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wind-up stone

Wind-up Stone - Jan Haas - 1

Wind-up Stone - Jan Haas - 2

Seen in Vlissingen (or Flushing as it's called in English), this sculpture by Jan Haas. Officially titled: 'Duizenden jaren deel van / een massief / op het punt van bewegen'.

the mystery of the sardine

'You see,' he said very quietly, 'a perfect system can never be perfect. A system has to be imperfect to be perfect. A little corruption, a little bribery, a little hypocrisy, a little string-pulling, a little blackmail are good things. They provide perfect systems with those little imperfections, those little windows through which new mutations can fly in and inseminate our formal gardens. Without them, without those blessed little windows of imperfections, all perfectly planned systems are rigid. And everything rigid ends in chaos. One tiny little fact can topple a gigantic theory. The infinitesimal, misregarded by calculus, little imponderabilia, little pebbles which the priest, the militiaman, or the paymaster drops into the pond - making some insignificantly tiny little waves that disturb the heart of a tiny little man - can cause the whole system to vibrate with unplanned harmonics, increased perturbations, overlapping resonances, through which chaos sneaks in.'

Thus pleads the character nicknamed the Minister of Imponderabilia in Stefan Themerson's impossible novel 'The Mystery of the Sardine' (1986). At first the book seems to be a detective story with too much chaos sneaked in. Its plot, fragmentary and nonlinear, contains a mystery and is littered with clues, but it gradually becomes clear that they will never add up to any satisfactory solution. In fact, to approach this as a conventional story would make for a frustrating read. Better, perhaps, to view it as philosophy in narrative form - a meta-mystery if you like.

Avant-garde writer, filmmaker and philosopher, Themerson is often compared to Raymond Queneau and Lewis Carroll for his playful blending of philosophy and fiction, language and logic. Born in Poland, he lived most of his life in London, but was known chiefly in the Netherlands (after being introduced by W.F. Hermans). His work, the fruit of close collaboration with his wife Franciszka, defies classification, but always abounds in wit and provocative ideas.

Lacking a central storyline or clear protagonist, 'The Mystery of the Sardine' introduces a host of eccentric characters in a series of loosely connected vignettes. Besides their various narrative entanglements, all of them have their private philosophies - their own particular mental modus operandi - which Themerson weaves in quite naturally, and which in a way make up the real story.

Besides the Minister of Imponderabilia, a vaguely influential figure in the Polish communist elite, other characters include the twelve-year-old mathematical genius who leaves a treatise / loveletter called 'Euclid was an Ass' (a great piece of romantic mathematics - and no, in this case that's not a contradiction in terms) for the girl he loves before drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. There's the logical-positivist philosopher (whose name, by the way, is Chesterton-Brown) who loses his legs in an unexplained bomb explosion involving a black poodle, and whose wife has a particularly strange philosophy of her own.

...she lifted up her eyes and said: 'Look, the Earth is rising. How beautiful!'
A pale circle detached itself from the horizon and was now coming up, slowly, into the blue sky.
'As a matter of fact, it isn't the real Earth,' he said. 'It's a mirror image of the real Earth.'
'It is?'
'Yes, it is.'
'Well, if it's a mirror image of the real Earth, then where is the real Earth of which it is a mirror image?'
'We are the real Earth,' he said.
'How do you know?'
'I just know. I feel it in my bones.'
'And I feel it in my bones that we are a mirror image.'
'So it's a dead end.'
'Not at all. I've got some arguments.'
'Oh, yes,' he smiled, wryly.
'You'll agree with me that on the real Earth there is the real logic, won't you?'
'I don't know whether logic can be real or not real. But, anyway, mirrors reverse the image, they don't reverse the logic.'
'The plain mirrors don't, yes,' she said. 'But we are not a plain mirror image of the real Earth. Our mirror is in a continual fever. It becomes convex in the very spot where a minute ago it was concave, or cylindrical, or bell-shaped. And the images of the real Earth dance in it, revert, deform, multiply...'

Though much of the book consists of different characters testing their ideas and philosophies on each other, what they all seem to struggle with is the relationship of their ideas - philosophical, religious, political, and so forth - to the messy, chaotic real world. Note, for instance, how the idea of a feverish mirror earth echoes the vibrating system quoted before. Again it's the Minister of Imponderabilia who voices this gap between theoretical ideas and everyday reality:

'We are all trapped between the beautiful blueprints of the most perfect systems and the World that contradicts itself...'

On a meta-level the book itself can also be seen as the distorted mirror image of a real story. Instead of the neat "beautiful blueprint" of a detective story, it represents the chaos of "the World that contradicts itself".

Beyond this, the unifying theme of - let alone the solution to - 'The Mystery of the Sardine' remains maddeningly elusive. But as other reviews of the book have noted, this in no way reduces the enjoyment of the ride.

For an in-depth profile of Themerson, see this Context article.

crashing chairs

1) everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

- Douglas Adams, from 'How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet', an article from 1999, still very funny as both a period piece on this new phenomenon called the internet and timeless commentary on the adoption of new technology.

We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn't worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often 'crash' when we tried to use them.

Via Kottke.

a network of paths

Sometimes it feels as though we are wandering through a city without purpose. We walk down the street, turn at random down another street, stop to admire the cornice of a building, bend down to inspect a splotch of tar on the pavement that reminds us of certain paintings we have admired, look at the faces of the people who pass us in the street, trying to imagine the lives they carry around inside them, go into a cheap restaurant for lunch, walk back outside and continue on our way towards the river (if this city has a river), to watch the boats as they sail by, or the big ships docked in the harbor, perhaps singing to ourselves as we walk, or perhaps whistling, or perhaps trying to remember something we have forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though we are not going anywhere as we walk through the city, that we are only looking for a way to pass the time, and that it is only our fatigue that tells us where and when we should stop. But just as one step will inevitably lead to the next step, so it is that one thought inevitably follows from the previous thought, and in the event that a thought should engender more than a single thought (say two or three thoughts, equal to each other in all their consequences), it will be necessary not only to follow the first thought to its conclusion, but also to backtrack to the original position of that thought in order to follow the second thought to its conclusion, and then the third thought, and so on, and in this way, if we were to try to make an image of this process in our minds, a network of paths begins to be drawn, as in the image of the human bloodstream (heart, arteries, veins, capillaries), or as in the image of a map (of city streets, for example, preferably a large city, or even of roads, as in the gas station maps of roads that stretch, bisect, and meander across a continent), so that what we are really doing when we walk through the city is thinking, and thinking in such a way that our thoughts compose a journey, and this journey is no more or less than the steps we have taken, so that, in the end, we might safely say that we have been on a journey, and even if we do not leave our room, it has been a journey, and we might safely say that we have been somewhere, even if we don't know where it is.

- Paul Auster, from 'The Book of Memory', published as part of 'The Invention of Solitude' (1982).

heel ander blad

For Dutch speakers, the collage newspaper 'Heel Ander Blad' ('Very Different Paper') by artist Luuk Wilmering offers an effective piece of media satire. The concept - cutting up hundreds of NRC's and reassembling them into a nonsensical version - is simple, but by carrying it through and producing an entire newspaper of nonsense, it pointedly illustrates the hollowness of today's news.

Leafing through the paper and skimming its headlines (there isn't much else in there anyway, is there?) with their simplistic factoids and "insinuating quotations" makes for a bewildering and eerily familiar experience. Its attention to detail extends to photo collages, captions, infographics and brand-less ads - all as realistic as they are absurd.

Heel Ander Blad - 1

Heel Ander Blad - 2

Produced in 2009, 'Heel Ander Blad' was part of an exhibition in Museum De Pont. See more pages here. Better yet, you can still order the paper version.


Iznik - 1

Iznik - 2

Iznik - 3

Just south of Istanbul, ─░znik (note the dotted i, to distinguish from the Turkish undotted ─▒) is better known to history as Nicaea, the city where much of the original hairsplitting in Christian doctrines was performed and laid down in the Nicene Creed. These days it is a sleepy lakeside town, still enclosed by its ancient walls, with an ancient church / mosque / museum dilapidating in its center.