mother he meets along the way.” (I still think the “laborer” looks like Death, but that doesn’t mean either reading is necessarily wrong.)

It’s the next sentence that threw me: “Only the painting’s title [‘Hail Mary’] tells us that the woman is the Virgin Mary . . .”

In fact, this isn’t quite true. The image itself does contain iconography that pretty clearly marks the woman as Mary.

First, she’s holding a child. That itself is not conclusive evidence that the woman is Mary, but it should at least warrant a closer inspection. And if you do look closer, you can see that both woman and child have distinctive halos. Now that is a substantial marker of divinity. It’s hard for me to see how those visual pieces together don’t–for a viewer at least passingly familiar with Christian mythology–suggest that this is the Virgin Mary.

Now, the halos don’t exactly jump out at your eyes (perhaps because the color scheme is so drab), but the clues are definitely there. What surprises me is that whoever wrote the ‘analytical’ section of the description missed this.

A Following up on My own tiny, predictable mentality [self-link]

After thinking about this more, I realized that, somehow, I starting discussing two related but different ideas in parallel:

  1. that there aren’t really any new thoughts about stories.
  2. that there aren’t really any new stories.

I will soon be rereading Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Literature Like a Professorso I’ll soon be able to address the second idea more concretely.

The first idea was supposed to be my main focus, but I lost sight of it by bringing in the second. The two are tied together–and can likely be discussed together–but they should definitely be distinguished clearly.

My own tiny, predictable mentality

Over the past couple months I’ve been reading, intermittently, a lot of George Orwell. I’ve sorta been swept up in the rhythm of the times, where the label ‘Orwellian’ seems to have become one of those dead bits of phrase that George so disliked. (See “Politics and the English Language” here.)

Actually, most of that reading happened back in February and March. “Over the past couple months” is just my way of rewriting history in my favor–think of it as updating my résumé for Big Brother.

Most recently, I’ve been reading around Orwell. Or listening around him, I guess. I listened to episode 160, Parts One and Two, of The Partially Examined Life, a discussion-based podcast focusing on philosophy. I’ve never listened to the shwo regularly (planning to now), but I tuned in for their discussion of “Orwell on Totalitarianism and Language.”

What struck me–at least, what I want to jot down here–is actually something that doesn’t deal with Orwell at all! At least not directly (it does have relevance in context).

Here’s Mark Linsenmayer, one of the hosts speaking at about the 20 minute mark of Part Two:

As people diving into philosophy, you think, “Oh I have an original idea,” and you do more research and you’re like, “No no—ten other people already thought of that.” And especially because your original idea usually comes in reaction to some other text or some other idea that’s been put forward. Well, past people already contemplated that idea and anticipated all the reactions that you could possibly have and then some. The more you learn, the more you realize how you don’t know how your tiny mentality is very predictable in the face of the whole.

This is a very familiar feeling to me. I’m not a philosopher, but I have spent time diving into Literature, and it’s hard to escape the feeling–especially with works lodged deeply in the Western canon–that all the thoughts I’ll ever have are just echoes of some brighter mind.

So that depressed me a little.

But then I was thinking about all the ways around that. First, there’s always plenty of fresh Literature to contemplate, plenty of yet-undigested matter. After all, we are awash in an abundance of words [egotistical self-link]–and that’s without considering other forms of cultural expression like images or music.

An immediate objection comes to my mind: the Thomas C. Foster argument that there is only one story (or perhaps a few), told and retold. Clothed and reclothed in different times, places and characters.

Even if that is the case (and I’m not convinced that it is),* the new clothes can make a difference. Conrad Hensley’s crazed, desperate trip into East Oakland in pursuit of his towed car might share its story structure with that of The Odyssey–complete with a giant to battle with (Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full, Chapter 11). But the former is a “quest” prompted by the complicated and immediate rippling effects that can occur in our global economy–the newly unemployed Conrad wouldn’t be looking for his car but for the capriciousness of a real estate magnate whom he has never met**–and, because of this context, it strikes me as a quest that speaks powerfully to the current moment.

Of course, I’m likely not the first one to think that thought.

Hmm. Saddened again.

But that’s okay! Because it’s not simply new literature that can prompt original thoughts (unless they’re all really just one thought). It’s also the new juxtapositions between books. Not necessarily the unsubtle type of connection between Wolfe and Homer that I just made, but the differences, clashes, and weirdness that can occur. Discussing Zootopia alongside The Hidden Fortress may sound shocking, but it has been done (and there was much rejoicing).

EDIT: Short follow-up post here.

* As one of my college professors put it, “Well, THIS professor doesn’t think so!”

** Which sounds an awful lot like capricious gods messing with Odysseus, but let’s not go down that hole now.

Birdwatching of a different kind

Birdwatching of a different kind

— Waterloo, Ontario

It began with the geese.

I was sitting by myself, beside a small pond, when a pair of them wandered up to waterside. I didn’t mind the company, but I was a little apprehensive. Geese aren’t known for their charm, and I was probably trespassing on their territory anyway.

I quickly ran through worst-case scenarios in my head, planning my best defensive options: “If they go for my eyes, I’ll bring my hands up like this. . .”

But my fears were unnecessary. The geese eyed me for a few seconds, dismissed me, and then proceeded to preen themselves in front of me.

I watched this for nearly 15 minutes, and while it was probably pretty normal goose behavior, their methods struck me as odd. One of them in particular spent several minutes standing on one leg, poised like a ballet dancer with the other sticking out behind him. Then he sat down, shat out some green poop, stood back up and switched to his other leg. All while still cleaning his feathers.

◊ ◊ ◊

This incident alone is, I admit, a mundane and boring story and wouldn’t normally merit the space I’ve given it. But for the rest of that day, other birds kept appearing around me in unexpected contexts. For the next few hours, I found myself watching birds without actually looking for them.

To make sense of the incidents, I starting imposing a spurious narrative coherence on all that I saw. The geese were Act I of this drama.

Act II featured three ducks. I was walking through a nearby university’s campus and stumbled upon a violent mallard love triangle. Two males were fighting over and on top of a female.

They were rolling around, snapping at each other’s necks, and stepping on their poor bride-to-be. She didn’t seem to have any complaints though, as she sat passively by to be trodden on and kicked. True love indeed.

This lovers’ quarrel was unexpected, but Act III felt slightly surreal.

I was walking past a small, empty parking lot, when I noticed a lone chocolate cupcake with pink frosting sitting there on the pavement. It was upright, as though it had been placed (rather than dropped) there.

Even as I noticed this, a large black bird (let’s call it a crow) landed beside the cupcake. The crow pecked at it, sending chunks of pink flying; then the crow grabbed the whole thing in its beak and took flight, retreating to the top of a nearby building.

“Crow eats cupcake”

It was the newest headline in the small-town newspaper that is my life.

As I was processing this, I noticed the next bird, the star of Act IV . . . a shriveled corpse resting in the weeds.

It was once a little songbird. Now it was little more than a few dried feathers and bones.

“Coroner says bird died unnatural death”

Unlike its cousin the crow, this little fellow hadn’t adapted to modern industrial life. It lay at the foot of a large, opaque window, one that reminded me of a police interrogation room. Apparently it had mistaken reflection for reality.

◊ ◊ ◊

Act V: This story began with geese, but it ends with a peacock.

There is a little zoo in a little park not far from the university. I walked there on a different day–making this anecdote, perhaps, less of an Act and more of an Epilogue.

The zoo has several enclosures with one devoted entirely to birds: chickens, turkeys, pheasants–and peacocks. The birds seem to be a local attraction. That day, I felt out-of-place among the retired couples and parents with their toddlers so I didn’t look at the birds for long.

But as I was leaving, I saw one of the exotic residents–one of the two male peacocks–dashing up a nearby hill.

I didn’t actually see him escape, but it didn’t seem like anyone else had either. No one seemed alarmed. I saw two people pull out their cell phones, but they just used them to film the escapee. (After all, who exactly would one have called for help?) After running a large circle around the park, the peacock disappeared into a nearby grove of trees.

The remaining male peacock, still in the cage cried out repeatedly, even after the other disappeared entirely. As one mom explained to her little boy: “He’s calling for his friend.”

A recording I took of the caged peacock.

I left around this time so I don’t know how the escape ended. I haven’t been back to the zoo, but I assume he was recaptured. I somehow doubt he strayed far from his cage.

But perhaps he is still out there, wandering the city, surprising the residents, and eluding city authorities.

Whatever happened in his story, he provided me with a thrilling prison break to close my own non-narrative.

Liberty or death, man.

I saw both, and some duck sex antics too.

Illuminated Footnotes, Part I

Illuminated Footnotes, Part I
This is the poem of the air,
  Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
  Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
    Now whispered and revealed
    To wood and field.

 - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from "Snow-Flakes"

I took a walk through Mount Auburn Cemetery the other day, finally accomplishing the goal of early February. I learned, among other things, that Longfellow and his wife are both buried there though I did not find their graves. These are a few of the photographs I took. (The rest will be coming in Part II.)



The blank space on that top right tombstone haunts me.



There is a translation on the other side of the sphinx . (I didn’t get a picture because a stranger showed up and I suddenly felt self-conscious about taking pictures in a cemetery.) It’s a statue dedicated to the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery—a very striking piece of iconography.



Transcription of the top left tree:

If the sun refused to shine I will still be loving YOU

- Anonymous Vandal 1
Fuck off.

- Anonymous Vandal 2

I wonder whether the ‘YOU’ was responsible for the second message. Seems unlikely, but maybe 2 was just appalled by 1’s misquoting of Led Zeppelin and dumped them on the spot.

Measuring Words by Volume

I’ve been thinking about how words accumulate.

I intern in the office of a “Review,” and while the magazine publishes pieces across a range of genres, we do plenty of reviewing. Our PO box receives a daily influx of new books, both solicited and unasked for. Eventually they get sorted–some are chosen, most get shelved away–but, before that happens, they tend to form great mountains around my desk.

I’ve always loved books and loved accumulating them. But I never really thought of them as commodities that are churned out like so much printer paper. I’ve spent ample time in libraries and bookstores, but something about the newness of these review books, still clothed in the amniotic fluid of the “uncorrected proof copy,” got to me.

I started wondering: how many books are printed in a year?

I haven’t found a satisfactory answer. This statistics company has a potentially promising report locked behind a paywall, but a scrap of free info informs me that “In 2013, 620 million printed books were sold in the U.S.” While helpful, this doesn’t tell me about all the printed books that weren’t sold, nor those that were sold anywhere that isn’t the U.S. And while I want the question answered, my unfunded curiosity isn’t worth the $828 it would take to check on Statista’s research methods.

Unable to find closure and poking around the Internet in an unfulfilled sort of way, I found myself drifting towards a more abstract question of word production. That is, verbiage in terms of volume, apart from any specific medium. Just how many words are written, typed, or generated every day?

It’s kind of a dumb question and hardly valuable even if it could be answered. I recognize this but keep returning to the thought.

Every day, human beings* string words together into sentences and paragraphs. We write poor books and fluffy articles; compose Facebook posts, texts and tweets. Some dinosaurs people continue to write letters. (Some even use archaic instruments like the pen and the ink!**) In 2015, about 13.8 billion pieces of correspondence were sent using the US Postal Service. (Source: USPS, Table 3.1.) Of course, this number is rendered laughably insignificant by the estimated number of emails sent per day: 205 billion in 2015. (Source: Radicati, “Email Statistics Report”, Table 2. Note: I don’t know anything about Radicati or how reliable their numbers are.)

This contrast has severe methodological flaws: the email statistics are global in scale, and I don’t know of corresponding figures for physical mail. The point, though, isn’t really the print/digital comparison. Rather, it’s to get a sense–however vague, rough and imprecise–of scale within both mediums.

Here’s another digital example: tweets. We’ll assume an average of ~15 words per tweet (source: OUPblog. From 2009, which is old data in internet years) and 7500 tweets per second (source: Internet Live Stats), then perform a few difficult and intricate calculations:

15 x 7500 x 86400 (seconds in a day) = 9,720,000,000

Over 9 billion words per day, courtesy of Twitter. Once again, this is hardly a rigorous or scientific analysis (though at least we know all the sources have to be true). It just gives a rough idea of scale.

The actual numbers are always going elude me; there is simply too much information I can’t even begin to locate. But again, I don’t think precise numbers are the point. Thinking about words this way–in terms of volume–is a useful exercise. For instance, it has already made me think more broadly about how a word’s meaning functions and changes within this verbal deluge. One specific example: on the Internet, where the English language (and probably many other languages) accumulates, builds and plays with new words, how might this concept of word volume function?

I have an image in my head of new words and new meanings blossoming continuously, in obscure web bubbles that I will never see. Inside jokes, offhand comments, weird abbreviations. But, somehow, some of these meanings move beyond their origins and get picked up by a larger internet community. At some point, these words hit critical mass: they get used so much and by so many people that they take on “meaning” in a larger, communal sense.

Not that they didn’t always mean something to someone, but at some point before dictionaries catch on, these new words are definitely part of American English. And volume has given me a new way to consider this question: perhaps all these tweets and comments and hashtags simply accumulate in a massive digital pile, finally overwhelming the stodgy would-be gatekeepers of language.

I am no linguist, and perhaps there are theories that capture (or refute) whatever vague idea I’m flailing at. I am, however, a word producer so until I find those theories, I’ll continue to throw more words at the problem.****

* And bots. Don’t forget the bots.

** That’s nothing! Back in my day, we used stone tablets and chisels for correspondence! Kids these days don’t get to appreciate the pleasure of spending an hour writing every sentence–not to mention the joys of dropping one’s missive on one’s toes! Nothing beats the old days.***

*** That’s the Resident Crotchety Luddite. He shows up sometimes.

**** Not that finding them would stop me, of course. I’ll just get to be a little less wrong.


I took a walk today, I say.

Great, you say. How fascinating.

It really was though, I say.

Yawn, you say.

I wanted to visit the cemetery, the really large one near my house, I say. I wanted to see all the tombstones buried in the snow. The white on gray is beautiful.

How disturbing, you say.

But the cemetery was closed, I say. The Internet said it was open, but the gates were shut. They didn’t want to let the living get in.

Or let the dead get out, you say.

I had already walked for twenty minutes to get there, I say.

Why didn’t you take the bus? you say.

Tried to, I say. But I missed the bus by about a minute. I got to watch it drive away without me.

Unlucky, you say. So the cemetery was closed. . .

The cemetery was closed, I say. But I had already come that far. I decided to keep walking. My walking tends to compound itself. Like some sort of physics principle.

Perpetual motion? you say.

Something like that, I say. So I just kept walking, all the way to Harvard Square.

Were there other people on the streets? you say.

Oh yes, I say. I passed other people. Some were shoveling. Some were walking like me.

Like you? you say. You mean they were wandering aimlessly?

I don’t know, I say. Maybe some were. It’s hard to tell. Do most people wander? Everyone seems so busy. I mean, even I started with a destination in mind. The rest of my walk was sort of accidental.

Maybe some people just lead richer lives than you, you say.

I tried to make eye contact with the people, I say.

Which people? you say.

All of them, I say. All the ones that I passed on the sidewalk.

Did you? you say.

With some people, I say. Some people didn’t reciprocate or didn’t see.

I’m not sure I believe you tried with all of them, you say.

You know, it’s funny, I say.

What’s funny? you say.

There was a homeless woman in Harvard Square, I say.

That’s funny to you? you say.

No listen, I say. She was holding a sign: ‘Spare change or spare smiles.’

Did you give her any? you say.

No, I say. My face was covered, and I didn’t stop to find change.

Did you do anything? you say.

Well, I tried to make eye contact, I say. But the moment she returned my gaze, I looked away.

Why? you say.

I don’t know, I say.

Did you feel guilty for not helping? you say.

She had these piercing blue eyes, I say. And I just couldn’t handle it. So I broke my gaze. It felt like snapping a slender thread.

Maybe you should have given her something, you say.

By that point, my walking had a direction, I say. Since I was already close, I decided to visit the public library.

As if you need more books, you say.

I just wanted a place to sit and be warm for a while, I say. And my feet were beginning to hurt.

You must not walk often enough, you say.

No, I say.