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god's dissatisfaction

God breathed in deeply, looked at the mist around Him and murmured in the hushed tones of someone who has just made an unexpected and curious discovery, It would never have occurred to Me, but this is just like being in the desert. He turned his eyes towards Jesus, paused awhile and then, like someone resigning himself to the inevitable, began speaking, Dissatisfaction, My son, has been put into the heart of men by God who created them, I'm referring to Myself, of course, but this dissatisfaction which like all the other traits which I made in my image and likeness, I Myself pursued in My own heart and rather than diminish with time it has grown stronger, more pressing and insistent.

The scene is God, Jesus and the Devil in a rowboat. The book is 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ' by the late José Saramago.

(For some reason Saramago did away with all but the most basic punctuation, which makes dialogues hard to follow at times. At the same time, though, it makes the holy capitalization of "I'm referring to Myself, of course" stand out in blasphemic irony.)

God continues:

For the last four thousand years and four years I have been the God of the Jews, a quarrelsome and difficult race by nature, but on the whole, I have got along fairly well with them because they now take Me seriously and are likely to go on doing so for the forseeable future, So, You are satisfied, said Jesus, I am and I'm not, or rather, I would be were it not for this restless heart of mine which is forever telling Me, Well now, a fine destiny You've arranged after four thousand years of trials and tribulations which no amount of sacrifices on the altars will ever be able to recompense, for You continue to be the god of a tiny population which occupies a minute part of this world You created with everything that's in it, so tell Me, My son, if I can derive any satisfaction from this depressing sight which is constantly before My eyes, Never having created a world, I'm in no position to judge, replied Jesus...

After which God lays out his expansionist plan...

Update: An unlikely but predictably controversial homage to Saramago and his novel 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ' was created by the Portuguese Playboy, showing Jesus with assorted Mary Magdalenes in various states of undress. The result would have had Saramago chuckle: the magazine was shut down by its American parent company.

tour lore

Tour de France in Rotterdam - 1

Rotterdam getting ready for the Tour de France with some nice Tour lore oneliners...

Above: "De Tour win je in bed" ("You win the Tour in bed")

Below: "Ik reed lek en de rest reed lekker" (Ehm, impossible to translate...)

Tour de France in Rotterdam - 2

sonnet ix

Oh to be idle loving idleness!
But I am idle all in hate of me;
Ever in action's dream, in the false stress
Of purposed action never set to be.
Like a fierce beast self-penned in a bait-lair,
My will to act binds with excess my action,
Not-acting coils the thought with raged despair,
And acting rage doth paint despair distraction.
Like someone sinking in a treacherous sand,
Each gesture to deliver sinks the more;
The struggle avails not, and to raise no hand,
Though but more slowly useless, we've no power.
  Hence live I the dead life each day doth bring,
  Repurposed for next day's repurposing.

- Fernando Pessoa, from '35 Sonnets'.

Growing up in South-Africa, Pessoa wrote in English before switching to Portuguese, using heteronyms like Charles Robert Anon and Alexander Search, and composing "ultra-Shakespearian" sonnets. (More on this early "flawed achievement" in 'Fernando Pessoa's other nation'.)

His English work has just been translated into Dutch under the title 'Heimwee naar vereeuwiging', which was presented tonight at Poetry International.

vermeer & van meegeren

Two small but interesting exhibitions related to Johannes Vermeer...

The Mauritshuis hosts 'The Young Vermeer', bringing together three of his early works: 'Diana and her Companions' ('Diana en haar nimfen'), 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' ('Christus in het huis van Martha en Maria') and 'The Procuress' ('De Koppelaarster').

Johannes Vermeer - Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

While mostly for Vermeer completists, these paintings already show his typical use of light and rich colors to create subtly balanced compositions that lead the eye into the image. See for instance how in 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' the interplay of glances and gestures of the three characters creates an intimate circle whose center is Christ's outstretched hand.

And they also provide a good frame of reference for another current exhibition: 'Van Meegeren's Fake Vermeers' at Boijmans, about Dutch master forger Han van Meegeren.

In one of the great scandals in art history, Boijmans bought a newly discovered Vermeer in 1937 for an at the time enormous sum. This was 'The Supper at Emmaus' ('De Emmausgangers'), which was later revealed to be a forgey by Van Meegeren, along with a number of other Vermeers and other 17th century Dutch masters. See this article and this short documentary for more on the story.

Han van Meegeren - Supper at Emmaus

To be sure, seeing these gloomy, awkward paintings now, it seems ludicrous they were once praised to high heaven as Vermeer's missing masterpieces. In fact it's tempting to just dismiss them as fascist abberations. Or is that too easy a judgment, comfortably 'objective' after they have been recontextualized for us by history?

In 2009 documentary maker Errol Morris wrote a seven-part essay in the NY Times on Van Meegeren's forgeries, titled 'Bamboozling Ourselves'. A fascinating investigation, it includes interviews with the authors of two recent books on the subject, Edward Dolnick ('The Forger's Spell') and Jonathan Lopez ('The Man Who Made Vermeers').

Was Van Meegeren a collaborator or an artist? Or both? And if he was a genius, what was his genius? His ability to trick people? Or was he able to trick people because he was an artist of genius? Who was Van Meegeren? A con man or Nazi? Did he forge paintings solely for monetary reward or was something more sinister involved?

Though Van Meegeren went to great length to make his paintings look authentically 17th century, they are not actual forgeries (as in, convincing copies of existing paintings). Rather, they're would-be Vermeers that he managed to pass off as real ones - which puts his art in the realm of the con man, making clever use of the confused wartime art climate.

But his forgeries raise more fundamental questions as well, about the nature of art and our obsession with authenticity.

...what makes a work of art great? Is it the signature of (or attribution to) an acknowledged master? Is it just a name? Or is it a name implying a provenance? With a photograph we may be interested in the photographer but also in what the photograph is of. With a painting this is often turned around, we may be interested in what the painting is of, but we are primarily interested in the question: who made it? Who held a brush to canvas and painted it?


Some maintenance going on here, as I finally made the jump to PivotX, software-wise. Still some details to iron out, but mostly things should work smoothly and future-proofly again.

Except, that is, for lots of broken links to fix. In a Google-dictated move, Pivot went from URLs_like_this to URLs-like-this, and didn't bother to supply a redirect script to ease the transition.

So apologies for any dead ends you run into here. It should be a temporary nuisance.

Update: Thanks to Raph, who braved the treacherous depths of server configuration and came up with an elegant two-line solution, all the old URLs_like_this are now redirected to the new URLs-like-this.

For the record, here's the code. Add this to your .htaccess file, where 'blog' is the directory PivotX is installed in.

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} blog/archive
RewriteRule (.*)_(.*) /blog/$1-$2 [R=301,L]

(Of course, use at your own risk, don't try at home, etc.)

Update: Google seems to like non-looping redirecting better, so use these 'official' rules instead:

RewriteRule ^(archive/[^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)$ /$1-$2-$3-$4-$5-$6 [R=301,L]
RewriteRule ^(archive/[^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)$ /$1-$2-$3-$4-$5 [R=301,L]
RewriteRule ^(archive/[^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)$ /$1-$2-$3-$4 [R=301,L]
RewriteRule ^(archive/[^_]*)_([^_]*)_([^_]*)$ /$1-$2-$3 [R=301,L]
RewriteRule ^(archive/[^_]*)_([^_]*)$ /$1-$2 [R=301,L]

special branch

Some more on Stefan Themerson, whose 'Special Branch' - out of print these days - offers another great example of his unique style of mental gymnastics. Subtitled 'A Dialogue', the book consists of a philosophical discussion between a detective superintendent ("special branch") named Watson, and the narrator, who is consulted as an expert on a question of artificial intelligence.

"We are investigating the case of Dr. Good's Ultra-Intelligent Machine. It occurred to us that, in order to be Ultra-intelligent, the machine may need to acquire some new, unknown to us, concepts. We are trying to find out where she, the machine, I mean, should look for them, in order to find them."

It sounds like a thought experiment from Douglas Hofstadter's 'Gödel, Escher, Bach' (1979), which came out seven years after 'Special Branch' (1972). But whereas Hofstadter was interested in the nature of intelligence and consciousness, Themerson takes the Ultra-Intelligent Machine as a starting point for a playful exploration of his favorite themes of language and ethics. Where, to put it simply, language is about our mental interpretation of the world, and ethics how we act on our interpretations.

For example, to define the building blocks of the Machine's thought processes, they investigate the relationship of language to the signs and symbols of science.

"And who do you think uses that sort of words?"
"Well," he said, "Some of them are used by natural philosophers, others, well if I may call philosophers so, by unnatural ones."
"That is finely put, superintendent," I said. "Natural and Unnatural philosophers! Ha! But tell me this: Where do they actually find the words they use?"
"Where indeed!" he repeated. "You have asked a question that is not easily answerable."
"Well," I said, "is it not true that we come across the same words in Homer and other poets?"
"O," he exclaimed. "Poets! Well, yes and no."
"How do you mean, yes and no?"
"Well, sire, when these words are used by poets, they are words. But when they are used by philosophers, they become terms."
"Precisely," I said.
"And words-as-words and words-as-terms are not the same thing."
"No, they are not."
"Words-as-words are winged; words-as-terms are tethered," he concluded.
"The first statement is a quotation from Homer," I said. "Where does the second come from?"
Detective superintendent blushed a little and confessed:
"The second is my own. Though inspired by Plato."

This theme of tethered words returns later on, when they discuss how to ensure the Machine will be capable of having new interpretations, in order to acquire new concepts.

"How marvellous," he exclaimed. "And how I envy you."
"Why?!" he repeated. "It's obvious, isn't it. Not having read Plato first you were free, your mind was free to learn things through happenings and not through words. A beautiful, free, open mind, ready to accept naive reality as it comes, and in it finding the bricks and marble with which to build its mental parthenons and slums. No, there is no need to laugh. I know what I'm talking about, because I was forced to read Plato first, and my mind got filled with the white plastic balloons of his preconceived Ideas. I had to prick them, later on, one balloon after another, to make room for new notions, which would fit the picture of the world as we go through it, and chart it today, and each act of pricking a balloon was an agonizing tragedy."

Soon, however, the question of the Ultra-Intelligent Machine is narrowed down to the problem of how to provide her with a Moral Nature. (In fact, the name of the Machine's inventor, Dr. Good, already betrays Themerson's preoccupation with this theme.)

"All right," he said. "We shan't give her Love. Either Love or Good Intentions. What's next? Is there anything we can give her? Instead?"
"Yes, there is."
"Name it."
"Knowledge," I said, and, feeling somewhat uncomfortable, I giggled.
"Knowledge of what?"
"Knowledge of how things are."
"You mean: Knowledge of how things are will make her morally responsible?"
"Are you mad?"
"No. Wasn't it on the day we ate of the tree of knowledge that our eyes opened and we became as gods, knowing good and evil, – or hasn't your reading of Genesis managed to go as far as Chapter III?"

At this point, Watson and the narrator have already discussed the idea of correcting Genesis by replacing "the words 'God created' by the words 'man discerned.'" Thus Genesis starts with man, who "discerned the heavens and the earth", and after eating of the tree of knowledge becomes "as gods". This humanist metaphor of "as gods" might sum up Themerson's concern with man's moral responsibility – which becomes all the greater when he starts inventing Ultra-Intelligent Machines.

Update: Here's the book cover, a bit battered but a classic design by Joost Swarte. The book was published by Gaberbocchus Press, founded by Themerson and his wife Franciszka to print their books.

Stefan Themerson - Special Branch